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Bane 17: Return of the Hero
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     The engine deck of the Lucky Break II groaned around me, complimenting the occasional blast of steam from the exposed relief valves that lined the poorly lit passageways between the rows of great fans and ducts. My right hand instinctively tightened to a white-knuckle grip on the stock of my weapon as I scanned the area ahead for anything that stood out from the machinery before moving the next boot forward. After holstering the gauss pistol I held with the left, I reached for the radio switch on my headset,

"How’s it going up there? Are you trying to make a career out of this job or what?!"

Interference crackled over the line briefly before T.J.’s voice broke through it, "Not much longer, kid; reactor control’s almost clean. Everything still frosty in cold fusion?"

"Yeah, real cool," I replied without skipping a beat, "But all this cheery scenery is gonna make me hurl. I wish the damn things wouldn’t hide like this."

Off in the distance, the clang of metal on metal rang out behind me, and I whirled around, finding nothing but the empty corridor beyond the sights of my favorite gun. In my headset, T.J.’s voice continued to rattle on,

"I know whatcha mean; a pair of their engineering boys got diced, and the scans still showed a few critters running around. They have to be here-"

"Shut up for a minute, man!" I hissed back, interrupting the static-ridden words that bombarded my ears, "Get down here; things may be heating up!"

Slowly, I reached for my sidearm again and switched it to full-auto as T.J. acknowledged me over the radio, "Hold your position, we’re on the way!"

After disengaging the safety on the C-8 Shell launcher that I still gripped with my right hand, I set the rounds to impact detonation, and pretended to go back the other way, towards the source of the noise. When outgunned, even the zerg commit to some level of strategy to defeat their enemies, but this was the oldest trick in the book. Seven paces later, I turned again, found my target and fired without so much as a second thought.

The zergling was bunching together for the leap attack, and the shaped charge met it center-mass just as it lunged ahead like a wound spring. Despite being some distance away, the ensuing concussion wracked my tactical armor while I spun on one heel and let the gauss pistol rip. Two more fiends bounded up the short hallway towards me, ignoring the damage from the automatic rounds I sent downrange. The C-8 bucked again as it lobbed another shell toward the racing enemies, but I grimaced when the explosion flashed behind the zerglings, only managing to knock one of them off its’ stride and sever a coolant line under the floor.

Steam gushed into the hallway in the zerglings wake, masking their movements while I fed the last of my gauss rounds to the closest one. It screeched and squealed as the led pelted holes in its body until one limb failed and the creature rolled to the grated steel floor. However, my time was down to seconds now as the final zergling leapt neatly over its fallen brethren before being overtaken by the steam. I whipped the shell launcher over one shoulder and dropped it into its holster, using the free hand to take up a second gauss pistol from its place at my other side. Then, when the billowing cloud of vapor washed past and visibility was at its worst, the zergling attacked.

The tell tale scrabble of clawed feet could be heard just before the brief rush of air. However, I only managed a burst of blind shots in the fog before it plowed into me with both blades outstretched. I’ve no idea what kept the zergling’s scythes from burying themselves in my chest as we both went down, but the impact knocked the fresh pistol from my grasp, leaving only the left, which fired three sad shots before chattering madly from lack of ammunition. The monster raised both sickles for the death-strike, but I heaved beneath the things weight, just managing to get a boot between us. Planting my foot squarely in the zergling’s abdomen, I kicked with all my strength.

The zergling bayed in outrage as its scythes flailed at the empty air and raked my leg before it flipped over backwards-buying me just enough time for my groping hand to slap home on the grip of my other gauss pistol.

 

     T.J. and Mosely stormed from the elevator with gauss rifles at the ready, but they stopped short as they found the deck blotted out behind a churning screen of steam.

"Kid! Where the hell are you?" T.J. half-whispered to the radio in his powered suit. When only static responded, he tried once more,

"Reece! What’s your location?!"

This time, T.J. and Mosely exchanged a stunned glance as the far-off rattle of my sidearm filled the hazy corridors with sound.

"Shit! Let’s go, Mose!" T.J. broke into a run, incidentally waving for the other mercenary to follow. Seconds later, the gunfire suddenly ceased and they pushed into a sprint-much to my dismay. I was just getting to my feet, trying in vain to wipe the splattered zergling blood off my face when they rounded the corner and nearly ran me down. Although I managed to keep my footing, I stumbled when the armored clods smashed into me and hefted their rifles.

"HEY!" I yelled, shoving the barrels out of my face, "Take it easy, you clowns! It’s just me!"

"Reece?!" T.J. leaned forward and peered through the steam with his suit lights, "What did you find? Are you okay?!"

"A quick fix with the TRA aside, I’ll live if you kill the high-beams," I complained, before switching to a more serious tone, "But these zerglings aren’t going to fare as well."

"What?" T.J. nearly sounded surprised, "You didn’t save any fun for us again!"

"Nope," I reported while jerking the empty clip from my left gauss pistol before replacing it with a fresh one from my belt, "If the scans only showed three signatures, we’re all done here-but thanks for showing up, if it wasn’t for you, it might have taken me a whole two minutes to find the door."

T.J. and Mosely parted as I holstered my weapons and walked between them, ignoring their last, sarcastic comment,

"Glad we could help."

 

     The dropship’s engines droned ahead monotonously, making the controls hum in my hands. Swaths of white fluff parted over the windshield, periodically revealing sprawling bits of pink and red sky, set ablaze by Heimdall’s waning suns. It was one of those vibrant, oil-painting sunset’s that seemed to go on forever; the kind that make you think of the past–if the squabbling mercenary in the copilots chair would be silent long enough for thought,

"And then I said I swear baby, I’ve never seen her before in my life!"

"Is that so?" My generic response sighed out almost automatically. By now, I’ve logged more hours with this old bird than any other in my life, and I tried to let my mind drift while second-nature guided the craft.

Ever since that day long ago, I’ve always tried to hide what I was thinking while the others were around, but there was no avoiding the times when everything I held back during the day began to run over the top. First came the regret, always the regret; there wasn’t a day gone by that I didn’t have to live it down. What if we had done things differently? There had to have been some other way than this; perhaps Bane didn’t have to die.

"...You have only to stay alive; I shall return for you..."

The words still echoed faintly in my memory after eight years, but I shook my head in attempt to clear my thoughts; sometimes I really wondered if I was losing my marbles.

This day had been longer than most, starting early with a call for extra security at Mr. Linards for five off-loads. The old goat ran a number of ragged warehouses and the adjacent shipyard back in town, and had always been paranoid ever since a group of stowaways broke out in the middle of the night and made off with a high-priority shipment. From then on, if anything was to stay overnight, he wanted it searched by armed personnel first. Of course, we’ve never found anything.

Way out here, you don’t see much of the zerg. Fortunately, threats to society are mostly of the Terran variety on Hiemdall. A rare exception, the cargo ship Lucky Break II, was returning from its rounds at a fringe mining colony when they realized, too late, that they had taken on more than just the usual shipment of vespene. After losing a pair of egg-heads and lacking the appropriate equipment to handle the situation themselves, the crew had no choice except to pool their credits and pay the lowest-bidding local team to clear the vessel. That meant us.

Except for the graying hair, ‘Boss’ Michel Collins and his band of cohorts hasn’t changed much. Now operating from Hiemdall in the same hired-gun works, and with no where for me to go home to, I joined them. T.J. and Mosely were still dishing it out, but Joe retired two years ago. The vulgar, old space-dog drops in every once in a while, but he’s getting up there in age. Kip still ran jobs for Mich when we needed a technical edge, but lately he had been concentrating more attention on assets of his own, mostly in the forms of custom armor and weaponry prototyping.

"And then this big guy showed up and he looked mighty unhappy to see me-"

"Save it for next time, man., the Farside’s just up ahead," I interrupted T.J.’s rambling story after I noticed the familiar transponder signal drifting into the scanner’s range. The Consolation, as I named her, responded immediately to the controls and began losing altitude when I throttled down the engines and nosed into the clouds. Despite her name and the meaning behind it, this cold, rocket powered shell has been as reliable as the first day the mercenaries gave it to me--the only thing that, since then, has been there every time I needed it.

The flat roof of the Farside Diner stood out easily from the natural cliff it was built on, overlooking the unspoiled splendor of Heimdall’s pure seas. With both suns on the water, the ocean was alight with energy and it bombarded my eyes while I guided the Consolation down to the small plateau.

We lurched to a halt when the ship’s landing skids met the rock below and then the engines hummed down as I cut the power to idle. Mosely hit the release for the back cargo door and piled out wordlessly, as usual. T.J. unbuckled his harness and was about to jump up when he noticed that I wasn’t following suit,

"What’sa matter, kid? Aren’t you coming inside?"

"Not today," I reported dryly, without looking up from the instrument panel.

"You’re shitting me! After bagging those zerglin’s by yourself, you can’t just leave without telling us about it! C’mon, I’ll buy the first round-"

"No thanks, T.J., I’m beat," I interrupted before he could get too far, "Maybe another time."

"You sure?" The hound tried once more, but I turned down the offer again.

"Yeah, don’t worry about it. I’ll catch up later."

"Alright, you win," the mercenary laughed, climbing out of the copilots chair at last,

"Enjoy your day off."

 

     I could almost smell the crisp desert air as I relented and let the memories flood into the dream, letting the shifting images before my mind’s eye to take the shape of Korhal’s red sands. The feeling of the zergling trotting along beneath me seemed so real. When the memory of my friend’s voice rang through, a knot formed in my throat. Suddenly, everything changed. The ground fell away, retreating in a dizzying spiral as Bane’s wings carried us into the sky. I could practically feel the wind on my face again as the mutalisk screeched wildly, clawing for more altitude. Nostalgia burned at my insides as I longed for the past.

I miss my friend.

I didn’t care if I ever woke up; I was perfectly content staying in this realm of memory and dreams, but there came a sound from far in the distance. One familiar, yet not welcome. It’s shrill tones pierced the comforting abyss of sleep. I fought hard against the pull of consciousness, but in vain...

"Alright! I’m awake! I’m awake!" I growled, rolling over to answer the wailing hand-com from where I set it on my supply crate-night stand,

"Yeah?!"

Mich’s voice was on the other end, but his attempt to sound surprised didn’t fool me,

"Sorry, kid, did I interrupt something?"

"Not in the least," I yawned, "I was just resting my eyes. What’s the problem?"

Boss’s laugh crackled through the hand-com’s tiny speaker, "Right to the point, as always?"

I paused for a moment to look at my wristwatch; the dull digital numbers flashed six-fourteen back at me. This could only mean one thing.

"Well," I began once more, trying not to be overly sarcastic, "I’m assuming there IS some reason behind calling me at six in the morning on my day off."

Mich was quick to respond this time,

"Just so happens there is a reason. You see, T.J. called in today and we need a replacement gun."

I should have known.

"Yeah, yeah," I sighed, "Spare me the sob-story, what’s on the list?"

"I’ll tell ya’ all about it when you get here," Mich answered.

"Okay," I yawned again and was about to close the hand-com when Boss said something else,

"Oh, Reece, one more thing,"

"What now?!" I snapped, failing to conceal my pleasant morning charm this time.

"Thanks!"

With that, Mich closed the line from his side.

"You better be thankful," I growled under my breath, as if someone would hear me, and threw my legs over the side of my bunk. The familiar interior of my humble dwelling greeted me in near darkness this morning as I slapped the hand-com back down on the night stand. It was already obvious: this was going to be one of those days. I snatched my boots from their spot at the foot of the bunk and pulled them on without thinking about it.

My guns were still in their belts and holsters, hanging from a few pegs in the wall, but first I pulled my ammunition stores out from under my bunk and began refilling the spent clips from yesterday. Once I was sure every shell and round was replaced, I turned to the rest of my gear.

The worn, but well patched, tactical armor lay heaped in a pile on an ancient folding chair at the side of my bed, opposite the night stand. After a quick inspection, I put on the shin and thigh plates. They always went before the vest, because the latter hindered my full range of motion. A gnarled gash in the fabric and metal on the left thigh-piece bore witness to my scuffle with the zerglings the day before, but I would have to get it fixed later.

Next, I pulled the vest on over my head and tightened the fasteners. While it did not offer as much protection as the powered suits that T.J. and Mosely still used, the Ghost-style tactical armor allowed faster, more precise movement and didn’t produce a quarter of the noise.

Finally, I began pulling the weapons down, one at a time, and strapping them in place. First the back-mounted C-8, then the under-arm gauss pistols, the ammunition belts, short range headset and, at last, the combat knife on my thigh. I was ready.

Corroded by age and surrounded in the undergrowth of the tropical forest, the abandoned bunker I’ve claimed as home may not look like much from the outside, but I’ve come to enjoy its perks. Located roughly twenty miles down the undeveloped shoreline and set in among the trees, the place had all the privacy someone could ask for and the sunrise over the ocean is a one-of-a-kind commodity in the known Terran sector.

I stared at my salt-worn abode for a moment, fighting back the urge to bury the hand-com in the sand and go back to sleep. Soon, however, the feeling ebbed and I was able to turn on the place and start down the short trail towards the beach, where the Consolation sat parked.

I could hear the surf and feel its rumble underfoot long before the water was in sight, but nothing prepares you for that view, and it’s different every day. Today, the surf was perfect; the swells rolled in clear and steady, alight with the warm morning suns shining through them. The waves lazily reached their crests before tumbling over forwards into a wash of white water that rode all the way up the beach, stretching to within a few feet of the Consolation and then retreating again.

"Good morning, Darlin’," I crooned to the waiting drop ship as I popped the latch on the pilots door, "Sleep well last night?"

 

     The thatched, L-shaped roof of the Farside Diner loomed in the windshield as I brought my ship down for a landing in the sand-ridden parking lot. Mich’s craft was already there, as usual, so I guided the Consolation in next to it and cut the engines. Making sure to grab my C-8 from the other seat, I climbed out through the pilot’s hatch and made my way to the front door of the diner while holstering the canister launcher on my back again–and for a good reason. Maggie might be blind, but she’s far from handicapped. The Mach series plasma cannon she kept under the counter made sure of that.

Maggie was a short, heavy-set woman with gun barrel eyes and curly, grey hair, who’s been the owner and sole employee of the Farside Diner for as long as I’ve been on Hiemdall. At times, she could seem almost grand-motherly, but she was just as quick to turn a totally different face if you got on her bad side. The Farside was always open and Maggie could whip up some of the best grub this side of the Khorpral Sector, so long as you didn’t ask too many questions about what you were eating. Best of all, I never tired of listening to her wild accent,

"Aye good ‘marn’in ta you, Reeze!"

Maggie acknowledged me the moment I stepped through the door, and I couldn’t keep the grin off my face. It’s still a mystery, to me, how she’s able to identify who walks in without being able to see them,

"And a good morning to you, too, Miss Maggie," I said in my most polite tone as I approached the bar. Mosely and Boss were sitting in one of the wall booths and Maggie addressed me again without turning from the flat-top grill she was cooking on,

"Jaz teek a seat wet yar fren’s there, chile– Breekfast well be soon."

"Thank you, Miss Maggie," I nodded despite myself, walked down the bar, and took a stool across from Mich’s table. Boss was staring into a cup of coffee he held with both hands and Mosely was reading the stock report, and neither seemed to notice me, yet,

"So what was so important that you had to wake me for it?"

"We’ll get to that," Mich finally responded, but not in the tone I had hoped for, "Because there’s a little matter to discuss this morning over proper safety procedures-"

"Aww, save it, man!" I interrupted, "What the hell was I supposed to do? Tell the zerglings to sit and wait while the rest of my crew shows up?"

"Very funny, Reece," Mich looked up from his cup of coffee this time and began jabbing a finger in my direction, "But I still expect you to obey standard safety protocols! All it takes is one slip and-"

"And what?!" I fired back, getting up off the stool, "I’ll get killed?! Since when does anyone give a shit?"

Without warning, Maggie barked at us over her shoulder,

"BOYZ! Enough weet ta foul tongue ar’ll dare be no breekfast todee!"

"Sorry, Miss Maggie," our monotone responses came in complete contrast to our voices just a moment ago. Afterword, Boss was struck silent and I could tell that I had finally hit one home; even Mosely began to take notice.

"You may be no kin to us," Mich said as I sat back down on the stool, "But don’t make us live with something like that for the rest of our lives. You, more than any of us, should know what I’m getting at."

This time, I was the one to fall quiet; there was nothing I could say to shoot that down. Mosely began skimming his newspaper again and Boss went back to gazing into the cup in his hands. For a long moment, no one said anything until Maggie walked between us carrying three steaming plates heaped with eggs, fried potatoes and some kind of mystery bacon,

"Breekfast eaz ‘ere, boyz!" She announced before handing each of us a plate.

"Thank you, Miss Maggie," We each acknowledged her in turn before she left us to our meal. For a few minutes, we ate in silence; until curiosity got the best of me.

"So what do we have on the list for today?" I said between fork-fulls of egg and potato. Mich seemed to be stirring his food around more than eating when he finally answered the question,

"Mr. Linard has a pair of ships coming in today that need swept, but the real reason I called you out here is this,"

Boss paused to pick up a strip of bacon and took a bite off it before continuing,

"The smuggling of unregistered arms to Hiemdall has risen twenty percent in the last month due to the Ellison’s recent involvement with rebel factions. However, the boys in Hiemdall Defense aren’t content with just sitting on their hands about it. They would like to pay the Ellison’s a timely visit, but they lack the necessary intel’ to make a trip worth while."

"So what’s this got to do with me?" I asked with my mouth still half-full.

"Hang in there, sport. I’m getting to that," Boss paused for a sip of coffee before continuing, "Just so happens there’s a member of the Ellison group that’s turning sour, and is willing to provide the Defense with all the info they need for a full-scale assault and seizure."

"That’s great, but I still don’t see where I play a part in any of this," I interrupted impatiently between fork-loads.

"The thing is," Mich explained, "this turnover has been a long time coming and the Ellison’s may try to wax the informant if he’s seen leaving with suspicious company, any of my ships included. However, they might not recognize you or the Consolation until it’s too late."

I stopped to think for a moment. Ever since I was allowed to carry a weapon, I always wanted a part in the important jobs. But now that the opportunity had finally fallen into my hands, was I really ready for it? Killing mindless zerg was one thing, but the possibility of firing a gun at another person was something totally different, even in self-defense. I shook my head,

"What do you want me to do?"

Boss continued to scratch at his breakfast for a couple seconds before he reached to his top pocket, produced a fold of paper and held it out to me. I hesitated to take it, and instead stared at the scrap with the scrutiny of someone who wasn’t sure whether or not they were just insulted.

"The informant is waiting at this location," Mich said over a fork full of eggs, "Pick em’ up and make certain his safe passage to the magistrate."

So much for the important job.

"This is what you dragged me out of bed for?" I scoffed while jabbing extra hard at my plate with a fork, "To be some drunken old rebel’s chauffeur for the day?"

"Well," Boss calmly replied over another sip of java, "It’s either that or you can help Mose’ with Mr. Linard’s call and I’ll pilot the Consolation for this run."

Now thoroughly agitated, I snatched the note from Mich’s outstretched fingers with more than the appropriate level of gusto.

"No body flies my ship..." I mumbled half under my breath, even though I didn’t care if anyone heard me or not.

After one last bite of eggs, I pushed my empty plate away and hopped down from the stool,

"That’s all I have to do?" I asked while studying the co-ordinance on the paper, "Just take this chump to the magistrate? No run-around or go-fer stuff?"

"That’s all," Boss repeated without looking up from the plate in front of him, "An open and shut case."

"I’ve heard that one before," I complained without thinking about it as I stood up to leave, but something hit me and I turned back to Mich,

"What if the Ellison’s are there waiting on me and things turn ugly?"

"You’re a smart kid," Boss looked up from his breakfast at last, "Improvise."

 

     "I hate the city..." I mumbled to the thrumming engines of the Consolation as the bustling air traffic jockeyed for position in my windshield. It was rush hour and I could hardly see the street just a hundred meters down; the opposing stream of flying commuters rolled endlessly under the nose of the ship, blotting out any view of the ground below. The windows and stonework of the buildings washed steadily by on the right, rising and sinking in time with the sway of the traffic.

With one hand on the shuddering controls, I looked away from the windshield long enough to snatch Boss’s directions from the co-pilots chair. The informant’s place had to be somewhere ahead on the right; the seventh floor bay of a multi-story shuttle park and condominium on the corner of 23rd and the commercial bypass. I just passed 21st street, so I began nosing the Consolation down to the exit altitude, below the flurry of rush hour.

"Damnit!" I swore as I narrowly swerved out of the path of a larger cargo craft that had cut me off. I resisted the urge hit the radio and tell that prick exactly what I thought of his flying, and, instead, concentrated on the buildings ahead. 23rd was the next intersection and the last thing I wanted was to overshoot and come back through this wonderful traffic.

I didn’t have to look very hard; the condo was huge–I had to travel halfway around the block to find the bay for the seventh floor. The wide opening in the structure displayed a green light, indicating that it was clear for incoming vessels to dock inside.

"I suppose this is the place..." I mumbled again to the humming dashboard as I looked over the directions one last time. At last, I guided the hovering ship inside to a vacant pad and cut the engines, letting the Consolation come to rest on its landing skids with one final gasp of its thrusters.

For a few moments, I sat in silence as I gathered my weapons and jammed them in their holsters. From somewhere outside, I could hear footsteps approaching my side of the craft, but I didn’t bother to look up, even after my hatch was pulled open.

"Get in on the other side," I sighed in exasperation as I fumbled with one of my gauss pistols, "And don’t spill any booze in here, I just had the interior wash–gthed!"

I gagged out the last word in surprise as a great, grimy, claw of a hand slapped against my throat and gripped my neck like a band of steel. With one deft motion, a neckless, bald-headed goon in a grey suit hauled me out of my pilot’s chair and held me off the ground with one arm.

"Whatha fuck!" I gasped, clawing vainly at the fingers around my throat with both hands, "Legth’ meh go!"

Two more men approached quickly from either side, wordlessly stealing the gauss pistols and my C-8 from their holsters. The seven foot neanderthal that held me in the air grinned slightly as I was disarmed, but I couldn’t see his eyes behind the dark sunglasses he wore.

With my possessions in hand, the other assailants moved into my limited field of view, standing next to their goon. One of them competed in size with the gorilla that held me, and seemed more interested in inspecting the sights of my C-8. The third one, shorter than the other two by a whole head and with half the bulk, smiled up at me and announced himself as if he were speaking to the prospective client of a banking firm,

"Ellison’s the name, kid, Troy Ellison. How are you feeling this afternoon?"

"Thath’s a bith up in theh air...righth now..." I choked, struggling to breath in between words and maintain my composure at the same time.

"Oh?" this Troy raised an eyebrow from under his sunglasses while he spoke with both hands clasped behind his back, "Is this making it difficult to communicate?"

Troy turned his attention to the goon just long enough to say a few words,

"Max, please make our guest more comfortable so he can better understand what I’m about to tell him."

Max, as he was called, grinned a little wider as his hand suddenly squeezed even tighter, making spots form in my vision and all but crushing my esophagus.

"Listen closely, boy," Troy said as he turned back to me, "We happen to know that some other mercenary group has been helping Hiemdall Defense to threaten our recently acquired business arrangement with a certain new clientele of ours. My superiors think I’m wasting my time with you, but I believe you can tell me exactly what we want to know."

"Up....yourths..." I barely managed to force the insult from my pinched throat, but this person continued as if I hadn’t said anything.

"You were sent here because it is rumored that one of our people wants to roll over, but not even the magistrate is dumb enough to try and come here to claim such a person. Who do you work for?"

My limbs grew numb and my vision began to black out, but then the leader tapped Max’s shoulder with one finger,

"Easy, Max, we don’t want him dead just yet."

At last, the grip on my neck loosened slightly and I gasped for air, choking uncontrollably. When my breathing finally returned to some resemblance of normal, Troy leaned closer to me and lifted his sunglasses, glaring at me with a pair of piercing, cobalt-blue eyes as he spoke again,

"Well?"

I did my best to match the mercenaries gaze and practically spat in response,

"Puth me DOWN!"

Troy let his shades fall back into place and nodded his head,

"Very well, I think that could be arranged."

Troy turned from us and walked away, toward the bay’s entrance. Once he was at the edge of the building, he snapped his fingers and Max followed, carrying me with him. Despite my already-considerable level of stress, my heart began pounding furiously as Max approached the seven-story drop and held me out over the street. With nothing but air beneath my swinging feet, Troy turned to me again,

"Now that I’ve got your attention, I’m only going to ask one more time. WHO do you work for? And do be quick, I think Max is getting tired."

"Go...to hell..." I coughed up my reply as I held onto Max’s fat wrist with both hands.

"Too bad," Troy crooned, clicking his tongue in sarcastic disappointment, "That was the wrong answer. Max, I’m afraid this conversation is going nowhere-it looks like we’re just going to have to drop it."

I grimaced, wrapping my hands into a white-knuckle grip on the goon’s arm in anticipation of being let go, but Max didn’t get the chance.

Echoing loudly in the cement parking bay, a single gunshot rang out, taking all of us by surprise. Troy whipped around, turning to the third mercenary that was standing guard,

"Lewy! Stop screwing around-I’m trying to conduct business here!"

I could see this ‘Lewy’ over Max’s shoulder, but he failed to respond. Instead, the hired goon dropped forward to his knees before collapsing onto the floor completely. In his place stood the silhouette of someone holding one of my gauss pistols, with the barrel still smoking. This person stepped casually forward with the gun now trained on us and addressed the mercenary leader with a strong, demanding voice. To my surprise, this voice belonged to a woman,

"Put him DOWN, Troy!"

As she walked closer, the light revealed a generously framed lady in her twenties. She was wearing a little black pair of boots with classic denim jeans that were so form-fitting they could have been painted on. Holding a single hand pistol, a thin, brown leather belt and holster was buckled around her trim waist and a tank top finished her outfit, following the same code as the jeans below; provocatively tight and spotlessly clean. Her soft-looking face and hazel eyes held a look of stern determination, wreathed in her shoulder-length brown hair. Despite hanging off the edge of a building by my neck, I couldn’t stop staring.

"Caryn?!" Troy snapped, seemingly just as surprised as I was, "What the hell are you doing?! You know how hard it is to find help like that!"

"I’m NOT playing games with you, Troy," this mystery woman shouted back, "Let him go!"

Troy began stepping toward the girl, trying to reason with her,

"Caryn, sweet-heart, what’s this piece of shit mean to you? You’ve got an obligation to the Ellisons, not this backwater chump..."

The mercenary stopped, both talking and moving, when this crazed broad interrupted him by setting the hammer on the gauss pistol. For a few moments, the group stood silent with me still hanging over the street seven stories down, until Troy finally sighed angrily and nodded to Max. The ogre gave me a disappointed look before he turned around and threw me to the floor at the girl’s feet. What little wind I had left was lost when I hit the cement on my back. I coughed and choked as I sat up, panting to get my breath back, and watched the couple argue it out in front of me.

"You stupid bitch!" Troy suddenly burst out, "You know what the boss will do about this! I came here to help--You shouldn’t have interfered!"

The girl didn’t seem to be phased by the threat, but something in her voice sounded upset,

"I’ve had enough of your help!"

Without warning, Caryn glanced to me without taking the weapon off the mercenaries,

"You!" she growled at me, "Get up, start your ship--we’re leaving!"

Slowly, I put my feet beneath me and stood up, still wheezing from being choked so long, and began backing toward the Consolation. Stopping to pick up my other gauss pistol and C-8 from the cement next to the dead guard’s body, I watched and waited to see what happened next.

"I don’t want to be followed;" the girl commanded, jabbing the gun in the mercenaries direction, "Throw your hand-com over the edge!"

Troy looked about to protest, but Caryn suddenly pointed the barrel to the ceiling and fired a warning shot before aiming the weapon directly at the guy’s head. Following another sigh, Troy reached to the inside pocket of his suit and produced an expensive-looking communicator. With a flick of the wrist, he tossed the hand-com over the edge that, a moment ago, I was just hanging over.

"Don’t do this, you’re one of us!" Troy warned menacingly, but didn’t make a move to stop us as Caryn began stepping backwards in my direction.

"Consider this my resignation," the girl replied coldly. Suddenly, she noticed me watching the proceedings and turned her wicked temper on me this time,

"What the hell are YOU waiting for?! Get the ship!"

I nodded and only stumbled twice as I turned on the scene and bolted for the still-open pilot’s hatch of the Consolation. With hands trembling from adrenaline, I shifted through the controls and brought the thrusters back online. After nosing the ship around, I found the woman with my gauss pistol still trained on the Ellison’s. She glanced over her shoulder as I guided the ship forward until the passenger hatch was right next to her.

"Good," I heard her announce through the static of the engines, "Now, get lost!"

The two mercenaries went wide-eyed and dove for either side of the entrance ramp just before Caryn let the gauss pistol rip, spraying a stream of automatic rounds in their direction. The bullets sparked and rebounded off the cement floor and the girl leapt against the co-pilots hatch and pounded her palm against the window,

"Go, you moron! GO!"

I shook my head and jammed the throttle forward. The Consolation’s engines screamed to life, propelling us out into the open air with that girl still hanging on by the co-pilot’s hatch. As soon as we were clear of the building, Troy and Max reappeared in the opening with guns of their own in hand, but Caryn turned back with the gauss pistol and let the last of the clip fly as we pulled away, forcing them back behind cover until we were out of range and practically in traffic again.

As I careened back into the rush hour commuters, nearly causing a mid-air collision in the process, the passenger hatch swung open and Caryn climbed inside, taking a seat in the co-pilots’s chair next to me. In one swift, smooth motion, she reached to my belt and snatched one of my spare clips before I could do anything to stop her. A split second later, the old magazine clattered to the floor and was replaced by the new one. Then, my own gun was suddenly turned on me.

"Listen up, boy," Caryn announced without hesitation, "What I did back there wasn’t for you-so don’t start getting all friendly with me! You’re going to do exactly as I tell you, or you’re going to die–is that clear?!"

"Crystal," I responded, glancing over to stare down the barrel of my own weapon, before turning to watch traffic again.

Without warning, the girl lashed out with the gauss pistol, smashing my right hand with the butt of the weapon,

"Don’t you DARE get smart with me!"

The attack made me swerve accidently and I swore out loud with the sudden pain, but grimaced and grabbed the controls once more, despite the blood that started running down my arm from a gash on the third knuckle.

"And there’s plenty more where that came from," Caryn jeered, shaking the gauss pistol aggressively, when a sudden burst of static from the radio interrupted her,

"Attention unidentified cargo vessel, this is Khloria Traffic Control! You have been seen in violation of standing commuter regulation four–respond unidentified cargo vessel."

"Oh, just great!" I growled, glaring briefly in Caryn’s direction, "It’s the air-marshal! What can they possibly want?"

The girl just smiled back at me and answered matter-of-factly,

"Probably to talk about your brilliant display of piloting prowess back there."

I grumbled irritably and reached for the mic-switch, but Caryn jabbed my shoulder with the barrel of my gauss pistol,

"What are you doing?! Make a run for it!"

"I’ve got news for you, princess," I scoffed, reaching for the radio controls again despite the woman’s demands, "We’re in a B class cargo ship-they’d shoot us down before we make the next street!"

Again, Caryn whipped the back of my hand in the same place as before, causing me to yell involuntarily just as the radio came online. The person on the other end of the line must have heard me, because the voice came again before I could say anything else,

"Say again, cargo vessel, we didn’t get all of that."

I clenched my fist angrily, swallowing the pain while Caryn sat back and grinned from ear to ear, before I finally responded to the air marshal through gritted teeth,

"Roger that, traffic control-you have the Consolation. What seems to be the problem?"

"Your flying’s the problem, Consolation," the voice came back with an air of authority, "Bring your ship to street level immediately for pilot inspection."

"Roger that," I repeated before cutting the radio feed with a sigh of exasperation.

To my surprise, the girl didn’t have anything to say as I wove the ship down through the lanes toward the pavement below. The Consolation’s skids met the cement with a screech, followed by that of the air marshal’s vessel somewhere behind. I barely had time to undo my harness before a burley pair of officers showed up at my door. The moment I opened the hatch, they began firing the questions at me,

"Before we revoke your pilot’s license," one of them began, "mind telling us where the fire is? You pulled into traffic back there like you were being shot at!"

"I..." I began to explain, but the other guy noticed the second gauss pistol hanging under my left arm and interrupted with another question,

"You got a permit for those weapons, boy?"

"Of course I do," I shot back modestly and pulled my mercenary tags over my head and handed them over. One officer took them and they both took a moment to look the registration over before giving it back.

"Reece Collins, is it?" The first marshal spoke up again. I nodded and the officer continued with another question,

"Mind telling us exactly why you pulled that maneuver back there?"

"You see," I began, partially at a loss for words, "My...girlfriend and I got into a little argument at a bad time...I guess I didn’t see-"

Caryn noticeably flinched at my use of the word ‘girlfriend’, but didn’t offer any help as the marshal interrupted me again,

"You didn’t see that air-freighter you nearly plowed into?! Step out of the ship, sir, we need to have a look inside."

"But I don’t see why..." I began to protest as I unbuckled my harness, but trailed off when an unfamiliar armored transport hovered to the street behind the marshals with its rear cargo door open. My heart skipped a beat as the craft turned in place, revealing Troy’s goon in the doorway with a belt-fed auto-cannon hefted in both arms. The marshals hardly had enough time to turn around before Max hit the trigger.

In an instant, armor-piercing rounds pelted the Consolation’s hull, mowing the officers down in a hail of flying lead. Blood sprayed on my face as I jerked my hatch closed in attempt to block the rounds out, but I could hear the bullets ricocheting around inside the bay after they punched through the hull. Caryn was already hunched in the floor in front of her seat, yelling up at me as glass rained on us from the shattered windshield,

"Do you want me to drive or what?!" she screamed, "Get us out of here, kid!"

Despite the wailing alarms from the avionics, I goosed the throttle again and the craft leapt forward with a roar of its thrusters. For a moment, rounds continued to pepper the back side of the craft while we sped away, but the Consolation nosed abruptly upwards in response to the controls, sending us reeling into the oncoming traffic above.

For a critical second, I was blinded by a wall of riveted metal as we side-swiped another cargo ship on the right side. The Consolation wrenched violently with the impact, nearly throwing me from my seat before I could recover, only to find a passenger cruiser bearing down on us in the next lane. I swore as the Consolation responded sluggishly, forcing the vessel out of our lane instead of dodging it. The controls shuddered in my hands, fighting my every command as I coaxed the crippled ship over the commuters.

"How the hell did they find us so fast?!" I hollered over the rush of air coming through the open front of the craft. Caryn rolled her eyes, as if the answer was right in front of me,

"Because they have radio scanners, you dim-wit! They probably overheard your little conversation with your buddies back there."

"They killed those guys!" I stuttered, ignoring Caryn’s answer, "Don’t the Ellison’s have ANY respect for authority?!"

"No," the girl responded nonchalantly, "We don’t. And you shouldn’t either. After all, they almost got us both wasted over a traffic ticket."

"But they’re DEAD!" I yelled back, "And now I’m caught up in this whole mess! They’re gonna be after me, too!"

"You haven’t seen many dead people, have you?" Caryn teased, waving my gauss pistol in the air.

"I don’t kill people!!"

The answer practically exploded from me; I didn’t care if this woman liked my tone of voice or not.

"Boy," Caryn laughed, as if my situation was trivial, "You’ve got a lot to learn."

At that, I scoffed,

"Like how to take advantage of people who are sent to help you?"

Suddenly, Caryn wasn’t smiling anymore. She quit playing with the gauss pistol and planted the barrel against my temple,

"You forget; I’m still holding you at gunpoint."

I didn’t even bother to look her way this time, responding coldly as kept my eyes straight ahead.

"Who cares? That Troy dude and goliath are probably following us right now-I’m dead anyway."

"You really don’t know what you’re doing, do you?" Caryn frowned behind the sights of the gun, "That metal hulk they’re in can’t catch this thing-we’re long gone."

With my bloody hand, I gestured toward the manic warning lights flashing at me from the gauges,

"But we won’t get far like this-my ship’s totaled! And how long do you think it’s going to take Hiemdall defense to find that mess back there? This thing isn’t exactly low-profile anymore."

"That’s your problem, yaknow," Caryn eased off with the gauss pistol long enough to brush the hair back out her face, "You’re too worked up over the details. I know a place where we can lay low for a while and get your precious Consolation patched up. Head for the industry district."

 

     With Caryn’s directions, we made our way to the edge of the city. This side of the capitol was occupied mostly by run-down factories and ragged warehouses that had seen better days. She led me to one of the storage garages on the ground level, seemingly just like any other building on the block. We came to a stop in front of a closed doorway large enough for two Consolations to fit through side-by-side.

"Wait here," the girl announced before climbing out of the passenger hatch with my gauss pistol still in hand. Caryn hopped down to the pavement effortlessly, and slowly approached the garage door. She knocked on the metal twice, and, after a few moments, a tiny metal slit opened briefly and closed again. Seconds later, the door suddenly lurched from its resting place, rising up and revealing a bustling workshop inside. Four craft bays occupied most of the space inside, with two ships already on lifts while multiple workers clamored around them with everything from cutting torches to wrenches.

Caryn strolled leisurely inside, announcing something inaudible to one of the mechanics that stepped forward. This guy seemed to be in his late fifties, with a matted greying beard that matched his grease-stained coveralls. To my surprise, he held his arms out and Caryn practically dove into them. They hugged for a moment before the guy held her out at arms length and said something to Caryn that made her laugh. The mechanic then turned to the rest of the workers inside and gestured toward the girl, after which they all waved before continuing their work.

The old guy looked about to walk back inside when Caryn stopped him with a few words. He looked at her, up to my ship, and back to her again. She nodded and walked away, disappearing somewhere inside while the mechanic moved around to my side of the Consolation.

I opened my hatch as he approached and the mechanic waved me forward with a gruff voice,

"Pull er’ into the second bay!"

I nodded, easing the stuttering Consolation forward until it was positioned on the lift. The door to the garage started rolling back down as I climbed out of my ship, and the old guy from before stepped quickly in my direction. After wiping one hand on his coveralls, he held it out to me.

"So my baby niece has gotten you into a spot of trouble, huh?" He announced as I shook his hand.

"I suppose you could say that," I agreed with a quick glance at my battered ship. Apparently, he noticed my concern and shrugged it off with a wave of one hand,

"Don’t worry ‘bout yer boat-we’ll have er’ fixed up right in no time! What’s yer name, kid?"

"Reece," I said dryly. Caryn was nowhere to be seen, and this guy seemed to notice this as well,

"I know it can be difficult for someone your age, but forget about her for the moment, Reece," the mechanic laughed, slapping my back as he led me to a bench against the back wall.

"The name’s Larry," the mechanic announced as I sat down, "Caryn calls me Uncle Lare, but you can just call me Larry."

"Okay, Larry," I repeated from my seat on the bench as he began walking around the Consolation with a critical eye. After the first lap around, he whistled before continuing,

"She sure did a number on this thing-it’s a miracle this antique was still airborne! It’s gonna take a lot of glue to get this thing flight-ready again."

"I don’t have any money with me..." I began, but Larry cut me off before I could say anything else.

"If you’re getting my niece out of that mess she’s in with the Ellisons, don’t worry about it."

"That’s the plan," I explained, "But she doesn’t seem to see it that way."

Larry laughed again as he climbed into the pilot hatch, talking to me through the broken windshield,

"Caryn is a mite rough around the edges, but she’ll warm up to you-she’s always been overly defensive."

Larry plunked down in the pilot’s chair and looked the instrument panel over with another long whistle,

"This can is older than I thought! Why would a mercenary–even one like you–bother with this old heap?"

The memories suddenly flooded my mind, forcing me to look away from Larry’s testing gaze before I could answer,

"I-It’s a matter of sentimental value. A...friend got it for me before..."

I trailed off as the words left me, but Larry seemed to understand again,

"I see," He announced, busying himself with the controls inside.

"Well," Larry finished as he climbed back down, "It’s gonna take a few hours to get the hull patched and the windshield replaced. Just make yourself at home and we’ll take care of the rest."

 

     Despite Larry’s advice, I had a difficult time ‘making myself at home’ on that steel bench. The time ticked by uneventfully as I watched a team of mechanics, under Larry’s supervision, crawl all over the Consolation; welding here, hammering there, but never really seeming to get anything accomplished. As a pair of them carried a new pane of glass in front of me for the windshield, I felt a body plop down next to me on the bench. To my surprise, it was Caryn.

"So you met my uncle Larry, huh?" she asked as I noticed her.

"Yeah," was all I could find to say as I began recovering from my boredom. Caryn’s hair was wet, but she still had the same cloths on from before.

"I went to go freshen up a bit," she confessed, still holding my gauss pistol in one hand, "I trust you don’t mind."

"Do I have a choice?" I asked, even though I knew the answer already.

"Do you ever?" Caryn grinned, jabbing my arm with the barrel of the gun. I flinched when she touched me with the cold metal, and she seemed to notice the dried blood on my hand for the first time,

"I’m sorry for what I’ve put you through, for what it’s worth."

"All in a day’s work, I guess," I answered without looking at her, "Even if it IS on my day off."

"Oh, you poor baby!" Caryn crooned sarcastically, but I didn’t take my gaze off the floor until a pair of boots stepped into my field of view,

"That should do er," Larry announced, wiping his hands on a sad-looking cloth, "I suppose you two are gonna head out now."

Caryn jumped up from her seat and threw her arms around Larry again,

"Thanks a heap Uncle Lare; I’ll see to it that you’re paid in full for your effort."

"Forget it," Larry replied, holding her out at arms length once more, "Just promise me that you’re through with the Ellison’s and that’ll be payment aplenty for me."

"This is really it this time," the girl assured, "That kid’s taking me straight to the magistrate and I’m gonna tell them everything."

At this, I finally stood up,

"You’re going to the magistrate?" I asked, astonished, "You’re really gonna do it?"

Caryn turned back to me as Larry left us to the ship, and her scrutinizing frown was back,

"That IS why you were sent, isn’t it?"

"Well, yeah, I-" I began, but Caryn interrupted me,

"Good. Let’s go then."

With that, she paced across the shop and climbed into the Consolation through the passenger hatch. I could only shrug and follow suit. Larry began opening the bay door again and I was surprised to find that it was getting dark already. Before I could climb aboard myself, Larry got my attention,

"You take good care of my little niece, you hear’ boy?"

I practically laughed out loud as I popped the latch for the pilot’s door,

"But who’s going to protect me from her?"

Larry seemed to brush my comment off, so I dropped into my seat and powered the engines up. Thanks to the quick repairs, the Consolation’s thrusters rumbled with new life as they came online, abruptly lifting the craft off it’s landing skids in a steady hover. The booster wash whipped up a gale in the closed space while Larry moved into view of the windshield and began giving me hand signals to back out by.

As soon as we were clear of the building, I began feeding more power to the elevators and the ship gained altitude. Before I nosed the Consolation into the air and away, Larry waved up to us with an oily hand. Caryn waved back through the new windshield and I waged the vessel in response before pouring the coal to the thrusters. The ship responded with a healthy burst of acceleration, and, in moments, Larry’s makeshift garage faded back into the mix of warehouses and factories below.

Caryn waited until we were far out of eyeshot from the shop before speaking again,

"Head east, out of the city."

"What?" I asked, suddenly confused, "Why East? The magistrates headquarters are to the North."

"We’re not going to the magistrate," Caryn said almost mischievously while jerking the bolt back on my gauss pistol, "Not yet."

 

     "How much further?" I asked irritably as the trees of the undeveloped forest rolled by, just as they had for the past half hour. Caryn seemed to be studying the Consolation’s scanner intently when she finally answered,

"About five miles, but this is close enough."

I had a bad feeling about what that meant.

"Close enough?" I asked, without actually wanting to know why. Caryn pointed to a clearing in the trees ahead with the gauss pistol,

"Bring it down over there. We’ll walk the rest of the way."

I knew I had a bad feeling about that.

"Walk?!" I complained, "In the middle of the night? To where?"

"To the Ellison’s compound," Caryn replied in an agitated tone, "Now bring this damn thing down before their scanners spot us!"

I sighed, easing the throttle back to bring the Consolation down to the designated clearing. It was little more than an overgrown grassy plot set in a break in the forest, but it afforded enough space to bring the ship down without disturbing the overhead branches. The landing skids swished into the tall grass, bringing the rocking motion of the ship to a sudden halt as we touched down. Finally, the engines fell silent as I cut the power entirely, leaving us with only the dull hum of the electronics.

Caryn unbuckled her harness and climbed out on her side, waving for me to do the same.

"Wouldn’t they have already found us with radar?" I asked as we met in front of the craft. Caryn shook her head,

"They don’t run radar unless there’s a reason; long range detection can give away their own position. Besides, it doesn’t work too well from underground."

"Underground?" I asked again, repeating her words like a broken record.

"You’ll see," Caryn sighed, exasperated with the questions, "Follow me."

 

     Caryn’s estimation of five miles proved to be shy by more than half. Traveling in the thick undergrowth was cumbersome at best; vines and low branches clung at every opportunity and the uneven forest floor was tricky to navigate without slipping or stumbling over a hidden hole in the ground. In contrast to my difficulty, Caryn slipped among the trees almost effortlessly, leading the way and pointing out the occasional hazard that I usually didn’t see until it was too late.

At one point, Caryn began moving slowly and deliberately, hissing swears back at me when I stepped on a branch or tripped over roots. Finally, she squatted low to the ground and gestured for me to do the same. I was about to ask why we had stopped when she put a finger over her lips to hush me and pointed ahead with the gauss pistol.

I strained my eyes in the darkness, and, in a moment, found what she was trying to show me. In a clearing roughly a hundred meters ahead, a shadowy mound could be seen through the trees. As we drew slowly closer, I found this small structure to be made of concrete with a single set of double steel doors for an entrance. The forest grew right up to it, shrouding it from overhead view with long branches that reached across it like long, crooked fingers.

It was apparently unguarded except for two men that stood on either side of the door with high-caliber gauss rifles in hand. One of them leaned against the wall, casually puffing on a cigarette, while the other stared off into the woods.

Caryn turned briefly to me, soundlessly gesturing for me to stay where I was. I nodded and she stood up and began strutting leisurely toward the two sentries. In moments, they noticed her approach and snapped to attention, and I held my breath as they suddenly hefted their rifles to their shoulders.

They didn’t seem to be bothered by her presence at all. In fact, they dropped their aim and greeted her like old friends as soon as they recognized her. She said something inaudible to them, after which they turned and began moving towards the doors together. One of the guards pecked at a keypad next to the doors, but when they opened with a hiss of the airlock, Caryn drew her pistol without warning.

Two flares of a gun barrel lit the night, but the sound of the guards dropping to the ground made more noise than the weapon’s report. That must have been her own gun, I thought suddenly; my gauss pistol could have been heard from a mile away. Caryn bent down and took something I couldn’t see from one of the motionless guards and turned to where I was hidden among the trees. She whistled and waved an arm, so I stood and walked out from my place in the woods.

"You killed them!" I gasped as I approached her and the open doorway, noticing the dark pools of blood forming around their still bodies. Caryn rolled her eyes irritably and whispered,

"Would you get over it?! They would have shot us both if they knew what I was here for."

Caryn turned from me and disappeared inside, leaving me with the dead guards. I hastily stepped over one of them and hurried to catch up with her.

The entrance to the compound led to a wide set of stairs that went a short distance underground. The hallway was dome-shaped, lit with buzzing florescent lights every eight feet. Caryn practically jogged ahead, counting the closed doorways under her breath as we hustled past them.

"What’s the rush?" I asked, still tired from hiking through the woods.

Caryn didn’t look back as she barked an answer over her shoulder,

"The guards check in every ten minutes by radio and there are twenty men stationed here-we don’t have much time!"

"Wouldn’t they be asleep, like normal people, this late at night?" I wondered out loud as I followed this crazed woman through the tunnel.

"Yes," she answered as she came to a stop in front of a door just like any other on the hall and turned to me again. Her face was serious, steeped in concentration,

"But when the alarm is raised because the guards don’t check in, they’ll be wide awake."

Caryn fished in her pocket for a moment and pulled out a keycard, probably stolen from the dead sentries, and swiped it through the keypad next to the door. Then, after punching in a combination, Caryn grinned slightly as the door unlocked with an obnoxious buzzing noise. The room inside was dark until the girl flipped a few switches on the wall, revealing a square open area occupied by computer stations.

Caryn slid into one of the office chairs in front of the center terminal and began tapping away at the keyboard. I began to follow her until she waved me back,

"Stay there-watch the door! I’ll just be a minute..."

"If you say so," I said, stepping nervously back into the doorway and glancing up and down the hall. After a few uneventful moments, I stuck my head back into the room briefly,

"What are you doing, anyway? This is no time to check your email!"

Caryn didn’t look up from her work, her hands flying over the keys, as she answered me in a hushed voice,

"Making a copies of the Ellison’s trade routes and base locations! Hiemdall Defense won’t be able to make a strike without them."

I nodded, resuming my watch at the door, but that’s when someone spotted me. A lone guard without body armor, like the ones that were outside, strolled into view from around the corner. He noticed me almost at once, doing a perfect double take before heaving his weapon to the ready.

"Hey you!" he barked, standing in place with the weapon trained on me, "Who the hell are you?! How did you get in here?!"

When I ducked back in the doorway, he opened fire, raining led against the hallway outside. Seconds later, an alarm began wailing throughout the compound.

"We’ve got company!" I yelled to the girl, pressing my body flat against the wall to avoid the ricocheting bullets.

"No shit?!" Caryn hollered over her shoulder, "Keep them busy-I’m almost done!"

"Keep them busy..." I scoffed under my breath as I drew my remaining gauss pistol, "...Right."

For a split second, the gunfire ceased and the sound of booted feet began pounding up the hallway in our direction. I held my arm out from behind the cover, spraying bullets indiscriminately down the corridor. A series of swears and screams echoed through the tunnel in response before the suppressant fire began again, forcing me back inside.

"Got it!" Caryn announced triumphantly, jumping up from the chair with a single silver disk in hand. She leapt to my side and jammed the disk into her pocket.

"Time to go!" She said, punching my arm.

I nodded, pulling my C-8 from its holster on my back and switching the rounds to delayed fragmentation. Aiming for the opposite wall at as much of an angle as I could afford in the limited cover, I let two rounds fly.

The shell launcher belched in response, lobbing two canisters against the wall. They bounced off instantly, disappearing somewhere down the hall in the direction of the offending mercenaries. A moment of total panic ensued amongst them as they yelled and dove for cover just before the rounds went off.

The explosions were deafening in the confined space, leaving the hallway outside choked in a blinding cloud of smoke. Caryn darted past me, heading for the exit and I followed on her heels, sprinting hard for the stairway ahead. Moments later, shouts echoed up the hall from somewhere behind and the firing started again. The bullets wizzed by all around, so close they could be heard whistling by just inches away.

We were nearly at the steps when the last door on the hall flew open and another guard jumped into our path, raising his weapon for the kill. However, Caryn beat him to the punch, emptying the clip from my gauss pistol at him while at a dead sprint. The rounds blasted the man full of bloody holes and he hit the cement on his back as we flashed by.

The bullets bounced and sparked from the steps around my feet as I lunged up the stairs in two bounds, but they were too late. I broke into the cool night air and followed Caryn into the cover of darkness.

 

     "Well," I announced while cutting the Consolation’s engines to an idle, letting the ship settle to the street with a screech of its landing skids, "This is it. Until you clear my name, this is as close as I’m willing to get to the magistrates office."

Caryn stared blankly out the windshield, flipping the data disk over and over in her hand. After a long moment, she sighed and pushed her door open.

"Hey," I said to her as she climbed out, "If you run into trouble, look me up at the Farside diner."

Caryn’s defensive frown reappeared when she looked up at me.

"I told you before," she said, tossing my gauss pistol on my lap, "Don’t get friendly with me–it’ll only get you hurt."

Then, without so much as a thank you or a good-bye, she turned from the ship and began walking away down the sidewalk, toward the magistrates office.

"You’re welcome," I said in disappointment as I leaned over and pulled the co-pilot hatch shut. I watched her until she disappeared around the corner of a building before throttling the Consolation back up.

 

     It was a long, quiet ride back home, and I was exhausted; worn down by the day. It had to be past midnight by the time I reached the ocean again and I was fighting sleep to stay awake and fly the ship the last few miles to my bunker. After hastily parking the Consolation in the sand, I stumbled back to my little home among the palm trees. I was starving from missing dinner at the Farside, but I didn’t take the time to choke down a meal supplement. My cold bunk never looked so good as I kicked my boots off and tossed my tactical armor onto the metal folding chair in the corner. I took one last minute to lock the bolt on the door and dropped onto my bed. In seconds, I was asleep.

I couldn’t have been out more than five minutes when the hand-com began squalling. Opening my eyes long enough to see that it was now three in the morning, I rolled onto my side in attempt to block out the noise,

"You’re shitting me!" I growled, trying my best to ignore the hand-com’s cry. Despite the piercing tones, I could feel the numbing cloak of sleep slipping over again. However, much to my dismay and complete surprise, a boot placed itself squarely between my shoulder blades and shoved me off the bunk. I fell the short distance to the cement floor entangled in blankets and total bewilderment.

"Who the hell..." I groaned as I sat up and peered over the edge of the bed. My assailant stood on the opposite side staring down at me. In the near-pitch darkness, I could only make out the silhouette of someone dressed in tactical armor and the long rifle he held with both hands. Instantly, my mind signaled possible danger and I lunged for one of my gauss pistols still hanging from the wall. Yet, when I leaned back up with the weapon trained on the spot, there was nobody there.

"No way..." I mumbled under my breath as I flicked on the light and stood up, scanning every corner of the bunker from behind the sights of the pistol, "No one’s that fast!"

I searched everything: in the pantry, under the bed, through the dirty laundry. This mystery person was no where to be found. Then, my stomach twisted into a knot as my eyes fell on the steel hatch that served as the only exit. The lock bolt was still in place; it was physically impossible for someone to have gotten in and back out again.

I let the gun fall to my side and I slapped my forehead with the free hand, "That’s it! I’m actually losing my mind!"

Without warning, the hand-com began wailing again, nearly making me hit my head on the low ceiling when I jumped. I threw the gauss pistol against the pillows and moved to the night stand, snatching up the hand-com angrily,

"This better be REAL good!" I barked into the microphone. To my surprise, Mr. Linards voice responded, and he sounded just a little distressed,

"Oh, thank GOD! Someone answered!"

"Mr. Linard?! What’s the matter?" I asked, much in contrast to my tone just a moment ago. The old coot was out of breath and obviously panicking,

"R-Reece! You’ve gotta help me! The Merchant III–she’s just arrived and-"

"Mr. Lindard," I began, starting to get annoyed again, "Just lock her up for the night and we’ll be there to look it over first thing in the morning."

"NO!" The old man’s urgent caw blasted my ear, "Y-You don’t understand! There’s monsters on board! ZERG!"

"Are you sure?" I yawned, already tempted to go back to bed, "I mean honestly; how bad can it be at three in the morning?"

"But Reece, it’s the real thing this time! The night guard would have bled to death had I not found him! They’re tearing the ship apart from the inside out! PLEASE! I’ll pay you double this time!"

"Alright, Mr. Linard-" I began, but the ancient codger interrupted me again. He was getting totally frantic now,

"I’ll Triple it! Just help m-me!"

"OKAY, alright," I had to yell to get him to stop this time, "I’ll be there in a flash-just try not to have a stroke in the meantime."

"Please hurry!" With one last cry, Mr. Linard closed the line, and I jerked my boots back out from under the bed,

"The things I do...."

 

     The Consolation shuddered around me while I guided it into the blackness. No stars or moon shone through the overcast, leaving only the lights of the city as visual references in the windshield. If it wasn’t for the positioning system and the scanners, I would have passed right over Linard’s Ship Yard when I reached the far edge of town. Four red lights from the small craft pad drifted into view below as I brought the Consolation to a hover at the co-ordinance. I flicked on the perimeter lamps and eased her down slowly, until the landing skids met the cement with a harsh screech.

At first, nothing moved. The great, dark square of the main warehouse, about fifty yards ahead, was just barely visible against the clouded sky. Shadowy hulks of the patron ships were off somewhere to the right. A lone guard shack stood a few paces away from the pad, but everything seemed to be asleep. Some monsters.

Just when I was beginning to wonder if I’d dreamt the whole thing, the narrow door on the guard shack flew open and Mr. Linard appeared in view of the Consolation’s outboard lights. He came hobbling over, faster than I thought the old man was capable of moving on his best day, and tackled the latch on the co-pilot door. The panic-stricken goat fumbled with the handle a moment before he managed to open the hatch and clamber inside,

"Mr. Linard," I asked with a sigh of exasperation, "What the hell are you doing?"

"T-they’re still out there!" he cried. I looked up, glancing at the windshield briefly, but there was nothing there. I sighed again and turned back to the shivering crow that had found it’s way onto my ship,

"Where’s the crew? Is Jim okay?"

For a moment, the old man seemed at a loss for words before I reminded him,

"The night guard-is he okay?"

"Yes, yes!" Mr. Linard’s expression snapped as he realized what I was talking about, "Thank goodness we had the TRA charged last month!"

"And what about the crew of the Merchant III?" I asked again while I cut the engines.

"I’ve no idea! They were with us on the line all the way in, but we haven’t been able to reach them by radio since the ship landed-that’s when I sent Jim over to see if everything was okay..."

Mr. Linard paused as he began to gain his bearings, then, his head whipped left and right as he looked around the Consolation,

"Wait, I thought you would bring the others...where’s everybody else?"

"Probably still asleep," I answered with a yawn.

The old man did a double take, stuttering again as the panic returned,

"B-but you’re just a kid! You can’t seriously go in there alone!"

"I don’t see anyone else standing around with a grenade launcher," I sighed, jerking the release for my door, "Now show me these monsters I’ve heard so much about so I can blast them fulla’ holes and go back to bed."

Mr. Linard grew wide eyed when I asked him to lead the way,

"I’m not leaving this ship!"

"Fair enough," I replied calmly, "Which one is the Merchant III?"

"The b-big one on the far end," he croaked at last, "The service lift is under the bow!"

After a quick check over my equipment, I hopped down to the tarmac and looked to Mr. Linard one last time,

"Just keep trying to reach the crew by radio and sit tight-I’ll be back in five minutes."

The old man nodded vigorously while I pulled the hatch shut again and turned toward the cargo ships.

 

     The hum of the Consolation faded with it’s lights as I strode ahead, leaving me with only the sound of the wind and the crunch of gravel under my boots. I should have felt nervous at this point; in the knowledge that I was going in alone, and there would be no one to help me if things went wrong. However, an eerie calm seemed to hang in the air, helping to hold my thoughts together as I closed the distance through the quiet night.

The Merchant III was large for a cargo vessel- over a hundred yards long and five decks deep. It sat more than twice my height off the ground on six great landing skids, and some of the keel lights were still on. In the dull illumination, the service lift could be seen extending from somewhere under the ships’ nose to the ground ahead. I approached the elevator with caution; there was no telling how many of these things were hanging around or what form they would take. The open, rectangular floor of the lift waited without a challenge, but as I approached, something made me stop. There was a puddle of blood staining the metal deck of the elevator.

Automatically, my left hand found the grip of the gauss pistol hanging on my side and pulled it from the holster while releasing the safety. I stood perfectly still, straining my eyes and ears for any sign of movement in the night. As the moments passed uneventfully, I noticed a short series of ragged foot prints leading away to another puddle; the dirt still looked damp with it. From the amount of the stuff and its short-lived trail, it appeared that Jim was hurt pretty badly.

"At least the lucky bastard made it outside," I mumbled to myself as my nerves began to relax again, "I doubt that old coward, Linard, would have gone in after him."

Finally, I dropped my guard long enough to step onto the platform. A waist-high control podium stood in one corner, but I stopped to reach over my right shoulder and pull the C-8 from my back. When I punched the metallic "Ascend" key with the butt of my gauss pistol, the hydraulics whirred to life and the elevator lurched upward beneath me.

The short ride carried me into an open, dimly lit area in the belly of the ship. I dropped to one knee and glanced around carefully as the lift jolted to a halt. It appeared that I was in one of the forward cargo holds. Columns of stacked shipping containers and crates filled this space from hull to hull, extending aft-ward four or five rows. A series of runway lights in the deck led away between the rows of cargo, and in their grim glow, I found the trail of blood again.

"No way," I thought as I began following the crimson blotches once more. How did this guy get out alive? Why hadn’t the zerg finished him off?

When the trail brought me to the first row of containers, a number of reflective objects scattered in the floor caught my eye. I knew what they where even before I reached the first one: spent bullet casings.

"Damn," I swore out loud, "These things better not be shot up already!"

I plucked one of the shells off the deck and inspected it more closely. They were small caliber rounds, and only a handful of them; not enough to do any real damage. I stood again and slowly continued down the isle with gauss pistol ready and C-8 sweeping for a target. The rows of cargo came to an end were a wide elevated platform capped the back of the hold. A short incline led up, but I wasn’t prepared for the gruesome scene that awaited me at the top.

The metal platform looked like something out of a horror movie. Zerg where everywhere, or what was left of them. Their gored and severed remnants lay scattered in pools of dark, unearthly fluids, or slumped motionlessly at the end of a short, fat blood trail.

I mouthed a soundless ‘what the hell’ as I slowly turned a full circle, trying to comprehend just what had happened. From what I could guess, there appeared to be a number of zerglings, and even a pair of hydralisks, here at one time, but it almost looked as if they had fought each other to the death.

"Where are those other dim-wits when you need them?" I thought as I began to reconsider the very present possibility of being hopelessly outnumbered. With gauss pistol aloft and C-8 held steady, I paused once more to take in my surroundings. This time, my ears picked up a sound in the distance.

The screech of scythe on steel rang out from somewhere ahead, where a single expansive hallway led further into the ship. I proceeded forward, carefully stepping over and around the bodies of the dead Zerg while keeping a sharp eye on the corridor before me. Lit with the same dull lights as the cargo isles, the empty hall led a short distance to a cross-section. Straight ahead, a large, open freight lift offered transit to higher levels of the Merchant III. To my right, the passage narrowed and turned a corner; the painted letters on the wall indicated it as the "Crew Wing". The left, however, was obviously the way my target had chosen.

A pair of sliding steel doors once blocked entry to the Reactor Bay, as identified by the flickering yellow sign above the entrance, but the metal sheets that served as the barrier were cleaved apart and smashed in, crumpled against the frame and curled back into the hall. This could only mean one thing: more Hydralisks. I hated going after them, but not just because it involved lobbing grenades at an image of my old friend--fighting the first one gave me all the experience I needed to see past that. Hydralisks take a belt-full of ammo to bring down, and their greater size and brutal strength makes close-combat an act of suicide.

I swallowed hard and stepped through the gapping hole, silently following the short empty corridor as it made a right turn. The buzz of the idling fusion reactor could be heard while I stopped and peered around the corner, finding the end of the hallway leading to a large, open area with the massive reaction chamber occupying the center. Still with no zerg in sight, I continued forward and got a better look at the area I was in. A walkway encircled the room, with steps leading down to the reactor floor. Not far above my head, a metal catwalk jutted from the wall and continued around the chamber in the same fashion as the path below it. About every thirty feet, ladders extended down, allowing access to the elevated area.

Across the room and to the right, I got my next clue. Another set of steel doors where left mangled out of their frame, where they once concealed a cold storage wing. My intuition told me that I was getting close as I approached the thresh hold, so I paused to double-check my C-8 and ensure that the rounds were set to impact detonation before continuing into the icy locker.

The inert fuel rods for the cold fusion reactor that powered the ship had to be kept frosty, as in many standard cargo ships of the time, but due to advancements in efficiency, a full stock was rarely needed anymore. With the extra space freed in refrigeration, it was not uncommon for ship captains to use the spare storage for other things. This was apparently the case, because the locker’s shelves were packed with frozen supplies for the mess hall.

My breath left white clouds of mist in the air as I slowly began pacing down the first isle. Suddenly, I stopped again as I heard something stir on the other side of the shelves. The sound of ripping cardboard met my ears, followed by the jumbled thuds of many solid objects hitting the floor. Using the barrel of my gauss pistol, I reached over to a box on the shelf next to me at eye level and slid it over just a few inches. Through the peek-hole I made in the wall of small crates and containers, and with just ten feet between us, I found my target.

This hydralisk had evidently found it’s way to the only pantry on the bottom deck of the Merchant III, and was rummaging around for an easy meal. The middle set of shelves in the locker had been pushed over and it was standing in the huge mess, slashing open boxes of various food-stuffs that lay scattered around it. The creature’s carapace and blades were stained dark with blood, but little of it appeared to be of it’s own wounds. Of the hydralisk’s I’d fought, this one was easily the biggest: it had to slouch under the eight-foot ceiling and it’s menacing sickles were longer than my whole arm.

Watching the beast pillage the frozen goods, I suddenly realized my mistake. This was no ordinary Hydralisk, it was a Hunter-Killer. Boasting greater strength and vitality than their more common counterparts, Hunter-Killers were not a force to be taken lightly. Worse yet, this was the first one I had encountered that didn’t call me by name.

Deciding to take advantage of my element of surprise, I eased the C-8 into the gap, leveling the barrel at center mass on the zerg that had its flank to me. The range was too close for impact detonation; I couldn’t risk a direct blast that might send the whole isle toppling over on me. The thought of being pinned in the same room with a feral, enraged Hunter-Killer almost made me shudder. However, when I flipped the lever under the stock to switch the rounds to delayed fragmentation, the tiny metallic click it produced was all it took to give away my position.

In a split second, the monster whipped it’s head in my direction, snarling defiantly, but I didn’t even give it time to lock eyes with me. Instead, I jammed the trigger on the shell launcher, releasing a single explosive round, before diving for the open doorway a few paces back. With gauss pistol and C-8 occupying each hand, I made a clumsy landing; rolling over my shoulder and back to one knee. An instant later, the round went off.

The percussion lashed the still air and nearly knocked me off balance as I watched part of the blast surge through the doorway, carrying a wave of pulverized debris from the shelves inside.

Without further hesitation, an ear-splitting roar trumpeted from the storage cooler, announcing my grave mistake, just before one furious Hunter-Killer practically exploded out of the smoldering locker. I only stumbled once after leaping to my feet again, breaking into a flat run out across the reactor floor. I didn’t get the chance to look back, but I could feel the thing’s weight hit the deck behind me when it lunged down the short staircase in pursuit.

My heart pounded to match my foot-falls, but my mind was calm and clear: typically, I would have been forced to find cover from the hydralisk’s spines, but my short lead around the reactor prevented it from getting a clear shot. However, if I was ever hoping to put more lead on target, I needed a new vantage point--fast.

Taking my chances again, I veered from the reactor toward the next set of steps and risked a glance back before I hurtled up the stairs in a single bound. The Hunter-Killer was a dozen paces behind and closing, but when it saw me change paths, it halted abruptly and opened it’s spine cavity for firing.

The moment my boots met the perimeter level again, I collapsed forward into a summer-sault to avoid the incoming spikes as they whistled by just inches overhead. Rolling to my feet again, I swung the C-8 into its holster and slid to a stop in front of one of the access ladders for the upper catwalk. With one gauss pistol still in hand, I all but flew up the rungs, nearly falling off backwards when a well-aimed spine severed the ladder’s connection to the floor. The ladder pivoted wildly on it’s remaining top fasteners, threatening to dump me back down, but I managed to keep my grip and pull myself onto the platform. Only a split second later, the hydralisk was at the foot of the ladder, jabbing for me with its scythes.

I jumped back to avoid the flailing blades, taking this as an opportunity to draw my second gauss pistol and rain lead on the monster with both barrels. Through the muzzle flashes, the rounds could be seen briefly sparking and ricocheting from the thing’s armored shell before it growled in frustration and backed out of view. For a few moments, all was quiet again, save for the rattle of my spent gauss cartridges bouncing on the metal grating.

With an ear-piercing screech of parting steel and startling speed, a mono-molecular edged scythe suddenly burst through the floor between my feet; chest high and a hair’s breadth from disemboweling me.

"Sonofa-bitch!" I involuntarily yelled as I stumbled backwards in shock and surprise. Just as quickly as it came, the blade withdrew, only to have the other punch through again so closely that it split the toe of my right boot. I jumped to the left in a vain attempt to lose the deadly blades, but the Hunter-Killer seemed to anticipate my every move. Just a moment early, another scythe jutted up directly in my path, and I fumbled into the flat side of it. As soon as I made contact, the beast promptly removed it’s blade, causing me to trip forward and slice my right calf open to the top of my boot in the process.

I landed flat on my face and lost my grip on one gauss pistol, but I didn’t have time to watch it skitter away across the platform. Instead, I rolled hard to the left, just avoiding the deadly attack I knew to be coming next.

With enough force to distend a great spot in the steel catwalk and send me reeling for an extra loop, the Hunter-Killer plowed both scythes up through the floor and plunged them back towards me. The blades arched down just inches from my ribs, rending long gashes in the warped grating.

For another short moment, there was silence as I laid on my back, contemplating wether I should move or remain still. A split second later, that decision was made for me. The hydralisk’s scythes came again, spearing up through the floor from the other side of me as if they were spring loaded. I kicked forward onto my feet, nearly toppling over backwards again when the blades buried themselves in the catwalk behind me.

"Enough of this..." I thought angrily while I jammed my remaining gauss pistol back in its holster. Taking half a step forward, I stomped hard on the grating ahead of me and stepped lightly back. Sure enough, one of the monster’s macabre sickles pierced the spot. It punched through, waist-high, before disappearing again and leaving a large oblong hole half a pace in front of my boots.

In a single motion, I dropped to one knee and flipped the C-8 from over my shoulder, switching it to impact detonation just before I drove the barrel into the gap in the floor. Then, the rifle responded with a pair of healthy kicks as I jerked the trigger twice.

Mixed with a muffled, enraged growl from the hunter-killer, the rounds reported instantly. Miniature plumes of heat and flame erupted around me from the holes and rips in the platform as it trembled violently with each explosion.

Standing again made my right leg burn despite the adrenaline. I grimaced as I limped the short distance to my dropped gauss pistol and snatched it up with my free hand. About twenty meters ahead, an open hallway offered safety from the assailing blades, and I made for it without looking back.

To my surprise, I reached the corridor unhindered, gaining a short, but much needed, lead on the Hunter-Killer. I turned and backpedaled, keeping the entrance in the sights of my C-8 while shifting the other hand to my headset. I could only hope Mr. Linard was listening on the Consolation’s radio as I hit the mic-switch and attempted to get a message through,

"Hey Linard, use my com-link in the ship to get through to Mich! Send some backup down here– this damn thing’s a handful!"

I began to slow down as the radio failed to fill my ears with static when I released the microphone.

"What the..." I mumbled as I peeled the radio off my head and quickly inspected it in the dull light.

The plastic housing for the sending-receiving unit was smashed; probably during my fall. The radio was useless. Of all the occasions that I had wished for something like this, it finally happened at the worst possible time. Now I really was on my own, wether I wanted to be or not.

I slung the headset to the floor in frustration and stopped where the hallway ended at a corner to replace the three shots I fired from my favorite gun. I pulled a pair of fresh charges from slots on my ammo belt, but what happened next nearly made me drop them.

Another furious roar thundered from the reactor chamber down the hall just before those scythes violently reappeared in view of the thresh hold, once more punching up through the catwalk outside. This time, the blades ripped a pair of long, gnarled slashes in the floor before receding again. With frantic fingers, I loaded the new rounds while the powerful hunter-killer curled the grating up and back, forcing its way through the floor.

The metal plating and beam-work of the catwalk groaned and snapped before I slammed the last round home in time to see the overgrown hydralisk haul its bulky frame through the mangled floor. Practically filling the hallway as it barreled up the corridor in my direction, the thing made an easy target as I put the butt of the C-8 to my shoulder and began firing. The grenade launcher thumped, ejected the used cartridge and thumped again as I methodically put the rounds downrange. Lighting the hall with brilliant flashes of churning, yellow flame, the shells hit their target in rapid succession and engulfed the beast in blasts of fire.

When all eight shells were emptied from the rifle, I stopped and watched while the smoke and flame dispersed. Yet, to my surprise, the creature remained standing as the cloud drifted back. The charred, smoldering Hunter-Killer reappeared, bracing with both arms and scythes crossed in front of its face as the ship’s ventilation system drew out the last of the smoke. Somehow, it had blocked my shots.

"...This just hasn’t been my day..." I murmured just before the monster unfolded its arms and stretched them wide again with a vicious, challenging snarl. A pair of barbed spikes whistled by my ear, knifing into the wall when I turned on the scene and bolted around the corner.

Along this hall, multiple doors on the left side offered new paths to take, but each one I came to seemed to be locked tight, as indicated by the flashing red lights above them. I took a second to look over my shoulder as I limped along, and it probably saved my life. In that instant, the Hunter-Killer rounded the corner and stopped, opening its spine cavity once again.

I dove to the floor, just avoiding the poisonous spikes that sailed overhead, but the maneuver made me hiss in pain from my sliced leg. I had to move again; any moment the hunter-killer would adjust it’s aim and pin me to the floor with enough spikes to cripple an armored war-walker, but all the doors on the left were locked. However, I had a stroke of luck. To my right, a single door in the center of the hall displayed a bright green light, and, instead of pin-cushioning me with spines, the Hunter-Killer was rampaging up the hall after me, apparently intent on ripping me apart with its blades.

Using my empty canister rifle for a prop, I spent the last of my lead in throwing myself against the door. I pounded my free palm against the controls and the hatch moved aside with a satisfying hiss of the pneumatics. I practically fell inside, turning over in time to see the oversized hydralisk reach the threshold just before the door slid shut in its face.

I panted heavily as I got to my feet, fumbling with my ammo belt for my last set of C-8 grenades while backing away from the entrance. I stopped short as my backside met a hard surface, and I turned around to find that this room was walled off by a series of thick cables that ran from the floor to the ceiling. I was in a distribution maintenance closet with no way out except the door I came in through.

Without warning, a deafening metallic percussion boomed from the door, leaving a massive dent in the steel hatch. I could only watch in terror as the hunter-killer’s scythes came again, piercing through the metal this time. Panic set in as I watched the door crumple beneath the monster’s blows. Any second, the steel would give away, and I would be cornered by the feral beast, but that’s when I got an idea.

With only seconds left, I flipped the C-8 over my shoulder, jamming it back in it’s holster, and waited for the timing to be right. I would only get one shot at this; if it failed, I would be at the mercy of the Hunter-Killer–as good as dead.

The macabre blades came one last time, and, snarling with exertion, the unreal creature peeled the door out and back. My heart pounded furiously–this was it.

The furious hydralisk squeezed through the entrance and stood glowering before me, raising both scythes to finally crush me. Just as it brought the deadly blades down, I dove for the floor, rolling just under the thing’s arms. Then, the ship seemed to blow up around me.

Hot white light engulfed my vision and a vicious crackle filled my ears. It rose in intensity, cutting across all my senses until something exploded, launching me against the opposite wall of the hallway. The back of my head smashed against a bulkhead, and I briefly recall the lights blinking twice before going out altogether before merciful unconsciousness wrapped it’s painless cloak over my mind.

I came too with blood coating my face and running over one eye. Slowly, I pushed myself off the deck and attempted to wipe it away. Dull red emergency lights offered the only illumination now, and the air was thick with the stench of charred carapace. Groggily, I got to my feet and limped to where my C-8 had landed a few paces away.

Very slowly, I approached the distribution closet again, finding the hunter-killer’s armored tail protruding into the hall. Smoke clogged the little room, but as it dissipated, the zerg’s ruined form gradually became visible again. It lay on it’s backside, impossibly burned and still smoldering, practically filling the confined space where it was sprawled on the deck. The thick power cables were cleaved in the center from it’s misguided attack, some still smoking and sparking as the exposed conduits lay tangled over the body. At last, I was able to lower my weapon and sigh with relief; I had done it.

My heart dropped and I could only watch in horror as the thing writhed on the floor–it wasn’t dead! Enraged, I jerked a pair of cartridges from my belt and fed them into the breach of the C-8. With only a few feet between us, I hefted the weapon and took aim for its face, however, I didn’t pull the trigger.

The weapon trembled in my hands as I watched it’s eyes open just slightly, appearing as a pair of red slits in the shadow. Those eyes seemed to bore into my own, staring at me unblinkingly. It’s breath came slow and ragged, growing shorter and shorter in duration as time dragged by. I shook my head; I couldn’t allow my memories to endanger me again. Finally, I switched the rounds to delayed fragmentation and began to squeeze the trigger.

"...You..."

The single word trickled into my thoughts, just barely on the edge of detection. I didn’t listen to it; my delusional brain had to be playing tricks on me. Nostalgia bubbled up inside me, making my throat ache as I attempted to pull the trigger once more, when the words came again,

"...You...still live..."

I still didn’t believe what my mind was telling me; it couldn’t be–it wasn’t possible! Yet, as if of it’s own accord, my arm let the weapon droop slightly. At last, my heart won out over my instincts that screamed at me to pull the trigger. With a failing voice, I finally stuttered forth with the question that burned like a wildfire,

"B-Bane?"

The creature’s eyes opened slightly wider, but it’s body remained still as the answer slowly came,

"...Reece...you have grown...strong..."

My hand convulsed, letting the weapon clatter to the floor.

"I-It’s you..." I stammered, still in a state of shock, "It’s really you!"

"...Indeed," the wonderful telepathic voice from my memories was alive again, making my knees buckle beneath me.

"..I....I’m..." I choked, the tears suddenly streaming down my face as I realized the lethal damage I had caused.

"...Do not grieve...for me..." the failing telepathic voice quickly grew very faint, draining the life from me as it went.

"NO!!" I screamed, pounding my fists on the deck, "No, Bane! Not like this! I’m sorry! I-I didn’t know!"

I suddenly felt very alone as only the sound of my own sobs filled my thoughts.

"Bane?! BANE!" I screamed at the still form before me, at loss for what to do. In that instant, my mind barked out an answer. I always kept a charged TRA in the Consolation for emergencies.

"Please don’t die, Bane!" I cried as I leapt to my feet, energy suddenly surging through my body, "I’m going to get help!"

 

     I poured the last reserves of my strength into my legs, running harder than I ever had in my life. The sound of my boots pounding on the metal grating echoed hollowly through the Merchant III as I retraced my steps. I reached the metal catwalk and all but threw myself down the ladder. I hit the deck hard and collapsed because of my wounded leg, but I dove back to my feet and sprinted onward.

The rows of containers in the cargo hold flashed by and I slide to a halt on the service lift. I pounded the descend key with my fist repeatedly, cursing the slow hydraulics until the platform was clear of the hull on the bottom side. Without regard, I jumped off the lift before it reached the ground and rolled to absorb the shock from my fall.

The cool night air made my lungs sting as I sprinted the last few yards to the Consolation. Mr. Linard saw me coming and climbed out of the co-pilot hatch, babbling in astonishment,

"R-Reece?! You’re hurt! What happened?"

I growled in frustration, shoved the old man aside and climbed in over the seat. Chaos briefly ensued inside the ship as I tore through the storage compartments in search of the TRA. After a few seconds that seemed like an eternity, I found the healing machine and jerked it from it’s case. The power cells were still at ninety percent. I leapt back out of the door, ignoring the old man’s questions as I ran for the Merchant III with everything I had left.

 

     By the time I reached that hallway again, my legs felt like rubber and my lungs burned from exertion. The red back-up lights were still on as I crashed to a halt in front of the distribution closet again. I panted heavily as I hauled the bulky contraption into position, switched it to automatic bio-detection and jammed the trigger.

The machine hummed for a moment, searching for a life signature to lock to, but, to my horror, it only stopped and buzzed obnoxiously.

"God damn it!" I screamed, cuffing the TRA with my open hand before trying again. Once more, the machine searched and failed.

"...Bane..." I gasped desperately, stubbornly jerking the trigger again. The machine hummed, scanning again, when it suddenly bleeped and it’s light began flashing.

My hands trembled as I watched the healing light strobe over the Hunter-Killer’s motionless body. I held the machine until the power level drained to zero before finally hurling the thing aside. Bane was still severely scorched, showing no signs of life at all.

"...Please..." I choked, feeling the knot reforming in my throat, "PLEASE!"

I was ready to give up and collapse right there; I killed my best friend–I didn’t want to live anymore. Then, ever so slowly, the creatures eyes stirred and opened.

"Bane?" I asked with a failing voice.

At last, the telepathic voice graced my thoughts once again,

"...It is good to see you...my friend..."

 

To Be Continued....