CHAPTER ONE

 Sand and dust everywhere.

The damn stuff gets into everything. Delicate mechanisms quickly fail when faced with such an environment, where the needed filtration is nearly impossible and daily maintenance required. Even the mightiest of land engines cough, sputter, and eventually grind to a halt, brought low before the friction of tiny silica.

Jonathan blinked, his eyelids fluttered reflexively, while the sand storm raged against his goggles. Out there, somewhere in the murky tan landscape, his enemy lurked. He silently hoped that they too struggled as he did. But he knew better. His enemy was born to this place, its climate, and its static electricity storms—like this one, which screwed with communications. They embraced it, became one with it. It was their home.

As a consequence, Jonathan didn’t give himself much of a chance to survive this contract. Many had already been lost trying to do precisely what he was doing—gathering alien technology. And to quote that mathematical savant, “Doing the same thing, over and over again, while expecting different results, is the very definition of madness.”

So, Jonathan decided to do something different, something contrary. Instead of blindly trudging his way this way and that through the storm in search of a random IR-thermal image, he sat down, and quietly dug in like any sensible desert creature would, to get out of this accursed, abrasive wind. He slowly squirmed his long and lean frame ever downward into the pumice-like surface. This mercenary from a water world was greeted by a surprising coolness about a meter down that he counted as a blessing. Now burrowed down to the level of his shoulders, with his weapon and head shrouded as best one could, almost immediately he took on the appearance of a small dune. He settled in for what he believed would be a long wait.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

The enemy’s approach was first felt through the fine medium, first from one, but then from four additional directions.

Crap. There’s five out there.

The gentle thump-scrape-scrunch of thickly callused quadrupedal pads positively identified their maker as a Crux. With segmented bodies and thick exoskeletons, these hunters’ upper parts supported two specialized graspers, delicate and deadly, which held pulse cannons. Directed by a bifurcated nervous system, their senses provided a near 360-degree view of the world. At least, that’s what the scuttlebutt claimed.

Just what they saw, smelled, or heard no one really knew. Yes, they stunk. So, that answered one question. Scent trails played some sort of role in their lives, perhaps in tracking, mating, or kinship. But beyond that, the rumors of telepathic communications were just that—rumors. But Jonathan had another theory about the Crux that seemed to make sense. He strongly believed that they could read surface vibrations through their foot pads as well as any spider on a web.

Crisscrossing ionizing blasts of red and yellow energy ripped through the air, high over his position, but purposefully aimed at a humanoid waist level. Even so, the passage of these errant blasts pummeled him with waves of superheated air and coated his little dune with flecks of molten glass.

Jonathan didn’t return fire against these probing, preliminary overtures. His innate instincts held him firmly in check. He didn’t move either, as one of them had literally stepped right over him. The pheromone stench of its passing, truly gag-worthy, this seasoned veteran fought down, and managed to make not a sound. These five were only forerunners. They represented an operational forward screen for what was to come—his true targets of interest. Maybe this time he would get lucky.

*          *          *

Unsure of what to do next, the forward Crux elements steadily moved on, ever searching for their prey, who today were oddly not cooperating according to their patterned tactics of blind confrontation. Forming a broad protective crescent before their advancing drone leader, the Crux elements worried.

Where were those off-worlders? Why hadn’t they attacked as they had in the past?

Fire several more bolts, their lead thought to his mates. Perhaps that will goad them into revealing themselves.

In response, four overlapping, rippling gouts of energy issued forth into the storm, all generated by the static power of the sand storm’s rage.

Brothers! Stay alert. Something is not right here.

*          *          *

Following the discharge of four plasma reports to his six, Jonathan felt through the sand the approach of something new, something big. He could not put into meaningful words the sensation, just that something was about to pass near his spider hole. Then it came to him, a trudging, plodding, dragging vibration. Adjusting his goggles, a single, large—no check that, huge, IR bloom loomed to his right.

That damn thing must be at least fifty meters long.

It was a massive Crux body supported by two legs instead of four, with a long-segmented tail that helped to balance out the main body with four graspers.

Damn. That thing is carrying four plasma cannons! It’s a fricken’ biologic tank.

And that’s when he saw it. Up to this moment, Jonathan had thought it a myth, the stuff of tavern talk. But there it was, slowly approaching, and now moving parallel to him. On the big guy’s back rode, a small, smooth-bodied version of the Crux forward elements. This one was notable for its six graspers, which held out before it an instrument of some kind. As he watched, the little guy waved the device from side to side as if scanning for something or someone.

I have five shots in the tube. One for the little guy and two for its ride. Okay Jon-boy, it’s time to earn that contract.

Jonathan’s weapon could be best described as a modern self-propelled rifle. Technically, the manual called it an SRL-50, for silent rocket launcher, fifty-millimeter. Originally used for punching big holes in armored objects, Jonathan’s choice of rockets was more of the penetrate, fragment, and explode kind.

His first launch took out the little guy, who conveniently dropped the device that it had been holding in the soft sand. The second and third effectively cut the big guy in half along its mid-segment. Even while so divided and clearly in his death throws, the big guy lit up the area with his plasma cannons. Reflexively, the sniper just snuggled down ever deeper into the sand, and it was good that he did, for the five screening Crux were fast returning to the scene of the crime. No longer on the methodical stalk of prey, this time their returning vibrations carried a sort of panicked and vengeful tremor.

Hunkered down in his spider hole, Jonathan reloaded his SRL-50, fully expecting the muzzle of a Crux plasma cannon to appear above him. Peering through his helmet’s tactic soda straw-like periscope, while the big guy’s tail kept thrashing about, the upper segment, still in obvious agony, was continuing firing in all directions, having not run out of ammo yet. It was a real shit storm. And as luck would have it, full in the fog of pain and war, the big guy took out three of his returning Crux screen companions. Jonathan smiled.

The mercenary emerged from the sand like a wraith, firing a rocket at each of the remaining Crux, exploding them into clouds of organic debris. For good measure, he fired another into the big guy’s upper segment, finally silencing it and its hurricane of plasma fire. Hurrying, as he was absolutely sure other Crux elements were about, he scrambled over to the fallen Crux device, scooped it up, and was amazed at its lightness.

As Jonathan sprinted back to the assault landing area with his prize, his lungs burned with effort. The hair on the back of his head turned to wire, telling in no uncertain terms that he was being pursed with a vengeance. Years of tracking and hunting had taught him to listen to that sixth sense. His legs now began to burn as well with a flood of lactic acid. Running in soft sand will do that. It was then he finally broke out of the sand storm and into the clear. Now was the time to break radio silence.

“Nest!

“This is Hummingbird!

“I have an egg!

Need covering fire!”

Through the residual static Jonathan heard, “We have you on radar. Bogies at your six. About ten of ‘em. Get your ass back here, son.”

“Need fire support!” Jonathan gasped out.

“You’re about to get it! Just keep running!”

Then Nest delivered. The string of concussion blasts threatened to knock Jonathan from his feet. Checking his rear helmet camera, Jonathan saw that Nest had erected a wall of flame and fire behind him.

Such is the career of a mercenary, a societal necessity, best described by the popular euphemism as an “extraordinary facilitator” of tasks, which few were qualified to do.

*          *          *

“Just what the hell is that thing Jonathan recovered?”

The weapon’s specialist, easily turning the squarish device in his hands, didn’t know and said so. “I’m sorry, Commander, but this technology is way over my pay grade.”

“Give it over to me.” Commander Till said with open hands.

“Damn, it’s light. Doesn’t look like aluminum. Maybe titanium. But what bugs me is that it has no obvious openings. How can you load it?”

“Commander,” the weapons’ specialist said, “I don’t think it’s a weapon. More likely, it’s a detection device of some kind.”

“Huh. So how does it work?”

“Beats me, but those two protuberances at the sides probably powers it. They look a whole bunch like their plasma cannon chargers.”

“Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. It needs power to operate. But what the hell does it do?”

“Again, commander, I haven’t a clue. Why don’t you send it up the line for analysis before we accidentally discharge it?”

At that prospect, Till gingerly put the device down on the staff briefing table.

“Good point. I remember what happened to that first joker who got his hands on a Crux plasma cannon. That wasn’t pretty.”

BUY