CHAPTER ONE

Deep in a lush, heavily canopied jungle that no jurisdiction wanted to admit existed, I crept along an animal trail, hoping that it was just that, and not something else’s favorite path. Despite heat that could fry an egg, and humidity that dripped off the canopies above like rain, I was fine in my armored tactical suit, boots, gloves, and sealed helmet. At present, my face plate was in infra-red mode, because of the dense vegetation. As for me, I was near-invisible, unless a water droplet foiled my digitized camo field. Yeah, here my outline flickered in and out a lot, not the best. But the suit did provide three distinct benefits, a vid camera on my right shoulder, small micro-fans, located in the small of my back, that cooled my torso with a network of liquid-filled hoses that leached away the heat, and a drip tube that rested at the corner of my mouth. All I had to do was suck, and I got a mouthful of cool water. And, you’d be absolutely right in thinking that the suit’s manufacturer totally stole the idea from the old vid Dune and its desert still suits.

But for all of their advantages, the armored camo combat suit had one glaring disadvantage: for a hunter like me, once sealed up in the suit, I could not sense the wind direction, and as a consequence, whether I could be scented. This is a big deal and anyone who has hunted knows it.

Back to the here and now.

I stepped quietly along the trail, carefully ducking under and around the giant arching ferns and foliage, while casually flicking away the gargantuan ten-legged spiders that wanted me for a meal. Fortunately, their huge fangs could only click in frustration against my armor. I stepped from rock to rock whenever possible to cancel out my tracks. In my mind, this contract was all about stealthy still-hunting, not deer or elk, like I was used to in the woods of southern Indiana, but a dangerous and highly intelligent quarry. How many were they? Didn’t have a clue. Just the complaint that they had made a load of damage.

For armament, I wore on my right thigh a long sheath and short sword—a small copy of an ancient Roman gladius that I once saw in a museum case back home. On my left hip rested another antique, my trusty 1911-style .45 caliber ACP. It’s extended magazine carried an alternating mix of ball and hollow point rounds. In my arms, I cradled a brand-new assault high energy weapon. Short-framed, but accurate and deadly, the Remington Lightning Four was perfect for close-quarter combat, and this jungle was just that in spades.

My client was a drug baroness, whatever the hell that means. This God-forsaken territory was her potato patch. Why? Is the soil that special? My point is this. Beta Reticuli Four has long been an off-limits ecological preserve, primarily because it is just such a God-awful scary place. Just why anyone would make the effort to cultivate and process on-site their drugs here totally lost me, almost as much as how much under-the-table cash it took to get away with it. Regardless, something, or someone, had moved in and had made a wreck of at least two grows and destroyed a high-tech, open-air, processing laboratory. Yeah, there was a problem. Yes, I was contracted to address it “by the kill.” But since this was after all a pristine and “delicate” ecological preserve, I had to hoof it in and tread lightly, and be oh so careful not to endanger its precious flora and fauna.

But hold on a moment.

My hunter’s sixth sense buzzed. I stopped and froze. Then I noticed it. There was no sound. The entire frickin’ jungle had gone absolutely silent, almost as if a fierce predator had commanded it to do so. On Earth, big cats like tigers, mammoth swamp gators, and woodland sasquatch do that all the time with something called infra-sound. So, I took note. Being a patient guy, I slowly squatted down on the balls of my feet, and waited for something to happen. Why? Because I just knew it would.

That’s when I saw movement ahead. Something big was pushing its way through, swatting away this branch, twisted off that one, relentlessly pushing forward through the tangle, and heading directly toward me, no doubt following along on this trail. I could feel the ground quake with each of its heavy bipedal steps. But I didn’t move a muscle and waited for my chance. Then, nothing. It had stopped its brazen advance. The sounds of distant heavy breathing and snorting came next.

Did it scent me? I suppose that was possible.

Apparently, whatever it was, had, for it rushed forward and before I knew it, this huge four-armed bipedal ape-like thing was practically on top of me. From my low squatting position, I fired up into its hairless groin and mid-torso with two energy bolts at a ridiculously close range. The bolts impacted and burned right through the animal ejecting out its backside handfuls of gray flesh, fluid, bone, sinew, and guts. At close to three meters tall, somehow, it still stood. In clear shock, it looked down at its damage and even fingered the cauterized gaps with its twenty digits. That’s when I fired again, twice, now punching a hole in its upper chest and hitting that ugly head, almost decapitating it. At these impacts, it stumbled backwards, crumpled to its knees, and expired with a moist sigh from its open torso.

Still, I didn’t move a muscle. I waited, because I knew better. And sure enough, the dead one had a friend, who showed up as this huge heat signature on my face plate. The son-of-a-bitch had circled wide to the right in order to parallel the trail that the first ape-like thing had been traveling on. Then, I figured it out.

They’re hunting.

One down the game trail making lots of noise.

The other a flanker to complete the ambush.

It was then that I heard a sharp, quick bark to my right. To me, it sounded like an inquiry, like, “dude, you there?” When its buddy didn’t respond, all went silent again. In my profession, that’s never a good thing. It usually means that the second target was thinking. Fortunately, I still had it on my IR. I knew where it was. But at the moment, the second ape-like thing didn’t know what had happened to its partner, whose body was still kneeling some four meters in front of me.

By the way, jungles are notorious and highly dangerous places, and the high canopies of Beta Reticuli Four were especially “lively”. The kneeling corpse was already being seriously degraded by the various fauna that made the jungle floor their home. Trust me when I say this. I didn’t know which was worse, how disgusting the sight was, or, how frightening the speed of its dismemberment was taking place.

Meanwhile, the “friend” had apparently arrived at a decision. It began quietly working its way in my general direction and the now sagging remains of its companion. Still, I remained as still as death.

When it arrived, the look of grief on its face said it all. My guess was they were mated. That’s when I fired four times, and put it down, this one falling over the top of the other, forming a neat pile in the middle of the game trail.

There you go. Rest in peace, together.

I slowly rose and stepping back away from the carnage. The jungle’s surface before me seemed to almost ripple with fauna rushing to the rich feast.

My work was done, or so I thought.

The next thing I knew I was flying head over heels to my left. My right shoulder took the brunt of the blow and hurt like a bitch, as I landed flat on my back in the tall ferns. My energy weapon was at the end of its safety strap, dangling somewhere between my legs and out of reach. However, I had other issues, my face plate had filled with another huge IR blob, this one with four arms raised above me like sled hammers. I was about to become so much pummeled-to-death jungle fodder, when I reflexively reached over with my left hand, grabbed the short sword’s grip, and made a vicious swing. The closest clenched fist I outright removed. The second half-way.

Stunned at the development, the ape-like thing stopped to survey the damage. Meanwhile, my right hand was up with the .45. I fired ten, point-blank, rounds into its supremely ugly face. It toppled over backwards, and like me, was immediately buried in the ferns.

Shit! That one had four breasts!

A female.

And guess what dumb shit, their hunting party had both sides of the game trail covered!

All of this flashed through my mind as I jumped up, stowed my weapons, and retrieved my energy rifle. And yes, I did a lot of brushing off as well.

No, you little shits.

I’m not quite dead yet.

Now for the nasty part. My contract clearly specified that I had to take genetic samples from each bad guy dropped. That’s how the payout was structured. I accomplished this odd requirement by sticking a pneumatically powered hypo into each of the corpses. These little beauties I carried in a left thigh pocket. I used one for each. That left seven in reserve.

Finished with my genetic harvesting, I reached up and keyed my helmet comm.

“Sled. Find me.” I quietly said, as I continued to survey my hostile surroundings, waiting for my hover sled to show up. But with my adrenalin still at sky-high levels, my brain was still furiously processing.

Intelligent?

No shit!

This was most likely a family group, hunting in a coordinated manner.

But, Peter. What were they hunting?

And that thought worried me, but was lost in the crashing of tree limbs, as my hover sled descended through the canopy directly overhead.

Once on board, strapped in, and sealed up tight, my last thought, as I emerged and slowly rose above the jungle’s canopy.

What a beautiful sight.

All this blue-green vegetation.

I survived…it, and all of its nastinessagain.

BUY