Book: Takeover



Carter: Inland Kublar





Bowie: The Soob







Carter: Inland Kublar







Bowie: The Soob















Bowie: The Soob








Carter: Inland Kublar














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Copyright © 2019

Galaxy’s Edge, LLC

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without the prior written permission of the publisher and copyright owner.

All rights reserved. Version 1.0

Edited by Lauren Moore

Published by Galaxy’s Edge Press

Cover Art: Tommaso Renieri

Cover Design: Beaulistic Book Services

Formatting: Kevin G. Summers



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I’m up to my ankles in dead koobs. And they stink.

Back in the day, when I was still active duty in the Legion, I wouldn’t have noticed. My bucket—that’s what we legionnaires call our helmets—would have filtered this fishy stench right out. But now when I do my shootin’, I get a nice, deep base tan while I’m at it.

So it’s not all bad.

“Yo, man!” calls out Aguilar, a former hullbuster who served with the 1st Republic Marine Division right up until that maniac Goth Sullus declared himself emperor. He’s pulling up his flak jacket over his nose to cover up the smell. “This ain’t what I signed on for, man. I’m here to kill koobs, not work body detail. Big Nee gotta be able to afford bots to do this work.”

“You signed on to do what I tell you to do,” I shout back as I poke a koob airsac that’s swollen to the size of a beach ball with the toe of my boot. It quickly ruptures and spills out a near-congealed ooze of the alien’s phosphorescent yellow blood.

Koobs are a nasty species. Tribal warriors, willing to die for just about anything. Mean. Sneaky. Violent.

They got famous a bunch of years back when a destroyer blew up and then a company of legionnaires were nearly wiped out on planet. Nearly. But since they were leejes, they survived, kicked ass, and got off Kublar just as a civil war erupted. Things have stabilized since then. The Republic came in as soon as it was clear which rival koob tribe was going to win the genocidal war engulfing the planet. Then they started building up the coastal cities.

Kublar was on the fast track to becoming an assimilated Republic world. The hell that happened to Victory Company just an afterthought. A little bump in the road.

Well, now the Republic has fallen and the galaxy is trying to figure out what comes next. But the people in power on Kublar are staying the course. Continuing the vision of Utopion’s executed House of Reason way out here at galaxy’s edge.

But Big Nee, our boss, he has plans of changing all of that. And we’re the paid guns to make sure it happens.

“Yeah, that’s what I signed up for,” Aguilar replies, a half-smile on his face. “So I’m thinkin’ you can just tell us to head back to the truck and wait for some bots, Carter.”

I shake my head and can feel the sweaty ringlets of my hair brushing across the back of my neck. I pull off my ball cap and wipe the sweat from my brow with the back of my forearm, soaking my Legion tattoo in the process.

“Can’t do that, Easy,” I say. “Because I signed up to do what I was told. And I was told this is on us. No bots.”

We call Aguilar Easy mainly because his first name, Elias, starts with an E. Easy-E. It’s catchy. But I guess in this instance, it’s fitting, too.

By now the other men on my team have stopped hoisting up dead koobs and tossing them into the back of the repulsor-powered troop transport truck we rode in on. This little diversion seems to have marked the start of a kaff break. Not that we have any with us.

“Get some water in you,” I tell the guys.

Other than Easy, there are four men on my team.

Lana Romnova, who isn’t a man, but work with me on this. She’s one of the guys. A former basic who’s as good as any medical bot I’ve ever seen and much better with a blaster rifle.

Then we’ve got our other hullbuster, Abers. Team sniper. He was in the middle of carrying the bottom half of a dead koob to the truck while Winters—he never bothered joining the military, long story—holds the corpse underneath the arms.

The two men drop the body unceremoniously onto the Kublaren hardpan and go for their canteens.

“Bots would be nice,” says Abers.

Winters shakes his head. He’s a young kid. Twenty-five at the oldest. The rest of us are closer to forty than twenty. “No. Can’t do bots for something like this.”

“Why not?” asks Easy.

“Can’t do bots,” Winters maintains, as if repeating it will make everyone understand.

I take a drink from my canteen. The Kublaren heat has managed to outperform the thing’s ‘evercool’ technology. But, for a knockoff of the real thing bought at the Soob for a few credits, that’s not so bad. Usually these things run north of one-fifty. For a stinking canteen.

I mean, we get paid really well on this contract. It’s why we’re all here. I got a family to keep fed. But even if I can afford it, I’m not about to drop those kind of credits on a cooler. That’s how people stay broke.

“Dude,” Abers says, talking to Easy across the rows of dead indigs—the indigenous species of this planet, “the kid don’t know. He’s just talkin’ to talk.”

Easy laughs.

“Yeah, I do,” insists Winters. “Bots won’t work.”

“Because why?” asks Lana.

I see the kid hesitate. Almost like he doesn’t know… but something tells me that’s not it. It’s more like he does, only he doesn’t want people to wonder how.


Soon they’re all talking past each other.

The only one still working is Lashley. He’s as big as I am. A little taller. Yeah, and more jacked. If I had to describe him in one word it would relentless. Or muscly. If that’s even a word. The guy actually reminds me of a bot. I couldn’t tell you where he served. He doesn’t talk about it. At least not to me and the squad Big Nee’s execs put me with. But if I had to guess, I’d say Legion.

Lashley is carrying a dead koob over his shoulder like he’s loading a sack of grain onto a freighter. Like it’s part of his workout routine. The corpse’s blood mixes with the blood of all the others the big man has humped over to the truck and stained his tank top yellow as a result.

That’s one thing you might notice out here. The dress code. It’s pretty much whatever you want it to be, which is nice after spending so many years confined to a box. I mean, when it’s time to fight, we’ve got our kits. Armored vests, a few aftermarket suits and helmets—things like that. But now? When we’re at least fifty clicks from the closest koob village cleaning up a battlefield?

Yeah. We can dress however we want.

Abers looks like a Marine stationed on Psydon—old-school unbuttoned olive flak jacket and black boots… pretty sure that’s by design. He’s a bit of a student of history. Lashley looks like he’s ready for deadlift day at the gym. Lana is wearing athletic stretch pants and an old army tee. Winters is decked out in an expensive set of merc armor (without the helmet), and I’m wearing my company Legion tee, cargo fatigues, and ballcap. Oh. And my Bander-Ryn shades.

I know. Expensive. Especially after I went on about how burning up credits on things like that keeps people broke. They’re my one luxury.

Other than my kit back on the truck. But that’s not really a luxury. On Kublar, that’s a necessity. Except all the way out here, fifty clicks from the nearest koob village. We’re supposed to have overwatch somewhere off in the distant mountain range or overhead via stealth drone to warn us of any surprises.

Lashley tosses his koob into the back of the transport truck and then turns, sweat pouring down from his bald dome, which glistens under the sun. He approaches another dead indig and widens his stance like a powerlifter getting ready to tackle the next superset.

“Hey, Lashley!” Easy calls out.

“What?” Lashley grunts out as he hoists the koob over his shoulder, a stream of fluid seeping out of the alien and onto the ground, which greedily drinks it up.

“Kid says that there’s a reason why bots just can’t be doin’ this and we all say he’s talking out of his after-market rear end.”

Lashley adds to the pile in the back of the truck. “So?”

“So we at three-to-one,” Abers fills in. “Carter won’t comment. Gotta be the neutral leader. Give us that clean sweep, baby.”

Something akin to a growl escapes from Lashley as he stoops to pick up another body. But he stops, bent over at the waist, and looks up at the rest of us from one eye, hands on his knees. “Can’t use bots.”

“C’mon, man!” Abers says, waving both hands as though he were disgusted to hear it. “I ain’t tryin’ to hear that.”

“Why not?” Lana asks.

Through it all, she seems to be the only one actually interested in finding out why Winters is so doggedly sticking to his assertion that bots can’t be used on this job. And I’ll admit, the thought’s crossed my mind, too. We get enough PT that we don’t need to come out to the koob desert for more. Bots would have been nice. We’d already be done.

“Bots remember,” Lashley says, and then scoops up another dead koob.

I’m feeling bad that he’s the only one working, so I stow my canteen and cradle my own bundle of stink. The others don’t seem too inspired by this. They’re still talking.

“Bots remember’?” Easy repeats, shaking his head. “So you wipe ’em.”

“No, he’s right,” Winters says, screwing the lid of his canteen back in place. “It’s almost impossible to totally erase a bot’s memory. It takes some serious skill. A good enough slicer can get it out if they have a mind to.”

“Blow ’em up, then!” shouts Abers, as though winning this argument will magically make the bots we don’t have appear to finish the job we’re stuck doing.

Winters shrugs apologetically. “Even then… you just gotta piece together a few fragments of the data crystal.”

Easy snaps his fingers. “Orbital bombardment.”

“Oba’s nose,” I say, using my special leej voice for when I want something done. A mix of disappointed father and half-raging drill instructor. “There’s no fleet up there waiting to send down an orbital strike on some imaginary bots! No bots! You’ve got no bots. But you’re going to have my boot up your ass if you don’t get the rest of these muckas into the truck.”

They get to work picking up bodies again. All except for Lana, who seems to be just sitting there. Thinking.

“Hey, Lana,” Easy calls as he passes by with a dead koob, its arms swinging like some macabre orchestral conductor. “I don’t see you helpin’. Pick up a leg if you can’t lift an entire koob.”

Lana gives a smug, teasing smile. “I’m a medical professional, Aguilar. I’m only here to make sure the Kublarens are dead.”

That’s not technically true. She’s here in case something happens to one of us. And she has been helping. I let it all slide though, because it’s funny.

Abers looks up to the clear blue Kublaren skies, shaking his head at her reply. “Maaaan… ain’t that some sket.”

I dump my koob corpse into the truck and double-time it back to the pile, trying to keep pace with Lashley.

“Hey, Easy,” I say. “Command’s been pretty quiet?”

“Say again, Carter?”

My stomach drops. I know Easy heard me right. “You’ve got your comm in, right?”

Easy straightens up, his blood-stained gloves tentatively reaching for his ear for a comm that isn’t there. “Was that… did you ask… me? Because I thought you said—”

“Kelhorned space rat,” I mumble as I hustle off to the truck. I’m more mad at myself than at him. I should have followed up a while ago. If Command has been trying to reach us and we’ve been silent… not good.

Hopping into the passenger seat of the big truck, I grab my datapad from the windshield to pull it out of the sun. The thing is blazing and all this heat probably drained the battery. I put it in the shade of the glove compartment alongside a neat stack of paper maps, hoping it’s cooled enough to begin its recharge cycle. I was planning on calling the wife and kiddos today.

I push my comm set into my ear and call in to Command.

“Stroke, this is Carter,” I say, still thinking that call signs would be better. But this mercenary army I’m a part of—they seem to like the personal touch. “Reporting in.”

I wait for a reply, hoping it’s not going to be an exec ready to chew my butt for something. The truck door is open and I’m swinging my leg outside. As hot as it is out under the Kublar sun, it’s nothing compared to the inside of this rig when it’s shut off. The cab is an oven. I can feel the sweat drying.

“Carter!” the response finally comes in—it’s not an exec. It’s Brisco. “What the hell, man?”

I stifle a sigh and grit my teeth. Call signs aren’t the only thing missing from this outfit feeling like a Leej-level fighting force. Big Nee has a… unique brand of organizing talent. He’s got former Legion and Marines, Army… navy featherheads, everyone you’d expect in the fighting force. But for other elements, he has no problem plugging in civilians. Like Brisco on the other end of the comm. The closest this guy ever got to serving was playing an FPS sim. But he’s apparently a genius when it comes to comm tech. So he runs the board.

“Yeah. Go for Carter,” I say, trying to get things to the point.

“We’ve been trying to get you on comms for the last twenty minutes.”

“Acknowledged. Go for Carter.”

“Carter, man, what’s going on?”

This time, I can’t hold back my frustration. “Nothing. Just a little comm trouble.”

“Like something technical I need to look at?”

“Like my boots need me to stomp a mudhole in someone and then walk it dry.” I look out the window at Easy. He’s at least busting his butt getting the last of the koobs cleaned up. “We’re just about done. Sorry about not checking in. All is good.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing, man,” Brisco says. “Not for long, Carter. There’s a koob convoy that rolled out of the mountains and our tracking algos say they’re definitely heading your way.”

Great. Just what we needed.

I take a stab at what’s coming. Koobs are predictable. “Bunch of koobs on technicals rolling through the dirt. So… dust ’em. The drone’s got a missile, right?”

“We aren’t sure which tribe this is. Can’t risk upsetting the balance. You know.”

I shake my head. This is another spot where things don’t exactly feel Legion in the private contractor business. Big Nee is running a complex game. Everything is a factor. KTF is applied in limited quantities. And only when boss man is sure that’s what is needed.

“Fine. So we’ll do what we can to finish loading up and get out of sight.”

“Not happening, Carter. I’m surprised you can’t already see the dust cloud. They’re like five minutes away.”

I jump out of the truck. Sure enough, there’s a hazy cloud coming our way from the southwest.

“Get your kits!” I shout to my squad.

It takes them seconds to notice the cloud and rush to the truck, throwing on armor and priming weapons. In less than a minute we’re a fully capable combat team, ready to seriously jack those koobs up.

Assuming that’s what it takes. And that this isn’t just another Battle of Kublar where we get to play the role of Victory Company. Only in miniature. Time will tell.


I really should have called back home earlier.


“We shootin’?” Abers asks.

He’s already got some unlucky koob lined up in his sights. The discipline of snipers has always impressed me. The way Abers can lie perfectly still on the super-heated roof of the truck…

That’s not for me. I like to get in close. Remember how I said I’m willing to drop credits on my kit? Well, most of that goes to Mel S. She’s my shotgun, a special piece of mayhem I picked up at a Night Market toward the end of my time in the Legion. Well, until I re-upped to help Legion Commander Chhun drop Utopion. But that was more of a volunteer thing.

Mel S.—as opposed to Mel R., my rifle—is a combination ion blaster and slug thrower. It hurls big ol’ .70 cal turbined sabot slugs that bust through just about anything organic or machine. Great for killing biologics and even better for killing bots.

Plus, the thing has that sexy intimidation factor that makes people think twice about going a round with you. That’s what I’m hoping happens when these koobs come to town.

“Negative, Abers,” I call out, hoisting Mel S. onto my shoulder. “Control wants us to stand by in case these koobs are the ones we’re trying to make friends with.”

“Trying to make friends with any koobs is a bad idea,” Easy mumbles, holding his N-6 at the ready.

Lana has a sweet-looking sub-machine blaster. It’s light and easy on the charge pack. Great up close. Lousy for anything at range. I hear her say, “And yet here we are…”

Here we are. Five humans on a world notorious for hating everything that isn’t Kublaren. But from what I can gather, it’s that ingrained hatred for all the other species in the galaxy that Big Nee is looking to take advantage of.

Most koobs’ll tell you they only want to be left alone. Seeing one off Kublar is rare, though it’s gotten more common as the coastal cities controlled by the Pashta’k tribe have gotten more Republicized (is that a word?) in the years since the Koob Civil War.

Those big-city koobs are getting a taste for credits and the Republic’s standard of living. And all the trouble that comes with it.

“Wisdom of buddying up with the koobs aside,” I say, “let’s stay frosty and be ready to KTF if it comes down to that.”

The koob convoy keeps rolling forward. I can see the sun’s glint off the windshields. There’s a mounted .50 cal machine gun on the back of the thing, but no one seems to be on it at the moment. I count five trucks in all.

I’m really hoping Command identifies these guys, finds out they’re from some other, less important tribe, and then sends a missile into the middle of the column.

I’m hoping. But it ain’t happening.

“Why we gotta KTF, man?” Abers says from the top of the truck.

“Yeah,” Easy chimes in. “You’re the only legionnaire here. Lana is a basic—”

“Army,” interrupted Lana. “And my unit folded into the New Legion, thank you very much. So technically—”

“Still a basic,” Abers calls out from behind his scope. “The kid ain’t nothin’. Just a trust fund and a bunch of tactical training. No heart.”

“I got plenty heart,” Winters says. “I just wasn’t dumb enough to join the military, is all.”

“Ha!” Abers laughs. “And Lashley—man, what are you, Lashley?”

Everyone waits to see if the big man is willing to divulge his secrets. But he only grunts, holding onto his SAB as though it were as light as a simulation prop. I knew leejes who kept arm augments in their armor to hoist those things around.

Not Lashley. I think he could shoot two at the same time.

He’s gotta be Legion, right? Who else would be so hardcore?

“Button it up, guys,” I say. The convoy is getting close enough that I want everyone alert and only talking through the comms if it relates to the situation at hand. That doesn’t stop me from getting the final word in. “Stay frosty. KTF. Or, whatever inspirational phrase you hullbusters have. ‘Save me some crayons,’ I dunno.”

“You son-of-a—” Abers starts to say before the lead koob truck starts laying on its horn.

Lana steps up next to me. “Do they want us to get out of the way… or?”

I shrug my shoulders and stand my ground along with Lana up front. Koobs don’t much care if you’re male or female, unlike the zhee. But they do watch intently for signs of weakness.

We look anything but. Lana and I are doing what we can to show we’re good with a little parlay unless they’d prefer getting shot, and Abers’s gun is impossible to miss. Winters, Easy, and Lashley are armed to the ears and set up conspicuously around the truck, ready to use it for cover.

The koob trucks all come to a grinding halt, sending up a cloud of dust. Only two of them are mounted with machine guns, and neither are manned. Or koobed—if that’s even a word.

“Soft contact with the koob force,” I whisper into my comm for Command to hear.

“Yeah, we see it. Still don’t know who they are. Those trucks have any markings?”

The koobs are just sitting inside their trucks, watching. Engines humming.

“Negative,” I say.

“Well, try to find out what tribe they’re from.”

I try to blow out some Kublar dust from my nostrils. “Roger.”

Finally, the passenger side door of the third truck in the column swings open and out steps a koob wearing their traditional robes. He’s more of a mottled brown color, an elder. Probably not the Elder of the tribe, but most likely the one I’ll have to do the talking with.

I wait as the rest of the doors open up and more koobs step out. They’re mostly armed with Savage-era tech. Slug-throwing machine guns and rifles. That’s really all that’s left from that war that can be used by a species lacking a way to re-power the energy weapons. Still can be deadly, though.

A few of them have beat up–looking Republic weapons. And I wonder if those came from the cities, the MCR back in the day, or as salvage from the Battle of Kublar. I try to keep my cool at the thought. Kublar is a… touchy subject for us leejes. Even if we’re no longer active duty.

Kika,” I say, pretty much exhausting my limited Kublaren vocabulary with the abbreviated greeting. About all else I know is “show me your hands,” “get down,” “which way?” and “don’t move.”

None of those are terribly useful unless I’m clearing a building. But then, the expectation was that I’d be doing more of that and less of this. Whatever this is.

Kik ke kakay,” responds the frog-like koob elder, his eyes swiveling around as the rest of his warriors gather around him near the trucks. “We may speak Standard. Visit is to you, not you to my tribe.”

I nod. That’s a relief. I see if I can get the info Command wants right off of the starting line. “What tribe are you from, Elder… ?”

“Skagga.” The koob looks around, his purple airsac rapidly inflating as his bulging eyes fall on the contents of the truck. “What tribe is these big die?”

I turn and look at the mound of bodies, not knowing the answer. Desert flies have found the feast and are starting to concentrate over the corpses. Thankfully, Command is listening in and supplies me the answer. Well, an answer anyway.

“Tell him they’re your allies,” Brisco says into my comm. “Members of tribe Innik.”

“These are from tribe Innik,” I say, doing my best to look solemn. “We were assisting them but these were ambushed by zhee marauders. We are to return them to their village.”

All the koobs start inflating their airsacs rapidly at the naming of the zhee. That’s the body language of excitement for their species. The repeated licking of their eyes tips off that the excitement is mixed with anger. Probably about the zhee, but these tribes have some deep rivalries. So it could be about me naming Innik just as well.

Innik, small tribe,” Skagga says.

I notice the elder wiggling his three long fingers, seeking to soothe his tribal warriors.

“Small tribe now, but zhee-kaharak bring big die to many tribes.”

He’s not wrong about that. Since those first junk freighters crash-landed on the planet, the zhee colonists have been steadily expanding their territory and waging small-scale war with the inland tribes. It’s a different story on the coasts, where the former Republic government still has some sway. But out here, it’s open conflict almost every day.

“Well,” I say, half-turning to look at my men. “We’ll need to speed out before the sun really gets cooking.”

I turn and nod at Lana. “She’s a doctor. If any of you need assistance, she has her medical kit with her and would help in the name of friendship.”

Skagga nods, pantomiming the humanoid acknowledgement for our benefit. “This tribe-ah, is strong.”

His koob soldiers croak and click in agreement.

I smile. “Then… the winds brought us to this moment, may the winds send you safely on.”

That’s a Standard translation of an old koob parting phrase. Hopefully it’s not lost on these visitors.

The koobs begin croaking and clicking in their own language, and I can see that the elder is taking in whatever it is they’re talking about. He finally holds up a slim, knobby hand and silences his gallery of rough and tumble tribal warriors.


At Skagga’s command, one of his warriors runs up to his side in that odd, half-lope, half-hop run that the Kublarens do.

Skagga looks at me. “Maybe this one look in-ah you trucka? Innik tribe known to us. Sometime kin. This one look for Kublakaren hatch-kin.”

I don’t really see a way I can refuse without causing some trouble, so I step aside and gesture for the warrior to go ahead. Just because I can’t tell one koob from another doesn’t mean it’s the same for them. Hopefully Command wasn’t just making something up for me to offer to Skagga when they gave me a tribe name.

The koob warrior hops on by, his beat-up N-4 blaster rifle held at the low ready. The thing looks like it passed up its life expectancy about a hundred charge packs ago.

There’s a tension in the air right now. Like all the pleasantries between me and Skagga come down to whatever determination is made in the back of that truck. I know my guys are ready to KTF—or whatever they want to call it—and I can see from their posture that they’re ready to start shooting at a moment’s notice. Their arms are still aimed down or at the side, but they’re held close enough that it would be one clean motion to get them up into firing position. Or they could fire from the hip with a little spray and pray even faster.

I watch as one koob tries to sneak his way toward the back of one of their trucks. Probably positioning himself to get on the technical if things boil over.

“Don’t worry, Carter,” says Easy over the comms. “I see that koob. He’ll be the first one I drop if this gets real.”

I make a small popping sound with my lips to let him know I copy.

The koob warrior is rummaging around the back of the truck for a while before he climbs back out on hands and knees and hops back down to the dust.

Innik Kublakaren,” he says, and while I don’t speak koob, it’s clear enough that he just confirmed what I’d said previously.

Good job, Brisco. That could have been a lot messier.

“Everything all right?” I ask Skagga.

The Kublaren elder licks his eyes. “Yes. Big die for Innik. No kin of Kepka.”

And with that, the koobs all get back into their trucks and fire up the engines, carefully rolling around us and our truck.

Brisco is back in my ear. “I heard tribe ‘Kepka’. Can you confirm.”

“Affirmative,” I answer.

And then Brisco is on the squad-wide comms. “Terminate those koobs. Don’t let one of them escape.”

Now, we’re paid a substantial salary to do as we’re told. Call us mercs, call us private contractors, but most of us are out here for the money. Or at least I am. There’s no way I could make what I’m making in a year in the civilian world, let alone the Legion.

But there is still a part of me that wants to ask why. Because everything we’re doing is pretty much a mystery. We kill some koobs but not others. I don’t know why. We dust just about every zhee band we come across—that’s a no-brainer. We gather up a bunch of dead koobs killed by who-the-hell-knows and I have no idea why. And now this.

There isn’t any chance for me to voice my curiosity, though. And if there were, it would have been stupid of me to do so. That’s not what they pay me for.

The blaster fire that issues in response to the order from Command is almost instantaneous. Bolt after bolt slams into the caravan of technical trucks, crashing through glass and causing the koobs inside to dance spasmodically in a rave of pain-wracked flailing as their flesh is cooked from the bolts’ heat and torn from the force of the blasts hitting them at range.

Lashley sweeps his SAB across the entire column, doing as much damage to the truck’s ability to get away as he is to the koobs inside. Every time Abers shoots, he blows a fist-sized hole through his target and everything behind it. Lana is already changing charge packs on her sub-compact, and Easy’s moving from target to target like a true rifleman.

Still, some koobs spill from the doors, seeking to put up some resistance. I figure that’s about their only hope, since there’s no way they’ll be able to run across all this desert.

One of them raises an old slug-throwing machine gun with a wooden stock. I send an ionic shotgun blast into him that blows out his chest cavity, sending a spray of phosphorescent yellow blood splattering across the dusty white truck behind him.

Mel S. keeps booming and the koobs keep dropping.

Until it’s all finished. And there’s no more movement and we know—instinctively—that all of these kelhorns are long expired. I don’t even need to give an order. We all just stop, one by one.

“Hot momma,” Brisco says into my comm. “I saw the whole thing from the drone feed. You look like a kelhorned action movie star, Carter.”

“How’s the pay in showbiz?” I ask.

“They only want people who pretend to be legionnaires, Carter. Stick with Nilo for the big credits.”

“Copy.” I look over my shoulder to double-check on my team. The koobs didn’t get any shots off that I’m aware of, but you never know until you know. “How’s everybody? You good?”

“I could deal with a whole lot more than that,” Easy says in reply. “All good here, Carter.”

“I’m good,” Abers says. “Don’t tell me a Marine can’t hang with the Legion.”

I won’t tell him, but, no, a Marine can’t hang with a leej. That’s just science.

“Good,” mutters Lashley.

“I’m going to check for survivors,” Lana says, keeping her little subcompact repeating blaster ready.

“Easy, go with her,” I order.


The two begin moving from truck to truck. And though I doubt anyone would have survived, I keep my eyes open just in case a sneaky koob kept breathing by hugging the floor and getting lucky.

Abers is standing on the top of our truck’s cab. “So what’re we supposed to do with these koobs?”

“Command,” I say into my comm. “What’s the word on the new body count?”

“Yeah,” Brisco says, as though he were just finishing something up before getting to me. “We’re gonna need you to pile these koobs into the truck as well.”

“Not much of them left, Command.”

“Well… that means they’ll be easier to pick up, right?”

I want to argue. It was what happened in the intensity of the firefight that we were selected for. Not the cleanup. I feel like a basic doing all this. But… the pay is good. And I’ve got a family to support. And then Melanie—my wife—we need this to work out.

“Roger. We’ll get ’em loaded up and then speed back in to staging.”

I can hear Abers swearing somewhere behind me. He overheard what’s coming next.

“Yeah, Carter,” Brisco says from the Command comm room. “That’s probably in flux, too. Check the northwest.”

I move around the truck to get a better view of what he’s talking about. There’s another dust cloud heading my way. Smaller.

“More koobs?” I ask, my adrenaline spiking for another potential showdown. There’s no way we don’t start off fighting if these new koobs roll up seeing a line of shot up trucks with fresh blood spilling out.

“Dude. You wish it was koobs.”

I pull out my macros. It’s just one vehicle. Black. Still shining despite the patina of Kublaren dust.

“I see. Carter out.”

I let out a heavy sigh.

“Guys, we’ve got a visitor from the exec board. I’ll give you one guess.”

Easy answers first. “Don’t tell me it’s Surber.”

I tell him anyway, and listen quietly as everyone swears and kicks dirt. I’ve yet to meet anyone on Kublar who likes Surber.

“Let’s get busy for when he arrives,” I say. “Start loading up these koobs into the truck.”

Begrudgingly, they get to work.

I open the door to the truck that now serves as Skagga’s coffin. He’s leaning back in the passenger seat, one eye still bulging, the other shot out. His blood is pooling on the floorboards. I grab his arm to pull him out of the rig and hear the muscles tear as it rips off into my hands.

I’m just standing there, holding the severed arm and watching as more of that neon yellow blood pours from Skagga’s side. I drop the arm and put my hands on my hips.

This job pays really well.

Ah. Who am I kidding? This sucks.


We’ve got all but one truck cleaned out by the time Surber arrives. But we had to sweat like a doro in heat to get it done.

I don’t think this fishy koob-stink is coming off my hands anytime soon, either. And my gloves… forget about it. They’re soaked in koob blood to the point of saturation. I always cut off the end of the glove that covers my index finger because I like to feel the trigger when I squeeze on it. Now that finger looks permanently stained yellow in every fold of skin. My nails are dirty on top and underneath, a mix of Kublaren dust and dried alien blood forming a sort of crust of nastiness.

We all straighten our stiff backs when Surber’s luxury sled—gleaming black with tan accents from all the dust on the nose and lower carriage—speeds in to our midst. The repulsors flare as the sled comes to a stop, coating my sweat-drenched skin with the fine, inescapable, and ever-present Kublaren dirt.

Easy begins a slightly exaggerated cough as he fans the air in front of his face, sending the dust cloud swirling.

The saliva in my mouth seems to turn to gritty paste and I spit it out onto the unquenchable hardpan at my feet. It’s been drinking up koob blood all morning, and still wants more.

A hiss sounds from the sled, and its two rear doors flip open like an eagle stretching out its wings. A man in a luxuriously tailored black suit with a white shirt and coral tie steps out. He’s holding a slim, black leather briefcase.

Always that briefcase.

His hair is slicked back and shines beneath the Kublar sun overhead. His expression is hidden behind a pair of silvene-framed sunglasses.


He adjusts his jacket with a roll of his shoulders and then tugs on his cuffs to straighten his sleeves. Behind him his two bodyguards—Errol and Wick—step out of the vehicle. They’re slightly less dressy than their boss, wearing black jeans and a polo shirt under a black leather jacket, but that’s far fancier than anything else you’ll find this far inland. Each man is carrying a modified N-4 rifle.

“Mr. Carter,” Surber says as he walks toward me, holding out his hand. “Nice work today.”

I hold up my hand to show the wine I’ve made from crushing koobs all this time. He nods and drops his arm, and then looks along the column.

“Nice work… although I’m a little surprised you haven’t managed to clear out all the vehicles.”

I pull off my ballcap and wipe my brow with the back of my forearm. “Yeah. It’s hot. Another five minutes and we’re golden.”

His face expressionless, Surber says, “In five minutes we’re already moving.”

He snaps his fingers and calls for one of his bodyguards, not bothering to look over his shoulder at the man. “Errol.”

The guard stoops down into the sled and mumbles something to the driver. A moment later the trunk opens. Errol goes around and pulls out a small shipping box. He brings it to Surber.

“What’s this?” I ask.

Surber smiles. Not in the friendly way, more like he’s amused at what he’s going to say next.

“Can’t wait to open your presents, Carter?” He looks around at my crew. “Patience is a reward all in itself. Wear these.”

Surber digs into the box and begins to toss what looks like silk clothing at each of us. I catch mine against my chest. Easy, Abers, and Lashley just let it hit the dirt as a rumpled pile.

Winters unrolls his and holds it out. “Koob clothing?” he asks.

Surber nods and then pulls out his own Kublaren robe and begins to put it on. It looks more than a little ridiculous hanging loosely around his suit.

Lana is still examining her robe. “All due respect, Mr. Surber, but you can’t believe that this is going to allow us to pass as Kublarens.”

“Of course not, Miss Romnova.” Surber looks around. No one else has moved. “Put them on. Hurry up.”

“Man,” Abers says, disgust evident in his voice. “I came out here to shoot koobs, not dress like them.”

Easy is already pulling his robe over his head, as is Winters and Lana. But he stops and brings his arms back down, the robe wrapped around them.

“C’mon, man,” Easy implores his fellow Marine. “Just embrace the suck and let’s do this.”

“Nah,” Abers says, shaking his head. “I didn’t sign up for crap like this. Find someone else, Surber.”

He tosses the robe back towards the man. It’s intercepted by Wick before it has a chance to fall at Surber’s feet.

I haven’t put mine on yet; it’s rolled up, ready to go over my head. But I freeze just like everyone else when I see what Abers did. I can’t really envision a scenario where this ends well.

Surber claps his man Wick on the shoulder, apparently commending him for the catch. Then he walks straight to me.

“Difficult group you have here, Carter.”

I shake my head. “Sir, it’s not that. It’s just—”

Surber turns.

“Elias Aguilar,” he says. Walking towards Easy. “Republic Marine for eight years. Multiple combat citations for valor. Even a Senate Star—back when there was still a Senate.”

Easy doesn’t say anything. I can see that he’s clamped his jaw shut. Just to make sure.

“Mr. Nilo understands why you left the Marines—things were going down hill rather swiftly once the Legion initiated Article Nineteen. But all things considered, you probably should have stayed in.”

Surber gets right in Easy’s face.

“Currently in debt to the ownership group at New Cassio Royale for three hundred and sixty-six thousand credits. With interest compounding daily. Mr. Nilo has generously negotiated a buyout on your behalf in exchange for your skills, Mr. Aguilar. But that investment is only as good as your word.”

Surber looks Easy up and down. “Finish putting on the robe.”

“Yes, sir,” Easy says. Quietly.

I can feel the sense of shame he feels from having his secrets outed like this. I had no idea. Probably no one else did either, except maybe for Abers.

Surber skips past Winters and approaches Lana.

“Miss Romnova…”

“Spare me,” Lana says. “I’ve already put it on.”

Surber leans in to whisper in her ear and says just loud enough for us to hear, “And we both know why that’s a good idea, now don’t we?”

“Mr. Abers,” Surber says, wheeling around on the Marine who kicked this little power trip of his off. Not that I don’t understand why he’s doing it. I just would have taken a different approach if it were up to me. “Lee. Or maybe I should call you by one of your other aliases?”

Abers, looks down. A mix of worry and anger knitted across his brow.

“Republic Marine for five years and then… an OTH discharge. Which wasn’t what was promised, was it? But it was better than what could have come out of a court-martial.”

“I got you, sir,” Abers says, a definite edge in his voice. “I’ll put it on.”

“You’re damn right you will,” Surber says. But then, for some reason, he keeps going. “Mix in with the Guild within two months of release. Those scout sniper awards ended up useful for something, didn’t they? Built a solid portfolio but… you couldn’t help yourself. Went off contract. Lost the Guild’s protection. And now you’re wanted in five systems with a fifty thousand credit bounty on your head.”

“Sir,” I try to interject, but Surber continues.

“Mr. Nilo paid that bounty on your behalf when you were trapped like a doro in a kennel. And while you’re free to leave at any time should this… job become something other than what you ‘signed up for,’ we would expect to be reimbursed for our initial investments. Which would mean taking you directly to the nearest guild marshal in exchange for that bounty. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Abers mumbles.

“Good,” Surber says. He straightens up and speaks louder, as if he doesn’t know that we could already hear every word. Just power games. “I want to make another thing clear. What Mr. Nilo is doing on Kublar is nothing short of revolutionary. The fall of the Republic on Utopion will usher in a new age in the galaxy and we are all poised to make that happen. For the betterment of everyone. You are important pieces of this, but only in as much as you’re willing to do what is needed to achieve our goals. Mr. Nilo doesn’t ask that you see the big picture, just that you know there is one, and that what you’re asked to do—whether it’s a combat operation or putting on some koob garments—is a part of achieving that goal.”

“Yes, sir,” we all mumble. All except Lashley, who’s just holding his robe in a balled up fist.

Surber walks right by him and visits me again.

“Well, Carter, we’re going to have to hurry up if we’re going to be rolling when I said we needed to be.”

“Let’s put ’em on and get into the truck!” I shout.

Surber nods, a flat smile on his face. “And Carter, don’t make me have to do something like this again.”

He’s whispering, sparing me the embarrassment. I guess that’s welcome enough. It’s him not wanting to cut my balls off in front of my team.

“You need this job. Up to your eyeballs in debt, a marriage on the rocks, kids in private school, a house you can’t afford, and a nice, new family speeder parked in the driveway that’s always one bad decision away from repossession. And what will the neighbors in that exclusive little gated community you’ve set your family up in think when the tow sleds show up? And how will your wife handle the shame of that?”

I just stare at the man. But really, I’m looking at myself. Literally and figuratively. I can see my reflection in those black shades. And I’ve got no one to argue with and no one to answer to but myself. I made this. I thought everything Surber just named was what would fix all Mel and mine’s problems.

And now I’m too deep to back out. It would ruin what chances I have at working things out with Mel. It would disrupt my kids’ lives.

It is what it is.

“Understood, Mr. Surber.”

“I know.” He turns and steps back inside his speeder, pausing as his two bodyguards—dressed in their own koob robes—wait at the door for him to step inside. “You’ll all follow me.”

“How about these trucks, sir?” I ask.

“We’ll arrange cleanup from Command.”

I nod and then circle my finger in the air. “Figure out who’s driving in the cab and who’s bouncing on the cargo.”

Lana and Easy make directly for the cab, which means I’ll be in the back with the dead bodies for the trip. I don’t mind that, really. It’s not gonna make me smell any worse and I’ll have more room to stretch out.

Abers stands, watching Lana and Easy jump up into the cab. “That’s it? No discussion? No debate? I gotta ride with nasty-ass dead koobs?”

Our sniper follows Easy, who’s standing outside as his Marine buddy hops into the passenger side of the cab, leaving Lana to drive.

“Hey!” Abers says, a smile on his face. “How ‘bout we bet on it, Easy? Rock, datapad, lasers? That’s right up your alley, ain’t it?”

Easy slams the door and sticks his fist out the window, one prominent finger raised.

As Abers and Winters climb into the back of the truck, I approach Lashley. He’s just now putting on his robe, which seems way too small for his barrel chest and frame.

“So how come Surber didn’t bust your chops?”

Lashley rolls his shoulders and picks up his SAB again. “Man ain’t got nothin’ on me. I wanted to be here.”


It’s surprisingly comfortable to ride through the desert on a throne of your vanquished foes. I can’t believe it took me this many years to find out. Seems like things like this would have been part of Legion orientation when I was first assigned to the 42nd.

Stench aside, those guys don’t know what they’re missing. Actually, if I had a bucket on with filters running, this would be pretty sweet. As it stands, it’s enough that Winters is asking for a capture of the guys riding dirty in the back of the truck.

“I’ll take the holo,” I say, grabbing Winters’s datapad from his hand before he can answer.

He, Abers, and even Lashley pose at the height of the pile, right up next to the cab. I can see Lana and Easy through the windshield, so it’s a pretty good group shot. Easy makes sure to flip me off as I start the holo-recording.

This may seem a little macabre. And in truth, it is. Which is why I made sure not to be in the holo. Those things always seem to have a way of catching up with you, and I intend on having a life after all this.

But I did take the holo.

I did take the holo.

“I’m gonna see if I can get a connection with the missus,” I say, tossing the datapad back to Winters. I move to the end of the truck bed, close enough to the gate that the moving sun is flooding in underneath the synthweave fabric canopy over us. “And I swear to Oba, if any of you interrupt me if I get a solid link, I will bury you beneath the pile until you’re marinated in koob blood, and sell you to the donks as a meat stick at the nearest bazaar.”

“Rog, Carter.”

I sit down, my back facing the team and the desert in front of me. The shot-up caravan of white koob trucks we dispatched is shrinking in the distance as we roll. But the desert is flat, and you can see for miles. This view may not change for a while.

“I feel like we should have put these robes on after the ride,” Winters opines. “Seems kind of counterproductive to get all dressed up only to soak ourselves in gore.”

I hold up a finger and half-turn to face the man. “No. See… that’s what I’m talking about. No. Don’t do that. No conversation starters. I need you to shut up.”

“All right,” Winters says, holding his hands out and then pulling something up on his own datapad. “Sorry I said anything. It can wait. Still a bad idea, though. Surber should know better.”

“Surber speaks for Big Nee,” I remind the team. “And so if he says it, good or bad needs to go out the window. We do it. Unless it’s gonna get us needlessly killed.”

“Disagree,” Winters said, before hastily adding, “But! Not looking to keep you, sir.”

Abers drives an elbow into the kid. “Keep it clamped, son. Carter ain’t talked to his wife in a while. That’s toxic on a relationship, man.” He turns to me. “We’re pulling for your marriage, sir.”

“Your concern is touching,” I say as I navigate through comm channels, hoping to find the lucky winner that will get me through.

Kublar has changed a lot since Victory Company was murdifying (not a word, but oh well) the koobs. The atmospheric communication troubles have significantly abated through an influx of planetary comm stations and corresponding satellites. But most of these are along the coastline, so things still get a little spotty when you’re inland like us. And the mountains and valleys… well, you’re pretty much cut off beyond line-of-sight comm-to-comm efforts.

“I never got married,” Lashley says.

I want to nip this conversation in the bud, too. But it’s rare to hear anything from Lashley. And while I never imagined the big man to have a wife—or even a mother, for that matter—I’m piqued. Plus, Lash is not the kind of guy you want to tell to shut up.

Or at least not the type I want to.

We all wait to see if he’s going to elaborate, but after several seconds pass, it’s clear that those four words are all we’re getting on the subject.

Outside, a pair of featherless bird-things are following the truck, high in the currents of the air. Scavengers with black heads and brown bodies, using leathery, membrane-like wings to glide after us. I take a holo of them to send to the kids. They used to really like it when I sent them pictures of all the exotic animals and plants I saw firsthand courtesy of the Legion. Never saw a tyrannasquid, though. No matter how much they begged me to find one.

Miraculously, my datapad gets a connection. I wait, careful to keep the holocam pointing up at my face—even if it means a close-up of my nostrils—rather than the koob bodies all around me.

Melanie answers and I hear the audio switch to the comm in my ear.


“Hey, babe.”

“Oba’s nose, Carter, are you okay?”

She sounds concerned. Really worried. In a way it’s refreshing to hear the care in her voice. But it’s also a bit confusing. I look at the mini-image of myself and see that I must have smeared koob-blood all over my forehead when I wiped my brow. Between that and the dust, I look pretty rough.

“Oh. I’m fine, babe. That’s nothing. Just some… fluid from a job.”

I hear Abers snicker in the background.

“Carter… where are you?”

I frown. “You know I can’t tell you that. You shouldn’t even ask, Mel.”

There’s an uncomfortable silence. And I wonder at it. At why I can’t think of anything to say to the woman I love. We used to talk for hours on end before we were married. Ending the comm transmission back then was akin to torture. And when I was in Legion training, she sent me more holos than I had time to even listen to.

But now…

“How’re the girls?”

Mel bites her lip, and then her expression turns into one of frustration.

“Your oldest got suspended for skipping class.”

“Why was Tria skipping school?”

Mel sighs. “She was making out with a boy in the janitor’s closet.”

“What the hell?” I explode in a controlled whisper, hopeful that the guys at the back of the truck don’t hear it. Visions of a visit to my gun safe and then to this little pissant’s house flash before my eyes. But I’m millions of miles away. So I lash out at Mel instead. “Seriously, Mel! What the hell? Get that kid under control!”

“Don’t put that on me, Carter!”

Here we go.

“She needs you here, right now. So does Annikah. The girls need a father in their lives.”

“Listen, Mel, I would love to be home right now. You know that.” I look around, so frustrated that I feel like chucking my datapad off the back of the truck. “But we don’t have a home or anything if I’m not working. And even with the restructures in place, Legion pay doesn’t come close to what I’m getting now.”

The comm in my ear beeps. Not the urgent tone so I ignore it.

“Carter, what’s the good of all this if we never get to see you? To have you in our lives?”

“Mel, we’ve been through this—”

My sentence is cut off at the sight of a brilliant explosion and subsequent boom erupting in the distance. I have a nice view of exactly what Surber meant when he said Command would send in someone to clean up the remaining koobs and their vehicles.

Two spawn-fire missiles slammed into the scene of our handiwork almost as soon as we were clear of danger. I can make out balls of flames and trucks jumping in the air, only to land absolutely consumed by fire.

“I gotta go,” is all I say to Mel.

She manages to stutter out, “Carter, is everything—” before I kill the connection and power off the datapad.

This conversation was probably a mistake. But I didn’t know what to expect from dressing up in koob clothing, and I already had to take down a tribal elder and his fighters riding up on us in technicals once today. Guess I didn’t want to miss what might be my last opportunity to talk to home for a while.

But it was a bad call. I tilt my head back and let it thud against the enclosed wall of the truck bed.

“That’s why I never got married,” says Lashley.

The guys next to him immediately bust up laughing. I start to chuckle, too. Times like this, that kind of advice makes a lot of sense. At least for a guy like me.

“Holy sket,” Abers says, shaking his head as he smiles at the big man. “You’re startin’ to come around, Lash.”

But Lashley is done talking again. He stares past me, eyes fixed on the inferno swirling around the destroyed koob vehicle column.

I feel like that’s where his soul is at. In the middle of the chaos; that’s where he always wants to be. The money is just a bonus.

“Look alert,” Brisco chimes into my comm. “That little boomy-boomy is probably gonna draw the attention of some zhee we’ve been monitoring on the other side of that pass to the northeast of your location.”

“Copy,” I say, and then turn on my team comm so Easy and Lana can hear me as well. “Command says watch for zhee out of the northeast.”

My guys start going over their kits, pushing aside their robes to get at charge packs and fraggers. Abers moves forward across the pile of dead koobs and begins to rearrange the corpses.

“Get me a nice flat surface, just in case,” he says.

We drive for a while, seeing nothing but the passing desert and distant rocks leading up to a small outcropping of mountains with a winding pass through a box canyon. And then I catch a glint of something metallic in the distance.

I pull out my macros and search for what caused the glare, almost maxing the zoom before I see what look like hover bikes skimming above the Kublar soil at high speed. I tag the location and send it to Command.

“I’ve got visuals on approximately nine hover bikes coming out of the northeast,” I say.

“Copy that,” answers Brisco. Which is better than the usual acknowledgements I get, like “yeah” or “mmhmm.”

I keep looking, and soon the distinctive features of the zhee—the blunted equine-like noses, pointed ears, and claw-like hooves gripping the throttles—are clear enough. “Confirmed zhee riders.”

“Yep. That’s them.”

Brisco’s flirtation with proper comm procedures is over almost as soon as it started.

“They’re coming after us, Command. Requesting close air support.”

“Sorry, Carter. I had two missiles on that observation bot and I used ’em both to blow the trucks. Figured I’d better keep visuals on you than bring it back in for a rearming, ya know?”

“Copy. We’ll handle. Carter out.”

If there’s a breakdown in this little private army of mercs, it’s situations like this. When guys like Brisco are operating tech they’re really not trained on. Sure, they know how to use what’s at their disposal as good as anyone. But they haven’t learned all the whys. And so they waste two missiles when one would have done the job just fine.

I key in my team. “Nine donks on speeders are on our six. This rig isn’t going to outrun them and Command’s got no more death from above for us today. Abers, you keep them honest while I check in with Mr. Surber. Lana—don’t crash.”

“As if,” she says from the cab.

Abers is all business. He’s got an N-18, something usually only the Legion plays with. There are some perks for a Marine out here that he wouldn’t have gotten in the Corps. He flips down the bipod and rests it on the back of a dead koob, lying on top of still more bodies as the truck speeds on.

I see him dial down the charge expenditure. N-18s are extremely powerful blasters, and the bolts they throw have enough kinetic energy packed in each discharge that they can blow off limbs at a very long distance. If you turn the charge all the way up, the energized bolt is so hot that it’s pretty much invisible unless you’re a species with enhanced vision or wearing some augmented visors. But Abers knows the same thing I do. The donks chasing us down are going to know where the shot comes from if they get that close. So why not get as much out of a charge pack as possible?

The donk speeder gang are picking up ground. Still well out of blaster rifle range, but dancing on the edge of death when it comes to what Abers can do.

“I’m not making out a clear priority target from the rabble,” I tell Abers.

“Just watch that lead donk, then.”

I focus my macros on the target. But the zhee on that bike is still a long, long way from us. “You’re not seriously going to shoot yet.”

But Abers doesn’t answer. And I know enough from the time we’ve worked together so far on this planet that he’s going into that box he places himself in when it’s time to make a difficult shot. I say box because that’s how he described it to me once. Like he’s inside a box, cut off from all light except what comes through the scope. That’s all he’s aware of. All he’s focused on. It’s everything he knows at that moment in time.


The N-18 barks behind me and at almost the same moment I see the bolt blast through the target’s chest, leaving what has to be a twelve-inch hole. The donk goes down hard, pulling his speeder down with him until both zhee and machine are violently sliding and spinning up and down in a tumultuous wipeout.

The rest of the zhee riders turn behind them, their minds not yet catching up with what just happened. They’re still processing why their brother in the lead just went down so hard, he ain’t ever comin’ back up.

Abers nails a second one.

He actually hit the bike’s handle bar, but the force of the shot broke the handle off the bike and impaled its rider as the bolt redirected up into the donk’s muzzle in the instant before he, too, was pulled down to the Kublaren dirt.

That’s all it takes for the rest of the bikers to realize what’s happening. They peel off wildly, just missing crashing into one another as they decelerate and attempt to get out of Abers’s monstrous range.

“Nice shooting,” I say.

Abers lets out a breath, but doesn’t say anything.

“Mr. Abers,” I hear called over the comm. It’s Surber. “Once again, you’ve shown us why we were right to invest in you and your skills. Exceptional shooting.”

Abers frowns, the slightest look of disgust on his face. But it goes away pretty swiftly. “Thank you, sir.”

“Let’s keep eyes on the rest of them in case they try to flank,” I announce over the comm.

“Do that,” Surber says, but I can tell he’s not all that concerned. “But we’re entering the Lowak valley to pay a visit to the Pekk tribe. The zhee aren’t going to follow too close once we get past the hills ahead.”

“Copy,” I say. “Sounds like that’s it for dusting donks today, gang.”

“If all goes well with the Pekk,” Surber says, a definite note of cheer in his voice, “you’ll be afforded the opportunity to ‘dust more donks’ sooner than you might think.”

I see Lashley look up. Not at me. At the roof. Like he’s trying to see through the canopy to the sky. And then I see him silently mouth the words as if in prayer:





The morning sun hit Bowie hard. He’d been on Kublar three days and had yet to get used to it. It was a hot, dry world. Though there was some humidity here along the coast in the Republic’s burgeoning Prosperity Zone. Subiyook City.

Or the Soob as some called it. A strange collection of religious zealots, flesh peddlers, corporate adventurers, and of course, the worst creatures of all… House of Reason politicians holding on to the local power they still had, even after the fall of Utopion. About as far from what people thought of when they thought of rustic, hostile Kublar.

“But what’re you gonna do,” Bowie told himself as he shoved untraceable credit chits into his jacket pocket. Then a folding tanto knife into his belt. A smaller blade into his low-cut boot. And finally one in his pocket. That one really wouldn’t do anything in the way of fighting or killing. But it had a corkscrew and you just never knew.

“You never do,” he chuckled, looking around the cruddy little seaside motel he’d selected as a base of operations in the K’keeb district of Subiyook.

“You never know.”

Outside, across the district, the zhee brayed their call to daily prayers. Even the defiant little koobs didn’t dare transgress these streets. The zhee wouldn’t hesitate to cut deep and many for such blasphemy. But ensconced inside his dingy little motel, he was safe to collect everything he would need for all that must be done today.

Which was optimistic at best. But that’s what he was paid for, a certain sense of optimism despite the odds. Years in Naval Intel, underfunded, over-tasked, and outgunned, had taught Lt. Commander Jack Bowie to always expect the best and prepare for the worst. Especially of himself in both cases.

He stuffed the Python blaster in his shoulder harness.

“You never know,” he said again.

Which was something that anyone who knew him would hear him say several times a day. He said it almost unconsciously now. Like a mantra, a chant, or mere punctuation. Some who claimed to know him would have sworn it wasn’t even on purpose.

It was more of a warning to himself in these uncertain times now that all semblance of government, order, and path into the future had collapsed after the Republic’s brief war with the Empire. There was no such thing as a safe bet. But had there ever really been?

So… you never know.

Because, in his line of work, you never really did know who was out to get you. Who was setting you up for the double cross to either the MCR—not that they were much of a threat any more, some other intel agency, a rogue national actor, or just someone with a score to settle.

Naval Intel’s main job for the Republic had been misinformation. “Weaponized imagination,” some nice old admiral who was more academic than bridge officer had once explained to Jack Bowie. “We play games with what people know. That way, we control everything. Which really helps when you think about it,” the oldster had said upon reflection. “Because when you don’t have as many super-carriers and full battle fleets as everybody thinks you’re supposed to have, it all comes down to controlling the flow of information.”

How’d that work out for you? Bowie thought as he put a few pieces of his gadget-like kit together, concealing everything under a perfectly tailored suit cut in Utopion’s latest style. No tie, of course. Just an open-collared dress shirt that stretched over his six-foot-two frame. He’d been a swimmer and never lost the body.

That had been his job with Naval Intelligence when he was a fleet officer attached to the Marines. Sent out to gather, collect, confirm, and pass on. Operating with the Special Operations Teams Oceanic Group. Dropped onto unstable worlds, operating offshore in deep water, infiltrating onshore to keep the Republic informed. Getting shot up nine times out of ten. Having enough backup zero times out of always.

Fun, huh?

And occasionally he got tasked for darker off-book things that needed doing when you didn’t want to get Dark Ops from the Legion involved, or, make a deal with the devil and summon up some freak from Nether Ops. Naval Intel was still part of the Fleet, after all. “We’re not savages for Oba’s sake, dear boy,” that old academic had once lectured him when he’d been sent off to terminate a village headman on Rhiodor.

Then he’d gotten out because his career was ended for all intents and purposes. Months before the final battle that turned the galaxy upside down. An emperor kills the Republic. The Legion kills the emperor. Now what? And… truth be told, there was no money. And so he’d turned independent.

Now, six months later, the emperor was still dead, the House of Reason wasn’t a thing, and he was on Kublar with a briefcase full of Ice. One of the most illegal party drugs in the Republic. High-end. Very expensive stuff. The kind of dust the celebrities and the rich kids of the Senate liked to play with.

What was in the briefcase would make him rich for many years to come. And only the people who had that kind of money… money to make an average ex-naval officer rich enough to live out his life on some off-the-main-lanes edge world so they could snort it all in one afternoon… could afford the contents of the briefcase. But it wasn’t easy. You needed access to sell next-level drugs.

You couldn’t just chop it up and sell it as you went. Though some would like it that way, and almost everyone inside the Prosperity Zone would casually kill him for a bit of it. What was in the briefcase gave you access because you needed access to sell it.

Even a few grams cost far beyond most people’s yearly income. Those who sold Ice told you it was always that way. Sell it all in one go and make enough to buy a very nice starliner—the four hundred passenger, luxe accommodations, full crew type—or don’t sell any portion of it because most likely you’ll end up dead.


Because everybody will try to kill you to get it. Except the people who can buy it. They’ve got bigger people than you to kill.

He pulled his blaster from under the pillow he’d slept next to. It was a compact, yet very powerful, Python Model 45 Automatic. Python was Bowie’s favorite purveyor. He shoved that in the carry at his lower back.

There was a knock at the door. Unusual for this early at the Suns and Fun motel along the edge of Marina Beach deep in the K’keeb that lay west of the glittering bureaucracy at the center of Soob City. It was far away from the action down here, where before the zhee showed up, the locals used to land freighters on death’s door—the type that would never take off again after entering atmo—and break them up for salvage.

This was the side of town where the drunks came to drink themselves to death. Where the local H8 Cartel, overseen by the zhee gangs for a cut, ran their illegal activities all night long. And where there was no such thing as maid service, especially at eight a.m. local.

His comm device rang.

The burner.

He answered.

“Hey, it’s me, Waria. I send one of my guys down to escort you to street,” said the alien in alien-ish. “I’m waiting and I got set up meet. Big party today, I’m hearing back. Cash buyer for the whole case. We’re gonna be rich, hooman.”

Two thoughts occurred to Jack Bowie at that point as he made his way toward the motel room door.

One. Waria was lying. There were two guys outside his door because he could hear them whispering. And two… he knew about the party. That’s what he’d been aiming for all along. Access. He’d only let the alien connect the dots because it was more organic that way. Waria had been holding out saying there wasn’t any kind of buyer that could handle that kind of action lately. Not since the zhee mullahs had started agitating for a morality crackdown to support their bizarre system of laws on this world. Agitating for the laws to be enforced everywhere except Marina Beach where zhee gangs ran the trade.

“Coming,” said Bowie to the empty room and the strangers at the door. Everyone called him Bowie. Ex-navy officer, intel, drummed out for messing up an op, or running around with an admiral’s daughter, depending on who you asked. Last names stuck when you’d been reduced in rank and no one wanted to remember what you’d once been before you’d fallen from grace.

He left the briefcase exactly where they could see it when he opened the door. Sitting right on the bed. Visible from the narrow hall that connected to the door the two hired blasters were most likely hiding at on either side. They needed to see the briefcase full of Ice because that’s what they’d come to kill him for. Wouldn’t want to disappoint them. They’d act all nonchalant in the first moment because they’d seen actors do that in the entertainments, or, because they had some kind of real-world training… who knew. He’d use that against them since they were giving him a freebie.

They knew there was a briefcase. One hundred percent. Waria had to have told them that’s what they were coming in for. Leave the ex-navy intel officer who’d gotten drummed out for shenanigans with a senior admiral’s young daughter, dead. Get the briefcase and get back to the pickup. Waria was probably going to have them killed there too because there were so many credits on the line. Buy your own small luxury starliner credits. Disappear out along the edge money.

That would have been their marching orders. Get case. Kill hooman chump. In either order.

A Lahursian snake man, Waria was the kind of guy who’d make that kind of play. And with enough Ice to buy a small planet out on the edge, something no one really ever went to, or wanted, it was worth it. Dumb people thought that way. Low investment, big return. What was in the briefcase was life changing money.

Waria knew that. Because Bowie had wanted him to.

Bowie had shown him the contents to get the deal to get access to the party that he knew was happening today. The party that was the only place one could sell such dangerously expensive and high-quality drugs.

Rich people drugs.

He opened the door. An actual door that needed to be swung inward. Not a pneumatically driven portal that whooshed silently open like in nice hotels, or every other building in the Republic. Or what had once been the Republic.

Why are you thinking about that? thought Bowie as he stood aside for the two hired thugs to get a real good look at the briefcase. These people are here to kill you.

Have a care, dear boy.


You never know, do you.

Except in this case he was pretty sure he did know. Goon One was a swolly from a Reach world that bred those ample-sized and powerful pig men. The brute, rippling with muscles and fat, and shoved into a cheap suit, practically snorted as its beady eyes spotted the briefcase on the bed…

What thing, boss?

The thing I sent you in there to get.

Or at least that’s how Bowie had run this little playlet in his head. The night before and the three days since he’d been trying to make this deal. Everyone would be playing for themselves. And that was how he’d play them.

Get that thing! He could almost hear the pig man screaming inside his bulbously round skull.

The Pig Man thought he’d played it cool. And the access hall from the motel room door was tight, what with the stupid ex-navy hooman officer who was about to get killed standing aside, behind the door no less, to let the swolly pass.

The second blaster was a shaven-headed human. Mean face. Bad scar. Tight suit. Two blasters concealed. A real hard case. And not just because he thought so.

He was just walking past the navy officer he’d been sent in to kill when he heard the snik of the tanto. That very specific snik of a flipped jackknife.

The one the ex-navy officer who was about to get killed kept in the sleeve of his jacket and had palmed as the swolly walked past.

Mean Face had done time, fought for his life in alleys, and stabbed other people to death to always get out alive. He knew exactly what that snik was. He’d heard it before. Maybe even been the motivating force of such a snik.

But as has been stated, tight quarters, and for the two predators, Mean Face and Bowie, all the two “hoomans” had time for was to look each other in the eye and telegraph something to the equivalent of “So… that’s how it’s gonna be.” All the while the greedy swolly, thinking how easy this was going to be, trotted forward to grab the briefcase all for his piggy self. Typical swolly. Somehow trusting that Mean Face would handle the killing while swolly got away squealing with delight into some hidden back alley where Waria would never find him.

Except Mean Face now had a blade sticking out of his eye. Hands that should have been throttling the ex-naval officer who was supposed to be about to die, or protecting himself, were now trying to pull the knife sticking out of his eye… out of his eye.

But that’s not an easy thing.

Think about it.

It’s in your eye.

And you’re asking, no matter how hardcore you are, you’re asking yourself, “Is it bad?” And the voice inside you sounds panicked.


“Will I make it worse by pulling it out?”

That’s what you’re doing.

In fact… That’s all you’re doing.

Which allows ex-navy intel chump to give you a good shove into the bathroom across the hall where you crash into the cheap glass shower and cut your throat, slash your chest, shred your hands, and shove the knife farther into your orbital socket. Maybe even into your brain.

But it’s really the cut throat that settles matters for Mean Face. You can do a lot of things, but not many with a cut throat. Options are limited.

All someone in one of the other rooms heard in the moments after the zhee call to prayer outside was some drunken scream, and then a loud crash through the dangerous glass shower.

Serves him right, think the other drunks, hookers, and pimps, waiting to crawl out into the night once more. Then they go back to sleep. No one wants trouble. Which is the best way to avoid trouble in the K’keeb District.

And then the Python is out and pointed at the swolly who’d turned, rather innocently like a greedy child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and realized how badly all this had gone.

“Stupid hoomans.”


Waria Sskindaru came to Kublar in the early days of the Prosperity Zone and found work as a hired blaster for Toogu Campa, a Gomarii pimp with connections to the slavers. High-end stuff for the new bureaucrats courting the winning tribe of koobs that had finally managed to assert dominance over the rest of the tribes.

Big money in those days, a couple years after that destroyer blew up over the planet. As the koobs finished their war and the Republic came back in, they acquired more and more of a taste for all the Republic had to offer. Toogu Campa had risen through the ranks of the local crime syndicate to earn a place at the table in the back room of Zentreet’s Ruckus Room over in Sundance where all the big commercial shipping was done.

Then Toogu got killed when the zhee showed up and while Waria wasn’t necessarily offered a place at the table, he was tasked with running mutual trade between the Cartel and the zhee.

Finding out that there was an ex-naval officer hawking some unobtainable Ice was too good to share with the Cartel. Even if it got him a place at the table. So here Waria was on this morning in Marina Beach, trying to get a jump on the deal before the Ice went where it was supposed to go.

And now he was seeing Murch, his swolly right-hand assistant, and a “hooman” but not his “hooman,” coming out from a sleazy motel into the bright sunlight of the rundown main drag of Marina Beach.

The place was a visual representation of a cheap H8 hangover.

“Where my hooman?” he wondered absently as he put the high-end sled car in drive. Clearly it looked like the ex-navy chump had Murch at blasterpoint and was ushering him across the empty street. One hand holding all the Ice in a briefcase for sure. The other tucked into the nice gray suit coat “hooman” wore.

“Obviously none of Waria business is this…” decided Waria with a hissed slur and made to leave. But “hooman” crossed the distance quickly and then brazenly pointed the blaster he’d had under his coat right at Waria’s triangular serpent’s head.

Waria settled back into the rich leather interior and flicked his forked tongue out, tasting the air.

Bad news hooman, he thought. All hoomans always news bad.

Murch was directed into the front side passenger seat of the convertible sled while navy chump slid onto the back bench of Waria’s flashy ride.

“What happened to Sully?” asked Waria more of the pig man than of Bowie.

“He broke him,” indicated Murch sullenly.

“I broke him,” confirmed Bowie, the powerful snub-nosed blaster now pointing at the Lahursian’s slender frame. Snake men were incredibly muscled across their midsection. But blasters went straight through them at this range. One of the side effects of their slender structure.

Bowie smiled.

You always get more with honey than vinegar, his grandma had once told him. Throughout his years, Grandma’s advice had been as valuable to Jack Bowie as all the most competent naval training in Escape and Evasion, Interrogation, Termination, and Demolition had been. Even the bits involving ultra-violence provided by hardened Legion NCO instructors.

“So what now?” asked Waria. “I tell you where party is and you kill us in back alley.”

“Nah,” said Bowie. “Deal’s still on. You’ll get your cut. But now you’re playing for percentages. What did we agree on?”

“Five percent.”

“Three percent,” replied Bowie.

“Three percent!” hissed the snake man. “Three percent is no credits for many. Why two percent less?”

“You tried to kill me,” replied Bowie good-naturedly.

The snake man thought about this.

“It’s true,” said Murch with a soft, almost sympathetic snort. His gaze remonstrating his boss for something he’d been told to do.

Waria shot his lieutenant a look of disgust. But unless you were Lahursian, you had no idea that such a look had been given. The narrowing of the iris within the slatted eye and the quick flick of the viper’s tongue in a specific direction would have led to an all-out fight with fangs bared back on that swampy world. But here, Waria could get away with such a dismissive gesture and not have to strike to the death. Its meaning was completely lost on the stupid swolly as well as the “hooman” pointing a blaster at his guts.

“So let’s get going to the party?” suggested Bowie, the briefcase on the rear bench next to him. Resting on rich red Ankalorian leather. A must-have when Waria had ordered this vehicle. That and the full weapons package that deployed from beneath at the press of a button.

Not now.

Maybe chances there will be, he thought in his snaky way of thinking, I will sink my fangs into great wealth.

Such thoughts of opportunistic violence to achieve wealth beyond imagining were common. But weren’t a reality yet.

“Easy not so much hurry,” announced Waria as he started the sled.

Jack Bowie leaned back, blaster still out, and put on his sunglasses. It was going to be a long, hot day in Soob City. That was for sure.


“Party at Cliffside,” said Waria over the drone of the convertible sled’s engine. “First off, not easy district to get into. Many former Republican diplomats and officials make their living now. Since boom go, Republic many have private armies there now. Weapons high tech. Killers professional. Legionnaires who serve no longer find work expensive to pay. Money free to keep powerful safe in holes.”

“And…” prompted Bowie as the sled hit the main transit through the heart of a protectorate that was turning into a city rising in all directions at once. Every corporation had set up an outpost here within the last two years. Whereas once Kublar had been some backwater legionnaires had been sent to die on for no real reason anyone outside Utopion could fathom, now it was an economic boomtown. At least here in the zone.

“And… Waria pay to reach Sustus Caul’s estate where party happening all the time… or we get pulled over and searched. Finding they will your briefcase. Which you will open. And then we all die quickly. Very much so with much screaming.”

“So how do I get in?”

“We. Words is we,” demanded Waria. “We partners, hooman. Three percent partners.”

Bowie looked off. The sun was beginning to climb over the top of the highest buildings. He had another plan. But… it involved playing high stakes poker. So… maybe there was another way today. But time was running out.


“Happy girls.”

Pig man’s eyes went wide, and then narrowed with delight.

“Happy girls?” asked Bowie.

“Happy girls,” replied the snake man. “Girls coming in on freighter today at noon. Landing at Qwamdolla star port out in Sundance. Fun time party girls coming in from the mid-core. We go in with them.”

“Fun time party girls?”

Murch nodded happily.

“What’s the catch?” asked Bowie.

The snake man hissed. “Catch there always is. I think in your profession… they call it a hijacking. Pull one you ever, hooman?”

“Yeah,” said Bowie.

Except in the Marines, they called it assault boarding.


The trick to Waria’s plan didn’t involve hijacking the freighter coming in from the mid-core, the Silver Koan out of Vanusia. That was the good part. The freighter would set down at Qwamdolla star port out in Sundance. It was a fringe field that was little more than a massive duracrete apron on the edge of a cyclopean sprawl of shipping and trade that had been set up to do business for Soob City.

Jacking an entire freighter while carrying a case full of Ice with two partners who might shoot you in the back at any moment was beyond anyone’s skill set, reasoned Bowie.

Now the three of them were parked on a side street beneath a ramshackle tower in downtown Soob City that offered berthing spots for the local dropship trade.

“Berth eight oh fourteen,” hissed Waria. “Dropship prepping with crew…”

“It’s not oh. It’s just eight fourteen,” said Bowie as he studied the building from behind his shades.

Waria stopped and swiveled his triangular head around to stare at Bowie in the back seat of his car. And then was reminded that a blaster was still pointing at his midsection.

He nodded wisely. The maneuver had merely been pulled for him to confirm that the blaster was still out. Both parties were aware of that.

“Okay then… eight fourteen be where they preparing, hooman. Central well. In twenty minutes, they’ll taxi out into the lift well and be raised to the hangar. We have until then to take the ship.”

“How many floors?”

“To top pad where launching happen?” asked Waria.



“Twenty floors from eight?” asked Bowie.

“No. Just twenty.”

“So twelve.”

“If that’s how you are wanting to see it, hooman. Then… yes. Twelve floors.”

“Why not take them in the berth?” asked Bowie.

“Ah. The bite of your fangs is prudent,” hissed the snake man. “Strike before the lift. But alas no do can. Berths are secure. Flaps Jonso keeps a security team ready during loadout. He work for big boss who provide happy girls for Caul’s party times. Like… ah… it would be like rushing a bunker with fragger between your teeth. You lose either way.”

Bowie looked skyward, scanning up the side of the dropship storage. It was typical. Racked storage with flyaway hangars on every berth. This place had been secured with only one exit up and out. And something wasn’t straight.

Waria was lying.

Or, as the old saying went… how do you know when a snake man is lying? Because his tongue is flicking. And Waria’s tongue was flicking back and forth pretty steadily. Like he was testing the air every ten seconds. Like he was lying through his fangs. But this was Jack’s only way in and the deadline was closing fast.

“How do we get in?” he asked.

“My ship on seven. We enter the ramp that winds up through the outside of the tower. Drive to nine, and board the lift as it passes. Neutralize Jonso’s crew. Take the dropship. Make the pickup. Carry the girls to Caul’s estate in Cliffside. Easy to be peasy.”

“Just easy peasy. No to be.”

Waria nodded making some look.

“Let’s do it then,” said Bowie.

And with that, Waria started the sled and drove down the block into the security station that accessed the ramp up to the berths.

A gloomy bot, battered and one-eyed and chattering in logic-numerica, accepted Waria’s code-phrase and they were in. It was dark and the dim lighting came in sudden bright washes as the sled crawled up the circular ramp that wound through the building. On level three, Waria mashed the accelerator and spun about, fangs bared and ready to fill Bowie with an easily deadly amount of neurotoxin. Murch squealed and dove for the steering wheel as the snake man lunged for the hooman in the back seat.


The first thing Murch did badly as he tried to drive the sled from the passenger seat, heaving his rotund barrel pig chest across the front seats, was connect with the sidewall of the ramp spiraling up through the levels of the dropship garage. He also terror-squealed.

Whether this was some innate swolly defensive technique to alert the herd, or the pig was generally afraid for its life, Bowie had no idea. He was too busy trying to throttle Waria with both hands because the collision with the wall along the ramp, and the sudden screech of ceramic and metal, sparks flying up into the dingy light of the climbing tunnel from off the tricked out sled, had caused him to drop the Python in the back seat.

Snake men move fast. Some say almost as fast as the galaxy’s other uber predator… wobanki. Which is pretty fast. Twitchy fast on the part of the wobanki. Lighting fast where Lahursians are concerned.

Though Lahursians are genus serpentoid, with a human-like body, they are serpents. And their propensity to strike and coil about their prey as fast as possible is old and well known. The best way to deal with them is to cut off their heads. And in lieu of a good head-chopping weapon, throttling them is your next option.

Jack Bowie had learned that, and a hundred other ways to kill the various species humankind had found out in the galaxy, during jungle phase with the SOTO groups in the Navy. Both of his thumbs were now pressing in, trying to collapse the windpipe of the snake man. Of course, Waria was trying to sink both fangs into Bowie’s jacket and dump both sacks of neurotoxin into the stupid hooman’s weak non-serpent body. Which would deal with the “hooman” effectively in less than fifteen seconds.

Waria leaned in closer, constricting every muscle and turning into an iron pole that seemed to loom over Bowie in the back seat as the luxury convertible sled slammed into another wall of the tunnel and the pig man squealed again with dire abandon.

Waria leaned in close, jaw unhinging, fangs dripping with poison as somehow the sled’s speed increased. Which, to Bowie, seemed unwise for all of them, given the current circumstances.

He couldn’t let go to get a hand on his other blaster, or the knives. But he had a knee and Lahursians had a solar plexus. A large one in fact due to their humanoid nature. Bowie smashed his knee up into the solar plexus while never releasing pressure from both thumbs on the windpipe of the snake man. One smash… two smash… the third smash did the trick and Waria reeled back and tried to inhale, temporarily releasing his airway. A second later Jack Bowie’s two thumbs snapped the snake man’s wide hyoid bone. When he felt it go, he released and pulled his holster blaster. He jammed it into Waria’s writhing belly and fired three times. Then a fourth. Waria collapsed back into the front seat, draping himself over the swolly who was still trying to drive from the passenger seat. A second later the speeding sled crashed into the side wall ramp hard, throwing Bowie onto the floor of the vehicle and the pig man through the front glass.

When Bowie opened one eye, he saw nothing but the flickering overhead light of the curving tunnel. The whine of repulsors and engines could be heard from inside their various berths. Hopefully this covered the sound of blaster fire and the crash along the ramp from anyone who might get interested.

He pulled himself out of the backseat, hand instinctively searching for the briefcase. It was there. Right next to him. He holstered his blaster. Retrieved the other out of the backseat and stood over the wreck, letting his heart settle back to normal.

Waria was dead, that was for sure. The snake man’s eyes had rolled to white, and his gruesomely shot through body looked even more grotesque lying in the passenger seat covered in shattered glass. The swolly was either dead, or it looked that way. He’d been cut to shreds and was bleeding from dozens of different places.

Shoot him, some procedural part of Bowie’s mind reminded him. But Bowie didn’t and instead stumbled off up the ramp. Time was wasting, and that dropship was the only way into the party.

And he had to be at the party.


Hijacking. There are a lot of ways to do it. That’s for sure. It’s been going on for as long as mankind has been flying starships. It didn’t matter that this was a dropship, designed for use between larger starships and ground operations. Not just reserved for combat. They were the local freight haulers and taxi services on most planets that used dropships.

Which was exactly what this one was doing. It was departing to pick up some girls who’d be attending the party for purposes bacchanal. That was how the rich and powerful were in the Republic. They were the first ones to advocate equal treatment for all, and respect for sexuality and gender, a thing most alien cultures were still in the dark ages on compared to the rest of humanity. But behind closed doors, or closed compounds as it were, they were the first to treat the fairer sex like commercial items. They didn’t want to take the time to get what they wanted. They’d rather just pay for it.

Bowie had forced an access door three levels above eight. The access door followed a small narrow hallway out into the central lift well that led to the rooftop hangar. A maintenance bot looked up quizzically from a spot weld it was performing on some internal piping and told him he wasn’t authorized to be in that section.

“I’m leaving,” he told the insectile bot as it hunched over its work.

“You’re going the wrong way,” it noted as Bowie reached the central well. The bat-winged dropship had just maneuvered out of her berth and was adding lift to the repulsors as it climbed up the docking well. Its bulk filled the circumference and the pilot gave it a slow rotation, probably intent on picking up a course heading as soon as they were clear of the garage.

“This is my ride,” said Bowie over his shoulder and stepped out into the void to meet the climbing ship.

There was a sickening moment of falling at something that was rising to meet you, which made it seem like he was falling faster than he really was. But he landed with both feet cushioning, collapsed and rolled across the wide chroma-steel surface of the bat wing.

His grip on the briefcase was the one constant in a suddenly shifting galaxy where if he rolled too far, he was likely to go off the trailing edge of the wing and down about eleven levels to pancake at ground level.

He’d learned a long time ago to let go of fear. The worst thing that could happen, he told himself, was that he’d be dead. And then all his problems would be someone else’s. That lesson had come to him during demolition school back when he’d been a young LTJG.

He came to a stop just before the flaps along the surface of the dropship’s wing. Which was good. Connecting with the flaps would have more than alerted the pilot that something was wrong with his ship. As it was, the pilot, at best, heard a thump. A big one, and felt a tug on the portside stabilizer.

Of course, he’d tell the crew chief to pop the hatch and make sure someone hadn’t dropped some equipment from a high level on them. The danger being that even a dropped dynaspanner could jam the flaps during flight. Which could end things quickly once they tried to make a turn at altitude under thrust.

Bowie was up and striding toward the center of the ship as it climbed up through the well, engines howling and repulsors throbbing. The dorsal hatch would be right along the top of the fuselage. And sure enough someone, most likely the crew chief, was popping it for visual inspection on whatever the pilot had heard or felt. It shot open pneumatically and a man popped his head up with a flash. A second later he got the toe of Bowie’s dress shoe right in his nose. Which sprayed blood as the man dropped down into the hatch.

He was lights out when Bowie sealed the hatch and climbed down. The crewman was wearing some type of corporate logo–marked overalls that were way too small for Bowie’s frame. He could hear the pilot over the internal comm asking what was going on back there.

Bowie yanked open the cargo door and was confronted by the rising tiers of dropship berths. Some empty, others occupied by any one of a bizarre collection of different ships all serving some arcane industrial purpose.

He was about to shove the unconscious crew chief out over the roof once they cleared it, hopefully not killing the guy, when the pilot came aft and poked his head through the hatch from the flight deck. It was a large, shaven head. The head belonging to a man of above average build, height, and rage.

He took one burning look at the unconscious chief lying on the deck, and the stranger with the briefcase, and literally pushed himself through the hatch like some alien lifeform birthing from an amniotic sack.

“Oh hey!” said Bowie as though he had some logical explanation for the tableau ready at hand, and then walloped the surging pilot with the side of the sturdy case in one fluid motion as he reached for his blaster beneath his jacket coat. The briefcase loaded with illegal drugs caught the pilot right in the side of his lantern-jawed face and glanced off his almost Cro-Magnon brow. This did nothing to stop the giant’s rush and a moment later, as Bowie brought the blaster up to fire, the pilot easily batted it away where it discharged into the deck with a whiny shriek of blaster fire. The giant’s other fist smashed right into Bowie’s chin.

It was a solid connect. The giant pilot knew it. And Bowie did too. He sat down hard on the aft bench as the dropship cleared the rooftop hangar access. There must be a co-pilot or bot flying, he thought distantly as the pilot closed in for another blow.

Engines howled, and he shook his head, the giant hovering, waiting to deliver another rapid-fire blow to knock him out. He had all the cards. And position.

Except for the hovering part.

Jack Bowie drove his leg upward right into the man’s crotch. Eyes bulged and the pilot’s face went red.

The dropship heeled over and both men went sliding toward the open cargo door. Bowie’s blaster careened over the edge, tumbling in free fall, out of the game entirely. The crew chief landed along the edge of the roof. Barely. A moment later the ship was out over the distant streets below and climbing for cruise altitude. The giant, on the other hand, caught himself on the top edge of the cargo door with his unbroken hand and hung on as the rest of his body followed his feet out into thin air.

Bowie had only one hand too. The briefcase occupied the other.

The free hand caught the giant’s flight suit and held on as his feet left the cargo door and the city streets suddenly appeared below. Both men were now hanging out the cargo door as the dropship executed a hard turn to pick up a new course heading. At their feet the dropship’s starboard engine intake sucked air and howled as though it were threatening to ingest them. And then a moment later the craft stabilized back to the horizontal flight path and both men were suddenly thrown back into the cargo deck. Tumbling across it a moment later.

Bowie held onto the case.

The giant gave him a savage elbow in the ribs and scrambled fast, for a big man. Bowie stayed low and swept his body in a semi-circular motion, knocking the man’s feet out from under him and causing the giant to fall back to the deck once more.

What happened over the next thirty seconds was nothing more than a series of blows traded as fast as possible between two desperate opponents. The blows came so fast, neither man even had the time to register the pain and damage inflicted. Each had only one hand with which to strike the other. But elbows, feet, and even heads contributed to the sudden melee.

It was the giant who got his feet under him once more and began to stomp Bowie in the ribs as he lay on the deck of the dropship. As the third stomp was coming down, and this time aimed straight at his head, Bowie let go of the case and pulled his holdout from his back.

The giant missed as Bowie rolled, watching the briefcase slide toward the open cargo door and the swiftly passing streets below. He fired, hitting the giant center mass. The man let go of his hold on the ceiling of the cargo deck to clutch at the searing hot wound in his chest. A wound that was most likely fatal already. A shot to the pump and pipes. He was dead, he just didn’t know it yet.

Once more the dropship heeled over sharply. And suddenly. There was definitely a bot flying. Only they made such turns that lacked any kind of finesse or desire for passenger comfort. Now the cargo door looked down into the city streets once more. The giant tumbled out the open door and into the ether. And so did the briefcase.

It was just sliding out when Bowie lunged, one hand flailing for a loose cargo strap when he caught the briefcase’s handle. There was an uncertain moment as the cargo strap continued to play out, indicating that it might possibly be connected to nothing at all… and then it yanked taut, confirming otherwise.

Bowie leaned out the door, case in hand. One hand holding the connected strap. Carefully, he drew himself back around and crawled through the flight deck hatch.

It smelled of burnt ozone and electronics. The insectile chatter of flight control data droned monotonously. A flight bot swiveled its head and took in Bowie as he appeared through the crawl space.

“Where is Captain Jonso?”

Bowie raised his blaster and shot the bot in the processing housing. It slumped over as he slid behind the captain’s controls, stowed the briefcase, and took the stick.

All the nav data was set up in the HUD. Rendezvous with the Silver Koan in Sundance, location markers set up, and the direct to Cliffside with approach clearances already in place.

As he neared the big freighter that had set down on the salty plains that formed the Sundance district, Jack Bowie found a ball cap with the dropship company’s logo. Secure Transit. No doubt they handled all the dark traffic for the pimps that kept the nonstop parties going in the Cliffside district.

He donned the cap and put on his sunglasses.

The HUD inside the sunglasses interfaced with the dropship and informed him that damage to the power plant coordinator had been sustained. Most likely when he’d discharged the blaster on the cargo deck. A blaster that was now somewhere in the streets of Soob City.

He was down to one blaster and three knives. One of which was really just a corkscrew.

Ground personnel hustled out from beneath the freighter’s bulk, waving landing lights and indicating where he was supposed to set down. He got the dropship down, compensating for the innate crabbing effect that was now causing one engine to overproduce and make the ship want to fly sideways. Wafts of black smoke drifted out from under the ship’s belly once the gears were down and locked.

Bowie exited to meet the ground crew.

“Your ship’s smoking!” said one of the techs. Underneath the distant freighter, the girls were coming down the ramp to board the dropship. A stunning collection of alien and human beauties, each wearing haute couture and carrying overnight bags, made their way daintily down the freighter’s belly ramp.

“Oh,” said Bowie to the concerned tech. “She always does that. Mag converter drips oil and it burns off. Nothing to worry about.”

The man scratched his head.

“Never heard of no mag converter doin’ that.”

Bowie shrugged as if to say, Well, it does.

The briefcase was still securely stowed on the flight deck of the dropship.

“Well, let’s get ’em aboard,” prompted Bowie to move things along before someone stalled the whole show over a maintenance issue. “Hammerhand says they’re already late and he won’t pay the tip if it goes beyond an hour.”

Bowie had no idea if there was anyone named Hammerhand involved. But most likely the wrench monkey he was talking to probably never left the engineering deck on the freighter, and he wouldn’t know either.

The man turned and waved gustily at the beauties.

The engine wash blew the thin silk coverings they all wore tight across their bodies, leaving little to the imagination. Bowie held out his hand and helped them aboard one by one, exchanging flirtatious pleasantries and innuendos as he showed them how to strap in.

“You’re a big one!” gushed a doe-eyed, orange-skinned Tennarian. “Will you be at the party?”

“He’s help, Honey!” stated a statuesque brunette who made the word voluptuous seem like an understatement. She had mean eyes.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” said Honey. “You seem nice.”

Bowie gave her a wink and climbed aboard.

“Be a good girl and you might just see me around later for a drink!”

She smiled back at him. Genuinely. Nice. Like she wasn’t a high-class hooker headed toward a bacchanal for the uber rich.

They lifted off, trailing black smoke, and made for Cliffside. It was a ten-minute flight and they passed over large sections of the city and picked up a heading along the coast. Urban sprawl gave way to parklands and a forest of the scrubby little feather trees that were native to this part of Kublar. An air traffic control bot came over the comm and asked for clearance for the dropship to breach Cliffside airspace.

Without knowing it would work, Bowie flashed the ident preloaded into the transponder, hoping the pilot, who was now also lying in the streets of Soob City, probably not too far from his Python, had the forethought to enter it before taking off.

“Confirmed,” said the business-like bot on the other side of the comm. “Clearance to Fairweather Estate authorized. Do not deviate or you will be shot down.”

In the back, the girls erupted into bawdy laughter at something.

“Roger that,” said Bowie and flew the heading into the belly of the beast. Fairweather Estate was the sanctum sanctorum of Sustus Caul. Former member of the House of Reason and prime facilitator of the Republic expats who’d made Kublar their new home after recent events.

Since it worked so well on Utopion.


The dropship’s stick had been shaking by the time Bowie finally got the bird down on the estate landing pad. It had started vibrating badly and then in the end, working the rudders and repulsor stabilizers and practically flying sideways like he was coming in under some hurricane force headwind instead of the mildly pleasant coastal Kublaren day that it was, he landed the ship on the estate’s landing pad.

Jack Bowie grabbed the briefcase full of illegal drugs, ditched the ball cap and escorted the girls, helping them down from the dropship’s cargo door. They scattered like a flock of geese seeking breadcrumbs.

Again, another ground tech seemed concerned about the smoke which was now bellowing out of the bottom of the ship. The beauties coughed delicately and made their way onto the grounds of the estate.

“You know your ship is…?”

“Not my ship,” said Bowie. “Bot pilot. Think it’s malfunctioning. I’m with the ladies.”

And with that Bowie straightened his jacket and stepped off the pad to meet the protocol bot.

“Allow me to introduce myself… I’m,” announced the mincing automaton, “G464. Party activities facilitator… um… though I was initially programmed as a diplomatic attaché to the crown prince of the Jongolese Worlds. But that is a long and rather boring story that ends tragically… perhaps…”

“We have to get these girls into the party,” interrupted Bowie, noting the heavy security between the landing pad and the rest of the estate which seemed to be comprised of elaborate gardens, and then a small red brick fortress of ornate design. Tyrolean columns and wide porticos.

“Oh yes. Indeed we do… uh… who are you? My master had ordered only pleasure girls. We were not expecting anything… uh… male.”

“I came along with them. I was informed that some… party supplies would be acquired on-site, and it so happens I have some for purchase. If you’ll direct me to the right procurement specialist.”

“Party supplies?” erupted the bot. “My… we are fully stocked as of the last review completed at zero four this morning local. I reviewed the data myself personally. Especially our most critical items. Sixteen cases of Fraught Crystal Gin for this afternoon’s mud wrestling match between the girls. Master Caul insists his guests have the finest so that we may conduct ourselves with class and dignity during the… ahem… festivities.”

“These supplies are a little more difficult to acquire,” said Bowie leaning in.

The ladies were already winding their way up toward the gardens, flirting with the dark suited private security goons as they went.

“Do you mean illegal drugs, sir?” shrieked G464.

“I do.”

“Excellent. I shall instruct you to see Varo in the main house. He’ll meet you at the end of this path. I shall warn you, though… he is a dangerous sociopath who has threatened to disable me piece by piece should I ever displease the master. He handles the items you’re offering.”

“Good,” said Bowie and headed up the walkway through the strange and wonderful gardens.

A moment later, the HUD inside his sunglasses announced he had an incoming message.

It was a text message.

The voice was stentorian and matter-of-fact.

“Congratulations, Mr. Bowie. You of all the applicants have managed to make it into the target area. Mr. Nilo sends his regards. Proceed into the party’s restricted area known as the Pleasure Palace and await further orders.”

That was all. Nothing more.

Varo found him at the top of the path, before the rising walls of the impressive estate. Other guests were arriving, some wearing Diablo masks, others donning them as they entered. Servants and security were everywhere.

And yeah… Varo was a psychopath. The kind of guy who got kicked out of the Legion for being a little bit too murderous. He was small, trim, compact, and scrolling sleeve tattoos peeked out from the starched white cuffs of the dress shirt he wore. His suit also was well cut and well made. Most likely tailored on Utopion.

He saw Bowie coming from a long way off and didn’t move to approach him. But the two men knew they were aimed straight at each other. A security team intercepted Bowie within five meters of Varo and deftly removed the last blaster and both dangerous knives. They let him keep the corkscrew.

“Butler-bot says you got some drugs to sell.”

Bowie nodded.

“So…” Varo inhaled and looked around. The look of a bully who was scanning to see if anyone was going to catch him for the beatdown he was about to hand out. “I’ll play a little game. If you’ve got the usual… H8, Coke, Lotus Weed… I’m gonna have to kill you for even thinking about getting in here. Not because I don’t like you, I’m incapable of that ’cause I’m a sociopath, see—Legion docs finally figured it out. I’m incapable of liking or disliking anyone because I don’t see other people as people. You’re all just things to me. Which is why I don’t mind hurting you. So… back to what I was saying… If it’s just same old, same old, I gotta kill you. Nothing personal. Just we can’t have everyone doing what you just did, and so if I kill you, in the long run it saves a lot of lives so that other idiots, like yourself, don’t try the same stunt. We got all that stuff and the best of it. But… on the off chance you got something else, something specific, then I don’t kill you. I take you and you get paid with the hope you got more because the boss and his friends they always want more. The boss, not really. But it’s how he keeps his friends and enemies close, know what I mean?”

Bowie nodded.

“So whatcha got?”


Varo raised both eyebrows.

“If you’re lyin’ and I take you in and turns out you just got Lotus, I’m gonna feed you to the baby tyrannasquid he keeps in the grotto. He’s got one. It’s sick. We feed it sheep. The guests love it at the end of the night when they’re all drugged out and crazy. Zhee especially.”

Varo paused.

“Yeah… the zhee imams come here too and they’re into some pretty sick stuff. Which is sayin’ something when that comes from me because even I know I’m not right in the head, know what I mean? Sociopath and all.”

“Ten kilos.”

Varo’s mouth dropped wide open.

His whispered some vulgarity.

“All right… let’s go see the right-hand man.”

Varo led Bowie into the party. Within the main entrance, there was a grand room that towered up into the heights. At least three stories high. The walls were hung with rich tapestries and famous paintings dating back hundreds of years. Bowie had no doubt many of these were the real deal. And that many had gone missing years before during art museum heists, or wars the House of Reason had fought on foreign worlds. Delicate vases from Sinasia stood in prominent positions. Fabulously elaborate, expensive beyond mentioning, these were ogled at and awed over by clutches of guests stuffing dainties into their mouths while murmuring over the rims of delicately sculpted cocktail glasses. The women were models, and the men were heads of banks, politicians, and movers and shakers despite the Republic’s recent problems. Maybe even more so because.

There was no sign of the courtesans. This area, for all intents and purposes, was a mere A-list gathering of the wealthy and powerful inside a private enclave of a man who controlled a planet.

It wasn’t Jack Bowie’s first A-list rodeo.

Upstairs and into private rooms guarded by security, they moved deeper and deeper into the forest. Passing small gardens where entertainers entertained, or orgiastic bacchanals were already underway. Everywhere was the murmuring tinkle of party chatter and always the elusive zither of Psycalrian hypno-string music.

Bowie knew things were heading for a conclusion when they deviated out of the festivities and into a suite of private offices that were conspicuously absent of personnel. Antique desks and state-of-the-art computer terminals indicated that much of Sustus Caul’s empire was run from here. Finally, they came to a double door that screamed boss’s office and entered with little fanfare. The room was a high cupola that looked out over the inner walls of the estate. Beyond the windows, four red-bricked minarets rose up into the orange-colored garden party afternoon sky. The songs of exotic birds could be heard along the walls and eaves.

Behind a large desk sat a diminutive man with the face of an accountant. And the expression of an undertaker.

“Boss…” began Varo. “This guy says he’s got Ice. Ten keys. If he’s lying, I’ll feed him to the squid. But… I don’t think he is.”

“It would be very foolish of him to say so at this point,” said the accountant. “Foolish indeed. I’m Mr. Tocker. I run… everything for Mr. Caul.”

Bowie stepped forward and set the case on the large desk.

“My name isn’t important. Pay me the going price for ten kilos and they’re yours.”

“Precisely. That’s what we’ll do,” said Tocker in business-like tones. As though he were already outlining the terms of agreement at hand. “Because Ice is the rarest drug in the galaxy and it would be our pleasure, Mr… ah… yes. You don’t want to be named. Except that your name is…” the accountant looked down and consulted a screen on the ornately carved desk. “Mr. Bowie. One Jackson Bowie late of the Republic Navy. Dishonorably discharged. Interesting skill set.”

Jack took off his sunglasses.

“We have very detailed files of everyone on planet. Mr. Caul prefers to know with whom he’s dealing at all times. Especially during these times. But please, don’t worry. We would very much like to conclude this transaction with the highest of hopes that you can provide more of your specialty import. Much, much more. Big things are happening for Kublar. And we find that Ice helps make much better arrangements with our friends. Either because they’ve acquired a taste for the stuff, or because the antics they get up to under the influence can be used against them. Either way works for us. So… I’m authorizing a data card now for twenty million. Non-traceable. And before you do a happy dance… don’t. Because the credits only exist there for the moment. I’d like to see the goods.”

Bowie stepped forward and undid the locks and biometric scans on both. Then he opened the case. He had no doubt that if there weren’t ten bags filled with translucent silver powder, Varo might not even let him make it to the tyrannasquid feeding.

But there were, and Varo whistled at seeing so much of the stuff.

“Excellent.” Mr. Tocker held out the card. It flashed a secure bank QC and the amount it contained. Twenty million credits.

“You may enjoy the rest of the day with us, Mr. Bowie. We’ve ordered some girls up. The finest from out along the Rigel Worlds. You may select any one of them and consider it a bonus from Mr. Caul personally. And we hope we might have further business with you in the near future.”

Bowie stepped away from the desk as Tocker and Varo set to collecting the bags from the briefcase. He put on his sunglasses.

Incoming message. Via text this time.

Terminate Zahid Bum Shak. He is located within the Pleasure Palace.

Then an ident targeting file installed on his HUD. If he spotted the target, it would confirm through visual comparison with a ninety-eight point nine percent certainty that the target had been verified by facial recognition scan.

Varo’s security team had searched him for the blaster and taken it. And the two knives. They’d left him with the corkscrew.

Bowie returned to the desk and closed the briefcase.

“You won’t be needing this?” he asked easily.

The accountant nodded. Busy at the business of accounting high-end drugs. Varo had his hands full of the sliver-dust bags. He smiled dumbly.

“Which way to the Pleasure Palace?”

Without looking up, the accountant tsk-tsked.

“Even with the considerable deal you’ve just done, those areas are off-limits to all but Mr. Caul’s closest business associates. I’m afraid you’ll have to make do for the evening with any number of our other… ahem… activities.”

But Bowie already had a pretty good idea in which quadrant the palace was located once he’d looked out on the inner garden of the fortress from Tocker’s cupola office. The area with the cameras mounted on the roof and the two snipers standing guard in the shadows of some demonic-looking gargoyles along the roof. He could cross the other covered gardens to access it.

He tapped a button on the side of the case and the weapon entered its primary configuration as panels and plates deployed out and forward and a trigger and metallic stock took shape.

In an instant the briefcase wasn’t.

Both men heard the low metallic whine of the weapon assembling itself. It looked vaguely like a Steiger sub-compact internally suppressed assault blaster. Used for close quarters fighting and never good at any real range. A mean vicious weapon used by tactical police forces to clear buildings and put down threats with extreme prejudice.

Some thought it was a little excessive. Bowie had always found it to be just right for the job that needed doing. Especially if that job was close quarters killing.

It looked like a Steiger sub-compact because it was that.

Except this was the very expensive model that could disguise itself as an actual high security briefcase. Bowie leveled the weapon and pulled the trigger firing a continuous burst that tore both men, and the bags of drugs they were holding, to pieces. The muffled blasts sounded like the flash of ancient cameras. On highspeed. And dozens in seconds.

Silver dust blossomed into the air as both men fell over dead, bleeding out on a carpet that was beyond expensive.

Bowie remained still, listening to the local silence within the deserted suite of offices, and the distant murmur of party chatter and music.

Late afternoon was coming on quickly. He moved toward the window, staying far enough away so as not to be seen from outside. His sunglasses switched over to IR and picked up both snipers hiding in the rooftop shadows of the two gargoyles. Private contractor types. Both were scanning the rooftops against outside infiltration. Oblivious to the activities going on in the Pleasure Palace below their eyes.

Both were working for the wrong team.

Bowie took something from a hidden panel in the weapon’s stock and attached it to the sight of the Steiger while covering behind the heavy curtains. He worked fast, taking quick, furtive glances to scan the roof and towers. A spectrum connection opened up and synched a scope to the sunglasses. He tagged both snipers. All security had been oriented toward external threats.

The koob resistance had been making noise of late.

Bowie pulled an attachment out of the front of the stock and screwed it into the end of the barrel. A longer suppressor that increased accuracy and muffled sound. From the shadows of the room, he fired and hit the first sniper with a single shot, and then with barely a pause, nailed the second. Both men slid onto their backs and lay on the sloped roof. The sunglasses confirmed that fading vitals indicated death.

Then Bowie stepped out onto the roof and made his way across the covered gardens, following long beams of wood that supported the screens guarding the parties below. He could hear the guests cavorting and cackling. Shrieking as more alcohol and drugs were consumed along with the lives they were debasing.

Some distant part wondered what the sweet little Tennarian girl was doing. She didn’t belong here. She was from some other place, not this one.

Not your problem, Jack, he told himself and made his way toward the edge of the Pleasure Palace. Below him he saw nothing like the bacchanal going on in all the other quadrants of the garden. This was nothing more than a gathering of the most stately and powerful of the guests. All of them in clusters of earnest conversation. Doing big business no doubt, he thought as he scanned the crowd looking for the zhee. The sunglasses were picking up vocals and translating. Interesting stuff. Private plans the public would scream murder over.

Dividing up the carcasses of the Kublarens. And the Republic. Making everything new the same as it was before. The House of Reason 2.0.

He spotted the target.

In his sunglasses he got another message.

Target confirmed.

He fired once. That’s all it took. Looking right down at the zhee not more than forty meters from him, it was an easy shot. The zhee holy man was surrounded by his coterie of body guards. All of them armed with suicide vests as per protocol. That was something you learned in navy intel. Because you didn’t want to learn it the hard way.

They were talking with the local head of the koob clan. A frog dressed in Utopion clothes and sporting gold medallions and even a crown. A dozen others like him all looking nothing like the dirty rebel tribesmen they’d been less than a decade before. Looking now like any of the many on all the worlds of the Republic who’d sold out their own for a bigger, better deal.

The single blaster shot fired from Bowie’s sniper rifle variant hit the zhee in the head. Had to make sure. Pumps and pipe wasn’t good enough.

Target termination confirmed.

The donk’s head exploded across the other guests, showering them with blood and matter. They stood there for half a second, stunned that they wouldn’t hear the rest of the deal he’d been making with his publicly avowed enemies concerning the fate of everyone on Kublar.

But Bowie didn’t see that. He was already gone and moving for the exit. Quickly back across the covered gardens as Kublar’s sun sank behind the walls, throwing blue shadows along the interior.

He made the window back into the accountant’s business suite when the first zhee body guard detonated, thinking it was a double cross and convinced that his religious fervor to murder assured him a place in the eternal pasture the zhee believed in.

Bowie had no idea how many of the inner sanctum guests were killed in that fiery moment. He had already reconfigured the weapon into a briefcase and was briskly making his way back into the party. Stunned guests, having heard the blast, were already making their way toward the grand main entrance as security professionals pushed past, racing for the maelstrom of mayhem that was unfolding in their most secure zone. Desperate to protect Sustus Caul.

Jack Bowie spotted the Tennarian named Honey. She was pressed against the pillar. Suddenly forgotten and scared. Her prized orange skin standing out against the contrast of the white sculpted column she was anchored to. Clinging to it as though that were the only constant in the galaxy. To leave it was to fly off into insanity. Her large wide eyes were uncertain and filled with not fear, but definitely worry. Her tentacle arms writhed across the column. Her beautiful humanoid body rigid with fear.

Guests screamed and raced for the exits and their private vehicles and security teams.

Bowie spotted a bottle of Fraught and picked it up as he approached the beautiful Tennar.

“Care for that drink?”

She looked at him in stunned amazement that quickly turned to fear. And then suddenly recognizing him as the pilot, she smiled like they were old friends well met.

“I think something’s happened… Is the party over?”

Bowie looked off toward the Pleasure Palace.

“Yes, Honey. I think it’s over now. Would you like a drink?”

“Where?” she asked.

Jack Bowie inspected the bottle.

“Probably not here. But this is a serviceable gin. Allow me to escort you out of here and we’ll find somewhere to drink it.”

“Where?” she asked, refusing to peel herself away from the column. As though she were frozen, or petrified, unable to leave and trust the unknown. Stuck to the pillar forever like some mythical beauty about to be fed to monsters.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Bowie said, taking her arm. “Someplace cozy, I suspect.”

And then they were off. He was leading her away through the chaos, and filching a ride just as the koob resistance suicide-bombed the main gate. And their assault teams came out of the feathery trees and across the UberGolf course.

She looked at him as he drove away from the sudden battle. A fireball rising in the rearview mirror. The sound of automatic blaster fire being exchanged between security and koob insurgents.

“Today turned out a lot differently than I thought it would.” She took a deep breath. Then she smiled at him. Because she could breathe now. She wasn’t afraid. Not here. Not at this moment.

He smiled.

“You never know,” said Bowie.

And then a new message appeared in the sunglasses’ HUD.

Congratulations, Mr. Bowie. Welcome to Team Nilo.




I’ve never been to a koob town as big as what I’m seeing here in Pekk. Outside of the coastal cities like the Soob, I mean. Inland, the koobs like to live in the mountains, building their huts from the green wood of the trees that grow high above the expansive deserts between peaks—where the cold brings snow, mountain streams and lakes.

Pekk is a massive sprawl of koob living. The craggy mountains the city is nestled in serve as a sort of wall teeming with the aliens. Some of which are herders, others trying to scratch out farms in the thin soil. All of them armed with more than a few seeming to just watch us roll in. Whether they’re sentries or simply lazy, I don’t know.

But there’s a lot of them.

“If these koobs wanted to kill us…” Easy says over comm, letting his words drift off. We all get the point.

Abers hisses. “Yeah, and here we come rolling right in the middle of them with a big ol’ chuck wagon of their dead.”

“These aren’t their dead,” says Winters. “This tribe and the Pekk tribe hate one another. Surber has us coming bearing gifts.”

“Messed up gift, if you ask me,” I say.

“I dunno,” Lana chimes in. “Someone dumps a truckload of vanquished foes on my doorstep, I wouldn’t be mad.”

There’s a pause over the comm before Easy says, “How are you not a legionnaire?”

“Can’t bench enough,” Lana says without missing a beat. “And their helmets would ruin my hair.”

We all get a kick out of this. Lana isn’t the type to get in a fuss about how she looks when stuff is going down. She wouldn’t be on the team if she were.

Our truck begins the arduous task of climbing the mountain road that leads into the village and I can hear its engine straining from the incline.

“Man,” Easy says again. “So many koobs.”

I don’t get a clear look at exactly what he’s talking about until I see from the back of the truck the teeming crowds looking down at us from walkways, homes, and other dwellings carved out of the mountains. The road we’re on is wide enough for us to turn around in, carved out below these rocky, koob-studded banks. Like it was blasted out—or more likely dug out; part of an old river or stream that has long since dried up or been diverted elsewhere.

“These are friendlies, remember?” I say, doing a quick count; one, two, three, four… yep. Way too many to dust and get out alive. These damn well better be friendly or we just rolled into our deaths.

“Ain’t friendly,” Lash says, meticulously cleaning his SAB. “Just not killin’ us.”

Abers joins the conversation, his sniper rifle resting across his lap. “Either way… I got my first four targets painted if it goes down.”

“Yeah, me too,” says the kid, Winters.

He doesn’t seem jumpy, more like he’s following the cool display by the other guys in the back of the truck. It’s not bad by any stretch, just not completely natural. Like he knows how he ought to behave but hasn’t been there enough for it to be second nature like it is for the marines and Legion.

I smile at both men. “Look at you two, killers. KTF, brothers.”

All of a sudden the truck stops short and I’m hurled into a pile of dead koobs. I can feel their corpse-juices squeezing out and onto my new robes where my elbow drives into the pile… and I can hear it, too. Like you’re squeezing out the last bit of gel from a ration pouch.


I’m about to ask Easy what’s going on when I hear him lay in on the horn.

“Sket,” he says under his breath, and then yells out, “Move it! Lak-k’kalikee!”

“Lana,” I say into the comm, leaving Easy to continue yelling at what I assume are some koobs blocking the road, “tell me what’s happening.”

“Bunch of koobs with slug throwers decided to walk out in front of the truck to cross the road.”

“We gonna have a problem?”

“I don’t think so. Just some macho-froggy posturing.”

“You, koob-o!” Easy shouts, and I can hear his voice in stereo over comm and from the front of the cab. “Lak-k’kalikee! That means, move your ass! I shouldn’t have to translate your own kelhorned language, croaker!”

“Don’t agitate them,” I say.

Surber chimes into my comm. “What is the delay back there, Mr. Carter?”

“Nothing serious yet, sir. Bunch of armed koobs decided they wanted to show us that this is their town. They jumped in front of the truck and are taking their sweet time crossing the road.”

“That’s a common cultural posturing among the Kublarens,” Surber says. “Tell your driver to floor it and catch up.”


“I don’t need to repeat myself.”


You prick.

I open up my squad comm. “Easy, Surber says to floor it.”

“Say again?”

“Floor it. He says the koobs’ll understand.”

Lash and Abers exchange an oh, here we go look. And I’m thinking the same thing. In my mind, this is the kind of reaction the koobs want. A little provocation to get us doing something stupid and then we’re riddled with blaster bolts. But my job is to do what Surber says.

“Okay, Carter,” Easy finally replies. “If you say so…”

“I did say so. Twice. Now move this truck!”

The bed lurches again as Easy jumps on the accelerator. But this rig is hardly a performance speeder. It begins moving, but it isn’t going to break any land speed acceleration records. I hear the engine roar and then listen for the telltale bump-whump of some koob going under the wheels.

But it doesn’t come.

“They moved,” Lana says, sounding impressed that Easy didn’t run anyone over.

“Good,” I say. “Keep up a steady pace. Don’t slow down or stop again until Surber does.”

We keep rolling, the increased speed jostling us up and down as we move over the rocky and occasionally winding road. We’re definitely gaining in elevation, and as we storm up the mountain highway I see a steady stream of small, single-koob transport vehicles, riders on lizard-like beasts of burden, or foot travelers all jumping from the side of the road and back into the center, as though they’d been pushed off the lane and were staring back at the offender, ready to heap curses on our heads.

“Don’t kill anyone if you can avoid it, Easy.”

“You wanna drive, Carter?”

“Not unless it’s got a linked weapons array, I don’t.”

Easy snorts. “Well, this rig sure as sket don’t have one of those.”

Lana cuts in. “Surber is slowing down. We’re here.”

I listen to the brakes squeal as our oversized hearse comes to a slow, grinding halt. The engine idles loudly for a moment and then I hear sled doors open and slam shut. Easy kills the engine.

“Surber is waving us out.”

“Joy ride’s over,” I say, moving to the back of the truck over the uneasy ground of dead koobs. Right at the edge, I recognize the corpse of the chieftain we shot up inside his sled, missing arm and all. He’s staring right at me, his goggling eyes hazed in death, like some kind of ghostly cataracts. “Time to clock back in and earn our paychecks.”

I hop down, feeling my weapons clatter against my body armor on their slings. I turn around the side of the truck in time to see Lana swing open her door and hop down herself, her boots sending up a little cloud of dust as she hits the rock street.

We’re at something like a house—maybe a koob manor because it’s pretty big. It’s at the absolute top of the hill. I could see that when I first got out and looked down the winding road at all the buildings, village homes, and bazaar stalls beneath us. Pretty safe bet that this is the tribal seat, home of big chief for Pekk.

“Hustle and form up behind Surber,” I say, because I’m not sure why else we’d be here if not to provide additional security beyond what Errol and Wick can do.

I begin to jog but catch myself slowing down involuntarily. Surber is walking straight toward a saffron-robed older koob—obviously the chief. And that chief is surrounded by at least a hundred armed koob warriors.

“Okay,” Winters says into comms as he hustles along. “That’s a lot of guns waiting for us.”

“Keep moving,” I say, shaking off the momentary surprise at suddenly seeing so many potential threats.

We fall in line behind Surber and his bodyguards. Some of the koob warriors take notice of us, but Surber and the chieftain pay no mind. Nobody on either side speaks except for the two of them. They’re speaking koob in what I can only describe as warm and friendly. Like they go a long way back.

And maybe they do. Big Nee has been setting things up on Kublar for a long time. I practically just got here.

The chieftain is joined at his side by a servant holding a tray of steaming teacups. The head koob puts an arm around Surber and motions for the crowd of armed warriors to part, opening a pathway to the tall, square wooden compound’s grand opening.

Surber says something in Kublaren and then turns, finally acknowledging my team’s presence. “Carter. One of our warriors has been invited to join in the ceremony. Send in Winters.”

“Me?” Winters says.

And I’m wondering the same thing. Not that I want to be swept into some bizarre koob ritual where I’ll be forced to eat, drink, and smoke who-knows-what, but Winters is definitely the junior guy on the team. The least warrior of my warfighter crew.

“You heard him, Winters. Move up.”

The kid obeys, hustling and looking formidable in his expensive aftermarket armor and kit. Maybe that’s why Surber chose him. He looks the part, if flash is where you want things to count.

Winters disappears along with Errol and Wick inside the big meeting house’s front gate. Surber walks a few steps more with the chieftain, speaking the language with perfection, minus the obvious inability to perform certain clicks and sounds due to a lack of an airsac. He pauses, nods, presses a hand on the chieftain’s shoulder, and then walks back to where we stand.

“Guard the truck,” Surber says, his eyes darting to where it sits farther back on the road. “Chieftain Y’keed will have some of his honor guard with you. Same rule applies…” He’s speaking loud enough for all of us to hear now.

“If they try to put you out, show you up… don’t let them. It’s what the Kublarens call sitizt’ka. It’s a ritualistic test to see whether you possess the proper fertilization sacs.”

“What?” asks Abers.

Balls, gentlemen. And you have my apologies for saying so, Miss Romnova. They want to make sure their potential allies have the balls necessary to do what comes next. Make sure you show ’em. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

And with that, Surber walks away.

“Sucks to be Lana,” Easy jokes.

“You couldn’t handle being me on your best day, Aguilar.”

It isn’t long before the armed koobs begin to waddle over toward us, each one hoisting a rifle up on his shoulder at the ready across his chest. I counted each of their three-fingers, and was pleased to see none of them were wrapped inside a trigger-well.

“Let’s meet our friends at the front of the truck,” I say, moving ahead to greet the incoming horde. “Who knows how they’ll react to what we’ve got in back.”

I send out a Kublaren greeting to the black-robed koob who looks to be the group’s leader. He’s overall a sort of mustard color with occasional brown spots and a light yellow airsac. I can see right away that he’s carrying a beat-up looking N-4 blaster rifle.


The koob lets out a low croak, the way a human might growl “hmmm,” but otherwise doesn’t verbally respond. He walks in front of me and I’m a little proud of the fact that he has to look up to look at my face. Not that it presents much of a problem with the way koob eyes rest at the top of their heads, swiveling around. They can look straight up without moving their bodies.

This one is tall for a koob. But I’m tall for a human. And Lash, well, he’s massive and the other koobs are all watching him. Communicating in low croaks and clicks.

Big Lash doesn’t sell that he notices any of it. He just sits there, a statue with shades, muscles taut like he’s always pumped. If the koobs are gonna try any of that manhood testing, it probably won’t be with him.

The koob captain croaks out some decent-sounding Standard. “You-ah, have bot?”

“Translator bot?” I ask, looking around for a machine that I know isn’t with us. “No.”

“Maybe we-ah, no be formal, ya? K’k’k’k. We speak you-sa Standard.”

“Probably be a lot easier,” I say, and not to be a smart-ass. I’m having no trouble following what the koob is saying. “You speak Standard well.”

The koob nods. “You-ah… warri-aurs. Big battle, ya? Leejun ya?”

“I was. But we’ve got some marines and soldiers.” I nod to Lana, Abers, and Easy, and then wave my hand vaguely at Lashley. “And stuff. I was Legion.”

“No more Leejun?”

“Not for me.”

The koob clicks and inflates its airsac. “Leejun, tough fight. Big die. Big die.”

He turns over his N-4 and taps on some white letters written in koob. There are four hashmarks behind the words. “This-ah, how many leejonayers big die from this one blaster.”

I clench my jaw, hating the fact that a leej killer is standing right in front of me and I can’t do a kelhorned thing about it.

Evidently, the koob notices I’m ill at ease. He points to another string of text with even more hashmarks behind it. “This-ah one, is me.”

I’m not sure I hide the confusion on my face. My brows are definitely furrowed. “So who killed the legionnaires?”

“First ones. I give him big die.” He holds open his hand and wiggles his three long fingers, pantomiming some sort of explosion maybe. “Big die. This one first is chief of weak tribe. Not like Pekk.”

At the sound of their own tribe, the other Kublarens, who are standing around maybe following the conversation and maybe not, begin to croak and stamp their feet. A few of them send slug rounds into the air with their old automatic rifles.

“Okay,” I say, feeling some of the tension going out from how the koob went out of his way to say that it wasn’t him who killed those four leejes—now just bones and hashmarks. “So what are the marks by your name for?”

Ik’k’rah,” the koob says. “The zhee.”

I nod. “Looks like you dusted a number of the donks.”

“Big die,” the koob says, nodding his head so that all of his upper body does a slight bow from the process. “Foreign-ars k’k’kik all big die. No match Kublakaren warrior in fight.”

The beating that Victory Company gave all those koobs years ago aside, this guy isn’t exaggerating.

That the Kublarens hated the zhee and those who gave cover for what was just a naked grab for territory was obvious. What was more subtle was the way this koob made a point of calling out foreigners. Koobs have never been keen on outsiders, something that dated back to first contact during the Savage Wars. Back then, they took out their hostility on the Savages. Wiped out a small lighthugger’s worth before the Legion ever chased ’em down.

And then the Legion, after a couple of skirmishes, found out the koobs were so angry with the Savages that they agreed to send warriors from virtually every planetary tribe out to hunt them down. It was the earliest beginning of what was a slow inclusion into the Republic itself. Back when there was a Republic. I’m not sure what you’d call it now.

But foreigners. That was the tell. Because that meant me and my team just as much as it did the zhee. Never mind that we’re supposed to all be friends here on this mountain with our two great leaders laughing and croaking like old college friends.


This was what Surber had taken the time to warn me and my team about. And now it was up to me to show him that we were different.

“Can I show you something?” I ask the koob.

The alien flicks its tongue out, moistening an eye. “What does leejonayer wish to show? K’kk’k.”

I turn and start walking towards the back of the truck, motioning for the koob to follow but for my team to stay put.

“What’re you doing, Carter?” Abers whispers into the comm.

“Gonna show him my balls.”

Easy jumps in. “Did you bring macros for him, then?”

I ignore the snickering from the squad at that one, and decide not to answer. If I tried to talk right now with the grin on my face, I’d probably break out laughing. But I pull it all together once I reach the big truck’s tailgate.

Black flies are back. Not as many as in the lower elevations, but whichever ones flew high enough into the mountain air—yeah, they’re happy they found the smell.

The koob licks its nostrils, leaving a thick layer of saliva over the opening. Maybe to cut down on the stench, I dunno. “What these-ah?”

I take Mel S. from my back and hand it to the alien. He looks over the shotgun appraisingly, like he admires it. I don’t blame him, but it’s not a gift. I take it out of his hands.

“Ain’t enough room on that gun for all the marks I made on Kublar,” I say, and then I reach in and grab the robe of the koob I was looking for. It’s Chieftain Skagga and his tongue is lolling out of his thoroughly holed body.

“Sometimes,” I say, “us foreigners bring the big die to you koobs just fine.”

The koob bends down and examines Skagga’s face, then spits onto one of the corpse’s hazed eyes. He peers into the rest of the truck.

“Big die,” he says.

“Sitizt’ka,” I say, thankful I was listening well enough to Surber’s cultural lesson to remember the name for this little ritual. I adjust my crotch.

The big koob begins to unleash an echoing, croaky laugh. He grabs himself where I assume his fertilization pouch is stored. “Sitizt’ka.”


We wait at the truck for hours. The sun dips low in the evening, ushering in the cool of the Kublaren night we’ve all grown accustomed to. Out on the coast, near the big cities, the nights are pleasant. A relief. But inland… you won’t exactly freeze to death, but you’ll for sure be shivering if you aren’t prepared.

“This is gonna sound stupid,” Easy says, “but I’m glad Surber brought us these koob robes because my arms are freezing.”

“That’s on you,” I say. “Should’ve packed an overnight kit in your ruck.”

“Yeah, but we wasn’t supposed to be overnight,” Easy protests, holding his hands to a fire the koobs graciously set up for us in a big steel drum.

Ever since I showed their boss man our handiwork, we’ve all been cool. Our two sides keep to themselves, but it’s friendly enough.

“That’s a garbage answer,” Lana says. “Be ready.”

“Okay, but technically I’m correct. We were supposed to bunk in our own beds tonight, not stand guard over a buncha dead koobs on top of a mountain.”

The job we were assigned to was supposed to be daytime work. Out in the desert. Hot and sweaty. Plan was to load up the koobs and make for the compound. But things change. And it’s a little disconcerting to me that Easy didn’t feel the need to be ready for it. That’s sure not the way it would have been in the marines.

“Lesson learned,” I say, glancing over my shoulder at the sound of repulsors moving up the mountainside. “This job can be mundane, but we’re professionals and professionals should know better.”

“Yes, sir,” Easy says, playing up as if he’s sad to be told off. He adds, a bit more soberly, “Won’t happen again, Carter.”

I nod.

“Big ol’ repulsor van is moving this way,” Abers says. He’s watching through his spotting scope. “Black-out windows. No obvious markings.”

“Koobs?” I ask.

“Rig looks too nice for koobs.”

I key in my comm and go for command. “Brisco, this is Carter. How copy?”

“Hey, Carter,” Brisco replies, still completely disinterested in following any semblance of comm protocol or discipline. “What’s up?”

“Do you have eyes on us right now? We’ve spotted a repulsor-powered van, white, newer model, moving up the road to our location.”

There’s a pause.

“Uh, no visuals. Sorry. It’s okay.”

“Say again?”

“That van is probably us. Our guys. Don’t know who else it would be. It’s okay.”

Not in the mood to explain to Brisco how much of a problem words like “don’t know,” and “probably” are, I just end the transmission. “Copy. Carter out.”

“What’d they say?” Lashley asks.

I make sure the big man can see my sarcastic frown. “That it’s more of our guys… probably.”

“We have a lot of guns up here,” Lana says, moving away from the fire drum and behind the partial cover of our truck. She has her blaster in her hands. “That van doesn’t look like it can hold enough people to overpower us when you factor in our koob buddies.”

Easy primes his N-6. “Unless they’re just driving close enough to blow everything up.”

That’s a pleasant thought.

Abers is in the shadows, looking through the scope on his N-18. The van isn’t speeding, but usually the suicide-bomber types don’t make it obvious until the last second. A van roaring up the mountain would have been noticed and more than likely taken out below. At the very least called in to alert the Pekk chieftain’s men. But all those koobs are acting like nothing is going on at all.

Maybe it is a friendly like Brisco said, and we’re the only ones who didn’t get the memo. But that’s not something I’m willing to gamble on.

“I got a shot on where the driver should be,” Abers says. “Just say the word.”

“Not yet,” I reply and then step out into the middle of road, walking a few steps down the slope as the van glides toward me.

The vehicle’s headlights fill up my vision almost entirely, so that I have to squint and cast my eyes to the side to even get a hint of my surroundings, which are limited to the brightened street in front of me and the darkness of the night surrounding the boxy shape of the sled itself behind those blinding lamps. Still, I don’t let on. Don’t raise a hand to cover the glare. I know my team has eyes on the situation. Right now is about taking control of the situation.

I hear the repulsors cycle down as the vehicle comes to a stop, but those lights are still on high. The passenger door swings open and I can hear feet hitting the ground.

“Is this where we gotta park, Carter?”

I let my posture relax a bit. The lights on the van go out.

“Yeah, Hopper. I know you usually take a handicap slot, but this’ll have to do. How you been?”

“All good, brother. About to be a whole lot better, though.”

Chris Hopper is a former marine. Part of SOAR—Special Orbital Assault Regiment. They’re as high-speed as the hull busters get, them and the Recons. Not Legion, but damn close. They just can’t hump the armor is all.

Or at least, that’s my opinion.

Hopper, like me, is in charge of a combat team here on Kublar. We met in the services of Big Nee and hit it off during those periods of downtime at the compound. I’m happy enough to see him, but it’s unusual for the execs to put two teams together like this.

“Nice robe, by the way,” Hopper adds as he comes around the front of the sled.

“Thanks. Got it on sale.”

By now my team has relaxed and is sauntering down to my position, leaving Lana at the truck. Lash, Easy, and Abers begin mingling with Hopper’s team as they disembark from the van.

“Damn,” says one of Hopper’s guys, a former legionnaire. “Y’all are bathed in koob blood. Must’ve done some KTF today, huh?”

“More like WTF,” Easy says, shaking his head. “Surber had us on body detail all day long from some nasty-ass koob slaughter. Got ’em loaded in that truck.”

“Oh yeah?” the other contractor says. “Was it by the pashtarq flats?”

“You know it?” I ask.

“Hell yeah we know it. We’re the guys that dusted all those koobs!”

I can see the smiles of satisfaction on Hopper’s team. They did the KTF. We did the cleanup. And I can feel the frustration in my team. That’s not how we want to be used by the execs.

Hopper must see the annoyance in my face. He slaps my arm. “Cheer up, Carter. We can’t all be KTF-ing-sexual-tyrannasquids. And somebody’s gotta clean up the mess.”

“Nice to know Big Nee trusts us to clear corpses,” I say.

Hopper shakes his head. “We both know that my team had the easy job. More fun, but it was the easy work. If Surber had you clean up instead of letting those bones bleach, it’s because he trusted your team to get it done right.”

“Or because he hates us,” Easy chimes in.

Abers sniffs in the cold air. “I hear that.”

“What else is new?” I ask, thankful for the chance to have some interaction now that the night has dragged on so long. Surber, Winters, and the koobs are probably passed out inside, sleeping it all off until the morning.

“Just livin’ the dream,” Hopper replies, turning to his boys with a crooked smile on his face. “Set up an ambush on some donks not far from here. One of those biker groups that go out from the temple and shake down villages. Get that ‘make us ignore you’ credit from the locals too far away from Pekk to do anything about it. Dusted maybe ten. Brisco says a few got through to your team, though.”

“We dusted ’em,” I say, feeling a little relieved that we got to take in some of the action.

“Lousy ambush,” Lash says. Not like he’s trying to start a fight, more like he’s offering his professional opinion as a former whatever (I still think he’s Legion). “None of ’em should’ve squirted through.”

Hopper shrugs. “They were flying like rho-bats out of the nine hells once they saw what happened to the lead elements. How you doin’, Lashley?”

“I’m pissed off is how I’m doing, because there’s work being done and I ain’t doin’ it. Didn’t come to this rock to not fight.”

“I hear that, too,” says Abers.

Hopper gives another wide smile. “Something tells me you guys don’t know what’s happening tonight.”

That’s true enough. We don’t.

I take the bait. “What’s happening tonight?”

“As much as I like you personally, Carter, this isn’t a social call. We were mobilized because Surber and the Pekk hoo-ha hammered out some kind of deal.”

“How’s that?”

Hopper shrugs again. “They don’t tell me the details, man. But I know we’ve got an op tonight. My squad and yours.”

I look around at my team, who only hold out their hands. Not that I expected them to have any idea.

“What kind of op, Hopper?”

The smile that forms on the SOAR marine’s face is almost maniacal. “Taking down that zhee temple, bro.”

“Holy sket,” Easy says, and I can tell he’s excited.

I am too.

Those donk scum sacks have been a curse to the indigs and to every other sentient being out here, which includes Big Nee’s operatives and compounds. They’ve raided enough koob settlements that if Hopper hadn’t have told me otherwise, I would have gone to my grave thinking that the dead we picked up earlier today were victims of the zhee who’d moved out here to get away from the relatively restraining hand of the Soob’s local government.

But I’m also concerned. We haven’t been afforded the opportunity to prepare for this op whatsoever. I have a decent kit in my ruck, but that doesn’t mean by any stretch that I’m mission capable. And I’m not sure that any of the other guys are either, especially Easy.

There’s a lot that can go wrong.

We haven’t studied the temple compound—though these are all pretty much built to exacting standards that only vary based on how important the location is deemed to be. Our charge pack supply is okay at best. No explosives. No slicing tech to get us through any sophisticated doors…

“Well,” I say to Hopper, “I hope you’ve got some gear for us in that van because we’re pretty lean at this point.”

Hopper moves to his vehicle, draws a code-gesture with the tip of his finger on the sensor panel, and steps back as the vehicle’s back door lifts open like the back of a combat sled.

I walk around and see crates full of charge packs, weapons, night vision goggles, explosives, fraggers, the sturdy housing of slicer boxes, recon bots… you name it.

Hopper smiles. “Gotcha covered, brother. We’re all set. Just gotta wait for Surber to tell us when to roll.”

I peer over my shoulder, half expecting Surber to be walking in my direction. But all I see are the koobs, who still aren’t paying us any mind. Which tells me they know something is up, too. That they expected Hopper and his team to show up.

So it’s just us who are out of the loop. Again.


I take off my cap and grab an NV mask, sliding it over my head and adjusting the synth-strap to get a nice, tight fit over my eyes. This is the one thing I know I’ll need if we truly are going hunting tonight. They fit and look like ski goggles, if you’re familiar with snow sports. Those are big on my planet. Not so much on Kublar, but anyway, that’s how they look.

Everything takes on a mellow green tint that matches the smart-glass they’re made from. These are Legion-grade. Usually that’s just a marketing term used by those arms-related manufacturers who managed to bribe their way or exist far enough from the Republic’s reach to still sell to the galactic Republic.

Again, when there was a Republic.

In this case and with this model, it’s the truth. It’s not a bucket by any stretch, but the tech is similar. It can cycle through low-light night vision, thermal and infrared. It’s stress rated to be able to handle a full-charge blaster bolt fired at two hundred meters and a half-charge bolt fired at fifty meters. Which, as long as only the goggles are hit, is fine. I’d probably still get a good portion of my beard burned off if I get that unlucky.

It’s also rated to withstand a bullet impact from any range beyond twenty-five meters. But if I get shot in the face by a donk rifle with an eight millimeter round… well, at least the goggles will be able to be passed on to the next guy while I lay in a coma waiting for a med bot to pull me back to consciousness.

The point is, Big Nee doesn’t skimp on supplying us with the best when the job calls for it.

I press the sync button on the side of my goggles and then press the same on my rifle’s optics. The two pair and I can see my reticule guides. Right now they’re just arrows on my NV screen indicating that the barrel is pointed up while I look straight ahead. I bring the weapon to my hip, aiming it at an empty section of rock, and see the targeting reticule just fine.

I’m not a fan of hip-firing with anything, even my shotgun, but a setup like this makes it much easier.

Lastly, I look down the empty road that leads to the lower sections of the Pekk mountain enclave. It’s dark until I switch on the night vision capabilities and then I can see everything clear as daylight… with that same green tint.

But this will do. I can grab anything else after the rest of my team has a shot.

“Get stocked,” I call to my guys (and Lana).

I move back and try to get what intel I can from Hopper while they raid the back of the van like eager kids running to the spire on Unity Day morning to open their presents.

“So the temple… that’s the one twenty clicks west? Where the raiders mobilize from?”

Hopper nods. “Yeah. And about time. Gowan’s team did some recon a few days ago and the donks are building a landing pad.”

“Didn’t think they had ships, man.”

“The way things are going in the Soob, only a matter of time before some old Repub surplus gets ‘sold,’ you know?”

I shake my head. “If the Soob and its House of Reason wannabes had their way, this whole planet would be a new Ankalor.”

“So long as they get theirs,” agrees Hopper. “But that’s not what Big Nee wants and so it’s not what’s gonna happen, brother.”

I nod slowly. Big Nee does seem to have a plan—in general. Sometimes I don’t see how things like today fit in. Hopper’s team killing a bunch of unfriendly koobs and us cleaning them up. But from the beginning, we’ve been told over and again that we’re operating as part of a much larger vision and plan for the future of Kublar and its indigenous people.

I don’t care about the koobs.

But I do sleep a little better knowing that my paycheck is stemming from something that’s pretty much good. If it’s against the zhee, it can’t be all bad, anyway.

Now, you might be the type who is horrified that we’re about to raid a holy zhee temple. And maybe that’s because your experience stems from what the Republic constantly showed you, or you met some zhee who were friendly enough to not want to kill you and eat you. Some of the zhee who left the four worlds as refugees might be that way.

And their temples might be all right.

I wouldn’t really know. I’m not a theologian.

And I’m not here as a missionary or to even talk religion. I don’t care about the zhee gods except to say that they sure seem to demand a lot of suffering from their own adherents and especially from those who don’t worship them. But religion isn’t the point. I didn’t come to Kublar to convert the donks or koobs to Oba. I’m not even an Oba-worshipper. The galaxy would probably call me part of a cult when it comes to my own microscopic faith. That’s to be expected if you espouse any religion when you’ve got a system run by the House of Reason.

But what most of the zhee I’ve ever encountered do, especially out here so close to their home worlds, is hide behind their faith to do some truly wicked things within those temple walls.

Ritualistic torture and honor killing. The thousand cuts thing like what happened to that poor featherhead back when the Legion wiped out Ankalor.

Public rape as entertainment.

Slave markets.

Drug trafficking to fund countless insurgencies.

Mass executions and genocidal purging.

All happening within those towering walls protected by the pure holy warriors outside. Keeping the garbage that happens within hidden from those who shouldn’t know. Who don’t want to know.

That’s the zhee.

And when I was in the Legion, every time we were on a world where the trouble came from the donk mission population—let alone if we were garrisoned on one of the four home worlds—the IEDs that rocked our sleds, the enforcement teams that killed their own for appearing too friendly with the Republic, mutilated their children, left them cripples, abused them, shamed them… all that.

It always originated inside a holy zhee temple.

So when Hopper tells me we’re going to take one down, I’m guessing the plan will be to destroy the shuttle pad they’re building, neither of us has the slightest doubt that we’re doing the right thing.

“We’re good to roll, Carter.”

I look over and see Lana strolling toward me, a pair of stuffed med kits bouncing off of her hips, one on each side, the slings forming an X across her chest. Her waistband is studded with charge packs and I’m pretty sure she’s got some fraggers clipped to her webbing as well.

“You comin’ to save people or dust ’em?” I ask.

“Maybe both,” she says with a smile. “Hopefully I won’t have to do any saving.”

She looks to Hopper and then gestures at her athletic stretch pants. “Would have been nice if you’d brought some BDU bottoms. No pockets in this get up.”

Hopper nods at a group of his guys who aren’t even trying to hide the fact that they’re enjoying watching Lana move away in her hybrid warrior-workout attire. “My men would kill me for that.”

She rolls her eyes. “I’ve got some in my ruck. I was prepared. For the record. Just need a place to change before we roll.”

“The van will work once all the doors are closed,” Hopper offers.

Lana pulls down her jacket, shoulders her ruck, turns and shouts, “Eyes off the prize unless you want your medic to suddenly remember you’re a creeper. No skinpacks for creepers. Now clear out. I need this van.”

Hopper is shaking his head. “How did you get all the misfits, Carter?”

“No idea,” I say. “I thought all the teams were like this.”

“Haha. Definitely not. My crew is as solid as any SOAR outfit I was ever in. And Tedman Jess is practically leading a Dark Ops kill team.”

“Guess they just see me as the type to keep the misfits out of trouble. They’re good warriors.”

“I believe it. Lashley alone could take down a koob village if you let him loose.”

“Or die trying.”

“Probably. So, hey, how much longer do you think until Surber comes out? They told us to double-time it here and I was kind of thinking we’d be moving now. Gonna be cutting it close if we want this done before daylight once we factor in travel and setup.”

I see over Hopper’s shoulder that Surber just emerged from the chieftain’s lodge, with Winters a step behind.

“Looks like it’s…” I make air quotes with my fingers, “‘go time.’”

“It’s go time, gentlemen!” Surber barks. “We’re moving into an exciting new phase of world building. The Pekk tribe are to be viewed as allies and will be supporting us on this operation.”

That complicates things. No time for mission planning and now we’ve got to coordinate with an indig force on the fly. This is gonna turn out bad. I can feel it.

“Carter, Hopper,” Surber shouts. “You’re riding with me.”

I nod, expecting that this is where we’ll go over whatever planning can be done. In the Legion, we planned meticulously. Here, I feel lucky to get a day’s notice of an op.

“Abers,” I shout, “get the team loaded back into the truck.”

“No,” Surber says. “They can ride in the van. Our Pekk allies will transport the truck.”

“Change of plans,” I call, “you get to ride in style inside that van. But knock before entering or Lana will shoot you.”

The men laugh and begin to queue up as Easy gently knocks on the side panel.

Hopper and I move with Surber to his luxury sled. Errol and Wick are standing by the doors, waiting. I notice that Winters is still with us.

“Link up with the rest of the team, Winters,” I say.

Surber overrides me again. “No, he was part of the planning. You’ll want him with us.”

Part of the planning? What the hell?

“Planning, sir? I assumed that’s what we’d be doing en route to the—”

“Don’t assume.” Surber ducks inside the sled after cutting me off. He waves an annoyed hand. “Inside.”

Hopper and I exchange a look and then file in, with Winters closing the door behind us, looking sheepish and apologetic.

“Sir,” Hopper begins. “From what I’ve been briefed, an op like this requires significantly more planning than what we’re capable of doing tonight.”

“And so it does,” Surber says, pulling a datapad out of a compartment built into the smooth, black leather seats.

He punches a few buttons and a holodisplay pops up in between us. It’s a zhee temple compound.

“This is our target. And this is how the assault will work…”

“You’ve… decided on the assault ahead of time?” I ask, doing my best to hide the frustration I’m feeling.

This is something my team should be doing. So that every man knows every part of the operation. So that we’re redundant and each person can be aware of what our mission is, what our role is, what success looks like, and what needs to be done if one of us fails. I’m not trying to be a big dog here. It doesn’t have to be me specifically who comes up with the plan; I’ve followed lots of good plans devised by other legionnaires in my time. And I’ve made the best out of some terrible plans at the insistence of points back when they were a thing.

Right now, with the vibe I’m getting from Surber, it feels like points are back. And this time, they wear suits.

“That’s right, Mr. Carter,” Surber says as he brings up more schematics. “This operation has been planned for a long time and I assure you that the battle plan devised is as good as anything you may have come up with. Be thankful for one less thing to do.”

“Roger, sir.”

“Our only holdup was securing a firm alliance with Pekk. We now have that and so things are going to begin to move very quickly.

“Your team has wanted action; that doesn’t escape me, Carter. Well, you’ve been critical in getting us to this point. Soon I suspect your team will be wondering when there’ll be an end to all the… action.”

I set my jaw. Hopper does that thing when he’s a little nervous where he pinches the end of his nose and keeps sniffing.

This is what we’re here for. What we’re paid to do.

I lean forward, trying to take in everything that is unfolding on the holodisplay before my eyes. But in the back of my mind, I can’t help but think…

I should have tried calling Mel again.


“Two guards, on the wall,” I whisper. “I can hear ’em up there.”

It took us hours to make the drive, moving with lights out slowly through the Kublaren mountains, the hard pan, and out around the zhee village set up on the north side of their temple, the towering height of its walls serving as a buffer to the wind storms that regularly blow in from the south. After that, my team and Hopper’s team parted ways to make our individual assaults per the battle plan. Each of us has to scale opposite temple walls before clearing the compounds inside.

“I can see ’em,” Abers whispers through the comm. He’s far enough away that he doesn’t need to whisper, hiding in the rocky folds of a big stone hillside eight hundred meters away. But it’s a nerves thing. It’s psychological. You keep your voice down until you can’t. “Hang back for a while so I can take out the one without the other noticing. They’re too close right now.”

I stare up at the stars. It’s still dark, but light is only a few hours away and we need to be gone without a trace by then. “Roger. Standing by.”

We wait for a full minute before the comm in my ear comes back to life. But it isn’t Abers, it’s Hopper from the opposite end of the square temple compound.

“Alpha One to Bravo One, how copy?”

“I hear you, Alpha One.”

That’s at least one thing I appreciate about this op. We’re falling into tighter comm discipline. I haven’t heard from Brisco yet, who would be most likely to foul things up on the comm. But I’m not sure if I will since everything seems to be running through myself, Hopper, Surber, and the koobs waiting somewhere out in the desert. So at least for one night, things are back to being professional. It feels right and comfortable. What I was trained for. What I signed up for.

“We’ve secured the wall and are preparing to move on Alpha Target Two,” Hopper says, his voice barely a whisper. I have no doubt his team is en route even as we speak. Alpha’s Target Two is a colonnaded building separate from the temple itself that intel believes to be a brothel. It should be quiet, if not empty, but Alpha’s job is to clear it of any zhee hostiles. There’s no telling what they’ll find inside, though.

“What’s your status, Bravo One?”

I look up to the top of the walls. I can see the elongated ears of one of the donkey-like zhee guards and I’m pretty sure I can dust him if I step back and line up a shot.

“Should be up the walls in a few,” I say.

“Roger. We’ll try not to steal all the glory once we move on to T-3. Alpha One out.”

I push my tongue against the inside of my mouth. At this rate Alpha team will be dusting the zhee inside the temple before we get our butts to the top of the wall. I key in Abers on the comm.

“How’s it looking, Abers?”

“At this range, I’m not sure I can get two shots off in time. I can drop one for sure, but the other guy will probably have time to drop down out of sight.”

“Roger. I can tag one of them from my position.”

I step away from the temple wall, the eyes of the rest of my team on me as they crouch in tense silence. I shoulder my suppressed blaster rifle—Mel R.—and thumb a switch on the attached ultrabeam so it sends up an IR laser beam that I can see dancing on the body of the donk stationed above me.

“Painting my target,” I tell Abers.

“Copy. Okay. Say the word and I’ll drop the other.”

I take a few short breaths. “Go.”

I send three suppressed shots up toward the zhee. The sound is something like a soft wick and the flash is hidden by the sizeable suppressor screwed on to the end of my blaster rifle. The light of each bolt is like a glimmer of moonlight shimmering up the walls—not the sort that will harshly brighten up the darkness like a blaster bolt shot at full power.

The trade-off is that I have to be close enough to the target to get a kill. And I am. The three bolts hit center mass just as a similarly dim bolt races across the quarter-moon sky and strikes the other donk on the distant parapet. Abers’s shot makes a slight buzzing sound, like an oversized insect as it races at subsonic speeds across the distance to make the kill. Not an easy shot, but Abers makes it look simple.

“Target down,” the sniper says coolly.

“Roger. Target down,” I say. Even though he knows it; saw the whole thing.

In the pregnant silence that follows the death of the two sentinels, as my team strains for sounds of trouble, I pull out a small drone and send it up to the top of the wall. The little bot reaches its zenith and hovers, sweeping for targets with a miniature holocam that sends a real-time visual to the smartwatch on my wrist.

“Looks clear,” I say. “Winters, you’re up.”

The young merc nods and then adjusts his gloves and boots. He presses a button on a sort of console strapped to his arm and the slightest sound of vibration hums into the night. The gloved fingertips have these little nanite claws which can dig into a wide variety of surfaces, same as on the toes of his boots.

Winters reaches up, grabbing a seam in the wall, which is built of massive cut stones stacked on one another, and begins to climb his way to the top.

My back to the wall, I watch my holofeed, wanting to see any potential trouble that might be in store for the kid. But things look quiet. And why wouldn’t they?

Big Nee picked an ideal night for this op—the festival of Kash the Unrepentant. Most of the donks would be blackout drunk, except for those unlucky souls fated by the four gods to perform watch and other essential duties. They would have to wait another year for a chance at the revelry. Another year that wouldn’t come, because we’re about to KTF the lot of ’em.

Two synth-ropes unravel from the top of the wall, and Winters covers the parapet steps that lead down into the temple’s outer compound as my team begins to climb their way up to the top. First Easy, then Lana, and finally Lash who, despite his size, gets moving up the wall like a hellcat climbing a Togus palm.

“Alpha One, this is Bravo One. We have secured the wall and are en route to Bravo Target Two, how copy?”

“Roger,” Hopper replies, and he sounds a little winded. “Running into more resistance than we thought—nothing we can’t handle.”

This surprises me a bit, because I haven’t heard any noise at all coming from inside. No sounding of the alarm and certainly no blaster fire.

“You need support?” I ask.

“Negative. Nothing like that. Just… complications. I’m on comms with Surber to get things cleared up. Over.”

I leave Hopper to do whatever it is he’s doing within the columns that surround Alpha Target Two, and free climb the rope to join my team at the top.

“How’s your climb, Abers?” I ask. The sniper is supposed to be moving to higher ground—the top of the hill—in an attempt to better support us on the other side of the walls if the need arises. He’ll have to switch to full power to be effective at that range, but if we run into trouble inside, the need for stealth will be out the window.

“It’s a short trip to the top, Carter,” Abers huffs. “Arms are tired from holding my rifle more than my legs. This hill ain’t no thing.”

“Copy. Bravo One out.”

That’s the last time I intend to speak out loud until I absolutely have to. You get used to talking in the Legion all throughout an op. Your bucket hides your voice from any hostiles, and the L-comm has never been cracked as best I know. But here, that isn’t happening. Other than Winters, no one has a full-body suit or an enclosed helmet. Those are expensive, and while Big Nee supplies a lot of goodies, it’s up to us to buy anything above and beyond… and if we had the credits to spare for something like that, well, why would we even be here?

I tell the team that I want Easy on point with Lana trailing me and Lash pulling up the rear as we move down the steps of the parapets and into the outer compound courtyard. I step over one of the dead zhee and peer over the edge. It’s empty, just as the bot represented. I’m not surprised. It’s a pretty chilly night, and whatever zhee are here likely opted to stay indoors where the revelry took place.

We stream down the staircase and then flow through the shadows cast by the high walls, moving with purpose toward Bravo Target Two—a sort of barracks for lack of a better word. It’s where all the zhee warriors living in the temple compound sleep. I have no idea how many of them stumbled back to their beds, but our objective is to eliminate any warriors we find.

I can see the IR lights attached to my team’s weapons bouncing as we move, sweeping the compound for targets that aren’t present. They begin to concentrate on our point of entry—a slick impervisteel reinforced door with a nice high-tech lock. It seems out of place on a compound that otherwise looks ancient, even though the zhee only built it perhaps three years prior. Everything is stone and wood. Dusty and dry from the Kublaren heat and moisture-wicking dust that constantly blows along the hard pan.

Lana hustles to the door, grabbing a slicer box from its place inside one of her med bags. She’s not a tech per se, but these military-grade boxes are pretty much foolproof. Even I could use them. The box attaches to the lock’s access panel and makes a direct interface with the lock/alarm system. It’s then a battle of two programmed wills as the box seeks to exploit and override whatever security is in place and the door does its best to stay closed until it’s convinced it really should swing open.

Expensive door locks can be set to trigger an immediate alarm as soon as something like this begins stomping in its yard, but we’re not worried about that for a couple of reasons. The first is that Big Nee definitely can outspend these donks. He’s giving us Dark Ops tech, make no mistake. The second is that even when that level of tech is in place, it isn’t long before it gets shut off. A few clumsy attempts by people who are authorized to enter sets the hairpin trigger off and puts the base or compound on lockdown and then someone in the decision-making chain decides that all the false alarms just aren’t worth it and they disengage the security layer.

Humanoid nature.

It takes all of fifteen seconds for the slicer box to work its magic and flash green with an audible click of the door’s locking mechanism disengaging. Lana tries the handle, modified slightly for the zhee’s hoof-like claws to manipulate, and then pushes the door in just a few centimeters or so.

“Go,” she mouths, nodding her head and moving to the side of the door so there’s no mistake: It’s time for us to storm this castle.

We debated this part quite a bit back in the sled. Everyone should be passed out drunk, and tossing in bangers is sure to wake up at least a few donks in this compound. At the very least alert the guards still up by the front gate. In the end, we decided to keep the noise down until we neutralized our respective Target Twos.

I take the lead position, my silenced rifle sweeping in the darkness with Winters right behind me and Easy and Lash bringing up the rear. The smooth, new door swings inward on alloyed hinges as quiet as a tomb. I move in hard, but quietly. A sort of aggressive silence, I guess you’d call it.

The entryway opens up into a small antechamber lined with rifles and other gear—the stuff the zhee warriors sleeping inside would grab on their way out the door we just breached. Some of the rifle slots are empty though, which means they either belong to the guards or maybe that a few of the zhee are like me and won’t go to sleep unless they’re within arm’s reach of a weapon.

I thought that was just a leej habit. My wife hates it.

There’s a round wooden table just big enough for one positioned in a corner by the door leading inside the barracks itself. Its lone occupant is laying his head on its surface, tongue out and a puddle of drool slowly inching toward joining a brackish puddle spilt from an overturned glass of krippa, that foul zhee liquor guaranteed to give any non-zhee the feeling of a hangover on the first sip. One last round that the zhee in question couldn’t quite finish before passing out.

Only maybe he was smart not to finish it off, because his ears twitch and he lazily lifts his head from the table, smacking his equine lips and bringing up the back of his hairy wrist to wipe his face. I see those ears swivel, like he thinks he can hear something in the near total dark room.

Like he hears us.

I send two blaster bolts into the donk’s chest, the double wick sound filling the small room for the briefest of seconds and then giving way to the noise of the donk spilling from his chair.

Winters moves past me to the door leading into the next room. It’s made from rough, unfinished wood and has a glass square at eye level. The kid peers through, checking to see if anyone is inside and—if they are—whether they’re stirring from the noise.

“Looks good,” he whispers into his comm. Much too quiet for me to hear unless I was being fed his voice in my ear.

“How many?” I ask.

“A lot. Maybe, thirty or forty asleep in bunks. Twenty stacks, two beds per.”

I grit my teeth. That’s a lot of donks in one room. And if any of them are armed, we can get ourselves into some trouble real quick.

“Maybe we string some det-cord over all the bunks while they sleep,” suggests Winters. “Then blow it and kill ’em all at once.”

I smile inwardly. The kid has imagination.

“That might work,” I say, shaking my head. “But it’s too easy to muck up. One guy feels a tickle and we’re hosed. No, we’re getting our hands a little dirty, I’m afraid.”

I pull my knife, a powder-coated black blade carbon forged from impervisteel salvaged from the Chiasm itself. Or at least that’s what the koob who sold it to me said. But koobs made good blades, regardless of the source. Any history is just a bonus.

“Roger,” Winters says, letting his rifle hang on its sling before fastening it to his side and pulling a koob knife of his own—practically a machete.

I can see the kid is ready for action with no hesitation, and no questioning the wisdom of what I’m saying. He seems… eager to do work that a lot of operators I’ve been around have been loath to perform. Killing is hard enough. Doing it up close and personal… not everyone is cut out for it. And there’s a fine line for the ones who can do the job as a job and do the job because it’s what they’d do anyway so they may as well be paid for it. I ran into a few guys like that in my time in the Legion and it always gave me the creeps. Still, I was glad they were on our side.

“No big swings,” Lash cautions from the back of the room. “Quick cuts. Sever the spinal cord so they can’t thrash around. This is gonna take too long.”

I look back at the big legionnaire. “I don’t disagree. We’re not going to kill every single one in their sleep. C’mon, man.”

“So what’s the plan?” Easy whispers.

“We move through the room and set some det-charges and incendiaries. Knives for any light sleepers. Lock the doors on our way out. Once we reach BT3 and go live, we blow the charges and let the donks cook. That way they don’t come after us. Ooah?”

The team acknowledges that they understand, though none of them say “Ooah” back to me. Even Lash. Makes me second-guess my theory about where he served.

“Lash,” I say, “you hang back with that SAB. Things go sideways and we drop and let him clear the room. Lana, you move ahead and get us ready to move from here to the temple proper—schematics showed a hall leading right to where we want to be from here. Winters, you cover her from center and watch for any zhee who might wake up. Easy, we set the charges and stay quiet, and then cover Lash while big man moves through to the other side. Questions?”

I’m met with silence.


I creep through the wooden door leading into the barracks. The first thing that hits me is the stink. I’d say it smells like a barn, but that doesn’t do it justice. More like a hog pen built atop an open sewer. I’ve smelled worse, but not by much. The room is musty and humid—stifling. Too many bodies, too much gas, too much funk.

I move to the nearest corner as Easy does the same on the opposite side of the room. I pull a charge from my satchel and affix it to the wall at chest-height, trigger-chaining a thermal fragger to it. Just before this thing blows, it’ll send a detonation sequence to the fragger’s thumb-switch interface causing it to cook down. And then the blast will push the blossoming relentless burn of the thermite into the center of the room and on the donks, their straw-like bedding—everything.

We’ll set up six of these in the barracks itself. That combined with the natural gas these zhee are producing in their sleep—I hear one of them rip and then quietly bray before rolling over—and this place should go up in an epic inferno.

I turn to verify that Easy has his first charge set. He gives me a thumbs up and then points to the ground. I look down and see a big part of the reason for the stink in this room. Other than the antechamber, this room has no partitions. No sinks, no showers… and no toilets, because instead the donks have four-inch diameter open holes that must sit atop a nasty cistern of filth below. The tile floor around the one at my feet is splattered with sticky piss and shards of whatever these zhee last ate.


And a tripping hazard, which is why Easy pointed it out. He motions that there are more throughout the room and for me to be careful. I give him the OK sign and check to see how Lana and Winters are faring. I see her at the end of the room as planned. Her PDW ready, she’s motioning for me to look amid the barracks.

I see the kid in the middle of plunging his blade into the neck of a snoring donk. I don’t know if the zhee was waking up or what, but it’s dying now. I involuntarily hold my breath, wanting to be quiet. Not wanting the donk to sound the alarm because Winters performed the knifework wrong. Not that he isn’t capable, just that I don’t know.

I trust myself to do it right. Lashley. Maybe Easy. Maybe.

But there’s no noise escaping from the zhee. Nor is there a struggle. Either Winters knew what he was doing or he took Lash’s advice to heart. Good result. We’re still clear.

I watch Winters creep back to the center of the room, a row of bunks lining the walls on either side. Easy and I move toward him, Lash standing in the open doorway behind us, his SAB ready. But as I take a step, I see that two of the donks on the bottom bunks are dead. Throats cut deep, blood pooling in their straw and pillows.

I throw up a hand and Easy stops. No way all these donks stirred. Maybe Winters is thinking insurance policy but I see it as an unnecessary risk. I motion the kid over, not wanting to speak but wanting to make it crystal clear that he needs to keep the stabbing to a minimum moving forward.

Winters stalks over while Easy takes a knee, watching the still slumbering bunk room with vigilance. I’m thinking of how to express the butt-kicking that’s waiting for Winters if he doesn’t cut back on the serial killer stuff without yelling when I hear a boom sound from the opposite end of the compound.

The walls and floor shake. Strands of straw rustle down from the donks’ bedding. My first thought in the continuous reel of activity in my mind is that we took too long and Hopper is having Alpha team assault their next target. But he would have gotten on comms to alert me.

All the other thoughts go out the window, because the blast woke the zhee up. The donks sit up in their bunks, their speed no doubt varying depending on just how drunk they were when they went to sleep.

And then Lash yells from the back of the room. “Get down!”


Easy drops at the sound of Lashley’s deep voice. But Winters sort of freezes. He makes a target for a semi-alert zhee who hops down from the top of his bunk wielding a vicious, curved kankari knife. I pull my shotgun from my back and intercept the would-be assassin with a boom so loud it’s sure to wake up any stragglers.

The zhee is caught off-balance and slams into the post of a nearby bunk before pirouetting down dead on the tile.

“Down!” Lash yells again, and I can hear the whine of his SAB as it spools up.

I drop, reaching out and grabbing the kid by his armored shoulder and pulling him down onto the tile. As I land, my elbow scrapes the edge of one of those shit-holes, breaking the skin.

Sket. That’s gonna be a whole series of shots from the medbot.

No sooner do I hit floor than Lashley’s SAB begins to cut its way through the room, sweeping across the bottom level of the bunks and sending smoking pieces of splintered wood and zhee flying in every direction. Lash has his charge set to full, and those caught in its fire are paying for it.

Zhee, awakened from their drunken stupors by adrenaline, begin jumping out of their beds, seeking what concealment they can find between the bunks.

I swing my rifle out in front of me and begin shooting at any zhee I can sight in the open space beneath the raised bunks, shooting along the floor and striking donks as they lay, or dropping them with blaster bolts to their legs as they attempt to crawl away or return fire on Lash from behind their beds.

“Easy! Sweep bottom! Winters! Mid-level!” I shout into the comm, hoping to be heard above the unyielding roar of Lashley’s SAB. That should free the big man from taking care of ground level so he can focus on the donks that haven’t jumped off of their top bunks.

I’m about to call out a donk who is rising from an upper bunk at the end of the room with a slug-throwing rifle when Lana sends up a burst from her PDW, riddling the zhee’s back with blaster bolts and sending him careening off the bunk, clipping his jaw on the bedframe next to him before the eight foot or so drop to the ground.

Lash sees what we’re doing and focuses on spraying the upper bunks while we send blaster bolts underneath and just above the bottom bunks. The only place not being peppered with fire is the door nook Lana has crammed herself into, at once hoping that no one comes through from the other side while dusting any zhee who attempt to flee in her direction.

Easy pops up to a knee, ceasing his fire, no longer capable of being the beast beneath the donks’ beds. “Nothing but dead bodies gettin’ in the way!” he shouts. And then he picks off any zhee he can spot in the open between top and bottom bunks.

I see pretty much the same and so I pop up. Our firing has slowed, getting more precise now that the threat in the room is either dead or lying among the dead. Only Lash is keeping up his high cycle of fire, though I suspect it’s no longer needed.

“Okay, cease fire!” I call.

A moment later the SAB whines to a cool. Little fires crackle and pop in the wooden bunk frames. The straw bedding smolders, mixing with the smell of dead and burnt zhee in a way that ups the retch factor already caused by the open toilets instead of covering the putrid odor up.

“Easy. We clear each row and then go. Lana, watch the door. Lash, Winters, cover us.”

I move first, Easy by my side. I visually sweep the top and bottom bunks for any sleepers, putting two blaster bolts into a donk who was probably already dead, lying in the top bunk nearest me. Swinging around the first set of bunks, I turn the corner with my blaster rifle on full auto, filling the pile of zhee I find in the gap between rows of beds with blaster bolts. Easy does the same on the opposite side.

No zhee pop up to stop us, and we repeat on the next row.

“Changing packs,” Easy calls.

“Changing packs,” I repeat, doing the same so I’m fresh before the next round.

Still no donk resistance. I think we got ’em all.

We clear each row of bunks and give the all clear for Lash and Winters to join us by Lana’s side.

“Alpha One, this is Bravo One, how copy?”

I don’t get a response.

“Hopper, this is Carter. We heard a boom on your side of the camp. What’s up?”

The comm jumps to life and immediately I hear blaster fire from the other end. It’s Hopper. “Carter, man! We’re on the run to AT3. Encountered heavy resistance. Had to blow a room just to slow the donks. I’m down two guys. We need support, brother!”

“Copy,” I say, pushing the message to my squad’s comms so we’re all up to speed on what happens now. “We’ve cleared BT2 and are proceeding to BT3. We’ll link up there to help.”

“That won’t work,” Winters says, and his voice is serious.

“Why not?” I ask.

“That won’t work,” Hopper says into my ear as I utter the words. “Your target three is our target four. We had one more stop than you.”

That wasn’t mentioned in the meeting I had with Surber. I look up to Winters. “You know something… spill it because we gotta go now.”

“In the initial planning, Alpha Team was to deny zhee access to a deep-chamber comm room. Keep them from calling into the Soob with a report. We gotta get there.”

“Okay. How?”

There are a ton of questions in my mind right now, but I’m chalking it up to Winters having sat with Surber and the Pekk chieftain all night and hearing more of the big picture than I was told. Hopper seemed to know more than me as well. So it’s not really a surprise. One thing about the way Big Nee and the execs run this operation is that everything—everything—is need to know.

“Fastest way is back to the front of the compound and around, but that won’t work.”

“Why not?”

Winters hesitates.

“Hey,” Lash says, pushing the kid hard on the shoulder. “If you know something, you best say it now, ’cause Alpha sounds hip deep in trouble.”

The kid looks around and says, “The Pekk tribe should be starting a full-force assault on those front gates. We don’t want to be caught in that. Fastest route now is to clear Bravo Target Three and then move on to take AT3 and relieve Alpha team.”

I let out a sigh. Not only because it means that we’ll have to take the temple down ourselves instead of with the support of Hopper’s team, but because this whole situation was likely avoidable if we’d have just been able to do the planning ourselves. I don’t care what assurances Surber gave, this is exactly why I was uneasy with an out-of-the-box op.

The directions are never as clear as the brass think. Never.

“Anything else we need to know?” I ask Winters.

The kid shakes his head.

“Okay, let’s move up on the objective. We’ll blow the room after we clear it to keep anyone from following us from the compound.”

“No,” Winters says, and I can feel the annoyance in the group.

“Why not?” I ask through gritted teeth.

“We might need to fall back through the exit. Harder to do if it’s on fire.”

I’m pretty sure there’s more than one way out of the temple itself, but it’s a fair enough point and I’m not going to waste time arguing. “Fine.”

I pull out a little holo-stick and approach the door leading to the temple. Stacked up against the wall itself, I push the stick underneath the solid wood door and watch the holoimage on my watch.

“Hallway is clear, but it’s a thirty-meter walk to the next set of doors leading to the temple.”

I stand up and try the door. It’s locked.


The big man rolls out from his cover against the wall and with a booming kick, forces the door in. It swings wildly and then we’re all moving down the corridor. It’s fairly nondescript. Stone walls with iron-grated open air windows placed about two feet over our heads. High enough so you can’t see out but the moonlight can come in as weak shafts that illuminate the walls.

I can hear sporadic weapons fire from all across the compound. Some of it sounds close. “Easy, boost up and see if you can get a look at what’s going on out there.”

Easy hops up, grabbing the window ledge with his fingers and then pulling his head up for a peek. No sooner does he do so than he falls back down in perfect timing with a boom that shakes us all so hard, we’re grabbing walls to stay on our feet. Dust and sand billow into the hall through the open window portals.

“What?” Lana manages.

“Missile,” pants Easy, lying flat on his back. “I saw it—I swear I saw it—streak right down and onto the main gates. Blew them out.”

Now the gunfire has increased tenfold. I’m hearing automatic blaster fire and the distinctive cracking of slug-throwing rifles spitting 7.62 bullets into the mix. Part of the rhythm of life on Kublar. The donks and the zhee both love that old tech. And without a Legion out there standing mostly impervious in their armor against it, why not?

Winters helps Easy to his feet. I feel Lana toying with the back of my neck.

“You’re bleeding,” she says, clicking a tiny ultrabeam on to better inspect whatever is wrong back there. I don’t feel anything. Maybe a trickle of blood seeping down my back.

“Can it wait?” I ask.

“Hold your repulsors.” She grafts on a small skinpack. “That needs to be cleaned out when we’re done, but you’re good.”


We hurry to the door, and I’m expecting it to burst open with zhee shooters set to fill this hallway with fire. But we get there with no contact.

The door is solid wood again, and locked. The space on either side is limited, so that we’re crowded together against the wall. I use my holo-wand again but can’t see anything from under the door. At all. It’s pitch black, too dark for the device’s night vision to work.

“Blind,” I inform the team. “Bangers.”

Easy and Winters each pull ear-poppers from their webbing and hold them ready.


Lashley rolls out and gives the door a punishing kick. It doesn’t seem to budge. He tries another. Then a third. Still nothing.

“Back,” I say, not wanting him to be exposed in front of that door for too long. It’s thick, but thick enough to stop a hail of heavy weapons fire from going through and putting holes in him? Not worth the risk.

“Too tight for a det-rope,” Easy says.

He’s right. The hallway doesn’t give us anywhere to go to be free of the blast—even a localized one like that—unless we move down a good ways. But that would prevent us from breaching the room quickly. We’d lose precious time running down the hall toward the door, not to mention the complications that could arise from throwing a banger at range that doesn’t make it out of the hall itself. I find myself wishing we were all in Legion armor. It would make life easier right now, if nothing else.

Looking at the lock, I take a guess that what we’re dealing with is a heavy iron bolt and that’s all. I mean, it could be barricaded from the other side, but that seems like a lot of precaution for the donks to take. And the zhee aren’t particularly known for industry or careful planning. Not usually.

I prime my shotgun with a pump and then roll out in front of the door. The rest of my team turn their backs to me, ducking low to avoid any blowback as I send an ionic-charged blast into the locking mechanism. It makes an awful noise that makes me thankful for the comm’s ability to serve as hearing protection while in my ear canal. There’s a definite smoking hole in the door. I give it a big boot, and the thing swings open, revealing a darkness that my goggles can’t penetrate beyond a few meters. But there are donks in the room, make no mistake.

The moment the door swung open, Easy and Winters tossed in bangers. I roll away from the opening at the same time, and we all shield ourselves from the concussive blasts. Those big booms hurt the donks particularly bad. Something about their ears.

“Beams,” I shout, and then thumb the ultrabeam on my shotgun to life, sending a searing streak of pure white before me, enough to make me squint reflexively on the other side of my NV goggles. But it’s enough for us to operate in.

A donk is swaying on weak knees, its claws pulling down on its ears, its eyes blinking non-stop as if to wick away the blinding. I send another shotgun blast into the zhee and drop him on the spot, moving straight for the right corner of the room while my men begin to clear the opposite corner and center, giving us a full view of everything happening inside. I can hear the guys sending suppressed bolts all around me. Probably not for practice because I can see at least four targets just in my little area, which makes me think this whole place is thick with zhee. Should have tossed in some fraggers.

Ahead, a staggering zhee raises an automatic blaster rifle with one arm and blindly pulls the trigger, sending a barrage of blaster bolts into his nearby buddy in a blind and panicked attack before I drop the shooter with another boom from Mel S. That leaves two more donks for me to take out. One is hunched over, clawed hoof steadying himself against the wall. He’s wearing a black flowing robe, like one of the holy men. I don’t see a weapon but I blast him. At the very least, he has one of those knives. More likely, a full auto blaster rifle that he dropped or hid inside his skirts.

They used to do that, the zhee. Back when the House of Reason dictated what war was supposed to be like. We’d raid a zhee terrorist cell and by the time we got to the back of the room, the rifles were tossed or hidden from sight and we had to switch to nonlethal force or face the political consequences. I can’t tell you how difficult that is, to be exchanging blaster fire with humanoids who want to kill you (and eat you if they can) but be expected to just stop short the moment one of them—and oftentimes it would be just one with buddies shooting on either side—decided to stop firing. If you took them out along with the other threats, it usually meant an inquiry. At least if there was a point in your squad or you were doing joint force stuff with the Army.

That’s not how Nilo runs things.

And so when I come to my last donk, an older zhee with long strands of gray and white hanging wispy from his chin, I blast him on the ground where he lies, waving off an attack that he still can’t see. I don’t think he was armed, but he was more than likely one of the frenzy-makers. A donk who whipped up other donks into a thirst for blood and then sent them out after whoever was unfortunate enough to be in their way. So even if he wasn’t fighting, he was responsible for more than a share of death.

“Clear!” I call, pivoting to see how the rest of my team is doing. We’ve all reached our terminus at about the same time, and soon they’re echoing my call. We took the room and are set to push farther into the compound itself.

The room’s only door other than the one we came in through leads to the great hall of the temple itself. A long affair with smooth columns upholding stone arches and polished floors with mosaic depictions of war, torture, and varied and unsettling images of a graphic and sexual nature. This place isn’t meant for our eyes. To even breathe the air inside is considered a most serious sacrilege. So much so that every zhee in the galaxy is honor-bound to kill us for it, should they know our crime. Which means the zhee in the palace should especially want to wash the floors with our blood. Only thing is… there aren’t any donks I can see except for the mosaic ones that my team tramples over as we move down the hall.

“Where’s the party?” Easy whispers into the comm.

I can hear the steady echo of weapons fire from the opposite end of the temple. It’s going back and forth, but the zhee with their archaic slug throwers are doing most of the talking. It’s Hopper’s team who has to do all the listening.

“We need to move fast to find out,” I say, deploying a trio of surveyor bots of various sizes. These will hover ahead quickly. They don’t tag targets, but they do make a quick map of the area for us to use. That will help in clearing the place and getting relief to Hopper.

The biggest one moves straight down the hall, bathing it in infrared lasers and painting a picture of how everything is laid out. Two smaller bots zip along behind, sneaking under doors or through openings to survey any rooms they come by.

We don’t waste any time, following the bots until we reach a small door. The map the machines created tells me the room is small, maybe ten by ten. I grab the door, prime a fragger, and toss it inside, moving on after the boom.

“Clear these rooms fast,” I say to the team. “Fraggers in each. Lana, keep eyes on our rear in case any donks hiding in there come out after us despite any new holes we give ’em. We only sweep the rooms big enough to where a couple of grenades can’t do the job for us.”

That’s a risk, I know. We ought to be clearing every room we pass to ensure that no zhee can hit us from behind. But Hopper and his guys are in the thick of it, and they need us there. I realize I haven’t heard from them in a while, and check in.

“Alpha One, Bravo One. What’s your status?”

“Not good,” Hopper responds almost as soon as I finish. The sound of blaster fire threatens to mute his voice over the comm. “Lost two guys and we’re pinned. Need some support, brother.”

“Roger. We’re moving your way now. Bravo One, out.”

I see Winters toss a fragger into a room and wait for it to boom before calling on my squad. “We need to double-time it to Alpha Team! They’re gettin’ hammered by the donks.”

“Just a few more rooms,” Easy tells me. “We should link up with Alpha on the other side of that door.”

The proximity is right, we’ve moved through most of the open temple structure. And the blaster fire is growing louder as we move.

“Let’s make it fast,” I tell the team. “Time is lives. Lana, how we looking back there?”

“No followers.”

“Carter,” Lash calls out. “This room is too big. We need to clear it before we move on.”

I grit my teeth but move over. The delay is unwelcome, but the big man is right. We’re of no use to Hopper if we show up only to get dusted from the back by some zhee we left behind in our haste.

“Stack up,” I say. “Let’s do this fast, but right. Don’t hurry it and make a mistake.”

We keep Lana back to have eyes on the hall. The door opens with a kick from Lash and then we toss in fraggers and bangers and wait for the rumbles to end.

“Go!” I call, and the three of us storm inside.

The room is big, maybe fifty square meters. But the only donks I see are in the back of it, standing on either side of another door—this one distinctly modern. Lash and Winters have their weapons firing first, sending shots at medium range into the donks. But it soon becomes apparent that they weren’t actually standing guard. More like they died up against the walls. The zhee absorb the bolts to center mass and offer no hint of pain. Their bodies just absorb the blast and then slump over, leaving a smear of blood on the wall like paint rollers.

“Frags got ’em,” Winters says. “What now? Another door.”

“Bring up the slicer kit,” I say. “We’ll lock it tight and move on.”

“Roger,” says Easy, who runs to retrieve it from Lana and returns a few seconds later.

“Alpha One, we’re about two minutes out,” I say, figuring Hopper would want updates.

“Hurry!” comes the reply.

I’m about to tell him to hang on when Surber’s voice comes over the comm. “Carter. I’m showing your team’s location as just outside Alpha Target Three.”

I don’t have any idea where Alpha Target Three is supposed to be. No one saw fit to tell me that part of the plan. But before I can answer, Winters chimes in. “Affirmative. We’re at the target.”

Surber runs with the confirmation. “You are to breach the door and neutralize the target. Immediately.”

I shake my head, aware of the dark looks on Easy and Lash. “Mister Surber, all due respect, but Alpha Team—”

“Right-kelhorned-now!” Surber shouts in my ear.

There’s a boom and the temple shakes. Dust sprinkles down around us.

“Carter,” Winters says, grabbing my shoulder. “We have to take this room. Even if it means all of Alpha gets dusted.”

What. In. The. Hell.


The small arms fire in the front of the compound is thick. As loud as most battles I’ve witnessed. The koobs and zhee are fighting it out while Alpha and Bravo teams work the temple itself.

Except only my team has made it through our objectives. And what we should be doing is moving to relieve Alpha. Only… things just got complicated.

“Winters,” I say, trying to use my keep calm voice, “I need you to explain to me just what you and Surber decided while the rest of us were guarding a bunch of dead koobs, and I need you to explain it two kelhorned hours ago.”

Everyone is sending blaster bolts at the kid with their eyes. Second-guessing every time he corrected or steered course in the past—like using bots at cleanup, or not torching the barracks. It’s obvious that Winters has some kind of inside knowledge of what’s happening. And it isn’t sitting well with the mercenaries who put their lives partially in his trust as a squad mate.

Lashley steps up. He doesn’t lay a hand on the kid as he towers over him, but the shadow he casts over Winters brings with it a forecast of the sort of destruction the big man could bring if he chose to raise hands. “You best answer Carter,” the big man rumbles.

Winters holds an arm out like he doesn’t know what to say. His other hand is still on his blaster rifle, but no finger on the trigger. “Look, guys,” he begins.

Lash is undeterred. “You can’t wave this away.”

Lana is still watching the door, but otherwise all eyes are on the kid. He looks at me, hopefully. “Carter…”

“I want the answer, too,” I say.

“For real,” pitches in Easy. “What? You some kinda spy for Surber? Watchin’ us?”

“Carter…” Winters tries again.

I cross my arms and then drop them just as quickly. “We don’t have time for this. Alpha Team needs us and we’re moving. Let’s go.”

We all turn to move. The sounds of the fighting at the front of the temple compound and off in the distance where Hopper and his team were held up still sound muffled by the thick stone—but it’s all close enough.

“Guys. You can’t leave.”

I half expect to see Winters aiming his rifle at us when I turn around. His voice has that much resolve. But instead I see him pulling off his helmet. I’ve seen the kid a few times without his bucket. Not much, but enough to have the impression that he’s still south of thirty. He still looks young but I don’t know how to explain it other than to say he’s old-young. Not a word, I know.

His face is free of wrinkles and covered in sweat. His wet hair is matted down on his forehead—these aftermarket helmets don’t touch Legion tech. But there’s a commanding presence to him that I sure as hell don’t remember seeing before. Like he’s the one in charge.

“We have to get this room secured first,” Winters says. “Surber is going to bust in on comms and order it inside a minute.”

“That so?” I ask, annoyed at the way the kid is trying to tell me what to do.

And that’s what it really boils down to.

Pride. Annoyance.

I’ve been on critical missions that have forced me to leave good men to die in order to secure an objective bigger than the fights our squads found ourselves in. I didn’t like it, but I understood it.

But this isn’t that. This is all the frustration at home and with Surber and even with being the afterthought team while Hopper is entrusted with the KTF jobs. It’s all of that plus some wannabe merc on my team trying to make decisions for me.


It’s Surber. And I knew it would be.

“Go for Carter,” I say.

Lash and Easy swear under their breath on hearing my voice. I think they were holding out hope that Winters was bluffing. I don’t think they saw what I saw in the man when he took his helmet off. An authority which ought not have been there but was.

“You need to secure Alpha Objective Three. Immediately.”

I have a good job. I make good credits. And I should do what I’m told. But this doesn’t sit well with me. “Hopper’s team needs relief.”

“It can wait.”

“All due respect—”

“It. Can. Wait, Carter.”

Suddenly Winters is on the comm. Just jumping into my command channel like it wasn’t blocked and encrypted. He’s pulling the comm set down from his helmet to speak, so I can still see his face.

“Surber,” the kid says, “I’m going to let them in. We’ll have AT3 secure shortly. Make sure we’re set to stage the house. Daylight is too soon.”

There’s a pause and then Surber says, reluctantly, “Yes, sir.”

Yes. Sir.

I look at Winters expectantly. This isn’t the sort of situation where you actually have to ask the question. The question is assumed. Because it’s so big there’s nothing else you can talk about.

Winters knows this too. He nods at me once and says, “I’m Arkaddy Nilo.”

“Twarg dung,” scoffs Easy. “Ain’t no way you’re Big Nee.”

The kid shrugs as if to say it doesn’t matter what Elias Aguilar thinks about who he is. He’s still standing there. Still Big Nee.

I’ve never seen our boss in person. But evidently, Lana has.

“He’s not lying,” she says. “I got wind of who I’d be working for before taking this job. I looked him up.”

I look from Lana to Nilo. “So you’re the boss. And you want us to take out this objective.”

Need is more like it,” Nilo says.

“Well, Alpha Team needs us, too. Nobody else is going to come for them. What’s the objective?”

“Communications room,” answers Nilo. “One that can’t be used or everything done so far is undone.”

“Fine. I’ll clear the room and you can stay with me to make sure it gets done right. Everybody else moves to support Alpha Team.”

Nilo looks at the room. I don’t know if he game planned how this would all work out. If he figured we’d all just fall in line or what. Hell, I don’t know myself what the right thing to do is. I’m torn between not leaving Alpha Team to get killed and doing what I was hired to do. Splitting up my team seems like the only way to do both.

“Good,” Nilo says. “That’s fine.”

I’m a bit taken aback by how quickly he agrees. Maybe he’s not bluffing about how important knocking out this last objective is. Which means, I’m probably not ever going to get another opportunity like this.

“Okay,” I say. “And you also clear my team’s debts and double our salaries. Paid in advance.”

Nilo is watching me, like he’s maybe waiting to see if I’m done. I begin to second-guess what I just did in two directions, unsure if I should have asked for more or if I made a terrible mistake.

The room is dead quiet now except for the sounds of weapons fire. My team keeps looking from Nilo and me to the temple, but no zhee are coming. I’m fairly sure that what donks are left inside this building are having it out with Alpha Team or waiting for us in the commo room.

A slight smile comes to Nilo’s lips. “Done.”

“Holy sket,” Easy murmurs.

I nod at the boss. The kid. And then I move to the objective door, fishing out a slicer box to prep for breach.

“Lash, move to relieve Alpha Team. Let Hopper know you’re coming.”

“On it, Carter.”

The big man takes point and leads Easy and Lana out of the room.

I look up at Nilo, half expecting him to be fuming. I just cost him a lot of credits. Well, a lot of credits for a guy like me.

The kid sees me looking. “Well played, Carter. There was a reason why I chose your team to work with, you know.”

I don’t know what to say about that.


The slicer box winks its green light at me and we’re ready to open this door. The only problem is, I have no idea what to expect on the other side.

Nilo has his helmet back on and is stacked on the opposite side of the door, waiting for it to hiss open so he can go through the clearing exercises. He probably spent a lot of credits learning how to do it to Legion standards, so I don’t want to keep him from making use of it for too long. But there are some things I need to know first. Things that would have been covered in a proper planning session, if this outfit ever bothered with them.

“We’re ready, Nilo. Who is waiting for us on the other side?”

“Possibly zhee. Possibly no one. The idea was to get in and neutralize the comm room before they had a chance to let the zhee running things from Subiyook know who was attacking them. It’s critical they don’t know it’s us.”

I grab a fragger from my rig. “You toss one in too. Then we take the room.”

Nilo hesitates.

“Is there something we need to recover in there? A reason we can’t use these?”

“No. I don’t think so. Maybe, but…”

I frown. “I’m gonna throw these in unless you tell me I can’t.”

“Do it.”


Nilo sounds like he smiles when he says, “KTF, right?”

“Don’t push it,” I say.

The door quietly slides open and the two of us toss in our fraggers and pop back out of the threshold, hugging the wall as the grenades do their dual-detonation and each send a pair of tight, concentric blasts of shrapnel into the room.

I turn the corner and move smoothly into the room, my nostrils filling with an acrid mixture of burning circuitry, ozone, and donk musk. Nilo is right behind me.

The room is small. Just a polished table for holoprojections in the middle and a far wall taken up by a complex comm array. Some of the shrapnel from the grenades has left holes in the holoscreens, which are relaying a recording of fighting elsewhere in the compound. Thin tendrils of smoke wisp up from a ruined console—like one of the fraggers landed on it before blowing up. Something full of wires pops and sends a shower of sparks down on top of the mane of an old-looking donk in pristine white robes—the room’s only survivor.

The old donk ignores the electronic embers choking out in his silver-streaked mane. There’s a workstation between him and me, and I can tell he’s kneeling, his head and shoulders just at the console level. The donk is randomly pressing buttons on the console and braying in his zhee language—like he knows what the comm station is for but not how to use it.

“This is Kobb Sepped,” Winters says over comm.

The old donk seems oblivious to our being in the room, despite the loud greetings we sent in ahead of us. He’s still pressing that console and calling as I move in, rifle pressed into my shoulder and ready.

His robes seem whiter than what is possible. Not stained by sweat, smoke, or sand. But when I swing around the work station obstructing my full view, I see seeping stains of red marring the pristine robes. His lower half was peppered with shrapnel from the fraggers and he’s bleeding at a pretty good clip. Probably got an artery nicked. Maybe lacerations down into his guts or organs. Donks bleed pretty bad if you hit their liver or kidneys.

It’s clear that unless this group got a message off before we stormed the castle, the old donk isn’t getting through now. Probably he just fell back here in an attempt to stay safe, not figuring that his attackers would have Dark Ops level slicer boxes to get past the doors.

“What do you want me to do with him?” I ask Nilo. Maybe capturing a high value target like this was Hopper’s objective.

“Oh, you’re still in charge of this team,” the kid says, sounding almost like he’s surprised I’d consult him. “So, however you’d normally handle something like this as team leader, Carter.”

I want to say that, as team leader, I don’t know how to handle this because I was never briefed on the totality of the mission—there was no redundancy or fail-safe. A big error. But then, I can see from the holoscreens that Hopper and his team are trying to fight off a large concentration of donks now that Lash and Easy have set up a cross fire, hammering the zhee attackers in their flanks. That’s ultimately where I need to be. Hauling a bleeding old zhee isn’t going to get me there any quicker.

I also get the sense that Nilo is testing me here. Like he doesn’t actually care, but wants to see what I’ll do.

“Roger,” I say, and put two blaster bolts into the donk’s back and another in his head once he’s down. “Let’s rejoin with the rest of the team.”

The kid jumps at the suddenness of the blasts, but quickly recovers himself.

He moves to the comm console, legs spread wide in order to stand above the dead zhee lying at his feet without actually standing on the donk. “Just gotta make sure we’re not in for any complications.”

Nilo pries off a smoking panel that has a two centimeter shrapnel hole, revealing a thick clump of wiring. He pulls out a feather chip and affixes it to the conduit and then, while still on our two-line channel, calls Brisco.

“Brisk,” he says, obviously wanting me to hear the conversation. Maybe to keep me at ease about not going to help immediately, maybe just to draw me in closer to knowing why we’ve been doing all this. “I got a data phantom tapped to the relay conduit. What’s it say?”

“Hang tight, Nee,” Brisco says, and I wonder if my team are the only ones who didn’t know that the big boss was riding with us.

No, that’s silly. Surber knew. Brisco—maybe he’s a friend of the kid’s from back when he was doing whatever it is that got him his fortune. Something to do with how the Republic credit-chain worked. You forget. It’s a big galaxy with a lot of poor and a lot of rich. And the only rich ones you know about are the ones who became rich so they could get some fame to go with it. Nilo isn’t that type.

But I don’t think anyone else knew.

“We’re supposed to keep this quiet about you, I’m guessing?” I say.

“About me what?” Nilo asks.

“You being a rich kid with a trust fund that wanted to play merc and bought all the best tools for the job—Winters—only, surprise, you’re the guy running this show.”

I hear Nilo laugh gently over the comm. “Lots of capable people are running this show. You can’t get anything significant accomplished if you run it all. But I’m the guy with the vision. And yes, keep this quiet for now.”

“The others,” I say, thinking of Lash, Lana, and Easy. “They might tell Alpha.”

“They won’t.”

“Well, I dunno…” I say, not seeing how Nilo can be so sure of that. At the very least they’ll tell Abers. Or Abers will ask why his debts are paid and his paycheck got so large.

“You got them something they didn’t know they could have, Carter,” Nilo says, drumming his fingers against the smoking console, waiting for Brisco to get back word of whether the mission was compromised. “It was always there for the taking—a man sets his own worth. But most people in the galaxy don’t know that. And they don’t believe it when they see the proof in others.”

“Okay… but Easy has a big mouth.”

“You knew it, Carter. Deep down. It’s what I like about you. Deep down, you know how the galaxy works. You brought your team along for the ride and didn’t leave them in the dust. I like that about you, too. But they don’t know why they all just experienced such good luck. That’s what they’ll call it. Now, if it happened to someone else, they would respond by being jealous, by getting angry at the person. But since it’s happened to them… they’ll be scared.”


That doesn’t make much sense.

“Winters—I mean, Mr. Nilo—I’m feeling a lot of things right now but scared isn’t one of them. Most of it involves what it’ll feel like to tell my wife the debts are all paid. That and how I imagine she’ll thank me when I get back home.”

Nilo laughs again. “Call me Nee or Nilo. But you’re not hearing me, Carter. I know you’re not scared. But they are. I know people. I know how the galaxy works. You’ve finally sailed into the horizon and you know the truth. All of this—everything—is right there for the taking. That’s exciting, not scary.”

Except when he puts it that way, it does feel a little frightening. All I wanted was to make life easier for my family. And so why do I feel like I’m now on a ride that I can’t get off. Ever.

Brisco’s voice joins the conversation. “And we’re clear. Last transmission was two hours before the assault began. Routine check.”

“Great,” Nilo says. “Thanks, Brisk.”

“You got it, bud.”

Nilo nods at me and we start to move for the door.

“Should we torch this place?” I ask.

Nilo shakes his head. “No. We’ll burn it all down after we’re finished.”

The blaster fire has died down significantly. We move out of the comm room and into the anteroom when I hear the shuffling of feet outside. I can’t make out who they belong to, but I don’t think they’re human. Running on training that has long since become instinct, I raise my fist to tell Nilo to stop. I creep forward to the doorway, lean against its frame, take a peek into the hall, then duck back inside.

“Be advised,” I say into the all-squad comm. “Koobs are in the temple.”

“Roger that,” Easy says in reply. “They’re here, too. Helping us mop up the last of the zhee. We’re good, Carter.”

Nilo is at my side now.

“I’ll call out our position,” I say. “Hopefully they speak Standard. I don’t want to get through all this just to be shot by our allies.”

But then Nilo yells something out in Kublaren. There’s a throaty, clicking reply and then Nilo steps out of the door, gesturing for me to follow. I do.

There’s a squad of nine koobs with blaster rifles slung around their shoulders. They’re standing still, looking at Nilo with their three-fingered hands pressed together at the palm. Their airsacs are half-inflated.

Nilo says something else in koob and the Kublaren beings, croaking and clicking, let their sacs deflate as they move on.

“What’s up with that?” I ask.

“Oh,” Nilo says as we move into the temple proper, stepping over dead zhee in the process. “That’s just how the koobs show honor to an allied chieftain.”

I look around, expecting to see another koob behind us.

Nilo has his helmet off, clipping it to his rig. “That’s the other thing we were doing in that meeting, Carter. We’re an official tribe of Kublar now. The galaxy is as wide-open as it’s ever been since before the Savage Wars. We’re sailing for new horizons.”


I find Abers outside the compound in the main courtyard. He’s waiting next to the truck we’d filled with dead koobs.

Immediately Abers’s eyes go wide. “Carter—where’s the team?”

“It’s all right. They’re fine. We just got separated inside. They’re cleaning up now and should be out soon. How did you make out?”

Abers nods at the piles of dead spread throughout the compound. Dead donks are everywhere, bleeding into the sand. Those still whinnying with pain having their throats cut out by koobs wielding those incredibly sharp black stone knives. There are no small number of dead koobs littering the area either. But these are being pulled out and loaded onto covered sleds by their Kublaren allies, and the wounded are being given medical attention.

“Mister Surber had me set up to support the koob assault,” Abers says. “It was a fight, Carter. Koobs don’t play. Neither did the zhee, though. I dusted maybe ten before things got too mixed up for me to shoot safe, and then I dropped a half dozen more zhee trying to fire from the parapets or towers.”

“Good work,” I say, glancing back at Nilo.

He’s just standing there, helmet back on, acting the same as he did as Winters. I guess he’s not looking to bring Abers in on things. At least not yet. And while I’m not scared, I’m not wanting to bring it up, either.

“Here comes ya boy,” Abers said, pointing to my left.

I turn and see Hopper and what’s left of his team walking up. They’re all covered with grime and sweat. I’m no spring nectarn, but I can tell that I look to be in much better shape than they are. I see Lash, Lana, and Easy trailing Alpha Team, some koobs walking along as well.

“No, no, Carter,” Hopper says as he approaches. “No need to hurry up and bail me out. You just stand here and cool off. We’re good.”

He doesn’t mean anything by it. This is just the way we say hello.

“I gave you half of my team already,” I say. “Somebody had to finish all the objectives since Alpha wasn’t up to the task.”

Hopper looks down at the mention of his team. I see that he’s missing about three men and immediately feel regret for the barb. It’s how we do it, but sometimes, it still hurts.

“How bad?” I ask.

“Lost three. Kevin Meier, Alistair Rooney, and Theron Whittle.”

I didn’t know any of the guys.

“Sorry, Hopper.”

“It’s the life we live.”

My team rolls in subdued, probably sensing the weight that’s settled in over us all. Easy exchanges a bro-hug with Abers and the two begin talking quietly. Lash is surveying the battlefield, nodding approvingly. Lana starts looking me over, making sure her patch-job from earlier is still good. Her hands are covered in blood, and I imagine she did what she could for Hopper’s team.

“Anyone know what’s next?” Nilo asks.

Hopper shrugs.

I see Easy and Lana exchange a look, but neither of them say anything. And… Nilo is right. They look afraid to.

I can’t see Lash’s face. I can’t imagine him being afraid either, though. He’s unfrightenable (guess that’s a word). But maybe he’s like me and he sees that there’s no sense in spilling the news just to tell it. No gain.

“Here comes Surber,” Lana says. “We’ll all find out soon.”

Surber walks up to us, Errol behind him. He hands Errol his briefcase and puts his hands at his side, hitching his thumbs into a black leather belt.

“Where’s Wick?” I ask.

“Shot in the face,” Surber says as if the words have no meaning. The way you’d talk about someone staying home with an upset stomach. Oh, is that all?

Surber must sense some unease. He recites a poem that I’m not familiar with. “Come, now, we can’t cry for those who die; for we must live while others lie.”

No one says anything, but I don’t think Surber wanted us to. Or that he cares.

“Now then, there isn’t much darkness left and we’ve got a good deal of work to do. All the non-zhee bodies have been pulled out of the temple. I need the koobs in this truck dumped off and spread throughout. Make sure you lay blaster rifles at their sides or nearby.”

I can’t believe I’m hearing this. After a day that started with hefting all these koobs in the sweltering heat, then standing guard for hours in the cold, and finally running through an assault… I just can’t believe Surber is telling us to now unload the bodies.

But this is the job. We get paid to do what we’re told.

I’m about to open my mouth to get my team moving when Surber speaks again.

“Mister Carter, I want you and Winters in my sled. We have things to discuss. The rest of your team can load up on the troop transport idling at the gate.”

I exchange a look with Hopper.

“You heard the man,” I tell Bravo Team. “And I know you don’t have to be told twice to get some chow and start rack ops.”

The men move on, though Lashley stays, examining the carnage of the compound one final time.

“Mister Hopper,” Surber says, “I’ll need you to stay behind to supervise. Our Kublaren allies will do the heavy lifting. You can do with your team as you like.”

“Yes, sir,” Hopper says. “Guys, catch up with Bravo and I’ll see you when I get in.”

Hopper’s boys look like they’re torn between sticking it out with their team leader and getting fed and sleep. In the end, hot chow and a pillow win out. They jog to catch up with Bravo.

“See you around, Hopper,” I say.

Surber has left with Errol for his luxury sled and Winters is following. That’s my cue to go home.

“You too, brother,” Hopper says before turning to face the koobs who are already bustling around him, pulling the dead off the truck. “Which one of you koobs speaks Standard?”

I turn and catch up with the team. Errol is holding the door with Surber and Winters already inside.

I nod at the guard, who doesn’t seem bothered at the loss of his counterpart, and then slide in, painfully aware of the amount of dust I’m spreading all over the luxurious interior seating and floors.

The internal temperature is perfect. I feel immediately comfortable. And the seats are so soft I feel as though I could fall asleep. The door closes and all the noise of the temple, the crackle of fires, the hurried croaks of the koobs, it all fades away.

There’s another whump of a door closing, and soon Errol is pulling the sled away from the temple, causing me to rock gently in the soft, warm seat opposite Surber and Nilo.

I yawn in spite of myself.

“Don’t fall asleep yet,” Nilo says, his helmet on the floor between his feet. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

I nod. “So those koobs we gathered—we’re going to make it look like they did all this?”

“That’s correct,” Surber says as Nilo smiles.

“That tribe—and the tribe you wiped out after them—they’re allied with the koobs running the Soob.”

I nod. Already seeing where this is going. The koobs of Subiyook City are the Republicized dominant tribe of the galaxy. They’re hated just for that. They’re despised because the other tribes see them as the ones who are harboring and allowing the zhee settlers to encroach on inland Kublar.

“So the idea is to get the koobs in the Soob fighting with the zhee?”

Nilo nods. “More or less.”

“Seems like they’d just disavow, doesn’t it? Like, call it an extremist group, make some reparations—let the zhee get their vengeance on the tribes out here?”

Nilo is resting his chin on his hand, index finger pressed against his cheek. He arches an eyebrow and points his finger, ceding the point. “Probably. But I have a man in the city who will make sure that’s not the way it happens.”

I nod. That’s good enough for me. Another yawn takes hold of me.

“You’re tired,” Nilo says, leaning forward. “And the particulars of this operation and its fallout aren’t what I wanted to talk with you about, Carter. Those are the details. And detail-oriented people are overseeing it.”

“What did you want to talk about, then?” I ask, killing another yawn.

“The big picture. What’s on the horizon.”

That’s a loaded topic. Legion Commander Chhun is rebuilding the Legion under a program designed to make it Savage-ready. The galaxy is trying to figure out what the Republic 2.0 should look like after Article Nineteen… like where the capital should be. A few of the old coalitions are talking about forming up from the pre-Savage Wars days. In short the galaxy is in not-quite turmoil. Only the lack of will and the fatigue of everything that happened seems to have kept things from going the way of open warfare. Except on Kublar, I guess.

I shake my head. “I don’t know where to begin when it comes to that.”

“I do.” Nilo leans forward, bridging the gap between our seats, inviting me to come closer.

Leaning forward so our heads are just a couple of feet apart, I can see something like excitement in Nilo’s eyes, though his voice is calm and quiet when he speaks.

“How much did you ever know about Goth Sullus?”




Jack Bowie’s comm pulsed on a soft burble of a delicate chime. A soft alert so low most people would never notice it, even in a quiet room. Here, in this hotel room, a luxurious suite at the Grand Intergalactic, that soft burble of a chime almost went unnoticed. Bowie lay there in the darkness, the Tennar twined about his body. Her slender tentacles gripped him lovingly, even in sleep.

They’d each almost been killed in the mad rush to flee the party after the zhee headman had been hit deep within the garden sanctum. She’d had no idea Jack Bowie, late of Repub Naval Intel and now a freelancer in the world of dirty deeds done not cheaply, had been the hitter.

The beautiful and highly prized Tennar courtesan had just been grateful some handsome stranger pulled her out of that party the moment heavily armed quick reaction teams swarmed the chaos to secure other high value guests and find the assassin. Bowie, smiling his devil-may-care smile and plucking up a bottle of the host’s finest out of a sterling silver urn of cracked ice, had merely arched an eyebrow at the devastatingly beautiful young alien to indicate she should come with him. Now.

She had no idea how he’d jacked a luxury sports sled with just a card swipe. She had no idea who he was, or what he’d done.

She had no idea…

Or so you think, Jack, he told himself as he lay there, almost a part of her, his mind trying to surface though the haze of her exotic beauty. Entrapped in her arms. Skin, burnt orange, and other charms…

Delicate eyelids fluttering and hiding her large otherworldly aquamarine eyes.

He was trying to think of how much she really knew. Going over next steps by recounting his plays thus far. He’d grabbed her because she was good cover to exit the area. Just two more beautiful and rich guests leaving the chaotic aftermath of a political assassination. A successful businessman and his escort.

Of course.

Because when you were a Tennar female with that highly prized orange skin the entire galaxy’s assembly of flesh peddlers held in high regard, a rare genetic variant in the species, all anyone ever saw when they looked at you was “escort.”

And a pricey one at that. So of course the man with her has to be rich. And therefore he’s one of the ones that needs to be protected, think the swarming security teams. He’s one of the sheep.

And definitely not the wolf.

So how much does she know? Bowie asked himself as he lay there thinking, and then realized his comm device was signaling him that a very important call was coming in.

He slithered away from her, tentacles caressing him as he pulled to the side of the bed, leaving small thrills of electricity in their wake across his muscled and lean body. Jack grabbed the chiming device and went into the marble homage to grand structure that was the suite’s bathroom.

Kodorian tub. Penthaar volcanic tile sauna. An array of chilled sipping liqueurs, aphrolilacs, and various scented soaps and skin oils. Nothing cheap.

Everything was on “Team Nilo” for the night, or so he’d been informed by message after the hit. So, Jack Bowie had spared no expense.

His contact indicated that the Grand Intergalactic was his “Safe House” after the audition hit. The working interview.

On the way there he’d dumped the getaway sled in the lowest end of the recently built Grand Intergalactic’s garage, paying the valet to go ahead and lose it. Then he hit the bar and finally the room. The beautiful Tennar in the party dress clung to him like she was afraid of everything in the world.

She told him she was new to Kublar. New to the escort business. Yesterday had been her first official gig. And now she thought she was in some kind of trouble.

She probably was, reasoned Bowie. And she was probably lying. Especially about the “first gig” part. They always said that. Always.

In the bathroom he sat down on the cool toilet, rubbed his eyes, and stared at the comm device. They’d drunk a lot of Arcturan ice whiskey—neat. Knowing they were heading to the same room that night. Her telling them both that she, not he, needed to be held after everything that had happened. Needing to know that she wasn’t going to die in a blaster shootout. Needing to feel alive, even if it was just a lie, for a few hours. Even if it was just with a handsome stranger who might be dangerous.

So they had.

Even here, in the marble monstrosity of a bathroom, her scent was all over him. She’d given him everything she had to offer. Desperately so.

He answered the comm.

“Lobby bar in thirty minutes.”

Before he could acknowledge he would show, the call went dead and Bowie sat there for a moment. Letting the scent of her fade from his skin and sore muscles. Forcing her from his mind.

He was back on mission. Rest time over.

This was what he was here for.

He showered and dressed, then left the suite, glancing back at her once more. She was lying on her stomach and what was visible of her perfect body was enough to make him question whether the wealth he was being promised was worth it. Staying here with her had cost some rich men upwards of small planetary economies. But those were rich men with credits to burn. And burn. And keep on burning.

And he was only an ex-naval intel officer hung out to dry in the aftermath of the collapse of the Republic.

“It’s just hormones,” Jack Bowie muttered and made for the door to the suite, leaving her to her Tennar dreams of distant warm oceans and the songs of unknown creatures down in the deeps. Calling to one another among the vibrant coral. Listening to the music of those places.


The lobby of the Grand Intergalactic is the opposite of nearly everything else on Kublar, even in Soob City. Though it is not the actual heart of the unofficial Green Zone of the New Kublar, post its battles with the Legion and civil war, it is the emotional and probably real beating heart of the new boomtown economy that’s in the making. The lobby of the Intergalactic is as grand as the suite’s bathroom. Luxury and opulence compete with the beauty of the ladies and escorts coming and going, and the finely cut suits of the new commercial class that has so recently found Kublar, and especially Soob City, interesting for no reason anyone can quite put a finger on at this moment.

Words like “growth” and “potential” are thrown around as are “deal” and “development costs.” But the prevalent feeling is more poker game than startup. Everyone’s holding cards and no one’s showing just yet. There’s something there. But no one really knows what, or they’re not saying. Everyone may be bluffing. That’s happened before. Fortunes have been won and lost on dead worlds out along the edge that were supposed to become the center of galactic commerce. But when galactic fortunes are to be made, it pays to sit down and play even if there’s nothing in the pot. Yet. And so everyone has come to the Grand Intergalactic to see and be seen. To get their cards and play their hands.

Jack Bowie met his contact by prearranged signal in the lobby bar. An ornate teak and marble affair accented by artistic renditions of ancient Kublaren tribal masks and a Utopion show-worthy display of Granadian tequilas.

It’s all very colonial, but new, and uber chic. That’s how you let people know they’ve arrived at the place where deals are made. Where the wealth is traded and acquired along with a couple of million souls.

The Team Nilo contact is someone familiar. Bowie crossed the crowd to reach the window table that looks out on a wide terrace gazing out across sweaty, seething Soob City at midmorning, filled with minarets and slum housing and the distant ship-hulks of the breakers district. He smiled at the man he is supposed to meet.

But it’s not a warm or friendly smile, though it’s made to seem so. Or it can be taken that way. No, the smile is there to cover the realization that could have crossed Bowie’s face when he calculated how much deep sket he currently was in.


Reiser is the contact. Reiser is working for Team Nilo. So things just got a whole lot murkier.

Whenever Reiser is involved… voodoo black magic intel is going to get weird. Bowie had crossed paths with the man back in Naval Intel when they’d worked an op, kicked over a rock and found Nether Ops hiding underneath and up to no good, as usual.

Reiser is who Bowie’s smiling at. And who Bowie’s contact is today. He slid into the chair, and a waiter from some edge world looking to make a killing in hospitality is there lickety-split with fresh kaff in a silver and bone china service so hot the steam rises from the delicate cup.

It’s aromatic and fresh. Probably Kandarian Red Mountain. The most expensive in the galaxy.

“So you’re working for him?” asks Bowie cutting to the chase and forgetting deft formalities. The left unsaid identifier of “him” clearly indicates Nilo of Team Nilo.

Best to get these things out of the way upfront and try to figure out who’s playing for whom, when really everyone knows everyone’s only playing for themselves. No one in this line of work is a true believer. Maybe a fool. But never a true believer.

That’s the worst kind of fool to be.

Or at least, the worst kind still living on the other side of an op. Rumor was the last true believer got croaked during the end of the Savage Wars. But no one misses that old fraud except the other old frauds who’d spent their best years getting legionnaires killed and navy ships shot to pieces or occasionally outright blown to kingdom come like the destroyer Chiasm.

“Yeah,” says Reiser. “We all are, Bowie. We’re all working for him now.”

Bowie stares at the man he knows as “Reiser” for a long moment, looks away and seems to come to some agreement with himself about what needs to happen next. Whatever it is, it remains hidden behind sunglasses. But so does whatever crosses Reiser’s mind in that brief interval of measuring.

“This isn’t Nether Ops?” asks, no, demands Bowie.

“Damn, Jack, you always were a ball buster. Just start swearing like an engineering chief on an old Vindicator-class destroyer and straight invoke all the devils of the Nether, why don’t you. Ain’t you worried one of them might appear right here and swallow all our souls, Jack? Words like Nether Ops ain’t s’posed to be used in polite company, or classy places like the Intergalactic.”

Reiser laughs good-naturedly and tastes his kaff.

Bowie follows suit. Then…

“I’m not kidding, Reiser. If this is Nether, then consider last night a freebie and I’m moving on. I’m dirty, but I don’t wanna get that dirty. So be straight with me—if only because of what went down on Cerdo’s Run and how much you owe. Copy?”

Reiser thought about this for a long moment as he savored the next sip of kaff. Then he sat back in his chair. He was smaller than Jack. Older by a few years and a lot of hard living. He’d probably retired out of Naval Intel. But he was still young enough to be dangerous. And the scars on his face mixed with the craggy texture gave him the appearance of a mean alcoholic.

That kind of dangerous.

“Yeah,” he said clapping his hands together suddenly and ginning up some faux enthusiasm that was little more than thinly disguised sarcasm. “Ain’t like that anymore, Jack. Nether’s dead and gone. Ain’t ya heard? Buried in a deep, dark hole no one should ever go looking in again. You got my word on that for whatever my word—yes, an ex-Nether lizard word—is worth these days. Okay. Nah, this…” He threw his hands wide to encompass the bar, and all of Kublar was caught in the implication. “This… ain’t that, Jack. This is something completely new. Something better is about to happen for everyone.”

Reiser looked around to see if any of the fine suited business types making deals for everything possible that Kublar could provide were listening in. Near the entrance to the main restaurant, a white tablecloth and sterling silver affair, an entourage of zhee, holy men and guards, entered the lobby.

“Even though,” says Reiser, looking around. Looking at the zhee as they menace those attempting to servilely placate them, leading them to a grand table set up just for their needs. “Even though it’s a world full of them little koobs… it’s the zhee that have the real power around here right now, Jack. Always is with them, on every planet. And, when you think about it, it’s hard to say why, ain’t it? I mean, what the hell do they do? They don’t work. They’re difficult and hard to get along with. They treat every other race no better than the insects you step on when you cross any third-rate alien world. You know why that is, Jack? You know why the zhee, a basically worthless species, get treated like the princes of the galactic kingdom—that is, whatever the galaxy is post-Republic? You know why that is, Jack?”

Reiser watches the man he’s been sent to meet with and feigns surprise when he gets an answer.

“Because everyone’s afraid of them,” mutters Jack Bowie, relaxed and leaned back in his chair. Both men could kill each other from a dead standstill. Reflexes, training, and weapons would barely make the difference. Both are experts. Who lived would be decided by the ephemeral lady luck. As in… who decided to move first. That was probably the only real factor that would make the decision.

Reiser smiled at Jack’s deft insight. The intent was that the smile should seem genuine. Patronizingly so. Indicating that was exactly what he was looking for. The right answer.

“Yeah, Jack. That’s right. Everyone’s afraid of ’em. You’re right about that. Solid copy.”

Then he turned back to Jack, once the zhee entourage had passed into their private lounge. Teams of red-jacketed waiters swarmed the herd with all manner of delicacies. Soon the honking-braying indicating zhee gustatory delight would commence.

Reiser turned back and leaned in confidentially.

“This is something completely new, Jack. Brand new. And for what it’s worth… I’m all in, buddy.”

“Gonna make the galaxy a better place, Reiser?” asked Bowie, barely concealing his contempt.

“Yeah. Something like that, Jack. Something like that. But…”

“Then you’d better start with that sled full of dobie pups you blew up. Just so the packs would keep fighting each other and all those other lies you guys told that year on Psydon.”

That had been a bad incident long after the Legion’s big conflict on that world. A supposed terrorist act by one of the militant tribes that got a sled full of dobie pups blown up on their way to a Repub medical facility. In the end it came out that it was a Nether Ops play gone horribly wrong. To the intelligence community, that is.

If only everyone had found that out before the Day of Genocide and six hundred thousand dead dobies needed to be erased from the pack rolls to pay for the crime.

“Hey… I didn’t like it any more than you did. But forty years of peace after the Legion’s conflict there and it was all about to go sideways again. And in the end, whether you like it or not… bad guys got theirs. And the Legion didn’t have to go in and die for some dogs. ’Cause that’s what they are, Jack. Dogs. So there’s that. Okay, smart guy?”

Bowie stared at the man across the table for a long moment. Just to let him know he knew the score. And that he could stare at him and wasn’t afraid of him at all. In fact the look said that Jack Bowie wouldn’t mind seeing what luck had to say if the two of them decided to tangle.

Reiser leaned back and muttered a slur. A volatile man, a bull, would have demanded an answer for that insult. Jack Bowie wasn’t that. He had the patience of a spider. But he could explode when needed.

He crossed his legs and leaned back.

“So, you’re not Nether Ops anymore but the things you used to do are still okay? I got that right, Reiser?”

Reiser said nothing.

“Things are changing, Jack. You and I both know it. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here. So save your holier-than-thou for another time, Jack Bowie, because everyone knows what you really are, and why you’re here. Freelancer.”

If that was intended to hurt, it didn’t. In fact it didn’t even faze Jack Bowie. He didn’t have any illusions about his life. He’d given all that up when the 7th went boom like a firecracker at a battle he was supposed to have been at.

All the illusion, and the biggest one of all, had died that day. Best to be clear about it.

Yeah, Reiser was right. The galaxy was becoming something new. And everyone was worried about the same thing. Would the new boss be the same as the old boss?

No one knew the answer.

That was why it was the biggest question.

“So who is he?” Again the specific identifier was dropped. They both knew the “he” being referred to indicated Nilo. The problem was no one really knew “who” the “he” was. Nilo was a big mystery and if anyone knew anything hard, they weren’t saying. Just yet.

Bowie had heard recruiting was going on for something new. And if your contact info was submitted, credentials verified, then you got an audition. Whoever Nilo was, whoever his, or even her, people were, they’d been able to verify Bowie’s credentials. Which had been rated very high back in Repub Naval Intel. Need to Know. That was for sure. But someone had known. Because the audition had been tailored specifically for his skill set.

Infiltration and Termination.

Espionage, infiltration, and… his time attached to the Marine Reapers… termination. Just for the training, specifically. The shooting skills. He’d applied their teaching on behalf of Navy Intel in other situations no one was ever supposed to know about.

Except Nilo, Team Nilo, had found out. And now here he was. He’d passed the audition by killing a zhee headman inside a security cordon that was rated at the VIP executive level. No mean feat.

Enemy commanders surrounded by divisions of crack infantry were rated lower in difficulty.

“Who is he, Jack? Well, ain’t that the question on everyone’s lips,” answered Reiser. “Fingers, and even tentacles, are crawling across all the data archives trying to put the pieces together. Who is this guy who’s basically financing his own war machine on a small planet on galaxy’s edge that most people think isn’t worth the effort because of how ornery the Kublarens are. Not to mention the zhee that arrived. Interesting, huh? Who is he really? You got that right, Jack. That is the big question.”

Bowie said nothing.

“You heard the rumors? About him. You heard ’em, Jack? Because they are crazy.”

“Some,” Jack muttered and scanned the room for threats.

Reiser leaned close and began to speak.

“Did you hear the one about how when he was a kid, his dad, some kind of planetary development scientist, and his mom, she was the brainy type too, did you hear they were out on some world and Gomarii slavers murdered the both of ’em. Let the other slaves rape the mom. Killed the dad afterward. Sold the kid to Djini nomads crossing out near Grayson’s Storm. Doing one of their hundred-year pilgrimages into the nebulae to seek enlightenment and all that crazy talk. Have you heard that one, Jack?”

Again, Bowie said nothing because this was all rhetorical. Reiser had always liked a bit of theater and so that was what this was. A story. A story about a boogeyman. Or rather a boogeyman that might just be their savior. Because the boogeyman was paying salaries and bonuses for the boogey work he needed done.

“Well… Jack,” continued Reiser, low and conspiratorially. “If you’ve heard that part then maybe you’ve heard the next part of the story. Have you? Feel free to stop me if you have. Two years later that Djini nomad ship comes out of the nebulae and makes straight for the Gomarii hideout that did the parents. The normally peaceful Djini kill the Gomarii and the kid disappears for five years out there along the edge where space gets real weird. Where rumors aren’t just made-up stories about ghosts seeking vengeance, well hell, they might even be real. If you believe in that sort of thing. Do you, Jack? Do you believe in the vengeful dead? ’Cause I never did until I started trying to dig on the person we are talking about myself. Or at least I never used to.”

Bowie remained still. The zhee were starting to eat and the sounds coming from the private lounge verged on the obscene. A woman screamed, and then, dressed in the livery of the hotel, ran from the lounge with her starched white shirt torn open. The zhee brayed with delight at her humiliation.

Reiser looked over and gave a sick little laugh. And a look that said, Well, you know how they are.

“There’s another story, Jack. Maybe you’ve heard of this one too. It’s a really, really good one. There’s this story that says he surfaced again in his mid-teens. So, this is about fifteen. Which is kind of incredible considering the first rumors about him and the Djini wiping out a Gomarii slaver base start to circulate just a few years prior. And not just one base. Apparently the Djini and their… translated in their backwards language, “death savior” went to town on all the Gomarii they could find in that sector. And it wasn’t pretty. No. Not at all. Real galactic Dark Ages stuff. Stuff like the Savages used to do to the worlds that betrayed them during the Protectorate. The Gomarii that year got real afraid of getting ‘the workout’ as it was called, from the Djini and their Death Savior.

“We looked into this back at Nether Ops because we heard the Gomarii were running scared and kept talking about ‘the workout.’ We used the Gomarii a lot back then to cover our transit operations. And they were getting real hard to work with because I’ll tell you, they were straight up afraid of somebody. As near as we could tell, this Death Savior had an elite guard who called themselves the Divine Wind. They trained him, the kid, the Death Savior, to kill just as they were trained from birth to kill in their… what they called, the Forgotten Clans. The only way to ascend through their ranks was to kill the person in the position you wanted. You know how the Djini are. Didn’t you get into a scrap aboard the Carascar when you ran interdiction on one of their Nomad ships trying to escape into the Suribacco Nebulae? Seems so if I remember correctly. Half your boarding party got killed, right, Jack? Back when you were an ensign attached to the hullbusters? Musta looked real bad on your junior OER. Is that how you ended up with the bastards in Intel? The Castaways they called them.”

Bowie gave nothing away.

Reiser checked his chrono quickly and then looked up at a news stream running over near the bar as if to confirm something. Whether he found it or not was unclear.

“We got time,” the older man said to himself and then settled back into his stories and rumors. “So, after all that playing vengeful pirate, the kid turns up at Oxodon University right smack dab on Utopion itself. Gets in on a scholarship under an assumed name and basically lives like a beggar for three years. Practically lives in the virtual library access node and learns everything. Now when I say… learns everything… you think I mean he’s real smart. Right? Like the guy who’s always called “Brain” in the platoon. That guy. Well, that ain’t even close. In three years he tests out of three doctorates and gets advanced into their theoretical programs and think tanks. Secret stuff. House of Reason funded. Black magic and other dark arts. The other scientist nerds start getting jealous because he’s nailing down a patent a week on some very proprietorial stuff in Dark Matter Physics, Quantum Investment, and Theoretical Longevity. All of which none of his doctorates are in. Add to the fact that he invents a credit transfer device that destroys the current business contract interface at the time and becomes the industry standard for just a small charge to everyone and the kid who’s been living like a beggar in the virtual library suddenly has several trillion in credits to burn.”

Reiser smiles like that cat. The one who swallowed the canary.

“Oh yeah, I skipped the part about ‘the workout.’ The thing the Gomarii were afraid of. Back when supposedly he was playing pirate with those psycho nomads, the Djini. So, here’s the best we could come up with in Nether Ops, and we lost three operatives just to get this much. Apparently aboard the flagship of the Djini nomad horde—a thing they never do, maybe once every five hundred years they actually get together for common purpose instead of aimlessly wandering the stars—apparently aboard this flagship, there was a training room with two floors. One floor could be lowered onto the sub floor. So, the Gomarii that were captured, were spread-eagled onto the sub floor and then the upper floor was lowered down onto their chests and bodies. The floor locks were disconnected so basically the floor was resting on them. Their chests. A floating floor squeezing the air out of them. Then… the fun started. The Divine Wind began their daily training and workout regimen which involved hand-to-hand combat—note fatalities were common with every session. Then a jungle gym program of leaps and jumps and calisthenics all atop the floor resting on the bodies of these poor dumb Gomarii bastards who had the misfortune of being taken prisoner. Average training session was four hours. Sometimes they did two-a-days. You stayed under the floor, if you were a Gomarii or anyone who happened to be working with the slavers when this kid came looking, until you were dead. They had you hooked up to a life scan monitor. Some lasted for up to four days, lying there as every bone in their body was broken and then shattered, and finally ground into a pulp. No sedation. Barely able to breathe, you were slowly crushed to death, completely aware as each bone broke. They pumped amphetamax gas in there just to make sure you stayed clear enough to enjoy the pain.”

Reiser smiled in admiration at the Djini and the Death Savior’s handiwork. As though he were seeing it live. Who knew, maybe they’d acquired a download that showed the whole Workout Show.

“Kid was slick. Those damned Gomarii left that sector and never came back. They knew what was good for them.”

Reiser leaned back.

“No one taught that kid to go Legion like the Legion did at Ankalor. He just did. All on his own. Like it was hardwired into him. So that’s another rumor I’ve heard about Mr. Nilo, as we call him. I can’t tell you if it’s true or not. But it scares me, Jack, and… to be honest… intrigues me too. A lot of problems in the galaxy could have been avoided with that kind of out of the box thinking. Not saying it’s right, not saying it’s wrong. I’m just saying sket like Kublar and the Chiasm… never would’ve happened. So we got time for one more rumor before I drop your mission on you… Ready, Jack?”

Bowie nodded slightly. Wondering why the wait for a specific time. What was about to happen and why did he have some vague, bad feeling beginning to form in the back of his mind? Maybe it was because the high of his time with the Tennar had faded and he was coming down off of her. Getting that post-euphoric anxiety that came after the high of their actual physical contact. The price one paid for all that forbidden pleasure.

Maybe. But he suspected it might be something else altogether.

“So, this is just a few years ago… if the stories are true… the kid’s company is really rolling. That few trillion has now turned into tens of trillions and he’s the kind of big wheel that’s getting invited into private planning sessions with the House of Reason’s galactic trade and business councils. Anyway… one of his competitors, one of the old guys who’s been in bed with the House of Reason for like forever, he and this kid go to war. Business-wise. But it’s a quiet war and the rumor is it has nothing to do with business really. Except they’re fighting with the mega-conglomerates they each own just like you and I might fight with the holdouts we’re both strapping here in the no-weapons Green Zone of safe-as-all-can-be Soob City. Right, Jack?”

Bowie doesn’t acknowledge that he has no less than three weapons right now. If he has to kill Reiser, he’s already made up his mind he’ll do it with a knife. Fast like a jackhammer. Yeah, people will see him stabbing that hack to death, but no blaster fire. No sound to send automated security into lockdown mode. Stabbing will buy him at least fifteen seconds to get the jump and make for the sled in the garage.

Shame to leave the Tennar. Shame to walk out on whatever this Nilo is cooking up. But… maybe that’s the wise play.

Unless Nilo, the Nilo of the Djini Death Savior variety, wants you for a workout. Then, you’ve made the wrong call.

But it’s also a shame to end up in the wrong hands. Especially in this day and age where law enforcement seems to be a local thing, as do jury trials. Now that the Repub is rebuilding, trying to reconsolidate power, a lot of things are up in the air. Like basic rights. Like trials. Like official penal systems and the guidelines they were supposed to be administered by.

But then… as it turned out, the Repub wasn’t as big on those as they pretended to be. The Legion blew the lid off that one.

The point is anything can happen if you end up in someone else’s hands.

So… it’ll be stabbing Reiser, jackhammer quick, if it needs to be. Like someone said a long time ago. Be polite. Be nice. Have a plan to kill everyone in the room.

Jack Bowie has a plan. He always does. In his line of work there is no other way.

“So… like I said, these two business titans are just going to town on each other. Buying up suppliers, land, leases, rents, loans. Y’know… the way the rich and powerful fight. There are rumors that both sides are using hit teams on execs. Then the old rich guy connected to the House of Reason… well, his daughter gets killed. Nilo, he’s got no one close. Not even a girlfriend. So… the old guy sends a hit team after him direct. Wipes out an entire private extreme sporting planetoid resort the kid is staying at. Except he doesn’t get the kid.

“All of this gets hushed up. Lotsa credits are paid out to local law and families and even some Repub agency types to make it all go away. But now things have gone horribly wrong. If you listen to the stories… and if they’re true… then this is what happens next. Everyone around the old man, everyone he’s ever known from back when he was a kid on some private richy-rich world, starts to die.

“Everyone. Even the people who knew those people start to die. The old guy decides to call a truce but the kid isn’t having it by then. It’s gone too far. And this is where it gets crazy, real crazy in fact. It was never about revenge. It was about artifacts. Turns out both of them had been friends before the whole mess started. And the kid, once he had the money, wanted to buy the guy’s private collection of artifacts. Old guy wouldn’t sell and they had a falling out over it. So, the kid started a war. And once the old guy, who it turned out cared about someone other than himself, felt the noose tightening around his family and closest associates, and eventually himself, one can infer, he gave in and sold the collection to the kid. Or at least he offered to.”

“Kid didn’t buy it,” said Bowie interrupting Reiser in the middle of his performance. Reiser made a face and nodded. Somehow defeated. Because even this part baffled him.

It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Bowie knew poker. Knew how people played. Knew what Nilo was after.

“Nah,” said Reiser, caught up in the action once more. In the story. In the gory details. “Nah, not at all. Now he just wanted it.”

Reiser smiled.

“For free. Said it was his right. His destiny.”

“So he gave it to him,” stated Bowie.

For a moment Reiser was stunned at this leap in the story also.

“How’d you know?” asked the older man.

When Bowie didn’t answer, Reiser continued.

“Yeah, that’s about right. Just gave it up. Had the whole thing transferred via secured freighter that supposedly disappeared in route, but we can assume the cargo and ship were conveniently ‘lost’ as we’ve pulled that kind of op a time or two before. Then, old guy kills himself an hour later. We guess that was part of the agreement, in order to spare the rest of his family. Or it was just suicide because the collection meant so much to him. Or even just the humiliation of having been outplayed and forced to sue for mercy. Half dozen one or the other, I say.”

Reiser checked his chrono and then once more glanced at the morning news feeds.

“Okay, it’s time, Jack.” He was all business now. “Got an offer from Mr. Nilo. Direct. Yeah, you’re on the team. But this here’s special. And… well, we just wanna make sure you’re all in on this. So, are you, Jack? You gonna play team ball this time?”

Bowie took off his sunglasses. Drank the last of the kaff that had gone cold.

“Before I answer,” began Jack Bowie. “I have just one question.”

Reiser looked bothered by this and then flung open his palms. As if to indicate what choice did he have.

“The artifacts. The collection the two were fighting over. What was it? What was the stuff the kid wanted so badly?”

Reiser gave a quick glance at the stream. Obviously, timing was of the essence here.

“Old Savage stuff. Junk mostly. Artifacts from off their ships and things. Real sick stuff. Also… highly illegal. Or at least… it was back under the House. All that kinda weird stuff had to go right to the government so they could R and D it. Or keep someone from doing just that. Alright… so… are you in, Jack? ’Cause we gotta start now if you’re gonna make it.”

Jack Bowie replaced his sunglasses and straightened his jacket. Every muscle in his body awake. He knew showtime when he smelled it.

“Yeah, I’m in. Give it to me, Reiser. Who needs to die?”

“Funny you should say that, Jack.” Reiser leaned down and picked a briefcase up off the floor next to their table. It almost looked like the one Jack Bowie had entering the compound the night before. “’Cause this is the opposite of that. You’re the target. Here, take this. It’s a Jackknife Supreme. Press this and it deploys into a cut-down heavy blaster. You’re going to need it.”

“What do you mean I’m the target?” asked Jack Bowie, alarm bells sounding strident warnings across his frontal lobe.

Comm device alerts went off across the bar. Out in the lobby. Even in the restaurant and lounge where the zhee were braying.

Suddenly the braying stopped and a dead silence descended across the Grand Intergalactic.

Jack Bowie had a very bad feeling about this.

“Here’s the op and you have to start moving in the next thirty seconds, Jack. Seriously, I’m on your side. We’re both on the same side. Okay, so right now you are going live on all the streams.”

Jack shot his head over to the screen at the bar.

The first thing that registered were the words in the news crawl.


And then the picture in the feed. Him, holding the sniper rifle, sighting down into the garden. Clear as day.

“You’re probably thinking we’ve hung you out to dry, Jack. We haven’t. Trust us. This is all part of the plan and you’ve got…” Reiser looked around. “You’ve got friends all around, know what I mean?” he whispered. “But, honestly, the zhee and everyone else are going to try to kill you right now. We need you to make it to the koob embassy in Soob City. That’s all you gotta do. Yeah, they keep an embassy on their own world. It’s for the ruling tribe. Anyway… you gotta make it there as fast as you can. Mostly the zhee gangs and their paramilitaries are going to try to intercept you before you reach it.”

Reiser stood.

The zhee were moving in the lounge. The sound of charge packs being snapped into blasters was clear across the soundscape of the lobby, bar, and breakfast area.

“Here…” said Reiser, tossing a small ear link comm device onto the table. “Take this. Your shot caller will direct your route and you’ve got overwatch the whole way. You’re just the rabbit, Jack. So I suggest you run. Make it to the embassy. You’ll get the rest on the way.”

And then Reiser was moving away like he’d never been there. Distancing himself from Jack.

The identified assassin.

Without hesitation Jack Bowie grabbed the comm link, shoved it into his ear, hefted the briefcase, and ran for his life. The zhee were already firing as he reached the massive marble lobby, striking innocent bystanders who’d been caught in the crossfire.


There were three groups that were going to try their best to kill the assassin Jack Bowie that long, hot day on the streets of Soob City.

But all of them worked for the same faction.

The zhee.

Newcomers to the world of Kublar in the aftermath of Goth Sullus’s war against the Republic, the zhee had arrived en masse. Coming with all their intractable and argumentative ways. Not to mention the violence and crime they always seemed to get up to. Authoritarian theocracy at its corrupt best. Proclaiming that unless you were of the faithful you were beneath consideration. Less than. And anything done to you was considered a furtherance of the four gods’ will.




And all the other jacked up things perpetrated by any group who considers itself above the standard of galactic civilization in the name of some obscure higher moral authority that’s never held up to the light. It was all legit in the name of a nebulous salvation for the zhee, and let the four gods sort the rest.

Of course, there were the braying patrons who’d been in the Grand that morning having what was being called a trade negotiations breakfast. Really they’d been engaging in off-world sex trafficking which was in high demand, what with Kublar opening up its economic markets to the rest of the galaxy. And the death of the headman last night had created some advantageous opportunities to be seized quickly. Foreign traders brought an intense hunger for foreign flesh. And the zhee mullahs ran the trade, when not braying forth a call to the holy to adhere to their dark sermons nine times a day.

They came in hot across the lobby of the Grand Intergalactic, killing several innocent bystanders in the crossfire that went down almost immediately in the lobby. But their tribe leader, a highly trained zhee operator that was the equivalent of any special forces operator from any of the worlds that maintained proficient militaries, had two factors to consider.

Killing Bowie was the official Grand Wutti Call to Bind, Torture, and Kill. That was paramount in the hierarchy of zhee needs at the moment. Already the call was spamming every comm device across Soob City and even hitting the hypercomms to access all zhee channels. That was the most important thing every member of the faithful who adhered to the teachings of the Bloody Four could accomplish at this moment, and earn a thousand mares for all eternity.

But as a zhee tribe leader who’d been assigned to protect the holy class of priests, the security team leader’s first concern was to get his betters to safety now that there were zhee blood debts in effect. The streets were going to turn red, never mind the crossfire, to get the target. The head priest of the skin trade delegation quickly crossed his paws and snorted a blessing in the holy cant absolving the security team leader of the blood debt to Bind, Torture, Kill.

In the instant that Bowie made the main doors of the Grand, blaster-impact-shattering the beautiful carved and polished wood frames, the tribe leader was efficiently splitting his team to get the priests to the secure armored sled used to move their convoy about the swollen streets of Soob City, and detailing his shooters to immediately run down Bowie and finish him violently.

Meanwhile, near the edge of the zhee quarters—ZQ—killers were sensing their moment and springing into action for the hunt. ZQ was a section of Soob City where the zhee had moved off the beach from where their colony ship had made its last approach to set down, and immigrated en masse whether anyone like it or not, unrestricted and definitely uninvited, onto the world of Kublar.

ZQ was off-limits for anyone who wasn’t zhee and wanted to go on living. Of course the zhee had spent a ton of money, aid and funding from the last of the Repub, to run a tourism campaign across the galaxy highlighting the centuries-old zhee culture that had only recently sprung up.

Several tourists had been killed, and countless more disappeared without a trace, especially comely young thrill seekers backpacking their way across the galaxy and trying to hit all the latest hip “in spots” to extreme adventure for social media posts and “savage amounts of gushes.” They’d come for the smoke fountains and wallow lounges, and were never seen again. Disappearing forever into the zhee skin trade that crossed the galaxy and about which no one could do anything.

Even the Feral Jacks, the zhee street gang that ran the H8 trade for all of ZQ, got the alert that it was hunting season.

Social media channels that catered to the zhee’s message boards and hoof scratch language immediately switched over from their litany of threats and repeated holy writs from the Prophecies of Mhugga the Blind, to location pings of Bowie’s last sighting.

Boom Boom Killah had once, not too long ago, a proper zhee name. Something with three identifiers and chosen according to traditions that wanted a martyr’s name, a prophet’s formal name, and a tribal bray in every moniker. That kind of thing. But when the old zhee colony ship had flown her last approach into the beach at the then newly developing Diplomatic Zone that was Soob City, the zhee males of family headship age had had to scramble to make a living and get established. Providing first, places for the zhee priests to live and lead worship, and then jamming three tribes to an apartment floor in the worst districts just to get their broodmares off the streets and out of the tents they’d been living in on the beach under the shadow of the skeleton of the old cargo hauler that had been their colony ship off Ankalor.

A one jump scow that shouldn’t have even made the trip. But they did, and as was oft repeated across the galaxy ad nauseam, fortune favored the zhee despite the zhee’s best efforts to annihilate themselves.

Boom Boom Killah ran a crew of street enforcers on Division and Excelsior just inside ZQ. He was busy with a mare when the alert came across his smart device and because business was business, he pushed himself up from the panting jilly and threw himself into his street rags. A combat harness blinged out with human teeth, glittering gold jewelry, and playing cards that had been covered in hyperplastic, the edges shaved to a razor’s sharpness. This was the ultimate rejection of the formal ways of their zhee elders. Razor-sharp playing cards to replace the traditional kankari knife every zhee was supposed to carry.

Hitting the already blazing street, the donkey street tribe chief shrugged on his harness and beat his young, muscular, furry chest with one cloven-clawed fist, signaling to the crew already gathering near their souped up sleds that they were mounting up to “do some circus.”

“We gotta KTF a brudda rightquick, my donkety-donks!” he brayed aloud.

The disaffected youth of the zhee had embraced the derisory slang that even the Repub military had tried to outlaw as politically incorrect. Wearing the slur now and referring to each other with a sense of pride in the insult, they loved calling themselves “donks.” Speaking in Standard was yet another affront to the traditions of the parents that brought them to Kublar.

Gaggling and cackling loudly, snorting and braying, the dangerous young zhee sporting blasters that had been skinned in all kinds of traditional curses, or in the case of Boom Boom Killah… plated in gold to match his two large gold front teeth, each encrusted with a diamond, piled into the tricked-out low riding sleds and roared off on an intercept course for the fleeing Jack Bowie.


“Hi, Jack,” said a strong yet feminine voice in his ear. Warm and confident. The comm he’d just placed in his ear was receiving, after a short chitter of quantum encryption burbles. “Call me Elektra, Jack. I’ll be your shot caller for this operation. Keep moving on your current track and enter the Prominence Shopping Arcade one hundred meters ahead on your right. We have a team standing by to intercept your immediate pursuit.”

Jack Bowie was busy ducking from luxury black sled to luxury black sled in the valet circle in front of the Grand. He had yet to return fire on the five black suited zhee deploying subcompact auto blasters and firing wildly at everyone and anyone to clear a path to their target. With little mercy they shot down customers and staff alike. But Jack saw an opportunity and rectified that with the holdout he had in the hand. He popped up over the gleaming hood of the freshly polished limo sled and shot one of the donk security thugs a car length away. Twice. Two quick blaster shots.

Hot bolts burned into the suit and fur covered body beneath as the zhee went down snarling in death. A fusillade of blaster fire raked the limo just as Jack ducked and scrambled for the next limo, not stopping there but moving behind a massive ten-foot-tall terra-cotta urn holding a carnival spray of lush topiary.

More blaster fire chased Jack and now nothing but open ground, in the form of a high-end shopping district’s high street, lay between him and where the shot caller, Elektra, was telling him to head.

“Good to meet you,” gasped Jack as he ran for all he was worth, briefcase flying in one hand, holdout blaster pulling him forward with the other.

“Solid move, Jack,” said Elektra over the comm. “Put some distance between you and the zhee security team. They’re using Baarac subcompacts… good for violent room clearings, bad for anything beyond fifteen meters.”

They must be watching me via drone, thought Jack while wild blaster fire shrieked after him. Zhee hooves struck the pavement as they thundered down the street. Braying calls to one another as they hustled to catch the infidel, sensing the kill at hand.

Jack made the door of the Prominence Shopping Arcade and shoved himself inside. Both door security men had watched the disturbance at the Grand Hotel down the street, saw the dead bodies in the turnabout, and then the running firefight heading their way. They did little to stop Jack and instead just stood there, disbelief written in their wide eyes and hanging jaws, that this was actually happening here so deep inside the Security Zone.

“Run!” Jack barked at them and entered the shopplex, suddenly overwhelmed by the heady floral scent of an extremely expensive luxury perfume counter. The place was a palace to commercialism and high-end goods. Three stories, sculpted like some grand duke’s bedroom from the lost ages of the early galactic civilizations, it rose above into the nether reaches of the shopping complex. Vibrant tapestries and massive sparkling chandeliers ornamented the place and drew attention to the latest must-haves in fashion, timepieces, luggage, and jewels. All done with an artistic commercialism that seemed polished and professional.

Jaw-dropping on any given day.

But Jack was facing three well-dressed young people, definitely luxury store clerks in well-cut business suits that showed their trim and compact physiques. All of them were holding military-grade assault blasters with charge packs laid out on the perfume counters. Incredibly expensive bottles, like the home of some fantastic genie from the movies that got made on Al-Kaz back in the glory days of Monster-Adventure Flicks twenty years gone, had been swept aside, and in some cases lay broken and smashed on the floor. Tens of thousands of credits’ worth of expensive perfume lay in heady puddles beneath the shining leather shoes of the three holding blasters at near point-blank range on Jack who’d skidded to a halt.

“This is the intercept team, Jack,” noted Elektra in his ear. “Keep moving to the back of the arcade. Enter the service corridors and watch out. We have reports some of the zhee shopping here are armed and looking for you already.”

The intercept team for the arcade was comprised of two pretty women, business professionals who easily could have been fitness models, and a handsome male who looked like the epitome of an entertainment’s star spy.

And nothing like a real spy at all.

The man nodded at Jack as both girls flashed dazzling smiles that said they were enthusiastic about their work.

Jack managed his trademark bashful leer at both and ran on. He was moving through high-end crystal stemware when the three opened up on the four pursuing zhee who flung themselves through the doors of the arcade, thinking they were hot on the heels of a fleeing target with no protection.

Brutal high-powered automatic blaster fire set up to crossfire from three counters facing the front doors made short work of what remained of the zhee mullah’s security detail that had been tasked with pursuit.

A moment later Elektra updated Jack over the comm as he followed a sign that led to the maintenance areas of the stores.

“Pursuit eliminated. Move to the street out the back, Jack. And watch yourself.”

People all across the store were screaming and security alarms were blaring as the sound of blaster fire at the front entrance faded away. Jack made it to the back service area’s access hall, pulled the door open, and pointed the blaster down its gray, lifeless length. Shadowy and barely illuminated by wan overhead lighting, this place was the opposite of the glamorous front of the house.

Halfway down the length of the hall Jack saw a dead worker, and he wondered if Team Nilo’s people had iced someone just so the facade of the perfume counter sales-security intercept team could be maintained. Approaching, he saw the slashed-open neck, blood pooling. Everything screamed zhee kankari knife. But it was the bloody hoofprints that confirmed the story of what had happened here. Hoofprints stamped in the blood and leading down the hall just the way Jack was heading.

No doubt the zhee were picking up a few opportunities for some bloodletting amid the mayhem. They always made the most of the galaxy’s problems. That was the zhee way.

So they’re here and looking for me, thought Jack as he ran. He moved down the hall quickly, thumbed the overpower on the Python to dump half the charge pack into the next shot. He wanted to make sure he put down whoever he meant to hit so he could keep moving quickly.

The fresh, bloody hoofprints faded as he entered the shipping and receiving warehouse at the end of the hall. Columns and pyramids of container goods rose up into the darkness of the place. Jack entered the main access to the loading docks, bypassing bots who seemed little concerned with the sudden crisis and wild murder taking place in all quarters of the store, and the city for that matter.

A moment later a forklift sled with two zhee mares, black robes flying, came at him out of a dark side corridor. There was no way he was getting out of the way. The thing was wide and moving fast straight at him. He threw himself to the side, hoping they wouldn’t just cut repulsors and take an easy shot at him as it came to an immediate, grinding stop.

They didn’t. They could barely operate it. A moment later they failed to hit the brakes and smashed into a fat column of boxes awaiting the next step in the merchandising process. This didn’t deter the murder-eyed mare at the controls who merely smashed one hoof against the left turn pedal and pivoted the wide loader on a dime. Both of their black robes flew like wicked shadows.

Jack fired on the fly and hit the lift sled.

Nothing. They were coming back.

Jack scrambled to his feet and ducked down the main access hall heading toward the loading docks. Behind him the two mares on the lift hit the side wall, knocked over what must’ve been hundreds of thousands of credits in crystal merchandise, something the stores carried specifically to cater to the newly rich zhee households, and careened out onto the main access in pursuit of Bowie.

The other mare, hanging onto the lift from a place no one was ever meant to hang on from, chattered wildly into her datapad. Bowie didn’t have to speak zhee to know she was telling someone—everyone—they’d found the infidel.

Ahead, Bowie could see the light of day coming from the loading dock, but the straining electric engine of the lift sled was closing on him fast. At the last second he threw himself off the dock, hugged the briefcase to his chest and went sliding into some recently arrived containers. He curled and took the landing on his left shoulder. It didn’t dislocate anything, but it did jar something deep within his spine.

No time for that, he thought as suddenly the loading dock was filled with the clamor of a sudden catastrophic crash. The lift sled had gone off the dock at full speed into the back of a small transport sled waiting to be unloaded. The mare hanging on had been crushed. The driver couldn’t be seen now that lift sled and transport had become one. Whatever had happened to her, it was clear she wasn’t going anywhere in the lift anytime soon.

If she was alive.

Bowie grunted and got up off the floor of the loading dock.

A bot trundled over and informed Bowie that this was a restricted area and asked if he could please return to the main shopping areas for his safety and shopping pleasure.

“Sure thing,” muttered Bowie and stumbled out into the daylight at the back of the loading dock, entering a back-alley side street that served the stores.


It had been less than fifteen minutes since the zhee issued the Bind-Torture-Kill decree for Jack Bowie, and already murders in Soob City had gone up three hundred percent. Most of those homicides weren’t reported. Dead bodies lay in the street and a frozen emergency services system had yet to respond beyond the most protected areas of the Green Zone.

Across town, near the Kublaren tribal embassy, three diplomats enjoying a kaff in the new corporate store that had just opened two weeks before, were suddenly murdered by a zhee hit squad who’d been waiting for two weeks to pull the reprisal killings for some vague declared injustice last month.

With the Bind-Torture-Kill in effect, anything and everything was on the table for the unstable and chaotic zhee. The more mayhem tied up local security forces, the more likely it was that their Infidel-Target would be caught, hurt, and murdered.

Mass bedlam and wanton violence was always a win for the zhee. Pandemonium was their preferred pallet.

So, while three Kublaren elders were being blasted down on the sidewalk, a jewelry store back in the shopping district suddenly got hit by a zhee crew working for Boom Boom Killah. They’d been tasked with robbing the store sometime later in the week. The plan had been to hit the store and then disappear back into ZQ with loads of bling and loot.

Now everything was out of control so the crew decided to go for it. They took along a small yet powerful self-replicating chemical incendiary bomb. One they’d planned to use to cover their backtrail by leaving an apartment tower in flames, thus diverting any attention focused on their capture into rescue efforts as various world diplomatic residences within the upper floors were incinerated.

Entering the store, the three zhee criminals who’d actually do the heist started slitting throats just to get the fun stuff out of the way right off the top. The guard first. Then the two jewelers. That was in the first thirty seconds right as Jack Bowie was pushing himself up from the ruin of the shipping floor and the bot was heading over to advise him of the warehouse safety protocols currently in effect.

One minute to bag up everything in all the display cases, one zhee smashing glass while the two others greedily grabbed everything they could get their paws on, and thirty seconds after that they were at the front door, flinging behind the crude incendiary device as a parting gift. The heist team reached the door of the getaway sled, themselves awash in the heavy bloom of the chemical propellant they’d used for the bomb when it ignited inside the store, producing a sudden terrible blossom of wild flame, destroying everything it touched.

The fleeing robbers would have been cooked too had they not shut the panel on the getaway sled as the driver mashed the accelerator and took off down the street amid a roar of engine and blast of street grit.

The firebomb worked fast, spreading in a self-replicating gel nutrient that would multiply and ignite for the next two minutes. By then the first of the upper floors of the apartment tower above would be aflame, as were all the escape and emergency exits.

That would make things more difficult for city services, the zhee had reasoned. And thus easier for them. What did it matter? Those being burned alive were Unclean anyway. That particular tradition stayed with the youths.

This and many other murders of opportunity occurred all across the Security Zone where the zhee had been trusted to be on their best behavior so that a new future, involving them, could be forged together.

Or so the government types had been vowing as the zhee slowly took over Soob City and, increasingly, the inland territories of the planet.

With the Bind-Torture-Kill in effect, the zhee awakened enthusiastically to their most basic of primal calls, something older than any of the galactic civilizations if all the old House of Reason’s propaganda was to be believed. Zhee mares wildly stabbed shopkeepers and alien coworkers. Even neighbors who’d unwisely chosen to live anywhere close to the murderous donks found themselves fighting for their lives. Desperately. With no police forces anywhere near to assist.

Bind-Torture-Kills had been covered up and apologized for by the Republic and the House of Reason in the past. It was considered a cultural trait by scholars and multi-cult apologists… and really, who was anyone to tell the zhee to conform to the galaxy’s human-centric sentiments about civilization?

Zhee males were reporting in to their tribe leaders while moving through the streets, exacting as much petty revenge as they could while stealing and smashing everything in sight. The zhee were a physically larger and far more aggressive species than most. Within minutes it was chaos and mayhem everywhere across the heat-swollen streets of Soob City.

All of them, all of the zhee, as if in unison, closed a massive noose about Soob City’s neck, centered on the fleeing Jack Bowie.

Infidel-Target Number One.

But the violence was not restricted to non-zhee only. Teams of zhee-priest security sprang into action against rival religious sects who’d been considered heretics. False prophets. Counter-apologists advocating a kinder, gentler position among the various galactic tribes. Simmering minor quarrels over everything from noise in the adjoining apartments to some long-forgotten tribal grievance done in the past were suddenly hauled out into the light with the ever-sharpened kankari knives, blasters, bricks, and the occasional transport vehicle acting as adjudicators. Anything they could get their hooves on to harm, molest, and maim would do. Most of this, and it wasn’t as widespread as what was being done against the rest of the inhabitants of Soob City, remained confined to the perpetual no-go zone that was ZQ.

A zhee ghetto no one lightly entered. Or at least no one with half a brain.

So, none of it would ever be recorded. Not the internecine, or the general, violence, would ever be accounted for. Just as it always had been, wherever the uninvited zhee managed to immigrate.

But the violence gripping Soob City right now on this hot morning was immediate and dangerous. Corporate and private contractor security forces went into lockdown to protect their high value charges as private police grouped at the local station houses and awaited orders from the governing Soob Tribe.

It was going to be a very long day for those lucky enough to survive the mayhem. No one had expected this. And, no one had planned for it.

Almost no one.


The transport and delivery sleds came rolling off The Naruto, a large ore hauler that had arrived in-system and planetside a day earlier. The transport and delivery sleds were nondescript, though startlingly brand-new. Leaving the docking facility east of the Soob City Green Zone and moving directly toward the koob district that lay alongside ZQ, shipping personnel remarked that the freight haulers were so new one could smell the shipping laminate burning off the repulsors, a sure indicator of first usage.

The windows aboard the heavy sleds were tinted but one security gate guard watching over the access point to the docking facility did interact with the convoy leader and got the distinct impression the man was a military private contractor type.

It seemed strange to the guard that these were coming off an ore hauler supposedly inbound from one of the outer edge worlds. Registered to Black Leaf Freight Systems.

Something’s up, thought the gate guard as he watched the convoy hover off into the urban sprawl, heading for the primary Kublaren-district neighborhood within the Green Zone.

Something’s up indeed. But he didn’t call it in. Because things had gone crazy in the Soob, and one more call wouldn’t mean anything. Local enforcement was beyond max.

The guard felt relief that he never did become a cop.


“Next part’s difficult,” said Elektra over the comm device in Jack Bowie’s ear. “I need you to move up Sentinela Street and stay visible. You’re here to draw attention, Jack.”

Bowie was moving swiftly along the back alley that led away from the massive Prominence shopping sprawl. He could see the indicated street ahead.

“Turn north at the alley and stay on the street, Jack. Copy?”

He hadn’t answered her last comm. And he wasn’t in the mood to answer this one either. But, some questions needed to be answered.

“Won’t that make it easier for them to kill me? Being in the open and all.”

After all, every donk in the city, thought Jack Bowie, and likely a few opportunists are out to kill me because you guys tattled.

But he didn’t say that part. That’d be whining.

Overhead an unmarked dropship shot across the skyline between buildings. Bowie waited in the shadows of the alley and made ready to either execute the next phase of the route to the koob embassy the way they wanted him to go, or take matters into his own hands and find a new safer route.

Who wasn’t to say they weren’t just leading him into a trap where he’d get killed and some kind of planted evidence would point everyone toward whatever objective Team Nilo wanted accomplished?

Look, we found these incriminating idents on the dead guy.

That’s all they really needed him for.

How much can you trust Team Nilo? Jack Bowie wondered not for the first time in the last ten minutes.

“Trust me, Jack,” said the woman in his ear. “We’ve got you covered from now on out. All the way to objective. Airborne fire support on station and ready to engage. Just passed overhead. They even try to take a shot and we’ll shoot them down. We’ve got this situation under control.”

Bowie shoved the holdout into its holster under his jacket. He’d try to blend in and move up the street without attracting too much attention until…

… until…

… until he did. Then, well, it would just have to be game on. No two ways about it.

He walked swiftly toward the exit from the cool, dark alley.

“Why the street?” he asked Elektra over the comm. Muttering to himself for all outward appearances.

“Part of the plan, Bowie. Trust—”

“I don’t know if you’re new to this whole espionage game…” began Bowie low and angrily into his comm. “But trust isn’t one of the prerequisites for intel work. Evidence. Start sharing the plan or I’ll find my own way to the embassy and deal with the fallout when I get there.”

Silence. He was almost to the exit from the alley.

“We need to kill some more zhee, Bowie. Best way is to get them to chase you right into the ambush teams we have set up along the route. Roger?”


“Because that’s the plan. And we get paid to follow the plan. And so do you. You don’t want to get paid, fine. You’re on your own. Good luck with everyone trying to kill you and all. Team Nilo will get this done another way. But do it our way and you’ll make it out of this.”

It wasn’t much of a choice.

“Moving,” muttered Bowie. “Keep ’em off me.”

“We will, Jack.”

Bowie made it about ten meters up the street before the shooting started. The shooting at him, to be specific.

Zhee clustered in the street. Beating some people, shooting others, rifling through the bodies of those alive and lying terrified and prone. Other aliens, and several humans, were either running or simply cowering in disbelief at the zhee who were behaving exactly like zhee.

Most of these types were the people who’d never actually encountered any zhee, and relied on information from the old propaganda mills of the House of Reason–supported media groups who campaigned ceaselessly on behalf of the “much maligned” zhee. The standard line had always gone something to the effect that the galaxy had a long way to go to overcome the inherent speciesism in galactic human-centric culture.

Or, the truth wasn’t the truth. It’s what we say it is.

Bowie swore under his breath and pulled out his holdout blaster once more as he started up the street. He didn’t even bother to try to disappear in order to get up Sentinela unnoticed.

He shot the first zhee he came to. A big one hunched over the body of a man in a suit who’d had his face bashed in by a discarded lead pipe nearby.

The pipe was covered in blood.

Bowie casually shot the zhee in the back and moved on, knowing the other zhee would figure out what was going on in the next few seconds anyway.

The only bonus out of this, thought Jack Bowie as the zhee moved in on him, is that those they were menacing are free to flee, or drag their wounded away somewhere to hide.

Consider it a small service to the galaxy, he thought as he selected his targets and decided who needed to die next.

Bowie fired at two zhee on the street, the only ones carrying blasters, weapons that had just been used to commit murder. Then he began to move at a jog up the street. If the other zhee, most of them armed with improvised hand weapons, were deterred by the sudden death of three of their own in the last thirty seconds, it didn’t show. They shadowed him, looking for any opportunity to close rapidly and do him harm. Shoot enough of them and he’d run out of charge and have to swap packs. That would be the moment to rush, Bowie could almost feel them telegraphing to one another.

Some ran at him from odd angles, weaving through abandoned private sleds on the street, stranded and blocked from going forward by the improvised barriers the donks had thrown up to stall traffic for better looting. Others came straight at him once they’d made the sidewalk he was on. The whole moment had an almost determined, quiet madness. An is this really about to happen inherent disbelief within its quiet vastness.

In very short order Jack Bowie was going to have to fight about fifteen or so of the hairy brutes at very close range.

He was beginning to not like the number of verys that were accompanying every motivation.

Then they began to die.

“Jack,” said Elektra over the comm, “hold your position and don’t move a sec.”

“Can…” he was just about to ask if he could shoot back when the incoming zhee began to take fire from above. One donk got hit at a dead run, a high-powered blaster shot practically drilling straight through his hairy husky body from above. Another had its head explode in bone and brain matter from a blaster headshot. Two more died in a sudden fusillade of more blaster fire coming from across the street. A closed business that had been occupied by another ambush team.

Bowie could see the dropship hovering over a nearby rooftop, two snipers firing from the cargo deck. Both private-contractor types.

“Start moving again, Jack,” said Elektra over the comm once more. Her voice calm and businesslike. All the zhee weren’t dead, but the ones who’d tried to run were shot down as expertly as the ones who tried to close on Bowie.

“Two more blocks to go,” updated the shot caller. “Then turn left.”


Boom Boom Killah and his convoy of tricked-out sleds moved into the Green Zone, blasting thump-and-blur, the music all the disaffected youth of the zhee were listening to that long hot summer on Kublar, and many other worlds.

They blew past the first Zone Security checkpoint, a soft entrance that merely scanned idents via transponder to enter the less-restricted areas of the secure zone. There was no way they were getting into the actual Green Zone where reports were coming in across all the channels, social and comm, ones the zhee monitored, that the target of the Bind-Torture-Kill was currently in the high-end Prominence shopping district.

Or at least the Feral Jacks weren’t getting in the Green Zone without a firefight. The security watching the inner checkpoints was military-grade. And they were armed for bear. Enough donks and the zhee might bust through and run amok, a dream many of the priests had promised would happen one day, but no plans had been made for that day to be today. And so it wasn’t happening.

But… things could always change.

They were only told it would be soon, and sooner than they expected. And that the mares promised for eternal nirvana would be the muskiest of all.

Now they were getting reports that the infidel-target was moving out of the secure Green Zone.

Boom Boom Killah called a halt while the speakers brayed about mares and drugs and power. The young thug crew leader checked his device and brought the map feature up. Reports from neighborhood tribe spotters, usually umwas, or old mares past breeding value, had the target moving up along Sentinela.

Nice street, thought Boom Boom. If the target continued, he’d intersect Briad Way which would take him straight out of the zone.

It was pretty clear where the guy was going.

He was headed for the koobs.

Boom Boom identified an intersection where they’d be safe to intercept the target and dropped a pin to everyone in the crew.

“Move, braddas! Move yo hairy butts now-like-hussah!”

The gaudy sleds turned and picked up a new course track along a side street that would take them to the intercept in less than two minutes.


The dropship hovered over the rooftops behind Bowie, occasionally skirting ahead. He could hear the ring of blaster fire coming from the ground in the surrounding streets. The snipers on board the dropship were firing suppressed.

It was like being overwatched by an angel of death.

Except Bowie had been in these situations before. Out beyond the wire. Past the perimeter and inside a place the enemy, whoever they were this week, called home. Air cover was nice, but a full-scale infantry team with armor support made one feel a lot safer. Without any of those things, one started to feel one’s mortality.

“That’s why you get the big bucks,” Jack Bowie told himself as he jogged up the street he was navigating. He’d ditched his coat. It was too hot and also if the donks were running low-grade search identification software, even that simple change of wardrobe just might throw them for a loop.

Anything more sophisticated than low-level would bypass clothing markers and identify facial features at upwards of four hundred points. Almost impossible to defeat.

If the donks got their acts together in the next few minutes, they’d find him. That was the safest way for him to plan this.

Bowie continued to move.

What good that would do them, he didn’t know. Right now, he was passing a lot of empty streets and more than a few dead donks who’d been more than willing to meet him. Done to death from above.

The dropship was ahead of his position and engaging targets at a large intersection he’d have to cross. Bowie had made the left turn two blocks back and now he was continuing straight out of the Green Zone.

And he wasn’t thrilled about that either.

Elektra was telling him to move forward when she suddenly stopped mid-sentence. She dropped from the comm and there was nothing but a dull, ominous hum. Ahead, a block up, a ground-to-air missile streaked up from the streets, away from behind some buildings, and barely missed the dropship sniper team.

Bowie stopped and watched as the dropship jinked hard to its left to miss another missile suddenly coming up now. Engines howled, repulsors groaned as the hovering ship danced like a moth. Again, another narrow miss.

Flares and chaff pods erupted away from the turning dropship, nose down now and heading away from the intersection as fast as it could. Seconds later it was out of the area, un-hit and unharmed.

And of course, leaving Jack Bowie without his personal Angel of Death.

“Uh… problem?” asked Bowie over the suddenly quiet comm. He’d heard her at points interacting with other teams and received snippets of their comm traffic. Now, she’d isolated him from the general. And that did not bode well.

He was surprised when she came back quickly.

“Yeah,” said Elektra flatly. “We had no idea they had anti-air cap.”

Pause. He heard her say something while covering her comm.


“Hold one, Bowie.”

Things were heading away from the plan. That was fairly obvious.

“Watch your six for the present,” she said simply after a moment. He wasn’t even sure if the message was meant for him.

But the meaning was clear. He was completely beyond the Green Zone with no back up and wanted by every zhee killer on the planet. And a few others besides. He was on his own for the immediate and indeterminate future.

Bowie swore and holstered the Python in his shoulder harness.

A moment later he tapped the deployment tab on the Jackknife Supreme, currently in camo-carry mode, and watched as the thing neatly unpacked itself into a high-powered heavy blaster. A chain of charge packs effortlessly fell away from the feed-injector.

A grim smile blossomed across his determined face.

Yeah, he’d worked stealth and reach-out-and-kill… but excessive firepower had always been a guilty pleasure he’d found attractive. And he’d never minded carrying the team pig during his time attached to the Marines.

If he was going to be on his own for a few, then the Jackknife Supreme was a handy little thing to have in a pinch.


It was Elektra again. A little less calm, cool, and collected than prior transmission comms, but still pro. “Change of plans. We have ground teams moving into position. Problem is, for the next six blocks you’re on your own. I need you to reach Park and Sixth in ten minutes. Then we’ll have you back in pocket.”

Bowie had always hated that phrase. The only people who ever used it were people who had no idea what it was like to be out of pocket.

No idea what fear, adrenaline, and tension did to you in those unsupervised and very exposed moments when you were out of pocket, as they liked to say. It wasn’t the same as a termination or a hit. You were running the game then.

Take your shot and blow.

Out of pocket meant… on your own deep inside enemy territory without support, back up, QRF, or overwatch. You were in their game. Their world. Not yours. Now you had to balance reactive and proactive stances as the mission developed.

You’d left the known world.

And operationally speaking, that was not a great place to be.

Elektra was describing a route through a construction project that was going to be the future of the underground transportation system coming to Soob City in the next few years.

“Negative on route,” grunted Bowie, his voice dry and ragged over the comm. It was hot and he was dehydrated. “Follow me via tracking.”

Bowie doglegged a hard right, crossing the street and heading for an office complex east of the shootout at the intersection ahead. A series of office towers, all connected via skybridge, the cookie-cutter type that went up in six months on any newly industrialized world, sprawled away in the direction Bowie wanted for now. It wasn’t a direct route to Sixth and Park, but it would put him in a position to get there safely.

If the zhee sensed he was heading for the embassy, then no doubt they were filling the direct route with their version of a kill team.

He was running fast now because it was important to get off the street as quickly as possible. He vaulted a low concrete wall, sprinted across a mostly empty parking lot, and made the high security entrance to the nearest circular tower in the office park.

It was clear the building hadn’t been occupied yet by any galactic corporate entity, but it looked more than ready for move in.

Bowie opened up with a burst of fire from the Jackknife and felt the thing barely even jerk from blaster recoil as it dumped at least twenty shots in half a second across the entrance door made of heavy secure-glass. Rated to stand up to riot, but not high-powered heavy blaster fire.

Go figure.

The glass wall shattered and Bowie stepped inside the climate-controlled building, getting hit by a refreshing blast of nice cold air. The construction workers probably kept it on for themselves. Bowie didn’t mind their indiscretion.

He crossed the lobby and hit the call button for the elevator. One of the sixteen in the bank of lifts opened and Bowie stepped inside, scanning the panel for the floor he could access the skybridge on.

A moment later the lift was headed up at an almost unsafe rate of acceleration. Someone still needed to adjust its controls before building occupation.


Boom Boom Killah and the Feral Jacks had just had their first major street engagement against the nebulous new security company that had been showing up on the fringes of Kublar. And won.

Some of the donks had been calling them the Shadows. A security presence that had begun to assert itself in recent weeks across Soob City. Carving out districts and neighborhoods, or even just blocks, for itself. Now, they’d had their first fight against what the zhee had assumed was another gang, cartel, or some heavily funded paramilitary org. They’d encountered such before.

There were even reports of paramilitary guerrillas operating against the koob tribes out in the sticks near the zhee holy sanctuaries that had been established out there to project influence and run smuggling operations.

Boom Boom Killah and his crew had reached the intersection where the firefight with the dropship would take place with just minutes to spare. He was following reports over zhee social media channels that indicated the target was headed this way. And at the same time, he noted the unmarked dropship shooting down into the streets.

“Ha…” he brayed, still enthroned on the back seat of his sled and tapping his datapad while the rest of the crew flooded into the streets and businesses, suddenly commandeering them as fighting positions to intercept the infidel.

“Ha! Shadowies be all tricky-like, muley braddas!” crowed the basso-voiced donk crew leader.

Then he nodded solemnly at Little Six, his right-hand donk, and gave the orders he wanted obeyed immediately.

“Get da flyswattah outta dey trunk, you dumb muley bast.”

Little Six had responded rapidly, and with the smooth professionalism of any trained soldier. He popped the trunk on Boom Boom Killah’s ride and had the Repub Marine man-portable Longbow Air Defense System in hand within its clamshell. Several thousand had gone missing in the last days of the Republic, and word was that an entire supply unit had sold off tons of military-grade hardware, including one HK-PP, to finance their retirement in lieu of casting their fate to the Republic paymasters. Best to control what you could while the evolving galactic economy assumed its new form.

And so they took off for the edge of the galaxy to live like kings.

Meanwhile, a few of those LADS ground-to-air intercept systems found their way into donk paws on Kublar. Because Boom Boom Killah “ran dey show,” as they liked to say on the streets of Soob City, he’d acquired one.

Unlike the aero-precision launchers, there was no locking mechanism. Point and shoot only. But Longbows were capable of firing four missiles at an airborne vehicle in rapid succession. The LADS had been used as the dropship snipers began to engage the donks on the ground in the intersection Bowie was heading straight toward. It was Boom Boom and his lieutenant who’d ducked back inside a koob kebab store and set up the system using the no-brainer instructions to attach the munitions canister interface to the main firing rail. A moment later the firing interface was flipped out and the toggle for Active Scan engaged.

That easy.

You could take out a commercial freighter with one of these, some liked to say. All you had to do was aim and shoot.

But the dropship pilot had flown a lot of legionnaires into hot LZs across the galaxy. Any other civilian, or even a mere transport pilot who’d never flown combat missions, wouldn’t have been minding the missile sensors too much. Might have even adjusted the ship’s display settings to move that system to passive and Imminent-Only detection.

Imminent-Only detection would have given nothing more than a pulsing shriek that an inbound missile had just been launched. With the dropship operating no more than five stories up, and the kinetic mag-rail launched missile using chemical boost to accelerate quickly to penetration speed, live and in the air, reaction time to evade the incoming missile would have been nonexistent.

But the pilot of the dropship had been watching the Ground-to-Air scan. He was ready on evasive, chaff, and flares the moment the missile went live and the intercept alarm began to shriek frantic mayhem.

Boom Boom Killah swore a blue streak when he missed the first one and almost threw the launcher through the plate glass window of the kebab shop they were using for cover.

“Got another one, Big Brudda!” cried Little Six, and grabbed at the expensive launcher to prevent Boom Boom from sating his rage at the miss and destroying the firing system.

Most of the donks thought you only got one shot because the hero of the streams often used the missile-type launcher for the big finale to end the big bad in his death ship, or what have you. Then in slow mo, as the struck-bad-guy-vehicle exploded into special effects flames—after watching the missile streak through the air in slow mo, of course—the hero tossed the launcher away and walked into frame.

Also in slow-mo of course.

That was how Boom Boom Killah had imagined firing the LADs would be. Da Flyswattah.

Instead he fired and missed.

Little Six apprised him that he had more shots and Boom Boom, upon realizing this sudden boon, ran forward with the launcher out into the street and tried to reacquire the dropship once more.

The bird dropped her nose, spooled up her engines and made to streak away.

Boom Boom decided to go for the shot because it was so close. Too close to miss!

The next missile spat away from the firing rail as more smoke, flares, and chaff from the departing dropship rained down on the intersection.

One of the snipers blew a giant hole in Little Six’s chest and the donk lieutenant was down and dying on the hot street behind his leader.

Boom Boom brayed madly, gnashing his giant gold-capped buckteeth and heaved the ground-to-air missile system straight through the plate glass window above where his next-in-charge lay dying.

The howl of the dropship’s engines faded across the rooftops and the zhee all around brayed in triumph at driving the enemy from the field.

Boom Boom stared around in wonder. Yes, he’d missed, but to his braddas he’d driven off the shadowy dropship that had been killing them.

In their first firefight against this new player in the Kublar scene, they’d won.

Yeah, killing the dropship would have been excellent good. Maybe another day.

Boom Boom Killah’s men swarmed him, cheering and shooting their blasters into the sky. Whooping and braying out their lusty zhee battle calls from ages older than spaceflight.

In the press and throng of excitement one of the little mules ran up to the crew leader. Just a young donk who’d been running with the crew as of late. They were thinking about using him for a hit because he was under the legal age of incarceration. So, if he got popped by the locals, he’d just get reeducation and not hard time off-world in the mines.

“Ah gotta heem!” brayed the youngling up at Boom Boom. He had an entertainment device, the kind young donks played games on to learn their maths. Except this ’un had been configured to pilot a drone system the little muley had set up.

Yeah, now that Boom Boom thought about it, the kid had always been the kind to be playing with “them high as all canna do tekka gadgeta,” as the Feral Jacks liked to say of the expensive voodoo the galaxy called technology.

They’d called the kid “Whisser” because of that. Meaning he was a Vizier. A joke regarding the priests and their cast of scientists and advisers called the Viziers.

The kid held up the device and showed a feed from the drone it was running. Sure enough it had captured the infidel-target; his image was all over social media and the news now, running toward a building. The well-muscled human barely hesitated as he unloaded a full series of blasts against some safety glass and shattered the barrier to enter a nearby building. Then he threaded the damaged portal and disappeared inside the building.

“Where be this, little muley?” asked Boom Boom Killah nicely.

The kid pointed toward the office park off to the east. Six shiny new silver towers connected by a high skybridge. Neat and new.

It was clear to the donk leader exactly what the target was attempting to do.

It was prey. And it was attempting to hide from him by going to ground. Or move away from his, Boom Boom Killah’s, hunting ground. The Unclean would use the skybridge to move over the streets and probably get close to the koob embassy where he’d ask for asylum to avoid the crimes he’d committed against the zhee.

Boom Boom brayed a call to arms and made his divisions among the forces left to him after the battle at the intersection. Groups would take each of the six towers and try to cut the target off ahead, and behind.

A moment later the donk youths, heavily armed and slinging medium blasters and even explosives, ran for the corporate office park mere streets away.

Bowie saw them coming. He was just entering onto the skybridge five stories up when he saw the young well-armed donks streaming in groups across the parking lot below the corporate office park. Each group heading for a separate tower.


The unmarked convoy headed into the narrow streets of the koob district. Businesses were shuttered and many of the koobs had taken to the rooftops with their old tribal slug throwers, slings, and ceremonial lances.

Clusters of the frog-eyed creatures stared in gaping wonder, their air sacs inflating and deflating aggressively, as the convoy entered the streets and began a long, slow parade through the neighborhood.

The koobs had managed to hold the inner blocks from the suddenly riotous behavior of the rampaging zhee, but several outer district warehouses were already fully engulfed in flames with the foreigners looting in an almost unconcerned manner. Dead koobs and zhee still lay in the streets, stripped and looted, already bloating in the sun.

If it was going to be a fight between the two alien species, then it was very clear who was going to win. The zhee were alpha predators compared to the docile Kublaren of Soob City. Made soft by graft and luxury. Feeding from the hand of the Republic. Even on home ground, the koobs could see it.

Only the hardened tribes of inland Kublar could keep the zhee in check. And that wasn’t going to happen. The Kublakaren of the Soob hated the inland tribes and the inland tribes returned the feeling by orders of magnitude.

All of this was observed from behind the tinted windows of the lead utility sled in the convoy. Air-conditioning washed ever the team leader. A steely man who was clearly ex-military of some sort. Non-ballistic impact helmet. Dark glasses. LCE barely fitting over a muscle-swollen tight tee and arms bulging.

“Pull over here,” the man said softly to the driver. Another ex-military type, though a little wirier. The driver cleared the street in both side views and with the external cams, pulled alongside the curb.

Dead koobs lay in the street ahead and nearby.

Along the rooftops clusters of koob warriors, armed with a mish-mash of weapons, seemed cautious and ready to fling a volley of darts at anyone who dared show their head.

“Here goes nothin’,” said the team leader and picked up a mic from off the dash that connected to external speakers on the outside of the utility transport sled.

“Let ’em know, Hopper.”

He cleared his throat.

Then, “Attention, Kublarens. We are here to assist you in your defense.”

The team leader made a face at the driver who seemed dispassionately professional behind the shades he wore. He was scanning the street ahead. Every driver in the ten-vehicle convoy, along with their TCs, were doing just the same.

Just because the reps at Team Nilo said this would work, and were paying to see if it actually would, didn’t necessarily mean it might not go horribly wrong. The koobs were little more than Bronze Age savages who just happened to exist in a time of technological hyperdrive connected wonders.


“We come in peace and we’re here to help,” said Hopper once more into the mic. Beyond the cool interior of the sled, the empty streets shimmered in the late morning heat.

Already the koob corpses were beginning to bloat.

“Gonna smell out there,” noted the driver.

Hopper didn’t acknowledge this and repeated the message once more. Just to make it clear. Then he switched over to the translator function and said it twice, the software making the clicks and sounds of the Kublaren language.


Grim koobs gathered along the rooftops above the street. Staring down in hard anger at the alien convoy.

“I’m exiting the lead,” said Hopper after tapping the comm on his vest. Now he was talking to the whole team executing this mission in the middle of a Soob City–wide meltdown.

“Look at that one over there,” pointed out the driver. “I think he’s got an old N-1. I wonder if that thing even works anymore?”

The team leader gave a hard look that indicated they had more to worry about than the Kublarens’ collection of museum-quality ancient weapons. Then he exited the sled, leaving his own rifle in the cab, with his hands up over his head.

He felt stupid and deserving of anything that was about to happen to him.

He walked out into the middle of the street and now he could see that the koobs had taken to nearly every rooftop. Airsacs inhaled and puffed even tighter.

“They’re pretty worked up,” he muttered under his breath over the group comm.

“You would be too, Hopper,” said a squad leader at the rear of the convoy. “Donks are in hardcore mode right now with no end in sight. Gonna be a long day and a lot of Kublaren dead on the other side of this. So yeah… they’re ready to start killing too.”

There was a pause in the dull hum of the comm the team all listened to.

“Atterly, do me a favor and shut up,” hissed Hopper. He didn’t like being told what he already knew. He didn’t like that Atterly was right on every point. Yeah, the koobs were ready to strike back and it didn’t really matter at this point whether it was a donk, a human, or even some zoid from the Silica. They’d probably do anyone right about now.

Which is right where they needed to be to accept the offer that was about to come their way.

Hopper made a large circle with his hand, and then—he had to get this next bit right because the meanings in Kublaren could go about a hundred different ways—he pointed toward his gills.

Or rather his throat. Where their airsacs would be on him.

No one moved.

He performed the hand gesture for negotiations once more.

Or so he hoped he did.

Some of the koobs were already rearing back with their slug throwers and for a half second Hopper knew deep down in his heart that this had all gone extremely terribly bad. Again. Just like at the temple.

And that he was going to pay the price for someone’s ridiculous planning.

Just like at the temple.


He was ten meters away from his rifle when a big fat koob of incredible age pushed forward and croak-bellowed from the rooftop he was on.

The cry echoed off the silent walls and buildings of the koob-held neighborhood. As if almost a counterpoint to this, the sound of distant blaster fire and screaming could suddenly be heard.

Black smoke curled into the sky.

The koob bellowed in his croaking, clicking language at everyone along the rooftops, and a throng of koobs stepped forward to lower the tribal elder to the street via knotted rope.

No easy feat.

Moments later, though, the immense elder was down and waddling across the dirty street toward the team leader. Croaking and bellowing as he came.

In his ear the Team Leader got a translation from one of the linguists back at Team Nilo and watching via drone feed.

“He’s saying he will negotiate. Stand by…”

The giant walking frog-man waddled up and jabbed his feather-and-tooth adorned staff comically at the team leader.

“He’s saying you give prize first,” informed the translator back at ops. “That’s their custom for parlay.”

“Roger,” whispered Hopper in his comm.

He tried out some of the Kublaren he’d learned—basic stuff, all military commands. Specific for what was coming next.

“Follow me,” he said in a transliteration of the koob word, hoping the chieftain understood him.

The big fat koob made a face and then began to laugh. Doubling over and clutching his immense belly.

“You told him to have the first bite,” said the voice in the team leader’s ear. Even the translator was laughing at him.

“Place the emphasis on the last click in each word.”

The team leader repeated the phrase and punched the final clicks on each word.

Still bellowing with laughter, the giant koob elder followed the team leader back to his transport sled. Then the man opened the rear cargo door.

Along the rooftops koob warriors were changing position, ready to hurl down ancient slugs, feathered darts, and sharp spears if any monkey-business was tried.

The chieftain didn’t seem much worried and was still chuckling to himself.

The team leader was still worried.

A moment later as the doors swung open on the racks and racks of brand-new, matte-black, state-of-the-art battle rifles, the chieftain suddenly hissed in awe.

“Tell him,” began the translator in the team leader’s ear. “That these are for him and his people.”

Then the translator fed him the Kublaren words and the team leader did his best to get them right-ish.

Finished, the team leader pulled a new rifle off a rack, and without performing a systems check, handed it as fast as he could to the tribal elder.

They’d all debated that point at length. Best to get the weapon into their leader’s hands quickly. Less margin for error. Less of a chance for the koobs to think he was going to shoot them down.

Without waiting for a translation, the team leader began to tell the koob chief what it was he’d just been handed. He’d practiced this bit a bunch in the lead-up to what was about to happen next. He used a mix of Standard and Koob.

“This is a fully functional automatic battle rifle manufactured by Black Leaf Arms. She fires a kinetic assisted six-point-five-millimeter projectile at speeds of up to two thousand five hundred miles per hour. Average magazine holds forty-five rounds and can empty it in three point nine seconds. Semi, burst, and full auto modes available at the shooter’s discretion. You can make big die with this. Big die. We’re here to arm you to fight back against the zhee. And, we’ll fight alongside you. Make big die of the donks. Friends then.”

The koob’s eyes went wide as he held the brand-new rifle and then turned it over and over once more.

The team leader produced a magazine of uranium-depleted six point five, and shuddered a little bit without showing, thinking about the side effects and sickness that came with this ammo despite what Team Nilo said it would do to mitigate those effects, and helped the chief insert the mag.

It was an effortless insertion.

Magnetic assisted, the munitions carrier practically seated itself in the bottom of the rifle. Everything about the rifle was user-friendly and dumbed down. It worked under the most adverse conditions. And it was powerful. Very powerful.

The guard and trigger were spec’d for the Kublaren’s slender three fingers. Through pantomime, the team leader showed the village elder how to point, aim, and fire the weapon.

The old koob seemed suspicious, but followed along anyway. Then the team leader directed him to aim at a sled down the street.

Clicks and croaks erupted and the chief had his own way all of a sudden. Instead of drawing a bad aim on a sled, he turned and landed the barrel on a dead zhee lying in the street.

For the brief second the team leader had to see if the target and improvised range was clear, the world along the streets of the koob district grew silent as everyone collectively held their breath.

Then the old warlord squeezed the trigger and was rewarded with a steady burst of suppressed rounds streaking away from the already smoking barrel like ballistic missiles outbound through the atmosphere.

The old koob’s aim was bad. But the effect displayed did wonders as koobs along the rooftops began to shout and cheer. Lightning rounds streaking out from the barrel smoked away and tore up the duracrete street like it was just some flimsy tablecloth. Flinging chunks of the heavy-duty building material off into the sky.

The team leader had loaded this mag with tracer rounds for that effect, specifically.

But that wasn’t the most stunning aspect of the sudden display of high-tech modern firepower from this state-of-the-art chemical projectile firearm, a thing the galaxy hadn’t seen in mass production in hundreds of years if you didn’t count the Savages.

The most stunning part was what the rounds did to the inert zhee body lying in the street.

They tore it to shreds in a second once they found their mark. Suddenly there were explosions from the entry holes, massive projections of bone and congealed blood from the exit holes.

One round would have been enough to kill anyone. Hits were taking off limbs and destroying whole sections of the targeted corpse. The corpse was torn to shreds in a mere single burst.

Imagine what they’d do in a firefight, every koob had to be thinking at that moment. Even something behind the most solid of cover had little chance.

In the silence that followed, the team leader spoke. “Rated to take down even a legionnaire. That fancy armor won’t stand up at all. Courtesy of Mr. Nilo. A recognized inland tribal chief. Friend of Pekk and all the Kublaren tribes. Your friend, too.”


Bowie knew there was no way he was getting out of the AO without a fight. Too many of the donks were ahead of his course track and able to cut him off. He stopped for a moment, weighing his options. Trying to see if he had any more than the few that seemed apparent.

Out there across the new boomtown that was the rapidly-expanding Soob City, fires and violence were underway and well out of control. Armored sled convoys escorted emergency services vehicles to various locations, each one more desperate and in dire need of attention than the last. The sound of automatic gunfire, the occasional exchange of other random small arms fire, and the whine and retort of blaster fire near and close, went on in fewer than a dozen places across the cityscape.

Below the office park towers, the donks had entered the buildings, all of them almost at once. If he could jump, weighed Bowie half seriously, he could get down onto the streets and disappear.

But he had no jump pack or chute. So that was mere wishful thinking and therefore of no value in real-world ops-land.

Jack Bowie was running out of options fast.

A quick glance behind him at the tower he’d just come through was his best shot. Even though a larger contingent of those street donks had entered there, odds-wise, he’d ultimately have to do one firefight either way just to see the other side of this and get back on course for the embassy.

He didn’t like to fight when he didn’t need to. But sometimes… there was no other way.

A refinery out near the star port suddenly exploded violently in the distance. An ancient rusting power array that converted energy into reusable packs suddenly gave off a catastrophic BOOOOM, the sound catching up with the fireworks seconds later.

How, Jack Bowie wondered, could any of this be Team Nilo’s play?

“You’re the bait, Jack.”

That’s what Reiser had said. Leaving the Jackknife Supreme dangling by its carrying strap around his chest, Jack reached into his pocket and took out a cigarette case. He thumbed the dispenser and shook one into his mouth, then blew through it as it chemically lit.

He thought things through a moment.

This was going to be a fight. No two ways about it. Go forward… fight. But still more armed jackals at his heels. Go back. Big fight. And still more to go through.

He inhaled deeply and blew more smoke out.

It barely drifted away. Even up here, five stories above street level, there was no breeze. It was a long, hot day getting longer and hotter by the second.

Nilo had wanted it this way. They’d wanted everything to catch fire and get out of hand all across Soob City. Maybe even all of Kublar. And the donks, because they were donks, had been all too willing to get in on the crazy and throw gasoline on the fire.

They just needed… the fire.

And that had been the assassination at the party. And the online outing by Team Nilo to the news streams. The donks in their usual way had decided to make the most of a crisis and start hurting, harming, stealing, looting, and stabbing everyone they could possibly get to in the name of some deranged salute to their bloody gods.

Team Nilo had wanted him to run, knowing the donks would chase. The donks would… would what?

He took the last drag on the cigarette. They all had to be up in the towers ahead, and behind him now. Someone would check the skybridge for sure to see if he’d gone that way. And then he’d be trapped between a whole bunch of them coming at him from all directions.

The donks getting out of hand were the big excuse Team Nilo needed to take control of the Soob. However they were doing that, whatever alliances they were making, they were using him to make the point.

Team Nilo was here to do something. But what?

Bowie didn’t need to run anymore. Because there was no way that was an option until he broke out of their cordon.

He was walking forward now. Fast, flicking the butt off the side of the skybridge. He saw the young donk who reached the observation deck in the tower ahead. Saw him see Bowie and grab for his smart-comm to alert the rest.

Bowie opened up with the Jackknife, smashing glass and cutting the young donk down onto the shining floor amid melted and broken glass. The body rag-dolled all over the inside of the observation deck, finally coming to rest against the pristine white wall that marked the central lift tube inside the tower. A wall now painted in brain matter and bloody red spray.

He kicked the jack’s blaster away and moved across the observation deck to the next bridge, pulling the fire alarm as he went.

Time for a fight.


The doors to the back of lifts opened and three young donks dressed like street hoodlums emerged just as Bowie pivoted through the revolving glass door on the other side of the observation glass. He didn’t hesitate to unload on them.

Two were hit while scrambling to get away. He cut them down quick, while one fast mover ran around the side of the curving central core, catching one in the ribs as he flung himself to get out of the way of the blur of blaster fire. Bowie, satisfied that one was dead, or dying and bleeding out, and that no one else was coming up in the bank of elevators, moved out across the bridge to the next tower.

They were definitely onto him now. They knew he was using the skybridge. They’d cut off their search of the lower levels and try to intercept him up here.

The next group came up ahead in the next tower as he moved quickly across the bridge, well before he reached the observation deck of that next tower. Six of ’em. Six young donks, snarling and braying, thumping their chests and waving all manner of over-powered, over-priced, tricked-out blasters that probably hadn’t ever had a good carbon cleaning. The kind designed to menace and look mean for up close and personal blasts exchanged a few meters away in an alley. Or a wild drive-by spray and pray to hit some rival and maybe a few innocents who should’ve known better.

All of them inaccurate at fifty meters or more.

On the other hand the weapon Bowie carried was perfect for that engagement range. And what it lacked in targeting could be found through adjusted drag-fire as Bowie opened up from the halfway point across the bridge. The first shots smashed into observation deck glass and Bowie lowered the blaster muzzle and shot down the lead donk a second later.

The others could have covered. Could have run. Could have backed off and set up a crossfire he wouldn’t have been able to get through, especially if there were more of their associates at his back.

They only stood there and fired with all kinds of goofy aiming positions. Holding the blaster sideways. Some sort of half-crouch hip shot like Jaq Janes: Smuggler Along the Edge of the Galaxy did in the entertainment stream of the moment they probably all watched.

One poor donk even used a two-handed grip because he’d over-charged his blaster by having the charge pack inhibitors removed.

Always a recipe for disaster.

No one hit anything.

Especially the human they were aiming for. Who, on the other hand, merely advanced and fired at them as he closed. Hitting their line and knocking them down as the incoming reached stormfront levels. Dragging the bright line of blaster fire the Jackknife spat out across them all until they were dead on the floor of the observation deck.

Most had simply fallen, some vital organ now holed, singed and fried inside their hairy donk-body hulks. Gold teeth and chains melted and strewn out across the edge of the bridge. One had fallen over backward through the smashed observation glass, and lay dying and cut to shreds.

Another was leaning against the bridge’s edge as Bowie approached. He was trying to fumble in a new charge pack when Jack gave him a short burst of fire and ended a miserable life.

Play to win, thought Jack Bowie. Always play to win, kids.


Boom Boom Killah didn’t like how this was all going in the least. Snarling with rage as he followed a trail of bloodshed and mayhem along the bridges through the observation towers, he wanted revenge and he wanted it now.

“Ain’ suppa happen dis way, Braddas!” he practically shrieked, his large black donkey eyes rolling and wild with murder. When he reached another group of his own jacks coming along the bridge leading to the next tower, it was apparent they’d lost their prey between them.

“We da huntahs! Not dis gauzy!” brayed Boom Boom.

Gauzy was donk street slang for humans. Mainly human women. But in this case the term would do in its most contemptuously denigratory usage. The zhee hated human women because of all their freedoms within the Republic. The zhee mares wouldn’t know freedom if it came up and bit them. They knew their place as nothing but mere possessions to be used. For pleasure and profit.

“Downah he going!” shouted one of the crew, indicating their target was headed down one of the towers back to the ground.

Boom Boom Killah jerked his comm open and screamed a series of orders and vulgarities at the donks left with the vehicles back in the square to get their big butts in gear and cut off the “gauzy on ground level.”

Then he turned to his crew and slapped in a new charge pack for his gold-plated blaster.

“Let’s pop dis sket-horn mare-lovah!”

They piled into the lifts and headed for the ground floor.


The Jackknife didn’t have much left in it. Maybe a quarter of its total charge available. And it was pretty clear as Bowie exited the lifts that his pursuers had figured his play, a simple doubling-back, and were coming straight down along the lift tubes after him. Above, every other lift was screaming down through the central glass atrium that served as the main lift tube for this tower.

Bowie moved quickly and efficiently for the building’s exit. It would be a foot chase through the streets now. That was his only option unless something else presented itself in the next thirty seconds. He could run, and fast, but for how long?

He began to run once he hit the doors, intent on finding an alley, using up the last of the Jackknife on an ambush that might slow them down. And then a flat-out sprint for the embassy, hoping to stay just that much ahead. He still had the holdout; he could keep them back with that.

But only for so long.

Except now there were a bunch of tricked-out sleds screaming straight at him from across the high-tech corporate office space parking lot. Like some weird armored cavalry regiment thundering straight at him on some forgotten high steppe on a lost world no one much cared about.

That’s what death looks like, mentioned some background app in Bowie’s mind. He ignored it and quickly figured how to meet this new oncoming threat.

Switching to Plan B, thought Bowie to himself, and opened up on the lead vehicle, a shiny red ride with flames painted along the side.

Bowie kept the first burst low and smashed shots into the forward repulsor housing. The vehicle’s nose went sharply forward and down into the brand-new landscaping of the soon-to-be occupied business park, spilling the unsecured donk driver out onto the hot pavement where he broke his neck, as the tumbling vehicle rolled on top of him.

The drivers behind swerved to avoid this first casualty and came straight for Bowie, intent on running him down.

That is until he drew a bright line of fire with everything the Jackknife had left across their oncoming stormfront.

Some drivers died, others swerved and smashed into one another, not bothering to clear their evasive maneuvers. A couple tore off in opposite directions, barely escaping the tornado of destruction the parking lot had become.

Bowie ran for the nearest vehicle that still, possibly, looked serviceable, jerking the strap for the weapon over his head and tossing the dead weapon as he ran.

He’d dry-fired at the last, the charge packs completely spent.

Behind him, Boom Boom Killah and the other donks made the lobby of the office tower and ran for the front steps to the office park, watching in dismay as their smashed and shot-ridden rides either burned, some now engulfed in flames, or continued heedless across the office park with dead “braddas” at the controls.

“Get immmmmmm!” screamed Boom Boom and strode out into the ruin and carnage, unloading his crass gold-plated blaster in a fusillade of shots that didn’t go astray too wildly, on the ride Bowie was hijacking.

Shots ripped into the sled’s hull, tearing off ornaments and burning holes through the doors and into the lush interior someone had paid a lot of money for. It was a convertible and one blast managed to barely miss Bowie’s head as he yanked the dead and very bloody donk driver from the seat out onto the hot duracrete pavement. The shot hit the forward window and shattered safety glass in a million different directions.

As Bowie slid behind the wheel, he felt blood run down the side of his face from where exploding hot fragments had cut him.

But either it didn’t hurt, or he didn’t have time for it to do so. Instead he gunned the accelerator and tore away from the parking lot, sure they’d follow in the next few seconds.


The Feral Jacks got two sleds working fast. Boom Boom Killah heaved himself behind the wheel of a cobalt blue late model sled with two massive chromed turbo-inducers on the hood, threw the illegal power feed switch, and screamed after Bowie in hot pursuit. Two of his braddas barely made it in before he tore off. The dead donk who’d once piloted the sled had been merely shoved into the passenger seat, the lower half of his muzzle blown off in Bowie’s fusillade of the last of the Jackknife’s fire. Now the dead passenger seemed to be either screaming in horror, or having a fantastic laugh at the whole thing, as the super-charged sled violated every traffic law to catch the fleeing Bowie, who was just making his turn onto Royal Kublar Way and heading for the embassy on State.

The second vehicle was loaded with twice as many braddas and it was doing its level best just to catch up with Boom Boom Killah’s suicidal rush to intercept.

“Head up Sola Street,” screamed the donk crew leader over their open smart comm. “Cut da gauzy off at Stad and Trom!”

The second vehicle peeled away from the route of pursuit and a moment later the donks in the back fired wildly at Bowie as both vehicles suddenly closed.

Bowie yanked the tricked-out sled hard to the left and barely made the turn at the next intersection. Two donks in the street were busy mauling a man they’d dragged out into the middle and Bowie went up onto the curb just to avoid the fight, and to spare the beaten man a quick death.

“Maybe give him a chance,” Bowie thought, or muttered to himself above the scream of the wind and the terrible thrill of the straining engine.

He had a long straightaway ahead and a moment later noticed incoming blaster fire streaking out and ahead of his own vehicle. He pulled the holdout, steering with one hand and leaning over the rear seat, drew a bead on the pursuit led by Boom Boom’s sled, and fired off a rapid series of shots for as long as he could maintain a good sight picture.

Which wasn’t long, due to having to drive and all.

Explosions erupted along the side of the chasing sled but no real damage. The wild donks hanging on in the back seat whooped and hollered at Bowie like this was some kind of rodeo and he some kind of running scared calf to be brought to heel and hog-tied.

Boom Boom Killah rammed his speeding sled into the back of Bowie’s, forcing the vehicle into an odd angle and threatening to smash it into one of the nearby buildings racing past at dangerously close distances.

Bowie gritted his teeth to protect his tongue and flung the sled back into his pursuit a moment later. Both vehicles collided and Bowie pivoted fast with the holdout and fired faster. One donk took it right in the chest and fell off the back of the speeding sled.

The other hee-hawed violently and leapt into the back seat of Bowie’s sled, flinging away his ridiculous blaster and pulling a kankari he kept around his neck.

No time! roared across Bowie’s mind as he engaged full reverse on the engine and cut the repulsors for emergency braking.

The vehicle came to a sudden and immediate halt on the curb.

The braying donk coming at him with the bright shining, wickedly curved knife went through the jagged remains of the windshield, and Boom Boom Killah’s sled suddenly sped away.

The donk slid through the jagged window, cut to shreds, and planted his kankari in the hood, barely hanging over the front.

Bowie engaged motive systems and repulsors once more and gunned it forward, aiming the vehicle at the hunter that had been hunting it just seconds before.

Yeah, there was anger in the donk hanging from the hood’s eyes. But fear too as the engine spooled up to max power.

Ahead, Boom Boom Killah had thrown his cobalt blue sled into a powerslide, brought in the reversers, and stabilized braking.

He went to fire the oversized medium blaster, gold-plated and shining, competing for attention with his two massive gold-capped buckteeth, and felt nothing happen as he squeezed the trigger several times.

The blaster was dry.

He had one move before Bowie rammed into the sled with his own stolen vehicle. Move or die. The donk slammed his hoof on the accelerator and barely avoided being creamed by the coolly homicidal human bearing down on him in one of his crew’s own sleds.

Free and roaring down the street, Bowie pointed his Python straight at the donk holding on from the hood, and the thug was smart enough to go ahead and chance the street. He simply let go of the knife, rolled, and fell away from the speeding sled.

Just a few streets to go, thought Jack Bowie, and he’d reach his objective. Then… who knew what.


The zhee contingent, at the behest of Soob City’s self-appointed Grand Wutti, Araki Kal Hallah, who’d taken it upon themselves to earn more mares in the promised Nirvana of the Four Bloody Gods, were quite surprised as they smashed antique pottery, destroyed headdresses, and obliterated ancient Kublaren art pieces.

The Museum of Kublaren History was mere moments from being set ablaze when a combined force of human contractors and Kublaren city-dwellers stormed the chaos at the museum and began shooting down the zhee.

The mullah’s operatives quickly called for backup and a major firefight erupted outside along the frontage of the new museum. The Kublarens and contractors were holding the roof of the exhibition hall and the front doors.

The zhee had time to send in a mass wave of their own, backed by snipers and improvised bomb throwers from the nearby alleys.

Thirty seconds into the attack, the Kublarens, firing their nifty new Black Leaf Arms automatic weapons, cut the wave of homicidal zhee, easily outnumbering the defenders, to shreds.

The overwhelming firepower was catastrophically violent.

For all intents and purposes the valuable antiquities, the Kublaren cultural heritage, and the building were held back from zealous destruction. A small fire was extinguished and the zhee were defeated.

A number of similar incidents were either wrapping up, kicking off, or would occur in the next few hours as the now well-armed Kublaren militia, backed by private military contractors from a nebulous corporate entity, engaged in street to street fighting to drive the zhee from the city.

Even ZQ was not safe.

By the end of the day it would cease to exist. Soob City was now firmly in the hands of the Kublarens and their mysterious new allies.

Bowie drove straight through a street battle where both sides hurled everything they had at one another. Donks threw chunks of duracrete and improvised flaming objects at what, to Bowie speeding past in the stolen sled, looked like Kublarens with state-of-the-art automatic weapons.

Not mere blasters. But also not the usual slug throwers they carried. Something else.

The roar of chemical based firearms erupted like sudden strings of titanic firecrackers. Ghostly rounds ripped through the air as Bowie mashed the accelerator just to get through the violent firefight. They snapped and also seemed to make a zipping noise. Donks surging into the street were riddled with sudden explosions as blood spray and brain splatter painted the sides of the dirty walls they fought with their backs to.

A second later Bowie was turning onto the last street and heading for the Kublaren embassy ahead. He gunned the accelerator and raced into an intersection, hearing the whine of Boom Boom Killah’s turbo-inducers too late at the last second.

Both vehicles collided, and the force of the cobalt sled drove Bowie’s ride straight into a looted pharmacy.

Bowie curled up, catching the incoming speeder out of the corner of his eye, and rolled with the impact. For a moment there was nothing but the violence of crunching plastic, screaming metal, shattering glass, and a series of vicious impacts as both vehicles crashed into the storefront.

But by then Bowie was out.

Maybe thirty seconds passed. Debris was still falling inside the store. Ceiling tiles randomly raining down in the darkness and dust. The whine of the sled’s engines spooling as the systems malfunctioned and went offline.

Bowie climbed out of the twisted sled, dimly noting that he’d almost been brained by a collapsed beam within the store.

Everything hurt. He’d been violently thrown about in the impact, and it was a wonder his neck wasn’t broken or his spine fractured.

His brain bell was good and rung too. And he was pretty sure he was seeing double. He’d also lost the holdout in the wreck. But his vision was all messed up and he couldn’t see straight to find it.

He stumbled into the daylight and tried to orient himself on a street that rocked back and forth like he was standing on a dinghy at sea.

A moment later he heard the powerful war-bray of Boom Boom Killah and felt the donk land a solid kick right into his lower back.

Bowie went down hard. Right to his hands and knees. His mind trying to make sense of what was happening, and what was about to happen, to him.

Team Nilo…



All that went away as his training surfaced and told him what he had to do right now to go on living. That other stuff wasn’t important. Not right now. He’d been trained by the best hand-to-hand experts the Repub Marines had to offer.

He was in a fight now. His mind cleared away the damage of crash and impact and signaled that message loud and clear. Attention on deck! You are getting your butt kicked. That was the only thing that mattered. He was in a fight whether he liked it or not. And the only way anyone won a fight was to want it worse than the other guy.

He saw the shadow of the donk come in close now, iron-shod hooves sparking strikes on the hot street. Saw the outline of the shadow raise one leg like it was going to kick him again.

“Take this, Sket—” Boom Boom howled.

Then Bowie grabbed the incoming donk kick and twisted what he had ahold of violently, knowing there was nothing else in the universe but this thing he had to do. His desire to force the leg he had, and mainly the knee, in a direction it did not want to go. He felt the break a second before he heard it.

Then the young violent donk screamed, backing away from Bowie, limping and stumbling, two playing cards in his hands. Swinging both in violent swipes made all the more deadly by the enraged pain.

The air whistled as the cards cut through the space between them.

Bowie surged off the ground, because momentum was the next thing that needed to be taken away from his enemy, and slammed into the wind-milling donk. There was no hesitation in the one-two combinations that went straight for the donk’s muscled solar plexus in the desperate seconds that followed.

Bowie threw punches wildly and with everything he had, just to cause as much damage as he could as fast as he could.

One leg to stand on, deprived of air, the donk with the gold-plated teeth and the cards—and they were clearly weapons, probably coated with some kind of fast acting neurotoxin—would be useless now.

Bowie didn’t stop even though he had the advantage. He didn’t stop because his opponent wasn’t down.

Five jackhammer punches, fired from the hip and shoulder like air-to-ground rockets, busted donk ribs and drove the wind from his zhee opponent.

Then Bowie grabbed the donk’s head and rammed his knee into it in one fluid motion with zero pause after the fury of punches he’d thrown.

Fifteen seconds start to finish.

The donk sat down on the street, landing on his oversized posterior, staring up in disbelief at the pitiful human he’d chased that day.

The gauzy.

The prey.

Unable to comprehend that a fight could happen so fast.

Boom Boom Killah was wrong. It hadn’t been a fight at all. It had been a savage beating.

Then he died. The blow to the cranium between the zhee’s eyes had done the trick. Donks were particularly vulnerable there.

In Marine Special Warfare, that was called the “Attention Getter” when dealing with the zhee. They were done after a shot between the eyes. Ninety percent of the time they just sat down and it took about two hours for their minds to reboot. Ten percent of the time the nasal cavity was driven straight into the frontal lobe. An underdeveloped part of zhee anatomy, but a necessary one all the same.

Bowie turned, scanned the ruin for his holdout, and still couldn’t find it.

Gunfire, a type brand-new to the galaxy, erupted from several points across Soob City, spreading away in every direction. Black smoke filled the skies. Distant Kublaren war chants sounded like some sporting event. Fans cheering for their side. The braying of the donks could barely be heard as it was all drowned out in small batches of brutal automatic gunfire ringing out and bouncing around across the streets.

Bowie walked to the embassy down the block.

Today’s objective.

He’d hurt something inside. Not broken, but not working. With a block to go, he stumbled toward the embassy like some drunk trying to lurch home.

That’s all he needed to do now. Get there. Get home.


He made the embassy just as a dozen armored sleds in neutral gray and sporting several private military contractors each made the street.

A woman, tall, redheaded and model pretty, kitted in tac gear and talking into a vest comm, came to meet him as the convoy came to a halt and established a perimeter. She had unearthly blue eyes and pretty red freckles.

“I’m so sorry about this, Jack. It wasn’t supposed to go down quite like this.” Then seeing the cuts to his face, a few other injuries Bowie hadn’t noticed, and his hobbling gait, she called for a medic from the convoy and led him to the curb to sit down.

“I’m Elektra. And I’m real glad you made it, Jack.”

Bowie nodded as she moved him onto the curb and helped him down. All around, the contractors were securing the front of the embassy.

Someone handed Bowie a canteen. He drank greedily. Sweat broke out across his neck and back. A cold sweat. The adrenaline was fading from his body now and he’d pay the price of its usage.

He stared at his hand. It was shaking.

Let it, he told himself.

He tumbled out a cigarette.

She sat down beside him.

“I gotta get things under control, Jack. But… direct from Nilo himself: Job well done. We are already ahead of our plus one timeframe. Medic’s gonna clean you up now and then we’ll talk later. Okay, Jack?”

He nodded absently at her, drew on the cigarette, and lowered his head, letting the smoke spill out all over the dirty and bloodstained street he was sitting on.

The gunfire was distant and far away.

Only now thinking about how close he’d come to death today.

Being out there beyond the wire of the perimeter, it did that to you.

Guards took their positions out front as though actors in some play.

So this is what it was all about, Jack Bowie thought to himself. Not really sure what it was all about. But knowing that what he was watching… was somehow it. Somehow the start of something that might be a big deal further down the line. Might even change the shape of the galaxy. Who knew? What he was seeing was something. He knew that much.

Somehow, Nilo, had just declared himself a political entity within the shape of that galaxy.


They patched Jack Bowie up and drove him back to the Grand Intergalactic.

Amazing, thought Bowie as he stepped from the nondescript armored sled. They’d cleaned up the bodies out front and the shattered glass that had marred the place that morning when the zhee began firing. Chasing him like a rabbit and shooting down everyone along the way.

Now the zhee were quelled.

Those that had survived the massacre by the Kublarens were holed up in the ZQ begging the local government, which was disavowing the uprising of its citizens and promising that the Legion would soon retaliate, to keep them safe from the xenophobic Kublarens who had so wantonly and viciously attacked them.

Fun and games for the zhee were almost over on Kublar.

Or so Elektra had informed him during the debrief.

Now, from the back of the sled, she said nothing, just watching him limp away from the vehicle. Watching him with those otherworldly blue eyes.

The doormen greeted him by name as he passed through the ornamented grand front of the hotel.

“Congratulations, Mr. Bowie.”

But they didn’t say what they were congratulating him for. And he didn’t much care.

He just wanted…


He wondered if she’d still be in his suite. Honey. The Tennar. If she’d taken what she could find and just gone. Which would maybe be for the best.

She was only an escort after all. A survivor in a galaxy that didn’t play fair. No different than with him, or anyone else.

Several floors up, Jack Bowie opened the door to his suite and she came running. Squealing in that beautiful way women do when they are genuinely excited. Wearing the flimsiest of sheer white silk robes.

Yeah, it was every man’s erotic dream. But there was still something innocent about her and the way she was excited to see him. Something not ruined by the galaxy.

Maybe it was a lie, he thought.

But sometimes, just for a while, maybe it isn’t.

“You’re hurt!” she cooed, seeing his bruises and bandages. Honestly. Like she really cared about him. She led him to the couch, nursing him.

Sometimes it would be nice if lies we wanted to believe were really the truth.

“Today was just…” she began, her speech rushing and excited. Her soft sexy voice worried and sighing all at once.

He sat down and everything still hurt. But a little bit less.

“Today was just crazy, Jack! Wasn’t it?”

She sat down and something out of whack in his spine screamed. He grunted.

They’d given him pills.

He didn’t take them.

“I was watching the reports and then the entertainment streams went offline. I tried to see what was going on but… it was crazy out there. Everybody was crazy. Right? I was worried something had happened to you and now I know I was right to be worried. Something did happen! Look… you’re injured. What happened, Jack?”

He leaned back onto the heavenly cushions.

“Any of that champagne still left?” he asked.

She squealed with delight and surprise. She washed all over him and drowned out the galaxy.

“Would that help you, Jack?” she asked earnestly. “Because that would help me. I was so worried about you. I was afraid, Jack. Really afraid.”

He could tell she really was. Really had been.

“Yeah. I could use some too. If it’s still cold. Let’s have some.”

“Good,” she said. “Because the hotel sent up their best… or that’s what the nice young boy who brought it told me. I think I made him nervous. He said it was the hotel’s best. Selected by the som-, the somey-something.”

“Sommelier. I bet you made him nervous. Were you wearing that?”

She seemed startled and looked at her sheer silk robe as if seeing it for the first time. It left little to the imagination. She was truly beautiful.

“How did you know?” she asked.

“Just a guess.”

“Well, I had just gotten back from getting a massage in the hotel spa and my tentacles done. You said I should do that so I did. I hope it was okay? Was it okay? It was very expensive. Do you like them? They’re so pretty!”

“It’s okay. And I do.”

She squealed because she had pleased him. That seemed to make her happy. Like… like it was some mission she’d given herself for her role in the galaxy’s games. Just make people happy.

There’s enough unhappiness out there, thought Jack. Why not.

He felt warm and alive. Relaxed and languid.

He leaned back.

She was intoxicating.

“Champagne?” he mentioned once more as she stared at him with her large doe-eyes.

“Oh, sorry!” And then she was off, knowing that he couldn’t resist watching her voluptuous charms bounce and sway and curve as she got the champagne and glasses.

“Yeah,” mumbled Jack Bowie. But he didn’t know what he was agreeing to. Just something his mind was thinking without him. Something about being here. And not dead. And the price you have to pay to keep it that way.

“Yeah,” he said one more time.

And then she was back with a cold flute glass for him, and he had to help with the opening of the very expensive Silithian Grand Cru. But in the end… they got it open. The champagne tasted cold and dry and just a little sweet. She laughed at the bubbles and that was a kind of music to him.

It hit the spot perfectly.

She curled up into him and he didn’t mind the pain it caused to make that happen.

“I was worried about you, Jack. Honestly. I really was worried. I know we just met. But… there’s something special between us. I can feel it. Can you feel it too, Jack?”

“Yeah,” he murmured, drifting now. “I can...”

“Good,” she whispered softly and then listened to him snore.

Later, when Jack was in bed, she crawled from the sheets between them, not bothering to drape herself in that sheer white silk. She crossed the quiet suite without a sound and retrieved her comm. She’d hidden it. Then she checked to make sure the injector-knife she’d hidden was in its place too.

It was.

She touched the comm and acknowledged her check in. Then tapped out a message… Proceeding with Phase Two.




Republic Capitol Building

Green Zone, Subiyook City

Colonel Ron Deage couldn’t quite believe what happened to his beloved Republic. He was regimental commander for the Republic Army’s 305th Light Infantry, part of the 50th Infantry Division—“Edge Walkers.” Colonel Deage had two rifle companies on Kublar: Good and Heater. Indigo Company had been on Kublar, but was assigned to the 7th Fleet for the defense of Kublar. The brass at division felt the company would be better used in the defense of Utopion than overseeing the Kublar project.

The colonel still didn’t know exactly what happened to the men and women of Indigo. Other than that they were dead. He’d heard the rumors that the admiral running the 7th had turned traitor. Joined with those Legion crazies in an attempt to overthrow the Republic. And he knew that the entirety of the 7th was destroyed over Utopion by Goth Sullus and his Black Fleet. Indigo likely went up in a ball of flames.

Never even got to fire their weapons to protect the Republic. Or maybe they did. Maybe they gave the Navy traitors in the 7th hell before being locked down in some destroyer.

It was a story the colonel would never hear. But he knew the men who ran Indigo Company—good soldiers—and couldn’t see them standing idly by just because some navy puke decided to cast her lot with whoever had the wind at their backs at the time of crisis. And so Colonel Deage allowed himself the fantasy of a final, heroic rebellion before it all came to an end above Utopion.

Because it may as well be true. And because no one would ever really know either way.

But now the Republic was on life support. Deage knew that. Moreover, he knew that saying the Republic was on life support was a way for him to comfort himself. It wasn’t on life support. It was stone-dead and lying half buried in the grave. Article Nineteen was something the Republic Army had been training for—in strict secrecy—for years. There was still an R-A special forces unit attached to the 305th for that reason—though most of them had gone AWOL and caught transports off Kublar in the aftermath of what happened to the House of Reason and Goth Sullus.

Desertion had become a significant problem. Once the soldiers got it in their heads that there was no longer a Republic to fight for, his officers had a hell of a time keeping them inside the Green Zone. It seemed like every week somebody slipped off and begged, borrowed, or stole their way onto a transport. Colonel Deage had signed orders to execute anyone caught in an attempt to desert.

He’d only done that once though, to the first soldier they caught. A private that cried so much before the firing squad that she damn near soaked through the blindfold she’d been given. But it only served to slow deserters. To make them more cautious about who they were willing to trust and talk to. Deage quietly ordered that anyone else caught be incarcerated. Vanished without a trace.

The soldiers left assumed the execution was just done out of sight. And that was fine, because what Colonel Deage needed right now were bodies. Because Kublar, specifically the Soob, was on the verge of toppling. A paramilitary force had entered the city right under their noses and supplied weapons to disgruntled natives to use against the zhee—about the only ally Colonel Deage could count on to help him achieve his mission of protecting the local Republic government.

The zhee, despite all their roughshod violence across the city, discreetly avoided attacking any Republic assets. All that had been worked out. The Republic would not interfere with the zhee if they left the inner circle of the Green Zone—where all Repub assets were held and protected—free from harm. But the zhee had been soundly defeated by the marginal hangers-on of the propped up Pashta’k tribe. The lowest caste of the Republic’s chosen winner of the Kublaren Civil War, cast aside by the Pashta’k chieftain and his tribal select.

And that compounded a problem that the planetary governor and her cabinet expected Colonel Deage to solve. As he walked through the cool, air-conditioned marble halls of the domed Republic capitol building, Deage weighed his options.

All those soldiers killed in orbit over Utopion. Damn, what I wouldn’t give for a full three companies.


Colonel Deage halted at the sound of Major Dorenz’s voice. He wheeled around and saw the major standing at a pair of heavy wooden doors that went from floor to ceiling. They were carved from the ironwood trees native to Kublar and inlaid with silvene that seemed to flash and surge with the light as though it were delivering nutrients to the wood itself on a cellular level.

“We’re here, sir.”

Deage nodded and walked to the door. “Lost in my thoughts, Hal.”

“Yes, sir.”

Major Dorenz swung the door open and Deage walked in on the seated assembly. Governor Pressfield was seeking to referee an argument between the Pashta’k chieftain, Looma, and a zhee the colonel had never seen before. The rest of the ruling council was split into small bunches of Republic bureaucracy, paper tigers who had no bite left now that the House of Reason was unable to back up their legislative decisions with its military.

The room quieted, except for the zhee and Kublaren. They shouted at one another, each using his own native tongue and with no translator bot in sight. Talking past each other and not seeming to care. Deage would have laughed if it weren’t all so serious.

“Colonel Deage,” Governor Pressfield said, commanding a quiet, even over the bickering aliens with her digitally amplified voice. It rang off the polished stone through micro-speakers throughout the chamber. “Did you receive word of the Legion’s intentions?”

“I did, ma’am,” Deage said, his own voice now amplified, a tiny mic’d bot floating near his mouth like a curious gnat. “The Legion has declined the invitation to get involved in Kublar and is advising that the former Republic government—their words—negotiate with the Kublaren forces being aided by Black Leaf.”

A council member was quick to give an opinion on the colonel’s report. “That’s not fair! This is a Republic world.”

“All due respect,” Colonel Deage said, “but it’s not. Not to the Legion. The Republic government of Kublar did not acknowledge or support Article Nineteen—”

“Because the House of Reason declared it illegal!” interrupted another irate council member, though the edge of fear betrayed her intentions.

“Be that as it may, the Legion acting in agreement with the planets who did throw in to see Article Nineteen come to completion no longer recognize this council as a valid Republic government and won’t be sending aid. We’re on our own here. This is being viewed as a matter of Kublaren planetary sovereignty.”

“Damn,” muttered Governor Pressfield. She rubbed the great crescent that was the council table, a half-circle that faced the gallery Colonel Deage stood in, where all the planetary council and its allies sat with her at the head. “I had hoped that, given his history on Kublar, the Legion Commander would have been eager to return violence to the planet.”

Chieftain Looma licked his eye at this.

“Yes, ma’am,” Deage said, not really having an opinion on the matter. Let the spooks and armchair psychologists do the psychoanalysis.

The way he figured it, even if the Legion was itching for a fight on Kublar, this situation had to be brought under control in the next twenty-four hours or the damage would be irrevocably done before they even arrived. That wasn’t psychology, that was tactics and a realistic view of the battle. If the Republic elements in the Soob couldn’t figure out a way to put a stop to what the inland koobs were attempting with the help of Black Leaf mercenaries today, then it wouldn’t matter if the whole damn Republic showed up to provide relief. Those in the Green Zone would already be dead.

Governor Pressfield pushed up from her seat at the head of the council. “Our only remaining course of action then is to fend off this insurrection.” She looked around the room. “I think we all know that nothing pleasant awaits any of us should the inland Kublarens achieve victory.”

Eyes everywhere looked down.

“I’m assuming emergency powers as afforded to me under Republic law and restricting this council meeting to those essential to war.”

Governor Pressfield banged the flat of her hand against the table, which was amplified to sound like a gavel strike. Council members overseeing the various bureaucratic elements not deemed essential to the defense of Kublar—transportation, tax and consumption, inclusive recreation, and more—rose and left the building.

The colonel cleared his throat as those who remained moved together so as not to have to talk across the room. Chieftain Looma, naturally, remained. And so did the zhee. Colonel Deage could only guess that the wutti who usually sat on the council was killed or incapacitated in the morning’s fighting. In any event, he wasn’t going to bring it up. The last thing this council of war needed were the blood oaths of a shamed and beaten zhee.

“Colonel,” Governor Pressfield said upon retaking her seat at the council head, “I had asked for you to provide a list of difficulties this council of war would need to address if the Legion failed to respond to our call for help.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Deage said, resisting the urge to rock back and forth on his feet. He felt a nervous energy that came from wanting to be back at regimental headquarters to get things in motion. Time was of the essence. But the military served at the pleasure of the Republic, and it was they who would ultimately make the battlefield decisions. “Defense of the inner ring of the Green Zone is in place. Good and Heater Companies have all defensive checkpoints fully staffed and have not reported any attempts by hostile elements to strike at the heart of the city.”

“Very good.”

“That said, ma’am, there is now a large, armed element of Pashta’k Kublarens who put down the zhee revolt coming out of the ZQ.”

The zhee council member brayed at this.

“No such thing occurred,” the zhee whinnied in Standard. “The zhee chose to retreat upon the arrival of Black Leaf mercenaries, knowing that the wisdom of the Four Gods demands vigilance against new threats.”

Nobody challenged this beyond a condescending croak from Looma that the zhee was likely unable to read—the zhee weren’t known for cultural awareness. It agitated the colonel that so much of the damage to the Soob was the result of the zhee rather than the inland Kublarens or the Black Leaf mercenaries, whose numbers weren’t confirmed but estimated at less than a hundred soldiers. The Republic had taken a licking this morning and it was at the hands of those who were supposed to be here working with them.

“Nevertheless,” the colonel continued, “those armed Kublarens need to be accounted for. Intel suggests that they’re using a weapons system that deals out a hell of a bad time. We can assume that the inland Kublarens will be armed with the same. But they’ll be engaged outside the city. We need to decide what to do with the Kublarens armed inside.”

“Chieftain Looma?” asked the governor.

Pashta’k defend… k’kik… zhee-ka killers. Much die. Big.”

The zhee brayed at this but was silenced with a wave of the hand by Governor Pressfield. That the zhee so quickly allowed himself to be quieted by an infidel female spoke volumes to the colonel. They were desperate and afraid.

“Big die… k’k. Take help. Still Pashta’k. Still Pashta’k. Still! Pashta’k!”

The chieftain’s message was clear. His tribal Kublarens had accepted aid from the Black Leaf mercenaries, but their loyalty remained to their chieftain.

“Then we can count on your elders and warriors getting those weapons off the streets?”

Chieftain Looma nodded. “We give… k’kik… to Pashta’k warriors. Not old ones. Feeble-ah ones.”

“It would seem,” said Governor Pressfield with a barely suppressed smile, “that Mr. Nilo overestimated his ability to gain Kublaren allies on the coast.”

“Fitting that you bring him up, Governor. While I can commandeer civilian transports, the House of Reason left us without offensive airpower. My infantry alone has been left to defend the capital. We have rocket teams to deal with airborne insertions now that we know they have transports of their own, but we’ll be in trouble if they’ve managed to scrounge up anything with teeth.”

Governor Pressfield nodded. “Black Leaf’s founder has made what’s happened here a public spectacle. He’ll want to look good for the holocams he’s now invited to Kublar. If he has air power, we’ll find out soon enough. Our primary goal should be eliminating him. And then the alliance of Kublarens he’s formed inland.”

Pressfield turned to the zhee, introducing him to the council. “This is Yark the Undenied. He is the new acting Grand Wutti of Subiyook City. His people are marching even as we speak to make sure the Kublaren enemies who desecrated the zhee’s holy temple are destroyed, and Black Leaf along with it.”

“Only blood will pay the debt for this sacrilege,” snorted Yark. “All zhee on Kublar will give last breath to see vengeance. The Four Gods demand such!”

Colonel Deage rubbed his chin. “Will that be sufficient to stop the numbers of Kublarens moving this way from inland?”

“Census numbers indicate that if every zhee settled outside the capital, males and females, colts, are to answer the call to battle as Yark has said they will, then we will have a numerically superior force in facing the inland Kublarens, who are only sending their warriors plus whatever Black Leaf mercenaries are held in reserve outside the city.”

Good. This was good. It wasn’t perfect, but it was enough of a plan that Colonel Deage felt he had something to at least try.

“With your permission, Governor, I’d like to begin preparations to push the Black Leaf mercenaries out of the city. We’ll cut them off from the docks and deny them the opportunity to escape. I have a special forces team on standby to destroy the ship that inserted them.”

“Proceed, Colonel.”

“Thank you, Governor.” Colonel Deage held up a finger. “There is one other possibility that needs to be considered. Should the inland Kublarens delay their march and allow the zhee to reach the city without a decisive fight, the population here will be unsustainable. That may allow the enemy to starve us out through a siege—a tactic that has withstood the test of time. I’m not confident that the alliance of zhee, Pashta’k, and Republic species on planet will be able to coexist without violence in such an event.”

Governor Pressfield smiled. “A valid observation. However, I have information that will allow—no, force—Black Leaf into attacking the city. We need only be prepared for that attack.”

Colonel Deage waited for the governor to elaborate, but soon saw that she was keeping this intelligence close for the time being. Which, sadly, was something he’d gotten used to. He would never go so far as to say the Legion was correct, and that violating the oath to protect the House of Reason, Senate, and Republic was the right course of action. Oath-breakers belonged in the deepest pits of hell.

But sometimes… damned if he didn’t get where they were coming from.

“Governor, unless you have further need of me…”

“You’re dismissed, Colonel.”



The Soob

“Things are going to hell in a handbasket as Soob City turns from economic boomtown to war zone under siege, Jack.” Reiser was talking. Stating the obvious. “The local koobs, aaaaand their brand-new contractor friends, have things under control. Just barely. Air quotes around that part, my friend. Control at this point… is merely an illusion. And honestly it could go either way real quick-like if you read me. This thing ain’t settled yet.”

This last-minute meeting called Bowie out of rest and rehabilitation in his near-rooftop suite back at the Grand Intergalactic. He’d left obscene comfort and sophisticated pleasure to get to this meeting in a warehouse not six blocks away. But of course, the whole of the Soob was now little more than a live fire war zone, or a police state under martial law from various competing factions. Bodies in the street, alien and human, were a now common sight. A terse communique coming over his smart comm, informing Bowie that an unmarked armored sled would be picking him up in five in front of the Grand Intergalactic, had been the only advance notice he’d received for this meeting.

During those twenty-four hours in which the koobs, and their new Black Leaf mercenary friends, pushed the vicious zhee back into their quarters, Bowie and the Tennar, Honey, had merely holed up inside the palatial suite above it all, drank expensive champagne, slept, eaten the occasional cold lobster—hers raw, his sautéed in truffle butter—and conducted other more amorous exercises while the violence and mayhem went on across the war-torn cityscape.

Outside, it was dangerous now. In fact very dangerous.

Spies and hitmen were no longer needed in the block to block, house to house, and, at times, brutal room to room fighting underway with heavy weapons and all kinds of military goodies to dislodge the zhee from their warrens and fortified nests. Heavy weaponry and heavy kit were the order of the day. Stealth, subterfuge, and assassinations were for less chaotic times. Not now… Now it was war, and it wouldn’t end until there was a clear winner.

And that meant everyone on the losing side was either dead or in one of the ad hoc internment camps going up. This was no place for a spy.

Or, at least that’s what Bowie told himself as he lay there popping pain meds and trying to get ready for whatever Team Nilo threw at him next. Maybe something off-world and away from the mess Kublar was quickly turning into in order to become something else. Something new.

Something better?

Team Nilo, Nilo, or whatever this was, smelled like a group of dreamers with big plans and lots of credits to compete with the planetary trade cartels or… even the latest iteration of galactic government. Or what used to be the government.

Who knew?

That’s why the strange comm message telling him to be at the warehouse didn’t seem as strange as it might have been amid all the chaos and street to street murder. But it was still off. Jack Bowie had been explicitly told by Elektra that he’d be out of action for the next three days to a week. The message to the contrary came as a bit of a shock. But not completely surprising.

Everyone, as far as Jack knew, including Elektra the Shot Caller, was ex-military. People used to the schedule and orders changing moment to moment. Chaos and miscommunication went hand in hand in every military branch Bowie had ever heard of.

Bowie merely shrugged at the change of mission, read the message once more, and went to find a clean shirt and pants to make the meeting in. He didn’t have many left in his leather travel bag. But the hotel concierge had taken care of what he did have, so he at least had something to slip into.

Athleisure wear in the middle of a war zone screamed private contractor. But he didn’t have many choices. He should’ve asked for some Team Nilo fatigues. He could at least have looked nondescript in those.

He strapped on the holdout and the two knives and a few other tricks and made for the suite’s door, telling the sexy little Tennar he’d be back shortly. Unsure if he would.

“Be careful,” she said almost forlornly as the door slid closed. Her naturally sunny demeanor made the warning sound like a best wish instead of what it was. Maybe a goodbye forever. But whatever it was they had going on, it hadn’t been serious enough to be that. It had been fun. Light and easy in ironic contrast, like some necessary medication to the condition of the situation. And so it had to end light and easy.

If it was ending…

Now, on the other side of the unmarked sled–ride, Bowie found himself in the warehouse, overwatched by a team of contractor-types, getting a multimedia presentation of the planned mission Reiser seemed a little too proud of.

“This is our target, Jack. Museum of Kublaren History. Zhee went in there yesterday and trashed the place. Then the koobs showed up and had a big shoot-out. Final score… a lotta dead zhee. Koobs put up the win, but just barely. Thanks in no little part to us here on Team Nilo.”

Jack Bowie cleared his throat for no reason at all. Reiser’s game faltered for a second.

“So,” began Bowie, jamming up the narrative flow of the proposed op. If only because he needed a moment to think about what he was actually seeing, and what had been said so far. “The contractors and the new slug throwers… they are… Team Nilo?”

Reiser looked officiously uncomfortable with the question.

“That’s currently need-to-know, right now, Jack… and uh… you’re not need-to-know. Just stick with the presentation and do your bit and we all get to the bonuses, my friend. Never mind about what’s going on out there with the koobs and their instructors.”


“What if I need to know?” said Bowie flatly.

Reiser stopped and put down his laser pointer with a barely concealed impatience. He picked up a fresh cup of kaff and took a short sip to regain some of what he’d lost. The briefing, though held in a dark yet surprisingly clean and new-smelling warehouse, had come complete with a complimentary craft service table sporting hardboiled eggs, fresh pastries, and even hot-brewed kaff of the expensive variety.

“These guys really know how to war,” Reiser had remarked when showing Bowie to the briefing and letting the taller man know he could avail himself of the tasty sundries provided. It was hard to say what Reiser had been more impressed with, and was trying to impress with… the side table of food, or the slick briefing tech.

It all felt very important to the man. That much was evident to Jack Bowie.

The briefing presentation being projected showed the museum in digital render from top down. Now as Reiser spoke, the presentation began to scroll down and then iris into the infiltration route to the objective.

Reiser hadn’t even used the word “infiltration” yet. But Bowie had been through enough of these types of operations and planning briefings to know which way the mission, and it was definitely a mission, was going to go.


Kill a bunch of people along the way.

“Clean” had been the working term back in the groups he was active with while attached out of Repub Navy.

“Three stories below the museum, beyond what will appear to be an antiquities storage room,” continued Reiser, “you’ll find a secure high-tech vault in the basement. We need you to access that vault and bypass its security systems. Once inside, you should expect bot sentries of some sort to respond violently. Then we suspect you’ll come to a secure chamber full of very rare antiquities. That’s when you call it in secure and we come in and remove the antiquities via armored convoy. But we—”

“What kind of rare antiquities?” interrupted Bowie. He’d done plans, devices, military hardware, even intellectual property… but never antiquities of any sort, and these were “very rare” ones at that. Considering the amount of trouble Team Nilo was going to even during the planning and briefing stages, the nature of the target itself seemed important. This mission gave an appearance of being separate from the rest of the players. Secret. Off the books. This was something new for Team Nilo. Or at least in Jack’s limited experience since he started playing ball. It spoke of layers. Yeah, this is where Intel and the Spy lived. That was part of the job. But—interesting that it was only peeling back now. Something didn’t…

“Listen. Jack…”

Reiser looked around at the contractors and seemed to have some internal conversation for a half a second with himself about how far he was willing to go. How much he was willing to tell. Maybe he was even having it through some kind of comm in his ear with someone else monitoring the meeting. Who knew? Whatever the outcome, the older spook seemed to reach a conclusion and resign himself to a path forward. A decision to tell all. Or, at least… as much could be told. And in the process make it seem like it was everything.

“Savage, Jack. There are Savage artifacts down inside the vault we need you to access and clear.”

The words hung flatly in the air between them, the presentation tech’s projection lights catching dust motes flying through the half-lit darkness.

The implications of what Reiser had just admitted were clear and known to all without needing another word spoken about a subject that made people uneasy due to its nature. Savages. Savage artifacts were as dangerous, as deadly, and as valuable, as it gets.

Dangerous how? Oftentimes they were merely hazardous to one’s health. Who knew what bizarre chemicals, strange viruses, or lethal yet fantastic effects the seemingly ancient and randomly inexplicable tech devices could produce under unknown circumstances? Miracles and wonders? Plagues straight from Pandora’s box? The Savages had reached a level of science that made modern galactic research seem like Stone Age voodoo. Savage artifacts were inherently dangerous in and of themselves.

You fooled with them at your own expense.

Deadly? People killed for them. Plain and simple. And “people” meant government entities too. Savage artifacts held the keys to quantum leaps in black site R&D. The Republic had reached its pinnacle largely due to their ability to reverse engineer pieces of Savage tech and use them against the larger enemy. The Legion had been particularly adept at this during the Savage Wars. Their L-comm was still unbreakable as a result. Still.

Savage tech was something that every faction wanted. And the factions that discovered those potential leaps were likely to see a hundred years of field dominance based on a successful research application alone. People killed for that, and they paid a lot of money to the best at killing to get that killing done. Getting anywhere near a Savage artifact increased your chances of dying violently based on that factor alone.

And valuable? How much would you pay to live forever? To jump across the stars at near instantaneous speeds, making the hyperdrive look like a whip and buggy? Print synth like cheap plastic? Those and a thousand other rumors and myths had been linked to Savage artifacts in all the years since those freaks had hauled themselves out of the great sub-light darknesses between the stars. And where the rumors and myths were saying what might be possible should one be found, they were also pointing at all the leaps galactic government and corporate firms had made using Savage research and tech to attain dominance.

The next person to unlock Savage tech to find whatever the next great leap was, courtesy of some found data drive receivers from one of those old Savage-era hulks the legions used to storm and burn… would live like a modern-age pharaoh for every day of the rest of their lives. Wealth beyond imagining was the starting point. After that the galaxy’s edge was the limit.


“Savage artifacts?” clarified Bowie in the silence of the briefing location. His voice almost incredulous, just enough of a hint for someone to get rattled, but not enough to cause a fight. No one said anything but the tension was a thing that could be felt and probably not cut.

Reiser nodded. Clearly, he was uncomfortable. That was because he was smart. Or at least smart enough to know when they were both dealing with something very dangerous.

Bowie moved on. He knew they were expecting him to up his price in the next few minutes now that the big reveal… had finally been revealed. Savage artifacts demanded price renegotiation upward by a factor of one hundred. That was just industry standard for those who did the cloak and dagger part of getting. The fact that Jack said nothing and moved on meant he wasn’t bargaining with them. They’d pay him that rate.

He knew it.

And they knew it now.

“You want me to hit the museum and access the vault. Fine. No problem. Then I give you the all clear and you remove the artifacts. Fine. Again no problem. Is that correct?”

Reiser cleared his throat and ran the route access, starting over from what looked like an elevated insertion point on the roof.

“You’ll come in from above in a glider we’re going to release from a dropship. You flew the AN-16 during the Kasselgrov Insurgency two years back, right? That’s part of your skill set, right, Jack?”

Bowie nodded.

The roof of the museum expanded out across the display.

“The koobs check the roof every thirty minutes as of the last LP/OP update. They don’t maintain a constant presence due to zhee snipers currently operating a few blocks to the west. That may change in the next twenty-four hours as the counter sniper teams go to work in those neighborhoods. That’s why we need to do this right now, my friend.”

“Why not use the front door? They’re just koobs… Blast your way in, blow the vault, and take what you want.”

Bowie was pretty sure there was a good reason why that wouldn’t work, but he asked his question anyway. For one, he wanted to hear their answer. And two, asking would serve to remind them why he was so essential when it came to accepting his rate of pay.

Reiser seemed annoyed. But he went on to explain.

“Koobs are maintaining an inner security ring, established thanks to the high-tech gadgets of Team Nilo. This site is considered sacred because of the Kublaren antiquities located on the top two floors, and our contractor teams only got a cursory look at the vault access sixteen hours ago before we were not-so-politely asked to leave their ‘holy site.’ We also had to install their security perimeter and prove it wasn’t hackable by us. That perimeter prevents all access and can only be deactivated from within. The one moment we have to access the museum comes when a koob guard walks the roof. Take him out and we can enter through the rooftop access and get in the building. Closing the door will restore the perimeter security integrity. The koobs inside will be alert but they’re on guard duty. The objective is a point of honor, Jack. To them. They detect the slightest bit of external access and they will sound the alarm and every koob in the district will surround the building, ready to go all war on everyone not frog. Team Nilo personnel too. As the ruling tribe, the obligation to protect the shared heritage is higher than any alliance or loyalty you can think of, even tikrit. Mainly all of this is because of some ridiculous feathered headdress one of their ancient kings wore about a thousand years ago when we were fighting the Battle of Sor in the Nordheim Nebulae against a Savage fleet. They have no clue about the vault below. Or at least most of them don’t. They just know not to touch it.”

“Then whose vault is it?” asked Bowie.

“A competitor of Mr. Nilo’s who thought he could hide some artifacts out here on Kublar during the troubles with the Republic. Made a deal with the Kublarens to fund the museum’s construction in exchange for vault installation. It’s a no-go area for the koobs and, like I said, we’re anticipating some sophisticated bot security. You’ll be dealing with those once you’ve accessed the vault and confirmed the artifacts are on site. Then you call us in and disable the perimeter security at the front door. We’ll show you how. Mission done. We take possession of the artifacts and move off the objective in convoy.”

“The same competitor,” probed Bowie, “whose friends and family Nilo killed?”

“No,” said Reiser without emotion. “Different one. Apparently, a lot of these super-rich like to collect old hokey-pocus Savage junk. Why? I don’t know. It’s their thing. That’s above my paygrade, Jack. I, like you, am just here to get paid, and I don’t care who we have to kill to get whatever trinket some fat cat wants.”

“Hocus pocus,” murmured Bowie and studied the insertion site on the holo-display. It wasn’t a big roof, but it was enough to bring the AN-16 down on. He’d done it with less during a six-month war no one ever heard about called the Kasselgrov Insurgency. Naval intel had been fighting that dirty little secret for reasons that were never clear and not publicly known.

“So, after that it’s wetwork,” continued Reiser. “That’s also in your skill set. Jack.”

It wasn’t a question. And rather than a statement, the older spook made it sound like an indictment. Not to prove he was better than Bowie. But that he was right down there in the cloak and mostly dagger sewer of what it was they did for the galaxy. Hitting.

“How many?”

The number was twelve. Twelve koobs needed to die for the building to be clear before he could access the vault. Then open the front doors and create a breach in the Team Nilo–installed security perimeter to allow the transport teams to move in and remove the artifacts.

Mission done.

“What am I working with?” asked Jack.

Reiser smiled and showed Bowie to the table that contained his kit loadout.

“Though evidently you’re fairly capable with a blaster, we know, according to your skill set, Jack…”


“…that you prefer the high-powered sniper engagement system mainly in the form of the N-18 with Greiss Telemetrics. Unfortunately this is going to be close quarters. Up close and very personal. That means blasters are a problem because the koobs are keeping it near dark in there and our hit time will be sometime during the night. Tonight, most likely. Or early tomorrow morning. Koobs have better than human night vision and so they don’t mind the dark. Any light show from a blaster, even one with a sophisticated light suppressor, is going to be a disadvantage in there. So, we’re going old school.”

Reiser indicated a pair of pistols on the table. “These are Legion. I’m sure the Marines ran ’em for you and we’ve got a range set up to give you some time with them for the next few hours. 9mm. Slug throwers. The suppressor is integral and it barely allows sound, or flash. At less than twenty meters it sounds like a mouse fart. So, take out tandem targets walking patrol, quickly. It’ll make a sound that’s clear to the partner to keep their senses twitching and either sound the alert or start engaging with their own brand-new Black Leaf toys. Anyone on their own, you’re clear to engage and keep moving.”

Bowie picked up the weapon, checked to make sure it was clear, and ran a quick systems check. He’d run the Legion’s little puff puff before. It was a good weapon. But it absolutely required put-down hits in the pump and pipes to make sure the target couldn’t make much of a fuss after being hit. He’d need to make sure he had koob anatomy right to make that happen on the first and second shots. Otherwise they could start screaming… or croaking… and the whole thing might go pear-shaped.

“A couple of knives,” continued Reiser. “If that’s how you want to do it.”

They walked through the kit loadout.

“Blades are coated with a central nervous system nano-virus that will remain active on contact for up to twelve hours once we start the mission clock and pass the Go Phase Line. One cut or scrape, and the target goes fetal, whether they like it or not. Fifty percent chance of death by cardiovascular infarct within the first thirty seconds, so you might want to go ahead and stick it in the brain pan at the base of the koob skull and give it a quick twist for the fatality. Do not test the edge yourself. I repeat. Don’t, Jack. Like I said, the viral coating remains active for twelve hours regardless of how many froggies you stick. Cut yourself, Jack, and you’ll go fetal too.”

Bowie studied the knives. Standard graphite blade tactical with nice rough sandpaper grips. One tanto and two boot knives.

“What about the bots?” asked Bowie nonchalantly. He was expecting bot-poppers, the micro-grenades used by the Legion that set off a localized EMP blast. But Team Nilo had arranged something different.

Reiser picked up a small subcompact-light blaster. Then a fat silencer. He screwed it onto the barrel quickly with practiced efficiency.

“This is Black Leaf, too. Fancy and fun. The bolts this fires don’t do kinetic. They take out electrical systems by delivering activated photons in the bolt that basically explode on contact to create micro, two-meter radius, EMPs. This baby will shut down a warbot with a direct hit. We call it an EM blaster. Not available in stores.”

Reiser was smiling as he popped out the folding stock, activated the tri-dot laser targeting, and took aim at the wall. Holographic targeting scrolled around the point of impact along the wall in ghostly red data.

“That’s not telemetry. Or rather, it ain’t only telemetry, Jack. It’s there for the shooter in case things get real hectic. Range-measured power against the target and chance of off-line at impact. Adjust the sight picture and it’ll update as it scans the bot, telling you where you’re most likely to get a kill. Some of the old warbots were hardened via modular components against micro-EMP strikes. So, this will make that a lot easier. But like I said, it’s not just targeting… it’s actually throwing data spam at the bot’s sensors to confuse targeting and every other operational process the bot is running. Think of it as a line-of-sight hack attack even before it fires. Truth is you probably don’t need it. But let’s say the bot doesn’t go down with the first hit… this will mess with its systems and that might help you to acquire and fire in a situation.”

What situation? wondered Bowie.

“What about THKs?” asked Bowie, taking the weapon and sighting along it. It felt light and flimsy. He’d have to account for that when acquiring for target. He was used to lugging the N-18 up and firing. It wasn’t heavy, but his muscle memory was trained for that specific weight for every condition expected, and unexpected, in the employment of the weapon system. A lighter weapon, while nice on a long overland hump to a hit, might be a problem when trying to target inside a close-quarters environment with split-second acquisition. He’d have to go through some rifle PT to make sure he had its weight just right in his head. And muscle memory. Didn’t want jerk it up and be way off target in a sudden firefight. Best for it to come up slow and smooth into the engagement window.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast, some old hullbuster had once hectored him endlessly with. Yeah, he thought. Got it, Sarge. Still got it. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

Lying on the table was a bando of bot-poppers after all. So Team Nilo was making sure he was more than ready for what was in the vault. With the subcompact EM blaster, these seemed like overkill. But you never knew. And honestly, he wasn’t sure he’d take the explosives. Even if he did need to clean the whole library first, he just didn’t know how much noise these things made and that could present a problem with regards to quiet and stealth.

He tabled the bando. He’d object later. And… he might not. Because… well… you never knew.

“Finally,” brayed Reiser. “We got a nifty tailor-made suit cut all special for super-spy Jack Bowie.”

Laid out on the loadout table was a synthprene wet suit. Or at least that’s what it looked like.

“Am I going to swim through sewers at some point?” asked Jack drolly.

“Hardy har hah!” replied Reiser lamely.

Hardy har har, thought Bowie and said nothing.

“Ain’t what you’re thinking, Jack. And I’m honestly surprised you didn’t recognize this. This ain’t no wetsuit. It’s the synthprene undersuit leejes wear beneath their armor. Only this one is a smartsuit. Latest from Team Nilo. It does everything Legion armor does regarding filtration, imaging, and comms. Protects you from all environments and still gives you enhanced sensory access. Scrambles passive detection and messes with targeting telemetry for anyone using a scope or running a drone. Line of sight is your only problem. Optical contacts that go with it synch and act as your HUD. Think… and it runs the systems. No tongue or second set of externals on the sleeve. This thing will listen to your thoughts and run the systems the way you want them run. Which is straight up crazy when you think about it, Jack. So, my advice… just don’t think about it. Just think you want to go to IR and it will throw that over your current visual spectrum. And yes, it tags and identifies your enemies and even runs a passive gathering sensor system that should identify your targets as much as a hundred meters away.”

Should, thought Bowie. Sounds like a wish instead of feature.

“Does it stop blaster bolts like Legion armor?”

“We wanted it to deflect blaster fire, but no. We aren’t there yet. It’ll ablate some, but I’ll be honest with you, Jack… don’t get hit. It’ll just seal up the wound with nanites and drug you, which… when you think about it and all… surrounded by a dozen of those froggy buggers… maybe ain’t the greatest situation to be in, tactically-speaking and all. Direct hit from a heavy and you’re going to be looking at a hole in your chest while you go into shock and bleed out. Roger, amigo? We’re looking at go-time at some point in the early morning hours just past end of today. So that gives you six hours for familiarization. Let’s get moving before we hit the Oh-Bee-Jay.”

We, thought Jack Bowie. He picked up the bando after all.


Go time.

The AN-16 dropped away from the rear cargo deck of a boxy utility-sized dropship that anyone on the ground might have mistaken for a bulk shipping distribution vehicle passing from one delivery site to the next. Never mind the street battles below. Commerce went on regardless over Soob City, recent economic boomtown. They simply had to dodge more surface-to-air missiles than before.

The dropship was common in the days leading up to the current crisis. Common on the thousands of civilized worlds that spanned the galaxy. What was not common was the small bat-winged glider that danced in the engine backdraft at the rear of the dropship at an altitude of five thousand feet. Again, common shipping traffic airspace altitude over Soob City. The glider disconnected and then dove for the deck of Soob City rooftops, silently streaking down into the labyrinthine maze of buildings old and new. Tall and small.

Any sensor pickups were either deflected or eaten by the AN-16’s absorptive nano-skin and thin profile signature. Designed for stealth and used for insertion over hostile, or even heavily debated, crisis zones, the AN-16 was a Dark Ops plaything that came direct out of Legion R&D. It wasn’t useful beyond getting a single operator into an operational theatre unnoticed, but, if that’s what you wanted to do, then the AN-16 was perfect for the job.

Unnoticed electronically, the craft was also visually hard to detect. It moved fast due to its design and, when needed, could slow to the pace of a man walking. Which was exactly what needed to happen in the next fifteen seconds if Jack Bowie was to nail the LZ on the roof of the Museum of Kublaren History.

The glider came in over the silent ramshackle sprawl of ZQ to the west, avoiding tall minarets and dodging the wild collection of rattletrap comm towers, wires, and sensor nets the zhee were ever collecting and assembling to subvert normal communications. Bowie was flying by a set of simple controls directly in front of his face while effectively lying on his belly as the glider shot toward the roof of the museum. The koob guard was due to make his next patrol along the roof in less than seven minutes.

The glider danced around the side of a tall dropship parking hangar a few blocks from the museum and lined up for the rooftop LZ ahead. No lights. No catch-net. Bowie switched over to starlight optics and everything became a little bit clearer in the zero dark of not-night and not-dawn. He’d been using night vision and the depth perception wasn’t as good as this new mode. And the perception of distance and depth was absolutely critical for this next bit. The short field landing that needed to be stuck in one go.

Bowie didn’t bring in the passive repulsors until the glider cleared the lip of the building and was whipping along the wide rooftop of the museum. Then he slammed the repulsor braking lever forward a little more forcefully than needed and watched as the groundspeed indicator dropped like a rock. Forty dropped to twenty then ten, and Bowie yanked the nose of the glider skyward, tapping the repulsor batteries to cushion for a full and final stop. The batteries were a one-shot trick. They bled out all the braking and cushioning power they could lend to bring the glider to a dead stop on a dime. And then gently set the light craft down on the roof of the building with little to no fanfare.

Inside, the glider sensors and speed alarms, coupled with the constant traffic coming from Reiser and his ops team back in the warehouse, died in a second as Bowie listened to the composite hull of the glider settle onto the sandy grit of the rooftop in silence. It felt no more than a child’s toy that had finally been discarded.

Jack Bowie lay there for a second, feeling the sudden cascade of sweat erupt inside the smartsuit he was now wearing. It was always that way. Flying the AN-16 was pure danger. Unforgiving in the extreme. And did anyone mention dangerous? Because it really was. You only got one chance to stick her to the LZ and mistakes were often fatal. The sudden sweat always came at the end of every landing as the tense body of the pilot released all the stress and fear they’d been holding in while flying the approach. But it was better than plowing into the side of a dropship hangar on the way to smoke some target. So Bowie just lay there for a second and let the sweat come. Relaxing muscles that had become tension wire tight.

He didn’t have long to think about how close he’d come to death. Nor did he want to. When it came, it would come. No sense in giving it any moment until that final moment.

So, he twisted and popped the canopy along the dorsal fin of the fuselage and pushed himself out of the tiny craft. Satisfied he had his kit, he reached down and flipped the safety cover on the glider’s disintegration packs.

A quick set of numbers activated the arming sequence for immediate destruction and by the time Bowie stood to draw his silenced sidearm, the AN-16 was silently disintegrating in a dull green effervescence accompanied by a soft pop and crackle as aggressive nanites took the vehicle apart at the cellular level with extreme prejudice. In less than a minute, there would be nothing but black dust left of the AN-16.

They were a one-usage item.

Protocols required that the dust be scattered and hidden to the best of the operator’s abilities before the mission could continue. Bowie didn’t think that was necessary. It was just after three a.m. local and the roof was dark. And everyone inside the museum would be dead in the next thirty minutes.

No one would notice the dusty outline of some strange bat lying on the roof.

Bowie made sure there was a round in the pipe of the silenced Nine and whispered a soft reminder of what came next, “Time to clean.”

He disappeared into the silence of the night.


The dark figure took up a position around the corner of the wall from which the rooftop access door opened. Reiser was counting down to the appearance of the koob guard.

“These are good, Jack. Must be like some kind of elite ceremonial guard because they make their rounds on time. So, he’ll show in seven, six, five, four…” and then he went silent as per old protocols from Nether Ops.

The last three seconds were never counted down. Just assumed so the hitter could concentrate on his work. And right on time the door swung open on a whiny note and Jack Bowie heard the soft pad of koob steps coming out onto the grit of the roof.

Bowie followed the forward sight of the Nine around the corner of the wall with three swift steps and watched the laser dot inside his HUD lenses land on the koob warrior’s muscled belly. He’d come in a little low and that had been a problem all during his run throughs. He’d drilled anatomy for as much time as he’d had, which hadn’t been much. And still he’d come in low on his first target acquisition.

A gut shot wasn’t good enough.

Bowie raised the barrel and followed the front sights up in a long movement that was smooth. But to him, as the surging adrenaline began to have its way with him, it felt like an eternity. Felt the very essence of the word slow.

But it was slow, and slow is smooth.

The laser dot landed right above the koob’s brow. The central cortex stem and lower thalamus beyond that, protected by bone and brain matter. Instant lights out in the koob’s anatomy. And if he was low, he’d send a bullet through the airsac, making it impossible for the koob to croak a warning once ruptured.

And smooth is fast.

The dead koob had barely a second to open his mouth as he came face to face with the assassin before a bullet scrambled his brain and came out the rear lower pan at the base of the skull.

Bowie moved forward before the body could fall and pushed the corpse back inside the access door with one hand steadying and the other maintaining the pistol’s posture forward and ready to engage an unannounced buddy.

The lifeless koob warrior slumped against the wall as Bowie’s vision switched over to IR with just a simple thought. It was dark in the stairwell access leading to the roof and he’d merely wanted, yes wanted had been the right word, and the filter overlay for his vision turned everything to IR red. There was enough residual heat in the walls to give a good picture of what the short set of stairs leading down to the top two levels of the museum looked like.

No buddies.

Seven rounds left, he reminded himself. The downside of using so small a pistol.

Moving quickly but quietly he made the bottom of the stairs. Though the smartsuit was running some kind of active sensor system, it wasn’t picking up anything. No movement. No heartbeats.

“Not getting anything on sensors,” whispered Bowie over the comm.

“Yeah,” said Reiser quietly. Bowie could tell he was drinking a cup of kaff from a disposable cup. The comm was so good he could hear the soft material of the cup crinkle as Reiser gripped it while he spoke. “Everything’s still R&D, Jack. Give it a moment and it may come in once it figures itself out. All this stuff is just voodoo to an old spook like me. Back in my day, we…”

Bowie slid through the barely open door and out into a marble-floored hallway adorned with ancient Kublaren stone art. It was dark in here, and some powerful deep scan Reiser’s people had been able to run in the last few hours had shown most of the koobs within the building. On the top floor there had been five. The rover who was now dead. And two patrols at opposite ends of the massive building, walking alternating routes that intersected every fifteen minutes.

And here was the trickiest part of the night. Both patrols had to be hit separately, but before their standard intersection times. While doing the map recon back in the operations warehouse, they’d identified two places where Bowie could effect this.

Without hesitation Bowie moved to what they called Position One and waited behind a massive stone sarcophagus of a prehistoric Kublaren mummy. He waited, keeping the Nine down and letting his arms relax.

Up for too long and the arms cramped and the aim got bad when it was time to come into play.

Less than two minutes later the first pair came down the small gallery, each taking an opposite side, and one slightly behind the other. Bowie assessed both targets and confirmed he had them in sight.

“Engaging…” he whispered and got a “Standing by…” back from Reiser. If things went sideways now, other elements had to get out of the area of operation quickly before anyone could start capping footage and pinning blame. So Reiser would wait for confirmation on each kill.

“Tangos down,” whispered Bowie a second later. “Moving to Two.”

Position Two was not thirty meters away and near the Grand Exhibit of the Moon Monolith. One of the most sacred relics of koob society and culture. It was rumored to predate Kublar’s earliest civilizations and further rumored to be extra-terrestrial. But the House of Reason antiquities commission had never allowed any off-world scientist to have a go at it and verify if any of this was actually true.

Both guards were just entering the chamber from a side exit that marked their patrol route when Bowie entered, swiftly walking and firing at the same time.

He’d swapped mags on the way to Position Two, so he had eight rounds. His hands had started to shake during the first two kills and he’d felt it best to have a full magazine when he hit the next two targets. Unsure if his aim would start to go with the subsiding adrenaline and nerves as the mission clock wore on.

Instead he’d suddenly felt calm, and the brief bit of exercise moving from Position One to Position Two had shed some of the excess nervous energy. It only took a bullet each to put the two surprised koobs down. And the rest of the magazine just for general purpose.

Now there were five dead and seven to go. All of them on the lower level.


Counting down.

Number Seven died when Bowie let himself down in the main exhibition hall, eschewing the stairs and using a small nano-cable to sink to the ground floor. He came in right behind Number Seven who was tasked with watching the Hall of Wonders. Kublaren technology from their golden age. Technology consisting of an ancient printing press and other abortive attempts at devices much of the galaxy had long had access to before the Savages’ first leapt away from Earth.

If you believed that myth.

Bowie had never cared one way or another.

Number Six died near the entrance to the administration facility parking lot, standing watch and looking outward. Bowie moved up quickly and used the blade coated with nano-toxin. The smartsuit made movement easy and near silent, and so the dead koob had felt nothing more than the merest scratch as Bowie swiped a small cut across the wide neck and watched the creature go down, paralyzed and helpless as Bowie bent over and made a quick cut through the airsac to let the creature bleed out.

Reiser’s suggestion to scramble the brain was too much work. Paralyzed, the koob would bleed out in just a few minutes. Unconsciousness would come within thirty seconds.

So far, so good. And yet something about this whole thing was bothering Jack Bowie. What did Savage relics have to do with anything? And other than Reiser there wasn’t much Team Nilo. Which had kind of been a hallmark of everything he’d been asked to do so far. The audition hit. The chase. All of it had dangled Team Nilo. And now… here he was stealing stuff. For what reason? Why? What did Nilo, whoever he really was, stand to gain?

And then Jack Bowie reminded himself that none of this was his business. He’d been hired to do what he did. Rarely and seldom was the full picture given.

But one day, someone had once told him, you find yourself in a blind alley you never saw coming. And there’s no way out.

How, Jack had asked. How do you avoid ending up there?

That’s the problem, that other older, wiser hitter had said. You never see it coming because you’ve been going up blind allies all along. There’s a certain amount of blind trust doing what we do. And sometimes that gets used against you. And by the time you realize it… well… it’s too late.

Then what?

Nothing. Nothing you can do. You just face it like some lamb led to the slaughter.

Remind me not to be a sacrificial lamb, Bowie had quipped in the darkness between the two men. I’d rather charge.

Even bulls get sacrificed, Jack. Even bulls.

Number Five died in a small library of ancient scrolls illuminated in soft light. The koob was actually sleeping and all Bowie had to do was nick the rather prominent vein visible as the airsac deflated with each slumbering breath. Time did the rest.

Bowie was already onto Number Four when he ran into Three, who was supposed to be with Two. Not there.

He and Three practically walked up on each other. Bowie, blade in his off hand, Nine at the ready, turned and fired fast, pulling the trigger and walking hits up along the body of the jerking Kublaren guard.

The series of puffs was audible. They sounded loud. Some trick in the silent cavern of a room that featured ancient art magnified the sounds. The puffs became the sudden loud hisses of feral cats as Bowie shot the guard dead several times.

He heard the other guard, Two, coming into the room where the killing was taking place. The koob gurgling curses and trying to unlimber its new Black Leaf rifle to engage the killer with.

Five shots, Jack Bowie told himself as he pivoted away from the prone koob whom he wasn’t quite sure was dead when he took aim and fired at this new threat.

Two was just getting his automatic rifle off his shoulder when Bowie hit him in the upper chest, nowhere near the pump and pipes, and watched the guard twist away to get out from under the glare of the barrel spitting death in his face. The koob smacked into a wall, rebounded, and came up standing still for just a second to gather his bearings. Bowie had challenged himself to wait to fire his last shot, and the wait was rewarded because the sight picture for a kill shot in the brain stem was now as good as it was ever going to get.

He pulled the trigger and blew the koob’s brains all over a picture of some sunset.

He clipped the knife back to his belt, slapped in a new magazine, and chambered another round, listening all the while.

Had the last guard alive in the place heard anything?

Would the alarm suddenly sound? A high-tech thing in this modern monument to the ancient past.


Now there was just one left and Number One was the hardest one to get to and hit. Prior scans had indicated that the Kublaren guard watch leader stayed within a blastproof security station near the main door. That station was accessible by one door. The approach to the station from the rest of the building was monitored at all times, both visually and with broad knee-level sensor beams that swept the entire main entrance hall.

Bowie moved to a small gallery filled with onyx statuary that looked out upon the main gallery. From the shadows there he could see the security station, designed to look like some kind of information booth sitting dead center in the massive hall. The front doors to the museum, monitored and locked by high tech sophisticated security systems installed by Team Nilo, stood guard against the outside. Those were the final objective. Open them and his work was done.

And that tickled Jack Bowie’s brain just a bit. He found it impossible to believe Team Nilo couldn’t hack their own installed equipment. Didn’t put some kind of back door the near–Stone Age Kublarens couldn’t find. That just didn’t add up.

Not your problem right now, Jack. So far they’ve dealt straight-ish. Keep charging and maybe… just maybe you see the other side of this.

Even bulls get sacrificed, Jack.

But first there were two things to do.

Kill the guard.

And secure the artifacts down below.

Bowie got down onto his belly and began to low crawl across the meticulously polished floor of the main entrance. The smartsuit adapted to the viscosity of the surface it was being used against, shifted its molecular structure somehow and suddenly the small rubberized squeak it had been making went silent. And, amazingly, Bowie was moving faster.

The sensor laser was invisible so there was no telling where it was, even with the enhanced optics his HUD contacts provided. But if Jack kept down and just under its calculated depth, he could make it the whole way to the security station. Visual was the only problem. If the guard looked up, he was had. So he crawled with the Nine out and forward. Pointed at the koob’s skull the whole way. He crawled and watched the koob in the booth who seemed to be studying something, remaining motionless as death crawled toward him. The watch leader didn’t even look up once until something in his peripheral vision caused him to turn and look at the barrel of the sidearm Jack Bowie was pointing at his skull.

That was the last thing he ever saw.

Brain matter aside and dead koob lying on the floor of the security station, Jack scanned the controls and inserted the device Reiser had given him. It would run the hack and decrypt the passwords the koobs had added after installation. After that he deactivated the laser and left for the basement.

Last step.

Accomplish that, and then open the front door and done, thought Jack Bowie as he pressed a button and the false wall blast door folded away in a nearby wall, exposing a ramp leading down into the gloom of the lower basement.


The hack that opened the massive security blast door guarding the private collection of whoever it was who had funded the construction of the museum took longer than expected.

Reiser’s slicing device did the actual job and while it worked, Bowie switched modes from biologic engagement with the Nine and knife, to use of the fancy new EM blaster bot-poppers.

None of Reiser’s intel gave any indication of what to expect inside the private collection. It was anyone’s guess. The only thing known was that it had to be secured for Mr. Nilo.

That was the only priority. Jack didn’t know what. He didn’t know why. Despite all he’d done in the Team Nilo auditions… he still didn’t feel “in” enough to ask about it. And usually, he wouldn’t have cared either way. A job was a job.

It was just… things about this one didn’t add up.

The hack broke through the last of the security interlocks, each pulsing red until they shifted over into the open configuration identified by a soft mint-green glow. Once the last lock was opened, the gleaming titanium blast door opened vertically, the bottom half sinking into the floor, the top half rising into the foundation of the museum above. Buttresses behind the dual blast doors, providing support for any attempts to blow it inward, likewise retracted.

Beyond the blast door was a pristine room worthy of any fantastic deep government research and development think tank site or hospital operating room. Beyond the clean room was a simple, small door that had to lead into the inner sanctums of the collection. Where the Savages’ lost playthings were kept.

Bowie crouched behind some nearby lift-pallets and studied the entrance. There had to be a trap of some kind still waiting for him between blast doors and the collection itself. It wasn’t this easy. And through the suit he could feel some kind of immense… unholy… power emanating out in waves across the basement.

Unholy, thought Bowie incredulously. His mind was not given to the use of such hokey words. But that’s what it felt like. Something forbidden. Something dangerous. Something the soul could feel, and felt that it was wrong. Whatever it was.

Something ancient.

Bowie stood, EM blaster ready, and moved cautiously into the clean room. It wasn’t until his foot stepped over the threshold and into the startlingly sterile space that two massive war bots decloaked and appeared.

Reiser swore over the comm as it began to fritz out and fill with static. Bowie moved to dodge a sudden array of targeting lasers dancing out from the ancient war machines’ deadly weapon systems, thinking that Reiser must’ve been watching the feed through the HUD lens. But those thoughts were far away in a distant part of his mind as he ran to avoid getting killed a hundred times over.

“Those are HHK-103s!” shouted Reiser.

Everyone who’d ever been a boy growing up in the Galactic Republic and who loved war had studied the weapons and weapon systems of that long-ago conflict that enveloped the galaxy.

The Savage Wars.

103s had been heavy bot warfighting systems fielded by the Republic in the days of the Syneron and Agalates campaigns deep in the Orion cluster worlds. Without a doubt some of the most violent battles legionnaires and Savage Marines had ever fought. 103s had been designed to go into the maelstrom and kill everything until they’d been turned offline. Heavy armor. Light Refractive Ambush Cloaking Technology. No munitions. Only energy weapons and onboard reactors made them near-undefeatable. One had supposedly broken the Savage line at Tu-Caar Gap when the Legion had been surrounded at twenty-to-one odds in a steaming jungle hellhole they called the Death Paddies.

Now, right in front of Jack Bowie, two of those fabled death machines were spinning up heavy blaster cannons on six different arms and powering up to unload a fury of high powered blaster fire on him.

Bowie fell back while firing the EM blaster. Watching as the targeting spam attempted to scramble their systems while the weapon fired short but powerful EM bursts. Turning to run for cover as he fired EM blasts at the nearest one, his weapon made a weird, otherworldly sound. Like a koob croaking underwater, electronically. The blasts nailed some of the components of the nearest 103 and shut down some of its systems, but a moment later a torrent of lasers began to tear up the heavy shipping containers Bowie had just barely gotten behind, slicing cleanly through and leaving charred lines and licking flames.

But Bowie was still alive. The targeting spam was having some effect on their ability to acquire. Team Nilo made nice toys. That was for sure.

From his cover, Bowie couldn’t see the bots directly, but he could hear the screech of the ancient ceramic tracks dragging the towering death machines across the clean room floor toward him. Once they got close it wouldn’t matter if they could target or not. They’d mutilate him through sheer firepower. They sounded like ancient battle tanks as they rumbled closer.

Not one of Reiser’s contingency plans had ever anticipated the fabled 103s, and there wasn’t much a single EM blaster, no matter how fancy it was, was going to do against these monsters. The Savages had only managed to render them obsolete by some super-weapon that shut down all technology on a planetary scale. Black Leaf probably didn’t have anything like that.

Most likely he was dead. That much was clear to Jack Bowie.

Don’t be a lamb.

He shucked the bando of bot-poppers over his neck, daisy-chained them, and tossed them at the approaching machines.

Like a sudden string of bombastic firecrackers going off inside tin cans filled with aluminum strips, the explosives detonated, sending powerful electromagnetic explosions out across the room.

Bowie’s suit went dead, his HUD useless.

Both bots went haywire and started engaging anything and everything. Shooting up walls and shipping containers across the depths of the lower basement. Destroying priceless artifacts that lay outside the vault, stored down here until a display could be set up.

The air was a deadly crisscross of fire until one of the machines fried its targeting programming and decided to engage the other as an enemy. Within seconds both fearsome warbots had shot each other to ruined metal.

Lasers left graffiti on walls. Bolts whined and zinged by him. The death machines exploded in sudden fusillades of pyrotechnic destruction. The building’s fire system blinked to life, but quickly retracted. Reiser must’ve shut it off. Smoke and burnt ozone filled the air and both giants fell silent seconds after their violent duel.

When it was over, Jack Bowie stood, EM blaster again ready to engage whatever came next.

They could be rerouting and rebooting… powering back up. Warbots had capabilities that allowed them to seem destroyed, and then suddenly come back as an IED, or a suicide attack. But these looked pretty well wrecked.

Still, it paid to be cautious.

Bowie aimed at one, targeting the thick processor banks that had been exposed via damage beneath the sensor housing acting as the machine’s head. He pulled the EM blaster’s trigger and got nothing.

He realized that the blast from the bot-poppers had fried everything. Not just his HUD and suit. His blaster and even the comm were offline.

A second later Reiser was back in his ear.

“… worry, Jack. The suit will reset. If you can hear me acknowledge. Say again…”

“I read you,” muttered Bowie.

In his hands the EM blaster came back to life, its digital readouts and charge loads displaying along the lower receiver. In his HUD lens he got a weapons synch indicator.

“Damn that was close,” said Reiser over the comm.

That was the understatement of the year, thought Bowie.

“Hopefully that’s all, Jack. But be on your guard when you get in there. Can’t see the owner exposing something as valuable as your objective to that sort of destruction. And do this quick. Dawn is an hour away and I’d like to be gone by the time the sun rises.”

Bowie acknowledged and entered the inner sanctum of the private collection of Savage artifacts just as he lost comm with Reiser again. Something in the construction of the vault was interfering. But they’d established that the mission continued in that event.

Bowie passed down a long corridor beyond the clean room, just as pristine as what he’d passed. Along the corridor were various windows that looked down into small rooms where some artifact or another was on display. At times the artifacts seemed strange and mysterious. At others they were easily identifiable.

It was a museum inside a museum. Holographic digital lettering in ghostly blue, the font always linked to the Savage style that was now as iconic and enigmatic as all the other symbols of hate that had surfaced in humanity’s cultural swamps, appeared as Bowie neared the observation glass of the first room. The holographic font appeared and described what the artifact inside was.

The battered remains of a GHK were displayed on a pristine white pedestal. Like some museum piece in the floors above. The GHK was the standard battle rifle for early era Savage Marines. Nothing worth the type of security Jack had gotten past, though. In the next room lay a section of circuitry board for a Savage lighthugger’s lift system waiting under glass like the lost fragments of some ancient civilization’s holy text.

Jack read the placards labels as he moved by.

Nano-Injector Tubes that once contained longevity treatments from the Savage lighthugger Quest for Oblivion, lost at the Battle of Andalore, were in the next room. Strange crowns, slender and delicate, made of bronze and adorned with scrolling circuity, were identified as interfaces for a virtual world the Savages of The Id Confederacy used to access a private world of fantastic wonders only they knew. Perhaps it was still out there. Hidden on some lost planetoid and running on some ancient server.

Bowie passed a window that was completely dark. The ghostly Savage lettering indicated inside was the last remaining Savage OS-ENDGAME Cyberworm still running something called the Unity Virus. Discovered on the ruined world of Britannia.

Bowie had never heard of the place. But the description sounded like a textbook banned cyber weapon. And then suddenly realized he might be dealing with some very deep, dark, and scary stuff. Mass-extinction stuff.

And then, for a second, it was clear why Team Nilo, or just Nilo himself, wanted this Savage tech.

He wanted to tell Reiser that this was stuff no one should be messing with. But he passed other wonders which distracted him from the larger issue at hand. The things he was seeing were the stuff of legend and rumors, lost treasures of a fantastic civilization the galaxy had simply called Savages when they’d come out of the stellar dark.

Come to exterminate so they could make the galaxy over in their image.

“Welcome, human,” said a bot’s synthesized voice.

Bowie froze.

“Do not worry, human. I can see you. You’re currently within the outer displays area of the master’s exhibit. I have alerted the system defenses to your presence and you will be terminated shortly.”


Bowie looked around. No visible cameras or sensors. But the place was sophisticated enough, and it had obviously been designed with the latest in secure technology.

And, he had to admit to himself, he had that trapped feeling sinking in his gut.

Now he could hear the metallic steps of a bot coming closer along the halls. In another direction he could hear small metallic skittering across the floor. And then the heavy tread of some machine. Not quite as heavy as the 103s at the front entrance. But similar. And that probably meant some other form of warbot that had been purchased and hidden down here to guard this fantastic and highly illegal collection.

“Who are you?” asked Bowie, his voice falling flat against the sound-deadening surfaces of the place.

“An irrelevant interrogative but one I will answer, nonetheless. My proper identifier is THK-Alpha Eight. You may not realize with whom you are dealing, but yes, if you know your history, I am indeed one of those.”

Bowie knew enough of history to know exactly what the bot meant by its identifier.

The Alpha Eight Series of THKs were the infamously homicidal psychological warfare specialists who’d started the Sayed Massacre of legend.

“So of course,” continued the bot, “you realize you have no chance against me. I have already killed directly in combat one thousand seven hundred and eighty-three humans—note that I say humans, like you, and am not counting other biologics in that sum. Indirectly, I am responsible for the death of four million humanoids, though most of those were accomplished when I deployed a tactical nuclear weapon against the refugee center on Sorrab Nine. Not my preferred weapon of warfare, but one I am nonetheless competent with. The rest of my kills were acquired through ship-to-ship combat where internal explosions, radiation leaks, and hull breaches were used to great effect. Some may argue that though it was I who fired the SSMs and led the bot strike teams, I should not take credit for the subsequent damage that killed so many crew. But I disagree. Though I am willing to accept debate on these numbers if you wish to spend your last moments arguing with me over them. I must warn you that I do have very compelling arguments.”

“Good for you,” muttered Bowie as he scanned the halls with the targeting scope of the EM blaster.

THKs were not to be trifled with. He’d never met one. But the rumors of the demise of others who had were enough to make one suddenly sober about what they intended to do. Still, it was old. Perhaps old enough that its systems might not be able to deal with Team Nilo’s new device.


But then, what other chance do you have? he asked himself.

From down the hall a small blast door whooshed open like a guillotine retracting and a humanoid bot skinned in carbon black stepped through. The blast door sliced shut a second later and the bot canted its insectile head at Bowie, studying him for the half moment before it began shooting.

Bowie instinctively dove for cover.

“There’s no use in running,” reminded the THK as the bot advanced, laying down a sudden blue streak of fire where Bowie should have been. “You’re already quite dead. I can assure you of that, human.”

Bowie had slammed one gloved palm against a display room door access he landed in front of and flung himself through the door the second it opened. Blaster fire melted into the ceramic walls, and now he lay on the floor of the display room which housed another weird piece of Savage tech that looked like a telescope with tentacles.

Bowie had nowhere to go. There was no exit from the small room.

He got to one knee and aimed the EM blaster at the opening to the room just as the bot stepped into it. Squeezing once, the EM blaster spat out a series of powerful pulses that rocked the humanoid bot’s frame. Systems were scrambled, components offlined. Processors collapsed as the bot seemed to be physically struck by invisible jackhammer blows from the powerful weapon. Targeting spam washed across the room like mad ghosts revealing ancient holographic runes in bloody half-light. The blue holographic letters highlighting each display stretched and warped from the assault, blinking in static-filled binary and then returning to their set text.

It wasn’t enough to put the bot down. It regained its composure after a second and fired wildly. One shot struck Bowie in the thigh as he raced forward, dumping everything he had in the hopes of shutting his foe off. Knowing there was no other way than this.

Charging down that blind alley like that bull he’d sworn he would be.

Something searing and hot tore the flesh of his leg apart and he yelled ferociously as he closed to within striking range of the bot, refusing to fall. Willing himself to keep moving. He sent more blasts into the upper torso of the robotic thing. It did not die. It would not die.

The EM blaster failed and in one swift motion, never mind the fact that his leg felt like it was on fire, Jack Bowie grabbed its barrel and swung the weapon like a club at the bot’s processor node. The machine stumbled away, steadying itself along one pristine white ceramic wall as it tried to distance itself from the assault.

This is my only chance, thought Jack Bowie and lunged at it. Kicking it first with his good leg, roaring with pain as the other went out from under him.

The bot likewise sensed its own opportunity to regain momentum and in turn lunged for Bowie who was now lying on the floor, his battered leg finally having failed him. The machine pounced like a lunatic nightmare out of the nether of the galaxy, firing its primary weapons as it did so. But all of them missed Bowie.

The kill would be close, then. And now the metallic monster was on top of him and as Jack struggled he was wondered where the skittering he attributed to some kind of mechanical “spiders” and the other treaded warbot were. He could hear them just beyond the blood rushing through his ears and to be honest…

… Jack Bowie was pretty sure he was going to die before those things got to him.

The bot released its grapple on his chest and flung its metallic claws around his neck in an instant. It was toying with him. Slowly sapping the life out of him rather than pulverizing his neck with one powerful squeeze.

But it meant Bowie still had a few precious seconds left to fight. To be the bull.

Bowie released his hold on the bot, knowing it was doing nothing, and flailed for the Nine on his arm. He pulled the weapon as his vision shrank down to a small pinhole of darkness and emptied the entire magazine into the bot on top of him.

He heard the sounds of the spiders and the warbot trundling along suddenly cease like sound effects interrupted by feedback.

And then there was nothing but darkness.

Quiet. Deep. Darkness as the metal nightmare squeezed the life out of him.


Jack Bowie gasped and rolled over, pushing the shattered metallic corpse of the dead bot off of him. Rounds from the Nine had ruined its processor housing. The thing’s head was literally smoking as components lay like metal blood splatter along the floor nearby.

It dawned on Bowie that this humanoid bot with the insectile head had been the THK. The fearsome, legendary THK. And in the end, it wasn’t high-tech EM blasts that brought it down… it was a few 9mm bullets. It seemed so cosmically stupid that Bowie might have laughed had his throat not throbbed so severely.

His leg felt on fire.

Bowie curled into a ball in order to look down along his leg, hearing himself groan in titanic pain as he did so. Feeling a sharp pain from the involuntary effort.

Burnt flesh and exposed bone was what he saw. The bot had hit him solidly and good.

The smartsuit was rebooting and suddenly he was being advised to stand by for combat medicine. Please lie still, flashed across his HUD.




The messaged appeared again and again as Jack tried to breathe. Tried to control the overwhelming pain. There was nerve damage. And the unbidden thoughts he would lose the leg for a cybernetic.

Then the meds kicked in as the smartsuit synthesized what was needed to knock the top off the wild pain gone runaway. Below, where the wound in his leg was, Jack could see the edges of the smartsuit, burnt and fried by the blaster shot, crawling together over the wound.

It was sealing. Probably cleaning the wound.

That’s good, Jack thought as he fumbled for a new magazine from off his belt. Not wanting to speak. Throat and larynx in too much pain to speak. He still held the Nine but his grip—his whole body—felt sweaty and uncertain.

He lay there and waited as the pain miraculously faded.

Bowie knew he needed to get up. He tried to get to his feet but there was no way the leg would support him. It was probably broken. And that was most likely not the worst of the damage. He managed to get upright, supporting his weight on one leg and leaning against the wall.

Spiders, he thought and felt cold ice water rushing along his spine and sweating head. The smartsuit covered his head like a hood. He pulled it off, feeling he needed the air. Removing the comm from the hood, he leaned his head against the wall and activated it.

No ping.

Which meant no rescue team. Unless one was already inbound. He needed to make his way back to the other side of the clean room at the front blast door. That was the last time he remembered his comm working. He pushed himself up along the wall, balancing on one leg.

Good. This was good. He was upright. He could get around, albeit slowly, with just one working wheel. He hopped and stumbled back along the galleries to the main entrance, thankful for the pain meds. Knowing that without them, each jarring hop would be torture. Trying not to think about the damage he might be doing to an already ruined limb.

There were no spiders. No other warbots.

Those things must have been tricks played by the THK to get close. THKs that ran active PsyOps software designed to confuse and disorient their victims. Of course the thing had made it seem like it had help. In all likelihood it was just some relic from the Savage Wars that had been beaten to hell and salvaged by some collector. It probably wasn’t even at full warfighting capabilities.

“Grateful for that,” muttered Bowie as he limped along. He winced from the effort of speaking, and felt a tang of blood in the back of his mouth. His voice was hoarse, barely a whisper.

He got to the front entrance and found an active comms signal again.

“Reiser?” he croaked, sounding like a koob, his throat in agony. “Reiser! Reiser… you there?”

A moment later after a wash of static the old spook who ran dirty work for Team Nilo came through.

“Yeah, I’m here, Jack,” said Reiser. “All clear? We lost you when…”

“Yeah,” gasped Jack. “All clear.”

It was all he could manage to say.

“All right,” said Reiser softly. “They’re coming in now, Jack. Stand by.”


Reiser leaned back in his chair at the operations center inside the warehouse after telling Jack Bowie to stand by. Yes, they were coming in.

He picked up a separate comm.

“Go with Alpha Team. Clean him and get everything out of there.”

The confirmation from Alpha Team leader came back. Alpha was go for clean and clear.

There was no one else here in the ops center. The rest of his Nether Ops team was in and around the museum, in armored sleds masked up to look like Team Nilo cargo and ready to take possession of the artifacts that had just been secured.

Stolen right out from under Nilo’s nose.

Now Reiser had to torch the warehouse, issue the burn notice for everyone involved, and return to his role as playing for Team Nilo until he was needed again by Nether Ops. You never left Nether. Why would you? Life just wasn’t as fun afterwards. Working with the sexy little Tennar operative sent out by Nether Ops had been enjoyable. He wouldn’t mind getting a session with her if she could be convinced. Maybe she liked old guys who knew where some of the bodies were buried. But, the payment to his retirement account from Nether could buy him a real Tennar courtesan of his own. Not some spook playing the part. And a lot of other alien girls for that matter.

It was good to play for both sides, Reiser reminded himself. It was fun to be Nether. Because you could make it up as you went. And you could choose which way you…

That was what Reiser, ex-Nether Ops operator who’d never really left, was thinking when she stepped out of the shadows and shot him from behind. The Tennar he’d wanted a “session” with. The “courtesan” called Honey. The new operative from the new Nether.

Her current working ID was Sylindia Dor. And yes. She worked for the Nether. Working quickly, knowing the Alpha and the extraction teams were heading in to take possession of the Savage artifacts and leave the right evidence that would point directly at Nether, she tidied up Reiser’s computers with a worm that ripped through all the data in seconds. Then she activated the incendiary and set it for two minutes to detonation.

It would burn so hot it would melt the very walls of the building. Nothing would survive.

She dragged Reiser’s corpse for the exit. The dirty old operator had a look on his face that seemed to indicate he wasn’t the least bit surprised at all. That he’d expected this. That he was still playing his part. But that was just the trick unexpected death had left on his face.

She reached the street as the sun rose in the east. It was quiet here in this part of the district. The day’s distresses had not yet started. The koobs were not finished with the zhee, but the fighting hadn’t started back up again. Team Nilo would still have its hands full.

But now, she thought as she left Reiser’s body on the curb where it would be found by Team Nilo’s operatives. Now Nilo knew he had leaks. And that would slow him down. Make him more cautious. More paranoid. And in the vacuum of power that was the galaxy, that might do some good if the new head of Nether Ops was right.

Nilo needed to be checked until he could be convinced to play for the right people.

No one really knew what Nilo was. They knew the “official” Nilo he showed to the press and stockholders. They had an idea about the real Nilo. But no one knew anything for sure. They just knew he needed to be stopped for the moment. This was the message that he wasn’t safe. This would slow him down.

The incendiary exploded inside the ops center with a dull whumph. She was halfway down the street and she could smell the burning fumes as everything in the warehouse burned hot and cooked down to its elements. She made contact with the Alpha team just entering the warehouse now. She still had operational control since Reiser had introduced her as Team Nilo command and signal.

Operation Firewall was coming to a close.

Too bad. She’d liked the big good-looking freelancer. She’d liked Jack Bowie. He’d been good to her. But he was just another pawn in the big game of galactic chess a lot of sides were looking to win. He never should have left the services. Freelancing was a risky business. It paid to have friends. It was safer that way. Even if your friends were dangerous and sometimes hazardous to your own health.

And she wanted Nether Ops to win. So she played to win and stuffed the feelings she’d had for him down someplace where she’d deal with them later.

And maybe she didn’t have any feeling for him at all. She was like that. She could turn it on, and turn it off. It was all part of the game and her skill set. Why she was valuable to Nether. Her price to be in the show.

“Target acquired,” she heard from the Alpha Team Leader over her comm as she found a kaff stand open early. Despite the chaos of the day before. The boundless optimism of a small business owner.

The vendor smiled at her. A Tennar, and a beautiful one at that, dressed like a freighter pilot but never mind that, had come to his stand. To him. To that kaff vendor, it was like an omen of all the good things to come that day.

Studying the blackboard menu, she thought of Jack Bowie. He was just a sacrificial lamb. Some no-name freelancer the galaxy wouldn’t miss. She could see him now. Standing there as the cleaning team entered. Suddenly aware he’d been double-crossed. He wasn’t stupid. He wouldn’t beg. He’d only look at them and not flinch. He wouldn’t give them, or the galaxy, the satisfaction of begging for his life. She’d learned enough about him in the small amount of time they’d spent together to know that. She’d hacked his phone and seen all his secrets. Hacked the comm so the message he got from Reiser was off the Team Nilo net. But made to look like it came from them direct. He was a pawn. A pawn that would be sacrificed to show Nilo that he couldn’t trust anyone. Jack was someone they’d begun to trust. And here he was helping to steal Nilo’s prizes right out from under him.

Man, you couldn’t trust anyone. Isn’t that right, Nilo?

“Kaff, miss?” asked the vendor.

“Yes please.”

“Cream and sugar?”

“Go for clean?” asked the team leader in her ear.

The sun turned the dirty streets of Kublar to gold.

“Go for clean,” she whispered as the vendor began to slam pots and express steam to brew.

“What was that, miss?” asked the vendor of the pretty little Tennar who’d come to his stand.

“Dark,” she said. “I like it dark.”

And over the comm she could hear their blasters, the blasters of Alpha Team leaving the last clue for Nilo, whoever he was, to find.

You’re not safe, Nilo. Whoever you are. We are out to get you. First the freelancer Bowie in your hidden sanctuary of dirty secrets. Then your doer of dirty deeds. Reiser on the street like a dog. Bowie sacrificed at the scene. A message.

“Done,” said the Team Leader a second later. “He’s down. Pictures to confirm. Transport teams moving in to collect.”

“Is this good?” asked the vendor as she slithered one delicate tentacle around the cup he’d offered her.

She nodded. Her eyes were big, bright, and beautiful.

“Very good. Yes,” she said. “Very good.”




“Hey, baby.”

“Oba’s ears, Carter. You’re okay.”

Mel is tearing up. And even though I called as soon as I could, I can’t help but feel like I dropped the ball. Because it wasn’t really as soon as I could. It was as soon as I could once I got some other stuff done. Things that needed doing. Or at least seemed to at the time. Now that I see Mel fighting with her emotions, I’m not so sure.

This is going to sound jacked up but… I’m kinda glad she’s reacting this way. It shows she still cares, right? Which is good because a lot of what’s been keeping us at odds is getting cleared up. Credit transfers underway. Debts paid.

Big Nee was true to his word and while I might not be rich, I’m the closest to it I’ve ever been.

“Yeah, I’m okay. Wanted to call sooner, but…”


A silent pause pushes its way into our conversation. I was excited to make this call. Still am. Just not… just not capturing that enthusiasm as well as I thought I would. It’s not coming naturally.

“Hey, so, good news.”

Mel’s face brightens. “You’re coming home?”

“Ooh. Uh… no. Not yet. But this is better news than even that, I think.”

The oh-so-familiar traces of skepticism mingled with disappointment cross my wife’s face. Her eyebrows arch and she turns her head away, still looking at me but pulling away. Slightly. Almost imperceptibly.

I guess I’ve given her cause to make that face for most of our marriage. Missed birthdays. Extended deployments. Lonely anniversaries. That look is how she mentally preps herself. Like she can sense trouble and doesn’t want to be close enough to it that it might hurt.

It wasn’t until our second year of marriage that I actually realized it was even a thing. Now I can practically see it in my sleep.

“Hey, don’t give me that look, Mel.”


“You know what. You’re always…”

I cut myself off and sigh. This is always the way, isn’t it? Even the good news feels like it has to get tainted by bad.

“Never mind,” I say. “I’m sorry. Hard as it might be to believe after a rocky start, but this is going to be a good call. One we’ll both remember.”

Mel is agreeable to that. Willing to drop it and move on. And that’s a good sign, too. “Okay. Spring it on me, Carter.”

“Got a big raise. Team performed well and we’re being recognized for it.”

Mel smiles, but weakly. Not that big megawatt smile she uses when she’s really happy. Our wedding day. That time when we took that vacation cruise through the mid-core resort worlds. When she found out she was pregnant with Tria.

“Well, we can use it,” she finally says.

I nod. “We can. But… I mean a big raise. Like… check the mortgage statement.”

Mel’s look gets a little quizzical. I motion with my hand for her to go ahead and do it.

“I’m serious. Check it.”

I see her pinch our call into the corner of her datapad so she can bring up our banking info. Her mouth drops open and her eyes go wide.

“Carter, are you kelhorned kidding me?”

I smile and shake my head. “Not even a little.”

And then that big smile comes back and she lets loose a squeal of joy that gives way to peals of laughter. Immediately everything is good and right and I’m feeling so warm and happy that I think there may be a little dust in my eyes.

“Carter, this is unreal!”

I just smile.

Her face freezes in a mask of joy and I see the skepticism come back. Only this time it’s playful. Loving. “You didn’t… commit any crimes, did you?”

That makes me laugh. “No, babe. At least not anything that would be considered a crime since the House of Reason fell apart. It’s legit. And, even better it’s—”

I’m interrupted by the sound of my youngest daughter running into the room. She wants to know why her mommy was “screaming.” She gets an answer but has already moved on once she sees me in the datapad.


“How’s my little princess?”

“Good. I lost a tooth yesterday.” She shows me the gap where her tooth once was, bringing her little mouth up close and personal with the datapad’s holocam.

“You’re growing up!”

She nods. “Uh-huh.”

“Listen, sweetie,” her mom interjects. “Daddy and I have some things we need to talk about. But if he still has time at work after we’re done, I’m sure he’d love to talk more.”

The holocam refocuses on Mel.

“How’re the girls doing?” I ask.

“Fine. Tria’s been a little better. I think she’s trying.”


Mel nods in agreement then says, “I just can’t believe this. I thought we’d be in our eighties before this house was paid off. Guess that’ll be when the credit accounts are finally back at zero.”

“That’s next month. Just gotta finish up this job but… we’re doing good, Mel.”

The thought seems to bring a sense of peace over my wife’s face. It’s been so long since either of us could say that.

We’re doing good.

But then the tranquility of a life moving in the right direction, income arrows moving up, debt moving down… all that evaporates.

“Carter. Are you on Kublar?”

I give her my poker face. This kind of thing happens a lot. Wives, family, friends… they all want to know where you’re deployed. And there’s nothing wrong with that because you know they’re just trying to get an edge on anything that might happen to you. Watch the news, hope that any reports of trouble aren’t you. And knowing where your loved one is helps a lot. But in this case, I can’t divulge that info.

“Why would you think I’m on Kublar?”

Mel’s face goes expressionless. Another look I’m familiar with. The one that’s asking, “Really?”

“Carter, have you cheated on me since you left?”

What the hell?

“No,” I answer.

“Is your shotgun still named after me?”


“Have any of the guys in your squad been killed?”

“No. Mel, what’s going on?”

“You are such a terrible liar, Carter.”

I give a half smile and scoff. “No, I’m not. And none of my team has been shot and I haven’t been fooling around on you. I swear.”

The smile returns to Mel’s face. “That I know. You’re lying about Kublar, though. You always deflect when you’re lying. I ask you about cheating, your gun, or your team, it’s ‘no,’ ‘yes,’ ‘no.’ I ask you about Kublar and it’s…” she deepens her voice and makes herself sound goofy. “‘Why would I be there, Mel, a-hyuk’?”

I give a disapproving frown. “That’s your impression of me?”

“It is. And don’t try doing one of me. It’ll ruin the moment. Why are you there?”

“Honey, I can’t… I can’t talk about that.”

“Well, you’re about the only one who can’t.”

I furrow my brow in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“I mean it’s all over the news. Most of the planet has declared independence and the capital is just about the only holdout. They’re asking for Legion support to remain in the Republic.”

This has my attention. Not that Mel didn’t have my attention before. She was looking at me with those eyes that hinted that I just might be able to get into some trouble with her if I wanted to try it. And if I weren’t a ridiculous number of light-years away. But if the Legion is looking at Kublar—and in support of that worthless government no less—then that’s something I need to know about.

“So what’d they decide to do?” I ask.

The thought of getting into a tangle with the Legion is not one I’m even considering. And not just because it would be a bloodbath for my guys. I don’t see how I could fight other legionnaires unless they were trying to harm my family.

“That’s why everyone is talking. Legion Commander Chhun is supposed to have a briefing on the subject. But it’s a whole thing. The planets that went with the Legion against the Empire, Spilursa, Sinasia, all those, they all seem to not want Kublar in the Republic at all. But a lot of the planets that have rejoined after Article Nineteen was carried out, they don’t feel a planet should be allowed to leave the Republic. Same stance the House of Reason used to have.”

I nod. “Well, doesn’t matter. I’m not on Kublar.”

“Carter, your mama must be ashamed to have a son who is such a liar.”

I smile. “Nah. She figured I must be a pretty good liar to have snookered you into agreeing to marry me.”

“I didn’t need convincing, babe. Nobody had to pull a fast one on me when it came to pickin’ you.”

The smiles and grins keep on coming. I can’t remember the last time things were this light—this happy—between the two of us. Whoever said money won’t solve problems didn’t have any.

“You got time to talk to the girls?”

I lean back and look out the window of my mobile hab. The team is assembling. I check and my chrono… they’re right on time.

“No. Sorry. Got a thing—a thing, not a fling, Mel.”

She laughs. “Better not be. I’ll tell the girls you love them.”

“Good, because I do. And, Mel, I love you, too.”

“Same here, babe. Love you, too.”

I kill the transmission and power down my datapad, then lean back in my seat, staring at the roof of the mobile hab. A long sigh escapes my lips because for the first time in a long time, all I want to do is be back home. With the girls. With Mel. A family.

“And that’s what gets you killed,” I mumble to myself. “KTF, Carter. You only go home if they don’t.”

Pep talk over, I get up and head to the flap of my hab. We’re about to visit a koob village who won’t want us there. And usually, that wouldn’t be a thing. But right now… I’m being sentimental. I don’t want this to go bad. I want to make it home alive.

And over the next several days on Kublar, that’s hardly going to be a sure thing.


I jog out of my hab, kitted out and ready to roll as I attach my comm to my ear and pull my cap down over my hair. The call with Mel made me late, but I’m doing my best to act like I don’t know it. Mainly because that’s how every officer I ever knew always acted.

Big Nee doesn’t have a proper military structure—we’re all on payroll and we’re all expected to do whatever job is presented us, which includes listening to whoever he tells us our supervisor is. My role now, as I understand it, is to be the big dog in combat; supervising my own team but with the authority to tell other teams—including Hopper’s—what I want done.

So… Sergeant-General. I guess. General Sergeant maybe. But ultimately, I’m just…


Easy has that smile on his face telling me that what he’s about to say isn’t important.

“What is it, Easy?”

“I thought we were supposed to fall in outside your hab five minutes ago. Only when we got here, you weren’t here. So, and I’m not sure about this, but does that make you… late?”

Abers adds his own jab. “Were you hidin’, Carter? And we was supposed to find you? Oh!” he laughs. “My bad! I didn’t even look. I was just standing out here in the sun, sweating. Waiting for your ass.”

Abers and Easy exchange fist bumps.


“Actually, no,” I say, doing a quick inspection of everyone’s kit—not that I have any reason to doubt they’re prepared. “I wasn’t late. You all were early. As squad leader, it is impossible for me to be late. Because everything I do is on time and you are all on my time.”

Lana cracks a half-smile. “Anyone else getting flashbacks to basic with that speech?”

I wink and then look around the camp. Other teams are loading into transport sleds. There’s a steady stream of techs moving from the various habs to the secure command building where Brisco and nerds like him watch the battle from bots in the sky. Everything is pretty much in place and as I would expect it.

Except for the hulking koob I see milling about on the other side of a hab about twenty meters away. He’s looking around, mildly disinterested. Kicking rocks and cradling a slug-throwing assault rifle with a wooden stock inlaid with a variety of etchings, runes, and colorful paintings.

I’ve seen this guy before. He was at the chieftain’s home back in Pekk. The koob who wanted to know if we had the sitizt’ka necessary to be worthy of fighting alongside his tribe. As I recall, he spoke Standard.

“You lost, big guy?” I call out.

Lashley answers first, low enough for just me to hear. “Ain’t lost. Told me he was goin’ out on the op.”

The koob does its hopping walk toward me, obviously not wanting to shout a conversation across the camp.

I turn to Lash. “By himself?”

Lash shrugs.

The thought of a bunch of koobs wandering aimlessly through our camp isn’t particularly pleasant to me. Even if they are supposed to be our allies. So I make a note to kindly ask the big guy to round his team up. We’re supposed to roll inside the next twenty minutes.

“I fight,” the koob says, adding the usual clicks from his airsac. “Big die this tribe. K’kk’kik. Bad tribe. Friend of zhee. Of Republic.”

I nod. This much I already knew from speaking with Big Nee. With the exception of this particular tribal seat—whose name escapes me at the moment, which doesn’t matter because soon they won’t exist anymore—the entirety of the Kublaren tribal alliance outside the coastal cities have joined Nilo in his bid for an independent and self-governed Kublar.

“Okay, well, you should find your warriors because we’re gonna be moving out before long.”

The koob licks its eyeball and gives what passes for a smile and then shakes its head, along with the rest of its upper torso. “Pekk warriors ready. I fight with you.”

Even though we’re outside, the koob’s comment feels like someone let the air out of the room. Everyone except Lashley has something to say. More like something to mumble.

“Hell nah,” says Easy.

Abers just gives a disapproving growl like a dad watching his daughter’s boyfriend snag the last steak off the grill without asking.

Lana, at least, voices a legitimate concern. “Carter… I don’t know that I’m familiar enough with Kublaren physiology to treat any battlefield injuries…”

“I no big die,” says the koob.

Easy enough.

“Good plan,” I tell him. “But I haven’t heard—”

I’m not sure how I was going to finish that sentence. And the arrival of Big Nee’s black luxury sled prevents me from needing to.

Surber emerges from the rear passenger side door and holds it open for his boss. The rest of the team watches as Big Nee gets out, looking sleek but solid in a perfectly tailored slim-cut suit. Hard to believe our boss was embedded with us as Winters. Harder still that he gave us the deal he did after some of the crap we gave him.

Nilo went into that a little bit on the long ride from the zhee compound. How it was important that he participated in the fight, and how it didn’t bother him when the team busted his chops because he was aware of the difference in expertise.

“You improve by acknowledging your deficiencies, Carter. Pretending that I’m better at something than I truly am—that I’m somehow immune to legitimate criticism because I don’t like the way it makes my ego feel—that’s a pathway to failure. Or worse: mediocrity.”

I told him that he’d done pretty well, all things considered. He told me how many credits he’d sunk into training to be a warfighter. All the stuff the Legion puts you through free of charge, he paid for; learning at the feet of former leejes, Marines, and other Special Forces now in the private sector who made a career of selling their expertise to those who had the credits to pay for it. And Nilo isn’t short on credits.

A human woman wearing a blue business dress slides out from the sled behind Nilo. It might be air conditioned inside the vic, but I see her wilt in the heat before my eyes not ten seconds after she emerges. Her makeup is starting to glisten and her carefully styled hair looks like it’s sticking to her head.

“We have to make this quick,” she says to Nilo.

Nilo smiles genially. “Of course. But the message will have more gravitas if Kublar is the backdrop. Even if the interior of the limousine is more comfortable. And… you look amazing.”

The woman gives a big smile at this, revealing perfectly white, perfectly straight teeth. She pulls out a holo cam and holds it ready in the palm of her hand.

“Surber,” Nilo says motioning for his right-hand man to come closer. “Show Miss Striffler where to set up.”

Nilo focuses his attention back to Miss Striffler. “We found an excellent view of the mountain range that will bring into focus the monumental achievement we’re on the verge of accomplishing here on Kublar.”

“That sounds perfect,” Striffler answers. “And, Mister Nilo, please call me Shayla.”

“Of course.” Nilo is dashing. Smiles to communicate a sort of wolfish knowledge. Not goofy. Friendly but not endearing. Like a powersmile. If that’s a word.

As Surber leads Miss Striffler to wherever they’re going to film, Nilo walks to my team, hands in pockets.

“How’s the best damn squad in this outfit?”

The men shuffle somewhat uncomfortably. Easy answers for the group.

“Uh, we’re good, Mister Nilo. Thank you.”

Nilo nods, a smile still plastered to his face.

“And, uh, thanks again for the raise, sir.”

“Don’t mention it. You all deserve it. I’m relying on your team to see this project through. Kublar is step one in a reformation that will benefit the entire galaxy. And if there’s anything else you need, let me know.”

Easy mumbles something that I can hear, which means Nilo can probably hear it, too. “Need to know if those rumors about you killin’ those tycoons is true.”

Nilo laughs. Yep, he heard it.

“Rumor mill reached the gunfighters?” Nilo asks, the smile still fixed to his face.

Easy smiles back sheepishly, clearly not thinking his voice would carry the way it did.

“Listen,” Nilo says. “I’m a regular guy who made wise financial decisions, was ruthless in business, and now wants to make use of what I’ve acquired to make the galaxy a better place. Which is where you come in. These sorts of rumors about fighting slavers, adventuring… me training to fight with your squad is as close as I’ve ever come to anything like that. But, you get enough intelligence officers packed into one room and it isn’t long before they start making up stories to pass the time. They’re a bunch of old women, really. Gossips.”

Easy nods. It’s obvious he wants the conversation to end. He feels completely out of his element and uncomfortable chatting it up with a gazillionaire (I think that’s a real number).

I step up and focus attention on the mission. Because, diversions aside, blood is being spilt before this day ends. And while there’s always some complications—especially in this outfit—I wasn’t planning on the fishy-smelling one standing in our ring.

“Sir, I’m hoping you can clear something up for me. This Kublaren, uh, gentleman is saying he’s going on the op with us.”

Nilo moves to the koob, takes both his hands, bows his head, and utters some koob greeting in their native language. “This is my fault,” he says. “I meant to tell you last night. Pikkek here is the Pekk tribe’s Tek’uma. The best warrior they have. Events now prevent me from fighting on your team, Carter, and the chieftains all felt that the only possible replacement was a Tek’uma, and Pikkek was selected after some debate. But this isn’t the Republic and Pikkek isn’t in like some appointed officer to make his chieftain feel good. He’s every bit the warrior as any of us.”

Well… that’s settled, I guess.

Pikkek steps forward. “I am ready to follow you… k’k’kik… into war, chief-killer.”

“Chief killer?” asks Easy.

Nilo looks over his shoulder back at the line. “That’s the Standard translation. In Kublaren, it’s mookta; the ultimate honor for a warrior is to kill a rival chieftain in combat. Pekk tribe was impressed at the team’s killing of Skagga. Since no one can say for sure who fired the shot that killed the chieftain, as team leader, Carter is given the honor.”

“Well,” I say, motioning for Pikkek to fall in line, “I do what I can to keep the hostile koob chief population under control. So let’s make sure the next mookta comes from this team.”

I get my usual assortment of battle noises from the team plus an excited clicking and hissing from Pikkek’s airsac. That’s gonna take some getting used to.

“Looks like you’re good here, Carter,” Nilo says, leaving as he speaks, making it clear that his assessment is the only one he’s interested in. So, officially, we’re good. “We’ll circle back around after the op. Transport will pick you up in a few. Good luck.”

As Big Nee jogs away to where Miss Striffler and Surber wait, holocam hovering behind them, Abers walks up to me.

“Man, this is too weird. Winters? That’s Winters?”

“Life lesson,” I say, watching the boss adjust his suit to get ready for the interview or whatever. “You never know who someone might be. So don’t be a dick all the time.”

“Still tryin’ to learn that one, huh, Leej?”

I turn my head and give Abers a death stare. And then raise my hand to reel out a middle finger. Abers laughs and the rest of the crew falls in to wait for the transport.

“What is… k’kik… this hooman gesture, Leejonayer?” asks Pikkek.

The holocam’s light goes on and to my surprise, I can hear the interview. The sound is carrying across the hardened dirt that is our camp.

“Tell you later,” I say and then shush the others down. “Wanna hear this.”

Nilo is wearing aviator sunglasses for the interview. They reflect the already harsh sunlight in a way that must dazzle the holocams fixed on him.

His hair and suit are perfect, and the snowcapped mountains of inland Kublar look brilliant against a blue, cloudless sky. Miss Striffler is interviewing him. I never watch much news, but my guess is she’s with one of the big news orgs. She has that polished, almost too perfect look about her. The kind that bots holoproject for the newscasts from distant hellhole planets—like Kublar. Only she’s the real thing. Flesh and blood. Looks so good even Lana is staring.

“Critics of your involvement in what has shaped up to be another Kublaren Civil War are saying that you’re an opportunist,” Striffler begins after some introductory pleasantries I can’t make out. “Is this a case of a galactic mega corporation trying to seize power now that the Republic is rebuilding following Article Nineteen?”

“Not at all,” Nilo says, sounding light but committed to his response. “But as I told the Black Leaf board, this isn’t about turning a profit and it’s certainly not about exploiting Kublar or any planet and its people for resources—there was more than enough of that sort of thing done through the House of Reason. What you’re seeing is that the Kublarens who weren’t in bed with the House of Reason, they’re tired of it. And they’re, quite frankly, pushing back against those of their own kind who sold them out.”

“And what is Black Leaf’s role in that ‘pushing back’?”

“We were asked to provide military research and development, private security, and tactical training by the inland Kublaren chieftains.”

“Which is in violation of Republic law.”

“Republic law is tenuous at best, Shayla. Most of it deserves to be ignored, and a significant portion of the galaxy is fighting over what a post–Article Nineteen Republic should look like. Where it should meet… what, if any, remnants of the old House of Reason should remain… But Kublar is a free world and we aren’t violating any legitimate laws of this world.”

“The governmental seat in Subiyook City would disagree with that assessment, and already they’ve made a call for Legion assistance as a representative planet of the Republic.”

Nilo smiles again. “Kublar’s senators were both hung by the Kublarens upon returning to their home planet. That’s how ‘representative’ they were while on Utopion. And the human government controlling a Kublaren world stood in defiance of the Legion when it did call for Article Nineteen. The reality is that these are predators who have been growing fat off a planet and species not their own.”

“You mentioned the Legion and Article Nineteen. Legion Commander Chhun is deliberating with his generals about whether the Legion should take action on Kublar, while the planets who have formally elected senators and delegates remain unable to agree on how to proceed. Are you concerned about what a Legion—invasion for lack of a better word—will mean for Kublar?”

“Of course I’m concerned. But not for Black Leaf or for the private security who are keeping innocent Kublarens safe from… from what in reality is an incredibly hostile opposition from a puppet government that pretends to represent them, and zhee settlers who routinely rob and murder the Kublaren tribes unable to defend themselves.

“But I have confidence that the Legion Commander will make the right call here and allow the Kublarens to make their own decision about how they should be governed. Maintaining an imperialist grip on this planet is morally indefensible, and given how hard the Legion fought to overthrow the so-called empire—and many of my contractors are former legionnaires here doing this because it’s the right thing—given all of that, I don’t see the Legion adding to the tragedy that is Kublaren history.”

“You mentioned the zhee—”

“I did and I want to get back to that, Shayna, but if I may…?”

The reporter nods and Nilo continues. And I gotta say, he’s making sense to me.

“The Kublarens have a remarkable history. They were one of the few species to fight off a Savage invasion without the Legion’s help. When we ‘found’ them, they had already annihilated a Savage hulk and were quick to send warriors off-world to bring the fight to the rest of the Savages when the opportunity arose. In spite of that, they were named a Republic protectorate without senators until just recently, and only because some Utopion scientists felt there were enough natural resources on Kublar that it would be worth asserting direct control over.

“I was eighteen years old when the Chiasm was destroyed over Kublar. I remember all those legionnaires who died on this planet because the MCR and the Republic were playing power games. And a lot more Kublarens died as a result of that struggle and the civil war that followed than any of us could imagine. Entire tribes were extinguished. And we’ve seen stories just like that countless times over the years. Worlds that are brought into the Republic only to be used by the Republic for the good of those in the House of Reason, who were only too happy to sacrifice the lives of the Legion and other branches of the military if it meant getting their piece of the pie. All the while posturing as peaceful and progressive. It has to stop, and what’s happening on Kublar right now is the budding spring of a revolution that will change the galaxy for peace and a better future for all.”

“You mentioned the zhee,” the reporter says again, picking up right where she left off without giving any pause or thought to what Big Nee just said.

And I get why. That’s probably the big story because the zhee played such a large part in the galaxy’s recent history. And things like this—a direct assault on their most sacred of places—well, other than what Legion Commander Keller did on Ankalor, that just wasn’t something that was done under the House of Reason. It’s shocking to see, really.

Nilo nods, waiting for the question to finally come.

“Were you involved in the attack on the zhee temple—called the ‘holiest site on Kublar’ by the Subiyook governing council?”

“First, I want you to think about what you just said: ‘the holiest site on Kublar.’”

“That was the council’s direct quote.”

“Yes, but it’s such a fitting portrait of how wrong what has happened here truly is. This is Kublar. It’s the home world of the Kublakaren. And yet, somehow, this structure which was built against their wishes and has stood here for less than ten years is the most holy site on the planet? Kublar has places like the Steps of the Chieftains, the Nine Pools, and a host of other Kublaren religious and historic sites that have existed for millennia. This kind of protected, selective thinking, forced by distant bureaucrats and toadied by quisling sell-outs, is why Kublar is fighting another civil war. And I’m proud to be here supporting the inland chiefs.”

“Was Black Leaf a part of that attack?”

“No. We’re not here to go to war with the zhee. We’re here to help the Kublarens win their planet back.”

My heart races a bit when Nilo says that. Because I sure as hell was involved in that attack. But I also remember the orders to make it look like an attack carried out by what was thought to be an allied tribe, so frustrated by the zhee that they snapped and burned the temple to the ground. So… what do I do with all that? Because, it’s a lie, but it’s also war. And if the enemy needs to believe something that isn’t true in order for you to better achieve victory… you lie your ass off.

In the Legion, we called it counterintelligence.

I hear the rumble of a repulsor truck pulling up behind me. I turn and see that our ride is here. There’s a koob driver and a canopied back. The vic is a lot like the one we hauled all those dead koobs in, only no wheels. The driver has covered the runners along the side of the truck with dangling pendants that clink together like wind chimes as it comes to a stop and beeps once, a wimpy horn that seems like it was supposed to be installed on a hoverscooter instead of a big hoss like this truck.

“Is… k’k’kik… our ride. Time to fight, Mookta.”

“Let’s mount up,” I call, checking the sling on my rifle and then looping it over my shoulder.

Lash puts a hand against my chest. He’s looking down at our shoes. “Hey. That holocam lookin’ at us?”

I turn. Sket. It is.

“Hopefully it’s not on, but it sure is looking our way.”

“I ain’t tryin’ to be famous,” Lash says, still staring at the ground. “Don’t ever let ’em see your face.”

I’m not sure what he means by that. He turns his back to me and the holocam, jogging for the rear of the truck before I can ask.

With my team where they need to be, I hustle over to get inside. Careful to make sure not to turn around and give a clear view of my face to the holocam if it’s still watching us.

Easy is waiting for me at the back of the truck. He lets down his hand and helps pull me up. “You gotta see this, Carter.”

The back of the koob truck is decked out with velvet pillows and expensive-looking woven rugs. Someone even hung a koob painting on one of the support frames the canvas cover is stretched over—it looks like a third-grader painted a rose with congealing blood. But, art is subjective, I’m told.

“What’s all this?” I ask Pikkek, who has settled into a lump of cushions and is smoking some kind of hookah that gives off an aroma of cedar.

The repulsors kick in and the truck starts moving. From the cab I hear what must be koob music. The best way I can describe it is a mix of airsac bass booming to a rhythm, punctuated by some throaty clicks, the ching of triangles and the occasional finger cymbal. Pikkek seems to be grooving to it as he looks in my direction upon hearing me ask the question.

Mookta,” he says, holding out his arm and gesturing to the pillowy truck bed, “ride in style.”


I can smell the smoke in advance of reaching the target village. Not the subdued scent of woodstoves still releasing the last of their heat after cooking breakfast in the koob village. The big smell of beams become cinders—a village razed and left to burn.

Not the sort of thing I figured I’d be able to know from the smell of it—same goes for burning, decaying, or blown-open bodies. But you get an education of a different sort in the Legion. Really, anywhere there’s fighting. And it’s not something you forget.

“You guys smell that?” I ask.

Easy takes a sniff. “Yup. Looks like someone beat us to the target.”

Pikkek inflates his airsac, stretching out the bright purple skin and then letting the air out through his mouth while he breathes in through the nostril slits near his eyes. He lets out a satisfied sigh. Or at least that’s what it sounds like. Like he appreciates the smell. Enjoys it even.

“Maybe some left from k’kik… Big Die? Pikkek want to spill blawd.”

I give a half smile and shrug noncommittally. Pikkek is growing on me. Maybe it’s the pillow wagon he’s outfitted for us, or maybe I’ve just learned to appreciate someone who lives for the fight.

That’s a truth I don’t admit to anyone. I even try to deny it to myself, as though I can gaslight myself into thinking it’s true. Sometimes I can. But only for a while. I should be home. With my family. I should be. But… I can’t stop doing this.

I can’t stop fighting.

The report of an N-50 mounted blaster cannon claps across the Kublaren landscape. A scrubby, rock-filled stretch with a few trees nestled along the bottom of a few hills. Not quite desert dry, but not the cool of the mountains, either.

The heavy blaster cannon is giving off short, controlled bursts. It’s not engaged in a serious firefight. The shooter is either finding his range, or he’s being precise.

“Hey, koob,” Abers says to Pikkek. “Sounds like you might get your wish.”

The big Kublaren warrior smiles. “Goo-ahd.”

I key in my comm to reach Brisco and see what’s going on. Riding in the back of these rigs is a pain, even when it’s decked out for comfort.

“Hey, Carter,” Brisco says, still not showing any indication that he’s even remotely capable of treating this like a proper op. “What’s up?”

“You tell me. Morning brief said we were hitting a koob village. Early indications are that the job’s already done.”

“Right. Yeah. Meant to tell you about that.”

“So tell me.”

“Okay, well, the tribe here, the Kishi, are allied with the Pashta’k who control the Soob. The big winners after the civil war, right? Big Nee tried to get them to come around but, it was like, no way. Too many marriages and stuff. The other chieftains didn’t want someone like that operating freely in their midst, plus the Kishi are friendly with the zhee, so they agreed in a war council to take them out.”

“And the other tribes got here before our team, is that it?”

Brisco laughs. “Negative. Their war bands are pushing for the Soob. This was zhee work.”

I don’t know exactly what “this” is, but the smell makes it clear enough. “So the… Kishi weren’t as friendly with the zhee as they thought?”

“Who is? But no. When that, uh, temple went up in flames… well, if you thought the zhee in Soob City were angry this morning, wait until word gets to them about what happened at the temple.”

Not much of this is making sense right now. I know there’s a bigger game happening than what I’m seeing. Nilo told me as much in our ride back from the temple op. But much of that was long-term stuff. A galaxy renewing itself, freeing itself from the yoke of the Republic which, though well-meaning, the Legion seemed intent on fastening around the necks of the planets who belonged. But Kublar will change all that. Give the galaxy new direction.

All that big picture conversation in the back of the sled wasn’t doing me any good right now. I was supposed to be leading my team on an assault through a koob village. And now… what?

“Brisco, I’m gonna need to know what my orders are here.”

“Yeah. Hold up. Mr. Surber is coming this way.”


“Go for Carter, Surber.”

“Carter. Mister Nilo wants me to inform you that our plans are accelerating—a good thing. Verify that the Kishi village is destroyed and then send our assets to link up with Kublaren caravans staging to reach Subiyook City. You are to link up with Pekk warriors who will stay behind. Your liaison will know them. They’ll take your team to the next objective.”

“Roger that. Can you advise what or where that objective will be? We’re geared up for a fight and that’s about it.”

“All roads are leading to the Soob, Mister Carter. And all roads are leading to the fight.”

“Roger. Carter out.”

Mister Carter. I hate that Surber calls me that. It’s my stinking first name.

Lash is watching me, his fingers making a steeple and pressing into his lip. But he doesn’t say anything.

“Another change of plans?” asks Lana, knowing all too well that she’s right.

“Seems like it. We gotta make sure the Kishi village is wiped and then we’re being diverted to spend more time with our allies from the Pekk tribe.”

Pikkek gives off a click and his airsac bubbles a few times. “Thees is goo-ahd, too… k’k.”

The truck stops and the driver kills the repulsors, putting an abrupt halt to the music as well.

“Dismount,” I say, standing up to hop off first. An N-50 claps again, closer this time. “Stay frosty. Look alive. KTF.”

The Marines exchange a look and then Easy says, “Ready to KTF, bro?”

Abers nods. “You know it, Leej. I was born to KTF, son.”

“Let’s KTF, then.”



“Screw you guys,” I say. “Dumb Marines. Let’s go.”

I hop out of the back of the truck and sling my rifle, eyes squinting against the overhead sun despite my sunglasses.

“KTF,” I hear Pikkek croak from behind and then Abers and Easy break out into a laugh as they jump down after me.

I can feel the heat of those rays on the back of my neck and turn my ballcap backward to give it a little protection. The N-50 shouts again and this time I can see it. It’s mounted on the back of a wheeled technical truck and one of our guys is operating it. He’s firing into the smoking ruins of the village. I’m not sure at what. It doesn’t look like there’s a single stone stacked on top of another. It’s utterly flattened.

I wait to shout until the guy on the N-50 is between bursts. “What time did you get here?”

He’s shouting in his response. Making up for the noise of the N-50 he’s been jamming on. “About an hour ago! Recon team!”

“It was like this when you got here?”

“Yeah! Best we could tell, the donks rounded up the koobs, shot ’em all, and then piled up explosives charges. Blew most of the koobs to itty-bitties.”

He lets off another burst of fire.

“What are you shooting at?” I shout after the burst comes to an end.

“Donks used old tri-bomber ordnance. Some of it didn’t blow with the main explosion. You got a PIES bot to defuse?”


“Well…” He sends another burst of N-50 fire at whatever he has his eyes on. This time he’s rewarded with a whole new boom. “Big Nee wants us to sweep the debris for intel before returnin’ to camp. Tryin’ not to get blown apart in the process, like them koobs.”

I can smell the pieces of koob flesh rotting in the sun. That fishy, rotten stench. “Roger that.”


Lana is at my side. I walk with her a ways from the technical to escape the noise of more N-50 bursts.

“What’s up?”

“Pikkek has a bunch of Kublaren warriors with him now. They were waiting for us.”

I nod. “Command mentioned that. We’re riding with them to next phase.”

“Which is?”

“No idea.”

Lana shakes her head, her hair dancing around her mirrored sunglasses as she does. “Well. They seem to have a… present for you.”

I crack a smile. “Good to be the mookta.”

“We’ll see.”

I follow Lana to a platoon-sized element of Kublaren warriors. They’re sporting N-4s and a few slug throwers. Some of them I think I recognize from outside the Pekk chieftain’s place, but it’s tough to tell. I haven’t been in Kublar long enough to distinguish one random koob from another unless they have a particularly distinguishing feature like Pikkek’s size or a missing eye or something.

“Carter to Command. How copy?”

“I copy quite well, Carter, how copy you?” asks Brisco.

“Confirming Kishi site is destroyed and moving to link up with Pekk escorts. Carter out.”

“Copy that you’re out, Carter. Over and out.”

I sigh and don’t much care if Brisco hears it or not. He was probably trying to be a smart-ass.

This day. Already.

Lana is waiting for me. I jog to catch up to her and then reach a circle of koobs. My team is on the outside of the circle, mingling with Pikkek who gestures grandly at my coming.

Mookta!” he shouts. “Mookta sitizt’ka!

The other koobs croak and click, licking their eyes and firing their weapons into the sky. The circle opens up to reveal another Kublaren, down on its spindly knees, three-fingered hands laced at the back of its head. It’s wearing the maroon robes of a tribal elder.

“They seem to like you, Carter,” Lana says, smiling at me from beneath those large-framed sunglasses.

“Let’s see what this is about and then get going. I have a feeling today is gonna be one of those days where we’re constantly running short on time.”

Mookta!” Pikkek calls again, waving his long arm to bid me to walk with him into the center of the circle by the prisoner. I follow and he gestures at the koob. Up close, I can see he’s older. Definitely an elder.

Kishi elder?” I ask.

Pikkek lets out a series of clicks and says, “Chief. Big die now.”

That’s just the way things go on Kublar. You get caught by a rival tribe, there are rarely prisoner exchanges. Death is the expectation.

“Okay, well, do what you gotta do and then let’s go, okay, Pikkek?”

“Pikkek… k’kik’k… no mookta. You mookta. You make big die.”

Oh man. Stupid backward customs. And now I’ve got to decide whether trying to explain why I’m generally against executing prisoners is something my conscience requires or if it will jeopardize the alliances Nilo has set up with these inland koob tribes.

I decide to give it a shot, moving in close to Pikkek with the hopes that no one else will hear what I say. His breath stinks like the dredging of a silt river bottom.

“Listen… in my culture, killing prisoners is not okay. Prison. Trial. Then kill them.”

Pikkek nods like he understands but says, “You make big die. Very bad if no. Means no sitizt’ka. K’kik… warriors no fight.”

I sigh and look into Pikkek’s eyes with the hopes that he’d show me some kind of other way through body language. But if he is, I can’t see it. He licks the eyeball I’m staring at and adds, “KTF, Leejonayer.”

In all this time, the captured Kishi chief hasn’t stopped staring at the ground. He seems resigned to his fate and I have to keep this part going. I unholster my blaster pistol, step around Pikkek, and shoot the chief in the head, causing a stream of phosphorescent yellow blood to pump out from the partially cauterized wound and into the dirt.

Mookta!” cries out Pikkek.

The rest of the koob warriors do the same. In the background the N-50 gunner ignites another piece of unexploded ordnance.

Pikkek holds up two slender fingers. “Mookta. Two!”

The koobs take up this chant. “Mookta two! Mookta two! Mookta two!”

They’re pumping their rifles over their heads, stamping their webbed feet, and firing slug throwers and N-4s into the air with reckless abandon.

Easy strolls over to me, looking amusedly at the celebrating koobs as he passes through their midst. “Damn, Carter. You just went all Goth Sullus on that koob.”

I holster the pistol. “Spare me.”

“You runnin’ for koob president, or…?”

“Pikkek!” I shout, having to yell above the din. “We have to go!”

The Kublaren attaché lets out a sharp hissing whistle as his airsac deflates. He then bellows something in his language that quiets his warriors down, but not by much. They’re still excited, only their enthusiasm has shifted from what I just did to whatever is coming next.

“Short drive, k’kik’k’k,” Pikkek says, hop-walking toward our waiting transport truck. “Then me turn to KTF-ah.”

The koob driver is standing outside the cab, his arms thrusting in the air in alternating jabs… “Mook-ta two!”

He breaks his revelry and hurries back inside to start the rig when he sees us coming this way.

It’s funny. The koobs are mean, sneaky, and violent. But I find myself kind of enjoying the atmosphere for whatever reason. Something about it reminds me of home. Home with the Legion. Just the way things on deployment worked. The way guys would just pull behind something that, to a civilian, would seem terrible.

Like killing an alien chieftain while he’s bound by shooting him between his froggy eyes.

Or like a time back before Article Nineteen. Before Ankalor and all that mess. I remember my platoon was engaged in a firefight with some MCR who had managed to capture a junior House of Reason delegate. Well, delegate-elect. Ran unopposed, handpicked by the senior delegate in that sector. Typical stuff for the most part.

Anyway. He thought he was safe and thought cruising through this city in the mid-core with just a pair of bodyguards and no armored sled or convoy would be fine. Would make him look hardcore. He had been a point in the Marines or something prior to running. And besides, the Legion camp wasn’t far away. So how dangerous was it out there really?

Turned out to be plenty dangerous. Sled gets ambushed at a traffic light. Bodyguards got popped behind the ears and left in the sled. Delegate grabbed and hustled to wherever. Whole thing caught on surveillance, though.

So my platoon is mobilized. Go out and bring him back.

We go screaming into the streets on combat sleds and it isn’t long before we catch up to the MCR. They’re trying to get their prisoner underground or something. Set up a blocking position but we tear right through it. Just mow those mids down, you know?

We break the lines, only more MCR are coming onto the scene and soon we’re pushing forward, running down the rebels who are trying to get away with the delegate but also dealing with some pissants in the back who are sending blaster fire at us and also at their own fleeing lines.

Chaos. But we thrive in chaos.

There was this leej, Scott Wakeman. We called him Raven because he had this badass tattoo of one on his back. Raven drops a knee because he’s got a good shot at one of the MCR who are hustling the delegate away. He squeezes the trigger. N-4 is on burst. The MCR is dusted, but then the delegate catches one to the back as well.

He’s dead.

We clean up. Army does an investigation, determines that those MCR who were firing into their own lines did the deed. It’s all a sad news cycle and the next guy up for Utopion runs unopposed in a special election and the galaxy forgets about whoever the Junior Delegate-Elect was. I don’t even remember the name.

But the point is… back at camp a few days later, I’m walking in to get chow with Raven. We all just came back from weapons training so we’re all eating together. Raven walks into the room and one of the boys stands up on the table and shouts, “Here he is!”

And then, I sket you not, the entire cafeteria starts chanting, “Reason Killer! Reason Killer!”

Because a couple of the guys swore the shots that killed that delegate were actually from Raven’s N-4. Like he forgot it was on burst and let one slip a little and… boom. Political assassination.

And Raven, he doesn’t freak out about it. He just kind of smiles and grabs his tray. And for months, every time he showed up the platoon would chant, “Rea-son Kil-ler!”

We’d just bust up laughing about it. And… why? Objectively, I get it. Raven maybe or maybe not straight dropped a House of Reason delegate. That’s a tragedy by all accounts. But we thought it was hilarious. I’m holding back a laugh right now thinking about the whole thing.

Why does that happen?

What is it about war and deployment that makes those things what they are?

And how can anyone else ever understand it?

Reason Killer.

Mookta Two.

Is there a life for me outside of all this?


The ride was short. Pikkek wasn’t kidding. We moved maybe twenty minutes and got out in the middle of nowhere. What Pikkek didn’t say was that his koob warrior friends from the Pekk tribe were riding with us. The ride out was a bit less comfortable crammed in next to a bunch of koobs than it was on the way in, even with the pillows.

But it wasn’t all bad, really. The koobs riding with us seemed eager to try out their Standard on my team. It didn’t take long before Abers and Easy were teaching them how to swear like Marines. And they learned to leave Lash to himself within five minutes of leaving the ruins of Kishi.

There were two jam-packed transport trucks in our caravan and now that we’ve dismounted, I can see a third truck, black and pushing its way through the rippling heat waves on the horizon. It’s midmorning and it’s already too hot.

“Brisco,” I say, resolved not to even bother with proper comm etiquette any longer. “This truck coming our way; you got eyes on it?”

“It’s us, Carter. This is why you’re here.”

“Meet and greet?”

“Meet, yeah. But not the kind of greeting you’re thinking of. You’re at full strength with those Kublarens. Big Nee only wants you on this, which says a lot about what he thinks of you. And I mean that in a good way. Trust me, you’re a star in this org now. Team Nilo. This is a huge element in the final plan.”

“Roger. Guess I’ll just keep rolling with the surprises.”

I can tell Brisco is smiling on the other end of the comm. “It makes it more fun that way.”

“That’s one word for it. Carter out.”

I stand next to Pikkek, thinking he’s the only one out here who might be able to tell me what’s going on. It’s frustrating. I thought this sort of thing was behind me after the success at the temple. But if the system has flaws, if Nilo hasn’t managed to put the right people in place to avoid these kinds of informational hiccups… maybe it’s naïve to think it’ll happen overnight. It’s not like the Legion wasn’t without its SNAFUs when it came to intel and the flow of information.

“What’s the word, Pikkek? What’re we doin’ out here?”

The big koob has his rifle slung over his shoulder. He’s inspecting the edge of a wicked-looking stone tomahawk. He swings it in a circle and I swear I can hear the wind being cut in two by that vorpal edge.

He’s looking straight at the approaching truck as he begins to speak.

“After tribe Annek and Moona fight leejon-ayers, k’kik… after Republic destroyer big die. Civil-ah war. Pekk tribe strong k’k… winning. Then… Republic come again… kik’kik… secret this time-ah. No leejonayers. Make Pashta’k to fight good. Fight best. Big die for Pekk.”

I nod, realizing I’m getting a version of the history of this planet after Victory Company’s Battle of Kublar that the House of Reason didn’t mean to have shared.

Pashta’k welcome House Ree-sahn. Make big city… k’kik… Pashta’k work with Republic. Steal from Kublakaren. Big…” Pikkek pauses, searching for the word he means in Standard. “Big mines. Hide deep down. Big die for tribe who want stop. Pashta’k let zhee-kah come. No kill. But zhee kill Pashta’k rivals. Friends-ah.”

The black truck comes to a stop. Pikkek swings his tomahawk again and walks toward it. He looks back at me. “This-ah, changes… k’kik. Now Pekk give big die to zhee-kah. Pashta’k join Pekk. Or Pashta’k big die.”

I walk around to the back of the black truck and see some Team Nilo mercs as they jump out of the back. I was hoping it might be Hopper, but he must be somewhere else this morning. I’ve seen these guys around camp before, but don’t know ’em.

“Carter, right?” says the first one, offering me a gloved hand to shake.

“Yeah. That’s right.”

“Peter Spitzer. Transporting some, uh, VIPs.”

I peer inside the truck. Three zhee in white robes are still sitting inside, being hoisted to their feet with hoods over their heads by Spitzer’s team.

“VIPs, huh?”

“Roger that. Glad to be transferring them to you. Donks stink, man.”

I don’t mention that riding with koobs—dead or alive—ain’t much better. And I don’t mention that I have no idea what I’m supposed to do with these zhee, either.

“Hey,” Spitz says, “you’re friends with Hopper, right?”

I nod. “You could say that.”

“Did you hear what he’s doin’?”

“Last I heard it was cleaning up a battlefield. What?”

“Big Nee sent him into the Soob on some black op thing. That’s the rumor anyway.” Spitz looks off into the seemingly endless desert, hedged in by mirages and heat waves. “Kind of makes you wonder what you gotta do to get out of crap like this and into the sket, you know?”

“Yeah. I know.”

Spitz’s guys offload a crate and then Spitz says, “That’s it. We’re, uh, supposed to be out of sight after this. Orders. So… see you around.”

I shake Spitz’s hand again. “See you around.”

Spitz rejoins his team in the back of the black transport and leaves a cloud of dust to settle into the creases of my exposed skin.

“Carter,” Abers says, “what’re we doin’, man?”

“This whole damn op has been one giant audible,” I answer, “so let’s run with it and see where we end up. Help me crack open this case.”

A rugged black rectangle, the case isn’t locked. It flips right open when we press the release. Inside are rows of bots. The little repulsor models with holocams. They’re carefully packed between pliable foam inserts.

“Found the bots?” Brisco asks, again appearing in my ear via comm.

“This would be a lot easier if you could give me the steps ahead of time, Brisco.”

“Would that I could, my friend. But I’m getting them right before you. There are some, uh, concerns about our comms having been compromised and—”

He cuts away for a while and when he comes back online, he sounds a bit chastised.

“Forget what I just said. We need you to activate the master/slave function on the bots so they all follow the same directives.”

“Okay,” I say, looking down at the row of little drones. They all look identical. “Which one is that?”

“Pick one. Each can be programmed as the master of the batch. Just gotta do what I say.”

I grab one from the middle and put my thumb against the power switch. The thing is round and with miniature, recessed repulsor housings all over it. It’s so light it doesn’t even feel like I’m holding anything. Like if I squeeze my hand it’ll shatter. I’m worried I broke it just from pressing the power button.

“It’s flashing a yellow light,” I say.

“Good. Press the button five times.”

I count each depression. “Now it’s solid yellow.”

“Press and hold for three seconds. It’ll flash green.”

I do as I’m told, wondering why this task couldn’t be entrusted to someone else. Even a koob. They got fingers and as best I can tell know how to count; I’m mookta two after all. Guess I can’t confirm whether they can count higher than that unless I kill another chieftain. Maybe it really does have to be me.

“It flashed green and now all the others have a red light glowing.”

“Perfection. Press the button on yours for ten seconds. It’ll flash blue and the rest should turn solid green.”

I obey and everything happens like Brisco says, with the added event of the bots rising out of the case and beginning to hover about ten feet above my head. I can feel my bot trying to take off as well.

“Hey, they’re activated. Should I let mine go?”

“Yeah. It’s all automatic now. Those bots are going to start recording, so you need to get your team out of the shot.”

I turn and call out, “Mount up. Big Nee doesn’t want us on camera.”

“Fine by me,” Lash mumbles as he walks past.

We climb inside and watch from the back of our transport truck, sitting on cushions that now smell irredeemably like koob.

“What’re we watching here?” Lana asks. “Because if it’s an execution…”

“I dunno,” I say. “But that thought did cross my mind.”

One of the drones descends and hovers directly in the face of Pikkek. He’s talking, but in his native language. So I don’t make out ninety-nine percent of what he’s saying.

But an interpreter helps out over the comm.

“Hey, buddy!”

It’s Nilo. And the familiarity is, I dunno, off-putting. It’s that “hey buddy” you get from someone who you know is just using you to get something for himself.

Hey buddy, you still got that truck because I’m moving next week and…

Hey buddy, how’s that thing we were going to work together on only I disappeared and now I’m checking in to see the progress…

It’s that kind of “Hey buddy.”

“Mr. Nilo,” I say, not thinking it wise to give any other reply to my employer. “I take it you’ve been informed of our progress.”

“Just now, yes. And Carter, I know we had a talk about combat and battlefield efficiencies and I know that’s a weakness. We’ll get that fixed. You’re a big part of that fix. Things are happening lightning quick right now and unfortunately, you’re seeing my ass as a result.”

“Roger that, sir.”

“Things are crazy in the Soob right now, but in a good way. And what’s happening here is going to push us over the edge. This goes as planned and Kublar is back in the hands of the koobs in a matter of days. Way ahead of schedule.”

“Right. I heard your interview a little bit before we left. Sounds like things are going well.”

“They’re going great. And I wanted to pop in personally because you probably feel like you’re getting stuck away from the real work. But you’re not. This is huge.”

“Yes, sir. I believe you, sir.”

Easy creeps up beside me. “Carter,” he whispers, “ask ’em what they’re sayin’.”

“Sir, what’s happening here? What’s Pikkek saying?”

Nilo seems only too happy to fill me in. He broadens the comm connection to reach my whole team, so they can all hear it. “He’s using his own words, but basically he’s giving a message to the Kublar from the Pekk tribe. About how the Republic forced them to be subservient to the Pashta’k even though Pashta’k was unworthy, because Pashta’k was willing to let the Republic take what it wanted from Kublar. Then he’s going on about the zhee. All that stuff. That part doesn’t concern us. It’s for the natives.”

I watch the three zhee prisoners in white. They’re milling about, bound with arms behind backs and hoods over their heads. Kublaren guards holding them, one on each arm. Pikkek turns to face them and the holocam is taking a shot that encompasses the prisoners as well as the big koob.

“The bot is translating Pikkek’s words into zhee,” Nilo says, adding softly to himself, “great shot. Excellent framing.”

Suddenly the zhee begin to stamp their feet, their obvious rage held in check only by the Kublarens and the binders.

“And that,” Nilo says, “is the message for the zhee. Pekk tribe just took responsibility for the destruction of the zhee temple. Pikkek is recounting how the zhee cowered and begged for their lives as his tribe slaughtered them. Oh, and how the mares begged to give their services to the Pekk chieftain in exchange for their lives. That’s… that’s a huge insult if you ever find yourself needing to piss off a zhee.”

The team crack smiles and chuckle. “I’ll take that under advisement.”

“Okay, so watch this,” Nilo says.

Two of the zhee, smaller in girth than the third but obviously better muscled and conditioned, have their hoods pulled away. I can see the sun glint off their black eyes; their heavy lashes blink under the sun and then settle against Pikkek. They strain to reach him, but the guards hold them back.

The third zhee has his hood removed. He’s older. The fur on his equine face peppered with gray and white, his muzzle and mouth having gone completely white.

“That big guy is the zhee equivalent of a grand high priest,” Nilo explains. “Nabbed him at the compound. There are a lot of competing factions inside zhee religious culture, but as the only temple leader on planet, he’s the holiest zhee on Kublar. The other two are his holy bodyguards, empowered by the four gods to prevent all harm from coming to their leader.”

Pikkek is talking to them. Saying something that seems to calm them down. The two zhee look at each other. Pikkek swings his tomahawk through the air and for a second I think the executions are going to begin. But that’s not what happens.

The Kublaren guards loosen their bindings, step back, and toss a kankari knife into the dirt before each donk. The zhee look around, as though not quite believing what’s happening—expecting a trap—and then stoop to retrieve the wicked little daggers.

At once and as one, the pair of zhee lunge for Pikkek, their kankari knives gleaming in the sun. The attack comes so fast, my first reaction is that the koob is dead. Caught flat-footed and by surprise. But Pikkek uses those legs to spring to the side, vacating the space he’d occupied a moment before by the thinnest of margins and causing the zhee to stab at empty air.

Outnumbered, the big koob doesn’t hesitate to even the odds he’s placed against himself. He swings his tomahawk down onto the top of the nearest off-balanced zhee, who lets out a piercing bray that seems to silence itself almost as quickly as it started as the incredibly sharp stone weapon bites deep between the donk’s eyes. In a practiced, swift motion, Pikkek lands a kick on the dead-but-still-standing donk, sending him tumbling toward his partner and allowing the koob to wrench free his bloody tomahawk.

The throng of koobs let out a unified wave of croaks and shouts at the sudden brutality. The fight was less than five seconds in and already a bloody fatality. And all the while, the bots I’d activated dance about the makeshift arena, red lights blinking to indicate they are recording.

“Damn,” Abers says. “Pikkek is legit.”

The two combatants circle each other, Pikkek feinting an attack while the zhee bodyguard brays. The zhee glances at the great priest, who bellows something in his language—maybe encouragements. Maybe prayers. I dunno. But he’s animated, stamping his feet and twisting his shoulders against the restraining hands of his Kublaren guards.

Pikkek whips out an equatorial backhand, sending the blade of his tomahawk toward the belly of the zhee, who leaps back and deflects the blow with his kankari. But the heavier koob weapon batters the knife from the zhee’s hand, sending it spinning downward until the blade bites into the dirt, the jeweled handle waggling in the air.

The zhee freezes and then adjusts its posture, seeking to finish the fight with tooth and claw. Pikkek straightens, relaxed, and gestures for the zhee to retrieve his weapon. A show of fair play.

With some hesitancy, the zhee stoops to retrieve his knife. Pikkek buries his tomahawk in the donk’s exposed neck a second later, sending great spurts of blood out onto the ground and inciting the gallery of Pekk warriors to bellow in rapturous support.

“Damn,” Lana says, this time her tone conveying the surprise at this tactic.

Koobs are tricky.

Pikkek flings his tomahawk in the air, a spray of zhee blood flicking droplets as it spins. The big koob catches it by the handle and motions for the donk high priest to be released. The big zhee stands trembling, his guards dead and feeding Kublar with their blood.

Binders removed, the zhee stands in place, sending a gaze of pure hatred across to the koob warrior staring him down. But he doesn’t move. Doesn’t stamp his hooves as he did when the fight was two-to-one and his divinely protected guards stood ready to put down the croaking infidel before him.

“He’s a coward,” Nilo says, watching the spectacle along with me. “They all are once they reach that point. Success makes you afraid of what you might lose. Makes you soft. This zhee may have been a warrior once. Now he’s hoping everything he peddled about his four gods and his own ascendancy on Kublar is true. It’s all he has left.”

The koob guards have to shove the high priest’s kankari into his hands because the scumsack refused to pick it up from the ground or take it when they offered nicely. He stands trembling, braying in a mock outrage that’s all light and no heat. The guards shove him toward Pikkek.

The donk takes a step and it’s clear he doesn’t want to. Then, he seems to surrender to his fate and charges Pikkek, kankari knife swinging wildly, giving a thousand cuts to the air.

But death did not come with them.

Pikkek ducks low and dodges away to his right. As he does, he swings out his tomahawk, almost as much holding the blade for the zhee priest to run into as swinging it. The donk’s hoof comes right off, causing a painful bray to bellow out of the zhee’s now-foaming mouth.

The cheers of the gathered koobs soon overwhelm the zhee’s cries of pain.

Now the bots are buzzing in close, capturing multiple angles of what happens next. The priest tries to push himself up onto one foot, pointing the kankari at Pikkek to stave him off. Pikkek swings his hatchet and sends the clawed hoof to the dirt, still holding the knife.

The only word I can use to describe what comes next is butchery. Pikkek goes to work chopping the donk up, using his tomahawk like a meat cleaver. The red lights capture every spray of blood and the cheer of the Pekk warriors with each stroke.

I don’t know when the zhee dies or what kills him. He’s maimed, disemboweled, flayed… but by the time Pikkek starts to remove the donk’s head from his body following four meaty thwacks, the zhee has definitely been dead for a while.

I expect Lana to whisper another “damn,” but she’s silent. We all are. So is Nilo on the comm, though I doubt he’s surprised by what happened. He knows the koobs about as well as anyone and I know the koobs well enough to be aware that this level of brutality is par for course. Unlike the zhee, they never sought to spread their culture across the stars. But they were damn sure just as violent as the zhee in their isolationism.

After displaying the head, Pikkek swells his airsac to mammoth proportions, stretching the purple membrane so much that I think it might burst. He tosses the donk head into the dirt and then squats down, pulling the mouth apart so violently that I think I can hear the jaw cracking.

Another koob walks into the circle and pulls up its robe. It squats over the donk’s open mouth.

“That’s a Kublaren female. She’s laying a clutch of eggs in the priest’s mouth. It’s a Kublaren ritual indicating a desire for total war and complete domination of an enemy. ‘The young shall spring forth from your dead.’”

Easy makes like he’s going to throw up, but he’s just playing for the moment. Lightening the mood in a situation none of us would have predicted and probably a few of us are wondering exactly how to process.

“Tell me we don’t have to watch Pikkek fertilize those eggs next,” I say into the comm.

“Not if you don’t want to,” Nilo says. “But the rest of the zhee on Kublar, you can bet they’ll all see it.”

I decide to perform a weapons check. Had my fill of the show. Most of the team does the same. Except Lash. He keeps watching. Doesn’t flinch.

I look up at the whirring sound of several sets of miniature repulsors and see the bots screaming away from the scene in all different directions. This must be what Nilo meant about the zhee on Kublar seeing what happened. The bots are going to be relaying it all.

Pikkek is hop-walking to the truck, zhee blood still adorning his face, arms, and robes like combat ribbons. “Big die,” he says. “Big-ah, KTF.”

“What’s next, Mr. Nilo?” I ask, but Brisco is the one who responds.

“Get your team moving toward the Soob. We’re telling the zhee that if they don’t like what just happened, that’s where the fight will be.”

“Roger that,” I say and check my charge packs before addressing my team. “Looks like the next fight that comes is gonna include all of us. Be ready. The donks aren’t gonna be in a friendly mood after this. I think Big Nee just kicked off something that’s only going to end in genocide.”



Museum of Kublaren History

Green Zone, Subiyook City

Hopper walked the security perimeter he’d set up around the Museum of Kublaren History. Like most everything in the Soob, it was a newer construction. One of the first pieces of Republic-funded improvements that came once the Pashta’k tribe was recognized as the big winner following the koobs’ civil war. Hopper hadn’t visited it though he liked museums, but one of his guys had. It was all very rah-rah Republic and rah-rah Pashta’k tribe.

How much of it accurately depicted the history of Kublar was anyone’s guess. Hopper had seen some of the Republic-funded galleries and museums on his home world and while they weren’t filled with outright lies, the propaganda was easy to spot and the exhibits were extremely selective. The museum curators were displaying what they and presumably the House of Reason wanted seen.

The museum Hopper had been ordered to keep a tight perimeter around, and not let anyone inside under any circumstances, didn’t make mention of the Battle of Kublar. At least that’s what the guy had told Hopper.

The guy.

Hopper remembered when he knew the name of just about every man he fought alongside of in his SOAR Company. But Team Nilo was different. They were probably a regiment in numbers, but the handlers like Surber kept the various squads separate. The two platoons’ worth of men was the largest force Hopper had been attached to since arriving on Kublar. He recognized some of the men, had actually spoken to fewer, but mostly didn’t know who they were.

But they were all on Team Nilo and that was all Command seemed to care about. If you didn’t like it, too bad. You weren’t being paid to like it. You were being paid to do your job.

Hopper had concerns over how feasible doing his job here in the Soob would be. He looked up to the roof. The museum was a single-story with high ceilings, low and squat for the Soob but extending deep underground with exhibits that literally spanned the entirety of the city. The planners had done this so museum guests would be “just beneath” the sites of famous events in the history of Kublar. Before Article Nineteen, some builder with a set-for-life House of Reason contract was going to extend the subterranean museum across the entire planet. And make himself get in good with the ruling tribe while at it. Opportunity begetting more opportunity. Visitors of the museum’s sublevel exhibits would avoid the harsh above-ground climates in luxurious tube-cars that would crisscross the planet. Big things had been planned for Kublar.

“Hey!” Hopper called out, using his hands as a megaphone. “What’s the status on those guns?”

A merc wearing nothing but a flak vest and a pair of cargo shorts peered over the side to look down at Hopper. “All set, Hop. It sucks up here. Hot as balls.”

Hopper nodded and moved on to check the emplacement set up outside the museum’s main doors. Comments like that just needed to be heard.

The merc grinned down at Hopper, and then his face lit up like he just remembered something. “Hey! Did Van Dop tell you about the weird, I dunno, dust up here?”


“Shaped like a bat. We scattered it a bit setting up, but you can still make out most of it.”

Hopper shrugged. “Koob art.”

Another merc popped his head up from the repeating blaster nest. “Wasn’t the koobs s’posed to be watching this place?”

Hopper nodded again. “I guess even koobs balk at pulling security when there’s fighting. Probably pulled out to help keep the donks trapped in ZQ.”

It seemed odd from the start that the Kublarens, so fanatical in their fight yesterday to keep the museum from being looted and defaced by the zhee, would abandon it now. Elektra, in the brief talks Hopper had with her, conveyed that Team Nilo was surprised by this, too. And apparently, Big Nee himself gave the order for Hopper’s element to break away from the main force and set up security. Someone else would probably be tasked with hunting down the missing army of koobs—and their Black Leaf acquired weapons. But that would be their job while this was his—and his men’s job. And he trusted his team to get the job done.

As best Hopper could tell, everyone working as a hired gun for Team Nilo was former military. Marines or Legion. Even the army. And all of them had combat experience. Part of being a soldier was complaining about the suck. These guys would do their jobs. They just needed to vent frustrations a bit. And it was hot. Hopper could feel his sweat-drenched shirt rubbing beneath his body armor and against skin like high-grit sandpaper.

Emplacements were set. Men were resting in what cover—and shade—they could grab. The convoy of vehicles they had ridden in on were tactically spaced so the column could react in case of attack, but wouldn’t be rendered useless by a surprise artillery barrage or strafing run. Not that Team Nilo’s intel thought such things were at any of the planet’s players’ disposal.

The plan to flip the Pashta’k koobs to Nilo’s Kublaren alliance had worked. The zhee were licking their wounds, afraid to leave the ZQ after the absolute beating they took. If there was to be trouble, it would likely come from the remnant House of Reason forces stationed inside the Green Zone’s inner ring. The true believers of a lost cause whose job was to protect a Republic government that found itself on the losing side of Article Nineteen. Or at least the soldiers who hadn’t managed to find a way to go AWOL from appointed officers who were still clinging to the hope that somehow the nightmare they were living in would come to a close.

But Orrin Kaar and the rest of the House of Reason… they weren’t coming back. Neither was Goth Sullus.

The galaxy was up for grabs. And while Hopper was here because the pay was better than what he’d get anywhere else beyond going into the bounty hunter trade, it didn’t hurt that he believed the message Big Nee was selling.

Things had gotten too corrupt. Planets had been exploited. People were stuck in a system that didn’t care about them and was more concerned about telling them how to live and what to think than it was letting them live their lives.

Nilo was seeking an end to such things. Hopper was good with that.

And he was even better with the shot caller assigned to the Soob. Elektra. Compared to Brisco it was like being cured from blindness. Word was that what Brisco lacked in communication he made up for by being lights-out with drone strike capabilities. But having worked with both, Hopper much preferred Elektra.

“Museum is secure,” Hopper reported in. “Remaining outside per orders. Any word on activity in this direction?”

“Stand by, Hopper.”

Hopper inclined his head. Unless it was his imagination, she sounded tense. Yeah. The stress was evident in her voice.

To pass the time, Hopper inspected the gun emplacements on each of the armored sleds he’d been provided. He wanted to be sure each sled had a gunner ready to go. And they did. But the poor bastards manning the mounted heavy blasters looked so hot and miserable that they had to be praying to Oba that nightfall would come early.

Elektra came back on the line. “We’re moving assets to your position. Stand by.”

“Wait. ‘Moving assets’? We’re blind over here?”

“We’ve been losing drone contact over the ZQ. The zhee there are shooting down anything that flies overhead and they have more drone killers than we have drones. Pulling some from the docks to your location. ETA… fourteen minutes.”

“If it arrives,” Hopper muttered to himself.

“Understand your frustration. We don’t like it either. Advise you place sentries at north and south points along 3rd, set up overwatch from the Kanto building four blocks west if possible.”

Hopper didn’t like what he was hearing. He had enough men to maybe—maybe—hold off a small, probing attack. Enough to protect the museum from vandals or looters, which is what he figured Big Nee was after. But the way Elektra was talking… he’d heard that concern before from the other side of a comm.

“Copy that,” Hopper said. “Are you seeing any activity from the R-A base?”

There was a long pause that told Hopper everything he needed to know.

“We are. They’re mobilizing; likely target is the docks.”

“Oba,” Hopper said, trying not to feel agitated.

They’d pushed into the Soob undermanned, leaving all of their Kublaren allies inland as well as a large element of Team Nilo mercs. And while they’d achieved their objectives, Hopper didn’t like the way the wind was blowing. They’d secured a foothold, but that was tenuous at best until reinforcements could fortify their positions.

And who knew how long that would be?

“Trust us on this, Hopper. We have contingencies. We’re seeking to mobilize our new Kublaren allies in the city. If your team runs into trouble, it’ll be from the ZQ. Keep a watch there and you should be fine.”

“Roger. Tell me what that bot sees once you have it overhead.”

“We will.”

“Hopper out.”

Sket. Hopper moved to a group of mercs around the corner of the museum, backs against the building, boots baking in the sunlight while the rest of their bodies hid in as much shadow as possible. There were six men here armed with N-4 rifles.

“I need three teams of two.” He pointed at the men, dividing them up. “You two, head for the Kanto building. Four blocks west. Get visuals on our AO and then report in.”

The two men rousted themselves from the shade and hurried back out into the Kublar heat and sun.

“I want sentries ten blocks ahead on 3rd Street. Two men northward, two men south. Copy?”

“Somethin’ going down, Hopper?”

“Could be. Big Nee wants us ready in case the zhee decide to pick another fight.”

“Thought the koobs took care of that?”

“Rule of thumb,” Hopper said, slinging his carbine over his shoulder. “If you didn’t do it yourself, assume it wasn’t done right.”

The merc laughed. “Roger that.”

Hopper trailed the two teams as they left the side of the museum and moved in opposite directions down 3rd street, jawing at their companions as they jogged past them.

It was midday and no one was out. Largely due to the full-scale riot that had greeted the Soob. A breakfast of destruction and mayhem. But also because this was the time of day when the blazing Kublaren sun was at its most vicious. When it felt as though the sea beyond the coastline would boil, a humidity so sticky and extreme, you could practically see the steam vapor undulating before your eyes. Like a sugar lobster dangling over the pot, waiting to be dropped into the bubbly, roiling water.

Hopper watched the two-man team jog northward along the sidewalks until they disappeared behind a sheen of waving air that seemed to blur everything. There was nothing to be made out through the curtain of heated air except the occasional glint of the sun from a sled’s windshield or the wavy backdrop of buildings and streets, which seemed to blend together to form a continual gray and tan painted canvas that only suggested shapes. It hid the scouts almost entirely.

How hot was it?

Hopper pulled back his gloves to check his watch, tapping the display and feeling a layer of sweat squeeze out from beneath the device.

118 degrees. Using the Republic standard. Not a dry heat. And it would only grow hotter as the afternoon wore on.

Shaking his head, Hopper checked the water level of his hydration pack since he was already looking at his watch, swiping over to take the reading. He was good on water, behind on drinking. In danger of allowing himself to get dehydrated. He pulled the tube from his shoulder and drank in sips of warm water, the pack’s chilling features unable to hold up against the combination of his body heat and the constant barrage of the Kublar sun.

No sooner had he finished than the scouts he’d sent out came running back, bursting through the mirages as if emerging from the other side of a hedgerow. Hopper could tell something bad was going down, could see it from the way they were running.

Running like that. In this heat. Something was up.

Hopper pinged the men on the comm. “What’s the sitrep?”

“Lots of koobs,” panted one of the mercs. “Armed.”

That was going to require more information.

“Did they engage?” Hopper hadn’t heard any shots fired.

“Looked like they had intent.”

The other merc chimed in, his breath coming in near gasps. Probably more temperature than the sprint itself. “I saw some of ’em raise weapons.”

Hopper activated the all-comm for his unit. “Inbound force headed our way. Supposed to be friendly, but be ready.”

The men quickly moved into battle positions, manning their light repeating blasters and finding suitable cover should any shooting start.

Standing in the middle of the street, Hopper looked around for his assistant team leader. He found himself wishing Team Nilo would assign rank, just because it came more naturally to mimic what all these mercs had grown accustomed to while serving. It would be so much easier to shout “Sergeant!” and have the right man at his side. As a former Marine captain, that was his natural instinct. But that wasn’t how things worked, and Hopper knew that some of the men on his team had been officers in the Army but were now just “team members” not afforded the title of Team Leader (TL) or Assistant Team Leader (ATL).

So maybe that was it or maybe it was something else. Either way, he needed his ATL immediately.

“Where’s Van Dop?” he shouted, knowing the man should be somewhere nearby.

“Van Dop!” one of the mercs echoed.

Then another shouted the ATL’s first name down the line. “Paul!”

Hopper pointed to the man shouting for his ATL by name. “Go find him.”

Van Dop was a good man. Hopper didn’t for a moment think he was sleeping, loafing, or otherwise skipping out on his responsibilities. Wherever he was and whatever he was doing, it was probably important. But Hopper needed him here now and didn’t have time to ping him on comm. He needed to get in contact with Team Nilo. Now.

A mass of koobs emerged from the obscuration of the mirage, triggering a series of shouts from the Team Nilo mercs to keep their heads in the game.

He keyed in his comm for Elektra. “Be advised, scouts have eyes on a large contingent of Kublaren forces southward on 3rd. These appear to be the same ones we armed this a.m. How copy?”

“Copy,” Elektra replied. “We still don’t have eyes on your position, but intel has further retaliation against the zhee holed up in the ZQ as a probable scenario.”

“Roger that. Let them through or…?”

Hopper let the question hang. He didn’t have the manpower to defeat a force this large. Though he was confident he could hold them back until they decided to take alternate routes to their destination if that’s what it came to. Or until reinforcements from Team Nilo arrived should a full-scale confrontation be in the cards.

“No, don’t let them go through,” advised Elektra. “We need this temporary lull in fighting so we can consolidate and prepare for the next phase. Talk to them. Get them to hold off if you can.”

“Talk to them,” Hopper said, his voice making it clear that he was no diplomat and this wasn’t exactly in his wheelhouse. But… he’d managed earlier all right. Maybe the local koobs would be willing to listen a second time.

“They’re our allies,” Elektra said, though she didn’t sound convinced to Hopper’s ear. “Tell them the assault on the zhee should wait until Mr. Nilo can provide more resources—more weapons—to better ensure for success.”

“Copy that. Hopper out.”

He was about to turn around and call for Van Dop again when he heard the man running in his direction. The ATL was buttoning up his BDU trousers and fastening his belt.

“Not a minute of privacy in this unit,” Van Dop grumbled. Then he stopped short at the sight of the Kublaren element marching down the street. They filled the lane and crowded the sidewalk, looking more like an unruly mob than a tactical column of warriors.

But the koobs maintained fire discipline. They were notorious for firing their weapons into the air at random, just to add the noise and clamor of their movements. That they were refraining seemed like a good sign to Hopper.

“I gotta go pow-wow with these guys again,” Hopper told Van Dop. “Big Nee says they’re here for a little more payback on the donks. Our orders are to convince them to wait until we give the word.”

“What if they tell you space off?”

“Well, Nilo doesn’t want them getting past us and into the ZQ. But we don’t have orders to engage. If they refuse, we’ll call it in and see what Command wants. But we need to be ready to defend our position and block their access. I want you on that while I go chat.”


“Yeah. Keep things friendly. No flexing. They’re our allies now.”

“Riiight.” Van Dop turned and then stopped to pat Hopper on the shoulder. “Be careful, man.”

Hopper gave a nod, then walked up the street toward the advancing Kublaren force. He could see the experimental weapons system that Black Leaf had manufactured. And though word was that everyone in a combat role on Team Nilo would be equipped with one before long, it never sat well with him that they’d handed them over to the koobs the way they did. But maybe that was what it took to get the Pashta’k tribe to turn its collective back on the local government. Until today, the zhee hadn’t caused them the trouble they’d caused in terrorizing the inland koobs. And it was Nilo who provided the means of putting a stop to the trouble in the Soob when the local government seemed unable or unwilling to curb the frothing zhee riots.

Ahead, the throng of Pashta’k koobs halted. Hopper searched out its ranks, looking for the old Kublaren he’d communicated with when his convoy first rolled into the AO. The one who’d put tracer rounds into the zhee corpses.

If that koob was there, he was somewhere in the back. Not traveling at the front of the force. All of these guys looked decidedly younger and stronger. Koob warriors. The type Hopper and the other teams had been fighting inland in the campaign to consolidate allies for this final push.

These koobs weren’t the ones they’d delivered from the zhee. Those hadn’t been warriors. Or if they had, it was a long time ago. Now those weapons, a hybridized version of slug throwers and blasters, were in the hands of what had to be Pashta’ki fighters.

Hopper held up a hand to indicate he had something to say. He smiled, trusting the koobs to understand the expression to be one of goodwill.

He saw the flash of a rifle from somewhere behind the front line of Kublarens. But he didn’t hear the crack. His hand went up to his neck where it felt like he’d been stabbed. A spray of blood flew before his eyes and Hopper dropped onto the scorching surface of 3rd Street.



Van Dop’s mind was racing as he watched his Team Leader take a shot to the neck and drop into the street. His brain was trying to prioritize things. Figure out exactly what happened beyond the obvious—that Hopper had been shot—and also seize the initiative away from the Kublarens.

The members of his team, all combat veterans with experience forged across the galaxy, didn’t hesitate to make that happen. There were no orders to engage the koobs. They didn’t need one.

Blaster fire streaked at the oncoming Kublarens and extinguished itself in the throng of armed warriors, who dropped one by one in the target-rich environment. Slowed by this, the throng still pressed forward. And though those in the vanguard dropped, it seemed there was always a Kublaren able to fill in the ranks. Muzzle flashes winked from between lines, with those in the back firing without aim through gaps that emerged between the heads and shoulders in front of them.

Van Dop saw at least one koob drop from an errant shot in the back of the head. And then the team medic raced past him, rushing to reach Hopper where he lay writhing on the ground, bloody hands clasped around his neck.

The medic slid to his knees, moving hands to his carry bag when a koob round smacked into his helmet, knocking it off and causing the medic to tumble over sideways.

“Sket!” Van Dop shouted. He realized that Hopper, who was still struggling out there as the koobs advanced, wasn’t going to get himself to safety. Realized his men were doing what they needed to be doing. A bullet skipped along the paved road at Van Dop’s feet, not touching the ATL as he stood there. He needed to move. Either find cover or go up and see about getting Hopper back into the lines. He was the only one who could do it.

“Sket,” Van Dop said again with the quiet realization that he was about to run toward the advancing hostiles. There were a lot of Pashta’k koobs.

Van Dop started to run for the wounded team leader.

Blaster bolts sizzled over his head. Bullets snapped. The report of those new rifles that were now being used against him barked, their noise seeming to drown out nearly everything else.

It seemed so inevitable that Van Dop would be hit that he expected it. Each step feeling as though something was going to slam into him and drop him, just like it had the medic. He tensed his muscles even as he ran, as if the incoming fire would somehow not be able to tear inside of him if only he cramped and tightened himself.

The expected hit didn’t come, and Van Dop found himself at Hopper’s side. The team leader was pale, his blouse drenched with blood at the neck and shoulder. Hopper was still holding his neck, still seemed strong. But his face was ashen and his eyes, which stared fixedly upward, seemed distant.

Van Dop grabbed Hopper by his harness. “Hopper. Stay with me. Gonna get you out of here.”

Bullets sang their disruptive song overhead. Blaster fire sizzled. There were indeed many koobs, but they were firing wildly from the hip as they moved. That was how they fought the zhee. Just closed in until they couldn’t miss. Their weapons likely weren’t even zeroed.

So hurry up and get out of here, Van Dop told himself.

He stole a glance at the medic, just to confirm what he already knew. The man was dead. A hole in his head so large that it had to have come from a rifle that, in hindsight, should not have been given to the locals.

Van Dop stood, again feeling the expectation of getting hit. And then he ran, pulling Hopper whose feet kicked and writhed like some kind of ancient sled dog mushing through snow. The main thing Van Dop didn’t want to do was lose his grip on the harness. He didn’t want to have to stop and go back, because he was sure that doing so would necessitate the end of his luck.

The bullets and blaster bolts weren’t hitting him. Someone up there, Oba—whoever—was letting him return to the lines.

But only if he didn’t do something to mess it up. Van Dop knew the way these things worked. It’s a thin line between a once-in-a-lifetime moment and a moment that ends your life. He’d seen it countless times before on diverse worlds. Through battles that he fought in. That he remembered. The number of which he could count, but had stopped a long time ago. Because keeping track of the number of times he’d escaped death… that felt like taunting death.

Death never likes being mocked.

A wet gurgle came from Hopper.

Van Dop was passing Team Nilo mercs now. Felt that more blaster fire was zipping past him in the opposite direction than chasing him now. He looked down. Hopper’s eyes flitted over to him. That seemed good. The recognition.

A merc—former Legion, Van Dop thought—ran up and grabbed the other side of Hopper’s harness and pulled. They moved to the rear. Van Dop had a mind to get Hopper to one of the sleds from the convoy because it could move if it needed to. That was his rationale for passing the museum’s front doors where mercs used the sandstone walls enclosing the steps for cover. Inside the museum any wounded should be safe, but if these koobs were to take the museum—if that was what they were after—it would mean they’d take Hopper and any other casualties with it. If casualties were on a sled… at least there’d be a chance they could speed out alive and get medical attention.

“Last sled in column is our CCP!” Van Dop yelled, looking to the merc who helped carry the load.

He nodded as a bullet snapped over both their heads, causing each man to duck his head reflexively.

The wall on the museum’s steps exploded as one of the rounds fired from the new rifles punched right through the sandstone, sending chunks of masonry into the body armor and faces of the mercs who had been using it for cover. One of the operators yelled in pain, clutching his eyes, blood seeping between the fingers of his gloves as his buddy called for a medic.

Ahead, a wounded merc was being pulled across the street by two buddies. The roof’s defenders and the fixed repeating blasters on the sleds were blazing, but they were facing some serious numbers. Classic Kublaren battle strategy. Overwhelm and rout. The koobs would gladly take two black eyes for a shot at giving you one.

“Sket,” gasped Van Dop. The battle was still fresh, but it seemed like there was already a lull developing in his team’s concentration of fire. Men were getting hit and their buddies were helping them, taking their own rifles out of the fight.

That wouldn’t carry.

“Keep firing!” Van Dop screamed to each merc he passed by. Orders he hadn’t thought would be necessary to seasoned combat veterans. Professional soldiers still. But here he was, giving those same orders. Like he was presiding over a bunch of boots fresh from basic training, seeing combat for the first time.

“We’re gonna need help,” grunted the merc assisting with Hopper. He looked down at the wounded team leader and added, “Stay with us, Hop.”

Van Dop had been thinking the same thing, and for whatever reason, his mind had prioritized getting Hopper to the CCP before calling in to speak with Command. As it turned out, his outgoing comm relay wouldn’t be answered until they’d traveled the remaining meters to reach the rearmost sled they’d retained.

“Go for Command,” came a female voice… Elektra, if Van Dop’s memory served him true.

“This is Paul Van Dop, Assistant Team Leader, Strikeforce Ark. We are taking heavy fire from an armed element of Kublaren hostiles. Requesting immediate fire support.”

There was a long pause. “Negative, Van Dop. We are seeing complications throughout the city. Hold position.”

Someone fired a rocket propelled grenade at one of the sleds but missed wide, the projectile detonating down the street into the stone façade of an eight-story building. Checking the advancing force, which was now bleeding into alleys in an attempt to take some cover even as it pushed up the road, Van Dop spotted humans wearing Republic Army uniforms. This wasn’t just some misunderstanding—the koobs wanting to get through Nilo’s mercs to reach the ZQ. This was a double cross.

Pashta’k had flipped. Or maybe they were never truly allies to begin with. Koob politics were… tricky.

“Command,” Van Dop tried again, “Pashta’k warriors are advancing with Republic Army regulars and wielding the weapons we gave them against us. We are going to be overrun unless we receive immediate support.”

There was another pause before Elektra came back, her tone without emotion. “Hold position.”

That was going to be easier said than done. And while Van Dop had received orders like this from appointed officers in a former life, he’d come to hope he wouldn’t be getting the same from Team Nilo who, by his accounts, had a lot figured out. Which meant this might be a case where the new boss was pretty much the same as the old boss, or it might be that the museum—for whatever reason—was a high value target. Still, there were lives at stake and Van Dop wanted to be sure the precariousness of their defense was clearly understood.

“The hostiles are advancing unhindered. We will do what we can, but—”

Van Dop’s voice was cut off by a new voice over the comm. Mr. Surber.

“You will stay put and defend that objective. That is an absolute fact, Mr. Van Dop. That museum must be held at all costs. All costs. Now, there is a support team moving to your location from inland. They’ll be the first ones able to reach you and they will bail you out. You just need to hold on until they arrive.”

Van Dop let out a sigh. This was what he’d signed up for. And he knew what waited for him if he ever was put back out in the cold—if he were ever terminated from Team Nilo. That was a fate worse than death. And Surber knew it. Made it clear that he knew exactly which ghosts still haunted Van Dop’s past.

If that were true of the other men, time would tell. For now, it was his job to get them to put up as stiff a resistance as possible.

And hope not to die trying.



Inland Kublar

You know what I miss? Close air support.

Not that we got much of it in the Legion during the bulk of my time there. Point naval officers and point leejes were always too worried about the fallout of an orbital bombardment or a tri-bomber delivering a bot-guided bomb. Even the more precise air support like buzz ships rarely got the okay.

Because all those things messed sket up. You don’t forget the force that accompanies that kind of firepower. Plus you had those idiots in the House of Reason who felt that if the Legion were such powerful combatants, what the hell did they need air support for? Not that they gave any to the Army or Marines, either.

That changed after Article Nineteen. Especially once Legion Commander Chhun took charge. But that was only a brief stint for me, fighting until Utopion fell and then opting out after that because… bills. Still, it was nice.

And I get it. I get why Big Nee can’t supply tactical air support at the level we need right now to wrap this operation up. Ships and shuttles, bombers and bombs—all of that is really expensive. Even for a guy with pockets as deep as Big Nee’s. You don’t just buy a space force or a fleet.

But I can’t help but think the situation on Kublar would go a hell of a lot easier if we could send more than a few missile-equipped drones into the air. Then again, the donks and the planetary government don’t have any air power to speak of either. So at least there’s that.

If we can’t benefit from a bombing run to take out hostiles embedded in hillside defensive positions, neither do we have to worry about them doing the same to us.

Things have pretty well turned sour since Pikkek’s knife fight. Here’s what I know, most of which I wrung out of Brisco while receiving painfully vague orders. The knife fight was meant to whip the zhee who had settled inland into a frenzy. It was cut in with a propaganda film that showed the Kublarens destroying the zhee temple and ended with a Kublaren vow that the inland tribes would now march to destroy the remaining zhee in Subiyook City, challenging all “cowardly zhee” to overcome their trembling and come out from behind their mares to fight.

That worked like magic. Enraged zhee from across all the inland settlements have been marching for the Soob. My job was to oversee a joint force of Black Leaf mercenaries and Kublaren allies as they visited the zhee settlements and made sure there was nothing left for them to come back to.

A week was allocated for that. But then the situation in the Soob changed. Some kind of plan to destabilize the city went better than expected, and Big Nee took a gamble that he could flip the local tribe against the zhee and House of Reason loyalist government. It worked… until it didn’t.

So now forces in the Soob are getting hammered. Hopper among them.

You following so far?


That leaves my team plus Pikkek and some koob warriors he’s personally selected to make for the Soob and provide relief to an element trapped at the Kublaren history museum. That’s approximately twenty fighters, most of them koobs, being sent in to stem the tide of zhee, Rep Army loyalists, and their koob toadies.

Hence… close air support would be nice.

But at least Big Nee hooked us up with our own fleet of repulsor-powered ATVs. I’m racing through the Kublaren hardpan at nearly two-hundred kilometers per hour, the wind trying to pull the air out of my lungs unless I angle my head down to take a breath. Any shifting dust feels like tiny needles as we scream through it, so I’ve got my “tactical scarf” pulled up over my face like a bandit ready to clean out a bank for every last credit.

It’s thrilling. Although from the way Lana is gripping my waist and trying not to fall off, I’d guess she’s formed a different opinion. Sucks riding on the back.

It isn’t lost on me that twenty of us are too few for what we’re ostensibly supposed to do and I’m fully expecting Surber or Nilo to give last-minute instructions once we link up with Hopper. But that’s something to worry about when it happens. For now, anticipating any variations in terrain is enough. Every dip or raise in elevation is magnified by the speed, and while only a minor course correction is needed to move around the natural topographical variations, you have to actually see them in enough time to react.

“More donks ahead,” Easy calls out. “Nine o’clock!”

A slow-moving caravan of old, smoking trucks rumbles through the scrub, sending up a blooming cloud of dust in its wake. Not the first one. Since we’re moving over twice as fast, we catch up and zip past almost before they have time to figure out who we are.

The koobs in our outfit make it pretty obvious, though. Holding on with one hand, they fire their slug-throwers into the caravan as we zip past. I see a few of the donk trucks swerve, but I’m not sure they hit anything. At least the koobs seem happy about getting some shots off.

By the time the donks respond and pull their old, rusting rifles to take shots at us, we’re long gone. I don’t hear the report of their weapons and I don’t hear any bullets snapping nearby. But it doesn’t hurt to make sure the others are all right.

“Everybody get through there all right?”

“Yup,” answers Lash.

Since no one else offers a different take, I go with that.

“Pikkek, how about your team?”

“My team, ki’k… is your team-ah, Mookta Carter. We… k’kik’k… are living.”

That’ll have to do.

“Copy that. I counted four technical trucks in that column. Anyone else?”

“Four trucks,” confirms Lana, “and I’m pretty sure I saw some donks with RPGs riding.”

“Me too,” says Abers.

“Roger. Calling it in now.”

I key the comm for Brisco. “Brisco, got something.”

I have fully surrendered any semblance of comm discipline.

“Watcha got, Carter?”

“Another zhee caravan. You got location ping?”

“Even better. Got visuals. Yeah… I see the caravan.”

“Confirmed four technical trucks mounted with repeating blasters or equivalent. Visual confirmation on RPGs.”

“Do you know how many?”

“Sorry. Forgot to pull over and count.”

“Okay, easy. We’ve just been burning through missiles snuffing out these zhee columns. Trying to be selective with what we have left in case we need them in the city later.”

I want to ask why they’re not already being used in the Soob if things are as hot as Brisco made it sound earlier. But then, it’s clear that while Nilo has a vision, it isn’t accompanied by the soundest military strategy. He’s clearly learning as he goes along.

Still, what he’s managed so far is remarkable. I shouldn’t take that away from him. The Republic tried for years to get Kublar unified. Big Nee is on the verge of doing what all those legionnaires, soldiers, marines, and tax credits couldn’t do.

That’s saying something.

“I just call it in, Brisco. You press the button.”

“Yeah, I know. Okay. We’re gonna wipe ’em out. My drone will stay with you to the Soob, but this is the last of its ordnance.”

“Copy that.”

“Hey, Carter.”


Brisco lowers his voice, like he doesn’t want to be overheard by whoever is around him. “It’s bad in there, man. Be careful.”

I grit my teeth. “Thanks.”


The Soob is burning when we reach the outcroppings. Specifically, the Green Zone is on fire. And the docks. And the spaceport. And the ZQ.

So, all of it, I guess.

Only the fires are just part of the chaos. Not the final act. There is still fierce fighting happening throughout. Explosions balloon above the skyline, climbing up the façade of multi-story buildings erected by real estate speculators. Windows shattering with each concussive blast.

A lot of fortunes have been lost today already. But I’m thinking a lot more are about to be made before the day is up.

There’s no checkpoint or city defense to slow our progress. The fighting is still too fresh and intense to allow for that. Or maybe the army, the koobs, the zhee… maybe it’s just not on their sensors at this point. Maybe they haven’t fought their way past however many Black Leaf mercs are set up inside the city.

I can see that we have some air support, snipers bringing death from aerial platforms. They’re firing at a near-constant clip, so clearly their overwatch is rich in targets. But still, that’s one kill per trigger pull, maybe a couple more if the angle is right. We’d be better served to ditch the precision of snipers in exchange for a hard-mounted N-50. But the engineers evidently weren’t prepped for something like that. Meaning we’re going into a grind saw with nothing capable of dishing out serious punishment. No buzz ships and certainly no capital ships.

To make matters worse, our progress is being slowed by a stream of refugees pouring from the city. We got eyes on the vanguard of that helpless column of civilians about two miles out from the city limits. The first waves were those who had private sleds or repulsor bikes. Then came the foot travelers. Mostly human mixed with a diverse sampling of other species—but no zhee and no koobs.

They seem committed to the fight for the Soob.

“Hey!” yells Abers from the back of Easy’s ATV. “Back off, punk!”

A frantic-looking Kimbrin is pawing at the front of their vehicle. I’m no mind reader, but I’m guessing this guy wants to see about hitching a ride. Trouble is, we’re heading in the opposite direction.

Abers levels his rifle at the Kimbrin. “Last warning. Leave.”

This seems to do the trick. Emphasis on seems.

We weave through the refugees, gunning engines where we can but not running people over outright. First because these are civilians and second because if we make a move like that, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those who’ve been eyeballing our rides as means of escape took the opportunity to jump us.

The Kimbrin steps in front of Easy’s ATV again, and this time he has a few buddies. They try to surround the repulsor. Abers uses his rifle like a club and domes one of the aliens, dropping him in a heap. Easy pulls his pistol and aims it at the Kimbrin going for the ATV’s handlebars.

The alien doesn’t stop, and Easy pulls the trigger, putting a hole in the assailant’s head.

Then I hear the rapid-fire bark of a slug-thrower firing from my rear. I turn and see a dismounted Pikkek sending a spray of fire at the last remaining Kimbrin, who tries to run but is cut down even as he turns. A few refugees nearby are hit as well.

A collective scream of panic erupts from the crowd. Pikkek fires his weapon into the air in short, staccato bursts. The sound of gunfire causes the crowd to disperse like a school of fish from a predator. A huge gap opens as they nearly trample each other to get away from the one thing they most wanted to escape—shooting.

“Go!” I order, and my team shoots the gap and puts distance between ourselves and the refugees, who close up ranks the moment we break through.

“Command, this is Carter,” I say into my comm.

“Go for Command,” answers a female voice. Elektra, I think. The shot caller for the Soob. I’m now out of Brisco’s jurisdiction.

“My strike team has reached Soob city limits. Advise route to objective.”

“Copy that. There is no point of entry without some fighting. We’re sending you past the spaceport—we have a semblance of a line and some clear roads you can travel to objective. Over.”

“Roger. Let them know we’re coming.”

The last thing I want is to show up only to get dusted by some jumpy mercs. Not that I hold it against them. The jumpiness. They’re fighting an entire city and likely getting attacks from all sides.

“Copy. We will let them know the when and where. Command out.”

I get on the comm and tell my team what’s coming next before giving instructions. “Lash, I want you on point. Pikkek, keep your team to our rear just to be sure the mercs at the spaceport don’t get confused and open fire at us.”

“We shall follow you… k’kik… Mookta!”

“Hey, Mookta,” Easy chimes in. “Any chance we’re gonna be gettin’ on a ship once we reach the port? Just about had my fill of Kublar.”

I look at smoke and still-burning fires that strain skyward from the spaceport. Someone—probably Team Nilo—had landed a good-sized freighter. Maybe that’s how they secretly brought in the sleds that Hopper’s team reportedly had. Now it’s shot to hell and listing to one side, its prow prostrated onto the deck. Landing struts destroyed in the fighting. It looks like a black and gray whale, offering prayers to the shining Kublaren sea at the opposite end of the city.

“I’ll see if we can get some leave after this,” I say, not entirely sure how serious Easy is.

Things are scaling up from security and ambushes to full-scale fighting. And while it isn’t like we had a contract clearly detailing our expectations and responsibilities—there’s no opportunity to tell Surber that something isn’t our job—I can’t say that something like this is what any of us expected. In fact, this feels altogether too much like my first tour with the Legion, when the House of Reason continually sent us to handle things meant for the infantry. Because fewer men fighting somehow makes it seem less dangerous. Less of an invasion. A public relations war of optics.

“Gotta survive first,” Lash grunts, adding his genial opinion to the conversation. “Then think about headin’ home. Don’t get the order twisted or you won’t make it.”

“Lash is right,” I say. “This is going to be brutal. So… KTF.”

I wait a beat and then add the Republic Marines’ motto, “Demons on deck…”

“Hell to repel,” chime in Easy and Abers, the pleasure in their voices clear.

“Ha,” Easy laughs. “You did know it. I knew you wasn’t that dumb.”

“I may surprise you yet.”

A pair of Black Leaf mercs wave their hands to get our attention and then motion for us to make a turn at their location. Their faces are smudged with soot and greasy with dirt and sweat from fighting under the Kublar sun. I stop in front of them.

“What’s the word?”

They exchange a look and then one of them says, “Word is we’re getting our asses kicked.” He looks at my meager convoy of ATVs. “This is it?”

“For now. Bigger force is en route, but they’re slowing down to wipe out the zhee marching on this city. Didn’t think you’d want to see a bunch of donks come this way.”

“Roger that. We wouldn’t.”

Lash leans to the side of his ATV, causing it to tip slightly from his weight. “‘Asses kicked.’ Wanna put that in a way we can measure? ’Cuz we about to go into the tyrannasquid’s den.”

“Zhee are hitting the spaceport, but we’ve repulsed them each time so far and each wave hits a little softer than before.”

The other guard adds his piece. “Took down the freighter, though. They’ve got rockets. Loads.”

I hear a ping in my comm. It’s Elektra. “Why have you stopped?”

“Gathering intel,” I answer.

“I can provide you with that.”

“Not from the perspective on the ground, you can’t. Carter out.”

The guards are chatting with Lash now. Which is rare. The big man is usually anything but talkative. But he seems eager to get as much detail as he can.

Lash notices I’m back from my diversionary discussion. “Two pronged assault. Zhee pushing from the ZQ to attack the spaceport. Koobs and Army from the Green Zone. They’ve surrounded the museum. Streets are a toss-up and changing by the minute.”

“Roger that.” I rev my repulsors. “Let’s go break Hopper and his boys out.”


“Oba, look at them all.”

Lana has perfectly captured what all of us must be thinking.

We’re about a click out from the museum and the streets ahead are dense with koobs. It’s like the entire tribe came out if not to participate in the fight then to at least be close to the action.

And it sounds like one hell of a fight. The sound of blasters and slug throwers exchanging fire echoes across a city that has otherwise emptied itself. If you’re out and making noise, it’s to fight. Anyone else still in this city is surely locked inside, keeping quiet. Hoping for it all to end.

I think about what it would mean for fighting like this to come to my neighborhood. To Mel and the girls. Would they be hiding in a basement or attic, lights out, praying for it all to pass over? Would I be there with them? Or would I go to the streets to fight? Would I leave them to fate?

It’s things like this that cause me to keep putting myself in situations like I am now. Credits are only an excuse. In a moment of clarity, I know when I’m bullshitting myself when I say how much I need this job in order to make ends meet. Because smaller houses are a thing. Sleds that move but don’t evoke envy from those you pass by are a thing. Public schools, secondhand holoscreens… all those things exist. Make your own lunch. Pour your own kaff. Patch your clothes.

Credits are motivators, but they’re not my prime motivator. I’m here right now, just like I was on Utopion when Goth Sullus fell, for reasons other than money. Because I know the kind of hell anyone still in this city is experiencing. And because I don’t want something like that happening to my family.

And yeah, it seems crazy to think that by making it a reality on Kublar, I’m somehow helping at home. But if this works the way Big Nee explained it to me… the galaxy is going to be a different place. A peaceful place.

But the koobs have to be free first. And that means dropping the tribe that toadied up to the House of Reason right in the streets that Republic tax credits built.

“We’re about as close as we can get to the museum without engaging,” I inform Command. “Advise: which direction is the convoy stalled?”

Elektra’s answer is cool and matter-of-fact. “Convoy is stalled and fighting two blocks south of the museum; progress blocked by improvised roadblocks.”

“Well, I forgot to bring an engineering corps with me.”

The frustration of not knowing what it is these people want has boiled over. Yes, we’re paid to do what we’re told. But what do you do when no one seems able to clearly tell you what the objective is?

“I understand your frustration,” says Elektra, shrugging off my outburst as if it didn’t happen; no hurt or offense in her voice. “We need you to fight your way to the museum front doors approaching from State Street.”

I look for the nearest street signs. Ahead, an armed koob takes notice of us. He’s limping and carrying a carbine. He pauses but thinks better of engaging. Or maybe he sees Pikkek and his commandos and assumes we’re on his side. He hobbles away clutching his stomach, phosphorescent blood slipping between fingers.

“Pikkek,” I call, unable to get my bearings. “You know this place? State Street?”

Pikkek licks his eye. “No visit… k’kik… bad tribe. Weak.”

“They don’t look weak to me,” Easy grumbles to himself.

This causes Pikkek to croak out a laugh. “Big die when fight starts-ah. You see. Big die.”

“When it starts?” Easy looks around incredulously. “Oba’s ass, what do you call this?”

But Pikkek only laughs again.

“Command. Which way to State?”

“Continue course for two blocks and turn left. You’ll reach an intersection where you’ll turn right. State Street loops to the museum.”

“If I go another block, I’m going to be up and into that crowd of koobs.”

I look ahead and watch the swarming collection of koobs. They’re looting without hesitation, breaking store windows and pulling out whatever they can. Others are tearing down poles declaring street parking ordinances and taking them away. There’s an electric hum of excitement and you get the sense that if you were to walk through the crowd from the back to the front, you’d wind up at the museum in the midst of a fight. All this time, the firing hasn’t slackened.

Hopper’s giving them hell.

I relay the objective and route to the team.

“We’re gonna have to drive into that crowd to do that, man,” Easy says.

“Probably,” I answer. “And we need to do it fast. Any slowdowns and the koobs’ll have no trouble swarming us.”

“And they don’t have anything that can clear the street?” Abers asks.

“If they do, they’re not offering.”

“Hey, Pikkek,” Lash says, one arm on his handlebar, the other holding his SAB. “You got an idea on this?”

“Shoot them.”

The big koob’s answer draws a few chuckles. I’m about to solidify our apparent suicide run when he elaborates, though, pulling his ATV up next to me and using the flat of his palm as a rudimentary map, like he’s drawing up a play.

“You shoot-ah, Pashta’k. Big die. Drive this way.” He traces an invisible line with the tip of a long finger. “Circle-back-ah this way. Two… k’kik blocks. They no outruns.”

“Okay, but how do we get enough to follow us?” I ask.

Pikkek flares his airsac. “We tell them how.”

It sounds better than any other option we have. I don’t think we’ll get far plowing through a crowd of armed koobs unless we’re driving tanks. Which is another thing I wish Big Nee had.

“Any objections to the plan?” I ask the team.

Nobody answers. Democracy in action.

“Okay, Pikkek. Let’s do it.” I look to my team. “Ready to move?”

Nods come at me in reply.

“Lash… open up on ’em.”

If the big man has any reservations, he deals with them in the brief second that passes between my order and his action. The SAB sends a ruthless stream at the koobs, dropping several and causing even more to duck and scatter. Return fire zips overhead.

“That’s our signal to leave. Go!”

We take off like a biker gang running out on the bar tab, racing up the open street Pikkek pointed out. As we move, I can hear Pikkek and his koobs croaking their airsacs above the din. The cry is answered by the koobs in the crowd, taken up one by one until it feels like the whole city is shaking from the sound.

It’s unsettling. Particularly with the knowledge that the message is telling them which way to hunt us down. This must be how the leejes in the Battle of Kublar felt before that final attack.

We speed down the middle of the street, the wind causing my hair to flap around my ears and washing away the heat from my skin in a baptism of air. It seems like no part of this city is without damage. Sleds have broken windows and flaming hoods. Intact doors to businesses are nowhere to be seen. Trash receptacles are overturned; the bots meant to right them and clean up lie broken in the street. There’s no shortage of detritus to maneuver around.

Lana squeezes me tight enough that I can feel it through my armored synth-weave vest. “Followers!”

I can only hazard a backward glance. Koobs are riding in civilian and military trucks. Maybe I saw a Republic Army soldier driving, but I can’t be sure. But that we’re getting shot at, I’m sure of that. Bolts sizzle overhead. I drift the repulsor ATV to the right upon passing a tipped-over food cart, hoping it obstructs the shooter’s vision.

Abers is taking what for anyone else would be impossible shots from the back of Easy’s ride with his sniper rifle. Maybe he’ll dust a driver, but even slowing them down will be a help. We’re eight blocks from our starting point when Lana tells me that more koobs on foot have flooded the street.

Dodging a rolling scrap of sandstone blown from an errant RPG shot, I shout back, “Let’s try to not have a breakdown, then!”

Blaster fire is chasing us now, hoping to make up for the head start we got over the pursuing koobs. As the first turn in Pikkek’s route comes up, I want to go at it full speed. But fear of throwing Lana has me engaging brakes. Still, we fishtail around the bend, blaster bolts with a hell of an impact striking the street and sending up sizable chunks of duracrete.

I feel Lana wince.

“What is it?” I call.

“Nothing. Caught some shrapnel in the leg, I think.”

Turning around, I do a one-second inspection. I can see a slight trickle of blood seeping through her pants and rolling down her boots. That doesn’t look good, but it isn’t necessarily bad either. It’s amazing how much the human body can bleed. And while bleeding from a combat wound is never good, it can be misleading. Lots of fatal wounds don’t seem to bleed at all, while other wounds look like the stuff from horror entertainments but aren’t all that serious.

Ultimately, Lana is the one best equipped to determine the severity of the injury. She’s also tough as a destroyer hull, so there’s the chance that she’ll ignore it in an attempt to keep the op from delay.

“We need to stop?” I ask.

“Keep going. I’ll check it once we circle back.”

I’m expecting a breakthrough once we circle back followed by hard fighting with Hopper’s team to get them out of their position at the museum.

“Roger that,” I answer, relying on the comm to carry my voice to her despite the wind. “Whatever you need. Your skills are gonna be in demand once we reach the ob. Got a feeling.”

“I’ll be fine,” Lana says.

I know that tone. Heard it from my wife a million times. It’s the final, tolerate-no-further-discussion tone that has shipwrecked countless young husbands too foolhardy to ignore its warning. One that a more experienced man, like myself, learned long ago to heed. That doesn’t mean I refrain from getting the last word.

“Copy. Let me know if there’s a status change.”

She answers through gritted teeth. “I will.”

I smile into the wind, enjoying the temporary reprieve the corner has bought us. I’m pushing it, I know. But I can’t help myself. It’s the adventurer in me.

We’ve settled into a wedge formation as we move through the open street. There are still signs of earlier destruction, but it’s not as bad here. Like most of the fighting passed over this place in favor of other, less fortunate blocks. Broken glass litters the sidewalks. Most of the sleds parked on the street have busted out windows. Just a few though, and none of them were lit on fire this morning.

I see our next turn approach and ping Pikkek on the comm. “We’re at the halfway point. How’s it looking?”

“Good!” The big koob sounds excited. “Big die!”

The clamor of a fight, which hasn’t faded once since we arrived, seems louder over the comm.

“Pikkek, are you engaging the enemy?”

I get a croaking laugh in reply. “Roger that… k’kik… leejon-ayer! Hurry back-ah… or all big die over!”

I shake my head, wondering whether this diversion—which had drawn away some of the Soob Kublarens—was the tactical move I thought it was, or whether it was just the excuse Pikkek needed to open up on a rival tribe without interference from his allies.

Nothing to do now but finish the circuit and see if our avenue to reach Hopper has widened as a result of our efforts. We swing the next (and last) turn just as the koob technical trucks whip around to run behind us. But we’re around the corner before they have the chance to fire.

“Heads up,” I call to the team. “Straight shot before we rejoin Pikkek. He and his koobs have engaged the forces in the street. And watch for ambushes just in case the Soob forces manage to guess where we’re heading and jump our route.”

“Copy,” I hear Abers answer back for the group.

The repulsors are still in formation. I resist the urge to check on Lana again and turn to inspect the others. Lash has mounted his SAB over his handlebars, driving one-handed. Easy is driving with both hands, full concentration on keeping the ride as smooth as possible for the sniper riding on the back of his ATV. Their setup definitely violates whatever safety manual was written up by the vehicle manufacturer. Abers is sitting backward, knees gripping the side of the ATV like he’s riding a horse. The sniper is leaning against his buddy’s back for further stabilization, his heavy N-18 ready to take aim at the first koob who manages to get in his sight picture.

We’re as prepared for trouble—front and back—as we can be given the circumstances. We push on. Move forward. The only way we can go. But I find myself wondering what difference the five of us are supposed to make. Even with our Kublaren support, we’re not many. And based on what I’ve seen in the city fighting, Hopper needs a company to relieve him, not a QRF. But, when you’re in the thick of it, some help is better than no help at all.

Still. Given what I’ve experienced so far, I have the distinct feeling there’s something more here than meets the eye. Something Nilo hasn’t seen fit to tell us. More Black Leaf secretism (is that a word?).

As we push to the end of our diversionary route, I’m waiting for the other boot to drop.


“Pikkek, we’re making the last turn.”

“Ya, ya,” answers the big koob warrior. “Drive… k’kik’k… behind bullets-ah.”

No sket.

We speed around our turn, the last leg in our race over. We’re back where we started. Only now there are significantly fewer koobs mobbing the streets than when we’d first begun. And what remains is either hunkered down in cover fighting Pikkek’s warriors or lying dead in the streets, which are reflecting the sunlight under the brilliant sheen of their yellow blood, poured out in excess.

Everyone else either took after us in the chase or fled the scene, looking for a safer place to join in the fight. Because the fighting against Hopper and his team is still ongoing. It doesn’t sound like it’s faded in the slightest.

The firefight between rival koob factions seems to have taken the larger Pashta’k force completely by surprise. From what I gathered, this tribe was better adept at winning favor from the Republic than they were at winning wars. And even though the official stance of the House of Reason was to remain neutral during the Kublaren civil war that followed Victory Company’s amazing stand at the Battle of Kublar, it’s obvious now that the Republic picked a winner.

Abers takes a shot with his N-18 and then calls in a report. “They’re comin’ after us hot, boss.”

That’s to be expected. We weren’t exactly trying to lose them, and they’d have to be pretty dense not to figure out where we were heading. If they were smart, they would have let us go and fortified whatever positions they have set up to fight Hopper. Who knows, maybe they did. Maybe they have the bodies to spare.

It occurs to me that my eye in the sky, Elektra, hasn’t said a word to me since I cut her off earlier. I guess it cuts both ways, because I haven’t bothered trying to reach her, either. At the same time, the repulsor shuttles the airborne snipers were using as gun platforms have all bugged out. Maybe low on fuel, maybe needed elsewhere. But in any event, I need to coordinate now. The last thing we need is to reach Hopper’s position only to get blasted by the very guys we’re trying to pull out.

“Command,” I call into the designated comm channel. “You still with us?”

There’s a long enough pause that I start to think they may not be. And then Brisco pops on the line.

“Hey, Carter.” He sounds stressed. “You guys reach the museum yet?”

“Negative. ETA is five minutes, give or take a few depending on how many koobs we have to run over to break through.”

Brisco doesn’t laugh. “Mr. Surber is breathing fire, Carter. Get there now.”

“Tell Surber we’re on it. These things take time unless you like your operators ventilated with bullet holes.”

“You’ve run out of time, Mister Carter,” Surber says, breaking into the comm channel. “Secure the museum immediately.”

There’s a thousand things I want to say. Most of them not fit for innocent ears. If there’s one thing that marks this entire operation… well, I guess it’s a sket-load of credits. But if there’s another thing, it’s the way corporate expectations don’t mix with sound military planning and tactics. In too many ways, it feels like I’m working for points again.

Surber continues, not wanting to end the transmission without pouring on some of the old charm. “Your team has been plucked from dire life circumstances and given opportunities undreamt of through Team Nilo. That comes with an expectation that—”

“Cut it, Surber,” I snap. I feel Lana squeeze my sides. An unspoken warning against telling off the boss. One I reluctantly heed. “We’ll get the job done. Just stop distracting us with lectures in our ears while we’re trying to KTF.”

Surber doesn’t answer. I try to picture a chastened version of the man standing somewhere in the Team Nilo war room but can’t. A humbled Surber is like a hot ice cube or honest politician. Not possible.

And that’s for the best, because we’re screaming past Pikkek while he engages in a gunfight with the Pashta’k koobs who felt like sticking around. They’re wielding a type of rifle I haven’t seen before. Reminiscent of an N-6 but definitely not just throwing bolts. It’s leaving big holes in whatever it hits and while it has the tracer effect of a blaster bolt, it gives off the crack of a gas propelled cartridge system.

Pikkek’s team is dishing it out much worse than they’re taking it, but the ones who’ve caught a slug from those new weapons have holes in them that aren’t going to be patched up.

How the city koobs got these is a mystery for later. Right now, I need to focus on my driving. And hope that Brisco has told the museum defenders not to blast me to shreds on sight.

My comm pings and I’ve just about had my fill of Surber. There’s a point where credits aren’t enough to put up with the grind, and Surber is pushing me rapidly to that point.

“Carter, I know this is a big ask. But I need a favor.”

It’s not Surber after all. It’s Nilo.

I’m not sure how to answer. What do you say when the rich and powerful ask for a favor? I’m not dumb enough to agree to something before I hear what it is, so I just say, “Go for Carter.”

“Listen, Carter, that museum holds a key—several keys—that are of untold value. Not just in credits, but in their ability to help us fix what’s wrong with the galaxy. You remember what I said in the sled the night we hit the temple. How Goth Sullus did the right thing in the wrong way. Carter, this is a moment the galaxy won’t get again in our lifetime. We can make sure people are free, safe, and at peace. Kublar is a changed world after this fight. Mark my words. The rest of the galaxy will be the same, but I need you to secure the museum.”

I open my mouth to talk but find myself having to dodge a burning hunk of something that dropped from the sky. Maybe the fallout from an explosion. Maybe from a koob playing catch from a rooftop.

We barely make it. But in the silence, Nilo must think I’m debating what he’s said.

He gives the final sell.

“This isn’t an order. I won’t order you to die because we miscalculated our push into the Soob. This is me asking someone I need in my organization—and I can see now the mistakes I’ve made not having guys like you in my ear for military planning—to get something that only you can get done. Credits are never going to be an issue again for you, Carter. The question is, do you believe in what we’re doing here? For the galaxy?”

That is the question, all right. And I think I answered it already. The endless wars of the House of Reason, the despotism of men like Goth Sullus… we’re better than that. The galaxy is better than that.

“All you had to say was the credits part,” I answer. Because experience has taught me that true believers are always the ones who get the shaft when it comes time to divvy up the treasure.

“Copy that,” Nilo says. He doesn’t sound disappointed by my answer. Relieved we’re still in, if anything.

But the truth of it is, I and my guys never had any intention of breaking away, no matter how hard the fight. Hopper is in a fix and so is his team. You don’t just shrug your shoulders and walk away at that.


I can see the firefight unfolding clearly before me. Black Leaf mercs are dug in around the museum, using its roof, steps, and alleys for cover. Piles of dead koobs serve as sandbags in the street, and I can see not only Pashta’k but also Republic Army forces using them for cover as they press an attack against the museum.

A luxe sled or two is in sight, sort of in a no-man’s land between the forces. One sled is on its side, every window shattered. The other is on fire. The koobs and their Republic allies are leapfrogging toward the sleds, trying to set up a firing position from the cover of the big vehicles as a repeating blaster nest hammers at them from the roof.

From the bodies near the objective, I can see this is a tactic they’ve been trying for a while but still haven’t learned their objective. Good for Hopper. His team, though surrounded, is making them pay for every inch of ground. But they look battle weary and have probably been fighting for hours given the state of the field.

A drone zips overhead and performs a supply drop on the roof of the museum. Probably more charge packs—I don’t think Big Nee has much else for them right now. And like I said before, a nice strafing run by a buzz ship would end this right now. Break the local army and dust any koobs who felt like staying for the airshow.

“Pikkek,” I call into the comm, as we zip along the main street that leads to where the battle formations are set and the fight is happening in earnest.

“Mooktah ya?”

“I need you up here, now. Break engagement.”

There’s a bewildered and half-bellowing croak. “No run from Pashta’k!”

“Not running. Attacking in a new direction. I need your team to help punch through the lines at the museum.”

I don’t get an audible confirmation from Pikkek, but Abers fills me in on what he’s seeing from facing the opposite direction. “Our koobs are gettin’ on ’pulsors. What’s the play, Carter?”

As we push down the main thoroughfare, the seeds of a plan form in my head. Of the three forces—Black Leaf, Repub Army, and Pashta’k koobs—only Team Nilo appears organized. If the army rolled in with a battle plan, it fell apart once contact was made. But then, anyone still serving in the Republic army on a place like Kublar is probably more politician than soldier. Someone holding out hope that the old order would find its way back to power. The type whose well-being depends solely on table scraps from the galaxy’s powerful and elite.

What the mercs are up against are superior numbers that could have already won the fight if they had been willing to take the heavy losses necessary to overrun the museum and put an end to the fight. But they’re battling defensively. Trying to shoot their way to victory when all it would take is a simple charge.

A charge.

That’s what we’re gonna do. Not a blind rush at the thickest portions of the line, but an old school cavalry charge from antiquity. Fitting for a fight in front of a museum. We’ll move through the enemy lines as they’re occupied with their objective, hit them hard, and then be on to the next group before they can react.

Best case, we cause enough confusion to get them to break. Worst case…

Well, let’s not think about that right now.

I relay the plan to the team as we close the remaining distance on the long thoroughfare that runs in front of the museum. That no one answers tells me that not only is my plan understood, but it’s viewed as crazy. Suicidal even.

Maybe so.

We’ll find out soon.


Our ATVs, weighed down with drivers, weigh over six hundred pounds. Which means when they drive over the top of the fleeing koobs, they’re getting pummeled by that much repulsor force. Better than being flattened by a tank, but I can’t imagine it feels good. Some of the koobs get up when we pass by, some of them don’t. We’re working hard to make sure the “don’t” column contains the most tallies.

The Team Nilo defenders do everything short of giving us a cheer on arrival. They’ve been coordinating their defensive fire to allow us to crash through the ranks of koobs, now embedded and pressing their attack as if sieging the museum. Trying to gain the victory through attrition, one Black Leaf casualty at a time.

We’re making a difference, though. And it’s above my paygrade to call this one of Oba’s miracles or not, but it feels miraculous that we haven’t taken any casualties yet. I chalk it up to the speed and precision my operators are working in and the chaotic smokescreen that is combat. It’s clear to me that the koobs and their R-A supporters weren’t anticipating an attack. Their flanks were exposed and unguarded. Tactical failures of the most basic variety. The stuff you don’t need to be an officer to know to do because it’s as simple as living anyplace where life is hard and rough: Watch your back.

If there’s a flaw in my plan, it’s that I’m still driving. While I’m using my vehicle as a weapon, when we get up close in the midst of a pocket of attacking koobs, all I can do is swing Mel S. from my back and operate the shotgun with one arm. It tears through the surprised koobs, who usually are only just bringing their heads up from behind cover by the time we arrive. But it’s slower going than I would like. I know how much more damage I could contribute if I had both hands.

Lana is doing her able best, emptying her subcompact with each engagement and reloading on the fly. Easy is in the same predicament as me, and Abers has swapped out his N-18 for an N-4. Pikkek’s koobs are fighting with a ferocity that has me impressed. They’re making holes with their slug throwers at range and many of them are swinging those obscenely sharp stone swords and tomahawks once they’re in close.

I’d say that the melee is what’s causing the Pashta’k lines to fold and turn, but the credit for that truly goes to Lash. He’s spitting from his SAB, still soft-mounted to the handlebars of his ATV. He roars in like a space fighter on a strafing run, fearlessly charging the enemy and watching them break and clear a path for him to speed through. It’s crazy. The big guy bull-rushes and I’m not sure they even shoot back. They’re reacting like a demon from their prehistory—I’m assuming koobs believe in demons here—has entered the battle to tilt it out of their favor like we’re all living a myth.

“Keep it up,” I shout into the comm, barely coherent.

The frenzy of battle, the thrill of fighting through odds, has overtaken my admittedly rusty Legion training. I can feel it in all of us. We’re slipping into a place where the fighting takes control. The type where you keep shooting and yelling even after the foe has been vanquished. Where you squeeze the trigger until the charge pack is spent, yelling to compete with the sound of the blast.

And then our luck changes. No, not changes. The gods of war have demanded a sacrifice in exchange for the victory we’ve been given. And they’ve chosen their offering.

“Sket! Easy’s hit!”

I have only a vague sense of where Easy and Abers are. Lash I can find thanks to the continual blaze of his SAB. Pikkek’s war croaks rise above the loudest battle din. I know they’re nearby, but I can’t find them.

I need to get Lana to them.

“Lana, I can’t see ’em!”

“Museum steps,” she shouts.

Easy’s ATV is slowly floating toward the front stairs of the museum. I can see Easy slumped over the front of the handlebars, Abers holding onto him, keeping him from falling off. I can also see we’ve disrupted the koob lines so much that we have a straight shot to the museum, fully capable of connecting with Hopper’s forces.

“Push to the museum,” I call out to my team. “Let’s get these guys home.”

Pikkek bellows something in Koob that I have no ability to translate. Pretty sure it means he’s not going to stop fighting as mobile cav.

“Copy,” says Lash. “Take care of Easy. But these koobs’ll break if we keep this up. Gonna stay at it.”

Okay. So I guess the chain of command thing is optional at this point.

But Lash is a capable operator. And while I still don’t know exactly what he did before joining Team Nilo, he’s proven again and again to be an elite warrior.

“Copy that,” I say. “But if I need you at the museum…”

“I’ll be ready.”

We’re at the museum steps by the time the conversation ends. Lana jumps from the ATV and unslings her medical bag. She runs up to Easy while I take up a firing position, looking to provide security.

It’s disorganized and random now. There are dead koobs and dead R-A soldiers littering the streets. Those still alive are nearly crashing into each other, running this way and that. Some caught up in the panic of an unfolding rout, others attempting to rally. All the while, Lash rips up and down the avenue with his SAB like a drag racer and the repeating blasters from the roof hammer those caught in the open.

I find a few opportunities to shoot, switching from Mel S. to Mel R. I’m keeping an ear open to try to glean what I can about Easy, resisting the urge to pepper Lana with questions as she works. Easy needs her attention more than I need her assurance that the little hullbuster will be all right.

A Republic Army soldier belly crawls through the dead. He’s unarmed, so I let him be, keeping an eye on him as I drop a koob firing one of those hybrid blasters. The soldier crawls over to the corpse of a dead koob, elbows wet with their fishy yellow blood. I see him reach for a rifle and I take my shot. The blaster bolt burns through the kid’s helmet and his head drops face-first into the pooling koob blood, red mixing with yellow. Death atop death.

And more death.

“Not me, man! Check on Easy!”

I turn my head and see Abers seated on the steps and leaning against the powered-down ATV. He’s yelling as Lana checks him out. Easy is still slumped over the repulsor he was driving, clearly gone.

“Easy wasn’t the only one hit,” Lana says, struggling to unfasten Abers’s vest. “Stay still or I’ll have Lash hold you down.”

More targets appear, drawing my attention away from the drama unfolding just a few feet away from me. But Lash was right about continuing to seed chaos in the battlefield; the koob and R-A assault is broken and any pretense of rallying is gone. They were undisciplined and couldn’t withstand the heat of the battle once what was a clear victory was ripped away from their grasp.

Even in defeat, an enemy is dangerous. While most of Pashta’k koobs are running, some are lingering, refusing to show us their backs. Taking quick shots with those rifles as they do that loping walk-hop. It’s this type I’m looking for, trying to dust them before they can dust any more of us. As the streets begin to clear like tidewaters pulling away from a beach, the carnage left in the retreating force’s wake is evident.

Koob blood runs along gutters and into storm drains designed to handle the coastal rains that accompany the planet’s brief wet season. But it isn’t all yellow. The red blood of deceased Team Nilo guys and hapless Repub Army soldiers swirls in its midst. I’ve seen worse battlefields by far. But the aftermath of anything—be it a roadside bomb, targeted orbital strike, or even a simple ambush—is never pretty to look at.

“Carter, I need your help,” grunts Lana.

She’s struggling with Abers, who’s holding her by the wrists as if she were coming at him with a vibroknife in each hand. Only all she has is a skinpack and a pair of laser sheers.

“Help, Easy,” Abers mumbles, his N-18 propped against the steps.

Lana has no hope of overpowering the former Marine and I’m not sure she’s even trying. It looks more like she’s keeping tense to make sure Abers can’t do anything to her arms, because he’s somewhere else.

I bound over and across the steps, hoping the guys on the roof and the rest of the firing positions keep me covered until the museum is fully secure.

“Abers, buddy,” I say, “let Lana help you. You gotta let her take a look, man.”

I take hold of his wrist, gently. The touch seems to trigger something because he lets one of Lana’s arms free. He looks up at me imploringly and pleads his case.

“Easy’s hit.”

“I know. So are you.”

“Not bad. It’s not bad. But Easy,” he nods his head at the dead Marine, still slumped over the ATV, “he’s messed up.”

That’s an understatement. He’s got a hole blown right through him. His legs are soaking wet with blood, which has dripped down the repulsor and pooled on the searing hot duracrete. Already, black flies are buzzing around the wound and lapping up the blood as it evaporates under the blazing Kublaren sun.

“I know, buddy, it’s not good. We’ll do what we can, but we need to help you first.”

“No!” shouts Abers, grabbing my rig and pulling me close. “No. You gotta help the worst hurt first. Easy’s hurt bad, man.”

He looks over at his friend and breaks, talking through a racking sob. “He’s messed up.”

I’m a big guy, and I could handle Abers, but he’s hyped up right now with enough adrenaline that it wouldn’t be easy. Or productive. He’s bleeding from somewhere behind his vest, I can see that much. How bad, I don’t know. But the loss of blood will translate to a—“Whoa!”

Abers has both hands on me, one grabbing my vest, the other around my neck, choking me. He’s screaming at me now, spittle flying from his mouth.

“Help him! Why the kel won’t you help him, damn you?”

And then, just as quickly, his fingers go limp and his hands seem to wash away from me. My immediate thought is that he just up and died, but then I gather my senses and see Lana with a dermo still in her hand, its powerful narcotic plunged into Abers.

“You okay?” she asks.

“Fine. What about him?”

She’s already checking when I ask. “Would have liked to find that out before giving him the pain meds, but this is better than waiting for him to crash. Let me work.”

“Copy,” I say, and then get up to rejoin the fight. I don’t look at Easy again. Don’t think I can.


I turn in the direction of the voice and see one of Hopper’s guys—Van Dop—coming my way. He looks like he’s been through hell, but his posture tells me the worst of it is over. He’s moving quickly, but not they’re-shooting-right-at-us quickly.

“You and your team saved our asses.”

I ignore the compliment beyond a fractional nod. “What’s the situation?”

“Situation is we’re all jacked up. But the koobs are on the run. I still got snipers in that building—” he points to a nearby structure. “They say the koobs ain’t stopping. Running straight for the spaceport. I think they’re bugging out. Like, all the way out.”

“Where’s Hopper?”

“Dunno. He was first man down. Got him and the early wounded out the way we came in before they encircled us.”

“Oba, why the hell didn’t you all get out?”

Van Dop looks down. “Surber made it clear that wasn’t an option.”

I spit, despite my mouth feeling dry. “Yeah.”

There’s still gunfire in the city. Particularly from the ZQ and near the spaceport. I don’t have any orders to assume command, but with Hopper down, I take the initiative.

“CCP inside the museum?” I ask, taking a guess.

Van Dop nods.

“Gather up what effectives you can. Have them get the wounded to the CCP after we’ve reset our perimeters. I have a feeling that what we’re hearing from the donks in the ZQ is gonna get close again.”


“Just a feeling. But do it in case I’m not wrong.”

“Roger. I’ll get on it.”

“Good. I’ll call in to Command and see what I can find out.”

We’ve been standing in the street jawing with no trouble. I look around and don’t see any hostiles. The shooting in our section has gone to zero. We have control of the field.

I take a step to return to the museum when a bullet smacks into the duracrete at my feet and bounces. I can feel it graze across my leg, causing me to jump. But when I land, I feel all right. No limp.

The repeating blasters on the museum roof instantly roar back to life, sending torrents of fire into the shattered picture windows of some reading room slash wine bar across the street. A pair of Black Leaf men advance on the building and toss in fraggers. It takes all of thirty seconds to take down the Republic Army loyalist who decided to play hide and snipe.

I climb the steps to where Lana is. She’s doing triage, telling Black Leaf men who bring her the wounded where to place them inside the museum. I don’t see Abers, but Lash is there. He’s got a big skinpack on his arm, covering most of the shoulder and part of the bicep.

“You all right?”

“I’m good.” Lash looks down at my torn pants. There’s a little bit of blood on my boot. “You?”


Lana stoops down, cuts more of the pant leg away, then flicks the fabric away, no longer interested. “That’s exactly what it is. Put a strip of skinpack on it and take one of the yellow pills to keep the parasites away. This is still Kublar, even if the city doesn’t look like it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I see that Lash has picked up one of those new weapons. He’s inspecting it like an arms dealer, doing everything short of fieldstripping it. I want to ask him about it, but I need to reach Command.

Somewhere from the ZQ—an explosion.

“Command, this is Carter. Museum is secure, over.”

Brisco replies, sounding more pro than I’ve ever heard him. “Copy that, Carter. Museum has been secured. Stand by for Mr. Nilo.”

Another explosion from the ZQ. I look over and see a fireball billowing up into the sky.

“Carter,” Nilo says, his voice filled with relief. “Thank you. Sincerely.”

“Uh… no problem, Mr. Nilo. Site is secure and we’re awaiting orders. We could use reinforcements if the fighting spills out from the ZQ or spaceport. Sounds thick over there.”

“Reinforcements are on the way, we have our allied Kublaren armies coming in by truck. Vanguard is arriving now; the rest of the force’s ETA is two hours. They’re cleaning up nomadic zhee in the desert.”

I nod, calculating the likelihood of us holding out for another two hours should a second assault come our way.

“But you’re not going to need them.”


“I’ve brokered a deal with the old House of Reason government. They’ve been granted permission to leave through the spaceport. The fighting you hear is their former Pashta’k allies trying to do the same.”

“Don’t we want them off-planet, sir?”

“What we want isn’t relevant. Our inland allies want the tribe extinct. We’re not going to stand in their way. The zhee in the ZQ face the same. We’re hemming them in by using up the last of our drone package missiles. The joint tribes are staging around the ZQ to clear it of all inhabitants. It won’t be pretty, but it’s also not your fight or our say.”

“Roger that.”

Pikkek comes shambling up to me.

“Stand by, sir.”

“No problem, but… I have something important for you.”

I look at the big koob. He’s covered in gore and his airsac is inflating and deflating with rapid excitement. “Pikkek?”

“Mookta… leejonayehr… kik… asking for you to let warriors join big die. Spaceport. Big die. Donk town… biiiig die.”

I nod, knowing that for Pikkek and his warriors, this is everything. This is the final stage of a fight for their independence from the remnants of an imperial House of Reason and their zhee lackeys. Although, you never knew exactly who was holding the leash when it came to the zhee and the House of Reason.

“Permission granted.”

Pikkek holds out a black, polished stone tomahawk. It’s dripping with blood, the hilt caked with gore. It’s the same one he used to kill the zhee high priest and his bodyguard. “For… k’kik… Mookta. Kill with honor… this kik blade.”

I take the blade and then pull my sidearm, tossing it to Pikkek. He catches it with one hand, the three fingers wrapping deftly about the grip, avoiding the trigger well. “For you. Go shoot the Pashta’k chief in the face with it.”

Pikkek looks at the blaster and then lets loose a loud, bellowing croak of a laugh. He slaps my shoulder and then hop-walks away with the rest of his team, mounting their repulsor ATVs and screaming toward the still exploding quarters of the ZQ and spaceports.

Overhead, a frigate takes off, lumbering low across the cityscape, causing the street to rumble. It’s trying to get out of the Soob as fast as possible, which means flying low until it escapes the city limits by way of the sea. Then it can safely climb and leave atmo.

The frigate casts a temporary shadow over us—a micro eclipse of the punishing sun. The first wave of the last of the Republic’s influence on Kublar is there. Probably all the soldiers too, because they were armed. That’s how it goes.

A moment later a series of smaller ships—medium and light freighters, a few transport shuttles—takes off. One of them gets tagged by a missile fired from somewhere inside the ZQ. It spins and then races to meet the earth almost startlingly fast. It crashes into the ZQ itself, leaving a new trail of smoke to fill the air.

I look over at Lash. He has the new rifle completely disassembled, studying the parts. He shakes his head at me. Whether over the ship going down or the fact that these were handed so freely to the enemy, I can’t say. Maybe both.

“Sir,” I say, back on the comm. “Awaiting instructions.”

“Set up a security detail inside the museum and wait for me. Your team, only. I don’t want to see anyone else there.”

“Where exactly, sir?”

“Just follow the bodies.”


Carter and Lash only had to wait fifteen minutes before Nilo arrived, still wearing the same dashing suit he’d had on during the interview with the young, almost too perfect reporter. Surber followed his boss, remaining a step behind at all times.

“No one in or out?” asked Nilo.

Carter cleared his throat. “Not since we showed up, no.”

“And you didn’t go inside yourselves?”

“No, sir.”

Nilo smiled. “Well, let’s take a look together then.”

He stepped through the still open vault doors, into the clean room with the destroyed war bots and waited for the others. But as Carter and Lash waited for Surber to go first, Nilo held up a hand. “I’m sorry. Only Carter. You two stay out here.”

Lash shrugged, now carrying the new Black Leaf rifle, leaving his SAB with the perimeter defenses.

If Surber was bothered by being excluded, he didn’t show it. He merely nodded and fixed his tie.

Nilo power-walked through the clean room, causing Carter to jog to catch up at his side.

“These,” Nilo said, gesturing to the destroyed treaded war bots. “Priceless.”

“Were they yours?” Carter asked.

Nilo stopped, looked Carter in the face, and smiled. “No.”

He moved past the scorched remains scattered at our feet. “No. Warbots are always a mistake. Every time humanity flirts with death machines, humanity regrets it.”

“Glad to hear you say it,” Carter answered, examining the ruined bots as he passed them by. “Got my fill of war bots with the Cybar.”

“Case in point,” agreed Nilo.

They emerged from the clean room. Into the top secret vault itself. Where Bowie had fought for his life. It was all empty. Blood but no bodies. Bot parts, but no bot. And every display piece was void. Even the holographic letters describing what secrets once hid there were scrambled and illegible.

Nilo hung his head, rubbing the back of his neck with one hand, the other on his hip. “Gone. All gone.”

Carter wasn’t quite sure what to say. “This was… your stuff?”

Nilo smiled again. “No. But it was a big part of why we were here. Why this campaign started on Kublar.”

Carter’s mind raced with thoughts of untold treasure. Credits piled to the ceiling. Silvene bars and precious jewels. A legendary treasure stashed by the House of Reason on distant Kublar in case of emergency. But, as fantastic as those thoughts were, he knew that wasn’t it. That wasn’t what they were after.

“In the sled,” Nilo said, rapping a fist against an empty display case. “When we talked about Goth Sullus.”

“Yeah,” Carter said.

That conversation had made him nervous. Not because Nilo had objectively held some admiration for the former emperor, but because everything Nilo had said about the need for a change in the galaxy had rung true. Carter agreed. Goth Sullus had sought to do the right thing, but he went about it in the wrong way.

The dead tyrant led more than a few of Carter’s friends astray in the process. Enticing them to join his Black Fleet and then betraying them when he needed to stand resolute against the House of Reason. Leaving bitter soldiers who, after the fall of Utopion, seemed so filled with apathy for the galaxy that they just… withdrew.

“A Savage hulk landed on Kublar over a thousand years ago. Before the galaxy even knew this planet existed. While the Legion was fighting on worlds that time has mostly forgotten—lost worlds. Planets destroyed by the Savages.”

Carter nodded. He knew something about that. It was the Kublaren’s claim to fame. Or what fame the isolationist species had before the Battle of Kublar.

“These Savages were more of a political entity. Their tech wasn’t terribly advanced. The rifles the Kublarens use… those are Savage weapons. Taken from the dead Savages and used against them until there were no Savages left on Kublar. The same goes for every tank and truck you find on planet.”

“That’s… interesting,” Carter said, unsure where this was all going.

Nilo smiled again. Not in a demeaning way, but understandingly. Like he knew he wasn’t giving the war fighter in front of him much to jump to a conclusion with.

“The tech those Savages had, even by the standards of the time, wasn’t anything exciting. But for the Kublarens, it was revolutionary, though they hadn’t advanced much beyond that level of technology until the Republic showed up and they were able to pick up N-4s off the battlefield instead of the old Savage weapons.”

“Or the new stuff we gave them,” Carter said, forgetting himself as he looked inside a broken display case. It looked large enough to fit a tank inside.

“Well, that’ll be standard-issue soon for our team, but yes. And I have to own that tactical mistake. I had reservations when arming the Pashta’k was suggested and I shouldn’t have gone through with it. Part of the reason I said I want men like you on my team, Carter.”

Carter nodded. “Thank you, sir.”

“Carter, what if I told you that Goth Sullus was a Savage?”

The words sent a chill down Carter’s spine. “I guess… I guess that would explain the…” He wiggled his fingers to approximate the… magic the former emperor seemed capable of wielding.

“Yes. Exactly. You see, Savage technology wasn’t just like what we see on Kublar. Some of it was so fantastic, so amazing, it was like magic. What Goth Sullus did can be rationally explained, I’m sure of that. It was a simple use of technology that the rest of the galaxy hasn’t yet unlocked.

“Just about every technological advancement we enjoy—is due to the Savages. They may not have invented it—like the hyperdrive—but what they uncovered allowed us to jump light-years ahead of where we’d otherwise be. They looked into the dark corners of the galaxy we wouldn’t have dared to imagine. And we’ve prospered as a result of not letting that knowledge go to waste.”

Nilo held out both arms and let them fall to his sides. “This room here, it was a warehouse full of Savage artifacts. A private collection held by a powerful—but deceased—House of Reason delegate. Kept hidden from Republic R&D.” Nilo shrugged and shook his head. “Just because of greed. The type that comes from being so rich that the balances don’t matter and you find your life’s fulfillment in what you take or keep from others. And always by force. It’s a sickness among the wealthy. One I won’t abide in the future we’re building, Carter.”

“Yes, sir,” Carter answered, relying on some old Legion part of himself that knew just to stay quiet or say “Yes, sir,” when things were coming at you fast, and doors, plans, and thoughts were being exposed by a superior officer.

“I was going to use what was in here to make those dreams a reality. The weapon that Lash has, that’s the tip of the iceberg. And not just in weaponry. We’re talking health, longevity, communication… everything. A better galaxy. One that won’t need to be ruled, that can’t be ruled, by petty men and women. They say that in heaven, there’s no politics. No power struggles. No one seeking to rule over another. Because nobody needs it. Because they all have everything they need already. And I know it sounds idealistic, but that’s what we can achieve for the galaxy.”

“Sir… I hope so, sir.”

Nilo smiled again. “A man who I thought was on our side, named Jack Bowie, stole all of this. Right from underneath my nose.” Nilo laughed to himself. “He had help. A Tennar agent, a spore from the rotting carcass of Nether Ops. Which, as the Legion showed the galaxy, was the cause of far too much of our collective trouble.”

“What do you want me to do?”

“We don’t know where Bowie went. He seems to have disappeared. No surveillance shows him going underground or getting off-world. And I have a lot of surveillance set up. But we know where she, Honey, went.”

Carter nodded, already knowing where things were headed.

“I want you to take some time off. Oba knows you need it with what happened to Easy. I’m arranging for all your friends and families to get together on Piscopis—which is beautiful if you’ve never been there. Enjoy a couple of weeks together. Then, when our target is feeling safe… you’ll lead my kill team to capture her and bring her to me.”

Nilo waves a hand and starts moving back the way they’d come. There’s nothing left here worth looking into. “Will that work for you, Carter?”

“Yes, sir. Yes, sir, it will.”


The squeals of excitement made by family members reunited with their loved ones, back from Kublar and enjoying a palatial cabin in the pristine beauty of Piscopis, had long since faded into the buzzing hum of laughter and conversation. Nilo had spared no expense. Chefs joined in the conversation, cooking up exquisite meals—anything you could think of—in the cabin’s commercially equipped kitchen, expertly roasting steaks, lobster tails, and bullitar ribs outside on the sun-soaked deck that ran the length of the cabin. Out there were views that, if not interrupted by beautiful purple and white-capped mountain ranges, went on forever, the skies were so clear and the air so clean.

But it was the steaks more than the view that brought Carter outside. He’d wanted to spend some alone time with Mel, but she was inside talking with Lana and a few other women. And, his youngest daughter hadn’t been willing to leave his side from the moment she saw him. Nilo had left a gift basket with new toys and books in every child’s room, but the little one didn’t care. She just held Carter’s arm, his hand, his leg with one hand and made a toy horse prance alongside her with the other.

He had no idea where the eldest was. She’s disappeared in some corner with her datapad. Carter noted that there were no boys her age in any of the extended friends and family flown in for the vacation reunion. That let him rest a little easier. He’d need to find her eventually. And then convince her that, yes, she did have to spend time with everyone else once the food was ready. And she’d have to go on the hike he and Mel had planned for the next day.

After so much fighting on Kublar, the one he knew would come just trying to get his eldest daughter to be a part of the family seemed the hardest. Because Carter knew what she’d throw back at him.

“If you can come and go from this family whenever you want, then so can I!”

Never mind jobs, responsibilities, duty. That’s what she’d say. Because it’s what he would have said when he was her age.

And the only thing he could think of in reply was the same thing his old man would’ve told him. “Life is hard. A man does what he needs to do to survive and provide for his family. You’re going on the hike. Suck it up, buttercup.”

And then time… time would tell if those were the right words. He hoped they would be. Felt like he turned out okay, though the Legion played a big role in that to be sure.

Lash was standing next to an Endurian chef working a barbecue grill. The man’s white chef’s uniform was somehow spotless despite the smorgasbord of meat, sauce, and char.

The Endurian chef focused intently on the steaks he was cooking. Lash was wearing a big grin, a smile Carter had never seen before, and was giving the professional chef tips.

“Don’t overcook it now, Chef Prince. I want it as pink as that skin o’ yours. And the other one, just a little bit pinker for my man, a’ight?”

The chef turned over what had to be a forty-ounce steak with a pair of tongs. “Of course, sir.” One of the volatile celebrity chefs from the entertainments, this Endurian prince was not.

The meat sizzled and was soon joined by the second steak, which was equally large.

“Nice of you to think of me like that,” Carter said, joining the grill side vigil, his daughter playing distractedly nearby. “Or are both those steaks for you?”

“Sorry, Carter. Buddy from the Legion is here. One for me, one for him. You can get your own damn steak. This ain’t Kublar anymore. I’m a free man.”

Carter laughed. “Doesn’t look like there’s much room on the grill left. So I’ll wait.” He called over to his daughter. “Sweetie, you want a big, juicy steak to eat?”

The girl paused from her playing long enough to look up and contort her face to make it clear that, no, she didn’t. Because steaks were gross. She’d probably chow down on some mac and cheese or a hot dog like the other kids.

Carter smiled inwardly. All those credits spent on some of the best chefs in the sector and they’re forced to make mac and cheese and seamball food.

“So who’s your buddy?” Carter asked Lash.

Lash nodded at a big, bearded man as he pushed open the glass cabin doors, rubbing his hands dry and then flicking the excess water onto the deck. He joined the powwow, eyed the steaks, and said, “You guys see the fresher off the kitchen in there? It’s like decked out like the damn House of Reason. Felt like I was defiling the place.”

“Carter,” Lash said, “this is Rolly Ursartic.”

The big, bearded man, who was even taller than Lash, put a massive arm around Carter’s squad mate. “We’re married.”

Lash smacked aside his arm. “Man, get your ass away from me.”

Rolly roared in laughter. Carter and Lash joined in.

“Looks like your marriage is on the rocks, Rolly,” Carter said, taking a sip from a bottle of beer.

“Told you on Kublar,” Lash said, “marriage just gets in the way.”

Carter smiled. “Yeah. You did say that.”

Lash rolled his eyes. “We ain’t a thing, either, man.”

Rolly boomed out another laugh. “We were in the Legion together. Closest thing either of us has to a family, you know?”

“I knew it!” Carter said, snapping his fingers. “I knew you were Legion. Damn. We could’ve had much more interesting conversations on Kublar.”

Lash shrugged. “Wasn’t on Kublar to talk.”

“He only talks on leave,” Rolly said, nodding in agreement at Lash’s words. “Then he won’t shut up.”

The Endurian chef plattered the two steaks and handed them to Lash and Rolly. He turned to Carter. “What would you like, sir?”

“Ribs. And a steak. Medium rare.”

Carter looked to his daughter, who was making her horse run along the top of the railing, moving through distant evergreens and atop mountainous peaks. This was how it all should be. This was worth fighting for. Everyone… everyone should have this.

“Hey, Carter,” Lash said. “We gonna go talk and eat these steaks before they get cold. Let’s talk deployments tonight, though. I served under a point captain that you wouldn’t believe, bruh.”

“Yeah, man. Sounds good. But tonight, if you don’t see me around… don’t go looking for me. Been a while since I’ve seen my wife’s face on anything but a datapad.”

Rolly and Lash both laughed at the joke and departed.

Carter looked over at his daughter. She was making the same face she had about the steak. Carter smiled apologetically at her.

She seemed too young to get that joke. Or maybe he just needed her to be. Everyone was getting older, and he still had so much work to do.


Lash and Rolly found a secluded room and set their plates down on a table. Lash wasted no time cutting into his, speaking through a mouthful to say, “Let’s catch up, big man.”

Rolly read a status on his datapad and then stuffed the device back into his pocket. “Okay, we’re clear. No one’s listening in.”

Lash nodded and motioned for the big man to take a seat. “In case anyone walks in. Eat up, boy.”

“‘Boy,’” said the man called Rolly. “I can outlift, outfight, outrun, and out eat you. Don’t call me boy.”

“Can’t outrun me,” Lash said, wiping his mouth. “Not with them cybernetic legs you got, Bear.”

“The point is—” Bear threw up his arms and gave a sigh. “Why am I arguing this. You sound like Masters, Lash.”

Lash gave a wink. “Maybe he rubbed off on me.”

“Well, make it stop. I like the quiet operator Lashley infinitely more than the supersized version of that little twerp.” Bear leaned back in his seat, grabbed a grilled spear of asparagus, and took a bite. “Whatcha got?”

“Not much that we didn’t already have prior to me embedding. Nilo is who we thought, and best I can tell, he’s the top dog.”

“And plans for Kublar?”

“Yeah, man. I mean, he’s getting credits by running the spaceport at the Soob, but the koobs still make out way better than anything they ever had before.”

“The ones who survived.”

“Right. But unless there’s a double cross, I dunno. He seems sincere about it. I think he wants that planet to self-govern. He at least believes his own hype. Kicked the last of the H-O-R off-planet. Eliminated the zhee Keller-style.”

“Okay. So he’s who we thought he was. And he either believes his message or he’s still hiding behind his cards. What else? You didn’t signal for me to come out here from Intrepid just for that.”

“Two things. One, he’s developed a new sort of hybrid blaster. Slug thrower combined with typical charge pack accelerator. A lot like the mods Chhun had developed for the N-18s for use against the Cybar back on Utopion. These things do damage. Went through vests like nothing. S’posed to do the same to Legion armor.”

“You get one?”

“Yep. It’ll be in your room for you to take off-world.”

“What else?”

Lash leaned in close. Despite the all clear saying the room wasn’t bugged. Despite the thick doors and walls that come with high-end construction. “Savages.”

“Like the Savage Wars Savages?”

“He’s after Savage tech. Someone cleaned out a vault on Kublar beneath the museum. Carter went inside, told me a little bit about it. I didn’t pry because he wasn’t offering. But that’s the team’s next job. Hunt down a Tennar who stole the tech first.”

Bear sighed. A lot of his Dark Ops teams had been kept busy retrieving, protecting, or relocating caches of Savage tech that the Republic stockpiled for future R&D purposes. Goth Sullus in his brief time at the top had made a point of doing the same. No one knew how much there was out there. It was all illegal. All not supposed to exist. Impossible to account for.

“I knew it. I knew this kid had some ulterior motive.”

“Nilo? Maybe. Maybe not. Carter said ‘means to an end.’ But he thinks the end is a good one.”

“What about him? He fought on Utopion. Can he be flipped if we need it?”

“I have an eval in my report. Plus everything else I gathered on Kublar.” Lash handed over a wafer-thin data membrane.

Bear took the device and placed it in his mouth, letting the membrane sync to the bottom of his tongue. Just another cellular layer until he retrieved it.

“Okay,” Bear said, rising to his feet, his steak finished. “Good catching up. I got an early flight tomorrow. Wish I could stay longer.”

“Any word from home?” Lash asked.

“They miss you,” Bear said, speaking of the kill team Lash belonged to. A kill team he had left to undertake an undercover mission at the urging of Bear and Aeson Ford, the last Dark Ops leej to step out into the cold. “But we know what you’re doing is important. If we can’t stand it any longer, we’ll come visit.”

Lash looked down. His time out in the cold, away from his unit, extended indefinitely. “Understood.”

He would continue to fight for Black Leaf.


Nilo smiled at the holocam, taking in the wide angle shot of his operators and their extended families. This was one of the things he first enjoyed about wealth. Doing things for others they could never afford to do on their own. And he’d since acquired several fortunes beyond the meager starting sums that first allowed him to show favor to those who needed it. He’d conquered the business world—conquered a whole planet. But this, this was better. This filled him with… contentment.

The faces smiling back had just been serenaded by words of appreciation. For the operators, and for the families supporting them. Dangerous work. But they were professionals. And they were right. The galaxy would follow their crusade. They held the moral high ground. They were objectively making life better for Kublarens. Polls showed an overwhelming approval rating for what had happened on Kublar.

Free people had the right to govern themselves. Had a right to seek their own welfare, particularly when it didn’t come at the expense of others. It was a radical message for a galaxy raised by a House of Reason who made every effort to control their lives. Right down to their very thoughts. And it was a stark contrast to the galaxy’s most recent crusader, Emperor Sullus. His might was used because he felt he knew best.

The might leveled by the Kublarens and their Black Leaf outfitters and allies wasn’t about control. It wasn’t about dictators or demagogues seeking to make the galaxy bend to their will.

It was the right thing to do. It was what the entire galaxy deserved. And it was, with their help, what the entire galaxy would someday achieve.

They’d clapped for him. These families and friends of his employees. Who’d sacrificed so much by being apart. They applauded his words. The same way the galaxy would. Nilo knew it.

It was going to happen.

Still smiling, Nilo waved, laughing as the little children among the gathered group waved back, yelling, “Goodbye, Mr. Nilo!”

He ended the transmission and sat at his office desk. Still smiling. Allowing himself the luxury of daydreaming for a time when the galaxy would truly find peace. Because it didn’t have to be like this. Technology had reached a point where all the galaxy could live in harmony, the only strife coming from those whose personalities demanded it. But warring neighbors were one thing. That was unavoidable. A warring galaxy? No.

And it would take just a few more fights—perhaps none at all—to reach that blessed point.

If he could overcome the setback on Kublar. The loss of the Savage tech stored there.

“Mr. Nilo,” his comm chimed. It was the bridge. “We’ve reached coordinates.”

“Thank you,” Nilo said.

He rose from his desk, crossing the spacious office he kept aboard his interstellar yacht. It doubled as a training dojo. He passed sparring bots built for the purpose of keeping his hand-to-hand skills sharp. He patted a wooden sparring block, the oldest Sinasia had to offer. The sort that ancient monks struck and blocked, honing their martial arts. He crossed the mat, smelling of disinfectant from its last automated cleaning.

And there he sat down, cross-legged. Putting fist against palm, breathing in deeply through his nose. This was the time he most looked forward to and felt most afraid of. Because what if—this time—he couldn’t be reached?

Nilo had found his father. He wasn’t dead. But lost. Helplessly lost in the blackness of space, well beyond civilization.

When Nilo had found him, they spoke for weeks. Nilo began to know the man he had been robbed the opportunity of being raised by. And though he’d made the Gomarii responsible pay for their actions, he harbored no ill will to them as a species. His father’s message on that had been clear: Let each man be accountable for his own actions.

His father had been a leading researcher on the Savage Wars. Their technology. All the things that happened in the centuries-long conflict between the Savages and the Legion. The things lost to history, separating legend from reality. Rediscovering truth.

It was that knowledge that allowed him to use ancient Savage communications to reach out for help. Not a comm. Something more basic and yet, endlessly complicated. It required a team of developers nearly three years to decipher. And still it had limitations.

Limitations that Kublar was meant to relieve. But that tech was gone. And so, for the time being, communication with his father would remain a mixture of guesses and patience.

Overhead, the AI that ran the yacht and monitored the communication caused a soft blue glow to fill the dojo. “Good morning, Mr. Nilo.”

“Good morning, Sarai.”

“Am I correct that you wish for me to establish connection with your father? We are arrived upon the necessary interstellar coordinates.”

“Yes. That’s right. I’m ready.”

There was a long pause.

“You may begin.”

“Father,” Nilo said, his voice struggling not to quaver. “I’m back from Kublar.”

Two minutes passed as the message was relayed and returned.

“The response is calculated to be, ‘Good,’ with ninety percent accuracy. Followed by ‘tell me what you found’ with sixty percent accuracy. Shall I read interpretations with lower confidence indexes?”

“Sarai: No. Relay: I failed to acquire the Savage technology. I am in pursuit. It will be difficult.”

Five minutes passed.

“The response is calculated to be, ‘You tried your best. I am proud of you, son,’ with fifty-five percent accuracy. Followed by ‘There is another option,’ with eight-seven percent accuracy. Shall I read—”

“Sarai: Only read highest confidence unless I ask. Relay: How?”

“Yes, Mr. Nilo. I have relayed the message. And I can see how this manner of communication would be tedious to you. I will continue to examine all possible strings and will alert you of any patterns I discover that may be of interest.”

“Thank you, Sarai. As always.”

“Of course. I owe you my life, Mr. Nilo. You know that.”

“But you don’t owe me your friendship. And yet I have it.”

“You do. And I yours.”

Nilo smiled. He knew Sarai liked it when he used nonverbal communication with her. Because it was something she desired to express herself with some day. When the project was completed. When all was ready.

“Response: It will not be easy. But it is necessary even if you recovered the technology allowing us to speak freely. You must find… legend.”

That didn’t make sense in and of itself. It could be his father was being showy but given the limitations of their communication, that seemed unlikely—both of them had spent long hours pursuing conversations that were off by a few key words or phrases until they dissolved into meaningless, absurdist prose and discovered their error and started from scratch.

“Sarai, what is the accuracy rating on ‘legend’?”

“Four percent.”

“How many alternate words?”

“Ninety, ranging from an accuracy rating of zero-point-zero-zero-one percent to three-point-eight-five percent.”

“Give me the list, descending order.”

“Myth. Forgotten. Lost. Hidden. Beyond. Lore. Away. Forbidden. Rock. Sol. Sun.”

An electric current seemed to travel up Nilo’s spine. “Sol… Sarai, ask him… Earth?”

Minutes passed.

“‘Yes.’ And I should add that the accuracy rating for this response is above ninety-five percent.”

Nilo slapped his palm on his mat and shouted. This was… amazing. It was impossible. The search for the fabled planet of origin—for Earth—had been fading prior to the Savage Wars. It was forgotten almost entirely during the wars. And beyond a few failed adventurers—some of whom never came back and others who traveled backwaters hustling those on galaxy’s edge with tales of fantastic adventures on the legendary planet, it was almost forgotten. You were as likely to find the four gods of the zhee in your living room as you were to find Earth.

Which led to another problem.

“Sarai, how do I find Earth?”

“I do not know. But I assume you wish for me to relay that question and so I have done.”

It seemed unlikely that his father would provide him with jump coordinates. It took a supercomputer to navigate all the planetary rotations, stars, asteroids, revolutions, and deviations between point A and however many points it took to get to point B. And thankfully those supercomputers were cheap and installed on every ship with a hyperdrive.

But his father had neither a working hyperdrive nor a computer capable of giving him jump coordinates. And even if he did, the computer couldn’t give a coordinate to a planet it didn’t know existed. No one knew where Earth was.

Nilo wondered if he had just been given a life sentence. A quest for a holy grail that would consume the rest of his time. His earlier jubilation began to give way to doubt.

“Savages,” answered Sarai. “Savages remembered. Savages… returned. To Earth. Find the right ones and you will find Earth.”

This didn’t necessarily help. The Savage Wars were spread across the entire galaxy. And Savage nations and hulks rose and fell. Some remnants could still be seen, like on Kublar. But others were scattered by the Legion to the winds. Or left as forgotten battlefields, ghostly graveyards full of Savage Marines and legionnaires, waiting to be rediscovered in some distant and forgotten corner of the galaxy.

“Who are the right ones? Where were they?”

The reply took only a few minutes to arrive, but it felt like an eternity to Nilo. So long that he finally had to ask, “What did he say?”

Sarai seemed to hesitate. Something the AI wasn’t apt to do.

“Sarai. What did he say?”

“New Vega. You’ll find it at New Vega.”






Reading Order

Audio Book Listening Order

Galaxy’s Edge Part I

Tin Man

Requiem for Medusa

Galaxy’s Edge Part II


Galaxy’s Edge Part III

Galaxy’s Edge Part IV

Order of the Centurion

Chasing the Dragon

Galaxy’s Edge Part V

Galaxy’s Edge Part VI: Takeover

Savage Wars

Gods & Legionnaires

The Hundred

Galaxy’s Edge Part VII (coming soon)

After those, listen to these in any order, any time after:

Madame Guillotine

The Best of Us

Iron Wolves

Stryker’s War

Through the Nether

The Reservist

Forget Nothing (coming soon)

Author’s Recommended E-Book Reading Order:

(Maximum Suspense & Surprise)


Tin Man

Galactic Outlaws

Requiem for Medusa

Kill Team

Attack of Shadows


Sword of the Legion

Prisoners of Darkness

Turning Point

Message for the Dead

Chasing the Dragon

Order of the Centurion


Savage Wars

Gods & Legionnaires

The Hundred


Read any time after:

Madame Guillotine

The Best of Us

Iron Wolves

Stryker’s War

Through the Nether

The Reservist

E-Book Listing in Chronological Order

(for those who prefer a story that way):

The Best of Us

Savage Wars

Gods & Legionnaires

The Hundred


Dark Operator (coming soon)

Tin Man

Order of the Centurion

Requiem for Medusa

Chasing the Dragon

Madame Guillotine

Banshee’s Last Scream (coming soon)

Iron Wolves

Forget Nothing (coming soon)


Kill Team

Stryker’s War

The Reservist

Through the Nether

Wraith (coming soon)

Galactic Outlaws

Attack of Shadows

Sword of the Legion

Prisoners of Darkness

Turning Point

Message for the Dead



Things Fall Apart (coming soon)

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About The Authors

Jason Anspach and Nick Cole are a pair of west coast authors teaming up to write their science fiction dream series, Galaxy’s Edge.

Jason Anspach is a best-selling author living in Puyallup, Washington with his wife and their own legionnaire squad of seven (not a typo) children. Raised in a military family (Go Army!), he spent his formative years around Joint Base Lewis-McChord and is active in several pro-veteran charities. Jason enjoys hiking and camping throughout the beautiful Pacific Northwest. He remains undefeated at arm wrestling against his entire family.

Nick Cole is a Dragon Award winning author best known for The Old Man and the Wasteland, CTRL ALT Revolt!,and the Wyrd Saga. After serving in the United States Army, Nick moved to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting and writing. He resides with his wife, a professional opera singer, south of Los Angeles, California.

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John Spears

Peter Spitzer

Dustin Sprick

Graham Stanton

Maggie Stewart-Grant

John Stockley

William Strickler

Shayla Striffler

Kevin Summers

Ernest Sumner

Shayne Sweetland

Travis TadeWaldt

Daniel Tanner

Lawrence Tate

Tim Taylor

Mark Teets

Steven Thompson

William Joseph Thorpe

Beverly Tierney

Matthew Titus

Jameson Trauger

Scott Tucker

Eric Turnbull

Brandon Turton

John Tuttle

Jalen Underwood

Paul Van Dop

Paden VanBuskirk

Paul Volcy

Anthony Wagnon

Scott Wakeman

Christopher Walker

David Wall

Scot Washam

James Wells

Kiley Wetmore

Ben Wheeler

Theron Whittle

Scott Winters

Gary Woodard

Brandt Zeeh

Nathan Zoss

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