I turned the corner just in time. The shop to my right wasn’t so fortunate. Its sensors failed to detect the energy discharge in time to activate its anti-gravity generators, or the owners were too poor or too cheap to have the standard safety devices installed. Whichever, I didn’t care. I was too busy saving my own life.
Another blast grazed the top of my skimmer. On instinct I dove and avoided the follow-up blast. Burning wreckage followed me down through the thick orange clouds. So much for retirement.
All because I missed my target by three millimeters. I knew I should’ve refused this job. Hindsight sucks...
* * *
“It’s a simple job, Merc,” said Administrator Gelv. Those four words always make me suspicious, especially when spoken by a greedy, smoke-stem toting bug that chuckles like a lunatic. Unfortunately, he or she or it (you just can’t tell with these K’rit’iks) followed up with the magic words I always like to hear, “And the pay is high.”
“How high?” I asked. “And the name’s Mark, not Merc.”
“Whatever. Four million credits, your pick of our latest military toys, and fifty thousand cubic acres of air space with your own floating mansion.”
“Nobody pays that much for an easy job.”
“I never said it was easy.”
This was the part that made being a mercenary so interesting: smug clients who think they’re smart.
“So, what’s the job?” I asked.
Gelv punched a button on his desk, and a holograph appeared. The sight of the hairless female humanoid with blue skin sent a shiver down my spine. Gelv said, “I heard you were acquainted with this species. That’s why I picked you. This particular Shan’tir’ri has been a thorn in my Queen’s side for the past eight months. According to our sources, this little monster is kidnapping drone younglings.”
“Never knew they had a thing for bugs,” I said. “I thought they kept to humanoids for their pleasure slaves.”
Gelv sent a cloud of smoke-stem excretion into my face. I held my breath.
“Watch who you’re calling bugs,” he said. “I’ll be more specific. She’s not kidnapping just any drone younglings. She’s taking our warrior drones and selling them to our enemies.”
“You said simple.”
“When do you get to the simple part?”
“I want her dead as dead can be and her remains brought to me. Is that simple enough for you?”
My grin was all Gelv needed.
“You leave for Morvarr tomorrow morning. Your pay is half if you take longer than a week. Damages incurred will be billed to you, and your contract is forfeited if you don’t bring back proof of death.”
“Just make sure you have my money when I get back,” I said. I shook his three-pronged pincer after adding, “I’ll take my choice of weapon as my advance.”
“Nice doing business with you, Merc.”
“Whatever. Just don’t try to cheat me. You wouldn’t want me as your enemy.”
Why do they always say that?
* * *
The biggest problem about assassination jobs is that the wolf can become the deer if he’s not careful, and careful doesn’t always cut it. In less than a second my target did just that when I missed my mark. The sight of seeing silver liquid seep out of her pores to harden into armor, and weaponry grow from the same alloy, is a sight that can freeze the most hardened predator.
Good thing I was already accustomed to seeing their bio-armor conversion process. I beat feet faster than ever before and hopped into my skimmer. The one thought on my mind as I weaved between two cargo barges was about how nice it would be if, just once, something would actually go according to plan.
I dove down to where the clouds changed from orange to red. My skimmer was designed to slice through the thick, lower atmosphere. Her cyber-wings weren’t. This would force her to rely primarily on her armor’s thrusters, and that would give me the maneuverability advantage. At least I hoped it would. When I looked back and saw that she was no longer behind me, I realized my mistake.
All I saw was a flash of silver before the impact knocked me out of the pilot seat, caused every warning light in the control panel to light up, and put the skimmer into a spin that made my stomach spasm. The next thing I saw was a jagged cliff spinning in my front view screen.
Call it skill, call it luck, call it anything you want. I managed to grab the stick in time to stop the spin and set the bottom of the skimmer onto the top of the cliff. Two skips, a hop, and a quick reverse thrust stopped the skimmer before it smashed into the rock wall.
I popped open the emergency hatch, grabbed my gear, and bolted out the cockpit. I managed twenty steps before the skimmer exploded and sent me sailing into the wall. I thought I was dead when everything blurred and faded to black. When I came to, I realized t -- [End of Preview.]