The air reeked of burnt metal and golden opportunities. No matter how many times Syrekayan Ar’Zathris experienced the acrid burning of a ship’s hull, the scent made him heady with its potential. Who knew what treasures lay within the Sykorian ship?
The Ykine hired him to retrieve PETL Cells from the Sykorian ship, but any bonuses found aboard would line Syrek’s pockets. As much as it pained him to admit it, they needed a good payload from this mission. Pretty soon, he would peel away the ship’s secrets, like stripping a dress from a nubile body.
The freeholder mercenaries had approached the heavy Sykorian freighter with their caravel under a stealth field, and now their quick and maneuverable vessel sat glued to the hull with electromagnets. From the lack of Sykorian response, they had been successful in remaining undetected.
That can change at any time, Syrek thought.
His second-in-command, Ancain, held a cutting torch to the hull of the Sykorian ship. Sparks rained down, bouncing across Syrek’s heat resistant boots. He crossed his arms across his barrel of a chest and suppressed a grumble. Waiting was never his strong point. He thrived on action. His well-muscled body wasn’t for show: he knew how to use it.
Within a few moments, they would breach the cargo vessel and he would be that much closer to his goal. While another man might have paced with nerves, Syrek remained unmoving, a massive statue carved of gray stone. His mind ran through relaxation exercises, calming him for the coming battle.
In his ear, a quiet voice murmured. Luall monitored their progress from the cockpit of the caravel, and the translator device embedded in his ear decoded her words for him. “Twelve minutes to detection.”
Ancain cursed and hunched over the torch. “It will be close.” In a dozen minutes, the stealth field would drop and every alarm on the freighter would start blaring.
Clez tossed her knife up and caught it by the tip. She nudged Ancain with the foot. “Hurry it up, old man. I have work to do.”
“Eyes on the prize,” Syrek said.
At his words, Clez settled down, but the knife kept tumbling between the fingers of her primary arms. Her secondary arms were tucked at her sides, but soon they would be busy. Clez’s role would be to disable the Sykorian’s communications devices, leaving them deaf, mute and blind in the darkness of space. She was also a vicious fighter, which only added to her value on this mission.
His whole team could handle themselves. This mission was more about stealth so he had chosen four, excluding him and Luall still manning the bridge. He didn’t need to remind them of their roles. They were all highly trained, and well aware of the stakes.
“Ten minutes,” Luall said. “No, wait, seven.”
“What happened to ten minutes?” Syrek growled. The microphone in his helmet kept the team in contact with each other, as well as with the caravel.
“I fly the ship and I read the numbers, Syrek,” Luall said. “I am telling you what I see. Seven minutes.”
Ancain crowed in triumph. “Got it!” He caught the panel as it fell, and lowered it to the ground soundlessly.
Syrek stepped through the breach in the hull. He kept his breathing even as he scanned the hallway. Empty. He gestured to his team, and Clez was the first to follow.
She bounded down the hall, her three-toed feet splaying to help her move silently.
“Be quick,” Ancain grumbled. “I want to go home.”
Her long legs had already carried her around the corner, but her reply came through clearly over all their headsets. “Don’t tell me how to do my job, old man.”
Ancain snorted. “You told me how to do mine.”
Syrek, Ancain, and the other two mercenaries took their positions. A pin drop could have shattered the silence surrounding them. External microphones picked up the sounds of the ship: the hum of ventilation, the buzz of electrical wires in the walls. The heads-up display on Syrek’s visor showed him twelve Sykorians aboard the ship. Ten in the front, and two guarding the trailer pod at the rear of the ship.
“Comms down.” Clez sounded a little smug. “Didn’t take me the whole seven minutes.”
They split up, with Ancain following Syrek. The other two were in charge of clearing the rear of the ship and securing the cargo. Syrek and Ancain would be dealing with the Sykorians. Syrek dropped his blades from his forearms, letting them settle into his embrace like old friends.
Only friends you have, he reminded himself.
The first Sykorian died before he turned, blood splattering across the wall in an arc as Syrek sliced him open from rib to shoulder. The edged blades slid through flesh and fabric without slowing. Even though the seal of his suit kept the stench of blood from reaching him, his memory of the scent curled his lip. At the best of times, they stank, but when their insides became outsides, their reek was a violation of the nose.
The external microphones on Syrek’s suit picked up the thump of the body hitting the floor. The pale blue lights of the corridor flashed to orange and a siren began to blare.
Syrek cursed as he stepped over the Sykorian’s corpse. “Clez! You said you would handle it!”
“I did,” came her calm reply. “They might be yelling, but nobody will hear them scream.”
“Except us,” muttered Ancain.
“Eyes on the prize,” Syrek replied. His adaptive helmet dampened the wail of sirens, but the lights continued to flash, throwing harsh shadows across the walls.
Footsteps thundered down the corridor, and five guards rounded the corner. They skidded to a halt, and Syrek stepped forward, driving his bladed fist into the leader. Before the corpse crumpled to the floor, Syrek stepped to the side and pivoted, backhanding the second Sykorian. The hooks on his glove ripped out the enemy’s throat.
As he punched the third guard in the chest, he noted with detached interested that the guard carried a newer model of rifle. Hmmm, he thought, kicking the forth into the wall. Might be useful.
“Ancain, pick up one of the weapons for Tech,” he said, impaling the last guard through the skull.
When he turned to Ancain, he found his second-in-command leaning against the wall, his six eyes closed.
“Ancain? Are you unwell?”
He raised his hand. “Just a moment. I-it’s the…” He waved his hand in the general direction of the carnage.
Syrek took in the gore on the walls and the bodies on the floor. He shook his hands clean, letting the stain-resistant fabric shrug off the blood. “They were in my way.”
Unlike Syrek, Ancain had come to mercenary work later in life. His sensibilities remained delicate when it came to matters of violence. To Syrek, the blood pooling on the floor was part of the mission. The guards were an annoyance, like the flashing lights.
“We got six,” he informed his team.
“Two,” Clez replied.
“Two more,” replied Daves, one of the mercs sent to the rear of the ship. “But boss, you gotta check this out.”
The rear pod held the treasure. Syrek and Ancain met up with Clez, emerging from a side corridor. They encountered the last two guards before reaching the back of the transport. Syrek took one while Clez dispatched the other. Clez grinned at him, but he didn’t return her smile. Finding enjoyment in killing was something his father did.
There is no glory to be had here.
When Syrek stepped into the cargo hold, he froze.
Instead of the half-dozen power PETL Cells they expected, banks and banks of the glowing blue cubes lined the wall in front of him. The power sources hummed, filling the air with the scent of burnt ozone. The pale light the cast threw harsh shadows across the room.
Ancain’s lips twitched as he calculated. “Nearly a hundred,” he whispered.
Clez whistled. “Well, dye my feathers.”
Syrek’s brow creased. Sykorian freighters often hauled extra PETL Cells for emergency use. Usually the cubes were unlit and inactive. He narrowed his eyes. When he glanced at Ancain, he saw his second-in-command felt the same.
Something is not right.
Oblivious to their leader’s discomfort, one of the mercs darted forward. He grabbed the thick cable extending from the back of a cube and yanked it out before Syrek could voice a warning. The hum stopped, and the cube dulled.
Syrek stepped back, his blades at the ready. His instincts screamed, but nothing broke the silence of the room, save for the grunting of the merc as he tried to haul the cell into his arms. While it was no larger than a compact crate, the density of the blocks made them difficult to transport.
“Come help me, Daves!” The merc gestured to his companion, who grabbed the other side. They staggered to the door, intending to take the cube back to the caravel.
“We’ve struck it big,” Clez muttered.
Enough to help Haven. Syrek wanted to run a hand over his shaved head, but in his suit, the gesture would be futile. Enough to bring her back. His fingers found the comforting lump of his Promise Stone beneath his suit. He traced its facets and tried to relax.
Yet the prickle between his shoulders remained.
“What are they powering?” Ancain whispered. Like Syrek, he kept his hand on his weapon while his eyes flicked around the room.
The wires from the backs of the PETL Cells crossed the floor. Syrek stepped closer to the cubes. He ran a gloved hand over the nearest one. The sensors on his suit informed him the cells radiated heat, but the fabric protected his skin. Lights pulsed along the cables. His eyes fell on the detached plug, lying lifeless on the ground. No power, no lights.
Where did it lead? He glanced up, following the paths of the cables around him. Straight into a blank wall?
He examined the wall, taking in the smooth surface. When he tried to scan it, it wouldn’t yield any information.
“Ancain,” he said, gesturing to the wall. “Cut it open.”
Clez raised a hand. “I’m on it.” She tapped a control pad beside the array of cells. Under her quick fingers, the panel beeped, and a hatch in front of them opened without a sound. The mercs hauling the cube froze.
The room beyond contained rows of cylindrical silver objects. Syrek tilted his head, puzzled. The cables extended from the wall, each leading to the head of the cylinders. The energy from the PETL Cells seemed to be feeding into these…
What are they?
Amongst the lights flickering around it, the dark line of the unplugged cable drew his eye. He followed it, to the nearest cylinder. His hand reached for the top of the cylinder then froze.
In the square window at the top of the cylinder, he spied an alien face. A face that made his breath catch. Two eyes, closed, the thick lashes resting against the cheeks. A prominent nose. A pink flush on brown cheeks. Lush pink lips turned in a moue. The eyebrows locked together. Even in sleep, this creature looked like it would fight anyone. That was an attitude Syrek could respect.
Female? Lower down, he spotted the curve of breasts, firm and round. Like no female I’ve ever seen before.
“Cryogenic sleep chambers,” Ancain said, peering over his shoulder. Syrek jumped at his voice, and the tilt of Ancain’s head radiated amusement. “The Sykorians should know better than to deal in slaves.”
“It’s ugly as sin,” Clez commented.
“And she’s about to die,” Ancain said. He pointed to a panel on the side of the cryogenic chamber. Even as Syrek watched, the panel went from pale blue to yellow. A quick glance around the room showed every other sleeper still had a blue light.
The panel flickered and switched to orange.
“Life is hard,” Clez remarked. “Let’s go get our treasure, and get out of here before the Sykorians notice they’re missing a ship.”
“How many cells should we take, boss?” Daves called. “Boss?”
Syrek didn’t answer. He couldn’t seem to walk away from the window and the face within. As if sensing her doom, the creature’s eyes twitched beneath their lids. The panel flickered to red.
What would Father do?
He would let her die.
Syrek reached out and grabbed the lid of the cylinder, his powerful Ennoi muscles straining as he hauled.
So I do the opposite.
I let her live.
He gritted his teeth and roared, but the lid would not budge.
With a sigh, Ancain stepped forward and nudged his leader aside. He pulled out his cutting torch and slid it over the lock. Unlike the metal of the hull, the lock provided no resistance.
Syrek seized the lid and tossed it aside. With a trembling hand, he reached into the gooey stabilization fluid. He hooked his arm around the sleeper’s armpit, and hauled her out, dumping her onto the floor in a single motion.
What am I doing?