Mercenary Instinct: Chapter 2

Posted by on July 19th, 2014 in Excerpts / Freebies | No Comments

Captain Viktor Mandrake led his team toward the smoking wreckage, grimacing at the damage Frog’s torpedo had done. The ugly little freighter would never fly again, and—worse—its passengers might not have survived. He flipped open his pocket tablet and skimmed the wanted hologram that formed in the air above it. Yes, alive. The prisoners were supposed to be delivered alive.

“Problem, sir?” Sergeant Hazel asked, falling into step beside him.

Jiang had also caught up with them, clutching at a shoulder smoldering from a laser blast, and wearing a chagrined expression. He probably felt abashed after letting the girl out of his grasp. He should.

Striker, Dunhill, and Chen were making sure all of the thugs who had ambushed the team were either dead or knew better than to bother Mandrake Company again. Viktor also wanted to know if there had been a reason behind the ambush, or if the riffraff had simply been trying to take advantage of distracted people. Maybe they had overheard that woman’s lie about the fortune to be made in fossilized crap.

“They’re wanted alive,” Viktor said.

“They weren’t very high up when Frog hit them, sir. The crash shouldn’t have killed them.”

“The torpedo hit right below their nav cabin.”

“Oh. That might have cut them up.”

The torpedo, or the crash, or both, had left a jagged hole in the side of the freighter. That was fortuitous, because the cargo door looked too smashed to ever open again.

Viktor ducked circuitry and jagged pieces of hull, but paused before charging inside, inhaling, listening, and looking in all directions. He wouldn’t expect a handful of civilians to lay a crafty trap or have the wherewithal to mount a defense, but one never knew. The woman who had seemed to be in charge—Ankari Markovich, the wanted poster said—had been agile. She might have some combat experience. If she was still alive. According to the writeup, they were criminals, so their deaths shouldn’t bother him, but he hated bungling a job. Even if Mandrake Company was more known for killing people than kidnapping them, his crew ought to be able to manage both in a competent, professional manner. Otherwise what was to separate them from all the ill-trained mediocre mercenary outfits in the galaxy?

Aware of Sergeant Hazel shadowing him, Viktor stepped inside before she could offer to go first and remind him, as she so often did, that it was foolish for the captain to come on these missions personally and risk his life. No matter how many times he pointed out he was a combat specialist and would be bored into insanity if he never left the ship and saw action, she never failed to point out that captains weren’t supposed to be expendable. Few others would presume to lecture him, but she was from Grenavine, the same as he and a handful of others in the company, and she had known him for years. They were part of the original crew. The survivors.

Ceiling panels dangled everywhere in the warped corridor, and Viktor had to walk in a hunch to reach the nav cabin. A woman’s unmoving form lay crumpled on the shaggy floor covering—a carpet, he supposed, it would be called, though it looked more like the fur off an animal that seldom bathed. As he knelt to check the woman’s pulse, he spotted the other two crew members slumped against the base of a nav console so devastated it was barely recognizable. Blood smeared one of the women’s faces, and neither person was moving. At least this one—Lauren Keys, according to the poster—had a pulse.

Viktor winced when another panel fell from the ceiling, banging down between the two women.

“I’ll get that one, sir,” Hazel said, “if you want to grab the others.”

Viktor stepped past the Keys woman, letting Hazel pull her out, and gathered the other two, draping one over each shoulder. Doctor Zimonjic wouldn’t approve of using anything other than a stretcher, but she wasn’t here, nor did Viktor want to wait for someone to grab first aid equipment out of the shuttle.

Ducking panels and buzzing circuits, he toted the women back to the hole in the hull. Maneuvering out of the smashed corridor with two people balanced over his shoulders was awkward, but he had carried heavier loads.

One of his passengers stirred and moaned as he stepped out into the night. The temperature was plummeting now that the sun had set, and it had already dropped below freezing. The shuttle should land on the flat hilltop a quarter of a mile away. After eyeing the winding, rocky path leading up to it, Viktor handed one of the women to Jiang to carry.

“Don’t let that one go, eh?” he said.

Jiang wasn’t one of the original crew, and he gulped noticeably at Viktor’s slight censure. He was cocksure with his comrades and most people he met, but he gave a mild, “I won’t, sir,” here.

“Someone get that shuttle down here,” Viktor ordered.

He wondered if Frog was taking his time because he was afraid of being chastised. At least their quarry hadn’t escaped. That would have been annoying. This was nothing more than a side trip to earn extra cash for repairs and new equipment. He had never had any intention of chasing these women across the system.

Viktor’s remaining captive, Markovich, groaned again and tried to push her way off his shoulder. He put her down, getting a face full of dark wavy brown hair in the process. It had been tied back in a more practical ponytail earlier, but it must have fallen out in the crash.

He fished out flex-cuffs and secured her wrists behind her back before she had stopped blinking her eyes in confusion—or perhaps that was less confusion and more an attempt to focus them. He patted her down, checking her dusty khaki jumpsuit for weapons. Full of pockets, the baggy outfit did little to accentuate her figure, but his search revealed some nice curves. He made himself keep the pat-down quick and professional—he shouldn’t be noticing a criminal’s curves anyway.

“Sir, she needs the doctor, not a prison cell,” Sergeant Hazel said, waving to the flex-cuffs.

Probably so, but the old habits, those that had been drilled into him in a previous life, had served him well as a mercenary and kept him alive. Never underestimating enemies and never leaving prisoners unsecured were two of those habits.

Viktor tensed when the woman stumbled against his chest, though it was doubtlessly due to her barely being able to stand rather than an attempt to get close to attack him. Though his better judgment argued for it, he didn’t push her away. They had been on the defense of Maritoba without relief for more than six months. It had been a long time since the crew’s last shore leave, and he hadn’t had anything softer than a gun pressed against his chest in far too long. She smelled nicely feminine, too, despite the dust and grime she had acquired mucking around in those ruins, and he let his chin droop a bit, ostensibly to look her in the eyes, but also because he was trying to identify the scent of her shampoo. Lavender and… lilac? The odor surprised him with a pang of nostalgia, as his brain stirred up memories of his homeland, of walking through the gardens on the edge of the forest, where such flowers had grown along the winding dirt pathways.

“What do you people want?” Markovich mumbled, wincing as she looked up at him. A headache from hell, no doubt. He’d been knocked out enough times to know how wonderful it felt when you woke up.

Realizing he was staring at her, Viktor quashed his memories of home, a home long gone now, and he also quashed any sympathy that he might have otherwise felt toward a woman in pain. She wasn’t someone to be empathized with; she must have done something particularly vile to warrant a bounty so high. Besides, “Captain Mandrake” was hardly known for showing sympathy. His crew would think him under a witch’s spell if he treated this woman differently than any other prisoner.

“We want you,” he said.

“Me? Why?”

“To collect your bounty.”

The look of utter confusion that crossed her face was… a fine bit of acting.

“What bounty?” she asked.

He doubted very much that she didn’t know. Still, he pushed her away from his chest, keeping a hand on her shoulder so she wouldn’t pitch to the ground, and showed her the holographic poster. Her mouth opened and closed a few times. Nothing came out. She leaned toward it, squinting, but looked like she was still struggling to focus her vision. She had caught the gist though. That much was clear.

The shuttle finally reappeared, descending from the stars to land on the hilltop. Its lights brightened the path leading up to it.

Viktor folded the tablet and stuck it in his cargo pocket. “Get moving.”

He turned his prisoner to face the shuttle, its rear hatch already opening. She balked, or maybe she was stunned, because in looking in that direction, she saw her ship—what remained of it. Tension bunched her shoulders, and he expected the outburst before it came. How could Frog be so good at destroying enemy craft and so pitiful at disabling them?

“You destroyed our ship?” Markovich spun back toward him. The shuttle’s landing lights offered enough illumination that he had no trouble seeing the rage in her eyes. “Do you know how long I saved, how much I gave up to come up with the down payment, and how much I still owe? No, you wouldn’t care, would you? You think I’m some criminal, and it would never occur to you to double-check to make sure this wasn’t a mistake or vicious prank or…” Her eyes drifted toward his cargo pocket, and she wound down, finishing with, “Who the hell would put a bounty on me? On all of us? We’ve only known each other for a few of months. How could we have possibly committed a crime that quickly?” Then her head jerked up, and she spun around again. “My partners. Are they all right?” She spotted Sergeant Hazel and the woman she was carrying over her shoulder and onto the shuttle. Jiang was walking up the hill after her, his prisoner draped in his arms. “Lauren? Jamie?”

“They’re alive.” Viktor didn’t think either of them had regained consciousness. “When we dock, I’ll send the doctor to the brig to check on all of you.”

“Well, aren’t you a thoughtful bounty hunter?” Markovich grumbled.

“We’re mercenaries,” Viktor said stiffly. As if it mattered to her. He wasn’t even sure why the distinction mattered to him. Catching criminals, fighting wars. Was one activity more virtuous than the other? They were both jobs, neither the kinds that were idolized by the entertainment industry and their mindless dramas. Sometimes, very seldom, his company got hired to help the side they truly wanted to help, the outnumbered and beleaguered, but in the end, it rarely mattered. Those in bed with the Galactic Conglomeration always won. He hadn’t even been able to help his own people, and now only graves remained on Grenavine. “Walk,” he said, not caring that his tone was cold, not caring that it made her flinch. “Walk, or I will carry you.”

She threw back her shoulders, lifted her chin, took a step… and her legs gave out. With her hands locked behind her back, she would have fallen on her face, but he caught her. Viktor might not be as young as he once was, but his reflexes were still decent. He picked her up and carried her to the shuttle. It had been a while since he swept a woman up to carry her somewhere, but he was fairly certain that irked expression on her face wasn’t a good sign. As if this was his fault. She shouldn’t have annoyed Lord Felgard to the extent of a hundred thousand aurums. The owner of Trak Teck Enterprises had deep pockets, but that was a hefty bounty, even from him.

As he watched his crew strap in the prisoners for the ride up to the Albatross, he wondered what they had done to earn the powerful entrepreneur’s wrath.

Chapter 3

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