Mercenary Instinct: Chapter 3

Posted by on July 28th, 2014 in Excerpts / Freebies | No Comments

“I don’t understand,” Jamie said, sitting hard on the bench built into the back of the cell and crossing her legs with a huff. “We haven’t done anything. You people have been back in the lab with your noses stuck to your microscopes. How could we possibly have done anything?”

Technically, Ankari had been reading books on what her microbiologist was doing with her nose stuck to a microscope, but all she said now was, “I don’t know.” She stood near the front of the cell, gazing down the corridor to a security desk at the end. All she could see was a pair of boots propped up on it.

Ankari paced back to the bench and patted Lauren on the back. “You doing all right?”

Blood stained the back of Lauren’s hand, and the side of her face had been burned. She needed a doctor more than any of them. Ankari hoped the captain hadn’t been lying, that he would send someone with medical expertise to tend them. If he truly believed they were criminals, he had no reason to treat them decently.

“My ribs hurt,” Lauren whispered. “And my head. Is the ship really… gone? All of our equipment? Our samples? My research?”

“The ship won’t fly again,” Ankari said. Nor had she heard anyone give an order to bring it along, even if it was only for scrap. The scavengers would be delighted to pick over the remains—some of that equipment had to have survived the crash and doubtlessly still had value. Her soul ached, knowing it would all be gone by the time she and her partners escaped and made their way back there. If they escaped. “I did see someone carrying our packs to the shuttle. Probably because they want to cash in on the aliuolite I gathered.” She snorted. “In case our bounty isn’t enough.”

“Did you see who issued our bounty?” Jamie asked.

“Lord Someone. Felgard, I think. I was seeing about three blurry copies of the captain standing in front of me. I could barely read what he showed me.”

“And to think I thought he was handsome.”

“The handsome ones always break your heart,” Lauren said.

“And blow up your ship,” Ankari growled. “Sometimes your head too.”

She probed the swollen knot at the back of her skull. She still felt woozy and nauseous from smacking that wall and wouldn’t mind some attention from the doctor herself. Even more, she wanted access to the tablet the captain had showed her. If she could get on the net, she could learn everything about the bounty poster, and she could mail her friend, Fumio, programmer and hacker extraordinaire, to find out who had created it. Was it truly one of the self-proclaimed lords of finance, or had some enemy of hers simply wanted to get her in trouble, making it seem like someone who had a lot of money wanted her? She allowed herself a moment of smug pleasure at the idea of Captain What’s-his-name showing up on the steps of some mansion front door, trying to collect a bounty that had never been issued. But she couldn’t imagine who would have gone through the trouble to arrange such a farce. She was only twenty-six. How many enemies could she have? She couldn’t even think of any, beyond old rivals on the streets where she had grown up, but those people shouldn’t have the resources to do this. And she couldn’t imagine many of them had even thought of her once she had left.

“Wish I’d thought to steal his tablet,” Ankari muttered. She had been a fair pickpocket once, much to her father’s chagrin, but it wasn’t a craft easily undertaken when one’s wrists were handcuffed. At least the thugs who had stuffed them into this cell had removed their bindings before activating the forcefield.

A door swished open, and the boots disappeared from the desk. “They’re all there, sir,” Striker’s voice floated down the corridor. “I haven’t been bugging them.”

“Good.” That was the captain’s voice, but the first person to walk into view was an attractive woman with black hair, one temple shot through with gray. She wore the same civilian-style clothes that everyone on the crew favored, at least everyone Ankari had seen so far, but her leather instrument bag and a thin gray cardigan with bulging pockets gave her a doctorly look.

The captain came into view next, though all he did was put his palm on the wall lock outside of the cell to drop the forcefield. Ankari took note of a small electric sensor under the handprint pad—was it possible to lower the barrier with some kind of key as well?

The doctor walked in, while the captain leaned against the wall, watching everything. He wore the same clothes as he had on the planet, though he had taken off the vest and eye apparatus. His guns still hung in a holster at his waist. Ankari had to try extremely hard not to let her loathing show on her face. She still couldn’t believe he had ordered her ship blown up. Even if money were no object, it would take forever to reacquire all the specialized lab equipment they’d had inside, and money was an object. When wasn’t it?

She fantasized about blowing up his ship. He would be left with nothing except scrap metal. Maybe ten thousand aurums worth, she calculated, judging how much the recyclers might offer for the raw materials from this size of a craft. That wouldn’t pay his crew’s wages for long. Of course, she would need to find a way off his ship before blowing it up…

For now, she painted a bland expression on her face. She might not have read any books on war and combat when she had been growing up, but she had a feeling one wasn’t supposed to telegraph one’s hatred to one’s enemy. Better to take him by surprise later on.

“I’m Doctor Zimonjic. Who’s first?” The woman’s voice was pleasant. She smiled too.

“Lauren, please.” Ankari gestured to her injured partner and turned her back on the captain. It would be easier to keep that loathing off her face if she wasn’t looking at what she loathed. “Where are your muscles, doctor?”

The woman’s brows rose. “Pardon me?”

“Everyone else we’ve seen here… bulges. Even the women.” Speaking of bulges, Ankari wondered if any of those lumps in the doctor’s pockets would be worth checking out. Might there be something that could facilitate an escape? Though she trusted the skills she had acquired in her sketchy youth, the thought of trying to steal something with the captain watching made her nervous. Her wanted poster might have said she was to be delivered alive, but there were a lot of levels of aliveness one could exist on. It was promising that he had brought the doctor, but he had also had her ship destroyed with the wave a hand. She couldn’t assume that he would treat her well, no matter what.

“It sounds like you’ve met Sergeant Hazel,” the doctor said dryly, taking out a scanner. She waved the handheld device over Lauren. “It’s true the women here all train as hard as the men, the combat specialists anyway. And the pilots and engineers, too, come to think of it. The captain seems to think everyone should be fit enough to repel a boarding party with one hand tied behind his or her back.” She smiled over her shoulder as she said this, a playful quirk to her lips.

The expression, directed at the humorless captain, surprised Ankari. Maybe they were lovers or had been once.

The captain’s eyebrow ascended a millimeter, but that was the extent of his acknowledgment of the doctor’s teasing. A hint of wistfulness entered Zimonjic’s expression as she turned back to her patient. Ah, not lovers, but she might wish they were. Hard to imagine. The captain looked like he’d be about as cozy in bed as a Deruvian fang lizard.

“How did you come to be here?” Ankari asked the doctor.

“The army decided I was no longer trustworthy, and, thanks to the notes they wrote on my discharge, I had trouble finding work as a civilian.” The doctor took out a repair kit and punched in a few codes, then lifted Lauren’s shirt and affixed it to her ribs. While that worked, she turned her attention to Jamie.

“Why weren’t you trustworthy?” Not a failing in her doctoring skills, Ankari hoped.

Zimonjic’s lips flattened. “Because of where I’m from.” Her expression didn’t invite further inquiries.

A man ambled into the corridor to join the captain. Ankari recognized him as one of the brutes who had been along on the mission, the spiky-haired thug with all the knives and guns, the one who had tried to capture her. Striker, that had been his name. She wondered how big the crew was. From the back of the shuttle, she had glimpsed the gray outline of a winged ship before they had docked. It hadn’t been a small craft, but she had no idea whether it held fifty people or two hundred and fifty. She had seen a half dozen new faces on her way to the brig. The idea of escaping past all of them was daunting, and she didn’t even know what they would escape in, with the Marie Curie left on the planet. One of those shuttles? What was their range? Could Jamie fly one?

“They going to live, sir?” Striker asked, taking up a position that mirrored the captain’s on the opposite wall.

“Looks like.”

“That’s good money being offered for them. I’d hate to lose my percentage.”

The captain grunted. A real chatterbox, that one.

If they were mercenaries and money was their prime draw, maybe they could be tempted by the allure of more. The promise of fossilized poop might not have tickled their greedy spots, but could something else work? Ankari didn’t have a lot of free cash after buying all of that equipment, but maybe the mercenaries could be enticed by a share in the company. Those shares weren’t worth much now, but if Lauren’s second round of tests went as promisingly as the first, they could have a high value someday. That knowledge made Ankari reluctant to give them away, but this situation called for desperate moves.

“How much is the bounty?” she asked.

“I showed you the poster,” the captain said.

“My eyes were busy crossing at the time.”

“A hundred thousand aurums,” Striker said cheerfully.

Ankari stared at him. A hundred thousand? Who would pay that much for her team? And why?

“And as Chief of Boom, I get two percent of that,” Striker added. Chief of Boom? Was that some way of saying he was an artillery specialist without using so many pesky syllables? “Once we finally get our shore leave, that’ll buy a lot of drinks. And women.” Striker gazed thoughtfully at Jamie and smiled. Aside from the doctor and Sergeant Hazel, Ankari hadn’t seen any women on board. That must not leave the men with many mating options during the long months in space. Striker turned his thoughtful gaze on the captain, as if he meant to ask if these particular women might be available.

It was a silent question, but the captain’s lack of a response wasn’t reassuring. He was simply staring into the cell. Actually, he was staring at Ankari. Something else that made her nervous. It wasn’t a lascivious stare, the way Striker’s was; it was more like he was scrutinizing her. Why? What exactly was on that wanted poster anyway? For the fiftieth time, she wished she had gotten a better look. If she could find a way to a computer, she needed to do some research.

“You have teams picked out for Sturm?” the captain asked, finally looking away from Ankari to meet his soldier’s eyes.

“Yes, sir. Alpha and Charlie for sure, but maybe Delta too. Waiting for intel to get me a report on our thief’s most recent hideout, but it sounds like he’s got a big bunch of uglies working with him. You coming down with us on this one?”

“I might.”

Ankari had to take advantage of the captain’s attention shift. The doctor was bent over Lauren, checking the repair device, and her pockets were accessible. Ankari touched the knot on her head with one hand, drawing Zimonjic’s eye, and said, “I could use some attention from your devices, too, Doctor. Got a lump bigger than most of the ruins on that planet.”

In the seconds that Zimonjic was looking at her face, Ankari’s other hand went shopping in her pocket.

“What were you looking for in the ruins?”

“Fossils.” Ankari met the doctor’s eyes and didn’t look at what she had fished out of the pocket, but it felt like one of those syringes that stored a number of medications in the handle. Either that or it was a sonic toothbrush. Ankari doubted the latter would get them out of the cell, so she decided to hope for the former.

“Poop fossils.” Striker snickered. Amazing that the captain would consider putting someone with the maturity of a toddler in charge of a combat mission.

Both of the men were staring through the forcefield again. Ankari slipped her stolen medical tool—or tooth tool—into her pocket to examine later. They had been searched before being shoved into the cell, so another search shouldn’t be forthcoming. But there were doubtlessly video monitors; since Striker had left the desk, she hoped that meant nobody was watching the feed.

“We were collecting samples for the R&D department of our company,” Ankari said, extending a hand toward Lauren, who managed a wan smirk despite her weary visage. “If you get excited by two percent of some grubby mercenary earnings, you should see what a percentage of our company would be worth, if you were to partner with us, Mister Striker.” She might not be able to promise anyone a hundred thousand aurums, but she could promise more than two percent of a hundred thousand. She smiled at Striker, though she glanced at the captain as well, wondering if he might be intrigued. His flat stare didn’t suggest it.

Striker, however, did perk up, his gaze shifting from Jamie to Ankari. “Yeah?”

“We could use a weapons expert for our business, as is doubtlessly apparent.” Ankari made a gesture to encompass her team and their forlorn position inside the cell.

“That much is obvious,” Striker said. “What kind of money are you making now?”

The captain’s eyes narrowed, but he watched the exchange in silence. He either had to think Ankari was brazen for trying to steal one of his soldiers away in front of him or… stupid. And maybe she was. She didn’t truly expect anything to come of her offer, but one never knew. There were two sets of ears in the area besides the captain’s—all it would take was for one to find the offer intriguing to make something happen.

“We’re a pre-revenue startup at this point,” Ankari said, “but we’ve talked to a number of biotech firms and they’ll either pay us enormously when we deliver or they’ll buy us out.” Granted, only two of the twenty firms had actually listened to the idea, while the others had laughed Ankari out of their fancy gold-gilded reception halls and slammed the doors behind her.

“Pre-what?” Striker asked.

“They haven’t made any money yet,” the captain said.

“Oh. Well, honey, I ain’t real interested in a percentage of nothing.” Thus Striker proved he had a better understanding of math than Ankari would have guessed.

“What’s your company do?” Doctor Zimonjic asked, removing the repair kit from Lauren’s ribs and giving Striker a little frown. That frown didn’t extend to the captain, even though his flat statement had been nearly as sarcastic.

Lauren, who must be feeling better now, straightened on the bench. “You’re interested? It’s fascinating, really. As a doctor, you’re of course aware of the importance of human intestinal microbiota in determining a person’s overall health, including his ability to combat aggressive microorganisms, and properly digest foods and produce certain key vitamins, yes?”

Striker’s lip curled in confusion, or maybe that was a sign of incredulity at how disinteresting he found the subject. They would probably have to look elsewhere for a burly security guard to cut in.

“Yes…” Zimonjic said.

“Depending on your specialty, you may also be aware that there’s been research done, tying epigenetic changes—such as those that might cause a person to merely be a carrier for a certain autoimmune disease to actually expressing it—to a person’s overall gut health. The human microbiota—the tens of trillions of microorganisms that live in our intestines—” that aside seemed to be for the soldiers, “—can be drastically different from person to person, with an individual’s particular makeup being determined by a great many things, with diet and environment lying at the top of the list. We’ve been debating for centuries what the optimal mixture and population of intestinal flora is for a human being—did you know that there are scientists that argue that we’re not even human anymore, not in the sense that the original colonists from Old Earth were, because our microbiota has changed so much as a result of the existing microbes in the system we now call home? Up until two years ago, the focus of my work was in healing people with gut dysbiosis issues that were affecting their health; I would transplant the microbiota from an individual with a healthy gut into that of the ill person, often to fantastic results. Then, after meeting Ankari through my clinic—”

When Lauren gave her a cheerful wave, Ankari forced herself not to grimace; she didn’t particularly want to talk about all the pathogens she had picked up as a result of growing up on the streets and being so often forced to eat and drink from less than optimal sources. Fortunately, Lauren didn’t go into that.

“—we got to talking about the microbiota of the aliens who lived in this system thousands of years ago.”

“Is that so?” The doctor’s eyes dulled at the mention of aliens; yes, she would sympathize with those eighteen companies who had shown Ankari the door when she had brought up their company’s latest research. At least Zimonjic was still working. She had scanned Ankari’s bump and laid a repair kit against the side of her head, before shifting her attention to Jamie. The device hummed softly, reverberating in Ankari’s skull as it amplified her body’s own ability to heal the injury.

Yes,” Lauren said, not noticing the doctor’s tone thanks to her own enthusiasm—or just because she never could understand that people wouldn’t be as fascinated by her work as she was. “As you’ve doubtlessly heard, the archaeologists who’ve been studying the remains of the original inhabitants of this system have declared that they were remarkably similar to us in body and brain makeup, and even in culture and thought, except that fossils and other evidence suggest that they were faster, stronger, and physically superior to us in most aspects and that they lived two hundred years or more. They rarely fell to disease, instead dying of old age or because of intra-system wars. Our studies have been fascinating.” Lauren pointed to Ankari as well as herself, even if Ankari was more the marketing and business side of the enterprise and, after throwing out the initial idea, had done precious little actual studying. “They suggest that the secret to the aliens’ long and healthy lives was their intestinal microbiota, rather than any superior genetics they might have possessed. Think about it: if genetics alone held the key to health and longevity, as people thought for so long, we’d have already made the superior human being. Our company is working on isolating—”

Ankari stopped her partner with a hand on the shoulder. Striker looked like he was about to fall asleep, Zimonjic had long since decided Lauren was a quack, and the captain was checking something on his tablet. Probably something really important. Like what the ship’s cook was making for dinner.

“They haven’t signed a non-disclosure agreement,” Ankari said. “Let’s not give away too many of our secrets, eh?”

Lauren’s eyes widened. “Oh. Of course.”

Zimonjic plucked the repair device from Ankari’s head and stepped back, tucking her tools away. “You three will live. Until you get to your destination anyway.” She stepped out of the cell, nodding toward the captain.

He folded his tablet and palmed the forcefield on again. The screen stretched across the cell with a flash of blue and a hint of ozone before becoming a clear barrier that one wouldn’t notice until one touched it.

“That was boring as hell,” Striker muttered, his voice not quite low enough to be indistinguishable. “But that one’s tits bounced nicely when she was waving her arms about with all that crazy enthusiasm.”

Ankari couldn’t make out the captain’s response. She supposed it was too much to hope that it was along the lines of, “Get your mind out of the brothel, and try reading a book and learning to think about more than sex some time.”

“Captain,” Ankari called before he disappeared around the corner. She smoothed her face and smiled—no loathing here, no, sir. “If you’re not committed to whoever made that bounty offer, I’d like to discuss with you the potential of us buying out the contract.”

The captain looked back at her. “With the earnings from your pre-revenue startup? I’ll pass.”

Ankari flushed. “I might be willing to negotiate in shares, but I was thinking in terms of straight cash. I can muster up ten percent now and pay the rest back as a loan with a fair amount of interest based on the current prime rate.” Never mind the loan she was already going to have to pay back for her ship… There was no way her insurance was going to cover her, not when she’d taken the Marie Curie to that dangerous, parasite-laden planet.

The captain grunted. Not exactly a sign of interest, but he wasn’t walking away.

“We have tremendous potential,” Ankari tried. “After we do the clinical trials, we’ll have customers lined up for our services, whether we get GalCon approval right away or not. We’ve already had amazing results on mice. You could be one of the first to receive a transplant. What do you think? Would you like to gain greater strength and stamina than you’ve ever had? Live an extra hundred years?”

The captain hadn’t been receptive to start with, but at this question his face shut down like a reactor gone critical. “That sounds like a punishment rather than a reward,” he muttered. He didn’t explain why. He simply turned his back and headed for the exit.

“Would you at least consider returning our packs to us so we can continue our research?” Lauren called after him.

He disappeared without responding.

“I’m eager to examine the specimens you gathered,” Lauren explained when Ankari looked at her.

“We’re trapped in the brig of a mercenary ship, being delivered to what could be our deaths, and that’s your primary concern right now?”

“Well, I thought you were working on that part of the problem.” Lauren waved to Ankari’s pocket.

Ankari snorted. Lauren was either more observant than she would have guessed, or her sleight-of-hand skills weren’t as good as they had once been.

“We’ll see.” Ankari walked to the corner of the cell, turning her back on the forcefield. Hoping to avoid the security camera, even if she had no idea where it was located, she slipped her stolen find out of her pocket. It wasn’t a toothbrush. She had been right: it was a combo syringe. Now she just had to figure out what was housed in it… and how she could get close enough to someone to use it.

Chapter 4

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