Mercenary Instinct: Chapter 4

Posted by on August 4th, 2014 in Excerpts / Freebies | No Comments

Viktor’s tablet bleeped, letting him know he had a request for voice communications. Lord Felgard. It looked like it came from the man’s personal account, too. Not that of some secretary. Huh.

It had been less than an hour since Viktor had transmitted the fact that he had acquired the three women, and it was the night cycle on Felgard’s private island, wasn’t it? 3 AM the stamp on the message said.

“You want to beat on each other in the gym for a while, sir?” Striker asked. They were walking the corridors from the brig to the mess hall, neither on duty now. It was the night cycle here too.

“Later, yes. I’ve got to answer this first.” Viktor waved the tablet, then veered into an alcove to take the ladder up to his deck.

Striker surprised him by following, his boots clanging on the rungs. “Sure thing, sir. But I’ve got a question first, if you don’t mind.”

I don’t mind. Felgard might wonder why I’m being delayed.”

“Aw, that rich old crotch sock, I’m not worried about him.”

“I’ll let him know that.”

“Go ahead. Just, uh, don’t use my name when you tell him. Or my description. Or anything about me.”

“What about your comics?” Viktor asked, referring to Striker’s legendary—at least among the crew—drawings that depicted everyone and their adventures. Striker was still waiting to acquire galaxy-wide recognition.

“Oh, you could tell him about those. Maybe he’d find me a publishing deal with one of the media empires, eh?”

“What’s your question, Striker?” They had reached the door to Viktor’s quarters. It recognized him and slid open.

“It’s about those girls. Can I foist them off on Tems, or am I still responsible for them?”

Viktor had assigned Sergeant Striker to watch them on the shuttle, more as a punishment for losing one of them on the planet than out of a fear that they would escape in front of so many soldiers. He hadn’t specified that this watching should continue once they were in the brig. If he had, he’d be annoyed that Striker had left his post to rush after him with questions. He might be annoyed anyway. He hadn’t decided yet.

“Tems is security chief. I’ve notified him of their presence. He’ll make sure someone keeps an eye on the brig.”

“Oh, good,” Striker said. “I don’t think they like me. ‘course I like them fine.” His eyebrows waggled.

“I’m sure you do.” Viktor stepped inside, expecting the door to shut and for Striker to leave.

Striker slapped his hand against the jamb to keep it open. “They’re real cute. Especially the young one.”

Jamie Flipkens, Viktor’s mind supplied. He had memorized every detail of the women’s poster before going down to retrieve them. Flipkens was twenty, and had been some whiz mechanic in her little farming community; how that translated to becoming a ship’s pilot and engineer, he could only imagine, but her record hadn’t contained much more information than that. There hadn’t been much on Ankari Markovich either, though the microbiologist had a long list of publishing credits, and it wasn’t clear why she’d left academia to join the other two nuts. The Ankari nut, specifically, since she was clearly in charge. She must have been smoother when recruiting the others than she had been when trying to inveigle someone over to her side down in the brig. Viktor wasn’t sure why he had listened as long as he had. Probably because she was attractive and her inveigling attempts had been moderately entertaining. But only an idiot would allow himself to think of a prisoner as anything other than a prisoner. An idiot… or a horny combat sergeant.

Striker was still standing in his doorway, waiting for an answer.

“Sergeant,” Viktor said, putting an edge in his voice. “You have a mission to plan.”

An edge which Striker was, as usual, oblivious to. “Yes, sir. But can I have the young one to, uhm, I mean I can watch her real good when I’m off shift, and put her back in the brig when I’m on.”

Viktor faced the man, letting Striker see the hardness in his eyes. “You know we don’t rape or otherwise molest prisoners.” He had seen enough of that bullshit when he was in the GalCon army, especially on those outer core duty stations where soldiers thought nobody was watching, that nobody cared. “We may be mercenaries, but we can choose to act with honor, and that means with prisoners, not just on the battlefield.”

“Oh, sure, sir.” Striker lifted his hands, an expression of purest innocence widening his eyes. “I wasn’t thinking rape… exactly, but I’m a handsome fellow, you can’t deny that.”

Viktor said nothing.

“What if she willingly wants to come with me? She’s got to be bored down there, and maybe tortured in her head listening to that science woman prattle on. Might be I’m an appealing alternative.”

Viktor doubted it.

“Come on, sir. I haven’t been any trouble of late. I’ve worked real hard for the crew, for you. I took that bullet on Vasquelin, remember?” He tapped his side. “And we haven’t had leave in months and months. I’m tired of nothing but my hand for company. I was so desperate last week, I tried to get Sergeant Hazel to come see my gun collection, and you know how she responds to that kind of thing.” Striker’s hand twitched protectively toward his groin. “Can I at least ask that girl? If she says no, I won’t be any trouble to them. I swear.”

Another bleep came from Viktor’s tablet. Damn, Felgard was in an insistent mood. Viktor wasn’t one to jump at anyone’s summons, but if there was more information to be had or a change to the deal, he needed to know about it promptly.

“They’re prisoners, and they’ll be looking for ways to escape,” Viktor said. “I don’t want them taken out of the brig. You can go down there if you want, and if you can get her to jump your gun in there with all of her friends watching, I don’t care. But no force.”

Striker grinned, as if this posed no problem. “Thank you, sir.”

Viktor snorted as the door shut. He shouldn’t have agreed to even that, but none of those girls were going to willingly do anything with him. Striker could get himself a little excited then go off and have another date with his hand.

Viktor tossed his tablet onto his standing desk, and the three-dimensional video display came to life. “Felgard,” he said, letting the computer handle the connections.

While he waited, he added water to the reservoir for the system that fed the dwarf apple trees potted in a grow station along one wall of his cabin. Two were flowering and needed pollinating, but his comm pinged first. In less time than he had expected, especially given the lag as the request for communications was relayed across six planets and a whole lot of empty space, Felgard came into view.

A reed thin man with a protruding jaw and wispy gray hair sticking out from beneath a top hat, the legendary entrepreneur had keen gray eyes framed by old-fashioned spectacles that doubtlessly camouflaged some state-of-the-art technology. An expensive and much more sophisticated version of Viktor’s Eytect scanner, maybe.

Viktor folded his arms across his chest and waited for the other man to initiate the conversation, so he could get a feel for his thoughts and attitude. He had never spoken to the lord of finance before, nor had any direct dealings with any of his employees, but he had once blown up a munitions platform that belonged to Trak Teck Enterprises as part of a raid by a competitor. That had been more than five years ago. He would find out how fine Felgard’s memory was, and if he was the type to hold a grudge.

“Captain Mandrake,” Felgard said. “I wasn’t expecting you to be the one to capture those criminals. You don’t usually deal in the bounty collection business.” Felgard smiled and waited for his words to transmit.

The words came across as polite, almost friendly, but Viktor knew Felgard was letting him know how much he knew about the business of Mandrake Company. Given that there were hundreds, if not thousands, of mercenary outfits spread across the system, many much larger than Viktor’s, this meant Felgard had done some research. Five years ago likely. At the time, he must have decided retaliation wasn’t worth it—especially when he had been busy dealing with an upstart competitor—but now? Who knew?

“Lord Felgard,” Viktor said, managing not to show how much it grated on his nerves to call someone a lord, as if he were some Old Earth descendant with noble blood rather than someone who had simply earned enough money to be listed as a lord of finance in the Rothmore Journal. “You’re correct. Collecting bounties wouldn’t keep a crew of one hundred plus in armor and rations, but your offering was particularly lucrative, and we were quite literally on the way past the planet where your villains were hiding.” He raised his eyebrows slightly as he said villains, to let Felgard know he was wondering what those three women had done. He wasn’t going to ask. Bounty hunters who wanted to live long enough to spend their earnings didn’t pry into their patrons’ business. Still, he found himself hoping for an answer as he waited for his words to transmit and for Felgard’s response.

“That is fortunate for me. I trust you’re en route with them now?”

“We have business on Sturm and a few repairs to make, then we’ll head straight to your planet.”

For the first time, Felgard’s polite smile faded, and his eyes hardened. A blue light blipped on the frame of his spectacles. Accessing some report, was he? Probably finding out what was happening on the mining and lumber moon of Sturm.

“You plan to engage in a manhunt for that self-proclaimed Robin Hood who’s supposed to be hiding out there?” Felgard asked.

“Sisson Hood is the name he’s taken. He’s stealing from the rich, pocketing ninety percent, and spreading the other ten amongst the poor, trying to gain their support. But he’s also kidnapping young women when he’s dropping off the money and returning them somewhat used to their families. The local government isn’t pleased, nor is the Buddhist temple there. They’ve each offered to pay us for getting rid of the problem.” Viktor wouldn’t normally explain so much of a coming mission to someone who had nothing to do with it, but he suspected Felgard already knew all the details.

“Noble work, I’m sure,” Felgard said. It actually was nobler than many of the assignments Mandrake Company was offered, and Viktor looked forward to it, especially after seeing the images the temple had sent, the battered faces of some of the ravaged women. If it had only been the government sending these images, he might have expected a hoax, that the Robin Hood angle was truer than they were admitting, but he respected the monks more than the representatives of most of the religions in the system. They were always so adamant about not taking money from corporations, and he had rarely been led astray by anything they said. “But,” Felgard went on, after a delay that might have been his own or might have been lag in the connection, “that could keep you for weeks. I must have my prisoners.”

“It won’t take weeks, my lord. My people are good.”

“Any delay is unacceptable. You must bring them immediately to me if you wish your payment, and then you may go on your other mission. Sisson Hood isn’t going anywhere, I’m sure.”

Actually it was possible a bounty hunter would come in and take him down if Viktor’s people didn’t get there first. Sturm was also on the way into the core worlds, where the Albatross was scheduled for repairs—their last assignment had been long and bloody and run the ship down as much as the crew. It would add two weeks to their travel to detour to Felgard’s and then come back to the moon and the mission. Viktor had promised his people they would be on leave by then. As he was so often reminded, these weren’t soldiers in the army, men who had sworn oaths to serve, protect, and kill in the name of GalCon. They were mercenaries, and they expected to be paid and allowed to take regular vacations, as promised in their contract. If the entire crew was as restless and horny as Striker, he could have people abandoning the company before long.

“I have other obligations, my lord. And with all due respect, you won’t receive your prisoners if you’re not prepared to relinquish payment, whenever I arrive.” Anticipating Felgard’s irritation, Viktor added a conciliatory, “I’ll see that my arrival is prompt however. If it does look like we’re to be delayed on Sturm, I’ll arrange to have them sent ahead.”

Felgard’s face had grown harder, all trace of the earlier politeness gone. Viktor expected the lord to come back with more arguments, but, after a pause during which the light blinked on his spectacles again, Felgard said, “See that your delay is short, Captain.” Then he cut the communication.

That last blink stayed with Viktor after the hologram faded from his desk. Maybe it was nothing. But maybe he needed to make very certain he wasn’t delayed on Sturm. It was true that Viktor could withhold the prisoners if Felgard tried to withhold the payment, but the wealthy old entrepreneur had the power to make life unpleasant for him and his company. He hated the tap-dancing he had to do when dealing with these lords, but he ought to be used to it. After all, hadn’t he tap-danced for the senior officers in the fleet? He might have started his own company, thinking it would be different if he was calling the shots, but nothing had really changed. He could plot his own course now, but the stars were always the same.

Feeling the familiar mix of longing, frustration, and rage, emotions that often boiled near the surface, Viktor hit a button. A ceiling panel opened, and a heavy punching bag dropped down with a clank-thud. He spent the next fifteen minutes pounding it. It was exercise, but it was a venting of frustrations, too. Better to take his feelings out on an inanimate object than on his men.

When he was out of breath and bathed with sweat, he hit the button, storing the bag again. He walked the five steps to the other side of the sparsely furnished cabin. The lack of chairs made it seem larger than it was—there were a few katas he could do on the padded matting when he preferred calmer exercises than what the bag offered—and didn’t encourage people to stay long when they visited. He never sat himself, not having the personality for such inaction, and only laid down for sleep and for time in sickbay. The clock said it was time for one of those things now. He couldn’t remember when he had last eaten, so he grabbed a meatloaf log from the tiny kitchenette built into the wall and pulled out the blender to make one of his “horrible green drinks,” as the crew called them. A doctor and old friend had recommended the crushed ice and vegetable concoctions to him long ago, since he had a habit of avoiding leafy things at his meals. He always threw in an apple from his trees, and that made the drink sweet enough to be palatable.

As he stood at his desk with his meal, smelling the blooms on the flowering trees, the memory of the gardens back home came to mind. Strange. It had been almost ten years since his world was destroyed and twenty since he had walked those flower-, leaf-, and fruit-laden paths. Why think of them now? Because of the trees? No, they were always in his cabin and had been for years.

No, he knew the reason. That Markovich woman, with her lilac- and lavender-scented hair, had brought the gardens to his mind earlier in the night. Viktor wished Felgard had let something slip about his prisoners, about why he wanted them.

On the one hand, he could believe they were criminals, even if they didn’t seem that polished, because he had seen all kinds of people break the law, and it wasn’t uncommon for those who sought to climb into the business world to be the first to cheat and steal and do whatever they could to reach those lofty heights. For those who made it all the way, being dubbed lords of finance, the rewards and privileges were endless. Even those who simply created a decently profitable business could live a much nicer life than galactic standards.

On the other hand, that microbiologist was passionate about her studies—Viktor had skimmed the abstracts of a few articles related to what she had been blathering about, enough to know that they were researching in a legitimate field and it wasn’t all quackery designed to flummox dumb soldiers. Nothing about her came across as duplicitous. Further, the young mechanic-turned-engineer had struck him as innocent rather than conniving. And the leader, Ankari Markovich… she seemed a schemer, and he could see her as the brains behind a fraudulent operation, but she had put on a good show when he had shown her the tablet. If she knew she was a wanted criminal, she had feigned otherwise convincingly. She had been a lot less convincing when she had been feigning that she didn’t hate Viktor’s microbe-filled guts. She might have smiled and been trying to interest him in her ludicrous upstart—startup, whatever—company, but he’d read the fury simmering in her eyes. She’d had that look for him since she realized he was responsible for destroying her ship. He recalled her eyes before she had realized that, when she had been waking from her concussion, and blinking up at him without artifice or anger. Bedroom eyes, that was what they called it. She had those. And she also had those nice curves that had been pressed against him.

Viktor snorted at himself. Striker wasn’t the only horny one around, that was a certainty.

Even allowing that he was attracted to the woman, he couldn’t quite pin down why he found himself wanting to go down to the brig to talk to her. He wasn’t intrigued by her business, but he wanted to know more about her and what she had done to irk Felgard. He had a fondness for people with the balls to stick it to those megalomaniacal finance coots. Which probably meant he shouldn’t go down to talk to her, or have anything to do with her. The last thing he needed was to develop an attachment for someone he was going to hand over to a man who might shoot her once he got her.

Besides, Striker was already down there, talking to the women. Viktor snorted again and took his dishes to the cleaner. He ought to get the security feed later to watch that. In part to make sure Striker didn’t violate his orders and in part to see how entertaining his rejection was.

In the meantime, he laid down on his bed, thinking thoughts of lavender and lilac… and a home that was no more.

Chapter 5

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