The Tracker’s Dilemma, a New Mandrake Company Novel (excerpt)

Posted by on March 28th, 2016 in Excerpts / Freebies, News | 19 Comments

Hello, all! I’ve just published a new Mandrake Company novel, The Tracker’s Dilemma. If you’re looking for some science fiction with a little romance, it might be for you. Here’s the description and the first chapter for you to check out:


TrackersDilemmaWebSergeant Heath “Tick” Hawthorn, the best tracker in Mandrake Company and the captain’s right-hand man, has been admiring microbiologist Lauren Keys from afar for months. Unfortunately, she’s dedicated to her science and doesn’t seem to have any interest in relationships. He’s not even sure she knows his name.

Determined to change that, Heath develops a surefire plan: he signs up to be a specimen in her latest study. Once she gets to know him better, he’s positive she’ll find his charms appealing.

But when he starts hearing other people’s thoughts and receiving eerie premonitions, he questions the wisdom of turning himself into a lab rat. On a mission planet-side with Lauren, they finally have some time alone together, but he’s too worried he’s turning into a freak to be charming. Further, the outing soon turns dangerous, as predators and bounty hunters show an interest in the party. If he and Lauren aren’t careful, they’ll end up dead instead of dating.

Maybe Heath’s plan wasn’t as surefire as he thought.

 The Tracker’s Dilemma: Chapter 1

The grass blades waved gently in the breeze, the stalks erect and unbroken. Sergeant Heath “Tick” Hawthorn scanned the prairie, the lake in the distance, and the copse of trees at one end, his practiced eyes seeking signs that anyone two-legged had been through the area recently. So far, he hadn’t seen, heard, or smelled anything that hinted of human intruders, but something nagged at his senses, a feeling that they weren’t alone on the grassy moon.

“See anything, Tick?” a gruff voice called from behind him.

Sergeant Striker, spiky brown hair waving in the breeze similarly to the grass, tramped toward him. The big man carried a massive assault rifle in his hands, had a grenade launcher slung across his back, wore a belt full of daggers and laser pistols, and topped off the ensemble with a bandolier full of grenades. He flattened the grass as he strode along, making Tick glad he had already searched the area behind him.

A second man followed him at a distance, the new fellow, Corporal Hemlock. He stepped more carefully, watching the ground as he went, though he carried almost as many weapons as Striker, and his scarred hands promised he had seen many battles.

“Not yet, but I’ve got an itch,” Tick said.

“An itch? Should’ve come to that brothel on Dock Seven with me. Could’ve found a nice girl to scratch that for you.”

“Not that kind of itch.” While he surveyed the prairie again and waited for the others to catch up, Tick pulled a small canister out of his pocket. He fished out a piece of his caffeinated gum and popped it into his mouth.

“No? That’s shocking, considering how little action your rifle has seen lately.”

“It’s really not necessary for you to keep tabs on my rifle.” Tick felt a burst of energy from the mint-flavored gum. He turned back toward the lake and the copse of trees he wanted to check, second-guessing his decision to let Striker catch up.

“I keep tabs on everybody, on account of needing ideas for my comics.” Striker stopped beside Tick and made a drawing motion in the air.

“Didn’t think your stories involved the sexual exploits of the Mandrake Company mercenaries.”

“They involve anything that’s interesting. And since we haven’t had any real jobs in more than a month, I’m expanding on what qualifies as interesting. Say, your microbiologist know your name yet?” Striker grinned at him.

“Of course she knows my name.”

Though Tick was trying to work and this wasn’t the time for mooning over a woman, he couldn’t help but think of the dark-haired and fair-skinned Dr. Lauren Keys, the way she was so out of place on a mercenary ship, the way she seemed like she needed someone to protect her, to watch out for her, to offer her a shoulder when something alarmed her. He wouldn’t mind being that person, it was true. He respected the battle-hardened women on the ship, like Sergeant Hazel and Private Sahara, but for a lover, he preferred someone feminine, someone who needed him. Too bad he was here, and she was back on the Albatross, no doubt leaning over her microscope and making notes on her tablet. More than once, Tick had fantasized about easing up behind her, sliding his arm around her waist, and leaning in to nuzzle her throat.

“You sure about that? The other day when we passed her in the mess hall, she called you A27.” Striker’s grin broadened.

“That’s just the specimen number she gave me for her reports.”

Besides, she had looked at his face when she’d said, “Evening, A27.” They’d made eye contact. For at least a second! That was progress, Tick was sure of it. Usually, she had that distracted I’m-contemplating-my-science look on her face when she walked about the ship, and she didn’t notice anyone unless she bumped into them. Even then, the noticing wasn’t guaranteed. As he could attest, since he had “accidentally” bumped into her a few times.

“Specimen number.” Striker sniggered and looked at Hemlock when the man joined them. “You ever heard anything crazier than letting a woman do science experiments on you, just so she’ll touch your butt as she’s shoving alien bacteria up there?”

The scarred veteran flushed slightly, an unexpected reaction for a man who’d made a living as a hardened bounty hunter before joining Mandrake Company.

“She also pays a small stipend to those who volunteer,” he said, his voice gravelly, as if he had been on the wrong side of a garrote once. Maybe he had.

Striker’s forehead wrinkled.

“As of last week, Hemlock is A32,” Tick said dryly.

The corporal’s flush deepened. “I’m saving money so I can buy a new spaceship.”

“I’m sure being a lab rat in science experiments is the way to fame and fortune,” Striker said.

“I don’t want fame or fortune,” Hemlock said, his eyes growing steely with determination. “Just a new ship.”

The comm-patch on Tick’s shoulder bleeped.

He tapped it, feeling a rush of guilt. He had let himself be distracted from his duty.

“Yes, sir?” he asked, adjusting the rifle on his back and heading toward the copse.

Thousands of sparkles of light glittered on the lake, reflecting the brilliance of the distant orange sun. This tiny moon was far out from the core worlds and shouldn’t have been as warm as it was, but the aliens who had terraformed the system long before human settlers arrived had done impressive work on some of the rim worlds. Some were still glacial ice fields, but he could imagine himself settling down someplace like this one day, retiring and doing some hunting and fishing. If he had someone with whom to share that life.

“Find any trouble?” Captain Mandrake asked over the comm.

“Not yet, sir. But I do have an itch.”

“Apparently, Dr. Keys won’t help him with it,” Striker called, sticking close enough to eavesdrop.

Tick chomped on his gum, hoping the captain would berate Striker for being unprofessional.

“That’s unfortunate,” was all he said, his tone dry.

Tick chomped harder, refusing to let his own cheeks flush pink, though it was mildly distressing that the whole ship seemed to know he had a… an interest in their resident microbiologist. Even more distressing that said microbiologist didn’t know. Or knew and didn’t care. He sighed.

“Might want to give me a few more minutes before landing, Cap’n,” Tick said. “Can’t see that anything bigger than sage rabbits has been frolicking around here, but you did detect that blip on your sensors on the way down, and I do have this feeling…”

“The ship waiting by those trees might have accounted for it,” Mandrake said. “Farley’s not trying to hide.”

Tick nodded. He’d seen the glorified gypsy wagon, its hull painted with people dancing under trees and stars around a campfire. If the shuttle possessed a single weapon, it hadn’t been apparent. That craft they knew about, as the captain was supposed to meet the owner for some intel, but he’d sent Tick’s team down early and on the sly, being suspicious of the trader’s intent. The woman had refused to deliver the intel she’d teased him with over the network.

Tick found his eye drawn to the lake again, and a sudden flash of insight or intuition or maybe just his imagination came to him. With his mind’s eye, he saw a combat shuttle hiding deep within the water’s depths, nestling between algae-slick boulders on the bottom, a sensor-blocking net fastened around its hull.

“Tick?” Striker poked him on the back of the shoulder.

Tick blinked and tore his gaze from the lake’s surface. It still gleamed serenely in the sun, not hinting of anything hiding underneath its placid waters. “What?”

“You all right? You froze up there.”

“Fine, but—” Tick tapped his comm-patch again, making sure the line was open. “Cap’n? Might want to scan the lake up close before you land. My itch says some trouble might be hiding down in it.”

His itch. Whatever that image that had flashed into his mind had been, it had been different from any intuition he’d experienced before.

Had it been his imagination? Would the captain ask him to explain further, and if he did, what would he say? He’d seen a vision? Mandrake would think all the squirrels caged in his brain had gotten loose. He crossed his fingers that the captain wouldn’t ask. After all, Tick had been his tracker for ten years. Mandrake knew he had a knack for seeing things others didn’t. Granted, those things were usually in plain sight, to those who had an eye for the looking. They didn’t—or until now, hadn’t—come to him in visions.

He took the minty gum out of his mouth and eyed it. Lert had been his favorite brand for years, and the caffeine hadn’t caused visions yet. But maybe he ought to cut back.

“We’ll fly low over the lake on the way in,” Mandrake said. “Meet us at the copse.”

“Yes, sir.” Tick hoped the captain’s shuttle would be able to detect the other craft through that sensor shielding he’d seen. Either that, or he hoped the vision had been his imagination and that nothing more inimical than ornery fish lurked down there.

The smell of wood smoke tickled Tick’s nostrils as he, Striker, and Hemlock approached the copse. The painted shuttle rested in the shade of the trees, and Farley, a chubby woman in overalls, sat on a nearby stump, her gray and brown braid of hair hanging to her butt. She wore a pistol in a holster at her belt, but overall, the crackling campfire and innocuous shuttle hardly bespoke danger.

“Maybe she’ll scratch your itch,” Striker said as they approached. “She doesn’t look like someone with high standards.”

Farley heard them approaching, stood, and waved.

“Given your preoccupation with itches, Sergeant, perhaps you’re the one who needs a scratch,” Hemlock said.

“You offering?”

“I thought you didn’t like things inserted in your ass.”

“No, but I’m not overly fussy about who handles my hardware, especially given how few women we got on the ship.”

“Even fewer who want anything to do with Striker’s hardware,” Tick said, keeping his voice low, since they ought to be within the trader’s hearing now. He hoped she hadn’t been expecting any particular couth from mercenaries. Of course, if those were her buddies in the hidden combat shuttle, then he wasn’t overly worried about offending her sensibilities.

A sleek, gray bullet-shaped shuttle zipped out of the clouds, heading toward the lake. Farley’s eyes narrowed as she tracked it, and Tick noticed a tenseness to her shoulders. Worried about meeting with mercenaries? Or worried that Mandrake Company had figured out she’d set a trap? The captain had a couple of bounties on his head, most from crime barons he had irked on backwater planets, but he’d also been a part of killing a couple of finance lords who’d had powerful allies, and he knew a few secrets that the Galactic Conglomeration military wouldn’t mind getting their hands on. Still, he had that Crimson Ops background, and Mandrake Company itself had a fearsome reputation. Not many people crossed them.

“That’ll be the captain,” Tick said, putting more of his backwoods drawl into his voice than typical. That usually set the ladies at ease.

Farley did not respond. She merely stuck her hands into the front of her overalls and watched the shuttle as it swooped low over the lake. Her shoulders were definitely tense.

Tick turned away from her, pretending to scratch his ear. “Trouble,” he mouthed so that Striker and Hemlock could see.

Hemlock made a sour face. Striker fondled his rifle and grinned.

Alpha Shuttle landed in the grass in front of the trader’s vessel. A moment later, the rear hatch opened, and Captain Mandrake walked out in his duster with an Eytect scanner over one eye. For weapons, he carried only a pistol at his waist, but he wore his mesh combat armor under the jacket, definitely having the look of someone who expected trouble.

Sergeant Hazel walked at his side, her height and muscled form making her as intimidating as any of the men on the ship. She carried an assault rifle as large as Striker’s and also had a couple of knives in sheaths on her forearm and a pistol holster strapped to her thigh.

“Captain Mandrake,” Farley said, her hands still in between her overalls and her shirt. Maybe she had a weapon stashed in there? “Always good to see you. But we’re old friends, aren’t we? You’ve brought some fierce-looking men along with you, considering I only invited you down for a peaceable chat.”

“Fierce men?” Striker asked. “They talking about me or Sergeant Hazel?”

Hazel squinted at him but said nothing. There wasn’t much love lost between those two, probably because Striker had asked her to handle his equipment one too many times.

“They like to get off the ship now and then,” Mandrake said. “Smell the flowers.”

“Now they’re talking about you,” Striker said, nudging Tick with his elbow.

Tick was about to whisper a response when another vision flashed into his mind. He saw the shuttle on the bottom of the lake stirring, its engines flaring quietly to life as it eased out from between those two boulders. The sensor-dampening netting remained around the craft.

“…said you have information for me,” Mandrake was saying. “How many aurums is it going to cost? I assume you insisted on meeting face to face because you want a purse full of physical coins.”

“You know me well, Captain.”

Tick looked toward the lake, his hand dropping to the pistol at his waist, though a pistol wouldn’t do anything against an armored spacecraft. Striker’s grenades might, but the team would be better off jumping into Alpha Shuttle for such a fight with another ship. Here on the ground, they would be easy targets, especially if their enemies did not mind taking out a copse of trees to get at them.

He caught Mandrake looking at him, his eyebrows arched slightly. Tick needed to warn him—if something was going to happen. But he hadn’t seen or heard anything yet, not with his regular senses. His real senses. How could he know his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him? It wasn’t as if he’d ever had visions before, not unless one counted the times in his youth when he had experimented with Digaroo Mushrooms.

“It’ll cost you two hundred aurums, Mandrake,” Farley said. “I promise the information will be worth your while. There’s a war brewing out on Gora. They’re looking to hire mercenaries for some ground fighting.”

“War sounds promising,” the captain said.

“Only a mercenary would say that.”

“Lots of people profit from war. Who’s involved, and who’s hiring?”

Farley drew a hand from her overalls and held it out, her palm up. “Like I said, information doesn’t want to be free.”

As she made the demand, the woman looked back at Tick, Striker, and Hemlock, perhaps wondering if Mandrake would try to force the information out of her without paying. Nothing about the captain’s reputation should have suggested he would. Mandrake was one of the few honorable mercenaries out there; Tick wouldn’t have stuck with him so long if he weren’t.

“Two hundred is a lot for a few words,” Mandrake said. “Wars don’t stay quiet once they break out. With a little research of my own—”

The image returned, more intense than ever, and Tick didn’t hear the rest of the captain’s words. In his mind, he saw the underwater shuttle tilt toward the surface, pointed to the southern end of the lake, toward the copse of trees. Its energy torpedo ports flared white, weapons arming. Tick stared out at the lake, but he couldn’t see a damned thing with his eyes, not even any bubbles floating up to the surface.

He tightened his hand on his pistol, indecision making him hesitate. As someone who didn’t believe in gods or mysticism of any kind, he didn’t trust the vision, not one bit. But if they were caught by surprise out in the open, they might lose men before they could find cover. The shuttle would be vulnerable, too, since it was on the ground, its hatch open and its shields down.

One last image popped into his mind. This time, he seemed to be inside of the pilot’s head, seeing the watery world through the man’s eyes. The light ahead grew brighter as the craft neared the lake’s surface. Excitement thrummed through him—no, through the pilot—as he anticipated blowing Captain Mandrake and all of his minions off the face of the moon.

“Sir,” Tick blurted. “There’s an attack coming. From the lake. Get in the shuttle!”

He sprinted for the captain, his pistol turned toward the lake as he ran.

After ten years working with Tick, Mandrake didn’t hesitate.

“You heard him,” he barked to his men, jerking a thumb toward the open hatch.

As Tick ran toward it, Mandrake lunged for the trader, who was spinning away, her braid flying behind her as she turned toward her own craft. He caught her around the waist, her pudginess not keeping him from lifting her over his shoulder with one arm.

Tick paused at the ramp to the hatch, in part to lay down cover for the captain if necessary, and in part because he couldn’t help but doubt his vision. Was he about to be made a fool?

“Put me down, Mandrake,” Farley roared at the same time as something shot out of the lake.

The enemy ship.

It roared out of the water, droplets streaming from its hull, and it arrowed straight toward them. The energy-dampening netting that had hidden it from sensors did nothing to hide the craft from the human eye. The torpedo ports that Tick had seen in his vision—how in all the hells in the galaxy had he seen that?—glowed white, an attack imminent.

As soon as the captain ran up the ramp with his prisoner, Tick spun to follow. The charge from his laser pistol would bounce harmlessly off a spaceship hull. Hazel and Hemlock raced inside on his heels.

“Shields,” Mandrake barked to the pilot, Commander Thatcher. “Get us off the ground.”

“Is everybody inside?” Up front, Thatcher’s hand hovered over the button that would close the hatch. They couldn’t take off or raise shields until that was secured.

“Striker,” Mandrake yelled. He hadn’t set his captive down yet, and she was kicking and shouting, almost drowning him out. “Get in here.”

Thatcher was watching the enemy ship on the view screen, and he must have decided they couldn’t wait. He hit the button to withdraw the ramp and close the hatch, then swiped his hand through a holodisplay above the panel.

Tick ran to the hatchway. What was that idiot Striker doing?

A suck-thump noise came from the base of the ramp, then Striker raced in, wobbling as it rose underneath his feet.

“She’s firing,” Hemlock warned—he had charged up to the front and crouched behind Thatcher.

Striker ended up diving inside, almost crashing into Tick. Tick scrambled aside as a boom erupted from over the lake. A flash of white light filled the shuttle, and then a shockwave battered them, the deck vibrating under Tick’s feet.

“Shields are now up,” Thatcher said calmly. “Lifting off to engage in evasive maneuvers.”

Only Thatcher could manage to sound like an emotionless android as an enemy vessel bore down on them, torpedoes launching.

“Might not be anything to evade,” Striker said, jogging up the aisle between the chairs. “Did Thumper hit him?” He patted his grenade launcher lovingly. “Had my sights lined up good, but then the ramp started lifting under my toes.” He shot an accusatory glare toward Thatcher.

Tick shoved Striker toward a seat. Assuming the grenade hadn’t blown the enemy shuttle out of the sky, things were about to get rough. Tick wasn’t crazy about flying under the best of circumstances, and the trip back to the Albatross wouldn’t likely be the best of circumstances.

Striker let himself be shoved—it wasn’t as if he could fire more grenades from inside—though he had to remove some of his weapons before he could buckle himself in. Just as Tick reached for his own harness, the first torpedo struck their shuttle. The shields were up, but the force of it still nearly knocked him out of his seat.

“Damn,” Striker said, “guess I didn’t hit him a good one. Why’d you have to lift the ramp, Thatcher? You know you got to let the Chief of Boom do his work.” He thumped himself in the chest.

Commander Thatcher,” their pilot said calmly without looking back. His hands flew over the controls, both physical and holographically displayed, and the shuttle banked sharply as another torpedo screamed past. A boom sounded as it struck the ground somewhere below them, dirt clods shooting up high enough to appear on the view screen. Now that they were in the air, Thatcher would be harder to catch than a greased pig, and Tick took some comfort in knowing he was one of the best pilots out there. They should be all right. Unless the enemy pilot was also one of the best. Or better.

Tick grimaced and gripped the armrests of his seat. Ground combat didn’t faze him, but this? Flying around in the back seat of a shuttle where he was helpless to protect his fate? Tracking and fighting skills were useless up here.

“Still want those two hundred aurums?” Mandrake asked.

He had secured his captive in one seat a few spots up the row from Tick and Striker, and he sat across from her, his harness fastened as he calmly pointed a pistol toward Farley. Apparently, he wasn’t angry enough to wrap a hand around her throat—yet.

“Always want aurums, Mandrake,” the woman said, glowering at him. “You know how hard it is to survive out here on the rim, especially when you’re just a girl without an army of big louts to guard your back.”

“Who’s she calling a lout?” Striker asked.

“Is it hard to sound indignant about being called a lout when you’re fondling your grenades?” Tick asked, trying to distract himself from the way the ground and the sky kept alternately coming into sight on the view screen. Did Thatcher have to spin so much? The artificial gravity kept them from being thrown about inside of the cabin, but Tick’s stomach still protested.

“What do you mean?” Striker asked blankly.

“Never mind.”

Corporal Hemlock didn’t seem upset by Thatcher’s spinning and gyrating. He leaned forward, asking if he could help with weapons. Damn perky new men.

“You hire those people?” Mandrake asked, jerking a thumb toward the view screen. The enemy craft came into sight, this time, the back end of it. Thatcher maneuvered behind it, aiming for the orange glow of its thrusters, his hand hovering over their own torpedo launchers.

“Go to Hell, Mandrake,” Farley growled. “I’m not answering your questions unless you plaster some gold bars into my hands.”

“How ’bout we plaster her bones all over the walls?” Striker suggested, raising his eyebrow toward the captain, probably asking if he wanted to make this a real interrogation.

“The painted vessel has been annihilated,” Thatcher said calmly, “along with a large portion of the shoreline.”

“The painted vessel!” Farley blurted, trying to stand up—the harness held her in her seat. “You mean my Bessy?”

“If that is the name of the ship that was parked beneath the trees, yes.”

“Those bastards,” she seethed, fingernails digging into her armrests.

“Care to tell us whether you’re working with them now?” Mandrake asked calmly.

She scowled at him and looked like she would clam up, but for a moment, Tick could see what she was thinking, or at least he seemed to be able to do so. He had a flash of insight, access to a memory of hers, of powerful armed men surrounding her, of her back to the hull of her shuttle, of sweat slithering down her ribcage.

“They strong-armed her,” Tick said, before he could think wiser of keeping his strange thoughts—no, her thoughts—to himself. “Knew she’d sold you information before and figured you’d trust her enough to show up.”

The trader’s eyes bulged as she looked at Tick, some of her anger and defiance replaced by a hint of fear. “How do you know that?”

“It true?” Mandrake asked, also giving Tick an odd look. It wasn’t one of fear, but a hint of confusion, or perhaps wariness, edged his face.

Tick shut his mouth, fear creeping into his gut too. What was happening to him? Why did he know things he couldn’t possibly know?

“It’s true,” Farley whispered. “GalCon wants you captured alive and brought in, Mandrake. They’re offering good money for you, and they’ve put the word out that anybody who hires you in the meantime is going to get a squad of Crimson Ops soldiers visiting their doorsteps.”

The captain leaned back, frowning thoughtfully.

“Think that explains why we haven’t had any offers of work in a month, sir?” Striker asked.

“It might, if she’s telling the truth.” Mandrake looked to Tick again, his expression still thoughtful.

Tick shrugged back. He wasn’t getting any more weird insights, and he didn’t know what to think of the others. Before today, nothing like this had ever happened. He’d had a few drinks the night before, but surely that couldn’t account for this. The day before, he had received another dosing of Dr. Keys’ gut bugs, but that was—

A surge of adrenaline ran through him as his thoughts lurched. Could that have somehow caused this?

It was an experimental treatment, with him and a few of the other mercenaries participating in the first human trials, from what he’d heard. But it had been his fourth time receiving a dose, and nothing strange had happened after the first three times. Oh, he had been able to run longer and lift more weight at the gym, and his vital signs had all been excellent, but that had been expected. Lauren Keys hadn’t mentioned anything about side effects to his mind. It had been nearly a month since the trial started. What would cause his brain to start doing funky things now?

Mandrake’s comm-patch beeped as Thatcher sent them through another series of spirals and loops. He fired several times, and Tick barely heard the captain answer over the noise.

“Can you repeat that?” Mandrake asked after the torpedoes had launched.

“We may have a new assignment, Viktor.” It was Ankari, the captain’s girlfriend and the head of Microbacteriotherapy, Inc., the little company behind Dr. Keys’ experiments.

Unease flowed through Tick’s veins, and he strained to listen, not sure if he was experiencing another bout of prescience or if his instincts just told him that this might have something to do with him.

“We could use work,” Mandrake said, eyeing his captive. “What is it?”

“Lauren’s sister contacted us from Dock Seven. She wants to hire us to take her on an expedition.”

“Lauren? Dr. Keys?”

“My microbiologist, yes,” Ankari said. “I believe you’ve met her five or six hundred times.”

Mandrake snorted. “Yes, but she only acknowledged my presence two or three of those five hundred times. I don’t think she knows who I am.”

“Oh, she knows. She’s waiting for you to sign up for her trials. She has a fondness for Grenavinians, you know.”

Tick felt some of the blood drain from his face. He was Grenavinian, the same as the captain. They had both been off planet and serving in the military ten years earlier when their world had been destroyed. He didn’t know why that would make his people special, but he rested his hand on his abdomen, imagining millions of alien bacteria rooting around in his intestines, doing strange things to his body—to his mind. Why had he let himself sign up for those trials? All because he’d wanted to get closer to Lauren?

“You know damned well that was why,” he grumbled under his breath.

The shuttle’s weapons fired again.

“Another direct hit,” Thatcher announced. “That may be enough to—ah, yes. His engines are damaged, and he’s losing altitude.”

“Nice shot, Thatcher,” Hemlock said, pumping a fist.

Commander Thatcher.”

“Yes, sorry. Sir.” Hemlock made a face.

“The sister have money?” Mandrake asked over his comm-patch. “We’re back up to a hundred men. We can’t afford to do charity assignments—or expeditions.”

“My understanding is that she does have funding and can afford your rates, but we’ll have to return to Dock Seven to pick her up and get the details.”

“Picking up women hasn’t gone well for me of late,” Mandrake said, giving the trader another look.

“Maybe you’re out of practice,” Ankari said. “I’ll give you some pointers tonight.”

He snorted and signed off.

“Tick,” Mandrake said.


“What exactly did you see when you were walking around the lake?”

“Sir?” More unease stirred in Tick’s gut—he had a feeling he knew precisely where the captain was going with his question.

“When you were tracking. You must have seen something on the ground that told you there was a shuttle hiding in the lake.” Mandrake gazed steadily at him, his green eyes piercing.

Tick chewed on his gum and tried for some of his usual ease, but that ease was eluding him today. “Wish I had seen something, sir, but it was just… a hunch.”

“A hunch that we were about to get attacked, just then?”

“Yes, sir.”

Mandrake raised an eyebrow toward Farley, but he didn’t bring up Tick’s unlikely knowledge about the coercion scheme. Instead, he said, “Why don’t you go visit Dr. Keys when we get back?”

Tick swallowed. Captain Mandrake, as big and muscular as Striker, always looked more like a brute than a thinker, but Tick had learned long ago that his captain knew how to rub his brain cells together and make sparks.

“I will, sir,” Tick said quietly.

Gladly he will,” Striker said. “He’s still hoping to get that itch scratched.”

“Striker, why don’t you go visit a library when we get back?” Mandrake asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Never mind.”


For now, The Tracker’s Dilemma is only available at Amazon, but I plan to publish the entire series at the other stores this summer, so watch this space. Thanks!


19 responses to “The Tracker’s Dilemma, a New Mandrake Company Novel (excerpt)”

  1. Ciera says:

    I loved this story, hell, I loved this whole series. I waited along time to read about Lauren and Tick, and it was so worth the wait. I just want to beg you once not to make this finale.
    Here are my reasons:
    1) Someone’s gotta teach Striker a lesson, and then give that man some much needed love.
    2) Srgt Hazel is epic, and a strong character like that deserves her own book.
    3) You have way to many loose ends to leave everything undone; GalCon is still unchecked, the mercenaries are on the run, and the alien ship still hasn’t been built.
    4) I would be incredibly sad if you didn’t write another Mercenary Challenge. Don’t you want your readers to be happy?

    • Rosheen says:

      I’m very new to the mercenary series, and Ruby’s writing. I too really would like to see strikers story, as secondary character he stands out, he is so politically incorrect but some how likeable/redeemable

  2. Ruby says:

    Thank you for taking the time to stop by, Ciera and Rosheen! The Tracker’s Dilemma isn’t doing too badly. Maybe I’ll have to consider one more Mandrake Company adventure. 🙂 (I definitely want my readers to be happy!)

  3. lynne says:

    Pls. do write at least one more—Striker has got to be wondering why he gets left out, when all around him are lovers! Maybe he could check himself into charm school! or catch the eye of a weapons dealer/designer with strong dominatrix tendencies who likes his art! And don’t forget to at least update us on Tomlin! and nullify the aging paranoid galcom planner of the Grenavine destruction who is after Mandrake! ( my favorite conspiracy plot!!!).

  4. Carlos says:

    Really good series, I enjoy the book and the series a lot, really hoping you write many more

  5. Jane says:

    I love this series. Any chance it could be picked up for a TV series?

  6. Rowan says:

    I too am recently new to Ruby lionsdrake and her works. That being said when I stumbled across the mandranke mercenaries I was hooked. I have read almost all her stories in this week alone. I love this sci-fi romance genre. I agree with several of the other comments above that Striker needs his own story. I want to see a heroine who might seem like a wilting flower but just until she smacks his ass into place. Someone who doesn’t need him but will leave him panting and maybe trying to atone for past behaviors. Love these stories and anxiously await more!

  7. Lori says:

    I just finished The Tracker’s Dilemma and loved it! I had a hard time seeing Tick with Dr. Keys but I now love the two of them together. Ruby, please please please keep writing Mandrake Company! We need to know whether GalCon is now going to go after Viktor and his crew in a big way, whether Microbacteriotherapy and their gut bugs continue to be successful, and whether those responsible for the destruction of Grenavine ever pay? Does Sgt. Hazel ever get a HEA? What about Striker? An update on my favorites Gregor Thatcher and Val would also be appreciated! Hate to see this series end. It’s been such a fun ride. 🙂

  8. Nancy says:

    This is more of a question to the author….is this a prequel to the Fallen Empire series? I’ve been an avid fan since I started the Emperor’s Edge a while back and I’ve read most of your books. So I was totally intrigued when I found out that you wrote another series under a nom de plume….I think I’ve read all 7 mandrake company books in a week….and I can’t help but see some similarities in this series with the Fallen empire series….I really hope there is going to be another book in the Mandrake series since I feel no closure.

  9. Rita says:

    I just finished The Tracker’s Dilemma and I LOVED IT! As I stated in the title of my Amazon 5* review: say it ain’t so, Ruby! This can’t be the last one 🙁 The “Chief of Boom” has to fall hard, and I mean hard! Perhaps Heath’s sister? He mentioned her a few times in the story. Maybe she could be a super sweet, “space hippy”? I’m generally not a big fan of the “virgin trope” but here I’ll definitely make a happy exception: Heath’s sister is so busy saving something (a planet that reminds her of Grenavine) that she hasn’t had the time to bust a move with someone special. She gets in trouble, the Mandrake company somehow gets wind of this and Viktor Mandrake decides to do a mercenary “freebie” which pisses everyone off, especially Striker. And there you go! Please Ms Lionsdrake, I know your fans are ready and waiting for Striker’s story!

  10. Maria says:

    I agree – please write more of the Mandrake company! I would love to see what’s happened after Lauren & Tick’s story – do they really have to hide at the rim of the galaxy? Maybe Striker could get his bum busted by a fantastic woman!

  11. Tanya says:

    I have loved the Mandrake series but would love a story about
    Striker and about sargent Hazel They are such fun characters and the series does not feel finished without their stores. I hope you could find time in your busy schedule.

  12. Valerie says:

    Where is book six???? I can’t find it. Amazon just goes from Book 5 to book 7n

  13. Sandy says:

    Just on my knees begging…please please please 🙂 Love your work and hope you will continue in this fun world you created.
    Thank you!

    • Rosheen says:

      I second sandy,s request. Would still very much like striker a the first option of a continued story, series still does not quiet feel finished (and I’m not often in to series). I keep bowl checking (aka like a hungry pet) for more.

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