Chapter 1: Comms
Chopper sat in the hotel’s lobby. He lounged in a dusty chair, feet up on a table made from something that resembled a crocodile—something big and mean and full of violence.
Something like him.
And then that made Chopper think of the fate of that big, mean, violent beast and what it might mean for him. Sure, he wouldn’t be a table, but dead was dead. And death seemed to get closer every day that he lived through.
Which, sure, was technically true, but that’s not what he meant.
Tall, bulky with hard muscle, sporting a scarred visage, and shaved head, Chopper had no company in the lobby. The dead cities were far away, and they had been that way for two standard decades, if what Chopper had read were true. But this place, this small town with its big hotel, it hadn’t seen the worst that the people of a dying planet could offer. Those big cities probably had, but this planet’s death and been long and loud. This place had been abandoned long before the chaos and anger that fear too often brought arrived. This place hadn’t burned.
But it also didn’t look like anyone had bothered to give it a sweep in the last twenty years either.
Chopper had wandered through the town that had been known as Morotos, and had been amazed at how quickly nature had taken back its own. Sure, structures still stood, he could tell what had been buildings and where roads had been, but those were frames on which plants grew. And rather than dead, the town was alive, just with animals rather than people. Chopper had to admit, he preferred it that way.
The hotel must have been sealed. The plants that grew along its exterior had not come inside, and while the parts that Chopper had seen offered only dust and decay, he had met no interlopers—none of the small, silver-furred creatures he thought of as foxes, or the trilling winged animals that had no feathers but had long, trailing tendrils when they flew.
Chopper had hoped for more. He had thought that he had found the sanctuary of an old friend, and he had come to warn them. If his sources had learned of this place, then lots of other people would have as well. This wouldn’t be a sanctuary, it would be a target.
While Chopper might not have been the sharpest or quickest when it came to puzzles, even he realized that those clues could have been planted. They would have been planted to draw those hunting his friend, meaning that even if they weren’t there, other clues might be, some other way to make sure they were okay.
Chopper leaned back in the chair and flexed his neck. He had already waited hours and was ready to wait hours longer. He could be patient. He didn’t like to be, but he could.
When the stun grenade crashed through a window high up on the front wall, it didn’t surprise Chopper. Still, he felt he should play along, so even though the flash and the bang had not disoriented him, Chopper put an arm before his eyes as though trying to protect them.
With some irritation, he saw that only seven hunters poured into the spacious lobby. Chopper frowned slightly. Who sent seven hunters to capture him? A dozen, at minimum. Maybe there were others standing by, maybe with some heavy weapons, and that these were just the shock troops, something to soften him up before the real game started. He hoped so. HE had a reputation to uphold.
Well, he had once had a reputation. Maybe this was part of the price for staying so quiet for so long.
“You didn’t even knock.” He didn’t move, save to raise an eyebrow. “That’s rude.”
The most average among the seven lowered his weapon to reach inside his jacket and pull out a piece of paper. “You’re the mercenary known as Solitaire. The Tetrarchy of The Dying Suns have a bounty on your head, a pretty damn big bounty.”
“Wait, what?” Chopper covered his face with his palm. “Are you kidding me? Do I look like Solitaire?”
“You’re not fooling us, merc.” The speaker carried an automatic shotgun. One of those was a dragon in enclosed spaces. In a large and open area where a target could put both distance and cover between themselves and the weapon? Not the best choice. Still, she seemed mighty proud of it.
“You’re all bounty hunters and you’re using merc as an insult?” Jester leaned forward. “And people question my intelligence. Listen, just take a good look. You sure you want to be doing this?”
“You can shut it right now.” That was the shortest of the three, speaking through the few crooked teeth still in his mouth. “We’ve come to collect.”
Chopper put his feet on the ground and leaned forward. “I’ve got some bad news for you. First of all, and I am kind of amazed I have to say this again, I’m not Solitaire.”
“Quit talking.” The shortest’s face contorted, bending in on itself in apparent confusion, the barrel of his rifle held unsteadily on Chopper. “Surrender yourself or we’ll start shooting.”
“And, just so we’re clear, who I am is Chopper, and Chopper always brings the boom to the party.” Chopper pointed to a recessed area above a carved gargoyle a far corner. Seven pairs of eyes followed that hand. None of those saw his right hand reach for the compact weapon uncomfortably tucked between his back and the chair. No one but him heard his sub-vocalized command—words spoken all but silently, never leaving his throat.
Others might call the automated grenade launcher he had set up as soon as he arrived overkill. Even if you were expecting a kill team of twenty—a grenade launcher in a hotel lobby? But Chopper liked overkill.
He also liked explosions, but that was totally not the reason for the weapon emplacement.
It was simple luck that the first grenade detonated right between the tall, bulky individual in the body armour and holding the light automatic weapon and the very average, balding individual with the modified battle rifle whose stance suggested military training. The explosion tore through them both, and Chopper was pretty certain neither would be joining this game any time soon. The satisfying sound of a second launch made Chopper smile.
Everyone was rushing for cover as Chopper pushed back, knocking the chair over, providing him concealment if not cover. A wretched scream followed a second explosion. Chopper drew out the secreted Ackdam Hellion revolver from the back of the chair. He liked the Hellion. Like him, it hit heavy and looked beautiful doing it. He popped up behind the overturned chair and threw himself over the stonework behind him. He got cover just as the bounty hunters—not that they had earned the title—unloaded their weapons in a flurry of poorly aimed and uncontrolled cyclical fire.
The third explosion heralded a collection of cursing, shouting, and general mayhem. Chopper felt right at home. He leaned out over the stonework—some kind of frame for a container, filled with dirt but oddly barren of plants—and aimed the Hellion. The first target he saw was the shotgunner, who opened her mouth to say something but froze when she caught sight of Chopper and his hand cannon. Her eyes widened the moment before the high calibre round caved in her face and jerked her body back.
That left three targets.
Another explosion—that one uncomfortably close—and more yelling and shooting. Chopper crawled to his left, keeping himself well below the rim of the stonework. He had moved a few metres—enough to throw off his opponents’ aim—when the shooting stopped and he heard the unmistakeable sound of empty magazines leaving ports. He rose on one knee.
Focused on changing magazines, no one really noticed him. There were three still up and active, and they had taken cover in the shambles of the room. The grenade launcher seemed to have a jam—Chopper could hear it grinding and a sound like a chain caught in a gear, but no more explosions. Chopper put his sights on the short one with the bad teeth who was really focused on changing his magazine. It didn’t look like he had ever done it under fire before. Shorty had the magazine in, but hadn’t cycled his weapon when he noticed Chopper. He started to raise his weapon with the bolt still open – no round in the chamber. Chopper let him pull the trigger. Nothing. Chopper winked then fired two rounds—one centre mass the other in his face.
One of those was Mr. Average, the man with the bounty notice. Chopper caught him in his peripheral vision and started to pivot. It was one of those moments—and Chopper had a few—when everything slowed down as the deadly threat took up all his focus. He was pretty damn sure that Mr. Average would get at least one good shot before Chopper could get the heavy Hellion on him and put him down.
A lean figure, draped in purples and grays, dropped from above. Chopper could hear the rattle of suppressed fire. The personal defence weapons the figure held in each hand vibrated as one spat out fiery bullets and the other sent ice. Mr. Average shuddered as the rounds impacted, his left side igniting. He screamed his agony, his legs collapsing beneath him as he crumpled into a broken pile on the floor.
The figure landed gracefully, weapons at the ready. “He’ll live.”
“Then we don’t need that one.” Chopper took aim at the last bounty hunter, framed by a doorway, fleeing the ruined hotel. Chopper fired once then turned back to new arrival. “Good to see you, Solitaire. Cutting it a bit close, maybe?”
“A joke?” Her head reaching only to Chopper’s chin, Solitaire offered him a nod. She wore a tunic and functional pants with a loose, short coat over them. On her back, was a compact field pack. Solitaire leaned down and applied an emergency healant to Mr. Average’s collection of wounds.
Chopper stepped over Shorty’s body He holstered the Hellion, stopping just before he stepped on Mr. Average. “I thought this one was going to punch my ticket.”
“This one?” Solitaire had a sharp chin, dark hair and eyes, and a wide mouth with thin lips. She poked Mr. Average’s side, eliciting a scream. “He would have missed.”
Chopper had his personal communications capsule—his shell—in hand and had the grenade launchers app open. Looked like a bullet was lodged in the feed. It could be repaired, sure, but it would cost money and take time. Money? Not that big of a problem. Time? Chopper wasn’t what his schedule would be looking like in the near future. “So was this for them or for me?”
“For you mostly.” Solitaire took out her shell and took an image of Mr. Average’s face. She leaned back down, and checked the healant again. Mr. Average groaned. Rolling him on his side and pulling his arms behind his back, she looped a zip-cuff around his wrists trigger it to tighten.
“Now, let’s chat.” Solitaire squatted, her two weapons dangling from tactical slings underneath each arm. “I’m not going to gag you because we want to talk to you, but if you start spouting off or screaming or anything, I’ll seal your mouth and move along. Are we clear?”
Eyes wide, Mr. Average nodded. Solitaire picked up the bounty notice he had dropped. “You say you were hired by the Tetrarchy of Hemera. You met a representative on Anesidora in the Pythos system, did you?” Mr. Average nodded. “You apparently didn’t realize the Tetrachy doesn’t have representatives on Anesidora. They don’t have representatives anywhere.”
“Yeah, the Hemera don’t leave Cluster 5,” Chopper said.
Solitaire shrugged. “They’re rich beyond belief. They control the Brin Asimov Gate and tax the hell out of traffic. They sometimes send out missionaries. You didn’t convert, did you?” Mr. Average silently answered in the negative. “That was a joke.” She rose. “So who was it?”
“Well, last I saw, you had six people and two corporations looking for you.” Chopper tapped his chin. “But it takes a lot of guts to impersonate the Tetrachy.” He glanced down at Solitaire. “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
Solitaire’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Well, I don’t really want to do this, but . . .” She took off her left glove. She reached for Mr. Average.
The air near the entry to the hotel, above the body of the last bounty hunter, shimmered only slightly, a weird distortion like one saw when heat rose from the ground. Chopper drew the Hellion. At that moment, the air opened, fluttering around a tall, thin individual, The individual drew off the hood of their chameleon cloak, their face covered in a an enhanced vision device and respirator.
“I am late. My apologies. A ship approaches. It is registered to a front company. It exists on paper only. It has transit documents issued by Zephyr Corporation.”
Chopper touched his forehead with the barrel of the Hellion. “Nice to see you Jester.”
“You as well.” Jester took the long, sleek, sniper weapon system off their back. They checked the optics. “A small shuttle detaches from the main ship. This is its destination. There could be a dozen opponents. The shuttle is unarmed.”
“Do we shoot it out or do we rabbit?” Chopper asked Solitaire.
Solitaire’s eyes were on Mr. Average. She had not yet touched him with her bare hand. “I need that ship.”
“A ship working for Zephyr?” Chopper frowned. “Aren’t they pissed enough?”
“It’s Dust.” Solitaire replaced her glove. “I’m not sure how, but Zephyr got her. They’re holding her on Dispatera.”
“We need the ship to access Dispatera.” Jester touched their mask. “We will need to take the shuttle. There will be more fighting on the ship.”
“Well, hell, since it’s a party.” Chopper returned to the chair he had sat in and the stonework behind it. He retrieved a field pack similar to Solitaire’s. He touched a pocket and a Daedalus Light Support Weapon materialized in the air above the pack. Chopper took it. He loved the weapon. It could punch through armour, or penetrate three different buildings before taking down a target. On cyclical, it created a wall of projectiles. On semi-auto, Chopper could flip up an auxiliary optic to allow for magnification and the delivery of terrifyingly precise rounds. “Let’s get it done.”
“I will prepare.” With that, Jester again draped themselves in their chameleon cloak to disappear. As they moved, the air shimmered with distortion, but otherwise Jester had vanished.
Solitaire cradled a scoped, suppressed Paradyne ‘Orca’ submachine gun in her arms, a weapon that hit harder and reached farther than her small PDWs. Chopper figured she had carried it in the field pack Dust had devised, the field pack like his that accessed extra-dimensional space. Chopper couldn’t explain it—hells, he had met really smart scientists who couldn’t explain it—but it sure was handy.
And he figured that was why Zephyr wanted Dust.
All the thoughts got blown out of his head by the blast of sound and light that hit him. This time, he hadn’t been ready. This time, it actually disoriented him. Already standing behind the stonework, he dropped, judging he was fully under cover by feel. What about Solitaire? Jester’s vision device would have protected them, but Solitaire wouldn’t have had any more warning than he had.
Or had she?
Chopper heard the action of the suppressed Orca firing in three-round bursts. The sound moved away to his left. She was creating space, drawing attention away from him. She new he was disoriented and she was trying to keep the focus on her.
He didn’t know if he had a sister—any family, really—but that was okay, because he had Solitaire, and Jester, and the rest. He had made a damn fine family.
As his senses slowly drained back into him, the air filled with the reports of weapons. He thought he heard sidearms, longarms, even one directed energy weapon. Then he heard the sound of Gloria, Jester’s weapon. One target out of the fight. Every time Gloria fired, someone died or got incapacitated. But it would reveal Jester, if only for a moment.
Vision still hazy, but fairly certain he knew the direction of his targets, Chopper rose, the Daedalus on automatic. He saw shapes mostly, but there was a cluster of figures bristling with barrels, and there was another, slighter figure, firing from behind cover.
Chopper knew where to aim.
The power of the Daedalus always thrilled him. He felt like an ancient god hurling thunderbolts—or, like lightning, but with the sound of thunder? He didn’t bother to aim carefully. This wasn’t about causing physical harm. This was about distraction and intimidation. Go ahead, stand in front of my mighty monster. Let it kiss you. Embrace its anger.
His desire had been to draw attention and force action. That worked, but the Daedalus also tore through the assembly of targets and dropped three of them. Maybe not dead, maybe not incapacitated, but degraded at the very least.
Job done, Chopper got back in cover, Daedalus’ bipod resting on the stonework ready to get to more precise work.
Gloria made its contribution to the carnage.
“You can all die here or you can drop your weapons, give us your ship, and come after me later.” Solitaire punctuated the offer with a burst from the Orca. A scream and the sound of impact on the ground suggested that punctuation was an exclamation.
Chopper saw movement, a silhouette rising from cover to aim at Solitaire. He squeezed the trigger three times. The Daedalus shook and shouted in his hands, caressing his shoulder. The stone, brick, and plaster around the figure exploded into dust. The splatter of red and viscera on the wall behind where the silhouette had been told Chopper that his demonstration had been effective.
Then he saw it—a shimmer behind Solitaire. The appearance of an arm from out of the air. A heavy autoloader pistol coming to bear on the back of Solitaire’s head. Chopper tried to shift his aim, bring up the magnification optic, save his friend.
Jester appeared, somersaulting over the figure, scything out with a plasma-edged long blade, cleaving off the figure’s hand at the wrist. Jester landed beside Solitaire, facing the figure, sword still in hand. The chameleon cloak fell away from the opponent, showing an individual clad all in dull gray, head hooded, face masked. The individual reached for one of two shoulder holsters. Jester twisted, dropping to stand on their hands, their feet curving from the ground to connect with the figure’s jaw. The force of the impact lifted the figure its feet and spun it in the air, its body landing hard on its shoulder.
Jester’s body launched, curving through the air, their feet returning to the ground, their body once against upright. The plasma-blade sizzled. The figure reached for its boot—another weapon? Seriously? Jester severed both the leg and the reaching arm.
As bullets sped past the now exposed Jester, time returned to its regular flow. Chopper rose, firing as he did, spraying, uncaring about precision only about effect. The general area where their opponents fired from became a cloud of debris and dust. The ammunition count on the Daedalus dropped far too quickly. Seconds, not even seconds. The weapon was dry.
Chopper dropped. He ejected the can. His pack dispensed another. He loaded. He worked the action. He rose, readying the weapon, settling it on its bipod.
Jester fired. Gloria reached out, punching through stone, creating a mist cloud of blood.
Two sets of empty hands thrust into the sky. “Stop! Stop! Surrender! We Surrender!”
“You sure aren’t fast learners.” Solitaire checked to see that Chopper had his weapon trained on those empty hands. She rose from cover. “Come out in the open and provide the access codes to the shuttle, then we can leave you in peace.”
Two men in battered body armour, no weapons visible, stepped onto the open space, one placing what looked like a shell on the floor. “Full access. Right there. Leave us our stuff, okay? We won’t be able to go back to the ship.”
Solitaire had her Orca SMG levelled at the two. “You’re right, because we’re taking that. But don’t you worry, your weapons, ammo, and equipment will all be left behind, along with any survival gear and supplies on the ship.” She lowered her weapon. “But if you come after any of us again, after any of Hazzard’s old crew?” Her eyes lit with what appeared to Chopper to be literal fire. “We’ll have some fun with you before you die. We will make you regret your every life choice.”
Jester appeared behind them, the plasma-edge of their sword crackling, distortions of heat dancing along it. “And then we will become mean.”