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The Shrike Chronicles


Dakota Kemp

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this work are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


Copyright © 2014 by Dakota Kemp

All rights reserved.

Cover Image by yod77

Cover Design by Dakota Kemp

Available on Amazon.com

Visit www.dakotakemp.wordpress.com

For Kaitlin and Emilie

Who have always begged me to write a romance.

Well – I tried.

Chapter 1

The whole place stank of piss to him. Piss and refuse and poverty. The surroundings – metal plated streets lined with ramshackle huts of old rubbish – were illuminated with sickly green, yellow, purple, or red lights reminiscent of tacky neon from the 20th. He could feel the desperation around him. The struggle to live. To survive. The gutters overflowed with waste, and the stench of maggots in rancid meat filled his nostrils with death. The scents, the sights, the noise – it was nauseating.

Samuel Shrike breathed deep and smiled.

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant expression, though Shrike never suspected otherwise, judging by the attention he received from dancers at the clubs. As he grinned, his lips tightened the scars crossing his face from forehead to chin, each leaving deep furrows in his nose and bare lengths in his short-trimmed goatee.

Shrike left the leer in place as he strolled through Beta Station, breathing in the stench of life. Real life, not the farce at which those rich pricks in Alpha pretended. He nearly started whistling a tune. The scramble for subsistence carried with it the uncertainty of every minute, as well as the ever-present chance for a fight, where the winner walked away with both life and the loser’s valuables. Unfortunately, he didn’t get many surprises like that anymore. Perhaps the lithe movement of his lean frame, the iron look in his dark eyes, or the MK tattoo peeking from beneath his collar frightened potential challengers. More likely, everyone was unnerved by the sheer shock of seeing a human.

Maybe if he slouched the nearby Korvak packs would gamble. They relaxed menacingly along the walkways and in the alleys, looking passersby up and down with ill-concealed hostility. Alone as he was, he should have made a tempting target. After all, his Predator X battle armor was top-notch and worth a small fortune, outfitted with high-tech kinetic shields against projectiles and ceramic plates to absorb even superheated particle bolts. The Korvak might get in close enough to use their razor-sharp fangs, claws, and dark matter electro blades. They would lose a man or five, but those who were left could live a life of privilege in a place like Beta on the profits from his equipment.

No takers. In fact, most looked away uneasily. Shrike got on well with most Korvak he knew. They were stupid but violent. The predatory origin of their race was apparent in their crooked limbs, ideal for agile movement, and in the serrated teeth jutting from their skeletal faces. Korvak were always ready for a fight. Shrike shook his head with disappointment, until he realized his hand was tight on the Skar M-500 particle accelerator shotgun strapped to his thigh. No doubt he looked like a tox-junkie, grinning as he clutched a high velocity, 500 particle shred slug-thrower. Little mystery he wasn’t getting hit by anyone, not even the Korvak. He was working against himself.

It didn’t matter. Shrike couldn’t suppress his grin. As much as he loved Beta Station, however, it wasn’t the locale that had him high. It was a special day.

It had been four months since they last met. Four laggin’ months; it always seemed longer. This time he got to pick the location, thank the eternal star-lag.

The walkways became better lit as he drew closer to Smuggler’s Den, just as the streets cleared of beggars. The Den’s owner, a vicious Liari called Vasir, ran this quarter of Beta, and she wasn’t fond of freeloading vagrants cluttering up her establishments. Her muscle kept them well clear.

Shrike thought on his choice of the Den with satisfaction. It offered all the vice and danger of Beta with none of its beggarly mewling. Plus, it offered some of the best entertainment to be found on the station. The Den was one of the few clubs on this rock where you could drink without fear of food poisoning, and they had the best dancers around. Most establishments here would throw anything with tits on the stage, but Vasir only hired quality dancers, and mostly Liari, at that. It was too bad she hadn’t conjured up any humans, but hell, he couldn’t even remember the last time he had seen another of his species.

The Den was the best club, though there were dozens he could have selected and been happy. Beta Station was huge. Built into an asteroid that orbited the Treyon star of the D’hask Nebula, Beta was over sixty kilometers wide, and had an overflowing population of over two million. As the station’s population continued to grow, more and more ramshackle structures were built atop one another to form towers that protruded out the sides of the asteroid into the space beyond, straining both Beta’s artificial gravity generators and the fusion thrusters that kept other asteroids at bay. Shrike had been to the upper levels before – one of towers that protruded twenty kilometers from the asteroid’s surface – and he had felt the gravity lessening. Even walking too exuberantly at those levels could leave you with a sore head, but that didn’t matter here in the underside, where the tunnels wove through the asteroid itself. Overpopulation might someday create a problem, but he figured piling people closer together had worked before, and Beta had always imported its food and water. The biggest headache was finding room to dock ships.

Shrike snorted with amusement. He must have spent too much time with Dr. Argus recently; there was nowhere else he could have picked up such useless drivel. That damned freak would natter on about anything to anybody, even a detested rival. Probably a result of living in that hermitage he called an observation station. Who cared how shit functioned as long as it worked?

Shrike nodded at the bouncers at the Den’s entrance, two Tryans who noted his approach with reptilian eyes. He could feel the rhythm pulsing from the luminescent archway, music thrumming with enough bass to send vibrations through his body. He modified his Internal Regulator unconsciously, muting the synthesizers to a thick rumble to both reduce distraction and minimize damage to his hearing. He moved his head with the beat. It was good stuff. Vasir knew her music, though most Liari did.

Adjusting his IR brought an utter lack of traffic noise to his attention. Stations and cities normally roared with the thunder of transport shuttles and gravity-bound cars along 3D projection lanes. Shrike always forgot that Beta didn’t have transport. There just wasn’t room. Everyone walked or rode the multi-directional elevators. Nothing about Beta was conducive to the disabled. To be disabled here was to be dead.

Still, the noise of traffic was so common that the station felt odd without it, like a once-healthy mind missing vital memories. In the space lanes or out on colonies he didn’t miss the racket, but such a populated place wasn’t complete without the whir of passing cars.

Apparently the Tryans were satisfied with his appearance, because they allowed his entrance without comment. He’d worked with their kind before. They were a numerous race in the galaxy, their interests rivaled only by the Liari and Rynok. Shrike wasn’t a racist – he’d kill anyone of any race with equal discretion – but he figured he would give a Tryan more of a chance than he would others. It was a debt he owed them for their help at Mal Kor, and Shrike always paid his debts. Their efforts had amounted to nothing, but at least they had tried. It was more than could be said for everyone else.

Smuggler’s Den was booming. Members of every species filled the club, placing bets at the holo tables, getting pass-out pissed around the bar, or tipping the dancers with lusty enthusiasm. Shrike even noticed a few Rynok scuttling around the dancing platforms. It was rare to see the insectoid creatures in public, who preferred the bustle of their own hives to the alien atmosphere around the galaxy’s other species. Probably didn’t want to associate with the bipedal masses. Bug-eyed pricks.

Still, the Rynok seemed to find the Liari as irresistible as everyone else did. Shrike shuddered, giving the nearest dancers a pitying look. An ideal day at work likely didn’t include getting groped by a giant mantis.

He would rescue a few dancers from their patrons later. Help ease their discomfort.

For now, Shrike shoved through the crowd, ignoring the stares and whispers. He didn’t care about the attention. He hardly even noticed it. Shrike was too intent on his search, sifting through the throbbing music, shimmering lights, and rambunctious debauchery. She wouldn’t get the jump on him this time. He was on high alert, so focused he paused for scarcely a moment when a nearby Liari dancer gave him a complimentary flash of ample cleavage and a smoky wink.

It was still a surprise when he saw her first, though it appeared she wasn’t waiting in ambush, leaning against the back bar as she was, chatting with a bartender. Triumph shivered down his spine, and he chuckled, not even attempting to sneak up on her. A more pointless exercise would never be found outside of the Galactic Philosopher’s Guild than trying to surprise that bloody woman.

Sure enough, Shrike hadn’t come within twenty paces when he noticed her hesitate, and she turned…

He stopped in his tracks, his mind numb. Then, a throaty chuckle came from behind him, and a he felt a pistol barrel touch the back of his head.

Son of a bitch.

Shrike turned with a sigh, cursing himself for an idiot. She was as beautiful as he remembered. Her pale, pink skin was so light it was nearly translucent, a rare color among the Liari. Delicate, angular features were highlighted by the intensity of her stark blue eyes and the deep azure and gold patterns in her head crests, curving like curtains of frozen waves behind her head and down her neck, reminiscent of the hair worn by females of his own species years ago. The Liari form was humanoid, and she wore it to perfection. Her long, slender legs rose up to meet the hips, torso, and bust of an alien goddess, all encased in light Commando battle armor. Shrike quickly altered his IR to dampen some of his senses, lessening the effect of her pheromones on the pleasure center of his brain. Neglecting to adjust for that around Liari had gotten him into trouble more than once.

He snickered. Good times.

She was smirking at him, lips quirked up mischievously, left eyebrow raised, like she was listening to a joke no one else could hear. Despite his annoyance at her success – again – he grinned back.

“Dammit, Vash,” Shrike said with as much peevishness as he could muster. “Where’d you find the bloody twin?”

She grabbed his proffered hand and pulled him forward, slapping him heartily on the back. “She caught my eye,” she shrugged with a laugh and a wink. “I knew the shade of her skin would confuse you, even with her wearing that horrid Bacarin armor.”

“I thought something was off,” he lied, nodding sagely. Did the laggin’ woman think of everything?

“Come on, you great human relic,” she said, gesturing to their corner table not far from the bar. “Let’s grab a seat and a pitcher of Burnt Craeken Ale.”

“You won me at pitcher,” Shrike declared, following her lead as was his wont. She always knew the best stuff around, and the view from behind was just more…stimulating.

“Sam Shrike,” Vash exclaimed by way of continuation as she slid in the booth. Her eyes glittered playfully at him. He took the seat opposite.

He glowered, or as near a glower as he could summon. “Don’t call me Sam.”

Vash laughed, motioning at one of the bartenders, who gawked at Shrike open-mouthed for a moment, then noted their request and rushed away. “I don’t know why you hate it. Sam is such an obvious Earth name. It’s like your parents wanted to be perfectly clear you were human.”

Samuel, a name passed down through millennia of Earth history, long before humans had known the stars weren’t little fairies or some shit like that. Shrike found it backward, and it shortened into an even simpler appellation: Sam.

“I’ll never understand why you prefer your surname,” she continued, fiddling with a napkin, a look of casual concentration on her face as she folded and pressed the fabric. “Why would you want to be a primitive animal, a…what-didja-callit? A bird?”

“A predatory bird,” Shrike explained. “It’s a songbird that acts like a raptor.”

“If you say so,” Vash shrugged. He caught her covert look and sighed. She was just trying to get him going. He ought to know better than to let her goad him after all this time.

“Here you go, a little bird-thing for the bird man,” she announced, placing the napkin on the table, though it wasn’t a simple napkin anymore. It was a perfect replication of a flying bird.

“Nice,” Shrike smiled, fiddling with the wings and head. The Liari had taken what humans called origami and made it something incredibly intricate. Vash was often creating something with the small pouch of paper she carried, a rare commodity these days, as paper was used for little. She flicked a hand absently – it was one of thousands of amusing creations for her – and swiped the bird to the floor for the cleaners.

He waited for her to turn and look for the bartender before picking it up and placing it in a slot of his armor. She didn’t know, but he had hundreds of her discarded designs in a compartment on his ship. They were all beautiful, unique. Like her.

“So,” he began, grabbing the pitcher of deep brown, sluggish liquid as soon as the barkeep returned, pouring for both of them. “Whatcha been up to, Vash? Any good jobs I’ve missed?”

Vash shrugged, taking a long pull on her drink when he slid it her way. She didn’t wince at the heavy kick. Shrike grinned and took a long swallow as well, letting a chalky taste of alcohol, ash, and dirt slug him in the mouth. Craeken fare was too much for most people, but Vash downed it like water on a hothouse.

“You know how much I hate to brag.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Not a damn bit.”

Her disinterested look broke into a wicked grin. “You want the long version or the short? Because let me tell ya, we could be here all night.”

“The short, then,” he laughed. “You can fill me in on all the messy details after you’ve compared with my exploits.”

“All right, bird man,” Vash crowed mockingly. “Give me your best shot.”

“Ladies first.”

“That human sense of honor is going to get you killed someday, but I’ll start if you insist. I managed to land a contract with ASS about three months back.”

He was surprised despite himself. “How? Alpha has the most extensive database in the Milky Way!”

She snorted in amusement, sidetracked by her own quip. “Alpha Station Security – it’s too funny. They can insist they’re the Alpha Station Police all they want, but they’ll be ASS forever to anyone who’s heard that joke.”

“How did you bypass the database?” he pressed, intrigued.

“Listen, Shrike,” she explained smugly, “this was some hardcore smoke and mirror shit. I had to use every skill in my repertoire. A little hacking, some networking, called in a few favors, laid on the charm, and there I was on the payroll as a special tasks “advisor” in a narcotics investigation. But this was a two-birds-one-stone type deal.” She nodded in self-satisfaction at her use of the human saying, and Shrike gave her a token tip of his glass. “I ended up busting the tox ring, though I’d actually been hired to wipe some files off the Alpha database for a client. I got paid up front by ASS, landed an additional stipend when I took down the tox runners, and I managed to wipe everything Alpha had on both myself and my client before spacing a few days later.” Shrike bellowed his admiration, marveling at her nerve.

Vash grinned at the approval, giving a slight bow in her seat. Then, she scowled into her drink. “There’s always a hiccup though. This time it was a nosy SOB, a certain Detective Arturian. That lagger had me smelled out from the beginning, kept trying to catch me in a lie the entire time. You know him?”

“Sarus? Hell yeah. I’m glad you didn’t kill him. He’s the only friendly acquaintance I have on the Alpha force. Good guy.”

“He a contact? I didn’t get the feeling he was dirty. In fact, he struck me as nauseatingly righteous. Seemed to be crossways with a lot of his superiors though. He got pretty pissed about all the regulations and bullshit he had to put up with from the brass.” She smirked. “If it wasn’t for some of that red tape, I’d have been made.”

“Dirty? Nah, just knows how the wind blows. All the political hoops Alpha Police would have to jump through would make holding me a shitstorm, and he knows it.”

“I’ll let you know before I pull another stunt like that,” Vash said, lounging back in her seat. “Maybe you can keep the guy off my ass.”

“Nothing I do is going to keep guys off your ass,” Shrike objected, holding up his hands. “Have seen that thing lately?”

“We’ve all got our burdens to bear,” she sighed, sadness on her face. “Yours are the extinction of your entire species and that hunk of useless metal you lug around. Mine is this magnificent ass.”

“Such is life,” Shrike agreed, “but don’t be ragging on my baby. Not many can say they’ve seen as much as this pistol.” He set his antique, Kimber 1911 on the table between them.

“A relic,” Vash said. “Good for absolutely nothing.”

“She’s my good luck charm.” He laid a protective hand on the blue steel barrel.

“Yeah? How much luck did she bring at Mal Kor?”

Shrike pulled on the collar of his armor unconsciously, exposing the MK tattoo underneath. “Enough to get me out alive. That’s more than most anyone else could say.”

Vash gave him a look of grudging consent. “True enough.” She took another long drink. “Tell you what, you get a kill with your primitive tool, and I’ll spring for that Armakyte sniper rifle you’ve been salivating over since its reveal. Of course, this is on the condition that if you haven’t gotten the kill in a year’s time, you buy one for me.”

Shrike looked down at his lucky charm uneasily. He wasn’t even sure the thing would fire anymore, and only one magazine of the ancient .45 caliber bullets it required remained in his possession. But there would be no hesitation shown where she might see. He grasped her proffered hand. “You’re on.”

“Putting down an injured rodent in the gutter doesn’t count,” she said facetiously, grinning at him. “It’s got to be a sapient species kill in an honest to star-lag fight.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shrike waved her down. “You won’t think this is nearly so funny when you’re handing me a rifle powerful enough to take down a gunship.”

Vash finished her drink with a sardonic shake of her head, then poured herself another. “Out of pity for all the money you’re going to spend on me next year, I’ll buy your first dance for the night. What do you think? The light green one with the dark eyes? Or the blue one in the leather?”

“You think Vasir has found a human dancer recently?” he asked, already knowing the answer. One could dream.

“Sorry, Shrike,” she said, with a sympathetic expression. “I haven’t seen a human besides you for over three years, and I doubt that’s any different for most others. I did hear some scuttlebutt a while back though. Sounds like a few humans are trying to start a small settlement on one of the moons of Mascer, giving a go at repopulation.”

He was silent for a moment, cynical instincts jumping to the forefront of his mind at the news, but he brushed it away, giving her a hopeful smile. “Good for them. Maybe, maybe…”

“Maybe they’ll succeed,” she finished for him.

“Yeah,” Shrike cleared his throat. “I can’t decide. What do you think? The green or blue Liari?”

“I thought they both looked to your taste,” she snorted. “That’s why I picked them. But if you’re going to make me choose for you…I’d say the green one. She’s got spunk.”

“All right,” he nodded in satisfaction. “I’m going to need another pitcher first.”

“You just read my mind.” She grinned, turning to give the bartender another threatening look, and he immediately scurried toward them.

Shrike caught her eye and he gave her a contented smirk. “It’s good to be back. I’ve missed this.”

She tapped his glass with her own and gave him a wink. “Me too, bird man. Me too.”

Chapter 2

When the charges blew, Shrike was the first one through the door.

A couple of the others had gotten bitchy about that, especially the Craeken, but Shrike had calmly, rationally explained that his kinetic shields could deflect the initial damage long enough to clear a foothold. Then, he had calmly, rationally explained that if they didn’t like him going first, they could take a long walk out an airlock, because he didn’t give a testicle-sized fuck what a bunch of amateurs thought about an entry breach.

So, as the airlock door flash-fried into sparkly metal fragments, Shrike leapt through the hole, roaring at the top of his lungs, shotgun in hand and kinetic shields deflecting particle projectiles with brief ripples of energy. Sometimes, in the midst of episodes such as this, he wondered if he wanted to die. This often lasted for all of a millisecond. Then, he would remember the lethal particle shreds filling the air around him, ditch philosophy, shrug to himself, and shoot the first person he encountered with solemn pomp and great glee.

The current situation proved no different, and Shrike’s boots hadn’t yet touched the floor when he fired a 500-shred particle slug that ripped through the shields of the first of many unfortunates, shredding the armor underneath and reducing the torso into a pulpy, lacerated mess. The kick of the shotgun threw his shoulder back, midair as he was, but he used the force of the recoil to roll sideways and back as he hit the floor, coming up on his feet somewhat out of the line of fire and allowing the others to leap through from behind him.

Why that idiot Korvak felt he needed to be second through a fire-choked breach the star-lag only knew, but he went down immediately with innumerable particle shreds through his face and chest. The dumbass had said that his shields were faulty not five minutes ago.

The Korvak’s death might have plugged the entry point had the Craeken not been next. The massive, chitin-plated alien barreled through the breach, using what was left of the Korvak as a screen to save power in his shields. The airlock entryway began to empty of enemies as its defenders scrambled to get clear of the rampaging Craeken. Shrike grunted appreciatively at the distraction, following the path of destruction and picking off the defenders who broke from cover to get out of the way.

Of course, plowing balls-to-the-walls through a combat zone, even if you’re an eight hundred pound Craeken, is a bad idea against a prepared enemy. It wasn’t long before the hulking beast was bleeding out on the floor, shields overloaded, with multiple projectile wounds to the neck, body, and face. By that time, Shrike had pushed well into the frigate’s aft hallway, providing ample footing for the rest of the boarding party to pour aboard.

Mercenary companies branched off down the three passages in which they had a foothold, one leading to the engine core, one toward the crew and cargo deck, and the last toward the bridge. Naturally, Shrike wasn’t about to miss out on a bridge party, and he accompanied a group of Nova Rayn regulars with Brash toward the BCN, Bridge Command and Navigation.

Working for the Novas wasn’t too bad. Shrike squeezed off several rounds of cover fire so his current Nova companions could move forward. For a mercenary, protection, drug-running, and extortion agency, the Nova Rayn was pretty reliable, providing prompt and plentiful credits. They normally kept paid up with authorities too, though he heard they’d gotten crossways with Vasir and the other bosses on Beta lately. Novas weren’t uptight, like a bunch of organized merc groups were nowadays; Shrike even liked one or two. Brash seemed solid enough, for an Alishkar. The overabundance of eyes Alishkar possessed had always creeped him out a bit, but he wasn’t one to judge on biological configuration. In fact, he’d worked with a Kreever a few years back with eyes all over – one of the nicest guys he ever knew.

When Shrike had been contacted by Brash for a freelance contract, he’d been working some tough jobs at the clubs. Mostly the kind that included ample alcohol and private dances. Unemployment tended to drain him of both his resources and sanity at an alarming rate, so he accepted before Brash even provided an explanation. Fighting Black Sand mercenaries was good enough for him. He could care less if it was Sands, ASS, queen bug of the Rynok, whoever – if he got paid and the fight promised a challenge, he was game.

The Nova Rayn and Black Sands had a bone to pick, and this fallout had been coming for some time. The Sands had been encroaching on tox rings, contracts, and protection benefits claimed by their rivals for the better part of the year. Apparently, the Novas had had enough. Shrike’s raid was one of many attacks crippling Sand operations in the D’hask Nebula. At the rate the Novas were hitting shipments recently, the Sands would be backpedaling through warp within a month, but Shrike had seen the way these things worked. By now the Sands had to be working out a counterstrike, and he had no doubt he would get in on both sides of this gang feud, making a tidy profit from the offers and counteroffers. If Brash was smart, he’d propose to extend his contract with a hefty bonus when it timed out.

Shrike frowned. Resistance was fading rapidly. Too rapidly. The fire was so weak that he could almost walk down the center of the passage without fear of overloading his shields. He urged Brash to push his men forward. By throwing sporadic resistance at the boarders, the Sands were attempting to slow their approach long enough to set up a fortified defense in the narrow access hallways preceding the bridge, designed as chokepoints in case of attack. By spurning cover and driving through the delaying actions, Shrike and Brash could interrupt the Sands in the middle of preparations, eliminating the advantage of any barricades or portable turrets they might set up if given time.

Many of his companions gave him defiant scowls at his commands – freelancing scum thought he could give orders to Novas? – but Brash and his veterans just nodded, barking at the squads to double-time through harassing fire. Reinforcements still coming aboard could mop up the skirmishers they left behind.

They lost a man or two pushing through the rearguard, but most resistance scattered as they stormed through the access hallway. Brash led the way into Navigation, pausing just long enough for a charge to blow back the heavy metal door before leaping through and sliding left to clear the opening. It probably saved his life. Not a full second after the charge went off, a portable turret opened up on the entry point. Shrike dropped to the floor as the high-pitched whir cut the air, but the next two Novas tried to leap through the breach. They collapsed immediately as a stream of particle projectiles jackhammered through their shields and armor.

Luckily, Brash took down the turret within moments. A well-placed gooey grenade discharged on the turret’s barrel, coating it in gelatinous superfluid that flash-hardened into a solid block, plugging up the barrel and preventing its lethal ejections. The discharges backfired, and the turret exploded with a metallic pop.

Shrike leapt up in the lull, bullrushing past the heap of bodies before any defenders could stack the Novas up further. Brash was pinned down just inside by a squad of Sands fortified behind navigation map projectors and block consoles. Shrike assessed the situation in a moment, allowing his Internal Regulator and targeting system to pinpoint the bunkered squad while he collapsed his shotgun into its holster on his right thigh. He pulled his portable Crask Cannon from the right shoulder cavity of his armor and squeezed off an anti-personnel mini rocket. The improvised defenses exploded with enough force to ripple his vision. Black Sand mercs and accompanying body parts were thrown in a brief, volatile flash to the outer edges of the room, and Shrike grunted cheerfully, collapsing the cannon and sliding it back into its compartment. He reached for his shotgun…

Then got blindsided by a chair.

Shrike took the brunt of the blow on his shoulder. When he hit the floor, he scrabbled frantically with his legs, using the unexpected impact to propel himself behind a small console station. He pulled his shotgun free with a growl.

Star-lagged warpers.

Of course there had to be a warper. It would be too easy otherwise. Above him, Shrike heard the fizzling sound of a laser gun throwing superheated bolts of particle fluid. Most of the Novas’ armor wouldn’t be equipped with the ceramic plates needed to soak that kind of heat. Fortunately, Shrike’s Predator X suit could handle a bolt or two, but that fact was scant comfort. The laser pistol was the least of his problems. Its wielder could kill him with his laggin’ mind.

This one was telekinetic, as evidenced by the run-in with a chair. Shrike leaned out from cover to assess the situation. Brash and what was left of his squads had spread out, attempting to hit their opponent from as many sides as possible. The warper, a male Liari with a short, black head-crest and metallic silver skin, ignored their volleys. His hand was held up like a ward, and a blue field of light extended before him in a mutable oval, deflecting the incoming shreds with tiny white flashes. Shrike fired. The impact of his particle slug sent a white shockwave rippling along the oval barrier. The warper stumbled, ceasing to fire the laser pistol in his right hand, and searched about with his eyes. Shrike ducked back behind cover.

He gave his shotgun a loving pat. Kinetic shields, warp barriers, hardened armor – very little stood up to 500 particle shreds hurled with enough force to punch through titanium plate.

Still, with two abilities this warper would be difficult to defeat. He rolled his shoulders, readying himself. It wouldn’t do to try anything fancy here. The warper was moving around too much to try a rocket or grenade, so a straightforward approach seemed best.

Shrike rolled out of cover into a room littered with Nova dead. The Liari was moving at will, blasting those who remained with his laser pistol. The heat of the fluid bolts melted through armor, burning holes in the organic tissue underneath. Those who tried to hide behind cover were bombarded by flying objects, knocking them out of hiding and directly into the deadly warper’s sights. This guy was powerful.

Shrike leveled his shotgun and pulled the trigger. The warp barrier wavered, and the warper turned instinctively, rolling with signature Liari grace and racking off bolts with his pistol. Shrike felt the heat of a bolt as it whizzed past, missing his helmet by inches. When the warper came up on his feet, Shrike delivered another slug to the center of the warp barrier, and it flickered again, going down for a moment before shimmering back into place.

Shrike charged.

He leapt over a body, sprinting at the warper with his shotgun leveled from the hip. The Liari’s countenance grew calm, a look of concentration on his thin face, and he raised the pistol, lining up a shot. Time seemed to slow. Shrike saw the flash of the bolt leaving the barrel, and he took it in the center of his chest. He could feel the heat dissipating through the ceramic plates, but by the star-lag, it was hot. Shrike fired again. The slug smashed into the barrier, which guttered and died. The warper let his hand drop. Shrike sensed a flash of motion in his peripheral vision, and he instinctively leapt. A chair passed under his legs. The warper was mere paces away, and he raised his pistol hastily as Shrike hurtled toward him.

The shot passed wide, just under Shrike’s left arm. He came down with a triumphant roar and smashed his forearm into the warper’s chest, purging all the electrical power in his equipment through his gauntlet. The shields on the warper’s armor overloaded with the influx of energy, and he stumbled back at the force of the blow, connecting with the wall. He scrambled to raise his pistol. Shrike shot him in the chest.

The Liari slumped on the deck, and Shrike put another slug in him. Just in case. He turned to survey the Navigation room. Brash had the area cleared and was motioning the three other survivors to bunker up by the short passage to the bridge. More than likely the captain, helmsman, and their staff would be the only remaining resistance, but it was best to be careful. Brash collapsed his assault rifle into its holster and approached Shrike after another squad of Novas arrived to carry the fight forward the final stretch. The Nova captain’s top three eyes were still swinging around Navigation, continuing their search for any further threat. Shrike chuckled, ejecting the heat containment clip from his shotgun and inserting a cool one. The Alishkar must be pretty rattled to be so jumpy.

Brash grinned, exposing row on row of blocky molars. He started speaking, but all that came through was static rumbles. Shrike held up a hand to forestall him, and Brash cut off with an understanding nod.

Shrike fiddled with his IR for a few moments until he heard the faint clicking sound that indicated the restoration of power. “Sorry, Brash,” he said, tapping his temple. “Had to purge all the power in my systems to take down that laggin’ Liari. Might be a moment or two before translation comes back online.” Shrike continued to tinker with his modifications until the slight buzz of static faded away. He gave Brash a thumbs-up.

“Lag take all warpers,” Brash huffed, the rumbling Alishkar tongue once again translated to understanding. He still seemed a little shaken. “You keep saving my ass and I’m going to force you into a Nova commission.”

Shrike ignored the joke. No way was he getting tied down on anyone’s permanent payroll. “He had a tricky combination of abilities,” he said, nodding at the Liari’s prostrate form, “but at least he only had two. I know a female Liari who’s got four.”

“Damn,” Brash whistled. “Wouldn’t want to run into her on a bad day. Why do the Liari get all the love, huh? Seems like having a warp or two would come in handy on a job like this.”

“It’s all the dark matter in their home system,” Shrike grunted, accepting a hydration packet with a nod of thanks. “In most of their colonized systems too. Liari space is loaded with the stuff. It guarantees that every Liari gets at least a little dark radiation in the womb. Plus, their species has been so exposed that they’ve adapted to it. The risk for cancerous complications is almost nonexistent.”

“Then there’s our species,” Brash barked a laugh. “I don’t know how many humans manifested warp talent before Mal Kor, but Alishkar are lucky if we get one every few million.”

Shrike retracted his helmet and placed the hydro packet in his mouth, letting the refreshing liquid burst on his tongue. He swallowed before shrugging in answer. “Luck of the laggin’ universe, I guess. The Liari get warp talents, good looks, loads of credits, and sex with just about anyone or anything they want.”

Brash shook his head, a wistful look on his face. “Goddamn pheromones.”

He didn’t look like he meant it.

Boots thumped from the direction of the bridge, where Shrike could see the captain of the frigate being escorted by a squad of Novas. Brash turned expectedly.

“–you are through,” the Sand captain, a muscular Alishkar, was sneering to the mercs. They continued to ignore him.

“Got the cap here, Brash,” a Nova reported. “Said his name’s Captain Bosh. He surrendered without much of a fight, but his mouth hasn’t quite caught up with the idea.”

“I don’t know what Rayn thinks he’s going to score, but he’s bitten off more than he can chew,” Bosh sneered, addressing Brash. “We’re going to slap the Novas down hard for this shit. When the –,”

“I don’t give a Craeken’s right nut what you’re going to do,” Brash cut him off brusquely. “Synic’s been patient with the Sands for too long. He’s decided to fuck you back through a laggin’ wormhole.”

“We’re too strong now, and Rayn knows it,” Bosh scoffed. “He–,”

Brash drew a pistol from his belt and shot him in the head.

Shrike chuckled. Everyone had seen that coming. Except for Bosh.

“Bring me the First Mate,” Brash ordered the Nova squad. “I’ll off him too if he gives me this shit. We’ll just work our way down the chain of command until we find someone willing to take a message to Geezo without a bravado shitstorm.” Brash turned back to Shrike as the Novas complied. “We’re done here. If you want to go sweep for valuables, that’s fine by me. And I’m getting you a bonus stipend from up top for the warper.”

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