Excerpt for Grendel Unit by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

"Grendel Unit is a masterwork of science fiction. I don't say that lightly. Vic, Frank and Monster are iconic heroes. This first volume, written in six parts (and coming to a whopping 150,000 words!), is some of the most thrilling and original writing the genre has seen in a long, long time. So buckle-up and prepare to take the ride of your life!" - Tony Healey, bestselling author of Hope's Peak, Storm's Edge and Far From Home

"I literally laughed out loud, and the characters are some of the best I've ever read." (Amazon)

"A new cast of characters to fall in love with." (Amazon)

"Captain Cojo is another GREAT character, whilst the stand-out is 'Monster,' a giant alien team member." (Amazon)

"I love space operas and this was one of the best." (Amazon)

"A rockum sockum sci-fi that will keep you reving your action engine." (Amazon)

"I want to gush about my favorite parts but I can't think of a thing to say without giving away the latest action - get the book and find out, you will not be disappointed." (Amazon)

GRENDEL UNIT

Bernard Schaffer

Distributed by Smashwords

Copyright 2017 Bernard Schaffer

Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Grendel Unit

Bernard Schaffer

CONTENTS


I. BAD DAY at KHOR-WA

1. Assets

2. Ops Plan

3. Previous Intel

4. Mission is Go!

5. Tango Down


II. IGNITION SEQUENCE

6. No Vaseline

7. Shut Up, Be Happy

8. When Will They Shoot?

9. New Jack Hustler

10. You Can't Fade Me

11. Body Count's in the House

12. Kill at Will

13. There Goes the Neighborhood


III. SUICIDE PLANET

14. Prelude to Conflict

15. S.N.A.F.U. (Situation Normal, All…)

16. The Green Hell

17. Suicide Planet

18. Close to Home


IV. FIGHT THE POWER

19. Night of the Living Baseheads

20. Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos

21. Rebel Without a Pause

22. Welcome to the Terrordome

23. Fight the Power


V. ANY MANS NECESSARY

24. Immigrant Song

25. Black Dog

26. Bring It On Home

27. Kashmir

28. No Quarter

29. Houses of the Holy

30. Achilles Last Stand


VI. AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

31. Copperhead Road

32. Moonage Daydream

33. Are the Good Times Really Over

34. Subterranean Homesick Blues

35. Maggie's Farm

36. Don't Take Your Guns to Town

37. The Streets of Laredo

38. Finest Worksong

39. I'm Housin'

40. Turn You Inside Out


Author's Dedication

About the Author

Copyright

I. BAD DAY at

KHOR-WA

1. Assets











The prisoner wouldn't shut his yap. Yaps. Whatever, Pern thought. Cryndian scum, always coming onto decent human outposts like Khor-Wa, causing trouble. Greasy and pungent amphibianoids, Cryndians were known for decorating their long, arched necks with gaudy gold chains. They clipped medallions to the lips of their gills like earrings, so that they bounced and jingled when they spoke. The Cryndian mouth was good for little more than mute puckering and it annoyed Sergeant Pern to have to bend his ear to their gills to make out whatever deceitful nonsense was being spewed out of them.

Maybe somewhere there are good Cryndians who have jobs and contribute to society. Shame the only ones I've ever met seem only intent on smuggling and freeloading. Aliens, he thought bitterly. He'd even heard of Unification allowing some of them into their military academy. Talk about letting the fox into the hen house.

Finally, the racket became too much and he slammed his news screen down on the desk. "What the hell do you want, fish?"

The Cryndian hissed at Pern and pressed his webbed fingers against the cell door's electricity field. "How long are you keeping me? Your officer took my hydrator. I need it."

"There's a sink right there. Behind you."

The Cryndian smiled condescendingly, "I'm sure it's a perfectly good sink, sir, but you see, I require hypersaline or else I will literally fall apart in this dry heat."

"Well I guess you should have thought about that before trying to smuggle narcotics onto my outpost."

Another smile, "I'm not a smuggler, sir. I'm on an assignment for Unification."

"Sure you are."

"I work for Captain Victor Cojo. He sent me here on a covert mission to locate a man of particular interest. That's what I was doing when your man arrested me. I understand this is a serious misunderstanding, but if you don't let me out, you will all lose your jobs, and possibly your lives."

Sergeant Pern leaned against the cell door, "Let me get this straight. You were sent here to find a bad guy, so you brought drugs?"

"Of course," the Cryndian said. "To give the proper appearance of being connected to the underworld so the man would take me more seriously."

"And this Captain Cojo saw fit to send you to my outpost without the courtesy of letting me know?"

The Cryndian held up his hands, "Forgive me for saying so, sir, but the… ah… uniformed ranks, have never been much known for their subtlety. I believe that is why it is called a covert mission."

Pern smiled at the slight insult. "Tell you what. I'll put your name out on the network as well as this Captain of yours and we'll see what happens."

"No! Do not do that, I entreat you, Sergeant. You'll blow my cover and risk years of hard work, the lives of a dozen agents. Please, just let me out and I'll make contact with Captain Cojo and have him notify you directly."

Pern nodded slowly and said, "Do I really look that stupid, fish?"

The Cryndian hissed in protest and slapped his hands against the field, leaving a slimy, wet smear across the electrostatic surface as Pern turned the cell's volume all the way down. He walked back to his desk and picked up his newsscreen in relaxed silence. He scanned through the articles about the Khor-wa's baseball team's pathetic performance in the East Quadrant Series and the Regent Governor's attempts to bring gambling to the outpost, sighing with boredom. As an afterthought, just for laughs really, he leaned over the keyboard of his network terminal and typed a message that read: Cryndian male in custody, claims to be operative for Unification Captain Victor Cojo. Direct all requests for further information to Sergeant Pern, Khor-Wa Outpost.


Six hours later, Pern was sleeping soundly at his desk. The lights were dimmed and softly buzzing. He'd locked the front door and activated the perimeter alarm so that anyone approaching the station would trigger it, allowing Pern to straighten his uniform and wipe off the drool.

The streets were dark outside, patrolled from high atop the towers and rooftops by rotating cameras. The cameras scanned the buildings and windows and faces of pedestrians, constantly searching for signs of disturbance or wanted criminals. There were only three actual policemen on the outpost, and Pern had already factored in losing one of them to his next budget.

That might get me Lieutenant's bars, he thought happily as he adjusted himself in the seat and tried to get comfortable. If I could do away with both, they'd have no choice but to make me Chief.

A light cough in the office made Pern jerk awake, kicking his feet off of the desk and nearly throwing him sideways from the chair. He opened his eyes in horror to see a scruffy-looking man in a dark coat leaning on the desk, looking at him. Pern's hand flew to his side for his gun, but cursed when he realized he'd never bothered to take it out of his locker that day. He balled his fists and shot to his feet, nostrils flaring. "Who the hell are you?"

The man held up his hands passively and said, "I'm sorry I frightened you, Sergeant. I tried to get your attention from the window but you wouldn't budge."

"How did you get in here?"

Pern's eyes widened as he saw three more figures standing in the police station's entrance. Each of them, armed with pistols and assault rifles slung across their chests. He stared at the one in the back in wonder, a shaggy, mountainous beast that was forced to stand slouched so its head didn't touch the ceiling. The mantipor looked at Pern and growled lightly, showing just the smallest tip of its fangs.

"Who the hell are you people?" Pern shouted. "And what is that, that thing, doing in my police station with a weapon?"

The mantipor snarled menacingly at Pern, and the man inside the office said, "Easy, Big Man." He reached inside his coat for a small black triangle that shimmered even in the dim station light. He cupped the badge as he held it out for Pern to see, "Captain Victor Cojo. These are my men. You have a Cryndian by the name of S'bal in custody. That's my fish."

Pern's mouth opened in disbelief, his mind racing to assemble all of the facts, even as they bombarded him. Cojo certainly did not look like any captain Pern had ever seen. He'd served four years with Unification Forces as secretarial assistant to the command staff of the 14th Air Support Division, and never once had he seen any of them without brightly-shined shoes and a crisply pressed uniform. To this day, he buzzed his hair bald on the sides and straight up to form the military high-and-tight, just like the men he emulated. The ruffian in his office was unshaven and unkempt, his hair shaggy and stuck up in the front. And where was his uniform? This so-called Captain wore nothing more than a pair of dark jeans and shirt with a long black coat like some sort of street-person. Some sort of terrorist. Pern's eyes narrowed and he said, "You can't have him."

The smile stayed frozen on Vic's face as he said, "Come again?"

"He was breaking Khor-Wa law by possessing controlled substances for sale. He's not a citizen, so I have to arraign him. That's the law."

Vic nodded, "I see. Well, you can rest assured that he's going to face a lot worse by the time I get finished with him."

"I said you can't have him."

"What makes you think I was asking?" Vic looked over his shoulder at one of his men and said, "Bob, go get the fish."

The muscular man in a knitted skull cap looked down at the computer tablet mounted to his forearm. "It's a pretty standard detention system, Cap. Give me five minutes."

The mantipor nodded at Pern and said, "Tell this rent-a-badge to stop jerking around and give us the prisoner before I get cranky."

"Who in the hell do you people think you are? You're all under arrest!" He stared at them with his most serious look of authority, aiming his finger at all of their faces. "All of you turn around and put your hands behind your backs."

Vic stared back at him but did not move, "What's the charge?"

"Breaking and entering into a police station. Trying to intimidate a public official! Tampering with the custody of a prisoner. Kidnapping!"

"Tell you what," Vic said. He unsnapped a small metallic card from the back of his badge and passed it to the Sergeant. It had his name, rank and serial number. In small letters printed across the bottom, it read: Please forward all comments, questions or concerns to General L. Milner, Unification Operations. "You go ahead and file a complaint with him if you want. He's probably getting concerned because it's been three whole days and he hasn't gotten any new ones. Must think we're on vacation or something." He leaned back to see the cell area. "How we making out, Bob?"

"Just another minute."

"Sooner the better."

"They've got an old system, Captain. Doing the best I can. Unless you want Monster to come punch a hole through the wall."

"Sounds good to me," the mantipor said just before lumbering down the corridor to the cells, out of their sight.

Vic sighed and looked back at the last man, "Don't let them break anything."

Lieutenant Frank Kelly had a black medical bag strapped across his chest, a red cross stitched across its front was barely visible in the light. "I'll see what I can do."

Moments later, Pern heard something smash from the rear of the station and the Cryndian's microphone suddenly came back on. "I'm staying right here! You heard the Sergeant. I'm in his custody."

"Get off your fins, you slippery piece of trash. You double-crossed us, and you're lucky we don't drag you out back and shoot you."

The mantipor snarled, "I'm getting hungry. It's been awhile since I ate some fish."

Something else broke and the lights in the office flickered, a sudden drain on the station's power supply. "What are they doing to my station?"

"Nothing too bad, I hope," Vic said, looking up at the ceiling. "Hey, I said not to break anything!"

"The door's open, Captain," Buehl shouted back. "This knucklehead won't come out, though."

"Get out or I'm going to put a hook through your face and drag you out," Monster growled.

"Let go of me!" the Cryndian cried out. "Stop! I'm dried out from these hot lights, you maniac, you'll—" S'bal's voice broke into a horrific shriek, all of his gills now wide open and singing in agony.

Sergeant Pern pushed past Vic to get back to the cellblock and reared back suddenly, his face twisting in disbelief.

Captain Cojo came up behind him and stopped short at the sight of the mewling Cryndian being held up by two of his men, while Monster looked down at the Cryndian's severed arm in his paws. He looked up at Vic, his snout twisted in shame and said, "It just snapped off, Captain. All I did was give it a little pull."

Vic lowered his head into his hand, "Just get the prisoner. That's all I said to do."

"It's not my fault," Monster said.

Vic looked at his Lieutenant, "Can you fix it?"

Frank paused long enough to reveal his real answer, but then he nodded and said, "Sure. No problem. It's first year medical school stuff."

"Well, let's get him on the ship then. I think the sooner we leave the good Sergeant to his duties, the better."

Buehl looked up at the ceiling with concern and said, "Looks like they've got this whole place wired for video and audio, Cap."

"Not surprising," Vic said.

Buehl looked over his tablet at Pern, "Is it a two-two-four surveillance system?"

Sergeant Pern stared dumbly at the mantipor as he carried the twitching severed arm past him. "I think so," he finally managed.

Buehl raised his tablet and punched in a few keys, typing until he heard a corresponding series of beeps. The surveillance console on Pern's desk popped and showered the floor with sparks inside the dark office. The stink of burnt wires filled the air as black smoke from the console's burned out circuits billowed out of its casing. Buehl smiled satisfactorily, "The two-two-four is junk. It was time for an upgrade anyway."

Vic watched his men file out of station and let out a deep sigh. "Well, sorry we met under these circumstances, Sergeant. I'm sure General Milner will be hearing from you. Anyway, good night."

"Who the hell are you people?" Pern whispered.

"I told you. We're with Unification."

"No, I mean what unit. What designation? What the hell just happened here?"

Vic let out a half smile as he popped the station door open, "Have a good night, sir. My tech will turn your security system back on as soon as we leave."

Pern stood looking through the station door into the dark parking lot, only able to make out a few small running lights. The ground rumbled beneath as a ship's engine roared to life and he watched the thrusters ignite against the lot's hard asphalt surface. The rumbling grew faint as the ship ascended, moving above the station house's roof and out of Pern's sight.

He flinched as the station's front door locked electronically and the perimeter alarm suddenly blared back to life.


Frank pushed the Cryndian back into the medical bed and said, "S'bal, hold still or there's nothing I can do."

"It hurts! You people are savages! Get away from me!"

"Hold still or I'll tear off the other one and feed it to you!" Monster roared.

The Cryndian collapsed back on the bed and sobbed, clutching his face with his remaining hand until blue tears squirted over the top of the webbing. "I'm sorry, Captain. I didn't mean to break my promise. I know it was stupid. Can you please stop them from hurting me anymore? I'll do anything you want."

Vic smiled forgivingly and waved his hand at the other two to back away as he walked up to the side of bed and said, "Do you think Yultorot is still on Khor-Wa?"

"I know he is. That's why I had the Phendicyn. I was going to sell to a couple people and see if I could move up the chain to get to him."

"I'm not in the business of selling Phendicyn, S'bal. You know that."

"You told me I had to get to Yultorot any way I could. He's addicted to Phendicyn! He gobbles them up like candy. I thought I was doing the right thing, why can't you see that?" he moaned. The Cryndian looked at the ruined stump of his arm and said, "And now look at me! I'm disfigured for life. Just leave me. It won't be much longer now anyway before I shrivel up and die."

The skin around S'bal's face was no longer shining and blue. It had gone dull and yellow, and fault lines in the flesh were starting to show around his mouth and eyes. Vic reached down and suddenly clamped his fingers around the Cryndian's lips, twisting violently until the skin around his mouth cracked and bled. "Now you listen to me, and listen good. The only reason you aren't rotting in Gratersfield Penitentiary is because you signed a contract with Frank to act as an asset. That doesn't include selling drugs."

S'bal squealed from his gills and begged for mercy, but Vic continued to twist until the upper lip began to tear away. "So help me, God, I will tear you apart with my bare hands if you ever try another stunt. Do you understand me?"

"I do! I swear it!" S'bal cried.

Vic stepped back and wiped his hands on the Trauma bed's sheets. "Put him in the tank. Put his arm in there with him until we can figure out how to sew it back on."

Frank leaned close to his ear and said, "I'm still not sure if I can. His skin's too rubbery and glandular. I'm not sure stitches will hold."

"Then get sure. This op isn't finished yet and he's our only lead on the target."

The Trauma Unit's intercom buzzed and Buehl's voice crackled, "Incoming message for you Captain. Unification priority channel."

Vic closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "Well, I guess I knew that was coming."

S'bal sat up in his bed nervously as the captain left the room and said, "Please, just get me into the tank. I'm on your side in this."

Frank nodded to Monster, and the behemoth carefully scooped up S'bal's fragile form and carried him over to the modified water tank at the opposite end of the room.

"Lower me down. Gently. That's it," S'bal moaned as Monster lowered him into the water. Monster withdrew his wet paws and watched as the Cryndian's flesh absorbed the hypersaline like a sponge. The cracks vanished and soon his scales were shimmering silvery and blue, more brightly than the cheap gold jewels along his neck.

S'bal wriggled out of his clothing to let the hypersaline massage his body. He fell to the bottom of the tank and stretched out, lying flat, relaxing as his gills sent up tiny air bubbles.

Frank looked down at S'bal's stump and frowned, "What's happening?"

Monster turned on the pads of his feet and said, "Maybe if we throw his arm in the tank it will reattach or something."

"Don't bother," Frank said. He waved Monster over to see the small stump on S'bal's torso as it twitched with new life. A dozen small spindles of nerves extended from the stump, growing longer and longer until they were nearly the length of a new arm. Frank smacked the side of the tank to get S'bal's attention and said, "Hey, jerkwad! You could have told us your limbs regenerated."

S'bal looked up at Frank and held up his hands innocently. His expression changed at the look of anger on Monster's face as the creature turned his back to them for a moment, only to reappear against the side of the tank holding something up for the Cryndian to see. Monster tapped his sharp claw against the glass and said, "You watching?"


Vic headed down the narrow corridor to his quarters. The Samsara was a Moksha-class ship, designed to hold a crew no bigger than four. Four humans, he thought. Not mantipors. Accoutrements and comforts were sacrificed for the important things they needed. Weapons, gear, medicine. The ship was small and sleek, its thrusters powerful enough to get them the hell out of dodge if the moment called for it.

The moment often did, he thought.

The ship had guns, of course, but nothing big enough to punch through the hull of a cruiser. Their entire strategy in dealing with larger ships was built on zipping around them like a fly attacking the eyes of a gnat, taking out a few of the enemy's key targeting instruments, and making a run for it.

Vic called it the Sissypants Maneuver. Shove the bullies in the back when they aren't looking and flee for dear life.

They weren't the flagship of any Navy, that was for sure. Moksha-class ships were often used to deliver quick supplies to embedded soldiers, to dodge enough enemy fire to drop off a few crates of ammo and explosives, and haul off the injured. Smugglers tended to prefer them also. Their crew had borrowed more than a few modifications from the many smuggling vessels they'd encountered. Borrowed being a polite way of saying appropriated. Bad guys were tremendously willing to part with a stealth shield in lieu of having their shipments seized.

By the book? No, he thought. But then, that's not how things get done. That's why Unification has her uniformed divisions and puffed-up commanders to put on a nice big show for the rest of the universe. Meanwhile, he and his crew were running Capture/Kill Ops in all the dark little corners of the galaxy and vanishing without a trace.

The message display on his monitor was blinking. He sat down at his desk and touched the screen, waiting for the image of General Milner to materialize. "Hi, boss," he said. "I'm glad you called. How've you been?"

Milner's face was red and stiff on the screen, his jowls squeezed down by his chin until it looked like they might pop. "Save it, Captain. Did you extract a prisoner from lawful custody on Khor-Wa?"

Vic paused, weighing his words carefully. Finally, he decided the best answer was the simplest. "Yes."

"On whose authority did you do that?"

Damn, another trick question. He scratched his chin, "On my own, sir. The locals had one of our assets in jail and I needed him."

"No, what you needed was to go through official channels to clear it with me before you committed an act of sedition against a sovereign government. I have to talk to the High Khor-Wa Prime Minister in fifteen minutes!"

Vic held up his hands, "Listen, Yultorot is on Khor-Wa right now. We are this close to him. I'll have him in a body bag by tomorrow morning. I'm sure the Prime Minister will be a lot happier once he gets to make a big speech saying how they've rid the galaxy of one of its most dangerous criminals."

"That's a nice thought, but it's not going to happen," Milner said. "From now on, you and your crew are to remain in uniform when conducting Unification business. Is that understood?"

Vic stared back at him, "How can we run covert ops in uniform? That doesn't make any sense."

The General's eyes flared, "You forget that I ran Grendel long before you were a hopeful gleam in your father's pants, boy. Do not think to instruct me on how to conduct its affairs." The older man adjusted his uniform and cleared his throat, collecting himself to say, "You have an asset. Send him to secure Yultorot and then you and the locals can make an official arrest together."

Vic felt his hands start to shake with anger. "The order was to neutralize Yultorot, General."

"The kill order is hereby rescinded. Milner out."

The screen went blank and Vic slumped back in his chair, kicking the desk from underneath hard enough to send the stacks of paper spread across it flying. He caught something in the corner of his eye and whipped around to see Frank Kelly leaning in the doorway. "How's the patient?"

"He's a conniving S.O.B. As soon as we dunked him in the hypersaline tank he started to regenerate a new arm. He was just whining like that to make us feel bad."

Vic chuckled, "Still, it was pretty gnarly when Monster yanked that thing off."

"I almost puked." Frank looked back into the hallway, checking to make sure no one was coming. "You know S'bal's got as much chance of taking down Yultorot as my grandmother does, right?"

"Are you suggesting I violate a direct order from a commanding officer, Lieutenant Kelly?"

Frank smiled at him and said, "No, I'm suggesting that we go with the General's plan all the way. But maybe we skip a few steps."

"Like?"

"Like telling the locals, staying on the sidelines, and wearing our uniforms."

Vic folded his hands behind his head and leaned back in his chair far enough to look up at the ceiling. "This is how it's going to play. You were in Trauma with the patient the whole time and this conversation never happened."

"There's one more thing," Frank said.

"What is it?"

"When we realized S'bal was growing a new arm, Monster kind of got pissed off."

"I bet. What did he rip off now?"

Frank winced, "He might have accidentally eaten the severed arm. In front of S'bal. And then he sat there picking his fangs with the bones and telling him how delicious it was."

Vic opened his mouth to speak several times but couldn't get any words out. Finally he waved Frank away and said, "You deal with it. I can't process all that right now."

"He's eating pieces of our prisoners, Captain. That's taking the good secret agent, bad scary monster act a little bit far, don't you think?"

"How did S'bal take it?"

"Uh, he was pretty freaked out. Rightfully so, I might add."

Vic shrugged, "Maybe it's good to keep him on his fins for a little while. This is all his fault anyway. I'm starting to hate that fish, Frank. I really, really am."

"Don't you hate all of our assets?"

"I do, but this one is different. Special. You know, this might be the hate I've been looking for my whole life, Frank."

"The hate of a lifetime? That's nice. I'm happy for you and kind of sad for me at the same time."

"It will happen, buddy. Just give it time."

2. Ops Plan


Vic pressed the intercom's button and said, "All crew to my quarters."

Within minutes, the corridor filled with the sound of boots scraping rubber mats as they shuffled toward him. Monster lowered his head and ducked inside Vic's room, wedging himself in the far end of the cabin to let the others in.

Bob Buehl stopped abruptly at the door to let S'bal slide inside. His skin was slick with a fresh layer of healthy-looking slime. Sipping a cup full of hypersaline through a red straw, he nodded at the captain and said, "What's up?"

Frank came up behind the Cryndian and said, "Sit down and shut up."

Vic held up his hand to stop them, "I asked for the crew."

Frank looked at him, "Yeah, but I thought you wanted to go over the plan."

"Monster, what's the first rule of Grendel Unit?"

Monster's low, rumbling voice replied, "Never educate the assets."

"That's right," Vic said. "So if I do want to go over the plan, that means I don't want to go over it with S'bal here." He looked at S'bal, "No offense."

"Why can't I be here?" S'bal whined. "It's my tail on the line down there. I should have some say in the matter."

Vic snapped his fingers and said, "Monster, tear off his arms."

"Yes, Captain."

S'bal shot to his feet and said, "That's not funny. That really hurt, you maniac."

"And it's really going to hurt again, especially now that I know the damage isn't permanent. So shut your neck and get the hell out of my office."

"Where do you want him?" Buehl said. "I can't put him up front or he might screw with the flight controls. Where will he be safe?"

"Stick him in the storage closet," Vic said.

They listened to S'bal's multiple mouths issue a stream of complaints as Buehl dragged him down the hall that grew muted the moment the storage closet door shut, trapping the Cryndian inside. "You're too soft on assets, Frank," Vic said. "They don't respect you unless you make them fear you. That's all they understand. Otherwise, they will run game on you just like they do everybody else. They are slicksters and hustlers who get by in this world preying on the weak. Treat them with any kind of kindness, and they will start searching for ways to take advantage."

"You mean I should start eating them?" Frank said with a sideways glance at Monster.

Monster patted his stomach and said, "Mmmmm. Good."

Frank held up his hands, "I just have a different approach. I'm the nice guy."

"And we all saw how well that worked out with S'bal the first time, didn't we," Vic said. He suddenly clapped his hands together and said, "Let's do some business. Buehl, what's the situation report for Khor-Wa?"

Buehl lifted his tablet and swept his hand across it until a series of images appeared. "Status, normal. Nothing went out on any of the enforcement channels about us. I guess the Sergeant decided to keep it to himself. Other than that, I've got their whole camera network searching for Yultorot. Nothing so far."

"Unless he's wearing a disguise," Monster muttered. "Your technology is only good for so many things. I prefer to be at ground level."

"Right, because you're so inconspicuous," Buehl said.

Frank clapped his hands to get their attention, "Ladies, ladies. If you're going to fight, at least have the decency to strip down and oil up first."

Vic pointed at Monster, "What's the latest intel on Yultorot?"

"He's been laying low since Cinth-Combs."

"I'd lay low too if I blew up a school full of kids," Frank said.

"Are we sure nobody else caught up to him?" Vic said. "The Cinth-Combs families put up a big enough bounty to drag every moron with a gun out of bed. I don't want to risk going down there if our target is rotting in some basement somewhere."

Monster's lips curled back into a snarl, showing his large yellow fangs, "If the families of the murdered children had Yultorot, we'd know it. They'd crucify him in the rubble of the school and let the insects eat him. He's still free, captain. I'm sure of it."

"All right, Big Man," Vic said. "That's good enough for me." His eyes turned on Frank, "And you. Mister Nice Guy. Mister Let's Give Fish a Chance. Mister I'll Keep an Eye on Him. How'd that work out, Frank?"

Frank rolled his eyes, "It didn't. Can we move forward instead of living in the past now?"

"What is your assessment of S'bal's ability to lure Yultorot into the open?"

"I think he can do it," Frank said. "But I think he needs people close to him to make sure he doesn't do anything squirrelly. Fishy. Whatever."

Their eyes met as Vic considered his next words carefully. Finally he said, "Then these are my instructions. Buehl, you and Monster will remain on board to coordinate surveillance. You are not to reenter Khor-Wa until I call for extraction."

"What?" Buehl said sharply.

"Captain, that's not how our ops work," Monster said.

"It is today. Frank and I will go down with the fish and try to get eyes on Yultorot. He can handle S'bal, I'll complete the mission."

"This is bull," Buehl said. "I can get better scans from the ground. I'll be able to trap any emergency signals and keep the locals in the dark. I can't do any of that sitting up here."

"While you're watching for Yultorot and Frank's watching S'bal, I'm the person watching both of your backs, Captain. That's how these ops go. That's how they get done correctly," Monster said.

Vic nodded silently. Of course his men were right. A first year operative could see that. "Gentlemen, your objections are duly noted. My instructions stand. Dismissed." He watched them get up and file out, but called out to Frank, "Give me a minute, Frank."

Frank stepped back to let the door close in front of him and said, "It was nice of you to keep those other two out of trouble for when the General finds out."

"Shame they don't know that."

"Apparently you don't mind dragging me down though."

"I always said if there was one guy I could easily spend the rest of my life with behind bars, it would be anyone but you, Frank."

"Then why would you pick me to go with you?"

"As motivation not to get caught."

"Your words hurt, you know that?" Frank said with a grin.

Vic leaned forward in his chair and folded his hands together, "Listen. Your only job down there is to watch my back until S'bal makes contact. Once Yultorot is in sight, I'm taking him out."

"That's a mistake, Vic. The General said to arrest him. At least give him that."

"I know what he said. Things happen."

"Not if you don't let them happen! You're going to get us put in front of a firing squad."

"No I'm not, because nobody knows a damn thing and that includes you, Frank. I'm not arresting Yultorot just so they can turn him into an asset. God knows he could give them all sorts of dirt on all sorts of people, but that bastard blew up a school. A school full of little innocent kids, and I'll be damned if that one slides."

Frank sighed and leaned back against the door, shaking his head, "Our only hope of pulling this off is to get in and get out without making a peep." Suddenly, he snapped his fingers, "I've got it!"

"Go ahead," Vic said.

"We whack the target and get him off Khor-Wa as quick as we can, all nice and clean. Then we take him straight to Cinth-Combs. We can just dump him on the ground and take off. We'll tell the General we never found him."

Vic leaned back and folded his hands behind his head, "He might not buy it, but with all the bounty hunters looking for Yultorot, he won't be able to prove anything. That should get us past any board of inquiry."

"See? That's why I'm the brains of this operation."

"Normally that thought fills me with cold dread, Frank, but today I think you just might have redeemed yourself."

"Now, the only thing the plan needs to do is work!"

"Right, I forgot. The easy part."

"Exactly," Frank said. "The easy part. What could go wrong?"


The Samsara's cockpit was packed tight with consoles that monitored everything from nearby asteroid activity to radio frequencies used by over a thousand military and law enforcement channels. Originally, there was room for three flight chairs, but the third one had to be removed so Monster could fit. Captain Cojo braced his hands against the threshold and looked at the back of the mantipor's shaggy head, hunched over a blank display screen. Buehl was wearing a small sweaty tank top, the lat muscles of his back flared out like an angry cobra. Vic knocked lightly on the door frame and said, "You two gonna sulk in here all day or do you want to help us get outfitted?"

"I was just running a systems check," Buehl said defensively. "How's that sulking?"

"How many push-ups did he do after the meeting?" Vic said to Monster.

Monster shrugged, "I stopped counting at two hundred."

Buehl snatched his shirt from his chair and excused himself past the Captain without saying another word. Vic watched him head down the corridor and looked back at Monster, "He okay?"

"He'll get over it. You know how he feels about being left out."

"I'm not leaving him out. I need him up here for a reason."

Monster turned in his swivel chair to face the captain, his green eyes laced with strands of sparkling red crags. Vic saw that the beast was cupping something in his hands, holding it close to his chest. He could see strands of fine, blonde, silken doll-hair sticking out from between Monster's furry fingers. "And what's the reason?"

Vic frowned, but only said, "Because I do. Listen, if you don't think I'd rather have a four-hundred pound mantipor at my side than a skinny medical officer, you're nuts. You know that if all hell breaks loose, you're the guy I want coming to get me."

Monster's grip on the doll tightened, "So why are you leaving me up here, when I could do the most good down there?"

Vic leaned back against the doorway, its metal surface cool against the back of his neck. "This mission isn't exactly Unification approved. There's a chance it might come back on us, so I'm trying to keep everybody out of harm's way."

Monster got out of the chair and stood up as much as he could in the cockpit, looming over the captain. He slammed the doll on the console next to him, "How dare you stand there and insult my honor after everything we've been through!"

"It's not an insult," Vic said. "You've got two wives and a dozen cubs. Bob's got two kids. I'm not dragging them all into this too."

"We're soldiers. We're Grendel. Right or wrong, that's what we all agreed to. You're forcing us to break our oath. You're denying me my rights as a warrior."

"We both know this has nothing to do with any oaths, Big Man. At least none that we made to Unification."

Monster looked down at the doll on the console and closed his eyes, "Yultorot must pay for his crimes."

"He's going to," Vic said. "No matter what it takes."

"Just so you know, if it comes down to it and there's any chance of him escaping, I'm jumping in. It's not like you can discipline me, since we're off the book on this one anyway."

Vic nodded, "Fine. But only if it's worst case scenario. Otherwise I'm going to kick your furry behind."

"Better a pack a lunch when you try. It might take a while," Monster said.

They met in the corridor near the Trauma unit in front of a set of heavy metal doors. Bob Buehl leaned down to look into the camera eye mounted to the door and pressed his thumb to the small pad beneath it. There was a soft beep as the computer identified Buehl. The electronic locks released and the doors slid open.

S'bal's eyes widened at the racks of weapons and equipment inside. "By the Gods, do you know what this would be worth to the right buyer?"

"Would it be worth your arms for so much as taking another step closer, fish?" Monster growled.

"Just stay back, S'bal," Vic said.

"In addition to your standard expedition equipment, I picked up some new toys at the last station, so this is a good time to try them out." He removed two small cases and passed them to Frank and the captain. "We're going with seeker radios, obviously." Vic opened his case to see two small black pieces of rubber, shaped to fit perfectly into the ear canal. "Now, it's going to be tricky because they're calibrated to track the singular voice of one individual. I've never tried it with a Cryndian before. Here, hold up the radios to his neck. S'bal, say something."

The fish played with the earrings dangling from his mouths in thought for a moment, then leaned his mouths closer to the radios and said, "It's a shame the mantipor didn't ask me what I'd been doing with that arm right before he tore it off. I hope he likes the taste of my rear end."

Buehl frowned, "His jewelry is interfering with the signal. Take them off."

"No way. Do you know how strange that would look? That would raise all kinds of red flags."

"Can you make it work anyway, Bob?" Vic said.

"Maybe if I was down there," Buehl said dryly.

Vic patted him on the shoulder and said, "Just do the best you can. What else?"

He removed a necklace with a small metal crucifix and said, "S'bal, put this on. It's a tracker and I'll be able to follow your signature from wherever you are."

S'bal looked at the crudely-shaped ornament and said, "What is this? This looks like something my grandmother would wear. Hell no."

"Put it on," Monster said, "Or I'll make you swallow it."

S'bal's mouth twisted in mute anger but he put the necklace on and looked away, like he could not bear such an insult. Buehl checked the necklace's transmitter and said, "The signal is excellent, but of course, he's standing right next to us. What that will be down on the planet, I'm not sure."

"We get it," Frank said. "All this would work better if you were just down there with us. Can we move on?"

Buehl grabbed a compact assault weapon off the rack and moved to hand it to Frank, instead shoving the frame sideways into Frank's chest, nearly doubling him over. "Here's your gun, Frank."

"Thanks," Frank whispered. He coughed and looked down at the weapon, a black Rangefinder with collapsible stock and three settings for semi-auto, full-auto, and OMFG. "What's OMFG?"

"Let's say you wind up trapped in the basement of a twelve-story building and have no escape route. A hundred enemies are coming down the stairs ready to skin you alive and do all sorts of unspeakable things to your corpse. You can't fight them all, so your only option is to bring the whole damn building down on top of them. OMFG," Buehl said.

"I'll keep that in mind."

Buehl reached for another compact, but Vic stopped him and said, "Not that one. I need something quiet."

Buehl scanned the rest of the weapons and said, "Here you go." He removed a sleek pistol with an extended barrel and handed it to Vic. "Feel how light that is? It doesn't fire bullets. It's magnetic, good for a range of up to fifty feet. Completely silent. You fire that at somebody there won't be any bang, just a hole through your target that nobody can explain."

"What about me?" S'bal said. "What do I get?"

"Here pick something out, anything you want," Buehl said.

"Seriously?"

"No, not seriously, dummy. You don't get a damn thing."

"You people suck," S'bal said.

Buehl moved over to the next door and looked over the shelves, "Do you want any C-32?"

"No," Vic said. "We're doing this as quiet as we can. No explosions."

"All right. Take these, though." He scooped up a handful of shiny, grey marbles in one hand and yellow-green ones in the other. "The grey ones are smoke. If something goes wrong, get out into an open area and drop them all around you. I'll still be able to find you with our sensors and be able to scoop you up."

S'bal snorted in derision, "Smoke bombs? Do you know cheap it is to get smoke filters uploaded to sunglasses?"

"Not these," Buehl said. "These have a specific spectrometer frequency that not only−"

"Hey," Vic said. "He doesn't need to know what he doesn't need to know."

Frank looked down at the yellow-green ones and sniffed them, rearing back in disgust, "What are these?"

"Vomit bombs. Chuck them into a crowd and people will start getting sick all over the place. Best way to disperse a group is to get people projectile vomiting at them."

"You're a sick man, Bob," Vic said. "That must be why you're my favorite. So we're good to go?"

"No," Monster said. He reached past Buehl's head and collected two knives sheathed in square metal casings. "You said this was a stealth mission. Since the dawn of time nothing has been a quieter way of dispatching enemies than the blade." He drew one of the knives and showed them how it began to hum with life and vibrate softly. "That knife can cut through six inches of tank armor."

"Good. I was wondering how we were going to deal with all the tanks down there," Frank said. "Thank God I've got this pocket knife."

Vic took his knife and clipped it to his belt with a slight smile. He looked back at S'bal and said, "You ever made a Baumgartner Jump before?"

The fish's lips curled in hesitation, "What's that?"

Buehl removed three air masks from the closet and three loose body suits made of shining black plastic. "We'll descend to about twenty-five miles over Khor-Wa's surface so you guys can drop down and parachute in."

S'bal snickered as the air mask was dangled in front of him, preferring not to participate in the men's joke. When the other two strapped their masks on, he stepped back and said, "Wait, are you crazy bastards serious?"

3. Previous Intel


It started with a distress call two months prior.

Vic was in his quarters, sleeping fitfully. In space flight there is no day or night, just the hum of the engines and the dark emptiness just beyond his cabin window. He found that he slept more when he was aboard, and hated it. It left him feeling groggy the entire day and often, with a throbbing headache. He wondered if the air on board the ship was too thin, or too thick, and their sensors were just reading it wrong.

The comm on his wall beeped and Buehl said, "Captain, are you awake?"

Vic rolled over and wiped his eyes, squinting in the dim light, "What is it?"

"We're receiving an all-channel distress call from Sector 3, the Cinth-Combs outpost on Gennewolf."

Vic looked around the room, trying to untangle his thoughts from his dreams. They stuck together like cobwebs, even as he shook his head, trying to force himself awake.

"Captain?" Buehl said.

"All hands on deck," Vic finally mumbled.

The ship's alarm sounded and flashed in the hallway as he pulled on his t-shirt and slid into the same pair of pants he'd left lying by the edge of the bed only hours before. He laced up his boots and headed through the door, almost colliding into Frank. "What's going on?" Frank said.

"Time to go to work, I guess."

"Good. All this peace and quiet was making me nuts."

Monster was already sitting in his chair, manning the communications systems. "What's the problem?" Vic said.

"It's unclear. The signal's being broadcast by multiple areas on the outpost. Whatever it is, it's chaotic at the moment."

"See if you can patch us through."

Monster typed several commands into his computer, announcing, "Cinth-Combs Tower, this is Unification vessel Samsara, responding to your signal. Confirm." He repeated the announcement several times, until he finally said, "Nothing."

Vic rubbed his chin, feeling the stubble there with his thumb. "Screw it. Take us in."

Buehl shot a look over his shoulder, "And if they fire on us for breeching their airspace without clearance to land?"

Vic shrugged, "Then I'm buying the first round when we get to hell. Just get us down before they have a chance. Let's go."

Monster let out a sharp laugh and Frank braced himself against the cockpit's wall, intertwining his arms around the tethering straps. The Samsara dropped into the planet's atmosphere, rocketing down through the upper limits of the skyline until they were zipping through clouds and could see the massive base beneath them.

The computer's alarm sounded and Buehl sighed, "They're locking missiles on us."

Vic picked up Monster's microphone and said, "This is Captain Cojo of Unification vessel Samsara, responding to an emergency distress call from your location. Stand down your weapons, I repeat, stand down your weapons."

They were left with nothing but the beeping alarm for several seconds, until someone finally said, "Stand by for verification." The beeping stopped and the voice said, "Cinth-Combs Tower to Samsara, you are clear to approach."

"What the hell's going on down there?" Vic said. "You people ask for help, then nearly blow us up?"

"We apologize, Captain. Things are tight at the moment."

Vic took a deep breath, "All right, where do you need us?"

The tower said, "Just look for the smoke."

They all looked up through the ship's forward display, seeing holographic readouts of buildings and the wide grid of the outpost's streets. Buehl moved the thermal sensor around the map until he finally said, "I'm reading a large heat signature ten miles southeast." He squinted at the readout, "The acitine metal content of the air is indicative of Kerogel, Captain. It was a bombing."

"Step on it," Vic said. "What's burning?"

Monster's fingers flew over his computer terminal and his voice dropped to a barely audible whisper. "That is the location of the Andoho-Sky Elementary School, Captain."

No one spoke.

Vic finally tapped Buehl on the shoulder and said, "Get us on the ground and get us in the fight, Sergeant."

It was rare for him to refer to any of the men by their rank or formal names. The Grendel Unit was above such things, too loose for such things, too outside of standard operations. This was different and they all knew it. Buehl threw the accelerator forward and said, "Yes, sir. Everybody hang on."

The Samsara cut sideways, cutting between buildings, racing after a long cavalcade of emergency vehicles that painted the sky flashing shades of blue and red. The ship's thermal view showed a large structure just ahead, consumed by flames. Bright, flaring blocks of white filled entire floors, leaving no space for anything that lived. "Holy hell," Frank whispered.

Buehl flipped a switch to reveal the screen's forward camera feed in real time, showing the dozens of fire crews surrounding the building on land and in the air, all of them standing by. "Why aren't they putting it out?" Monster roared.

"You can't," Buehl said. "Kerogel reactivates when you hit it with any kind of flame suppressant. It's like pouring water on a grease fire. They just have to let it burn itself out and pray it doesn't spread."

Monster smashed his fist on the chair's arm, "So they're just going to let the children and teachers burn alive?"

"They're already dead, Big Man. There's no life signs in there," Vic said softly. "Bob, set us down over there, by that parking lot." He bent down to peer through the sideport window and said, "Looks like a large crowd is gathering around the school. Probably parents."

Frank leaned down beside him. "Can you imagine what they're going through? No way are they going to understand why there isn't a rescue effort."

"I wouldn't," Vic said. He wiped his forehead, feeling it was drenched with sweat. "Why the hell did we have to be passing through this sector?" he whispered to himself. He felt the ship touch down and called out, "Tactical vests with Unification ID displayed. Sidearms only, no rifles. Frank, find the medical coordinator and see what's needed. Bob, I want intel about this bombing. Hack every system you can until we get answers. Monster, you're with me."

They exited the Samsara into the fray, acrid, chemical smoke stinging their eyes and throats. Vic waved for Monster to follow him and they hurried around the rear of the crowd to the first command post they saw. Vic held up his badge and identified himself, asking how they could be of assistance.

The Lieutenant manning the post's door said, "Captain, you can come in. I'm sure my Commissioner will want to see you." His eyes looked Monster up and down, "Any chance this one can go help out with crowd control? He might be able to help keep parents from running into the flames."

Monster leapt over the barricade and took off running toward the main entrance, his thick, muscular legs moving faster than seemed possible. Vic moved past the Lieutenant and saluted the group of men huddled at the far end of the trailer; a haggard looking medical Chief, a sweat-soaked Fire Marshal. Seated between them, an old, thin man in a crisp white shirt with gold Commissioner stars lined up along the epaulets. Vic nodded at all of them and said, "Gentlemen, how can I be of assistance?"

The Commissioner looked back at Vic with narrow eyes, his face wan and drawn, the stress mapping every inch of his features. "We appreciate Unification's fast response, Captain." His words were slow and measured, like he scribed them in the air mentally to look at them before speaking. "Once we've regained stability of the scene, any assistance your government can provide in recovery and rebuilding would be most welcome."

"What about the investigation?" Vic said.

The men surrounding the Commissioner glanced at one another, but the old man remained undisturbed. "We have the matter quite well in hand, Captain, thank you. The school's coolant system malfunction that caused the incident has already been neutralized and will be examined by our top men."

"Coolant system malfunction?" Vic said. "That's cute. That's real, real cute." He turned his back to the men and grabbed the command post's door handle and yanked it shut, hard. He looked back at the Commissioner, "Now, how about you tell me why someone used Kerogel to blow up this damn school before I decide you bumbling bastards aren’t capable and have your charter revoked?"

Outside, the crowd at the main gate had grown into a frenzy of screaming people pressed against the barricade, beating their fists on the police officer's riot shields. Monster stood behind the row of cops, feeling the heat of the burning building singe the fur on his back. A man broke through the ranks, pushing his way past the phalanx of officers, crying, "My little boy!"

Monster was on him in seconds, scooping him up in his massive arms and cradling him like a baby. "There's nothing you can do," Monster said softly as he carried the man back to the barricades. "I'm sorry. There's nothing."

The man sobbed and moaned but did not struggle as Monster set him back down. And then, more screams. Panicked ones, different than before. People were crying out in renewed horror and pointing at the building's top floor, until finally the police turned to see what they were looking at and someone shouted, "There's someone up there!"

A little girl appeared at one of the classroom windows her fists banging against the glass. Flames lit up the room behind her and dark smoke poured out of the broken windows and cracked walls beneath her. The policemen squawked into their radios for help, racing around the school's entrance futilely, flapping their arms like panicked ducks. "Do something!" someone cried out.

Monster ripped his tactical vest off and tossed it as he ran, heading directly for the flames. He leapt over the school's entrance and smashed against the wall, burying his hands and feet in the facade, scraping with his claws for purchase. He swung himself up to the next window and lifted, heaving upwards. Fire stung his face as he inhaled the noxious fumes from within, and still he climbed.

The little girl slipped down from the window, falling out of sight except for her right hand which was placed flat against the glass. A final act of desperation. Monster climbed and climbed until he could see her hand close, see that her fingers were twitching. He banged on the window and she looked up, eyes pleading and terrified. Her clothing was on fire, he realized. By the Gods, her clothing is on fire. She grabbed for the window's latch and Monster shouted, "No! The air will ignite the room!"

He looked around in panic, mind racing for an answer. The window to the room beneath the girl was already blown out, that room already exposed to oxygen. Monster climbed back down the wall, and swung himself through it, shattering the remnants of the window's frame. The school desks and walls were on fire. He smelled burning meat.


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