Kane stepped into the Inferno two days later with a degree of hesitation. He knew without a doubt that the Viper would be there. His kind always was. What he didn’t know was how the assassin was going to play the angles. A man like that smelled profit and was willing to do anything for the good of his pocketbook. Assassins were an unrespectable breed who purposefully walked in the shadows, but the Viper’s offer was tempting. Kane saw a chance to end the war for good. Thousands could know a peace previously unobtainable. His life was certainly worth the doubt.
Smoke and the putrid odors of old alcohol assaulted the Slayer as soon as he stepped inside. Braxton Skrapp was a good man, but cleanliness had never been his strong suit. A grizzled veteran of many years hunting Berserkers, Braxton was the sort a soldier wanted next to him when times got bad. Time and age had finally caught up to him, so he chose to make a meager existence with this bar. The majority of the Slayers didn’t live long enough to see any sort of dream fulfilled. Their bones littered the desert in forgotten graves.
Kane took a table in the corner of the room. From there, he could watch the floor and anyone coming through the door. If the Viper did show his face, Kane wanted to have the advantage. A serving girl came by and brought him a tall glass of Telgeise coffee. It was definitely an acquired taste, bitter and stronger than any in this part of the universe. The heavy scent clung to his nostrils, forcing him to smile. The coffee tasted better than the acid Prentiss had offered him back at the oasis and was one of the few pleasures Kane allowed himself. Anything else proved a distraction from his chosen task. Kane took the first sip and felt his mouth water at the overpowering flavors. At once sweet and bitter, the coffee was mildly addictive.
He’d barely finished the first glass when the Inferno’s double doors swung inward, the black-dressed assassin striding through. Kane suppressed his loathing. Dark glasses hid the Viper’s vile red eyes, but Kane knew the man was looking for him as well as for potential threats and targets. Ever the efficient killer, Aradias wondered how a man like that managed to sleep at night. Satisfied the place was clean, the assassin walked directly to Kane and sat down.
The Viper smiled, toothy and wicked. “We’re a lot alike, you and me.”
“We are nothing alike. Don’t presume to make that mistake again,” Kane replied quickly. A doubt lingered in the back of his mind. Perhaps this wasn’t the best idea.
Rage flared behind the glasses. “Your kind think you’re so special. I’ve seen the truth of you, Aradias Kane. You’re a killer, the same as me. This is a cruel world, and we are forced to make difficult decisions. I made mine and can live with it. I do the same thing you do, but I have the nerve to name a price. There are no morals or rules here. It’s kill or die. Nothing more.” He leaned close and whispered, “Do I frighten you? Is that it? Am I the monster in small children’s dreams? The birth of decadent nightmares? Bah! I think not. You and me, there’s not much difference. You kill for the future. I do it to make my purse fatter.”
Kane stepped back, unwilling to confront the man on his spoiled ideals.
“Either way you look at it, we’re both in the business of taking lives, the precious gift of the gods. Have you ever wondered why we are made to suffer so? Who takes pleasure in our turmoil? Our pains and trials? Do you really believe in the afterlife, Aradias Kane?”
“No god made the Berserkers,” Kane replied in a calm voice. “Man made them, and man will destroy them.”
“Well said,” the Viper laughed. “But it’s a small matter. Neither you nor I have the power to change the world. I assume you’re done with those mind-wracking deliberations about my offer? The Imperium is coming. Do you want them to have the glory of ending this war?”
Kane cocked his head ever so slightly. His dislike for the Viper was almost covered by his distrust of the armor-shelled soldiers. They cared nothing for the people of Helscape and were coming only to serve their own needs. Of that, he had no doubt. It was the way life often went, from his experience. Still, the thought of letting foreigners succeed where he’d spent his life in useless victories and defeats chafed him. Victory should belong to the Slayers and the people of Helscape.
The Viper smiled again. It was an evil sight. An assassin knew no happiness or joy. Pain and death were his way of life. His predatory gaze sent a shiver down Kane’s back.
Aradias exhaled a long breath. “I’m in, but I want to make myself clear. I’m not doing this for your reasons. This could be my chance to end the threat in the Wastelands. With the knowledge you have, I can finally do something about the enemy. Have you ever wondered what freedom feels like? It is a dream I’ve never known, assassin. I do this for myself and the peoples of the Wastes.”
The Viper yawned. Speeches didn’t impress him. How many men had begged and wept for their lives just before he finished the job? None of that mattered. What was important was the fact the Slayer had chosen to join him. Kane’s quest for personal redemption meant nothing to him.
“Naturally,” replied the Viper. “I already have enough supplies and other such things for both of us. We need to leave as soon as possible. I don’t particularly enjoy the thought of those damned demons playing with a wizard’s lost toy. They give me enough trouble without it. But they are, after all, spawned from the hand of a wizard, eh?”
Swallowing the last of his coffee, Kane asked, “I trust you have maps and additional weapon stock? What we have now won’t be enough to fend off a large war party.”
“I have obtained a large-caliber cannon for personal use. From undisclosed sources, of course. It’s two-man operated, and there’s enough ammo to hold a regiment of Imperium troops at bay. You’ll need to teach me some of your tricks for killing these things along the way. My business is killing men, not monsters.”
“Naturally,” mocked Kane.
The Viper’s cackling laugh announced the end of their meeting. “By the Gods, but won’t this be a tale to tell someday! Pack your bags, Slayer. We leave at dawn.”
Halfway across the bar, neither man noticed the pale green-skinned man patiently sipping a cup of coffee. His face twisted at the bitter taste, reminding him of unpleasant things. The tan leather jacket he wore made him seem almost sickly in the desert heat. His hair was tied back in a long, black topknot. His eyes shifted back and forth, watching Kane and the Viper with predatory alertness. He took another horrid sip and gestured with his chin.
“Those two,” he told his companion.
Kreegin Faul drained his mug of local ale, struggling to focus his eyes. “You sure?”
Kreegin was a beast of a man. His skin was coal black, his hair stark white. He was largely unimpressed with the choices.
“Yes, I am sure.”
Kreegin snorted. “We’d be better off doing it by ourselves, Leggis.”
Leggis Fint narrowed his eyes disdainfully. “We’ve been on this damned rock for two weeks now. I am tired of wasting time inside every bar and dive in the desert. It’s these two, or we go back to that general and tell him the deal is off. Of course, we’ll probably both be shot as traitors.”
“What a minute! We’re not even a part of the Imperium. How could they shoot us?”
Leggis offered one of his charming smiles. “There’s a war on, my friend. They can do whatever they want. Besides, I have a funny feeling that our mission has not been sanctioned by the high command, or whoever is in charge out there.”
Kreegin Faul scowled and caught the attention of the nearest bar maid. He suddenly felt the need for a lot of alcohol. “Damned generals. How do I ever let you talk me into these situations? You’re supposed to be my friend.”
“We’re mercenaries, Kreegin. It comes with the job title. And I am your friend. Why else would I want to drag you into the middle of this?”
The pair fell silent. Kreegin attempted to drown his miseries while Leggis Fint sat back and remembered how they’d wound up on Helscape.
The pressure lock compartment door hissed open followed by jets of cold air and a cloud of ore dust. A lone man stepped from the nighttime shadows into the bunker. He frowned at the lack of lighting. Clearly, the darkness was meant to hide something or, better, someone. Suspicions aroused, he proceeded. Leggis Fint was a long-time mercenary and quite the successful one. He’d done operations in every part of the known universe and was generally considered one of the best — which was why a senior ranking Imperium officer had contacted him two weeks ago requesting this meeting.
Dressed in a tan leather jacket and dark pants, Fint wore a blaster on each hip. He had one lock of dark black hair in a topknot dropping halfway down his back. His yellow eyes were in stark contrast to his dull green skin. Fint was an Idorian, and everything about him whispered trouble. He searched through the shadows, confident in what awaited him. Scanners from his ship showed five bodies. Fint planned for a trap, which was why he’d left his partner in the gun turret aboard their ship.
“You can stop hiding and show yourselves,” he growled to them. Fint was a hard man unaccustomed to playing games.
“Not just yet, I think,” came a rumbling reply from the far corner.
General Paedian Gulluette emerged from the shadows. He was a great bear of a man — literally. Dark brown fur covered his muscled body. The consummate soldier, he was considered by many as being the frontrunner for Supreme Military Commander of the Imperium. He’d spent the last thirty-five years in the service. He’d bled for his beliefs and fully expected those under him to do the same. His one goal in life was the defeat of the Xempsarillian armies. Paedian was willing to go to great extremes to accomplish that, letting nothing stand in his way.
The Geat System was only three standard light years from the DMZ and the enemy beyond. It had once been a thriving system. Then the Xemps had come. Every sentient hurried to flee as the enormous reptilian armada swept into the galaxy, giving both armies a free place to wage war. That had been a hundred years ago, long before Paedian’s time. Now, he had the chance to swing the balance in the Imperium’s favor for good.
“My time is valuable,” Fint warned. “Don’t waste it.”
Gulluette smirked. He liked this man. “Very well. As you know, the Imperium has been suffering heavy losses along the Xempsarillian front. Latest reports indicate that they are amassing their forces for a massive assault into the core sectors. We have been reinforcing these worlds as fast and as best we can, but the enemy could strike at any time. If they attack now, the Imperium will crumble. I, for one, will not stand by and be party to the slide that caused the downfall of the greatest force for order in the known universe.”
“How is this my problem?” Fint asked casually with a flare of arrogance.
“It’s going to be all of our problem unless we can find a way to defeat the enemy. Can you imagine a universe ruled by those damned lizards? My soldiers are all that stands between victory and certain doom. But we need help, and that’s where you and your team come in to play.”
Fint took a seat in the empty chair to his right. “I’m listening.”
Gulluette smiled to himself. He heard a murmur from behind. The others were uncomfortable with this entire affair. Their careers were forfeit if things did not go according to plan. Should Gulluette’s plan backfire, they were committing high treason. Death would be a kind mercy.
“There is Telgeise III, an obscure planet in the Furlun Sector. It is small and has been relatively unimportant to the Imperium until now. Planetary conditions and the sheer distance from the battle lines make it a worthless world. Nonetheless, High Command has kept a garrison there for the past five years. ”
Fint yawned. “You’re beginning to bore me, General.”
Gulluette remained calm despite the quiet rage slowly building. The Idorian mercenary was far too impetuous for his own good.
“On planet Telgeise — or Helscape, as the locals call it — there are reports of a vast indigenous force of enormous strength. These creatures, known only as Berserkers, have ravaged the local populations for generations. One of our recon units assigned to the Crimson Spiders managed to capture a wounded one last year. Three men were killed in the process. Our scientists studied this thing for weeks and found no biological matches with any other creature in the galaxy.”
“Cute,” Fint scoffed.
“‘Lethal’ would be a more appropriate accolade,” Paedian corrected. “This one escaped after it was done letting us examine it. The wake of bodies was quite high. It took a full platoon of guards to bring it down in the end.”
Fint’s eyes narrowed. “The perfect killing machine, and you want to try and tame them?”
“Think what this species could mean to our bio-weapons division. They could be our key to success against the Xemps. If we could find a way to harness their power, they could be made to serve as frontline troops. The Berserkers could very well turn the tide of the war in our favor!”
“And what happens when they turn on their masters?” Fint asked.
The others nodded their agreement from the shadows. Paedian may have been senior among them, but there was nothing that made him qualified to deal with matters like this.
Paedian reached into his jacket pocket and tossed a small disk to the mercenary.
“This will do sufficiently.”
Fint examined the disk and asked, “What is this?”
“Our researchers have been working around the clock for new ways to deter prisoners of war from escaping. This is the newest result of their labors. It is a small explosive device and tracking beacon. It is inserted under the skin just below the jaw, near the jugular vein. Each is individually numbered to make tracking them easier. A team of guards is stationed in a large monitoring room, very similar to the one we are in now. In the event of riot or even escape, the chips emit a radio signal back to the motherboard, allowing the guards to take appropriate action. This tiny chip has enough explosive power to successfully remove someone’s head. I think it should do nicely.”
“I’m impressed,” Fint admitted, “but that still leaves one question.”
“How do you plan on capturing enough of these monsters to make a difference?”
Paedian smiled again, his massive canines hanging down to his lower jaw — a frightful thing to behold in the dark places of Neen. “That is a matter for the Imperium and none of your concern. All you need to know is that we are paying you to track them down and feed us the data, mercenary.”
Leggis Fint jerked to his feet. He ignored the barb. “Then we are done here. How long before my team is inserted?”
“Let’s say one month,” Paedian replied.
“Fair enough. I’ll be in touch.”
Two months later, he found himself sitting in a tavern in the town of Black Tide with Kreegin Faul wondering what the future held. Finishing his coffee, he let his thoughts turn to the third member of his team. If Kreegin hated it here, he could only imagine what Ardn Kelg thought about impersonating an Imperium soldier at the southern army base. Damned generals.