Howling winds swirled across the dead town. Shadows turned into demons breathing brevity and a bitterness toward life. Night was black. The light of a single star hung from the sky, offering no assistance to the scared man creeping through the ruins. Despite a grievance with the world, all was exactly the way he wanted it to be. Sunlight would only give him away, and, though infrared sensors would easily be able to pick him up, it was going to take more than that to catch Smythe Menzel.
He’d returned to Helgscroft with the hopes of finding it void of Berserkers and thinking the Imperium would never dream to look for him in the west. A public execution was awaiting him upon capture. The degree of his crimes was such that justice demanded no less. He could only hope his distractions back at Fort Evans were sufficient enough to keep them off his trail long enough for his plan to work.
That dream had died as soon as he’d arrived. His ship had already been blown apart and all of his bodyguards but one killed in the first hour of being in the ancient city. Now, alone and without hope, Smythe Menzel hid in the shadows and prayed his stalkers thought him already dead. It was the only way he was going to escape.
Menzel uncapped his canteen and took a long pull. The brick wall behind him exploded outward as he went to stretch. His remaining guard turned to push him out of the way and was shredded by ion fire. Blood and mist sprayed the shaken Menzel. He ducked and frantically searched for a place to hide.
“Did you hit him?” asked Kreegin Faul into his headset. He knew for certain the first guard had been slain by his fire, but the haze prevented him from seeing what happened next.
“I’m not sure,” came the steady reply from Kelg. “Looks like ‘e went into t’at building for cover.”
“Menzel’s the only one left. How about we sweep down and bring in Kelg?”
“Okay. I’ll go left, you go right, and we’ll pinch him in the middle.”
Leggis Fint had to smile. He’d been waiting for a long time to get revenge on the weasel of a man, and they were so close he smelled the blood. Day after day of Kreegin’s constant complaining over the little things was wearing thin. He knew it was a mistake to secretly deal with so many of the Imperium’s top officials, but the money had been too good to pass up.
Money. That was the reason they were in this mess in the first place. If he’d been thinking with his brain instead of his purse, he never would have flown to Neen last year. An entire year of his life was wasted, lost on this desert world. Menzel was going to die very slowly.
All three of them were moving, converging on Menzel’s hiding place. Fint had a good idea how many more were waiting on the shuttle, but they were of little concern, being so far removed from the action. A well-placed thermal charge would easily solve that problem. All they had to do was capture Menzel alive.
He was beginning to feel almost giddy with excitement. Closure for this sad chapter in his life was very near. They’d been on Helscape for far too long and it didn’t look like any form of payment was in their near future. All that effort wasted.
An explosion at the far end of town sent metal shards and shrapnel scattering into the ruins. Ancient rock and mortar crumbled under the assault, and the streets filled with great clouds of smoke and dust. The ground trembled, throwing Fint and his team down.
“What the Hells was that?” Kreegin growled.
Leggis Fint’s eyes narrowed. “A diversion. He knows he’s a dead man.”
The firing had stopped. Smythe Menzel sat trapped in the corner of an old store waiting for death. He had to get back to a ship. His diversion wouldn’t fool the mercenaries for long. They stalked him as relentlessly as Lady Death himself. If he could just find his murderers’ ship, he stood a chance of getting away. Any way he looked at it, it was his only chance of escape. As much as anything, Menzel was no fool. He knew his chances were slim.
Quiet as a thief in the night, they crept through the darkness, searching for the latch on the back door. Menzel fought the urge to break through the rotted material, and it was a good thing he won. He had no way of knowing it, but Fint’s team was almost in perfect position to surround them. The door groaned open, half of it falling apart.
He cautiously poked his head out to scan the general area before taking the first step from hiding. Everything looked clear, and he wasn’t about to second-guess himself. It was only another hundred meters to the edge of town and where he thought the shuttle was. Menzel sighed, a glimmer of hope in his eyes. He just might make it!
Kreegin Faul dropped to a knee, panting from exertion. Dust speckled his white hair, and he was angry. The warehouse they’d searched had been empty.
“I almost got that bastard, but he ducked away. What do we want to do now?” he asked Fint.
The Idorian mercenary was busy brushing some of the dust from his tan jacket, hoping his smooth green skin wasn’t too affected. “We wait for Kelg.”
“Have you ever once sat back and enjoyed the moment?” Fint asked with a raised eyebrow. “You have too much stress built up. I think you need a vacation.”
Kreegin growled. “What the Hells are you talking about? We need to find him and kill him before the other group does.”
“I hardly think there’s a group out there. Relax will you? You’re almost making me nervous.”
He was laughing by the time Ardn Kelg came stalking out of the darkness. The leopard man had a smile.
“I got one of t’em. Not sure if it was Menzel, but only one is left.”
Faul passed him a hardened look. “We already knew that, genius.”
Fint’s smile widened. “You see, Kreegin. This is getting easier. We go back to the shuttle and wait for dawn. I’m fairly certain that was Menzel’s shuttle exploding, so we needn’t worry about him getting away.”
They marched out in single file, Fint in the lead. He had never been so glad to talk to a local before, and a part of him wondered what the Viper and his friends were doing.
The night was the coldest Smythe Menzel could recall. Hungry and alone, Menzel was fighting for his life. Desperation drove him on, though he knew there was little chance of escape. His hunters were simply too diverse. He was still confused about the exact number of men searching for him, but there was enough evidence that more than one group was in Helgscroft.
His most trusted troopers and friends were all dead; some in the old ruins and others back in Minion. There was nothing left connecting him to the conspiracy shocking the Imperium. The only thing left was the formality of killing him. Menzel was raised by strong parents, and he had no intentions of giving up. Armed with a blaster only partly charged, he crept from shadow to ruin in the hopes of making it just a little further.
All of the dreams and aspirations he’d meticulously pieced together over the course of five long years were shattered. He was broken and forgotten. Once he was dead, it would be as if he’d never been. Smythe Menzel had no motivation left. The will to continue his quest was ebbing away, leaving him a shadow of the man he used to be.
Dark thoughts crept into his mind. He still had a gun and enough ammo to finish what needed to be done. The last thing he wanted was to be taken alive by those murdering bastards out in the ruins. It became very clear to him what he needed to do. He suddenly found himself laughing uncontrollably. His laughs turned to mournful sobs, worsening until tears streamed down his cheeks. Alone and broken, Smythe Menzel slowly moved blaster to his temple.
“How much longer do you plan on keeping us here?” Kreegin asked. He was tired and growing increasingly bored.
“Until I see his damned body,” Fint replied.
“He’s alone. His ship’s destroyed, and we’re a good three days from civilization. We are wasting our time here, and you know it.”
“W’at’s your ‘urry?” Ardn Kelg asked.
“Maybe because we’re not getting paid anymore? Oh, and did I mention that I’m fed up with the damned desert? This place is murder to my skin.”
“You do look a lot older, you know.” Fint smiled.
“Funny,” the mercenary snorted. “Now can we just find this bastard and move on to a better job?”
“Preferably a world with endless beac’es and ‘alf naked women,” Ardn agreed.
“Don’t forget the exotic drinks,” Fint added.
It was all Kreegin could do to contain his anger. He was about to snap off another rude comment when the shot rang throughout the ruined city. All three mercenaries went for their weapons and prepared for the worst.
“I suppose that’s that,” Fint admitted after feeling for a pulse on the dead body.
The small issue hand gun lay clutched in Menzel’s hand.
“Waste of a whole year, if you ask me,” Kreegin complained. As far as he was concerned, it couldn’t have happened to a better man. “Can we go home now?”
Fint stood up. “I think it’s about time. Menzel’s dead, and our job is finished. There has to be a better paycheck waiting for us somewhere.”
“This time, I get to pick the job,” Kreegin said as the three walked back to their shuttle. Soon, Helscape was going to be a bad memory.
General Gulluette paced. It was all he could do. All communications with his co-conspirators in the Berserker mission were either missing or already jailed. His network of spies, once vast and competent, was reduced to hiding in shadows in the hopes of staying alive. All he had dreamed of achieving was lost.
The realization that he had failed was sobering. Gulluette considered leaving. Taking what he could and finding a quiet planet out of the way where no one would think to look. Considered and rejected. He was a general in the Imperium. Only cowards ran in shame.
What he’d attempted to do might not have been sanctioned or orthodox, but it was, in his modest opinion, what was best for the Imperium. They needed the Berserkers to throw against the rising tide of the Xempsarillian forces. He’d concocted the perfect scheme and found a willing dupe who thought he was marching to glory. Glory. Gulluette snorted. Fools sought glory and found it at the end of a gun.
Now it was all gone. His dreams of salvaging the Imperium and rising to the rank of Grand Marshal were crashed upon the shores of broken hopes. His war was over. Gulluette knew they were coming for him. It was only a matter of time. All of his fellow co-conspirators were either dead or in custody. Word of Biyo Ibroo’s betrayal reached him some time ago. The end was sealed in that moment. Gulluette had no fight left. He’d already sent away his staff, choosing to wait out his final moments alone. After all, they’d done nothing wrong. Not even Vitor could punish them for that.
Vitor. Gulluette thought of the Grand Marshal and snarled. Younger, brighter, the current Grand Marshal was cleaving through the conspiracy with heartless efficiency. Oh yes, Gulluette admitted, he was coming. Spies confirmed as much. Gulluette was almost out of time.
He paused his ceaseless movements to stare out the bay window taking up nearly an entire wall of his main office. The sprawling military base and port bustled with activity. Rumor had it a new offensive was being planned to throw back the Xemps. He wished to have been in on the planning and perhaps the invasion itself but fate wasn’t so kind. His part in the long running war was ended.
Brutal knocking on his outer doors struck like the cold hands of midnight. His heart skipped. Anticipation was a most cruel thing.
“General Gulluette, open the doors immediately! This is military police.”
Gulluette looked down at the blaster resting ominously on his desk. How easy would it be to fire first and make them kill him? No doubt their blood would already be hot from previous captures. The irony of it. Eventually he deemed it wasn’t worth giving them the satisfaction. He was a senior general of the Imperium and would be treated as such until the very end.
After long moments the knocking ended. His massive hands clenched reflexively. The doors burst open and in rushed a dozen armed and armored soldiers. At their back strode a very confident Grand Marshal Vitor. His grin was vicious.
“Vitor, I make no excuses for my actions,” Gulluette announced boldly. “I serve the Imperium.”
Vitor watched his subordinate accept the heavy manacles. “Paedian, you stopped serving the Imperium the moment you decided to go against everything we stand for. You, old friend, have become the very threat you sought to prevent. There’ll be a short rope and a long drop in your future. Take him away.”
Shoved and prodded, Gulluette walked stiffly and with head up to his doom.