FREELANCERS #18 - 11/15/23
The Freelancer crew are taking a break this month so I can give you a special preview of the next book in the Phoenix Company series, Lost Souls. Enjoy!
The Cost Of Doing Business
“Many hide their pain. Few are free from feeling it.”
26th of Eylswind, 984 AoD
The numb silence of the cold void outside the suit accentuated her heavy breathing inside it. The quiet contrasted with the carnage of laser beams, dogfights and explosions raging around her.
Floating through the orbital battlefield, Fhenriss couldn’t help but laugh. She uttered the command to mute the comms. She didn’t need any more panicked, desperate voices in her head. The whole thing was so absurd and unfortunate that she had to take a breath and embrace the silence. As laughable as it was, this was the closest she’d had to a moment of peace in a long time.
It was a miracle she survived her boarding spike getting ripped in half. They were too small, stealthy and fast for most starship weaponry to track. That didn’t stop the wreckage of a friendly interceptor from crashing into them. The odds were similar to two bullets striking each other in flight.
Fhenriss recalled the soft face of the rebel fighter sitting next to her right before the crash. She struck up a conversation, but mentally checked out when they started talking about how excited they were to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with a famous mercenary like her. She’d forgotten what faction they were a part of. Free People’s Coalition or some variation. She’d fought for and against so many of them. It was all the same crap. The section of the briefing she paid attention to was her target and her fee.
Bet that bright-eyed rebel wouldn’t have tried so hard to keep her in the torn boarding spike if he knew the real her. What an idiot. Thinking this shit was heroic. He was better off dying with the light of hope still shining in his pretty eyes, she thought.
Everyone involved in this dumb-ass conflict would have to swallow some unpleasant truths in the next few hours. The rebels were getting slapped around in their desperate defence. Most of them weren’t going home in one piece.
Fhenriss turned to the bright blue orb of Mervayla III. She saw the lights of a large city on the wet planet’s only continent. The enemy battleship’s main gun prepared to turn the metropolis into a crater. Any celebration from the battleship’s crew would be short-lived. They’d be cut off from the Brigarin Admiralty, branded as terrorists by the Alvor and the Federated Empire, and likely killed in a few weeks themselves.
They were all fucked.
Taking stock, Fhenriss didn’t have many great options either. The rebels were too preoccupied getting blown up to rescue her. She could call her vessel’s autopilot to come pick her up, but it would get blasted by the capital ship. After a glance at her limited air supply, the veteran merc took a deep breath and closed her eyes. A third option crept into her mind. She could always just let it all go and float on until the void claimed her.
Inertia carried her closer to the large battleship, a spacefaring vessel styled similar to its seaborne equivalent. After the immense turrets blasted away the rebel flies trying to stop it, the lumbering flagship’s thrusters maneuvered its prow to face the planet. Even outside the hull, she felt the growing pulse of its main battery charging up to annihilate the disobedient settlement.
Poor suckers. Learning the hard way how the galaxy worked after all their brave defiance. Fhenriss wouldn’t get her full fee either. What a godsdamned tragedy.
Her trajectory put the mercenary from Rakuur floating past the business end of the battleship’s main gun. She looked down the enormous barrel to see the thrumming lights of a doomsday weapon charging on the far side. The woman frowned as she turned to get one last look at the city on the delicate blue planet. She opened the holopad in her gauntlet to stare at some red numbers that haunted her for a very long time.
With a growl, Fhenriss opted for a fourth option. She grabbed her rail rifle and activated the rocket boosters on her back. The altered course sent her down the battleship’s main gun.
Into the belly of the beast.
“Backup! We need backup! We’re getting torn apart down here!” One of the Conqueror’s marines shouted into the comm console over the weapons fire and screaming behind him. Sparks shot out of nearby terminals as pandemonium raged in the mighty battleship’s main gun control room.
The officer on the other end of the call grimaced. “Backup? Your team was the backup! We’re tracking only a single enemy combatant. What in the blazes is going on down there, sergeant? Are you engaging a demon?”
A figure rushed up behind the marine and slammed his head into the console, knocking him out cold. The officer’s screen filled with a bloody, metal helmet shaped like a snarling wolf with one red eye.
The localized thunderstorm that was Fhenriss opened her visor and said, “You wouldn’t be the first to call me that, Chuck. Can I call you Chuck? You look like a Chuck. Which one of these big buttons sets this model boat to go boom?”
The officer’s face turned red. “Surrender, rebel scum. Drop your weapons, and perhaps you’ll be granted a swift death.”
Another marine rushed at her from behind with a fixed bayonet. The veteran merc dodged the thrust, then grabbed the blade. She crushed it with her cybernetic right arm, then yanked the marine closer to stun him with a headbutt.
She turned back to the console. “If you want it, you’ll have to come and get it, Chuck. But you joystick jockeys should jump in the escape pods while you still can!” The Rakuurite warrior cackled at the camera with a wild spark in her one organic eye.
A laser beam scored the edge of Fhenriss’ pauldron. A row of marines assembled on the second floor catwalks above and behind her. They hesitated to fire as she used the stunned marine as a human shield. The disciplined troops didn’t want to hurt their
comrades or the consoles. Fhenriss had no such qualms about trigger discipline.
Still cackling, she raised her rail rifle and unloaded the magazine in a sweeping, fully automatic arc of destruction that shredded everything and everyone in that section of the second floor.
As klaxons blared and red lights filled the room, Fhenriss took stock of her situation. Her audacious and on-brand shock and awe tactics cleared the main gun’s control centre, but a ship this size had way more troops than she had ammunition. The surviving readouts showed that the Conqueror’s main gun neared full charge. Screens showed the target on Mervayla that would be engulfed in apocalyptic fire in a few minutes. All the terminals switched to error messages as the bridge locked them out of the system.
Remembering what one of the dorky rebels in the breaching spike told her, Fhenriss shot out a few cameras, then pulled something from a pack on her belt. It was a Hail Mary play, but this was where a former novaball champion like her shined.
Thirty seconds later, the elevator doors hissed open. Fhenriss backed away from a torn panel on the wall as heavy, booted feet stomped in her direction. The Brigarin High Guard, warriors loyal to the Admiralty, stormed in with vibra-weapons and shields at the ready.
Fhenriss’ initial burst of fire clattered off the heavy shields and ornate powered armour styled to resemble the knights of their forebears. These classic pieces lacked the modern bells and whistles of a PAX, but they were not to be trifled with.
The knight in front lowered their shield and charged at the withdrawing ruffian with their vibra-halberd. Fhenriss spun around and dropped to a knee as she raised her weapon. The high-pitched whine of her rail rifle overpowered the low hum of the deadly halberd as the barrel snapped to an extended length. The added power of more rails hurled a heavier slug straight through the charging knight’s leg, dropping them to the ground.
She pushed off with her back leg into a somersault as another knight rushed in from the side and dropped the poleaxe down to score a deep gash in the floor. The highly trained knight’s follow-up thrust narrowly missed her head, but cut into her cybernetic arm. The Rakuurite merc ducked in closer to her enemy as a third knight came in swinging with a longsword that chopped into one of the consoles. As sparks shot about the room, Fhenriss leaped on top of a set of terminals, turned, and fired a high-powered slug through the visor of the longsword-wielding knight.
The second knight’s halberd got caught in the cramped confines of the control centre as their compatriot fell to the ground with a loud crash. Fhenriss went to fire at the halberd knight, but a fourth closed in and swept her legs with their shield. Her shot flew across the room, through several more terminals, and destroyed a cluster of heavy cables on the far wall.
As the elevator door hissed open once more, a commanding voice bellowed, “That’s enough!”
The knights closed ranks and locked shields as one dragged their fallen comrades back. Several techs rushed in to assess the damage as far away from the deadly merc as possible. The room’s computer alternated between delivering damage reports and noting the progress on the main gun’s charge.
Fhenriss scrambled to get some distance from the knights. Non-powered boots approached with measured steps along the metal floor.
The commanding voice called out, “I knew the rebels were unstable, but this is a bit much. I am Admiral Kerrice of the Brigarin Admiralty. Identify yourself.”
Catching her breath, Fhenriss poked her head out from behind cover. Standing in between her knightly shield wall, Admiral Kerrice wore a dress uniform that was mostly medals. A tall woman with perfect posture despite her advanced age, she was held together by expensive rejuvenation treatments and sheer willpower.
Fhenriss chuckled. “Sure, why not? One or both of us aren’t making it out of here alive, so let’s have a chat, Kerry. My name’s Fhenriss. I was touring this part of the sector and got lost. Lucky I stumbled into this neat museum piece you have. Any chance you could you give me directions to the gift shop? I wanna grab a replica of the knobby wheel you use to drive this thing.”
The admiral sneered. “I thought as much. You must be the infamous sellsword from that piddling backwater out in Void space I heard about. This is quite the stunt you pulled, making a mess of my ship, but it’s time to face reality.”
Fhenriss checked her rifle. There was only enough energy and ammo for a few more shots. Fewer shots than they had knights. She turned and said, “Right back at you, Kerry. Your masters in the Federated Empire told you to stand down. Not sure what you hope to achieve with this spiteful tantrum of yours, but I don’t see any version where this ends positively for you.”
Kerrice scoffed. “I thought someone who applies such brutish methods would at least understand how power projection works. If you’re the limit of how much the Federated Empire care to assert themselves, then my cause is the just one. That piddling narrative the rebels are pushing won’t last. They’re not heroes. They’re dissidents and fools who forgot their place in life. It falls on patriots like myself to set them straight and not bend to the feeble compromises of cowardly diplomats.”
As the lights flickered in the dimly lit room, the virtual voice notified everyone that the main battery was 95% charged. Kerrice said, “Time is running out, mercenary. Care to be civilized and negotiate?”
Fhenriss laughed. “You gonna double my fee or something, Kerry? I gotta warn you, my services don’t come cheap.”
Kerrice crossed her arms and tapped her foot on the metal floor. “Perish the thought. It’s time to negotiate your surrender. Unless you’re determined to meet an ignominious end under the boot of my knights.”
Fhenriss laughed even harder and stepped out in the open. “Bitch, do you know who I am? Do you have any idea how many smug nobles with frilly epaulets I’ve taken down? I’m the one they’ll be calling a hero after you’re gone.”
Sparks shot out of a nearby terminal. The virtual voice announced that the main battery was fully charged and ready to fire. This close to the massive weapon’s capacitors, everyone in the room could feel the stored energy in the back of their teeth. From behind the damaged glass of the control room, the cavernous barrel pulsed with malicious power.
Kerrice narrowed her eyes as the knights readied themselves to fight. “End of the road, mercenary. If you won’t choose decorum, then you deserve the wretched fate that awaits you. This is over and you can’t win. At least you get to watch as I erase this stain of futile defiance from the galaxy.” She spoke into her comms to the bridge. “This is the admiral. Fire the main gun.”
The virtual voice counted down the firing sequence from ten. The coils inside the barrel arced with power, preparing to unleash Armageddon on Mervayla.
Lit by the raging red light, the Rakuurite mercenary smiled. “Oh, Kerry. You’re even stupider than you look. I already won. I just needed you to talk for a little longer.” Fhenriss winked with her organic eye, shut her helmet, activated the remote trigger, then spun back into cover.
Kerrice and the knights turned when they heard a hissing sound from behind a broken panel on the wall. Attached to one of the main capacitors was a device Fhenriss placed before the knights stormed in. The volatile chemicals mixed around a small shard of raxxite, a crystal containing immense power.
Normally, a shock to any of the capacitors would trigger fail-safes designed to vent the energy out into space. A charged explosive like this, at that spot, when the battery was at full charge, was too much for any system to handle.
The light from the orange crystal flashed as the reaction crescendoed. Like a punctured fire hose, a burst of immense force obliterated Kerrice and the knights. The fail-safes tried to vent the capacitor’s stored power outward into space. But the explosions already cascaded down the length of the venerable flagship.
The initial blast ripped the Conqueror in two like a tin can. The overload caused the ship’s core to detonate in orbit with titanic fury.
An hour later, weak from overexertion, Fhenriss leaned on the edge of the torn hull as it floated among the debris. The initial blast tore off her chunk of the ship and flung it far enough away to miss the worst of the cataclysm.
As her oxygen reserve hit zero, the merc opened her helmet and gave the battleship’s blast shielding a kiss for protecting her. Most of her, anyway. Standing with her cybernetic arm blasted off once more, she looked at the bright blue orb of Mervayla. As her starship pulled in to pick her up. She smiled at the sight of the major city that wasn’t a crater.
Once on board, Fhenriss limped through her ship. A wave of nausea hit her and she fell into a door. The veteran merc coughed up a glob of blood and spat it on the floor. A small hatch on the wall popped open. A cleaning bot she decorated to resemble a cartoon bat booped cheerfully and got to work mopping up the mess. She removed her helmet and tossed it to the side with her good hand. The torn stump of her cybernetic arm pressed the button to open the door to the ship’s lounge.
A sweaty and exhausted Fhenriss limped inside, lit a cigstick, and took a long drag. She kicked open a compact fridge and grabbed a beer. The ship’s system chimed from an incoming call. The voice of her manager echoed about the vessel. “Hey, Fhen. Still in one piece? I just got the feed from the ground seeing the Brigarin flagship go kablooey in orbit. I’m guessing that’s your doing?”
The Rakuurite merc took a big swig of the ice-cold beer, then pressed it against the burnt side of her face. “Who else? Boarding spike got hit before we reached the target, but I improvised.”
As she shed her armour and kicked off her boots, her manager said, “That’s amazing, Fhen! So badass. A story like this will play so well. Your new publicist is gonna have a field day with this. Might even be another holovid deal in it for you. Speaking of which, try to go easy on this one. It’s a pain finding PR reps who can keep up with your brand of… high-speed work.”
Fhenriss paused in the refresher to take stock of the fresh scars. The smart display on the mirror lit up, flagging many new injuries and scheduling appointments to have them treated. The ragged, just over thirty-year-old merc said, “If this one wants to last, it’s on them to keep up. It’s also on them not to fuck up and piss me off. Remember the Freelancer fiasco?”
The manager chuckled through clenched teeth and adjusted her neck. “How could anyone forget? You’ve been doing the exercises the therapist ordered, right, Fhen? Right??”
Fhenriss reached the cockpit and tapped a terminal off to the side to activate a holographic display. More ledgers popped up. The merc smiled at the new green entry. She couldn’t help but stare at the large red line below that bored into her soul.
She flicked it away, dropped into the pilot’s chair, put her feet up and looked at Mervayla through the exterior monitors. Resting the beer between her legs, she wiped some loose hair matted to her forehead. “Yeah, yeah. I don’t have time for that shit. Hey, uh, you said you were watching the feeds from the city? What are the people saying? Lots of happy, smiling faces? Strangers making out in the streets? Do they know I did it?”
The manager mentioned it was hard to gauge their reaction since they were in the middle of a desperate evacuation, but something caught Fhenriss’ eye. Her manager’s voice faded into the background as she leaned closer to the exterior display. She spotted several small shapes floating through space in between her ship and the bright, blue ocean world. Fhenriss shuffled closer to get a better look. Before she could enhance the magnification, she jumped as a dark figure bumped into the ship.
A cold, dead body bounced off the cockpit. Fhenriss’ breath caught in her throat as she got a good look at them. Unlike the other bodies she saw floating about earlier, these weren’t in Brigarin uniform. A few more floated by. Civilians. Whole families of them.
Staring in horror, tears welled up in Fhenriss’ organic eye as she saw two frozen figures, embracing each other as the void claimed them.
She knew the admiral had captured several civilian ships when the conflict kicked off. She wasn’t aware that Kerrice kept the hostages on her battleship. Fhenriss raised a shaky hand to untie her hair and hold her head. She clenched her teeth, trying to remember if nobody knew the civilians were there or if they mentioned it in the briefing. Were they an objective for the boarding parties as well, or did she only pay attention to the part about stopping the main gun?
Her manager mentioned passing a note along to the publicist about playing up the hero angle for some positive PR for a change. Fhenriss muted the comms, screamed and threw her glass of beer against the wall outside the cockpit. She couldn’t stop herself from staring at the river of frozen, dead faces as the cleaning bat bot swept up the broken bottle.
The white noise in her head slowly subsided. Her manager said, “Fhen? Hellooo? You there, hun?”
Fhenriss stifled sobs, wiped her nose, then pressed her fist into the wall. After a moment, she unmuted herself. “Yeah, fuck, I’m here. Just had to… what did you say? The signal’s shit out here.”
She could practically hear her manager roll her eyes. “I said if you’re not too tired and beat up, I got another juicy contract for you. It’s a little sketchy, but there are some high-profile names on here—“
“I’ll take it.”
The manager paused. “Just like that? We should really look over—“
Fhenriss interrupted again. “You deaf? I said I’ll take it. Get me out there, chief.”
There was some shuffling, and the manager smacked her lips. “You okay, Fhen? I know I’m not complaining about getting a fat commission like this, but you’re no good to anyone if you go and burn out again.”
After a few attempts with her shaking, bloody, non-dominant hand, Fhenriss smashed the button to turn off the exterior monitors. “Tired? Bitch, who do you think I am? Tell them I’ll do it. You earn your paycheque and iron out the details later. Get me the hell outta here. I got work to do.”
Fhenriss ended the call, then activated the ship’s autopilot. The first destination of many would be a medical station to patch her up and get a replacement arm. In the meantime, the worn merc went back to the lounge. She was thankful that she set a clause in her contracts to keep the fridge full of booze. She needed every drop right now.
Hope you enjoyed that! Catch the rest of Fhenriss's journey alongside a familiar face from Inglorious Resurrection in Lost Souls. I'll have a more detailed synopsis and hopefully a preorder link ready for the next newsletter.
Here's the link to the archive of newsletters in case you missed any.
Talk to you next month. Have a good one!