FREELANCERS #20 - 12/15/23
One last Lost Souls preview before returning to our regularly scheduled Freelancer programming next month. Here's chapter 2.
Also, Inglorious Resurrection (Phoenix Company Book 1) is on sale for $0.99 or the regional equivalent until the end of the month! If you haven't read it, now's the perfect time to pick it up. Click the image or button below. Enjoy!
Faster Than Light
7th of Skyfall, 984 AoD
Reality streamed past a massive carrier as it tore through the stars. Many have tried to describe the experience of seeing hyperspace, but each perspective was subjective and unique. A creature’s visual cortex behaved oddly when trying to interpret light while moving faster than it. The mesmerizing phenomenon became the muse to many a bored spacer waxing poetic on a starship’s bridge or observation deck. It’s often blamed for occurrences of madness in those who sail the cosmos.
Then again, a lot of things can affect the mind out in the vast emptiness of space.
Away from the view outside, tucked in the corner of the carrier’s immense hangar, two single-pilot starships stood out against the uniformity of other military craft around them.
Aboard the smaller and more modest of the ships, the veteran mercenary and bounty hunter, simply known as Bael, rested in his quarters. Bael was a Sarakem, a canine-like humanoid. Stripped to the waist in his bunk, countless scars from a lifetime of conflict criss-crossed his gray wolf fur.
Looking through his holoslate, he swiped through images of a recent visit to see his younger sister and her family. Bael stopped swiping and zoomed in on his sister’s face in a group image. Though she’d seen much more than her fair share of trauma in life, her smile still beamed radiant and genuine. Her loving husband shared that same energy, as did the children surrounding them from her previous, more painful relationships.
Bael zoomed out and saw what struck him as something out of place in this picturesque scene. Over her shoulder loomed his austere self. Despite his busy schedule, they insisted on him coming to visit whenever he could. To his credit, he did. The grizzled hunter cherished them, but as he grew older, the distance between them grew.
He was always a more solitary soul who had trouble fitting in. But he had to admit that something was off if he felt this way even around his loved ones.
Bael struggled to reach the heart of the issue. Part of it was that his job was his life. Relating to people outside the bizarre existence of a freelancer became increasingly difficult over the years.
They would ask, “Hey, Bael! What’s new?”
He would reply, “I spent the last four months searching for a Validian bishop’s son who disappeared. Yeah, the one on the holos who unplugged from the Church and became a monk on some remote moon in the Fay Nebula. Turns out, he made a pact with devils and almost sacrificed a whole mining station. I killed him with a demon’s tibia before he could complete the ritual. How’s your summer been?”
Some enjoyed hearing about the crazy adventures. But few could truly understand what it was like to live through them. Even fewer cared to listen about how they changed you.
A lonely thought dawned on him as he considered that his sister was one of a handful of people in the entire galaxy who knew his real name. He regarded her radiant smile once more and couldn’t remember the last time he smiled like that. If he didn’t belong in that cheerful scene, where did he belong?
He closed the gallery and locked those thoughts up. The countdown timer for the carrier coming out of hyperspace ticked closer to termination. As he often did, Bael distracted himself with work.
He opened the intel files on his current assignment, even though he’d gone over them more than a dozen times. The veteran hunter made a habit of doing a good deal of the research for a job himself. He typically worked alone, so being prepared, in control, and aware of what he dove into was how he survived as long as he had.
But this time, the large paycheque and personalized offer from the employer proved too tantalizing to resist. This time, he took a chance and gave up a measure of that control. But going in blind meant dealing with surprises.
The first of these was learning that he wasn’t able to work alone on this gig. The job grew into a full-blown operation when one of the galaxy’s premier mercenary outfits, Apex Security, was contracted as well. They were the owners of the supercarrier he currently resided in.
The employer sprung this on him last minute when they met at the rendezvous point. Bael kept his cool like a professional, but he wasn’t happy about it. Improvising in mysterious situations with dangerous people you don’t know is never ideal. Trust was a rare and highly sought-after commodity in his line of work. Apex garnered a reputation as an effective, by-the-numbers organization. He could at least trust them to stick to their rigid tactics.
There was a bang on the hull of his ship, followed by sounds of raucous laughter outside. When Bael came onboard a few days ago, there was a second surprise waiting for him on the hangar deck. He wasn’t the only top-tier freelancer their employer hired.
It was against Apex regulations to play sports inside the carrier, but Fhenriss had a penchant for encouraging bad behaviour.
Rock music blared in the back corner of the hangar as the athletic human woman caught the novaball. Her offensive line of drafted technicians and deckhands rushed forward. The play was sloppy, but the former, all-star blitzer and backup quarterback for the Crosshead Corsairs made do with what she had. She flicked aside the jaw-length, fire engine red hair she wore a little longer on her right side to obscure a nasty burn on her reddish brown skin. Not about to overlook any advantage, she used the rangefinder in her cybernetic right eye and threw the ball.
The intended receiver cleared the defenders and dove to catch the ball. It landed just beyond his reach, and he slid face-first across the deck into some crates. Fhenriss cursed and stretched out her recently replaced cybernetic right arm. Despite being an advanced model, it lacked the muscle memory of the organic arm she had when she won novaball championships in her youth back home.
As the team assembled, she raised her raspy voice, calling out the receiver. “Come on, man. You’re making me look bad. No point coming up with these big brain plays if you’re not gonna catch the damn ball.”
The receiver protested, “It’s not my fault. You overthrew it.” He bore a sour expression and a fresh bruise on his chin.
“Ha! Is this hunk of junk powered by your excuses? I thought you said you played this game before?” She laughed and smacked a nearby deckhand on the shoulder. They did their best to stay cool, but couldn’t stop themselves from flinching as the notoriously dangerous woman raised her arm.
The sore receiver looked unimpressed as his fellows joined in with jabs of their own. He tossed the ball back to the hotshot quarterback. “Well, if you’re so great, why don’t you show us how it’s done? Or are you too washed up to play outside that backwater planet you came from?”
Eager to stoke the flames of this spicy situation, a few of his crew backed him up. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Fhenriss grinned. “Alright, hotshot. You’re on. School’s open. Let’s go.”
She tossed him the ball, but as he moved into the quarterback position, she placed a hand on his chest to stop him. “Nuh-uh. You’re on the other side for this lesson. It’ll sink in better this way, trust me.”
The two sides swapped a player, then the second play commenced.
Fhenriss surged forward. The veteran held the novaball out to her side to draw the defence’s focus. When they rushed to grab it, she tucked it in and spun past the front row without getting touched.
The sour receiver was the only one left to stop her. He smirked, thinking he positioned himself perfectly to shove her out of bounds or intercept her if she tried to hook back to the centre.
His smirk faded as he caught the look in her eyes. It was hard to tell which was more menacing; her fierce hazel eye or the cybernetic red one that acquired its target. She ran full speed straight toward him. The train collided with his midsection and lifted him off the ground. Fhenriss took him and the ball across the end zone.
As the door hissed open and Bael exited his ship, she pumped her legs the extra few steps and hurled the sour receiver into the hull next to him. Bael finished putting on his armoured vest as she loomed over the stunned hangar tech.
Breathing heavily, Fhenriss said, “There’s your lesson, hotshot. Be careful what you wish for.”
The crew rushed over to help their colleague to his feet as he saw stars. Catching his breath, he said, “You can’t do that! It’s against the rules!”
Fhenriss raised an eyebrow. “Oh, you got excuses AND complaints? Well, this is how we play on the backwater planet I come from. Rakuurite rules are full-contact. Not that bad touch crap you softies like. If you can’t handle it, go cry about it to your supervisor.”
His crew shuffled the sour hangar tech away before he made the wild freelancer any more agitated.
Another deckhand retrieved the novaball, complimented her, and asked for an autograph. Fhenriss obliged with a wide smile, then tossed it back.
As the adoring fan ran off, one of their friends spoke a bit too loud. “Hey, you got it! How much do you think we can get for it on the extranet?” The “fan” shushed the friend and scurried away.
With the deckhands scattering, Fhenriss took a moment to limp over and lean on the hull of Bael’s ship. Breathing in hoarse gasps, she winced in pain and groaned while lifting one of her feet. She rotated the ankle she pushed too hard during her brazen play. The Rakuurite merc didn’t notice Bael watching her.
Not wanting to feel like a voyeur, Bael rapped a knuckle against his ship. “Mind your sweat. You’ll ruin the paint.”
Fhenriss took a deep breath, put her smiling face back on, and turned to him. “He lives! Looks like one of these uniforms owes me 100 rinn. I had a feeling you’d hole up in your tin can with a tear drive for the whole FTL jump. We’re technically still sailing, but I doubt that scrawny twerp is gonna fight me on the details.”
She laughed and raised a sweaty arm to lean on his ship. “You couldn’t possibly be avoiding me, so what’s the deal, big guy? Why so antisocial? You become some Zyldari diva in your old age and needed your beauty sleep? Or are you hiding something in there? Someone maybe?”
The taciturn Sarakem continued putting on his gear without responding.
A passing technician said, “Whoa. You two know each other?”
Fhenriss stepped over and wrapped her arm around Bael. He winced as her sweat suffused into his fur.
She said, “Yeah, me and this old war dog go way back.” He raised an eyebrow at her. She asked, “What’s with that look? You aren’t still salty about Rylar IV are you?”
Bael frowned. “I see you’ve conveniently forgotten that you fought on the other side of that campaign.”
She tutted. “Details. We’re on the same team now. No reason not to be friendly. Wanna play some ball? I bet the two of us could run circles around these uniforms.”
She laughed and smacked the passing hangar tech on the arm. They chuckled politely, then went back to work.
Fhenriss looked over and noticed the sour technician she tackled. He paced about, goldbricking with his crew a little ways away, staring daggers at her. No doubt saying venomous things at her expense.
Bael moved out of her grasp. “Not interested.”
She watched him strap on the holstered pistols that helped him earn his reputation as a legendary gunfighter. Never one to let go of a challenge or opportunity to prove herself, she had an idea.
“How about some Ray Revolver instead?”
A pastime invented on her homeworld of Rakuur, Ray Revolver was a quick draw shooting competition. Players scored points for accuracy and speed with a limited number of shots on multiple targets of varying size and distance. Rakuurites grew bored playing darts in bars, so they came up with something more exciting, risky and loud. A respectable top score in Ray Revolver was as a badge of pride across the planet.
Despite the pain in her foot, Fhenriss jogged over to her ship and retrieved her sidearm. As she sauntered back over to him, she said, “I can explain the rules if you don’t know them.”
Bael wiped the sweat off his arm with a moist cloth. “I know Ray Revolver, but I hope you’re joking.”
Fhenriss winked. “I’m always serious when it comes to shooting stuff, big guy.” She clapped her hands and tried to draft some more deckhands to set up appropriately sized targets for them.
Seeing someone approach behind her, the crew made themselves scarce. A harsh voice proclaimed, “Back to work! This is the hangar deck, not a recreation centre!”
The technicians sounded off to a superior officer, then lowered their heads and scattered.
Fhenriss turned around as a soldier clad in advanced, all-black armour marched up to her. Moving in formation, half a dozen others with matching kit flanked him. The leader carried his helmet tucked under one arm. He was a Torqun, a humanoid species with four dark eyes inlaid into a star-shaped faceplate made of bone.
As he approached, the leader pointed at Fhenriss, who twirled her sidearm around her finger. “Stow that weapon before you vent the hull. No discharging live weapons in the ship. Let alone in the middle of an FTL jump.”
In her own time, the Rakuurite freelancer spun the heavy rail pistol back into its holster. “Relax. I’d hope this overpriced flying target can take a hit or two. Good to know that you care more about the ship than a ricochet tagging one of your uniforms, whoever you are.”
He stepped inside Fhenriss’ personal space and bared his jagged teeth. “The hangar of the Inevitable is not a stage for your low-class circus. I’m CT1037 and you’ll report to me, freelancers.“ His words dripped with disdain as he addressed them.
Fhenriss rolled her eyes and gestured between 1037 and Bael. “Fucking wonderful. Not one but two tight-asses who don’t do jokes. What can I say, Mr. Numbers? I was getting impatient being held prisoner in the hangar of this inevitably slow marketing mobile. Pretty sure it’s in my contract that I’m not liable for what happens when I’m barred from the officer’s lounge.”
She gestured to herself and Bael. “I… We’re kind of a big deal in case your bosses didn’t tell you. So maybe check your tone around those with bigger paycheques before you piss off the wrong people.”
She produced a cigstick and placed it between her lips. 1037 snatched it and crushed it in his palm. “Don’t flatter yourself. The highest honour a freelancer can achieve is infamy. If it were up to me, you’d be locked in the brig where you belong. It seems the chain of command is unclear to an overpaid thug like you. So listen close because I’ll only say this once.
“I’m not your babysitter or a PR rep. You are here under the authority of Apex Security. While we are the cure to treat our employer’s issue, you two are placebos to satisfy their tastes. Don’t expect any special treatment or coddling. I won’t have those who lack the discipline of a real military disrupt our operation. So fall in line or be held in breach of contract.”
Fhenriss glared at him and clenched her fists. Bael stood beside her, making his presence known.
She stepped up to 1037. “I see someone put on their alpha underwear backwards this morning. Let me make some adjustments to your skewed perspective. We’re here because our employer wanted a guarantee that the best tackled the hard part of this job. I’ve served plenty in my life. Now, I only take orders from the people who sign my cheques.
“So seeing as how we’re all private security professionals here, how about the pot stops calling the kettle black and you give us a damn briefing? I’d strongly advise being quick about it before I start smacking people up the chain of command until I find someone who’s not a prick.”
The sound of klaxons blaring across the Inevitable broke the standoff. Automated voices signalled the departure from hyperspace and ordered everyone to their battle stations. The lights flickered as the power core shifted its output from the FTL drive. A wave of nausea hit everyone on-board as the inertial dampeners kicked in. It was a universally unsettling sensation. Some of the newer crew members lost their breakfast as discreetly as they could.
Hangar techs buzzed about readying flights of fighters, bombers, shuttles and reconnaissance drones. 1037 raised a hand to his head as he received orders in his earpiece.
He turned to the freelancers. “Suit up and report battle-ready to bay 21 in ten minutes. You’ll receive your briefing in-flight. Make sure you’ve filled out your non-disclosure agreements in full or you won’t be allowed on the shuttle.”
Fhenriss waved a hand. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll have your legal bullshit. Just stay off my six unless you want to get blasted.”
He narrowed his eyes at her before putting on his helmet and marching away.
As the freelancers watched them leave, Bael said, “You might want to be more careful. They use serial numbers when their names are redacted. That means black ops.”
She turned to him. “Well, aren’t you a little know-it-all. I gathered as much from their attitude, edgy getups and light refraction tech. But you’re right. We’ll need to watch each other’s backs here. Just like old times, huh, partner?” She smiled and tapped him on the chest.
He looked at her blankly. “Partner, huh? I think we have very different perspectives on what happened on Rylar IV.”
She said, “Come on. It wasn’t all bad. I switched sides eventually. Remember that last raid on the marquis’ pleasure yacht? The one he refitted into a cruiser?”
Bael crossed his arms. “You mean the one he rigged to self-destruct trying to destroy the entire island? The one you crashed before we were ready to extract?”
She laughed. “You’re still here, aren’t ya? And you have all your original parts. Aren’t you lucky. You just got to adjust to the lightning pace that I operate at and you’ll be fine, big guy.
“Just be extra attentive when we’re airborne. As you may have noticed, I have a bit of history with crashed ships. More than one person called it a curse, but I don’t remember pissing off a witch before. Wouldn’t be surprised if I did, though.”
Still smiling, she looked at him expectantly for a reaction. His expression was stone.
Her voice took on a slightly harder edge. “Don’t leave me out on a limb here, Bael. I said lightning pace. Come on. Keep up. Give me something. I’m starting to think you’re not alone by choice.”
He sighed. “Let’s just get it done right this time. Don’t forget your respirator. The atmosphere is noxious.” He secured the last of his gear and made his way over to bay 21.
She called out, “I knew that! I read the file. Just because I’m loud doesn’t mean I’m careless!” The next bit she mumbled to herself. “Tellin’ me about noxious atmospheres. Shit.”
Fhenriss turned to her ship to suit up. She winced and almost stumbled over her first few steps. Pain shot up from her ankle in protest. Refusing to show weakness, she set her jaw and pushed past the discomfort to walk normally.
Recon drones and other craft poured out of the Inevitable as it sailed toward their target.
Hope you enjoyed that! Check out Lost Souls to find out what mysteries await these two freelancers on the planet below. On top of 8 other compelling stories.
Here's the link to the archive of newsletters in case you missed any and a link to buy Lost Souls. It'll be available wide on Dec.25.
Talk to you next month. Have a good one!