Mercs!

by Dorian Dawes

$5.99

Famous bounty hunter Talisha Artul is not having a good day. A hostile alien planet full of bandits and refugees, an entire group of mercenaries all told to kill her and take her armor, and it’s barely even noon. All she wanted was to earn a paycheck and make her mother proud. They’ve barely shared a kind word since she came out of the closet as trans and took her mother’s name.

Now she’s travelling with an android cowboy with split-personality issues and an eight-foot-tall warrior woman to beat a group of vengeful pirates and the galactic federation’s military forces to uncover an ancient alien temple. Talisha soon learns that despite her legal standing, there is little that separates her from these marginalized cutthroats and outcasts. They’re all victims here, all pawns in their shadowy employer’s game.

Available in Print from most major retailers.

Mercs!

Book Info

Author: Dorian Dawes

Release Date: June 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-948608-78-7

Format: ePub, Mobi

Cover Artist: Natasha Snow

Category: Literary/Genre Fiction

Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy

Word Count: 72100

Book Length: Novel

Sex Content: Non-Explicit

Pairing: FF, MM

Orientation: Ace/Aro, Gay, Lesbian

Identity: Cisgender, Trans

Excerpt

Mercs!
Dorian Dawes © 2018
All Rights Reserved

Chapter One

“Were these seriously the best mercs you could hire?” The cigarette moved in the corner of Madame Inspector’s mouth as she spoke. She flicked her fingers across the pile of folders strewn across her desk. “Absolute rubbish.”

A little man with lily-white skin stood fidgeting with his spectacles in the doorway, clutching a briefcase close to his chest. Madame Inspector scared the living hell out of him. She liked it that way and would have smiled at his discomfort if she thought it’d make him squirm just a little bit more.

He took a tentative step, but she held a palm up and he froze where he stood. Good dog.

“Madame Inspector, I assure you they are highly qualified.” The overhanging lamp cast a glare over his glasses. “I’ve assembled before you the most dangerous individuals in the galaxy.”

Madame Inspector scowled, spreading out the files and pictures of each motley outcast passing themself off as a mercenary. “These bozos are more danger to themselves than anyone else, Mr. Snidely. Crooks and ruffians.”

“That’s why they’re perfect for the position,” Snidely said. He mustered up the courage to give her a wicked smile. “They’re completely disposable. Should be easy to turn them on one another when we’re done.”

Madame Inspector leaned back in her seat. She tapped the ashes of her cigarette into the tray and stared at him until his smile melted into open-mouthed fear. She said nothing, waiting for him to wither before the cold deadlights of her eyes.

“Mr. Snidely,” she said, a voice like gravel. “Not once have I witnessed one with as much audacity…or initiative. Good work. You’re dismissed.”

Snidely bowed his head and ducked hurriedly out of her office. She frowned as he left. The kid had gumption, ambition. They could be useful qualities in the right doses. She’d have to test him.

 

Archimedes IV, a war-torn rock populated by refugees and outlaws. It’d been deemed unfit for life by the Council of Thirteen following a resource war that’d decimated the planet and irrevocably altered the landscape. Some forests remained, having evolved to meet the harsh environmental conditions. The trees had become predators themselves, feeding off unwary travelers.

With its constant dangers and inhospitable environment, Archimedes IV had been abandoned by the Intergalactic Peacekeeping Federation, which made it the ideal location for all sorts of criminal scum to stash their ill-gotten gains. So long as they hid away in backwater filth, the law paid them no mind. It was out of their jurisdiction.

Talisha Artul had no jurisdiction. If the job told her to go, she’d go. The IGF had found her as reliable a resource as her mother. Abandoned science station deemed too dangerous to send in a full squad? Talisha was there with her arm cannon and jet pack.

Becoming a space-faring licensed bounty hunter had a few perks. The pay was decent—a huge bonus considering over half her funds were split between expensive hormone treatments and helping support her mother’s orphanage. Being able to traverse the galaxy and visit other worlds definitely ranked high on the list. Getting shot at on a daily basis was a minor drawback in comparison.

Reservations about this latest assignment scratched at the back of her mind as she sorted through the information provided to her on her tablet. An anonymous corporate employer had contacted her, leaving the legality of the assignment in question. She’d have to make a call to the appropriate channels to make sure her licensing fees had been taken care of. New information presented itself that she’d be assigned to a task force after previous assurances that she’d be working alone.

She threw the tablet against the ship console. “Shit!”

Talisha preferred working alone for multiple reasons. Silence kept her head clear and victory assured in any firefight. Other people introduced far more variables than she was comfortable with.

Maybe Mom would know what to do.

Talisha grabbed the headset from a compartment just above her and slipped it over her head. She made a sour expression at the tablet as she slumped back into her seat. A few moments later, her mother’s voice crackled into her feed.

“Talisha? Thought you’d be on-world by now,” Ms. Artul said.

“Mom, when is it okay to back out of an assignment?”

“Uh-oh. What happened?”

Talisha filled her in on the particulars of the assignment, making notes of the new last-minute information.

Her mother thought about that one for a while. “Your reputation is pretty strong right now. You could probably afford to back out.”

“What about you?” Talisha asked. “How’s the orphanage doing?”

“Expensive. Feels like there’s new orphans every day. People keep dying and leaving behind their little ones. This planet’s in need.”

“Do you have enough to make it through the month?” Talisha propped her elbows against the console and scratched the back of her neck with one hand.

Ms. Artul muttered under her breath in Swahili, then spat out, “Don’t you dare. If you don’t feel good about this mission, don’t take it.”

“You can’t order me around, Mom. I’m just being stubborn and paranoid…like you.”

“I wish you hadn’t called then.” There was a lengthy pause. “Fucking hell, kid.”

Talisha’s eyes watered. These were the types of conversations that drove people to drink. She gritted her teeth and pursed her lips, fingers shaking.

“I’m taking the job,” Talisha said, then threw the headset against the console.

 

Bluebird had seen her fair share of overcrowded dung heaps in her time—claustrophobic messes violating every single fire safety law in the galaxy; easy places to get stabbed and looted before you even had a chance to know what had happened. Folks in a hurry could trample your corpse without even noticing. By contrast, the spaceport on Archimedes IV was practically empty. A dumpster left at the back end of the long passage looked like it’d been overflowing for years. Shit and graffiti marred the walls, and it was nearly impossible to see through the teller’s window for all the grime and filth covering it.

Bluebird sniffed. She might come to like it there. Smelled just like home.

The poor terminal worker did a double take at her through the glass. “P-p-passport.”

By this point, Bluebird had become well accustomed to most people’s reactions to her appearance. She was proud of the severe scarring that marred one side of her face, the mark of a fine battle. Bluebird also knew that most people had never seen a Karstotzkiyan in their lives and were unaccustomed to seeing eight-foot-tall women with striking blue hair and hardened jowls. It’s where she’d gotten the nickname Big Ugly Bluebird. She liked it.

“Identification provided!” She slammed a meaty hand against the counter and slid a thick wad of papers through the slot beneath the window.

He stared at the mess of documentation and sighed. There were official licensing documents in the scattered heap to be certain, but there were also receipts to fast food joints, hair salons, old concert tickets dating decades back, etc. Bluebird grimaced, feeling a twinge of guilt. It’d take this poor man hours to sift through it all. She rummaged around in her pockets from some additional cash and deposited it atop the mess of documentation.

He sighed. He gulped, staring at the blue veins bulging beneath her thick muscles and the giant satchel strapped to her back. She did her best to give him a reassuring smile but was certain she only came across as even more imposing. Oh well, it couldn’t be helped.

He put a stamp on top the chaotic mess of pages and handed them back to her. “You know what, this is fine. Have a lovely stay on Archimedes IV.”

“You are most efficient. Thank you!” She gave him a thumbs-up and snatched the documents beneath her arm. She sauntered out the spaceport with a satisfied smile.

 

Dr. Isaac Nergal had been living on Archimedes IV for the past three years. Quarantine. Nobody wanted what Nergal had. Far as the rest of the galaxy was concerned, he could rot there.

The mutation had left Dr. Nergal with discolored green skin, covered in bumps and tumors. He was a gangly creature dressed in a full-body protective suit. It’d once been white but had long since been stained with dirt and blood, and god knows what else.

A man lay on a gurney in the dank pit that served as Nergal’s operating room, wounded from a wild animal attack. He was bleeding from a pus-filled stump on his leg. Nergal glided around him, studying the condition beneath a harsh UV lamp.

The man sobbed. “Please, Doc. Ya gotta do something about this. Burns so bad!”

Nergal shook his head, a ghoulish smile forming on his lips. “Oh, I’m afraid it’s far worse than that. As sharp as a til-beast’s incisors are, their digestive systems can’t easily process most foods, so the venom works as a stomach acid, breaking you down into digestible morsels before they open their maws and swallow you whole.”

“Christ, Doc. I got a wife to look after,” his patient pleaded, tears and blood streaming down his dirty cheeks. “I don’t wanna die.”

“Luckily for you, I’ve a fetish for disease and poisons,” Nergal chided, slapping him gently on the face with the back of his greasy rubber glove. “But this isn’t charity work.”

Sweat appeared on the patient’s body as his blood-shot eyes widened. “I got money. Okay. Just do what you need.”

“I’m a bit above your pay-grade. If I’m going to take something out, I want to put something back in. Understand?”

The man’s voice shook. “W-What are you gonna do?”

Nergal laughed. “Calm down, boy, I’d like to imagine having some ethical standards. I’ve simply some chemicals I’ve been itching to try.”

“They won’t kill me, will they?” the patient asked, then screamed. He could see the bit of flesh around the wound already beginning to liquefy, revealing the bone beneath.

Nergal fixed him with a cold stare. “Do I look like the doctor who would kill my patients?”

“Fine!” came the panicked grunts. “Do it.”

Nergal’s eyes glinted from behind the visor as his mouth widened in a maniacal grin. “Time for your medicine.”

He flew to the shattered glass cabinet behind him and quickly retrieved a small syringe and filled it with an irradiated green liquid. Sinister laughter escaped him as he held it in front of his face. He could have kissed it.

“Have you ever witnessed such beauty? Not a serum exists like this in any known galaxy. It is life and death itself collected!” Nergal shouted this last bit, holding the syringe high over his head.

The patient threw his head back and howled. “Doc! Please! I am literally dying right now! Literally!”

“Oh, don’t be such a baby!” Nergal rolled his eyes, then jammed the syringe into the man’s leg.

Almost immediately the wound closed. Whatever flesh had been torn apart by the bite and venom rapidly reformed before the startled patient’s eyes. Even his skin took on a healthy new glow. In a matter of seconds, it was impossible to tell if he had been wounded at all.

“Doc, how? How is this possible? You’re a miracle worker!” The patient leapt from the table. “I feel great!”

Nergal watched with keen eyes. “And now for the secondary effects.”

“Secondary effects?” The patient’s smile faded. His eyes grew wide and he clutched his stomach, hearing a faint gurgle.

“One version of Chemical X indeed heals and rejuvenates the body, closing any wounds, and even gives you a bit of an adrenaline boost for just that added kick in your step. It makes my services invaluable to any cutthroat venture needing a medical expert,” Nergal explained, tapping the edge of the syringe with a finger. “But that’s not what I gave you.”

Veins bulged on either side of the patient’s bald head as the gurgling in his stomach grew. He lifted his shirt to see his stomach form into a pot belly with visible veins. Muscle tissue expanded around his torso in discolored lumps.

“What’s happening to me?” He trembled, then screamed.

“Looks like you’ve made a friend. A tumor, to be precise,” Nergal commented. “Ah! It’s so cute! It’s got hair…and teeth! Are those fingernails?”

More lumps appeared beneath the man’s clothing and on the sides of his head, expanding outward into hideous little blobs. He became a grotesque amalgamation of displaced flesh and teeth. The patient’s screams grew stifled as his tongue pushed against the roof and sides of his mouth. It forced his jaw open to see more of the pus-colored growths swelling rapidly around his tongue.

“Halp Hap!” The man struggled to form coherent sentences as he fell to his knees before the uncaring eyes of the doctor.

Nergal shook his head and his shoulders drooped. “Another failed test subject. Pity. Don’t worry. It’s for a good cause.”

Sighing, Nergal ignored the quivering patient to retrieve a dusty shotgun from the tray of rusting surgical implements. The man stared back at him, scarcely able to see through the pustules blossoming around his head.

“I’ll send you a consultation fee,” Dr. Nergal said, then pulled the trigger.

The mass exploded into gory fireworks, sending the excess flesh slamming against the walls and equipment. Some of it landed with a loud splat. The smell was unbearable, like rotten eggs and roadkill.

Nergal slung the bloody shotgun over his shoulder and pouted. “Such is the price of progress.”

Whistling, he packed his bags and prepared to leave. With any luck, he’d never have to see this dump again.

 

The wide-brimmed hat fell over the LED lights of his eyes as he leaned back in his chair. His snakeskin boots were propped on top of the chipped wooden desk of the sheriff’s office. His robotic limbs needed a rest after a long day of scaring varmints and outlaws out of Dover Town.

Weren’t too many engineers around who could give him the proper tune-ups he needed. Even then, supplies were scarce. Some days he wondered if he was gonna break down eventually from all the wear and tear on his body. An android contemplating his own mortality. Heckuva thing. He shook his head.

Sheriff Rogers had been commissioned eight years ago by the citizens of Dover Town to protect and defend them from the various scumbags on Archimedes IV. They’d had to scrimp on his programming, so personality matrixes from old western holovids had been dumped into him to make up for it. Result was a six-foot-tall death machine with a charming disposition and a rough Southern drawl for an accent.

A single jail cell sat at the end of the office, so he could keep an eye on any drunk that needed a place to sleep for the night, and that’s about all it was used for. Troublemakers in Dover Town were one of three types: someone you could talk down, someone you could quiet overnight, or someone about to find themselves in ownership of several new holes.

The office doors swung open. Rogers sat forward in his chair, noting the wide-eyed dirty youngster stumbling into his office. Brick, was it? He wanted to call him Brick anyway. Kid was built like one, all short and stocky.

“Sheriff Rogers, ya gotta come quick!” The kid was jumping up and down and he looked damn near out of breath.

“Easy scamp.” Rogers walked to the front of the desk and knelt to the boy’s eye level. “What’s got your gears in a twist?”

“Some fellas rolled up into town. They all look pretty scary and armed.”

Rogers sighed and straightened. “How armed would ya say?”

“The tall ugly one had a huge cannon!”

The citizens of Dover Town hadn’t bothered requesting an android capable of facial expressions. Otherwise, Rogers might have gone slack-jawed and wide-eyed. He’d debated whether or not he wanted the hassle of facial expressions. There’d be advantages, such as the ability to smile when he felt like it or even cry. Right now he was grateful for the simplicity of little blinking lights. No kid should have to see their sheriff spooked by the mention of cannons.

“All right, Brick,” he said. “You run along home to your mother. I’ll see about greeting these strangers into town. Make sure the rest of your friends know not to be playing in the streets today if ya see ’em.”

“Think there’s gonna be a fight?” Brick looked more excited about the possibility of violence than Rogers was comfortable with.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing.” Rogers ruffled the boy’s hair.

While the kid did his best to duck away from the android’s cold metal touch, Rogers gripped his gun beneath his cloak. His fingers were programmed to detect the ammo count of any weapon they touched. He’d taken the revolver off the first bandit he’d killed in his tenure as sheriff. It was fully loaded.

An antiquated aesthetic disguised the cutting-edge technology within the six-shooter. Its tiny bullets were capable of ripping through any surface. He’d taken out drones, heavily armored thugs and the like with a single shot. He was equipped with other mechanisms of destruction, but he’d come to prefer the revolver. One clean shot meant shorter firefights, and shorter firefights meant reduced civilian casualties.

He shooed Brick out of his office and stepped into the arid desert heat. Rumors of the incoming strangers must have spread quickly. The streets were all but deserted. He made a literal scan of the streets, swapping to thermographic vision to look for the approaching strangers.

Rogers spotted the big one with the cannon first. Subject identified: Karstotzkiyan female. Their species had been near-driven to extinction several decades prior when the IGF colonized the galaxy. The heat signatures from her cannon were strong, and she carried the massive thing on her back like it was weightless. He let out a preprogrammed whistle sound he’d retrieved from a holovid. He hoped she wasn’t looking for a fight.

Another figure approached from the east end of town, this one even shadier and more dangerous looking than the last. Subject identified: human male, though drastically mutated. He put out no heat signature whatsoever. Only the readings of his protective suit had been picked up on the scanners.

“What is even going on,” Rogers whispered.

A heat spike alerted him to the presence of another human woman entering the local tavern. She wore alien power armor from head to toe. It had all the colors of a sunset. The avian-inspired design suggested it might be Valran in origin, though he’d previously assumed the species to be a myth.

He blinked twice. “Run diagnostics on captured visuals from scanners.”

One of his recent upgrades he’d managed to arrange for himself was access to the Galactic Database of Wanted Criminals and Known Threats. He’d found it useful for identifying suspicious cowpokes who rolled into Dover Town looking for trouble.

“Dr. Isaac Nergal—quarantined to Archimedes IV following a laboratory accident involving the experimentation of the worst toxins and viruses known to this sector of the galaxy. Reports indicate the spreading of contagious viruses via skin contact. Subjects experience extreme pain instantly and die within minutes. Avoid contact and alert the IGF if seen.”

“Oh dear.”

“Agda Valencia aka Big Ugly Bluebird or Big Ugly—former general of the Sapphire Knights deployed by the Ingle Corporation. She slaughtered every single member of her squad and deserted, stealing prototype military-grade equipment. Most notable of the stolen equipment is a prototype plasma cannon. Its exact specifications are considered classified. She has been making a living as an illegal mercenary traveling from planet to planet. Bounty is currently two million credits, dead or alive. The plasma cannon is to be immediately returned to the Ingle Corporation.”

“Huh!”

“Talisha Artul—licensed bounty hunter with a growing reputation and notoriety for her high success rate. Consistently deployed by the IGF against space pirates and other wanted criminals. The suit of armor and ship are both Valran in design, and, as of this current report, are the only known remaining artifacts of the lost alien species within the galaxy. No knowledge exists of how Talisha or her mother who wore the armor before her came to acquire such powerful relics.”

“You gotta be kidding me,” Rogers groaned upon reading the final report. He sighed and gripped the brim of his hat, tightening it around his head. “All right, time to go to work.”

The spurs on the edge of his boots rattled as he made his way down the dusty, empty streets. His spurs had been called useless, and he’d been teased for them by the locals. Maybe it was a flaw in his programming, but he liked having them. He found the sounds pleasurable, and it suited his motif. Weren’t nothing wrong with a little self-expression so long as he did his job right and proper.

As he neared the saloon, he could hear a slew of voices from behind the wooden doors. That was odd. The saloon was never a rowdy place, mostly occupied by old prospectors sitting together to glumly reminisce. Rogers kept his fingers near the holster of his gun.

The yelling and carousing came to an immediate halt the second he burst through the swinging doors. He surveyed the room cautiously, counting far too many heads than he was comfortable with. All of them had faces mean as a rattlesnake and twice as deadly.

“Evening, folks,” Rogers tipped his hat to the saloon patrons. “Welcome to Dover Town. Thought I’d pop in and introduce myself.”

He heard a gun click. A scaly-skinned individual with a wide-brimmed hat had a gun with a barrel as big around as his head pointed directly at him. Rogers let out a sigh.

The scaly fiend chuckled. “Would you be the sheriff of this quaint little community?”

“Sheriff Rogers, law-keeping and security android at your service.” He raised both hands in the air. “Now would you mind getting that pea-shooter out of my face?”

No such luck. The gunman flicked a switch on the side of the gun, causing it to hum gradually to life, the cylinders on each side spinning and whirring. “There’s a bounty on yer head, Mistuh Rogers. Someone thinks you’ll be mighty valuable.”

Cold metal pressed against the turquoise scales on the back of the gunman’s neck. The stocky dark-skinned woman with the weird alien armor was there. She had the long barrel of a thin blaster pressed tightly against his skin. Thick natural hair bounced in ringlets along the sides of her glass-cutting cheekbones. Most striking were her eyes. They held a stern gaze as deadly as any weapon. “Name’s Talisha,” she said. “Chances are, if you recognize this armor, you know who I am and what I can do. Now, if you’re interested in not having your head blasted off, I’d suggest you lower your gun like the nice robot said. He’s just trying to do his job and keep the law around these parts. I think we oughta let him, don’t you?”

Another gun was raised. A double-barreled sawed-off shotgun aimed in Talisha’s direction by the creepy guy in the hazmat suit. He took a bold step forward, his feet thudding against the floorboards with each agonized movement.

“Dr. Nergal, pleased to meet you. I know of you, the law-abiding bounty hunter,” he said, grinning widely. “But the problem lies in the fact that there’s no law on this backwater planet. You have no power here save for that which you can back up with lots and lots of guns and this robot is worth quite a bounty.”

“I’m-I’m technically an android,” Rogers added, but doubted anyone was listening.

It was an unpleasant sensation, standing in the middle of a room of armed hooligans all discussing him like a piece of property. He supposed in some way he was, though he’d never thought of himself as such. He’d always hoped he’d be seen as a member of the community, what with all he’d done for these people over the years. Not everyone would see him as a person deserving of all the same rights and decency. This scene was a harsh reminder of that fact.

One of the tables was snatched from beneath a group of leering armed men and held aloft by the large Karstotzkiyan. The men fell cowering before her feet even as she flashed them a wide smile. She hadn’t even bothered with the huge blue cannon resting snuggly on her back.

“Shootout would risk damage to the sheriff,” she explained, holding the table threateningly. “Our employers paid handsome money to acquire him and his weaponry. This is a retrieval mission.”

Nergal slowly swung his shotgun to face her. “A retrieval mission with a competitive element attached. The whole booty goes to the first three mercenaries who bring the android to the designated location.”

“I was told nothing of this,” Talisha barked. “You’re making this up.”

“You’re a part of it, darling.” Nergal retrieved a sheet of paper stuffed into his belt. There were several chemical stains on the corners, and god knows what else, but Talisha’s photo next to Roger’s was clearly recognizable. “If you happen to die in the scuffle, our employer has a bonus to whoever can bring them your fabulous armor.”

Talisha glared. “Motherfuh—”

A warning shot fired into the ceiling interrupted her. All eyes turned to the android in the cowboy hat, brim lowered over his eyes. Sunlight poured through the hole in the ceiling, creating the perfect spotlight in the dim atmosphere.

“Is it true? Did the good folk of this town really decide to auction me off to the highest bidder? Like I was some sort of frigging steer?” His voice was cold as his smooth metal skin, but the anger in his words carried well enough. The sheriff was pissed.

Bluebird looked at him, her eyes softening. “I am sorry, Mr. Cowboy. I have a receipt as proof of purchase. Perhaps it would be better if you come with us. There is nothing left for you here.”

“I’ve spent my entire life cycle for these people,” Rogers fumed, finger quivering over the trigger. “I’ve chased out varmints and scoundrels. I’ve protected and cared for each and every member of this community, and all without so much as a thank you, but I didn’t mind ’cause I thought I was one of them. I thought I was a part of this place. It was my home. And now? Now you’re telling me they’ve sold me off for a paycheck? Who’s gonna protect these people when I’m gone? I don’t, no, I won’t believe it.”

Nergal sneered. “Face it, cowpoke. You’re an outdated model with a problematic quirk in your programming. You’re no cowboy, and this isn’t a holovid. With the credits and guns offered to this community by our employers, they’ll have more than enough to protect themselves and plenty of luxuries for years to come. Seems to me the citizens of Dover Town are getting the better deal.”

The lights in Rogers’s eyes dimmed, then went red. He made a full sensor sweep on every one of these low-life scumbags. They were well-armed, highly-trained, professional mercenaries and all wanted a piece of him. Well, they could come and get it.

“I don’t much like being sold,” he said. “I’m still sheriff and you’re all unwelcome here. Get out my goddamned town.”

Bluebird cursed and threw the table in his direction. “He’s going to attack!”

His android reflexes were swift and his movements quicker. Anyone without special lenses would have seen little more than a blur as he dove to the right and fired with pinpoint accuracy. A single bullet flew through the skulls of three men lined together. Others who thought they could hide behind overturned tables found themselves bleeding from bullets and splinters.

Talisha lowered her helmet’s visor and blasted the head off the scaled man. A woman tried to grab her from behind only to get shoved off when Talisha jetted into the air. High energy burst fire from her arm cannon shredded through her attacker’s armor as if it were paper.

Nergal cackled as he strewed casually through the carnage, stepping over fallen bodies while creating new ones with each shotgun blast. He turned his gun several times on Rogers, who took care to avoid the pellets scattering across the saloon. The wide arc of those shots scared him the most. Massive blasts like that were the hardest to dodge.

Bluebird had fallen into a corner. Rogers assumed she hadn’t pulled her cannon out yet because it was likely to bring the whole saloon down around them. Despite her size, he wasn’t too worried about having to face off against her. She was a shiny blue target in a ruckus and many hoped to secure her high-tech weaponry. She’d be left holding her own against them for a while.

A man tackled her. He was hurled into an unconscious stupor against the wall. A second went down in a single punch, bloody teeth flying a dozen different directions. By this point, they were coming at her in groups, and she could only kick and punch and throw so many of them.

With a roar, she knocked a man off her wrist to activate a domed barrier shield about herself, pushing them away. Bullets deflected off the barrier and back at their shooters, some of them getting killed instantly. She laughed and charged back into the fray, using the shield to turn herself into a giant wrecking ball, smashing and trampling everything in her path.

The battle lasted only a few minutes, a violent parade of bullets and lasers that utterly destroyed the saloon. Every surface of the building was covered in holes. It was a wonder any walls remained. Bodies littered the floor and stairwell, and blood soaked every floorboard. Nergal, Bluebird, Talisha, and Rogers were all who survived.

Bluebird folded her arms across her chest and snorted, a large smile forming over her unprepossessing features. “That was a good fight,” she said, nodding approvingly at the bloodbath.

Rogers gestured at her with his six-shooter. “Doesn’t have to be over yet, Bluebird.”

Talisha lowered her arm cannon and blaster. “But it doesn’t have to continue. I’d hate to use all my resources on unnecessary posturing.”

Nergal nodded. “It’s a shame I can’t claim the additional bounty on your armor, but all the same it’s simply not worth the effort to pry it off you.”

“And you, tin-man?” Bluebird nodded at Rogers. “These people do not deserve your protection. Fuck them. Come with us. Claim big treasure.”

Rogers holstered his weapon. “Treasure?”

“The lost alien treasure of Archimedes IV, buried eons ago before this planet was first colonized.” Nergal slung the shotgun beneath his arm and knelt to inspect one of the dead bodies at his feet. “I once thought the treasure a myth, but clearly some are intent on finding it and willing to spend a lot of money to do so.”

“But not enough to pay everyone they hired to come looking for it.” Talisha stared at the gore with a look of disgust.

Nergal shrugged and stood. “Oh, I wouldn’t be too offended, m’dear. It’s good business when you’re hiring a bunch of desperate individuals to go searching for a treasure that may or may not exist. If they all kill each other, you don’t have to pay them. Eliminates fools and weaklings and you get the most out of your money.”

“It’s unethical,” Talisha snapped. “It violates the contract between bounty hunters and their employers. Changing the terms of the bounty like that is despicable and poor business practice. I’ve a mind to leave this planet and report them to the IGF.”

“Ah, but they’ve no jurisdiction out here,” Nergal argued.

Talisha glowered at him. “So you’ve said.”

Bluebird chuckled even as she scowled. “Fuck the IGF. They can’t even get their initials right. Intergalactic Peacekeeping Force, hah! It should be IPF. I Piss Freely! So, tin-man, you with us?”

The ceiling fan chose that exact moment to fall and crash directly behind her. Both Nergal and Talisha reacted immediately, raising their weapons for another fight. Bluebird took a casual glance behind her and shrugged.

“You big babies!” she bellowed, then laughed. “It is only a fan!”

Rogers sighed. “Fine. Seems like someone went to a heckuva lot of trouble to purchase me. Suppose that makes me their employee.”

“You’re more their property, technically speaking. As an android, you don’t qualify for human rights.” Nergal seemed all too eager to point this out.

Rogers stared at him. “Don’t make me shoot a walking sack of disease and pestilence now, ya hear.”

Nergal giggled. “Oh, you’re too kind! This is going to be such fun.”

Rogers ignored him and touched his fingers lightly to the bullet-ridden saloon doors. Their hinges groaned and collapsed, sending the doors clattering to the ground. He sighed and stepped out into the streets. A crowd of onlookers had gathered, fixing him with wide, frightened stares.

How had he not seen it? They’d given him these same looks for years. Nergal was right. They’d never view him as anything other than a weapon. Now they’d have newer weapons, weapons they could control, weapons that didn’t think. He felt the rejection of their stares and moved passed, head held high.

His shoulders went rigid and his fists clenched. He’d not the capacity for facial expressions, but his body language could communicate emotion just as well as any organic being He was in pain.

“It isn’t right,” Talisha said.

Bluebird shrugged. “What in the universe is? Fairness and order are lies told to us by the powerful.”

Talisha folded her arms over her chest. “Didn’t take you for a philosopher.”

“Just an observer,” Bluebird sniffed dismissively. “Take Sheriff there. Only dangerous because they wanted him to be. All his weapons and powers are a product of his environment. They created him and now they fear him. I’ve seen it before.”

Bluebird’s stance parted, as if awaiting fresh combat. Her hands shook and her teeth grated together. She gripped the strap of her cannon like a security blanket.

Talisha raised an eyebrow. “You okay there?”

Bluebird froze. She melted into a smile and let out a hearty laugh, placing her hands on her hips. That breezy self-assured confidence returned. She smacked Talisha on the back, sending the smaller woman stumbling.

“We are going to have fun, you and I,” Bluebird said with a wink.

Dr. Nergal had been sticking the various corpses around on the floor with a syringe and extracting blood from the bodies to be stored in vials in a pouch worn about his waist. He moved over each corpse singing a cheery ditty to himself. He stopped, fondling an off-white trench-coat, somehow having remained clean and bulletproof despite the shooting. Only the corners were tattered and torn.

He turned around to Bluebird and Talisha and gestured both arms outward in a showy, dramatic reveal. “Ta-dah! How do I look?”

Talisha folded her arms over her chest. “You’re wearing a chemical-delivery apparatus over a tattered coat and a hazmat suit. Absolutely ridiculous.”

“I like it!” Bluebird grinned. “Hideous but distinctive.”

Nergal took a sweeping bow. “Coming from you, my dear, those are words of high praise. With some tailoring, it’ll prove useful for carrying around my…concoctions.”

“I’ve read your file,” Talisha said. “There was nothing in it about tailoring.”

Nergal moved in terrifyingly close, his visor a mere inch away from her face. She raised her arm cannon to his chin in a warning measure. He smiled lecherously, resting his chin against the barrel of the cannon.

“There is much about me that isn’t in my file, bounty hunter.”

“I’m well aware. I saw the research station over Pluribon. How many died by your hand?”

“Hundreds, thousands, millions, billions…” Nergal waved his hands about his head, as if plucking the numbers straight out of the air. “What does it matter?”

“Exaggerating the deaths of innocents is in poor taste,” Talisha said, her tone icy. “Even for you.”

Bluebird swatted them away from each other with a casual swipe of her thick, meaty hand. “Might we dispense with shared body counts on the road? Our quarry is reaching city limits.”

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