By Adrian Neville, A.K.A. Vanguard3000
"So, tension is really mounting between Jupiter and Mars."
"If you ask me, asteroid mining rights are not worth going to war over."
With the correct code-phrase being said in reply, Victor Krane removed his hand from his concealed pistol. He presented his Saturn Federation Authority ID to his new acquaintance. Responding in kind, the man casually flashed his Bounty Hunter ID. Warren Cale. With his Mars elite-trained eyes, Krane could identify three concealed weapons on the hunter: A wire garrotte hidden in his dark hair; spring-loaded knife compartments in his boots, no doubt triggered by a button on his watch; and a surgical scar on his forearm which represented a one-shot ballistic weapon implanted just under the skin. He assumed there were more hidden weapons elsewhere. He also noticed the modified pistol at his belt.
Krane looked around. He was in the aptly-named Business District, one of the many bars in Ring Shepherd, orbital capital of the Saturn Federation. It was a dangerous-looking place, where smoky air concealed shifty eyes, and drunken arguments drowned out the whispers of conspirators. It was a place where people kept to themselves because their lives depended on it.
"I hear you're one of the best Raider-hunters in the system," Krane said quietly.
"I know how to think like a Raider. When you can think like a Raider, you can kill a Raider" said Cale. Krane studied the man. He certainly looked the part of an experienced Raider-hunter. A recent-looking scar tore across his unshaven cheek, and an extra thickness to his jacket suggested a military-grade vest of photo-ballistic armour. He fit right in at this sector of the spaceborne city. Krane even caught a glimpse of a tattoo branded on his muscular bicep, although it was all but totally covered by a large knife strapped to his arm.
"I'll give you fifty thousand credits for information regarding the whereabouts of Khan Verran, and sixty thousand for assistance with the assassination," said Krane, as he quickly scanned his drink for poisons with a small, pen-sized instrument, should he decide to drink the acrid-smelling liquid. Negative.
"Sixty thousand for each, and I want half up-front."
"Agreed." Krane presented a small PDA and wrote up the final numbers for the transaction, then handed it to Cale, who signed the contract. Cale then inserted his credit chit into the PDA, downloading his sixty thousand credits. Without saying a word, the hunter got up and walked away, into the dark recesses of the Ring Shepherd "business district."
The grey, Spartan walls of the Saturn Federation Authority headquarters held a certain disciplined sterility that almost reminded Victor Krane of his former home at the Mars Special Forces headquarters. However, Krane figured that the SFA itself was not as pure and incorruptible. As he entered the chief's office, and the door snicked shut, the sounds of active communications lines and chatting coworkers faded to a barely audible murmur.
Chief Morrow was a large man, with a round, almost puerile face. His iron-grey hair was thinning, and was worn in a noticeable comb-over. A smouldering cigarette butt sat in an ashtray among six of its smothered precursors.
"Have you hired a bounty hunter yet," asked Morrow, in an anxious tone that put Krane on his guard.
"Yes. Warren Cale. We made the deal at the Business District. I'm sure your well-trained and competent officers have made many arrests there." Krane said, sardonically. Morrow ignored the remark.
"You didn't tell him about Project Veiovis, did you," he said, as he began to sweat profusely. His otherwise light blue shirt began to bear dark patches under the arms. "The secrecy of this operation is of utmost importance to the Saturn Federation!"
"I told him nothing, but if it puts your mind at ease, I'll kill him when we're done."
"Do what you have to do. Just make sure no one finds out about Veiovis. I hope you realize that the success or failure of the project rests almost solely on your shoulders."
"Of course it does. Why should Sat-Fed agents be responsible for the upkeep of their own capital?" Again, Morrow ignored the remark. Instead, he put the cigarette to his lips. For an instant, the embers burned a bright orange, then faded to a dim red-black. Morrow crushed the spent cigarette into the ashtray, letting the smoke pour from his thick-lipped mouth as he spoke.
"You're the specialist. That's why I'm leaving the project up to you. That was the problem with Adamant – it was controlled by too many people of too many different minds. Despite early success – seven Verrans were convicted and sent to Ganymede Max – failure was inevitable, but hindsight is always twenty-twenty, as they say. I'm sure you know about the capture of Agent Kerensky by the Verrans. After that, the project fell apart internally. Too much red tape. That's why Adamant failed."
That was one problem of many, Krane thought to himself. Project Adamant was little more than a police crackdown. It didn't stand a chance against the Raiders. As for Kerensky – the Verrans probably skinned him alive.
"Old failures aside, I hope you've taken the time to re-read your briefing dossier."
"Project Veiovis." Krane began reciting the dossiers he had memorized weeks ago. "Named after the Roman god of healing, its purpose is to cure Ring Shepherd and, if successful, all of the Saturn Federation, of a plague of crime and other threats to its citizenry. Like its unsuccessful predecessor, Project Adamant – See case file 'Kerensky-comma-Yuri dash beta-rho-four – the primary objective is to halt Raider activity, namely that of the particularly violent Clan Verran. Agents involved will be granted full security clearance, and will have the freedom to use any means necessary to-"
"That's enough, Krane. I didn't hire you for your smart mouth." Said Morrow, lighting another cigarette.
I wasn't hired; I was bought, Krane mused. Like a common mercenary. "Of course you didn't," he said aloud. Impatiently, he dropped a PDA on the chief's desk. "Here's my report. I'll see you again when Khan Verran is dead."
Krane turned on his heel and, as he left the Saturn Federation Authority headquarters, a new understanding came to him: No. Not like a mercenary; like a weapon. I seek no vengeance; no reward; no satisfaction. I seek only an end through any means. Forged by Mars Special Forces and purchased by the Saturn Federation for a small fortune, I am a living weapon, to be discarded when I am no longer of use.
Krane opened the tiny service hatch, revealing a sepulchral replica of the cityscape he and Cale had left behind minutes ago. Slightly smaller than the newer, better-populated areas of the station, the abandoned district of Ring Shepherd was quaintly known on official maps as the Old Quarter.
Those who had seen it with their own eyes called it the Dead Man's Zone.
Shards of smashed windows and neon lights rested in front of charred and pillaged storefronts. Tiny holes burned into the walls told stories of age-old gang wars, waged mere metres below the busy streets of Ring Shepherd. Wires hung like vines in a great iron grove where security cameras and gunshot sensors had been destroyed or torn out for sale on the black market. An old taxi rested in the debris-laden street, stripped of any valuable components. The dull hum of air circulation fans only added to the malevolent atmosphere.
"There," Cale whispered. "The Verrans are finalizing a deal with a local weapon smuggler in that shop. I'm told Khan Verran will personally oversee the transaction."
"Are you certain?" Krane asked.
"My sources are never wrong."
Not even Mars Fed has sources among the Verrans, Krane thought. Where does he get his information?
Krane touched a small box at his waist, and motioned to Cale to do the same. A tingle rushed through Krane as the state-of-the-art device keyed itself to his bio-electric field. Designed by Mars Federation Special Forces only a few weeks earlier, the device was capable of masking life signs and electrical fields from any type of handheld scanner - theoretically. It had not been fully tested in the field by the time Krane had left Mars.
In accordance with their plan, Cale walked into the ruins of a nearby store to wait for Krane's signal – the death of Khan Verran. Despite the excessive amount Cale had been paid, Krane had insisted on making the assassination himself. Cale was to do little more than to assist in quickly dispatching the Verran entourage and the weapons dealer. Krane watched as the hunter walked out of his sight, knowing he would have to kill him once their mission was complete. Not only would he tell of the assassination itself, but of the Mars Federation sensor jamming equipment. Krane grinned.
Mars Fed keeps its secrets well-hidden.
The brooding drone of the circulation fans was interrupted by the sharp hiss of an old, automatic door. From his shadowy concealment, Krane saw a small, verminous man with a briefcase come into view. Like a foraging rodent, the weapons dealer cautiously looked around. Satisfied that he was not being followed, the man then entered the building where the deal was to take place. How long would it be before the Verrans arrived? The waiting game had begun.
Fifteen minutes passed. Krane sat in the shadows, motionless and with stifled breath. Slowly and silently, he checked his equipment. His weapon was fully charged, and the masking device at his belt seemed intact. He felt ill-at-ease that the black box would not prove useful in the field; if the Verrans detected them, they faced certain death. Krane chided the weapons dealer silently. If he had only been smart enough to have a scanner himself, the device could have been put to the test before the Verrans arrived. As he thought this, he heard the now familiar hiss of the automatic door to the Dead Man's Zone.
A man in a black leather trench coat came into view. He took long strides and, as he walked, Krane caught a glimpse of a pistol holstered at his belt. He quickly walked along the empty street. As he reached the storefront where the weapons dealer had gone, he pulled a large object out of his pocket. Krane identified the device, which looked like a flashlight with a screen on the handle, as a powerful life sensor. As the man activated the device, it emitted two distinct sounds: The reverberating hum of a life sign which had been previously keyed to the scanner – the smuggler – and a second, sickening chime. Krane, familiar with the device, recognized the sound.
An unknown. Either he or Cale had been detected.
The man drew his pistol with his free hand, and began walking in Krane's direction. As slowly and quietly as possible, Krane drew a knife from a sheath at his wrist.
The sound quickened as the man came closer.
A million thoughts shot through Krane's head.
Why isn't the masking device working? It isn't detecting Cale. Why?
The man came to the corner, just across the narrow street from Krane's position. As the man turned to look around the corner, Krane could see the crest of Clan Verran on the back of his trench coat. An orange spider seemed to clutch a blue globe, covering it like a malignant, eight-fingered claw. The sound intensified and quickened with each step as the man crossed the street.
…Ping ping ping…
I could throw my knife at him, but if I don't kill him instantly, he'll hit a panic button, and I'll lose my chance at Khan Verran.
As the man crossed the street, the sound became a flat tone. Krane raised his knife. But as he prepared to attack, the man walked past him, stopping at the doorway to a nearby storefront. In the doorway was a mound of trash. The man kicked it lightly, and some of the debris fell away. An old man sat motionless under a blanket of litter, perhaps asleep; perhaps in a state of drug-induced unconsciousness. The Raider kicked the old man again, harder this time. The old man groaned, and moved only slightly. Fed up, the Raider took aim and shot the old man in the head, silencing the groan instantly. As he walked away without remorse, the tone emitted from the scanner slowly faded to silence.
The Raider walked back to the storefront where the weapons dealer hid, and a strange chirping sound came from his communicator. Seconds later, the sound was answered with a similar – yet slightly different – sound from within the abandoned building.
Identity tags, Krane thought, hearing the subtle differences in the two sounds. The all-clear has been given. He drew his pistol as he heard the access door hiss open once more.
Three men entered and met with the man at the storefront. All three wore the same black trench coats. Krane noted that, of the four Raiders, two carried modified pistols, while a third carried a small flamethrower. The fourth – a horribly scarred man – was apparently unarmed. The scarred man wore a large silver ring which tapered to a claw-like point. Krane, seeing the ring, noted the man as Khan Verran, and wondered whether the scars had been obtained in battle, or through some brutal ascension ritual.
As if by instinct, Krane quickly raised his pistol, and fired a single shot. The thin, silver-blue bolt lanced through the darkness, striking the scarred man in the left temple. As he slumped to the floor, Krane saw him clearly for the first time.
In spite of the scars, Krane recognised the dead man as Yuri Kerensky, the agent in charge of the failed Project Adamant. Krane realized too late that it was a trap. Somehow, he was not at all shocked as a serrated blade tore through his throat. Even less was his surprise that it was Cale who stood beside him. The sheath strapped to his arm was empty, and he grinned as Krane fell to his knees. But as he fell forward onto his hands, Cale wrenched him around onto his back. The Hunter's face looked ashen-grey against the dark ceiling.
"You think I don't know what you're up to, Martian?" Krane noted the hate with which Cale used the name. "You think I don't know about Sat-Fed's Project Veiovis? Let me tell you this: Verran ears are so sharp, we can hear your very thoughts!" Krane's eyes widened.
We. Cale was not just a mercenary under Raider hire; he was a Raider.
Through the corner of his eyes, Krane saw the man with the flamethrower approach and hand a small item to Cale. It was a severed finger adorned with a silver, claw-like ring.
"Your ring, Khan Verran," said the man. Cale pulled the finger out of the bloody ring and tossed it aside. Blood ran down his hand as he slid the ring onto his own finger, and knelt down beside Krane.
"You know, we Raiders have our own special project. We've decided to name it Project Veive, after the Etruscan god from which Veiovis is derived. But he is not the god of healing. Do you know what he is the god of, Martian?"
A violent gurgle escaped Krane's throat.
"Revenge! Revenge for our fallen comrades! I watched as seven of my clansmen – my brothers! – were sent to Ganymede Prison to rot! But now, we finally have our revenge. We now have sixty thousand credits, and two state-of-the-art Mars-Fed scanner-jamming devices." He plucked the black box from Krane's belt. "One SFA agent dead; one about to die. And because of you, Sat-Fed is bankrupt! Yes. It is a glorious day in Verran history. Thank you, Agent Krane – Martian hero of Clan Verran!"
The man with the flamethrower sparked his weapon to life. As the bright blue pilot light danced in the darkness, Warren Cale – Khan of Clan Verran – removed the empty sheath from his arm and tossed it aside, revealing a tattoo of the orange Verran spider. He turned, and as he walked away, he looked back at Krane.
"Of course, it's not entirely you're fault. After all… you were merely a weapon."
And then the flames consumed him.