CHAPTER ONE REVEAL
RELIC BOUNTY, BOOK 1 IN THE NEW RELIC LEGACY SERIES
Janis Torzen lay prone, watching through his digital tactical display as the second moon with a menacing orange glow rose above the sands of the dark desert mountains. A cold wind blew miniscule red particles of dust and grit in an irritating swirl around his helmet visor. The thickness of the dry soil coiling through the air bordered on dangerous.
Planet Urrak was so far on the fringe of the known galaxy that it had very little funding or technology, making it a prime location for all sorts of underworld deals. Janis hated every minute he’d spent on this dusty, barren wasteland. He sighed and shook his head, causing more of the dust that clung to his Environmental Variation Suit, more commonly known as an EVS, to fall in clumps before his visual display. The engines on the Durada sand slider would fail quickly if they sucked this garbage into the air intakes, making it next to impossible to get back to his gunship the Siren Blade. That alone pissed off Janis. Combine that with the fact that the mark he was waiting for still hadn’t arrived with the package and, well, he wasn’t looking forward to the wrath he would face from Kolaris.
Janis couldn’t catch a break even to save his life.
“Beep…beep…beep.” His display tracked a heat signature one hundred and fifty meters out. Janis reached up and tapped the panel at his left temple, adjusting the search parameters to match the biometric pattern of a humanoid. He smirked. The AI functions this suit was capable of made it the second best investment he’d ever made.
Janis snatched up his sedara long rifle, tucking it under his shoulder and leaning in close as the images synched to his visor. Even though he couldn’t physically touch the slick black metal of the high-powered rifle, he had taken enough assassin jobs to know the sensation even through his suit. The tactical sight flashed green and then auto-zoomed on the target’s movement.
The mark had already moved ten meters away and not in the direction of the meeting coordinates. In fact, they seemed to be travelling away. They might not even be the courier. Janis lowered the rifle’s optic scope and grimaced, clenching his jaw as he contemplated giving up the protection of the ridge he sat perched on. Was this a random passerby or someone trying to draw him out? There was always the possibility of other interested parties on a job like this.
He brought the eyepiece back up. Again, the movement came up in the targeting view, but there wasn’t enough definition with the sandstorm to identify what it was.
Janis rolled onto his back, clutching the rifle tight to his chest. This sandstorm made it impossible to get adequate visibility anymore. His mind raced to calculate the best possible positions nearby, closer to the exchange site, where the courier was supposed to be meeting Lynk Aneth. The deal was already running late, and Janis was uncertain if it was even still happening. This was turning out to be a damn shit show. He hated to break radio silence, but he needed to know if Lynk was in place and not still in town trying to win a buck off some farmer who would probably fleece him.
Just thinking about that punk Lynk made Janis grumble with irritation. Why had Kolaris saddled him with that kid? The old bastard would never let him go, and Janis believed that sending Lynk up with him was his way of ensuring it. That was the real goal here, to keep him in indentured servitude to the clan. But the hope that Janis could buy out his freedom from Kolaris, even the mere possibility, was just too much for him to pass up. When Janis gambled, it was for the highest stakes. You couldn’t get much higher than your life, and if this kid screwed it up for him, Lynk was going to lose his life out here before they ever made it to Nadir Spaceport.
Janis closed his eyes, visualizing the other locations he had scouted beforehand. There was one other point about fifty meters out that would get him another nice overlook, but to avoid being seen on a seismic or tactical scope he would have to dip back into the desert. Janis glanced up at the darkening sky and down at his watch. He would be cutting it close, and if the Durada acted up at all he would miss the exchange.
A move at this point seemed reckless, especially when Janis didn’t even know if the mark out there was the courier. Patience and cold calculations were the backbone of any good bounty hunter. He needed to further assess the situation to be sure it was a bet worth making to move from his current prime location.
One more scan with his scope. Janis rolled back over, switching his focus to survey the rendezvous coordinates, then the mark, and finally the sniper position he needed to move to. A sharp static chirp caused him to flinch.
“The package is late. Do you have eyes on it? I can’t see anything in this bonshat storm.” The borderline whiny voice of Lynk burst through the speaker in Janis’s helmet.
I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill that stupid ass… Janis sighed.
“Eyes, no. Movement, yes. Where the hell are you? If I can’t see you, how can you see the courier?” Janis tried not to yell, but there was definite force behind the seething words he spoke through clenched teeth. “Check your own tactical, and keep off the comms! You know how to get a hold of me.”
A light flickered across the horizon. Janis snapped his rifle scope back up, butting it against his shoulder, head cocked and jaw pressed close. It was the mark. The way the light moved around, it appeared that whoever was shining it had lost their bearings in the sandstorm.
A headwind howled and a hard gust slammed into him, wrenching his rifle sideways. As he fumbled with his grasp, the scope light activated. The piercing green laser appeared to move at random depths inside the shifting airborne sand. The synched display of his visor danced with varying distances as the laser fought a losing battle against the buffets of sand swirling around. Janis jammed the side of his thumb over the actuator for the laser sight and it clipped off. His heart sank, and he sucked in a sharp breath.
He’d blown his position. Any fool within a hundred meters could snipe him easily. Now the courier knew that there was a third party involved in this two party exchange with Lynk. Janis slumped into a seated position in the shifting, blowing sand beside his speeder and threw his head back. The loud crack of metal as his helmet struck the Durada was a minor expression of his disappointment with himself.
You had one chance, and you blew it with a rookie mistake.
As if on cue, the yellow message display lit up inside his helmet. Text scrolled to the side of his vision in Chandar script. Of course, the message was from Kolaris.
“I expected an update by now. For your sake, I hope you are in possession of the package.” The text was cold and heartless, just like Kolaris.
That little shit. Had he opened the case containing the money?
A light burst above Janis high in the almost pitch-black sky. The red light flashed and swayed as it was tossed about in the waves of wind. A flare. Janis shot up. Maybe…
His footsteps kicked up sprays of sand as his short, sliding steps brought him down beside his sleek sand speeder. The dark blue armored panels were accented by flat gray metal, curved from the pair of headlights at the front. The metal swooped down to the footrests before sweeping back to the single jet-propelled engine. He locked his rifle to the side bolt holster of the Durada, snapping the cover over the scope to protect it, and then swung his long leg wide over the contoured seat. He liked this speeder. It was built to be extremely fast and comfortable. With a flick of his wrist, the engines fired up. If he didn’t push them too hard, the sand filters should be able to cope without becoming overloaded. Of course, the key word there was “should.”
Janis twisted the grip slow and hard, coaxing the engine to fire up, and pushed forward. The headwinds of the storm caused a vibration to rattle along the body of the sand speeder, and he lowered his already slow speed. At this point, any progress was better than none.
Lynk wasn’t here to make the deal, so Janis would have to do this himself. If he could make it to the exchange, he could retrieve the package. He was supposed to kill the courier anyway, so what did it matter if they saw him? This “trade” had to happen; he was going to deliver whatever Kolaris wanted to gain his freedom.
The Durada picked up speed as he descended downhill at a steep angle to the deep valley between two massive dunes, causing him to lose sight of where the flare had gone up. As much as Janis wanted to confirm the mark’s location, riding back up to the ridge would take up valuable time, which he couldn’t afford. Another gust slammed against him, and the sand speeder bottomed out for a moment, pitching him sideways a couple of meters at a jilted angle and spinning him around.
“Shit!” Janis released the throttle and came to a stop, working to get his bearings in the darkness. The large divot thirty-eight degrees behind him must have been where the ass of the machine had hit. His head craned to the left, and he reached up to focus the sensors of his tactical display on the last known position of the flare.
The flare was dropping, and the deep crimson light faded in and out as it swung lower behind the crest of the dune. He forced the throttle forward, battling boulders of blackened stone popping up as he dodged them at a quick pace. He struggled to reach the top of the dune to beat the flare’s descent near the mark.
An icy grip squeezed his insides as he considered the consequences he would face if this was a ruse or a case of mistaken identity. It was unlikely that Kolaris would let him live if he failed.
The dark memory of that epic failure that had cost him and his team so much sent a shiver racing up his spine. Without permission, the memories flooded back from a place where he thought he’d trapped them. Lucyn’s long, dark waves of hair, her fair skin, and shrewd, measuring eyes that penetrated his soul flashed crystal clear. He had to be focused, sharp, and to stay that way he had to keep the memories and pain of losing her buried.
His wrist loosened on the accelerator and his speed dropped as he approached the last light of the flare. Janis reached up and tapped the display panel of the visor to scan the vicinity for heat signatures.
As the shifting sands swallowed the last light of the flare, Janis slumped in his seat, his head rocking back as he stared up at the infinite black nothingness above him.
The storm was dying. An eerie howl swept across the wasteland. It had an edge to it. Janis grimaced and rolled his head in the direction of the noise, scanning the surrounding dunes again. He hadn’t come all the way out here to hear the mating call of a pa’pak. Though the meat was considered a delicacy on some worlds.
What the hell. He couldn’t located Lynk or the mark.
Janis revved the engine of the Durada high and curved his body into the force. Who cared about sucking in sand now? The storm was dwindling, so Janis opened up the throttle as he skimmed up a long embankment toward the misting crests of the sand dune. The speeder spasmed, choking for a moment before thrusting forward. The movement jerked his neck in a hard snap. He wrenched the handles, banking hard toward a soft peak aligned to the top of the massive dune.
A puff of fine dust kicked up in an ashen cloud around him, momentarily blinding him. A hard knock bounced the speeder up, screeching as the metal body tore beneath him.
Damn! It must have been a rock or something. In a rage, he yanked back on the throttle grip, hoping to force the Durada to the crest and scan the area from a higher location.
At least, that was the plan for about two seconds.
A loud whine, followed by the chugging of the dying engine, left the Durada sagging into the sand, dragging itself ass first down the steep slope and picking up velocity. Janis knew he was going to tip over. He unsnapped his long rifle, wrenching it clear of the holster, and threw himself off the speeder before sliding along his hip. His bike turned and spun in a horizontal arc across the hillside before rolling in sprays of kicked up sand, which set off a fiery explosion as the fuel cell ignited.
Janis slammed his fists into the sloppy sand. This job was a disaster in every sense of the word. He turned to search for his rifle, locating it a couple of meters away on the windswept sand.
“Please…help.” A voice barely above a whisper called in short, panting breaths.
Janis scowled, scanning the breadth of the hillside and valley below for the source. He cocked his head as the scan results came up negative in every sector.
“Where are you?” Janis called out as he pushed himself up, slipping on the shifting ground. He caught himself with one hand before sprinting over to seize his rifle and sling it across his broad back.
A sharp cough followed by a gasp caught Janis off guard. Something was wrong here. His senses lit up, and his free palm snapped to the hilt at his hip. He licked his dry lips, forcing his breathing to slow as he assessed the situation. Still no heat signature matching a humanoid form, but he was sure it was a female voice that had sounded so close. He could move his hand from the blaster to change the setting on his helmet visor, but that would leave him open to an attack.
A choking sputter blew a puff of fine dust into a cloud, and the movement triggered his tactical display. It marked the target above him. He crawled on all fours and reached the crest, which was divided into a small cleft. A heat signature barely peeked above the surface of the shifting sand.
He tensed, preparing to launch himself before the bounty hunter in him took over. Removing the rifle from his back, he carefully placed it within his reach then leaned over to pull a long shekan serrated knife from his boot sheath. Janis glanced over to look for more dust. Another puff came up about four meters, or two body lengths, away. He could crawl there, but he would have to test the shifting grit as he moved to ensure he wouldn’t be swallowed up as well. Which would make it near impossible to reach her in time.
Janis took a deep breath to center himself before he flopped spread-eagle with a chest-crushing thud as close to the mark as possible. He slashed across the sands, watching for them to collapse. When they didn’t, he wriggled forward a body length.
A gurgle mixed with a sputter warned him that she was out of time. Without thinking, he dragged himself within reach, dropping his knife by his side. His hands dug down into the ashen grit that had swallowed her. There was nothing resisting his hands as they waded through the dust, and then he smacked something smooth.
He stacked his hands, one on top of the other, gripping the soft flesh tight, and tugged. Digging in with his toes as an anchor, he moved the weight of his grip to his knees. The strange angle of his weight transfer burned along his thighs as he jerked her up hard.
In the almost weightless dust, she popped up for a moment, and the sharp suck of air told him she was still alert and alive. But she slid right back down, since there was no resistance to keep her up. He wriggled backwards more and yanked with all his strength, bending his arms at the elbows so he could pull her up out of the sand. Pain burned across his shoulders and shot down his arms at the weight and angle he held himself. This would only buy her moments of breath. He needed to come up with a real plan.
Janis wanted to slither backwards a little more, but he needed the room to bend his elbows in order to get her free. He released a deep breath. This was her last chance. Again he flexed his body to lift her up, and then crushing her arm in his firm grip, he pulled her forward. Her head popped up, sagging forward. He shot one hand under her armpit and hauled her forward enough that he could start to roll.
As they tumbled down the slope, her lithe body slumped into his chest. Janis rolled them a couple more times to where he knew the ground was safe and then crashed onto his back. The weight of her pushed the wind from his lungs as she lay slack on top of him. Instinctively, his hands cradled her smaller unconscious body in a protective embrace. The tan turbana wrapped tight across her head and face left only her closed eyes visible through the protective shader screen. She was young, at least compared to him.
His arms relaxed and gently slid her down beside him. The sensation of her body pressed against him awoke something inside him and conjured feelings he hadn’t considered in a long time.
It felt good, but it wasn’t something he could afford. The cost was too high.
Copyright 2020 - Arwen Paris Author - All rights reserved.