There wasn’t much Kugar could do at this point, which was one of the reasons he’d been leery hitching his fortune to the star-trails. There’s nothing to do in the vast emptiness of space except wait to get to your destination.
It was ten times harder when they were on a rescue mission instead of switching between jobs.
“How you flying?”
Kugar looked up to see Roque hefting his huge bulk into the cannon cock-pit – or, since Kugar was currently occupying the cock-pit, his head and torso. Here on The Loser, Roque was second in command and a lot tougher than their leader, Clay – which made his presence here pretty… odd. He wasn’t someone to come by and see how someone was ‘flying,’ let alone Kugar himself.
Kugar raised an eyebrow at him.
Roque let out a huge sigh. “Look, Varez, I ain’t cut out for this flak and you know it. We’re on the straightest course for interception.”
Kugar huffed out a breath and turned back to stare at the stars.
“It was bad luck.”
“Bad luck and a bad plan,” Kugar growled.
In the darkness of the cock-pit, it was hard to see Roque’s expression, but Kugar could hear the wince in Roque’s voice as he rumbled, “We needed the intel.”
“We did not need the intel.”
There wasn’t much Roque could say to that. For the past few standard-weeks, Clay had been wrapped up in this new client, focused on her and her insane quest to take down MXCorp. Now, Kugar was all for taking MXCorp down, since they made the underworld even sleazier than Roque was comfortable with, let alone Kugar, but this was – this had – gotten out of hand. What had started out as revenge for a lost planetary system had spiraled into year after galactic year of chasing down the infinitesimal clues that would lead them to the head of the giant multi-dimensional corporation that had wiped out the Boriian system. They had searched for the head of the MXCorp on their own, picking up mercenary jobs along the way, until they’d found a backer in E’eyusha. Clay, for some reason, didn’t suspect the sudden windfall. The rest of them, though…
“Well, we have the intel,” Roque grunted. “Hopefully, once we run this mission, we get him back and he puts it together. We find what we need and we’re finally done on this dark ship quest of Clay’s.”
After a few minutes, Roque growled, “Yeah, I don’t really trust him either. But—”
There was a crackle from the communicator and then Zox’s voice spat out from the electronic: “Coming up on our dropping point. Front and center; let’s bring him home.”
Roque pulled his upper body out of the cock-pit and Kugar heard his heavy footfalls leave. He trusted his team, trusted them implicitly. All together they’d been a guerrilla unit of the Imperial Navy until losing five planets and a sun was deemed an ‘acceptable loss’ by their commanding officers. But that only explained the four of them; the fifth, the fifth they’d found quite by accident.
The Imperial Navy employed pure humanoids – no inorganics could apply, because of potential security risks. That didn’t mean they treated humanoids in any fair manner; half-breeds and certain species were the lowest of the low. Roque, for example, had been on a fast-track out of the Navy in a body bag or in bars because of his temper and his half-breed status, until Clay had been assigned Roque and then dug his heels in about keeping him. They were a deadly team together, brute force and insane plans, power and wily intelligence wrapped up in a shock team that had been a part of a larger platoon of soldiers. Shock troops, sent to the ground to quell any uprisings, with small cells like Clay and Roque set to target and take out heavy areas of resistance. Zox had been added to their unit a few times, as had Kugar himself, but they never had worked as a whole team until one mission in the Rathrik system that had linked them together as a unit of four.
And then… they had met Jensen.
Kugar jumped lightly out of the cock-pit and padded silently down the winding, narrow catwalk. Like Roque, he wasn’t the appropriate humanoid the Imperial Navy liked to see in their forces, but he was marginally better than Roque since he was a pure breed instead of a mix. Granted, an unwanted species, but a pure one nonetheless. Mixes like Roque were always unstable (like his raging anger issues) and he always felt marginally bad that he was more or less ignored while commanding officers singled out Roque often for ‘correction.’ Roque had gotten better since he had a steady partner – while Clay wasn’t by any means the most stable of people to be partnered up with, it was the consistency that Roque needed – but Roque in general didn’t handle a rotating chain of command well at all. Kugar, however, Kugar had patience by the flight-load.
Well. Had. At the moment, his patience was all but run out.
The catwalks curved around the inside of the ship, following the secondary hull across the ceiling and then down the side, curving down to the nose of the ship where the pilot station was. There, he brushed past E’eyusha, her solid black eyes staring at him dispassionately, and watched Zox’s bald head as the male hummed to himself, getting the ship’s systems ready to drop them into normal space.
“E’eysh?” Clay asked, and the female turned on her heel and disappeared into the ship.
Roque was already suited up, and Kugar reached for the jumpsuit that would protect his skin out in space. For all that he (and everyone except Clay, really) didn’t trust E’eyusha, particularly because she was fucking Clay and Clay was fucking her, she was an excellent shot and a skilled fighter. She’d keep the fire drawn away from their discreet docking station’s cables and allow him and Roque to board the Prison Transport and search it for Jensen.
Since they’d gone rogue, both the Imperial Navy and MXCorp’s private mercenaries had been on their tail for years. On their latest run, a risky venture that would give them the data they needed to track the head of MXCorp and, with the head, all the books that would prove MXCorp was decimating systems for the sole purpose of profit. That was a war crime, and once they could shut MXCorp down, their mission would be done.
Kugar hoped. Clay and E’eyusha might have other plans, but the rest of the team was more than ready to set the banner down and stop the constant pirating, traveling, and running that they did on a daily basis.
And it could only end badly. For people on the run, for pirates of any kind, a team without a home base, there was never any rest, any security or safety. They would die violently, or silently, but they would die. Hopefully, they’d get to Jensen before he died.
Not that the Empire would call it death. Jensen was humanoid based, though Kugar had a sneaky suspicion that Jensen wasn’t actually Earthman but rather some other species, though his skin tone and fur matched the patterns of Clay’s. But Jensen, Jensen had upgraded himself in ways the Empire had deemed illegal. They had first met Jensen when their commanding officer had told them they’d need to mine data from the target’s security system, and then proceeded to deliver a transport-pod to their ship. In the pod had been Jensen, one eye a golden glow of electrical light, the other too sharp, too old, for the young face and body that was cobbled together from metal and flesh.
Mostly flesh, really – he had had a collar when he’d first come to them, a way of tracking his movements, which indicated he was a ‘specialized asset’ that had been captured and repurposed for the Empire. If he had been mainly tech, the collar wouldn’t have been necessary, since it wasn’t really as difficult as it sounded to shut down a cyborg or robot.
Jensen had been a really expensive favor to call in – on the transfer forms, he’d been labeled as ‘tech equipment’ that had outraged Roque and Zox and infuriated Kugar, though Jensen had played it off with a light smile that didn’t meet his human eye, and a dimmed light that seemed subdued. Still, he’d fit into their just-functioning team like a missing piece, and suddenly everything had been balanced, everything had worked.
(Kugar had watched Clay tell Jensen that he was intending to go rogue, to hunt down the corporation that had casually eliminated over fifty billion people in one go. Clay had given Jensen the option to remain, because cyborgs and inorganics were not treated at all fairly out in the depths of space, but Jensen had been stubborn. Neither had known Kugar had watched them, though, and Kugar had kept that information to himself, that Jensen had had an opportunity to run and he’d still chosen them.)
Zipping up the suit and fitting the helmet on, he checked the charge on his weapon and strapped it to his back, hooking a few spare packs into his belt and his backup to his thigh. Jensen had gotten them their intel on this last, desperate run, and ended up captured himself. He wasn’t classified as humanoid, not with that hunk of metal gleaming in his skull and eye socket, which meant that he was on the Prison Transport Ship not to take up space in a triple-nine prison cell but to be taken apart by the techs and repurposed. For all they knew, Jensen had already been stripped of his base personality and wiped into whatever job the Imperial Forces wanted him for.
E’eyusha had suggested leaving him behind, since it was unlikely that he was still intact and in fact highly probable that they had downloaded all the info from his parts, knowing everything about them that they didn’t want the Empire to know.
Kugar had nearly taken off her arm.
Reaching out to thumb the communications button, Zox murmured, “Here we go.”
There was the heavy thrum as the engine whined; E’eyusha powering up the gun turrets. Then the Loser dropped out of super-space and out on top of their target.
Kugar got a brief glimpse of it, a huge chrome ship easily ten to fifteen times the size of their own, the outer hull speckled with gun turrets and a pulsing glow over the top of the ship indicating a mild, but not fully engaged, shield. Then their target’s tracking system must have noticed them, because Zox was punching the thrust, corkscrewing out of the way of the plasma fire, and there was an increased hum as E’eyusha discharged their own laser fire, shearing away two turrets. Roque, Kugar, and Clay held on tight, waiting, until Zox fishtailed the ship and then cut the thrust, snapping the cloaking shield up as he pressed their ceiling against the belly of the ship. The engines weren’t off, of course, but hopefully it would be confusing enough to allow Roque and Kugar to board and hunt down the tech labs, bring their missing crewmember home.
“Go,” Zox grunted, and Clay moved quickly down the narrow walkway to the docking bay. Roque and Kugar stepped into the chamber, and Clay sealed the doors before extending the anchor cables. The opening above them was a hatch used to dispel waste and bleed off energy if an engine got overheated; it was just wide enough for Roque. Kugar punched the chamber’s outer doors opened and kicked out into zero-g, using the cables to pull himself up to the hatch and his plasma knife to slice through the shuttered hatch.
Then he kicked in.
Most ships were equipped with two hulls – inner, and outer, so that if an attacking ship blew a hole in the hull it would damage delicate wires and necessary functions, but hopefully wouldn’t pierce the inner hull and create a vacuum that would suck out all the air. Kugar was inside the outer hull, but now he needed to find an access port to the inner hull. Preferably one that wasn’t on the other end of the ship, away from Jensen, but since this was a modified MK-IV, there weren’t any blueprints Zox could pull up and they just had to wing it.
Roque gestured at a thick cable that twisted past their hole and towards the central mass of the ship. Probably an energy relay, so it was a good bet to follow. Kugar nodded his agreement and then gently hopped his way along the wire. Zero-g until they could hit the inside of the ship, but Kugar’s home planet had been practically zero-g in multiple places. He was used to leaping gracefully through the zero-g spots – how he got the nickname, after all – but Roque behind him lumbered painfully, having to make use of the various other pieces of metal to push and propel himself forward.
They reached an exit hatch within two standard minutes and Kugar shifted out of Roque’s way. Roque, their demolition expert, pulled a small scope from his belt and squinted through it at the hatch, then swept his head side to side before slipping it away and slipping on his gloves. They lit up – when they weren’t in space, they hummed, but here there was no sound – and then Roque brought his fists up and slammed them down as much as he could in zero-g, hitting the locking mechanism.
It was enough force – barely – to create the requisite explosion and pop the hatch open. There was the vacuum feeling, air being sucked past them into space, and then they were inside and the hatch closed and sealed with a blowtorch while flashing lights and a blaring alarm painted the hallway a spinning array of colors and sound.
Now they had three standard minutes before they were discovered. Techs would be swarming over this place because of the breach in less than thirty seconds.
But now, now Kugar was in his element. He was a hunter, a killer, and he moved with the same surety he would have on his own home planet, shooting down the hallway towards the nearest access panel in powerful leaps and jumps. Roque followed on his tail, hampered by the lack of flexibility that Kugar had but as steady and destructive as the nores on Kugar’s home planet.
Once at the access panel, he slipped in the ghost chip Jensen had made especially for them and jerked his chin at a nearby door. Roque brought his fists up again, the battery surging, and Kugar leveled his laser rifle and set it to short bursts.
Roque slammed the door with much more force this time, blowing it off its frame and Kugar came in low, shooting at feet he saw on the floor. They cleared the room and wedged the door shut as the techs began to be heard in the hallway.
Roque brought up a holoscreen and looked over it, eyes casting about, until he grunted. “Here, you think?” he asked, his helmet muffling his words.
Kugar hummed and nodded, reaching into the pack to make sure they had their pulse grenades ready and handy. As a one, they burst through the other end and tore their way through the ship, mowing down resistance in short, sharp, contained motions until they were outside the tech labs and Roque was pounding his way through the doors.
“Flak,” Roque rumbled, eyes narrowed, and Kugar felt the red rage threaten to overwhelm him.
Jensen was suspended from the ceiling, in what was similar to a straightjacket, his arms tied behind his back, legs spread, the straightjacket obviously just for his upper arms since he was completely naked from the waist down, revealing the metal plates in his lower left side and the metal joints and parts of his left leg. Jensen’s left eye, the mechanical one, was devoid of all light, and Kugar’s heart jumped into his throat.”
Roque touched his communicator. “Found the package; retrieval and exit within four.”
“Make it three; I think they’re about to find us. Rendezvous at initial point. We’ll pick you up from a space jump,” Zox’s crackly voice said over their communicators.
“I flaking hate space jumps,” Roque snarled, even as Kugar leapt over to the main console and began lowering Jensen to the ground. His human parts were bloodied and bruised, making Kugar’s lip lift in a snarl and his canines cut into the inside of his mouth.
“Hurry up,” Roque hissed, and Kugar dashed to Jensen’s side, carefully cutting away the metal and cloth that bound his arms and upper body, removed the wires that were plugged into the base of his neck and his side. Then, with quick and efficient emotions, he pulled out a spare jumpsuit and began to tug it onto Jensen’s frame.
When he rolled the man onto his front so that he could initiate the sealing mechanism of the suit, he hissed.
“Well, grok take it all,” Roque sighed.
Jensen’s back was a mess of welts, burns, and lacerations. Underneath the new wounds were old scars, scars from fire and from being beaten by the Empire for not performing his job properly.
(Kugar would have gone rogue for Jensen and Jensen alone, but he knew that for all that the Empire treated Jensen like scum, the rest of the universe did worse to cyborgs.)
“We’ll have to take care of that later,” Roque insisted. “Just – seal it up.”
Kugar knew just how badly it would hurt, both to put on the sealing suit and then to remove it, but there was no way to bandage the wounds, not now, and they had a very limited time window before the ship scrambled out scout ships and tore the Loser apart in space. Whispering a quiet plea of forgiveness, he ran his nail up the suit, initiating the sealing sequence.
Jensen’s body jerked and convulsed, and then lay still.
Gently, Kugar placed a helmet over Jensen’s head and then hefted the limp (huge) body onto his shoulder.
Roque snickered. “Looks like he’d crush you if you sneezed. Give him over and you watch our flaking backs. I don’t much want laser holes for this. Just finished healing the last one.”
It was harder than it should have been, for Kugar to hand Jensen over and pick up his rifle instead, but he was the better with long-range weapons and he had the advantage of speed. He could clear out the hallways as Roque, with the greater muscle mass and strength, could run for longer carrying Jensen’s weight without tiring.
They run through the hallways, Kugar taking the kill shots and slicing his way with his small knife when a sudden guard steps out of a hatch that had previously been closed. His rifle’s running low on charge, but he’s hoping he won’t need the back-up piece, not when they’re less than a minute out and almost there—
He skidded to a stop and turned on his heel. That was a drop chute, used when ships got rid of the unrecyclable waste. It would lead straight through the machinery between the outer and inner hulls, and while he’d have to blast the doors open on the other end, it would work just fine.
“This way,” he growled, and Roque glanced at it.
“What the ever-loving grokking scrap are you thinking?!” Roque shouted as he hefted Jensen’s heavy weight – part machine, after all – higher on his shoulder.
“Quick exit,” Kugar puffed, trying to keep his voice light even as he popped open the chute and the air sucked into the airless area.
Kugar jumped to the sound of Roque’s curses, using the walls to increase and increase and increase his momentum, the rifle on a wide-beam setting. Hopefully he had enough charge left to melt through the door, otherwise this would be highly embarrassing. Also painful, what with Roque’s and Jensen’s huge bodies hurtling after him down the shaft.
The minute his keen eyes caught sight of the chute doors, he leveled his rifle and breathed in deep. On the exhale, he squeezed the trigger and the doors punched out from the force.
“Exit point near initial point, chute drop, body one!” he shouted into his communicator, using the last bit of the ship to further propel himself free of the ship. Jensen’s bulk floated forward after him, and he snagged the now-light metal and flesh body even as he heard Zox chatter confirmation in his ear.
Finally, Roque appeared, hurtling down with a much faster speed than Kugar had expected, just as the Loser pulled in tight to the ship and Kugar grabbed one of the loose anchor cables. Roque grabbed another, and then the cables were retracting into the ship, the outside doors open.
Kugar stuffed Jensen inside first, helped haul Roque inside as well, and then punched the doors closed shouting, “Clear, clear, clear!”
Zox let out a howl of triumph and the Loser kicked it into gear, the engines vibrating as it shot away from the Prison Transport, trailing many, many small scout ships that were shooting at them.
Overhead, the communicator unit on-ship crackled and then Clay’s voice rang out, “We still need to get clear of the MK-IV’s gravity and slingshot past the smaller node point we came out of. We should be back into super-space within ten minutes. Get Jensen medical attention.”
Roque snorted and rolled his eyes. “We’re fine, by the way,” he grumbled.
“I can see that,” Clay remarked testily, but it was E’eyusha who was there, opening the docking station. Kugar glanced at her and then raised an eyebrow.
“Shooting isn’t going to help us now, just Zox’s piloting,” she remarked casually, glancing at Jensen’s limp form. “It’s a lot of waste for an inorganic. We risked ourselves needlessly—”
Kugar squared his shoulders – he might not be very tall or broad, but he’d been told what effect his golden eyes had coupled with his ears standing on end – and curled his upper lip in a snarl. Jerking Jensen’s frame onto his shoulder, he shoved past her and towards the medi-bay.
He was their field medic, when they needed medicine on-ship. On-planet was different; they almost always had enough money to buy at least a doctor in name, if not a high-end doctor, but right now, he had to get that suit off Jensen and seal up the wounds carefully. Jensen didn’t need any more scars on his back.
Their medi-bay wasn’t very well-stocked, but there were the basics: alan oil, to remove the suit that was stuck to Jensen’s skin, pericot pills, to minimize the pain, and the arcnet mesh to spread over Jensen’s back. He would really have preferred to have an immersion tank, something to take the weight of Jensen’s metal limbs off his organic flesh, and the tank would take care of any waste that Jensen might expel from his body. But he was just glad to have his Jensen back, and for a week he stood by Jensen’s side, smoothing as much scar flesh as he could and healing what he couldn’t, doing his best to fix what the Empire had broken in their search to tear what they saw as a machine apart.
No one brought up the point that Jensen’s inorganic material remained inert, and his organic material was not responding to stimuli. No one needed to.
Kugar was growing more frantic.
As it was, their risky and frankly pretty-much-suicidal mission was causing them to lay low. They were on some medieval-like planet out on the Orthanii Rim, their ship hidden and the rest of them – minus Kugar and Jensen, who stayed with the ship – took up rooms and replenished their medical and physical supplies. Well, Zox and Roque did. Clay and E’eyusha holed up somewhere with the data Jensen had pulled and were trying to see what they could use to pinpoint MXCorp’s next move.
On the ninth day, he leaned over Jensen’s cot in the medi-bay, pressing his thumbs to the bridge of his nose. “I cannot – not without you,” he said hoarsely, running his fingers over Jensen’s hair and organic arm. “I – you are a miracle, to me. Yourself, personality and strength and – without you, I cannot put up with Clay’s mad vendetta. With his being wrapped up in E’eyusha. You make things… easier. Better. Always, better.”
There was a slight whir under his hand, and he paused. It had felt like…
He carefully ran his fingers over the metal plating that blended almost seamlessly into Jensen’s skull. It felt like there was a vibration, movement. Signs of life.
Whispering a silent prayer to his people’s gods, he ran his fingers over Jensen’s pulse point in his throat. It hadn’t ever stopped – other than his eye, part of his guts and liver, and leg, Jensen was flesh and blood, and his heart still functioned – but it felt… elevated.
Quickly, he dimmed the lights even as the mechanical eye began to glow softly, a warm gold light spilling out of the little hole and lighting up the lines on the face. Jensen’s organic eye fluttered.
“There you go, you stupid son of a trow,” Kugar murmured. “Open up, let me see you. You’re here. You’re safe.”
“Ku…gs?” Jensen breathed.
Taking in a shaky breath, Kugar nodded, fingers sliding over the other man’s body, checking and reassuring that everything seemed to be in working order. “Here, Jay. I’m here.”
“What… took you guys so… damn long?” Jensen breathed.
And Kugar laughed, laughed and laughed, his forehead pressed to Jensen’s shoulder as he pretended not to notice the wetness that stained Jensen’s skin.
Tomorrow, he’d worry about the information, what happened. He’d get the whole story from Jensen, about what they did to him and why it took him so long to come back to him. He’d feed Jensen solid food instead of this liquid nutrients, and wash some of the smell of the medicine out of his body.
But for right now, he curled up alongside Jensen in the medi-bay, and he could breathe again.