Axton really should have known better than to stick his nose in somebody else’s business, especially when that somebody was outnumbered six to one, by a circle of dirty, rough-edged scavenger rats, all of whom Axton’s NCO instincts screamed as “hostile.” But knowing better had never been his strong suit, and that was a Dahl Army uniform on that groaning form in the Andromedan dirt, of the same style and cut as the one Axton had ditched less than three days ago, when he’d snuck off that hauler freighter from Euboea. He might be a deserter, now, but camaraderie counted for a lot. And, he’d never liked bullies.
The alpha leader of the rats - a big, gray-haired veteran with more scars than actual face - kicked the trooper in the belly, his heavy boot making a dull thudding sound Axton could hear from ten meters away.
“Hey!” Axton shouted. “Didn’t your momma ever teach you to play nice?”
Scarface swung his attention Axton’s way, along with the business end of his scattergun. “Do yourself a favor, hero, and keep walkin’.”
“Or what?” Axton sneered. “You’ll knock me out with your face?”
As Scarface curled his lip in a snarl, one of the lesser pups – a compact rat in mismatched clothes that looked like they’d been picked from too many bodies – crouched next to the bloody-nosed trooper and poked the muzzle of his sawn-off into the soldier’s loosened ruck. “Let’s see what you got, baby Dahl.”
The trooper struck out one wobbling hand. “No. Don’t-!”
“Shuddup,” another rat told him, punctuating the statement with a cracking smack of his stock to the trooper’s blond head.
“Hey!” Axton shouted again.
Scarface tightened his grip around his double barrels. “I said, step back, stranger. This is a private party.”
“Hey, boss!” The mismatched rat pulled some sort of brick from the trooper’s ruck. “Take a look at this!”
As the old grunt turned toward Mismatch, Axton grabbed the Jakobs revolver from his back holster. He leveled his sights at the vet’s face and pulled back the hammer with a click. “Consider this my invitation, asshole.”
Scarface answered with a pump of his shotgun, rumbling, “You asked for it,” just as Mismatch let out a strangled cry. Scarface glanced his pup’s way again. “What the hell-?”
It was bad form in a potential firefight, but Axton looked to the noise, too…and promptly felt his grip go slack. That formerly compact brick bounced, building upright with pads, support struts, and a heavy trunk. A cylindrical gun barrel swung up from between the spread legs, locking into place with a click. The thing whirred, and Axton could only echo Scarface – “What the hell?” – before that barrel started spitting rounds.
Axton fell back, the breath knocked from his lungs. For a nanosecond, he thought he’d been hit, but it was the trooper on his chest, covering him with body and hands as, around them, the clatter of rapid heavy ammunitions fire started a rash of screams and the unmistakable splutch of perforated flesh, followed by silence.
The chaos had lasted less than ten seconds. Axton counted another five in his head before he started wondering if anybody else was alive, when the trooper pushed himself up and blinked his eyes. Blue, they were, clear as virgin sky, and wide, but without panic. “You all right?” he asked, in one of those upper-crust Central Core accents.
“I think so.” Axton started to rise, but the trooper stopped him with a hand on his chest.
“Stay there. I need to power her down, first.”
Axton did as told but craned his head to follow him. His gaze stopped halfway, upon Scarface’s twisted mug. Or, what was left of it: that automatic weapon had blown away the top third of the geezer’s head, leaving only bloodied nose and beard, the mouth within forever frozen in red.
A series of chattering clicks and the blow of forced air grabbed Axton’s attention at the same time the trooper said, “You can get up, now. It’s safe.”
Axton tiptoed his way through the riddled bodies until he reached the trooper’s side. He kept a wary stare on the compact block of metal in the younger man’s hands, in case it popped to vicious life again. “What is that thing?”
With a distinct ruffle of pride, the youth announced, “A Fernbedienbare Drehlafette.”
Axton squinted at the mouthful. “Sorry. A what?”
The younger soldier beamed a smile kinked by one crooked eyetooth. “Touch-activated, remote sensor, nano-controlled autocannon.” He hefted the brick in his hands, like showing off a prized puppy. “One of a kind, with self-replicating ammunition. Modeled after the sabre-type turrets on deep-space battle frigates. Smaller, of course, and lots more customizable.” His smile fell as he turned serious. “Sorry about the tackle, but she’ll target any bio- or mech-signature she doesn’t recognize.”
“She?” Axton echoed, cocking one brow.
The trooper chuckled. “She’s too clever to be called an it.”
Axton grunted. “Has she got a name?”
The soldier regarded his Drehlafette with a thoughtful tilt of his head. “Never really considered that.” He shifted the brick to one hand and struck out the other. “But, I’m Harald. Friends call me Hal.”
Axton took his hand, gripping it with a firm pump. “Axton.”
“Nice to meet you, Axton.”
“Same here. Hal,” he added with a teasing smirk, and the younger man’s white, crooked smile beamed again. Axton let his hand drift back to his side, fighting down his sudden inexplicable embarrassment at such genuineness. He glanced away from Hal’s face, his gaze finding the Dahl insignia at his shoulder. “Materiel Command, huh? That’s in Central Core.”
“Phaestus,” Hal agreed with a short nod. “I was born there.”
Axton sniffed. “You’re far from home, boyo.”
Hal’s relaxed humor fell, replaced by a grim dullness in his eyes. “Not far enough,” he muttered as he looked around at the corpses, his Drehlafette’s murderous handiwork.
Axton tweaked his pierced brow. “You runnin’ from something?”
Hal looked up again and returned a wry blow of breath. “Isn’t everybody, out here?”
That sobering sentiment reminded Axton of his own problematic predicament. “So we are.” He pushed his shoulders back with a sharp inhalation. “Best get our asses movin’, then.” He took a step but Hal didn’t fall in beside, so he prompted, “What are you waitin’ for?”
Hal stood there, blinking at him with his Drehlafette brick clutched close to his chest. “You want to travel together?”
Axton snorted. “Well, I sure as hell ain’t waitin’ around here for the law to show up. Neither should you,” he said, and inclined his head toward the Drehlafette. “Considering your girlfriend’s the one who made this mess.”
“Listen,” Hal said, and shifted in a step. He lowered his voice, even though there was no one else alive in sight. “Axton. Not that I don’t appreciate what you did – standing up for me back there, and all; no one’s ever done that for me, before.” He flicked his focus across the bodies strewn around their feet, as if to prove a point. “But, I’m not exactly safe to be around.”
“Neither am I,” Axton quipped. He twirled his revolver around one finger before slipping it into its holster, to the smooth whistle of gunmetal against leather. “But didn’t anybody ever tell you two guns are better than one? Even your one.” Hal only blinked again, so Axton grinned and assured him, “I’m a soldier. We eat, we fuck, and we kill.” He snorted again, this time over the bodies. “Especially rats like these.”
Hal gave a rough shake of his head, loose blond fringe scattering into his eyes. “These weren’t rats,” he muttered. “They were hunters.”
Axton shot another wary look at the Drehlafette brick. “Did you steal that thing?”
He expected some indignation or shock at this accusation, but Hal said, “Of course, I did. She’s mine.” The proud smile returned. “I built her.”