Ramath dismantled the rifle for the fifth time. He found it soothed his thoughts, allowing him to think clearly for a change. He ran the process through in his mind, step by step. Eject magazine. Screw bolts out. Seperate firing mechanism. Detatch barrel. Clean. Reverse process.
Sat in the shadows of the Brotherhood's conclave on Cerebra, Ramath had been silent for nearly three hours. Geriloth had instructed him to do this once a day, hoping that the meditation would start to bring back memories of the past. So, for the better part of two years, Cyrus Ramath had practised this method, praying that some of his history would reveal itself to him. Although certain memories had faded back into his mind, he was still unsure of his origins and had no vivid memories of the organization he now worked for. His only reassurance came from his fellow operatives who knew him, or at least seemed to know him, very well. He had been accepted back with open arms, hailed like a brother. But deep in his heart Ramath knew that there was only one other way he could unlock his amnesiac mind; find the man who gave it to him.
The gun, now reassembled, sat in Ramath's hands, waiting to be used, waiting to hunt.
"Soon my old friend, soon," Ramath found himself muttering to the weapon.
"You know what the first sign of madness is?"
Ramath spun around in his chair, instinctively gripping the gun, finger on trigger. A silhouetted figure stood in the door way, casting a shadow across the room. Noticing the familiar face Ramath's grip relaxed, letting the gun fall in to his lap. "You shouldn't sneak up on people like that, Hotham" Ramath grumbled.
"You didn't answer my question." came the sing song like reply.
"Maybe I don't know the answer. I can't seem to remember anything else!" Ramath said while turning his back on Hotham.
"Hey come on now buddy, you know I'm only kiddin' 'round don't cha'?"
No reply came from Ramath. Damascus Hotham entered the darkened room, walking with the distinct swagger that no one but him could have gotten away with. Pulling a stool up, the joker sat down, seemingly awkward with the present situation. After a prolonged silence Hotham suddenly reached out and spun his friends chair around sharply.
"Listen to me cause I'm only gonna say it once! YOU ARE NOT INSANE! Got it? Just cause you can't remember how you used to live, don't mean it should effect how you live now. It's irrelevent, pointless, like which hand you wipe your ass with. It doesn't matter! Understand me?"
"Then get your ass up off that chair, and come with me for a drink," smiled the rogue.
"I don't know.......you see.....Geriloth said I should do-"
"What Geriloth don't know, won't hurt him. Come on I need to talk with you."
"Fine," Ramath sighed pulling himself up from the chair and following Hotham out of the room.
Sitting in the conclave mess hall, the two hunters sipped amasec, trying to talk over the noisy surroundings.
"You wanna' smoke?" asked Hotham, offering the case of cigars.
"Nah, I'm good."
"Last chance," waving the case under his nose.
"I'm fine, honestly," laughed Ramath.
"Ah well, don't say I didn't offer," replied Hotham, lighting up a cigar and taking a long drag, exhaling the smoke in large oval rings. "So, I hear your goin' after Vladimir Margon again," he said, suddenly serious.
"Yep. I got no choice," answered the ex-arbite, expecting a argumentative statement in return.
"Good for you," came the reply.
"Thank you, my friend, that means a lot to me."
A large silence fell between the two men, the only noise coming from the clinking of glasses and Hotham's exhaling breaths. After a minute Damascus broke the silence.
"Of course, I'm coming with you. Don't want you to lose any more of that already small brain, do we?"
"I thought you might say that," sighed Ramath.
The intoxicating smell of promethium filled the hanger. Hotham breathed it in deeply, savouring the scent.
"If you are coming, you betta pull your wait," called Ramath from across the room. The day dreaming Hotham snapped back to reality.
"Stop your whining Cyrus, I'm just takin' a breather, if that's okay with you."
"You haven't done anything yet!"
"Then pass me that synth-wrench........ No the one over by the kit box.......... that's it."
Hotham spun the tool in the air, twirling it inbetween his fingers and then throwing it to the waiting Ramath.
Catching the wrench Ramath went to work on the engine of the dormant gun cutter. The light transport ship stood at over fifty feet tall and around two hundred foot long. Wings spanning out two hundred feet in each direction, gave the cutter the shape of a bird of prey, creating a menacing presence even in this docile state . Heavy turrets mounted underneath the wings and nose of the craft made it a formidable combat flyer. Fast, agile and lethal it was the perfect ship for a group of hunters.
Carrying crates of provisions and ammunition up the loading ramp, Hotham couldn't help but stare up at the sleeping ship.
"She's a beauty ain't she, can't believe that Geriloth let you use it."
"He thinks he owes me."
"What the hell for?" called Hotham from inside the cutter.
"Dunno, I think he feels guilty about my condition."
"Well I ain't complainin'. Now we got the best ship on the whole damn planet."
Ramath finished tweaking the engine and climbed the ramp into the belly of the craft. Finding Hotham in one of the loading bays he looked him straight in the eye.
"Are you sure about this? Because once I leave this place I may not be back for a longtime."
"I'm with you a hundred percent. You don't have to ask again, understand?"
"Yeh. Sure thing."
Looking to change the subject Hotham broke the temporary silence.
"Right what else do we have to load on to this bad boy? You know this is weird for me.....I've never needed this much stuff, I'm used to travellin' light, you know."
"As I said we'll be gone for a while. Better safe than sorry."
"Oh I don't know, sometimes it's fun the other way round, you know what I mean?"
The pair of bounty hunters chuckled. Ready to move the next set of crates on board, they strolled down the ramp back on to the hangar floor. And there sitting on the cargo, swinging her legs idly, was one of the greatest bounty hunters on Cerebra.
"Melita. Bloody. Tiberius!" sighed Hotham, "What the hell do you want?"
Ignoring the joker, the vuluptuous figure addressed the ex-arbite, looking him up and down as she did so.
"Word is your going after the infamous drug baron Vladmir Margon. To put it bluntly, I want in."
"And what makes you think it's an open invitation rich girl?" cut in Hotham, desperate to voice his opinion.
"The need of an invitation is irrelevant. I am the most knowledgable person in criminal activity within the sub-sector. You would be foolish to not take me with you."
"Talk about blowing your own trumpet, come on man, we don't need her. She'll probably cry at the first sign of blood," hissed Hotham. The woman turned to look at Hotham for the first time.
"Yet again you show your stupidity by passing judgement without appropriate evidence. Of course, were you to research the necessary material to attain this information about myself, you would find yourself sorely mistaken. Am I understood?"
Hotham opened his mouth to say something, but no sound escaped his mouth. After a moment, he muttered something about upper class snobbishness and stalked off, busying himself with loading the remaining crates.
Grinning from cheek to cheek Melita turned back to Ramath.
"So am I in?"
"I dunno.......are you sure?"
"Let me be honest, I'm the best damn bounty hunter in this building. So in my eyes you have two options. You can either let me come with you from the off., or you can communique me when your getting chased off the planet by a crowd of drug gangers, and you realise you should have brought me in the first place. So, what'll it be?"
Ramath sighed. "You're in. We leave at 20:00 hours."
The hunter turned his back on her, pacing back to Hotham, who was hovering in the background, anticipating the deal that had just taken place. Ramath spoke two words. And Hotham erupted.
"You gotta be kiddin'! She'll be driving me crazy. You've seen how she speaks down to me, the annoying bitch! Come on!"
With that Melita pushed herself off the crate, walking back towards the automatic doors. As she left she called back.
"I'll get the fourth man by tonight. See you later gentlemen."
Hotham turned on his friend.
"Fourth man?" What fourth man? Did you ask for a fourth man?"
Ramath smiled to himself.
"No, I didn't, but I get the feeling we're about to get one."
Five hours passed. Ramath and Hotham finished loading the ship, adding extra cargo for the two new hunters they had some how picked up in a short period of time. Most of these five hours included Hotham grumbling and muttering to himself. Ramath caught the odd phrase from him now and then, a "stupid woman!" here and a "thinking she can tell us what to do!" there. However, after the fourth hour or so, the grumbling seemed to stop and Hotham seemed to go quiet, transferring his annoyance into physical action. From inside the ship, Ramath could here bumps and the banging of crates. From the bottom of the ramp, Ramath began to get anxious, fearing some of the more precious cargo would get damaged; kicking grenades around is never a clever thing.
"Damascus. DAMASCUS! Could you quit that please? Your'e not doing anyone any good. So how about you stop pouting like a child and come out here?"
A grunt came from the cargo hold and the disheartened Hotham paced down the ramp, stopping in front of his friend. For the first time in the time since Melita had left, Hotham spoke with some sense.
"So when's the girl gettin' here?"
"Dunno' Hoth - she said this evening."
"Typical. She calls herself the best in the business and can't even tell the time."
"Look on the bright side, if she doesn't turn up by 20:00, we leave without her."
"Damn straight. Anyways, you decided where we're heading first?"
"I think so. I was thinkin', if we want to get to Margon, we'll need to know where his supplies are coming from, won't we?"
"Indeed we will."
"After speakin' to Marti, back at the Arbite HQ, I've got a list of agri-worlds known for drug farming."
"Damn, I hate trustin' those clean shaven, pretty boys. Still finding it hard forgiving you for bein' one of 'em."
Hotham smirked. Cyrus knew exactly what Damascus had been through as a young man, and also knew why he resented the local arbitary officers so much. Moving away from their pasts Ramath ploughed on with his plan.
"So I was thinking, if we go to each of these worlds, have a snoop about, we should be able to pinpoint at least one supplier in the sector, hopefully leading back to the big guy himself."
"And how many of these worlds are there on the list?" enquired the hunter.
"Umm... fifteen." muttered a reluctant Ramath.
"FIFTEEN!?" bellowed Hotham.
"Yeh. Now you see why we need the extra provisions."
"We'll be gone for years. Geeze Cy' you're really serious about this ain't you?"
Hotham sighed, hanging his head for a moment. After a brief silence he lifted his head, seemingly recovered from the shock.
"Where to first, buddy?"
"Well I was thinking if we get to Te-"
The loud hiss of the pneumatic doors interrupted the two men. They turned on their heels to see Melita Tiberius walk through the double doors, apparently alone. Slowly yet purposefully she crossed the hangar floor, striding towards the two friends. A loud clang from behind the ship caused the two to momentarily look behind them. After a split second they realised it must have been an engine backfire or something of the like. Not wanting to take their eyes of the woman walking towards them, they turned back. The hangar doors hissed shut.
"Good evening boys. I believe the time is 7.30 hours, which gives us thirty minutes before departure, correct?"
"Uh... ye" replied Ramath, taken aback by the confidence of the new companion.
"If you don't mind then, I will board the vessel and begin planning our course of action," stated the female hunter as she tried to make her way inbetween Hotham and Ramath to get to the ship. Hotham pushed her back. Tiberius grinned, anticipating the obvious question.
"Woah there missy, if I'm correct, then you said you you were bringing a fourth man. So where is the guy?"
Before melita could answer, Hotham continued his rant.
"What is it, no-one wanted to come on a mission with you? No-one wanted to put up with your annoying attitude? Where's your money now? You see, money can't buy you friendship, honey! What's the excuse, huh?"
"I haven't got an excuse. Mainly because I don't need one. If you just waited and let me explain before shooting of into some awful rendition of rhetorical questions and social allegations, that has climaxed in you looking once more like a complete arse hole, then you would have found out that I have found a man willing to join us."
For the second time that day, Hotham was silenced. He simply stared at the over-educated woman standing before him, a look of disbelief on his face. Feeling the tension build, Ramath put out the question, they both wanted to ask.
"Then where is he?"
Melita Tiberius smiled.
The two men spun around instantly, jumping out of their skins when they saw the looming figure standing a few feet behind them.
"SHIT!" Hotham shouted, drawing his holstered pistol, with the speed that he had become well known for.
Acting instinctively, Ramath pushed the muzzle of the snub pistol up above their heads. The shadowy figure spoke with a deep and weathered voice.
"Put it away soldier, unless you want me to take it from you."
Ramath finally lost his cool.
"What the hell do you think you're doin' sneaking up on us like that! You think its funny do you? You could have been shot, you realise that?"
"Yeh, you were close to havin' your head blown off, jackass!" chipped in Hotham, just as angry as his old friend.
Ignoring the two startled bounty hunters, the stealther finally stepped into the light. He was wrapped in a battered trench coat, dark brown in colour. The monotony of his attire was in itself strange. It was as though the man detested colour and made it imperative not to show any on himself. With it's grizzled skin, his face looked as though it had seen much experience. And pain. Once more he spoke, looking past the shocked Hotham and Ramath, speaking directly to Tiberius.
"I'll be in the ship, if you want anything."
Picking up his small amount of luggage, the man turned on his heel, and made his way up the ramp, disappearing into the ship. Worryingly, no sound came from his footsteps. Spinning to face Melita, the two remaining men besieged her with questions and derrogetory remarks.
"Who the hell is that?"
"Why did he sneak up on us?"
"Who does he think he is?"
"Did you put him up to that?"
"If he tries anything like that again I'll have him, I swear."
Melita Tiberius kept on smiling throughout. Finally, once Ramath and Hotham had said everything they could, she cleared her throat and began to inform them on the current situation.
"The man I have chosen to accompany us on this mission is one Onesimus Kir, a previous associate of mine."
"Wait a minute. The Onesimus Kir!?" asked Damascus.
"The insane psycho who's brought in his last eleven bounties dead or dying!?"
"The very same."
"Why the hell did ya pick him!?"
"We needed someone reliable, and with combat experience. He's the best of the best......except me of course."
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Hotham declared turning to face Ramath. Looking back at Melita he questioned.
"But why the whole sneaking up on us routine?"
"I just thought you'd like a demonstration of his talent, that's all."
"Yeh well thanks for that, I'll show you my talent next time you pull something like that," whipping his pistol out once more.
"Put it away Hoth." Ramath ordered. The hot headed rogue obeyed, not before staring down the woman standing opposite him.
"I'll be in the cockpit, Cy'."
With that Damscus Hotham ascended the ramp, and made his way to the front of the transport, checking around every corner as he went.
"I hope you know what you're doing, this is important to me" Ramath said softly to the girl.
"Oh don't worry, I do. How about you, have you got a plan?"
Showing his back to Tiberius, Cyrus Ramath trudged up the loading ramp, metallic rings sounding with every footstep.
"I'll tell you inside."
"You're the boss."
And with that the team were boarded. None were certain of their return, but something that was certain, Vladmir Margon wouldn't know what hit him...............
The craft ascended through Cerebra's atmosphere with ease, its sleek design allowing it to slice through the air like a sharpened blade. To keep the location of The Brotherhood's sanctuary hidden certain maneuvers had to be taken as precautions. After leaving the hanger, the ship had to fly low, keeping below the radar. After flying for several minutes at this low altitude, the ship climbed steeply. Rising at the highest angle possible. This way any prying eyes would have a very short window in which to record their ship and its transponder code. Usually the prying eyes were the Arbites, and the last thing the bounty hunters wanted was to be hunted themselves.
At the helm of the transport was Damascus Hotham. After spending nearly six months chasing down a Glavian smuggler, Hotham had found it necessary to become a skilled combat pilot, allowing him to match the Glavian's natural and hereditary talent. But that was nearly five years ago, long before he had volunteered to accompany his old friend on what could safely be called a suicidal mission. So here he sat, concentrating on the ships controls, his hands moving expertly over the circuitry, keeping the ship together.
He hadn't spoken a word since entering the craft, still frustrated by Melita Tiberius' treatment of him. He had simply nodded when Ramath had told him to take the bird into orbit of the second moon. He wasn't there to question Ramath's judgement. This was his revenge mission after all. What was bugging him were the people who had decided to tag along. First there was Melita Tiberius, possibly the most irritating person Hotham had ever come across. Ever since she had walked in to the hangar and invited herself along, he had taken a disliking to her. She gave him the feeling that she was only doing it for the glory, not really caring if she was helping Cy' or not. Another thing that he detested about her was the arrogance brought on by her wealth. He himself had turned down a life of education and well-being for a real life. And here she was trying to have it both ways. It wasn't fair. Hotham would have to wait though, once he had seen her fight, then he could take the high ground, cause there is no way she could be as good as him.
And then there was Onesimus Kir. Shit. Although he would never admit it he was terrified of the guy. As far as reputations went within The Brotherhood, this guy had the worst. Mysterious and unsocial, Hotham had never known Kir to ever work with a partner. Let alone as part of a team. When Hotham had last spoken to one of his previous partners within the clan, he had been told of the last bounty Kir had accepted. Two weeks after a bounty on a drug pusher had been accepted, Onesimus Kir had dragged a body into the Conclave. The body had a snapped leg, a broken arm, punctured lung, internal bleeding, fractured skull and all of his teeth missing. And had been kept alive. Even though Hotham hadn't been there personally, he had heard that the noise made by the broken man was so loud; Kir had broken his jaw, just to silence him.
That man was now sitting in his quarters, not so far from where Hotham was sat now. This worried him, screw that, this petrified him! If the psycho could do that to a human being and still sleep at night, who knew what he was capable of. But still, he had joined them on this mission. Another thing down to Melita Tiberius. For some reason, Hotham had a feeling that this woman was going to get him killed. And Hotham didn't want to die. Not yet anyway. Hotham was snapped out of his thoughts by a voice behind him.
"Hoth buddy, come on we got a meeting in the tactical station. Me and the girl have got our target," Ramath called from the back of the cockpit.
"Got ya." he replied
Inlaying a standard orbit pattern, Hotham gave control of the ship over to the auto-pilot system. Lifting himself out of his seat, the pilot made his way to the centre of the ship, following his friend.
"Aphaea 3, agri-world, third moon of Aphaea, Obsidian Sub-Sector."
Standing in front of a screen, Melita Tiberius was giving the mission briefing to the new team. In her hand she held a communication device, which allowed her to cycle through images and diagrams on the screen. Sat in front of her on crates were Damascus and Ramath, listening closely. In the furthest corner stood the shadowy Kir. He remained unnaturally still, his eyes hidden under his hood. After consulting with Ramath and hearing his plan, Tiberius had decided far more information was needed and had spent the entire journey so far engrossed in the ships on board computer. After running cross reference programs and studying historical records Melita had found what she needed and was ready to make her opinion known.
"The moon is very scarcely populated with the few inhabitants dispersed widely across the surface. As an agri-world it's main income is thorough the trading of organic goods."
"We all know what an agri-world is doll, we ain't that stupid!" interrupted Hotham.
"I'm merely stating the facts, to give you a full understanding of the target system. Sorry if you find this unnecessary, but I have found it vital when executing a mission like this."
"Please, continue," motioned Ramath.
"As I was saying, officially Aphaea 3 trades in drygrass, the fruit known as pomum and finally cattle. However, recent reports from Naval Boarding Brigades have shown a high frequency of obscura shipments that have been intercepted. The only thing that links these shipments is their proximity to Aphaea 3. Now I have cross referenced this along with other information with the list which Ramath has acquired from the arbites, and Aphaea 3 seems to be source of the drugs distributed in this sub-sector. This is where we will find Margon's suppliers folks."
"Nice work Melita, I'll take it from here," said Ramath as he raised from his seat to address the team.
"As Melita has just told us, our target is Aphaea 3. Obviously we haven't the man power or resources to take out an entire drug farm, but that's not what we are here for. We can inform the Arbites about the farm after our mission, but for now it is vital that we have the element of surprise with us."
"So what's the plan Cy'?" Enquired Hotham, seeming to pay far more attention now that Melita had stopped talking.
"On the North-East land mass, there is a particularly advanced farming sector. This is where we believe the top dog will be. Probably one of Margon's closest associates. Our plan is to get him to talk, give us his links, and confirm our suspicions. There's also a bounty on his head, so we can claim that at the same time. Hopefully he will be able to give us our next target and we'll work our way up the chain of command from there. Understood?"
Hotham shook his head positively, as did Tiberius. However, no noise came from the figure in the corner.
"Listen to me Kir. If you kill this guy before we've had time to get what we need, it's goin' to make our job very difficult in the long run. Try your best to incapacitate not decapitate. Got it? This is the target, memorize the face."
Standing aside, an ugly looking male appeared on the screen. There was a silence as the team absorbed the information. A silence broken by Kir leaving the room abruptly, to prepare for the upcoming mission.
The team followed him out of the tactical station silently.
Two days passed and Hotham dropped the bird into the agri-world's atmosphere. The lushious green of the world was a stark contrast to Cerebra's hives and desolate forestry. A welcome change in Hotham's opinion. Descending through the foreign airspace, the ship's after burners fizzed. Hotham opened the comm-link to the rest of the ship.
"Touch down in 20 seconds.................10........................ ...5...........3....2....1. She's down. Hotham out."
Turning the ships engines and electric systems offline, Hotham joined the rest of the team above the loading ramp. In their combat gear, the hunters looked formidable warriors. Hotham himself, dressed in in his Glavian Armoured Suit, looked ready for a fight, pistols holstered at his sides. He caught the eye of Cyrus, similarly dressed in light armour, his old arbites riot gear still in good shape. A reassuring look was passed between the two. Soon the ever silent Onesimus Kir had joined them, cloaked in his armoured bodyglove and trench coat. His infamous recurve bow was slung over his back, and a sword at his side. The most disturbing thing about Kir's image was the mask which he wore over his face. The death mask, another thing that had become synonymous with his brutal methods. Rumour was, Kir didn't want his enemy to see his face in case their spirit wanted vengeance.
Last to arrive at the designated disembarkation zone was the girl. As Hotham saw her approach he realised she had no protective armour on whatsoever. He would have thought with her wealth she would have had the heaviest armour available. But there she stood with merely a cloth cloak and normal clothing. What was she up to? As she reached the three men, she seemed eager to tell them something. Hotham realised he was right as she opened her mouth to speak.
"OK gentlmen I just scanned through some older records of the farming logs and came across some information that needs to be known."
"Spit it out then," barked Hotham.
"The physical labourers on the farms could be a xenos breed," revealed Melita.
"Damn, that's all we need, bloody xenos filth running round the place," cursed Hotham.
"Calm down Hoth', just everyone remember the objective and be careful, who knows what the aliens are capable of," declared Ramath.
"Come on let's go."
The four Brotherhood operatives moved out of the transport, onto the fertile soil of Aphaea 3. Moving fluidly across the plains, they approached the target sight. Scores of small, blue skinned workers could be seen working the land all around them, forcing the team to stay low and silent. Suddenly a small outpost came in to view. This was it, the moment they'd been waiting for...........
All other thoughts got pushed out of Hotham's brain. All that was left was "Stick to the plan!"
The soil beneath their feet was extremely rich. Moist to the point of perfection, life teemed within it, earth insects and arachnids. It was something that the female bounty hunter couldn't get over. Never before in all her studies had she seen such a lushious place of agriculture. Anything could be grown here, she was sure of it. But for as far as her eye could see, the only thing visible were hundreds upon hundreds of obscura plantations. Such a waste, such a waste. She made no comment to her colleagues. It was neither the place, nor the time. This was business, and she didn't intend to change the way she dealt with business. Not for anyone.
Approaching the immediate perimeter of the outpost, the team fanned out, remaining silent. They would remain this way until they were forced to communicate, or worse open fire. Already ahead Melita Tiberius moved swiftly from plant to plant, gracefully swinging herself in and out of cover. The mere smell of the plants was intoxicating, creating a feeling of somewhat light headedness, within her. Shaking the feelings off she carried on. To succeed she would have to focus, getting high on whatever concoction of drug they were growing here was not the way to focus. Although she knew several artists who would beg to differ.
Tiberius glanced back, checking that the team were all still moving the same direction, and had not got in to any hostile situations. With her back to a particularly large plant, she took in her surroundings. Moving up behind her were the two friends Hotham and Ramath. They too were keeping to the cover, checking each corridor of plants before moving to the next. However, the ever silent Onesimus Kir had vanished. For an instance Tiberius panicked. This was not the plan, where had the guy gone? No sooner had the feeling arrived, Melita pushed the feelings to the back of her mind, her discipline taking over. Kir could handle himself, all too well.
Spinning out of the cover, the girl once more moved closer to their goal. Half way between one bush and the next, a guttoral retching echoed out from the next row of drugs. Stunned, she threw herself into the next piece of terrain, forcing her back against it. Using hand signals to freeze her visible associates, she began running the situation through her mind. Once more looking around she saw an exchange in words between Hotham and Ramath. As a competant lip-reader, Tiberius saw the hot headed Hotham mouth what had become his catchphrase.
"I have a bad feeling about this."
After the declaration, Melita was shocked to witness Hotham draw one of his antique pistols from a hip slung holster. The plan was going awry and she knew it wasn't long until bullets began to fly. Slowly glancing around the corner of the plant, Tiberius was able to lay eyes on the thing that had voiced the unnerving cry. Standing around ten feet away from Melita's makeshift cover stood a small, humanoid alien. Standing at around four and a half feet tall, it's skin seemed to be made up of scales and was the colour of Cerebra's sky. Midnight blue. Clearly xenos in origin, the creature was working the land, using a long pole to turn over the earth. At its waist hung a short, one-handed axe, evidently a tool used to chop the plants being grown in the area. It was however, a potential weapon. Something which was still running through Tiberius' mind when she slowly walked out from her cover.
Crouched over its manual labour, the alien beast remained oblivious to the bounty hunter's approach, continuing its work. With no weapon drawn, she moved closer, leaving her hands clearly visible in front of her body. Sshe briefly looked back at the two men standing cautiously two rows back. Now with guns in their hands they looked wary of her actions. She knew that if this negotiation failed then there would be no other option. These guys would open fire. And the gates of hell, would come crashing down all around them. Turning back to the potential hostile, now only two feet away, Melita purposefully coughed. Obviously startled, the stunted creature spun. Instinctively a shriek came out of its mouth, accompanied by a fluid propelled towards the unarmed bounty hunter. Venom.
As though in slow motion, the corrosive saliva hurtled towards Tiberius' face, aimed directly at her eyes. Melita knew that if the the corrosive material were to find its mark, then it would blind her indefinetely. Like usual though, the young woman had come prepared. As soon as the venom came to within a 5 inch proximity of her face, it was stopped. The alien looked strangely bemused as its natural defense simply sizzled on an invisible barrier, protecting its bearer. It tilted its head in confusion, before turning tail and fleeing. In seconds the fizzing and hissing had ceased and the energy field surrounding Melita, returned to its invisible state. Play time was over.
Watching the startled creature flee back towards the safety of the trees, Melita knew that there was no way to negotiate now. The team had to act quickly and efficiently, getting to the target as soon as possible. Before Tiberius could act, Hotham and Ramath began their push forward, acting far more aggressively. As she looked back towards the direction of the fleeing beast, a second one appeared, this time moving with more caution. Before she knew it a makeshift spear had been launched towards her head, hurtling towards her with great speed. Not wanting to tempt fate, Tiberius knew that trusting the refractor shield again was not wise. With the lethal weapon getting nearer, the girl knew what she had to do. Keeping her sight fixed on the spear tip, she saw it almost at a reduced speed. Then ,at the last possible moment, Tiberius bent over backwards, forming a bridge position with her body. A nanosecond later the missile passed, inches from her chin. As planned, the protective field did not activate, letting the spear fly away into the plantation behind her.
Awed by the action it had just seen, the reptilian merely stood where it had launched the javelin from evidently expecting the target to be dead. As the bounty hunter rose from her bridge, a pistol had found it's way into her hand. Straightening herself, Tiberius brought the sleek pistol up to her eye. She took a single heartbeat to aim, a skill honed over the years of target practise she had put herself through. A single bullet left the gun's snout, finding its resting place in the creature's skull. Still with the look of disbelief on its face, the stunted animal crumpled to the floor, a purple liquid running from the entry point.
With a single bullet, Tiberius had unleashed hell on the farm. As Melita threw herself back in to cover, she turned back, only to see the hot-headed Damascus Hotham charging forward with his pistols blaring. Another of the small reptiles, obviously hearing the commotion, unwittingly came out of a nearby grove of trees. This put it right in Hothams' line of fire. On instinct Hotham brought his antique pistols to bear on the potential hostile. Several of the bullets failed to hit their intended target, however a lot more found their mark. By the time Hotham had ceased fire, the creature had been riddled with shots, it's torso ripped to shreds. Losing conciousness it fell to the floor, creating an omminous thud on the ground. Tiberius meerly watched as the xenos died before her. A piercing death cry escaped it's mouth before it fell into death. The sound shook through Melita's soul. She realised how often she had seen scenes such as this. And how haunted she was every time it occured. This knowledge comforted her, for when seeing death eventually had no impact on her, she knew there was no return.
Once again re-focussing her mind, she called over to Hotham, who was now reloading his spent pistols.
"Nice work hotshot! Now the whole damn plantation is ging to know we are here. Before our next excursion, you might want to spend some time in the practice rooms. Emperor's sake if you're gonna go around blowing the shi-"
Mid sentence Melita froze. Out of the corner of her eye she saw more movement. Expecting another stunted alien, she snapped her head around to the source of the movement. There was no visible sign of any more of the reptiles, although shrieks could be heard from nearly every direction. Suddenly, the sunlight caught the reflective surface of something a few hundred yards away. Finally Tiberius made out what the glare was from, field glasses. And looking straight at her was a human. The target was here, and he had seen them. She knew the ride was going to get bumpier before it was over.
The next minute was one of the challenging encounters Melita Tiberius had experienced in her career. The target had spotted at least two of their team and had made a short burst across one of the plant corridors, getting himself out of sight. Expecting to see a fire arm of some sort in his hand, Tiberius was confused to see what seemed to be a radio transmitter of some type. Shaking the confusion of Tiberius prepared herself to break from cover and charge the target. Making a last minute check to see if the coast was clear, she leaned her head out of the obscura plant, and then, simutaneously, an aggressive outburst came from every reptile in the vicinity. Within seconds, four seperate hostiles had burst out of the terrain, wielding wood axes, spears, and in one case a pick axe. With an unnatural speed and violence they threw themselves at the three remaining members of the team.
Anticipating the charge, Melita knew that the bounty hunters needed a decisive maneuvre to drive the enemy back. WIth this in mind she pulled herself further into the plant's branches, allowing herself to become almost invisible to anyone. From her vantage point she viewed the four rabid creatures charge Hotham and Ramath. The beast that Hotham had shot just minutes ago, fuelled with some mystery power, raised itself from the floor. A shocked look filled Hotham's face, as the seemingly deceased reptile charged him. Melita watched as Hotham tried to shift his body weight to dive out of the way of the incoming xenos. In a dramatic pose, Hotham, launched himself away from the crazy animal. Misjudging his footing though, the soil gave way and he slipped, thundering to the floor as he did so. "Typical" she thought. Locating Ramath, she saw another one of the aliens advancing on him. Defending himself with his long rifle, Ramath was managing to parry the creatures furious assault. It hacked the gun with its axe again and again, driving Ramath back the way he'd come. The mission was not going well. The plan had fallen to pieces. They were going to have to wing it the rest of the way. Tiberius had no worries though. Improvisation was one of her strong points. Then again, everything she did was one of her strong points. Melita smiled to herself at the thought. Another creature passed her hiding spot. She noticed that the creatures were trying to surround Hotham in particular. Probably had something to do with him making more noise than a war titan.
Still on his back, Hotham was evading the potentially lethal blows being dealt by the aliens. Rolling back and forth the axes were falling into the earth on either side of him, getting closer and closer each time, From what she could see, the aliens had become faster, stronger and more determined all at the same time. Pondering over the cause had brought her to two conclusions. Either it was a racial attribute, brought on by self preservation instincts, or it was some form of external stimuli. Readying herself for her counterstrike, she drew her auto gun, which had been slung over her shoulder for the last hour. She had an idea of how to eliminate these xenos pests and was ready to put it into action. As she stepped out of cover she glanced down at the only alien that was still downed. The one she had given a head shot to earlier. Noticing that there was some form of collar around its neck, she saw a transparent liquid pumping out of it, injecting the dead reptile. External stimuli it was then, with that matter settled, Melita Tiberius took aim.
Before she could fire, a bullet flew from one of Hothams pistols, ripping through the shoulder tissue of one of the animals. Stunned it fell backwards, hitting the floor a few feet away. This finally gave Hotham the oppertunity to drag himself to his feet. Still he was surrounded by two of the leering creatures, fending their assaults off as best he could. Picking her target, Tiberius opened fire with her autogun. Three well placed shots riddled the back of the nearest alien. Forcing it back towards the treeline. Scrabbling for cover, she had managed to pin it down where it was, eliminating its present danger. With one xenos left on its feet, Damascus began to back away slowly, watching the aliens movements carefully. A human shout of pain came from the area where Melita had glanced the target. Something or someone had gotten to him. And Tiberius had a funny feeling it migh have been the team member who had disappeared at the start of the encounter. Behind her Ramath was attempting to retreat but to no prevail. Every time he backed off, the creature attacking him would advance on him, throwing their weight behind every blow.
Before she could react again, the xenos that Hotham had shot at close range had suddenly leapt back in to the fray. Jumping into close quarter fighting with the man who had just put a bullet through its torso. With a shovel in it's hands it brought a blow down, striking Hotham in the temple. Once again Hotham was thrown to the floor, dazed and hurt. A moment of panick overcame Melita again. This had just gotten deadly serious. Unless she could react quickly, Hothams life was in severe jeapardy. Not helping matters, Ramath seemed to be in hot water too, barely preventing his assailant from landing a blow. Bringing the autorifle up to her eye, she fired six bullets. Five of them hit the two attacking Hotham and one hitting the tree behind them. The creatures staggered back from Hotham's stunned body, temporarily disheartened. The tide was turning and it wouldn't be long before victory was hers. Tiberius was sure of it.
Swinging his rifle around, Ramath was finally able to knockback the insane creature. A cracking sound from its jaw, accompanied it staggering back several yards, giving Ramath the oppertunity he needed to break away and recooperate. Tiberius watched as the staggered animal attempted to follow Ramath. The next thing she saw was the beast falling over, it's limbs totally tangled in tight nooses. Tiberius looked back to see Hotham regaining his awareness, and took this as her cue to go after the primary objective. Spinning on her heel, she called back to Ramath.
"Watch Hotham's back a second, then advance to the designated rendevous. Understood?"
"Sure thing, where are you going?"
"To take this bastard down!"
With that she moved away from the combat area, approaching the hut they viewed earlier in the mission. As she grew closer, she began to hear the sounds of a fight. As they got clearer, she could make out grunts, and punches. Moving throught the final obscura plant terrace, she finally saw the source of the sound. Layed out on the floor was what looked like the target. It was difficult to tell, as his facial features had been mashed and disfigured, it looked as though his jaw had been broken in several places, his nose was smashed, his eyes were already swollen beyond belief and several of his teeth were missing. Leaning over his body, still beating his flesh was the fourth member of Ramath's team. Onesimus Kir, living up to his reputation, had been the first one able to get the target. With an arrow through his thigh, and a sword through his foot, it seemed the target hadn't gone down without a fight. When Tiberius was about 30 feet away from the pair, the target, using what must have been his last concious thought, managed to pull a pistol out from his holster. Rather than aiming it at his attacker however he pointed it to the sky. Realising what it was Tiberius tried to call out to Kir, but she was too late. A red flash came from the muzzle of the pistol, shooting a flare into the sky. Hanging 200 feet in the air the flare, flooded the vicinity in a red light. Noticing what the slaver had done, Kir began to strike him with a heightened resolve, putting every ounce of strength into the blows. Tiberius was shocked to see that the target was still concious, but by the looks of him, he should have been dead.
Hearing more movement behind her, Tiberius once again used the plants as cover, expecting more hostile company to be on the way. She knew that flares were often used to call in labourers, after the day of working the land was over. And that's what the target was doing. Calling back the workers. Except, in this case the workers were savage, drug fuelled, psycho-xenos. Just as she had expected the two remaining aliens, not to have been hit in the previous shoot out, leaped through the trees, paying no heed to her, disguised as she was in the plants. Kir, seeing the new threat, immediately stood up from his victim. Pulling the sword out of the target's foot, he readied himself for the attack. Tiberius had knew what was coming though and knew exactly what to do. After the two hostiles had passed, she dived out of the cover, rolling swiftly onto her feet. Bringing the autogun up to her shoulder, she activated the underslung bolas launcher. After seeing the effectiveness of the tanglefoot grenade Ramath had deployed, she knew that this was the way to deal with these creatures. Firing the mechanism, two bolas' flew out of the secondary barrel, both finding their target. With one wrapping itself around the neck of a creature and the other bolas entangling the legs of another, both aliens were brough to the ground with tremendous force, knocking them both out. The drug had seemed to have worn out, or was indeed beginning to dissolve in their systems. Tiberius was pretty sure that if the drug was still in its full state, the fall would not have put the creatures out cold. It seemed that the Emperor was with them today.
Finally silence came to the plantation. The only sounds that could now be heared was the groaning of the drug dealer and the sounds of Hotham and Ramath making sure none of the animals were going to "get up". Sheathing his sword, Kir turned back to the dealer. The mysterious hunter landed another punch to the sternum of the target, before grabbing him by the scruff and dragging him towards the hut. Looking back at the destruction, Tiberius' eyes fell on the beast with its throat entangled. By the looks and sounds emmited by it, it was beginning to choke. Unable to stand the suffering, she steadily approached the creature. Gazing upon its body, she watched as it struggled and squirmed, trying to rid itself of the constraints set upon it. Feeling its sorrow, the young bounty hunter could watch it no longer. With the but of her autogun she knocked the beast into unconciousness. She then reached out and untangled the bolas. She knew that the creature had no choice in what it did. The least she could do was give it freedom.
"Wake up!............Hey I said WAKE UP!"
Outside the target's small hut, the team had regrouped. With no major injuries, the mission had been a success, albeit a minor one. They had what they had came for, and now they merely needed to extract the information. By any means neccessary. Leaned over the broken man, was the man who had broke him. Onesimus Kir had slapped the target back in to a state of conciousness. Dazed and groggy, the drug farmer stared up at the team through unfocussed eyes. Kir continued with his interrogation.
"Now listen to me you filthy bastard! You're gonna tell us what we want to know, and you're gonna tell us now. Got it!?"
The target merely looked up into Kir's masked face, confused.
"Who the hell do you supply!?.............Which lowlife do you sell this shit to!?.............DAMMIT ANSWER ME!"
Through his swollen face, the man used his last ounce of energy to spit in Kir's face. Enduring serious pain, due to the broken jaw, the target mumbled
"I'd rather die, you bounty hunting scum!"
As quick as lightening Kir's sword was out of its scabard and at the farmers throat.
"Believe me that can quite easily be arranged! In fact allow me."
Raising the blade Kir made to slash the beaten criminal. Before the blow could fall, Ramath was in front of him. Blocking the blades trajectory. He spoke to Kir in a firm voice.
"You can't do anything to him until we have some answers. I won't let you kill the only link we have the Margon. Not while he he has information. Got it?"
Without a word, the masked sociopath, turned and stalked off back into the plantation, back towards the ships direction. Within seconds he had vanished completely, lost in the darkness of the night.
Stepping forward, Tiberius spoke to Ramath quietly, out of ear shot of the fugitive.
"Let me speak to him, I'll get what we need, and then we can get out of here. Trust me."
Nodding, Ramath paced back to where his friend stood, about ten feet away from the slumped criminal. Approaching the farmer, Tiberius knelt down beside him, talking to him quietly. So quietly that from where he was stood Ramath couldn't here the exchange. For the first time since the xenos encounter, Damascus spoke.
"I don't like to say it but I am bloody glad those two came along. I gotta feelin' it would have been pretty damn difficult with just the two of us. Dont cha think Cy'?"
"I know what you mean, that Kir though............the guys a nut case. I've never seen a person with such a broken face. I don't feel safe around him."
"Well you seemed to stand up to him well enough then. You got some balls doin' that; was quite proud of ya, I must say."
"I was just waiting for him to stab me instead."
"Well then he would have had me to deal with wouldn't he!"
"I have no doubt" Ramath said beginning to laugh.
"Hey, what you laughin' at. I'd have that guy in a flash."
"Like you had those freak creature things. Was lying down just part of "having them in a flash"?"
"Hey! There was three of them and the ground was.........slippy."
"OK buddy, whatever helps you sleep."
The two friends laughed with each other for the first time since beginning the mission. It felt good. Like old times. Before they had finished though a gunshot came from the criminal and Tiberius. With the pistol still smoking, the criminal fell to one side, his head half blown off. Regaining her composure Tiberius stood up.
"Looks like I hit a sore spot. The crazy bastard just took my gun and shot himself. However, I got what we needed."
Without saying another word she moved past the two awed men, beginning her way back towards the ship. Shaking off the shock Damascus blurted out,
"Well care to share with the rest of us?"
Without turning back Tiberius shouted back,
"Boys, we're going to Chegar."
As the hawk lifted off from Aphaea, the reassembled team stared out over the land below. Although night had now fallen on the rolling plains, fires burning below were visible even from this altitude. The band of hunters had seen to it that none of the narcotics grown on Aphaea would find its way to the masses. Motor fuel and a single match had made sure the obscura farms would continue to burn through the entire night. By the time the Arbites had been alerted, and envoys sent, the arsonists were long gone, leaving only destruction and justice in their wake.
Ramath dropped his riot armour to the floor with a thud. Scratched and bruised, his injuries were only superficial, but he knew it could have been a different story. He shuddered at the notion that the filthy alien half breeds could have put venom into his system. He was glad that Tiberius, after her close encounter, had insisted that every member of the team take a de-tox stimulant, just in case. The battle that he had just endured was a vicious one, a thing that he had been expecting on the trail of Margon. During his Arbite days some of the most dangerous and psychotic criminals he had captured were working for Vladimir Margon. Directly or otherwise. After the encounter with the supplier and his slaves, Ramath knew what to expect in the upcoming weeks. Because the closer they got to the infamous drug baron, the tougher it was going to get. Lying down on the unforgiving bed he managed to eventually fall asleep, exhaustion getting the better of him.
The over-vox system snapped Ramath out of his slumber. Hotham's distinctive voice rang out across the ship.
"Cyrus, if you're gettin' this buddy, get your backside up to the cockpit. Pronto!"
With a sigh, Ramath, pulling a cargo suit over his head, exited his quarters, making his way to the nose of the ship. Walking through the ships narrow passage ways, his footsteps sent out a metallic ring through the deserted corridor, echoing back at him. Approaching the cockpit, Ramath began thinking through the information that Tiberius had acquired from the previous target. With no help from Kir, she had managed to convince the supplier to share some details about his links across the sub-sector. Even though the criminal had shot himself by the time she could get details regarding Margon himself, the leads they had gotten were sufficient. Tiberius herself had de-briefed the team, and shared the information with them as soon as they had plotted a course. Ramath re-ran her words through his head, absorbing every bit of detail he could.
She had stood in front of them, Hotham and himself seated around the control room and Onesimus Kir, lingering in the doorway. Kir hadn't spoken a word to Ramath since he had gotten in his way on Aphaea. Throughout the entire meeting, Ramath felt daggers coming from the eyes of Kir. Daggers which were aimed at him. And the last thing in the universe Ramath wanted was to be aimed at by Onesimus Kir. Keeping one eye on the surly shadow in the doorway, Ramath managed to take in most of what Tiberius was saying.
"Okay gentlemen, from what little information that I attained from our last target I have told our slippery friend Damascus to plot a course to Chegar. Now I'm not going to insult you all by explaining where Chegar is, I don't think there's a bounty hunter in the sector who doesn't know. So as you are well aware, Chegar houses some of the most ambitious drug dealer's in the immediate vicinity of space. It's a well known fact that Margon has established connection here, although we could never trace it back to him via records. Hence, I believe that it is in our best interest to take down one of these dealers and use a more traditional method to trace the connection back to Margon and his cronies. You all know what I'm saying?"
"Ye we ain't stupid!" blurted out Hotham.
"And yet you still talk like that," came the girl's reply. Before Hotham could come back with an answer Tiberius started plowing on with the briefing.
"By hacking in to the arbites mainframe, I have been able to track and locate one of the dealers which our last target said he supplied. He is a resident of the Solarus Hive, working in the lower habs. Now, I found a restricted file on the database. A file which revealed that the Inquisition were keeping tabs on this individual. I ask now, does anyone have an issue with potential Inquisition interference?"
The room stayed silent. Everyone knew what was expected of them when they set out from Cerebra. No-one would stand in their way. Not even the Holy Ordos of the Inquisition.
"That's settled then. The next target is this man. Chronius Spiel."
A man's face appeared on the overhead display. The picture was out of focus and poorly lit, obviously taken secretly, most probably by an observation team. Still, it gave the team members enough to go on. and Ramath was confident he would be able to recognize the face when required.
"Spiel has the audacity to call himself a saviour, preaching that the Imperial government is corrupt and the Emperor's will being disobeyed. Of course this is merely a front to protect his true occupation. By keeping his "insane" ramblings in the lower levels, no-one has payed him much attention, passing him off as demented. It looks like the Inquisition has seen through this facade and while studying his recent actions and movements, I have reason to believe he is aware of the danger he's in. So he's holed up in one of the entertainment districts, surrounding himself with clients and friends. We have no option but to strike hard, fast and get out as soon as possible. Otherwise we'll have far more problems to deal with than a back alley drug gang. Hotham what's our ETA?"
"Twelve hours," Hotham answered.
"Then I suggest we get some rest, sharpen our wits, and prepare ourselves. Good luck."
That had been eleven hours ago and Ramath was now sitting in the co-pilot seat next to Hotham. Apparently Hotham had wanted to discuss a serious matter, but after talking for about an hour it became obvious that the rogue simply wanted some company. Before Ramath knew it, the urbanised, hive infested, mechanical looking Chegar came into view. Swooping down into the atmosphere, Hotham guided the transport to the necessary hive. After some quick thinking and a bit of persuasive discussion with the docking officials, Hotham was able to set the ship down in the trade district of the Solarus Hive. Powering down the engines, Hotham voxed the other two team members to prepare for disembarkment. Within half an hour the team were assembled and kitted up. Once again they waited for each other before leaving the ship. Hotham had resupplied his revolver ammunition, anticipating the firefight that was likely to ensue. Local time was 03.00 hours. The hive was in it's night cycle and the streets were relatively quiet.
The team made their way through the hive, weaving their way through the densely packed streets, evry step bringing them closer to the lower habs. It was clear that the poverty here was in the extremes. Vagrants littered the street, a stench hung in the air. This area was a shining example of how narcotics could affect entire communities. On three seperate occasions, whilst they made their journey deeper into the heart of the slum, sleazy, malnourished addicts attempted to initiate a mugging. The two who attempted to ambush Tiberius, were merely disarmed of any weapon they possessed, and sent packing with a light but precise strike. When the third attempt came however, it was on the masked predator in the group. Within twenty seconds the would-be mugger was in a heap on the floor, with a broken arm, splintered shin bone and bruised windpipe. The team advanced nonetheless.
After two hours of crossing the hive, the team, drew closer to the point they had identified as Spiel's last known location. At the end of the culdisaced street, a crowd was gathered. Around fifty people were standing in a circle surrounding a single figure. Although there were several roars of agreement and muttered questions from the crowd, it was easy to hear the voice that was commanding their attention.
"Throw off the gauntlet of oppression! I speak the word of the Emperor, for I have seen his hallowed throne and stared upon his magnificence. The beurocrats who run your lives are corrupt, and in listening to them you too are corrupt. If one wishes to sit at the Emperors side and feast at his table then you must rid yourselves of these manipulators! They and they alone will be humanities downfall! Will you sit idly by and let that happen!?"
Another roar of disapproval came from the captivated audience.
Hotham turned to the rest of his team. With a smile he said
"Is it me or is that guy way too up his own arse?"
With a laugh Ramath nodded.
"I think it's time to break up this little party."
And with that Ramath drew his rifle. Holding it in one arm he pointed it towards the sky. Pulling the trigger, the round discharged sending a loud crack through the street. As pandemonium broke out the crowd dispersed, leaving only Spiel and his associates. With guns..........