A veteran of the Gigaparsec War, Dr. Max Culp catches alien war criminals with his skills as a !Kung tribal hunter. Suddenly, his only surviving teammate is kidnapped. To free his friend, Max is forced to take a mob contract on a Saurian fugitive hiding at the borders of Human space. But Max is tired of wet work and alien conspiracies. Can he find a path back to civilian life without losing what’s left of his soul or those closest to him?
Fans of Heinlein, Star Wars, Retief, and Flinx should enjoy riding in a starship on this quest to other planets.
SAMPLE of Void Contract:
SAMPLE of Void Contract:
Copyright 2015 Scott Rhine
“Patience,” Max whispered to himself. “Wait for the hole.” The assault on the compound would proceed whether or not he succeeded, but if he screwed up, a lot of his friends would die in this swamp.
The Turtle Special Forces raid of the remote plantation on the backwater world of Napoleon had been months in the planning. The target, a Phib war criminal and drug lord, had spent the decades since the end of the war fortifying his swamp base. This was the last remaining stronghold of the amphibian resistance. The hundred Phib “agricultural specialists” were all ex-military, guilty of some of the worst war crimes in history. As usual, Max had to go in first; he didn’t expect to reach his thirty-third birthday.
The aliens known as Phibs could work themselves up into a frenzy, shredding everything nearby, so surprise was critical in planning any attack. Burning them down at range was best. God help any soldier who had to face them in the water. Early contact literature associated them with the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unlike the movies, Phibs had no interest in Human women. Pillaging someone else’s natural resources was their specialty.
Humans were among the most versatile and adaptable species in the Union, but they had the highest casualty rates in battle. Therefore, Max served as a medic. If he could patch a wounded Saurian and haul it to a regeneration tank, it could survive almost anything. However, for a few minutes every mission, the multi-species task force needed Max for his other talents.
Any decent technician could bypass heat and motion sensors, but this compound was patrolled by psi talents who could detect intelligent life half a kilometer away. According to the Union charter, these unarmed mercenaries couldn’t be killed outright. These men wore biomonitors, which made them canaries in the coal mine. If a psi’s heart stopped or their brains went into theta state, the whole site went on alert. The task force’s non-lethal sonic weapons weren’t effective beyond thirty meters. That meant someone had to sneak up on the psis and shoot them with paralytic darts. Because he was a medic who petrified people, Max’s call sign was Medusa.
Max’s distant ancestors had crept up on animals in the Kalahari Desert for food. As a !Kung tribesman, he had a genetic anomaly—psis couldn’t sense him. When hunting, he manifested as a psychic null. Even in the same room, people seldom noticed him until he spoke. Then, his stark, blue eyes attracted more attention than his light-brown skin.
The lieutenant had ordered him to wait for the cool, evening rain shower because cold-blooded Phibs grew more sluggish after a sudden lowering of temperature. The reason didn’t make the weather any less miserable for Max, though, as he slogged through the mud, creeping behind broad-leafed bushes for cover. He used a long pole to hop over the moat to the one spot without razor wire.
He activated the sound suppressor at the base of his grapnel hook, and the patter of rain vanished. In the eerie silence, Max tossed the anchor over the crest of the stone wall and climbed up the thin rope. He sliced a pant leg open on the glass fragments studding the top. Crouched on the catwalk, he paused a moment to stare at the hole, but no blood flowed. Relieved, he snapped the noise canceller onto his wrist to become a ghost.
A green light flashed inside his goggles. His assigned sniper, Kachur, had just confirmed the coast was clear. The Saurian always watched out for him. Once when Max had slipped through a skylight, an entire room full of criminals had fallen over in seconds. The egg-born Saurians had a saying, “The clutch is one.” Always cover your teammates.
The closest psi huddled under the eaves of the corner turret. His only warning of Max’s approach was the sudden lack of sound from the rain. He tried to ask a question, but the sonic buffers swallowed his words also. Max fired two darts and lowered the man into a chair. The green light flashed again. Saurians were already sprinting up the damp hillside toward this corner.
Max borrowed the mercenary’s uniform jacket. Disguised, he walked casually toward the next turret. Inside the compound, he could see a drying barn for leaves and sacks of some sort of pesticide, possibly a deterrent for the huge swamp rats.
The second early-warning psi had even less time to react as Max shot from the hip.
A blinking red light told him to hightail it back to the entry point. When he returned, a wedge of Saurians already held the wall. They had neutralized a gatehouse and opened the drawbridge. Max jogged down the inner ramp because Phibs didn’t build staircases. He had to turn off the sound baffles to hear the frantic communication.
The squad leader pointed out the gate. “The rope broke on Grachov.” Max could imagine the thin line fraying against the glass-studded parapet as the others ascended, snapping on the last commando and dropping him ten meters. The advance team had minutes to blow the anti-aircraft battery, not enough time to tend to their comrade.
Since Max’s mission was complete, he could triage Grachov and if necessary evacuate him to the transports. Max nodded and grabbed a broom to use as a splint or crutch.
When he crept back out to the moat, he was unprepared to see the gray Saurian thoroughly tangled in razor wire. The skin only looked as tough as dragon hide. Blood smeared Grachov’s face, left arm, and tail. His right arm also bent in the wrong place, probably fractured. Worse, when the swimmers came by next, he would be an easy kill. Gazing into the frightened, wrinkled eyes, Max had to do something to help. He couldn’t leave a brother to die.
Cutting him loose, I’ll be Phib bait myself, but the clutch is one.
Since Max didn’t have any wire cutters in his belt pouches, he called over the comms, “Kachur, cover Grachov while I grab a can opener.”
“Negative, Medusa. I have to clear the shuttle pad.”
“Thirty heartbeats,” Max begged.
Kachur appealed to his superior.
The lieutenant came over the comm. “Permission to pause for thirty on your way to the perch.”
Max flipped on his power vest and crouched beside the injured Saurian. He also switched clips from paralytics to explosive tips. A few drugs wouldn’t slow down a Phib with his rage on. He put on his heaviest hand-to-hand weapon, the vibro gloves. Then Max vibrated a piece of razor wire to saw the broomstick in half. He improvised an arm splint with the wood and his borrowed coat sleeves.
Something exploded. Max leaned over his patient to shield the wounds from further infection. Burnt plastic, dirt, and gear pieces rained down on them, splashing in the water. Good-bye anti-aircraft guns.
His vest repelled the hot ash and made it spiral prettily, but the big chunks only slowed. Then something heavy slammed his shoulder into Grachov. A Phib guard on the wall had taken a shot at him with a sonic rifle, but the dampeners had done their job. Each successive shot would hurt a little more until his organs cooked.
Kachur shouted, “Setting up suppression fire. Send some frilling air support.” Since the interspecies team communicated in Banker, profanity lost a bit in the translation.
The advance stalled as more soldiers on the wall engaged the attackers pouring from the woods. Heavy energy-weapons set fire to the underbrush where Kachur hid. If one of those beams hit him, he was toast.
Max addressed his patient with brutal honesty. “Our rescuers are now in need of rescue.”
“We make our own exit,” Grachov decided.
“Without a cutting tool my gloves would only embed the metal barbs deeper into your skin,” Max warned.
The Saurian handed over a serrated survival knife.
Taking great pains, Max blurred the knife into a jigsaw. He freed Grachov’s legs and tail first. By the time he reached the neck area, his glove batteries were running low. He could only sever one side of the last few strands.
Grachov growled with impatience. “Guards will be here soon. Move back.” Before Max could object, the brute wrapped his padded, splinted arm in the tangle of wire and pulled.
Max winced as more blood oozed from Grachov’s face and shoulder. A wooden stake popped from the ground and dangled from the end of the wire. Taller than Max, the limping soldier leaned on him. Saurian aircraft screamed into the compound. Troops leapt from open cargo doors. This was it—all or nothing.
“You’re going to have some pretty ugly scars,” Max said as they crossed the bridge centimeters over the muddy water. He breathed still faster at the thought of what might be swimming hidden beneath the surface.
“What does not kill me makes me more desirable for mating.”
The two didn’t waste more air on small talk as they loped toward the command van. As Max lowered his patient to the tailgate, the last two officers from the command center emerged with a shoulder-mounted launcher. “Kachur is down.”
“I’ll find him.”
“No,” said the commander. “You hold down the comm center. Keep Orbital One in the loop. We can’t let the target reach his escape shuttle.”
Max glanced at the empty van. “Sure.”
Moving Grachov beside the radio, Max sterilized the wounds and found pliers to pull the rest of the wire free. As he was sewing and rechecking, an invisible giant rocked the van, causing its suspension to creak and sway.
Max peeked out the rear of the vehicle. The fortress on the hillside was burning. He didn’t know which side had triggered the explosion, but the drug processing plant must have contained a lot of flammable chemicals. Then the ammunition, batteries, and fuel tanks detonated in secondary explosions, knocking him to the floor.
He found the radio. “Orbital One, what just happened?”
After a sobering conversation, Max whispered, “Well Grachov, you just became the sexiest Saurian on this planet. We’re the only survivors.”
When the stasis cut off, Max’s ears popped from the drop in air pressure. The nausea meant that he had been a statue a long time, probably over a year. Yet to him, the pickup from Orbital One had been only yesterday. “I hate my job.”
His sole companion, a gray Saurian in matching blue coveralls, flexed his neck frills in agitation. “You hate amateurs botching the hunt even more.” As Grachov stretched his bulging muscles, numerous pink scars testified to his recent session in a regeneration tank.
Max called up their location on the computer. The screen in front of him showed pools of green at the planet’s poles and around major cities. The rest swirled with orange, tan, and cinnamon deserts. He read aloud, “The sixth Human colony’s called Vegas because it was such a gamble. It’s hot and dry—your ideal.”
“When can we leave? I’m tired of living in a can and eating out of one, too.”
“Keep telling yourself that this is the last job. The GPS informs me our shipping container is still in the customs quarantine bay,” Max warned. He tapped the wall of non-perishable hospital supplies. “Our cover is medical supplies in a diplomatic pod.”
“Who’s picking us up? It better be frilling soon.”
Checking his message buffer, Max said, “One of the black-sheep kids is doing recon and electronic surveillance for us.” Goats made lousy field operators due to a total lack of operational awareness but were great for criminal support.
“Michelangelo?” asked the Saurian with a toothy grin. “He knows how to have a thrashing good time.”
Max’s fondest memories in the service involved Goats circumventing authority. Humanity’s earliest contacts with the Mnamnabonians were as Greek satyrs, steeped in wine, women, and song. Humans didn’t like all the syllables in the real name or the sexism in the classical, so they stuck with the label Goats. Most aliens had a short, unflattering, animal nickname. In response, the older races jokingly referred to Humans as space monkeys.
Traveling in stasis between the stars, Max had left a lot of life behind. He recalled rescuing Michelangelo as a teen almost sixty years ago. “My file says this kid is his grandson, Reuben.”
The walls of the quarantine dock were fused sandstone—the bare bones of a city built for cheap functionality rather than beauty. Everything was crude and modular. From the container’s air vent, Max could see the spaceport’s ten-story acceleration-ring launcher and hear the occasional thunder when shuttles departed. The heat grew oppressive as they waited, causing Grachov to bask.
Once the truck had attached to their pod and hauled them toward the city, Max scanned what he could of the city with binoculars. Half pyramids covered with solar panels faced the spaceport, with green parks in front and alleys running between. He brought up a map on his wrist computer. A second row of poorer structures lurked behind the postcard-worthy front row.
“From what I see, all the races of the Union coexist here. Saurians hauling cargo in the dry areas, Goats trimming the greenery, Humans repairing the shuttles, and Bats flying taxis.”
Eyes half-lidded, Grachov said, “Probably why the criminal thought he could hide here. It’s as far as you can get from the Phib home world without landing on a ball of frilling ice.” Since the war, security on the worlds bordering Human space was tighter than a gnat’s ass.
Once inside, however, security was worse than lax. The truck dropped their pod in the parking lot of a defunct store in the low rent district and drove off. No one batted an eye membrane. People were already in line at the soup kitchen across the street. Half an hour later, someone taped a sign on the pod advertising his services as a pet sitter. Wearing sunglasses and a fedora, he could have passed for a Human of nineteen. However, the sideburns and wider nose base gave him away to the experienced eye.
Max opened the door and took the flyer. “Hello. We’re not in the market for a sitter, but we’re searching for a lost mongrel.”
The Goat handed over a manila envelope. “I have a friend who runs a shelter. You might check there.” Inside were hotel keys, credit vouchers with the local bank, a dossier on the target, and earbuds.
Max flipped through the file folder. When captured at the end of the war, the target Phib had been a rear-echelon supply clerk. Using the alias Tribbethwrop, he started working for a local gangster collecting debts. Phibs were known for harassing and intimidating people who owed them money. Despite a decade of threats and violence, Tribbethwrop didn’t have any murder accusations on his record. A few key witnesses to his crimes had disappeared, but the police had no conclusive evidence that he’d had any involvement. He liked to chew plant-based drugs from his home world and chum around with the other gangsters. As he neared retirement age, the amphibious alien had risen in the planet’s underworld. The top criminal was Saurian. The spaceport really was a model of equal opportunity.
Reuben had gathered months of contact information and weekly routines, including maps of the Phib’s apartment and the sports bar he visited every day. The file even listed Tribbethwrop’s favorite drink, called a “Cherries of Victory,” the ingredients of which read like the contents of a garbage disposal. However, fruit was very expensive in places like this, a sign of status. The intel looked well-done, but Max would need to be certain of the target’s guilt.
“Bring the cuffs,” Max called to Grachov. He grabbed his medical bag and scribbled two prescriptions on his pad. “We’ll need some basic equipment. My guard needs a billy club and a neural disruptor. I’d like to have a second canteen, a jar of cherries like the target prefers for his favorite drink, 300 milligrams of this narcotic, and as much of this diuretic as you can get.”
The Goat took off his sunglasses, giving Max a peek at the eerie eyes that ruined any illusion of humanity. “You’re him, the !Kung medicine man!” Reuben pronounced the first syllable of the tribal name with a hollow click on the roof of his mouth. In doing so, he might as well have held up a flashing neon sign that read Covert Operation in Progress.
“Someone has misinformed you.”
“Your hair on top is dark and wooly like ours. You’re a hero! My father talked about you rescuing the kids from the orphanage,” Reuben said too loudly.
As ranking officer on the mission, Max had been designated as mentor. He put an arm around the kid as he scanned the seedy neighborhood. “Could we go inside? Maybe our hotel room?”
When the formidable Grachov shouldered his way into the sunlight with a case of heavy equipment, the kid reluctantly agreed.
Because he could tell the kid was bursting to talk, Max asked, “What’s with all the urban blight? I thought the colony’s startup loans would be paid off by now.”
“They were, but with the pirate activity and then the war, trade has been reduced for the past century. Pickings have been lean. In the last ten years, between the Human share of the Phib settlement and the new ones that Anodyne has terraformed, seventeen worlds have opened up for the Humans.”
“Seventeen?” Max considered this an unprecedented explosion. “Before this, we only founded thirty-four colonies in four hundred years.” They had increased worlds by a factor of one and a half within a single decade.
“Yeah. It’s a golden opportunity. All the Humans who can afford to are heading to the frontier. Left a lot of holes in the local economy.”
“Explains the diversity,” Max said.
“And the prices. I got a suite at the Rest EZ for a song, including the all-you-can-eat buffet.” Humans typically wasted about 25 percent of all food, through garbage or spoilage. Goats didn’t let anything go to waste, even the rinds. Max had seen them eat paper napkins with too much sauce. Of necessity, members of their race had an iron constitution.
“You kids. Always the same priorities.” As they approached the hotel, Max distributed the keys and earbuds from the envelope.
Reuben said, “I chose second floor by the loading docks for easy access. The cameras in that stairwell are broken, so there’ll be no record for the police. I also made sure the kitchen has live mammals on the menu for your partner, Kachur.”
“Kachur’s dead, you slapping amateur,” Grachov said, shoving the large suitcase at Reuben. He wandered toward the hotel bar. “Tonight, I drink to my fallen clutchmates.” Because of cold-sleep, the loss felt like yesterday to him as well.
The kid almost fell over from the weight but recovered, happily toting the luggage toward the stairwell.
“Don’t take it personally,” Max said as they climbed. “Even I couldn’t tell them apart except by their scars and the war paint on their neck frills. No one outside their clan could. Saurians born in the same clutch of eggs can have the same voiceprint. Bankers have to use DNA samples to differentiate.”
“Then why does he hate me so much?”
The hall appeared empty. “Most likely because you called me a hero. Stop doing that. At the very least, I should lose my license. I probably belong in a penal colony.” Sixty missions compressed into fifteen months of living outside stasis had been like watching a horror movie marathon. All of that hadn’t eclipsed the shame of his actions as an intern.
Max held up a finger for silence until they were safe inside the dingy suite. The spongy carpet hadn’t been changed in a few decades, but the sheets in the bedrooms actually looked clean—small victories. He turned on the faucet in the bathroom in case there were any listening devices. The water had a vile, algae odor to it, probably part of the purification and recycling process.
“I covered all the mirrors and video screens according to the instructions in your file,” Reuben said, hoping for an “attaboy.”
Max nodded. “Have a seat, kid. What we discuss this afternoon, you can’t mention to another living soul. What did your dad tell you about our group?”
“The Space Ghosts. They’re the avengers of our people.”
“A mistranslation. Grachov and the others were phantom cosmonauts—like the Soviets who died in space debacles that might embarrass the government and were thus erased from all official record. Turtles don’t have their own military. Too few of them venture out for that. You’ve heard of the elite Swiss Guard? The Yellow Slash Saurians serve the Turtles in this capacity in gratitude for uplifting their race. Grachov’s family was assigned to protect a clutch of eggs for an important Turtle judge.”
“What kind of judge?” asked Reuben.
“Whenever a disagreement breaks out between species in the Union, both sides present their cases.”
“The Phibs abused us for years, and nobody lifted a finger.”
“We had proof of wholesale theft, murder, and even genocide for profit. The Phibs seemed too confident. The last time we sent evidence to a convocation, they blew up our diplomat’s ship before it arrived. We had to wait seventeen years until the next Union meeting. This time, the hearing was on our world—New Hawaii—and no way the Phibs were wriggling free. First, they tried to blackmail the judge by threatening her eggs. When she ruled against their race with the maximum penalty plus punitive damages, the Phibs invaded our world.”
“That attack started the Gigaparsec War.”
The Union spanned a billion parsecs of space in the Orion Arm, and all the sentient species had been pulled into this unprecedented conflict. “Yellow Slash Clan honor demanded that either the attackers or defenders be wiped out to the last man, but I’d found one egg that was still viable. I rallied the survivors and pulled them away from the battle.”
“Let me guess: you were a hero, and they were disgraced?”
Max rubbed his right jaw and temple. A headache was brewing. “When the Yellow Slash Clan failed in their mission to guard the eggs, their military records were purged back to their birth certificates. To give them a chance to redeem themselves, the Turtles funded this project to kill every Phib who had a hand in planning and executing the insult against their young.”
“Getting sentience revoked for the Phib species and repossessing half their worlds wasn’t enough?”
“A single life is very important to the Turtles.”
“Why do you trust the Saurians? They shared a lot of the same philosophies as the Phibs,” Reuben said. “I mean, didn’t the cold bloods evolve from the same creature?”
Max held up a hand. “Never voice that opinion unless you want a detailed description of Saurian sexual practices and how they might be performed on your skull.” True, the prevailing scientific theory was that the Turtles uplifted them from the same planet. The neck frills appeared to be vestigial gills from a common aquatic ancestor, but both sides would take offense. “When the last Phib responsible is wrapped up, their clan will be reinstated as honored dead, taking its rightful place in history.”
“Grachov is in it for honor. We Goats volunteered to help because of the rescue and to get revenge for what happened to our people,” Reuben said. “I’ve looked at the financials, and you’re not even earning a paycheck. What are you getting out of it?”
“That rescue was the one time in my life that I fit in. After the fall of Mnamnabo, I … couldn’t adjust to civilian life. I never finished my residency for my degree. When the Turtles offered me a chance to help the Yellow Slash, I accepted. I keep them restrained.”
The kid bleated a laugh. “You don’t need my help for that. There’s only one, and he doesn’t like me.”
Max had promised Michelangelo he would look after the family line. Since this was the last op, it would give Reuben a rite of passage to brag about for years to come. “We’re shorthanded. Every target has been better protected than the last. The Phibs remaining are smarter and have had time to dig in. Casualty rates have been increasing. We need your help with the enemy.”
With complete sincerity, Reuben said, “For you, I’d donate a stomach. Name it.”
“The snatch I want to run tomorrow is a three-man job. Grachov is my backup and my way out to the alley. I’ll need you to come in as a janitor for the setup. We’re going to pour the diuretic into the cherries and have you swap them out at the bar.”
“He always eats at least five of them with his drink. Heh, heh. So after tipping a couple, he’ll hop to the tadpole’s room. I know one of the serving ewes. She can spike the maraschinos for me.”
“Then you run the robot janitors from here. Once the target separates from his bodyguards and follows me into the bathroom, place a Wet Floor sign and keep out the casual gawkers.”
“But no one can see you,” Reuben insisted.
“Wrong. Their eyes and other senses work fine. Psis can’t detect me at a distance, but that means I’m blind to them as well.” Max wondered what it must feel like for the rest of humanity to feel so connected all the time. “Flash my VR glasses if you spot anyone incoming. We also need one of those wheeled, dirty towel bins that hotels use—big enough to carry an unconscious Phib out and that suitcase in.”
“Sure, but how will you sneak up on Tribbethwrop?” Reuben put his spread fingers over his ears to mimic the huge tympanic membranes. “A Phib’s most accurate sense is hearing.”
“They rely too much on it, in fact.” Max pushed the mute button on his wrist computer and the sound of the faucet disappeared. When he reversed the operation, the hiss returned. “Turtle tech. The dampers mostly muffle my vibro gloves, which I use for breaking into or out of places. The gloves can shatter windows, shake loose locks and hinges, or scramble security systems.” He lifted a pair of powder blue gloves out of his doctor bag.
“Could I try them on?” Reuben reached toward the new toy.
“No. If you scratched your balls with them, I wouldn’t be able to reattach them.”
“Good call.” Reuben backed away. “So why mess with the cherries if you have this tech?”
“The most dangerous thing about stalking a Phib is his leg strength. Always start with his legs bound, or he could rip you to pieces. The Phib might be shorter than a Human, but he weighs twice as much. The muscle mass in the legs is phenomenal. So we need to pick a locale to neutralize the Phib’s advantages—a confined space where we have access to his ankles, but he can’t see us coming.”
“The public toilet stall! How do you plan to knock him out?”
“I slap these on his ankles.” Max opened the large suitcase to reveal a portable generator, thick cables, a temperature gauge, and pumps connected to two shackles. “Freeze cuffs—they have enough charge for one use.”
“How are you going to get the victim to hold still long enough for the cuffs to work?”
“With battle chemicals pumping the heart so fast, all the blood passes through the contact point in seconds. He’ll stand up in a panic and shout for help. Nobody will hear him through my sonic filters. Bam. I’ll hit him with the stall door and pin him. Get his heart rate up even more. When he passes out, I’ll shove him into the bin, cover him with dirty towels, and waltz out. I might need to bring in Grachov for that part.”
“This seems like an awful lot of effort. Why not just gig him on the spot?”
The smile vanished. “Never ask me to terminate blindly, even a Phib. I have to verify everything for myself. I’m not a thrashing killer.”
That night, Max woke after only four hours of sleep, convinced by some random noise that someone was trying to break into his bedroom. Yet the hall on the security monitor was empty … this time. Because his heart wouldn’t slow down, he grabbed his medical bag containing the dart gun and headed for the roof. The open space without walls soothed him for a time.