Enforcer captains gathered in the mines of Vectin-10 to bid on the latest assignments, and I planned on winning at least one of them.
They crammed together in the underground administration office, waiting by the foreman’s station. The terrible ventilation, coupled with the stink of unwashed men, reminded me of home. I crossed my arms and glanced around—I was taller than the rest of these sad sacks, and in better shape, too. If it came to a fight, even if it was me versus the other ten here, I could take them. They carried plasma pistols and rifles, sure, but they all had the wary look of men who should’ve retired or died five years ago.
“Listen up,” the mining foreman called out. “We have two assignments. First, we need a team of enforcers stationed at all of the mine exits. Too much of our supply and equipment has gone missing lately. Our workers, or some sneaks, are hustling our shit, and I want them caught.”
The foreman, a muscular guy with a gut large enough to carry twins, held up a small tablet with the information scrolling across the screen. He tapped the side, sending the info to all nearby Personal Assistance Devices—the PAD hooked onto my left forearm. It vibrated, but I ignored it. I didn’t have enough crew for that assignment. I had half the compliment of a starship, if that. I still needed to fill a hundred empty seats. And it was a shame. Guarding mining tunnels and shaking down thugs would’ve been easy work.
“The Ring Chaser can handle this,” an enforcer captain shouted. “10,000 credits a day.” He stood near the front of the group, his bald head reflecting the lights mounted into the walls. It wasn’t baldness from hair loss either—he had the waxy sheen of someone who had been burned.
Another captain, some woman with broad shoulders and a chin the size of a fist, raised her hand. “The crew of the Sidewinder can get it done for 9,000 credits a day.”
“8,900,” the first captain barked. “And that’s me breakin’ even.”
The woman closed her mouth afterward, her lips turning an odd shade of white. No one liked getting underbid, and she shot that bald asshole a look that could wound.
“Deal,” the foreman said. He wheezed as he plugged in the information on his tablet. “The Ring Chaser will handle the assignment. Contract is on a month-to-month basis. 8,900 credits a day.”
My vice-captain, Lysander, gave me a quick glance before returning his attention to the front. We had gotten good at nonverbal communication. He thought the next assignment would be something for us, so I straightened my posture.
Not as straight as Lysander’s, though. He stood out like a gun in a nursery. Everyone else in the room held themselves with a hunch or leaned against the wall, but Lysander kept stiff and upright. Tense. Crew-cut blond hair. His hands held together behind his back. The guy screamed military, and I’d have bet good money none of the idiots around us knew what the inside of a barracks locker room looked like.
The foreman tapped his tablet again, sending out another wave of information. “We’ve got a bigger problem. My men found a nest of wraith bugs a few days back, and I need a crew that can handle the extermination.”
I elbowed Lysander. “What’re wraith bugs?”
With his eyes half-lidded in a semi-sarcastic glare, he said, “They’re commonplace to Vectin-10. Big. Most weigh eighty pounds. Their exoskeleton is translucent. They infest mines and damage the equipment with their wax and mucus hives.”
Damn bugs. I had dealt with a ton on Capital Station. Not wraith bugs, but I had seen roaches the size of children, and some with the temperament of a drunken schizophrenic hopped up on chems.
That same bald captain smiled. “The Ring Chaser can handle that assignment as well. 700,000 credits for the extermination.”
And then the broad-shouldered woman said, “My crew will have it cleared out in seven days. All for 630,000 credits.”
Grumbling spread throughout the other captains. Too low, this and, not worth it, that. Sweat dripped from everyone, adding to the stickiness of the floor. Most wore jumpsuits, and they absorbed the stink. At least my enviro-suit—more high-tech than half the stuff in the room—kept my temperature regulated.
“The Scorpio will exterminate those little bastards for 600,000,” some guy leaning on the wall shouted. “And we’ll have it done is six days.”
The other captains and vice-captains exchanged odd glances. The captain of the Scorpio had enough cybernetic tubes in his neck and shoulders to build a pipeline. The cyborg punk sauntered through the crowd, pushing his way toward the front, his plasma rifle hanging off his shoulder on a well-worn strap. The guy liked to strut, but that didn’t impress me.
His vice-captain strolled up with him. The man didn’t have ears, just machine bits, no doubt so he could hear.
For a few moments, no one else offered any bids. A couple people murmured, and one lady half lifted her hand, but her vice-captain stopped her. They all pointed to the Scorpio captain with knit eyebrows and slumped shoulders. He and his vice-captain were the only ones with blatant cyborg enhancements, too. The Scorpio captain must’ve been top dog—the alpha nitwit for this tiny outpost.
“The Star Marque will handle this for 500,000 credits,” I said. “And we’ll do it in five days.”
That got everyone’s attention.
Hell, even Lysander glanced over like I had punched an old lady in the face.
“Are you insane?” he hissed under his breath. “We’re understaffed and we’ve never handled an assignment like this before! And for that amount of credits we’ll barely—”
“It’s about establishing reputation,” I murmured, cutting him off. “If we consistently handle assignments faster and cheaper than everyone else, we’ll be the go-to enforcer ship for this backwater planet.”
That was what Endellion had done when she was the captain of the Star Marque. She did everything with a brutal efficiency—the superhumans had to acknowledge her. And when they wanted something personal, they went straight to her for all their dealings.
If Endellion could do it, so could I. The Star Marque would become the top enforcer ship within the entire Vectin quadrant.
The captain of the Scorpio turned to face me, one of his eyes replaced with a mechanical sensor. I hated cyborgs. Every time I saw one it reminded me of Endellion—and I swear the ice in my veins lowered the temperature of the whole fucking room. Probably irrational, but that didn’t change the fact.
“What’s that?” the captain asked. “Is that the new captain of the infamous Star Marque?”
The room went quiet and stiff.
Lysander whispered, “If you want a good reputation, handle this diplomatically.”
Heh. I always handled my shit diplomatically.
“I’m Captain Clevon Demarco,” I said to the cyborg. “Enforcer and starfighter extraordinaire.”
That got a couple chuckles throughout the crowd, but they went quiet again the moment Captain Tube-Neck opened his mouth.
“I’m Captain Lorenzo Varvont,” he said. “And as a bit of friendly advice, I think you should let my crew handle these wraith bugs. We know what we’re doing. You’re as green as they come, and it may be too much for ya.”
I smirked. “If a guy with a coffee pot in his head can handle this, I’m sure I could genocide the whole damn wraith bug population with ease.”
Lysander shook his head. “Goddammit, Demarco.”
The rest of the room collectively held their breath as Captain Varvont turned his full attention to me, a forced smile set in his twisted face. Cyborgs never looked right after a few surgeries. Well, some could—Endellion always looked human—but the chumps who took cheap parts had the facial movements of a stroke patient.
“I guarantee the Vectin-10 mining operation will regret taking a bid like yours,” Captain Varvont said. “And then they’ll have to pay my prices to clean your bodies off the rocks of that hive. No one wants to deal with amateur hour, punk. You best back down while ya still can.”
That thug placed his hand on his plasma rifle. He could’ve used a lesson from the gangbangers of Capital Station. I had seen far more intimidating men in my life—and this guy was so far beneath them it was almost laughable.
I wanted to throw down, maybe knock a couple of his teeth from his machine-ridden head, but Lysander placed a hand on my shoulder. His fingers dug into my black enviro-suit. He didn’t need to say anything. He wanted me to be polite.
The mining foreman straightened his posture, his brow furrowed.
Before he could say anything, I said, “The Star Marque has nothing but the best of the best. Our last captain went on to become the first human planet governor since the war, after all.”
The mere mention of Endellion’s successes got the room buzzing with excited whispers.
He’s right—Endellion did come from the Star Marque!
The Endellion Voight? Unbelievable.
She’s one of the best. Wasn’t Captain Demarco her vice-captain?
All humans knew about Endellion’s accomplishments. Invoking her name was like casting a spell of awe. To my disgust, they loved her. Thought the world of her. She was the ultimate victor. A human with no equal. If only they knew all the atrocities she had committed, then they wouldn’t get so wet in their panties when they heard her name.
Nobody knew the real her. Not like I did. Everyone else just thought she was a prodigy and gifted leader beyond compare—someone working to help humanity rise to the same status as superhumans. She had only become a planet governor eight months ago, and already it was a thing of legend.
What a load of bullshit. But no one would believe me if I told the truth. She destroyed Capital Station and murdered millions. And she made it personal when she tried to kill me and the crew of the Star Marque. Did Endellion really think she could get away with it all?
No one wanted the truth, though. Then Endellion wouldn’t be a human savior. Best to just use her name and reputation to my advantage.
I continued, “I’m the pinnacle of human fitness and reflexes, trained by Endellion herself. My doctor is famous throughout the Vectin quadrant. My vice-captain was trained at the Ares Military Academy. Trust me—if the Vectin-10 mining company has any brains at all, they’ll take my discounted rate and thank their lucky stars I decided to grace this shithole with my presence.”
Lysander slid his hand down his face, his eyes scrunched shut. “I can’t believe you.”
“Sounds like a bunch of upper crusts who think the titles before their name equate to experience,” Captain Varvont said. He motioned with a hand, smirking the entire time. “Don’t you fools remember the last enforcer ship who swooped in to do some quick work on Vectin-10? Where are they now? Corpses in the sand.”
“I’m nothing like them,” I said.
“Course. You’re the idiot without any cybernetics. Probably genetically engineered, aren’t you?”
The question unnerved me. On Capital Station, no one ever guessed I had been genetically modified. They all just assumed I was a standard human who got lucky with genes. This guy knows? Just by looking at me?
Captain Varvont’s slimy smirk never faded. “That’s what I thought. Your superhuman master must’ve kicked you from his ranks, and now you think you can lord over us with your special talents.” He laced his words with venom and some people in the room chuckled. “Well, us chumps aren’t the dolts you think we are. A few machines will even the odds, and I’ve got decades of experience dealing with arrogant trash like you and your whole Star Marque crew.”
“I’ve still got the lowest bid,” I said, my voice cold.
The mining foreman waited for a moment, as if to see whether Captain Varvont would make a counteroffer. When nothing happened, the foreman nodded. “That’s right. The Star Marque has the lowest bid, so if we have no other takers…”
Captain Varvont stared at me, his machine eye pulsing with a faint glow. This wasn’t over. I could tell by the confidence in his smug expression.
When the silence persisted, the foreman banged his hand on the steel desk. The clang betrayed the metal in his own hand. Another damn cyborg. They were everywhere. “We’re finished here. Star Marque, I expect results.”
I stood at the head of the conference table, staring down the line at my handful of officers, four in total. There were more empty chairs than people, but I intended to fix that. Once I had a reputation, I would attract attention from everyone looking for a good crew. Then I could pick among the best—find the people I needed to help me bring Endellion to justice—and put this dark chapter behind me.
The void of space beyond the viewing window created the perfect backdrop for my mood. I wouldn’t stop until this was done. I couldn’t let go of my hatred for her. Endellion didn’t know who she had wronged.
“I can’t believe what you did,” Lysander said, pulling me from my dark thoughts. He shook his head and leaned back in his chair. “There’s a difference between making a name for yourself and becoming a complete embarrassment. Did you consider what would happen if we failed this mission? After a show like yours, we’ll be laughed out of an enforcing license! And that’s not even considering how many enemies we’ve made so far.”
Noah, my temporary starfighter commander, glanced over with a half-smile. “I wish I could’ve seen you in action. Captain Clevon Demarco, the hard-ass. I bet it was hilarious.”
“It was borderline infantile,” Lysander said. “He made the whole bidding process a pissing contest.”
“Really? What did he say?”
“If a guy with a coffee pot in his head can handle this, I’m sure I could genocide the whole damn wraith bug population with ease.”
Everyone turned their attention to my chief cyber operations officer, Sawyer. She sat in her chair with her legs drawn up, her chin resting on her knees, her pixie-short red hair disheveled. She had her PAD up with the audio recording of my taunts set to play. No matter where I went, or what I did, she listened to everything like a damn stalker—the PAD mounted to my arm was her link to my life, even off the ship.
“It was amusing to listen to,” Sawyer muttered as she lowered her arm and went to typing on her PAD. “Especially with Lysander’s added commentary. The two of you could star in a sitcom.”
“God, help me,” Lysander groaned.
Sawyer offered a smile in a response. Unlike the rest of us, who wore skin-tight enviro-suits, she sported a green jumpsuit, the type favored by most starship engineers. It made it easy for her to roll down a sleeve and use her PAD. Couldn’t do that with our damn suits.
“I think it’s best that we make an impression, even if it’s negative,” Noah said.
I’d expect nothing else from the youngest in the room. Even if he had become an accomplished starfighter, he still looked the part of a fresh-faced recruit. Gaunt like a teenager. Stubble on his chin like he had glued flakes of blond sprinkles in random places. Noah didn’t have the toughness of his brother, Lysander, but he was trustworthy and loyal—two traits I valued more than the others.
Dr. Clay, my chief medical officer, scooted to the edge of his seat. He had a rod up his ass, and he moved like that wasn’t a metaphor. “You don’t want a reputation for being difficult, no matter how much your name gets out there. Trust me. None of the superhumans hire starships with an unwieldy history.”
I snapped my fingers and pointed at him. “You worked with a lot of superhumans, right? What did they look for?”
Homo superior—genetically improved Homo sapiens—ruled the whole goddamn galaxy. If I was going to get any sort of real work, I would need to show them what a genetically modified human was capable of. Then again, Captain Varvont’s words bounced around my skull. Homo superior always hired genetically modified people, because they created them for that purpose.
I wasn’t like that, though. No superhuman made me to be their dog. My mother had my genetics reworked while I was still in her womb. Not because she wanted to make me a one-trick flesh machine for superhumans, but because she wanted me to have every advantage possible.
“Did you hear me?” Dr. Clay asked, snapping me from my dark thoughts.
“What?” I asked.
“I said, superhumans want people who are intelligent and discreet. The exact opposite of how our crew conducts themselves.”
How pleasant. It was like Dr. Clay had his own special game to see how fast he could irritate everyone else in the room. His lack of charisma matched the sharp angles of his face and his slicked-back black hair. If he had said his life-long passion was to become an evil vizier I wouldn’t have been surprised.
“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Lysander said. “We need to focus on the task at hand. What do we know about wraith bugs?”
Sawyer brushed some of her vibrant red hair out of her eyes. “They form colonies around a single fertile queen. The drones, fertile males, build the nest and produce a saliva that is acidic for a few seconds before it rapidly hardens into a solid wax. On average, you see about 50 of them per hive. The workers, sterile females, gather resources. We should see about 300 of those.”
“300?” Noah balked. “Aren’t they huge?” He held out his arms at full length. “And we’re gonna kill them all?”
“They’re insects,” Dr. Clay snapped. “We have plasma rifles. Use your brain.”
“But I heard they have venom that can melt through enviro-suits, and they attack in swarms. Plus, we’ll be in a mine, so we’ll be in close quarters.”
Sawyer shook her head. “We don’t have to fight each one. Killing the queen will disperse the hive. She’ll be protected in the center of the nest, typically so bloated with eggs she’ll be unable to move. Most exterminators focus on drilling a hole straight to her.”
Dr. Clay lifted a manicured-to-perfection eyebrow. “How do you know all this? The encyclopedia entry I read didn’t have much in the way of detailed information. It focused on scientific classification.”
“I was born on Vectin-10,” Sawyer drawled. “I’ve seen thousands of wraith bugs. They’re passive until you start messing with their hive. We’ll be able to walk straight to it with them buzzing around. But once the show starts… that’s when they get real aggressive.”
“The wax the males produce is hard stuff, though. We’ll need a powerful drill.” Sawyer smiled. “Or explosives.”
“Feh. I’m no ground enforcer. I’ll leave the logistics to the grunts.”
The grunts. Dr. Clay had a way with words.
“All the assignments we take on Vectin-10 will be terrible,” Noah said. He turned to me and sighed. “Are you sure you want to say here? I mean, I thought you and Endellion had a falling out. Why pick the planet she was given to govern? What if she finds out we’re here?”
“I want her to know I’m here,” I said.
My statement ended with a long stretch of silence. My tiny crew of officers replied with questioning glances.
Of course I picked the planet Endellion was governing. I wanted a reputation here. I wanted a reputation where she could see it. I wanted her to worry I would come after her. And when I had the favor of superhumans in this quadrant—when I could call in favors and make the deals like she did—I would be that pistol lurking in the shadows, waiting for her to make one wrong move.
If I were on some other planet, far from her seat of power, I wouldn’t have the opportunities I needed. I had to stay here. I had to hound her every step.
While everyone else thought she was a perfect human role model, I knew otherwise. She would make a mistake. And I would be the one to kill her.
Keep in mind this is the version before editors. STAR MARQUE VENDETTA will release August 2019! If you haven’t already, check out STAR MARQUE RISING, the first in the series.
I hope you enjoyed!