As the fingers of the morning sun felt their way through the crags of the Sasmentar mountains the Outland base began to slowly awaken. Ventilation systems whirled to life among the roof-works of many buildings; sub-space communication dishes clanked into position and pointed their arrays skyward. Small single-seat sky planes buzzed through the air like frenzied mosquitoes as Armored Personnel Carrieres (APCs), surface skimmers, cargo-transfer sleds, and Mechanized Aerial Targeting Ion Guns (MTIGs) sped down the unpaved roads on their way to the exercise ranges in the deep desert.
Leers swore as he edged further back into the shadow cast by a water reclamation building made of steel and crumbling, laser-cut basalt. He should’ve been done with his mission by now and on his way out of here well before dawn. . .but he was just now getting started. And with the activity on the base increasing, it was going to be difficult to complete his mission unnoticed. He knew something had gone wrong with the Warp deceleration and that it would lead to more bad luck. Mission parameters allowed for a certain amount of so-called ‘non-lateral mayhem’, but this—a surface skimmer streaked by a mere ten meters in front of him, its engines yowling through the swirling desert dirt and sand.
Leers fanned the smog from his face as the skimmer roared around a far corner and cursed his predicament again. If only the blasted skipper—the near calamitous deceleration wasn’t entirely his fault—he couldn’t blame that on him, those things happened, they couldn’t be controlled or predicted. But he could blamed the captain of the Renegade Runner for dropping him twenty kilometers from his pre-briefed landing zone. Twenty kilometers! He was supposed to have landed five kilometers from the outer marker of the Outland base—at the most, not twenty—the capsule had landed a little over twenty-five kilometers from the actual base. He was forced to cross the open desert in the dark of night; more than six hours of alternately jogging and walking through the desert, hiding behind brush, darting around rocky out-croppings. More than six hours of tripping and stumbling over rocks, sinking shin-deep in sand, his heart banging like mad whenever he thought he heard something: a wild animal, a grenade being thrown through the air, the whine of a laser about to cut him in two. At night, in the middle of hostile territory, on a planet he’d never been to before—despite his training, despite his solid professionalism, his mind still played tricks on him. Training only made you press on with your mission and stay alert, it didn’t eliminate the fear.
Press on Leers did; he did have an operational time-line of eight hours for mission completion; but nowhere in the plan did it call for a trek across the desert, an act that pushed mission parameters to the extreme. Adding to the madness of the situation was the fact that he’d spent two-weeks in a weightless environment. Yes, he’d trained in the Renegade Runners’ environment module—but it robbed the ship of power and he certainly couldn’t stay inside of them indefinitely; he eventually had to return to the zero-g environment of the Renegade Runner. The ship was meant to be fast, not comfortable. Once he did return to the cabin area, his muscles would begin their march toward atrophy. For two weeks it’d been a constant battle with the effects of gravity then non-gravity and back again, just to keep in good enough shape so that he could carry out his mission. Add to that the harrowing trip through the upper-atmosphere of Darmen inside the shell of that capsule, pulling between nine and twelve time the force of gravity. The parachutes of the capsule had deployed on schedule, giving him about five seconds to catch his breath before slamming into the ground so hard he thought he’d cracked his incisors. On top of all of that he had to suffer the indignity of crossing the desert with the ATAC strapped to his back, weighing him down. If mission parameters had been pushed to the limits, it didn’t take much imagination for Leers to draw on how he felt. His thighs burned with lactic acid, his ankles and knees felt brittle, his lungs protested with every other draw of air. His back felt fine, strange, but his shoulders stung to the touch.
He would press on with his mission—had to. He was too damned close to surrender to fatigue now. Too damned close to just radio the Renegade Runner for extraction. He could go on, the most difficult segment, in his mind, was done. He had managed to successfully infiltrate the base without using a single stealth technique. The energy gates surrounding the base, which would have needed coded access to bypass; those gates had been deactivated. . . .after all, this base was dozens of lightyears behind the front lines, why would they need to be activated? And even if they had been activated, the ATAC module he wore on his back contained nearly a million codes to bring the gate down for a second, long enough for him to pass through, then pop it back up without the most discriminating Pulsarian technician being able to pick it up on his security monitor. There was that and the fact that the Pulsarians hadn’t even bothered with their anti-personnel sensors either. So the jamming features of his ATAC went unused as well. Leers groaned inwardly, his nostrils hissing in the bitter heat. What angered him was the fact that he had to haul that damned ATAC pack across twenty-five kilometers of desert—twenty-five kilometers he should not have had to cross in the first place only to find that the energy gates were already down, to find out that the damned Pugs weren’t even running their anti-personnel sensor sweeps. He didn’t get a chance to use a single one of its features like he had on previous missions—the damned thing was useless to him now and it was even more useless when he had landed on this rock six hours ago. It it did carry five liters of water, of which two he’d already drank, but if that was all it was good for he would’ve preferred a canteen.
Still, shoving all nonessential thoughts aside, Leers admitted that base security hadn’t been nearly as tight as he’d thought it would be. It was an Outland Base, to be sure, but even their aerial reconnaissance had been predictable, and thus, easily avoided. The base’s infrared scans were active, somewhat. . . but a preschooler playing hopscotch could’ve dodged those. The faint infrared scans were there, but the material in his poncho all but ‘ate’ those scans. . . with all the things that had gone wrong with his mission thus far, he should’ve been jumping for joy at the prospect of low infrared scans, but he wasn’t, things were going a bit. . .
Leers ran from building to building, using the shade as much as possible. His destination was one of the base’s computer sub-control stations. His progress was deliberate, and within and expanse of fifteen square kilometers containing more than ten thousand structures, it was also slow. He was looking for one building in particular, one he could enter without setting off an alarm, one where he could steal the one thing the Pulsarians treasured more than weapons or blood . . . information. Leers had to retrieve that information before the base came fully to life, and with the sun rising on the southwestern horizon, he didn’t have much time. He paused as he stood in the shadow of a crumbling domed sub-space relay station, breathing too heavily for only having run two-hundred meters stop-and go. Just now scrapping morning, the broiling air was almost too much to take. Quite different from the frozen mist he breathed the night before. He looked around to get his bearings, checking the compass feature on his chronogram. He figured that the control center was to the north, even though he couldn’t see it. To the east were the tracking domes, that meant he was still within the southwestern quadrant of the base . . . good. For a moment he thought he’d overshot his destination and had wandered onto the extreme southern panhandle of the base. The Pulsarians didn’t make their bases to conform to human logic. Not that it mattered, he wasn’t here to conduct a survey.
Leers edged around a wall of duracreete and froze. The Pulsarians called their infantry Straaka and a squad of twelve was no more than fifty meters in front him now marching in cadence across an intersection; their armor glinting, Vgamh CR laser rifles slung over shoulders. Straaka were perhaps the most feared elements of the Empire because the Pulsarians placed every aspect of combat around these soldiers. In an era where staggering technology enabled space superiority fighters to fight for control over the high-orbits of planets, where massive weapons platforms could lay a hundred kilometers off the edge of a burning city and blast it into oblivion—despite all that and after centuries of warfare, the Pulsarians knew, perhaps better than any other race in the galaxy, that battles were still won on the surface of a planet, on the ground and in the dirt where infantry soldiers fought and died. Space fighters and starships were good, they had their uses; but they couldn’t hold territory—this was the key to Pulsarian doctrine, the essence of conquest; territory had to be held or the very act of taking the territory itself was useless.
Leers raised his glare shields just long enough to wipe the mixture of sand and sweat from his forehead and set them back into place. From his position they looked even more threatening than their reputation demanded. Fifty meters was too damned close. He exhaled slowly and watched the Straaka disappear from view down a distant avenue.
Leers turned to his right and moved quickly down an alley away from the Straaka. He peered around the corner, confused; he couldn’t see any of the markers he’d familiarized himself with while onboard the Renegade Runner. The damned computer sub-station should be around here somewhere. He moved out of the protection of the shade and the sun's rays battered him. Even though it was low on the horizon the heat was almost too much to take. “Damn, I should’ve done twelve-thousand sit-ups.”
There wasn’t anything he could do about it now and—there! The computer station was thirty meters in front of him, to the left; if it had been any bigger he would’ve walked right past it.
He felt his heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through his body. His throat tightened, his fingers twitched. Tension bit into him, tightening his throat. He’d been on ground assignments before but usually not alone. He ran up to the thick metal door, his breathing labored. Leers drew the Delnalt ‘44 energy pistol from his holster and flipped aside the safety, the weapon suddenly hot in his grip. With his left hand he reached up slowly, hesitating—he activated the door, hearing his heart thud loudly in his ears. Would someone be waiting for him, or would the building be empty? The door slide aside with a hiss, he leapt inside automatically assuming a firing stance. The station was dimly lighted and surprisingly cool. Computer terminals, monitors, retrieval systems and storage lockers were arranged in a rather haphazard fashion along the station’s six walls.
As the doors closed behind Leers, three startled and unarmed computer technicians turned from their work to face the unannounced intrusion.
“Hands in the air,” Leers barked. He was fluent in eight primary forms of the Pulsarian tongue and—
The Pulsarians simply stared at him in a peculiar manner bordering on disbelief and impertinence . . .
“Get your hands up,” The Leers barked again.
He knew they understood; they just stared at him, their eyes glazed; perhaps observing, as Leers often did, that Pulsarians and humans were nearly identical in appearance, disregarding skin pigmentation. Perhaps they were wondering what the hell he was doing there and what they could do about it.
Leers gestured with his weapon, his fingers twitching nervously. “Hey, listen to me, I don’t—” His right hand began to shake. Sweat dribbled into his eyes stinging them, he blinked uncontrollably. One of the techs began to—
Leers fired. The energy bolt speared into the tech’s chest and exploded out his back, splashing a nearby storage locker with burning bits of flesh, bone and a greasy black spray of blood. Without hesitating Leers turned toward the other two as they panicked and dove for cover—there wasn’t any. Leers fired twice. The second Pulsarian was hit in the face, the right side of his head disappeared in a ghastly cloud of flame and blood. The last Pulsarian clutched at his destroyed throat, gagging insanely for several seconds then died in a steaming pool of bloody gristle.
“Damn.” Leers grabbed his stomach, horrified at what he had done. He loathed Pulsarians; he didn’t mind killing—he’d seen what they done to others—but to kill them like this . . .not like this, not this close. All they had to do was listen to me. None of his victims had a weapon, and he burned them down on reflex alone, like they were dogs. Why didn’t they listen? They should have listened to me. He wasn’t going to kill them, he hadn’t planned on it—not unless it was necessary—only if they were trying to escape. Were they trying to escape?
Leers locked the door not wanting to be surprised the way those techs had been. Ignoring the wounds his weapon had created he dragged the grisly corpses to the back of the room, away from where he would be working. He didn’t want to be tripping over them and he certainly didn’t want to look at them.
Why didn’t they listen to me? “Goddamnit.”
Reaching underneath his poncho, he hit the quick-release catches on his ATAC pack and set it aside. He shut off the cooling cells to his uniform, separated the watering canister from the ATAC and took a long drink from it, feeling the water soothe his parched throat. He thought about taking off his poncho but decided against it. Pulling a chair up to a computer terminal he typed in the commands to gain access to the restricted data-base. A flood of colors danced on the monitor then went black. Leers stayed alert and waited. The machine chirped then presented him with a menu. Good, a few more minutes of this and his mission would be complete; he’d signal the Renegade Runner and get the hell out of here—then figure out what to put in his report about killing three unarmed Pugs. . .