Fiction: The Hükk Hunts

Fiction by Tim Bancroft

This story links in with the story scenario of the same name: The Hükk Hunts – The Capture of Captain Stass

‘I don’t like it.’ Fen Mahr tapped the table with a fingernail. ‘He may be insulted.’

‘He?’ Across the table, Commander Es Thal had a faint smile on his face.

‘It, then. And it’s not something to scoff at, either. The intel we have on these Hükk is weak to say the least.’

‘Do we have to use it? Can it not do the job, this Herk?’

Fen Mahr  gritted her teeth in anger. ‘You’re not listening. It’s a Hükk – of course it can do the job. The issue is whether it will regard it as worthy enough, difficult enough. Or high-value enough.’

‘Your bounty hunter sounds as if it has a misplaced sense of pride.’ Es Thal narrowed his eyes. ‘My formations can do whatever it is you need much better – this ‘Huck’ sounds hardly what my AI would want to work with.’

Fen stopped drumming the table and balled her fist. She paced towards the closed door of the office and breathed deeply. When she turned back her demeanour was calm – icy calm. ‘Are you deliberately being ignorant?’ she asked.

‘Ignorant?’ Thal shot to his feet. ‘You may be intel but I am Es Thal. Be careful how you address me, Officer Mahr. My family—’

‘Officer?’ Fen cut him off. ‘I am Lead Agent Mahr. Of SD exo-intelligence. I report directly to Ess Ma Rahq.’ Es Thal paled. ‘You may be the senior officer of this garrison, but your family and life on this frontier world is a minor consideration compared with the safety of the Prosperate.’ She narrowed her eyes. ‘Ess Ma Rahq is interested solely in results, Commander Thal, and is watching this mission with interest. This vardari is a traitor to all panhumans, everywhere.’

‘I…  I’m sorry, Agent Mahr. I did not know.’ Es Thal bowed his head.

‘Of course not.’ Fen cut him short, again. ‘I suggest you research the Hükk.’ She smiled, baring her teeth as if a predator looking for prey. ‘And you will be the one to try and hire this bounty hunter.’

‘Why me?’ Thal frowned. ‘Why not you?’

‘Because if he doesn’t like the assignment, he’ll kill you.’

*  *  *

The task would lead to increased hürakh, that was for sure, though the attitude of the quailing, keratin-crested being who brought the request would have tempted almost any Hükk to slay it on sight. But the human morph had borne a message from one whose reputation was known to all Hükk, one who bore her own hürakh – would she but know it.

The target was interesting. Ordinarily a single human would be of no interest, would have very little status, but this… this one was a trader in weapons, perhaps even in slaves, and might be protected by Ghar weaponry – perhaps even Ghar. Given its dealings with the human-killers, the target would be on guard against human assassins: always on guard.

That deserved careful thought, gathering of intelligence, watching. A target on permanent watch, with powerful defences and wanted by the highest-ranked leaders of the Protectorate. And elsewhere. Ashgherk would have to prepare, select the aid he was offered with care – a hand-picked team, perhaps, to act as decoys and bait.

Yes. This might be dangerous, even for a Hükk hunter like himself. But that simple fact on its own carried much renown. Ashgherk settled back on his haunches and pulled up the data he had been given on his quarry: he would have to plan this hunt carefully, indeed.

But the hunt was on.

*  *  *

Ban Stass wiped his hands down the front of his coveralls. The hold stank – whether it was from the cargo of rotting flepods he’d just unloaded to the Ghar or from the filthy Outcasts themselves he didn’t know. The stars only knew what the Ghar used the flepods for, but they found them highly desirable. He flicked his comband. ‘Ship, send a posse of cleaning drones down to Number One Hold. Sterilise it.’

‘Very well, Captain. The Cargomaster asks if we have any schedule for payment?’

‘It’s goods-in-exchange. And tell him they say they have to gain special permission for plasma reactors.’

‘I must issue a warning, Captain. Plasma reactors are not only banned on most worlds in the Determinate but are also very dangerous.’

‘Thank you, Ship, but we won’t have them for long.’

‘Do you have a destination in mind?’

‘Certainly. And they’re begging for them.’

Ship was silent a moment. ‘I have a projection.’

‘Well, don’t announce it yet.’ There was a hum and light flared as a pack of cleaning drones appeared on the hold’s ship-bound transmat. ‘Thanks, Ship. I’ll leave them to it.’ Stass waited for the drones to start working then transmatted to his quarters, his drone cloud hovering around him: he needed a shower. No matter how well the transmat cleansed the dirt and ordure from his clothes and boots, somehow the stink of rotting flepods lingered…

Stass had only just entered his quarters when his comband buzzed. ‘Stass here.’

‘Captain, the Ghar have returned already.’

He sighed. ‘Send out the negotiation drone, again. I’ll come up to the bridge.’ The drone was wheeled and slow – deliberately – so as not to annoy the Ghar. By the time he arrived at the bridge it would have driven down the ramp and be in place to negotiate with the Ghar Trademaster. It was necessity: Ghar struggled to deal directly with humans.

On the bridge, his drones settled into the niches on the rear wall: here, at least, was secure. The First Lieutenant vacated the command chair as he arrived and nodded to a side screen. ‘They’re waiting.’ The image showed a maglash-armed group of Ghar, behind them squads of Outcasts carrying or pulling cargo on trolleys.

‘Build the overlay, Ship. Put me on.’ Another screen flickered into existence and showed the projection that the Ghar would see: a dark control room with a hideously deformed, bipedal alien – a nonhuman. Flickers of a blue-green gas swirled around the alien figure. Stass spoke and the image’s mandibles moved in time with his speech, the ship translating into the simple Ghar language. ‘Trademaster. The Amej hive sends greetings.’

‘It is a pity that your atmosphere is incompatible with ours,’ said the Trademaster. ‘We would prefer dealing in person.’

Stass looked to one side as if conferring, then back to the screen. ‘The hive would be too many, Trademaster. I speak for all.’

‘Are you ready to receive our goods in return?’

‘The hold will be ready in moments. We clear out our atmosphere.’ Stass paused. ‘Did you match our requirements?’

‘No. We will not trade our advanced amplifiers and have only twenty refurbished reactors to spare.’

‘Then why are you here? Has not trust been broken?’

The Trademaster looked affronted. ‘It is only humans you cannot trust. We bring goods that we trust will be of equal value. Refurbished parts, crawler feet and actuators, reactor dump valves, pressure connectors and sensors.’ The Ghar pointed to the crates as it mentioned each component. It finished by waving to a pair of large containers on powered trolleys. ‘And oversupplies from our workshops.’

‘Show us.’

The Trademaster held up an imaging pad before the negotiation drone. Images flowed across its surface: large quantities of spare parts for Ghar machinery, footwear, vac-suits, communications equipment.

Stass glanced to his Cargomaster, who was frantically recalculating his manifest, a profit-and-loss surface plot changing shape as he did so. He hushed the transmission. ‘Marit? Is it okay?’  The plot surface turned green and Cargomaster Marit gave a silent thumbs up. Stass turned back to the screen, turned on the sound. ‘We find that acceptable. There are Amej hives who will find Ghar goods aesthetically pleasing.’ He cringed even as he said the words. Do they really believe this?

‘It is superfluous,’ said the Trademaster. He waved the Outcasts forward. Maglashes crackled and the sullen creatures tramped up the ramp with their loads. The ship flashed up images of the hold, markings on the floor lighting up to show the bearers where to put their loads.

Stass turned off the transmission.  ‘It seems they are as gullible as we thought.’

‘Outside the battlefield,’ murmured Marit. He was intent on the screens, tracking the loading. Ship may have automated the routes and stowage areas, but Marit felt a good Cargomaster always supervised, always watched out for anomalies.

Stass nodded. ‘Outside that, sure…’ and he trailed off. He was watching the loading and could not help but frown as the big crates were levered into place. One crashed down; the other was lowered gently. Why are they treating that one so carefully? ‘Marit, any chance of a scan on those crates?’

‘Already on it,’ said the Cargomaster. ‘Strange: both crates are lined.’ He pulled up the manifest, again. ‘Mind you, that one’s supposed to have the vac-suits and clothing. It’s lighter.’

Stass scratched his stubble. ‘Might be nothing in it. Still, when we launch, before we go through the gate, we’ll check it. In vacuum. They may have caught on that we’re human, after all. I don’t trust Karg’s Ghar as far as I can throw them.’ If I could even hold them and mind the stench, that is!

*  *  *

Despite listening to the initial proposal, Ashgherk had otherwise ignored the Snivelling Messenger, though it appeared to be accompanied by several personal servants. The one who was in charge, though… yes, they appeared to be of some worth. There was an air about it – him, thought Ashgherk – an air of confidence and watchfulness that suggested that he, too, was a hunter of some experience, one with much hürakh. F’Mahhrr it – he – was called, LydAjun F’Mahhrr. Ashgherk practiced the name as worthy of notice: F’Mahhrr could be dealt with.

The hunt so far had been disappointingly easy – though perhaps that was due to the competence of F’Mahhrr and his intelligence data. They were on board an Algoryn scoutship, one equipped with stealth landers to insert them onto the world where the prey was expected to be a few days hence. The hangar bay in which they were meeting stank of metal and human and it was all Ashgherk could do to restrain his angkriz from snapping at every crewman who walked too close. Well, everyone apart from the one who had its arm mauled: it was good the beasts were trained so well as to drop their prey on command.

The human hunter, F’Mahhrr, was talking, apparently unafraid of the angkriz arrayed around Ashgherk. He beckoned forward a comm-tech who, in turn, nervously offered Ashgherk a contact communicator. The tech spoke: ‘Just put it against your, er, jaw and it will pick up your voice, give a feed into our combat shard.’

As if a Hükk would not know a combat communicator when they saw one!

Ashgherk almost killed the tech there and then for the insult but restrained itself – the human morph wasn’t a hunter, after all, and could know nothing of respect. By the way it was scolded by F’Mahhrr, the panhuman hunter recognised the lack of respect. But why he wasted his breath, Ashgherk could not fathom.

The comm. came alive and Ashgherk paired it with his hunting rifle, a custom-built mag gun. F’Mahhrr had meanwhile extracted three more contact communicators from the comm-tech: he offered these to Ashgherk: no doubt for the angkriz.

Ashgherk felt some satisfaction, he was right. F’Mahhrr understood the hunt.

A holomap flickered into existence at their feet and F’Mahhrr bent over, waited for Ashgherk to comment. The Snivelling Messenger joined them as if it had a right to contribute. The image was hazy, flickering in and out of focus – apparently the result of severe atmospheric distortions and radiation surges on this planet. It showed a path through rough and scrub-laden terrain, a clear landing area, a distant camp: Ghar Rebels.

‘We’ve identified the traitor’s landing point,’ said the underling. Ashgherk ignored the obvious statement. ‘They trade with the Rebels at the camp marked. They, I mean the Rebels, have their own landing point a bit further away. We’ll be inserted nearby and move to here—’

‘Let the hunter do his job,’ interrupted F’Mahhrr. Ashgherk was sure there was a note of distaste in F’Mahhrr’s tone: why did he still tolerate the Snivelling Messenger? But then human society was opaque to Ashgherk, even that of warrior humans like the Algoryn.

Ashgherk studied the map, then pointed. F’Mahhrr waved her hands the map zoomed in to show more detai where he point. ‘Yes. I will need only a few packs to herd the prey.’

‘Understood,’ said F’Mahhrr. ‘You state the breed.’ There was a noise from the Snivelling Messenger: indignance, perhaps? Ashgherk put a hand on its mag pistol, ready to take cue from F’Mahhrr over such an insult.

The human hunter was amazingly restrained, merely flicking a hand at the Snivelling Messenger. The map disappeared and the Messenger withdraw, head bowed. F’Mahhrr held out a small capsule. ‘I’ve downloaded all the relevant data here. Let me know and I’ll co-ordinate the packs for you.’ He paused. ‘This is a hunt; you are the hunter. You are Hükk.’ Ashgherk gently took the data capsule from F’Mahhrr’s outstretched hand, then bowed; the human returned the bow, never once taking their eyes off the Hükk.

Caution. Truly, this was a human who knew how to show respect.

*  *  *

The cargo pod floated outside the airlock, tethered to the ship by a kilometre-long monofilament. A pair of drones hovered nearby, one a tech drone, it’s manipulators quivering in anticipation, the other a simple targeter. On a side screen was projected an image from the targeter’s cameras.

‘Well,’ said Stass, ‘let’s see. Go ahead, Cargo. Manual only.’

‘Sir.’ Cargomaster Marit muttered into his mic and the tech drone drifted towards the pod. It reached out with a cutter, sliced open the seal, then pulled on the manual door levers. One of the doors to the pod swung open and the tech drone scurried away. The targeter’s image changed as it shifted position to see inside the pod.

A small, space-suited hand reached out and pushed against the swinging pod door. The door opened a little faster, but the figure disappeared back inside. There was a flurry of arms and legs – more than one suit – then a pair of bulbous helmets poked around the door to look around. The faces were clear to see through the faceplates – Ghar – and, on seeing where they were, a look of horror crossed their features; the small forms frantically pushed themselves back inside.

‘Ghar, sir. Shall I destroy them?’ It was Felay, at the weapons console.

‘No! The cargo…’ yelped Marit.

‘Hold it,’ said Stass. ‘Ship, can you try basic comms channels.’

‘I am already trying, Captain. I think whoever is inside the cargo pod wants to communicate as they are using no encryption and a very basic transmission medium.’

‘So?’

‘It is too basic. Please be patient.’ The tech drone drifted across to the targeter, opened a panel and began working on the circuitry inside. Suddenly the comm. crackled on the bridge and a high-pitched voice could be heard.

‘…surrender. Please respond. We are Outcasts, slaves, looking for refuge amongst the Amej or Fartok’s cause. Can you help? We surrender. Please respond…’

Stass silenced the speakers with a wave of his hand. ‘Interesting. Ship, patch me through.’ He waited, for the Ship to give him a green light, then opened the broadcast channel. ‘Outcasts aboard the pod, this is the Amej. Tether yourselves to the inside and come out. We wish to inspect you and the contents.’

The transmission halted. ‘Will comply.’ The Outcasts began clambering out from the pod, careful to keep good grip on its hand-holds, though all were tethered. There were seven, all clad in the bulky Ghar space suits making them resemble comical children’s toys. ‘That’s all of us,’ announced one.

The targeter darted forward. The Outcasts flinched away from it but it merely darted inside the pod and scanned the contents. The interior was hollowed out, the remaining cargo stashed around the sides of the container. There were no more Ghar inside and the targeter’s scans showed no other lifesigns.

Stass sighed. ‘Stowaways. Bring them in, Marit. We can dump them off when we exchange the goods.’ He paused a moment, his nose wrinkling in distaste. ‘They probably stink, though. Keep them in bay three, for now – it’s empty. Ship, send down blankets and assemble some facilities for them. And keep them away from the rest of the crew until we get to Dormon IV.’

Outcast stowaways. That’s all I need. Still, perhaps Fartok’s Lieutenants will give us a recruiter’s bonus.

*  *  *

Stass made sure his nasal plugs were firmly in place before he transmatted down to cargo bay three. His drones picked up on his apprehension and buzzed around him protectively. He took a deep breath as the crew door irised open before him.

The Ghar inside scurried into a line, apparently standing to attention though their control harnesses emphasised their naturally hunched forms. Then they stared.

‘Human!’ hissed one. They stepped back as one and hands came up in defensive postures, their feet slid back into a broad stance.

The drones buzzed warily. ‘Attack stance sensed,’ broadcast a shield drone into his earpiece. ‘Safeties off,’ broadcast a gun drone. ‘Combat enabled on command.’ The medi-drone stayed silent.

Stass regarded the seven Ghar, warily. Their stance reminded him of old lessons, part of bodyguard training. Is that a Ghar martial art? he wondered, then berated himself for his stupidity. Of course it is. They’re Ghar. He held his arms out to the side, away from his plasma pistol. ‘The Amej sent me to talk to you.’

One straightened. ‘But you are human!’

‘They thought it would be easier. I breathe the same atmosphere as you.’

‘A human ship?’

‘An Amej ship with a human contingent.’ I’d better keep our cover intact.

‘Is that not inefficient? Wasteful on biosphere support?’

Be careful, Sless. This one’s brighter than the average.

‘The Amej are traders. They find having humans helps deal with most humanoid life forms. They just don’t appreciate…’

‘Yes, I see.’ The Ghar straightened. ‘I am Command— I mean, I am Outcast Jerl-4.’

‘You speak for you all?’ Stass gestured to the Outcasts behind Jerl. The Ghar behind nodded vigorously.

‘I do. They are lowly maintenance Ghar and vat-tenderers.’

‘And you were once more.’ Jerl bowed his head but stiffened, nonetheless. Butter him up, Stass. ‘It is obvious by your bearing and air of command. You must have been a good soldier.’

Jerl straightened. ‘I was a Seige Commander. One of the Empire’s best.’ Then he slumped again. ‘Before I was disgraced.’

Stass leant against the side of the cargo bay and folded his arms. The Ghar relaxed, though kept a wary eye on his drones. ‘Go on.’

‘I was told to make an assault – with my crawlers and bomber squads! An assault!’ Jerl almost spat the word. ‘I presumed it was a mistake, that the order was intended for another unit but, no, I was castigated for questioning Karg’s very own orders. So I advanced.’ Jerl breathed a huge sigh. ‘My bombardment company was destroyed.’

‘And you were wiped out by overwhelming forces,’ said Stass. We’ve heard these rumours, before. This Karg seems to be getting rid of any who might threaten him. ‘It seems somewhat unfair – a particularly wasteful way of getting rid of a potential rival. I’m sorry to hear it, Commander.’

‘Commander, no more,’ said Jerl. He kicked the floor. ‘To become what one was meant to be and have it stripped from you – I cannot explain to a human what that is like for a Ghar in the service of the Empire.’ He looked to the floor, again.

‘But you are no longer in the Empire of the Supreme Commander,’ said Stass. He paused, letting that sink in. ‘And I take it that you stowed away on this ship in an effort to escape.’

Jerl drew himself up straight. The other Outcasts followed suit. ‘Yes. We wish to join the Rebels. I wish to avenge the loss of my troops—’

‘Fine,’ interrupted Stass. ‘I’m sure we can persuade the Amej captain to deliver you to a Rebel recruiting world – or whatever they are.’ He waited for the excitement amongst the Outcasts to die down. ‘But what can you pay us? You took up cargo space in that pod?’

Jerl nodded. ‘I thought that payment may be an issue. So I arranged to have special components scattered amongst all the crates.’

‘Special components of what?’

‘If you guarantee that you will take us to the recruiting world and give us kit, rations and weapons, then I will have Technician Drep search out the components, assemble them for you – and fit them to the reactors you were given.’

‘You hid plasma amps?’ Stass smiled. That certainly boosts the value of our cargo! He tried to keep the satisfaction from his voice. ‘That sounds like a deal to me.’ He turned, only just remembering to add a final comment. ‘I’ll check with our Amej masters.’

*  *  *

An Infiltrator team leader reported back, sliding silently into place beside Es Thal. ‘Sir, they’ve landed a cargo lifter. They’ve met up with a small group of locals, too. It looks like they’re just ’

‘A transmat enabled lifter?’

‘Yes, sir. From what we could see, a full-strength cargo transmat. The main ship’s still in orbit.’

‘Where are they heading?’

‘Towards the empty compound, sir, as we expected. It looks as if Agent Mahr’s intel was correct, that Dormon IV’s an exchange point.’

‘Good. The planet’s useless for anything else.’ Es Thal glanced round at the blasted waste around him: windswept scrub, a moss-like covering on the ground, stripped rock outcrops leaping from a yellowed soil, wizened trees clinging to the ground with broad, storm-scraped root-domes. He shivered as yet another gust of the chill wind blasted at their suits, though his armour’s internal compensators kept him and his troops at optimal temperature. ‘I’m surprised the natives survive,’ he said.

Another voice came over the combat shard’s comm bands, this one heavily accented, the vowels clipped: the Hükk, Ashgherk. ‘Scout: can your scouts confirm the numbers and activities of the prey?’

The infiltrator was not cowed. ‘Sir Hükk, yes sir. It looks like they’ve only unloaded the first batch of cargo onto a loader. There’s a squad of bodyguard and another of crew.’

‘That is what this Hükk also senses,’ came the clipped voice over the combat shard. ‘There is more to report.’

The infiltrator glanced at Es Thal and shrugged, muted the band to mutter to her commander. ‘I’ve no idea where the Hükk’s gone, sir. It disappeared.’

Commander Es Thal nodded. ‘And our SD Agent is monitoring from overhead – if she can through this murk. Looks like we’re on our own.’ He reactivated the comm. ‘You say there are more, Hunter Askark?’

‘Ashgherk.’ A pause. ‘You will die if you continue insulting my name. I issue this warning only out of respect for F’Mahhrr’s property.’ There was silence.

Es Thal swallowed his pride, remembered the SD agent was monitoring them all. ‘My apologies, hunter, sir. There is more to report?’

‘Seven Ghar Outcasts have also left the ship. They carry primitive luggers.’

The Algoryn tensed and Es Thal cursed. ‘He’s shifting Ghar? Ferrying them to the Outcasts?’ He clenched his fists. ‘Some people stoop too low. Both Empire and Rebels destroy. We should—’

‘You have been placed under my instruction.’ Ashgherk’s voice came over the comm. once more. ‘You must hunt, or be gone. The Prey is to be captured alive. All warriors must wait and act on my direction to herd the Prey into my hands.’

Es Thal shook his head in exasperation. ‘All units, act on Ashgherk’s orders. Es Thal out.’ He clicked control of the shard to the Hükk and settled down to wait. May the ancestors protect us. Humans aiding Ghar!

*  *  *

Fen Mahr frowned as she tried to improve the resolution on the holodisplay. The wind was whipping up mineral-laden particulates, interfering with sensors, comms and visual feeds. It did not help, of course, that her frigate had to remain in stealth mode to avoid detection by the traitor’s ship: a Freeborn freighter it may be, but such traders were heavily armed. She made do with a rough approximation of the ambush site, the tactical computers approximating position data when sensors failed.

The discussion between Ashgherk and Es Thal made her wince: the Commander was completely unaware of just how much he had insulted the Hükk. The pride and sensitivity of a junior family did not go well with dark missions. He may not survive the conflict. She shrugged. But he was the closest.

She watched as the traders finished loading their ground hauler and trundled over the rough ground. The Outcasts were placed in front, alongside the locals. Good tactics, she thought. Expendables to attract fire away from the trained units. This captain may be a traitor but he is no fool. Behind were the ship crew – domari – whilst the target led the cargo, surrounded by bodyguard and vardanari.

On the planet’s surface, the small caravan wended its way through the foothills, its progress occasionally hidden by the dust. Of the Algoryn units and the Hükk she could see no sign.

A crackle of sound over the comm: Ashgherk issuing orders. A flicker of motion caught her eye as Es Thal’s unit pounced on the rearmost domari. Cutting them off. The domari dropped to the ground, hunkering down in what cover they could find. She was not sure but several were down.

The column stalled. The ferals turned to face the rear, then the Infiltrators erupted from the cover of their camo-drone, their mag repeaters having a devastating effect on the poorly armoured locals. The ferals did not hesitate but charged, screaming, and the details of the melee were lost in dust. The Outcasts ran to cover but, from the scattered surveillance images, Mahr thought she saw them looking for targets. Who would have believed it? Brave Outcasts!

Stass had not delayed. He ran behind an outcrop, his spotter and gun drones searching for any other ambushers. The vardanari fanned out to one side, their cloaks whipped up by the breeze, then the AI squad waiting for them opened up with X-launchers and mag guns. Armour vs weapons, thought Mahr, and wished she could intervene. Where is Ashgherk?

As if on cue, there was a flurry of movement and Ashgherk appeared, raised his mag gun high and a grenade flew across the open space. There was no explosion, though, just a silent flattening of the dust around Stass. The traitor and his bodyguards staggered and the drones around them sank to the ground. Grip!  Then the ferocious angkriz of the Hükk leapt from cover and ran towards Stass.

Fen Mahr gasped as the Ghar Outcasts leapt from this shelter and charged to intercept the beasts attacking their ally. Their lugger guns blazed away at the Hükk and its beasts, the chemically-propelled slugs ripping into the angkriz’ flesh. She could almost hear the howl of frustrastion from Ashgherk as he turned to face the unexpected threat, then there was a flurry of limbs, teeth and fur as the dust raised by the melee was blown around them.

Her sensors were blind. Never mind. There were other thing she could do to help. She issued orders to the frigate’s Sensors and Comms operators, then sat back to await the outcome.

*  *  *

Where in the blazes did all these come from? Stass tried to pick out targets in the dusty gloom and his drones bleeped warnings as they spun around him. ‘Anyone? Can you see anything?’

Beside him, Marit raised his plasma carbine. ‘I can see nothing, boss. Too much dust – too much cover. And they had camo-drones. It’s Algoryn, I think.’

‘But what about those beasts? That hulk of a creature controlling them?’

Marit shrugged. On the other side of Stass, it was Felay who replied. ‘There’s only one creature I think it might be: a Hükk. With pets.’

A Hükk, thought Stass, cursing. I’ve overstretched my welcome in this sector. ‘My apologies, Marit, Felay. I should have seen it coming.’

‘Can’t be helped now, sir.’ Marit snapped off a shot into the gloom. The sounds of screams and roars came through the howling wind; dark shadows were all that could be seen through the swirling sand. A stream of flashing sparks showed the passage of a mag-gun’s flechettes whining through the air. Felay grunted, let out a sigh, and collapsed to the ground.

‘Intercept!’ snapped Stass to his shield drones. They wobbled in front of him to block the fire coming his way.

‘Rocks, here!’ shouted Marit. He crouched behind them and peered into the gloom. A shape flew past and he whirled, almost fired but it was an Outcast, running, blood streaming down its face from a wound on his forehead.

Stass dived behind the rocks and knelt, a plasma pistol in his hand. ‘Ignore the beasts. Go for the Hükk itself.’

‘I’ve heard rumours, sir,’ said Marit. ‘They’re almost impossible to bring down.’

‘Then we’ve work on our hands.’ Stass cautiously raised his head to peer over the top to where the Outcasts had intercepted the Hükk and its pack of beasts.  There was nothing to be seen or heard through the dust and wind. He tried raising the vardanari on his comband: nothing. Then the ship: still nothing. ‘I think comms are being jammed.’ He stepped out from behind the rocks—

There was a crackle of energy through the air and tendrils of blue fire whipped around Stass’s torso. He stiffened, screamed in pain. Then a roar and the sounds of Marit’s carbine firing desperately at a hideous, clawed and beaked shape. The carbine flare stopped; Stass collapsed to the ground, twitching. A beast growled over his body.

A command caused the beast to back away, then a bulky shape loomed from the gloom. The shape bent, slapped manacles on Stass, then placed a coma-pad on the unconscious Captain’s bare neck. ‘You are mine,’ said the harsh voice. Then the Hükk slung the trader’s body over his shoulder and disappeared into the gloom.

*  *  *

The last surviving angkriz nuzzled the bodies and, finding neither moved, whined with disappointment. It howled into the swirling dust, perhaps for the loss of its companions, then snarled and whirled away into the storm. After all, there would always be more prey: all it had to do was stick close to the Hükk.