PROLOGUE

Easing his van into the parking slot, Hetz tabbed the power-down key and stepped from the vehicle. The five human, byveri and cavaxian men and women traveling with him, each in nondescript black sweaters and pants, a plain travel cylinder slung over one shoulder, followed him onto the rough plascrete lot. Hetz paused at the van’s rear bumper, savoring the cool breeze that blew in with the tide. Heavy with the spicy, invigorating scent of island pines, it encouraged deep, relaxing breaths as it dried the sweat on his brow. He dropped his hands into his trench coat pockets, felt the trembling in his fingers ease as he caressed the Krakker 303 snug within the right pocket holster.

Across the bay, Cerradis Starport bustled with activity. A mid-size freighter heaved skyward, the rumble of its Columbus thrusters merging with the natural thunder of an approaching storm. Hetz watched it ascend into the gloomy evening sky, its passage through the clouds illuminated by flashes of lightning.

“Yes,” he said in a low voice, smiling at the nervous anticipation in his stomach. “A storm certainly descends upon these shores tonight.”

He spied Gneggis and the other six members of the primary team, each also dressed in black and carrying a travel cylinder, exiting their van across the lot. He started toward them at a leisurely pace, his half of the team following. Keemer’s, one of the resort town’s more popular restaurants, appeared busy as usual, and Hetz appreciated the two open parking slots near the back of the restaurant—closer to where he planned to enter. An illumination strip hung above the rear service lock, chasing back the early evening gloom, showing Hetz what he’d hoped to see: nothing.

Lightning danced through the dark clouds overhead again, reminding Hetz of the inner chaos he’d felt only an hour ago. Can’t believe I agreed to this, he mused, glancing upward for a moment, enjoying the show in Cerradis’s darkening sky. While he’d known his sponsor would want a major hit in a public place, he hadn’t thought they’d move so soon. Their impatience had left him precious little time for actual planning. He’d trained his people the best he could, just not for anything specific.

Nothing like baptism by fire, he thought.

A roll of thunder echoed from the distance.

He, Gneggis and the teams behind them came together at the rear service lock. “Did you get the scopes?” Hetz asked.

Gneggis raised his forearm, pressed a button on the module strapped around his sleeve. “Kystrum came through as promised. We’ve cracked both comm and security. Just awaiting your word to shut them down.”

“Secondary teams in position?”

“Ready to act.”

Hetz grunted. “Maybe we can keep the mess to a minimum after all.” He took a final deep breath. “Right, then.” He rolled his shoulders, relaxed his muscles, then lifted his shiny new Krakker 303 from his trench coat’s pocket holster. Gneggis reached into his cylinder, withdrew a dull black slinger, tossed his cylinder aside. The eleven members of the primary team followed suit, four producing heavy-duty shredders instead. Thigh pockets bulged with extra clips. Hetz smiled. “Let’s do this.”

Gneggis pressed a button on his module, then dug a lockpicker from a pocket and jammed it against the lockplate. The module hummed and a moment later the lock hissed open. Squeezing his 303’s grip to chamber a round, Hetz started inside, the team close behind. They filed in, weapons raised, covering the angles and each other as Hetz had taught. Another peal of thunder followed them into the building.

Busy with their orders, the kitchen staff failed to notice anything until the team had them effectively surrounded. “Who are you? What is the meaning of this?” a cavaxian chef demanded, reptilian nostrils widening, scales darkening in agitation. Another captive let out a single cry of fright. No one else made a sound.

“Quiet! All of you!” Gneggis ordered, raising his slinger into the chef’s face. “There. Inside.” With quick gestures, he and two others herded the kitchen staff and a pair of stewards into one of the large walk-in freezers. The rest moved to cover the doorways. “Dantris, Kakrin, security, comm.”

“On it!” Two men disappeared into a nearby office.

Flanked by a pair of byverii, Hetz hurried into the stewards’ foyer. By chance it was empty. Two noodle dishes and several bowls of a thick soup sat waiting for delivery on a counter leading from the kitchen. Studying the blinking lights of the control board on the wall, he distantly noted his mouth watering in response to the aromas filling the foyer.

The board indicated every table was occupied. “We’ve definitely got ourselves an audience,” he said lightly. He glanced through the round windows in the center of the swinging double doors, into the dining area, then stepped back. “Steward,” he warned his companions.

A moment later, the steward slipped through the doors with familiar ease, into the waiting arms of the byverii. He managed a single grunt. The two byverii deposited his limp form out of the way as the rest of the team gathered in the foyer.

“Kitchen secure,” Gneggis reported. “Service lock jammed shut. Alarms and comm systems disabled.”

“Smell that food!” Hetz whispered, glancing through the windows again, studying the crowd, finding his targets’ table. “Absolutely wonderful!”

“Good tasting, too,” Gneggis said.

Hetz glanced over his shoulder, noticed crumbs on his second’s black sweater and laughed to himself. Returning his attention to the windows, he said quietly, “Targets identified. Lower platform, to the left rear. The round table in the nook.” He looked around. “Full dispersal. Signal the secondary teams.”

“Full dispersal, aye.” Gneggis pressed a button on the module strapped around his forearm. “Teams signaled.”

Hetz waited a moment longer, savoring the anticipation, then said again, “Let’s do it.”

With a smoothness suggesting weeks of practice, his primary team spilled through the restaurant’s dining area as Hetz and the two slender byverii made their way toward the target table. At two tables along the back wall, two of Hetz’s five secondary teams stood and drew weapons hidden in their purses and satchels. He was halfway to his targets when the first screams of shock filled the air. Alert for the telltale motion of a protection drone or bodyguard, he kept his arm tense, his 303 half-raised. Without needing to look, he knew the byverii behind him did the same.

His people shouted for silence. A pair of slingers discharged. Glass shattered. Someone dropped a tray of dishes. More screams followed. Another slinger discharged. The screaming died down, replaced by frantic sobs, pathetic whines of fright. Patrons halfway from their seats settled back down.

“All of you standing, down on the floor! Everyone else, hands on the tables!” Gneggis shouted. “Now!”

The byverii a step behind, Hetz stopped at the round table on the lower platform near the back wall, where seven cavaxian executives sat, no longer enjoying their dinners. In disbelief, Hetz glanced around one last time. Can’t be this easy, he thought. The senior executive leveled his smoldering gaze on Hetz, who, relaxing, smiled and moved to face him across the table.

“Refreshers clear,” a cavaxian secondary team member shouted, escorting a small group of patrons from the restrooms.

“Entrance foyer secure,” another shouted.

“Anyone moves, they die!” Gneggis barked. After a moment of silence, he added, “The restaurant is yours, sir.”

Relishing the moment, Hetz let the ensuing quiet hang for several seconds. The senior executive’s jaw muscles quivered in anger. “Gentlemen,” Hetz said finally. “Enjoying your meals? I hear this establishment has an excellent menu.” He plucked a piece of meat from the nearest plate, chewed it slowly and nodded his head in approval. “Sartak. Medium rare. Very good.” He helped himself to another piece. “Celebrating, Chi Ahkiv?”

The senior executive placed his hands flat on the table and started to rise. One of the byverii, ears twisting back in irritation, shifted his slinger toward the cavaxian and shook his furry head. The executive settled back into his seat. “What do you want?” he demanded, choking out his words.

Hetz chewed another piece of sartak, savoring the explosion of flavor across his tongue. “Delicious!” He snagged another bite. “No protection drones, Chi? Bodyguards? I am amazed at your innocence.”

The cavaxian’s fingers curled into fists, his claws gouging the table’s polished surface. The scales along the sides of his neck turned a deep orange. The executives around him sat utterly still. “State your business or be gone,” he growled.

“You and your business associates concluded a series of negotiations a few hours ago,” Hetz said calmly. “Negotiations in which my sponsors expressed a keen interest but to which they were not invited. I’ve come to learn why.” He glanced down, found another morsel, frowned when he noticed only two more remained.

“You undoubtedly speak of the Kystrum.” Chi Ahkiv snorted. “We do not deal with criminal organizations. We crush them. Like bugs.”

“Bugs.” Hetz sighed. “My sponsors would be disappointed to hear you speak of them so derogatorily, Chi,” he said before popping another bite of sartak into his mouth. “Mind if I call you Chi?”

The cavaxian breathed sharply through flared nostrils. “Get off this planet,” he growled. “Leave the Sphere. Retreat to your holes, like the bugs you are.”

Hetz lifted the remaining piece of sartak. “I will, Chi. Get off this hole of a planet, I mean,” he said, then ate the juicy morsel. “Superb!” He licked his fingertips before reaching for the mug of frothy green ale beside the plate. “But before I go, I want to leave your people a message so they will never again exclude my sponsors, though bugs they may be, from any future negotiations.” Raising the mug to his lips, he leveled his shiny blue Krakker 303 on the cavaxian’s slanted forehead. Chi Ahkiv’s eyes widened and his thin black lips pulled back, revealing clenched teeth. “Say good-bye.” Then, as he tilted his head back and let the cool ale wash over his tongue, down into his gullet, closing his eyes at its sudden sting, he fired twice.

The twin blasts shattered the quiet. Chi Ahkiv managed a gurgle before crashing to the floor.

With cool precision, the byverii opened fire on the remaining executives. Thunder filled the restaurant. Glass and china fell to the floor with the bodies, shattered. One managed a quick plea for mercy before a slinger blast silenced him forever. Screams from diners behind the byverii rose into the air.

Through the carnage Hetz continued to drink. His eyes leaked tears as he drained the mug. Soon the echoes of slinger fire faded, and the last body stopped twitching. Slamming the mug down, he wiped his lips with the back of his hand and roared in delight, “Hot damn what a drink!” before blasting a round from his 303 into the ceiling.

Gneggis shouted for silence. Slowly, the patrons complied. In the quiet that followed, the module on his arm beeped loudly. He raised his forearm, studied the small screen. “Port authorities alerted to our presence. Someone in the parking lot must have made the call.”

Hetz nodded. “We’re done here. Signal our ride.” He thumbed the 303’s safety. Immensely pleased, he removed his new organization’s calling card, a small black diamond, from his pocket and set it at the table’s center.

“Teams, outside!” Gneggis shouted.

“Wait!”

Hetz turned toward the man who had shouted. “Yes?”

The human, a member of one of the secondary teams, pointed his slinger at a corner booth. “Look what we have here.”

Hetz did, and smiled. “Well, well. Normally, we wouldn’t waste bystanders. Bad for business.” He thumbed the 303’s safety again, squeezed the grip. “But in this case, I think we’ll make an exception.”

The two Unity Fleet ensigns—the tans, reds and blues of their dress uniforms vivid in the restaurant’s dim lighting—twisted around, trying to shield the females behind them with their bodies. One reached for her companion’s forearm. “Axel!” But Axel’s glare remained focused on Hetz.

“Keryl, Shint, Markin, ready,” Hetz said. “The rest, go!” He and the three he’d named approached the ensigns’ table.

“Go, go!” Gneggis shouted as he and the remaining operatives moved toward the main entrance, those at the rear covering their retreating comrades.

The two byverii and the human who had spotted the ensigns raised their slingers as Hetz aimed his 303. “Say good-bye!”

A woman at a nearby table screamed. The sandy-haired woman behind Axel placed a hand on his shoulder and tried to stand. “NO!”

Hetz’s first shot caught her in the throat.

* * *

The Kystrum gunship settled onto the plascrete lot, turbines whining in preparation for immediate thrust-off. The teams emerged from the restaurant in a rush, knocking aside newly-arrived patrons who stood in the parking lot, staring in shock. Holstering his 303, Hetz calmly walked toward the gunship, knowing the nearest port security vehicles were still minutes away, confident that even if one did arrive early, the gunship would tear it apart. Warm with pride, he paused at the hatch and watched his men settle into their seats. “Seven for seven. I could not be more pleased,” he said.

“A credit to your leadership and planning, sir,” Gneggis said, the smile on his face spreading to those around him.

Thunder from the approaching storm rumbled overhead.

“And the fact they neglected to bring bodyguards. Can you believe that?” Hetz sank his hands back into the comfort of his pockets and turned toward the restaurant, relishing the screams floating through windows shattered in the slinger fire that tore the ensigns and their bitches apart. “No one’s forgetting this any time soon. The Kystrum will be most pleased.”

He wished he could return to celebrate. That sartak had been absolutely delicious, the ale superb. At the memory of the pleasantly tart drink, he belched. Maybe with Gneggis, he thought. Sit at the executives’ table. He smiled at the idea. Better still, that corner booth. Smell the blood of those ensigns and their bitches. But he and his operatives would leave Cerradis within the hour and never return.

A sustained flash of blue light, clearly visible through the shattered windows, caught his attention. He frowned. “What in shike was that?”

“Weapon discharge?” Gneggis offered. “It looked like it came from that corner booth. Maybe those ensigns were carrying weapons, and something twigged off.”

“No, no. They would’ve tried for them at the end.”

“Sir, the pilot asks that you join us,” another of the operatives called through the hatch.

“Yes, of course.” No time to investigate, Hetz thought. Shike. Hate loose ends. He’d survived as long as he had, doing what he did, by taking care of loose ends. “Time to go.”

Hetz slipped into the gunship’s belly and sealed the hatch behind him. As he settled into his seat, the engines screamed and the bulky metal beast shot forward into a graceful arc, heading south. Remembering the calling card he’d left on the executives’ table, he smiled. Indeed, no one ever forgets this, the birth of the Black Diamond.

Onto Chapter 1

Terrorcruise cover art

 

TERRORCRUISE – a science-fiction action-adventure novel by Charles Brass
Published March, 2011 by ClearView Press, Inc.
Available in soft cover ($12.99) and Kindle ($3.99)
Contact Charles Brass by email at: seabrass@seabrassproductions.com

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