To get back in the good graces of the Company, Lucky takes a job that looks simple enough: Take an avowed assassin to a drop off location, pick up new crew, and head out a little richer than before.
But nothing can be that easy.
The drop off point is in the middle of a civil war, his new crew are cold-blooded killers, and the melancholy giant he's transporting has a secret plan of his own.
It all adds up to disaster for the crew of The Last Gasp.
Not that Lucky—or Rocky—would expect anything else.
Reloaded is the fourth book in Lucky's Mercs, an action-packed new series that reads like an unholy union of Starship Troopers and Firefly.
Release date: July 17, 2020
Publisher: Independently published
Print pages: 246
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Jack relished chaos almost as much as he loved order.
He was a man of contradictions, his late wife used to tell him. But that wasn’t true. He simply knew how to enjoy what was in front of him.
Soon, what would be in front of him would be death and destruction and everything that Jack brought with him. But for the moment, it was a small, orderly mining city carved out of the chaos of the strange world around it. The cool, calming sensation of wind whipping through his hair as he fell toward the alien world brought a smile to his face.
His earpiece crackled. “Enjoying yourself?”
He opened one eye and glanced over at his diving partner. “I was.”
“Maybe close your visor so you don’t get hit in the face with something down here,” Anedre said, her voice as no-nonsense as ever.
“You need to lighten up and enjoy your work.”
“I’ll enjoy this when we’re done.”
“Relax. We have a good plan. If we stick to it, we’ll be fine.”
Anedre let out a sigh. “You sound like my father. Always have a plan, he’d say. The bigger the better.” She scoffed. “I’ve never known a man more in love with his own plans.”
Anedre grunted. “We’ll see.” Considering Jack was probably her father’s age, he guessed she didn’t really like chatting with him about it. Then again, Anedre didn’t like chatting about anything.
“Anyway, the air down here isn’t toxic, but everything that lives in it is,” she said. “So maybe include closing your visor in your ‘plan,’ eh?”
It was true. Dead City was no place for the faint of heart.
Then again, it was a place of contradictions, just like Jack.
Dead City was a collection of mining operations spread over not just the surface of the planet, but also the various floating islands suspended above it. The tiny planet had no name. Folks seemed to think that the name of the only permanent settlement was good enough for the rest of the place.
It had a breathable atmosphere when it should have had none. Over most of its surface, it sported near-Earth gravity, which was weird. It also had pockets of space within its atmosphere that defied all conventional laws of gravity, which was weirder.
Known as reverse gravity geysers, or “upwells” to the locals, they occurred where small fissures in the planet’s surface channeled some alien magic buried deep inside that reversed the flow of gravity permanently upwards. At the tops of the upwells were floating islands of rock, their size dictated by the size of the gravity flow they hovered over.
Dead City was, for lack of a better phrase, an abandoned alien landfill. There was nothing else like it. No one was sure what was at its center, but the mines here produced some of the most exotic and unique materials in the known universe. It was those materials that made the strange planet worth killing for.
And that’s where Jack came in.
Jack tapped his chest, and his helmet and visor collapsed back into place over his head. The sound of wind was replaced by deafening silence. All he could hear was his own rhythmic breathing. “I wasn’t aware I was being watched.”
“Somebody has to keep an eye on you, old man,” Anedre said.
Jack snorted. “You’re the new kid here.”
“I didn’t miss my last assignment.”
“That’s bullshit, and—”
“See you down there,” Anedre said. She fired the shoulder thrusters on her custom dive suit and disappeared into the clouds below.
“Hey,” Jack growled. “Not the plan.”
“Plans are for old men,” Anedre said.
Jack tried to fire his own thrusters, but found that he’d reset them. They weren’t supposed to use them down here. He was strictly going to glide down the edges of the gravity upwells, same as Anedre was supposed to do.
But apparently Anedre had other idea about how to accomplish the mission. That wasn’t a surprise. She wasn’t a team player any more than Jack was. In fact, this was the first time the Company had asked him to take on a partner in four decades of missions. He’d managed to kill kings and emperors, powerful men and women of commerce, skilled warriors, and the most hidden and protected foes in the universe. Always alone. Always without backup.
But now they wanted him to have a partner.
You get drunk and fall into a cryopod on a freighter headed for another system one time, and suddenly they don’t trust you to kill people on your own anymore.
But he’d endure it. And if he had to work with another of the Company’s stable of assassins, Anedre was as good as any. He’d trained her himself, after all. She was smart. Maybe too smart. She was also half his age and very good. The Company was hedging their bets on the future. Their No. 1 wasn’t going to live forever. Nobody outruns Father Time, and even Jack couldn’t kill him.
“Where are you?” Jack said as he finally broke through the clouds. “We’re supposed to be together. Comms get fuzzy down here, remember?”
Jack sighed and went back to enjoying the silence that accompanied the drop. He’d done a million space dives into planets and space stations and everything in between, but he’d never jumped into a world quite like Dead City.
He listened and watched as the AI system in his suit parsed data through his HUD. He was getting close. A floating island slipped past like a streak. Then another. And another.
His HUD painted the lines of gravity flows, each carefully marked by beacons. There was no easy way to see the upwells, certainly not for an outsider, and flying into reverse gravity blindly was a good way to get killed. Ships weren’t allowed here, for the most part. Only a handful of ferries, flown by pilots who knew the upwells backward and forward.
Jack turned off his thrusters. He shouldn’t have had them on at all. He couldn’t risk being detected now. He was on glide for the rest of the way.
His suit AI calculated the distance to one of the larger upwells. He flew just along the edge and instantly felt the shift in gravity, like he was bouncing off a huge pillow. His downward momentum slowed; then the gravity switch kicked in as he dove deeper into the flow, and he was thrown upward, toward the bottom of the big rocky landmass that was hovering directly above the column of reverse gravity.
The floating island was at the point of perfect balance where the upwell of gravity met the upper reaches of its influence and balanced against the normal gravity of the planet—which was itself unnatural, of course. That happened to be twenty miles up for this particular upwell, but it was among the most powerful.
Below him were dozens of floating islands in an unbroken chain, at greater or lower levels depending on the strength of the gravity upwell they sat upon. Jack slipped out of the other side of the upwell, adjusting his angle so he wasn’t thrown into a tailspin by the abrupt shift in gravity. It was as much art as science, and his dive suit, for all its advanced capabilities, was little help here.
His HUD splashed a warning a moment before he saw the movement. A lone perimeter drone, floating near the base of one of the floating islands. Either he’d gotten too close, or it had gotten lucky to see him.
The first pulse fire hit him in the chest. It was a one-in-a-million shot, Jack thought, something that the drone couldn’t do again in a million years.
But it only had to do it once.
It threw Jack backwards, into the center of the upwell. He watched helplessly as the ground raced away from him; then he flipped to see he was flying up toward the endless rivers of shit and debris that lived at the top of the upwell, trapped in the gravity eddies that swirled below the floating island.
Jack grabbed a chunk of metal floating toward him, hooking his combat glove around it and yanking it tight to him. A second pulse blast flew past his face, flashing across his combat visor. This one was of the unfocused variety that he’d expected from the drones.
He cursed whatever god there was that could allow a damn automated drone to actually make an accurate shot on him. His chest burned where the pulse had ripped through some of his combat gear. He was well into the atmosphere now, so the break in the suit wouldn’t kill him, but it was cold as shit, and now he had exposed burns while his suit chirped at him.
“How’s it going up there?” said a voice in his ear.
“Fine,” Jack spat back. “Just fine. Thanks for asking. You?”
“Peachy,” Anedre said. “I’m just waiting on your ugly ass to show up.”
“Keep your panties on. You’ve got the charges.”
Anedre cut the line.
Jack thrashed around wildly before finally grasping a second sizable chunk of metal. These were both steel beams from what might have been a small shuttle that had gotten caught in the gravity riptide and been pulled down here.
Once he had a third, he pulled out his plasma knife and started to melt the ends of the metal chunks together. In another sixty seconds, he had created one long, connected chunk of metal that was roughly twice as tall as he was.
“Seriously, you’re late,” Anedre said, annoyed. “And I don’t even see you.”
“That’s the whole point,” Jack said, as he shoved the long piece of metal forward until he’d pierced the edge of the gravity upwell. The dumbbell-shaped end of the metal he’d melted together started to get tugged down by the gravity just beyond the invisible barrier. “I’m stealthy.”
The gravity slowly asserted itself, dragging the piece of metal downward. At last, Jack felt the slight tug on the end he was holding.
Slowly, way too slowly, he started to be dragged forward, out of the gravity pool.
He began to be dragged faster and faster. Then his head shifted out of the gravity upwell completely, and almost instantly he felt himself yanked violently forward, like he was falling off a tall building.
“Yes!” he shouted triumphantly.
“They’re closing the gates,” Anedre hissed.
“Damn,” Jack said. “They’re early.”
“You’re late,” Anedre said. “Are we go or no go?”
Jack pointed himself straight down, his plan to bounce carefully among the upwells now completely blown. “We’re go,” he said. “You go now, I’ll join you in the chamber.”
Anedre was silent for a second. “That’s not the mission plan.”
“Just do it,” Jack said angrily.
“And what if you don’t make it in there on time? Then I’m on my own.”
“I’ll get there,” Jack said. “Don’t you worry about me.”
“Just hurry the hell up, old man,” she said. “I’m going in.”
The radio clipped out just as Jack noticed that his combat suit was tearing open at his chest, where the pulse had hit him. The material was banging against the outside of his chest. That was a problem, considering people were going to be shooting at him soon enough.
Anedre didn’t realize that she and Jack had two different missions. She thought they were both here to blow up the mining chamber. It was the center of the operation here, where all the strange materials that the Company was so worried about were coming from.
But Jack was here to kill one man. Aloie Feege. He was the dangerous bastard that ran this shitshow, and Jack was very good at killing dangerous men.
Jack looked down toward a small, crude-looking building that seemed to be made of dark grey stone. The stone was something dug up from Dead City. It was brittle and weak, certainly not something to build with, but it had one property that Feege probably loved. It was impervious to energy scans. Inside, anything could be happening, and nobody would ever be able to see what.
As he dove below the embedded motion sensors and fired his shoulder thrusters to land in the strange golden courtyard outside the small building, he knew that a trio of trap doors would open. He’d studied the system extensively. He’d even spoken with the designer—well, he’d tortured the designer. But either way, he knew the details of the system.
Bright lights flooded the courtyard, reflecting off the golden ground. Jack would have been blinded if he hadn’t expected it and set his combat helmet visor appropriately.
He danced around the primitive trap doors and bounded up the primitive steps to the primitive building. Everything was primitive here. Jack couldn’t see what the Company had to fear from this place, but it wasn’t his job to assess threats. He just eliminated them.
As the doors swung open, he pictured the layout in his mind, carefully selecting where he needed to place himself.
He stepped inside.
Then he found himself face to face with his target.
Well, this is easier than expected.
Before he could raise his rifle, a shape slipped out from behind him.
“Anedre? What the hell are you—”
He didn’t see the blaster in her hand until it fired.
The pulse hit Jack right in the hole in his chest armor. There was no protection from the full brunt of the energy blast. It felt like someone had taken his chest and rammed it through his ass. The pain touched every nerve in his body at once.
Then the world went black.
Lucky saw a tiny pinpoint of light rushing at him in the darkness. He struggled to turn away from it, but it got brighter and brighter until it had completely enveloped him.
“Go toward the light, dipshit,” Rocky echoed.
Lucky jerked upright, slamming his head against the low-slung top of the cryopod. He fell back, rubbing his forehead.
“Smooth,” Rocky echoed.
“This cryopod is tiny.”
“And cheap,” Rocky offered. “And old.”
A huge shirtless man with a big grin leaned over Lucky’s pod, casting a shadow over him as he rubbed his head. “You awake, sweetheart?”
“Who the hell are you?” Lucky said, irritated. “Who the hell is this, Rocky?”
Then Lucky blinked, and he had a name to go with the face staring down at him.
“Jack,” he said groggily, the freezer burn still wearing off. And then everything came back to him.
“You’re welcome,” Rocky echoed as the data dump was completed.
“I would have remembered on my own,” Lucky said. “Eventually.”
Rocky just snorted.
“Aye, that’s me,” Jack said, stepping back. He ran a meaty hand through his comically oversized shock of white hair. Then he followed the hairline down until it linked up with the giant white beard that dominated the rest of his face. The part that wasn’t already dominated by the huge grin that didn’t seem to fit with his sad eyes. In the center of his bare chest was a tangle of old scars that crisscrossed lumpy flesh.
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