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Vik had heard of the zerg. Everyone had. A few years back they'd appeared in terran space and wreaked havoc, destroying worlds and slaughtering millions of colonists. Even the Terran Confederacy--the biggest government in the Koprulu sector at the time--had crumbled and died in the wake of the alien invasion. The zerg were nightmares. They were the enemies of all terrans.
He'd thought they'd be bigger.
Three of the critters, about half Vik's size, sat on the floor in the chop shop's belly. Thick, spiky carapaces covered their segmented bodies, supported by rows of tiny legs. Serrated mandibles extended from the head of each alien, framing a number of dull--almost lifeless--multifaceted eyes.
A bullet-riddled neosteel box, three meters long by two deep, rested near the creatures. From the crystallized ice caked around the edges, Vik figured it was some kind of freezer or cryogenics container.
"Don't look so tough." Hutchins, one of Ivan's mercenaries, hefted a zerg into the air, luminescent tattoos contorting as his muscles flexed from the effort. The other mercs were standing around the aliens, a big cluster of bandoliers, knives, cybernetic limbs, and dented body armor.
The grubs edged around the group for a better view, past towers of shipment containers. The shop's central room was a musty, cavernous space lit by harsh floodlights. Rusty engines swayed from rustier chains in the shadowy rafters overhead. Over the ten years he'd been in Ivan's employ, Vik had helped retool and upgrade most of the shop. It was his second home: a prison of his own design.
"It's Ivan's property. Drop it." Jace's gravelly voice was like an old engine running on its last leg. The beast of a man towered over the other workers, scratching at an old puckered scar that ran across his face from ear to ear.
"Boss ain't gonna find a buyer." Hutchins waved the zerg in the air. Vik expected the alien to rear up and rip the man in half. Instead, it just dangled there, helpless. Disappointing. "We don't deal in life-forms. Dog food is what these are. Might as well have some fun."
"You had your fun already." Jace tapped his boot against the pattern of bullet holes in the freezer box.
Hutchins snorted. "Come off it already. The smuggler fired on us, so I fired back. Not my fault he used his own cargo as a barricade."
"All I'm sayin' is you're already on Ivan's bad side." Jace shrugged.
The other merc dropped the zerg, and Vik flinched when the alien smashed into the metal floor. Hutchins was a newer member of the crew, and he'd gotten himself into trouble on earlier occasions, but this was different. Never disrespect the boss's property. Never, never, never.
Ivan, though, wasn't around. He was probably holed up in his private office, making contacts and sniffing for potential buyers. Still, Vik felt uncomfortable even watching the disobedience.
"We should go," Vik whispered to Serj. His friend didn't reply. Like the mercs, he was staring at the aliens.
Vik shifted his feet and gazed around the room. Something moved in the shadows of a doorway leading into the shop's belly. Ivan... watching. A large four-legged creature padded at the boss man's side.
"How about a little gentlemen's wager?" Hutchins drew a pistol from his belt and leveled it at one of the zerg. "I'm thinkin' my P220 would punch right through their armor. Any takers?"
No one had a chance to reply. Ivan flicked his hand out toward the merc in a silent command that only Vik witnessed. The animal near him snarled and then bounded into the light, revealing itself as one of the boss man's shale dogs. The mottled canine leapt through the air and knocked Hutchins flat.
"Get it off!" the merc roared as the hound's jaws latched onto his arm. Hutchins pounded his fist against the dog's hide of iron-rich fibrous plates, but it only riled the beast up.
Ivan calmly sauntered up to the gathering, dressed in his signature black suit. He looked benign next to the heavily armed mercs, except for his eyes. They were alert and cold, the color of ice. The boss man loomed over Hutchins and the dog as they wrestled on the floor.
"I didn't do nothin'!" the merc shouted.
"It's not what you did; it's what you were thinking of doing. Just because a rabid dog doesn't bite, doesn't mean it's sane. Only a matter of time before a beast like that draws blood."
"I get it, boss. I get it! Call it off!"
Ivan snapped his fingers, and the dog abandoned its prey.
"Fekk's sake, boss." Hutchins inspected a bloody bite mark on his arm as he rose.
"You should be thanking me, Hutch." Ivan grabbed the merc's P220 from where it had fallen to the ground. "I saved you a bit of embarrassment with that bet."
"These zerg here are tough little buggers. Larvae, they're called. Back during the war, even Confederate marines toting gauss rifles had a hard time putting 'em down. Your P220?" Ivan looked at the weapon with disdain. "No contest."
Vik's boss slowly moved the pistol toward one of the zerg. "The round would've glanced clean off like this," he said as he touched the gun to the alien, and then arced it back toward Hutchins. He stopped with the P220 pressed against the merc's chest. "And ended here."
Hutchins didn't say a word. The boss man liked to string people along. Toy with them. Vik never knew when he was serious or playing a joke. In a city where survival depended on reading your opponent's next move before he made it, Ivan's unpredictability made him a constant terror.
"See." Ivan grinned and patted the merc on the shoulder with his free hand, breaking the tension. "You would've been the butt of every joke from here to Moria. Mercs across the sector would've had a good long laugh about how a zerg larva killed you."
Hutchins forced a nervous chuckle. "Yeah, yeah. I get it."
"Now, at least, they'll just say it was me."
Gunfire roared in Vik's ears as Ivan pulled the trigger, blowing a hole through Hutchins's chest, body armor and all. The lifeless merc tumbled back into a stack of crates like a rag doll.
Ivan pointed at the merc's body and clicked his tongue. His dog raced forward and began gnawing on Hutchins. "It's not hard, boys," he said. "You bring in the product; I sell it. Until then, it's not to be tampered with."
The mercs nodded, not sparing Hutchins another glance. Why would they? They were alive. They'd survived another day. That was all there was to it.
"You find a buyer, boss?" Jace idly scratched at his scar.
Ivan rapped his knuckles against the freezer box. "Turns out the smuggler you boys pounced on was bringing this property to a lab rat named Branamoor. Had to use a lot of favors just to weasel that information out."
"A private buyer?" Jace asked.
"Not likely," Ivan said. "This isn't the first time the smugglers made a delivery to him, so he's got deep pockets. Government, probably. I couldn't find out which one. Maybe Umojan, but I'd put my money on Dominion. They've always got their arms shoulder deep in some kind of shit. Doesn't matter either way." Ivan swatted at a few flies gathering near Hutchins's corpse. "Important thing is that I managed to contact Branamoor through an intermediary. He's keen on keeping this whole business hush-hush. If he is Dominion, the last thing he wants is a UNN report about him trafficking live zerg. But he does want these puppies bad... bad enough that he's sending one of his assistants here to make the pickup. Four days."
"How much?" Jace voiced the question on every merc's mind. They were paid a cut of the amount their stolen goods netted on the black market. Precious cargo could mean a small fortune.
"You'll find out when we make the exchange, like always. Get to work." Ivan turned to Vik and Serj as the mercs shuffled off to inventory other hijacked goods. "Grubs. The buyers want this piece of terran ingenuity up and running by the time of the drop. I aim to please them."
Because the lab rat doesn't know they're out, Vik thought to himself. He knew the game--never show your hand. Likely the buyer still believed his product was safe in the box. The grub didn't see what difference it made, though, unless there was a danger to leaving aliens outside.
"Pen the zerg up in one of the empty dog cages," Ivan continued. "Watch over them while you fix the box. Anything happens, anyone screws with 'em, you come to me."
"Sure, boss." Just thinking about being in a cage with the zerg made Vik's skin crawl.
"The buyer wants them alive. Understood?"
Serj snapped out of his daze and looked away from the zerg. "We scan you, boss."
Vik nodded profusely as his eyes drifted to the shale dog. The beast's tongue rolled out of its mouth through rows of yellow fangs and lapped up the blood that had pooled next to Hutchins. When Ivan turned on his heels and whistled, the hound slunk to its master's side, leaving the rest of its meal behind.