“Deuce of Diamonds” is, quite simply, an interplanetary tale of claim-jumping.— ed, N.E. Lilly

The wind blows desert sand fast enough to distort glass in three minutes. The atmosphere’s a thick smoke of nitrogen and methane. The sun lies dying on the horizon, obscured by sheets of sand.

At the top of an access elevator, twin doors open. I step out into hostile red air. I’m safely encased in a twenty-five foot high, hermetically sealed exoskeleton. I hobble a bit as I walk. Hell, I don’t even know how to work this thing right. The man who should be running it is dead at my feet. How did I get myself into this mess?

My name is Gerald Dogwood. Great name for a big figure, huh? But up until yesterday, I was nobody special. Trained to operate a mechanised repair unit, Chimpanzee class. That’s a pretty basic piece of equipment. It stands eighteen feet high, no armour, no weapons. Just heavy arms to lift things. Then they put me in this hulk: a Samurai class, built for combat—though a little bent out of shape. I see the outside world through a bank of screens, all different sizes. Visibility is limited to about twenty feet in the visible spectrum so I rely on those monitors completely.

This planet we’re on, its designation is GTY-26012. Fourth planet out from a dull, glowing coal of a sun. We call her Getty. She didn’t have much going for her, according to most information. Then a science team from Sigma system came to check for fossilised micro-organisms. What they found instead was silver deposits, a bunch of them. It’s just beneath the surface and it’s coating the planet like shelves of slate in any other place. Silver is a still a precious commodity. They need it for the superconductors, apparently because it’s easy to pull into nano-strings. You need a lot of strings to make the mesh that goes around every conductor. And they haven’t yet found a decent alternative to silver.

So yeah, Getty’s hot property. And it’s our planet. But not for long.

We got here first, after the science expedition discovered Getty’s potential. We came from Sigma system in a fleet of travelling refineries. The government placed our first beacon there nine years ago, and it broadcast in everything from radio to tachyon. It said, “This planet is property of the human colony Sigma, which is a colony of Earth. The government of Sigma claims the right to mine and ship its recources exclusively. No entity may endeavour to mine or ship a part of this planet without express permission of the government of Sigma.”

Sooner or later somebody argued with that. The law differs from place to place; but we all have to abide by Colony Collective Regs. Apparently the lawyers on Sub-Base 388-212-606-H (a planet entirely populated by lawyers) said it wasn’t legal for us to claim it without some prior residency. In other words, if we weren’t native to the planet we couldn’t say we own it. But then, who did? Somebody had to call themselves Top Dog, and Sigma was first to plant a flag. Besides, we’d been living here for nine years. What qualifies as “native”? The answer was ten years, according to Sub 388.

Colony Collective has a strange sense of humour. Being run by representatives of each and every colony, they cut down on red tape by choosing three suggestions at random from an Idea Pool and then taking a vote on the best one. This time, apparently, all three short-listed ideas were plain crazy. The best of a bad bunch was this, and it was this message we got on the Intersteller Standard Band just short of two months ago:

“The planet GTY-26012 is not currently owned. However, the government of system Sigma operates a beacon of ownership from the planet’s surface. That beacon has transmitted continuously for 9.88 quantum years. Should it remain at the turn of 10.0 quantum years, the ownership of planet GTY-26012 will automatically transfer to the government of Sigma.”

Now, 0.12 of a quantum year translates to six weeks, if you count each day as the sleep cycle of a human being. That’s not so long to wait. But within that time, it’s open season. Anyone who cares to take a shot suddenly has an awful lot to gain from knocking out that beacon. But it gets worse. The statement from Colony Collective continued:

“If, however, the Sigma beacon is not transmitting at that time but the beacon of another party has established transmission on the planet, ownership will transfer to that party.”

In other words, if someone else can hightail to Getty within six weeks, blow the shit out of our beacon and set up their own, they can claim the whole planet. Goddamn, that’s a kick in the teeth. A sick joke, maybe, by Colony Collective. I heard stories that they do this kind of stuff for fun.

We had a meeting then, the staff of our little outpost. There’s a whole lot of machinery, but it only needs enough crew to maintain the Automatics. The computers run the show. People do the monkey work and clean the computers. So you’ve got five “teams”: Operations, Communications, Logistics, Electrics, Law. Each team consists of a handful of folks. I’m in Operations, because my main job is repair work on the surface.

Chief of the Law Team, and therefore running the whole show, is Hector. Hector’s a good man. He’s got a big grey beard like some kind of old shaman. Wears weather-beaten leathers and mirror shades.

“Now, don’t panic,” said Hector. (See what I mean? That’s good leadership, right there.) “We’ve only got two months to wait before we cross that ten year marker. According to Regs, that’s how long a company or government has to be in a place to claim exclusive rights. And I happen to know from Logistics—” he gives a nod to Maya, Logistics Chief— “That six weeks at interstellar distances is not enough time to cross the space between here and most other outposts.”

Lichfield, who’s head of Operations (and my boss), said, “So how many might be coming?” There was a cool bite to the air. Hector fixed him with a stare and took a deep breath.

“I dunno yet,” he said. “We’ll keep an eye on Interstellar Monitors for the next few weeks. If there’s no movement, nobody at all is coming.”

We drew a circle around ourselves on the chart. Inside that circle were all the systems that could send a ship to Getty in 0.12 years. We checked the defenses, repaired and cleaned them. I was out in a Chimpanzee suit for days cleaning the grit from the Atom Streamers.

Our defenses, for what they’re worth, are as follows: in orbit, a scattering of mines that serve more like a deterrant than anything else. They work, but they’re not going to keep away any advanced force. On the planet’s surface, the outpost is surrounded by six automatic Atom Streamer Dual Cannons. In this desert air, they only work at close range. But they’ll heat an aligned-atom stream to 3,000 Fahrenheit in a microsecond. That’s enough to shoot a big hole an any solid matter, as long as your aim is good.

The final hope, if it comes to that, has always been the Samurai Exoskeleton suits. There are two of them, and a third slightly broken. Only two people have any experience at operating these Exoes anyhow: Hector himself, and Lichfield. They spent a while working out, loosening the old muscles just in case.

For a while we thought we could breathe easy. Maya redrew that circle each day, a fraction smaller. Some systems were already falling outside. There were only a couple left that had any chance at all. We trained our Interstellar scanning equipment at each of these systems, where a gang of pirates might be lurking. No bastard, no matter how crazy, hangs around in the space between systems. It’s hard vacuum, a black chasm of emptiness. All you can do is jump it to get from one oasis to the next.

A  week passed without any movement. We were almost chattering our relief, the twenty or so of us, as we watched the distant suns for a power source to detach itself on the perpendicular.

He came out on the eighth day.

It was just a blip. A power output from an artificial source, moving in a straight line. It could only be an interstellar engine. It appeared on the monitor as a single pixel of red pulling out of the KJ240 star.

But who was it? Hector interrogated Weirk—Chief of the Comms team. He wanted to know, what government or group had an outpost in that system?

Weirk contacted Sigma through the Light Morse band, the quickest but roughest form of communication available. “ID 1 @ KJ240”. In other words, “Please identify the unit or group currently stationed at the KJ240 system.”

Sigma’s answer, pretty quick, was “Scarmaker”.

We all muttered the word. “Scarmaker? Who or what is Scarmaker?”

Hector knew; so did Weirk. They looked at each other like two guys who’ve just found a body.

“What?” said Maya. She was scared, tense. “Tell us!”

Hector sat down. “Scarmaker is a nickname for a mining company called Advanced Super-Heavy Planetary Mining Corporation. We call him Scarmaker because of the visible effect he has on planets he passes by.”

Weirk broke in. That’s the thing about Weirk: he’s solid, but his mouth runs away with him. “Scarmaker’s on charges in half the systems he’s ever been to. He’ll dig a hole in a planet and leave everything and everyone to die. Getty’s a pot of gold for him. He won’t care about us, he doesn’t care about anybody. He’ll come here and take over.”

I had to butt in myself, maybe because I was a bit over-anxious. “Why do you keep calling it “he” when it’s a company?”

Hector answered, “We call the company Scarmaker but it’s all operated by one guy. He’s some kind of genius. Set up his computers to run the whole venture by remote. It’s the fastest-growing company of the last hundred years and he’s always on the lookout for new opportunities. He’s got resources too.”

The rumour mill started then, and it seemed everybody knew Scarmaker except me. My team Chief, Lichfield, had heard that Scarmaker got an operation on his brain to prevent him from feeling sympathy for people about to die by his all-consuming machines. For a whole week we watched the monitors, and that red blip came closer and closer to Getty. I wondered, what does he look like? Is he actually on that ship, or is it a small army of mercenaries, robots or Total Clearance warheads?

With three weeks to go, I felt like I could almost see him outside. On the Interstellar map, that blood-red point was right beside us. Then suddenly, something else appeared. It wasn’t red, it was flashing yellow. And it wasn’t on the Interstellar Monitor. It was coming from the 1SU Satellite, which orbits at the edge of the solar system.

“What’s that?”

Weirk turned to it and punched a few buttons. He watched a line jiggle about on his Rad-Emitter scan. Twisted a dial.

“Jesus God, that’s fast,” muttered. “There’s more than one. Too small to be a craft, though. Just caught them entering the system... holy shit!”

Scarmaker was still three weeks out, but he’d sent something else ahead of him to clear the way: a brace of long-range missiles. It seemed he had the whole thing under control. He must have used his superior comms system to get information about our defenses. He might have fired them long ago, letting them streak ahead to wreck us like a tornado. Our orbital mines would be too slow to catch them.

More yellow blips entered the system. He’d sent them in waves. We took cover in the bunkers and battened down the hatches.

For once, we felt lucky to be underground. The surface is much too harsh to house delicate equipment: from the outset, all major operations of the outpost had been controlled from a base sunk a hundred feet deep in the sand. Still, some structures have to be surface-bound: ventilation, access hatches, hangars for the mining machinery, the planetary beacon itself and a lift-off pad for the orbital launcher. And for defense purposes, all the cannons are located on turrets that stick out of the ground.

As the missiles entered the atmosphere, they split and let loose a barrage of warheads. Smartbombs wired to home in on structures.

With a volley of shuddering thumps like big hailstones on the roof of a house, the bombs hit the surface. External Monitors went off almost immediately: the aerials and dishes are protected by a metal dome, but the warheads cut through that like a knife through butter.

The personnel and freight elevators were hit by the next round. We could hear debris raining down the shafts.

Then the cannons went dead. Two of them exploded—they have their own fuel piles, a volatile keg of unstable H-zero ions.

All the structures took a pounding. One by one the missiles came and, over the next two days, we were stuck listening to the regular throbbing of explosions like a brewing headache.

The beacon was still transmitting. He hadn’t taken it out. When the next volley was due and it didn’t come, we knew it was over and scrambled to the surface to enable the ventilation systems before we all choked.

We had to use the launcher doors. Luckily there’s no structure above them so it doesn’t stick out as a target. The launcher is stored just beneath the surface for safety and to make refuelling and maintenance easier. There are two huge doors over the hangar and they’re usually covered with a layer of sand.

I was there, on the team, trying to find the guts of the ventilation system and work out a way to breathe life into it. All around me, blackened craters. The outpost was shot to pieces. Getty’s dull sun was like a nuke on the horizon. It was slowing down, only a million years or so left in it.

I managed to get a vent humming again by salvaging some sheet metal from the equipment hangars, welding it around the battered engine and hooking up a power unit from a damaged Heavy Digger. It was enough for now, and Hector himself gave me a nod by way of congratulation. Lichfield said, “There’s a Commendation in that work right there.”

Commendations are nice; but I wasn’t jumping for joy. The same question buzzed around my head like a fly that won’t quit. Why hadn’t he bombed the transmitter? If two were running simultaneously when the quantum clock reached 10.0, the law gave us the rights to Getty. He had to take us out.

“He’s just gonna drop the beacon in from orbit,” said Weirk.

“No,” said Maya. We looked at her. Maya, dark-skinned and strangely silent. Her brown eyes scanned an image only she could see, in her mind. “The beacon’s too delicate to survive a drop through the atmosphere. That ship’s a Lander. Scarmaker has to land, and then establish his beacon. That’s the only way it can be done.”

“Where’s he gonna land?” Hector said to Weirk.

“Can’t tell,” said Weirk. “If time is short he’ll land wherever he needs to, but depending on his ship he might maneuver to any place on Getty’s surface without much difficulty.”

We all assumed he would come nowhere near us: safer and obviously more intelligent to set up at the other side of the planet. But that still didn’t explain allowing us to transmit.

Somebody said, “Maybe he doesn’t know he’s got to take it out?”

“It can’t be that,” said Hector. “He ain’t so stupid. Besides, he hit everything else just to rattle us, not because he had to. No, he’s left it there deliberately.

Repairs went on. We were lucky, and managed to get the Interstellar running at half power. He was a whole lot closer.

“He’s only sent one ship,” said Maya. She seemed puzzled.

“He doesn’t need any more than that to do what he needs to do,” said Hector.

“Still,” said Maya, “It’d be nice to know what kind of knife he’s gonna stab us with. Weirk, scan him good when he gets within range of 1SU. We should be able to tell what he’s got on board.”

“That’s a good idea,” said Hector, “But you can bet your last dollar Scarmaker knows about 1SU already and has something to deal with it before we make use of it.”

“Okay,” said Weirk. “But if I hit him now, outside of range, with an amplified signal, we’ll get some information at least. It’ll burn out 1SU completely, though.”

“It’s gonna be shot down either way. Go for it.” So Weirk set about overloading the satellite.

Hector’s guess was on the money. A stab of High-Ex missiles took out 1SU. But Weirk had got some data first, though it was as fuzzy as the view from our outpost’s observation lounge. Together, Maya and Weirk decoded the information. After that, Maya swore to herself and went straight to Hector. It was time for another meeting.

Weirk was in his element, translating binary printouts and handwritten notes. “He’s got some heavy equiment on there. The peaks on the readout look like six powered units of some kind, I’m guessing Exoes or remote construction/repair units. But he definitely does not have a transmitter or beacon on a planetary scale.”

“Are you sure?” Hector said, frowning.

Maya answered, “Beacons like that have a minimum power output that requires a superconducting cell and an Arcadium fission unit at the very least. We’d read the radiation signature of the power core.”

Some guy blurted out, “Hell, maybe he’s here to negotiate!” He got some pretty stern looks. We were all on the edge.

Hector scratched his beard and said, “No, it’s true.” He knew something.

“But how? Why?” said Weirk.

“Because nobody just carries that kind of equipment around. It’s huge and expensive. Scarmaker’s only mining KJ240, he doesn’t have a beacon there. He only found out a month ago he was coming here—he couldn’t get a planetary beacon on time. He had to come to us with a different plan.”

Maya, hanging her head: “I’m sorry. I should have thought of that.” Hector tried to rub his frown away.

Suddenly Weirk said, “Scarmaker can use our beacon to broadcast his signal. All he has to do is take charge of it and wire his message through it.” There was a quiet for a minute.

“That’s right,” said Hector. “He’s heading for us. That’s certain now.” People muttered and shuffled around like rabbits. Coming right to our door? Yep, and he was dead set on taking over.

“We’d better be ready for him,” Lichfield, chewing his gum. Hector nodded and they looked at each other meaningfully. I was thinking, ready for what? How can we prepare? We didn’t even know what he was bringing. But we left that meeting with some purpose, every man set to doing his job. It was only slightly dampened by the knowledge that we might be about to lose the planet.

“Listen, Dogwood, I want to you to warm up that spare Samurai Exo and get used to it. I’ll help you out.” It was the next day and Lichfield was talking to me in the cargo bay. I looked at the three Samurais. Two were operational; Hector and Lichfield had already been out in them. The third had traditionally been used to salvage parts for the working two, since only two qualified operators lived on Getty.

“Me, sir? I’ll only make a mess of it.”

“Well, you heard what they said. There are six units of some kind, either remote or manned, that can act against us. No matter how good we are, two of us can’t handle six of the enemy. We need you.” He looked at me as if he was confident. “Besides, if we’re lucky Scarmaker’s checked the manifest and knows there are only two qualified pilots. He won’t expect you.” He winked.

“What?” I was getting jittery, real jittery. “Sir, you’re talking like I’m the Ace up your sleeve. But I’m not! I’m a deuce! I’m a two of diamonds, I’m no good! You can’t use me!”

“Well maybe,” Lichfield said in a strange, feral tone, “We’ve got three deuces in our hand and you’re gonna win it for us!”

I couldn’t argue with that, I guess.

Scarmaker came to Getty with a week to spare. Some kind of decoy pod moseyed forward to pull in the mines. He made it look so easy, I wondered why we bothered. One more time, he hit us with smartbombs. Took out the monitors again and we lost the red blip. Not that we needed it now; everybody knew where he was.

The lander came down in a field of rocks west of the outpost. He must have figured there’d be shelter from a rocket attack. But we didn’t have any rockets.

Hector and Lichfield went up to the surface. We’d managed to get an access hatch working so they climbed a ladder all the way up there. Hector took the lead himself, obviously. He might have been facing six ultra-modern Exoes, we didn’t know. He relayed to us as he checked the Samurai’s scans.

“Four coming forward, two staying back. Nothing else on the lander. Those are definitely powered exoskeletons of some kind. I think they’re on remote. Except that one. Lichfield, get a bead on the fourth one, to the south of the pack.”

“Yes, sir. You think that’s Scarmaker?”

“Himself.”

They went to intercept.

Hector and Lichfield’s battle with the Exoes went better than expected. Against Exoes controlled by computer AI, they were able to use human cunning to their advantage. Two of the machines stayed behind and we figured they were some kind of builders. That left three remotes and Scarmaker. The Exoes were identified as Locust class.

“Gerald, you know what that is?” said Maya.

“Yeah, they’re a flying class. Lighter than a Samurai but tricky to hit. They got good armour penetration with their weapons, too.” I was talking from the cockpit of the third Samurai, waiting in reserve.

The Samurais we sent out were packing thirty-six WASSR armour-piercing missiles; four homing mines; and the jewel in the throne, a hand-held atom streamer called the Sparklite. In this atmosphere, it wouldn’t be good beyond thirty feet. But it could put a hole in most things.

For a while, it was all crackle and shouts. Explosions relayed through the comm, and telemetry trackers that told us how they were holding up. Hector took down one Locust, and a second one. But in doing that he let himself get flanked. He couldn’t help it, they were fast. Lichfield was backing him up and targeted the flanking Locust. But the flying Exo pounded him with a hi-ex rocket that took the top right off the Samurai.

Lichfield kept his cool and took out the Locust with a volley of three WASSERs. Throughout all this, Scarmaker stayed out of range and did nothing. His builders began to inch in a straight line towards our planetary beacon. It was pretty clear what was going to happen.

Hector’s telemetry told us that the Samurai was wide open to the poisonous atmosphere. It seemed like he hadn’t survived the blast anyhow. Now Lichfield was facing Scarmaker, alone.

“Dogwood, you still suited up?” said Lichfield over the comm.

“Sure, I sure am.”

“Mobilise. Even if I get him, I’ll need you up here to repair any damage.”

I lumbered for the lift. I switched the comm to a private channel. “Lichfield?”

“Yeah?” He sounded confused, maybe because I had gone to a narrow band.

“Why’d you pick me?”

“I didn’t,” said Lichfield. “You were Hector’s choice. He picked you.”

“Do you know why?”

“Yeah, I do. Now get out here.”

There was nothing more until, on the wide band, Lichfield shouted: “I’m engaging him!” There was already lots of background noise. The comm spluttered and crackled. Telemetry showed peaks of heat and gyro activity. The comm went out; the monitors showed a breach in the Exo’s hull and multiple power failure. Then a fire alert. Then nothing. It all happened as I was climbing the long ladder to the surface—or at least clumsily controlling the Samurai as it climbed. Maya’s voice was trembling as she said, “Scarmaker’s moved off towards the beacon, Dogwood. You’re on your own. I’m sorry.”

I open the access hatch and step into the dust of Getty’s unwelcoming air. I see Hector’s Samurai. It’s almost intact but the top half is busted right open and black as hell. It’s technically still active but without a pilot it might as well be a gun with no trigger.

There’s a Locust ahead. There’s a blip on my monitor and I approach it. Main Tac Monitor shows the actual scene and the downed remote emerges from a blur of dust. Hell, it’s still moving. The multiple limbs are stretching and contracting like a man crawling forward. It’s sort of long with lots of aerials. Unmanned but real smart for a remote. I decide to practice the Samurai’s weapons on it. A few shots with the WASSR ought to do it. Lock on power source: check. Set to three rounds: check. Launch, Double-tap: check. They’re away! Three tiny missiles streak at the locust and burst into its body. There’s a satisfying plume of sparks and smoke.

Weirk’s voice bursts over the comm: “Goddamn it, Dogwood, what’re you doing? Scarmaker isn’t supposed to know about you! You’re relying on the element of surprise. Don’t put out any fire until you get within sight of him!”

Oh no... I told you I’d make a mess of it, Lichfield. I’m no good at this. Why did you pick me? Weirk would have been better—

Then the comm device says, “Oops.”

It comes over the comm, but I don’t know who it was. Only Weirk and Maya are back there guiding me.

The voice says, “That was unwise.” It waits. “Wasn’t it?” Waits again. I think I hear breathing. “You’re suited up good, but I don’t see a full-grown man in there. But now I know about you, I think I’ll just let you come on over.” I want to say something to Maya and Weirk, but he’ll hear anything I relay. Besides, there’s hardly any point in saying, get me outta here. Can they hear it too? I really don’t know.

“Hey, tell you what.” Waiting. “I’ll make it easier on you. I’ll start towards you, and we’ll meet in the middle. Okay? See you in about five minutes.”

Oh, Jesus. I’m a dead man. He’s gonna turn me into jerky.

“Dogwood!” It’s Maya. “It’s just a ploy! He’s getting you away from the beacon because he doesn’t want to fight next to it!”

“Oh God, Maya, why did he pick me? I’m nobody!”

“You’re all that’s left, Dogwood. Get calm. You’ve got a few minutes.”

A few minutes. A few minutes to live... no, to get ready for whatever walks out of that sand. Did we have three deuces? Am I the card that wins this hand?

Check weapons and instruments. Fifteen WASSR missiles, the rest salvaged for the other two Samurais. Damn it, I should have collected more. One Sparklite hand-held atom streamer, good to about sixty feet at a quarter the power of our bombed-out air defenses. Four tracker mines. Armor fine in places but it’s patchy—we borrowed bits of it to repair the other units. Less than an hour of fuel.

Checking things makes me focus. So I check some more. Monitors show: the shell of a machines store a hundred yards east. One of the destroyed streamer cannons twenty yards beyond that. The power core of Hector’s Exo, still humming.

Scarmaker’s got monitors too. He’s going to be checking them all the way—first thing he sees of me will be a power blip and the bounce off metal surfaces.

Without even thinking, I trudge over to Hector. He’s hanging out of his Exo, his body burned to a crisp. I kneel and roll the unit over, moving fast. Poor Hector’s corpse is pinned to the sand. What the hell am I doing?

It’s not easy to remove the power pack from a Samurai, but there are tricks. I’d usually be doing this in a Champanzee Exo but the Samurai’s got enough digits for this job. I take the power relay and part of the AI hardware—it’s the only way to take it out without shutting down the power.

With the active power pack in my left hand, I lumber across the dunes. I’ve got about two minutes. I’m headed for the burned Atom Streamer.

The beacon is west by southwest. He’s coming from there. I pass by the hull of the machines hangar. Dead lifters are scattered outside a collapsed metal structure.

“Dogwood, where are you going, buddy?” says Weirk. “Don’t let us down—” I switch off the comm.

The Atom Streamer’s been turned on its head. But if the H-zero pile had gone up, there’d be nothing left. I look inside and sure enough, the keg’s intact.

I place the Samurai’s power cell on the ground behind a broken wall. It’d be a reasonable place to hide.

Then I’m stripping off armor. Hell, my only chance in the world is not to let Scarmaker take a shot at me. If he does it’s all over anyhow. And the armor will read on his monitors so as long as he doesn’t walk around the corner to take a look for himself...

The Exo doesn’t give up its armor easy but then, I shed this stuff from other units a hundred times. There are locks and bolts that you can tweak from the inside painlessly enough. In a minute the armour is on top of the active power cell in a heap. Then I scatter the mines. Carefully, but not too carefully. I defuse them—shut off their power, in other words, so they neither home in on a target or give out an energy signature. They’ll still go off if they’re superheated.

By the time I get back to the machine hangar, Scarmaker has popped up on my monitors. Does that mean he can see me too? Probably, but if I’m lucky he won’t identify it till he gets closer. It might look like a loader. I’m going to wait inside the store. The metal of the walls should mask my signal...

Then, at the last second, I change my mind. I don’t have time for this. And what if he throws a bomb inside, just to be sure?

I stop at a medium lifter—Crab class—hollowed out. I get to the ground next to it and pull a part of it over myself. I point my right arm, with the Sparklite gun, towards the upside-down air defense cannon. To the right of it is a mine, standing loosely in the open. Targetting won’t work so I’ve gotta spend precious seconds making my aim perfect. I set the Sparklite to Full Manual; for this I’ve gotta take my hand off the controls and physically reach into the heart of the gun to pull the trigger at the source. Then I power down all systems. All systems.

The last thing I see on the monitors is Scarmaker heading towards me.

Inside my Samurai is now almost dark, except for the dull red light that comes through a tiny porthole from outside. I open the Emergency Air hatch and put on the mask. It’s a tiny complressed air unit that doesn’t use any electrics so it won’t be spotted. I have to stretch my neck to see through the porthole.

It’s a real storm out there. I can’t even see what I’m aiming at. The wind howls.

There’s another sound then. A constantly shifting wail of machinery. It rises and falls, many gears fielding a mass about five tons.

The sand has already coated my Samurai. Stripped of its shell, it looks like a black plastic monster with wires and axles sticking out all over. He might know it if he looks right at me but I’m hoping he trusts his monitors. The only Samurai energy signature is now coming from behind the wall of the Atom Streamer.

Scarmaker comes into my field of vision. He’s only a grey shadow against a background of constant sand. About thirty-five feet. Angular arms. Two lower sub-arms... a huge back unit. Head like a hammerhead shark. Sounds like two trains colliding.

Hell, I know this machine. It’s a goddamn Hammernaut. I know it’s based on a Beo-Stern shell and runs on two accelerator piles. The weaponry could be anything but... I repaired one once.

He moves, slowly. He could run if he needed to, I know that. But he’s careful. Scans the area. Moves ahead some more. He’s past me now, heading towards the Atom Streamer. He’s obviously picked out the power output of the Samurai, possibly the specific metal content of the unit’s armor too. So far so good... how close do I let him get? If he hits it with something big from outside, it might dislodge the mine. But I need him close enough to catch the blast he’s not expecting.

He’s out there, about twenty yards in front of me at the very edge of my vision. He hovers. He moves to the left. He’s about to scan behind the wall. He must be close. There’s a sound. Somehow I know that means he’s arming weapons. It’s now or never.

If I’m lucky, the sand hasn’t shifted under me since I took aim. I pull the trigger.

The mine goes off with a sharp thump. That blast catches the second mine. That goes off too. That mine was sitting on the lip of a small hole, like a nest that holds the final payload. Two more mines, resting on top of the Atom Streamer’s fuel keg.

Three thuds followed by an almighty thunder and flare of yellow light. The sand around the Streamer is instantly melted into glass. The concussion wave hits Scarmaker’s Exo and at the same time the ground gives way beneath him. A flood of radiation wipes out his instruments momentarily. I see the unit drop awkwardly.

I’m powering up. I hope there’s time. Screens start to light, but by Christ they’re coming on one by one and showing a blank for the first, maybe last seconds. I look through the porthole. He’s still down. Jesus, it’s only been half a second.

“Come on!” I try to move and hey presto, the Samurai lurches to its feet. Without armour it’s a lot lighter. The Main Tac Monitor pops up. There he is in all his glory: Scarmaker, or rather his Hammernaut, straightening up in front of me. There’s no time, no time at all. He’s about to find me. The targeting scanner of my WASSR missiles is slow to light.

“You bastard!”

Scarmaker gets into a crouch and his head swivels. It stops right at me.

“Please, come on!”

The panel lights. He’s dead ahead. I hit switches faster than I’ve ever done in my life. I’m gonna try Find Multiple Targets; the Hammernaut is so damn big it counts as several possibles. Six, no, eight lock-ons but I’m not even looking, I’ve already set to Ceasless Fire and Launch. I hit that button so hard it’s gotta be broken.

They’re off like cackling hyenas. One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two three—they pound Scarmaker’s Exo. It sounds like a piano falling down stairs.

But it’s just a distraction so I can get closer, within range of the Sparklite gun in my hand. I move fast: one the missiles launch they’re on their own guidance so it shouldn’t stop them hitting their targets. Scarmaker’s covered in fire and smoke. Twelve missiles gone already. I level up my arm at where he ought to be. Inside that unit, he’s calculating what move to make next but if I’ve been good—real good, like the final deuce Lichfield said we needed—the barrage of missiles is slowing his thoughts just enough to get me where I need to be. Missiles hit the weapon arm, body, head and legs.

The Hammernaut. It was a well-known Exo, for its power and sheer size. Armour that could crush another Exo just by falling on it. Does it have any weaknesses?

Yes: the twin accelerators housed inside the armoured backpack. You could get in behind it, and prize it off. But I haven’t got time to get behind him.

The neck. Of course, the neck is always vulnerable and these units have universal head movement. That’s gotta count for something.

The shattering sound of explosions ceases. In a split second, Getty’s wind sweeps away the smoke from in front of him. He’s looking at me but the Exo’s body is at an angle. I can see the spot I want, right there.

It takes a fraction of a second to adjust my aim. Too long?

I take my shot.

A streak of light between the gun barrel and the Exo’s neck, then the hammerhead jolts and goes still. Smoke spouts from it. He’s gonna move, and I don’t intend to wait: as quick as the massive legs can take me, I’m moving in a circling motion towards and around him.

Scarmaker lets off a flurry of EMC. My monitors glow with false lights, dazed. I keep on without checking where I’m going. I tilt my head back and see his outline through the porthole. A massive explosion. Somewhere behind me, a granade has gone off. I’m closing. He turns—the wrong way. In two steps I’m right behind him.

I stretch out the Samurai’s left hand and get three fingers in underneath the backpack. I jerk my hand back instantly before he can react and jam the barrel of the Sparklite underneath. There’s only a tiny bit of movement from the backpack, but it’s gotta do. I pull the trigger.

In that instant, Scarmaker’s voice on my emergency comm line says, “Wait...”

The blast knocks me out for a while and blows both arms off the Samurai. Without armor I was lucky the hull didn’t crack but it’s a tough unit. The armour is made to take direct hits but the frame houses three tons of machinery and can survive deep space and worse atmospheres than Getty. Maybe the Hammernaut’s backpack armor shielded me from some of it.

The brunt of the explosion went inward, throughout the Hammernaut’s shell. It fried everything that wasn’t solid metal. Curiously, a Hammernaut pilot’s head is enclosed in a helmet. This saved Scarmaker’s body from being completely destroyed. I finally got to see what he looked like. More than that, I got to see what he looked like scared.

When I woke up I managed to crawl around inside the Samurai, instigating repairs. Even without its arms I was able to get the Exo on its feet and hobble back to the launcher doors. “Good girl,” I said to the machine.

We had to come back later in a repair unit to confirm that Scarmaker was dead. We opened up the Hammernaut with cutting tools and collected his head. A nice trophy.

The remote units weren’t smart enough to complete the job they’d been assigned without Scarmaker’s input. They managed to get the outer casing off the beacon, then ceased to act before they disabled it or put in their own program. We even heard Scarmaker’s message: what he would have been broadcasting into space if he’d succeeded. It read the same as ours, except with a Company Code instead of a system’s government as the owner.

There was a cash reward for Scarmaker’s death and we got to keep his lander and remote Exoes. Sigma was grateful to us for saving their planet—very grateful. We were all granted Director jobs and then, simultaneously, full pensions for life. Ten times my salary per week, for life, without having to lift a finger. A fleet of repair ships came out to start the rebuilding work.

But somebody else will do that job. We shipped out. We had built the place the first time, didn’t have the heart to do it again. The wrecks of old buildings will tell the story for the next crew that arrives.

So we’ve gone our separate ways, and now it seems I’m known in every system I stop off. Nobody knows what the hell happened, but they know Gerald Dogwood. I’ve been offered all kinds of dangerous jobs in backwoods places. Said “No” to all of them. “I only do repairs.”

Meanwhile, we’ve sent in a petition to have planet GTY-26012 renamed “Hector”. The bureaucrats on Sub 388 put us through so much Hell, it seems they might be about to bend the rules a bit to get that one through.

And when I remember Hector, I still wonder why he picked me.

Adrian Scanlan enjoys writing sci-fi, fantasy and horror short stories, film scripts and stage plays. He is also an actor and comedian. Like many, he is currently in the middle of his first novel. He hails from Ireland.

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