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Story: Skrapping

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Holbenilord and Styracosaurus Rider


A story about teams of bounty hunters, gangsters, and pirates searching Skrap for a crashed ship rumored to be filled with treasure.

Chapter 1

The morning rays glittered on Srei's chitinous hide, and he basked in the slight warmth. Silhouetted against the fading stars were the other team members, anxious to get going.

Srei checked to make sure his Gladius was still in place, and then turned to the group behind him. Olon, the Zyrothan researcher, was straggling. He didn't understand what it took to survive on Skrap- green through and through. He needed special attention, as he spent more time checking his survey equipment than the ground at his feet.

Parikk, the Xodu heavy, reached Srei first. He shouldered his Blunter and adjusted his armour a bit, soaking in the first sunlight. Behind him were Vorg and Daern, the Skarg mercs, Leaping Blade (who Srei still hadn't forgiven for cheating in the game last night) and Srei's partner, Leammi. She had been a doctor in training before they had come to Skrap, and now she took control of the finances business.

"Anything out there?" Leaping Blade said, scanning the horizon with his sniper rifle's sight.

"Not that I can see. The critters tend to stay away from settlements." Srei looked the Vrah up and down. "How long you been here?"

"Fourteen days."

"Huh. You're not Skrapwise either, then- green as Olon there."

The Zyrothan looked up, startled. "Pardon?"

"Nothing. Parikk, you been in these parts?"

"Once or twice. Ain't no nice bars, though."

Leammi raised her left eyelid. "Remember what we're here for. Who knows how many teams are after the same thing."

Daern nodded enthusiastically. "Too right! One night here, then on for credits."

"All you want is credits." Vorg handled his hand cannon lovingly. "There's more to life than money. There's guns and women and killing."

"Yeah, but you need credits for those."

Vorg shrugged his massive shoulders and turned away.

"We'll be on the road in a few hundred metres. So in the town by noon." Srei looked at the reddish sun, peeking over the dunes so many miles away. The dirty sand would become hazy in a few hours, and that was the time when walkers got lost. Something to do with layers of air and warmth.

There was a sand plume in the distance.

"Sand snake morning shift coming out. They're real slow during changeover, so they won't have heard us. Keep quiet, anyway."

Leammi nodded. "Srei once got jumped by one. Mentally scarred."

Srei turned around and rolled his stalked eyes. "Don't embarass me in front of the lads, Lea."

Parikk had some kind of grunting fit that was probably a laugh. Daern hit him on the back, and Parikk whipped round, glaring. "Get off."

Daern pulled himself up. "Yeah?"


"Hey!" Srei got between them. "Leave it out."

The two remained locked in eye contact, but moved apart. This was going to be a long trip.

Chapter 2

Kakkay sighed, and pulled a chair up to the table. It was hard to get this bunch focused. Seff wasn't here, which made it all the more difficult. In fact, a lot of his friends were out of town. It didn't make him happy, especially in this ripped-up tent.

The Atrenid finally cleared his throat and spoke up. "Alright," he said, "let's get down to business. We need to talk before we blow all our cash gambling."

He and the group around him were part of Ultima. Ultima wasn't so much an organization or a company but a group of individuals that gathered from time to time, for many reasons. They liked to think they were the government of Skrap. Which was alright, since Skrap was in a constant state of anarchy. They came and marched in, because nobody else had thought of doing so first.

Or maybe it was because they had all gotten shot.

In any case, Ultima dealt with many things. They sold or traded items to customers. They went to steal goods and resources from others. And every once in a while they came together to play a game or two.

"A few announcements," Kakkay said. "First, I just want to say that Ranola has recently...acquired a brand new missile launcher of unknown origin. It'll be a good weapon for the Iron Skulls if there ever was one."

He glanced at the Deraia sitting smugly across the table.

"Second, who let that Vorazotl into the streets. That's not good publicity. I want its owner to meet with me after this session. Leave your valuables to someone else, you won't have any use for them afterwards.

"Also, the rumors of the ship have arisen again. We've all heard about it, and nobody knows if it's real or not. But I have reason to believe people are actually searching for it."

This caused a murmur among the rest of the group.

"If it really is full of the stuff, we need to find it as soon as possible, before anyone else. And I would like to organize a search. Are there any volunteers?"

All of the aliens raised their hands, except for one, who was immediately snapped up by a large Skarg.

"Excellent. I'd like to start tomorrow, or today if possible. Remember, there are lots of things in that desert that will mess you up. Come prepared, and we'll all meet back here."

Chapter 3

Srei walked into the bar first, the others following on behind.

"Four sharps and a soft... Olon, what'd you want?"

"Oh, just water please."

"Huh. Five sharps, a soft, and a water."

The Zyrothan barman nodded, turning away. He was wearing full body armour and two Mincers, which was a little more than Srei was used to. Nevertheless, he carried on.

"Lea, you said you saw a gunnery?"

"Yeah, three down from here. Small town, so I can't imagine prices are low."

"Alright. Parrikk, don't show your Blunter off."

The Xodu lowered the missile launcher from his shoulder, a sour look on his face. He didn't let it loose in its sling, though.

"Daern, Vorg, and Blade have taken a table outside."

"Yeah, okay."

Srei took the drinks, thanked the barman, and went to join them. He was being watched by a group of heavily armed Skarg, surrounding a Vrah. They seemed to feel threatened- protection racketeers?

The midday sun was heating the sand to a shimmer, but there was a gentle breeze under the awning. It had been improvised from a tarpaulin, and the buildings themselves were mainly corrugated iron. It seemed rickety. There would be no-one outside at this time, and half the town was probably inside the bar.

Srei leaned forward, and spoke quietly. "So what are we actually going after? So it's treasure, but what treasure?"

"Some crashed ship, maybe an alien one. Maybe a real big credit chip? Some kind of weapon? A precious metal?"

"It'll be a trap, I know it." Daern seemed excited, speaking fast. "Maybe Ultima wants it too!"

"Hush!" Leammi motioned for him to be quieter. "They have guys everywhere. The walls have ears."

Olon shuddered.

"We aren't the only group going after it." Srei unconsciously stroked his Gladius' trigger. "There are rumours in every bar. Iron Skulls people, too."

"Yeah, but we're the most badass crew of credit hunters since Reik and Cruus." Leaping Blade quivered as he spoke. "Ultima and all their toys? The recking Iridi First Legion couldn't take us!"

"Let's not risk it."

"If you say so. But I want to fight 'em."

Just as they settled back to drink, there was a gunshot in the bar. Every head turned, and all voices stopped. A body hit the ground.

The bounty hunters ran in just in time to see the Skarg fire another shotgun blast into the barman's chest. A modified Crusher with armour-penetrative slugs.

Srei's Gladius was already out, and little craters exploded along the Skarg's hide. It crashed down, but Srei had changed targets- the vrah and his cronies on the far table were diving down under the tables.

Parrikk grunted with swelling happiness, and fired his Blunter. Two of the benches exploded in a cloud of shrapnel and woodsmoke, along with a few bits of Skarg. Dearn's HMG was sending round after round into that spot, and Vorg blew up the table with his hand cannon.

The vrah and one of its skarg associates got up, but immediately fell down, sniped in the cranium. Leaping Blade recocked his rifle and kept his sights where the last skarg was hiding.

Srei spoke. "Alright, we know exactly where you are. Throw the gun out from there."

An Enflamer skidded across the bar floor, coming to rest at Parikk's feet.

"Now get up, slowly."

A smallish, young skarg's head appeared, and almost shot back down at the sight of all the barrels pointed at his skull. He fought the urge and stood.

"You're coming outside with us."

He was obviously trembling, but he came out anyway. Srei lowered his gun, but none of the others did.

"Name, org, boss!"

"Kraf! Independent! Sweeping Darkness!"

"Ah, you're pathetic." Srei placed a hand on the skarg's shoulder and shoved him out onto the dirt. "Get out of here."

"Yessir!" The skarg scrambled up and ran off as fast as his thick legs could carry him.

Parikk yawned. "What now?"

"Finish your drinks, then we get ready to go."

Chapter 4

Kakkay had wasted no time.

He was back at the table in the tent, with every manner of rifle and blaster strapped on, and a Vampron and Stonecutter in his hands. He was drumming the barrel of the Vampron against the table. As usual, everybody was taking their own sweet time. He wished Taeus was here. If Taeus was here, everybody would have their asses in gear.

The rumors worried Kakkay. They weren't confirmed of course---were they ever? But naturally, he was concerned about the ship.

If Ultima didn't get the ship, he wasn't sure that the rest of Skrap would make it out alive.

As the bounty hunters left the bar, Srei noticed the shady figure of a Phoebus at a table. It was drinking, and not paying attention to anything at all. It seemed to be staring off into space.

Drunk fool, Srei thought, and they exited the bar.

A few minutes later, the Phoebus turned towards the door and looked out. They were gone.

It was boring to listen to them, but you couldn't argue with the bosses. You did what the bosses told you, or things would go badly.

The Phoebus took one last sip, and then got up and walked out the bar.

"I knew it! I knew someone would go after it!" Kakkay shouted, pacing up and down the sides of the tent. "We can't screw around anymore. We've got to get out there."

The others, who had arrived, looked nervously at each other. They'd never seen him this bad before.

"We'll need extra firepower. Ranola, missile launcher?"

Ranola nodded and raised the Stalker up into the air.

"I trust you have all your toys with you, Zakur?"

Zakur grinned (or grinned with the three remaining teeth he possessed) and showed off all his weapons, impressive even by Skrap standards.


"Eh boss?" The Lentaa perked his head up, expectantly.

"Get your pet."

The Mordon snapped and slavered at the chains, as a skittish Kallun stood well away, trying to control it. Further on, Zakur grumbled, "Where do you suppose this ship is?"

"Somewhere out in the desert," Kakkay said. They were behind the tent where they had their meetings, not far from the desert itself. Kakkay looked towards the endless dunes.

"But," Kallun gasped, in between tugging at the Mordon, "if this guy finds, ergh, the other---team, then, rrrgh, we'll know exactly where they---are, ahh."

"How's that?" Zakur grumbled. He grumbled very well.

"I've got a---tracking device under his skin. If---rrgh, he stops to attack them, we'll, gah, get their location and then not have to, rgh, worry about them any more. Agh."

"Oh." The Zyrothan shrugged under the weight of the artillery and pretended he understood. "What's out there?" he grumbled after a brief pause.

"Are you green or something?" Ranola said.

"Nuh. Been here fer twenty-some years."

"Then how do you not know?"

Zakur's brow fidgeted. "I just spent all my time in the casinos and bars. That's what this place's for, y'know."

"Plenty of things out there can kill you, or seriously maim you. Sand Snakes are the biggest worry."

"And what're those?"

"You don't want to know."

Kakkay turned away from the conversation. It was time to launch this. "We ready?" he shouted, and then nodded to Kallun. "Take him off."

Gingerly, Kallun unhooked the chain from the animal's collar. Immediately, the Mordon soared up into the air, and soon it was a diminishing speck in the sky, heading over the horizon.

"You got him on radar alright?"

"Yep," Kallun said, holding up a small, screened box.

"Right then. All aboard!" Kakkay announced. "Last exit for the road to Hell."

A ship landed at the edge of Hoober's Gulch. It wasn't a shiny, clean, friendly-looking ship, but rather a dirty and menacing hunk of metal ready for war.

A door slid open, and out stepped an armed Vrah. He looked to one side, then the other, and eventually back into the ship. "I've had worse," he said.

A small Salsene popped his head out. "But it's Skrap!" he squealed. "Make one sudden move and they shoot the living daylights out of you!"

"Come on, Ogluf," the Vrah sighed, and the rest of the band walked out.

Ogluf wasn't the pirate type, really. He was shy, timid, and afraid of everything around him. He abandoned everything he had to become a pirate because he thought it would be fun. That sense of fun vanished, and now Ogluf had nothing, and had to stay a pirate unless he felt like chatting with some cannabalistic locals on some jungle planet.

The Vrah's name was Striking Flame, and captain of this tawdry little ship. The operation would be dull and dirty---right up until they found the ship. He was convinced that there was really a ship out here in this miserable place somewhere, and they would find it.

Salran, the Alxen, came up to his side. "Where do we start?" he said.

"In town," Striking Flame said. "Maybe we could get more information there."

"I doubt it'll be friendly," the Zyrothan navigator said. Striking Flame recalled her name as Rearn. She was a nice girl, but not really best suited for the job.

"We're pirates. Is it ever friendly?"

"Well, you've got a good point there."

They sauntered into town, where they were immediately bombarded by shouts from several black market traders and flea market dealers.

After looking around, Striking Flame led the convoy up to one tent, manned by a shabby-looking Zyrothan, who was chewing something. "Afternoon, sirs," he said. "What can I bring you now?"

"What have you got?"

"Well, I've got bags of the finest phlion, collected fresh out of the desert this very morning. The highest quality for smokin' or chewin', it is."

"Actually, I'm not interested right now---"

"You sure? I'm offering a special today. Buy five packets and get a free head of a Flesh Thief to hang above the wet bar."

The Zyrothan threw a head onto the counter, which landed with a resonant thump.

Striking Flame glared at the head. "How recent is this?"

"Killed him two days ago. I've kept it in a cooler since then."

"Well then, why does it look like a Keraran?"

"...I dunno. Keraran head probably."

"Sorry friend, but you've got a Keraran here. Consistent texture, no recent seams."

"Nah, can't be!"

Striking Flame grabbed the Zyrothan and slammed him against the counter, holding him down firmly. "Listen, you little bastard, I've been around a bit. I've invaded fleets and slaughtered individuals of every race in Viperius. When I look at something, I know what I'm looking at. And I don't like to be ripped off."

"What the hell do you mean?" the Zyrothan said, coughing.

"This is Skrap, you flatface. People lie and steal and cheat here all the time. But I don't bargain when I want answers to my questions."

"What questions?"

"What else would I be asking a question about right now?"

"It's still a bloody Keraran head, opportunities like this don't---"


The Zyrothan stopped struggling, and Striking Flame threw him to the other side of the tent. He waited for the drug dealer to get his bearings again.

"...So what's your question?" the Zyrothan asked.

"I'd like to know where the ship could be."

"Which ship?"

"You know damn well which ship I'm talking about."

The Zyrothan cringed a bit, and then paused before continuing. "As far as I can tell, it's in the desert somewhere. Think it was of Irihil ownership originally."

"Go on."

"The desert's a big place though, it's huge and hot and there are Sklashers everywhere and---"

"I'm familiar. Go on."

"...Well, the treasure in it is valuable. But some are saying the ship is dangerous. Something about the Night."

"And what's that?"

"I don't know, some Irihil junk fairy tale."

Striking Flame looked coldly at the drug dealer, and then stepped back. "Right. I've learned what I need to know."

There was another pause.

"...Anything else I can get for you, sirs?"

Striking Flame looked around, and sighed.

"A tall drink. And lots and lots of drugs."

Chapter 5

The bounty hunters headed on through the desert, in a stolen Carvicor. The canopy was a good refuge from the early afternoon heat, and the vehicle cruised leisurely along. Wind rustled the clothes of the people riding.

They entered a canyon. It was dark here- rocky outcrops overhead let only slivers on sunlight through onto the sandy floor. There had been water here once.

A plume of sand came from only a few feet in front of them, and a Sand Snake shot up from the dust, knocking the carvicor onto its back.

With the exception of Olon, they reacted immediately- throwing themselves onto the sand and rolling to escape. Parikk grabbed the Zyrothan and yanked him out.

"Shoot it!"

They began firing, but the bullets only enraged it more. Its head came down, narrowly missing Leammi... and submerged, gone into the sand. Sand Snakes didn't do that...

It was at this point that Parikk was thrown sideways and a great arm closed around Olon's neck, pulling him up into the air. A serrated knife nicked his throat.

"They shall enter the darkness and they shall witness their sins." They turned to face the newcomer, Parikk shaking himself and grabbing his Blunter.

"Kragging skegger! You'll kragging pay!"

The figure moved another step forward. It was a Xodu, but his cheek bore long scars and he wore nothing above the waist. He surveyed the group, emotionless.

"They shall meet their end with fiery anger and so shall fall."

"I've heard enough!"

Srei fired his Gladius, a burst which skimmed Olon's shoulder and went straight into the Xodu's belly. It staggered back, and Olon dived from its grasp.

But then the figure smiled. "Faith armours me against the weapons of the unbelievers."

He reached out and grabbed the Gladius, then snapped it in his hands.

Parikk charged, roaring, and received a punch to the jaw. Stunned, he was thrown back. Vorg and Dearn began firing wildly, but the bullets merely checked the Xodu's advance. He grabbed them by the necks, and lifted a thousand pounds of Skarg struggling into the air.

"The advance with righteous zeal can never be stopped."

Srei smashed the butt of his broken Gladius into the back of its head, but the Xodu simply turned and picked him up, throwing him a good twenty feet across the canyon.

Leammi and Leaping Blade had not fired until now. She discharged her Snakebite into its leg, but then she too was grabbed and hurled away. Leaping Blade drew his blade, and slashed.

The blade met the Xodu's arm, cutting into the thick hide but not able to pierce the bone.

"The strength of the holy is unmatched."

Leaping Blade was winded by a chop to the stomach, but rolled out from the path of an uppercut.

Parikk was up again, and grabbed the other Xodu's neck with his arms, pulling back. An elbow smashed into his face, but then a sniper rifle went off.

"For the holy, there is true immortality." The figure slumped down.

Srei kicked it in the head, and fired a few shots from Leaping Blade's snakebite into its belly.

"What the krag? Some kind of monk?"

"He made the sand snake attack us! What the heck, man?"

Shaken but largely sound, they went back to flip the carvicor over. They got back in, and Srei pressed the ident to activate the engine. There was a short buzz, and then it started.

They sped off, back into the desert on the far side.

Back on the canyon floor, the Monk pulled himself back up. He touched the wound in his chest- he would survive. Painfully, he walked to the sand and whistled at a pitch too high for even himself to hear.

The plumes of dust showed the return of his sand snake.

These unbelievers would truly need his salvation.

A group of armoured Skarg and Banshaen, a Gaedrongo as their guide, entered Hoober's Gulch.

They were Iron Skulls- no other group here had the same quality weapons and the same arrogance. The vendors drew back as they passed, and a circle cleared amongst the shoppers, a good twenty feet from the front and sides.

One of the Skarg noticed a Blunter in the crowd.

"Hey, you! Zyrothan!"

The Zyrothan looked right and left, and realised it was him that was the focus of their attention.


"That's a big gun for a little person. Give it here."

"No kragging way, man!"

"Have it your way." The Skarg fired a shot into the Zyrothan's leg, and then walked over and took the launcher from the yelping, collapsed figure at his feet. He shoved his face into the snout of the Zyrothan, and spat out a few words.

"Don't... krag... with... us."

He then rejoined his group, and they moved on.

The Gaedrongo took them to a bar, and they entered- all eyes turned to them.

"Twelve sharps. On the house, if that's not a problem." The Iron Skull's expression was mocking.

The Xodu barman knew better than to complain.

Chapter 6

Kakkay led the group across the sand and rock. It was early afternoon, which meant the Sand Snakes would be resting. The next shift wouldn't arrive until evening.

He was proud of his extensive knowledge on Skrap's wildlife. It was definitely a survival skill. But dishing out facts to the stupid green slobs was probably more enjoyable.

If anything, his Atrenid background played a major part in attaining this knowledge. Kakkay had become infamous on Skrap for developing his own mix of science, piracy, and criminalistic strategies. It was fun to kill people in nasty, obscure ways that would stump most individuals.

Of course, he was especially fond of his own business. Imperial Predators sold the largest, fastest, and most vicious beasts known. Some of them were purebred. Others were engineered to be even more terrifying. And they were worth a lot of money.

Best of all, Kakkay did it all by himself.

Skrap-native animals were the cheapest. You could get them pretty much anywhere, or catch them yourself. The majority of them would kill you. Kakkay didn't care what people did with them after they were sold; he got his money all the same.

He noticed a Rizzak scampering among the boulders, and in the next second it was merely a red splatter on the side of a rock.

Kakkay put the Stonecutter back into its holster. "Where's the Mordon now, Kallun?"

The Lentaa flipped over the lid on the box. "He's about 13 klacks southwest of us right now."

"Alright. Any sign that he's found anything?"

"Not so far. The tracking device keeps a log of his movements, and...he hasn't made any abrupt changes in direction or speed at all."

'What about---hold it."

They looked toward the horizon, where a flock of animals was heading towards them.

"Looks like an Ingensid pack," Ranola said.

"It does. Get your Stalker ready."

"What are they and how do we kill 'em?" Zakur said.

"Nothing to it. You just point---" Kakkay said, and raised the Vampron, looking through the sights.

There was a brief vibration, and one of the Ingensids dropped from the sky.

"---and shoot."

Immediately, the flock gathered speed, and they were now heading towards the team with a frightening pace.

"You know what to do guys!" Kakkay shouted, and they fired.

Within seconds, the sky was clear, the ground in front of them littered with bodies and wet blood. The desert was silent again.

They lowered their weapons. "Remember guys, it's not going to get easier out here. From now on, have all your weapons ready. And look out for bandits."

"Bandits?" a Skarg asked.

"And plenty of them." Kakkay walked over to one of the Ingensid bodies. He took an empty bottle from his pack and squeezed one of the mandibles. "Might have use for this later," he said, turning away from the body with a bottle now full of venom.

"Alright," he said finally, "let's keep moving."

"I'm not going out there!"

"Yes you are."

"I'm not!"

"You'll be going out there in pieces if you don't move now."

Striking Flame and Ogluf were arguing. A common occurence. Ogluf just didn't really know these parts at all.

"I don't want to go, there's too much out there---"

"Either come or we leave you behind alone with some criminals," Striking Flame said, and turned to Salran. "See what I mean? Greenest pirate in history."

"I'm not green! I'm blue and yellow!"

Striking Flame sighed. "My point exactly."

"This could get ugly if he keeps going on like that," Salran said.

Ogluf finally whimpered, and headed to the back of the group.

Striking Flame walked a short distance into the sand, examining the outcrops. "Looks safe for now. We should get going soon. Get as far as we can and then set camp before the snakes' evening shift comes out."

"S-snakes?" Ogluf said at the back.

They all ignored him. "Rearn, where do you suppose we should go?"

"Up into the mountains. Sand snakes won't be able to burrow through them, and it's a nice elevated spot to spend the night."

"Then let's head there."

As they walked, Striking Flame looked back towards the rocky outcropping. He thought he could see a figure poking in and out of the boulders, watching them.

Probably his imagination. He was quite confident now, but he knew that this place played tricks with your mind.

Yes. Definitely his imagination.

They walked on.

Chapter 7

Srei pulled the carvicor up on the fringe of Hoober's Gulch, where the houses were little more than sheds of scrap metal. They were watched from a number of windows, greedy eyes on their vehicle. It wasn't theirs, of course, so Parikk destroyed it with the Blunter. No reason to add another car to a gang's armoury.

Leammi led them into a 'Friendly House'- a rare find. They were the only accommodation on Skrap where the owners made money from the security of their lodgers, and didn't profit from shooting them in their sleep and taking everything. It was all thanks to an agreement- the lodgers would have buried the cash outside town beforehand, and then they would give the location after the stay was over.

The bounty hunters didn't feel like paying, so this time there was no cash, and they would have stayed over free of charge. They would just have to fight through whatever guards this place employed.

Settling down for the night, they each took a bed (more like a sheet of sponge with a cloth over it, and half a tarpaulin for covers). Some species needed bigger beds than others, so the owners had thoughtfully put some spare spongemat in the cupboard. Almost a shame to rip them off and then kill them, Srei thought.

Vorg pulled out some cards. "Anyone up for some Rumino?"

They, with the exception of Leaping Blade, gathered around the central table. It was a little cramped, and they would have to hold the cards close to their faces to prevent the others seeing. Skarg had good peripheral vision, so the more experienced players immediately placed themselves as far as possible from Vorg and Daern. Also, to make sure that no-one had a scanner on them, they all emptied their pockets onto one of the beds.

Vorg dealt, so it was Olon's go first. He placed a card on the table, face down.

"Three swords."

Srei stared at the Zyrothan for a few moments, and then placed down one of his own. "Twelve bows. You never start with swords, man."

Parikk grunted, and added his own, face up. "A commander. Turn your cards up."

Srei turned his over- Twelve bows, good as his word. Olon turned his- three castles.

"Oh, you clever little skrammer." Srei took three cards from the middle. "Now where'd you learn to put up such an honest face?"

The boss of the Iron Skulls team was a Skarg, known as Redeye to his associates and as Kravol to his mother. He had evicted the residents of a nice little house near the centre of town, and shot them down as they ran off- you never run from a Skull.

His guide was Demki, and was currently using his tentacles to sort out Redeye's possessions. Skulls slept in their armour, so he didn't bother trying to remove it.

The Banshaen were the ones in line with the door and the window- first to go if there was an attack. Well, someone had to do it. Redeye didn't really care what their names were, but he was never going to have to write them down anyway.

Pushing the bed over against the wall, he lay back onto it. It creaked under his weight- the last occupants had been Phoebus, and rich little kozzers too. The walls were proper brick and metal, and there was an independent generator in the basement. The number of people siphoning off the mains for unlicensed use meant that every now and again, the current surged and went.

As Redeye contemplated the communal infrastructure of Skrap, one of the Banshaen slumped down on his chair, a little bullet wound in his forehead. The only people on Skrap with silenced weapons were...

"Ultima men! Get out of the way of the window!"

A sniper fired, and the window pane shattered away. The projectile went straight through the far wall. The sound of people against the door downstairs was muffled, but the only thing they could be doing was planting charges.

"Away from the wall! Get back in the rooms behind, you kraggers!"

There was a little click, and then the whole front section of the house fell away, and the rest shook under the blast. Machine guns began to fire into the bricksmoke, killing another Banshaen.

"We're gonna have to pull out!" Demki was panicking.

"Krag you. We're gonna fight."

Some Xodu climbed into the wreck, firing at the Skulls. The Skarg returned fire, downing them, but Ultima never did things by half. The sniper fired again, killing a Skarg, and a group of Zyrothans was approaching- one with two grenade launchers.

"Who took the Blunter? Kragging shoot!"

The missile fired, blasting the Zyrothans away. But the back of the house now came down, and several Deraia with Claw battle rifles entered. Two more Banshaen fell, too slow. Redeye threw a grenade, and dived behind a desk. The explosion killed the Deraia but also one of the Skulls, whose feathers lay singed and limp on the floor.

Only the Skarg and Demki were left, and now they charged out. The sniper missed this time, and Redeye's helmet HUD gave him the position.

"Have a taste of this!" The sniper, hidden behind a balcony, yelped as one of the bullets got him in the arm. Another shot, and he fell down three floors onto the street below.

"Quick, down into the cellar! Reinforced doors- but maybe we've fought off all the guys." Demki led them towards the entrance.

"Don't count on it." Redeye was still on alert, scanning the rubble. He couldn't see anyone, but that didn't mean they weren't there.

Chapter 8

Kallun jiggled the box around, trying to get it to work. He was grumbling under his breath.

"What is it now?" Kakkay asked.

"We've got an incoming transmission from some Ultima men," Kallun replied. "Provided that the box works. Let's see what they have to say." He flipped a switch, and a garbled voice emerged out of the static.

"We---ot a---rival team from---ron Skulls out---ere. Found---in---them in---cellar now."

"What are they talking about?"

"Seems like they found a couple of Iron Skulls." Kallun jiggled the box again. "The problem is, we don't get good transmission out here."

"E---think that---heard---umors. Prob---were talking abou---ship." {C}Upon mention of a ship, Kakkay raised his head.

"What ship?"

"Prett---ure they were---team looking fo---treasure. Not sure if---ey're---ould be more."

He had heard enough. "Tell them to find those kraggers and kill them all," Kakkay said. Kallun nodded.

After transmission was cut, Kakkay erupted. "How many are coming here??? First we have some mindless money-seekers, and now Iron Skulls? What the hell is this turning into, a big party?"

Nobody spoke. This never happened.

After a long moment, Kakkay stopped seething. "We'll have to face it now. So much for secrecy."

"What do you mean?" Zakur asked.

"I'll put it simply. Seems the word is out. Now everybody knows about this ship. And we've got to stop everybody who goes after it."

Kakkay wasn't telling the whole story. If the word was out about the ship, everybody would heading to Skrap, looking for it. Pirates, gamblers, miners, everyone. And they didn't like each other, and it was only a matter of time before the rain of bullets arrived.

That could mean a war was coming.

Striking Flame jumped on a rock, surveying the desert. They had made good progress so far, and were well into the desert. Currently they rested looking out over a canyon.

Looking down into the canyon, he saw odd shapes in the sand. Footsteps, it looked like. Several of them, all in a jumble, like a fight had happened. Recently, too.

But there was something else. Parallel lines, with distinctive marks. Tread marks. Like a vehicle had been driven into the desert...

He noticed a head out of the corner of his eye, peering from among the rocks.

Striking Flame didn't wait any longer. He pulled out his rifle and tore a dozen chunks out of the boulder. The head immediately popped down.

As the others watched, the Vrah strode up to the rocks and pulled out a squirming, screaming figure. "You again."

"Let me go! Let me go!"

Striking Flame didn't, but looked the Zyrothan drug dealer over a couple of times. "Why are you here?"

"It's none of your business, you---"

The drug dealer stopped as Striking Flame pressed the rifle against his head.


The Zyrothan swallowed. "Rakor."


"I work alone."

The Vrah glared. "Now why are you out here?"

Rakor looked around at the others. "...I was curious. I didn't know what you were up, or why. So I followed you."

Striking Flame dropped him. "You're not heading back now. Guess we'll have to take you. But remember. Not a word of this to anyone else."

Rakor nodded.

"Now let's get down in that canyon. Someone's been in there."

Chapter 9

Leaping Blade woke up first, and checked to make sure nothing had been moved. He looked around to his satisfaction, then woke the others.

Knowing when to sleep was everything on Skrap, unless you were rich enough to buy Dorminol (50 credits a gram was not widely affordable). Heavy sleepers died young, and the species that slept less tended to do better in the cities. Short bursts punctuated by looking around and making sure no-one had a gun to your head were the most common method, but good teams often had sentry shifts anyway.

With everyone up, they packed up all their possessions (and took a few beds), then went to face the manager.

"Make sure your guns are loaded, unobstructed, and easy to draw. As if you needed to be told."

Srei had repaired his Gladius in the night, but a crack still ran down the side. It was a gun he'd had for over a decade, and one he'd taken from a mob boss back in Cumber Springs. The others made sure their own weapons worked, and then they headed up the stairs.

The Salsene manager was there, ready for payment. He was wearing body armour, which could be seen slightly sticking out from his jacket, and there was a Mauler outlined under a pocket. This guy knew what he was doing, it seemed. Beside him, four Skarg loosely held their Biter shotguns.

"There's been a problem." Srei tried his hardest to look sincere. "We forgot to bury the money, but we need something to put in that hole."

The Salsene laughed. "Nice tr-" was all that came out before he was blasted back by Vorg's hand cannon, armour fractured in a dozen places. Leammi shot a Skarg in the braincase with her Snakebite, Leaping Blade blasted another's head open with a sniper shot, Daern riddled a third with holes from his HMG bullets, and Srei got a clean headshot from his gun.

Nevertheless, he weighed it up again in his hands, dissatisfied. "The barrel's moved."

Leaping Blade glanced at him. "Well, fix it."

"I'd need a kragging micrometer."

"Just... deal with it, for now." Leammi knew her partner was going to keep complaining, but tried anyway.

"Kragging monk."

"Yeah, yeah, alright. Anything to loot around here?"

Srei perked up. "Yeah, they've gotta be rich with all the traffic. Look behind the counter, I'll go into the main office."

Behind the counter there were a few guns and stun grenades, but they were discarded. In the office, there was a chip containing 75,000 credits.

"Our lucky day. Olon won't be wanting any, so we'll split it six ways."

"Hey! I want money too!" The Zyrothan was indignant.

"Well, you can argue your case later."

They carried on searching around, but there was nothing of value. A few bills that showed this manager had been deep in debt, probably to Ultima, but the place was nearly empty.

"Surprised those Skarg stayed on."

"Maybe they were too stupid to know to move out and kill him. You saw how slow they were."

"Yeah, maybe."

"Alright, let's get going before it gets hot."

Out on the street, the morning air was cool and a slight breeze only moved amongst the streets. Washing lines between the houses swayed back and forth, the clothes set out to dry now that the night was over. Nothing worth stealing, though.

People were beginning to file into the streets for the morning market, heading towards the centre of town. The team followed the crowd, unwilling to stand out from the rest of the populace.

There was a sudden cry, and everybody turned to look. Parikk had a young Zyrothan by the arm and was twisting, a look of anger on his face.

"This skegger tried to get my pocket."

"Let him go, Parikk. He knows not to go for you again now." Leammi was a little amused.

"I know how it works." The Xodu let go of the child roughly, and scowled.

In a plaza, they saw a group of Arbotiles sacking the gun shop. Srei looked questioningly at the others.

Daern shrugged. "Nothin' to do with us."

They walked on through, ignoring the pirates, but then they were noticed.

"Hey you, bounty hunters!" One of the Arbotiles, small but energetic, was pointing them out to his friends. "Gonna cause us trouble?"

"Well, now that you bring it up, sounds like a good idea!"

Srei downed the speaker with a double-tap, and Leaping Blade sniped the band's leader with a shot that sent the lifeless body tumbling down into the observers. The crowd pulled back to a respectful distance, anticipating the firefight to come.

But the Arbotile who they guessed was second in command put his hands in the air. "Alright, bounty hunters, no need for more killing. Just leave us be and we'll leave you."

Leammi turned to whisper in Srei's ear. "He's holding a grenade in his left hand. Can't tell what type."

Srei looked hard at the Arbotile for a moment. "You know what, in an ideal world that's exactly what I'd do. However, someone broke my gun yesterday and I am not in a very good mood."

"So be it!" The Arbotile moved to throw the grenade, but was caught in midair by a Vampron shot. Leaping Blade cocked and readied to fire again, but Vorg and Daern had taken care of the survivors.

They turned away together. "Green through and through." They nodded in agreement, apart from Olon. He was too busy looking at the clock.

Demki opened up the cellar door, and sunlight streamed in.

Redeye led the Skarg with him up to the entrance, and looked around. He did not let go of his gun.

"Seems all clear. We're heading to the centre of town. See anything suspicious, shoot it."

The Skarg nodded in acknowledgement- on Skrap, you couldn't afford to hesitate. If you saw the barrel of a gun, you made sure it was pointed away from you or it would be the cause of the end of your life.

"Hey boss, that Vrah up there looks suspicious."

"So what do you do to suspicious people?"

The group turned their guns on the Vrah, and it fell in a volley of bullets.

"Take no chances."

Chapter 10

Kakkay was mad.

That was putting it lightly.

He plowed on through the desert, leading the group, oblivious to the heat. Now, it wasn't a matter of getting there, it was a matter of getting there first.

They proceeded to one of the cliff ranges, where a couple of Salsene miners were digging. For raak, no doubt.

As he walked up, Kakkay barked, "You there. I'd like to ask you a few things."

The hooded miner turned towards him, and stepped back. "You'll be getting no answers from me. Who are you?"

"I'll tell you who we are once you can help us with a few simple matters."

The miner grunted. "Course not. I have my mining license with me right now, legally approved and everything."

Kakkay sighed. "We're not inspectors. Now could you---"


With a vicious rage, a shrieking Sklasher leapt from the top of the cliff down onto the ground. The group of miners screamed and started running away, but the Sklasher grabbed one unlucky soul and bit him in two.

Instantly, the Ultima men raised their weapons and opened fire. The Sklasher roared, merely irritated by all the bullets. It charged at Kakkay, who fired the Vampron again. The bullet plowed straight between the eyes, but the monster did not stop.

And then with a puff of smoke coming from Ranola's direction, the Sklasher seemed to fold in on itself, twisting and then exploding into many pieces as the missile went straight through its body. All that remained at the base of the cliffs was a severed leg, still twitching and flopping in the sand.

The remaining miners, including the hooded one, peered out from above a rock.

Kakkay turned to them. "Right, now that we've conveniently just saved your kragging ass, perhaps now you can help us?"

The miners stood up and started walking back. "I guess so," the hooded miner said. "What do you want?"

"We're looking for a ship. Supposedly it has treasure in it. Have you heard anything about it?"

The hooded miner paused. "Well, I'm not one for superstition, but yes, I've heard about it."

"What do you know?"

"Em, I don't think anybody knows why it crashed. But I think it was an Irihil craft."

"Do you have any idea where it is?"

"Nope. Just somewhere in the desert."

Kakkay turned to the remaining miners. "Have any of you heard about this ship before?"

They shook their heads.

"Well," Kakkay said, fingering his rifle, "that makes it easy."

He opened fire on the miners, who fell one after the other. One of them started running, but was immediately stopped by a shot to the back of the head.

"My friend," Kakkay continued, gripping the struggling miner by the hood, "you're coming with us."

The decrepit wooden sign was faded, but the words Oasis Population: ? , although faded, were still visible. Up ahead, the town rose up above the desert.

"Is that it then?" Rakor said. "Looks like a dump."

Striking Flame ignored him. He certainly didn't expect to find a town in the middle of the desert, miles away from anything else. Usually one or two roads connected them all.

"If there's people there, they may know about the ship. Let's pay them a little visit."

They walked into town, which looked just like another town on Skrap, except that everybody was familiar with other people in the town. When the pirates came, they received suspicious glances from nearly all that they passed.

"What's that over there?" Salran asked, pointing towards a building.

It was a tall and thin building, nestled between a bar and a shop. There were maps in the windows.

"They have maps," Rakor said.

"Yes they do," Striking Flame said. "I feel like having some fun. Rearn and Salran, you cut off any escape from the roof. Ogluf, go to the back of the building and watch the door."

"Why me???"

"Rakor, when I give the call, you smash through the front window and search the maps."

The Zyrothan paused. "Alright."

Striking Flame turned around, facing the Skarg. "You boys, come with me. You're going to like this."

The front door crashed open, and Striking Flame jumped in with a sniper pistol, flanked by the Skarg. "Freeze, you kraggers!" he shouted.

There was an Atrenid polishing some pictures on the wall, and he immediately dropped his tools and raised his hands.

After Striking Flame took a good look at the Atrenid, he spoke. "Now listen, there's only one thing we want from you, and that is a good hard map of the desert. You understand?"

The Atrenid widened his eyes further. "Why the desert??"

"NO questions, just results. You got that?"

After a brief pause, the Atrenid started inching away from the wall, towards the map display. Little did they know he'd constructed a hidden trapdoor in the floor earlier that month---

Without warning, Rakor smashed through the window, wielding a Mauler he'd kept out of sight. "Nice try, kragger," he muttered, and shot out the trapdoor, for everyone to notice. The Atrenid shot his hands up again, defeated.

Striking Flame glanced at Rakor, wondering why he completely disobeyed orders, but quickly thinking that it was a good thing for once.

"Now," he said, "desert map."

The Atrenid shuffled through a drawer and produced a folded map bound with red string. "I used it for navigation back in the day," he softly muttered.

"Thank you and much obliged," Striking Flame said. "Let's go."

They backed out, still holding their weapons high, and then they fled out of sight of the Atrenid.

He relaxed his shoulders and sighed. He'd made it out alive.

The Atrenid turned around, vaguely wondering where his polish went. He heard a hollow thump.

Turning around again, he noticed a grenade sitting cheerfully on the floor.

Rakor conversed with the others in an alleyway as the explosion echoed around the town.

"We have our map now," Striking Flame said. "We should look in all the likely places first, and only traverse the open sand if we need to. Rearn, you're our navigator, so you take possession of the map."

The Vrah then turned to Rakor. "And where did you get that Mauler, anyway?"

"Rule one," Rakor said, "if you do drugs, always carry a gun."

Chapter 11

Leaping Blade sorted through the various weapons that the Arbotiles had been looting.

"Broken. Broken. Hairdryer. Ammo not sold any more. Broken."

Parrikk had found a Stalker CPU unit, and was busy trying to attach it to his Blunter. Olon and Leammi were helping with the electronics.

If you live on Skrap and people believe they may gain from your death- whether it was for your money, as a pre-emptive attack, or just for fun- then they will shoot you. And to prevent them from shooting you, you had to either scare them into submission or shoot them first.

Most Skrap-dwelling people had a pistol or an assault rifle, at least. If the opponent wants to frighten a Gladius-wielder into submission, they will need something bigger or something more ominous.

Parrikk followed the 'bigger guns' school of thought, as a missile launcher just didn't have the versatility of a smaller weapon. It could take out armoured, slow-moving targets or massed troops, but they were rare here. The Stalker bypassed this in part- its tracking abilities meant that the launcher could shoot around cover and that nowhere that was even partially open was safe. The Blunter hadn't been designed to fit a Stalker CPU inside, but with a few modifications it was possible to get around the problem.

Vorg and Daern were selling the broken or weak weapons at the shop front, somewhat forcefully, and making a nice profit considering that the guns had belonged to an elderly Salsene just ten minutes before. His body still rested against the wall, but the Arbotiles had shot him up badly and there was a large pool of red around the corpse.

Srei was using a micrometer to readjust the barrel, and then test-firing with a blank round every few alterations. Next to him was a stack of Gladiuses in case he needed spare parts. It was also a good opportunity to double up the gun's launch coils- a risky procedure. It could almost double the velocity of rounds, but it caused more barrel erosion and could explode if not properly installed. It was for this reason that Srei had replaced the coil supports with the fullerene versions from a broken Shock Rifle.

"Aha!" Leaping Blade had found something.

"What've you got?"

"This here is an Irihil Particle Beam. Hardly the kind of weapon you expect to find in a..."

Srei had grabbed the weapon from him. He turned it over in his hands. "Burn marks. This came from the crash site. And this means the ship's an Irihil one... which means it's worth more than this entire planet."

"Go back a sentence. You mean... people have been there already?" Leammi had lost interest in the Blunter, and after she spoke all eyes were up.

"This has been here for only a few hours. I... wait a kragging minute... Leaping Blade, your sights?"

Srei used the Vampron's optics as a makeshift microscope, and studied the barrel of the particle beam.

"Kragging hell. The inside of the weapon has been completely dissolved, like some kind of dissembler's been at it. But it's made of nanodiamond- no dissembler could have done it in less than a year."

"Is it repairable?"

"Seeing as no Viperian government can make particle beams this powerful and small, I doubt I could understand how it works. It looks like a clean removal, anyway."

{C}"Well, what do we do with it?"

"We can't let Ultima get their hands on it. They might have other Irihil tech and be able to use it somehow. Parrikk, would you do the honours?"

The Xodu grunted, and closed the workings of his Blunter, now successfully modified. Srei threw the Particle Beam down on the floor, and then the rocket hit it.

The weapon was slightly burnt, but unbroken.

"We can't damage it?"

"Sure, but just not with rockets and guns. We'd need a mass cannon or something."

"Strange you should mention it. Look at this."

Leammi had just opened the door to the garage, and just sitting there was a stripped-down, armour-less Salsene hovertank.

"Engine's gone and the chassis has been taken, but the weapons are still here."

Parrikk put his Blunter slowly down on the floor, mouth slightly agape, and then moved up to the tank. He put his arm round the base of the cannon, and began to pull, straining as hard as he could.

"Daern, Vorg, he'll need help."

The three of them worked together, but the gun didn't budge.

"Leammi, see if you can cut it out of the metal."

"No need, there's a bolt here for easy removal." She slid the bolt across, and the three bounty hunters lurched forwards, the cannon falling with them.

"We almost had it." Vorg brushed his armour down.

"Alright, this cannon is kragging powerful. We can't fire it in here."

"Not a problem, we can deactivate some of the coils to decrease the velocity."

"Oh... alright."

Parrikk, holding the gun underarm, braced himself to fire. The other bounty hunters got behind whatever cover they could find, and covered their ears.

There was a colossal report and the Xodu was thrown back against the wall. He lay there, stunned, for a minute. "It worked." He croaked.

Sure enough, the particle beam was gone. But so was one wall of the shop, and they could see through the neighbouring house and into the next.

"I think we'll put some grenades in the barrel and just leave that here."

"No!" Parrikk cradled the cannon protectively.

"Look, it's too big for you and you can't support the recoil." Srei was getting testy.

"We can saw off the end of the barrel and make a recoil dampener. It'll probably also need a tripod and a backpack for shells." Leaping Blade's suggestions were practiceable- all the required materials were there. "It won't be as powerful, though."

"That's fine. Daern, you take the Blunter."

The Skarg was only too keen.

Demki and the Iron Skulls heard the crash of a cannon firing.

"The krag? Mass cannons here?"

Redeye narrowed his eyes. "Let's go and find out."

"Hey, boss, suspicious Arbotiles over there on that table."

"You don't need me to tell you to shoot them."

The group fired a volley of shots, and the table was shredded along with the people who had been sitting around it. One still lived, his arm shattered, gasping on the ground.

Demki went up to the survivor and wrapped a tentacle around his neck. "You've just made it worse for yourself by living, Arbotile."

The reptile's face grew more and more strained, and the breaths became more and more desperate, but then they stopped. The Arbotile's head lolled back, and Demki let go.

"Maybe you will make Iron Skull one day."

"I hope so, boss."

The group carried on, but they only knew roughly where the sound had come from. They went deeper into the town, shoppers parting around them, basking in the fear that the populace exuded so obviously. A young Alxen ran past, and Redeye sent it sprawling. He then kicked dust into its face and walked off, a slight grin on his face.

Ten metres above them, a Vrah sniper kept her cross-hairs neatly on the back of the Skarg leader's head.

"Killing Blow, the eiduck is entering your pond. Over."

"I hear you. Ready to throw the bread, over."

"Keep it controlled until you receive the order. Sweeping Death out."

Chapter 12

Dusk was approaching. The pirates had left Oasis long ago, now equipped with a map. It helped them navigate the desert, but it just didn't tell them about the ship at all.

A nervous Ogluf peered at the map. "Where are we now?"

Rearn pointed. "Right there."

The region where she was pointing was marked with a crescent moon, and below that a circle with triangles pointing towards its center.

"And what do those squiggles mean?"

Rearn wasn't listening, but she knew very well what those symbols meant. She kept a wary eye, searching the horizon for plumes of sand. It was that time of day, and the place was infested with them.

Striking Flame knew that too. "How long until we get to that next mountain?" he asked, looking north at the range. Up there was safety.

"I'm guessing another hour, at this pace."

"That's not good enough."

Ogluf looked up. "What do you mean, not good enough?"

And then he saw it.

Silhouetted against the setting sun, a plume of sand. It was moving towards them.

Everybody reached for their weapons, except for Ogluf, who started shivering.

The plume disappeared.

Ogluf relaxed, releasing the tension from his body. But the others did not relax. They continued holding their weapons, wary and still.

And then the rumbling started. It was a gentle rumble, barely audible, accompanied by a lump of sand that rose just above the rest of the desert.

After a while, the rumbling stopped. The pirates waited a few minutes.

"I guess it didn't feel us," Rakor whispered.

He heard a yelp, and turned around just in time to watch the head and arms of a Skarg disappear under the sand, dragging a clean and expensive Spotter Assault Laser with it.

And then the Sand Snake exploded from the desert, roaring menacingly. The hail of bullets began, but the Snake was unfazed. It began lunging at them, but due to the quick reflexes of Striking Flame, it missed every time.

The Vrah unclipped a grenade from his belt and threw it, but the Snake just swallowed it. A lucky bullet tore through the roof of its mouth, and with a drawn-out screech the Snake descended deep into the desert to attack from below.

All that the pirates heard afterwards was a muffled explosion from beneath them.

Ogluf did not emerge from behind the rock, and Striking Flame eventually had to pull him out.

The Ultima group stopped in a canyon. After looking around, Zakur threw the sack down to ground and pulled the squirming hooded miner out.

"I didn't do anything, I swear, what do you want from me, I'm innocent, innocent I tell you, ulph---"

Kakkay had grabbed him again. "Whoever knows about the ship either comes with us or dies. Now. I don't want to kill you just yet. So give me your name."

"Jirian Palleth."

"Good. Now, a brief history of your life. Cut out all the boring details and romance."

"Born on Tandrigith and moved to Skrap, work as a taxidermist, regular raak miner. It's good for making glass eyes."

Kakkay let go. "I guess you're not too much of a problem, then."

"Are you looking for the ship?" Jirian asked.

"Thought it was obvious," Kallun muttered.

"Anyway, what's our progress, Kallun?" Kakkay said.

The box appeared out of his pocket. "Well, he's stopped in the mountains. No sign that he found anybody though, he probably just found a place to rest for the night."

"What has?" Jirian said.

"The Mordon."

"The what? Who are you guys anyway?"

Kakkay stared at him. "If you're one of us now, I guess you should know. We're part of Ultima."

Jirian froze. "Ultima?" he said in disbelief.

"Turns out a lot of people know about this ship. And we're going to find it before anyone else does. We sent Kallun's Mordon out to help find it, and to take care of anyone who decides to go looking. What weapons have you got on you?"

Jirian paused. "Not much, just a Gladius, why?"

"In Ultima, you're going to need firepower. Lots of it."

He heard them talking. They were unprepared. And these were high rankers, with a lot to loot. The possibilities were endless. And they were isolated enough, so nobody would come for them.

He nodded to the next friend in the crack on the other side of the canyon. The strike was soon.

They had the group surrounded.

Kallun noticed another incoming transmission from the snipers. Perhaps they were going to report on their---

A shot echoed throughout the canyon, and another Skarg mercenary fell to the ground dead. "Bandits!" Kakkay shouted, and Ultima opened fire. Reluctantly, Jirian pulled out his Gladius and joined in.

Kakkay couldn't see the bandits, but he knew they were there. He confirmed his suspicion when a dying yell came from one of the cracks in the side of the canyon, where he had just fired.

Zakur, although annoyed about the bandits, was having fun mowing down the bandits on top of the canyon that were more visible. A few fell down into the canyon and landed with a dull crack against the rocks.

Meanwhile, Ranola had gone strategic. She knew there were bandits in that cave in front of her and more bandits on the cliff edge above, so she fired the Stalker into the canyon wall, bringing the upper bandits down onto the rocks and crushing the others before burying them.

And it was over.

The echoes from the battle persisted for a long while. A groan was mixed in with the echoes.

Kakkay walked over to a body. The bandit was mortally wounded and bleeding, staining the sand and rock. He looked mercifully up at the Atrenid.

He pointed his gun at the bandit, and said, "Don't krag with Ultima."

And then the bandit was dead.

Kakkay started cleaning the blood off his gun barrel. How many did we lose?"

"Only two Skarg." Kallun raised the box. "We've got another message from the snipers."


"The Skull group is moving again."

Kakkay frowned. "Tell them from now on to shoot them on sight," he said.

Kallun nodded, and set to work with the box.

Kakkay looked up at the canyon edge. "No stopping us now."

Chapter 13

Redeye and his Skulls were roughly where the explosion had occurred.

"I can't see anythin', boss."

"Look over there, Grall. The smoke."

They picked their way through the alleys of Hoober's Gulch, guns ready and helmets up. Demki led the way, holding two biters in his tentacles. It was getting a little dark.

The Iron Skulls had good armour- their HUDs compensated for the change in brightness, and the material flexed in such a way that its shininess was gone.

"This alley's clear."

The Skulls were moving around a bend when the cannon fired. It was above them, sitting on a tripod with a happy Xodu loading shells into its breech.

The first explosion killed two Skarg, and the others scattered in the confusion. A Stalker missile launcher caused another Skull fatality, and a hail of bullets brought two more down.

"Demki! Grall!" Redeye used his enormous strength to smash through a particularly weak wall, the corrugated iron ripped from its supports.

Inside, a family of Zyrothans stared at them in horror. They had just been watching something on the net and the light from the screen still illuminated their faces. The one who they guessed was the father was reaching for a gun...

Demki fired his shotguns, ripping the father apart. Grall's panicked HMG fire killed the others.

A grenade rolled in through the opening, then exploded with a blast that set the Skulls' ears ringing and teeth chattering. Through the smoke came Daern, who punched Grall in the face and then kicked him down.

Grall pulled himself back up, the armour having absorbed most of the shock. He punched Daern back, and the bounty hunter stumbled slightly. Grall reached forward to crack the other Skarg's neck...

But then a hand cannon fired, and Grall's armour was as useful as tissue paper against the 75mm shell. It exploded inside him, sending little bits of Skarg all over the room.

A sniper shot hit one of Demki's shotguns, and then the other, disarming him. Eight Gladius rounds hit Redeye in the leg, making him keel over onto his knees.

The bounty hunters walked in, silhouetted against the smoke and darkness.

"You Skulls. You think so much of yourself, but the truth is that you have no kragging spines."

Srei grabbed Demki and smashed his head against the wall, knocking him out. Leammi pulled Redeye's helmet off and then pistol-whipped him in the face. Vorg and Daern picked up the Skull, who was now coughing blood, and threw him against the wall.

"Well, you were no fun to beat. How does it make you feel, though, Skull? Is it crushing?"

Leaping Blade walked over. "Hey, let me have a look at his face."

He grabbed Redeye's head crest and pulled it up to have a better look.

"Ha. Redeye, the Iron Skulls captain. Strange that they should send you. Remember me? I hit you in the eye at Lirepolos."

The Skull glared up, and it was clear to see that one of the eyes- the red one- was bionic.

"Huh. Pathetic, green excuses for mercs. Come on, let's leave them to bleed."

The bounty hunters moved off, and Redeye coughed up another dribble of red onto his jaw. Painfully, he got up and moved over to Demki. Still out. He would get these kraggers....

A group of pirates moved through the desert, heading towards the town of Oasis. They were moving during the snakes' evening shift, but they had no choice. Their camp had been fired, their leader strangled, their carvicors destroyed by snakes that did not attack...

Each was desperate and terrified. Their guns were constantly moving, scanning the landscape, ready to shoot any flickering shadow.

Their backs were together, and they all faced out, thinking of nothing but the trigger they were always ready to squeeze with their trembling fingers.

A plume of sand to the left.

A scream to the right.

"Giddea! Giddea, are you there? Giddea!"

"She was right beside me! The krag, man! We're fighting ghosts, man!"

"He who places his faith in the dead shall join them."

The Monk was too fast for the pirates, killing them as they turned to fire. They pulled the triggers as they fell, sending shots spraying up into the air or into each other.

Two left, still turning, firing...

But the Monk was no longer there.

"Without holiness there is no strength. Without piety there is no speed."

Each of their skulls were jerked back, and they fell, lifeless, to the ground.

The Monk stopped to look up at the twinkling stars, slowly fading into existence in a dimming sky, and then was gone.

Chapter 14

Kakkay kept scanning the desert. He could feel they were getting closer.

The group was behind him, taking a breakfast break. Minus Zakur---apparently nature called.

Jirian raised his head. "You hear that?"

As Kakkay listened, he could hear an odd noise. Like people talking. "Would you be able to look?"

The Salsene nodded, and scrambled up the hill.

Suddenly, there was a sharp crack. Kakkay turned around. The Vrah merc was slumped on the ground with a pickaxe through his chest armor.

Jirian ran back down. "What was that?"

"Watch for them, everybody!" Kakkay raised his rifle.

Everybody grabbed their weapons. Zakur trotted back from behind another hill. "What's happening?" he grumbled.

"We appear to have been ambushed. By a mad man with a pickaxe."

Zakur stared. "Really?"

"Kallun, call the Mordon back. We might need an extra set of claws."

The noises from afar continued.

"I heard something," Striking Flame said. "Be prepared, everyone."

Ogluf was whimpering again. "What is it now?" he said.

From the sand dune ahead of them, there was a spray of bullets. Immediately the pirates fired back, and Ogluf screamed, diving for cover.

"I think we've got ourselves some bandits!" Rakor shouted.

The shooting stopped abruptly.

"Did we scare them off?" Salran said.

"Maybe," Striking Flame said.

But then there was a shot, fired up into the air.

Another shot.

And another shot.

Then two shots close together.

Striking Flame stopped. He knew what that code meant. It was a symbol.

The Ultima trademark.

And then a figure appeared over the dune. The figure of the infamous Kakkay.

And then the figure of a hungry, bad-tempered Mordon dived from behind the dune.

Striking Flame fired, slicing through the Mordon's tail, but that just made it even more angry. In the meantime, Ultima fired vigorously at them. A few yards over, Salran fell, blood streaming from holes across his body, but there was nothing Striking Flame could do about it. The Mordon dove for Rearn, but a few shots diverted it off course before it could do much damage.

Jirian dodged a bullet as he moved closer for another shot. Kakkay and Zakur were firing madly, blasting down a few mercs of the pirate group. Kallun was attempting to direct the Mordon using the box while firing. And Ranola readied the missile launcher.

She made sure that the pirates saw what she was doing.

"Reck, they have a missile launcher!" Striking Flame shouted. "Let's get out!"

They hid behind a nearby raak cliff to recover. Ogluf was already there, hyperventilating more than usual.

"People are getting killed!" he squealed, as the remaining pirates ran up. "I can't take anymore of this."

"It was your choice, Ogluf. This is a pirate life."

In the meantime, Ultima was putting away weapons. "I've had enough," Kakkay seethed. "Kragging Vrah's looking for the ship, I'm sure."

"Oh, I'm sure he is," Jirian said. "Bloody Flame's always looking for his next trophy."

"You know him?"

Jirian nodded. "Comes into my shop once in a while, pays me to mount the katrola or skraygith or whatever he's shot that week."

"We need to get to that ship. Right now."

The miner hobbled along, following any footsteps. The shooting had ruined his leg, and he had to use one of the leg bones of the other miners as a cane. It had taken a while to patch himself up, and even so, he wasn't sure if he would make it.

He had only dim recollection of the events after the shooting. The group had taken Jirian, though. Why, he wasn't sure. But something odd was happening, and it involved some kind of ship. And he feared it would be catastrophic.

That was his job now. to stop what was going on, before it was too late.

Zakur noticed a cave, carved into the side of a cliff. There could be something in it that could help them. So he talked to Kakkay.

"I'm going to take a look in that cave over there. Might find an old body to loot from."

"Alright. Don't be too long though."

Zakur nodded, and went in.

It was dark inside, very dark. It was big, too. He had to grab the flamethrower he brought to see. The flames made a faint grumbling, echoing noise inside the cave. With light, he immediately found a body.

It was relatively fresh. Possibly one of the pirate men, Zakur thought. Looking through its pockets, he found a brand new Mauler, looking like it had just come from the shop.

There was another body, further on. He went to check that one too.

Soon Zakur couldn't see the cave entrance. Even with the fire he was having trouble looking around. He touched the cave wall to guide himself, and he found the rock was sticky. Warm and sticky. It wasn't blood, though.

It was rather foamy, too. Like some spit or saliva. Creepy stuff.

Zakur looked the way he had come to try and find the light from the entrance, and when he turned around he looked straight into the face of a hungry Vorazotl.

Chapter 15

The bounty hunters moved out of Hoober's Gulch, at long last. It was night-time, and the mating calls of Rizzak were everywhere, occasionally punctuated by a short squeak as one was eaten.

Srei and his team were heading straight up onto the rocky hills, to avoid sand snake attack. They would have to be quick, and so they were walking very fast up to the spurs of rock that jutted down into the sand.

On the stones, they took stock of the situation.

"We're heading towards the town of Oasis, which should be the closest one to the ship. Keep in mind that there's still several klacks of open sand between there and the target." Srei seemed a little anxious.

"We're probably gonna meet the other groups coverging around there, remember."

"Yeah, so it's more important than ever that we're ready and alert. No sleep tonight, and we'll reach the town around five in the morning."

Moving along the ridge, they stayed low and kept the motion sensor on.

"A Sklasher, at the base of the hill. It's moving away." Leammi was whispering.

"Good to know. Keep quiet."

Parrikk was carrying his mass cannon, so was almost as slow as Olon. However, they were making good time.

"Wait a moment, I have to relieve myself." The Zyrothan began to move behind a shrub.

"Alright, be quick."

Behind the plants, out of sight, Olon took his radio to hand. "Co-ordinates: 33,40,93, sector 408. Do you copy?"

A Vrah voice answered. "Good to know. Out."

The Zyrothan re-appeared, radio away. "Okay, let's keep moving."

Srei nodded, his eyes narrowing slightly. "Yeah. Let's."

Redeye pulled the waking Demki up onto his... tentacles, then gave him two rifles from the dead Skulls.

"No fixing for your shotguns, they were cleanly shattered."

"Pity, I liked those two."

"Yeah, well. We've lost good time."

"I saw a carvicor outside. We might make the trip in five hours."

"Alright, let's get on it."

Chapter 16

Ultima was moving silently through the night. They were heading towards a dried valley, following the moves of the Mordon.

Zakur was gone. Killed by what, they didn't know, but the suspicion was that a rival team searching for the ship got him. And that raised the stakes even more.



"The Mordon's circling to attack. I think it found something." Kallun was peering back and forth between the box screen, and the Mordon itself which was just ahead of them.

"Well, watch it."

The Mordon dived at the ground, and out of sight over a hill. Suddenly, the signal cut out on Kallun's box.


There was complete silence.

Then, there was a dull sound somewhat like a muffled cannon, and the severed head of the Mordon bounced over the hill and landed in front of the group.

The shape of a screaming Vorazotl shot up, and it charged towards Ultima.

They didn't even bother to fight, they just ran. Kallun flew, pushing a Skarg out of the way and straight into the mouth of the Vorazotl. He could hear screams and snarls behind him, accompanied by tearing flesh and bones snapping.

Within seconds they were taking refuge in a ditch. It had all happened so fast.

"Guess we know what happened to Zakur," Jirian said, gasping for breath.

Kakkay was growling to himself.

Under the light of the stars, the miner could guide himself through the desert. He could feel he was almost there.

He smelled a date with destiny approaching.

The pirates ran in darkness, the night ocassionally peppered by gunfire. This was bandit territory, and they knew to shoot first before taking any chances.

Rakur was particularly wary. He knew they would meet up soon---he just didn't know when.

He'd already seen his two, back when they had clashed with Ultima. There wasn't any time to acknowledge them though---Kakkay was very good with a gun. No getting yourself distracted when he was around.

Rakur wondered who else would be there, at the ship. It was entirely possible, likely even, that more teams would get there first. But they would be easily taken care of, for his team to scoop up the loot.

As he ran with his Mauler in one hand, he snatched a few fronds of a phlion plant with his other hand. Even when life was on the line, business was gold.

Striking Flame shot another rock where he thought a bandit might lay behind. "Kragging natives are getting on my nerves," he said.

Ogluf was in the middle of the group, deciding that it was the safest place to be. As they drew nearer to the ship, he was getting more and more nervous. He just wanted this to be over as soon as possible. The sooner, the better.

The Vorazotl flew through the dark. It knew there was prey here, in the desert. And much juicier prey than the chitinous things it had been feeding off of for the last few days.

There were many herds of them. Why were they in the desert? It was a concept that the predator did not think about, or care about. It thought and cared about the food.

Although it did not directly realize it, the herds seemed to be converging on a single point. The Vorazotl had noticed that point before. It was a great structure sticking from the sand.

Again, the Vorazotl did not care about this. It was following their every move, targeting the individuals that seemed the most appetizing.

After the crunchyness of most of the native wildlife, these herds were much better eating. Very juicy, very tasty.

It continued to fly through the night.

Chapter 17

Oasis was not a big town, but it was just large enough for a small group of bounty hunters not to be noticed in.

Of course, they were just passing through, but now was as good a time as ever to pick up supplies and ask questions about the ship. Perhaps there would be someone who could point them in the right direction, or even someone who could give them a map of the desert area.

A group of Raak miners, heading out into the sands, were the logical people to ask.

"Hey, do you know where I can find a map of the desert?"

One of the miners snorted. "You thinkin' of takin' up the minin' business?"

"Our business is not so degrading. Is there a cartographer in this town?"

Srei had evidently touched a nerve, and they all scowled at him, reaching into their coats for whatever weapons they had.

Vorg, Daern, and Parrikk drew up their weapons. At the sight of so many widebore barrels, the miners halted and put their hands up.

"Now, we don't want any trouble. A cartographer, if you would."

"Four blocks down from here and two left. Can we go now?"

"Get out of here."

The miners sprinted off, simply glad to be alive. The bounty hunters relaxed a little.

Following the directions, they moved through the midmorning streets. Leammi studied the buildings carefully.

"This place isn't so run-down. People seem richer here, and guns are less obvious."

"Hoober's is a dangerous place, a little more than average. A small town like this can't afford to have ten murders a day."

Leaping Blade was the first to spot the cartographer. "You're sure it was four down and two left?"


"Oh, you're not gonna like this."

The building was entirely wrecked- rubble patterns showed it had been destroyed by at least a pound of high explosive. Centralised, too- this was a grenade, not a bomb or rocket.

A group of street urchins were searching through the charred cupboards and broken display cases.

"Look at this." Vorg was pointing to a body on the floor. It was an Atrenid, but the flesh had been completely burnt off, and a blackened pot of polish lay at his feet. "Grenade threw him, knocking the pot, and then he was soaked in polish when the flames got him. Never stood a kragging chance."

"Who the krag would do this? Ultima? Skulls?"

"Grenade was one-stage. I'd guess another group of hunters or pirates."

They looked around boredly for anything of value, but it was all gone.

Demki was driving the Carvicor, and Redeye was brooding on the passenger seat.

Sand billowed behind the vehicle's tracks, which were designed to have as much contact area as possible with the desert to prevent sinking. But the stuff still got caught in the pistons and wheel bogies, and needed regular cleaning.

A small group of ingensids watched them from a rock, but made no move to attack. Redeye had too little energy to take his gun and shoot them.

"Around four hours to go."

There wasn't much to do but look out into the vastness of the bare desert. Somewhere, somewhere out there, was a ship more valuable than the whole of Skrap and more besides.

Chapter 18

The lone miner grappled among the rocks. He wasn't sure how far he'd come---but he was getting worse. Even the rizzak had started following him, waiting for an easy meal. And he wasn't going to be killed by those things. Something a little more impressive, perhaps.

As he climbed the rocky slopes, he thought he could hear engines.

"We are nearing our target, your Grace."

"Oh? And what of the others?"

"Still looking for the ship, sir."

"Well, we won't be able to kill them all yet. Let's do away with the most dangerous first."

The pirates were calmer now. The sand snake morning shifts would have ended by now, so it was relatively safe.

Striking Flame looked out to the distance. He could see a small ship in the sand, recently landed, with three people standing next to it.

It could have ran out of fuel, or it was another team. He didn't bother to find out, or even shoot. If needed, they would make good bait for anything nasty in the desert.

"How much further, do you think?"

"Not long now," Rearn said. "We should reach it by tomorrow. Everybody seems to be going this way."

"When we get to the ship, will we be safe?" Ogluf said. "Will it be alright there?"

"I know the answer to that question as well as you do," Striking Flame grumbled.

He looked back at Rakor, who was trembling. After his impressive displays earlier in the mission he seemed to be getting more and more nervous. He kept looking at the hills, like he was searching.

Ogluf spoke again. "I just hope we get there before anyone else does."

A huge scream rattled their ears, startling all the pirates, and a gigantic blaze of light flew above their heads. Within a second the object was already in the distance, and then out of sight.

"What the hell was that?" Striking Flame shouted, pulling himself up from the sand where he had fallen.

Ogluf was half buried in the sand, hands above his head, and eyes peeking out. The others seemed to be alright, although the confusion wasted no time in arriving.

"Did you see that?"

"What the krag was that thing?"

"We're all going to die!"

"Shut up you pathetic excuse of a pirate!"

A shot rang out, bullet narrowly missing Striking Flame's head. They all grabbed their weapons.

Nothing happened.

Rakor huddled from behind the rocks. He got what he wanted, and now had a general idea of the ship's location. Shame the Mauler had missed that recking Vrah though. He was getting annoying after a while.

He wasn't sure what that thing above their head was---looked kind of like a spaceship. In any case, he would've just killed each and every pirate right there, but the distraction messed with his thought pattern.

No redoing it now.

Time to call the others.

He pulled out a walkie-talkie. "Gemini one-o-two, over."

The voice answered. "What's the haps, Rakor? Over."

"Finally ditched those kragging pirates. I know approximately where the ship may be, over."

"Excellent work. Head on back to our meeting point. Over and out."

Kallun noticed the sound first.

"Do you guys hear that?"

He was right. Kakkay could hear a faint sound, faint enough that he couldn't tell if it was a buzzing, a roaring, or anything of the sort.

"I wouldn't worry. Just keep your eyes peeled and your head clear."

Jirian seemed suspicious. He rested his hand on the pickaxe he brought, just in case. On Skrap, if you were a miner without a pickaxe, you were pretty much finished.

Still, the noise persisted. It grew slightly louder. Ranola felt for the missile launcher.

Kakkay turned around. And his eyes widened ever so slightly.

A massive spaceship burst into view at blinding speed. It was not a grimy, scrappy spaceship like they all had, but a menacing, well-built masterpiece, dark and foreboding. It shot past them, circled, and landed without hesitating.

They all recognized the ship's design. It was just supposed to be a little Skrappian rumor, one with little evidence and little proof like all the rest of them. But nobody had believed this one.

Five figures stepped out, carrying powerful weapons. They were not of local design, but much more effective. Enough to topple the foundations of the entire planet.

Nobody spoke, and nobody needed to. They didn't stand a chance against the newcomers.

Because they were the members of the Accursed Diamond.

The first, and so far only, group of pirate Angeli.

Kakkay glanced at their weapons. The one in front had this weird-looking white thing, while the rest had swords. At least, they appeared to be swords.

He decided to improvise.

"OK..." he started. "Hello there."

"Be quiet," the lead Angelus barked. "I understand that there is a crashed Irihil ship on this planet, full of valuables."

Kakkay anticipated what he was going to say next. "Nobody knows where exactly the thing is," he said. "No point in asking if nobody will answer."

"If you take us---"

"I'll tell you what," Kakkay said, walking up to them. "We'll strike a deal. Come with us. We'll find the ship eventually. We can lead you to it."

The other Ultima members looked at each other, nervous.

"And when we get there, we recieve half of the treasure for guiding you. That's it. You lap up all the rest, and get first dibs on any other teams who come close. Does that sound alright?"

The lead Angeli stared at him. Was this useless little candle-head actually negotiating with them?

There was a brief silence. It probably wouldn't do any harm, and if it did, they could be easily taken care of. "Alright," the lead Angeli said. "I think we have a deal."

Kakkay paused, surprised that his little attempt had actually worked. "Oh, and just be aware that there's a big slavering thing on the loose---"

"Where we come from, everything is big and slavering. I think we can handle it."


Since the Angeli ship had landed, everything had become surprisingly quiet, apart from the negotiation. There was a good reason why.

"Your Grace, we have our tracking equipment ready," one of the other Angeli said.

"Good. Let's get going."

Kallun spoke up. "I, I don't think I caught your name..."

Kakkay whispered. "Pharriel. I guess you need a refresh when it comes to local legend."


There was a sudden whizzing, and a pickaxe sliced through the air, nailing an Angelus straight in the chest. It stumbled back before its self-destruction device exploded, throwing everyone within range onto the ground.

Pharriel jumped up and immediately looked over the Ultima crew. None of them looked like they would be armed with one...

Kakkay also looked around, searching for the bandit culprit. Through the smoke, he could see a hooded figure, brandishing a fresh pickaxe.


"It's amazing what materials you can get through taxidermic trading, and what you can produce from it. I just never thought I'd use it on the kragging Accursed Diamond."

Pharriel raised his Halo Ray and fired the particle beam, narrowly missing Jirian as he leapt out of the way. Soon he was out of sight. Entire boulders crumbled around him, but behind a large cliff he felt safer.

He chuckled to himself. They didn't know what was coming for them.

"Kragging miner," Kakkay coughed. "He was against us all along."

Pharriel refrained from speaking. It was entirely possible that if that betrayal was not faked, more would soon arise, and tear apart the team. He wanted to get the treasure and leave, before Skrap turned into a war zone. If things kept happening the way they were, though---

Negotiating was a mistake. Let the little people fight for themselves, and then pick up the pieces later.

Chapter 19

The bounty hunters entered the desert once more. This was precious time- the sand snake morning shift was over, but the heat was not yet working its tricks upon the eye and mind.

Of course, to get to the ship within the day would be next to impossible. And, even more irksomely, they didn't know where it was.

Srei studied the boundless sands, looking for any indication of a ship, a carvicor, anything- but there was none. It looked like it was just going to be a few days of aimless wandering, perhaps punctuated by pirate or sand snake attacks, and his heart sank.

"Srei, look." Leaping Blade had his vampron's sights to his eye, and was looking at something on the horizon. Srei couldn't see much- just a slight blur in an already unclear skyline. He looked questioningly at the Vrah.

Leaping Blade handed him the gun a little tiredly. "Forty-four twenty-two."

Srei oriented it as suggested, and zoomed in as far as he could. There! The dust blown up by a moving Carvicor, little more than a brown smudge, but evidently moving along at some speed. It was around three thousand metres from them. Leammi motioned for him to let her look, and he obliged.

"Let's head where they're going. We can see it's heading towards the centre of the desert- they could only be looking for the ship. If we hear an explosion, we'll know they got too close to another group." The others couldn't find a fault in her plan, so they set off that way.

Olon glanced at his wrist-computer- they would get there before time was up. He still felt a little guilty about not being able to tell the group he was with, but he had to do what he had to do.

Demki took a tentacle off the control globe, and pointed it at the rocks ahead. "This is the edge of Rothga's Bowl, a dip in the land that goes down to twenty metrons below sea level."

"In kaers?" Redeye didn't get the assorted measurement distances. He could only work in units he'd been brought up with.

A Gaedrongo couldn't shrug well, but Demki gave it a shot. "Eight, nine?"

"Why'd you point it out?"

"Because the most likely crash site is about forty ki- I mean, sixty laquaers from here, near its centre, sir."

"Why'd it crash in the middle of the bowl, of all places?"

"Chance, maybe. Or perhaps to keep it as far from anyone as possible- the bowl's the driest, hottest, and most environmentally dangerous place on this continent."

Redeye snorted derisively, and shifted in his seat. Badly applied kurogel dripped down onto the floor from his legs, and there was a little blood under his jaw. Demki had done rather better, with only a large bruise over one side of his head.

But there was no point thinking about these things now. Only the ship mattered.

Chapter 20

Striking Flame looked down at the corpse at his feet. It was the mangled body of an Ingensid: abdomen split in two, a couple of legs mangled and bent.

"W-w-what killed it?" Ogluf trembled.

"Some animal," Striking Flame said, walking circles around the body. "Wounds aren't right for a weapon, it would either be a clean cut or blown to bits. But it still doesn't look right for a snake or a Sklasher, they would've just swallowed the whole thing."


"Well, we can tell it doesn't like the crunch."

Striking Flame turned back. Only a few people left now---the desert had lived up to its reputation.

"Let's keep moving. Just keep an eye out."

"Are you sure it's safe?"

"Of course it kragging isn't."

Ogluf whimpered again, and slowed his pace.

Striking Flame walked for a moment, but then stopped. The Vrah turned around and briefly paused.

"More to the point, where the KRAG is Rakor???"

Rakor ran among the stones, and skidded to a halt as a figure leapt in his way.

"You scared the krag out of me, Jirian."

"I've got reason to be scary," the hooded Salsene said. He chuckled.

"How were things on your end?"

"Ended up hitching with a bunch of miners before Ultima got a wind of things..."

"Goofing off on the job?"

Jirian shrugged. "I've got my priorities, and returning customers. Anyway, I was starting to pick them off when that lost pet arrived."

Rakor frowned. "I wasn't informed."

"Well, it's only a kragging Vorazotl I got to shoot at," Jirian smirked.

Rakor chuckled. "You lucky bastard."

"Eh, that's not even the half of it. I finally managed to ditch them, but only after killing one of the Accursed Diamond."

"You did WHAT?"

Jirian laughed, pleased at the response. "This is turning out to be one kragging epic steal."

Kakkay was displeased. Actually, he was very pissed off at the moment.

Here he was, in the middle of nowhere on Skrap, leading the Accursed Diamond to the precious ship. He knew that they were shady, and might not stick to their deal.

The others were visibly nervous. They knew the risks.

But Pharriel and his men were walking calmly along with them, conveying no sense of emotion whatsoever.

The truth was much different. Pharriel's cybernetics were setting off loud alarms. Something organic off to the left, large in size. Probably a predator, and stealthy. Ultima had not noticed it yet.

Too risky.

"What's in the cave over there?" he said.

Kakkay looked over. "Probably nothing. I wouldn't worry."

"We're used to looking in every nook and cranny. I don't think it would hurt, hmm?"

Kakkay seethed, silently. They were on a tight schedule. "Alright. But be quick."

The Angeli strode into the cave, and into darkness.

A minute passed until one of them said, "I think we have something..."

"What?" Kallun asked.

"Well, it kind of looks like there's a missile launcher in here with the rest of the loot."

"The what?" Kakkay's head rose sharply, and so did Ranola's, wondering if her pride had just went down the drain.

They rushed into the cave, into darkness. A sharp pain, and then a different darkness fell.

The miner left footsteps across the sand and rock. There was that weird spaceship, earlier---he didn't know who built it. He didn't care.

He had to get to the ship.

Kakkay woke up as abruptly as he fell unconscious. He crawled over to the others and shook them awake.

"What happened?" Kallun asked.

"Old-fashioned knockout," Kakkay said. "They ditched us."

"Kragging diamonds," Ranola said. "Next they know they'll have a missile in the face."

"Oh, and they took your launcher."

"I'm sorry?"

"Now let's go, we might still be able to catch them."

But as they reached the entrance of the cave, a huge blaze of light blasted past them and rose into the sky.

"Krag," Kakkay muttered.

Chapter 21

Srei frowned, unable to resolve the carvicor's location. Perhaps that meant they had stopped, and that they were closer to the ship than they had expected.

"Olon, do you have the altitude?"

The Zyrothan consulted his wrist-computer. "We're nine metrons below sea level."

Vorg and Daern were bickering about who should have the missile launcher, and Parrikk was glaring at the horizon. Leaping Blade held up the Vampron to look closer.

"See anything?" Srei seemed a little bored.

Leaping Blade turned back to him, and his face bore an expression of wonder. He handed the rifle to Srei again. "Thirty-eight twenty."

Srei judged the distance, and zoomed in. What was that? He closed his other eye and focussed...

A colossal hulk of singed nanodiamond, glistening and possessing a sublime, beautiful intricacy, lay quietly across the horizon, many kilometres long- perhaps three thousand metrons or so! Srei's heart leapt.

"We've found it."

Even as Skrap's sun began its downward descent through the warm sky, the carvicor pulled up and its passengers gazed in wonder at the wreck before them. A titanic, wondrous outcrop of shimmering power that spoke of elegance, power and goals beyond the understanding of the Skrappian residents. Perhaps a more enlightened viewer would have considered the smooth lines and disguised practicality of the design, but that wasn't what Redeye was thinking of.

"There must be... hundreds of thousands of tonnes of nanodiamond here. That alone... we could buy planets."

Demki, in raptures of wonder, did not turn when he spoke. "And... the technologies..."

For a few minutes, all they could do was stare. The ship was by no means welcoming- its solid hull exuded a powerful sense of purpose that should not be interfered with. Greed, not curiosity, made the Skulls pull themselves together and search for an opening.

They clambered onto a wing- shattered in the crash, and now almost like a set of sharp steps leading up to the top of the ship. It had crashed the right way up relative to the surface, and the armour had done an impressive job of preventing any damage. In fact, at crash velocity, none of this should have survived.

Carefully searching for hand and footholds, Redeye limped diagonally up the fuselage, just behind the patient Demki. They did not bother to look around for anything else that might be coming towards the ship, but that wasn't a worry.

Gaedrongo were good at climbing, with their tentacles and gripping feet allowing them to make the most of any nook or cranny. As such, Demki was making good progress, only held back by Redeye's pained motion. They were around 10m from the sand that had accumulated around the ship's base, blown by the wind into a horseshoe-shaped dune draped around that white frigate.

"I think I see a way in!"

They were at a turret fixture, but there was no weapon in the pod. A look inside showed it had been stripped completely, but there was a trapdoor allowing travel in and out of the turret.

Demki pulled hard, but it didn't budge. Charred material was stuck in the gap between it and the floor around. He scraped away at it, and tried again, with no success.

Redeye grunted, and took out his Gladius. Shots clattered around in the enclosed space, and a few dents were now apparent in the metal. Now, he took his fist and smashed it into the trapdoor, making it finally give way.

No light came from below, so they descended into a kind of forboding gloom that watched them from behind the corners and fled from the weak stream of light emanating from the open trapdoor. Demki felt the walls around, but found nothing to hold on to. {C}As they moved on through the darkness, a little apprehension began to grow in their minds. It was drowned out by the desire for the riches this ship promised, but it was there, niggling slightly and tugging at the suppressed fear they had both been bottling all their lives. 'A mercenary must not show fear', but fear does not play by the rules. Where it has taken hold, it flourishes, and in uprooting it only the strongest will can succeed.

Irihil glyphs could just be made out on the walls, but there was no-one and nothing on Skrap that could have told the Skulls what they meant. Perhaps they pointed to a cafeteria or a storeroom, perhaps they reminded the crewmembers about what to do during FTL, or perhaps they were some kind of motto. It would not increase the value of the craft to speculate about it, so Redeye didn't.

Demki gingerly turned a corner, and entered a large room. There were seats, designed for Irihil bodies, and an oval-shaped table lay between them. There was a faint flicker from the centre of the table.

Redeye came in and headed towards the spark. He leant closer to see what it was, and then a sighing, synthesised voice spoke.

"Ue... ue... ue..." The tone was the same each time. Perhaps the ship's AI had survived? Just as no-one here knew the Irihil glyphs, no-one new the words, so the exact meaning of 'ue' might be something they never found out.

Demki shivered slightly, despite the warmth. Then, his eyes opened alarmingly wide, and he pulled back a little.

Redeye looked at him, for a moment, then snorted. "What?"

The Gaedrongo gulped. "Behi... behind you... I saw it move..."

Redeye turned, and peered into the blackness. Seeing nothing, he strode towards where Demki had stared, and stood there with a pained smile on his face. "Tricks in your mind. Demki, I didn't think you so weak."

"I... I trust my eyes, sir."

Slowly, carefully, the Gaedrongo pulled out his rifles, and held them ready. Together, they became still and listened to the silence.

There was no sound but their heavy breathing and the gentle thudding of Demki's heart. Redeye scanned the shadows with exquisite precision. Maybe a Rizzak had gotten in? A survivor to kill, perhaps?

An Irihil survivor would be worth millions. He sincerely hoped there was one. A grin appeared on his face, and he relaxed a bit, then realised something.

There was only one set of breaths in the room now.

The thudding sound was gone.

He looked around, desperate, and it was just as he feared.

He was the only one in the room.

Maybe Demki had moved to the last room, or maybe he had gone back out, too scared... maybe he was just hiding, playing a game... maybe he had just been able to quieten down...

A gentle chittering noise, above Redeye's head.

And then he died.

Chapter 22

"There," Jirian said. "You see it?"

Rakor could see it. The unmistakable outline of the fabled ship.

"Let's get going," he said. He chewed on some phlion stashed in his pocket. "Want some?"

"I'd like to keep my teeth, so they can be punched out by some thug after I retire."

"Suit yourself." Rakor sighed. "When are the others getting here, anyway?"

"I've radioed our mercs, they should be here momentarily."

Sure enough, half a dozen Skarg emerged from over a dune and walked towards them. They were all carrying hand cannons.

Rakor grinned. "You know, something just occured to me. Have we ever actually met our boss?"

Jirian shrugged. "I have, once or twice. Not as scary as he sounds, but he's got one kragging additude. Not like his species."

"How does he treat his employees?"

"He's fine with em. You want me to call him down?"

"Yeah, why not. He'll want to be down to loot the ship, anyway."


Jirian pulled out a vid-pad. He spoke quietly, and Rakor couldn't hear what he was saying.

A few minutes later, a private spaceship descended onto the sand. The hull was clad with various gems. Its door opened, sending steam into the air, and a figure walked out.

Rakor's eyes widened. "I didn't know you were a--"

"Hush," the smiling figure said to Rakor, "no telling."

"We've found the ship, sir. Down in the center of Rothga's Bowl," Jirian said.

The figure peered over to look. "Excellent," he said. "I will join you momentarily. But first..."

He started walking back to his ship, and then turned around to face the two.

"I have a appointment to make."

The hooded miner followed the footsteps of a hunter. Who did those prints belong to?

He didn't know, and didn't care. They were all the same.

He was an innocent soul. Nobody else would do this. Because they could not see the truth, and therefore the danger in it.

He didn't want the ship, or anything in it. It wasn't his focus. What mattered was saving those people before it was too late.

He wouldn't admit it to anyone, but the miner was doing it because he didn't want those people to have the same fate that he did.


Striking Flame pointed into the center of the bowl, where an odd shape lay. "We've got it!" he said.

Ogluf ran over, and smiled for the first time. "Has anybody else gotten there yet?"

"I don't know. If they have, soon they'll be laying face down in the sand with five dozen holes in their back."

"Then what are we waiting for?" Rearn said. "Let's go claim it."

"You kragging bet we will," Striking Flame grinned.

Kakkay turned, and bombarded a Skull that was hiding behind them. It fell to the ground, dead.

"More and more people are coming at this thing. So why the hell don't they bother someone other than us?"

"Fame comes with a heavy price," Ranola sneered. She was still furious about the stolen launcher.

Kakkay sighed, and then skidded as Ultima reached a sharp incline, trailing down into a huge depression in the desert. "Rothga's Bowl," he muttered. The place was unbearably hostile, even to natives.

And then his train of thought stopped. In the center of the Bowl, a distinctive outline, a huge shape, sand collecting around its base---

---And nanodiamond."

"There it is," Kakkay said softly. "The ship."

There was no time to admire the view. Kakkay pulled out two guns and dual-wielded them. Ranola loaded a spare Mauler she had brought. The one Skarg that remained with them started rummaging for the best weapon to use, while---

Kallun was pulled aside by Kakkay. "Would you be able to do us a favor?"


"What weapons have you got on you?"

"Standard Lentaa weaponry, just even more deadly than normal. Shock Claws, razor edges, extra-strength stun bombs. All modified."

"Good. Fly out to the ship, get a good look around. If you see people there, swoop 'em and kill the bastards."

Kallun spread his wings. "Gladly," he smiled, and took off towards the ship.

Without warning, a Phoebus ran towards the others, panting.

"Well, where the hell have you been?" Kakkay asked. "You missed all the fun."

"Sorry," the Phoebus said. "Bit of a hangover at the bar."

"You drank that much, eh."


This was the same Phoebus that spotted the bounty hunters in the bar, and the same Phoebus who first alerted Kakkay about the presence of others. It was only days ago, but it seemed like years.

"Well, get moving. This is going to be a siege."

Chapter 23

The bounty hunters moved along the ridge at the edge of Rothga's Bowl, looking for a gentle way down. It was truly evening now, with the sun descending below the skyline. The sand snake evening shift would awaken soon.

The excitement was palpable. They were tense and quiet, but Vorg bore a stupid grin across his face.

Parrikk was holding the cannon in both hands, and tapping the barrel with the fingers of his left hand in a repeating pattern, quiet but a little unsettling. Srei gave him a quick glare, and the noise stopped.

Leammi reached a spur leading down to the bowl, and stepped onto it. The sand parted a little around her feet. "Watch your step."

One by one, they filed down onto the dirt, and began to make their slow and steady way towards the ship. Silhouetted by the first starlight, it seemed almost magical, a clear and striking black shape even from a few hundred yards away. The last ray of sun played across its titanic, sparkling hull... and then was gone.

Night was falling.

There were a few plumes of sand along the edge of the bowl, but they slowly petered out. If anyone had been watching, they might have seen a figure step off the back of a sand snake and survey the area below- but no-one was watching.

The Monk gave a deep sigh, and began to walk down towards the ship. He had counted on the various Lost being a little slower- but his life was not to be made easy. Strength was gained through perseverance.

Chapter 24

Striking Flame peered at the immense ship. "Is there a way in?" he pondered.

"There must be. Someone else has already gotten here," Rearn said, looking at the abandoned carvicor. "If they sealed the door behind then we might have to blast our own way in. But don't stop looking for a door yet."

Ogluf was preparing a large sack. "So where are we going when we get the loot?" he said. The Salsene was much calmer without anything scary. Just him, his friends and the ship.

"Back the way we came, I imagine," Striking Flame said. "No sense in blowing it all here. Maybe spend a bit on some drinks and drugs at Hoober's Gulch, and then we get the hell out of here."

Suddenly, from above, there was a shrieking sound. They looked up, and saw a Lentaa armed with Shock Claws and stun bombs, diving at them.

"Down!" Striking Flame yelled, and the pirates dove aside, explosions rattling the surrounding sand.

The Lentaa landed to get a closer look at his targets, and sneered.

"Kragging pirates," Kallun said. "Long time no see."

As Striking Flame realized this Lentaa was part of the group that attacked them and killed Salran, he fired, but Kallun was already flying away, dodging the bullets.

"There!" Rearn said, pointing at the ship. "A way in!" An open trapdoor was there, dented and charred.

"Well, let's get going before anything else comes our way..." And they entered the ship.

As he walked down, Kakkay could see clouds of sand rising near the ship, and Kallun flying back towards him.

"What did you see?" he asked, when the Lentaa landed beside him.

"None other than Striking Flame and his little friends. I bombed them, but I figured we should all have a chance at killing them."

Kakkay frowned. Jirian had mentioned the Vrah, back at that scuffle.

"Let's keep going and find them."

When they reached the ship, they examined the signs of those that arrived beforehand. A carvicor parked in the sand. Many footprints. Charred rock from the stun bombs.

And beyond, a way into the ship.

It was a tight fit, but they managed it. Inside, it was dark, but Kakkay was guided. Not by any sensing equipment, but from the voices of the pirates further inside.

Their death would most assuredly be horrible and agonizing.

The vid-pad buzzed, and Jirian pulled it out. There was a message. He read it.

"Rakor," he said, beckoned for him. The Zyrothan was looking at the top of the huge ship, and he had to strain his neck.

"What is it?"

"It's a message. From the boss. He says to meet him inside. We'll know where he is."

"Sounds good."

Kakkay peered around the corner, and saw them. They were, as far as he could see, in a large room with a table. As usual, the Vrah was bickering with that puny Salsene.

"It's darker in here than I thought, I'm getting kind of creeped out---"

"Just shut up for once and concentrate---"




"One suspicious move, and your brains get blown clear across the room."

Striking Flame turned, slowly. Kakkay stood in the doorway, aiming at the Vrah's chest. That recking Lentaa that divebombed them was standing next to him, and so was a Deraia with a Mauler. And then a Phoebus in a coat.

Ultima had found them.

Rearn and Ogluf didn't move. Striking Flame, on the other hand, attempted to negotiate. "Alright, you win. Just let us get off this ship, and you can have all the loot you so desire."

"I don't make bargains anymore," Kakkay growled, "ever since the Diamond ditched us."

Striking Flame shifted, disbelievingly, but then decided it was best not to question him.

Kakkay glanced over at his fellow Ultimans, making sure they were waiting intently. Kallun and Ranola wouldn't want to miss their kills. The Phoebus spy, he wasn't so sure. It was getting annoying that the blue giant didn't give his name. Kakkay took a few steps forward.

"You have a choice," he said. "Choose the easy way, and dying shouldn't hurt too much. If you want the hard way---" He paused.

"It will hurt very much indeed."

"We only go the hard way, I'm afraid," a voice said. It wasn't the voice of a pirate.

Kakkay turned, cautiously, and saw the Phoebus, smiling. Next to him was a Zyrothan and---


Striking Flame recognized Rakor, too. He knew there was always something suspicious about him, but this was beyond his expectations.

Everybody raised their weapons at the three.

"I wouldn't if I were you," the Phoebus said, and a platoon of Skarg waddled up behind him. They were all armed with hand cannons.

No chance of escaping.

Kallun hissed. "Before it all ends, would you at least mind telling us your name, before it all ends?"

"Hensha, if you must know." He extracted a hidden sniper rifle. "But it doesn't really matter much." Beside him, Jirian was brandishing a pickaxe. The Salsene smiled.

"Seems a fitting end to all this, really," Jirian said. "We come out of the blue and kragging wallop you in the bowels of the fabled Irihil craft on Skrap. You've trounced bandits, Sand Snakes---even the Vorazotl, almost."

Kakkay seethed, but remained still.

Jirian smirked. "Or Pharriel."

"Well, no sense in recking about any longer," Hensha said, and raised his rifle. "Any last words?"

There wasn't.

Instead, there was a noise.

It came from above them.

There was a chittering sound.

"Oh, crap," Kakkay said.

Chapter 25

From every side came a cacophony of chittering voices, unearthly and scraping, rattling disgustingly throughout the room. There was nothing to be seen, but the sound came from a source real enough.

Striking Flame’s gun was in his hands already, and he cast around wildly for any sign of a living thing, any way to stop the sounds...

Heshan looked curiously around the room, unsure of what the sound was. He didn’t recognize it, but everyone else in the room knew that the noise, whatever it was, meant something bad. Really, really bad.

Jirian and Rakor were immediately suspicious. It could be contraction of the ship’s metal as night arrived, it could be a remnant of the ship’s AI, it could be anything. Imminent death was also an option.

Kakkay was not as affected as most of the Ultimans around him, but he clutched his Vampron nervously despite his boldness. Some of the Skarg behind them were backing against the wall, following their most primitive of instincts, and he shot them a look of extreme contempt. Someone would have to stand fast.

The chittering grew louder, and as Rearn looked up the darkness descended around her, with only a mere yelp to reveal she had felt anything. And then there was a scream, not of a Zyrothan, but of something larger.

Kakkay decided that he had a bigger foe than the pirates here. In a time-honoured gesture of alliance, he extended his hand to Striking Flame. His reluctance and desperation were both clear to see.

The Vrah grabbed it, and then the teams bolted out of the room. Their chittering pursuers followed, creeping, creeping and invisible...

The hooded miner shifted himself in the darkness around him. He had followed Ultima in, but they were too fast, and he couldn’t reach them to persuade them otherwise. The he got lost, and all the rest of it. It seemed he was in the ship’s galley, and as it grew colder he wedged himself in between two kitchen fixtures. He heard the screams of dying mercs as he lay there.

Was he really the right one to do this?

The creatures must have been closing in, as the chittering grew louder, but there was no way to tell from which directions they came- the noise had an odd effect of echoing in every tiny gap and around the walls and ceiling.

Ogluf was screaming at the top of his lungs. He was always worried about being killed. He was constantly afraid of being shot by rival pirates, or kidnapped by bandits. Thankfully, he wouldn’t have to die that way. Instead, the chittering voices overtook him, and he would never have to be afraid again.

Kakkay and Striking Flame followed their instincts- they needed to put their backs against the wall. They wanted a room with only one entrance- perhaps they could hold back the monsters with the bodies of the dead, piling up in the doorway until there was no way in- and no way out.

Jirian was flailing madly, throwing pickaxes left and right. It didn’t seem to do much good, and he would have given up if he hadn’t run out of them already. He turned and ran in a different direction.

Rakor didn’t see him go. His eyes were focused on the chittering. He could actually SEE the chittering writhing in the air, so loud, so painful... he felt just one thing, and that was sheer and sacred terror.

Screams reverberated all around the hollow corridors, tortured and desperate, then faded one by one. Striking Flame and Kakkay were breathing heavily, searching the darkness, NEEDING to find something to shoot- but there was nothing. Something had killed every pirate and Ultiman but them, and it was nothingness.

Suddenly, something entered the room. Their guns were raised in an eyeblink, aimed and ready to fire, to bring death- to Kallun?

The Lentaa was deathly afraid, his wings shaking slightly, and his beak was dry. A long slash mark stained dark red across his back. He fell forwards onto the ground, panting but alive, and gasped for precious, life-giving air.

“Kragging swarm,” he muttered quietly.

They picked him up and ran.

He fell, tumbling into darkness. Jirian threw his head up. It was an empty room. Only the faint echoes of chittering remained. He was away from them now.

He looked around. There was no other exit. He could only go back the way he came---and then he would die.

He had to stay in here, somehow. Had to wait it out.

Jirian looked around again, double-checking the walls for any weapons- or anything that could give him a fighting chance. There was nothing.

He walked to the back of the room. His footsteps echoed slightly across the smooth metal of the floor.

There was a rustling, and he jumped. Turning around, he saw a figure rising from the floor, that he recognized immediately.

“I’m surprised to see you here, Vurio,” Jirian said. “But why the krag ARE you here?”

The hooded miner pushed his hood away. “We have to get out of here.”

“Not without that loot we aren’t.”

“We have to,” Vurio said. “I don’t know if I can save anyone else. I’ll have to settle for one.”

“This is business, Vurio,” Jirian said. “You’re all about that. When you first came in the shop to apply for an apprenticeship, you were ecstatic about it. No sense in giving up now.”

“I think there’s a very good reason.”


Suddenly, there was a very abrupt and very loud chittering sound.

Srei looked up at the ship which lay before him, rising colossal and imposing into the night. Truly this was a monument to the power of the Irihil if there ever was one- a graceful, everlasting hulk that sparkled with the reflected light of Skrap’s stars, beauty made manifest. An immense appreciation for that race and a sense of swelling ecstasy filled him- this ship would make him rich beyond imagining...

It was now Parrikk’s turn to grin stupidly. They stared into the nanodiamond for a few moments, then went to look for a way in. Sure enough, the broken cockpit provided access.

Leaping Blade looked at the base of the ship. “Srei, you see that carvicor over there?”

Srei nodded. “There’s blood and kuragel all over the seats. Iron Skulls?”

“Sure seems like. And it looks like they didn’t get very far, either.”

They noticed a trail of Skarg blood leading up to a turret fixture. “Let’s not go in that way, then.” Leammi smiled.

Vorg grunted, and tried climbing up the splintered nanodiamond towards the opening in the cockpit. It looked like it would be a tight fit, but if anyone could widen it, it’d be a Skarg.

Vorg pushed his way in, then helped Daern down too. Srei and Leammi, then Leaping Blade entered, and looked around inside the room. Olon’s face appeared in the entrance, his eyes wide, as Parrikk pushed him up from underneath.

“Get... a... move on...” The Xodu grunted.

Olon was a bit delirious, but he had to concede. It was...amazing, to see this ship up close. It was everything he had dreamed of, and everything he had been promised.

As Parrikk dropped in, Srei motioned for them to get their guns ready. The threatening, staring darkness pressed in on all sides.

It was pitch black, and hardly any light was present. The wrecked floor was made of shining metal, and indecipherable Irihil glyphs covered the walls. It was an eerie, alien place, but still somehow beautiful and aloof.

They moved deeper into the shadows, and after a few metres what little light had existed in the cockpit faded away. Every sound became crisper and more worrying, every twisting shadow a creeping fiend, every gust of wind the breath of a titan lurking within.

“It’s creepy here,” Olon muttered, and drew back ever so slightly.

Guarded and alert, they moved in a v-formation, guns pointing out. Every so often, Leaping Blade would look up and scan the ceiling- he had learnt in his years of battle. The Skarg formed the edges of the group, their weapons facing the sides, and they moved slowly and quietly through the metal corridors.

Parrikk stepped on a broken tube of nanodiamond, which clattered loudly. The sounds spread out and echoed throughout the hallways. Everybody turned around abruptly, startled, and Srei glared at him.

“Sorry,” he grumbled softly.

Srei narrowed his eyes, angrily.

They moved on into the pressing blackness.

Chapter 26

The sound of their footsteps was drowned by the maddening, gentle chittering, coming at once from all directions, inescapable and terrifying.

The three ran through winding corridors, through the impossible maze that was the ship’s interior. No dead ends yet, which would have been a comforting occurence if anyone had been considering it. But survival was foremost in their minds.

Kallun was gasping, and evidently in a bad way. But they couldn’t slow down for him- they had to get out. They had to get out now.

The gentle, horrifying sound grew closer while still coming from every corner, assailing them with its careless and taunting amplitude. Shadows shot across the junction before them. The arm of dead Skarg lay, torn apart, on the floor- red blood leaked out in a thick puddle, almost black in the darkness.

Striking Flame dared to shoot a look behind the group every now and then, almost expecting a nameless, savage beast to jump from every twisted shadow. It was supposed to be a simple matter of looting a ship, but it had all gone so wrong, and now he was going to die.

He already knew that he had no other weapons. He had dropped what he had earlier. There wasn’t anything more to do.

During another sudden burst of mind-splitting chittering, he felt himself being yanked from the Atrenid’s hand. There wasn’t much after that.

Kakkay’s eyes opened further than he had ever known they could. A little of the Vrah’s blood still dripped along his arm, staining it a greyed red. He stood there, paralysed, until Kallun’s pull forced him to stagger forwards again. The Lentaa had paid no attention to Striking Flame’s death- his eyes bulged with fear and the overwhelming desire to escape.

The two stumbled on into the laughing darkness.

Past the cockpit, the bounty hunters found themselves in a room which still bore emergency lighting around the ceiling. The faint blue glow was just enough to let them make out the central plinth, inscribed with Irihil glyphs and bearing a silver sphere, which sparked slightly as they entered.


The bounty hunters jumped, startled. “The krag? WHO’S THERE?” Parrikk swung his cannon round towards the device, clawed finger on the trigger.

“Intruders detected in AI core room.” A synthesised voice spoke up. And in Centro Standard, too...

“What the krag? AI? Is it alive?” Leaping Blade kept his Vampron trained on the sphere.

“Activating emergency h-fuel cells. Powering up.”

The core room’s lights, previously invisible, lit up. Every wall and surface was bathed in a brightness that made the bounty hunters cover their eyes.

It then faded, and they looked angrily back at the plinth.

Standing there, discoloured to an electronic red, was the form of an Irihil. It looked at each of them in turn. “Accessing data banks. Failure. Bypassing. Success.”

It shook itself, then smiled.

Srei glared at the projection. “The krag? This ship is supposed to be dead!”

The AI’s mouth opened and words came forth- completely out of time with the holographic jaws. “Hi. This would be a good time for you to take your leave.”

Leammi marched up to it, and stared into its virtual eyes. “You’re just an AI, and you’re only going to live as long as whatever core you are held in. Fortunately for you, you’re valuable enough not to destroy, but unfortunately, we’re just going to disconnect you.”

It sighed, and then looked up. Screens folded out from the white ceiling, extending and unfurling, and they all turned on at the same time.

“The creature you see here,” it said as it pointed at one of the screens, “is a Virnos.”

“A what?” Vorg had no time for this nonsense.

“The things that just terminated all Ultima and pirate lifeforms aboard this ship with only three exceptions.”

They stared long and hard at the badly rendered, flickering image. Bone-coloured, rigid hide. Thick, membranous wings. Hooked talons and gnashing teeth...

And then the virtual was replaced by the real as the monsters came gushing in.

For a tenth of a second, the bounty hunters were dumbstruck, Rizzak in the headlights, only able to stare as the ravening mouths and slashing claws came closer-

But they pulled themselves together. Srei and Leaping Blade opened fire first, their shots missing the transient targets and ricocheting from beige armour when they found their mark. Leammi's pistol was similiarly ineffective, and the Virnos were nearing them-

The hand cannon's boom and the missile launcher's report came almost simultaneously. The explosions lit up the room, revealing dozens more Virnos, but only for a moment. As the smoke cleared, the corpses of the first wave were visible in the light of scattered fires, broken and mortal.

Parrikk finished loading his cannon, and then noticed the glares of the other hunters.

But as they looked back among the bodies, they saw one they recognised- the limbless body of Olon. It lay, fragile and charred, near the explosion's epicentre. The Zyrothan's brown scales were blackened and torn.

There was no time to pay their respects- the chittering had begun again.

Chapter 27

The AI watched them barricade the entrance to the core room. Parrikk kept his cannon pointed at it.

"It's not going to hold." The translucent form's mouth did not move as it spoke.

All the bounty hunters turned to look. "You have a better idea, I suppose?"

Now it nodded enthusiastically. "Yep."


"You heard me saying 'ue' earlier?"

Srei nodded.

"Irihil for 'one'. The last number in a countdown."

"What you're saying is..."

"This ship was going to explode. The timer aborted at the last second for unknown reasons."

"Wait, wait." Leaping Blade stepped forwards. "Why was the ship going to explode?"

The AI stared at him emotionlessly. "The ship is Tainted."

"What does that even mean?"

It ignored his question. "The ship was evacuated and then set on a crash course for the nearest rocky planet. It was supposed to accelerate to speeds that would destroy it on impact, deactivate its shields, and overcharge the core for good measure."

"And, er, what went wrong?"

"The shields held. The crash caused little damage."

"So now you're going to try and blow up the ship?" The bounty hunters raised their weapons. "We can't let you do that."

"Oh, I can't destroy the ship from here. It could only be done manually."

They lowered their guns, relieved.

"So you'll have to do it."

Daern snorted.

"You will have to go to the manual core overcharge suite, already enabled, and turn the key."

"I don't think so. This ship is our futures paid for and given to us on a nanodiamond plate."

"You'll never get out, you know. There are too many of them."

"But we'll be able to get to whatever place you're suggesting and then leave there?"

It nodded.

"Krag you. We'll take our chances."

Scraping at the barricade.

The AI smiled with half its face. "The only other exit is the shaft leading to engineering."

Srei swore again. Then, reluctantly, he entered the shaft.

The chittering receded, its sources seemingly going to another part of the ship. It had to be that distraction that Kakkay and Kallun needed- any Virnos would be their end.

The darkness was thick and hung in the air, so that the only way that any path could be found was by touch. Only their heavy breathing was audible, and only the faint glimmer of exposed nanodiamond guided their way. Kakkay kept his hand against the right hand wall of whatever corridor they were in, and held Kallun up with his other arm.

It may have been his skittish and hyperactive imagination, but Kallun thought he could feel a slow, faint movement of air. Maybe, just maybe, it was wind coming through an opening in the ship, a way out---

No hurt in checking, perhaps. They had nothing more to lose except their lives, and there was hardly any other route to choose.

Limping on, they felt the air current strengthen, tugging gently at their clothes. It was cool and brushed gently against their skin, typical of Skrap’s nightly breezes. A beam of moonlight shone in from above, permeating through a thin crack in the hull. The thickness of the nanodiamond could be seen, illuminated by the grey light- at least fifteen inches, with a few spaces between layers.

“Look.” Kakkay’s voice was dry and quiet, a husky remnant of its former, impressive self.

There was an exit. A twisted crack in the wall, leading out into the desert night. Small, but still an exit.

They stumbled through out into the sand. Nobody had ever become famous for admiring the sands of Rothga’s Bowl, but to them now, it was the most wonderful thing in the world. As his boots sank into the yielding desert, Kakkay smiled despite himself. Kallun’s claws gripped the grains and then released, allowing them to flow over his reptilian toes, and the worry in his eyes lessened. They were out.

But then- a sinuous shape across the moon. Something diving down from the sky...

They quickly limped out of sight, around the other side of the ship. The Vorazotl wasn’t paying any attention to them, oddly---it seemed to want to go inside the ship.

They hobbled up the hill, eventually reaching the top of Rothga’s Bowl. Neither of them spoke. They hadn’t the energy. A silence lay upon them for a few minutes, before Kakkay shifted his weight.

“Well, now I feel like I’ve been totally ripped off,” he said.

They looked back at the ship- that glittering hulk promising such wealth and power- and considered how it had defeated them. As they stared, a weak cry came past them. It was the sound of a Vorazotl’s scream, softened and made pathetic by the distance.

From all over the ship came a cloud- but it was not smoke, or dust, or fog. It was a cloud of Virnos bodies, surrounding the Vorazotl’s form- it looked so small and fragile within the gathering pack, a mass of a hundred vicious, skeletal hunters.

Srei crawled through the shaft, an angry glaze over his eyes. There was a gentle chittering that surrounded him, but it could not be coming from where it seemed to emenate. They were safe in here.

Safety lights guided them along, a pale blue in the darkness. Somewhere, up ahead, was the exit.

He put his hand out, reaching for the next rung, but it wasn’t there.

He waved it around in space, and found nothing.

“Hey, we’re here.”

They filed in, as quiet as they could. Just in front of them, on a gantry, was the console they needed to reach- the key shone silver in the pale light.

He motioned to Leaping Blade. The Vrah moved, crouched down and silent, to the controls.

Then, a Virnos landed on them.

Leaping Blade froze, staring up at the creature, afraid to blink...

Its winged silhouette was black and featureless in the meagre illumination, and they could only just make out it looking from side to side- hunting. It chittered gently.

And then it took off, making no noise at all.

Relieved, Leaping Blade turned the key, and a synthesised voice reactivated.

“Thanks. Complete self-destruction in one meretht. Please leave via the auxiliary escape chute.”

Blue, neon lines appeared in the wall, all pointing to a hole opening up in the plastic. It widened, and through it was visible the night of Skrap.

Chittering. Angry, vicious chittering.

They did not stop to look, but ran straight for it. A short scream- and Vorg was gone.

For a moment they checked themselves, but then remembered where they were. One of Vorg’s legs skidded along the floor towards them.

A pained grunt, and Daern fell down, his belly ripped open. “Run... run...” He could only moan, and then his body was lifted up by an invisible shape. Parrikk pulled out his cannon.

“COME AND GET IT!” He yelled at the top of his mighty lungs, oblivious to the forms gathering in the shadows around him, thinking of nothing but killing as many of the Virnos as possible. He never got the chance to die heroically, as one of the creatures crashed into him from behind, splitting his backbone open and throwing him across the metal.

Srei, Leammi and Leaping Blade needed no more motivation. They were at the chute, climbing in, slipping down- a Virnos mouth was right behind them- and then it was pulled back, followed by a shriek. A giant, serpentine form moved across the door, dripping red blood.

And they were out, in the cool desert. But they were not free yet- the chittering was everywhere, coming from every direction, filling the night-

The cloud of Virnos began to descend upon them, moving far slower than they should have been. The bounty hunters weren’t going to complain, but even in their adrenalin-powered sprint, they were able to feel a nagging doubt- they shouldn’t still have been alive. They were being played with.

A single, winged beast split from the flock, and swooped down. Srei couldn’t get his gun out in time- Leammi’s pistol was gone- Leaping Blade’s rifle turned perilously slowly- The fanged, gaping mouth was upon them. It stretched up, a gape that was impossibly wide, the teeth glinting and painted with fresh blood. The noxious breath, silent and pungent, filled their nostrils as the creature gloated in its victory.

The fist that crashed into it sent it reeling, and it fell down with a thud. The Monk curbstomped its crested head, and brains squelched out across the sand.

The rest of the flock swooped down, chittering with rage and vicious hatred, if Virnos could feel such things. The Monk bowed his head for a moment.

“Even the sinner deserves better than this death.”

He readied himself, looking the cloud straight in the face, unfazed and emotionless.

They couldn’t watch as the monsters swarmed him, obscuring the Xodu in a mass of beige and bone.

The bounty hunters were at the edge of the Bowl, and climbing- but Virnos had already begun to detach from the flock, speeding towards them-

They were climbing, but not fast enough-

The snapping jaws, slicing talons-

And everything was gone in the opaque whiteness of a nuclear blast. It spread out, consuming the Virnos, its heat palpable on the skin even from this range. They would never be able to get out in time, and Srei took Leammi’s hand in his, and said nothing.

Just as the flame reached them, a glowing hemisphere spread out from the ship’s centre. It surrounded the blast, just touching Leaping Blade and then stopping.

As fast as the explosion had spread, it now contracted, trapping the raging brightness and pulling it in.

When it became dark enough for them to look again, they turned around.

There was no trace of any ship. Not even a chunk of nanodiamond or metal lay in Rothga’s Bowl.

But, where it has been, there was a circle of glassed sand, five miles across. It glinted in the moonlight.

They had survived.

Kakkay and Kallun made their way, slowly, back towards the center of the Bowl. They had seen something, before it all went to hell.

There was no point in looking for treasure, if there ever even was any. There was something else.

The Ultimans had seen three bounty hunters escape alive, thanks to some weirdo Xodu they brought along. Maybe it was one of another party. But he was dead, along with the pirates, the Skulls, Hensha's group, the Virnos, the Vorazotl, and in fact most of the rest of Ultima that came here.

There it was. Half-buried in the glass sand, a Carvicor, looking pathetic and sodden in the desert night. Kakkay tested it, and amazingly, it looked like it still worked. Never underestimate an Atrenid design.

As Kakkay and Kallun dug it out and climbed in, they remained silent. There was no point in speaking.

With a pitiful cough, the carvicor sputtered into life. Kakkay took the wheel, shot a brief glance at the Lentaa next to him, and drove off.

Vurio, the hooded miner, caught his breath behind a boulder at the top of Rothga's Bowl. Jirian's flesh was the only thing that made him able to get out alive. He had managed to get behind this boulder, and hear the vast explosion that meant the ship self-destructed.

He pulled out his pocket copy of Encyclopedia Emenata, confirming his suspicions. That ship was infected with Virnos through and through. But they were all gone now, so it didn't matter.

Vurio took a deep breath and started making the long trek back home. The desert wouldn't feel any mercy, but he was prepared for any onslaught of Snakes or Sklashers.

Under the cloak, he felt the comforting and distinctive shape of the only weapon he still possessed. It was stolen, but it was still something to defend himself with. You didn't get to nab a Halo Ray from an Angeli ship just any old day.

But he had not been able to save anyone.

The bounty hunters, or some of them at least, seemed to get out, as well as two Ultimans. But he had no part in their escape.

It was saddening. With the side job he did, he felt that he should have repented in at least some way. But maybe there would be another chance.

Now that Jirian was gone, would he run the taxidermy shop himself? It was a bit of extra work, but it would be manageable. Yes, he thought. I will run the shop.

He remained deep in thought all the way home.

Three days passed. The sun had almost set. Kakkay was back at the Ultima tent behind a shabby desk, counting up some change he recovered from an earlier heist. Kallun was recovering fine; he looked forward to walking the streets again.

A hiss at the entrance.

"Come on in."

The figure walked calmly into the tent and in front of Kakkay's desk. The Atrenid wasn't surprised at all to see who it was---after all, he'd seen some very interesting things in the past few days.

"What would you like from Ultima today? Need some mercenaries or some fresh phlion?"

The newcomer hissed again. "I would rather be given a bit of information."

"Of what sort?"

"I understand that you were searching for a crashed Irihil ship. Didn't it cross your mind that more ships could be out there?"

"Not really."

The figure hissed again. "I am looking for a dedicated team that would search the desert and look for these additional ships. Volunteers would be paid a very healthy sum of money if they returned alive and with locality data."

Kakkay sighed. "You know, I think I'd like to take a break from the desert for a while. It's a bit nasty out there. I'm quite positive the others would have the same feelings about the matter."

The newcomer snarled. "This would be the only opportunity you'd get."

"Sorry. No can do."

The figure extended its claws. "If you won't do as I say, it'll be off to the gladiatorial rings with you.

Kakkay leaned back in his chair. "Still not impressed."

"Then you shall die at the hands of the Alpha Emperor of the Raptors!" he screamed, and tensed his muscles to leap.

Several holes through the Alpha Emperor's body seemed to burn into existence, their edges igniting into flames. The Raptor screeched, but was finally silenced by a flaming burst straight through the skull. He fell, revealing the figure of an individual with a Firespitter aimed high. The figure lowered the weapon, and smiled.

"Seems you've been busy while I was gone," the figure of Seff Tintel said.

Kakkay smiled back. "You could say that again."

"Well? Did you find the ship?"

Kakkay laughed. "Not a chance. But I've got quite a story to tell you about it."

And so Night fell on Skrap.

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