R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author Suspense Urban Fantasy Fantasy Dystopian SCI FI
Rare Collar for Toni B eing    from    Chicago    where    brutal    humid    summers    weren’t unheard    of,    Toni    still    had    never    visited    a    tropical    jungle    she planned   to   revisit.   The   life   forms   on   Talaith   Glain   were   ickier than   most.   Carnivorous   amphibians   the   rule   with   a   mish   mash of   poisonous   reptiles   that   made   the   brainzuccor   of   Dzeta   Terra seem tame. She    rarely    joined    a    crew    corralling    bad    guys.    As    the commanding   marshal   responsible   for   the   greatest   swatch   of   the outer    galaxy,    she    supervised    from    the    air,    strategized,    and profiled, but her team was spread thin. So   she   found   herself   in   the   hot,   muggy   dinge   on   a   hover   backing   up   her   two   least experienced agents. Not her favorite pastime. Nowhere freakin’ close. I   used   to   be   a   scientist.   Now   I   sweat   and   get   eaten   alive   by   critters   that   would scare the piss out of a Tyrannosaurus rex. She   stared   at   her   readings.   For   a   criminal   this   guy   ran   in   too   straight   a   line.   Wasn’t right. “Kory, cross check these readings. Find any other EM sources?” “Your   ground   readings   match   my   sensors,   Captain.   There   are   no   others   for   three hundred kilometers.” Bloody caca! This isn’t right. Toni   looked   over   at   Croyw   on   her   left   and   Diniwed   about   thirty   meters   to   her   right. They   were   in   textbook   position,   assault   rifles   raised   to   their   shoulders.   They   had   spent a   decade   patrolling   their   own   worlds,   but   so   far   the   tone   of   the   marshal’s   service   hadn’t clicked in them. Hadn’t found their juju. What   they   did   now   was   a   lot   different   from   chasing   punks,   fighting   mercenaries who usually carried twice the fire power. If   these   two   weren’t   already   scared   pissless,   I’d   send   them   farther   out   on   the flanks. Chances are I’d be the one they’d end up shooting. Toni   hung   her   rifle   from   her   shoulder   for   a   second   while   she   snapped   closed   her armored vest. With the heat she’d put that off to the last second. She   was   no   expert   on   this   jungle-slithering   shit.   She   led   a   team   in   the   fringes   of Earth   Union’s   territory   because   she   piloted   the   fastest   ship.   Not   because   she   was   a badass cop. Never shot at people for a living. But this didn’t feel right. “Kory, fly a twenty kilometer loop. Let’s see if you pick up anything different.” “Aye, Captain,” the ship’s persona responded. A   few   moments   later   the   hum   of   Kory   Mae’s    gravity   drives   passed   overhead,   but there was no catching a glimpse of her through the thick canopy. Toni   motioned   for   Croyw   and   Diniwed   to   stand   fast   as   she   studied   the   changing telemetry. The back of her neck crawled as she discovered the tiniest anomalies. “Heads   up,”   she   said.   “The   area   is   networked.   That   bastard   didn’t   land   here   by accident.” Toni caught Diniwed’s expression. Her eyes were as big as lemons in the pale light. All I need to do is scare these two more. Or get them killed. She    wished    Lieutenant    Profiadau    led    this    crew,    or    was    at    least    with    her.    He wouldn’t have let them float into a trap. Toni    scanned    the    canopy.    No    way    Kory    was    going    to    be    able    to    drop    a    cable through it. “Croyw? You have any sky above you?” “Negative, Colonel.” Toni   grinned   at   a   stray   thought.   Did   her   younger   crew   ever   feel   weird   that   half   of her marshals addressed her as captain, while others used her EUSA rank? “I have a tad of a spot, if Kory can find it,” Diniwed reported. “Kory?” “I’m on it, Captain.” The   seconds   passed   slowly   as   the   ship’s   hum   changed.   Rivers   of   sweat   tickled Toni’s   scalp   under   her   helmet   and   flowed   down   her   sides   in   irritating   challenge   to   do something. The   dot   representing   their   quarry   moved   farther   away,   but   Toni   was   convinced   it was   an   electronic   ruse.   Even   if   the   gunrunner   was   moving   away,   let   him.   He   wasn’t going   to   go   far.   No   passage   off-planet   without   exposing   himself.   The   EUSA   is   patient, with a long reach. “Damn! Did you see that?” Both agents said, “What?” screeching over each other on the com. “A blip. We’ve got a mine coming. Croyw! Get over to Diniwed. Now!” “Kory? Where’s that cable?” “I   believe   I’ve   located   the   break   in   the   canopy,   Captain.   You   should   see   the   cable about, now.” Toni was busy looking for the mine though. “I see it,” Diniwed cried. “You two get your asses up there.” “Yes, Colonel.” Croyw,   the   dot,   was   practically   on   top   of   Diniwed.   Toni   realized   she   was   holding her   breath,   but   didn’t   take   in   air,   as   she   waited   for   the   explosion.   Being   the   central target,   the   mine   was   locked   onto   her.   She   couldn’t   move   toward   safety   without   bringing the inevitable blast closer to them. “You up that damn cable, Croyw?” she shouted. “Just hooking up, sir.” “You’re killing me, Croyw! “I   hope   not   literally,”   she   added   softly.   “Kory!   I   need   a   plasma   blast   with   your widest aperture targeted ten meters in front of me. Fire when ready!” “Captain, that is awfully—” “Fire, fire! Hold on Croyw!” The   EM-field   should   disrupt   the   mine’s   stealth-shield   if   not   detonate   it.   The   energy wave   flowed   over   the   thick   vegetation   flattening   it,   what   she   could   see   of   it   with   the   sky falling. Toni   gripped   the   con,   spread   her   legs   and   prepared   for   the   rush.   The   hover   washed like a bitch. She   picked   up   the   weakest   sensor   flicker   and   fired,   emptying   her   magazine   into   the vegetation.   With   ass-smacking   luck,   a   round   ignited   the   mine.   At   least   it   wasn’t   on   top of her, where it could have atomized her. She   felt   as   though   she   tumbled   a   year   or   two.   Falling   still,   vertigo   told   her   to   keep the   hell   down.   She   shook   her   head   and   snorted   against   the   wrench   of   the   burned ordnance,   and   worse.   She   checked   her   parts.   The   bodily   ones   were   all   in   place,   but   she had no clue where her rifle or the fragments of the hover were. “Kory, do you hear me?” She   wasn’t   surprised   her   com   was   shit   soup.   The   residual   energy   of   the   mine   would disrupt   what   electronics   weren’t   fried.   She   pulled   her   sidearm   as   she   considered   her resources    and    obstacles.    None,    and    a    man    who    sold    the    fanciest    ordinance    to miscreants. She   rolled   over   and   faced   the   point   of   the   blast,   peering   into   the   dissipating   smoke and steam. The smell of cooked flora and fauna sickened her. Hope none of that is my agents. So   was   the   sonbitch   still   out   there   waiting   to   finish   her   off,   or   did   he   figure   the mine   did   its   thing?   If   Croyw   and   Diniwed   survived,   would   they   be   down   in   the   next fifteen seconds, likely to get blown away for their efforts? Toni   pulled   her   computer   off   her   hip,   but   the   display   was   black.   No   surprise   there. She tossed it. If   her   people   came   down,   she’d   have   no   way   of   communicating   with   them.   They’d as   likely   fire   on   her   as   the   sonbitch.   At   least   the   mine   would   have   disabled   any   other surprises. “I   got   no   sensors,   which   he   does.   So   he   can   see   me.   So   whadda   I   do   about   that? Moving ain’t gonna help. It’s his advantage.” Best option for the moment—disappear to sensors. She    pulled    smoking    vegetation    over    her,    slowly,    as    she    kept    her    eyes    focused forward. She stopped every few moments to listen. A highly advanced ship floating sixty meters over my head and I can’t use her. She   noted   a   scratching   noise   at   two   o’clock,   about   where   she   expected   Croyw   would be,   if   she   was   alive,   or   Diniwed   if   she   had   repelled   back   down.   Nice   to   have   pals.   Now they just needed to keep from shooting each other. If   it   was   the   gunrunner—   Bad   thought.   She   hoped   he   wasn’t   as   lucky   as   she   had been with the mine. A blast tore a hole in the jungle to her left. That answered that. She couldn’t wait for the next one. His sensors would put it closer. Left or right? Crap. There   was   no   advantage   either   way.   Just   meant   her   relative   position   moved   nice and   slow.   Closer   meant   his   sensors   were   more   accurate.   But   it   also   meant   less   jungle between them camouflaging him. She   leapt   up   and   sprinted   straight   ahead   in   as   tight   a   crouch   as   she   could   manage, weapon   ready,   praying   she   got   close   enough   to   get   sight   of   him   before   bad   things happened. Another   burst   flew   over   her   head.   A   projectile   might   have   even   dinged   her   helmet. Maybe her height saved her life. Toni felt the heat of another burst to her right. The   idiot   moved   his   hover   into   the   clearing   made   by   the   mine.   Toni   slammed   to   a stop, emptied a clip, before leaping for new cover. She   lay   as   flat   as   she   could,   face   ploughed   into   the   remains   of   burned   vegetation, afraid   to   move   to   reload.   She   waited   for   the   counter   attack,   and   the   pause   that   would allow her to make her next move. Seconds passed. What? Instead,   she   heard   the   whine   of   a   gravity   drive,   sputtering,   and   the   loud   thump   as the   transport   fell   to   the   ground,   and   the   thud   and   grunt   as   the   man   aboard   it   was   flung ass over undies. Toni   lurched   to   insert   a   new   clip,   rose   and   ran   tangentially   toward   her   target, scanning for the bastard she really, really wanted to blast. There was nothing but green. She   made   it   into   the   untrampled   forest   before   she   found   a   fat   tree   trunk   to   hide behind. After catching a quick breath, she peered around the tree, listening. “Damn.” She retreated behind her cover and gasped for air. I’m getting too old for this crap. Behind   her   she   saw   a   glint   off   a   metallic   cable   dropping   from   the   sky,   where   the jungle had been handily cleared by the mine. Right into the man’s sights. “Hold fast,” she screamed at the top of her lungs. A   spray   of   projectiles   mowed   the   vegetation   down   around   her,   but   she   had   found   a good, solid protector. Still, she slid down the trunk, waiting for another volley. She   didn’t   have   to   wait   long.   She   squinted   through   the   shards   that   filled   the   air, anticipating   the   angle   the   fire   originated   by   the   deep   nicks   in   her   friend’s   hide   above her. When    the    explosions    stopped    Toni    hurled    herself    forward,    sprinting    crazily through the broad leaves that ripped at her face. New rounds filled the air and Toni threw herself to the ground. I am really too old to do this kind of thing. What would my surgeon say? With   the   new   quiet,   she   was   back   up,   sprinting   parallel   to   the   point   he   had   fired from seconds earlier. I’m playing Russian Roulette with a full clip. When   a   new   burst   splattered   the   jungle   to   the   right   she   veered.   After   a   ten-meter race she lurched to a stop, held her breath to listen. Oxygen is overrated.   She squinted, feeling as much as listening for her gunrunner. There   was   movement   in   the   vegetation   directly   in   front   of   her   and   she   lit   the   area up,   dropping   her   empty   clip   and   reloading,   emptying   that   one   and   a   third,   before   she dropped to the ground to listen. All   she   could   hear   was   the   hum   of   the   Kory   Mae    somewhere   above.   Slowly   a   new hum returned. Insects. If   that’s   what   they   called   them   on   this   planet.   They   bit   all   the   same,   whatever   they were called. No return fire. She   decided   to   take   a   chance   at   exposing   her   position   to   communicate   with   her team.   She   fired   two   quick   rounds   up   through   the   canopy,   which   would   be   stopped harmlessly by the ship’s shields. Another two quick rounds after a pause. Come save my butt, girls. The minutes passed. Be patient. Wait. Wait for your backup. “I’m not patient! Never will be,” she snarled. She rose and stalked forward, veering a bit left. Ten meters, twenty meters. He should be right here. Another five meters. A   muffled   sound   practically   at   her   feet   almost   provoked   her   to   empty   her   freakin’ last clip. Instead she squatted down and looked into the foliage. “Don’t shoot. I’m done.” He   chucked   his   rifle,   and   threw   a   sidearm   several   meters   into   the   jungle.   She waited,   until   he   cursed   and   threw   another   he   pulled   from   inside   his   body   armor.   Still she didn’t move, holding him in her sights. “Last one. Really,” he said, shrugging. Toni   didn’t   stand.   She   did   a   little   squat-walk   to   get   under   and   past   the   leafy   thing between   them.   The   man   had   a   projectile   mark   trailing   up   the   center   of   his   helmet   that probably    knocked    him    cold    for    a    moment.    There    were    another    four    projectiles embedded in his chest armor. He bled from a wound in his thigh. Toni mumbled, “Damn good shooting. Didn’t know I was that good.” “Go   ahead.   Gloat.   The   maneuver   that   got   my   little   booby   trap   is   what   did   me—   Oh my   God,”   he   interrupted   himself   as   Toni   stood   up   in   front   of   him.   “What’d   they   send after   me,   some   genetic   battle   mutant?   Done   in   by   a   two-foot-tall   runt.   What   are   you, ten years old?” “You sure are rude, considering I have a gun leveled at your freaking ugly face.” © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Rare Collar for Toni B eing   from   Chicago   where   brutal   humid summers    weren’t    unheard    of,    Toni    still had    never    visited    a    tropical    jungle    she planned    to    revisit.    The    life    forms    on Talaith     Glain     were     ickier     than     most. Carnivorous   amphibians   the   rule   with   a mish    mash    of    poisonous    reptiles    that made     the     brainzuccor     of     Dzeta     Terra seem tame. She   rarely   joined   a   crew   corralling   bad guys.      As      the      commanding      marshal responsible   for   the   greatest   swatch   of   the outer   galaxy,   she   supervised   from   the   air, strategized,    and    profiled,    but    her    team was spread thin. So   she   found   herself   in   the   hot,   muggy dinge   on   a   hover   backing   up   her   two   least experienced     agents.     Not     her     favorite pastime. Nowhere freakin’ close. I   used   to   be   a   scientist.   Now   I   sweat and   get   eaten   alive   by   critters   that   would scare    the    piss    out    of    a    Tyrannosaurus rex. She    stared    at    her    readings.    For    a criminal    this    guy    ran    in    too    straight    a line. Wasn’t right. “Kory,     cross     check     these     readings. Find any other EM sources?” “Your     ground     readings     match     my sensors,   Captain.   There   are   no   others   for three hundred kilometers.” Bloody caca! This isn’t right. Toni   looked   over   at   Croyw   on   her   left and   Diniwed   about   thirty   meters   to   her right.    They    were    in    textbook    position, assault    rifles    raised    to    their    shoulders. They   had   spent   a   decade   patrolling   their own    worlds,    but    so    far    the    tone    of    the marshal’s service hadn’t clicked in them. Hadn’t found their juju. What   they   did   now   was   a   lot   different from   chasing   punks,   fighting   mercenaries who usually carried twice the fire power. If    these    two    weren’t    already    scared pissless,   I’d   send   them   farther   out   on   the flanks.   Chances   are   I’d   be   the   one   they’d end up shooting. Toni   hung   her   rifle   from   her   shoulder for   a   second   while   she   snapped   closed   her armored    vest.    With    the    heat    she’d    put that off to the last second. She    was    no    expert    on    this    jungle- slithering    shit.    She    led    a    team    in    the fringes   of   Earth   Union’s   territory   because she   piloted   the   fastest   ship.   Not   because she    was    a    badass    cop.    Never    shot    at people for a living. But this didn’t feel right. “Kory,    fly    a    twenty    kilometer    loop. Let’s      see      if      you      pick      up      anything different.” “Aye,     Captain,”     the     ship’s     persona responded. A   few   moments   later   the   hum   of   Kory Mae’s    gravity   drives   passed   overhead,   but there    was    no    catching    a    glimpse    of    her through the thick canopy. Toni       motioned       for       Croyw       and Diniwed   to   stand   fast   as   she   studied   the changing   telemetry.   The   back   of   her   neck crawled     as     she     discovered     the     tiniest anomalies. “Heads    up,”    she    said.    “The    area    is networked.   That   bastard   didn’t   land   here by accident.” Toni     caught     Diniwed’s     expression. Her   eyes   were   as   big   as   lemons   in   the   pale light. All    I    need    to    do    is    scare    these    two more. Or get them killed. She   wished   Lieutenant   Profiadau   led this    crew,    or    was    at    least    with    her.    He wouldn’t have let them float into a trap. Toni    scanned    the    canopy.    No    way Kory   was   going   to   be   able   to   drop   a   cable through it. “Croyw?     You     have     any     sky     above you?” “Negative, Colonel.” Toni   grinned   at   a   stray   thought.   Did her   younger   crew   ever   feel   weird   that   half of   her   marshals   addressed   her   as   captain, while others used her EUSA rank? “I   have   a   tad   of   a   spot,   if   Kory   can   find it,” Diniwed reported. “Kory?” “I’m on it, Captain.” The     seconds     passed     slowly     as     the ship’s     hum     changed.     Rivers     of     sweat tickled   Toni’s   scalp   under   her   helmet   and flowed     down     her     sides     in     irritating challenge to do something. The     dot     representing     their     quarry moved     farther     away,     but     Toni     was convinced   it   was   an   electronic   ruse.   Even if    the    gunrunner    was    moving    away,    let him.     He     wasn’t     going     to     go     far.     No passage      off-planet      without      exposing himself.   The   EUSA   is   patient,   with   a   long reach. “Damn! Did you see that?” Both   agents   said,   “What?”   screeching over each other on the com. “A    blip.    We’ve    got    a    mine    coming. Croyw! Get over to Diniwed. Now!” “Kory? Where’s that cable?” “I   believe   I’ve   located   the   break   in   the canopy,   Captain.   You   should   see   the   cable about, now.” Toni    was    busy    looking    for    the    mine though. “I see it,” Diniwed cried. “You two get your asses up there.” “Yes, Colonel.” Croyw,   the   dot,   was   practically   on   top of   Diniwed.   Toni   realized   she   was   holding her   breath,   but   didn’t   take   in   air,   as   she waited     for     the     explosion.     Being     the central   target,   the   mine   was   locked   onto her.    She    couldn’t    move    toward    safety without     bringing     the     inevitable     blast closer to them. “You   up   that   damn   cable,   Croyw?”   she shouted. “Just hooking up, sir.” “You’re killing me, Croyw! “I   hope   not   literally,”   she   added   softly. “Kory!   I   need   a   plasma   blast   with   your widest    aperture    targeted    ten    meters    in front of me. Fire when ready!” “Captain, that is awfully—” “Fire, fire! Hold on Croyw!” The     EM-field     should     disrupt     the mine’s    stealth-shield    if    not    detonate    it. The    energy    wave    flowed    over    the    thick vegetation    flattening    it,    what    she    could see of it with the sky falling. Toni   gripped   the   con,   spread   her   legs and    prepared    for    the    rush.    The    hover washed like a bitch. She    picked    up    the    weakest    sensor flicker   and   fired,   emptying   her   magazine into    the    vegetation.    With    ass-smacking luck,   a   round   ignited   the   mine.   At   least   it wasn’t   on   top   of   her,   where   it   could   have atomized her. She   felt   as   though   she   tumbled   a   year or    two.    Falling    still,    vertigo    told    her    to keep   the   hell   down.   She   shook   her   head and    snorted    against    the    wrench    of    the burned      ordnance,      and      worse.      She checked   her   parts.   The   bodily   ones   were all   in   place,   but   she   had   no   clue   where   her rifle or the fragments of the hover were. “Kory, do you hear me?” She   wasn’t   surprised   her   com   was   shit soup.    The    residual    energy    of    the    mine would    disrupt    what    electronics    weren’t fried.    She    pulled    her    sidearm    as    she considered    her    resources    and    obstacles. None,   and   a   man   who   sold   the   fanciest ordinance to miscreants. She   rolled   over   and   faced   the   point   of the    blast,    peering    into    the    dissipating smoke    and    steam.    The    smell    of    cooked flora and fauna sickened her. Hope none of that is my agents. So    was    the    sonbitch    still    out    there waiting   to   finish   her   off,   or   did   he   figure the    mine    did    its    thing?    If    Croyw    and Diniwed   survived,   would   they   be   down   in the    next    fifteen    seconds,    likely    to    get blown away for their efforts? Toni   pulled   her   computer   off   her   hip, but    the    display    was    black.    No    surprise there. She tossed it. If   her   people   came   down,   she’d   have no    way    of    communicating    with    them. They’d     as     likely     fire     on     her     as     the sonbitch.    At    least    the    mine    would    have disabled any other surprises. “I   got   no   sensors,   which   he   does.   So he    can    see    me.    So    whadda    I    do    about that?    Moving    ain’t    gonna    help.    It’s    his advantage.” Best               option               for               the moment—disappear to sensors. She    pulled    smoking    vegetation    over her,   slowly,   as   she   kept   her   eyes   focused forward.   She   stopped   every   few   moments to listen. A   highly   advanced   ship   floating   sixty meters over my head and I can’t use her. She    noted    a    scratching    noise    at    two o’clock,   about   where   she   expected   Croyw would   be,   if   she   was   alive,   or   Diniwed   if she   had   repelled   back   down.   Nice   to   have pals.   Now   they   just   needed   to   keep   from shooting each other. If   it   was   the   gunrunner—   Bad   thought. She   hoped   he   wasn’t   as   lucky   as   she   had been with the mine. A   blast   tore   a   hole   in   the   jungle   to   her left. That answered that. She   couldn’t   wait   for   the   next   one.   His sensors would put it closer. Left or right? Crap. There    was    no    advantage    either    way. Just    meant    her    relative    position    moved nice   and   slow.   Closer   meant   his   sensors were    more    accurate.    But    it    also    meant less    jungle    between    them    camouflaging him. She    leapt    up    and    sprinted    straight ahead   in   as   tight   a   crouch   as   she   could manage,   weapon   ready,   praying   she   got close   enough   to   get   sight   of   him   before bad things happened. Another   burst   flew   over   her   head.   A projectile    might    have    even    dinged    her helmet.   Maybe   her   height   saved   her   life. Toni   felt   the   heat   of   another   burst   to   her right. The    idiot    moved    his    hover    into    the clearing   made   by   the   mine.   Toni   slammed to   a   stop,   emptied   a   clip,   before   leaping for new cover. She    lay    as    flat    as    she    could,    face ploughed    into    the    remains    of    burned vegetation,   afraid   to   move   to   reload.   She waited    for    the    counter    attack,    and    the pause   that   would   allow   her   to   make   her next move. Seconds passed. What? Instead,    she    heard    the    whine    of    a gravity    drive,    sputtering,    and    the    loud thump   as   the   transport   fell   to   the   ground, and    the    thud    and    grunt    as    the    man aboard it was flung ass over undies. Toni   lurched   to   insert   a   new   clip,   rose and    ran    tangentially    toward    her    target, scanning   for   the   bastard   she   really,   really wanted   to   blast.   There   was   nothing   but green. She     made     it     into     the     untrampled forest   before   she   found   a   fat   tree   trunk   to hide     behind.     After     catching     a     quick breath,     she     peered     around     the     tree, listening. “Damn.” She    retreated    behind    her    cover    and gasped for air. I’m getting too old for this crap. Behind    her    she    saw    a    glint    off    a metallic    cable    dropping    from    the    sky, where     the     jungle     had     been     handily cleared by the mine. Right into the man’s sights. “Hold   fast,”   she   screamed   at   the   top   of her lungs. A     spray     of     projectiles     mowed     the vegetation   down   around   her,   but   she   had found    a    good,    solid    protector.    Still,    she slid   down   the   trunk,   waiting   for   another volley. She    didn’t    have    to    wait    long.    She squinted    through    the    shards    that    filled the    air,    anticipating    the    angle    the    fire originated     by     the     deep     nicks     in     her friend’s hide above her. When    the    explosions    stopped    Toni hurled   herself   forward,   sprinting   crazily through   the   broad   leaves   that   ripped   at her face. New    rounds    filled    the    air    and    Toni threw herself to the ground. I   am   really   too   old   to   do   this   kind   of thing. What would my surgeon say? With   the   new   quiet,   she   was   back   up, sprinting   parallel   to   the   point   he   had   fired from seconds earlier. I’m   playing   Russian   Roulette   with   a full clip. When     a     new     burst     splattered     the jungle   to   the   right   she   veered.   After   a   ten- meter   race   she   lurched   to   a   stop,   held   her breath to listen. Oxygen is overrated.   She     squinted,     feeling     as     much     as listening for her gunrunner. There       was       movement       in       the vegetation   directly   in   front   of   her   and   she lit   the   area   up,   dropping   her   empty   clip and   reloading,   emptying   that   one   and   a third,   before   she   dropped   to   the   ground to listen. All   she   could   hear   was   the   hum   of   the Kory    Mae     somewhere    above.    Slowly    a new hum returned. Insects. If   that’s   what   they   called   them   on   this planet.    They    bit    all    the    same,    whatever they were called. No return fire. She     decided     to     take     a     chance     at exposing    her    position    to    communicate with   her   team.   She   fired   two   quick   rounds up   through   the   canopy,   which   would   be stopped   harmlessly   by   the   ship’s   shields. Another two quick rounds after a pause. Come save my butt, girls. The minutes passed. Be     patient.     Wait.     Wait     for     your backup. “I’m   not   patient!   Never   will   be,”   she snarled. She   rose   and   stalked   forward,   veering a bit left. Ten meters, twenty meters. He should be right here. Another five meters. A   muffled   sound   practically   at   her   feet almost     provoked     her     to     empty     her freakin’    last    clip.    Instead    she    squatted down and looked into the foliage. “Don’t shoot. I’m done.” He    chucked    his    rifle,    and    threw    a sidearm    several    meters    into    the    jungle. She    waited,    until    he    cursed    and    threw another    he    pulled    from    inside    his    body armor.   Still   she   didn’t   move,   holding   him in her sights. “Last one. Really,” he said, shrugging. Toni    didn’t    stand.    She    did    a    little squat-walk   to   get   under   and   past   the   leafy thing    between    them.    The    man    had    a projectile   mark   trailing   up   the   center   of his    helmet    that    probably    knocked    him cold   for   a   moment.   There   were   another four    projectiles    embedded    in    his    chest armor.    He    bled    from    a    wound    in    his thigh. Toni   mumbled,   “Damn   good   shooting. Didn’t know I was that good.” “Go   ahead.   Gloat.   The   maneuver   that got   my   little   booby   trap   is   what   did   me— Oh    my    God,”    he    interrupted    himself    as Toni   stood   up   in   front   of   him.   “What’d they   send   after   me,   some   genetic   battle mutant?   Done   in   by   a   two-foot-tall   runt. What are you, ten years old?” “You   sure   are   rude,   considering   I   have a gun leveled at your freaking ugly face.” © R. Mac Wheeler 2017