The Sturdy Grip moved away from the Harridan at a modest speed. The secrets of Forge Father technology were closely guarded, so even giving away how fast the cutter could really move was undesirable. The pilot did not even take her out in their true final heading, waiting until Brukelyn had marched back onto the bridge before adjusting course.
“Report.” he said.
The pilot peered closely at one of the screens on the bank of instruments in front of him.
“Aye, they were scanning us all the way. The usual stuff though, infra-red, some light data hacks, pulse readings. Nothing we couldn’t handle.”
Brukelyn grunted. “Good, good.”
He was neither surprised nor truly offended to hear the crew of the Corporation ship he had just left had tried to hack into his own ship’s secure systems. Some degree of skulduggery was only normal when you dealt with humans, after all.
Since the first peace pacts had been signed, the GCPS and Star Realm had also agreed to numerous trade treaties. The humans supplied materiel and luxury goods from their numerous factory colonies and harvester outlets and the Forge Fathers supplied advanced tech and components to help support Corporate growth. But there was also the somewhat less well-publicised arms trade to consider.
Officially, the GCPS expanded through peaceful negotiation and welcomed all newly discovered worlds into the fold. But the truth was that the universe is a dangerous place and the GCPS could only grow with dangerous men at the helm. So the Forge Fathers also supplied them with the armour needed to keep those men alive.
The arrangement was a beneficial one for both sides. The Council needed suits for their Enforcer program, Mandrake had taken care of that, and the Forge Fathers were happy to have another race take the field for them against threats such as those found in the ruins of the Asterian Star Empire.
But trade came easier than trust. Every suit of Enforcer armour supplied to the Council also had built-in failsafes, kill switches that would destroy the armour before anyone could reverse-engineer it and steal the secrets of dwarf technology for themselves. The Enforcers would have power, but only as much as the Forge Lords allowed them.
That didn’t mean they didn’t try. The Star Realm was well aware the GCPS would go to almost any length to find a way around those failsafes. Being scanned by the corporate ships they delivered goods to, like the Harridan, was therefore only to be expected.
Brukelyn realised he would have been more offended if they hadn’t tried to hack his ship.
Something else was bothering him though. He watched the turning starfield outside the Grip’s viewports as he thought back to the interaction he had had with the human captain. Something was off about it. Something about the name, perhaps? John Turney. He couldn’t get a grip on it, a maddening thing for any Forge Father worth his metal.
“Do me a favour,” he said to his crew chief. “Don’t take us home just yet. Go slow and run a full surface sweep, send out some dogs if you have to.”
“What’re we looking for?”
“I’m not rightly sure. I just have a bad feeling about this. It might be nothing, but humour an old dwarf, alright?”
“Shout me if you find anything. I’ll be in my forge.”
Brukelyn left the pilot to it and headed towards his quarters and the sanctuary of his private work area on the ship’s mid-deck. His helmet clanked softly against his hip as he walked and he lost himself for a moment in the tapping rhythm. He hummed a soft tune to himself as he descended a ramp towards the crew areas, a camp song he had learned some time ago on a campaign distant in both space and time.
He had rounded the final corner to his destination when the communicator in his suit whistled softly to him.
“What?” he said.
“You were right, we found something.” It was his pilot.
Brukelyn smiled. It always paid to check your rings when you shook hands with a human.
“What is it? I’m betting on a surface tracker.”
“Well, you’d lose that one then. It’s not a tracker. It’s a stowaway.”
Brukelyn swore loudly as he detached his helmet from his belt. If there was one thing he disliked more than humans, it was the vermin they carried everywhere with them.
Forge Father technology was far in advance of anything many other races in the galaxy could even dream of. Part of this sophistication came from dwarves living much longer than those other races and thus having more time to work with. But mostly it came from their attention to detail and willingness to go to painstaking lengths to get the absolute most out of whatever material they were working with or to follow a strand of research as far as it took them. Their ships then were faster and more powerful than just about anything in the galaxy. But a starship is still a starship and the bowels of the Sturdy Grip were just as dirty and noisy as any other’s.
Brukelyn’s helm shut out most of the noise but he could still feel the waves of pressure buffeting his armour as he stalked along the narrow corridors in the power plant. The static they produced was playing havoc with his armour’s sensors too but he didn’t want to have them powered down lest it warn his quarry he was on the trail. Little chance of being caught out though. The cyber-mastiffs at his heels would make sure of that.
He kept a small kennel aboard ship, just the three dogs. They were only partially robotic, with stronger jaws and reinforced skulls, all the good stuff you needed in a quality fighting dog. Their olfactory centres were pure organic though - no sense in messing with perfection.
The noise from the core meant he couldn’t hear them growling as he neared a sealed junction but the threat indicators in his visor started to glow a soft amber, responding to relays in the dogs’ collars.
He smiled and rested a hand on the hatch controls.
“On your marks, lads,” he said. The hounds were all on edge, straining to get at whatever they had smelt in the room beyond. He keyed in the access code and the door slid open.
“On you go!”
The dogs darted through the open hatch, Old Barter in the lead, his brothers, Biter and Bit at his flanks. Brukelyn stepped through behind them and let the door slide closed.
The noise from the core room was shut out instantly and Brukelyn could hear considerably more in the compartment he had entered. His helmet readout was still being scrambled by the core though and the lights were out too, no doubt thanks to the unwanted visitor the scan had detected.
He switched on night-vision sensors and scanned the space ahead of him slowly. It was a storage area, full of racks of spare parts and components for the engines and forges aboard the ship. There, at the opposite end of the room, he could see the three locator signals of his hounds. They were agitated, that much was obvious, but whether they were engaged or not was unclear. Then one of the signals winked out completely.
“Hel.” he said and started to move forwards, unstrapping his hammer from his side.
He was ten meters away from the hounds when the second signal stopped transmitting and he picked up his pace, running through the darkness now, his feet pounding a metallic tattoo across the deck plating.
Ahead of him a pile of crates had been built up in a recessed alcove in the storage bay. The hound signal was coming from behind it.
He charged into the crates, swinging his hammer over his head and bringing the energised core down hard. Packing materials and contents burst into a shower of fragments, bouncing off his armour and onto the deck around him.
A single Veer-myn stood on the other side of the wreckage, its eyes glowing softly in the infrared light from Brukelyn’s armour. Its tail was ragged, looking almost broken near the end and there were several bleeding bite marks on its flanks. He could hear it squealing now and the harsh growling of one of the dogs. It looked like Bit, and it had the Veer-myn by one forearm and was trying to drag it to the ground. The bodies of the dog’s brothers lay on each side of the rat thing but there was no time to check if they were alive or not.
The Veer-myn sprang at Brukelyn immediately, ignoring or forgetting the dog clamped onto it by its augmented jaws. Nothing would make the dog release its grip now other than a direct command from its master. Although that would not kill whatever it had latched onto, its weight would slow its victim down, important when you were a relatively small and slow dwarf fighting a fast and agile Veer-myn in the confined quarters of a ship’s hold.
And it was fast. It dodged to one side as Brukelyn brought his hammer down again, trying to split the rat man’s skull open and then brought its own weapon, an evilly curved knife that looked like it had been chewed into shape, up towards Brukelyn’s midsection. The blade glanced off the armour and Brukelyn spun round to follow the Veer-myn as it tried to escape past him.
“Oh no you don’t.” he grunted as he grabbed the Veer-myn’s pink tail.
It squealed again as Brukelyn squeezed hard and tried to yank the Veer-myn back and off its feet. Instead the part of the tail he was holding broke off in his hand with a sharp snap and the Veer-myn stumbled forward to the ground.
“That’s my dog you’ve got there,” He hefted the hammer again, lining it up with the rat man’s spine. “And this is my ship. No stowaways.” He swung the hammer down and the weight of thing, coupled with its energy field, easily ploughed through the bulky armour of the Veer-myn. There was a squelching sound as its spine was pulped and a spurt of red blood was driven from its mouth.
“Ah, look now, you’ve stained my decks.” Brukelyn tutted as he pulled the hammer back out of the messy crater it had made in the Veer-myn’s back.
“Come on now, you”. He gave the release signal to Bit, still grimly attached to the dead but twitching Veer-myn’s arm. “Let’s go see what he did to your brothers.”
The dog barked at him and panted, happy it had done its job.
As Brukelyn knelt down in the alcove, it was obvious Old Barter had run his last scent. The dog’s neck was broken and its head lolled to one side as he picked it up. Biter had a nasty stab wound on his belly, but was still breathing and Brukelyn gently gathered him up with his other arm. Bit whined at his heel as he cradled the two animals in his arms.
“I know, boy, I know. But he had a good long life, didn’t he. And you’ll be top dog now, so I’ll be needing you to step up.”
The communicator whistled in Brukelyn’s helm.
“It’s me again. We found something.”
“Aye, I know. I’m in the engine compartment. I got it.”
“What? Oh, aye. No, not that. We found something else.”
“Another Veer-myn?” Brukelyn frowned. If there was one thing he disliked more than hunting Veer-myn it was hunting more Veer-myn.
“No. Nothing aboard the ship. It was the scans.”
“Well, we kept the scans running after we found the stowaway. To be honest, they were set for a deep level check and there didn’t seem any point in stopping them.”
Brukelyn could feel himself growing impatient, an unusual feeling for a dwarf.
“Back at the Corporation ship. Something got through the pulse fields when they were scanning us. Into the central banks.”
Brukelyn swore. “Hel’s teeth.” This could be bad and he knew it. To the GCPS, and as far as anyone else knew, the Ward ships operated more or less randomly, travelling to wherever they were needed or a trade had been arranged. If anyone found out the truth though, that their movements were in fact well-coordinated, that could leave them vulnerable. Then there was the fact of the true strength of the Star Realm, the military might they had hidden from the galaxy at large.
“Bloody humans,” he said. “How much did they get?”
“Well, that’s the problem. The approach they used, the sophistication, the sheer subtlety of their code strings, well...”
“Well, there’s no way it was the corporation that got in. I’m looking at the data here and if I were a betting man, I’d put good gold on it being a third party, an outside agent.”
“So, you’re saying...”
“Aye, someone else was at the meet. Someone we couldn’t see.”
Brukelyn cursed again. There was only one race he disliked more than humans, Veer-myn, and all the other races in the galaxy combined.
“Alright. Take us to the Ward ship. The Forge Lords are going to want to know about this.”
He looked down at his dogs again, the two living and the recently deceased.
“Better get you boys back up to strength then,” he said, “I’ve a feeling we’re going to be on the hunt again. And soon.”