Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Kaine rounded the corner at a full sprint, boots kicking up plumes of sand as he tried to outpace his pursuers. No gun, no backup and rapidly losing daylight, he fought the urge to panic, swallowed it down.

“Nowhere to run to Kaine, nowhere to hide.” The voice bellowing between breaths, his pursuer struggling to keep the pace, but as Kaine’s feet left the sand and skidded to a stop on hard rock, he knew he was right. Jagged rock faces rose up on three sides; too steep to climb fast enough not to be brought down by shredder fire, the route behind singular and unbranching.

When the three men arrived, he was leaning, back to the cold stone, hands at his side, absently chewing a chunk of root he’d fished from a pocket of his overcoat.

Realizing he was unarmed and cornered, they relaxed their weapons and caught their breath. The one closest spoke while the other two flanked him, shifting their weight on the uneven sand beneath their feet.

“I should shoot you just for making me run out here,” the words were muffled through the filter mask that obscured the lower half of his face.

Kaine smiled around a mouthful of chewed root, then spat thinly across one of the subordinate’s boots, the blackened saliva dripping down into the sand. “Shoot me? Then what, carry a hundred kilos of dead weight back to port?”

The soldier scuffed his feet, carefully watching his superior but saying nothing, controlling his anger.

“We could just take your head back, leave your body for the scavengers.”

Kaine chuckled, and spat again, this time hitting the other soldier in the shins. He started, stepping forward and raising his weapon before being barked back into submission in Altaic command-speak.

“What if your boss’s prize isn’t in my head?”

There was a pause as his words were considered and Kaine pressed the advantage.

“You’re new at this, yes? Ever wonder why your bosses hire men like me and don’t trust everything to you? You come to this back-world shithole in dress uniform? Are those parade boots? I’ll bet your feet have been bleeding since you landed. You see these?” Kaine lifted one heavily scaled booted foot in the air, “these are made from genuine spine-back dragon hide. Ever seen a spine-back? Local combustion weapons can’t touch it. You can’t put a vibra blade through it, can’t burn it, and energy weapons just piss it off. It’s got only one natural predator on this dustbowl, and you don’t get to wear a pair of these unless you’ve figured out how to exploit that.” Kaine sucked loosely between his teeth, then spat again, this time spattering both the commanding officer’s boots.

“Do that again Kaine,” the officer fumed, jabbing the air with a pointed finger,” and we will carry you back in pieces.”

“You know your biggest problem? No situational awareness. Take the spine-back. They’re opportunists. They eat anything they can catch, and they can catch almost anything. They have this soft spot for an indigenous root though, an addictive narcotic plant native to the desert. They nose through the sand to find it, then chew the roots until they’re high as cabot wingers. Trouble is, the same root drives another little critter crazy. Ever see a jacqueline blue scorpion? Nasty little bastards. The stoned spine-back’s drool brings the jackie-blues a swarmin’. Dragon’s too messed up to run and it’s dead before it ever knows what hit it.

Kaine’s grin widened, and he carefully spat a last great mouthful of juice and chewed root in the face of the nearest soldier as he crumpled to the ground, the iridescent blue scorpions already covering him to the knees and stinging repeatedly through the inadequate armour.

Finding a comfortable spot higher up the rock face he watched the undulating sand and the blue streaks below with sombre fascination. “Not coming down yet,” he called out, and laughed.

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