Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

He rests the butt of the rifle on his hip, trying to look casual despite torn and bloody clothing. Pausing his posing to light a cigar, he snaps the lighter closed and returns it to his beltpouch. Looking about the scene, he lifts a leg to rest insouciantly on the flank of the kill, while a quick flick of his head tilts his visor back.
The jungle still hasn’t recovered its voice after the fury of their engagement, restricting itself to furtive rustlings and sudden, warbled crescendos. Silver-white flashes illuminate the vicinity as the holopod does its work, capturing the hard-won triumph of man over alien monster.
“Zip Tinkhotarra. Title ‘Mitch Saunders brings another Acsel to the end of its rampage’. Loc Tallasye Central Basin. Tim dawn plus three. Godo.”
The holopod beeps, then ascends rapidly. As soon as it’s above the canopy, it sends the data three times, to three different locations, in coded pulses under a second in length. The compression plays havoc with image quality, but allows the holopod to send and drop back into cover before the aggressive, territorial Kren knock it out of the air.
Mitch hears a raucous melee start high above. Having missed the holopod, they’ve switched to fighting over the rights to that particular bit of sky.
He surveys the kill again. ‘Acsel’ is a nickname derived from the acronym for its full name: Artificially Created and Surgically Enhanced Superior Lifeform – a grandiose title for a savage piece of liveware. Created by the enigmatic Vallahyr, Acsel first appeared on Siro Nine, where four of them slew seven hundred people, including the entire planetary guard. In the fifteen years since, they’ve killed over a half a million more. Specialists like Mitch are the only real answer. They’re volunteers who undergo augumentation at one of the heavily guarded Deterrent Research centres. All are highly adaptable combatants, able to respond to a threat that has no set form, seemingly being created specifically for each foray.
Which brings him back to this specimen.
“You’re unexpected, monster. What brings you here?”
Stopping dead, he drops the rifle and pulls his pistol in a single fluid move. Without pause, he snaps full-charge blasts off at the possible locations he’d choose to shoot from if he wanted to drop a cocky augment named Mitch who’d just killed a decoy Acsel and stupidly paused to take publicity photos.
The second shot prompts a bolt of lightning from another direction, the scream of torn air molecules goading Mitch to leap out of its way, frantically snapping a shot off as he dives for cover. Something shouts in rage and pain, words in no language he understands, but content easily guessed.
With a probable location for the enemy, Mitch slots a killquick onto the launch rail of his pistol and lets it fly, cursing as its gravtac field breaks three of his fingers. Again! He always forgets to wear the reinforced gauntlets.
The tiny intelligent missile accelerates toward the designated area, sorting sensor data to pick the biggest thing moving in that vicinity. Target selected, it dumps its entire charge to go supersonic, wreaking precise, lethal havoc when it hits.
Something screams and dies. Mitch stays down and summons the holopod.
“Zip Tinkhotarra. Title ‘Vallahyr Ambush’. Text ‘It used an Acsel in wild terrain as bait. Nearly got me. Warn the others.’ Loc Tallasye Central Basin. Tim dawn plus four. Godo.”
He lights a fresh cigar and grins. It’s always nice to be recognised for good work, but rewards like this he can do without.