This is a short story that will be incorporated into my new novel, The Dragons of Andromeda.
Down the line of other containers, an elevator door opened with a cheerful ding and a man in uniform stepped out. His name was Colonel Hugo Grausman, a man Magnus knew very well.
In his fifties, the colonel wore a green uniform with black, spit-shined boots. His dark brown hair was cut high and tight revealing a large scar running along the side of his head.
Colonel Grausman held up his hands and turned completely around, showing that the holster at his hip was empty and no other obvious weapons were visible. Magnus let him stand there for a full minute before saying anything.
“I didn’t expect to see you again,” Magnus said, “unless I was going to kill you.”
Following the assassin’s voice, the colonel took several steps in that direction before stopping.
“I get that a lot,” he said.
“I hope this isn’t just the Intelligence Service luring me into a trap,” Magnus said, emerging from the shadow.
“They’re still looking for you?”
“If I’m still breathing, they’re still looking for me.”
“Maybe I can help you with that…” the colonel suggested.
“Is that why you’re here?” Magnus asked. “To do me a favor?”
“I’m hurt,” Magnus replied.
“There’s been a terrorist attack on Marakata,” the colonel said.
Magnus shrugged. “That’s a daily occurrence…”
“A suicide bomber got into the green zone and blew himself up, taking out half the officers’ quarters,” the colonel went on.
“The Draconians aren’t going to stop until the Imperials leave their planet.”
“I know that!” the colonel said angrily. “I’ve been fighting them for over twenty years.”
“So why’s this attack different?”
“Because my wife and kids are dead! They died in the explosion!”
Magnus arched his eyebrow, but said nothing.
“We killed off the terrorist cell responsible,” the colonel continued after collecting himself, “but the leader’s still at large.”
“Who is it?”
“Do you still remember General Ekavir?”
Magnus glared. “You know damn well I do.”
“Then you won’t mind going after him for me.”
“He’s not my problem any more,” Magnus replied.
“A lot has changed since you were there,” the colonel said. “Ekavir has lost most of his people from reprisal raids. The rest don’t want to be anywhere near him. They say he’s lost his honor.”
“I guess killing kids will do that for a person.”
“The two of you have unfinished business. This is your opportunity to finish him off once and for all.”
“Are you sure he’s still on Marakata?” Magnus asked.
“The planet’s been under blockade since the attack,” Colonel Grausman replied. “I haven’t allowed anyone off the planet except myself to come here. He’s got to be in the jungle somewhere. It’s just a matter of finding him.”
“On a world covered in jungle. That shouldn’t be hard…”
“Some of your old contacts are still alive. I’ve made sure of that.”
“What about payment?”
“Five hundred thousand credits,” the colonel replied.
Magnus shook his head slowly. “Not enough.”
“Like I said, I can get the IS to stop looking for you.”
“Now, how would you do that?”
“I’ve made new friends,” the colonel said. “They might do me a favor if I ask nicely.”
“The IS was pretty pissed when I quit,” Magnus replied. “It didn’t help that I killed their agent on my way out the door…”
“Is that a yes?”
Magnus considered for a long minute but finally nodded. “Okay.”
When the expansion of the Imperium reached the Draconian home world Marakata, the humans found a race of fierce warriors who, even without advanced technology, resisted all attempts to subdue them. Taller than humans, these large reptiles are covered in thick green scales with wide, bone-like protrusions around the crown of their skulls. Although they have claws on both hands and feet, they are masters of bladed weapons including what the natives call the Draconian battlestaff. At the end of a long pole, the head of the battlestaff combines a pointed side for stabbing and an axe side for slashing.
The Draconians did a lot of both as often as they could.
Two hundred years and several revolts later, Marakata was a police state with Colonel Hugo Grausman as the military governor. Even with Imperial soldiers manning checkpoints throughout the main city of Sucikhata, attacks by Draconian separatists occurred so frequently that most governing offices, both civil and military, were located in an area of relative safety called the Green Zone.
Although the inhabitants of the city enjoyed all the modern amenities one would expect, the architecture of Sucikhata gave it a more ancient appearance. Instead of concrete and plasteel, the buildings were constructed of stone blocks carefully fitted together without mortar or cement. Since most buildings were only a few stories tall, the city grew outward, forming a sprawling labyrinth of narrow alleys paved with large, flattened stones. Like everywhere else on the planet, vines and vegetation are prevalent throughout the city as the jungle attempts to take back what was rightfully its own.
Magnus checked into a hotel where he found his equipment waiting for him courtesy of Colonel Grausman. Magnus lifted the blinds and stared out at the jungle visible just outside the city. In the haze of the afternoon, a volcano rose from the leafy sea of green.
As a new recruit, barely in his twenties, Magnus learned all about Agniparvata, the name of the Draconians’ revered mountain. According to their legends, a two-headed dragon named Bonamalum lived inside the volcano. One of the heads, Bona, was good-natured while his brother, Malum, was evil. One day, a hero climbed the mountain and challenged Malum to combat. The evil side agreed, attacking the hero, but after a battle lasting seven days and seven nights, Malum’s head lay severed on the ground. As the hero rejoiced in his victory, he noticed that Bona, the good side, was bleeding to death from the wound that killed his evil brother. Powerless to help, the hero could do nothing as the good dragon collapsed and died.
Over the better part of two decades, most of the soldiers Magnus served with were either dead or transferred off-world. He hadn’t made many friends among the locals, because he was killing them most of the time. The few native contacts Magnus did make were usually uncovered by resistance groups and executed as traitors. Even so, there was one Draconian he was confident still lived. A quick search of the business registry confirmed it.
Despite the tropical heat, Magnus pulled on his leather overcoat and made his way down the streets of Sucikhata. Military checkpoints blocked most major arteries, but Magnus avoided them, preferring the narrow side streets. A group of Draconian children playing with a ball stopped, their jaws hanging open, as the strange human passed by. Most non-Dracs were too afraid of the dangers that dwelt in the alleyways. Besides regular gangs, thieves, and misfits, these were the passageways where true believers in Draconian freedom were found. For them, spilling human blood was a rite of passage.
As if oblivious, Magnus strolled undeterred except for the heavy sweat running down his face and neck.
Turning a corner, three young Draconians barred his way. Each carried a machete-sized blade.
“Lost?” one of them asked.
Magnus cocked his head to one side.
“You must have a death wish,” another one said.
Magnus opened his coat, revealing a blaster rifle hanging from a shoulder harness.
“Go home,” he said.
“We’re not afraid of you!” the first youth replied defiantly.
“If you knew how many Dracs said that to me and ended up dead,” the assassin replied, “you’d already be gone.”
The Draconians traded nervous glances, but Magnus already knew what the consensus would be. Courage was no substitute for experience, and fear trumped them both.
Reluctantly, but still with an element of haste, the three stepped back and turned, making their way down a side alley and out of sight. Magnus closed his coat and continued on his way.
The Dragon’s Teeth was a shop far enough off the beaten path that only people who already knew it existed ever went there. The shop’s name, by law, was written in the human language, called Imperial Standard, while below in smaller script was the translation in Draconian cuneiform.
Magnus pushed the front door open and went in. If the hit man thought the air was hot on the outside, he was unpleasantly surprised to find it like a furnace on the inside.
At least it was a dry heat, he thought. Like sticking your head in a convection oven.
A bell over the door alerted the owner someone had entered. A tattered curtain covering an archway parted and a Draconian, hobbling on a peg leg, shuffled in. Seeing Magnus, the old Draconian swore something in the local language. Magnus could guess what it meant.
“Hello, Daaruk,” Magnus said. “How’s business?”
Daaruk swung his head toward the racks of swords hanging on the walls, a blanket of dust covering them.
“About as well as my leg,” he replied wryly. “The one you shot off as I recall.”
“That’s a shame,” Magnus replied. “You’re the best weaponsmith on Marakata.”
Daaruk chuckled. “Only because your people keep killing my competition.”
“I guess it’s good to be the last one standing,” he remarked.
The Draconian pivoted on his wooden leg and went back through the archway. Magnus followed.
In the next room, a forge filled the center, a well-worn anvil standing to one side. Daaruk took a pair of tongs and grabbed a piece of glowing-red metal from the burning forge. With a hammer as big as Magnus’ fist, the Draconian struck the metal over the anvil a few times before shoving it back into the fire.
“So, you took my leg,” Daaruk said. “Did you come back to finish the job?”
“No,” Magnus replied. “I have a different job in mind.”
“What’s it got to do with me?”
“I’m looking for someone.”
“Unless he’s a customer, I don’t know him.”
“The Jade General?” Magnus asked.
Daaruk pulled the rod from the forge again, but instead of laying it across the anvil, he swung it around toward Magnus’ head. Anticipating the move, Magnus thrust his hand through the pocket of his coat, firing his blaster rifle through the lining. Daaruk’s peg leg disintegrated into ashes, leaving him off-balance. He fell heavily on his chest, the smoldering metal bar sliding away across the floor.
Magnus removed the rifle from his coat and pointed it at the back of Daaruk’s head as he lay there gasping for breath.
“Was it something I said?” the assassin asked.
The weaponsmith rolled over, rubbing his shoulder he had hit against the floor.
“Barbarian,” he said.
“That’s funny,” Magnus replied. “That’s what Colonel Grausman calls you.”
“Humans think we’re primitive because we don’t use blasters,” Daaruk said, “but we think humans are barbarians because you have no honor.”
“Honor never stopped a person from dying,” Magnus said.
“Will you help me up?”
“No, I like where you are just fine.”
“Are you really looking for Ekavir, the Jade General?”
“He is also without honor,” Daaruk said.
“That’s what I hear,” Magnus replied. “Why is that, by the way?”
“Do you know the story of the Dragon’s Tears?”
“It’s about the dragon, Bonamalum,” Magnus said, “or at least Bona, the good one. When his evil brother Malu was killed, Bona wept and where his tears fell, Draconian warriors sprang to life.”
Daaruk nodded. “They’re called Dragon Soldiers. They pledged to always serve their people, no matter the enemy.”
“What’s that got to do with Ekavir?” Magnus asked.
“He forgot about the pledge. He only cares about revenge against the human invaders, even when it means Draconians die in the process.”
“So you abandoned him?”
“No, no. He abandoned us for his own selfish ambitions.”
“Alright,” Magnus said. “Where do I find him?”
“In the jungle…”
A blast of hot plasma leapt from the rifle, blowing a hole in the floor beside the Draconian.
“I’m going to need specifics,” Magnus said.
Daaruk eyed the tiny crater, silently smoking, in the floor.
“I’ll see what I can do,” he replied.
The Draconian camp was well hidden inside the jungle, the huts huddled below the canopy hundreds of feet above. Cold blooded, the separatists might have needed a fire somewhere else, but not on Marakata where the air was heavy with a stifling, oppressive heat. Even if they had wanted to, the Draconians knew the Imperials used satellites to search for camp fires, always on the lookout for bivouacs like this one. There were stories of whole villages wiped out by orbital bombardment, simply because they looked suspicious.
These rebels were laying especially low. No electronic signals from communications or other equipment. Nothing to give their position away. They didn’t want to be found, certainly not by the human occupiers.
Unfortunately, KB-8E was not a human. It was a killbot designed to track and destroy.
Covered in emitters that mimicked the surroundings, giving it near-perfect camouflage, KB-8E lurked just outside the camp, watching the Draconians through spectra far outside human or Draconian perception. The robot knelt behind the bush-like flora. Its body, the surfaces reflecting an image of the bush, was armored and capable of withstanding both projectiles and energy weapons. On a spindly neck, KB-8E’s head didn’t have a face except for a bundle of sensors, all different sized, used to analyze a range of inputs including visual, sound, and even smells. It was precisely the latter that helped KB-8E find the separatist camp due to the Draconians’ particularly poor personal hygiene. Lastly, beside the bundle of sensors was a large red lens, the business end of a particle beam accelerator.
Taking aim, the killbot fired an invisible ray of subatomic particles at a separatist standing guard. The beam passed neatly through the Draconian’s chest, turning his heart and other internal organs into a freshly warmed soup. Not aware he was dying until he was already dead, he dropped where he stood without making a sound.
KB-8E leapt from its hiding place and landed several yards away in the center of the camp where most of the other rebels were sleeping. Starting with the closest, the killbot began punching the Drac in the upper chest. With each punch, a long bayonet blade extended from the robot’s wrist, piercing the victim before retracting again as the arm pulled away. In this fashion, the killbot repeatedly skewered the Draconian until moving on to the next one.
By the time KB-8E reached the fourth rebel, the remaining three were sufficiently aware that the night had gone terribly wrong and had reached for their own weapons. They confronted the robot who jumped over their heads, landing behind them where it focused on a Draconian’s spine instead of his chest cavity. Although the emitters on the robot’s frame attempted to keep up, mimicking the surroundings, mostly they were covered by a thick and sticky layer of blood, making camouflage difficult.
When the last of the rebels was dead, the killbot stopped and surveyed the scene.
Although everyone was satisfactorily eliminated, the robot’s scan noted its intended target was not present. This disappointment was magnified when a projectile, fired from long range, pierced KB-8E’s neck, the only part of its body that was not armored with ballistic mesh. The killbot’s head popped into the air before landing, upside down, at the feet of one of the dead Draconians.
Magnus Black left the high-powered sniper rifle with the rest of his gear and walked into the rebels’ camp. He leveled his flashlight on each of the Draconian bodies, or what was left of them, until he was satisfied Gereral Ekavir wasn’t one of them.
The beam of light landed on the killbot’s head, the severed neck pointing up. Cut off from the body’s main power supply, the particle gun was no longer operational, but Magnus kept out of its line of fire just in case.
“Even for a killbot,” he said, “that’s some impressive carnage.”
A light on the robot’s head blinked. “Thank you.”
“My contact told me General Ekavir was at this camp,” Magnus added.
“I, too, was hunting the general.”
“Did Colonel Grausman send you?”
“Then why did you shoot me?” the killbot asked.
“I don’t like robots,” Magnus replied. After a pause, “What do they call you?”
“Really? Not a proper name like Robert or Cuddles?”
With a shrug, Magnus turned and started to walk away.
“Are you leaving me like this?” the killbot called after him.
Magnus looked over his shoulder. The light on the robot’s head was still blinking in the darkness.
“I was thinking about it,” he said.
“How do you intend to find General Ekavir now?” KB-8E asked.
“Well, you’ve killed all the Dracs that might’ve told me where he was, so I guess I’m not really sure.”
“I tracked this group of separatists with my sensor suite. Using it again, I am confident I could find the general’s new camp.”
“I think your mission’s over, bottle cap.”
“If you repair me,” the robot went on, “I can assist you.”
Magnus shook his head. “Sorry, I work alone.”
“As do I,” the robot replied, “but a temporary partnership would be mutually beneficial.”
Magnus faced the robot, cocking his head to the side so he could see the killbot roughly right-side up.
“Fine,” he said.
As a younger man, Magnus Black served in the Imperial military as part of their counter-insurgency forces on Marakata, the Draconian home world. At the time, he was known as Pitt, but he was also called other names like the Fixer and the Finisher. The Draconians had their own name, too. They called him the Butcher of Bhadra.
The township of Bhadra was founded at the confluence of two rivers, deep in the territory controlled by the separatists. Its location was strategic, both for the river traffic that brought raw materials out of the thick jungle and because it contained a religious site, a tiered pyramid where the native Draconians went to pray for their fallen brethren.
The head of the local cell of revolutionaries was named Ekavir, but his followers called him the Jade General. Under his command, the separatists had repelled every attempt by Imperial forces to take the town. To the people of Bhadra, and even some in the Imperial ranks, the Jade General seemed unbeatable.
Colonel Grausman, the military governor, considered leveling the town from orbit, but the outrage it would cause, especially the inevitable destruction of the temple, would inflame opinions both on the planet and off-world. The Draconian cause, despite Imperial attempts to portray them as mindless savages, was popular among many in the rest of the empire.
The colonel concluded that a team, lead by the right person, would infiltrate Bhadra and take out any hostile enemies they encountered. The choice for leader was easy. Pitt had distinguished himself by getting jobs done that everyone else had failed in. What Colonel Grausman did not consider was that everyone in Bhadra was hostile and Pitt was very literal about following his orders.
Wearing power armor, a carapace that covered his entire body, Pitt walked into the village along with a squad of Imperial soldiers. Almost immediately, groups of rebels began charging, swinging their Draconian warstaffs. The troops opened fire with blaster rifles, cutting the separatists down in droves. Before long, regular townspeople joined in, defending their homes and businesses against the invaders. As the civilian death toll rose, the Imperial soldiers started dying as well. Still, Pitt led his men deeper into the village. After their blaster power packs had reached zero, drained of energy, the soldiers switched to their own edged weapons. For his part, Pitt wielded a vibro-blade, a five-foot long sword with handholds along its length. Resonating at high speed, the cutting edge could slice through nearly anything and certainly the scales and bones of the Draconians.
Carving through the crowds against him, Pitt searched in vain for General Ekavir. After hours of fighting, Pitt found himself alone atop the temple pyramid. His armor, dented and scarred, dripped with the blood of those he had killed as if he had swum through a river of their bodies. Below Pitt, down the stone steps draped with corpses, the population of Bhadra lay where they had died. Like a terrible god of death, Pitt bore witness to what he had done. He felt sick, but knew each one he had killed had wanted him dead. They gave no quarter and he gave none in return.
Still, where was Ekavir? Where was the one who sent these villagers to die? Pitt continued to search, but found nothing. The Jade General had vanished into the jungle.
The repairs complete, KB-8E led Magnus Black through the dense jungle. Minute amounts of organic matter, left by Draconians passing by, clung to the leaves and hung in the air, all recorded and analyzed by the sensors in the killbot’s head. Following this unseen trail, the robot and the human found themselves in the remains of a town just as the sun was rising over the canopy. Above the village, the blue sky stared down like a hole in a roof.
“It appears General Ekavir came through here,” KB-8E said.
“If you say so,” Magnus replied, eyeing the stone buildings, the doorways and windows blackened with soot. “Do you see this damage?”
“The town appears to have burned.”
“With a little help from above,” Magnus remarked, pointing at the gap in the canopy. “An orbital strike…”
“It seems the inhabitants had little chance of survival.”
“That’s the idea.”
Magnus leaned against a broken wall, taking a drink from his canteen. His feet were nearly submerged in ashes. The robot waited patiently.
“Do you have much experience on this planet?” KB-8E asked.
Capping the canteen, Magnus hooked it back onto his belt. “Yeah.”
“May I ask when?”
“It’s been a while,” the human said. “I wasn’t much older than twenty. I kinda fell into service with the Imperium and was good at it.”
“Good at what exactly?”
“Would you say you were made for it?” the robot asked.
Magnus gave the machine a side glance. “Like you?”
“Indeed,” KB-8E replied. “I was built for my function. I have no other.”
“Well, you didn’t have much of a choice, did you? I suppose I did.”
“I sometimes wonder…”
“If perhaps I could do other things besides killing.”
Magnus snickered. “Like a hobby?”
The killbot lacked a mouth so it wasn’t able to smile, although it sometimes wished it could.
“I mean whether I could perform other functions,” it said, “that did not require ending someone’s life.”
“Hell if I know,” Magnus admitted. “You’re a slave to your programming, I guess.”
After a long pause, Magnus asked, “Why did Colonel Grausman assign you this mission?”
“Actually,” the robot replied, “he sent several units like myself. However, I remain the only one still in operation.”
“Serves the colonel right,” Magnus said. “Don’t send a robot to do a man’s job.”
“Do you resent him sending robots?”
“Like I said before, I don’t like them.”
“Why is that?”
“You kill a man, he stays down,” Magnus went on. “Destroy a robot and they just build more.”
“True,” KB-8E said. “We can always build more killbots…”
When Ekavir, the Jade General, was still a young Draconian, his father told him about the virtues that made them a proud, honorable race. His father spoke of courage, wisdom, and loyalty, and how the human invaders lacked these things. The Imperium, with all its wealth and technology, was a dim spark compared to the fire of the Draconian spirit.
“They’re barbarians,” his father said. “Never forget that.”
Ekavir was little more than a teenager, in relative terms, when he saw his first battle. A patrol of Imperial soldiers made the mistake of taking the same trail once too often, allowing the resistance fighters to set up an ambush. In the murky light of the jungle, the green scales of the Draconians blended with the leaves and branches, giving the rebels the perfect element of surprise. Armed with a warstaff, Ekavir dropped from a tree onto one of the unsuspecting soldiers. For years later, he remembered the eyes of the human, blue like the sky, but wide with the fear of his impending death. Ekavir hacked the man’s head from his shoulders, the body going limp like a sack of loose vegetables. What Ekavir found most shocking was not the blood or the screaming, but the ease at which these humans died. Their skin was soft and their bones weak. They crumbled with such little prodding that he couldn’t understand how they could rule an empire such as the Imperium.
It was unbelievable.
Over time, as Ekavir grew older, he developed contempt for the humans. They were not just barbarians. They were cowards. They used their weapons to strike from a distance, even from high above in orbit. He understood why. They were too fragile to face the Draconians in hand-to-hand combat, unless they wore suits of armor like robotic warriors.
It sickened him.
What really bothered Ekavir, however, was that these weaklings kept winning. The humans could be killed; that much was not debatable, but there were always more. For every soldier the Dracs killed, ten more arrived from off-planet. It was unending. No matter how many humans died, freedom for Ekavir’s people remained always in the distance, never closer than the horizon.
Now grown and an experienced insurgent, Ekavir began leading attacks against the invaders. He developed new tactics too. Instead of waiting in the jungle, he and his agents planted bombs in the places were the humans lived and worked. There were sometimes casualties among his own people, but they were the price that had to be paid for freedom. Their deaths were blood spilled for the revolution. Ekavir was confident they would have laid down their lives willingly if he had merely asked.
The years dragged on, but he never wavered or lost hope. The words of his father remained in his ears long after his father had died in an Imperial reprisal. The humans could not break Ekavir’s spirit, no matter how many Draconians they lined up to be shot.
However, not everyone was as strong. Some of his people questioned his methods. They suggested dialog and negotiations, even as they lived in chains. This bothered Ekavir even more than the humans. This weakness in the face of the enemy could not be forgotten or forgiven. Those who were not for him, were against him and, naturally, his enemy. They, too, must suffer the consequence of their barbarism.
Squads of his men fanned out into the jungle and the cities alike, looking for collaborators. These traitors were pulled from their homes, sometimes with their families watching. It was only right that they died within view of those they had betrayed. Ekavir took no pleasure in these killings, but he knew in his heart that only the strength of honor could lead to salvation and banishing the human invaders.
Even so, the bombing of the Green Zone, where the humans kept their spouses and children, was a miscalculation. The videos of the dead, played hourly by the Imperial propaganda machine, weakened Ekavir in the eyes of his people. The friends he knew he could trust suddenly were no longer reliable. The safe places became dangerous and the strikes from the sky became more frequent. All the while, he retreated deeper into the jungle.
With a machete, Magnus Black hacked at a particularly stubborn vine blocking their path. The jungle had grown ever thicker, slowing their progress. KB-8E considered using its particle beam but doing so, with the associated smoke and possible flames, would ruin any chance of surprising the Jade General. The killbot waited impassively as Magnus made a final swing, severing the vine in two.
“Have you worked with robots a great deal?” KB-8E asked suddenly.
Magnus wiped his face with the forearm of his shirt. “What?”
“You said you don’t like robots,” the robot went on. “I wondered how much time you’ve actually spent working with them.”
Magnus turned his eyes toward the machete in his hands as if contemplating something.
“Machines are everywhere,” he said. “You can’t kick a sweeperbot without hitting another sweeperbot.”
“No, I meant working together with a robot, as we are.”
“You mean, like a partner?”
“Indeed,” KB-8E replied.
Exasperated, the human shook his head. “We’re not partners!”
Without a face, KB-8E could not express emotions, provided it had any. However, the robot’s blinking light stared at Magnus without the machine saying anything.
“Don’t tell me I hurt your feelings?” Magnus said finally.
“I’m not programmed to have feelings,” KB-8E replied.
“In fact,” the killbot added, “I believe humans created killbots to avoid feeling the guilt associated with ending another person’s life.”
“Is that so?”
“How do you deal with your emotions after killing?”
Magnus shrugged. “I don’t give it much thought.”
“That seems wise,” KB-8E said. “Most of your kind seem to ruminate endlessly about their actions.”
“Well, I don’t.”
Magnus reared back to strike the next vine with his machete.
“Perhaps you are what they call a psychopath,” the robot said.
Magnus missed the vine, narrowly missing his own leg by less than an inch.
“That’s a hell of a thing to say!” he growled.
“Or are you a sadist of some kind?”
Shaking the long blade in his hand, Magnus held it threateningly. “I’m none of those things!”
The light on KB-8E’s head blinked several times.
“If you say so,” it said.
“I’m a killer, that’s true,” Magnus replied, “but it’s my job and I’m damn good at it.”
“But you don’t think about those you kill?”
“Do you?” Magnus asked.
“Actually, I do.”
“On the contrary,” the robot said, “although I assume you would consider it a fault in my programming, but I do indeed consider the lives I’ve ended and the consequences of what those lives might have accomplished if I had not ended them.”
Magnus, both his machete and jaw slacking, stared at the killbot.
“I’ll be damned,” he said.
Every morning at around 10 AM, when the temperature and the humidity reached the proper mix, the rain began falling and continued for half an hour before stopping again. It was like clockwork, every day. The drops fell from the heavy clouds, the water winding its way through the tops of the trees down to the jungle floor before emptying into streams and rivers. Swollen with the morning shower, one such river plunged over a rock face as a waterfall into a small lake. A deluge at first but then, the surge past, abating to a trickle, the falling water revealing the entrance to a cave partially flooded by the lake.
Magnus Black, submerged in the muddy water, swam beneath the surface into the cave. He wore a dark gray bodysuit with black goggles and a breathing device clenched between his teeth. A blaster was holstered on his right leg while a long blade was strapped to his left ankle. He could barely see, but he knew that meant the Draconians couldn’t see him either.
The robot had scanned the cave, giving Magnus a general idea of its dimensions. The entrance was narrow but widened into a cavern inside. When Magnus thought he was at the right spot, he risked a look, the top of his head and goggles disturbing the surface. He was beside a boat, woven from palm fibers, partially beached on a parcel of sand. Past the beach, stone steps led up to a flattened area below the ceiling at least fifty feet above. A few huts crowded the plateau, open fires burning between them, with a larger shack on the other side.
The air was thick with the scent of wet lizards.
Hearing someone coming down the steps, Magnus pushed the boat away from the beach.
A Draconian warrior cursed, seeing the craft floating toward the flooded entrance. Wading out to retrieve it, the warrior only got waist deep before Magnus drove a dagger into his heart. The body floated for a moment before sinking.
Slipping out of the water, Magnus left his goggles at the shoreline and inched across the beach, careful to tread lightly over the sand. At the foot of the steps, he listened. Sure that no one else was coming, Magnus climbed the stairs until his eyes peered over the top. Several Draconian warriors, armed mostly with swords or warstaffs, were shuffling around the camp amid the huts. Like the boat, the hovels were constructed from leaves and wood gathered from the jungle outside. Under the domed roof, they looked to be more for privacy than shelter.
With one hand holding his blaster and the other his knife, Magnus crept from the steps to the back of a hut. Thinking he had made little to no noise in the process, Magnus was surprised when a Draconian came crashing through the hut wall, tackling him to the ground.
“What the hell?” Magnus said, both hands pinned.
The Draconian, within inches of Magnus’ face, grinned a mouth full of teeth.
“I can smell a wet human for miles,” the warrior said.
“Good to know,” Magnus replied.
His right arm bent, Magnus extended it, pulling the Drac’s hand out along with it. The warrior’s eyes widened as Magnus contorted his left knee into the Draconian’s leg, knocking him off balance and rolling him over. With their positions reversed and Magnus on top, he fired the blaster, cremating the warrior’s snout and most of his face. Magnus shook off the dead claws still holding his wrists and turned just as several more Dracs came around the side of the hut.
Magnus burned holes in the first two to reach him. A third leapt over the dead warriors, making a wide swing with his warstaff. Magnus felt a surge of pain in his hand as he watched the blaster sail over the edge of the rocks and into the water below.
This is not ideal, he thought to himself.
He dodged the next swing, ducking under it while slicing the warrior’s tendon as he rolled past. Dropping to one knee in agony, the Draconian exposed the back of his neck into which Magnus, jumping back to his feet, drove his blade, severing the spinal column.
Magnus grabbed the Draconian warstaff and buried it into another warrior’s chest. Using his foot as leverage, he pulled the staff free as memories of Bhadra floated back to mind. The raw smell of their blood filled his nostrils. He killed, like before, taking long swaths like a reaper’s scythe through the ranks of the defenders.
He was the intruder. He was the invader. He didn’t care.
No longer wet with water, but drenched in something else, Magnus stood before the large shack at the end. With both hands, he held the warstaff against his waist.
The door, driftwood lashed together with fibers, opened. Ekavir stood in the doorway, backlit by the warm flicker of a fire behind him. In his hands he held a blaster rifle.
Also not ideal, Magnus thought.
“Drop your weapon,” Ekavir said, gesturing with his rifle.
The Draconian warstaff landed in the dusty ground at Magnus’ feet.
“Do you know who I am?” the assassin asked.
The Jade General grinned and nodded. His scales were worn in places, the natural green faded by age.
“The Butcher of Bhadra,” he said. “I recognize you.”
“I don’t recall seeing you there,” Magnus replied.
“I was there.”
“Hiding while your people died?”
“My people sacrificed themselves,” Ekavir said, “so I could escape and continue the battle elsewhere.”
“They paid the price so you could live…”
“So the revolution could live!”
“I’m pretty sure the revolution would’ve survived without you.”
“I am the revolution!”
Magnus chuckled, eyeing the general with his modern weapon.
“Are you sure?” he asked. “Seems like it’s already passed you by.”
“No,” Ekavir replied, sticking his chest out. “Long after you’re forgotten, my people will sing songs about me. After the worms have spat you out, I will go on.”
Magnus shook his head.
“Alright then,” he said. “Anytime now.”
The Jade General raised the blaster rifle, but Magnus wasn’t speaking to him. The tips of two blades burst from Ekavir’s chest. The Draconian gazed down at them with confusion in his eyes as blood came spilling out. When the tips retracted, only to re-emerge moments later, Ekavir roared in pain and fury. He attempted to point the rifle at Magnus, but the weapon fell from his hands, followed close behind by Ekavir himself, falling on top of it.
KB-8E stood within the doorway. The robot’s camouflage emitters flickered off.
“What the hell were you waiting for?” Magnus shouted at the killbot.
“You seemed to be in the middle of a conversation,” KB-8E replied.
Magnus kicked the corpse over so the general was face up. He picked up the blaster rifle.
“The primary target appears to be eliminated,” the robot said, examining the body.
“Yeah,” Magnus replied slowly, “but there was always a secondary target, wasn’t there?”
The killbot looked up. “Sadly, yes.”
The barrel of the robot’s particle beam lit up, just as Magnus rolled to the side. The material of his bodysuit charred at the shoulder, Magnus fired, a hot bolt of plasma impacting KB-8E’s chest in a shower of sparks and molten plastic. The robot fell backwards, landing halfway inside the shack.
When Magnus got back to his feet, he wasn’t sure if the robot was destroyed until he saw the red light blinking on its faceplate.
“Don’t move,” Magnus said.
“I do not think that will be possible,” KB-8E replied, its voice modulating intermittently.
Magnus kept the rifle pointed at the disabled robot. “There was never any deal with Colonel Grausman.”
“Affirmative,” the robot said. “I was to terminate you once the primary target was killed.”
“It is my understanding that his superior officers demanded it.”
The assassin shrugged. “Yeah, that checks out.”
“I regret that I can no longer work alongside you, Mr. Black,” the robot said. “It was interesting.”
Magnus didn’t reply.
“Will you kill Colonel Grausman?” KB-8E asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “He’s going to die.”
“Before he does,” KB-8E said, “please pass along my apologies for failing in my mission.”
After a pause, “Sure.”
“Farewell, Mr. Black.”
Magnus pulled the trigger and swam out of the cave. He had a long hike ahead of him to get back to Sucikhata and the Green Zone.