Three shots. Count’em. And Aurora said Eponi didn’t do enough when Sever started fights.

Not that those three shots — blistering bolts fired from the small spitter DefenseCorp regulations made Eponi carry — seemed to bother the swamp creature. Sever’s pilot watched from the front nose of the drop shuttle, steadily losing its war against the loose sludge drawing it down, as Gregor, Sai, Rovo, and Aurora dashed around tentacles and splashed through goo to try and figure out how to hurt the thing. The whole scene felt like a bad flick, one of those where all the budgets went to special effects and nothing to the plot.

“Why is this thing even here?” Eponi said into the squad’s channel between a warning call from Aurora to Rovo and a curse from Sai as his sword stuck again into the mud beast’s side. “Out of this entire swamp, we happen to land right on top of it? What are the odds?”

She aimed the spitter as a tentacle swept up Gregor, pulling the big man towards the top of the beast’s bulk. On the side of her weapon, a yellow strip slowly shifted towards green as the spitter sucked spare electrons from the atmosphere, charging up its own batteries to, well, spit death back out. Tech that’d started in weapons like this and then made its way to the racers she loved, giving way for days-long contests where managing battery power took as much skill as navigating the course. The prize purses for those… she’d get back to them.

“You chose the landing spot!” Rovo bothered to reply.

“Kill it!” Aurora played her part, shut down irrelevant conversation. “Eponi, help Gregor.”

Eponi squeezed off another yellow bolt towards the top of the beast. It vanished into the mud with a sizzle, doing nothing to assist Gregor as the mud beast threw him into a nearby tree. Gregor hit the trunk, a rotting thing that looked more like a harbinger of horrors rather than a plant, and broke it, landing on the tree’s gnarled roots below. Eponi grimaced—that looked like it hurt—and stood. Gregor didn’t move, except for his right leg’s slow slide towards the muck. Guess she could help him avoid drowning in the disgusting swamp.

With the boosters kicking, Eponi leapt off the nose of the drop shuttle and flew over Sai’s swinging blade, a sliding tentacle, and Rovo’s scattershot spitter blasts. For a hot second, the roots seemed like they might be beyond Eponi’s grasp, but, as ever, the helmet’s calculations proved correct and Eponi landed right in the middle of the green zone her visor had highlighted. Racers had strict limits on their autopilots, their computer assists, so natural skill took precedence. Out here? The less DefenseCorp could leave in the hands of its soldiers, the better. Took a lot of the thrill away.

“You alive, big guy?” Eponi said, reaching Gregor and dragging—with the help of energy augments in her suit—him away from the liquid. She sent the words through the touch-comm, a near field link that’d send the sound right to Gregor without muddling the squad’s open channel. “Fight’s still going. They could use your hammer out there.”

A hammer that, Eponi noted, still occupied prime position in the mud thing’s crown. Though it seemed like Sever had made some headway – much of the mud had been burned or cut away, revealing a grassy-green set of scales and fur, as though the creature had blended a bunch of species and chosen the ugliest parts of each. The fight’s good news did nothing to spur Gregor; the man stayed still.

“Clear to wake him up?” Eponi tossed out to the channel.

“Clear!” came Aurora’s reply.

“Sorry, buddy.” Eponi pressed in on a tiny pair of notches beneath Gregor’s helmet, against his neck.

Those notches ran a quick verification scan against Eponi’s gloves, making sure she had friendly credentials. Her visor screen split into halves, the left green and the right red. Eponi winked with her left eye, and when the visor flashed all green for a microsecond, she let go of her teammate. Stepped back and watched as Gregor’s suit hummed to a whining, glass-breaking sound. At the noise’s apex, Gregor twitched, his hands and feet flaring out followed by a heavy sigh. His eyes opened, found Eponi’s, and then shut again.

“I hate that,” Gregor said on their near-field channel.

“How many times?”

“Lost count after a dozen.”

Eponi stopped herself from noting DefenseCorp regs suggested all kinds of harmful effects linked to repeated shock-jock tech. Sever held a fuzzy relationship with DefenseCorp, and that may as well extend to this too. Impossible missions demanded impossible compromises, or something like that.

The mud creature let out its first real noise of the fight, a gibbering, wet cough arising from its middle as Sai finally managed to get his sword through the creature’s liquid sludge armor and cut into the good stuff. As death rattles went, Eponi had heard far better screams from pilots as their racers plummeted into endless crevasses or slipped into lava rivers. Aurora and Rovo apparently agreed, taking advantage of the creature’s distress to boost their way near Sai and concentrate their fire into the fresh wound. Like a poorly chosen microwave meal, the heat built up through the middle of the monster before it exploded, raining prodigious muck and worse all over the squad.

Except for Eponi, who’d taken Gregor’s rise as an opportunity for cover and crouched behind the large man. Guts and glory splattered around everyone except her, and Eponi didn’t give one single damn. She’d lived, made it one step closer to that pay day.

“Look at you,” Rovo said roughly five minutes later, as the squad turned to unloading essentials from the drop shuttle. Aurora tasked Eponi and Rovo with the foodstuffs, which they were throwing into expandable buoy-packs, so named for their negative pressure pockets designed to repel gravity enough to make heavy weights an easy carry. “All clean. The rest of us have some natural camouflage.”

“Just doing my part,” Eponi replied, shoveling micro-energy bars by the armful into one of the gray packs. “I’ll draw all the fire.”

“Fire from what?”

Eponi had already forgotten Rovo had the rookie disease — all threats were hypothetical, because Rovo hadn’t experienced them yet. Not outside of a simulator, anyway.

“Did you miss the skiffs?”

“They weren’t that dangerous, and we made it away from them.” Rovo filled his pack to the brim and tugged on the taut string towards the top. The pull triggered the pack’s closing mechanism, and the buoy-pack compressed around the more substantial meal packets Rovo had chosen, creating a rounded cube the Sever, with Eponi’s help, slotted into a pair of back notches on his armor. “If that’s all we’re dealing with, minus the swamp monster, I think this ought to be simple.”

“We don’t get simple missions. Don’t know what they told you when you signed on with Sever, but we’re here to handle what DefenseCorp won’t touch with its legitimate squads. That means high risk, high reward.”

“Is that why you’re here? The reward?”

Seeing someone’s expression through their mask required x-ray vision, so Eponi couldn’t quite tell whether Rovo had asked the question honestly or not. Then she realized she didn’t care.

“I’m here. That should tell you the reward isn’t all that good,” Eponi replied. “But we get to stay away from the rest of DefenseCorp’s crap, and we can ditch out whenever we want. No contracts, no clauses, no complaints. That’s enough for me.”

“Kind of hard to ditch out now.”

Eponi finished her own pack, and as Rovo slapped it into place on her back, Aurora made the general evac call. Time to get away from the drop shuttle, march through the muck, and figure out where this VIP happened to get himself stuck.

“That’s the real secret,” Eponi said as she punched in the drop shuttle’s self-destruct code. It’d take a couple hours to go off, long enough for Sever to get far enough away from any eyes attracted to the fire. “Once you’re a part of Sever, there is no way out. Not alive, anyway.”

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