They left the cheap room they had rented two hours before dawn. The morning was nearly as hot and stifling as the day, the air so thick you could breathe it, laden with heavy odors of rot and grease. The intermittent street lamps seemed to float in the haze, more useful as markers than for illumination.
On the streets, hardly anyone moved. The city was a sluggish insect, dozing beneath rotted wood. Hunter stepped in an unseen puddle and felt the warm water seep into her boot. Her head throbbed slightly, evidence of the third and fourth glasses of pulque she’d downed the night before, despite the warning looks from her companions. “Drink is no longer a problem for me,” she’d told them fiercely. “I control it, not the other way around. So long as I do not let the cadre down.”
Mosquitoes buzzed around them, biting through the bug block each wore. They could lay waste to half the planet in mindless wars, but they still could not invent an insect repellent that would do more than slow mosquitoes. Not for the first time Hunter was glad that only one insect species had evolved to sentience. If they had possessed the same lusts and hatreds as the rest of the species, they would be in very big trouble indeed.
Ahead a checkpoint loomed out of the gloom. A tank, sitting on the cracked street corner beneath a street light. A monstrous beetle with two figures sitting on the top. Howlers of course. This was howler country; no humans served in their army. Humans were servants, menial labor, here. The violence and hatred between human and howler lay close beneath the surface; no Truce would change that.
Squeeze motioned and they cut down an alley, skirting the checkpoint. Broken glass crunched under their feet and something the size of a small dog scurried off to hide under a pile of plastic sacks leaking garbage, squealing as it went. Hunter had to resist the urge to shoot it. Ammunition was too precious to waste.
They could have gone by the checkpoint. Even if they had been stopped, their ‘dent cards would have cleared them quickly enough. These were the real thing, sent down from high up, and they would clear them to all but the most sensitive areas of Cruzero del Sol. Someone with punch wanted these four cleared out.
Beyond that, they were cadre. Most cadres were human, though there were reps of all species living at the Dump, waiting for the call. Since the Truce, cadres had become more important than ever. Every government used them. There were always those jobs that needed doing that no government could be seen dipping its hands into. Renegades and terrorists that must be hunted down, sabotage that had to be stopped, information that must be obtained. No howler government could afford to be caught with its agents active in a human city, just as no human government agents could be found in a stomper land. The truce was too fragile for that.
Which was where cadres came in. They were their own, perfect mercenaries, without species or government loyalties. They were the castoffs, the throwaways from every society on Earth. Loyal to their employer, incorruptible in their own way. No cadre member ever revealed a source.
Cadres carried a sort of immunity with them worldwide. Because they could be there on a job at the behest of the local government, the local military and police often turned a blind eye to them. They would do their job efficiently and with a minimum of risk to the local populace. When they were finished they would disappear. And they were extremely deadly. In the eyes of local law enforcement, it was usually best to simply leave them alone.
But this time Snake Cadre’s instructions had been explicit: Avoid all unnecessary contact. Eliminate your targets and withdraw.
So they slipped around the checkpoint and a few minutes later Jungleside wrapped them in its steamy embrace.
“They’re in there.” Ahead the city seemed to dissolve into jungle. The street disappeared under water. Thick trees grew everywhere, festooned with snaking vines and curtains of moss. Broad-leafed ferns and strange, red flowers as big as a man’s face grew thickly on the ground. Flickers of movement, just glimpsed and then gone, could be seen in the murk.
“Nuts, but I hate jungle towns,” Bludgeon growled.
“You just don’t like getting wet,” Hunter observed. “Too much like a bath for you.”
“It’s the bugs I hate.” As if in response to his words a large, iridescent insect arrowed out of the growth and flew straight at him. Its body was long and slender, supported by twin sets of wings and fronted with two large, bulbous eyes. It was about two hands long.
Bludgeon slapped it out of the air – he was surprisingly fast for such a large man – and stomped it as soon as it hit the ground. “Score one for the bipeds,” he said with satisfaction.
They splashed into the murk and Bludgeon swatted another bug out of the air. “How do the howlers stand this?” he said to no one in particular.
“Thick, matted hair,” Hunter replied. “It protects them from most of the bugs.” She swatted at something that landed on her neck, uttering a low curse. “Most howlers don’t live this way anymore. Like most humans don’t live in caves.”
“Just our luck the ones we want do,” Bludgeon growled.
Unseen croaks, buzzes and whistles came from out of the darkness. Splashes and sudden animal screams. There were streets in here, after a fashion – even the growlers who still lived wild were not completely uncivilized. They were, in fact, as intelligent and civilized as any species on this world – not like the brutish trels or the half-mad squids. The streets were really just ways hacked through the growth, though now and then Hunter thought she felt smooth stone underfoot, as if some attempt at paving had been made. There were street lamps too, hanging from tree limbs, though they served more as reference points than as actual sources of light.
But dominating it all were the trees. They were everywhere, clustered in groves, impervious to the moss and vines and wet rot. A few giants stood alone – monster trunks ten, fifteen meters across – daring others to come near. The trees closed overhead, branches intertwined in the constant fight for life-giving sunlight.
Howler dwellings clustered in the trees. Flickers of light showed in unshuttered windows. Rough wooden stairways led to a few, but most had a rope ladder or a simple vine hanging to the ground. The biggest were actually houses built into the trees, with sturdy walls and waterproof roofs. Others had only fronds woven together to keep out the worst of the rain, no walls and simple wooden platforms for floors. Many howlers could be glimpsed sleeping in crooks and hollows of limbs.
“I hope we don’t find them in a tree. I’m no good at climbing trees.” Bludgeon brushed aside a hanging curtain of moss and jerked away as a large spider bounded onto his arm, stomping it as it hit the ground. “Two for the bipeds,” he said. Scratching at several of the large red bumps on his arms he grumbled, “And far too many for the scurries.” He tripped over a root hidden in the murk and added, “This is making me grumpy.”
“I hear our next job is going to be in Swamu. In the backplaces,” Hunter said. Bludgeon only growled at her and she laughed softly, but her laugh sounded forced even to her. She needed to laugh, needed to keep the memories away. Always they lurked in the cracks in her mind, ready to spring out when she let her guard down. Abruptly the girl she’d seen in the street the day before appeared in her mind. And with it the whole mess in Irabu, the children screaming, the streets running with their blood.
She clenched herself against the suffering. Nothing she could have done. Not her fault.
She reached into her jacket pocket and gripped the slim automatic resting there, letting the familiar strength of the cold steel steady her. It was an old weapon, from the days before the Species Wars devastated so much. There were newer weapons that shot faster or held more powerful rounds, but she liked the little 9mm best, preferring to slow down and make each shot count, always maintaining that if you were accurate you didn’t need to pack a lot of punch.
She’d had it modified of course. A muffler built into the barrel for silent shooting without the loss of velocity that hampered the old silencers. A laser sight and dissolvable clips – no need to eject the old clip when it was empty, thus wasting valuable seconds. The clips she used were made of a nearly invisible polymer, dissolving in the heat generated by firing. When the clip was empty, it was gone and all she had to do was slap in a new one.
She carried other weapons. In her boot was one of the new flats. About the width of a dent card, they fired tiny magnesium charges that exploded with the force of a small grenade. There was a hift knife in her other boot and three molded plastics disguised as beads in the necklace she wore. They could be set to go off with proximity, encoded with the specific pheromones of any of the sentients. Or they could be timed or thrown.
They came to a wide, open area. The ground rose upwards and freed itself momentarily from the murk and wet. In the center stood a short, round, stone platform, like a table. Squeeze led them over to it. A nearby lamp gave just enough light to see the inscriptions on it. Squeeze looked at it.
“Tremble’s that way.” He pointed down a winding opening hacked out of the jungle.
“Then let’s go.” Bludgeon led the way. “I want to get this over with.” He was cut from something harder, more solid than the jungle around him.
Squeeze pulled forth a small pad about the size of his hand. He pressed a button and the face lit up. It was an SPD, a surface placement device. “It fits with the map chip I bought,” he said, heading that way. Hunter swatted mosquitoes and followed them.