Chapter 02: Shootout on Mezzanine

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Trent Stone sat on a beach on a pleasure planet known as Mezzanine and watched the sun rise over the ocean.

He'd been sitting there for an hour now. On the way out from his beachfront hotel room, he'd grabbed a beer from the mini-fridge on instinct, tossing a brief glance back to the two redheads still sound asleep on the king size. Now the beer sat unopened in the holder built into the chair he sat in. He wore a pair of sunglasses he'd picked up the day before, more out of a need to feel like he was hiding his thoughts or, to someone who was looking at him, pretend he'd passed out on the beach, than from hiding his eyes from the sun.

Trent had been nearly motionless, his feet in the cool sand, not really listening to the tide as it broke and crashed on the shore, since he sat down. Last night had been great, everything he'd hoped it would be.

Everything had gone right.

After escaping Arctica and destroying that Dark Operations cruiser, he and Drake had fled along what most called the Far Reach: the edge of civilized space in the Milky Way galaxy. The first order of business had been to ditch the ride they'd stolen from Dark Ops. That part was the hardest, and it was still easy. In all their travels and years as soldiers-of-fortune, Trent and Drake had made many shady acquaintances across the galaxy. Some of them could get you whatever guns you wanted, no questions asked. Others would lend you credits if you were in a fix. Yet others had no problem giving you a name change.

This man they'd gone to see, who owned and operated his own spacebound junkyard, could make a ship disappear. The man had been so eager to get his hands on the Dark Ops ship, he'd waived his usual fee and handed over a smaller, significantly less valuable vessel no questions asked. Trent and Drake counted themselves lucky, thanked the man, and took the ship. They'd then gone to a second, entirely different junkyard and swapped vessels again, trying to kill any trail that might lead the bad guys their way. But Drake was convinced they'd gotten away.

Then they went to Mezzanine.

The pair had hit the pleasure planet early yesterday morning. They'd paid for two rooms on the ground floor of a five star hotel on the beach of one of the smaller and more beautiful islands the planet boasted. It was a balmy eighty degrees during the day and a smooth sixty five at night. There were a dozen fancy restaurants, three casinos, and plenty of spas and massage parlors. If you wanted, you could take a boat or a little transport vessel over to any of the eight neighboring islands. The place was, effectively, a paradise.

Trent had tried to shake the nagging feeling in the back of his head. Drake was all smiles, business as usual: they'd just survived an insane mission and it was party time. That was probably it, he'd figure. Sometimes, after bad, brutal missions, and the last one had probably been the most brutal of their two-decade career, he'd get gloomy, think about the existential horror that was human existence. That was usually the whole point of these kinds of trips. He'd get drunk, get laid, maybe get in a fight if need be, and the next day he was fine.

So why was it different this time?

He'd completed all the steps to his ancient ritual, the rite he'd begun in his late teens and continued perfecting ever since. After securing quarters, Trent had gone out, grabbed some new clothes, and taken a long shower. After changing, he'd waded out into the night life and hit up a local bar. After hanging out for a little while, he'd found two lovely women in their late twenties who were partying. They were both fit, tanned redheaded goddesses from the Marine Corps. They were out celebrating: they'd each reached the rank of Sergeant.

Trent had managed to get himself invited on their big night out. They'd gone drinking at several different bars and a strip joint, where they got kicked out when the Marines, Jenny and Ashley respectively, climbed onto the stage and joined in with the other strippers, who didn't seem to mind it, since they all started making out. After that, Trent had taken them on a shopping spree that ended with a couple of tattoos: tramp-stamp Sergeant's chevrons right above their perfectly shaped and well-maintained asses.

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