'Why does he do that?'

Fallow shifted in place, his impact armour creaking as his weight moved on the crate he was sitting on and he faced the new recruit.

'What are you mouthing about, Sunshine?'

The pale-faced human grimaced at Fallow and pointed wordlessly at the Captain, who was sitting off by himself, both arms cradling his sword, his thumb tracing small circles on the scabbard as he stared at nothing at all. The hairless mercenary grinned at Sunshine, revealing an uneven set of teeth.

'You don't know much about this outfit, do you Sunshine, and now you're starting to wonder what you've got yourself into, aren't you.'

Sunshine shrugged nonchalantly. He was younger than the rest of the mercs that had signed on with the Captain's starship, and prettier too, with none of the combat boostings that normally ruined the looks of the galaxy's more violent types. He had the requisite wirings though; battleware that enhanced his reactions and thought patterns – that was what had gotten him hired in the first place. Hardware could be provided, software couldn't be implanted on the go. But all around him, filling the small space that was the cargo hold of the Dogstar, was the multitude of shapes and colours of truly boosted mercs. Some were inhuman in their construction, totally abandoning the human form in the pursuit of efficiency and effectiveness – Troll there, no longer had a neck, and his armour was integrated completely into his skin, which was grey and had the texture of rhinoceros hide. He had eschewed clothes completely, only needing a harness to attach his weapons and equipment. Sunshine was only talking to Fallow because the man looked the most human, albeit, completely hairless, his skin glistening as if oily.

'I just wanted to be sure that the man I'm gonna be taking orders from isn't a wacko,' Sunshine said.

Fallow chuckled, 'Been in the business long?'

Sunshine thought about bluffing, wondering whether bravado was the right course of action here and then decided against it – the people in the hold would see right through any lies he could concoct. 'Yeah, I'm pretty new at this. Thought it would be better than mining.'

Fallow nodded, and Sunshine knew he had just confirmed what the older man had suspected.

'I haven't served under the Captain before, and from the chatter I've been getting from the rest of the folks here aboard, none of the rest of them have either, but I has done heard of him.'

The blonde Sunshine shuffled closer to Fallow, peering over again at the Captain and the merc continued, 'He's a hardnut if all I hear is true, real cold-blooded. But he gets the job done and gets people out alive. One of the reasons I signed on to this mission – get a chance to see him action.'

Sunshine bit his tongue, but thought again and blurted it out, 'But a sword! What does he think this is, the dark ages?'

The laugh seemed absurdly loud in the hold, even with the noises that a starship made when sailing. A couple of the other mercenaries looked over at them, but most ignored them completely – it was downtime, when the worst thing that could happen was a touch of boredom, and cots would put an end to that if it turned insufferable.

'Don't you know nothing! That sword is the famous Last Sword of the Dogstar.'

Sunshine didn't recognise the name, and he called up the net to search for references, but he hadn't yet be given access to the ship's datanet and so the search came up empty handed. Fallow obviously noted the blank look on his face and gave him a patronising pat on the shoulder.

'Don't worry too much, I don't get it either. All I know is that the Captain has survived everything that he has landed in with that sword – and his men too. I did hear that he picked it up on some xenos planet a while back, but you won't see me carrying one. When the d-rays start flying and the carbines spitting...' Fallow patted the crate he was sitting on, 'You'll see me shooting right back, not waving some shiny stick.'

He grinned at Sunshine, and the younger man grunted a laugh back, 'Too right.'

'But, if you are really curious, I suppose you could ask him about it, or Jutes.'

'Jutes,' Sunshine asked.

Fallow nodded, 'The pilot. I understand she's been with the Captain for the longest out of anyone here. She'll probably know the deal with him.'

Sunshine looked sceptically at the hatch that led to the bridge and then back to his new friend.

'Well, I guess we'll both have to wait for Lycin then.'

Lycin was what was known then as a 'garden planet', fourth from its system's star, Elen, and teeming with an abundance of life. It had been home to a primitive sentient species, a kind of bipedal land octopus that had the makings of developing into a fully fledged 'planetary prime species' in the lingo of the primarchs, which meant the planet and entire system was subject to a preserve order.

However, the system was in the far reaches of the galaxy, shoved about as far away from the reach of the primarch's Lancers as was really possible and what's more, the samar had about as much respect for the orders of the alien overlords as they did for the various species that were their vassals.

They had landed their massive colony ships soon after the system had been discovered, spilling out tens of thousands of samari in a matter of weeks and almost overnight destroying the population of the native Lycini. It was just the way they were wired – they couldn't empathise with non-samar, their homeworld had been too clogged with sentients, too short of resources for evolution to be any other way. Now that they had discovered point-to-point travel they were swarming over any uninhabited systems. They had won the war on their planet, consigning the tricardo and verm to the history books, and now they intended to win the war on the galaxy.

So, a fleet raced out to Lycin, months too late to do much good for the Lycini people, but there to put a hole in whatever plans the samar had for the rest of the system. As a client race of the primarchs, humanity had to put their money where their mouth was and it was their turn to throw the men and ships at the samar.

The Navy would bear the brunt of the assault, taking on the samari wolf-packs that roamed the system, while the mercenary vessels would swoop down to the planet, drop their payload of commando teams groundside and then, hopefully, help hold space to pick them up once their jobs were done.

The notion was that no samari fleet could stand up to a navy armed with primarch technology, and it was one that had been proven again and again. The enigmatic masters of the galaxy seemed content to pummel the belligerent species until they stumbled to the negotiating table, secure in their own sense of invincibility.

It was up to the ground teams to put the pressure on the colonies and armed forces, destroying supplies, military industrial complexes and the like. It could have been done from orbit, UD-rays and fusion needles annihilating the landscape in precision cuts, but the brass wanted to minimise civilian casualties, and that meant hard men killing aliens face to face.

Just the way Fallow liked it.

The shuttle bobbed gently above the earth, throwing up whipping arcs of dirt and dust as its repulsor engines kept it a good three metres from touching down. The Captain was the first planetside, boots crunching against ground that had been flayed clean of all vegetation by the shuttle's engines. The Last Sword was sheathed high on the left side of his hip, hilt poking up around his ribs and his hands were wrapped tight around the grip of his hand cannon, the only other weapon the man carried. He wore impact armour, of course, wired through with kinetic and displacement shields, but otherwise, looked more like a navy man than a ground commando.

Fallow thumped down at his side, his d-rifle strapped to his right arm, feed wires looping under to his back. His full-faced helmet hid his hairless head and fed him an endless series of data and targeting choices. He wiped the confusing deluge of flashing numbers and cancelled most of the programs running. He would load his more pressing combat aids when things really started getting hot. For now, he ran a low intensity background scanner and moved out to cover their drop zone.

He had faced samar before of course, most mercs had, given the species' tendencies to solve things with the gun rather than diplomats. He was beginning to smile now, his smooth skin pulling back into a rictus grin. It wasn't that he particularly liked causing pain to things, it was merely the rush of living so close to the edge – almost an unhealthy trait in a professional warrior, he was liable to get himself killed looking for the next high.

He glanced back at the Captain, whose face was set in its usual hard frown. Their leader's hair was cut short, barely a gray bristle on his scalp and his face had enough lines on it to play a game of Tact. It was hard to tell which were scars and which were wrinkles.

The last of the mercs pounded to the ground, the massive Troll, his two lower arms fitted with bolt throwers, his uppers gripping the handles of a d-rifle and a missile launcher. The man was practically a tank all on his lonesome.

Sunshine sidled up to Fallow and gave him a cheeky grin from under his helmet.

'Time to kick some alien ass, ey Fallow?' the young man said and Fallow chuckled deeply, and patted the boy's shoulder plate.

'Just keep tight to me and I'll see you through lad,' he replied

Suddenly, his visor filled with mission-critical data and Fallow turned to face the Captain, along with the rest of the mercs.

The small man didn't seem one to say much, and none of the stories or vids about him suggested he had given many speeches, despite his legend, and this occasion was no different.

'On me, you know what we are here to do.'

The Captain was the one who got the chatter, routed directly into his brain. Sunshine knew this because Fallow had just explained it to him, in answer to his hissed question: why was it so damn quiet?

The other teams' leaders would keep the Captain updated on their movements and opposition, the field kept fresh with relays of as-it-happened data. He would have created a command structure, if the Captain went down, his number two would get access to the command map, and so on until there was no one left. It was meant to minimise second-guessing, keep the different squads focussed on their missions without flooding every single soldier with unnecessary information.

Sunshine glanced at the Captain, the man had even holstered his pistol, and that made the young mercenary relax, the barrel of his rifle lowering towards the soil.

If he wasn't worried, then Sunshine wouldn't be worried.

It was almost disappointing. He had moved around the hold of the The Dogstar before they had been accelerated, and had heard all kinds of rumours and tales about the man; how he had been a philosopher before he had found the Last Sword; how he faced aliens with terrible technology and was the only one to emerge; that he was collecting souls for a sinister master... all these things and Sunshine was a little eager to see the man in action. Clearly though, the samari were not in their area.

Suddenly Peaches grunted up, 'Movement sir, hot ones.'

The Captain chewed his jaw, tongue running under his lip to lick his teeth thoughtfully as he scanned the horizon and Sunshine could see the hair-thin filaments that laced his eyes. The man looked to be juiced up with so much wetwiring and battleware that Sunshine was a bit surprised that he even bothered with armour at all. That the Captain maintained a human profile rather than something like Troll's twisted shape attested to the price of his modifications – the kind of thing only government spooks got their hands on. Which got Sunshine to wondering where he had got his hands on the tech.

He onecommed as much to Fallow, and the mercenary gave him a hard look from behind his visor.

'Gov types are boosted with primarch tech, and no way that stuff gets laced into a merc.' He shook his head with an exaggerated motion, 'You've accessed too many thriller vids Sunny, it's probably just more hardware like you've got clogging up your own cortex.'

Sunshine's reply was cut short by the Captain spitting noisily onto the short, tough grass-analogue at their feet.

'Weapons?' he asked Peaches

The heavyset merc shrugged, his shoulder-launcher clanking noisily, 'Either they are solid-state samari stuff, or they're powered down. Or they are unarmed.' He added, almost as an afterthought.

The Captain swore.

'Can't fucking fry some colonists for the crime of taking a walk Captain,' someone offered, earning herself a glare from their leader.

There was another loaded silence as the Captain retreated into the command map but it was not a long one.

'Alright, double-time it. We are closing on the objective.' He swung his finger to point, 'Peaches, you keep a scan on those hotspots. If they start lighting up, I want it to be because they're sucking carbine. Clear?'

Peaches nodded, his gaze fuzzing as he loaded the orders into his software.

'Command told us this mission would be a cake walk, but have you ever tried walking on cake?' The Captain asked them all, face set with a deadly serious expression.

'Slippery as fuck.'

Things were not going according to plan.

In the briefing, the Dogstar's target was labelled a research facility, and it was opined by the higher-ups that it would be lightly guarded, with the military installations and more importantly, the supply depots taking up the bulk of the samari ground forces.

Sunshine reeled off an impressive list of curses as he huddled low on the incline that he was sheltering against, the pounding of the samari rail-guns barely being filtered out by his helmet audios. All his combat programs were telling him to get up and return fire with his rifle, that his armour would be better protection than mere dirt, but it was one thing to hear that from software and another to stare down the gleaming jaws of a samari commando.

The entire squad had been punished when Peaches had suddenly yelled, puffs of smoke and throbbing booms sounding as he launched a salvo of needles from his shoulder weapon. Things had gone to hell quickly, the Captain disappearing and Fallow ramming Sunshine to the ground, already laying down screaming pulses of covering fire, his d-rifle beaming dense rays of radiation that could punch through a tank. The mad mercenary was on his knees now, arm jerking as his targeting programs popped up shot after shot.

The hotspots that lit up Sunshine's viewfinder were everywhere, and the information that leaked into his brain was not good. At least a division of well-equipped, well-trained commandos, which meant that all of them had faced and survived planet-side combat. The mercenaries were pinned down, their superior tech the only thing keeping them alive against the onslaught.

Then the hotspots began to disappear.

Sunshine started, requesting a confirmation as another enemy target was removed from his viewfinder. A smile broke his lips as another and then another blinked off.

They were winning!

It was enough for Sunshine and he leapt to his feet, comming Fallow for a link up and receiving it, their targeting programs working in union to select and assault the same figures and looking to burst through their shields with overwhelming firepower.

A grin tore at his cheeks as his arm jolted with the thud of his rifle, each heavy kinetic round requiring his suit servors to compensate for the kickback. He could hear a pounding in his head that his audios were not filtering out, and for a moment he was confused, until he realised it was the pounding of his heart, and a fierce joy hit him – here he was, Sunshine, laying down the righteous wrath of humanity onto alien scumholes. The samari weapons flew around him, and he did not care, a strange sense of invulnerability filling him. His shields took some direct hits and the air crackled violet as the power was diffused, but he didn't even blink, the warnings that flashed up only reassuring him that the samari were unable to focus their fire enough to trouble his systems.

At his side Fallow had stopped firing, the barrel of his rifle smoking , and he uncoupled their programs. That was when Sunshine heard the Captain's ceasefire order being broadcast, and he released his trigger, beaming at Fallow, who gave him a quick wink.

The Captain, who Sunshine had assumed had been blown to dust in the first salvo, appeared over the ridge. The small man's expression was grim as he sheathed his sword, and Sunshine gaped. The man was covered, almost completely, in the rich, black blood of the samar. He was dusting off his hands, as if he had just come from weeding a particularly overgrown garden.

The mercenaries were silent, and Sunshine was sure that he was not alone in the sense of awe he felt as the Captain drew closer, realising now that the reason for all the samari commandos disappearance was the blade attached to the man's side.

'New orders,' the Captain growled, 'We are going into the facility, admiralty wants to know what got the samar so worked up.'

And that was that. The fallen mercs, three Nipponese corsairs who had been caught in a hellstorm of a crossfire, were rigged with disposal charges set to dust them and any of their kit that couldn't be salvaged, and given the weapons the samar had been laying into them with, it wasn't much. The landscape had been destroyed by the engagement, flayed by the lines of dense rays and kinetic missiles, craters where rockets had exploded and cracked and twisted forms where distortion weapons had melted space.

Fallow sloped over to Sunshine's side as they marched towards the facility, his eyes bright, weirdly inexpressive without any eyebrows and eyelashes.

'Fucking Dark Ages huh?' he said, the amusement evident in his voice, 'Too bad it's the last one right?'

Sunshine could only agree.

The facility was done up in the usual samari style, which meant it was spartan and utilitarian, plain metal and plasteel bolted through concrete slabs. As the mercenary squad moved through the tunnels and corridors that made up the complex, they were assaulted by wailing sirens and flashing alarm lights. A robotic samari voice was telling them something that Sunshine couldn't parse out.

There hadn't been much in the way of resistance since the Captain had decimated the commandos that had been guarding the perimeter. Troll had been pulled up to take out some sentry towers, but otherwise, they had just passed huddling groups of samari civvies, the strange blue-skinned aliens cowering away from the groups of mercenaries, looking a bit like clothed vultures, though the comparison was a weak one, only the beak like mouth really fitting.

The mercs had orders not to harass the scientists and so far, they seemed able to hold to those commands. None of the samar offered any resistence, screaming and fleeing when they saw the humans, or throwing themselves to the ground, all their arms in the air.

It wasn't quite the remorseless alien species Sunshine was expecting.

The Captain moved past them all, his sword drawn. The blade was perfectly straight about two feet long, with no cross guard and was not made from any metal that Sunshine recognised, looking instead to be a matt gray, the edges the same dull colour as the rest of it.

They ran into the commandos around a corner, both groups looking as surprised as each other. The closeness of the confines made it almost impossible, or at least, incredibly reckless for any of the larger ordnance weapons to be used and a multitude of limbs reached for pistols and low calibre machine guns as combat programs screamed warnings directly into their limbic systems.

It was all unnecessary, and if Sunshine would have blinked he would have missed it. At first he thought it was flickering lights, a function of the flashing alarms, but it was not, it was simply the way the Captain moved.

It was an impossible movement.

While the samari struggled to draw their close combat weapons the Captain attacked, shifting from place to place, faster than Sunshine's eye could follow. In one instance he would be there, his arm extended, the sword having sliced through energy shield and amour like it was air, no, less than air, like there had been no space to pass through at all – the next instance he was somewhere else, sword lodged deep with the body of another commando. Then he was motionless and bodies were collapsing around him as if time had held its breath for a moment and only now was letting the stored up instant out.

It was clear that none of the other mercenaries had truly seen what the Captain was capable of, what he could do with the Last Sword, but the man was not theatrical. He did not turn to them and accept their stunned silence. His arm twitched and the sword was sheathed and Sunshine remembered how he had relaxed to see it so. It struck him that the Captain was no less deadly, no less prepared, when the Last Sword was not in his hands.

Without warning they were in the centre.

Whatever it was, it was surrounded by lights and totally enclosed, its private environment, regulated and controlled.

It didn't look like much to Sunshine, which is what worried him. Weapons he knew - his brain was stuffed with the schematics and instructions on every kind of weapon that filled the galaxy, even some he would never come across, or have no call to use, like historic lead projectile weapons.

It did not seem like they were researching new technology, it looked more like the samar had discovered something, unearthed an artefact that they had proceeded to excavate.

It was the great worry of the vassal species, protected as they were by the technological superiority of the primarchs, that the hostile aliens, such as the samar, would find a patron equally or more advanced. Equally worrying was the possibility that they would come across the remnants of some ancient race, and reverse engineer technology that outstripped their own. The primarchs, when they could be communicated with, seemed to scoff at such worries, and assured the embassies and ambassadors that no such race existed.

'I know what this is,' the Captain murmured quietly, more to himself than anyone else, and Sunshine turned away from the structure.

He was not stupid, though he thought he was and it quickly dawned on him the only way the Captain would recognise such a thing, the only thing that would give such a man pause, was the source of all his rumours.