All posts for the month September, 2015

Thank You Very Much.


The sand tasted of dried blood and when it blew into my eyes and nose I knew I’d be hours getting rid of it. I turned away from the gust front, ducking my head behind the remains of the pharmacy and hocking up a sticky filth that soaked into the dirt of the street within seconds of my spitting it there. Cursing my own stupidity, I dragged the shemagh up and into place around the bottom half of my face, tying it as a makeshift filter. It was just dust. No need to use up the good resp-masks.

“Heavy dust clouds, folks. Filters and goggles up,” I mouthed into the radio. The others needed some warning. Abe was out there ahead of us somewhere, but his radio would be on emergency only. It’s not likely I could tell him anything he didn’t already know. Of us all he was the only one who had spent as much time in dusty environments as I had.

I dragged the visor-style goggles from the bottom of my ruck to cover my eyes, even though I hated them. It was the loss of wide-scope vision that bugged me. I have a real fondness for not missing out on peripheral attacks because I’m wearing a screen.

“Anything new, Twitch?” Karen asked over the net. Her voice had a quiet crackle behind it. Some kind of malfunction in her radio, but it made her sound curiously robotic.

“More of the same. Burned out buildings.”

I didn’t know what to tell her. That was all we had found since we came into this shithole. Once a thriving town of about twenty thousand, it was now just an empty shell that remained as a spot on a map. I didn’t care about the destroyed buildings. The lack of free-for-the-taking resources is what pissed me off. Granted it wasn’t why we were here, but upping the profit margin never hurts.

Hans clicked in on the radio, and you could almost see that easy smile of his as he spoke.

“I’ve got some kind of movement,” he said. “Eighth Street, between Flagler and Eagle Way. Something just cut into a grocery store. Well, what used to be a grocery store, at least.”

“Intercepting,” I said, heading due south through the alley behind the pharmacy. The wind picked up. All around me was swirling dust and the howl of directed wind. I could barely make out Karen when she spoke, and even the static on her end seemed to have increased. I picked up the pace, hoping as much to find some shelter from the sand as to find our target. With every step the dust grew thicker. It was gumming up on my face, sticking to the moisture from my breath. I could feel it insinuating itself into the folds of my clothes, trickling down my collar and rubbing my skin wherever it could reach. Visibility was getting short. When I stepped into the alley, I could see the end. Now it was hidden from view.

The radio clicked and chirped in my ear. There was no static at all. It was so crystal clear that for a moment I was convinced I couldn’t hear the wind any more. The voice that came across was juvenile in tone, and I felt a chill go down my spine.

“I am becalmed, lost to nothing,” said the voice. It was no one I recognized, but it was definitely on our commo net. As it spoke, the wind stopped. No warning, no slowing, it just stopped. Dust motes continued on their aerial crusade for a moment and then cascaded to the ground in a yellow-brown shower.

“Hans?” I heard Karen call. There was no response.

“Tac three Charlie.”

The voice was Abe’s, and he was a step ahead of me in insisting we switch frequencies. Whoever that was had gotten hold of Hans’ radio. What had gone from a simple Demonground hunt for a possible telepath was now a rescue. I took a breath, loosening the shemagh from around my face. My hand went to the radio at my belt then, and I flicked the dial three nets clockwise, and then three channels up.

“Twitch?” the big scout asked. I grinned. Between Abe and me we could make short shrift of whoever had snatched the doc, and Karen was passable backup. I pressed the mic but I was shut out of the channel by another broadcast.

“Left to die by two good friends. Tears of God flow as I bleed,” said the voice.

What the hell did that mean? We hadn’t abandoned anyone.

“Isn’t that a song?” Karen asked. She emerged from behind a dry cleaner.

“All the nightmares came today, and it looks as though they’re here to stay,” intoned the unknown voice.

“The lady asked you a question,” I broadcast. I could see the sign for Weller’s Grocery ahead and to my left. I scanned slowly across the front of the place, looking for any hint of movement. The windstorm had scoured any tracks that I could see, and I would bet even Abe would be hard-pressed to find more.

As if on cue, I saw Abe. He had apparently spent time in the same dust bath I had. He was covered from head to toe in it, but in his case it helped him blend in as he crept along, duckwalking near the ground. Coming in from the eastern side of Weller’s, he ducked beneath a hole that used to be a window and kept moving forward toward the front of the building.

“Why are you following me?”

“Out of songs so soon?” I shot back.

I hefted the AR, leaning against the telephone pole I was beside. Moving like glacier ice, I lowered myself into a sitting position. I scanned the store back and forth through the holosight.

“Play some Skynyrd,” Abe said. I could see him trying not to laugh and I felt the corners of my mouth curl up into a smile.

“Why won’t you leave me alone?”

“There’s a bounty on your head after what you did back in Phoenix,” I explained. “It’s considerably more if you’re alive, but if you did any damage to Hans…”

“He is alive, I assure you.”

There. The faintest flicker of motion beside and behind a tumbled shelf. I lowered the sight onto the spot and waited.

“What’s the deal with the songs?” Karen asked.

“I like them. They fit right now, too.”

I saw him then. He poked his head out from behind the barrier, trying to see Karen as she approached. When he finally did, he stared for a few seconds and she stumbled, falling face-down on the dirty parking lot she was crossing. She did not move.

“I’m more of a heavy metal guy myself,” I said. The face that filled my sight was pasty white with lack of exposure. It stood in sharp contrast to the dark shirt he wore, and right now the lower half of his face was bisected by the reticle of my sight.

“Karen’s down,” I added for Abe’s benefit.

“What did you do?” Abe demanded.

“She was going to take the one called Hans. I need him.”

“For what?”

“My people have injuries. He is a healer.”

“Your people?”

“I am not the only one of my kind. We are spread across the face of the planet. You and your kind knew not of our arrival, but we have infiltrated your ranks for years.”

Abe leaned around the corner, sweeping the barrel of his rifle across the store interior as he did so. Pasty Boy saw the motion. I saw him tilt his head curiously, and I swear I heard the sigh as Abe went down.

“What the hell are you?” I demanded.

Pasty Buy started scanning for me. I kept the sights locked in; took up slack on the trigger. I could feel the break only a few ounces away.

His eyes locked with mine and in a second I saw it all. I knew who he was and everything was okay. I knew he was all right. My ears filled with a sultry bass beat and music that promised sex and decadence as much from its chords as from any words he might add.

“You should have told me,” I said, smiling as I was drawn deeply into his eyes.

He looked back at me, his white sequined jumpsuit flashing light from the rhinestones sewn to it. I knew the sideburns and the hip-shaking stance he took. I had seen him on the vid many times. Hell, who hasn’t? The grocery store had become a stage and he was up there, oozing charisma with every side-to-side sweep of his hips. The screams of women filed the air along with the driving beat that underscored everything.

“We will take your kind,” Elvis told me. His voice was a delightful, booming thing. “We will be triumphant. You and the rest of humanity will be our slaves.”

It didn’t sound too bad when he put it that way.

Eh, who am I kidding? I’d make a horrible slave, and the thought of being one, of submitting to anyone, snapped me out of the trance and he was just Pasty Boy again. Damned telepaths.

The rifle jumped against my shoulder and the back of his head vanished.

“TCB, baby,” I whispered.



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Miranda wondered if her eyes had ever been this wide before.

Skeeter was dangling from the elevated grasp of the shipboard marine and the marine was staring down at the youth as if he was little more than prey for the terrifying teeth and claws that he was displaying. Skeeter looked panicked and embarrassed at the same time, as if getting caught was worse than the threat of raw violence exuded by the lion.

“You don’t belong here,” the marine rumbled. The words were deep baritone notes, forced from within a barrel chest. His teeth clacked together like graveyard bones when he spoke.

“No shit,” Skeeter managed. His eyes were fixed on the tawny-furred paw that held him aloft. Tangled in his longcoat lapels, the paw was almost larger than Skeeter’s own head.

“It’s my fault!” Miranda said, waving her own paws to get the marine’s attention. “We were playing hide and –”

“Stop talking, miss.”

The order came not from the enormous lion in his starched jumpsuit, but from behind Miranda. She whirled in place, still with her arms above her head. She had seen it on the vid – you were supposed to keep your hands in the air, right?

Standing there was a long, lanky leopard with a strange hat that seemed to hang down over one side of his head. He wore a different uniform. Sand-colored and spotted in a manner that mimicked the leopard’s own coloration instead of the drab grey of the marines, the shirt had no name or insignia attached. He also, as opposed to the marine, carried no weapons.

“Sir, I’m –” she started. He shook his head and gestured for her to be silent, holding a finger in front of his mouth. As the words died in her throat, he nodded and smiled. He used his other hand to gently push her arms back down by her sides, winking at her as he did so.

“This isn’t your place,” the lion said. The leopard half-shrugged, letting his cocked head drop toward the raised shoulder.

“I know, I know. I’m colony security, and this is your ship. It’s cool, brother. They just got outta the controlled zone, is all. I’ll take them back and you can go on your way. You wanna put the kid down?”

The marine shifted his gaze from the leopard and back to Skeeter.

“You’ll keep ’em corralled?” he asked.

“Count on it,” said the leopard.

The paw opened and Skeeter tumbled free. His legs did not set well when he landed, and he fell backward onto his haunches. He winced as he knew his tail would bruise from the impact, but even that was preferable to the grinning maw he had been staring into a moment before.

“About time,” he said, standing and smoothing the lines of his jacket. He tried to look defiant. The paw that fell on his shoulder flashed a series of wickedly-pointed claws for just a second as if to tell him to consider his next actions carefully.

“You be quiet, too, kid. Grown-ups are talking here.”

“Hey, pal –” Skeeter began. The leopard’s paw wrapped around Skeeter’s mouth and held his muzzle closed. He didn’t have to work hard to keep it closed. It seemed more an exercise in simple restraint.

“I appreciate you helping me out,” the leopard told the marine. “I’m sure you can imagine how this shit is gonna make me look.”

“Like an idiot?”

“Yep,” the leopard said with a throaty chuckle. “I’ve got them from here.”

The lion shook his head. “Stupid ground pounder,” he said with a sneer as he pointed them to the entry door.

A ripple of muscles ran across the leopard’s muzzle, and one edge of his mouth peeled up and back, exposing a fang. He placed a paw on the back of each of the kids and urged them on toward the door.

“Nobody can just accept a friendly word these days,” he said as the door closed behind them. “Always gotta flex that extra little bit.”

“What do you mean?” Miranda asked.

“That last comment was to see if he could piss me off enough to take a swing at him.”

“Why didn’t you?” asked Skeeter. “Too tough for you?”

The leopard looked askance at him and then laughed. “Yeah, kid. We’ll go with that.”

“My dad told me you guys were supposed to be some kind of super fighting machines,” Skeeter pressed.

“We do okay. When we need to.”

“Well if I was that good, I would have jumped him.”

“And that’s why you won’t get to be that good. That’s the kind of mistake a kid fresh outta boot makes. Thinking that they taught you everything you need to know to get by in a fight, and you wind up in some dive bar with a chip on your shoulder. Some idiot mouths off about your branch and you go to pound him just the way you’ve been taught. Boom. You wake up in a sickbay with half your teeth broken. Rookie mistake, kid. See, if I’d tagged that big motherfu — Oh, sorry, miss,” he said, looking down at Miranda with a friendly smile.

“It’s okay,” she said, giggling.

“If I had hit him, the marines on board would have all been within their rights to thump any of our guys anywhere they saw them. After that it would have escalated ship-wide. Far easier for me to swallow my pride and escort you to back to the controlled zone. A little humility goes a long way.”

Miranda and Skeeter both smiled at the leopard. “You’re pretty smart,” she said.

“Still,” Skeeter said, brushing at his lapels yet again. “I wish you had kicked his butt.”

“I notice you didn’t do anything either,” said the leopard.

Skeeter shrugged. “I was ready. If he had held me up there much longer I was gonna pee my pants at him.”




Jericho Sims, a gunslinger searching the country for the Surgeon – a faceless doctor who, toward the final days of the American Civil War, murdered Jericho’s fellow soldiers as part of an arcane ritual intended to grant unimaginable power. This ritual left Jericho marked for the forces of the supernatural, and he has discovered that the world is not what he believed it to be.

“Buried Treasure” is the second foray into Jericho’s world, and describes the events following the theft of Chickasaw artifacts – one of which turns out to control a monster of legend. Jericho and his friend, the warrior Akocha, ride across Oklahoma territory in an effort to recover the artifact from an armed gang while contending with the presence of a creature that wants them dead.

Some people have asked to know more about Jericho – who he is and what made him the man he is today, so let me introduce you:

Copyright 2015, Marlene C. Cooper

Copyright 2015, Marlene C. Cooper

Long and lean of build, Jericho is possessed of keen eyesight and solid muscle structure suited more to speed and agility than raw strength. His life as a soldier and gunman has concentrated on quick movement, and he still manages to be faster than men a decade younger than him. He has been described by some as “ruggedly handsome”, though to him even that is a bit of a stretch. As he might put it, “I ain’t hard to look at, but then again I ain’t figuring on nobody doing it for long periods.”

Jericho wears a Colt .45 revolver in a low slung holster, offset by a long-bladed knife on his opposite hip. A second revolver, this one in .36 caliber, rests at the small of his back. He is frequently encountered wearing a calf-length duster that has seen better days. High-collared shirts and denim pants are favorites, and he would feel naked without his vest and hat. The vest has several pockets (one is usually home to a flask of a whiskey, while another holds a tin of the twisted little cigarros that he is prone to smoke), and the hat is a favorite, especially in the rain or hot sun.

No report on Jericho would be complete without his most trusted companion. Gideon is an Appaloosa gelding with which Jericho shares a deep bond. Day or night, he knows he can talk to Gideon and the horse will listen. Considering the reactions and sounds made in response to his conversation, Jericho has been known to wonder if Gideon can understand him. Having discovered the things he has in recent years, it would not surprise Jericho if he could. Standing 15 hands in height, Gideon brushes up against Jericho’s shoulders. He is brown in coloration, with a white field across his hips that brims with brown spots.


Knowing what he looks like isn’t enough? Ah, yes! You want some background too. Well, then:

Jericho left his family at a young age following some friction with his father. His journey began harshly, with the young man forced to fight for his very survival in the first town he explored. The life and death struggle he encountered there set the stage for his future. His agility would be his meal ticket for some time, as he traveled with more than one group as a gun hand, trading his skills for a meager living but managing to avoid the notice of the law.

It was when he decided to make more of his life that he met the woman who would change him. He was studying under the tutelage of a young schoolmistress who invited Jericho to attend the local church. He did and soon found himself smitten by Miss Magdalene DeCour, one of the parishioners. The two of them began a courtship and eventually married, Jericho forsaking the life of a potential outlaw for that of a farmer and small rancher.

One fateful day, as the leading edges of the American Civil War spread into their territory, a Union scouting party encountered Magdalene Sims and, following her vehement refusal to simply turn over her cattle and grains, killed her for daring to resist their robbery. Jericho put paid to the killers and set off in a rage to kill as many of their kind as he could. A fellow soldier told him once that they were thankful a demon such as Jericho was on their side. He remarked it could as easily have been the other way around if Confederate troops had acted as the Union men had. Random chance placed him where he was, and politics meant nothing to a man bent on vengeance.

It was toward the final days of the war, when Jericho was riding with a party of guerilla raiders, that his life would truly be changed. Members of his unit were injured and the group stumbled into a hospital camp. The Medical Officer in charge of the camp was referred to simply as “the Surgeon” by the men of the camp. Every member of Jericho’s unit that went into the medical tent died at the hands of this man, and when Jericho and his commander burst in to confront the Surgeon, they were caught in a mystical backlash from the demonic ritual the Surgeon had been attempting. His commander was killed, and Jericho was knocked clear of the tent by the magical forces unleashed. When he came to, the Surgeon had fled.

The energies that coursed over him have exposed Jericho to the new reality, and he is marked as a beacon to supernatural forces. Wherever he goes now, the strangest events present themselves to him, and Jericho has no choice but to push through them in his unending search for the Surgeon – a man whose face no one can remember once he has left an area. For Jericho Sims, the paranormal truths of his world – so often hidden from view of even the determined man – are becoming plain.


Interested to find out what Jericho is up to?

Find out more about Jericho Sims directly from the man himself. Snatch up your copy of “Buried Treasure” today for less than the cost of a cup of coffee! You can also find the first story, “Golem”, linked below as well. Both are short reads that will provide you some entertainment and excitement during a long lunch, on that morning bus ride, or during that business meeting with that guy who talks like a monotone robot (you know the one!). Help yourself to the fun, and check back for more Jericho soon!



Cursed gunslinger Jericho Sims wanders the West searching for the demonic doctor who murdered his fellow soldiers. Near death from an arrow in his back, he stumbles on the home of a scientist intent on creating the perfect soldier, and Jericho finds himself in a new kind of war. Best-selling short story, reaching #1 on the Western Science Fiction charts!

Jericho sketch (c) Marlene C Cooper – See her work HERE


The Darkness Inside


The Wolfguard stand at the gate, muscles tense and flexed, mouths hanging open in anticipation of what is to come within seconds, the sound of panting breath nearly audible even over the screaming of the engines and the howl of the surrounding air during deceleration.

Jayden holds his place at the fore, his age and longevity within the unit affording him the honor of being the first one out the door. He carries a pair of machine pistols with which to battle the foe, and a long, curving sword rides sheathed on his back.

Behind him, hearts pounding in delighted anticipation, Carr and Shay clutch their autoshotguns like beloved children. Shay dances in place, swaying from side to side as she listens to some kind of music on a chip player. One graceful ear remains cocked and aware of her surroundings, but the other has a speaker bud poked into it.

In the final position, in the rear of the diamond as it were, is me, the one that the crew of the ship has dubbed the Berserker. I stand with difficulty, body so tense that it quivers. Axes hang at my sides and my fingers tighten and loosen on their leather-bound hafts. Already I can taste the blood of our foes, feel their bodies tearing and shattering before my powerful onslaught. My teeth come together in a grinding sound and I feel my feet begin pawing at the floor.

Will landfall never come?

I have pistols, too, holstered on each hip. I rarely use them. I want to be in close. I need to feel the heat of their filthy bodies as my axes open them. Feel the rush as their blades and bullets fail to stop me. Revel in their pain as the Wolfguard does in minutes what others would take hours to accomplish. We wade into the foe with the sure and certain knowledge that we are doomed. We welcome it.

The engines flare once again, and the dropship shudders as our descent is slowed even further. If you listen carefully, past the shrieking devil’s chorus of power versus gravity, now is when you can hear the first of the bullets begin to bounce from the skin of the craft.

Jayden takes a deep breath, and we all follow his example. Behind us, the assembled soldiers have no clue what is about to happen. They have never been in a Wolfguard drop. Before today, most of them had never seen one of our number, and some even believed us myths.

It starts as a low rumbling in his chest, bursting forth in a glorious howl that rattles the soul. Carr is next into the chorus, his voice so pitch-perfect it is a marvel. Shay joins, raising her autogun above her head in powerful paws and shaking it. Once she is established, I am there, feeling my entire body shudder as the howl breaks forth.

I know not what or who the others sing for — asking such would be considered rude to the point of suicide — but my song is for Brigid. My beloved Brigid. Her soft fur, her loving touch. It will always be for her. For the days spent by her side, and the nights spent in her embrace.

The sound is a wall of power now, a tangible thing that reverberates from the walls of the craft. Behind us I know that many are covering their ears. Some lift their voices in a roaring cacophony that begs to join us. There are those who think we are simply shouting our joy as the combat nears, for they are told that we seek the war as some eternal quest.

We are no Crusaders. Battle is no holy sacrament. We do not seek it for the glory.

We come to die.

Armored only in the scars of our former battles, we stride willingly into the reach of the foe. Each of us courts death as surely as once I courted Brigid. We taunt and tease it, delivering rows of the foe into the grasp of the Reaper while begging to be taken as well.

Lights in the bay change from red to blue and the intensity of the howl builds to a deafening crescendo. Five seconds to touchdown.

Behind us the soldiers ready their weapons.

The clock in my head ticks away the seconds as our howls fade. Each of us takes what may be our last breath, filling lungs left bare from the prayer-song.


My heart hammers in my chest. I look down to see the band tattooed on my left wrist. I remember with crystal clarity the moment we had the marks made. The elder that oversaw our joining smiling as she spoke the sacred words even as the tattoos were applied. Brigid smiling, her image burned indelibly into my heart as much as this ink remains.


My prayer is simple. I need not speak it aloud. The gods know my desire. The words flow through my brain anyway, and I know that they are heard.


Hands tighten on the grips of my axes. The leather creaks within my paws. My muzzle snaps shut although the lips peel back in a savage display of pointed teeth and raw hate.


The dropship shudders and shakes as exterior anti-personnel mines detonate in a flash of shrapnel that spreads around us in a wave designed to give us at least a few steps through the gate  — a gate that even now begins to fall in an arc that lets a pale morning sun stream into the craft. The air reeks of chemical waste and exhaust, but soon we will smell naught but blood and death.


The craft slams to the ground with authority, the gate becoming a ramp down which we charge. Our claws catch in the metal mesh of the gate and propel us forward. Jayden is firing already, his sharp eyes finding the foe. Shay is next, the rapid banging of her autogun a song all to itself.

My feet touch actual ground. Sandy loam with a thick cover of grass that is now browned and dead in response to the powerful jets of our landing. In powerful bounds I run past Shay. She adjusts her aim to complement Carr’s, knowing my blades will touch the foe and giving me the berth I need.

They are there, crouching behind makeshift barriers of dirt and stone. Thousands of them, their beady eyes bugging out as I vault through a hail of small-caliber gunfire like a demented acrobat. Behind the assembled rats, I see her, beckoning me to join her in death.

I am among them now, arms pumping and spiraling with the twin blades. I am a demonic beast in their midst, and their gunfire chews their own more often than any bullet even scrapes at my fur. In the melee, they shoot each other, the ground, even the sky, but my ferocious form seems protected by a wall of force handed down by the gods themselves. I am drenched in blood within seconds, a crimson reaver plowing through their ranks with a fresh howl on my lips.

She is there again, a ghostly figure that promises a reunion when my task is finished, and I remember that it was a fight such as this that took her. Cut down beside me in a volley of exchanged shots, her life snuffed out in the span of a heartbeat. I would never know her caress again, never feel her form beside me at night. She was taken from me, and I will make them all pay. Wolves mate for life, and without her I am only a tool of death.

I have come to take the souls of the foe, and send them screaming into their hells.

I am Ivar Bloodaxe.

I am the Berserker.




A Matter of Perspective

Chan looked into the yawning blackness before him with the same rapt expression one might hold for a child. It was truly where he felt at ease. Nimble fingers danced over the controls before him, so fast that they nearly blurred, correcting a miniscule course deviation before it escalated.

He had been in the couch for nine hours now, and he could easily manage nine more, but Morgan was coming through the airlock to relieve him. He mouthed her traditional greeting along with her.

“Shift over, mate. Let a real pilot in,” she said as his beak moved in synch.

“If you were a real pilot, you’d be an eagle,” he replied, the response as rote as her intro. He stood from the grav couch, though, and let the sleek hawk take his place. She keyed in her bio-code and the couch moved and changed shape, morphing to fit her larger profile.

“Argyle has some seriously good coffee in the galley,” Morgan said as she reviewed the information on the screens before her.

“Sweet. Hey, there’s an asteroid strike in there from yesterday. You forgot to sign off on the ‘no damage’ statement. I highlighted it so you could find it easier. Don’t want the Captain crawling up your tail about it.”

“No shit. Thanks, bro,” she said, holding up a fist. He tapped her knuckles with his own.

“That’s about it. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Get some rest.”

He laughed. “Rest? What’s that? That’s something you slow-moving folks do, right?”

She cut her eyes at him, shaking her head in mock sadness. He threw a salute her way and stepped through the airlock gate. As it cycled behind him and left Morgan alone in the command suite, he hummed a tune of love and loss that seemed to be all the rage in the common quarters. The hallway was open before him and he took off at a quick jog, his boots barely making a sound given his light step.

The galley was sparsely populated at the hour, with a couple of mechanics sitting at a table and discussing the day’s tasks. Soft music drifted in through overhead speakers. Argyle looked up as Chan entered and a big smile stretched back his lips. The cook began filling a coffee cup and had it waiting by the time Chan reached the counter and grabbed a tray.

“Good to see you,” Argyle said as he passed the full mug across. Chan took it with a grin.

“Been needing this,” he said.

“You could have sent a message. I’d have had someone bring you a cup.”

“I know, but once I’m in the cockpit I lose track of everything else.”

Chan dropped toasted bread and jam onto the tray. He didn’t bother with a plate, trusting that the trays had been as clean as the plate would and not wanting to add to the washing burden. He grabbed another slice of toast and tucked it into his mouth, tearing out a bite.

“Thanks, Argyle,” he mumbled around the bread.

“Any time,” the cook said. He returned to the prep area as Chan went to a table.

“Well, look who it is,” boomed a voice. Chan looked up, shaking his head as he saw the massive muzzle looking down at him.

“Morning, Marcus,” he said. His fingers flicked in the direction of a chair. “Have a seat.”

The big marine wore the casual shipboard uniform, little more than a grey jumpsuit with his name and rank tabs. The holstered flechette pistol and broad-bladed cutlass on his belt would be an impediment to using the chair, but Marcus spun it around and sat in it backward, leaning across the back of it as he looked on the small pilot.

“Busy night?” Marcus asked.

“Saw a star,” Chan said with a shrug. “Maybe two. You?”

A paw big enough to wrap around most of Chan’s face waved in a dismissive gesture. “Stayed in my rack. Read a book.”

Chan looked up, eyes widening. “Holy shit, Marcus. You can read?”

“Suck it, birdbrain.”

The pilot made an obscene gesture and they both laughed. Another marine passed by and slapped a carbonated drink of some kind into Marcus’s outstretched paw and he cracked the seal, slurping at the pinkish liquid within. Chan saw that it was one of the stimulant drinks that he generally avoided. The coffee he drank because he liked the flavor, but the last thing Chan needed was a stim.

“So another week, then,” Marcus said. His can made a clunking sound on the table.

“Yeah,” Chan said with a nod. He slathered jam on toast. “Figure a week, maybe ten days to shuttle everything down, then a month back home.”

“The colonists are getting antsy.”

Chan made a high pitched sound that Marcus knew was laughter. “Antsy? Wait ’til they get their asses dropped into their new home. They’ll be too damned busy to be antsy.”

“We had to actually break up a fight yesterday. Two of the farmers got in an argument over some lizardshit vegetable production method. Started punching and kicking. My boys said it was the worst excuse for a fight they’d seen in years.”

“What happened to them?”

“We put them the brig ’til planetfall. Ju’oth gave them adjoining cells so they have to watch each other in the head. That ought to foster a sense of camaraderie.”

“People do funny shit this far from home,” Chan said, biting into his toast. “Makes you wonder what they thought they were going to accomplish.”

“I don’t think it’s the distance so much as the surroundings. None of these people have been locked into a ship for more than an hour or two in their lives. Now they’re in here for a month. I can’t even remember what that’s like.”

“Yeah, but you’re weird.”

“We all are, pal,” the mastiff said, crushing the empty can and rising to deposit it into a bin.

Chan waved as Marcus left. He smiled to himself at the thought of the two colonists in the brig, but his comment to Marcus rang in his ears. These people were flying hundreds of thousands of miles from their homes, places they would likely never see again. He pictured the house he grew up in, and charted the distance in his head within seconds. Years of astrogation made the task a simple one, but the distance itself was no small number. He marveled at the thought of how far he had traveled in his career.

He watched as a trio of ocelots from the mercenaries contracted as settlement security entered and stepped into the line, filling their plates in the relaxed but orderly manner of career soldiers. They took a table not far from him, conversing quietly as they ate. The question ran through his head and Chan wandered over to their table. The conversation ended as he stepped within clean earshot.

“Excuse me,” Chan said. “Got a weird question for you guys. I was talking with one of the marines and he was telling me about the colonists and how far they were from home. I know where I am in relation to my place, but what about you? How far from home are you?”

The ocelots looked around for a moment, as if wondering whether some sort of trick was being played. Finally, one of them looked back to Chan. His eyes had a lonely, haunted expression, as if he had seen and done everything. The ocelot shrugged his shoulders and answered.

“A million years.”