Lin stared ahead, looking past the dozen or so Folk in front of him and watching the reflections in the glass doors. There were a few more Folk behind him than there had been a half hour ago. His feet reminded him of how long he had been standing in line. He sent a mental grumble their way, reminding them how many hours they had held him up beside a table before. This would be no different.
He drew his phone from within a pocket and scanned the screen again. Nothing new in the last ten minutes. He sighed. Opening the keyboard, he quickly tapped in a message.
He stared at the screen, willing a response, but nothing came. He wondered if perhaps he had been too forceful in the discussion of the previous afternoon, but she had to know.
The doors opened and he slipped the phone back into his pocket. The crowd filtered in, each taking one of the pamphlets being handed out by a pair of suit-clad Spaniels. He glanced at it, and just as quickly tucked it alongside the phone. Standard indemnity paperwork. Nothing to be surprised about, despite the raised voice of the older calico two bodies behind him. Her shock at the possibility of death or injury was comical. With the frequent terrorist attacks by agents of Empire Rodentia, it was only a matter of time until one was in the wrong place at the right time.
The line shuffled slowly forward as each of the Folk ahead of him spoke to an ArCorp representative. They mumbled answers to questions and presented identification. Lin watched the crowd.
“Hi there,’ said a voice, and Lin tilted his head down to see a raccoon looking up at him from within a tailored blue suit. There was a corporate ID badge hanging around his neck on a lanyard that had his name and photograph displayed. The raccoon came up to Lin’s upper chest, but the smile on his face spoke of easy confidence that the big tiger did not feel.
“I’m Mace Govarr, ArCorp personnel division,” the raccoon said, extending a hand. Lin shook it, dwarfing the small fingers in his paw.
“Lin Waar. It’s nice to meet you,” he said. The words came easily to him, even if the situation was somewhat less familiar.
“Nice to meet you too,” Mace said. “I have a few questions to ask before we know where to send you.”
He tilted his head toward the back of the office, where hallways and cubicle walls could be seen. A tablet filled his hand, drawn from within the suit, and he tapped at a key to open a form.
“What is it you do for a living, if anything?”
“I am a physician,” Lin said. The raccoon grinned as he marked a box on the form.
“We can always use medical professionals,” Mace told him. “Your specialty?”
“General practice. I did trauma work in the militia and drove an ambulance before that.”
“Nice! So you’re militia trained as well?”
“As a medic, yes.”
More boxes clicked on the tablet and Mace reached up to grab at Lin’s sleeve. Pivoting on a heel, the raccoon tugged at the sleeve and urged Lin to follow as they left the crowded lobby behind and made their way through the door into a hall filled with gray cubicle walls. They bypassed them in a rushed series of steps. After a moment they arrived outside a plain door. Mace swung it open and walked inside with no announcements. There were three desks inside, each ugly metal constructs that spoke of time in government service or underprivileged schools.
At the first sat a tall, rangy cheetah who watched their entry with eyes that missed nothing about the new arrivals. Lin didn’t need to check the sleeve patches to know this was a security operative of some sort. It was the dull gray captains’ bars sewn onto the collar that raised his eyebrow.
The second desk had a monkey seated behind it, his dextrous fingers dancing across the keys of a computer whose screen faced away from the door. The white-haired monkey never even looked up as the pair entered the room.
Desk number three was currently unoccupied, but before he could wonder why, Mace was speaking.
“Captain VonHogan, this is Lin Waar. He’s a physician.”
The cheetah nodded, a slow, easy motion. “Why do you want to leave?”
The question was direct and there was no tone behind it at all. It was as if the captain was repeating a question he had asked a hundred times, and as far as Lin knew, he might have. He had anticipated someone asking something close to this, and the answer was right on the tip of his tongue.
“There are worlds out there we’ve never seen,” he said. “I want to be a part of that exploration. I want to help the settlers stay safe and healthy.”
He paused for just a moment and gave a slight tilt of the head as he visibly swallowed.
“I’ll be honest,” he added. “I’m nervous about what’s out there, but I also know that if anything happens, you’ll need someone good at fixing Folk. I am.”
“Are you looking to establish a practice in some hope of becoming rich?”
“I’ve got money,” he answered. Wide shoulders lifted in a slow shrug. “I don’t care.”
“So are you giving it up? I mean, since you don’t care about it.”
“Hadn’t thought about that,” Lin said. His tail twitched behind him, brushing at the door. “If I go to this colony, I won’t need it, right?”
“If you’re accepted to the mission, you’ll become an ArCorp employee and have a salary.”
His phone buzzed, vibrating against his breast.
“I’m good with him,” the cheetah announced. At the second desk, the monkey raised a hand and beckoned Lin to approach. Mace patted the tiger on the back and exited the room behind him, returning to the lobby for his next recruit.
As he walked to the desk, Lin pulled the phone and looked at the screen.
–Why are you leaving?
He snorted and dropped it back into his pocket.
“If you need to get that, go ahead,” the captain said.
“Nah. It’s personal, not business.”
The cheetah laughed, a low chuckling sound from deep in his chest, and leaned back in his chair.
“Son, this is where I get to use all that personal interaction training the army gave me. You’re about to — if Xander over there says so — sign on with ArCorp for a five year hitch as a colonist on a planet full of monsters, with the toothies eyeing the place as well because they need the gems same as we do. Personal needs to be taken care of, too.”
Lin clenched his jaw, took a deep breath through his nose and nodded. The phone slid back out and he opened the keyboard.
–You know why. I need to go.
–I can’t. I have a life here.
–Kalli, you’re the only one I want to come with me.
–Mom wouldn’t want this. She wouldn’t want you to leave, to abandon your practice, to run away on some dream.
Another deep breath filled his lungs. His claws clicked on the tiny screen.
–Mom’s dead. Nice try.
–You know what I mean.
–I’m going, Kalli. Please come with me.
–No. I’m not giving up what I have here for some dirty mine thing.
His chest tightened as he read the words. He knew she was attached to things in a way that he wasn’t, but the resistance was more than he expected.
–I’ll call you later.
–Don’t bother. You’ll just make things worse. I love you, Lin, but don’t.
–Look, we can – he began, but another message came up first.
–Enjoy your little trip. Maybe no one will die this time.
He stumbled, his knees going weak under him. VonHogan half-rose from his chair, returning to his seat as Lin waved him off.
“Are you all right?”
“My sister,” Lin said, waving the phone. He shoved it back into his pocket and turned toward the monkey behind the desk. “She doesn’t approve of the trip.”
“Well, if you need –”
“Nah. I’m in. She and I don’t see eye to eye. She brought up something from my past.”
“Looked like something pretty important.”
Lin dragged a paw across his head, ruffling the striped fur there.
“You, uh, said you were in the army.”
“I was trained for the militia. I didn’t care for it, and I still don’t. I was trained to save lives, not take them. To this day, I don’t like guns. I can use them. I just choose not to.”
VonHogan just stared at him, letting the tiger continue his story.
“Couple years ago — Well, I say a couple, but I can give you the exact date if you want it — I was on my honeymoon. A group of squirrels attacked the cafe we were in. During the fight, I wound up holding a pistol that a dead security officer had used. I had to decide whether to shoot the last one of the squirrels, and I hesitated. It was the idea of harming another, even a squirrel. Mika paid the price. He shot her. I killed him for it, Gara forgive me, but he took a piece of me that I’ll never get back. My Mika was the gentlest soul I have ever known, and she’s gone now…and it’s my fault.”
“Toothies take everything,” VonHogan said. “Even your innocence. Make no mistake, that’s what happened then.”
“Innocence,” Lin said with a mocking snort.
“Lemme ask you this; If that happened today, what would you do?”
“I’d like to sit here and tell you I’d blast away at the squirrel. That I’d save the day. But I know myself. If it happened I would probably hesitate again. That’s a life on the other end of the weapon, and I’ve sworn to protect life.”
“That oath means that much?”
“It’s an oath,” Lin said. “I don’t give it up.”
“That’s the kind of thing I want to hear. It sucks that you had to pay for your beliefs the way you did, but I’ll tell you this much: Folk that stand by their duty are the kind of Folk I want around me.”
“Welcome to ArCorp,” the monkey announced.