So a friend came to me the other day, struggling with emotional pain — the kind of thing that comes from years of self-doubt, self-loathing, and self-deprecation. We’ve all had a brush with it at some point, right? That niggling little voice in the back of your mind that sometimes whispers and sometimes screams, but never really seems to just shut the fuck up and leave you alone.

It’s the voice that tells you, “No one wants someone like you,” or, “You aren’t good enough for that girl,” or, “You’ll never be as pretty as XYZ.” The same voice that loves to remind you that you’re too fat, or too skinny, or too furry, or not muscled enough, or that you don’t know what others do, or a million and one other little things all designed to maintain the status quo and remind you that — for whatever reason — you just don’t measure up and you never will.

Let me start by saying that I am far from being a motivational speaker. Here, in fact, is some of my own personal self-deprecation: I suck as a human being. I’m way too fat. I’m an old furry redneck with social issues. I’m flawed in a thousand different ways, and listing all of them here would only serve to depress everyone.

But I will tell you, gentle reader, the same thing that others should have told you by now: You matter. You are important, whether you know it or not. Your life has meaning and purpose, and you have a reason to exist – it might even be that you are someone else’s reason to exist.

You’re beautiful, even when society tells you that you don’t measure up. Remember that societal standards exist for one simple reason: to sell you some shit. “Wanna wear that pretty new outfit? Oh, wait. You aren’t a size two. Fuck you. Come back when you can fit our new creation,” is quickly followed by another commercial, promising to help you become that size two in record time, so long as you purchase their new product. It’s a vicious cycle, and one intended to keep you in bondage and servitude for your life. You’ll never be good enough for them, because the moment you reach one goal, they’ll tell you that it’s not your final point, that you have to do something new.

Lost some weight? Good. But if you don’t get that crooked tooth fixed no one will think you are pretty. Fixed the tooth? Sweet! You better get to running, though. You’re showing a little flab from the earlier rapid weight loss. You need a new car, too. Something flashy. And your house? Not good enough. Your job is shit, so find a new one. Why aren’t you in a relationship? Why don’t you have kids?

It never stops.

It never stops because industry preys on our insecurities. They know you want to be perfect, and they built empires on those desires.

The problem lies with the quest. Perfection is unattainable.

So you have flaws. So what? Who doesn’t?

“But, I’m fat,” you say.

And? Just last week you taught a child a trick that showed them math was not to be feared.

“I’m shy. I can’t fit in with others.”

So? You sang a song at that choir presentation that had people in tears with its beauty.

“I’m too short.”

You also make the best lemon pies in three counties.

“No one will ever love me.”

Yes they will, and chances are that someone already does and you either don’t know it, or you simply won’t acknowledge it because it goes against the status quo in your head.

We can bounce these arguments all day, but it all comes back to the same thing. For every flaw you see, someone else can see a merit. You look in the mirror and see the imperfections, the mistakes, the things that you’ve been told all along make you less worthy. You’re seeing things from your own side of the glass — with eyes that have been taught and conditioned to feed data straight to the dark little voice that tortures you every day. Why feed that fucker when it’s just going to lie to you again?

I know that just reading a set of words, or even hearing them spoken to you, won’t magically make the insecurities vanish. No one is going to read this and think, “Well, shit! I wish I’d read that years ago! All my problems are gone now!”

It’s not a simple thing. If it were, I’d already be living it, and not sitting here thinking to myself, “Why would anyone want to read some shit you wrote, dumbass?” It’s worth it, though, to take just a minute and look at yourself through the eyes of someone else. For just one brief moment, silence that inner critic. Tell it to fuck off around the back of the house and have a smoke. Listen to your heart instead of that insidious bitch.

You do matter. You are important. You are beautiful, and you are loved.

It’s a simple set of words. Read them again.

You do matter. You are important. You are beautiful, and you are loved.

See? Pretty easy phrasing, right? Yeah. You’re already hearing that voice again. That was a quick smoke break.

It’s a series of thirteen words. I’m no expert on how the mind works, but I know if you tell yourself something often enough and long enough, your brain tells you it’s true. Maybe instead of always saying, “I’m not good enough” (in a million variations), you could try these thirteen words.

Every morning when you look in that mirror, there the words are. Boom. You said them as you looked into your own eyes.

I don’t know how this will turn out, and I don’t even know half of the reasons why anything like this works or doesn’t. I’m just a fat, furry, old redneck, thumping on a set of keys and worried about a friend. Maybe this will help.

The big hand landed on Terry’s shoulder and a gravelly voice spoke in his ear.

“Carrie wants to talk to you.”

The quiet man turned and looked up into the face of the bouncer. The man’s eyes were sharp and brown, set deep in a wide face. Terry, by comparison, was whip-thin and his green eyes seemed possessed of a faraway quality.

“Easy, pal,” urged Vincent. The bouncer could not help but notice that the statement was directed to Terry, and not to him, as would be usual. He expected people to tell him to back off, but the tone this man had used to the thin man he was with made the giant bouncer slip his own hand from the shoulder of the customer.

“What about?” Terry asked.

“Dunno,” the mountain said. “She just pointed you out and said if you was leaving, to stop you for a second.”

The blaring speakers concealed around inside the club were pounding out a bass beat that overpowered most of the song. Terry nodded and jerked his head in the general direction of the interior.

“I’ll be out front having a smoke when the song ends.”

The big man scanned him, practiced eyes looking for any sign of deception or ill intent. “I’ll be bringing her out. She don’t get out of my reach. You get it?”

“Got it.”

A handful of minutes later, the dark head of the bouncer peered around the door frame. In one direction, a group of what looked like fraternity members were passing around the remains of a bottle of Jagermeister before they entered the strip club. Looking the other way, he saw Terry and Vincent. The former stood in a relaxed pose that had a touch of wariness about it, while his friend was leaned against the wall. Both had cigarettes in their hands as they quietly conversed.

He stepped through the door, dwarfing the woman he escorted. Corded ebony muscle gleamed under the exterior lighting in a manner it had not inside. He was a truly massive specimen of humanity, and the frat boys quailed when they saw him step out. The Jagermeister bottle clinked against the pavement where it was hastily dropped.

At his side, the woman in the tan halter top and denim cutoffs grinned. She patted the bouncer on the arm and started off at a casual walk. He was right behind her, and she knew it. Marcus had seen her through many a bad scene, and she felt confident that this would be no different.

“Hey,” she said by way of greeting, tossing back her ponytail to let it fall on her back.

Terry nodded. “Miss,” he said in a pleasant tone.

“Got a sec?”

“Hey, Vince, gimme a minute, yeah?” Terry said by way of reply. His friend stepped away several paces and sat on the hood of a grey BMW.

“Marcus?” she prompted, raising an eyebrow at her escort. He didn’t budge, his eyes fixed on Terry.

“S’all good,” the thin man said. “He’s got a job to do.”

She smiled at that and reached out with one slim hand to pluck the cigarette from Terry’s grasp. Nails painted the same scarlet color as her hair contrasted with the white filter as she took a drag. When she returned it, traces of a pink lip gloss decorated the filter.

“How did you do it?” she asked.

“Pulled it out of a box and lit it.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. No one has ever managed to make it through that performance before, with their pants staying dry. Not with me and Treasure both working on you.”

He grinned. “That’s why I told you to make it a timed performance, miss.”

“It’s Carrie,” she corrected, although she had to admit that she enjoyed the feeling of having someone use some kind of formality with her.

He tucked the smoke into the corner of his mouth, tasting the sweetness of her lip gloss. His hand extended before him in a slow maneuver designed not to antagonize the enormous bouncer.

“Terry.”

She thought for a brief moment that he had mispronounced her name, but then her eyes lit up and she reached out to take his hand in her own and gently shake it. His grip was strong but subdued, the feeling of one who knew they could crush her hand but consciously made an effort to control themselves.

“I could tell you liked it,” she said.

“That I did,” he admitted. “You’ve got a gift.”

“But you didn’t come,” she said.

“Nope.” He was non-plussed at her casual crudity.

“But that’s what the dance is about!”

She was confused and seemed to be a bit miffed by his lack of response. Terry took another short drag and handed her the Camel before tucking his fingertips into the pockets of his jeans.

“I don’t mean to insult you, Carrie, or your friend in there. You’re both amazing at what you do. I just prefer to save my…” He paused, thinking of the right word to use. “…my response, for a more private setting.”

“That’s a lot of self-control.”

“It’s all I have left,” he said. He half-bowed from the waist. “You have a lovely night, Carrie. It was wonderful to meet you.”

“Happy birthday, Terry,” she replied, her voice a little slow in coming, but friendly when it did.

“Thanks for watching over her,” Terry said to Marcus. “I know folks don’t tell you that, but you do a good thing.”

The big man grinned. “Thanks,” he said.

As he turned to leave, Carrie took a step forward. “Hey!” she called. He turned to see a strange look in her eyes.

“Yeah?”

“You aren’t gonna ask for my number or anything?”

“Most guys do that?”

“Yes,” she said. Behind her, Marcus silently nodded.

“I ain’t them,” he said. He opened the passenger door of the BMW as Vincent got in. With a final smile, he dropped into place in the leather seat and closed the door. He watched the dancer as Vincent pulled them out of the parking lot. In turn, she kept her eyes on the BMW through the whole exit.

 

So somewhere along the way in this life, I managed to do something to my neck… Or possibly my shoulder. Or my back. Not sure which, because they all hurt.

I’ve had neck issues before – even saw a doctor and a chiropractor for them. No one could/would fix anything. It’s a simple matter to say, “Here are some muscle relaxants” or “Sit under this ice pack for half an hour” and call it a done deal. I know there are more pressing cases out there that they have to deal with, and believe it or not I hold no blame or malice toward any practitioner that worked on me. They all helped.

Anyway, this time is different than before. I’m experiencing a pain greater than I can ever remember before, and it seems content to not go away any time soon. At various times it has felt like an icepick being pushed into the muscle, a scraping tool worked along bone, or a pinch/press effect on the bone that felt like an angry bouncer trying to pull my collarbone out of my neck for crossing the velvet ropes. I’ve had sharp, stabbing, burning, throbbing, dull, shooting, radiating, and pressing. Kind of an equal opportunity pain, I guess. I’ve felt it from about the middle of the right bicep up through the shoulder joint, into the neck and all the way to the base of the skull. Currently, as I type, I have a sharpness inside the upper right pectoral angling upward and inward to where the neck joins the shoulder.

I have to keep reminding myself to rate it as well. The hospitals and docs are using a 1-10 range thing where 1 is normal and 10 is the worst you can imagine pain being. I can imagine things worse than this so the 10 is out. I mean I could have what’s going on and be slowly being devoured by rabid weasels at the same time, right? That would be worse, and I can imagine it. As a consequence, I adjusted my personal understanding of Pain Level 10 to be “Unspeakable pain. Possible delirium. Unable to interact with the outside world.”

I have not reached that point yet, and I’m hopeful that I never will.

I have registered it as an 8 though. At that point I was unable to focus on anything except the pain. I could barely make sentences, and they were frequently interrupted with me gasping for air or muttering curses (okay, so I was saying them out loud more than muttering, but the point is made). Some of what I said, I am sure, made little sense. I wound up with tears running from my eyes as I tried to maintain a simple erect posture. I was cradling the right arm in my left hand, looking like I was guarding it as one would a broken bone. In truth, I was desperately trying to keep it from hanging on its own weight, in hopes that somehow the pressure being lessened would lead to less pain on my part.

I wound up in an Emergency Room at about 0100 on Saturday. On the plus side, there were very few people there at that hour. We spent some time there getting poked and prodded and answering questions. Left with an ass shot full of steroids and anti-inflammatories, a couple prescriptions for more of them, and a referral to a pain management doctor.

Sleep became an elusive thing. Often, as I would begin to drift off, the pain would erupt into white-hot shards in the shoulder and leave me wide awake. At other times, it would just slowly grow in intensity until I could not stay asleep.

Pain management doc listened to my statements and did some poking/prodding of his own. He ordered an MRI to determine where the issues truly were, and set up an epidural injection. Administered trigger point injections of steroid. Gave me some pills that allowed me to function again as well as sleep. Kicked the pain down a couple notches. Now I run a constant 4 instead of 5 as a base. Still get spikes up to 6 or even the occasional 7, but with the meds onboard it is manageable. I’m kinda drowsy all the time now, and sometimes look and feel like a zombie, but that’s preferable to the sheets of sweat and grinding teeth that was the norm before the medications.

Still waiting on the MRI he ordered. The insurance company likes to fight and delay things, at least until after the new year begins, when they can hit me up for the full amount of my deductible again. Oops. That was my cynical voice. Sorry!

I have an interesting trick, though. I can’t lift my right arm up past about parallel to the floor. I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s not that it hurts to do it, it’s just that when it gets there, it stops. Like it had reached the extent of its range of motion, but it hasn’t. I can reach over with my left hand and easily lift it into a different position, but if I let go, it falls right back to that parallel point, as if it had never gone past it. I’m learning to move my entire body to compensate. I look like Joe Cocker on a bad day, flailing around like a deranged Muppet.

Back to the epidural. I went to the Spine Center and thought I knew what was coming. My bad. Apologies to the staff – If I had known I would have to take off my pants I would have worn underwear for you. I just figured, “cervical spine injection. Eh, so I gotta take off my shirt,” and planned accordingly. Next time I will know better.

And there will be a next time. Sometime in the first couple weeks of 2017, I would imagine. The crew is already working on setting it up. I can have three of them, with a minimum two weeks between them.

In the meantime, between the steroid shots and pills from the ER, and the ones from the pain doc, I had more ‘roids in me than a bad pro wrestler. I was constantly jamming food in my mouth and my body had muscle tremors that made me look like I was trying to vibrate my way into another dimension. My hands still shake a lot. It’s weird.

My urge to create has come back a bit, so that’s good, right? Except that it hasn’t given me the ability to concentrate long enough to write anything that requires a lot of thought. I’m just kind of winging it with this, in fact. It’s semi stream of consciousness, or possibly just stream of semi-consciousness? Not sure which. I’m doing things that I can walk away from instead, like new base characters for stories (the cardboard box that will one day hold the tasty character bits inside) and map squiggles (which is where I draw random continents and so forth in preparation for the creation of decent fictional worlds one day). I have a notebook with messy handwriting in it where I jot down ideas and random thoughts that might be able to be acted on when I’m “sober” again.

Meanwhile I sit and type, with a sharp ache in my neck/shoulder/back that is about as welcome as one would imagine it to be.

So there you have it. A snapshot of my life at the moment. It had been ages since I dropped anything new on the page, and out of the blue you get this. I know it’s not stories or anything fun, but at least I put something new up here. I have been remiss, and hopefully I will change that.

Welcome to 2017, folks.

 

The discharge of the carbine was a sharp bark, and it echoed long enough that the sound joined the clink of the empty casing as it hit the ground. Downrange, a neat hole appeared in the center of the standing target. If it had been a real rabbit, they’d have carted that bitch out in a bag. Not exactly a difficult shot, but to Folk not used to shooting, the whole thing seems magical.

I flicked the safety and ejected the magazine. A quick swipe of my paw saw the chambered round ejected and flying through the air. It hit the dirt and rolled. I laid the weapon on the table and turned to face the small crowd of Folk that had come with me to the range.

“That’s all there is to it,” I told them.

“It’s loud,” said one of them.

“That it is. There are quieter weapons, I’ll give you that. One of our scouts has a suppressed handgun that makes little sound at all.”

“So why don’t all of them do that?” asked a tall dog. He wore some kind of letter jacket and had the half-shaved-head look that was going around with the youth. It was a little odd the first time I saw that, but I’m used to it now. Fashion is weird. I remember when I was a pup it was all about the heavy boots that clomped when you walked. Every cub and kitten for miles had the damned things.

“Suppressors are another piece of equipment that gets dirty, breaks down, and has weight. I don’t need it. If I’m in a fight, I honestly couldn’t care less if it makes noise. I’m gonna do what I gotta do to come out the other side.”

With my luck, of course, winding up in a fight happened far more often than I liked it to.

“So for now, we can assume you all know how to use that weapon, right?” called Sergeant Sharn. There was a murmur of sound as Folk tried to decide if they would respond. I took the onus off of them after letting them squirm for a moment.

“You don’t! Just admit it. No harm here in admitting you don’t know what you’re doing. The harm comes in pretending you do and getting somebody dead for it.”

A paw raised. It was the fox that had earlier stated the carbine was loud. I jerked my chin at her.

“What ya got?” I asked, trying to keep the tone friendly. If they wanted harsh or sharp, they had Sergeant Sharn for that. Even at his best, most of the Folk on the colony didn’t know what to make of the vicious badger.

“Why are there so many?” she asked, pointing to the table. I looked away from her long enough to scan the inventory. There were indeed a few items there.

“Most of these you won’t ever deal with,” I said. “We want you to see them in operation more than anything else. You won’t be spending time behind the butt of a machine gun or a grenade launcher. But our standard carbine and the singles we issue to every household? Yeah. You’re all going to know how to load and fire those.”

“Everyone?” she asked again. “I mean, I’m just a clerk.”

“You a Tolean?”

When she shook her head, Sergeant Sharn responded.

“Toleans have been excused if they request it. Religious abstention and all. You’ll note that several of them declined that and are here for the familiarization process anyway. Everyone else on colony needs to at least know the basics. Even if you never fire a weapon after today, your duties here might leave you in contact with them and we don’t want you afraid of an object that has no will of its own.”

“Excuse me, Sergeant?” called a grizzled old hound from near the back. “If we had militia training back home, uh…”

“We’d rather you hung around in case we have something you’ve not used, but you can bolt if you need to. Come by our office some time, though, if you do. Give us a chance to talk to you about your capabilities.”

“Good enough. Just wanted to know,” the hound said. I was pleased to see he stayed.

“The administration has tasked us with making sure everyone gets a feel for this,” I said. “So here we are. My name is Mitchell Gerhardt, but you can all call me Mag. The badger to my right is Sergeant Sharn. He has requested that you refer to him as Zeke. If you forget our names, that’s fine. You can always just -”

“Please, don’t call me sir,” Sergeant Sharn interrupted. He shook his head in mock sorrow.

“Well, I was going to say ‘call us sir’, but that idea is out the window. Just raise a paw if you need us and we will come to you.”

No one seemed to have any questions or want any other information, so I stepped a couple paces to the side and gestured to the weapons arrayed on the table.

“We will be showing you how each of these operates today. You will be firing many of them. Tomorrow you may well be bruised and aching. That part we can’t help. You will, however, have gained valuable knowledge.”

“I don’t see why it’s so important.”

The dog with the suppressor questions. Who would have guessed? As I figured, Sergeant Sharn beat me to the response.

“Well, ignoring completely the fact that the Administration and the Team Leader believes it is necessary, there are several reasons why you might want to know. Let’s start with the fact that we’ve already stopped more than a dozen attempted invasions or attacks. If you find yourself caught up in the middle of something horrible, would you rather take a chance shooting back or be taken captive? We’ve all heard or read the stories of what the toothies do to prisoners.”

Some of us have more than that. After that snatch team got in and took Zinnia Worth and her two cubs, Frayker was the first to volunteer for the recovery trip. We all expected it, what with him having lived through their particular hell. Diem and Tristan took off with him and two other speed demon types. Between the five of them, we figure on a confrontation within two days. The gun bunnies are gonna lose that one, and we will be getting Zinnia Worth and her cubs back — hopefully still functional. Gann only knows what’s happened to them thus far.

“We’re not asking you to pick up a weapon, in anger or otherwise,” I told them. “Chances are you never will, with the possible exception of your HotShot.”

I hefted one of the long-barreled pistols that every house was issued (excepting the Toleans, of course). They don’t actually have a name beyond their technical designators, but some civvy started calling them HotShot shortly after we issued them and the name just stuck. Single shot pistols chambered for the same rounds in our carbines, they’re pretty much an “Oh shit” kind of weapon.

“This ugly, mass-produced piece of shit here,” I said. “There’s a switch on the left side that says, ‘OPEN’. It does just that. Push it in and the barrel hinges down. You slip a live round in there and snap it closed. Pull back the hammer and squeeze the trigger. Boom. It’s that simple. Every house gets one, Folk, along with a box of twenty rounds. You want more ammunition, come see us and we will issue it.”

“What good is that against those laser guns?” asked a thin bodied civet from the front row.

“First off,” Sergeant Sharn said, stepping forward and squaring his shoulders to the crowd, “we aren’t asking you to repel an invasion or save the planet with a HotShot. This planet has life forms on it that aren’t necessarily polite. You might well come across them in your garden, your back yard, or even inside your house if you forget to secure a door. If they’re bigger than a backpack, shoot them. A security team will respond to any gunshot to make sure you Folk are safe. If you’re just dropping the native wildlife, we’ll pat you on the back and go away. If it’s something big, we’ll take over. If you’re doing something stupid, we’ll cart you off for questioning by the Team Leader. It’s that simple.”

“So we just kill them?”

“Sure. Some of ’em make mighty fine eating,” the Sergeant said.

I waited until the civet finished nearly puking at the thought of eating the scaly reptilian things that wandered the area.

“Look, Folk, we’re here to help you all stay alive a little longer should something untoward happen. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be able to respond than just stand there and get a few new holes.”

“Why do the rats use lasers?” asked a short gray cat. She was holding the paw of a white-furred fox who wore some kind of leather longcoat despite the heat.

“Several reasons,” Sergeant Sharn said. “First off, they like shiny, flashy things.”

“My mom told me that was a myth,” interrupted Front Row Civet Girl.

“Your mom a sci-tech? Rodent researcher?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s where our info comes from. Scientific studies have shown that the toothies in general like things that are shiny and bright.”

“We’ve used that to our advantage in more than a few ambushes,” I added. “But back to the question. Empire Rodentia as a whole uses what works, but you’ll almost always find the energy weapons in the paws of their rabbits and occasionally squirrels – especially strike teams and first-wave attackers. The sound of a zap gun is disheartening. Scares Folk quicker than a simple gunshot. They’re tuned to a frequency of sound that grates on the nerves. We’ve got a saying when it comes to the kind of tech they employ: ‘Toothies like toys.’ They would rather use electronics and gadgets that make Garan priests shake their heads just to lock a door when all they had to do was shove a chair under the knob.”

“But they work good?”

“Zap guns? Oh, yeah. I’ve seen more than my share of Folk with las-holes in them. It ain’t pretty.”

“So how come you don’t use them?”

I chuckled. “It really is a good question. They’re effective, I’ll give you that. Plus, given time and equipment, you can recharge the power packs in the field. Not that anyone bothers to do that, mind you. They just detach and drop, slot the new one and keep firing, just like we do. Recharging from fusion packs or even solar is possible, but it’s a complex process, and not the kind of task a line shooter wants to have. You’re usually busy trying not to get dead.”

I held my carbine above my head. “This is a standard pattern Victor Model. The stocks are wood or synthetics, and the frame is milled steel. It’s capable of a clean hit past five hundred meters, though it’s recommended you keep it within three.”

Or you could be me and just take any shot that comes up. Most of them are nowhere near as far away as you’d want, and the number of them that got closer to me than my prom date is way too damned high.

“Sights are simple. We showed you in the classroom how to use them, and this one is no different. Some folks have fast-acquisition devices, scopes, or even laser designators on theirs. Me, I’m an open sights kind of dog. Get used to them, and everything else is an enhancement.”

“The lasers, you’ll note, all have optics,” Sergeant Sharn said. “Like Mag said: Toothies like toys.”

I tossed the laser at the jaguar on the furthest point of the group. He caught it with a slight fumble and hastened to point the muzzle into the sky. At least he paid attention to that part of the safety lecture.

“Take a shot,” I invited, gesturing down range. “Safety is on the left. Push it forward until the red spot shows up. Then sight it and squeeze.”

He slowly tucked the butt of the rifle into the pocket of his shoulder and breathed out through his nose. Pretty much like I figured, the whole place went silent. Everybody waited to see if he could hit the target. We had set them at twenty meters so they wouldn’t be daunting. The sharp whine of the weapon discharging was lost in the scream of coherent light splitting the air. Gann, I hate that sound. Twenty meters away, a hole appeared in the target. Low and right, but in the ugly bunny pic.

“Nice shot,” I told him, and he flushed with pride.

“Thanks.”

Sergeant Sharn extended a paw and the big cat laid the rifle in his grasp. The badger expertly stripped the power pack and powered down the weapon.

“This is the main reason we don’t use the zap guns,” he said. He whirled on the heel of one booted foot and the rifle went over his head, held like a club. He brought it down with all the force he could muster, right at my head.

The carbine, gripped in both my paws, blocked the descending rifle with a crash of sound. The force of the blow took me by surprise. I’m glad I knew what was coming, because he almost put me to my knees. If I hadn’t been ready I’d already be on the ground with a busted skull. He repeated the strike twice more, each time with the same power behind it. On the third hit I staggered a bit. He is deceptively strong.

“Now you’ll see,” he told the group, turning away from me and the stinging in my paws. A clicking sound as he inserted the power pack was eclipsed by the ratcheting of the charging handle. He sighted in on the target.

“Straight between the eyes,” he said. The shrieking sound rent the air once again. The target acquired a new hole, fully a hands-breadth above the eyes and nearly off the head entirely to the left. A tiny tendril of smoke drifted from the hole.

“Mag?”

I nodded at his invitation, already loading my carbine by feel and charging the chamber. I snapped the short weapon up and fired two rapid shots, calling out my targets a second before piercing the centers of both eyes in succession. Two more, spiking the base of each ear.

“Lasers are good weapons,” Sergeant Sharn said as the echoes died away. “But they are nowhere near as rugged as our weapons. That difference in my shot at twenty meters would be the difference between a kill and a wounding shot, and at fifty it would have missed entirely. The optics went completely off target and the weapon is not designed with a backup system.”

“We’ve seen zaps come out of hand to hand unable to even fire,” I added. “I can drop mine off a landing craft and it will still work. I know because I have.”

Technically true, although I didn’t mention to them that I was holding it at the time. Typical luck for me, which is to say, shit.

“So you just carry that?” asked the fox in the longcoat.

“This is my primary weapon here,” I said, leaving everything else open to interpretation. “We have specialists who carry other things: long, accurized rifles designed for distance shooting, machine guns, grenade launchers, and so forth, but the one thing you will find is that every one of us can run a Victor platform like we were born to it.”

“Why did you choose it? Why not a machine gun? Just mow ‘em down,” Longcoat asked.

I chuckled, seeing the old hound in the back doing the same thing. Beside me, Sergeant Sharn started to reply, but fell silent at my sidelong glance.

“How much can you carry, cub?” I asked.

“What?”

“How much weight? Twenty keys?”

“I… I guess.”

“Our MG comes in at ten keys with two hundred rounds attached. Add in another kilo for every hundred rounds, basically.”

“So I could carry…”

You could actually see the cub calculating, his eyes rolling back.

“Let’s ignore reality for a second and put you with a thousand rounds,” I said. I held up a single carbine cartridge. “One thousand of these.”

“That machinegun can run seven hundred out in a minute if you let it,” called the militia hound from the rear of the group. “Standard firing practice makes it about two to three hundred, but you see how quick that thousand is gonna disappear?”

“You a gunner?” I asked. He nodded.

“Trained to the GH460.”

“Good model.”

The cub was looking back and forth at us as if we had grown horns. I smiled down at him.

“We’ve got a gunner who can carry a lot more ammo than I can, and some of us still carry spare belts for him.”

“What happens if you run out?”

“Pistols. Knives. Axes. Claws,” Sergeant Sharn said. His tone was dark and his eyes distant. “We get in among them and we tear them apart.”

I’ve seen him lost in it. When it comes to getting close, he’s the one I’d want on my crew. Drenched in blood from the top of his striped head all the way down to the steel-capped boots, cutting and tearing. I truly think that’s where Sergeant Sharn belongs, but I’m not telling him – or this crowd – that.

The crowd fell silent after his words and I am about to try and add something to break the sudden tension when the tall dog with the half-shaved head stepped forward a full pace. He looked Sergeant Sharn in the eyes and a little smile quivered his muzzle.

“I’d like to try the Victor, if that’s okay with you,” he said.

“You’re welcome to, Rory,” he said.

When he handed the weapon to the cub, I saw a flash of pride in his eyes. It was almost as if he was teaching a cub of his own.

I started gesturing the crowd into a couple of ragged lines when the setter squeezed the trigger. A small cheer erupted from a few throats in response to the shot, and I grinned. Once they start having fun, it gets a lot easier. This could turn out to be a fun day, after all.

So this morning I saw a little wolf spider just chilling near the shower drain. The obvious solution of “turn on the hot water” came to mind, of course, but then I thought, “Why? Little guy ain’t done nothing to you.” So I scooped him up and gave him a new home out in the grass.
Weird, right? You’re sitting there wondering why this matters or means anything. Well, the thing is, it made me think. Not on the nature of aggression and squishing spiders and so on, but of Kaiju. Yup. Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, The whole nine yards.
Why is it that Kaiju movies ring so solidly with people? It’s been said that they are a metaphor for war and atomic destruction. Giant monsters wading through a city with no concern as to who gets hurt. People are nothing to them, and buildings crumble and fall over like Gumby in a blast furnace.
So here it is, folks. My theory of the day:
Spiders (well, some of them, anyway) are telepathic.

They are the reason Kaiju films resonate so well. The spiders have shown you this vision before, but with YOU as the Kaiju. You’re the one stepping on cities and wiping out infrastructure that took ages to build.
Think about it: Telepathic spiders! They could plant any vision they want in your mind. Currently they’re making you think about Godzilla. Tomorrow, who knows?

They’re out there, folks, and they’re watching you…

Today is one of those days when it hits hard for some reason. The pain. The heartache. That desire to go through and delete everything you’ve ever scribbled down, rip up the papers, and set up a bonfire. With any luck that fire will burn high and hot enough to roast all your future desire to write. Maybe it will free you of that literary albatross around your neck and you can continue your life as a normal human, without being consumed by the urge to set down words and pass them along to be read and (hopefully) enjoyed.

I got a little too close to that fire once before. It’s hard as Hell to come back from it. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be completely returned. I mean, if I really was, wouldn’t this be one of those 2500-word days? When I sit down and thunder away on the keys, spewing content and building yet another chapter in some monumental epic series of books that would make all the other monumental epic series on the market look like a bound sequence of Mad Libs filled in by drunken giraffes. That kind of day?

But it isn’t. This is the day when my heart and my head can’t communicate well with one another. All I can do is look at everything I’ve written and think to myself what a steaming pile of orcshit it is. Even my stuff for Camp NaNoWriMo looks like shit to me today. So I sit here at the comp, and I flit from one WIP to the next, glaring at them as if they were unwanted religious seekers knocking at my door. Each one is trying to hand me some piece of tripe I don’t want to read, and yet I have to if I’m going to continue the tale.

So I pick one and I drop ten or fifteen words in it. Just a couple of sentences. Hit ‘SAVE’ and move on to another. A couple more sentences there. Nothing of substance anywhere, just a few words here and a few there. Those words might well disappear when I edit the work, but for now, they represent one step on the journey away from the bonfire.

pablo(4)

I may never fully recover from the self-loathing and the pain that cut me off from my muse, but I’m going to keep trying. She would want that. (Yes. I am referencing mythical creatures, and gladly claiming that one of them thought I was important enough that she would devote herself to letting me write her words. Why not? Dumber shit happens on this planet every day and no one thinks twice.)

This blog post, you’ll notice if you take the time to look through the rest of my site, is one of very few that isn’t some form of fiction or interview. I don’t write from the heart (cue sappy music here) very often. Most of what I do is purely for fun, and with the devout hope that someone somewhere will read it and say, “Dude, that was cool. Thanks for sharing it with us.” I have no illusions about being the next Burroughs, or King, or Lovecraft, or Tolkien, or a host of other names. I’m just a mook who likes telling stories. If you like reading them, then hey! Welcome! Look at some of the other stuff on here. Maybe something will make you smile.

So there you have it. A rambling, probably nonsensical, look at how I felt today, and the fact that I still fought through it. Tomorrow is another day, and it could go either way. I hope, though, that I will take the time to set pen to paper/fingers to keys/ etc., and tell at least some part of a story…or nine.

The aisles of the cargo bay were cramped, even for someone not Chino’s size. His shoulders were brushing against the stacked boxes and a crushing sense of claustrophobia threatened to overtake him in the tight environment.
In front of him, Harper glanced back and forth, his nose twitching. His paws were clenched, a sure sign that he was agitated as well.
“It’s cold in here,” Chino said.
“No shit,” Harper said. “They barely heat it because it wastes energy. They toss stuff in here that’s supposed to be cold anyway, right?”
The overhead lighting flickered, drawing an involuntary gasp from Chino. A part of him expected the room to have been filled with guards, but as Harper had described, it was only ship’s supplies. Unless someone needed something specific from inside it, they wouldn’t even come in the bay. That made it ideal pickings for an enterprising pair looking for a few pharmaceuticals to slip in their luggage before landfall.
“I hate space travel,” Harper announced. “I don’t think I want to do it again.”
“Is this it?” Chino asked, interrupting Harper’s woolgathering. The elephant was tapping at a polymer box large enough to be a coffin. Harper glanced at the data tag strapped to the end and a wide grin split his muzzle.
“Even better,” he said, his voice in a whisper.
“What’s better than free drugs?” asked Chino.
“Free guns.”
Chino flipped the latches on the crate and popped open the cover. Inside, gleaming dully in the dim overhead light, rested two dozen of the short pump-action shotguns the ratings had been seen to carry. A separate section of the crate held a similar number of matte grey handguns.
“Holy shit,” Chino whispered.
“Promised land, baby,” Harper added. He slapped the big elephant on the back.
Carefully, he peeled away the data tag from the end of the crate and replaced it with one from within his jacket – a tag indicating it as personal belongings owned by Chino. He rolled the other into a thin tube and slipped it into his pocket for disposal. Bringing the parts for the printing machine along in their carry-on had been a wise investment.
“Now we find the ammo.”
It took a little time to make that discovery, and in the process a crate of assorted medical supplies, two boxes coded as ‘Emergency Survival Kit’, a case of personal hygiene items, and a large box filled with rechargeable batteries in standard sizes also got a special label reassignment. At long last they found boxes of ammunition for the weapons, and assigned a couple of those for redistribution as well.
“Think that’ll do it?” Harper asked. Chino nodded his big head.
“I can’t carry all of it,” he said. Harper held out his paws in a calming gesture. When he replied, his amusement was obvious by his tone.
“We don’t carry any of it at all,” he said. “Not one damn bit. Planetfall is in two days. We’ve got the whole ‘make sure all your shit is ready for drop’ speech to look forward to, and we can say that we’re missing some stuff. They know that some items got sent to ship’s stores for the cold storage, and they’ll check here. The Navy will move our shit for us, pal, and they’ll apologize for the trouble!”
“That’s a mighty fine plan you got there, pup,” declared a raspy voice from near the door. Harper and Chino whirled to find a scarred lion watching them, his mane shaggy and a black hat jammed on his head. A bottle of amber liquid was in his paw and a cigarette hung from the corner of his lips, although it was currently unlit.
“Who are you, pal?” Harper demanded. His paw itched for the knife in his back pocket, but he kept still as he awaited a response. If anything broke loose, it would be a race to see if he could get to it before Chino was swinging his crowbar anyway. For a giant that lumbered around as if he had no muscle control, the elephant was surprisingly quick on his feet when the occasion called for it.
“Just call me Jack,” the lion said.
“Yeah? Well, Jack, what do you want?”
“In.”
The simple answer caught Harper off guard for a second and then he grinned.
“In on what?”
“Don’t fuck with me, coyote. There’s crates and crates of free liquor here if you know where to look, and I know where everything is stored. Got a couple friends setting up a bar on planet and smuggling out a bottle or two at a time to boost their supply is a serious pain in the ass. Your system, though? Sounds like a quick way to get a little something for everybody with nobody but the Navy losing anything.”
“What’s in it for you?” Chino asked. He had taken a half-step away from Harper, increasing the space between them so the lion would have to choose a target if there was a fight.
“Free liquor,” Jack repeated, waving the bottle he held. “With ears that big, you’d think you could hear.”
“Fuck you, furball,” the elephant spat. “I heard your mom begging for more the other night.”
“Maybe if you’d been hung like anything bigger than a mouse she wouldn’t have had to beg for more.”
“Hold up,” Harper said, raising a paw to stop the argument before it could flare. “You say you know where everything is?”
“Spent a few nights in here,” Jack said with a tight nod. “Nothing to do but drink and read labels.”
“And these pals of yours, they wanna open a bar?”
“Yeah.”
Harper leaned close to Chino and whispered. “We can move a lot of goods through a bar.”
“Yeah. I just… He pisses me off.”
“Relationship of convenience,” Harper said. “When we get down to the surface we’ll need new channels to run products.”
Chino rubbed at a tusk and then nodded.
“Fine,” Harper said to the lion. “Let’s get back to the hab blocks, and then we can get started by you telling us what kinda shit is stored here that we missed. After that we’ll see about setting up some new labels. Five Folk in means we can divert even more.”
Jack grinned around massive teeth. “Now you’re talking.”
<<<END>>>

The hole in the craft was leaking air into space at a rate that did not please Cutter, but he had more important things to worry about. He jerked back hard on the stick and twisted it to port, entering into a bank as he poured on the acceleration.

“Come and get me,” he said through clenched teeth.

He snapped the Bloodwing into a straight climb while maintaining the rearward pressure on the stick. The loop he was pulling was a basic maneuver taught to every skyfighter. He knew that the toothies taught the same things. If he could get them in the right position, though, he might well put paid to them for their little incursion into Combine space.

Screens lit with imminent attack warnings as a laser painted the rear of his craft. He shouted a curse and abandoned all subtlety, hammering a boot into the rudder and turning hard starboard as his paw slapped first at the ECM panel and then at the rear gunnery console.

From the aft tubes came irradiated chaff and sun-bright flares, spinning away from his Bloodwing as he put it harder into the turn and kept the accelerator wide open. The short-barrelled mass driver back there barked and bucked, spitting unaimed rounds into space. It was a desperate ploy to keep the rat from closing, but it had been known to be successful in the past.

“On your seven low, Cutter!” advised a voice across his radio. “Longtail on your seven low!”

“Take him!” Cutter shot back. “I’ve got two hits and I’m pissing air.”

“Trying. He’s good.”

“I’ll run a clean line. Get him when he reaches for the cheese.”

He flicked the shield control with a claw that snapped back into his paw, shunting all the power to the rear portion of the craft. He rolled over once and locked his flight into a straight line. Behind him, the Empire Rodentia fighter lined up a clean shot. Twin lasers flashed to life with a heavy pulse of energy. Cutter rocked as the beams impacted on his shields.

A second later and the Longtail shuddered beneath a series of mass driver rounds as Vapor overtook them and opened up with his main cannons. It seemed to falter in its flight and then erupted into a ball of flame.

“Splash one Longtail,” Vapor said, slowing his flight. “You good, Cutter?”

Cutter snarled, taking advantage of the lull in the fighting to rip open a sealpak and jam the metallic sheet atop the visible hole near his right foot. It smacked into place with a wet sound of adhesive sticking to the interior of the Bloodwing.

“I’m okay,” he reported. The other hole, according to his sensors, was in the ammo bay for the port wing cannon. Best case, it just stayed an open gap into space. Worst case, it would cause the weapon to malfunction. For now it was fine.

“Ready to get back in it?”

“Damned right.”

Together, the two Bloodwing fighters banked and flipped around. Hundreds of kilometers ahead of them was the massive form of the transport they were escorting. They both tweaked the throttle and headed back for the ship. It took very little time to spot the ongoing battles that surrounded the big beast, where dozens of fighters spun and danced in space, their weapons winking and flashing. The larger conflicts between the Flashpoint corvettes and the destroyer from Rodentia were a continuous interplay of energy weapons. Red and green beams seemed almost to connect them like colored string. At this distance it was impossible to tell who was winning.

“You’re upside down,” Vapor commented.

“I always am,” Cutter said with a chuckle. The joke went back to their training days, when Cutter was frequently reprimanded for the way he handled his craft. A training officer had once commented that while the squadron would eventually reach their objective, Cutter would arrive upside down, simply to be contrary.

He cut the thrust, content to allow the sleek craft to drift forward at the speed he had established for it. If he continued to build velocity, when he arrived at the combat scene he would blow through in an eyeblink and spend the next several minutes trying to reorient his craft.

A massive explosion caught his eye. As he started to comment on it, the radio crackled in his ear. Two lightning-fast beeps announced that the transmission was from the bridge on Dragon’s Head, the main transport ship that Cutter and the other pilots were assigned to protect.

“All fighters, all fighters. Breach of rodent destroyer, starboard aft. I say again, breach of rodent destroyer, starboard aft.”

“What say we take them some pain?” Cutter said as the broadcast cut off, tweaking the control to angle toward the damaged destroyer.

“I’d say you’re crazy. Shana’s gonna have every missile in the system directed that way.”

Cutter noted that the statement did not deter Vapor from banking along with him.

“Missiles only go so far,” he said, sweeping his eyes across his tactical board. All his weapons showed ready. “Sometimes you’ve gotta add in a few bullets to help things along.”

A flash of crimson energy flared from his shields.

“Longtails!” Vapor called out.

“Don’t they know they’re getting between me and something fun?” Cutter asked as his sensors locked onto the incoming enemy craft.

There were three of the Longtail fighters angling toward them. Narrow and tall, the enemy craft had a distinctive drive system that extended behind the main body, giving them the name that Combine fighters had tagged it with almost a decade before. The twin heavy lasers mounted above and below the cockpit were no joking matter, as the holes in Cutter’s Bloodwing could attest. With shielding that Combine experts considered ‘acceptable’ and armor thicker than that on his own Bloodwing, the Longtail was a foe Cutter could respect. He knew it had more issues than his craft, however, as the big lasers were a tremendous energy drain. Most Longtails carried two sixteen-inch ship-to-ship missiles to add to their firepower. If those beasts struck home, the effects were devastating, but the Bloodwing ECM suite usually did a good job dealing with those.

For their part, Cutter and Vapor were running in one of the Combine favorites. The Bloodwing was comprised of a long central drive with a narrow arch that ran above the cockpit, supporting a sweeping wing structure that ended in a pair of 80mm mass drivers, with a third cannon running along the drive axis and slung ventrally beneath the craft. The third was their can opener. Equipped with a 200mm mass driver, the main gun drew a lot of power to fire, but punched through fighter armor as if it was tissue. In a pinch, it could do a fair bit of damage to the body of even the destroyer Cutter wanted to reach. Tertiary weapons systems consisted of the aft-mounted light mass driver – intended to deter pursuit more than anything else – and a brace of ten six-inch ship-to-ship missiles. While carrying a lighter payload than those of the Longtail, the Combine missiles were designed to shred armor by separating into a series of submunitions just prior to impact. The hope was that the multiple warheads would manage to bypass shields where a single large round might fail.

While some Combine ships were possessed of laser weaponry, not every pilot wanted them, and most chose the more classically-oriented slugthrowing weapon systems. There were a few specialty craft out there, and most pilots could fly them if they had to, but the intimate familiarity that a pilot developed in a specific craft gave them the edge in combat.

“What ya think?” Vapor asked as the trio of Longtails began to spread apart. It was a move Cutter had seen before.

“Take out that middle one. The others are about to bank hard. They’ll loop out and around; try to come in behind us after the pass.”

“Done,” Vapor said. His wing guns began to chug, sending slivers of forged steel flashing into space. They sparked as they came into contact with the shields that the Longtail had up, but given the high cyclic rate of the guns, one or two of the high-velocity slugs was sure to get past it.

“Target,” Cutter ordered his shipboard computer. His paw stroked the rightmost image on the sensor screen, highlighting it with an orange aura. His claw flipped open the cage on the stick he was holding and he stroked the missile fire command three times. As he hit the third one, he used his finger to press the main trigger, adding his own guns to those of his wingman.

From along the wings of his craft, three long white missiles leaped on tongues of flame and arced up and out to follow the progress of the Longtail that Cutter had targeted. Until the rats either detonated the missiles, they ran out of fuel, or impacted on the target, they would continue their track.

The Longtail in the center began a quick roll, triggering the lasers as it did so. Beams slashed through space, missing the two Bloodwings by narrow margins. Cutter changed his angle of approach by a degree or two, working the trigger in short bursts to send stream after stream of steel shot out in a quest for the drive of the Longtail. Several of them passed through the shields as they closed and his shots were striking more along the port side of the Longtail. He saw them, sparking and shredding, biting holes in the long drive train. Vapor’s shots were a direct visual threat to the rat piloting the craft, and he kept his shields on maximum to prevent the steel from slapping into his cockpit.

A flare of magnesium-bright light signaled to Cutter that his rounds had holed the powerplant. Atomized fuel flashed into short-lived flame.

“Good hit!” Vapor shouted over the comm. Cutter started to reply when he realized the pilot had been talking about his own. A series of slugs had made it past overworked shields and slashed across the interior of the cockpit just as Vapor pulled clear of his approach. One last strike from the laser blasted a streak along his starboard wing, but hit nothing serious.

“The port ‘tail is the one to watch,” Cutter said instead.

Even as the words left his lips, twin crimson beams scraped across the armor of Vapor’s Bloodwing. Metal composite flashed to steam and ablative plates shattered into fragments, falling away in the face of the ravening energy.

“Shit!” Vapor cried. “Life support crash, Nav comp is down as well!”

“Pull out!” Cutter ordered, throwing his Bloodwing into a hard port climb. He wheeled the craft over and spun in an attempt to see the attacker. “I’ll get him.”

“Shield generators offline! Oh, fuck, here he –“

The blast of static was accompanied by a brilliant white explosion from Vapor’s craft as it exploded. Cutter was buffeted by a shockwave that passed almost as soon as he registered it. Tiny bits of the Bloodwing pattered against Cutter’s shields like rain on a tent.

“Mine,” Cutter said, his voice a low growl from deep in his chest. He flicked at the sensor array, setting off a sweep of his surroundings. The screen showed a blue haze as the bits of Vapor’s craft clouded the sensor, but three of the enemy craft registered on it were in his vicinity. One showed red, indicating it seemed sidelined, at least to the targeting array. The second was amber, and Cutter believed that to be the one they had just attacked as a team. It might be a problem if the pilot could forget about his damage long enough to take some kind of action. The third pulsed a bilious green, and was tracking rapidly around behind Cutter.

He triggered the rear mass drivers, feeling as much as hearing the chugging as the electromagnetic drives accelerated the projectiles to incredible speeds. As he did, he tried to imagine where the Longtail had come from and where it might be going next. He tried to think of what his own course of action would be if their positions were reversed.

“Target,” he ordered, poking the bright green object on the screen. It limned with an orange aura and he fired five of the remaining missiles at one second intervals as he twisted the Bloodwing in a spiral arc that brought him into a position where he could finally see the Longtail. The pilot had seen the launch and was now deploying countermeasures. Clouds of finger-sized flares and irradiated metal erupted into the space between the two craft.

Cutter’s face split in a death’s-head grin as he engaged the thrusters at full effect. He locked in the targeting for the cannons and laughed aloud as he passed by the first set of flares and chaff. Two of his missiles exploded there seconds ahead of his passage, and he used that effect to obscure his approach.

Coming in at a slight downward angle to the Longtail, Cutter squeezed the trigger of the cannon controls even as he fired the last two missiles. He saw the mass driver projectiles sparkle and flash as they were turned by the shields, but a handful of them slipped past the flickering field to rake and stab at the Longtail.

Out of habit, he glanced at the ammunition tally, but he discounted the numbers there as unimportant. This fight would go until his guns clicked empty and then if necessary he would ram the enemy ship. He slashed quick bursts at his prey over and over as his ship closed the gap between them. The Longtail wasn’t pushing the power as much as Cutter was.

A spray of ice crystals indicated a life support breach as oxygen vented into space. Electrical sparks followed and Cutter kept his aim focused on that point, sending a hail of cannon rounds tearing into the Longtail near the junction of the drive housing and the main body of the craft. Several of the rounds punched into the interior to wreak their havoc within the craft itself, and Cutter flashed by it as all acceleration within the Longtail ceased.

He cut power to the thrusters and flipped the attitude of the Bloodwing. It was now flying inverted as compared to his approach, but he was once again looking directly at the Longtail. Kicking the thrusters back to life, he bolstered the front shields and flew headlong into the target path of the Longtail.

No shots lanced out from the Rodentia ship, and Cutter wondered if the pilot had more important things to do. To remind the rat that he was still out there, he pressed the trigger again and watched as streams of high-velocity steel shredded the front of the Longtail. He eased off the throttle and flipped the switch for the retros, slowing his approach as he simultaneously angled the craft to be out of direct aim of the twin lasers.

His adrenaline began to climb steadily as he neared the still craft. The computer was now categorizing the Longtail with a red aura. Cutter kept his claw on the trigger despite that designation. He continued to drift ever closer, hearing his own breath coming fast and shallow. The Bloodwing edged between the firing arcs of the lasers and Cutter used his jets to keep the two craft face to face as he turned on his signal beacons. The brilliant white light illuminated the cabin opposite him and for the first time he saw his opponent.

Small and thin of build, with a pinched face that was now mostly hidden behind the bulk of a respirator mask, the rat was a hairless grey thing. Blood ran from a shallow cut on the side of its neck. The cockpit itself was a shambles, and Cutter recognized the look of a door closed and sealed against a breach. He flicked a switch and killed the beacons, using a pocket light to illuminate his own face for the other pilot. Holding up a paw, he tapped at his wrist chron and then pointed at the rat.

It sat still for a moment and then held up both spindly hands. One had three fingers raised, and the other was in a circular shape.

“Thirty minutes?” Cutter asked, making the same gesture and then tapping his watch again. The rat nodded and then tapped at the side of its respirator.

It was a horrible thought that all pilots had considered at one point or another: Slow suffocation in the endless night of space. Several that Cutter knew had vowed to take their own lives if it came to it rather than suffer the agony of their body fighting for air.

Cutter made his paw into a gun shape and waved it, then pointed at the rat and raised both paws as if indicating a question. There was hesitation for a moment, but then the rat shook its head. It gestured toward the instrument panel that was outside of Cutter’s line of sight and then jerked a thumb back in the direction of the battle. He used his hands to show sweeping gestures, then raised two fingers and pointed at himself before indicating the area behind him again.

“Two ships, huh? I guess that will help you be safe.”

Cutter saluted the rat and disengaged his craft from the Longtail, maneuvering up and around to come in behind it. He surveyed the damage he had done, and found none of it lacking. He had managed to chew the Rodentia craft nearly in half.

Chaging the attitude of the ship, he pressed the Bloodwing in against the Longtail, the nose of his ship against the rear frame of the other. From this angle he would be able to act as a pusher to move the rat where he wanted.

“But you took out Vapor and you don’t get to be safe,” he said, jamming the throttle open. It started out as slow going but soon they were leaving the battle behind them and flying hard into space.

“If they can find your ass out here in under thirty minutes then you’ve got more lives than me,” Cutter added, disengaging his Bloodwing and watching the blacked-out hulk drift silently away and into the dark.

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

“Why are you here, Mag?”

The question comes without warning. No pleasant conversation leading up to it, nothing. It’s not like I’m not used to it. I think everyone in ArCorp has asked me at some point or another. In a world of specialists, I stand out – because I’m average.

I’m not a sniper, or a gunner, or a scout. I don’t drive a tank like it’s a sports car. I’m not special. All I do is go out every day and do my job.

Today is no different, and the only reason the question feels unusual is because of who is asking. Lissa is spectacular. I don’t think I’ve ever crushed as hard as I did the first time I was around her. That feeling is mostly gone now, buried beneath the afternoons spent sweating and bleeding under the same terrifyingly bright sun. Now she’s just a partner, or at least that’s what I tell myself. The delusions burn away like paper in a blast furnace when she speaks to me on a personal level.

“Well, I got on a ship, and it flew through space, and then it landed, and –“

She slugs me in the shoulder. Her paw is like an iron block and I feel the blow all the way through to my chest.

“You know what I mean, dickpuppet,” she says, shaking her head.

I shift the rifle a little on its sling and get it in a spot that doesn’t make my shoulder feel raw. That’ll last probably about another ten minutes.

“I go where the money is,” I tell her, but it’s an obvious lie. She doesn’t buy it. I guess my delivery really sucks.

“You could have had real money if you’d signed up for the airdrops on Sethyn,” she counters.

“At least that place has a real name.”

I step around one of those weird local cactus things. Sharp, barbed spines on them with a fiery toxin that make them about as much fun as reaching into a bucket full of broken glass to feel around for an arcing electrical wire. Sure, my boots should protect me, but seriously? Like I want to wander around through this whole sweep with that shit in my feet. Did I mention that I have shit for luck? Taking a risk like that is sure to bring something disastrous and stupid to the team.

She is quiet for a couple hundred more paces. Somewhere in the line behind us is Duggan, her partner for well over a year. I can tell she would rather be with him, but the Sarge has paired us together. Ordinarily I would be content just to march and get where we’re going, but I sense she wants to talk. I don’t really want to disappoint her.

“Petty criminal,” I confess, and she looks at me in sudden shock. Her sparkling eyes have gone wide and her mouth is open just enough to show those delicate points of white.

“I got caught stealing from a local Magistrate’s house. After his sec boys beat on me for a while, I got ‘volunteered’ for the local militia. I did okay there, and when the recruiter rolled through telling us how wonderful life was in the army, I raised my paw. I’ve done dumber things in life, but not many.”

“What did you steal?” she asks.

“Time,” I answer. She looks at me with one brow raised.

“Time?”

“Yeah. With his daughter.”

Her laughter is like a silken cloth caressing the pleasure center of my brain. Images flash through my head of hearing that laugh for the next twenty or so years. So much for the ‘crush is gone’ thing.

“That’s a great story,” she says after she stops giggling.

“Thanks. It got me a few years behind the butt of an L5.”

“Well, then it’s not all bad. You could have had that piece of shit 67 they used to issue.”

Now the talk turns comfortable. We’ve been here on this planet for a month and shared little more than six words. It’s because she wondered who I was. She’s not the only one. I wonder about that myself from time to time. What kind of mutt gets into a life like this because he can’t keep it in the sheath?

“So what’s your story?” I ask. She tightens up her grip on the rifle she carries and I think for a second that maybe I’ve touched a nerve, but it looks like a gesture of comfort for her. She treasures the rifle more than any prospective lover could expect, and it shows. We all get protective of our weapons in the field, but I think that her feelings for what she holds go beyond that.

“Typical, I guess. I wanted out of the home situation. Signed up to get away from my parents. They weren’t abusive or anything,” she hastens to tell me, and the expression on her face tells me she’s truthful here. She seems afraid that I’ll misunderstand her motives and lay blame somewhere.

“They just treated me like I was an inconvenience. By the time I was old enough for the militia, I knew the family’d be better off without me around, so I jetted. Signed up and went in with what I had on my back. The Combine came around after I’d been in for about a year. My scores caught the recruiter’s eye and he offered me a new bunk. Next thing, I’m hunkered down in a field snapping up Gun Bunnies. That’s how I met Duggan,” she adds, with a rearward jerk of the thumb.

Duggan is a lifer, and no doubt of that. Some Folk dream of retiring and leaving the killing behind. Some are a little more devoted to their craft. Duggan makes the most of what he is, I suppose, and he’s a killing machine. I don’t mind dropping a toothie, mind you. It’s just part of the job. Duggan, though? He lives for it. I doubt he has any outside interests or anything. He’s got kill marks all over him, and he would never blend into that mythical ‘polite society’ thing.

“We were on Ixxat,” Lissa continues. “Duggan’s running an MG, keeping lines of rabbits down. The toothies send a team of squirrels around the flank to silence him. I caught their advance and set up position behind him; started popping one nutmouth after another. Everyone they sent got put down. Eventually we started working together. He maintains the automatics, and I keep the distance threats from getting close enough to be an issue.”

“I didn’t think we had a dedicated sniper. That’s what they told me, anyway.”

“Oh, I’m not one,” she says, although I see her happiness at being compared to one. “I’m just good at long shots.”

“Yeah. I hear you regularly pull off seven hundred meters.”

“Who’s been talking?”

“You know how it is. Word gets around.”

“Good optics and an amazing weapon,” she says with a wink. “I can’t do the klick-and-a-half-all-day stuff that a true sniper can, but at seven, I can make reliable kills. Much past nine, and I’m hoping like hell I can tag ‘em. It’s like training, right? Where they made you make five hundred with the L5. They know in the field you’ll be inside of three most all the time.”

“Most of my days were within a hundred. That was on the days when they weren’t in my lap.” I look down into the waist-high grass we’re cutting through. It feels kind of good brushing against my lower legs. Soothing, somehow.

“Gara,” she says with a shudder. “I hate having them that close.”

“Me too. It just happens that way. I wind up in the middle of them and then the shooting starts.”

“Have you spent much time talking to Sergeant Sharn?”

“I’ve spoken more to you on this march than I’ve spoken to anyone since landfall,” I admit. Her brow arches again.

“Shy, are we?”

“Not really. I just do my job and go home, you know?”

She nods and I can see in her eyes that she knows. I’ve seen that look before on Folk who have been in it. It’s that look that tells you, I’ve been where you are and I know what you’re thinking, but having someone else around doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to disappear. Yeah, sometimes they do, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s okay to let someone in.

“Well, he has a thing for getting in real close,” she adds. “You know, like paws-on kind of close.”

“I much prefer not touching their kind. Takes forever to get the stink out.”

“Right? That’s why I like to keep them at range.”

“Can’t say as I disagree with that idea. With any luck I’ll just get to sit back and hand you magazines.”

“You should come hang out with us some night,” she offers suddenly. She sounds surprisingly sincere, and I can tell it was a spur of the moment decision to, in essence, ask me out.

“I don’t get out much,” I hear myself reply, and if I could kick myself in the face for that, I would. About a dozen times.

“First drink is on me.”

I shake away the image of body shots inspired by her last comment and shuffle the rifle again, flipping it on the sling so that it hangs over my right shoulder and points to the ground. I’m trying to think of something witty to say, something that won’t come out like, “Ogglebooglewogwog” if I manage to speak at all.

“I should warn you,” she continues, looking directly at me as she walks. “I don’t give up easy.”

“Then you should know I’m from a backwater town and I have really cheap tastes. That whole ‘first drink’ thing might end up costing you three seconds’ pay.”

She smiles and is about to reply.

The ‘click’ is a tiny snick of metal on metal that barely carries to our ears but seems somehow to echo loud as thunder. My hands are in motion, swinging up the rifle and mounting it to my shoulder as my eyes sweep the surrounding area for the toothies. I feel the cold rush of adrenaline through my veins and I am ready for whatever comes.

Or so I think. The muted whimpering sound from my left draws me up short and I turn to see Lissa standing stock-still and looking down at her foot. The clicking sound makes sense now.

“Pressure release. Don’t move,” I tell her. The words are unnecessary. She knows the drill as well as I do. They’re just something I can do.

I touch the microphone feed on my headset, breaking a radio silence that has existed since the third step off the transport four hours ago.

“Mines, mines, mines,” I chant in a husky voice that I hope isn’t a scream. “I say again: Mines. Lissa is on one.”

“Lissa?” Duggan responds. Anything else he has to say is covered by Sergeant Sharn. His frequency locks out the lower-ranking turtle.

“Full stop. Defensive stance. Mag, what can you tell me?”

“Pressure release,” I repeat. I’m kneeling now, and brushing away some of the thick yellow sand. I can see part of the device beneath her foot. I look up into her eyes, smiling in the most reassuring manner I can. I can deal with mines, but this situation was not what I wanted.

“Looks like a Frilltac Nine,” I report. “I’ll take a look at it.” I lay a comforting paw on her lower leg and use my other to cut off the transmitter. Not only do I not need to have the chatter distracting me, I don’t want any of them to hear anything said. The things Folk say when they truly believe they are about to die can be embarrassing if they don’t.

“I’ll get you out of here, Lissa,” I promise.

“Do it and all the drinks are on me,” she says, trying not to stutter. I see her swallowing again and again.

“Well, that’s not much of an offer. Remember? I’m cheap.” I lean over to blow against the dust, sending a cloud of it into my nose and eyes. Whoever planted the Nine was smart. There’s a blob of adhesive covering the hole where I could have safed the device with a wire. Did I mention I have shit for luck?

The first bullet hits her in the chest, just above the line of her breasts. I can hear it hammer into her armor and then she is toppling backward, unable to keep her balance. The sound of the shot rolls in behind the impact, low and loud. Without thinking, I grab her foot and press it as hard as I can to the fuse, throwing my own weight atop it as I hear her body hit the ground. She makes a strange, creaking noise as she fights to regain her breath. As she twists to fight the sudden pain, I keep wrestling her foot.

“Lissa, stop!” I tell her. Her boot is trying to slip from my grasp. “Stop moving or you’ll kill us both!”

Around us the entire force has opened up in a comforting display of weapons fire, and I can hear the sharper reports of toothies answering with shots of their own. I focus on the task at paw, blocking out all the sounds as best I can.

She is breathing again, with a thick wheezing noise as part of it. Based on the shot I heard, it’s got to hurt a lot. Probably dented the sheathing of her armor. She has stopped fighting me, and for that I’m grateful. I change my grip and lever my body into a partial rise, lifting my bulk away from the hole I have made. It takes a moment to get back to the semi-clear access I had before, and working with only one paw makes it even harder.

“M-Mag?” she chokes out.

“No. You’re not gonna die, so the answer is no.”

I hear her wheeze. Faster and shallower than before. She is starting to hyperventilate, and I can tell she’s about to speak again. I cut her off.

“Too many times. Too damned many times, Lissa. Always asked to get a final message to a sister, or a husband, or a fellow troop. Not this time,” I say, digging in my pocket. With a snick, the switchblade flicks open and I set to work on the adhesive.

“This time,” I continue, prying at the blob. It starts to give way and then cracks. A chunk falls away and I redouble my attack – on it as well as on my plans. “We’re making it home. I’m gonna take you out and we’re gonna have a drink. We’re gonna talk. I’m gonna tell you shitty jokes and you’re gonna laugh even though they suck. And then I’m gonna walk you home and when we get there, I’m gonna kiss you goodnight, and I don’t give two fucks if Duggan himself is standing there. Even he isn’t stopping me.”

The plug snaps free and I yelp out in elation. I paw around in my pouches until I find the little pack of spare parts. There’s a spring in there that should do the trick quite nicely. I rip the pack open with my teeth and the contents scatter into the dirt. I can taste the yellow dust as I grip one end of the spring in my teeth to straighten it. It has a metallic flavor, but I guess that could be from the spring I’m chewing on.

“You’d better,” I hear from Lissa as I slide the stiffened wire into the safety. It goes through to the other side and my confidence goes up a thousand points. I don’t have the specialized knowledge that a demo crew would, but I do know my job. I bend the wire so it can’t come back out. If I’m successful, at least no one else will have to worry about this particular little banger.

I shove Lissa’s foot away with all the force I can muster. If the Nine goes off she should be protected by me being in position above the explosion. A second that feels like an eternity later and I whoop in triumph.

“Get up and get in the fight, soldier,” I tell her, pointing to her rifle.

She grabs me by the strap over my left shoulder and drags me close. I taste her breath for the second before her lips touch mine. There is no deep passion, no promise of undying love, but there is a feeling that passes between us in the brief contact. I know for sure the crush is alive and well, just as much as she is.

“I didn’t want to wait,” she says.

Before I can answer, the barrel of her rifle passes by my head and my world becomes a blur of sound as she cooks it off. Behind me, the rabbit she has shot falls aside with an empty space where its brain was.

I roll over, shoulder the rifle, and rise into a crouch, seeing a dozen of the toothies popped up from their hidey holes. I flip off the safety and go to work.

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

 

So I’m scrolling through my comments today, all of which are in my spam folder. I guess that in and of itself that should say something, but I don’t listen very well. Ask anyone who knows me. Go ahead. Back now? See? I told you. Anyway, the spam filter has caught about a dozen comments begging me to try out an online SEO tool because the spam tells me I have no on-site SEO to speak of, and without it I can’t “monetize” my site.

Look! I monetized the picture!

Look! I monetized the picture!

What? How can this be? I saw a cartoon about it, so I should know what I’m doing!

Okay, so I didn’t read a wiki, or a book, or a set of clay tablets with cuneiform advertising help, or anything like that. I’m lazy. Didn’t the people tell you that, too?

For those of you not in the know, SEO stands for “Search Engine Optimization”, and it is a way of writing things which is supposed to make it easier for random people, organizations, websites, or cybernetically-enhanced troglodyte/duck mating mishaps find your website and become your number one fan or some such. SEO is the lifeblood of using your website as a marketing tool, you see. If you write about monkeys, you’re gonna want search engines to point to your site when people type “monkeys” in that Google search bar, right? Well, I guess without some magic wand, anyone looking for “T. Mike McCurley” is going to redirected to a recruitment site for the Renegade Legions, and wind up behind the yoke of a beat-to-shit grav tank dodging mass drivers. I do know that a search will often link you to the works of a Texas-based attorney who happens to share most of the name. Hi, Mike! Hope things are going well down there.

Get ready for the surprise, folks and Folk. It’s gonna be a doozy. Ready? Here it comes:

I don’t know jack shit about SEO in the real world. I know, I know. You’re all in the floor now, and you spilled your mocha chai hookybooky drink all over your feet. My bad. I did warn you, though. See? Look up just one paragraph!

I have looked into it to see what it is all about, but the concepts and jargon that get thrown about make it about like reading stereo instructions…In Japanese…In the dark…In the midst of a 3-day bender. There are folks who specialize in advertising that speak this like a second language, and to them I say, “You go, girl. Do your thing.” Believe me, I’m not coming down on these people. Firearms people speak in ballistics charts and windage. Mechanics speak of torque and fuel injection systems. Dispatchers speak in ten-codes. Every group has its own jargon. If you’re an advertiser with a great knowledge of SEO practices and the ability to put them into play and bring a ton of money into your pockets or those of your clients, then hell, yeah! I’m proud of you! That is an accomplishment.

Me? I’m a writer. I write, and I do it mostly for fun. Yeah, I have stuff for sale as well, but if you just want to read some things, come on in! There’s plenty of free words here. Read, enjoy, and come back now and then. Hell, sign up for the newsletter thing that comes out whenever I pull my head outta my butt long enough to type one up, and you’ll get stuff others might never see. I’m not gonna sit here and claim to be in the ranks of the lofty as far as authors go. I’m not the multi-million-selling master of suspense or horror or science fiction or whatever. They might well employ those SEO masters mentioned above to optimize their site and make it pop up whenever someone types in some random-ass word into a search engine. I don’t know. I do know that it says “superhero stories” up there somewhere, and if you search for that phrase, somewhere on the three quadrillionth page of Google search results, you might get a hit for me.

Face it: most people who read these words are already digging my stuff for one reason or another. To y’all I say, “Thank you! You’re the reason this is still fun.”

So, back to the original point (Yeah, I tend to wander from topic to topic, huh?): I don’t need a magic online SEO tool. I don’t need a team of advertisers. All I need is some words to flow, and some people to smile when they read them. If that means that I’m not selling a million copies of my books every eleven seconds, then so be it.

End trans.