After Action Report
Sergeant Zeke Sharn
The words sat on the screen, taunting Zeke with their crystal clarity. They were there waiting for him, and the remainder of the screen was a blank space that he dreaded as much as he always had. When it came to the event, he was truly in his element, but writing anything afterward? That involved a careful examination of what had occurred during the battle. For him, unfortunately, that involved a retelling of what his unit had done, as he had zero clue about anyone else. He had been the tip of the spear when they engaged the squirrels, as he tried to be every time. Leading from the front was his way.
He stood from the chair and went to the coffeemaker, pouring another mug of the thick black elixir that he prayed desperately would last long enough for the next resupply ship. He took a sip, found it a touch too hot still and set it on the desk to cool. He walked to the door of his office and looked out, letting the heat of the day wash over him.
VonHogan had been right: Z262 was a shithole. Too hot to be comfortable for anyone not desert suited, and too humid for their tastes as well. On the plus side, the rodents weren’t taking it well, either. Even the big capybaras that acted as their shock troops were annoyed by the environment.
He spit into the dust at his feet. The thought of the capybaras made him glance at his hands. Clean now, but it had taken some scrubbing. All of him had.
“You all right?” asked a soft voice. Zeke looked to his left. There was a setter there. Fiery red hair caught the sun and twisted it into coppery tones.
“You’re quiet,” he said.
“It’s a compliment,” he assured her.
“In that case, thank you.”
“Zeke Sharn,” he said, reaching out a paw. Inwardly he shuddered at the thought that she would be touching the claws that only a few hours ago had eviscerated several of the toothies that had tried to hit a mine transport.
Her grip was firm, and she smiled as they shook.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she said.
“I didn’t? Oh! Yeah. I’m fine. Just trying not to think,” he said, grinning. He gestured over his shoulder. “Would you like a coffee?”
She looked around herself before answering. “I would like that,” she said after a moment.
He stepped aside, gesturing inside. “Please, come in.”
He pointed her toward one of the short couches in the corner and then hurried to find a clean cup. He asked her how she took her drink and soon was handing her the mug he had mixed. He took a seat on the adjoining couch.
“Not going to sit beside me?” she asked in a coy tone.
“Easier to see you from here,” he said, looking into her eyes. It was a good way to cover the nerves that jangled like trespass alarms inside him.
She smiled and lowered her gaze for a moment, sipping at the tan liquid in her cup. He looked around the room, licked his lips, and took a drink of his own brew.
“So…Come here often?” she asked. His eyes met hers and she giggled before breaking into outright laughter. Zeke found himself joining in. It had been a while since he had genuinely laughed, and it felt good.
“I’m sorry,” she said, one hand coming up to cover her mouth for a second. “I couldn’t help it.”
He grinned. “I needed that,” he admitted.
“The laugh? Or just the tension breaking?”
“Glad I could help.”
“I don’t get too many laughs, and even fewer visitors,” he said.
“You’re in a serious business, and it intimidates some Folk.”
“But not you?”
She looked at him with an expression of shock. “No way! You can’t scare… Okay, so yeah, maybe a little. Or, y’know, a big.”
He chuckled again at her expression. “There’s nothing here to be scared of.”
She looked into her mug for a second. “I saw you come back through the gate today.”
He set his mug on a table. This part he could understand all too well. He had been here before. This was the point where he watched someone walk out the door.
“Colleen, I kill for a living,” he said. His tone was flat, emotionless. “It’s not pretty. It’s not a job I come home from and people say, ‘what did you do at the office today’ and I tell them it was all paperwork and sales. Some Folk have skills for dancing. Some for painting or drawing. I don’t. I kill rodents. In all honesty, I’ve never known much else.”
Her muzzle rose and she looked into his eyes once again. The cup of coffee sat uncared for in her grip. Her breath came in a short gasp before words tumbled out in a rush.
“My family taught me all my life that violence was wrong,” she said. “My grandfather was a Tolean priest.”
He nodded and started to respond, but she held up a hand to forestall him.
“I never believed it. I knew, deep in my heart, that there were Folk like you out there. Folk who did what they had to, no matter how horrible it might be, just to make sure that the rats stayed away. Tole teaches his followers that diplomacy and kindness are the answer, but I just…”
Her pause held longer than he expected, and he followed her gaze down to notice that he was holding her hand in his. He opened his grasp and pulled his hand back.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He stood, picking up his coffee and starting to walk away.
He looked back to see her holding up her cup. “If you’ll top this off, I’d like to keep talking with you.”
He nodded and brought the pot over to warm her mug. When he returned, he sat on the couch beside her.