Alice

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“You made a tank.”

The cheetah’s voice was low, and his words came out in a slow drawl of sound, the lack of speed and intensity giving presence to his surprise at the words he was speaking. Ahead of him, perched on the frame of the vehicle in question, was the Garan Acolyte known as Sister Alice. The lean coyote had her goggles pushed up on her forehead and was clad in a close-fitting jumpsuit with a simple robe thrown over it and belted at the waist.

“More of an armored attack vehicle, really,” she corrected. “Not the best one, of course. I mean, she’s lightweight, to begin with. We couldn’t get the drive train to support much more drag than we put on her. The armor plate is too heavy to allow for much extra power. You’ll notice, here, too, where we put the main gun. It’s not a turret mount. The controls for those would take up more resources than we had to allot. Your driver will have to point the car at the target.”

Sister Alice was excited, and her words were spat at Captain Tarlen VonHogan in rapid streams as she ducked and weaved, climbing across the randomly-painted metal, tapping claws against one system or another on the bulky craft she was showing. Her enthusiasm brought her speech to a speed with which the cheetah was intimately familiar.

“Over here we’ve got space set aside for a mounted machinegun. Or, if you’d prefer, we can add a backblast deflector and set it for rockets.”

“I think the machinegun would be more practical,” he mused. He pointed toward the craft. “You seriously built this from discarded parts?”

Brother Vincent smiled around teeth gone yellow. “She did,” he answered for her. “Been working on it in secret. I wasn’t allowed to tell,” he added with a conspiratorial wink. At the armored vehicle, Alice was still going on.

“She has tires instead of treads, because the only thing with treads was the crawler, and we can’t scrap it. The miners need it. But we used semi-solid tractor tires with articulated axle mounts to give them more freedom, and we added shields over the tires so they’ll be harder to target. I’ve been working on individual drive assemblies for each wheel, to give you true freedom of motion with it, but she still has a standard drive.”

“Ask her a question,” Vincent prompted in a whisper. “She’s dying to tell you what she’s done.”

“What’s the range?” Captain VonHogan asked, gesturing in a vague motion toward the horizon.

“She’ll get about two hours on battery alone, three without stopping if you use the solar extenders. You’ll manage about forty kays per hour, tops. The engine will give you another hour before fueling, and that’s at double the speed of the battery drive. I would suggest you save that for when you need it, and the speed becomes your savior. Running full out with the batteries and the fuel, you’re looking at about two hundred kilometers, give or take a bit.”

“And the armor?”

“We concentrated it to the fore. Double thickness sheet there.”

“You needn’t say we, child,” Brother Vincent called. “This was your devotional.”

Alice bowed from the waist. “Yes, Brother. I also added a partial layer to the underside after your soldier Mag explained that you have been encountering mined areas. The tires will still be vulnerable to explosion damage, but their nature should allow them to function to a certain extent. Enough at least to escape to a less hazardous area for refit,” she said. Her fingers worked in a frenzy, feeding information into a wrist-mounted tablet as she spoke. Every time she recognized something that could become an issue for the security teams, she added it to the list of necessary improvements.

“All told,” she continued, “it should bounce small arms fire with ease and do a decent job against anything shy of a rocket or one of the heavy lasers. Not a true tank, you see.”

“It will be incredible against toothie infantry, though. Where did you find the plate?”

“The steel sheet came from the primary supply for the colony,” she admitted. “Probably not the purpose intended by the corporation, but Gara reminds us that we make do where we must. Reinforcements came from mining stakes, damaged prybars and the like. The window is, well, it is specialty glass.”

“Oh?”

“Transparex,” she reported. VonHogan’s eyebrow quirked and his tail rose into the air.

Brother Vincent interrupted. “It was part of the equipment that made it here from the transport ship, but was not assigned to our operational allotment,” he said.

VonHogan nodded and a wry chuckle escaped his mouth. “I see. Kinda like the shotguns that mysteriously managed to make the trip?”

“We believe that Gara added the transparex for us to find,” the aged leopard declared, tilting his head in deference.

“Well, we said with the weapons that as long as they aren’t a problem for us, then we’re fine with them. We’d be hard pressed to say anything about starship glass. How did you cut it, though?”

“Industrial laser from the mine supervisor,” Sister Alice explained. “It took a few days work, and it’s not as pretty as it could be if we spent a few more working with it, but it’s bolted up as best we — I mean I — could get it. Drilling the bolt holes took about half an hour each.”

“I’m impressed,” VonHogan said.

“The transparex won’t break,” she continued. “Even if they hit you with something that takes out the armor, you’re safe behind the window. The bolts themselves will shear away before that breaks.”

“Got it. We should be okay, since we’re not having Jinx drive the tank.”

He could tell by the expressions that his joke fell flat. The Garans probably had not worked with the lanky serval in the way that he and his Folk had. Things tended to go wrong around her, and she believed that she had somehow angered the Gods. Her claim was that the bad luck she experienced was some sort of divine punishment and that one day she would escape it.

“And the gun?” VonHogan asked. His claw made tiny ringing sounds as he tapped on the barrel. It was thicker than his muscled arm, and scarred with dozens of small scrapes. The metal was a matte gray, and any trace of decoration it might once have held had been thoroughly scrubbed away. At its end was a muzzle brake wider than the Captain’s head.

“It’s a wing cannon harvested from the scrapped remains of an Empire Rodentia space fighter,” Alice reported. “It will be horribly loud when fired, I fear. Sadly, most of the craft was damaged to an extent that prevented us from using much of it. It was part of the drop package from the Navy, along with some broken computers and other assorted bits, left for us to make use of as parts.”

“Cleaning out their bays,” VonHogan said with a snort. “Foisting off what they felt was garbage.”

“Gara provides for us in Her own ways.”

“Busted-ass fighters? Computers? Useful stuff like that? I might like to have a look at your spare parts one day, see what can be salvaged,” the cheetah said. He did not miss the gasp of shock that came from Alice, and the disapproving glance from Brother Vincent added to the effect.

“Guessing I said something wrong?” he prompted.

Tapping his staff on the ground, Brother Vincent spoke. “Once She has gifted us with parts, they are for our use. These are religious rites of which you speak. It is not the place of another to ask to view them. To do so is tantamount to questioning Her divine presence among us and the purpose to which She applies us.”

VonHogan noted with interest the manner in which Vincent eyed the knife at the Captain’s belt when he said the word, ‘another’. The blade could mark him as a Gannite, although in the case of the troops stationed on Z262, it could as easily be a simple tool of daily use. The fact that he had so casually overstepped a cultural barrier marked him in an even more certain manner, he knew.

“You demean Her gifts,” Sister Alice whispered. Her voice was little more than a shadow of sound, and she made the sign of the cog with her paw. She stepped down off the side of the armored vehicle. The excitement she had displayed only moments before was gone now, replaced with a wide-eyed sorrowful stare.

“I’ll ask you both to forgive my ignorance,” VonHogan said. He bowed deeply from the waist, exposing the back of his neck to the clerics for several seconds. “I’m a simple soldier, and I’m very much unused to dealing with Folk of faith, no matter the stripe. I have no favor with any of the Gods, nor do I expect they are especially impressed with me.”

Silence reigned for several seconds until Brother Vincent acknowledged the Captain’s gesture with a bow of his own.

“For too long have we all built our own walls to separate one from another,” he said. “Understand, Gara teaches us secrecy and at times She demands it. There are things that we simply cannot do, and we forget how some may not know of these things as we do. You are welcome to come and speak with us to discover the joy of Her teachings, should you wish.”

“I may well do that,” VonHogan said. “In the meantime, I should like to make amends for the offense I have caused you both. Back behind our headquarters building there is a shed full of things we’ve brought back after the failed rat raids. Weapons, equipment, salvaged vehicle parts, a little of everything.”

He slipped a paw into one of the many pockets in the mottled sand-hued uniform he wore, emerging after a moment with a thin coin. A design was etched on one side and the entire thing was covered in a scuffed enamel that spoke volumes about how long he had carried it.

“Show this to whoever is on guard duty and tell them I sent you,” he said. He reached past Brother Vincent, extending the coin to Alice. “I’ll tell them you’re coming. Take whatever you can use. All of it, if you need it. It’s gathering dust in there as it is, and I’d much rather you had a chance to work with it.”

The coyote’s eyes widened at the gesture, and she accepted the coin as if it came from on high.

“Gara provides,” she murmured. A few steps away, Brother Vincent made the same declaration. It was obvious even to VonHogan that the statement was both a mantra and an acceptance of blessing. He had heard the words before when near members of the Garan faith, but had never truly put them together as he did at that moment.

“Thank you for the tank,” VonHogan told Sister Alice. The tips of his fingers touched hers as he released the coin, his claws coming forth just enough to graze her own.

“The vehicle itself is our thanks,” she replied. “It is in the act of creation that we find ourselves closest to Her divinity.”

“Well, miss, you help yourself to what we have and create anything you want.”

“We shall,” Brother Vincent said, stepping closer to the pair. “We are grateful for your generosity.”

“Yes, thank you,” Alice said, shaking her head at the lack of courtesy she had displayed. Brother Vincent’s display was a subtle method of drawing her attention to it. While cloistered, she had spent little time among others, and the aging monk was reminding her that her social skills were underdeveloped.

VonHogan nodded to them both.

“Please, be sure to let me know if there is anything you need to make your creation effort more successful. I’m sure we can find a few things just laying around, here and there.”

“Living proof, Captain,” Brother Vincent said, leaning heavily on his staff.

“Of?”

The robed leopard smiled a wide smile. “Gara provides.”

 

<<<END>>>

 

 

The bell rang just as Alice managed to seat the tip of the microdriver in the slot of the screw. Her muttered curse did not go unheard, and the strong voice of Brother Vincent scolded her for the slip.

“Sorry, Brother,” she said. She wormed the driver back from inside the tangled wiring harness and set the palm-sized device she had been working on aside. Brushing at her robe, she stood and moved to the door.

On the other side of the portal waited Kress Mrrr, her arms burdened with a large box. The cat grinned past perfect teeth.

“Hey, Sister,” she said, her tone respectful but also that of a friend. Kress always said ‘Sister’ as though she was addressing an actual family member, and not as the title it was. Of all Folk, Alice was the least likely to be offended by such conduct.

“Kress. Please, come in. Be welcome,” Alice said, stepping aside and beckoning the beautiful young cat into the temple. Her fluffy white tail came last, nearly brushing Alice’s muzzle as Kress walked near her.

“So there was a group of security Folk that went out and among other things they rescued a crawler that had taken a toothie rocket. Wasn’t much left but I scrapped the parts. I figured you and Brother Vincent could use some spare bits.”

Her voice was high and energetic as she practically danced into the temple, a snow-furred cheerleader poured into short shorts and a grease-marked shirt that barely contained her ample curves. Alice had often wondered what the secret was that let a mechanic of Kress’s talents crawl into and all over the dirtiest, greasiest machines and still come out brilliantly white.

“Spare bits?” she asked, the smile on her face mirrored in her voice.

Kress looked back over her shoulder and threw a wink at the coyote. “I find things,” she said.

“What kind of things?”

Kress stopped and slowly turned, letting her gaze linger on Alice. Her voice took on a slightly deeper edge. A tiny bit of pink tongue darted out to moisten her lips.

“For you? Oh, that’s gonna be a big list.”

Alice could feel the color creep into her cheeks as she met the appraising stare of the cat. She wasn’t able to keep the eye contact and opted to gesture at the box.

“So what did you find?” she asked.

Kress tilted the open top toward Alice, flashing an image of assorted bits of machinery and electronics beneath an expanse of cleavage. For a moment the coyote was caught up in the softness above the box, but her gaze eventually fell to the piles of metal and circuit boards, and then her expression became one of raw delight.

“Brother Vincent!” she called, using the tip of a claw to hold the box in her range of vision.

“To the cog apply oil, Sister,” said the deep voice of Brother Vincent. The aged leopard shuffled out from a door and began the walk across the room, his staff tapping on the floor as he moved. He flashed a toothy grin on seeing their guest.

“Kress Mrrr,” he said in booming tones. “As always it is a pleasure to see you here. Welcome, child, to the home of Gara.”

“Why, Brother, don’t you look wonderful,” she said. “Your spots are awful shiny.”

A purring chuckle slipped from his throat. “Perhaps a little too much grease of late,” he said.

“Now don’t be like that. I like shiny.”

The chuckle erupted into a full-throated laugh. “My child, I am far too old for your wiles, although I do appreciate the flattery.”

“Shot down before I even got out of the hangar this time,” Kress said. Another wink, slower this time.

“If you are nice, I shall let you be the first to see my new creation,” he said, dangling the kind of bait he knew she could not resist. Her eyes flashed and her lips peeled back in a grin.

“Oh, now, you know I’ll be nice for a chance to see your toys,” she said. “Did you get that resonator fixed?”

“Purrs like a mechanic now,” he shot back, his casual flirtation delivered over his shoulder as he walked from the room. Kress handed the box of parts to Alice and jogged after the older cleric. Alice blushed as she caught herself watching the hindquarters of the cat in motion.

“I’ll inventory these,” Alice called, placing the box atop a small table. She pulled items out of the box and documented them one at a time as Kress and Brother Vincent examined his latest device. From time to time, she could hear an excited meow come from the shop as Brother Vincent demonstrated some new quality of the thing. Alice had scarcely been made privy to the details of whatever Brother Vincent was constructing. It was of no concern to her, however. Her paws were being guided by Gara in her own manner, and as she slipped the control module from a targeting system from the box, her eyes twinkled.

“This will certainly make the aiming easier,” she muttered. The possibility existed that she might not be granted the module once Brother Vincent went through the list of requested items, but she recorded its presence nonetheless. She would never advance as a servant of Gara if she falsified the records in order to keep a part for herself.

She had finished the inventory for more than half of the small pieces in the box when Kress returned to the room. The cat sidled up to Alice and bumped hips with her.

“Hey there, Sister. How you doing?”

“I am making headway. There were a lot of parts in here.”

“Well, you know me. I like a nice full box.”

“I see that.”

“One day maybe you’ll help me fill it?”

“I would be delighted,” Alice said. She looked up to see Kress shaking her head.

“Right over your head,” the mechanic mumbled. She glanced around the temple and then leaned forward to gently kiss Alice before pulling away and bounding for the door.

“See you next time,” she called.

“I hope to have my teleporter finished by then,” Alice replied, waving to her friend. Her lips tingled and she wondered what the kiss meant for their friendship. It had been warm and soft, and more than just a pleasant goodbye gesture.

The temple door closed and she picked up a circuit board, logging it into inventory. She shrugged, and after a moment, her attention was riveted on the box of supplies. Still, though, she could taste the lip gloss of the mechanic.