anthro

All posts tagged anthro

 

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.

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>>>

 

 

 

 

 

Ten swung the axe in a hard overhead arc, snapping it down at the last second to intensify the force of the strike. The log split cleanly and fell into pieces beside the stump she was using as a platform, each half dropping into a large pile of split stock. She grabbed another log and balanced it atop the stump. A few seconds later, and this one snapped apart as well, joining the dozens before it.

She stopped when her count told her she had split one hundred logs into quarters. A gentle flicking motion sent the axe head into the stump to secure it as she began the task of gathering the quarters four and five at a time for the trek back to the woodshed. It was dull and repetitive work, and with every step, with every load of wood, she thanked Tole for the simple nature of the task at hand exactly as she had with each swing of the axe. She reminded herself again and again what an opportunity she had been given here. Every step, every swing was good healthy exercise. The grass beneath her toes reminded her that Tole had provided for her. The pale grey wood of the thick-boled trees, while dense in composition, was easier to carry than the weight of her sins.

Fifty paces to the shed. Fifty paces back to the piles. Nearly a hundred trips back and forth, half the time carrying a load of wood in her arms. When she got to the shed with each load, she stacked it carefully in the bins she had made. Soon split wood sections lined the interior walls to a height that made her stretch. This was not her first day stacking wood.

She returned to the stump and slipped the axe free of the scarred wooden surface. She held the blade up toward the sky, letting the evening sun tell her what she needed to know. There were minor scratches and a tiny chip in the blade near the tip, but nothing that couldn’t be filed out. That would happen before she went back into the house tonight.

She had yet to step away from the stump when the feeling swept over her like icy water poured down her back. Adrenaline flowed through her veins in response and she felt a sort of electricity take hold, stiffening all her hairs.

“No, please,” she whispered.

Her answer came in the form of a stinking, fleshy hand that wrapped around her face as a heavy body slammed into her from behind. The hand sought to cover her mouth, and Ten let it. There was no one here to overhear, anyway.

Old reflexes took over and she dropped a shoulder while shifting her weight. The thick furry form behind her slid over her right shoulder and crashed to the dirt for a second before righting itself and jumping once more to its feet.

The rat was average size for its breed, although a little fatter than she had previously seen on any combat force. He wore some kind of mottled brown coverall that was not much different than the sections of fur she could see on him. A belt and suspenders rig held equipment and a scabbarded knife hung low on his left hip. His eyes were glittering beads set wide in his face, and radiated hostility.

“I am sorry,” she said, striving to recover her calm state. “I did not mean to hurt you, but you struck me unannounced.”

“Well, this time, I’ll tell you,” he responded. “Stay quiet and I’ll make it quick.”

The knife slid free and he led with it, the tip held out and up. Ten sidestepped, spinning the axe in her grasp. The wide, flat head rang as it impacted against the knife, sending the smaller blade spinning away into the dirt. Laughter erupted from behind Ten as the rat looked with surprise at his tingling hand.

“Thought you said you could take her,” said a voice. Ten cursed in silence at her own failure to notice that he was not the only foe. She was obviously slipping.

Master Shear had hands like iron, and his use of them left bruises. Ten knew better than to sidestep the blow, however. She had earned it by not paying attention to her surroundings. His paw took her across the cheek, spinning her to the side.

“Your eyes see ahead but there is more to your world than what lies before you! Use your ears, your nose, whatever you must. If your opponent can arrive undetected, you will surely die!”

Her ears rang with pain, but Ten digested his words as the gospel they were. From that day, she became adept in situational awareness, using reflections to see behind her, sounds and smells to assess her surroundings, and growing to trust more and more that nagging feeling inside that told her she was being observed.

She paced to the side, turning her body away from the rat who had held the knife. Her movement brought her closer to the place where it lay in the dirt and, as he circled to maintain space, increased his distance from it.

They came into view in her peripheral vision. Nearly a dozen of them, all armed and prepared to do battle but currently laughing at their comrade and his discomfort at having been bested by a skinny-looking raccoon. In their ranks she saw rifles carried by all of them, and more than a few handguns of different sizes and styles. None had come into play yet, as this was a crew made for stealth. They would not want to expose themselves so far from their target by shooting a farmer.

The only constants among them were the uniform they wore and the malicious looks in their eyes. Of course, as was standard with the rats, the crew was exclusively male. While the vast majority of Empire Rodentia had no trouble mixing sexes in their armies, the rats themselves did not. Their females were scientists and inventors first. The Emperor had commanded that they be kept from the front lines and protected. The rapid breeding cycles and growth of the rats was what made them the most fearsome of opponents. They never seemed to stop. No matter how many were put down, others would flood to fill their place.

“Clearly you are an insertion force,” Ten said. Her voice was calm and flat. “I beg of you, turn back now. Do not do this.”

“I’ll show you an ‘insertion force’,” one of the rats called out, grabbing obscenely at himself.

“We’re coming through, ringtail,” declared another. He was larger than the others – not fat, but muscled and broad chested. Both his hands clutched rifles, one of which Ten guessed would belong to the one who had tried to tackle her.

“My land leads to nothing of strategic value,” she protested. “You will take longer to achieve your goals if you pass through here.”

“Bargain. Plead. Keep them talking. Take them off their aggressive front. Get them to relax their guard, even for a moment, and you will have the edge. Never let their numbers affect you, for no matter how many they are, you are from the Academy. Your life will not be cheaply traded.”

“You wear a Tolean amulet,” the big rat said. “You are no threat. We will restrain you and leave you alive. No harm will come to you.”

“Tole has put me on the path to a righteous life, it is true,” she said. She made a sniffing sound and looked up through eyes made wide. When she spoke, she forced herself to sound weak and looked past the leader to the rat who had groped himself. “You promise no harm will befall me?”

“None,” the leader said. He turned to glare at the subordinate, and all eyes went to the expected battle of wills.

Master Shear would have been proud.

The moment of distraction was at its peak, and the axe whistled up and out. It described a dramatic arc coming across from left to right, and the sound it made as it impacted the rat at the base of the skull was only minimally different than that it had made when she struck the logs. The heavy blade plowed through and emerged from the other side in a spray of blood. Before the others could react, the axe shifted and spun in her grip and two more rats fell to its bite.

She was in among them now, ducking and weaving as clawed hands reached for her. Long jagged blades sought her flesh, and more than one claimed a quick kiss as she continued to ravage their ranks with the axe. A diving roll across the blood-soaked ground, and she rose with one of the knives in each hand. The brutal axe was lodged in the sternum of a soldier, and her count put their ranks reduced by half. One of them was not mortally injured, but the missing hand was going to be an issue. She could feel the air on her back, and the fact that it felt cold told her that she had been opened there. The sticky wetness of her blood would be a sensation for later.

“Kill her!” shouted one of the rats, and they went for their rifles. The flurry of action gave her another few precious seconds, and Ten did not disappoint. She moved through them like a whirlwind, blades slashing and stabbing in a frenzy. A rifle came up and she spun to her right, slipping a blade under the barrel and stroking down across the metal. Fingers flew free from the rat’s support hand and he squealed. Six rounds thundered from the weapon as he gripped the trigger, but their intended target was no longer there.

“Never stand still. You are no tank. Your armor is your speed. Once the engagement begins, it must not stop until your foes are down.”

Her feet ached and bled as she danced her way through obstacles and across sharp-edged rocks, simultaneously dodging swinging poles that began as slow obstacles of their own but after weeks of practice became aimed stabbing attacks and brutal, bone-breaking slashes. She and her classmates learned the hard way that failure to avoid them was no laughing matter.

Sprints became longer and more frequent, with completion times that would frighten many a runner. At any point during the day, an instructor would point and yell, “Run!” The students who were pointed to ran. One hundred paces away and one hundred back, as hard and fast as could be managed. Those that were too slow were subject to a whip stroke, and the target was often far more sensitive than the student’s back. If two students were selected to run, the slower got the stroke automatically.

The class became faster and more agile with every passing day, and while some questioned how much value to ascribe to what they considered a daily torture, others recognized that there were times when the lessons learned would keep Academy graduates alive.

Her ears ached from the proximity to the rifle burst, but Ten kept going. A reverse plunge drove the left-hand blade through the paunch of one rat, the jagged edge catching on what she figured was his spine. She let it go and snatched the rifle from his hands as his voice rose in a keening shriek.

The next shot took her in the left shoulder, but the three additional rounds in the burst ripped through one of the rats that was still grasping at the fountain of blood that was erupting from his neck. She stumbled and went down, allowing the force of the impact to carry her into a gut-wrenching roll that put her body weight directly on the fresh injury. Unconcerned with hitting friendly forces, she triggered the rifle in a roaring full-auto string. Shining cases spat from the ejection port as flame jetted from the barrel. Her arm felt on fire but she managed to swing the weapon around in a lateral arc, slashing a line of bullets across the lower legs of her foes.

She thrust her hand forward, releasing the empty rifle to smash into the face of one of the rats. She stabbed down with the knife in her right hand, driving it between the shoulder and the neck of another, and then using the grip as leverage to spring back to her feet even as she severed the arteries that ran up along his neck. Caught up now in her frenzy, she snapped her teeth onto his face and ripped as her hands scrabbled to take his rifle from his grasp. She felt two more rounds strike her in the lower back and her world became a feverish agony.

Her surroundings were beginning to blur when she managed to wrest the rifle free from her opponent. Another bullet blew her right femur apart as she jammed the weapon back behind her and depressed the trigger with her thumb. Smoking cases bounced from her skin and slipped into her clothes, melting her fur and sticking to her flesh. She could not feel them, so lost was she in the fiery pain that was eating at her.

Her leg gave out beneath her and she fell to the ground, rolling onto her back in time to have the last rat who had shot her fall atop her. She battled out from under him, sweeping her gaze left and right in a desperate search for any remaining rat. The rifle came up and barked twice as she settled the sights on those that had been injured but not killed. She was not in the habit of leaving her foes alive to strike at her back, and even now that reflex was in full swing.

Finally satisfied that she had succeeded, Ten leaned back against the bloody corpse of the leader. The sky above her was slowly darkening, and she wondered if it was because of the hour or her injuries. Were she prone to gambling, she would have bet on the latter. She laid the rifle along her leg, pointing the barrel at one of the dead, twitching rats, and pulled the trigger again. After a minute, she did it again. She had fired a fourth round when she saw them.

The badger named Zeke was in the lead, his claws wrapped around a short little needle-nosed automatic carbine. Two more ArCorp mercenaries were visible behind him, but she did not immediately recognize them. She had spoken once to the badger at the Exchange, and she generally did not forget a face.

“Miss Bray!” Zeke shouted. His words seemed to come from a long distance. “ArCorp Security! Drop the rifle!”

She smiled around teeth tinted scarlet and let the weapon fall. Her eyelids closed as it struck the ground.

She finished the blink, letting her lids flutter open, and her surroundings were entirely different. It took her four full seconds before her brain processed that she was in a hospital bed, and her mouth protested the feel of the hard plastic tube down her throat. She tried to swivel her eyes around more, but they began to flutter closed once more and she felt darkness envelop her.

The next time she knew what to expect and she took a quick glance around the room, committing the layout to her hazy memory in case it should prove necessary. As she fell back to sleep, she willed the images to stay in her mind, that she might explore them in her dream state.

On the sixth occasion of opening her eyes, she realized that the tube was gone, replaced by a cannula that fed raw oxygen up her nose. She smacked her lips and looked around her.

“Would you like some water?” asked a voice. She tried to answer but her own voice was nothing more than a croak. It was apparently enough, as a copper-toned paw slipped from her right and into her vision, holding a small squeeze bottle. He dripped water into her mouth and she fought the urge to gulp it down. Instead, she held it in her mouth and let it moisten the tissues there before finally swallowing. He repeated the action twice more and then she managed to speak.

“Thank you.”

“You are welcome,” the voice said. Moving with a slow precision, he stepped fully into her sight. He was a setter, she noted, and his eyes were kind behind the thin eyeglasses he wore. The high-collared shirt of cerulean blue marked him as an acolyte of Tole.

“My name is Sean,” he said. “Sean Goodwin.”

“I’m Ten.”

“Sergeant Sharn saw your amulet and asked me to come and speak with you.”

She remained calm, although her heart was pounding faster than she could remember. Everything around her felt cold, and she recognized the symptoms of adrenaline dump. Her fight-or-flight instinct was going into overdrive. At her side, her hand had clenched the sheet in a grip tight enough to crush.

“You do not attend sermons in the church,” Sean said. She looked at the wall rather than meet his gaze.

“Tole tells us that violence is pointless,” he continued. “That it creates a neverending cycle of more violence that escalates.”

“I remember. ‘Be not as the beasts who lose themselves in rage.’ I know.”

“From what I was told, that scene was an abattoir.”

“Will He forgive me?” she asked.

“Of course He will. The question of the moment is, will you?”

“I reacted, Father. It was not something I wanted to do. It is ingrained in me, and it is why I came here.”

He gave her some more water as he watched her eyes. He managed a smile.

“You are running from a violent past,” he said, and her silence was the answer he expected. He turned, and a scraping noise preceded the chair that he dragged over to her bedside. He sat and reached a paw out to take her hand.

“He understands, cub. He knows that not everyone comes from a place of purity, and that the darkest souls often shine the brightest when they have joined his light.”

“You will find none darker in this colony, Father,” she told him.

“Who are you, Ten?”

She made a sound that could have been a chuckle, despite the shudder it sent down Sean’s spine.

“In the grand scheme of things, I’m no one,” she said. “A hand gripping a sword. The finger on a trigger. A blade in the dark. All these and more, and you tell me that Tole can forgive me?”

“Any who turn away from the ways of the blade can see the truth He speaks.”

“I can’t understand. I am a monster.”

“He sees beyond that, Ten. He sees the part of you who wishes never to be violent again. Give that part to Him, and He will help you push beyond the past that ensnares you.”

“That’s exactly why I came here,” she repeated.

“Tell me what you are escaping. Together we shall stand with Him and I will speak your repentance to His divine ears.”

She settled her head on the pillow.

“I was five years old when I was chosen,” she began.

 

<<<END>>>

Meet the New Boss

 

Maera wasn’t deaf, but she was certainly dancing on the edge. Her hearing loss was no big concern to the Folk with whom she worked, who recognized it as decades of working with various forms of explosive. The only time any of them complained was when the earbud for her chip player wasn’t seated properly and the rest of the crew was exposed to the horrific tones of what she liked to call music. At the volume she was forced to listen to it, the sound could easily be heard by those nearby.

The other hazard was Maera’s speech. She had no concept of how loud she was speaking. In field operations she often stayed silent rather than chance making too much sound, but at the moment she was not in the field. The massive desk that separated her from the chimpanzee behind it was buried in forms that seemed almost to vibrate in response to her voice.

“So he says, ‘make it a double’,” she shouted, breaking into a cackling laugh. Across from her, the chimp chuckled and then laughed with her. His head bobbed as he laughed, and the pen that was tucked behind his right ear slipped free and bounced from the edge of the desk before falling to the floor.

“You should tell that to the Folk down at Four Winds,” he said when the laughter subsided. He bent to retrieve the fallen pen.

“Them idiots can’t appreciate good jokes,” she responded.

As she did so, the door opened and a pair of Folk entered. One was a cheetah in standard casuals. His carbine was slung on his back across his body, barrel-down, and he had a friendly grin that displayed his shining teeth. The other was a snow leopard female in a stylish black-and-blue wrap. Her eyes flitted about the office, trying to take in every detail.

“Misha said to come straight in,” the cheetah began, pausing as he saw that Maera was seemingly alone in the office. He raised his voice a notch and called her name.

Maera wheeled and her lips stretched back in a happy grin. “Kurt!” she shouted. Both of the new arrivals winced at her volume.

“We’re supposed to meet with the Team Leader,” Kurt explained. Maera nodded and jerked a paw over her shoulder.

“Taffy!” she shouted. The chimpanzee raised his head back from beneath the desk. He smiled when he saw the arrivals. He gestured to the chairs in front of the desk.

“Please have a seat,” he prompted. He stood from the desk and made his way around it with a limping gait. It was when he cleared the desk that the reason for his limp became clear. His left leg was a prosthetic. It was a simple piece of plastic and metal, rather than the exotic fibers and motorized replacements that had been popular for the past few years.

“Who’s your friend?” Maera asked of her compatriot. She scanned the snow leopard from head to toe, and while her ears might have been damaged, her eyes were perfectly precise. Her brow furrowed.

“This is Vikki Duris,” Kurt introduced. When he fell silent immediately after, Maera knew that asking further questions would not benefit her.

“Here ya go,” she said instead, rummaging in one of the wide-mouthed pouches at her waist and emerging with a long piece of colorful material. She looked for just a moment at the snow leopard, cocking her head to the side by a few degrees as, at her waist, her paws twisted and shaped the material. A moment later, she extended a braided circlet. The ends were bent to allow them to slip through the loop at the other end.

Vikki took it, a nervous smile splitting her muzzle.

“Thank you,” she said, though her voice was barely heard even by Kurt. Maera had heard the words often enough to recognize the motions of the muzzle and her teeth flashed again.

“My pleasure,” she said. She turned back to see the chimpanzee leaning against the front of the desk. She winked down at the shorter Folk.

“Private, I take it?” she asked. When he nodded, she reached out with a paw and took his hand for a second. The shake was a relaxed one, with no vigor. “See you tomorrow then,” she told him.

“Bring that clacker in and I’ll take a look at it,” he said. The sleek dog turned at the door and waved at him before slipping out and closing the portal behind her.

There was a moment of silence, as was common when Maera left a room. It was that reflexive second when everyone recalibrated their ears and voices to more appropriately deal with one another in her absence.

“I met Maera on the way out,” the Team Leader said. He stroked at the outer rim of his ear in thought. “She and I became fast friends.”

“She is an interesting one,” Kurt agreed.

“She has a very discerning eye,” Vikki said. Her arms were up and she had clasped the choker around her neck. It was just loose enough to not interfere with her throat, but tight enough to remind her it was there. “She got my size right just by looking.”

“Maera is our demolitions expert,” Kurt said. “Estimating length of fuse cord is kind of second nature.”

“Fuse… You mean… She made…” Vikki gasped and made to jerk the circlet off her neck. Kurt laughed and waved a paw to show her she was okay.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We’ve all got something. Necklaces, bracelets, shoelaces. She just compulsively makes things for people. The primer cord is harmless as it is. You have to match it to a blasting cap to fire it.”

“Gara’s tail,” Vikki said, swallowing. She pulled her paws away from her neck with an obvious effort.

“If it goes boom, she’s the one you want dealing with it. Now, if she cooks something for you, that’s when you need to run.”

“Most definitely,” the chimpanzee added, nodding in an exaggerated manner. He chuckled once again and then moved to stand in front of Vikki. The snow leopard was a head and a half taller than him, but he had no difficulty looking her in the eyes.

“My name is Tafiri,” he introduced, shaking her paw. “I’m sure you’ve heard virtually nothing about me, since very few Folk deal with me directly. Kurt, here, is my liaison to the security forces, including Captain VonHogan. I believe you’ve already met him?”

Vikki nodded. “He seemed…intense, I think is the word I would use.”

“He has been tasked with not only providing all necessary security for the colony, but also for scouting the surrounding area and securing an entirely new objective. One can excuse him for appearing focused.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it as a bad thing!”

“No worries,” Tafiri said, shaking his head. “It’s the new objective I wanted to talk to you about. I’ve seen in your chart that you had a very narrow field of specialty before you threw away everything and came with us to Z262.”

“Contract law,” she said.

“Now, I’ll admit, the curiosity of what caused you to abandon everyone and everything you were familiar with in order to come try life as a farmer is driving me positively insane, but I’d like to think we will have time to talk about that later. We will be spending quite a lot of time around one another if you accept the offer I’m about to make.”

Her arms crossed over her chest and she stepped instinctively away from Kurt and Tafiri, taking a step backward. Eyes narrowing, she looked down at the chimp. Her tone was icy when she spoke.

“What kind of offer?”

“Not what you’re thinking, I assure you,” Tafiri said, raising his left hand. “I need your expertise.”

“As a lawyer?” she asked. Her tone changed to incredulity. “I don’t do criminal justice.”

“Oh, we cover that,” Kurt interjected.

“You will recall, I mentioned a new objective that Captain VonHogan is securing for us,” Tafiri continued, unaffected by the interruption.

“Yes.”

“ArCorp regulations require a great many things from us as corporate citizens, Vikki. Not least among them is to continue looking for new ways to increase the holdings of the corporation. You are aware of our mining operations, of course. What has not been discussed with any but a handful of Folk is what I brought you here to discuss.”

“Well, my curiosity is piqued,” she admitted.

“I need to be assured of your absolute discretion, Vikki.”

“I am capable of that.”

“I am aware,” he said. His hand slipped into a pocket of the tailored vest he wore and emerged holding a thin coin of hammered gold. “I am placing you on retainer as my attorney,” he said.

“You have me mistaken for – “

“No mistakes,” he said. “I am fully cognizant of what your specialty is and where your talents lie. That is precisely why I am ensuring that I am the first to hire you.”

“You have contracts in mind?” she asked. She glanced down at the proffered coin.

“I do. I need you to write them. Make them airtight. Help our colonists. Do your job, Vikki, and we will all be wealthy beyond avarice.”

“We’ll all what?”

“Take the coin,” Tafiri urged. “Be my attorney.”

Her paw moved forward in slow motion, as if she had no control. In a moment the coin was nestled in her palm. Tafiri grinned widely as she took the money.

“Take a seat, Vikki,” Tafiri said. “Let me tell you a story about a scouting mission that has gone incredibly well.”

<<<END>>

“So it’s a date then?” Colleen asked, though the tempo of her phrasing made it clear that it was not so much a question as a reservation.

“It is,” Zeke answered. He felt the smile peeling back his lips even before he saw the one on her muzzle. “As long as you allow me to reciprocate.”

“I would like that,” she said, chocolate-brown eyes widening in delight. “See you soon.”

She left in a flash of copper-red fur and Zeke turned back to go inside. He scooped up his coffee mug and refilled it before leaning his head against the overhead cabinet door and sighing.

“You all right, there, Sarge?”

“I’m fine,” he replied automatically as he turned to see who had invaded his space. His first instinct on seeing the subdued bars on the collar of the captain was to snap to attention, but those days were long past.

“I was in the neighborhood,” Captain VonHogan said. He gestured toward the coffeemaker. “Got any left for me?”

“Always.”

Zeke poured a fresh mug for the captain and jerked his chin toward the couches. Together they sat down, both claiming a drink before they spoke. VonHogan set a thin briefcase aside and scratched at his chin, grinning as he asked his first question of an old friend.

“Who’s the pretty little setter that just wiggled past me? She looked mighty pleased with herself.”

“Her name’s Colleen,” Zeke said. He fought for a second against the smile but let it win in the end. “She and I have been seeing each other.”

“Gann’s balls! Zeke Sharn’s got a mate on the hook? Alert the media!” VonHogan said, leaping halfway to his feet. Zeke laughed and waved him into the chair once more.

“Not a mate, Tarlen. Just someone who cares.”

VonHogan reached out and slapped Zeke on the side of the head.

“That’s what mates do, dumbass. They care about you when everyone else thinks you’re a waste.”

“Great! So now I’m a waste?”

“Just of air. And food. Oh, and whiskey.”

“Ah. Nothing important, then. Good to know.”

“So is it serious?” VonHogan asked after a moment. The lanky cheetah was leaned forward, paws wrapped around his mug.

“We’ve just talked and gone to dinner a couple of time. Feels like it could get that way, though,” Zeke said. “I mean, I’m no expert.”

“No one is.”

“I’m going to meet her family tonight.”

VonHogan let out a soft whistle. “Meeting the family and you think it ‘could get’ serious. You’re about clueless, aren’t you?”

Zeke nodded. “When it comes to this, yeah. I don’t think things through real well.”

“So what’s the plan?”

“Tolenacht Feast. She’s taking me along.”

“You’re going to a home full of Toleans? You?”

“I know.”

VonHogan threw back his head and howled with laughter. Zeke sipped at his coffee and waited for the cheetah to calm down.

“Has she told them what you do?” VonHogan finally asked. Zeke shrugged and shook his head at the same time.

“I don’t think so.”

“Hmm. Well, you are supposed to take something for a Tolenacht gift. I recommend against going in with a necklace of ears. They might frown on that.”

“You think?”

“Educated guess.”

“Thanks, boss.”

VonHogan raised his coffee mug in salute.

“Got a new op to discuss,” he said, changing the subject. “I need a sweep team and you’re gonna be my lead.”

“Let me get some more coffee,” Zeke said. “When you start off with a phrase like that and that evil grin, it’s gonna be a day.”

Two hours later, the cheetah had departed and Zeke had a pile of papers on his desk to study. The op was a simple one and he already had a few Folk in mind for team members, but right now he had a more pressing engagement. He stripped off his uniform and jumped into the shower, hosing off the stink of the day and the yellow dust that stuck to everything. He toweled off slowly, mind whirling with thoughts of how to act. He played scenarios over in his mind by the dozens. Years as a tactician had him anticipating outcomes that even he knew were far-fetched, but he also knew if he was prepared for the most outlandish, that the mundane would be no surprise.

He chose the white dress shirt from his closet, one of only a half-dozen items he owned that were not uniform-related. It had full sleeves with generous cuffs and a split at the neck that tied across the chest in a crisscrossing pattern of white cord. Over the tails of the shirt he wrapped the soft material of his kilt, buckling it over his hips. Predominantly black, with grey lines making up a traditional pattern, it gave him his dressiest look as well as his most comfortable. Long woolen socks and heavy boots rounded it out. He took a few minutes to tap a bit of a shine onto the boots.

He looked at his equipment belt, coiled and ready for him on the counter. Protocol demanded he be armed as a member of the security force, and yet the Tolean religion as practiced by Colleen and her family was one of pacifism. Arriving with his carbine slung across his shoulders, or even his holstered sidearm, would be a slap in the face. He unclipped his combat knife and connected it to the belt of his kilt, hanging at his left side as always. He had carried that blade since early in his career, and as a follower of Gann a knife was a required accessory to everyday wear. They might not like it, but he was making an effort to work with them in respecting their beliefs. They could afford him the same courtesy.

When at last he was prepared, he checked the clock. Under an hour to go. That was good. It allowed him time to stop by the exchange and find a suitable gift. Gifts, he corrected himself. It would be in poor taste not to take something for both Colleen and her mother, as well as a household gift for Tolenacht.

At the front of his kilt rode a hide bag on chains that wrapped through loops on the belt. He made certain that his wallet was there and exited the home before he could think of something else he had missed and obsess over more small details.

It felt strange to him to be walking the streets of the colony in civilian dress. He was used to being uniformed and armed, acting not only as a military protection but as an ad hoc police force. Now he was just one of a number of Folk strolling about. He waved and nodded randomly to the others he saw, and while he was glad to see Folk waving back at him, he was in some ways disturbed at their lack of response. He had never been seen like this since landfall and yet no one even looked at him twice. An infiltration of their society was always a possibility.

The exchange itself was situated just to the north of Four Winds, the bar established by the pair of self-described ‘chuckleheads’ who brought their love of wine and spirits to Z262 and made a thriving business from it. Zeke had spent a few nights in there, and he smiled as he heard the lively sounds from within.

He entered the exchange, the tiny bell over the door announcing his presence before his feet had even crossed the threshold. Shelves of items, some in very distinct order while others seemed random, filled the store. Zeke turned left and nearly walked into the bulky turtle that stood there, examining a rack of cheeses.

“Duggan?”

The turtle looked over at him, a smile lighting his face. “Sergeant Sharn.”

Zeke waved a hand. “I’m off. Call me Zeke. I hate all the protocol crap.”

“Ain’t seen you looking like this before.”

“I… I have a date.”

“No shit.”

“Nope.”

“Well, that’s good, then. You clean up good.”

Zeke chuckled. “Feeling naked without the sidearm at least.”

“I was noticing. What’s the occasion?”

“Her family. They’re Toleans.”

Duggan’s eyes bugged out and his mouth peeled back into a grin. Zeke raised a paw to forestall any comments.

“I know. Me in a house of pacifists. Ha ha ha. Yeah.”

“Aw, hell, Sarge. This is some funny shit.”

“Yeah. That’s me. Funny shit is my specialty today.”

“Welcome to my world. I’ve usually got that all covered,” the turtle said. He reached into a pocket and withdrew a matte-black rectangle of metal. As he extended a tattooed hand it became clear to Zeke that the device was a firearm of some sort. It was smaller than most he had seen, barely filling the turtle’s hand.

“Take this. It’s my fallback. It’ll damned near break your wrist to cook it, but it pops four rounds at once. With what I put in her, she’ll put anything down that gets called up, you know? Plus, you ain’t gonna be unarmed.”

Zeke hefted the weapon, testing the weight, and then smiled around sharp teeth. “I’m trying to respect their beliefs, Duggan, but thanks.”

“Safety’s right here,” Duggan continued, ignoring the comment and pointing at a button behind what was the trigger. “Crossbolt, right handed. Push it and then squeeze. Put it in your bag, Sarge. Bring it back next time you see me.”

“Look, I appreciate –“

“I ain’t saying your party’s gonna turn into a firefight. Just humor me and take along something that goes bang, okay?”

Zeke slipped the little block into his bag and then slapped the upraised palm with his own. “Since it’s you,” he said. He pointed to a block of pale cheese. “And this is the one.”

“It is?”

“Yeah. Extra crab. She’ll like it.”

“Hey, it’s not like that,” Duggan protested. His eyes were growing wide.

“Like what?”

“Me and Lissa. We aren’t –“

“Oh, I know. Hell, the whole unit knows,” Zeke said. “You two are like brother and sister. Then again, everybody heard the fight you had. Get the cheese. Apologize. Tell her you’re stupid and boneheaded and all that noise. And hey…stop by Four Winds. Tell Buck that I sent you to get my bottle. It’s the good stuff. Don’t do this shit by half.”

Duggan’s scarred head shook. “I can’t go taking your liquor.”

Zeke patted at the bag with its hidden cargo. “You’re looking out for me, right? Seems fair I do the same. I need you and Lissa working together, not wanting to kill each other. Take her a drink and some cheese.”

“Okay,” Duggan finally said, his head dropping a bit.

“After that, both of you come see me tomorrow. I’ll give you your weapon back when I tell you about the new assignment I’ve got that I need you and Lissa on.”

“Oh, yeah? Something good?”

“I think you’ll enjoy it. I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Sarge. We’ll be there.”

Duggan took his cheese and headed for the cashier area, leaving Zeke alone to ponder just what was appropriate for a Tolenacht ceremony. He settled on a bottle of wine and a bag of seeds. The wine would be a standard greeting but the seeds spoke of rebirth and newness, a concept precious to Toleans.

He spent a bit longer in the exchange before stumbling on the gift for Colleen. After that, he grabbed some paper and a small packet of tape. He took all the items with him to the cashiers’ counters, adding in a small bag of candied nuts from the stack of impulse purchase items near the register. Seeing what he had in mind, the cashier allowed him to use the edge of the counter to quickly wrap the items. Everything went into a cloth bag and soon he was walking at a relaxed pace to the Goodwin home.

Like most every home on the colony, the Goodwin house was built on the frame of a shipping container that had ferried supplies to the planet. Prefabricated panels had been added and further supplemented with local timber and stone. It appeared that theirs was a slightly larger than normal home, and Zeke recalled that Colleen had come to Z262 with a sister and brother, as well as her parents. As opposed to his single-bedroom box, they would have far more rooms needed to allow for any form of privacy.

He approached the door and was surprised to feel his heart racing. His paws had a slight tremble to them as well, and he laughed at himself in observation of the irony. A hundred-plus battles behind him, but he was nervous about meeting Colleen’s parents.

He rapped on the door with his knuckles, taking a step back from the door afterward so as not to crowd anyone who might emerge. A moment later it swung open on well-oiled hinges. There was not even a hint of a creak to the door. Standing in it was a tall setter wearing the high-necked blue shirt and black trousers commonly seen on a Tolean acolyte. Coffee-toned eyes peered at Zeke from behind thin-lensed eyeglasses.

“May I assist you?” the dog asked. The voice was deep and pleasant to the ears, and the question came in a tone that spoke of friendly intentions.

“Zeke Sharn, sir. I’m here to see Colleen.”

“Ah! Pleased to meet you at last, mister Sharn. I’m Sean Goodwin.”

Zeke smiled and extended the bottle of wine. “Thank you. I thought this might be a nice addition to the evening.”

“Well that was thoughtful of you. Welcome. Please come inside.”

He turned sideways in the door and extended an inviting arm back into the depths of the house. Zeke took the invitation, stepping past the big dog and into the residence. His eyes swept the interior in a second, noting the rear exit into the kitchen and the hallway that led deeper into the home. The windows were covered with tasteful curtains in the same blue color as Sean’s shirt. The walls were a pale grey in tone, with a low-pile carpet of golden brown on the floors. A look into the living room reminded Zeke that the things he called ‘couches’ in his office were little more than padded benches. The Goodwins had brought wide, low couches that looked luxurious and indulgent. They were upholstered in a rich red color, and a matching recliner took up space in one corner. Small tables occupied space between and before the furniture. The lighting was soft but distinct enough for Zeke to make out every detail. A fresh smell drifted on the air – a neutral scent that was pleasing without being thick or cloying.

“Have a seat,” Sean invited further, gesturing toward the nearest of the couches. Zeke swallowed and took a tentative step toward it.

“It’s been a few years since I saw one that looked this nice,” he said. A gentle touch with one outstretched paw confirmed the buttery softness of the cover, and he gingerly lowered himself into the heavenly embrace of the cushions. It was like being slowly wrapped in silk.

“Nice, huh?” Sean said, sitting on the edge of the next one.

“Very,” Zeke answered, reveling in the sensation for a moment. He had forgotten what it was like to experience comfort on this level.

“Well, well,” Colleen spoke from the hallway. “I thought you came to see me, but apparently you’ve been seduced by the couch.”

Zeke shot bolt upright, wheeling to face the setter. His eyes bugged as he took in the sight of her standing in the doorway. Her dress was a green so rich it seemed to steal the light from around it, ending with a hint of ruffles just above her knees and extending up to a few inches above the middle of her chest. A soft cream-colored cardigan wrapped her, dropping to her waist. Tiny clear beads sparkled across the chest and shoulders, trapped bits of light that teased at the eyes. A golden glint reflected from a delicate chain on her neck and the diminutive pendant that hung from it. Her fur had been gently teased to produce a soft, wavy look. Her eyes glittered as they fixed on him.

“And he has been struck dumb,” she commented, shaking her head in mock sorrow. She heaved a sigh. “Daddy, I think he’s broken.”

Zeke shook his head and looked at her again, unable to stop the smile that spread across his muzzle. The heat that rolled through his body was pleasant. The rational part of his mind told him he was developing tunnel vision as everything around him faded to nothing in comparison to her.

“You look stunning,” he said. His voice was a near-whisper.

“Why, thank you,” she said, curtsying. She took a pair of slow steps toward him, iridescent blue pumps swishing on the carpet, and he found himself in motion, turning around the end of the couch and walking to embrace her.

“Looking mighty fine yourself,” she whispered into his ear. He felt the heat rush to his cheeks.

“Take your paws off my daughter, sir!” called an angry female voice. Zeke leaped back a pace and looked past Colleen to see the narrowed eyes of her mother. She wore a black sheath dress with matching heels, and golden hoops hung from her ears.

Before he could speak to defend himself, Colleen burst into laughter.

“Mom, please. Leave him be,” she called. A slow smile crept across the face of her mother as she advanced into the room. She held out a paw.

“I couldn’t resist,” she said. “Maureen Goodwin.”

“Zeke Sharn,” he replied, taking her paw in his and bowing over it.

“Well, you have lovely manners, Mister Sharn.”

“Please, ma’am. Just call me Zeke.”

“Then you absolutely must call me Maureen. Ma’am makes me feel old,” she added in a conspiratorial whisper, seasoning the comment with a wink.

“Maureen it is, then.”

“Call me Sean as well,” Sean said as he passed by them. “You do quite a job of monopolizing the attention of the ladies, Zeke.”

“We have good taste,” Colleen said. Her arm slipped through his and she snuggled up close to him. She was wearing an earthy, subtle scent that tantalized his nostrils.

“Fiona and Rory will be here shortly,” Sean announced. “They decided that it would be a good idea to visit a few friends before settling in for the night.”

“They took cookies for the gifting,” Maureen added.

“Tole asks that we gift things to our friends on this, the night of his birth,” explained Sean. He was in the kitchen, and Zeke heard the cork pulled free of the wine bottle he had brought.

“Ah! Speaking of,” Zeke said, bending to pick up the bag he had dropped upon seeing Colleen. He stuck a paw inside and came out a moment later with a thick grey paper packet.

“Maureen, this is for your home. May it bring you joy in the coming years.“

Her brow arched as she took the packet. Nimble paws opened the thin paper wrap and her breath caught as she saw what was inside.

“These are…” she paused, swallowed, and waved Sean over to see the bag she held.

“Hackberries?” he asked. A smile split his muzzle.

“I thought maybe you would enjoy seeing them return year after year,” Zeke explained. “They grow pretty fast, too, and before long you’ll have more berries than you know what to do with.”

Colleen squeezed his paw while the two setters looked at the seeds. A quiet but animated discussion erupted for a few seconds as they decided where to plant them.

“Good choice,” she whispered. Zeke smiled and withdrew a rectangular object from within the bag, also wrapped in paper.

“This one is for you,” he said.

She took it in a cautious grasp, looking at him rather than the gift. “You didn’t have to –“

“I know. I did, though.”

She worked the tip of a claw in under the edge of the tape and lifted it free, peeling away the paper wrapping. A moment later, the paper was cast aside to reveal a grey book twice the size of her paw. Colleen’s eyes widened as she opened it to see blank page after blank page. A ribbon of the same soft grey hue as the cover was attached and could be used to mark her place.

“You got me a book with no words?”

He grinned. “I’m not taking that bait.”

She flung her arms around him again, the remains of his wrapping paper flying. Their muzzles met and he used the edge of a thumb to caress the sensitive area behind her left ear as they kissed. He was still astonished by how she quivered at this simple touch.

“Hey, now,” Sean interrupted. They separated, Colleen holding her gift up to show it off.

“He got me a new journal, Daddy!” she crowed.

Maureen brought a tall glass of red wine over to where Zeke stood. “Thank you for the hackberries,” she said, handing him the glass. “I take it Colleen told you they are my favorite?”

“She may have mentioned something,” he lied smoothly. The wine was thick and mildly sweet, with a distinct tartness to it that left him smacking his lips.

“Well, between that and finding her a journal, I’d say you chose your gifts well.”

“I screwed that up, then,” he said. He leaned over and continued in a whisper, as if sharing a deep secret. “How am I going to top it with my next gifts if I got it right the first time?”

“You keep putting thought into what you do and that’s all that counts.”

“Thank you,” he said.

The door opened and a moment later two more setters strolled into the living area. One was thin and rangy, with his head shaved on one side in an affectation Zeke had noticed growing in popularity among the younger members of the colony. He was wearing a letter jacket from whatever school had been his alma mater before the flight to Z262. A large ‘R’ was sewn on the breast of the crimson jacket. The second was as curvy as Colleen, but the curves here were muscle. Her eyes were bright and sharp, and settled immediately on Zeke. Her lip curled up in response to the badger’s presence. He noticed she wore the standard cargo pants of a miner, and her build suggested she was indeed employed in that capacity. Had he not known it from his talks with Colleen, Zeke knew he could have identified her profession with ease.

“Who’s this?” she asked. Her voice had a rough edge to it.

“Zeke Sharn,” he said, cutting off all attempts by the family to introduce him. He stepped forward, extending a paw and smiling.

“Colleen’s friend,” she said with a snort. She ignored his gesture until Zeke retracted it. In response, he ignored her and extended the same paw to the thin male.

“Zeke Sharn,” he said again. “You must be Rory.”

“Umm, yeah,” Rory said, surprised that his sister had been so casually dismissed. He shook the offered paw, though his own grip was weak and his pads clammy.

“Nice to meet you. Colleen didn’t tell me you were lettered, though. What in?” he asked, pointing to the jacket.

“Running,” Rory said, smiling a tiny smile. “I get out there and just don’t stop.”

“Aw, that’s cool. I’m jealous! I’m good for short bursts but the long stuff? Not so much.”

Fiona snorted again. “Short bursts, huh? Sorry, Col.”

Colleen stiffened, her jaw dropping at the insult. Sean snapped his head around in response to it, his nostrils flaring.

“Fiona Rhiannon Goodwin! You were not raised to insult guests in my home. Apologize at once.”

She looked at Zeke, eyes narrowing to dangerous slits. Her voice was cold and emotionless when she spoke. “Sorry I made fun of you.”

“It’s okay,” Zeke said. The friendly smile on his muzzle stayed for as long as it took for a look of triumph to drift across her face as he apparently accepted her statement. It twisted then and his gaze became predatory while his tone was openly mocking.

“No one expects decorum from a little girl,” he said, speaking to Sean but keeping his eyes fixed on Fiona. It was her turn to cope with a jaw drop, and at his side, Colleen tittered.

For a moment, silence reigned in the house. Fiona struggled to speak, her muzzle working as Zeke stood in a relaxed stance, watching her with casual awareness. He lifted his wine and took a long sip.

“This is an excellent vintage,” Maureen said, holding up her own glass and breaking the tension. Sean agreed and the others turned to be part of the fresh conversation. Fiona shot a glare at Zeke, getting a grin in response.

Things progressed smoothly as the family and their guest spread out around the large kitchen table. Zeke took a position between Colleen and Sean, which put him opposite Rory. To her brother’s left, Fiona was still staring daggers at Zeke. Maureen and Sean stood from their positions at either end of the table, holding their paws up with the pads facing forward. The other three setters raised their own paws in like fashion, although they kept their seats. Zeke mimicked them.

“Oh, benevolent Tole, we thank you as always for watching over us,” Sean began. He was looking upward as he spoke. “Your love and warmth support us and uplift us always, that we might be greater Folk, sustained in your grace.”

“This is your day of birth, loving Tole, and even so far from our home, we call to you and celebrate your presence in our lives,” Maureen said. “We know that distance to you is as nothing, and your compassion surrounds us wherever we may be.”

Rory stood, his paws still upraised. “As the youngest, I stand before you, Tole. I thank you for the blessings you have brought us. I am unfocused, and ask that you guide me to improve.”

Fiona rose next, her guttural voice now tinged with respect. “I stand before you, Tole, to thank you for your grace. I can be difficult and I ask that you help me to grow more patient.”

Colleen stood. “I stand before you, Tole, and thank you for the blessing of love, that you bestow upon all the Folk. I find myself at a crossroads and ask that you guide me to discover my path.”

There was a moment of quiet and Zeke realized that everyone was looking at him. Clearing his throat, he stood from his chair.

“I stand before you, Tole,” he began, having picked up on the pattern that was in use. “I thank you for the moments of peace I have known. It is not my place to ask you for anything, but if I may, I would like more of those.”

“I stand before you, Tole,” Maureen said. “I thank you for having brought us to this new place in safety, and I would ask that you watch over my family when I cannot.”

Sean’s voice boomed in the room. “I stand before you, Tole, and I thank you for gracing our home with your presence – not only this night, but every night. I ask only that you continue to bless us, here and in this settlement.”

Everyone lowered their paws, and Zeke lowered his as well. Around the table, smiles were on every muzzle. Sean made a gesture over the table and then spread his paws wide.

“Blessings be upon you all,” he said. “Let us eat.”

Plates were lifted and filled from various platters across the table. Zeke was kept busy passing one food item after another to members of the Goodwin family. For the moment, at least, even Fiona had forgotten the angry words exchanged before. The good mood continued through the main course and into dessert.

“Why are you carrying a knife?” Rory asked around a mouthful of pie.

“I am a follower of Gann,” Zeke answered. He had rehearsed this part, knowing the question would rear its head at some point. “Gann demands that His followers be armed and ready to battle at all times.”

“Are you familiar with the doctrine of the Original Folk?” Sean asked, his powerful voice cutting off any follow-up questions on the part of his family.

“I am. I also think that it’s an obsolete viewpoint.”

“What’s the doctrine of the Original Folk?” Maureen asked.

“They are followers of Gann as well,” Zeke explained. He took a sip of his wine. “They interpreted His teachings to mean that Folk should use nothing but the weapons He has provided for us: Claws, fangs, teeth. That we’re supposed to be above the use of technology.”

“No guns would be good,” Fiona said.

“If you like rats.”

“What do you mean?”

“Do you think if we stopped using firearms that the toothies would?”

“That term,” Sean interrupted, sucking air past his teeth. “We don’t like words like that.”

“My bad,” Zeke said, rubbing at his snout. He used the pad of a thumb to rub a tooth. “If Empire Rodentia knew that we had disarmed, what do you suppose are the chances that they would do the same?”

“Someone has to take the first step to peace,” Fiona said.

“Let us not start a discussion like this on this holy night,” Sean said. His tone left no doubt that he was serious. “It can go nowhere.”

“Again, then, I will offer my apologies,” Zeke said. “It was not my intention to offend you or the celebration.”

“You’re not going to stand up for your beliefs?” Fiona asked, her eyes narrowing.

“On the contrary,” Zeke replied. “Showing respect for a host is one of my beliefs.”

Ignoring the glare of her father, the miner pushed onward. “You know what I mean.”

“I do. I also know I live my values on a daily basis, and even if you do not understand them, I will continue to do so. I’d be happy to discuss them with you later, but right now we’re offending your father…on Tolenacht. Let’s not.”

Fiona leaned forward again, a fire in her eyes that guttered as his words sunk in. She nodded and bowed her head in the direction of Sean. He smiled and winked at her.

“I’m getting more wine,” Maureen said. “Does anyone want anything while I am up?”

Everyone declined. Colleen gripped Zeke’s knee beneath the table and he smiled at her. So far things had gone better than he expected. He had half-jokingly figured on being thrown out before this much time in the room.

He kept his guard up a bit through the remainder of the meal, but it appeared that the impression he had made was a good one. Even Fiona graced him with a smile as he told a story of his youth and how he had been a clumsy child, prone to knocking over the pottery collection of his mother.

“So you learned agility?” Sean asked.

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Not me, though. Instead, I learned how to glue stuff together really well,” Zeke said. Raucous laughter erupted at the table.

Then it came.

“So what is it you do, Zeke?” Maureen asked. “Are you a miner?”

At his side, Colleen stiffened. Zeke let a thin smile drift across his muzzle. This was the moment he had dreaded. Her parents were strict followers of Tole, and his position on the colony was in direct opposition to many of their beliefs.

“I’m a sergeant with ArCorp Security.”

The words were simple, and yet for a second he didn’t know if they would come. Then they were there, splashing the meaning behind them across the table as clearly as if it were a shattered squirrel carcass. He lifted the glass of wine to his lips as the rest of the Goodwin family fell silent.

Fiona recovered first. “Told you he wasn’t good enough for you, Colleen,” she said.

Colleen bristled. “I’ll tell you what, you little –“

“You deserve a lieutenant, at least,” Fiona continued in a teasing tone. She turned a grin on Zeke and he saw her paw come up in a thumbs-up gesture. His brow arched.

“Rory. Fiona. Please excuse us,” Sean said, the words patterned as a request but the steel in his voice belying that appearance.

Rory stood from the table, his eyes fixed squarely on the long blade that hung at Zeke’s hip. The orbs threatened to bug out of his head. He muttered a quick, “good night” and made his way out of the room in a streak of motion.

“Be proud of who you are,” Fiona said to Zeke as she stood. “At least you own up to it, right?”

“I can’t be anyone else.”

“Sorry we got off on the wrong paw. I figure nobody’s good enough for my sister, but I’ll give you a chance.”

“Fiona!” Sean snapped. His fist slammed onto the table, making the utensils jump in a clatter.

“Love you, Col,” she said, blowing her sister a kiss as she vacated the area.

“I love you, too,” Colleen said, surprise coloring her features at the protective revelation from a sister that she feared hated her.

Once the two younger members of the family had left the room, Sean turned his eyes to Zeke. It was a dark, unfriendly look, but Zeke just met his gaze and waited. Frightening looks were no stranger to the badger.

“Daddy,” Colleen began, but Sean raised a paw to silence her.

“Why did you come here, mister Sharn?” he asked.

“You mean Z262 in general, or your house tonight?”

“My house,” Sean said, his teeth gritted.

“Your daughter is important to me. She makes me feel something other than anger and hate, and if you knew me, you’d know how rare that is. I came here tonight to meet you and Maureen, because I think you’re going to be seeing a lot more of me – If Colleen wants that, I mean.”

“You know I do,” she said with a grin.

“This is Tolenacht.”

“It is, and I came here respecting that.”

“Is he who you want, Colleen?” Maureen asked, speaking up for the first time.

“I’d like the chance to find out. I’m not going to say Zeke’s perfect, and I figure I’m not perfect in his eyes either, but damn, mom. I could spend days just sitting with him and be happy.”

“And what about when he gets killed on one of his missions?” Sean asked. “Will you be happy then?”

“Daddy!”

“No, Colleen. He’s right,” Zeke said. “You know what I do. You’ve seen what can happen. I could get zapped out there.”

“Which makes the time you have now more important than ever,” Maureen said. She patted Colleen’s paws. “If it’s going to be, then let it be. If not, at least you’ll know.”

“Thank you,” Colleen said.

“I don’t approve of what you do,” Sean said, as his lips peeled back from his teeth.

“Good thing I wasn’t asking you to, then, isn’t it?” Zeke said with a low shrug. A growl escaped from Sean’s mouth and he began to rise.

“Easy there,” Zeke cautioned. “Some might say you were planning some violence on Tolenacht.”

Sean slumped in his chair as the badger’s words struck home.

“Tole, forgive me,” he whispered. Maureen moved to wrap her arms around his shoulders. Zeke leaned a hip against the table and scratched at his chin.

“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I meant it when I said Colleen is important to me. It’s my intention to continue seeing her. I would be thrilled to have your blessings but know this: I’m not here to ask permission, and I don’t need it. I don’t grovel or beg, and I damned sure won’t apologize for keeping Folk safe for the past oh-so-many years. As to my position here? Yes, I am a merc filling a spot in a shield wall. Yes, I kill. I use violence on a daily basis. I do things that would make Tole turn His face from me in a heartbeat, and I will continue to do so. Doing so means I come home, and my troops come home, and I’m pretty okay with not coming back in a bag, if you know what I mean.”

Applause came from the next room.

“Fiona!” Maureen shouted. A yip of surprise, followed by running feet that faded was her response.

Sean stood from his place at the table, staring at Zeke. His eyes had softened and the snarl had left his lips.

“Will you treat her right?” he asked in a low voice.

Zeke smiled as he found victory on yet another battlefield.

The room for registration was packed, but at least they had managed to get in out of the cold wind. Chino rubbed at his ears, made red by the blustery force. The silver caps at the end of his tusks reflected the overhead lights as his head shook.
“Let’s get that door closed!” someone shouted from deeper within the room. “You’re letting the cold in!”
“Kiss my ass!” Harper yelled back, though the coyote was already pulling the door closed. He tugged his jacket closer around his frame and smoothed back the ragged lock of hair that kept falling over his left eye.
“Watch your language! There are cubs present!” said the first voice.
“Can’t be! Your mom told me she was fixed!” Chino replied. Laughter erupted from many of those in the processing center and the protesting voice died off.
“C’mon,” Harper urged, grinning at Chino’s comment. He jerked his head toward the registration desk. There were several Folk standing in line already.
“Hey, they’ve got pictures,” Chino said, redirecting the coyote with a gentle press of his massive hand. The pair stepped around a standing display of images. They showed a wooded land, with yellow soil and a brilliant sun overhead. There were pictures of indigenous lifeforms, mostly reptilian, with some captioned as being “large as a truck”, and others with similar descriptions to indicate size. One image showed the scout team posing beside one of the monsters. Its body dwarfed them all in the same way that Chino would dwarf a puppy.
“This is where we’re going,” Harper said, looking up at Chino’s grinning mug. “Planet of the lizard monsters.”
“Going straight the hard way, huh?”
“Yeah,” Harper said. His thoughts trailed off as a broad-shouldered jaguar bumped into him in passing. The jaguar was accompanied by a cougar with an ugly hat. Both Folk wore long coats that threatened to drag the ground.
“She stands over there,” the jaguar said, his voice low and his words clipped in a precise tone.
Harper turned to look at Chino, shaking his head. “It’s always something, ain’t it?” he said. He turned back to the display. An amplified voice echoed in the small room.
“Hello, everyone, and welcome. My name is Svetlana Krupp. I am one of the three Folk in charge of the colony on Z262.”
Harper leaned around the rack to see a squat dog in an impeccable business suit standing at the front of the room. She was holding a microphone.
“My specialty is administration. I’m the one who will be making sure everything gets done on schedule and that everything necessary takes place both before and during the trip so that all will be ready when we arrive.”
“So you’re pretty important, then?” called the cougar in the long coat.
Svetlana gobbled up the attention. “Oh, yes,” she said proudly.
“You will not see one gemstone on this planet!” shouted the jaguar. He reached beneath the folds of his jacket and a long shotgun was in his paw when he cleared the fabric. “Empire Rodentia will triumph!”
The cougar had gone into his own coat, coming out with a heavy slab-sided pistol. The hammer was coming back under one thumb.
Harper’s hand dropped to his belt and he slipped free the knife from his pocket, feeling as much as hearing the snick sound as the blade locked into place. The shotgun in the jaguar’s paws exploded with fire and sound, and Svetlana fell back, grasping at her abdomen.
Chino wasted no time at all. He stepped forward, grabbed the cougar’s head in his enormous mitts and twisted, throwing his body weight behind his prodigious strength. The neck gave way and the body slumped in his grasp, the ugly hat flying away in the face of the attack by the giant. Harper dropped his knife and snatched the big pistol as it fell. Thumb flicking at a safety that was already disconnected, he whipped the weapon up toward the jaguar.
The blade of the front sight had barely intersected the shotgun-wielding cat when Harper began stroking the trigger. The pistol roared like a cannon with each shot. Fat hollow-point rounds ripped into the jaguar, punching through his hide before expanding inside the big cat. Two of them ripped free on the other side, tearing great holes in the gunner’s flank.
Screaming in agony, the jaguar attempted to bring his own weapon to bear on Harper, but the coyote continued to deliver the close-range assault, keeping the pistol targeted on the jaguar’s chest as he fired again and again, riding the recoil and driving the weapon back onto target with every shot.
Eleven rounds thundered from the pistol before the slide locked back. Chino was at his side then, handing him a second magazine taken from the belt of the cougar. The empty mag clattered on the deck and Harper racked the slide again, chambering a fresh round.
The room was awash in gunsmoke and Harper squinted down at his target. The jaguar was down on the deck, his body twitching and quivering. Harper lashed out with a foot and kicked away the shotgun. He pointed to the colonist that had taken the original shot from the scattergun and Chino moved to assist.
The dog had taken a glancing hit from the shotgun, and multiple pellets had ripped through her suit coat. Blood leaked from her torso. Chino grabbed at his own sleeve, pulling hard until the fabric separated and tore. He peeled it down over one tattooed arm and pressed the material to Svetlana’s wounds.
Harper scanned the room, looking for other assailants but coming up dry. He fumbled in his pocket for his phone, one claw tapping the 111 code for emergency services. When he held the phone up to his head, it became apparent that there would be an issue. The entire world was a whine of sound following the gunshots inside the confined area. He could not hear the dial tone on his telephone. Around him, nothing was making noise that carried above the intense background din. He glanced at the screen in time to see it flash ‘connected’ and lifted it back to his head.
“I CANNOT HEAR!” he shouted, unaware of how much noise he was making. “I KILLED A TERRORIST AT THE Z262 COLONY SHIP. I CANNOT HEAR ANYTHING, SO I DON’T KNOW WHAT ALL YOU ARE GETTING. THERE ARE TWO FOLK DEAD HERE! I DO NOT KNOW IF THERE ARE OTHER KILLERS. SEND HELP. WE NEED MEDICS. I CANNOT HEAR. TELL THE SECURITY TEAM I AM ARMED WITH A PISTOL. I AM A BROWN COYOTE IN A TAN JACKET. THEY WILL SEE ME. I WILL BE THE MOTHERFUCKER WITH HIS PAWS IN THE AIR AS SOON AS I SEE THE SECURITY TEAM! AGAIN, I CANNOT HEAR. WE NEED MEDICS AND SECURITY TO THE Z262 COLONY SHIP SOONEST.”
He simply dropped the phone to the floor and made his way to Chino’s side. The big elephant had ripped a sleeve from his own shirt and was using it to provide pressure on the wounds of the injured colony executive. Harper patted him on the shoulder and when Chino looked up, tapped at his ears and shook his head.
“I CAN’T HEAR SHIT,” he called. Chino repeated the ear-tap and head shake gesture.
The security response was rapid, even though it seemed an eternal wait for those in the room. The first of the grey-clad security members rounded a corner, his face obscured by a helmet and his arms wrapped around an automatic carbine. Harper sighed with relief and dropped the pistol to the floor, stepping on it to secure the weapon while he raised his paws toward the ceiling. The team stepped in behind the point man, fanning out and moving quickly through the area. Folk were raising paws, whether they were crying, bleeding, or anything else, in response to the sudden influx of security officers.
One of the officers moved into position in front of Harper, kneeling to retrieve the pistol. The officer tucked it away and stood, his fingers twisting into patterns and his paws waving. Harper watched for a bit, confused as to what was occurring, and then suddenly barked a laugh.
“I’M NOT DEAF! I CAN’T SIGN. I JUST CAN’T HEAR ‘CAUSE WE HAD A FUCKING GUNFIGHT IN A TINY-ASS ROOM!”
The security officer stood still for a moment and then began to rock with laughter. Off came the helmet to reveal the grinning face of the leopard beneath. He gestured for Harper to put his paws down. A moment later and he was scribbling on a notepad pulled from his back pocket. He held the pad out.
“Are you the one who called?”
Harper nodded. He pointed to the dead cougar.
“HE HAD A –“
The leopard raised a paw, grimacing in the face of the volume. He waved gently toward the ground and Harper concentrated on modulating his volume.
“He had the pistol. That jaguar had a shotgun. We were behind a display when they shot. Chino took the cougar and I grabbed the pistol. Shot the shit out of the jag.”
“Robbery?” the officer wrote. Harper shook his head.
“Heard them talking first.” Harper paused to rub at his ears. “Rat-symp stuff. Said the fucking rats would win. They went after that dog over there because she’s some kinda muckety-muck. They wanted to take out the colony before it got started.”
“Doc will fix her up,” the officer wrote. “We’ll need a statement.”
“Yeah. I know the drill. Me and Chino both.” He waved off a medic that looked at him too closely. “We’ll be there.”
He looked at the corpses in the floor and the injured dog and slowly shook his head. When he looked up, Chino was miming the gunfight in front of the security force, a wild grin visible behind his trunk.
“This trip is gonna be interesting,” Harper muttered.

 

Sit down, kid, and let Red explain. Time’s a funny thing when you’re in the bucket. Sometimes it’s like you’re just floating in the void. You feel like it’s been ages and when you look at the chron, it’s been maybe a handful of minutes at best. It’s even worse when you’re doing recon. Then all your equipment is live and you really are just kinda floating around.

I been running escort for merch for the last decade, kid. I’ve done the drift and watch thing, and I’ve been in shit so thick your feathers’ll turn white. There’s a reason they pay me as good as they do.

Nah, I’m good. Thanks, though. I’ve got coffee. I’ll take one of those smokes, though, if you feel like sharing.

Anyway, like I was saying, time ain’t what you think of it. I talked to the nav a while back. Spent a couple lunches and dinners discussing it, right? Ever see how much that guy can put down, by the way? Those tentacle things get to whipping around like a mixer. Food just cramming into that beak of his –

Yeah, yeah. Off track, I know. Look, kid, I just got back from… Never mind. That ain’t important. Just listen to that little voice in your head when it tells you that time seems to be dragging. Watch your chron a bit. Get it back in a rhythm, ‘cause if you let it get away from you, it’s a stone bitch to get it back.

Oh, yeah. That’s mine. No, ma’am, I had the pancakes. He had the salad. Yep. Boring as cheese, huh? I guess somebody’s gotta be, right? Hey, I tell you what: when you finish your shift, you and me should go grab a drink.

Yeah, I saw the ring. And?

Ha! He ain’t my husband, honey, and I ain’t planning on telling him if you don’t.

Wow. Guess she’s really set on that whole marriage thing. What? Hey, kid, if you don’t take a chance now and then, you ain’t going anywhere.

My ass. What’s he gonna do to me? Shoot me? Toothies been trying that for years. I’m still sitting here, with near a hundred fighters painted on my hull. Her old man? Probably some dumbass wage slave somewhere.

Yeah. Back to it, right? Here’s the deal: You and all your friends see time as some kind of straight line thing, and it ain’t. You’ve seen a river, yeah? Well that’s how most Folk think of time. Like it’s a river. Seconds flow by and they’re just lost. Hey, pass the salt.

Spend enough time in the void, though, looking into nothing and begging the gods for the hint of starlight on metal so you can do something, anything, to remind yourself that you’re really alive, and you’ll understand.

Time ain’t a river, kid. It’s a fucking ocean. Those seconds you’re thinking are passing you by? They’re all still there. If you know what you’re doing, you can reach out and touch ‘em, put the damn things in the order you want, and use the hell out of them.

Me? Not yet. Not consciously, at least. I’m working on it, though. Me and the nav been talking on it. When time seems to be slowing down, you pay attention to it and it seems like it’s normal again, right? So what if you could pay attention and have it work for you? The whole thing is experiential, you dig? It’s different based on who is experiencing it.

Think about this one: You’re in the bucket, right? Just cruising along like a drop of black against a black background, surrounded by blackness. You’ve been out there for a while and everything seems to be just creeping along even slower. Block out the chron. Don’t think of anything except how slow everything is. Reality itself is slowing down. It’s just you and the darkness. Soon there will be nothing at all. Just darkness once you’ve passed it, so the time it takes to do so is inconsequential.

See what I mean? You do that when you’re on stick and you’re gonna get a handle on what’s going on. Out there it ain’t nothing but you.

So you get in a fight. What then? Your craft ain’t no faster than a toothie one. You’re a better pilot, right? Moving inside their guard, getting the drop on them no matter what. What if that ‘better pilot’ thing is because you’re got a feel for how time actually works and subconsciously you’re finding the best way to move. You’ve got time working for you now instead of against you. You’re one of the ripples in that ocean, kid, and you can change it. You can make time stretch and flex.

It ain’t that far-fetched. Probably been going on forever, it’s just that Folk don’t see it for what it is. They call it luck or fate or some such shit. The nav calls it temporal manipulation.

Look at me, kid. I look like some kind of kook coming in here and spewing lies over my breakfast? I got better shit to do than that. I ain’t here to convert you or tell you that you gotta see shit my way, but you asked about why it felt so long and lonely out there.

Maybe next time it happens, you’ll think about what I said. Maybe you’ll understand why one old eagle’s got the rep he has. Maybe you’ll be the one to make it work.

 

Did you ever have an urge to taste gun oil?

Vikki sat looking at the weapon in her hands, rolling it back and forth. Chambered for a high-energy hunting cartridge, it was one of those things that every household on Z262 had. The opportunity to add to the community meat supply and keep the pests out of the gardens was one that no one would pass up. Vikki knew all too well what she held and what it was capable of, but it was the blackness in her head that kept calling to her. The chip player mounted up on the edge of her bed kept running. The same song, over and over on an infinite repeat loop. A driving beat, fast chords, and lyrics that spoke to her current mood.

Taste it as it swirls around your tongue?

She thought back to the life she had left behind before coming along on this stupid venture, and tears flowed through the soft fur around her eyes. She had friends there, and a life — of sorts. Not everything had gone the way she wanted, but that was nothing. Sure, it had sucked when Derek left her, but even then her thoughts hadn’t been this dark.

Suck the shining barrel,

The offer had been a good one. A chance to escape from a life that was rapidly spiraling into disuse and disinterest. She had realized that her existence was shallow and vapid, and if she did not attempt to do something with it, she was wasting the one chance she had been given. Without Derek, there was no one even to keep her grounded in reality.

deep into your mouth,

Since the arrival on Z262, life had taken on a decidedly more interesting feel. Constant work kept her from overthinking too much, but on evenings like this, when she had put away one too many glasses of the wine that Buck and Eric made, her thoughts flowed back to the past and she found herself facing a curious mix of homesickness for the life she had left and gratitude that she had gotten away when she did.

pull the fucking trigger

Now she found herself on the definite downslope of the memories. Realization that she was locked in to the contract she had signed, that she was in fact stationed here for a minimum five year assignment, sent her mind tumbling back into the past, where the darker thoughts waited to chew them up. Thoughts of how she would never see her friends again. She could not even communicate with them, save for actual, physical, pen-on-paper letters sent by ferry once a year as the resupply craft landed. That gave her a virtual eternity to wait. Life in the colony for anyone not a miner involved primarily agriculture, and Vikki had no previous experience in that realm. Even the local jobs were slim, most run by a family. Contract law experience was in no demand.

and the deed is done.

“Yeah, it is,” she whispered. She hefted the pistol and jammed the barrel into her mouth.

“Hey, is that Satanika I hear?”

The voice came from her front door – a door that Vikki did not remember leaving open. Her eyes jerked up to see him standing there. Tall, lean of form, and well-muscled. He was one of the security crew, but she couldn’t recall his name. The cheetah was dressed in what she had heard referred to as their casual uniform: A patterned t-shirt was tucked into pants that had more pockets than Vikki could ever imagine needing. He wore boots, but not the spit-polished parade-ground boots she had seen on some military troops. These were sturdy, workmanlike things that spoke of practicality. He wore a handgun of some sort on his hip, and one of the short-barrelled rifles she had seen them holding was slung over his shoulder and rested on his back.

Make the shot!

She slipped the thin barrel of the pistol from her mouth and, eyes flowing freely with tears, nodded.

A smile quirked at the corner of his lips. “Haven’t heard them in years. Saw them live when I was just a cub. Knocked me square on my ass. Thumper spit on me,” he added with a grin that was slowly mirrored on her face.

“He always spits on someone.”

“Yeah, but it was me that time!” His voice was raw and throaty, and a strange thrill ran through her as she heard it. He had a proud grin stretching his features, and she knew why. The fact that, of all the Folk on this miserable planet, they were probably the only two to who Satanika meant anything was not lost on her. Her hand slid down to her lap, taking the pistol with it.

Take your spot!

“You’re Vikki, right? Vikki Duris?” he asked. When he looked at her, she felt urges well up within her. His eyes were so pale that it seemed he had no pupils, but that somehow seemed to intensify his gaze.

“Ummm…yeah?” she answered, her inflection making a question of what should have been an easy statement. She reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“I’m Kurt. I came to escort you to the Captain’s office,” he said.

“Oh?” she asked, eyes widening. “Did I do something wrong?” No one since landfall had been arrested, but she had heard rumors of what had occurred to Folk on other planets that left her suddenly sick.

“Relax,” he urged, helping her to stand. A casual tug removed the pistol from her grasp. He worked the action with a practiced hand, letting the cartridge inside fly free to rattle on the floor. He locked the slide open and tossed the weapon onto the chair where she had been sitting. “It’s something about putting you on a new project.”

“A what?”

Give it all!

“I don’t have the details. I’m just the messenger.”

Vikki looked at him for a moment, questions spiraling around in her brain. She had so many, but Kurt had made it clear he did not have the answers she would seek.

Paint the wall!

She nodded and grabbed her bag. The sling bag that was standard wear for most miners held their property – and frequently their lunch – and it was close enough to the purse she had carried for so many years as to be familiar.

Never too late to heed the call!

He followed her out of the house and closed the door behind them, leaving the chip player running. She took two steps before turning shining eyes onto him.

“Are you going to tell them about, ummm, I mean…”

“The Satanika?” he shot back with a wink. “No way! I’m just glad someone here has good taste in music. I might ask to borrow your chip one day, though.”

“No, I meant the other.”

He shook his head. “Never a word. We all have off days in our lives.”

She took in a long, slow breath and nodded at him again.

“I guess we do at that.”

 

<<<END>>>