anthro

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The back of the book gave a short blurb describing the action to be found within, and Duggan read it in a slow series of words, his thick lips moving along with the syllables.

When Officer Misty Kein finds herself squaring off against the mob’s number one assassin, it will be her wits and not her badge that will be needed.

He grimaced and slid the volume back onto the shelf. Heavy fingers traced the spines of the other books.

“Can I help you find anything?”

The voice was calm and soft, and Duggan pivoted on a heel to see a cassowary female looking at him. Sharp eyes looked out at him from inside the bright blue colored head, tracking from his hideously scarred face to the obscenities carved into his plastron and tattooed on his flesh. He made no effort to cover himself, as he had made none since arriving on Z262. The uniform that marked him as ArCorp Security did nothing to hide some of his worse markings. Her beak separated to a narrow gap and she tilted her head toward the shelf.

“Ummm,” he said, “The uh, the –”

He waved in a vague motion toward the shelves.

“Books?” she prompted. He nodded.

“Yeah. Book. Lissa. Um, she’s my partner. She said to come here,” he stammered.

“Is there anything specific you are looking for?”

He turned away, looking at the rows of books. “Nah,” he finally muttered. He took a step to the bird’s right. “I ain’t…”

She made a show of looking around them before leaning in toward the enormous tortoise. “You’re not a big reader, right?” she asked. He chuckled.

“At least you didn’t say it like I had done something bad.”

“Not everyone is as addicted to the written word as I am,” she said. She swept a thin arm in a gesture that encompassed the entire building. “This is mostly mine.”

“All of these?” Duggan asked, his eyes widening. He looked back and forth at the shelves around him. They stood to just a hand’s span above his head and ran easily a meter wide. The room had dozens of them, all occupied with various books, magazines, and other reading material.

“I am an avid reader.”

She paused then and slapped her own forehead with a palm. “I am so sorry. My manners these days! I’m Jori. Jori Maleen.”

“Duggan,” he replied, automatically extending a massive hand. When she took it, her fingers were dwarfed. His hand was rough and leathery, with heavy calluses and prominent knuckles that were massive humps under the gray-green skin.

“No last name?” she asked. Her head was tilted again, looking at him from a sideways angle. He smiled and released her tiny hand.

“That is my last name,” he said. “I ain’t used my first name in years, except on legal papers.”

”My father was a Marine,” she said. “I’m familiar. He would have introduced himself with his last name first.”

“Yeah.”

Several seconds passed and he became aware that she was standing still, head remaining cocked ever so slightly to one side as she stared at him. He looked into her eyes. There was no reproach visible there, no hint that she somehow felt less of him since he did not read the way she did. He held the gaze for a moment, noticing for the first time the half-moon of white beneath her left eye. Her beak split in a smile.

“Cron,” he said. “My name is Cron.”

“Lovely to meet you, Cron. Now what kind of book were you looking for?”

He lowered his gaze. “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “I’m just trying to find something to occupy my time between patrols and on my off days, you know? All I read these days are the same six comic books and a couple of old field manuals. Pretty fu… It’s pretty boring,” he said, catching himself before the obscenity slipped out.

“Well, I’m certain there is something here that would catch your fancy,” Jori said. She turned on one thin leg, working her way down an aisle with a bobbing gait. Her sharp extended claws tapped on the floor with a rhythm. After a second, Duggan followed her. He had to turn a bit sideways to fit his bulk between the shelves. The butt of his sidearm bounced off the shelves with every shuffling step.

“Six comic books?” Jori asked, reaching up to the top row. She pulled out plastic containers with various brightly colored covers visible so that he could see them. “I have a few here as well. I don’t know what kind or titles you like best.”

“The ones I have now are mostly action, but I had a subscription to ElectroFox once. That was years back.”

“If you want, you could bring them here, and then others could read them as well,” she told him, pulling down a container. She opened the box.

War Bear,” she said, reading the label. “Issues one-twenty through one-thirty-three. Got them from Zhen Darri over at the mercantile.”

Duggan did not hesitate to slip a massive hand into a pocket of his utility trousers.

“How much?” he asked around the stump of unlit cigar that occupied the corner of his mouth.

Jori turned to regard him, her head tilting once again.

“How much what?”

“For the comics,” he said. He pulled a wallet from his pocket and fanned it open to display a sheaf of corporate scrip.

A honking sound blew past her beak and she raised her left hand in his direction.

“Have you never been in a library?” she asked. Duggan stood for a moment, looking at his wallet in confusion.

“I don’t… No. I haven’t,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been by here and stuff, but not, like, inside.”

She gently pushed at the wallet, directing it back toward Duggan’s enormous form. Her voice was higher when she spoke, and her smile was back.

“You don’t buy these. You borrow them. You come here and you take a book. When you have read it, you bring it back. We put it back on the shelf for someone else to read, and you can take a different one. That’s why I suggested you bring your own comics here. Let others have the joy of reading them.”

“So I ain’t gotta pay for these?”

“Not at all. Just keep them in good condition and bring them back when you have finished. Then we can find you something new to try. They will be around should you wish to revisit them.”

“That’s… I…I can do that,” he said, hesitating as he thought through the process. “I’ll bring you mine when I come back, if that’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” Jori told him. “I look forward to reading them myself.”

“You wanna read my old comics?”

Her eyes rolled back and she made a noise that bordered on ecstatic. A long shudder rolled down her back and her feathers ruffled.

“Oh, my, yes. Something I have not experienced before? A chance to step outside reality and be part of a story for a while? I am a voracious reader, Cron. Nothing makes me as happy.”

“Well, all right, then,” he said. “As long as you’re not gonna tackle me or start screamin’ that I stole your stuff.”

She made the honking noise again, and he realized it was laughter. Her tiny hand came up to touch his muscular upper arm and she leaned against him as she laughed.

“Trust me,” she said. “You’re fine. Let me get you a bag to carry them in.”

“Oh, now, I can take ‘em like this.”

“Not on your life. I’m going to make sure you get something nice,” Jori said, strutting to a long counter and bending down as she reached behind it. “Tackle you,” she said, bursting into laughter again at the thought.

“What made you decide to do this?” he asked. His gesture at the shelves of books was lost on her, unable as she was to see it.

“You mean the library?”

“Yeah. I mean, you’ve got a job, but if you ain’t sellin’ the books, then you ain’t gettin’ paid. How’s that gonna work?”

Her head popped up and she smiled again at him before ducking below the counter once again. “I had a few dozen crates of books in my home, so I told the recruiters that I wanted to open a library. Let the other colonists have a place of refuge, as it were. As to money? ArCorp actually subsidized the idea. They provided me with additional material and allowed me a substantial purchase amount to add even further.”

She emerged a moment later with a bright blue bag of heavy woven material. Thick rope loops made up handles for the bag. She extended it to Duggan, who took it gingerly between his fingers.

“Next time you come, you’ll have a bag to carry books in,” she said. “From now on, as often as you want.”

He slipped the issues of War Bear into the bag in as cautious a manner as he was able.

“I’ll bring you those others tomorrow,” he said in a solemn tone.

“There’s no rush,” she assured him. “Take your time. Bring them when you return the ones you have. I’ll be here. Well, as long as you come during office hours,” she added.

His lips split into a smile, which took the edge off of his fierce countenance for a moment.

“I’ll do that,” he said. He turned for the door, but Jori was a step ahead of him, her arm flashing up to a shelf and holding out a thin book. Duggan recognized it as the one about the cop and the assassin.

“You were looking at this one?” she asked.

“Uhh, yeah. How did you…”

“You left it sticking out past the others. Lucky guess on my part.”

“Oh. I wasn’t sure if it was… I didn’t…”

“Lots of violence in it,” she said, taking the pressure off of him. “I don’t know if you’re ready to handle that.”

“Jori, I’m –” he began, looking at her for the moment it took for him to realize she had been joking. He chuckled then, a deep rumbling within his chest.

“You got me,” he said.

She winked in reply and tipped the novel into his bag. “I think you should try this one,” she said. “Let me know what you think. It was very nice to meet you, Cron.”

“You too, Jori. I’ll see ya when I come back,” Duggan told her as he stepped out of her shop and into the heat of the early afternoon. His eyes rebelled against the glare of the brilliant yellow sun that hammered down onto the baked ground.

“I look forward to it. Have fun!” she called.

The door closed behind him and Duggan took off down the street, the blue bag swinging in his hand. He waved at a pair of calico-patterned cats in mining outfits, sending a happy grin their way.

When he opened the door to his home, Lissa was there. The mongoose was reclined on his couch, stuffing something crunchy into her mouth and washing it down with one of his beers.

“Where ya been?” she asked, swallowing.

“Book place,” he said. She had known him long enough to catch the excitement in his tone.

“You went? Good on ya!” Lissa said, sitting up. She necked the bottle and swallowed three times before setting it onto his coffee table.

“I did,” he said. He pulled out the comics and the novel, holding them with a gentleness that bordered on reverence. He looked at them for a moment and then up at his partner.

“Jori’s nice,” he said.

“Jori?”

“She works there. Runs the place. Cassowary female.”

“Oh. I never got her name,” Lissa admitted.

“I did. She’s nice,” he repeated. He turned a stare on Lissa, silently daring her to make fun of him. She shook her head, knowing it was what he expected.

“I’m glad.”

“Thanks for telling me where to go.”

She laughed a quick bark of a laugh. “I’m good at telling you where to go,” she said. “Tell you what though: You start reading more than manuals on machine guns, and we’ll be even.”

He held up the novel, displaying the picture of the sleek Shepherd cop pointing a handgun at a duster-clad Doberman.

“I know just where to start.”

 

<<<END>>>

“You made a tank.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the armor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m impressed,” VonHogan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gara provides for us in Her own ways.”

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

“Guessing I said something wrong?” he prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VonHogan nodded to them both.

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

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

“Of?”

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

 

<<<END>>>

 

“We’re gonna get caught,” Miranda whispered. “Again.”

“Nah,” Skeeter said. He flicked his hair back from his eyes and peered down the silent corridor to their right. “I heard them say the Marines were on the other side of the ship.”

“Doesn’t that seem odd?”

“Maybe. All I know is we can get out and do something for a change. I’m tired of sitting in the cabin and listening to Dad and Mom argue about what life’s gonna be like when we get to this stupid place.”

“Mine are all happy and planning the new store,” she said. Following along with him, she edged into the corridor and they took off at a jog.

“At least that gives you something to look forward to. Dad’s making this whole thing sound like some horrible ordeal and Mom is telling him how it’s gonna be even worse. Last night I made it really bad, ‘cause I asked them if it was gonna be so bad, why did they sign up for it.”

They paused and looked both ways at a crossing hall before dashing further down the corridor.

“What did they say?”

“Dad said he did it to get away from Mom’s parents, and then Mom said it was because Dad’s a butthole. Then they started fighting and I ran off to my bunk thing.”

“Gara,” Miranda whispered. “That sucks.”

He paused, leaned against a wall, and pulled on the lapels of his long coat, sinking his body further into the leather. The black material created such a contrast with his snow white fur that Miranda could not help but smile.

“I’m used to it,” he said. His tone belied his words, but she accepted the words in the spirit he had delivered them. She placed a paw on his shoulder and looked into his eyes.

“It’ll get better,” she promised.

The fox nodded back at her and they started moving again. A voice from ahead set them on a hard right down an adjoining hall, and a choice between a dark hall and one with a flickering overhead light left them creeping down through the darkness. The journey, Skeeter had reasoned, was where the fun was to be had, and adventure would give them fond memories of the journey. Slinking down darkened hallways while avoiding the random security sweeps of the shipboard Marines was more than enough adventure for the pair.

At least he hoped they could avoid the Marines. Last time had not gone as planned, and had it not been for the ArCorp security representative that had come to their rescue, he had no idea what the musclebound Marine who caught them would have done to them, although his imagination had shown him a great number of nightmarish scenarios.

They traveled the network of corridors for a few more minutes, following the twisting halls and ducking through the iris door into a cargo hold.

As the door closed behind them the overhead lights came to life. White brilliance flooded the area and the cat and fox found themselves squinting in the sudden light. After the dim and occasionally dark hallways, the illumination was blinding and they found themselves standing and blinking in an attempt to ease the stabbing feeling of the bright light.

“Why did the lights all come on?” Miranda asked. She pushed herself closer to the fox as he looked around the area. He leaned into her as well, wrapping an arm over her in a protective gesture.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “They never did before.”

“Are we in the right place?”

He hesitated a moment, looking about for some form of identifying feature.

“Maybe we came in from the other side,” he said. The quiver in his stomach told him he had made the wrong choice coming in here, but he kept his voice calm and level. He resolved not to let any sign of fear show in front of Miranda.

“Probably,” she said. She took a slow breath. “Let’s look at this side, then.”

They stepped to their left, edging around a stacked rack of equipment crates. The tags on the ends were shiny and colorful in comparison to the drab gray containers. Yellow symbols were used to indicate categories of the crate, large red letters to identify the owners, and lines of black text beneath them. Each tag told the story of the crate contents.

This hold held little more than personal crates, and for that the pair was grateful. They had ventured into one kilometer-long bay early on the trip that had been filled with dozens of the shipping containers that held the contents of the colony to be, with house-sized boxes filled with preserved food, mining equipment, lumber, and more things that they could only guess. The infrastructure of an entire town was carried on this ship, and between Skeeter and Miranda, they had explored at least the exterior crates of most of it. The exploration took hours and they found it all incredibly dull. After that, they spent their days looking for something that might be fun. There were few Folk of their age, and none that wanted to do anything that involved sneaking off behind the backs of the security teams that were responsible for the safety of the colonists, potentially running from or tangling with shipboard Marines, and getting yelled at by the Administrators of the trip.

“What was that?” Skeeter asked aloud, jerking to a halt and doubling back a step. He peered down the alley between two sets of shelves.

“What?”

“I thought I saw someone.”

“Don’t do that,” Miranda whispered.

“I’m not,” he said, knowing she thought he was playing a trick or trying to scare her. “Go back.”

The two of them sprinted for the door, but it cycled open before they got close and they darted down an alley of crates instead, pressing themselves against the closest boxes to disguise their presence.

“Why are the lights already on?” asked a voice. A second later, it boomed in volume.

“Who’s in here?” the voice demanded.

“Go,” Skeeter said in a low tone, gesturing down the aisle. He and Miranda ran hard, trying their best not to make sound on the metal flooring. They broke left at the first intersection, ran some more, and then shot up through another alley of crates, turning right and then left again as they ran. They could hear multiple sets of booted feet ringing on the floor as someone chased them.

They twisted left as they passed a series of low, wide crates, and ducked down low as they ran, trying to hide themselves behind the equipment. A few more steps and the pair found themselves facing an exit door, just down two more sections. They redoubled their efforts.

A dog clad in a long coat bearing some form of insignia stepped out in front of them. Dull rank pins gleamed on his collar, but Skeeter had no idea what they represented. All he knew was they had been caught for certain. There was something about the dog that terrified Skeeter, a feeling of dread that even overpowered his fear of being caught. His feet skidded on the deck as he tried to backpedal, grabbing at Miranda’s shoulder to help pull her along. His heartbeat became a steady flood of sound in his ears as he realized they were trapped. Moving with a long, slow stride, the dog was now in the section of crates with them, blocking their access to the intersection. He crouched low, shielding Miranda with his own body, and as the dog took another step, Skeeter squinted his eyes. The wall was visible through the Folk that stood before him. Skeeter gasped, feeling a cold sensation grasp at his innards.

The dog opened its mouth and a low, mournful sound drifted from it. Skeeter felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise and a chill ran down his spine at the sound. Miranda whimpered aloud.

“Gann’s balls!” called the voice that had demanded to know who was in the hold. “It’s the ghost! The ghost of Shen Qi!”

“Where?” shouted another voice.

The dog looked down at Skeeter and Miranda as the pair huddled on the plating. His paw raised and he tapped it to his mouth in a gesture calling for silence. Pivoting, he moved from their position and out of the alley. It was only after he left that they realized he made no sound as he walked.

The thunder of booted feet ran down the adjoining alley.

“There! I see him!” shouted the second voice.

“He’s real!” called the next.

The dog stepped in front of the exit door that Skeeter could see and grinned at the two youths, lips rolling back from around long, sharp teeth. Extending an arm toward the door, he passed through it as if it was not there. His body seemed to shimmer as he joined with the metal, and a second later he was just gone.

Two Folk in ship’s security uniforms darted through the door a second later, stopping only long enough to open it. Neither looked at the two juvenile Folk shivering in the floor, so intent were they upon catching their prey.

The door closed behind them and Skeeter and Miranda found themselves alone in the cargo bay. It felt infinitely colder than it had when they arrived, and both of them were overcome with a strong desire to be somewhere else. Anywhere, it seemed, would do, so long as they were out of the cargo bay.

Three minutes of running led them back to the door by which they had entered and then they were running through the corridors of the ship, paw in paw. Doors and intersections flashed by as they worked their way back to the housing area.

They ran straight up to the ocelot wearing the sand camouflage shirt of the ArCorp security team. The trim female glared at their approach.

“Where have you two been?” she demanded.

“We went to the galley,” Miranda said, her voice high and firm. It was not a place that was off limits, and many of the settlers went there for a change of pace from the makeshift eatery set up in their area. “They had cookies.”

“Did you bring me a cookie?” asked the ocelot, mouth wide in a grin.

“I was going to, but Skeeter ate it,” Miranda said, pointing at her friend and making a face.

“Oh, I see! That’s how it is, is it?” she asked. She reached out and ruffled the fox’s carefully-coiffed hair, chuckling at the offended expression on his face.

Minutes later, they were back inside the confines of the section of the ship where the settlers had been based. They were both shaking with a combination of fear and excitement at their experience. They kept moving, hiding from the sight of others until they reached one of their usual places. Perched side by side on a bench in the common area, the two of them took deep breaths of the recycled air. They were still holding paws, and neither seemed in a hurry to stop.

“What was that?” Miranda asked. Her voice was husky now, edged with the fear brought about by her memories of what had occurred.

“Can spaceships be haunted?” Skeeter asked at the same time.

“We could ask Diem.”

After he had rescued the pair from the clutches of the enormous Marine, the leopard named Diem had become a favorite adult of theirs. Still, Skeeter had his doubts.

“And tell him we went to the cargo bay?” he asked.

“No,” she said, flapping a paw. “We just ask if it could happen. I’ll tell him you were telling me a ghost story and trying to scare me.”

“That might work.”

Miranda squeezed his paw. “After that, we go talk to someone from the ship. Tell them we overheard someone talking about a ghost. Play both sides.”

Nodding, he pulled the cat in for a quick hug. They got up and ran from the bench, heading for the lounge to see if Diem was there.

Behind them, a shimmering canine face materialized, pushing free from a bulkhead wall. It looked at the area filled with colonists and grinned before disappearing into the metal once again.

 

<<END>>

Lin stared ahead, looking past the dozen or so Folk in front of him and watching the reflections in the glass doors. There were a few more Folk behind him than there had been a half hour ago. His feet reminded him of how long he had been standing in line. He sent a mental grumble their way, reminding them how many hours they had held him up beside a table before. This would be no different.

He drew his phone from within a pocket and scanned the screen again. Nothing new in the last ten minutes. He sighed. Opening the keyboard, he quickly tapped in a message.

–Not coming?

He stared at the screen, willing a response, but nothing came. He wondered if perhaps he had been too forceful in the discussion of the previous afternoon, but she had to know.

The doors opened and he slipped the phone back into his pocket. The crowd filtered in, each taking one of the pamphlets being handed out by a pair of suit-clad Spaniels. He glanced at it, and just as quickly tucked it alongside the phone. Standard indemnity paperwork. Nothing to be surprised about, despite the raised voice of the older calico two bodies behind him. Her shock at the possibility of death or injury was comical. With the frequent terrorist attacks by agents of Empire Rodentia, it was only a matter of time until one was in the wrong place at the right time.

The line shuffled slowly forward as each of the Folk ahead of him spoke to an ArCorp representative. They mumbled answers to questions and presented identification. Lin watched the crowd.

“Hi there,’ said a voice, and Lin tilted his head down to see a raccoon looking up at him from within a tailored blue suit. There was a corporate ID badge hanging around his neck on a lanyard that had his name and photograph displayed. The raccoon came up to Lin’s upper chest, but the smile on his face spoke of easy confidence that the big tiger did not feel.

“Good morning.”

“I’m Mace Govarr, ArCorp personnel division,” the raccoon said, extending a hand. Lin shook it, dwarfing the small fingers in his paw.

“Lin Waar. It’s nice to meet you,” he said. The words came easily to him, even if the situation was somewhat less familiar.

“Nice to meet you too,” Mace said. “I have a few questions to ask before we know where to send you.”

He tilted his head toward the back of the office, where hallways and cubicle walls could be seen. A tablet filled his hand, drawn from within the suit, and he tapped at a key to open a form.

“What is it you do for a living, if anything?”

“I am a physician,” Lin said. The raccoon grinned as he marked a box on the form.

“We can always use medical professionals,” Mace told him. “Your specialty?”

“General practice. I did trauma work in the militia and drove an ambulance before that.”

“Nice! So you’re militia trained as well?”

“As a medic, yes.”

More boxes clicked on the tablet and Mace reached up to grab at Lin’s sleeve. Pivoting on a heel, the raccoon tugged at the sleeve and urged Lin to follow as they left the crowded lobby behind and made their way through the door into a hall filled with gray cubicle walls. They bypassed them in a rushed series of steps. After a moment they arrived outside a plain door. Mace swung it open and walked inside with no announcements. There were three desks inside, each ugly metal constructs that spoke of time in government service or underprivileged schools.

At the first sat a tall, rangy cheetah who watched their entry with eyes that missed nothing about the new arrivals. Lin didn’t need to check the sleeve patches to know this was a security operative of some sort. It was the dull gray captains’ bars sewn onto the collar that raised his eyebrow.

The second desk had a monkey seated behind it, his dextrous fingers dancing across the keys of a computer whose screen faced away from the door. The white-haired monkey never even looked up as the pair entered the room.

Desk number three was currently unoccupied, but before he could wonder why, Mace was speaking.

“Captain VonHogan, this is Lin Waar. He’s a physician.”

The cheetah nodded, a slow, easy motion. “Why do you want to leave?”

The question was direct and there was no tone behind it at all. It was as if the captain was repeating a question he had asked a hundred times, and as far as Lin knew, he might have. He had anticipated someone asking something close to this, and the answer was right on the tip of his tongue.

“There are worlds out there we’ve never seen,” he said. “I want to be a part of that exploration. I want to help the settlers stay safe and healthy.”

He paused for just a moment and gave a slight tilt of the head as he visibly swallowed.

“I’ll be honest,” he added. “I’m nervous about what’s out there, but I also know that if anything happens, you’ll need someone good at fixing Folk. I am.”

“Are you looking to establish a practice in some hope of becoming rich?”

“I’ve got money,” he answered. Wide shoulders lifted in a slow shrug. “I don’t care.”

“So are you giving it up? I mean, since you don’t care about it.”

“Hadn’t thought about that,” Lin said. His tail twitched behind him, brushing at the door. “If I go to this colony, I won’t need it, right?”

“If you’re accepted to the mission, you’ll become an ArCorp employee and have a salary.”

“Good enough.”

His phone buzzed, vibrating against his breast.

“I’m good with him,” the cheetah announced. At the second desk, the monkey raised a hand and beckoned Lin to approach. Mace patted the tiger on the back and exited the room behind him, returning to the lobby for his next recruit.

As he walked to the desk, Lin pulled the phone and looked at the screen.

–Why are you leaving?

He snorted and dropped it back into his pocket.

“If you need to get that, go ahead,” the captain said.

“Nah. It’s personal, not business.”

The cheetah laughed, a low chuckling sound from deep in his chest, and leaned back in his chair.

“Son, this is where I get to use all that personal interaction training the army gave me. You’re about to — if Xander over there says so — sign on with ArCorp for a five year hitch as a colonist on a planet full of monsters, with the toothies eyeing the place as well because they need the gems same as we do. Personal needs to be taken care of, too.”

Lin clenched his jaw, took a deep breath through his nose and nodded. The phone slid back out and he opened the keyboard.

–You know why. I need to go.

–I can’t. I have a life here.

–Kalli, you’re the only one I want to come with me.

–Mom wouldn’t want this. She wouldn’t want you to leave, to abandon your practice, to run away on some dream.

Another deep breath filled his lungs. His claws clicked on the tiny screen.

–Mom’s dead. Nice try.

–You know what I mean.

–I’m going, Kalli. Please come with me.

–No. I’m not giving up what I have here for some dirty mine thing.

His chest tightened as he read the words. He knew she was attached to things in a way that he wasn’t, but the resistance was more than he expected.

–I’ll call you later.

–Don’t bother. You’ll just make things worse. I love you, Lin, but don’t.

–Look, we can – he began, but another message came up first.

–Enjoy your little trip. Maybe no one will die this time.

He stumbled, his knees going weak under him. VonHogan half-rose from his chair, returning to his seat as Lin waved him off.

“Are you all right?”

“My sister,” Lin said, waving the phone. He shoved it back into his pocket and turned toward the monkey behind the desk. “She doesn’t approve of the trip.”

“Well, if you need –”

“Nah. I’m in. She and I don’t see eye to eye. She brought up something from my past.”

“Looked like something pretty important.”

Lin dragged a paw across his head, ruffling the striped fur there.

“You, uh, said you were in the army.”

“I was.”

“I was trained for the militia. I didn’t care for it, and I still don’t. I was trained to save lives, not take them. To this day, I don’t like guns. I can use them. I just choose not to.”

VonHogan just stared at him, letting the tiger continue his story.

“Couple years ago — Well, I say a couple, but I can give you the exact date if you want it — I was on my honeymoon. A group of squirrels attacked the cafe we were in. During the fight, I wound up holding a pistol that a dead security officer had used. I had to decide whether to shoot the last one of the squirrels, and I hesitated. It was the idea of harming another, even a squirrel. Mika paid the price. He shot her. I killed him for it, Gara forgive me, but he took a piece of me that I’ll never get back. My Mika was the gentlest soul I have ever known, and she’s gone now…and it’s my fault.”

“Toothies take everything,” VonHogan said. “Even your innocence. Make no mistake, that’s what happened then.”

“Innocence,” Lin said with a mocking snort.

“Lemme ask you this; If that happened today, what would you do?”

“I’d like to sit here and tell you I’d blast away at the squirrel. That I’d save the day. But I know myself. If it happened I would probably hesitate again. That’s a life on the other end of the weapon, and I’ve sworn to protect life.”

“That oath means that much?”

“It’s an oath,” Lin said. “I don’t give it up.”

“That’s the kind of thing I want to hear. It sucks that you had to pay for your beliefs the way you did, but I’ll tell you this much: Folk that stand by their duty are the kind of Folk I want around me.”

“Welcome to ArCorp,” the monkey announced.

<<END>>

The rumbling through the floor brought Jinx out of a sound sleep even before the roaring of the explosion rocked her small home. Like a thunderclap with added bass, the sound cracked two of her windows, the glass blowing inward a frantic heartbeat later as the wave of force struck.

She was out of bed and diving across the floor before the echoes had begun to fade. Her tail twitched back and forth like an angry serpent as she grabbed at the pants she had worn when she saw Emiko yesterday. Shoving her feet into them, she jerked them up over her legs, fighting for a second to get over the thickest part of her thighs. Two snaps and a click later, and the belted garment was in place.

A quick step to the wall, avoiding putting her feet in the glass that now littered the grimy carpet, she jerked her head up to the edge of the window and just as quickly brought it back down. The jumbled images she had seen sorted themselves as she concentrated on making sense of the vision.

The explosion had been a couple blocks away, judging from the smoke and dust in the area. Flames were still licking at trees and a cacophony of distant vehicle alarms began to drift on the air. The sun had barely crested the horizon.

“Been two good months. Guess I shoulda seen it coming,” she whispered to herself, turning away from the window. There was no need to look further yet. The fact that it had been centered where it was meant there was no direct threat to her and she could finish dressing.

It was only then that she noticed the weight of the Ferox in her hand. The heavy pistol had been under her pillow as she slept. Grabbing it before leaving the relative comfort of the shabby bed was a reflex action. She slipped it into the holster that was still attached to the belt on her pants, tucking the metal inside her waistband and pressing the warm grips to her ribs.

The closet yielded a soft green tunic that wrapped over her shoulders and then angled across her torso in an overlapping ‘X’ pattern to button again at the waist. The blouse flared at the hips and dropped another hands’ span in a ruffled effect that served to distract the eye from noticing the butt of the heavy pistol if it happened to be visible through the fabric.

She pulled down the bright orange medical kit from above her kitchen sink and glanced at the contents. A half dozen plastic bandages for minor cuts, alcohol wipes, antiseptic pads, and a small roll of gauze. It had been a part of the house that she had accepted as just being there all along. Now she understood why. The gauze went in a pocket and the remainder of the kit sailed into the garbage can. A drawer yielded a fistful of shirts that with the help of her knife could be made into bandages.

She jammed her feet into her boots and threw open the creaking front door. Careful not to put her full weight on the left side of the broken third step, she dashed from the house and toward the scene.

“Get back inside,” she called out to Ira Morehouse and his wife Anj. “It’s not safe!”

The two poodles had stepped out onto the porch as she approached, curious as to the nature of the explosion. The pointed finger by the sprinting serval was met with a nod and a wave as they turned back toward their broken down home. The windows along the front facing were all shattered and most had been blasted into the building. They would spend the day sweeping and repairing, but both of the Morehouses knew enough to listen to Jinx when she sounded authoritative.

It had been two days after the serval arrived in their neighborhood that Ira was attacked by a trio of young mutts intent on taking the older dog’s briefcase. His initial resistance bought him a beating, and even after he relinquished the case, their sense of being disrespected overrode their greed and they didn’t stop the onslaught of paws. When Jinx stepped in, the first warning any of them had was the crack of bone as she applied a length of metal pipe to the knee of one attacker. As the pup went down with a shriek, she launched into a rapid attack sequence that put the other two mutts down and out within a few seconds. Not a single one of the three escaped without at least one broken bone, and blood painted the sidewalk in quantity.

Showing as much tenderness as she had violence, Jinx helped Ira to his feet and walked him to his house. His briefcase was retrieved and she wiped the spattered blood off it with the sleeve of her own shirt. Only after she was certain that he was all right and ensconced in his house with Anj did Jinx return to the battered mutts.

“My turf now,” she said, pinching the muzzle of the kneecapped one shut so he was forced to listen. “If I see you or these two here again, and I mean ever, I’ll kill you. Prison don’t mean shit to me, pup, not after the places I’ve been. I’ll get free food and a roof over my head. You’ll be telling Gann why you were a disappointment in this life. Got it?”

His head quivering as he tried to hold back tears, the pup nodded. Jinx handed him the bloody pipe she had used on him and his partners.

“You can use it as a crutch,” she said. “Try to hit me with it, though, and your other knee goes too.”

She stood and walked away without a backward glance at the maimed thug. From that day on, she and the Morehouses had maintained a friendly relationship.

That had been two months ago, and inwardly, she marveled at how long it had taken for something bad to happen. She skirted a sedan that had been parked in the street. It had no glass left and the left side looked as though a dozen Folk had gone after it with sledgehammers.

The first injured she found was a calico cat in a t-shirt that advertised some celebrity she did not recognize. The cat was in shock, with his eyes blank and staring as blood ran down his face. She checked his wounds and found them to be multiple small cuts, likely from blown glass, and abandoned him to move deeper toward the scene of the blast. Already the sound of sirens could be heard in the distance.

She moved on for another block, helping an elderly skunk with his cuts and an early morning jogger who had been taken by surprise. Her leg would recover given time, and Jinx left her with a t-shirt wrapped around the chunk of metal buried in her thigh and half of a second shirt pressed to the worst of the shrapnel wounds.

She smelled chemicals and smoke on the wind now. The fires that had erupted in response to the blast had burned inside businesses and residences, and the mingled scents gnawed at the sensitive tissues of her nose. Debris was more common now, and she frequently had to step over or around objects that should not have been where they were. Mailboxes and pieces of trees blocked sidewalks and streets.

She turned left on Flagler street and the epicenter of the blast loomed in her vision. It had been in front of the noodle shop, wiping out the small eatery and the apartment above it. The car that had borne the explosives had left a huge hole in the ground, and very little remained of it. Part of the chassis was embedded in the front of the toy store across from where the noodle shop had been.

“Good thing it was early!” shouted a voice. Jinx looked past the blast scene to see a brown bear headed her way at a waddling run. He was kind of cute, she noted before shutting off that part of her thoughts.

“Yeah,” she agreed, peering into the toy store. The inside was a shambles. The inventory had been blasted across the shop and the overhead sprinklers had activated in response to fire of some kind. Filthy water ran on the floor where it was soaked up by plush dolls that no one would ever play with after today.

“Anything good?” the bear asked as he neared. She arched a brow.

“What?”

“In the store. Anything good?”

“Blown up toys.” She was unable to keep the distaste from her voice. Sharp eyes looked him over once more. Before he could speak again, she pointed back the way he came.

“You might want to head back that way. Bad things happen to Folk around me, and they get worse when I know they’re here to loot a disaster scene.”

“Hey, I’m just –”

The words cut off, dying in his throat as Jinx slipped the Ferox from its rig. The bore of the pistol looked big enough to step into when it pointed at his face.

“Now,” she said.

He turned to flee, and she could taste his fear on the air. She returned the pistol to its holster and went back to looking for injured.

She was on her knees holding a shirt to the bleeding head of a bus driver when the security forces announced themselves. The leopard had been caught in the blast as he prepped his machine for its first run of the day. Stunned by the attack, he had been thrown into the frame of the bus and split his head open on impact. He was there until the serval had found him slumped against the front tire of his bus. He mumbled as she held him, less than half his words coherent. Blood traces in his ears and nose spoke of the overpressure.

“This cat needs an ambulance,” she said, swiveling her head in a slow arc to make out the tiger that loomed behind her. He had a shotgun in hand and a pistol on his hip, and wore a uniform that was already stained and dirty from what he had seen this morning.

“He’ll get it. What about you?”

“I live back that way,” she said, tilting her head toward her home. “Came to see if I could help.”

“You a medic?”

“Nah. Learned basic aid in the army.”

“Lucky you were here.”

“Trust me, pal. Luck isn’t involved. There’s a reason they call me Jinx.”

“Ah. Bad luck then?”

“More than you could know.”

He handed her a business card. “Well, you’re helping keep him alive,” he told her, nodding toward the leopard she held. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me. Stay here with him. Medical is on the way. Once they get here, start working your way out. Anyone hassles you, show them my card and tell them Vidor said you were ok. I’m moving on.”

Without waiting for questions or comments from her, he was gone, stalking away on powerful legs.

“Thanks,” she said to his back. In her lap, the bus driver moaned and she returned her attention to him.

“We’ll have you out of here before you know it,” she said.

She glanced down at the card. She had left a bloody fingerprint on it already.

“Figures,” she muttered, wiping it on her pants.

<<END>>

 

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>>>