anthro

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

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

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

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

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

“No, please,” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Master Shear would have been proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

“I’m Ten.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will He forgive me?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who are you, Ten?”

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

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

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

“I can’t understand. I am a monster.”

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

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

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

She settled her head on the pillow.

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

 

<<<END>>>

Meet the New Boss

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vikki took it, a nervous smile splitting her muzzle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She is an interesting one,” Kurt agreed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Contract law,” she said.

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

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

“What kind of offer?”

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

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

“Oh, we cover that,” Kurt interjected.

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

“Yes.”

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

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

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

“I am capable of that.”

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

“You have me mistaken for – “

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

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

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

“We’ll all what?”

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

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

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

<<<END>>

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

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

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

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

“You all right, there, Sarge?”

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

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

“Always.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great! So now I’m a waste?”

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

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

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

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

“No one is.”

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

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

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

“So what’s the plan?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

“You think?”

“Educated guess.”

“Thanks, boss.”

VonHogan raised his coffee mug in salute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Duggan?”

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

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

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

“I… I have a date.”

“No shit.”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

“Her family. They’re Toleans.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, I appreciate –“

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

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

“It is?”

“Yeah. Extra crab. She’ll like it.”

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

“Like what?”

“Me and Lissa. We aren’t –“

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah? Something good?”

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

“Thanks, Sarge. We’ll be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, ma’am. Just call me Zeke.”

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

“Maureen it is, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This one is for you,” he said.

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

“I know. I did, though.”

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

“You got me a book with no words?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No guns would be good,” Fiona said.

“If you like rats.”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you learned agility?” Sean asked.

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

Then it came.

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

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

“I’m a sergeant with ArCorp Security.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t be anyone else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Tolenacht.”

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

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

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

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

“Daddy!”

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

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

“Thank you,” Colleen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applause came from the next room.

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

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

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

Zeke smiled as he found victory on yet another battlefield.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I saw the ring. And?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did you ever have an urge to taste gun oil?

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

Taste it as it swirls around your tongue?

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

Suck the shining barrel,

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

deep into your mouth,

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

pull the fucking trigger

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

and the deed is done.

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

“Hey, is that Satanika I hear?”

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

Make the shot!

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

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

“He always spits on someone.”

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

Take your spot!

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

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

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

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

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

“A what?”

Give it all!

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

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

Paint the wall!

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

Never too late to heed the call!

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

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

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

“No, I meant the other.”

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

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

“I guess we do at that.”

 

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

The sheet had once been white, but the dismantled weapons that took up space on the fabric had long since stained it. This wasn’t the first time the sheet had been used for this purpose. On one side of the table, Duggan hunched over the frame of his machinegun. He had the grip section in one tattooed hand and was using a stiff-bristled toothbrush to scrub at the interior, clearing fouling from where it had built up in the trigger assembly. There was a little bit of carbon there, but mostly it was the omnipresent yellow dust.

“This all you’ve got?” Lissa called from the kitchen.

“Is what all I’ve got?” he asked. He picked up a slim pick and slid it in behind the hammer, flicking away a tiny bit of burned oil.

“There’s a bottle of Smitty’s in the refrigerator. Cheap wine? That’s it?”

He blew across the springs, examining them under the brilliant light streaming from the directed overhead lamp.

“Look in the cabinet over the sink.”

From the kitchen came a rumbling and shuffling noise, followed by a delighted yelp. “Been holding out on me, have ya?”

“Always do, fam. Always do. If I told you everything there wouldn’t be any surprises.”

Lissa appeared around the corner carrying a dark brown earthenware jug and two mugs. The cork popped free from the jug and she tipped it up, letting a pale amber liquid flow into one of the mugs. “You got a full jug of Buck’s Best? How much did this run you?”

“Two squirrels and a rabbit.”

She stopped mid pour. When he looked up from the bolt group in his hand, she was staring wide-eyed at him. He looked back at her with a flat expression.

“What?”

“You… Damn it, Duggan, you’re trading corpses for liquor?”

“Of course not,” he said with a gentle smile. Her shoulder slumped and she licked at her lips.

“Had me going,” she confessed, beginning to pour the second mug.

“It was just the pelts and teeth.”

He reached out for a bottle of solvent, dripping three drops onto his cleaning brush and setting aside the bottle before looking up at her again.

“What? Nobody wants toothie meat.”

“Tell me you’re kidding, D.”

“Should I be?”

“You’d damned well better!”

He shrugged and returned to his cleaning task. After a moment, his shoulders began to rock a little and soon he could not hold in the laughter. It echoed in the house and he set aside the bolt, pushing back from the table and standing before grabbing his mug from the mongoose. He took a deep swig of the fiery liquor as she looked up at him. Her eyes were wide again, but this time, her overall expression was that of disbelief. She reached out and jerked his mug back out of his hand and tipped the contents into her own mouth.

“Hey, that’s mine!”

“Serves you right,” she said in a huff of whiskey-scented breath. “I was beginning to worry.”

“Give me some fucking credit, Lissa. Body sharking for whiskey?” He shook his head in mock sadness as he sat back down.

“If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t think twice. But, damn, I’ve seen you pull some twisted shit.”

“I’d never do that. I mean, not for alcohol. I might trade them for –”

“Stop!” she yelled, punching him in the arm before he could finish the sentence. It was marginally akin to slamming her fist into a wall, and had she not had so much time to practice the maneuver she might well have injured herself. Working with Duggan for as long as she had, this was definitely not the first time she had smacked him.

He tilted back his head and roared with laughter.

“Why does anyone think you’re funny?” she asked, hopping onto the chair opposite his own. She filled his mug again and pushed it his way before swiping one of his cleaning rods. By the time he had calmed enough to answer, she had a solvent-soaked rag down the barrel of her rifle.

“What do you mean, why? It’s ’cause I am funny!” he told her.

She looked at him, holding a neutral expression. “You know what’s funny about you, Duggan?” she asked. There was a sharp hint of challenge in her tone. He looked in her eyes for a moment and then back down at the bolt he held.

“What is?” he asked. His voice was uncharacteristically soft.

Lissa let the moment stretch until it was on the verge of becoming uncomfortable. Waiting until the big turtle raised his armored head to look at her with a mix of suspicion and dread, she grinned in a dazzling display of sharp white teeth and spoke.

“Your mom.”

The room echoed with the shared laughter of the two partners. They reveled in the old joke and even after their laughing died out, the occasional snicker could be heard.

Duggan lifted the mug to his mouth and took a hefty swallow of his whiskey, years of experience allowing him to do so without even wetting the unlit cigar that nestled in the corner of his mouth. Setting the mug aside, he grabbed for the tiny bottle of lubricant that stood in the center of the table. He tapped the tip in a precise series of movements, each transferring a drop of a thin grey solution onto different parts of his weapon that were wear-prone. He ran a short line here and a trio of drops there, a ritual he had practiced so many times he could quite literally do it in the dark.

“So… You gonna stay here?” Lissa asked in a quiet, tentative voice.

“I can come home with you if you want, Lis’,” he said, lips peeling back in a grin. “Didn’t know you felt that way.”

“In your dreams, shell-boy. You know damn well what I mean.”

“Got a month to figure it out, yeah? Before we gotta get the papers in, I mean?”

She snatched up the lubricant and dripped it onto the exposed action of her rifle. Using the tip of a finger to smear it around on the metal, she concentrated on the task just enough to make it clear to Duggan that she was holding back.

“You made up your mind already, didn’t you?” he asked. “Staying.”

“Think so, yeah.”

“Think the toothies will keep coming?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Signed my re-up this morning. Fucking hot on this bitch, but there’s a shitload of killing to do.”

She nodded, snapping a retaining pin into place. Her hesitance was a thing of the past. “We go somewhere else, there’s no telling what’s gonna happen, right?”

“Probably wind up in some piece of shit garrison, waiting for someone to jump at shadows.”

“Building security for corp-types who think they’re important.”

He shook his head. “Nope. I’d sooner get fucked by President What’s-his-name.”

“I’ll sell tickets to that one.”

He snapped closed the cover atop his weapon and worked the charging handle several times to ensure that it moved smoothly. Standing from the table, he stood the machinegun in the corner. Beside it was a 200-round canister of linked ammunition.

“So what’s for dinner?” he asked.

“How should I know, dumbass? It’s your house.”

“You wanna eat my cooking? I mean, if you feel up to it…”

“Nope,” she replied, head popping up and swiveling back and forth in an exaggerated negative motion. “Nope nope nope.”

“The Strip?” he asked, hooking a thumb over a shoulder in the general direction of the ramshackle buildings that had cropped up as businesses since the colony had been established. More than one had put together some form of restaurant.

She nodded as her rifle clicked together. She ran it through a quick series of checks to ensure it was working properly. When she was satisfied, she stood it up next to his machinegun. They made a great pair: One sleek, trim, and fast and the other heavy and brutal. She chuckled to herself as the similarity sank home.

 

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Blood looks different on snow. They don’t tell you that in training – well, not in so many words. Sure, you can get a lecture from a pathologist, or some thick-ass textbook telling you the consistency of the platelets and how the refraction of light changes things, but nobody ever just says to you, “Hey, just so you know? Blood looks different on snow.”

There was certainly a lot of it today, and it did look different. Thinner, with more of a gloss. It was all over the grass where it poked through, red staining the green shoots. In the late spring or the summer it’s an entirely different look. For some reason it was catching my eyes today.

Willie cried his normal shite: “How come I gotta carry the bodies?”

“‘Cause you’re a fucking ox, that’s why,” Sarge yelled at him.

“I’m sick of being the one who carries.”

“So drag ’em if you want. Nobody cares. Just get ’em to the pile.”

I laughed and Scarlet winced.

“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just –”

“Willie,” she said, with a grin of her own.

I finished packing the wound and wrapped it. She was tough as hell, I’ll give her that. Four bullet holes and she was still talking. I tagged her for evac and moved on. Down the line I could see Lawrence at work. The little bastard was good. Set up a triage line like nobody’s business. Made my life a lot easier.

It’s never easy to work on your friends, and it’s even harder when fingers are stiff from cold. I was blowing on them to keep them warm. Flexing them. Hector saw it and tried to smile. I think he saw it. He was marked as having been given a full tap of painkiller, so he could as easily have been counting airplanes flying under the Jandean Oceans or some such impossibility.

Whoever worked him in the field had done a good job. I wrote my notes on the triage card he wore and told him he was going to be fine. I hope he believed me.

“I’m cold, brother,” I heard as I came to the next patient. He had burns on one arm, and his jacket was gone. I asked why and he told me it had caught fire. I flagged one of the runners and ordered him to bring a blanket.

A month ago he would have already succumbed to hypothermia. The plasma loss and the lack of warm clothing would have doomed him. I guess I shouldn’t harp too badly about the changing of the seasons.

Still, I thought as I took another step down the line, blood looks different on snow. Maybe one day I’ll start telling new medics that in training.

I could hear the approaching trucks. Prisoner transports, for one, but more importantly the flame units were coming. Burn off the stinking toothies before their diseases spread. Standing rule. That, and my patients will roll out on their truck. For that I am doubly glad.

Today went well, but only because someone spotted the approaching rats in time to set up an ambush. As a result, we only lost three. A dozen more on the injured list and twice that many with minor shite that they would deal with later. Scratches and bruises. I heard someone bragging about the new scars they would have soon.

I paused long enough to reload my pockets from my duffel before swinging it back over my shoulder. I hate having to fumble for bandages and things. There’s an order I keep everything in.

The Sarge was yelling a warning at Willie again, one I’m sure he ignored as always. Then the air shattered with a shock wave. I wound up flat on my back with the duffel pressed into me and I didn’t know how I got there. I couldn’t hear anything at all. I struggled to my feet to see the massive crater where the bodies were being piled and I realized there had been a boobytrap on at least one of them.

Bits of Willie began to fall on us, mixed with dirt and rat puree. All I had in my hearing was a constant tone, but I knew there were soldiers screaming for my aid. I looked around for them and noticed it again. Fresh and wet and drizzling down.

Blood looks different on snow.

 

<<<END>>>

 

After Action Report

Sergeant Zeke Sharn

 

The words sat on the screen, taunting Zeke with their crystal clarity. They were there waiting for him, and the remainder of the screen was a blank space that he dreaded as much as he always had. When it came to the event, he was truly in his element, but writing anything afterward? That involved a careful examination of what had occurred during the battle. For him, unfortunately, that involved a retelling of what his unit had done, as he had zero clue about anyone else. He had been the tip of the spear when they engaged the squirrels, as he tried to be every time. Leading from the front was his way.

He stood from the chair and went to the coffeemaker, pouring another mug of the thick black elixir that he prayed desperately would last long enough for the next resupply ship. He took a sip, found it a touch too hot still and set it on the desk to cool. He walked to the door of his office and looked out, letting the heat of the day wash over him.

VonHogan had been right: Z262 was a shithole. Too hot to be comfortable for anyone not desert suited, and too humid for their tastes as well. On the plus side, the rodents weren’t taking it well, either. Even the big capybaras that acted as their shock troops were annoyed by the environment.

He spit into the dust at his feet. The thought of the capybaras made him glance at his hands. Clean now, but it had taken some scrubbing. All of him had.

“You all right?” asked a soft voice. Zeke looked to his left. There was a setter there. Fiery red hair caught the sun and twisted it into coppery tones.

“You’re quiet,” he said.

“Ummm, okay?”

“It’s a compliment,” he assured her.

“In that case, thank you.”

“Zeke Sharn,” he said, reaching out a paw. Inwardly he shuddered at the thought that she would be touching the claws that only a few hours ago had eviscerated several of the toothies that had tried to hit a mine transport.

“Colleen Goodwin.”

Her grip was firm, and she smiled as they shook.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she said.

“I didn’t? Oh! Yeah. I’m fine. Just trying not to think,” he said, grinning. He gestured over his shoulder. “Would you like a coffee?”

She looked around herself before answering. “I would like that,” she said after a moment.

He stepped aside, gesturing inside. “Please, come in.”

He pointed her toward one of the short couches in the corner and then hurried to find a clean cup. He asked her how she took her drink and soon was handing her the mug he had mixed. He took a seat on the adjoining couch.

“Not going to sit beside me?” she asked in a coy tone.

“Easier to see you from here,” he said, looking into her eyes. It was a good way to cover the nerves that jangled like trespass alarms inside him.

She smiled and lowered her gaze for a moment, sipping at the tan liquid in her cup. He looked around the room, licked his lips, and took a drink of his own brew.

“So…Come here often?” she asked. His eyes met hers and she giggled before breaking into outright laughter. Zeke found himself joining in. It had been a while since he had genuinely laughed, and it felt good.

“I’m sorry,” she said, one hand coming up to cover her mouth for a second. “I couldn’t help it.”

He grinned. “I needed that,” he admitted.

“The laugh? Or just the tension breaking?”

“Yep.”

“Glad I could help.”

“I don’t get too many laughs, and even fewer visitors,” he said.

“You’re in a serious business, and it intimidates some Folk.”

“But not you?”

She looked at him with an expression of shock. “No way! You can’t scare… Okay, so yeah, maybe a little. Or, y’know, a big.”

He chuckled again at her expression. “There’s nothing here to be scared of.”

She looked into her mug for a second. “I saw you come back through the gate today.”

“Ah.”

He set his mug on a table. This part he could understand all too well. He had been here before. This was the point where he watched someone walk out the door.

“Colleen, I kill for a living,” he said. His tone was flat, emotionless. “It’s not pretty. It’s not a job I come home from and people say, ‘what did you do at the office today’ and I tell them it was all paperwork and sales. Some Folk have skills for dancing. Some for painting or drawing. I don’t. I kill rodents. In all honesty, I’ve never known much else.”

Her muzzle rose and she looked into his eyes once again. The cup of coffee sat uncared for in her grip. Her breath came in a short gasp before words tumbled out in a rush.

“My family taught me all my life that violence was wrong,” she said. “My grandfather was a Tolean priest.”

He nodded and started to respond, but she held up a hand to forestall him.

“I never believed it. I knew, deep in my heart, that there were Folk like you out there. Folk who did what they had to, no matter how horrible it might be, just to make sure that the rats stayed away. Tole teaches his followers that diplomacy and kindness are the answer, but I just…”

Her pause held longer than he expected, and he followed her gaze down to notice that he was holding her hand in his. He opened his grasp and pulled his hand back.

“I’m sorry,” he said. He stood, picking up his coffee and starting to walk away.

“Zeke?”

He looked back to see her holding up her cup. “If you’ll top this off, I’d like to keep talking with you.”

“Really?”

“Please?”

He nodded and brought the pot over to warm her mug. When he returned, he sat on the couch beside her.

<<<END>>>

 

Duggan was ugly by most Folk standards, and he knew it. His bald head was crisscrossed with scars and his beak-like nose had been broken more often than he could remember. A close encounter with an axe-wielding hare had taken his right ear. His plastron was awash in graphically violent tattooed threats and the entirety of his shell was decorated in kill markings. He would never make it in civilized society, but the big turtle didn’t care. It wasn’t civilized in the hole that he and his partner occupied. It was hot and still in there, and Duggan was bored.

“Hey, Lissa,” he called. His voice was a deep, sepulchral thing, garbled not at all by the butt of the unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He always had one there, and only a very few of his fellow troops had ever heard him speak without it in place.

“Send it,” Lissa replied, without turning her attention away from what she was watching. She had her paws wrapped around a rifle, and the stock of it was snugged up tight into the pocket of her right shoulder.

“I thought these dipshits were supposed to move by now.”

“Should be any time.”

He tapped at his chron. “Naw, fam. Shoulda been by now. Maybe half an hour or so ago.”

“Then stop bitching and get your ass behind that nailgun. If they move, we gotta zap ’em first. You want McEnroe and BigButt to win?”

He made a snorting sound. “Those two couldn’t beat you to the punch if you gave them a five-second lead.”

“I don’t intend to give them the chance,” she said. Nimble fingers made a minute adjustment to the holosight atop her rifle without her moving the weapon.

Duggan checked the belts leading into his machinegun again. The waiting was what killed him. The boredom of holding his position while waiting. Once it all dropped in the pot, Lissa knew he’d be the usual killing machine the crew knew him to be, but at the moment, he might as well be chewing off his own claws.

“Me either,” he muttered, patting the stock of his weapon. A garish drawing of a screaming rat was painted on the butt.

“The Cap says we’re in for a lot of action on this one,” Lissa said.

“His mom’s in for a lot of action.”

She laughed at the familiar joke. “Supposedly they dropped in a battalion of rabbits the other day.”

“Good,” Duggan said. “Can’t wait to get me some ears.”

“Frayker said he’s gonna be the first to get some,” she countered. The words were barely out of her mouth when Duggan was back with his usual.

“His mom’s gonna be the first to get some.”

“What have you got against Frayker’s mom?” she asked.

“Not as much as I did last night.”

“Damn, dude, that’s just ugly.”

“So’s Frayker’s mom.”

The two shared a round of laughter. The commentary was an easy back and forth thing with them, and spoke of partners who had held similar conversations many times in the past. Duggan cracked the seal on a canteen and slurped noisily at the warm water inside it. When he offered it, he finally got Lissa to take her eyes off the firing line. She gripped the canteen and hoisted it, pouring water past tiny pointed teeth. Taking a second mouthful that she let sit for a while before swallowing, the mongoose turned back to her rifle. Duggan drained another slug from the canteen before shoving it back into his belt.

“Thanks,” she said. “I was getting kinda dry.”

“Same same. Figured if they aren’t moving, we might as well get a drink. Hell, I’d have brought some of Smitty’s wine if I’d known they were gonna just sit out there on their tails.”

“That shit’s nasty,” she said, a shudder rippling down her back.

“Nasty? Girl, I watched you drink your body weight in that!”

“Think that’s when I decided it was nasty,” she explained. “The hangover that next morning was a thing of legend.”

“Well, if you’re interested, I’ve got a couple bottles back in the hootch when we get out of here.”

“Beats another night of that local beer,” she said, pragmatism winning over flavor.

“That isn’t beer. That shit’s right up there with that grey pasty stuff in the mess hall.”

“Right? What the hell was that?” Lissa asked.

“I don’t know, but it tasted like ass,” he said, leaning against the front wall of their hole. Above them, the logs shifted enough to send a cascade of yellow dust down onto them. Neither of them took any real notice. The dust was a way of life and they had grown used to having it in everything they ate, drank, or slept in.

“It did,” she agreed. “Y’ever wonder whose side the cooks are really on?”

He chuckled.

“I could see you cooking for the toothies,” he said. “Today’s special is cyanide casserole, you beady-eyed shitsuckers!”

“I got a nice hot meal for ’em right here,” Lissa responded as she grinned at his comment. She patted the forend of the rifle. “Let one of ’em pop up their ugly little heads and we’ll see how hungry they are.”

“I’m hoping for more than one,” Duggan said.

“Company strength ain’t just one.”

“I know. I was just saying.”

“I know,” she repeated. “I’m just picturing a couple hundred dead toothies all stacked up in a pile, waiting for the fire units.”

The comment brought a smile to Duggan’s face. “I’ll take mine well done,” he said.

“Aww, damn, man. Why’d you have to equate them to food? Now I ain’t gonna be able to eat my bucket of grey ass-paste when we get back.”

His chuckle began quietly but a moment later he was struggling not to burst into raucous laughter. “Pretty sure that’s a country song,” he said when he had recovered somewhat. Lissa giggled.

“It was raining out, and I couldn’t eat my –” she began. Her voice cut off and she leaned deeper into the rifle butt. Duggan needed no words to tell him what the gesture meant and he stood up into the firing slit beside her, gripping the machinegun and slipping the safety.

The rifle barked beside him, the action cycling and ejecting an empty casing that bounced off his hardened head with a pinging sound. Three hundred meters out, a flash of crimson in the air announced her hit as clearly as any range monitor could have.

“Dinner’s served, you needledick bastards!” Duggan roared as he squeezed the trigger. His boredom vanished as the big weapon thundered and hammered itself into his shoulder. He was home again.