Fiction

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The big hand landed on Terry’s shoulder and a gravelly voice spoke in his ear.

“Carrie wants to talk to you.”

The quiet man turned and looked up into the face of the bouncer. The man’s eyes were sharp and brown, set deep in a wide face. Terry, by comparison, was whip-thin and his green eyes seemed possessed of a faraway quality.

“Easy, pal,” urged Vincent. The bouncer could not help but notice that the statement was directed to Terry, and not to him, as would be usual. He expected people to tell him to back off, but the tone this man had used to the thin man he was with made the giant bouncer slip his own hand from the shoulder of the customer.

“What about?” Terry asked.

“Dunno,” the mountain said. “She just pointed you out and said if you was leaving, to stop you for a second.”

The blaring speakers concealed around inside the club were pounding out a bass beat that overpowered most of the song. Terry nodded and jerked his head in the general direction of the interior.

“I’ll be out front having a smoke when the song ends.”

The big man scanned him, practiced eyes looking for any sign of deception or ill intent. “I’ll be bringing her out. She don’t get out of my reach. You get it?”

“Got it.”

A handful of minutes later, the dark head of the bouncer peered around the door frame. In one direction, a group of what looked like fraternity members were passing around the remains of a bottle of Jagermeister before they entered the strip club. Looking the other way, he saw Terry and Vincent. The former stood in a relaxed pose that had a touch of wariness about it, while his friend was leaned against the wall. Both had cigarettes in their hands as they quietly conversed.

He stepped through the door, dwarfing the woman he escorted. Corded ebony muscle gleamed under the exterior lighting in a manner it had not inside. He was a truly massive specimen of humanity, and the frat boys quailed when they saw him step out. The Jagermeister bottle clinked against the pavement where it was hastily dropped.

At his side, the woman in the tan halter top and denim cutoffs grinned. She patted the bouncer on the arm and started off at a casual walk. He was right behind her, and she knew it. Marcus had seen her through many a bad scene, and she felt confident that this would be no different.

“Hey,” she said by way of greeting, tossing back her ponytail to let it fall on her back.

Terry nodded. “Miss,” he said in a pleasant tone.

“Got a sec?”

“Hey, Vince, gimme a minute, yeah?” Terry said by way of reply. His friend stepped away several paces and sat on the hood of a grey BMW.

“Marcus?” she prompted, raising an eyebrow at her escort. He didn’t budge, his eyes fixed on Terry.

“S’all good,” the thin man said. “He’s got a job to do.”

She smiled at that and reached out with one slim hand to pluck the cigarette from Terry’s grasp. Nails painted the same scarlet color as her hair contrasted with the white filter as she took a drag. When she returned it, traces of a pink lip gloss decorated the filter.

“How did you do it?” she asked.

“Pulled it out of a box and lit it.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. No one has ever managed to make it through that performance before, with their pants staying dry. Not with me and Treasure both working on you.”

He grinned. “That’s why I told you to make it a timed performance, miss.”

“It’s Carrie,” she corrected, although she had to admit that she enjoyed the feeling of having someone use some kind of formality with her.

He tucked the smoke into the corner of his mouth, tasting the sweetness of her lip gloss. His hand extended before him in a slow maneuver designed not to antagonize the enormous bouncer.

“Terry.”

She thought for a brief moment that he had mispronounced her name, but then her eyes lit up and she reached out to take his hand in her own and gently shake it. His grip was strong but subdued, the feeling of one who knew they could crush her hand but consciously made an effort to control themselves.

“I could tell you liked it,” she said.

“That I did,” he admitted. “You’ve got a gift.”

“But you didn’t come,” she said.

“Nope.” He was non-plussed at her casual crudity.

“But that’s what the dance is about!”

She was confused and seemed to be a bit miffed by his lack of response. Terry took another short drag and handed her the Camel before tucking his fingertips into the pockets of his jeans.

“I don’t mean to insult you, Carrie, or your friend in there. You’re both amazing at what you do. I just prefer to save my…” He paused, thinking of the right word to use. “…my response, for a more private setting.”

“That’s a lot of self-control.”

“It’s all I have left,” he said. He half-bowed from the waist. “You have a lovely night, Carrie. It was wonderful to meet you.”

“Happy birthday, Terry,” she replied, her voice a little slow in coming, but friendly when it did.

“Thanks for watching over her,” Terry said to Marcus. “I know folks don’t tell you that, but you do a good thing.”

The big man grinned. “Thanks,” he said.

As he turned to leave, Carrie took a step forward. “Hey!” she called. He turned to see a strange look in her eyes.

“Yeah?”

“You aren’t gonna ask for my number or anything?”

“Most guys do that?”

“Yes,” she said. Behind her, Marcus silently nodded.

“I ain’t them,” he said. He opened the passenger door of the BMW as Vincent got in. With a final smile, he dropped into place in the leather seat and closed the door. He watched the dancer as Vincent pulled them out of the parking lot. In turn, she kept her eyes on the BMW through the whole exit.

 

The discharge of the carbine was a sharp bark, and it echoed long enough that the sound joined the clink of the empty casing as it hit the ground. Downrange, a neat hole appeared in the center of the standing target. If it had been a real rabbit, they’d have carted that bitch out in a bag. Not exactly a difficult shot, but to Folk not used to shooting, the whole thing seems magical.

I flicked the safety and ejected the magazine. A quick swipe of my paw saw the chambered round ejected and flying through the air. It hit the dirt and rolled. I laid the weapon on the table and turned to face the small crowd of Folk that had come with me to the range.

“That’s all there is to it,” I told them.

“It’s loud,” said one of them.

“That it is. There are quieter weapons, I’ll give you that. One of our scouts has a suppressed handgun that makes little sound at all.”

“So why don’t all of them do that?” asked a tall dog. He wore some kind of letter jacket and had the half-shaved-head look that was going around with the youth. It was a little odd the first time I saw that, but I’m used to it now. Fashion is weird. I remember when I was a pup it was all about the heavy boots that clomped when you walked. Every cub and kitten for miles had the damned things.

“Suppressors are another piece of equipment that gets dirty, breaks down, and has weight. I don’t need it. If I’m in a fight, I honestly couldn’t care less if it makes noise. I’m gonna do what I gotta do to come out the other side.”

With my luck, of course, winding up in a fight happened far more often than I liked it to.

“So for now, we can assume you all know how to use that weapon, right?” called Sergeant Sharn. There was a murmur of sound as Folk tried to decide if they would respond. I took the onus off of them after letting them squirm for a moment.

“You don’t! Just admit it. No harm here in admitting you don’t know what you’re doing. The harm comes in pretending you do and getting somebody dead for it.”

A paw raised. It was the fox that had earlier stated the carbine was loud. I jerked my chin at her.

“What ya got?” I asked, trying to keep the tone friendly. If they wanted harsh or sharp, they had Sergeant Sharn for that. Even at his best, most of the Folk on the colony didn’t know what to make of the vicious badger.

“Why are there so many?” she asked, pointing to the table. I looked away from her long enough to scan the inventory. There were indeed a few items there.

“Most of these you won’t ever deal with,” I said. “We want you to see them in operation more than anything else. You won’t be spending time behind the butt of a machine gun or a grenade launcher. But our standard carbine and the singles we issue to every household? Yeah. You’re all going to know how to load and fire those.”

“Everyone?” she asked again. “I mean, I’m just a clerk.”

“You a Tolean?”

When she shook her head, Sergeant Sharn responded.

“Toleans have been excused if they request it. Religious abstention and all. You’ll note that several of them declined that and are here for the familiarization process anyway. Everyone else on colony needs to at least know the basics. Even if you never fire a weapon after today, your duties here might leave you in contact with them and we don’t want you afraid of an object that has no will of its own.”

“Excuse me, Sergeant?” called a grizzled old hound from near the back. “If we had militia training back home, uh…”

“We’d rather you hung around in case we have something you’ve not used, but you can bolt if you need to. Come by our office some time, though, if you do. Give us a chance to talk to you about your capabilities.”

“Good enough. Just wanted to know,” the hound said. I was pleased to see he stayed.

“The administration has tasked us with making sure everyone gets a feel for this,” I said. “So here we are. My name is Mitchell Gerhardt, but you can all call me Mag. The badger to my right is Sergeant Sharn. He has requested that you refer to him as Zeke. If you forget our names, that’s fine. You can always just -”

“Please, don’t call me sir,” Sergeant Sharn interrupted. He shook his head in mock sorrow.

“Well, I was going to say ‘call us sir’, but that idea is out the window. Just raise a paw if you need us and we will come to you.”

No one seemed to have any questions or want any other information, so I stepped a couple paces to the side and gestured to the weapons arrayed on the table.

“We will be showing you how each of these operates today. You will be firing many of them. Tomorrow you may well be bruised and aching. That part we can’t help. You will, however, have gained valuable knowledge.”

“I don’t see why it’s so important.”

The dog with the suppressor questions. Who would have guessed? As I figured, Sergeant Sharn beat me to the response.

“Well, ignoring completely the fact that the Administration and the Team Leader believes it is necessary, there are several reasons why you might want to know. Let’s start with the fact that we’ve already stopped more than a dozen attempted invasions or attacks. If you find yourself caught up in the middle of something horrible, would you rather take a chance shooting back or be taken captive? We’ve all heard or read the stories of what the toothies do to prisoners.”

Some of us have more than that. After that snatch team got in and took Zinnia Worth and her two cubs, Frayker was the first to volunteer for the recovery trip. We all expected it, what with him having lived through their particular hell. Diem and Tristan took off with him and two other speed demon types. Between the five of them, we figure on a confrontation within two days. The gun bunnies are gonna lose that one, and we will be getting Zinnia Worth and her cubs back — hopefully still functional. Gann only knows what’s happened to them thus far.

“We’re not asking you to pick up a weapon, in anger or otherwise,” I told them. “Chances are you never will, with the possible exception of your HotShot.”

I hefted one of the long-barreled pistols that every house was issued (excepting the Toleans, of course). They don’t actually have a name beyond their technical designators, but some civvy started calling them HotShot shortly after we issued them and the name just stuck. Single shot pistols chambered for the same rounds in our carbines, they’re pretty much an “Oh shit” kind of weapon.

“This ugly, mass-produced piece of shit here,” I said. “There’s a switch on the left side that says, ‘OPEN’. It does just that. Push it in and the barrel hinges down. You slip a live round in there and snap it closed. Pull back the hammer and squeeze the trigger. Boom. It’s that simple. Every house gets one, Folk, along with a box of twenty rounds. You want more ammunition, come see us and we will issue it.”

“What good is that against those laser guns?” asked a thin bodied civet from the front row.

“First off,” Sergeant Sharn said, stepping forward and squaring his shoulders to the crowd, “we aren’t asking you to repel an invasion or save the planet with a HotShot. This planet has life forms on it that aren’t necessarily polite. You might well come across them in your garden, your back yard, or even inside your house if you forget to secure a door. If they’re bigger than a backpack, shoot them. A security team will respond to any gunshot to make sure you Folk are safe. If you’re just dropping the native wildlife, we’ll pat you on the back and go away. If it’s something big, we’ll take over. If you’re doing something stupid, we’ll cart you off for questioning by the Team Leader. It’s that simple.”

“So we just kill them?”

“Sure. Some of ’em make mighty fine eating,” the Sergeant said.

I waited until the civet finished nearly puking at the thought of eating the scaly reptilian things that wandered the area.

“Look, Folk, we’re here to help you all stay alive a little longer should something untoward happen. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather be able to respond than just stand there and get a few new holes.”

“Why do the rats use lasers?” asked a short gray cat. She was holding the paw of a white-furred fox who wore some kind of leather longcoat despite the heat.

“Several reasons,” Sergeant Sharn said. “First off, they like shiny, flashy things.”

“My mom told me that was a myth,” interrupted Front Row Civet Girl.

“Your mom a sci-tech? Rodent researcher?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s where our info comes from. Scientific studies have shown that the toothies in general like things that are shiny and bright.”

“We’ve used that to our advantage in more than a few ambushes,” I added. “But back to the question. Empire Rodentia as a whole uses what works, but you’ll almost always find the energy weapons in the paws of their rabbits and occasionally squirrels – especially strike teams and first-wave attackers. The sound of a zap gun is disheartening. Scares Folk quicker than a simple gunshot. They’re tuned to a frequency of sound that grates on the nerves. We’ve got a saying when it comes to the kind of tech they employ: ‘Toothies like toys.’ They would rather use electronics and gadgets that make Garan priests shake their heads just to lock a door when all they had to do was shove a chair under the knob.”

“But they work good?”

“Zap guns? Oh, yeah. I’ve seen more than my share of Folk with las-holes in them. It ain’t pretty.”

“So how come you don’t use them?”

I chuckled. “It really is a good question. They’re effective, I’ll give you that. Plus, given time and equipment, you can recharge the power packs in the field. Not that anyone bothers to do that, mind you. They just detach and drop, slot the new one and keep firing, just like we do. Recharging from fusion packs or even solar is possible, but it’s a complex process, and not the kind of task a line shooter wants to have. You’re usually busy trying not to get dead.”

I held my carbine above my head. “This is a standard pattern Victor Model. The stocks are wood or synthetics, and the frame is milled steel. It’s capable of a clean hit past five hundred meters, though it’s recommended you keep it within three.”

Or you could be me and just take any shot that comes up. Most of them are nowhere near as far away as you’d want, and the number of them that got closer to me than my prom date is way too damned high.

“Sights are simple. We showed you in the classroom how to use them, and this one is no different. Some folks have fast-acquisition devices, scopes, or even laser designators on theirs. Me, I’m an open sights kind of dog. Get used to them, and everything else is an enhancement.”

“The lasers, you’ll note, all have optics,” Sergeant Sharn said. “Like Mag said: Toothies like toys.”

I tossed the laser at the jaguar on the furthest point of the group. He caught it with a slight fumble and hastened to point the muzzle into the sky. At least he paid attention to that part of the safety lecture.

“Take a shot,” I invited, gesturing down range. “Safety is on the left. Push it forward until the red spot shows up. Then sight it and squeeze.”

He slowly tucked the butt of the rifle into the pocket of his shoulder and breathed out through his nose. Pretty much like I figured, the whole place went silent. Everybody waited to see if he could hit the target. We had set them at twenty meters so they wouldn’t be daunting. The sharp whine of the weapon discharging was lost in the scream of coherent light splitting the air. Gann, I hate that sound. Twenty meters away, a hole appeared in the target. Low and right, but in the ugly bunny pic.

“Nice shot,” I told him, and he flushed with pride.

“Thanks.”

Sergeant Sharn extended a paw and the big cat laid the rifle in his grasp. The badger expertly stripped the power pack and powered down the weapon.

“This is the main reason we don’t use the zap guns,” he said. He whirled on the heel of one booted foot and the rifle went over his head, held like a club. He brought it down with all the force he could muster, right at my head.

The carbine, gripped in both my paws, blocked the descending rifle with a crash of sound. The force of the blow took me by surprise. I’m glad I knew what was coming, because he almost put me to my knees. If I hadn’t been ready I’d already be on the ground with a busted skull. He repeated the strike twice more, each time with the same power behind it. On the third hit I staggered a bit. He is deceptively strong.

“Now you’ll see,” he told the group, turning away from me and the stinging in my paws. A clicking sound as he inserted the power pack was eclipsed by the ratcheting of the charging handle. He sighted in on the target.

“Straight between the eyes,” he said. The shrieking sound rent the air once again. The target acquired a new hole, fully a hands-breadth above the eyes and nearly off the head entirely to the left. A tiny tendril of smoke drifted from the hole.

“Mag?”

I nodded at his invitation, already loading my carbine by feel and charging the chamber. I snapped the short weapon up and fired two rapid shots, calling out my targets a second before piercing the centers of both eyes in succession. Two more, spiking the base of each ear.

“Lasers are good weapons,” Sergeant Sharn said as the echoes died away. “But they are nowhere near as rugged as our weapons. That difference in my shot at twenty meters would be the difference between a kill and a wounding shot, and at fifty it would have missed entirely. The optics went completely off target and the weapon is not designed with a backup system.”

“We’ve seen zaps come out of hand to hand unable to even fire,” I added. “I can drop mine off a landing craft and it will still work. I know because I have.”

Technically true, although I didn’t mention to them that I was holding it at the time. Typical luck for me, which is to say, shit.

“So you just carry that?” asked the fox in the longcoat.

“This is my primary weapon here,” I said, leaving everything else open to interpretation. “We have specialists who carry other things: long, accurized rifles designed for distance shooting, machine guns, grenade launchers, and so forth, but the one thing you will find is that every one of us can run a Victor platform like we were born to it.”

“Why did you choose it? Why not a machine gun? Just mow ‘em down,” Longcoat asked.

I chuckled, seeing the old hound in the back doing the same thing. Beside me, Sergeant Sharn started to reply, but fell silent at my sidelong glance.

“How much can you carry, cub?” I asked.

“What?”

“How much weight? Twenty keys?”

“I… I guess.”

“Our MG comes in at ten keys with two hundred rounds attached. Add in another kilo for every hundred rounds, basically.”

“So I could carry…”

You could actually see the cub calculating, his eyes rolling back.

“Let’s ignore reality for a second and put you with a thousand rounds,” I said. I held up a single carbine cartridge. “One thousand of these.”

“That machinegun can run seven hundred out in a minute if you let it,” called the militia hound from the rear of the group. “Standard firing practice makes it about two to three hundred, but you see how quick that thousand is gonna disappear?”

“You a gunner?” I asked. He nodded.

“Trained to the GH460.”

“Good model.”

The cub was looking back and forth at us as if we had grown horns. I smiled down at him.

“We’ve got a gunner who can carry a lot more ammo than I can, and some of us still carry spare belts for him.”

“What happens if you run out?”

“Pistols. Knives. Axes. Claws,” Sergeant Sharn said. His tone was dark and his eyes distant. “We get in among them and we tear them apart.”

I’ve seen him lost in it. When it comes to getting close, he’s the one I’d want on my crew. Drenched in blood from the top of his striped head all the way down to the steel-capped boots, cutting and tearing. I truly think that’s where Sergeant Sharn belongs, but I’m not telling him – or this crowd – that.

The crowd fell silent after his words and I am about to try and add something to break the sudden tension when the tall dog with the half-shaved head stepped forward a full pace. He looked Sergeant Sharn in the eyes and a little smile quivered his muzzle.

“I’d like to try the Victor, if that’s okay with you,” he said.

“You’re welcome to, Rory,” he said.

When he handed the weapon to the cub, I saw a flash of pride in his eyes. It was almost as if he was teaching a cub of his own.

I started gesturing the crowd into a couple of ragged lines when the setter squeezed the trigger. A small cheer erupted from a few throats in response to the shot, and I grinned. Once they start having fun, it gets a lot easier. This could turn out to be a fun day, after all.

The aisles of the cargo bay were cramped, even for someone not Chino’s size. His shoulders were brushing against the stacked boxes and a crushing sense of claustrophobia threatened to overtake him in the tight environment.
In front of him, Harper glanced back and forth, his nose twitching. His paws were clenched, a sure sign that he was agitated as well.
“It’s cold in here,” Chino said.
“No shit,” Harper said. “They barely heat it because it wastes energy. They toss stuff in here that’s supposed to be cold anyway, right?”
The overhead lighting flickered, drawing an involuntary gasp from Chino. A part of him expected the room to have been filled with guards, but as Harper had described, it was only ship’s supplies. Unless someone needed something specific from inside it, they wouldn’t even come in the bay. That made it ideal pickings for an enterprising pair looking for a few pharmaceuticals to slip in their luggage before landfall.
“I hate space travel,” Harper announced. “I don’t think I want to do it again.”
“Is this it?” Chino asked, interrupting Harper’s woolgathering. The elephant was tapping at a polymer box large enough to be a coffin. Harper glanced at the data tag strapped to the end and a wide grin split his muzzle.
“Even better,” he said, his voice in a whisper.
“What’s better than free drugs?” asked Chino.
“Free guns.”
Chino flipped the latches on the crate and popped open the cover. Inside, gleaming dully in the dim overhead light, rested two dozen of the short pump-action shotguns the ratings had been seen to carry. A separate section of the crate held a similar number of matte grey handguns.
“Holy shit,” Chino whispered.
“Promised land, baby,” Harper added. He slapped the big elephant on the back.
Carefully, he peeled away the data tag from the end of the crate and replaced it with one from within his jacket – a tag indicating it as personal belongings owned by Chino. He rolled the other into a thin tube and slipped it into his pocket for disposal. Bringing the parts for the printing machine along in their carry-on had been a wise investment.
“Now we find the ammo.”
It took a little time to make that discovery, and in the process a crate of assorted medical supplies, two boxes coded as ‘Emergency Survival Kit’, a case of personal hygiene items, and a large box filled with rechargeable batteries in standard sizes also got a special label reassignment. At long last they found boxes of ammunition for the weapons, and assigned a couple of those for redistribution as well.
“Think that’ll do it?” Harper asked. Chino nodded his big head.
“I can’t carry all of it,” he said. Harper held out his paws in a calming gesture. When he replied, his amusement was obvious by his tone.
“We don’t carry any of it at all,” he said. “Not one damn bit. Planetfall is in two days. We’ve got the whole ‘make sure all your shit is ready for drop’ speech to look forward to, and we can say that we’re missing some stuff. They know that some items got sent to ship’s stores for the cold storage, and they’ll check here. The Navy will move our shit for us, pal, and they’ll apologize for the trouble!”
“That’s a mighty fine plan you got there, pup,” declared a raspy voice from near the door. Harper and Chino whirled to find a scarred lion watching them, his mane shaggy and a black hat jammed on his head. A bottle of amber liquid was in his paw and a cigarette hung from the corner of his lips, although it was currently unlit.
“Who are you, pal?” Harper demanded. His paw itched for the knife in his back pocket, but he kept still as he awaited a response. If anything broke loose, it would be a race to see if he could get to it before Chino was swinging his crowbar anyway. For a giant that lumbered around as if he had no muscle control, the elephant was surprisingly quick on his feet when the occasion called for it.
“Just call me Jack,” the lion said.
“Yeah? Well, Jack, what do you want?”
“In.”
The simple answer caught Harper off guard for a second and then he grinned.
“In on what?”
“Don’t fuck with me, coyote. There’s crates and crates of free liquor here if you know where to look, and I know where everything is stored. Got a couple friends setting up a bar on planet and smuggling out a bottle or two at a time to boost their supply is a serious pain in the ass. Your system, though? Sounds like a quick way to get a little something for everybody with nobody but the Navy losing anything.”
“What’s in it for you?” Chino asked. He had taken a half-step away from Harper, increasing the space between them so the lion would have to choose a target if there was a fight.
“Free liquor,” Jack repeated, waving the bottle he held. “With ears that big, you’d think you could hear.”
“Fuck you, furball,” the elephant spat. “I heard your mom begging for more the other night.”
“Maybe if you’d been hung like anything bigger than a mouse she wouldn’t have had to beg for more.”
“Hold up,” Harper said, raising a paw to stop the argument before it could flare. “You say you know where everything is?”
“Spent a few nights in here,” Jack said with a tight nod. “Nothing to do but drink and read labels.”
“And these pals of yours, they wanna open a bar?”
“Yeah.”
Harper leaned close to Chino and whispered. “We can move a lot of goods through a bar.”
“Yeah. I just… He pisses me off.”
“Relationship of convenience,” Harper said. “When we get down to the surface we’ll need new channels to run products.”
Chino rubbed at a tusk and then nodded.
“Fine,” Harper said to the lion. “Let’s get back to the hab blocks, and then we can get started by you telling us what kinda shit is stored here that we missed. After that we’ll see about setting up some new labels. Five Folk in means we can divert even more.”
Jack grinned around massive teeth. “Now you’re talking.”
<<<END>>>

The hole in the craft was leaking air into space at a rate that did not please Cutter, but he had more important things to worry about. He jerked back hard on the stick and twisted it to port, entering into a bank as he poured on the acceleration.

“Come and get me,” he said through clenched teeth.

He snapped the Bloodwing into a straight climb while maintaining the rearward pressure on the stick. The loop he was pulling was a basic maneuver taught to every skyfighter. He knew that the toothies taught the same things. If he could get them in the right position, though, he might well put paid to them for their little incursion into Combine space.

Screens lit with imminent attack warnings as a laser painted the rear of his craft. He shouted a curse and abandoned all subtlety, hammering a boot into the rudder and turning hard starboard as his paw slapped first at the ECM panel and then at the rear gunnery console.

From the aft tubes came irradiated chaff and sun-bright flares, spinning away from his Bloodwing as he put it harder into the turn and kept the accelerator wide open. The short-barrelled mass driver back there barked and bucked, spitting unaimed rounds into space. It was a desperate ploy to keep the rat from closing, but it had been known to be successful in the past.

“On your seven low, Cutter!” advised a voice across his radio. “Longtail on your seven low!”

“Take him!” Cutter shot back. “I’ve got two hits and I’m pissing air.”

“Trying. He’s good.”

“I’ll run a clean line. Get him when he reaches for the cheese.”

He flicked the shield control with a claw that snapped back into his paw, shunting all the power to the rear portion of the craft. He rolled over once and locked his flight into a straight line. Behind him, the Empire Rodentia fighter lined up a clean shot. Twin lasers flashed to life with a heavy pulse of energy. Cutter rocked as the beams impacted on his shields.

A second later and the Longtail shuddered beneath a series of mass driver rounds as Vapor overtook them and opened up with his main cannons. It seemed to falter in its flight and then erupted into a ball of flame.

“Splash one Longtail,” Vapor said, slowing his flight. “You good, Cutter?”

Cutter snarled, taking advantage of the lull in the fighting to rip open a sealpak and jam the metallic sheet atop the visible hole near his right foot. It smacked into place with a wet sound of adhesive sticking to the interior of the Bloodwing.

“I’m okay,” he reported. The other hole, according to his sensors, was in the ammo bay for the port wing cannon. Best case, it just stayed an open gap into space. Worst case, it would cause the weapon to malfunction. For now it was fine.

“Ready to get back in it?”

“Damned right.”

Together, the two Bloodwing fighters banked and flipped around. Hundreds of kilometers ahead of them was the massive form of the transport they were escorting. They both tweaked the throttle and headed back for the ship. It took very little time to spot the ongoing battles that surrounded the big beast, where dozens of fighters spun and danced in space, their weapons winking and flashing. The larger conflicts between the Flashpoint corvettes and the destroyer from Rodentia were a continuous interplay of energy weapons. Red and green beams seemed almost to connect them like colored string. At this distance it was impossible to tell who was winning.

“You’re upside down,” Vapor commented.

“I always am,” Cutter said with a chuckle. The joke went back to their training days, when Cutter was frequently reprimanded for the way he handled his craft. A training officer had once commented that while the squadron would eventually reach their objective, Cutter would arrive upside down, simply to be contrary.

He cut the thrust, content to allow the sleek craft to drift forward at the speed he had established for it. If he continued to build velocity, when he arrived at the combat scene he would blow through in an eyeblink and spend the next several minutes trying to reorient his craft.

A massive explosion caught his eye. As he started to comment on it, the radio crackled in his ear. Two lightning-fast beeps announced that the transmission was from the bridge on Dragon’s Head, the main transport ship that Cutter and the other pilots were assigned to protect.

“All fighters, all fighters. Breach of rodent destroyer, starboard aft. I say again, breach of rodent destroyer, starboard aft.”

“What say we take them some pain?” Cutter said as the broadcast cut off, tweaking the control to angle toward the damaged destroyer.

“I’d say you’re crazy. Shana’s gonna have every missile in the system directed that way.”

Cutter noted that the statement did not deter Vapor from banking along with him.

“Missiles only go so far,” he said, sweeping his eyes across his tactical board. All his weapons showed ready. “Sometimes you’ve gotta add in a few bullets to help things along.”

A flash of crimson energy flared from his shields.

“Longtails!” Vapor called out.

“Don’t they know they’re getting between me and something fun?” Cutter asked as his sensors locked onto the incoming enemy craft.

There were three of the Longtail fighters angling toward them. Narrow and tall, the enemy craft had a distinctive drive system that extended behind the main body, giving them the name that Combine fighters had tagged it with almost a decade before. The twin heavy lasers mounted above and below the cockpit were no joking matter, as the holes in Cutter’s Bloodwing could attest. With shielding that Combine experts considered ‘acceptable’ and armor thicker than that on his own Bloodwing, the Longtail was a foe Cutter could respect. He knew it had more issues than his craft, however, as the big lasers were a tremendous energy drain. Most Longtails carried two sixteen-inch ship-to-ship missiles to add to their firepower. If those beasts struck home, the effects were devastating, but the Bloodwing ECM suite usually did a good job dealing with those.

For their part, Cutter and Vapor were running in one of the Combine favorites. The Bloodwing was comprised of a long central drive with a narrow arch that ran above the cockpit, supporting a sweeping wing structure that ended in a pair of 80mm mass drivers, with a third cannon running along the drive axis and slung ventrally beneath the craft. The third was their can opener. Equipped with a 200mm mass driver, the main gun drew a lot of power to fire, but punched through fighter armor as if it was tissue. In a pinch, it could do a fair bit of damage to the body of even the destroyer Cutter wanted to reach. Tertiary weapons systems consisted of the aft-mounted light mass driver – intended to deter pursuit more than anything else – and a brace of ten six-inch ship-to-ship missiles. While carrying a lighter payload than those of the Longtail, the Combine missiles were designed to shred armor by separating into a series of submunitions just prior to impact. The hope was that the multiple warheads would manage to bypass shields where a single large round might fail.

While some Combine ships were possessed of laser weaponry, not every pilot wanted them, and most chose the more classically-oriented slugthrowing weapon systems. There were a few specialty craft out there, and most pilots could fly them if they had to, but the intimate familiarity that a pilot developed in a specific craft gave them the edge in combat.

“What ya think?” Vapor asked as the trio of Longtails began to spread apart. It was a move Cutter had seen before.

“Take out that middle one. The others are about to bank hard. They’ll loop out and around; try to come in behind us after the pass.”

“Done,” Vapor said. His wing guns began to chug, sending slivers of forged steel flashing into space. They sparked as they came into contact with the shields that the Longtail had up, but given the high cyclic rate of the guns, one or two of the high-velocity slugs was sure to get past it.

“Target,” Cutter ordered his shipboard computer. His paw stroked the rightmost image on the sensor screen, highlighting it with an orange aura. His claw flipped open the cage on the stick he was holding and he stroked the missile fire command three times. As he hit the third one, he used his finger to press the main trigger, adding his own guns to those of his wingman.

From along the wings of his craft, three long white missiles leaped on tongues of flame and arced up and out to follow the progress of the Longtail that Cutter had targeted. Until the rats either detonated the missiles, they ran out of fuel, or impacted on the target, they would continue their track.

The Longtail in the center began a quick roll, triggering the lasers as it did so. Beams slashed through space, missing the two Bloodwings by narrow margins. Cutter changed his angle of approach by a degree or two, working the trigger in short bursts to send stream after stream of steel shot out in a quest for the drive of the Longtail. Several of them passed through the shields as they closed and his shots were striking more along the port side of the Longtail. He saw them, sparking and shredding, biting holes in the long drive train. Vapor’s shots were a direct visual threat to the rat piloting the craft, and he kept his shields on maximum to prevent the steel from slapping into his cockpit.

A flare of magnesium-bright light signaled to Cutter that his rounds had holed the powerplant. Atomized fuel flashed into short-lived flame.

“Good hit!” Vapor shouted over the comm. Cutter started to reply when he realized the pilot had been talking about his own. A series of slugs had made it past overworked shields and slashed across the interior of the cockpit just as Vapor pulled clear of his approach. One last strike from the laser blasted a streak along his starboard wing, but hit nothing serious.

“The port ‘tail is the one to watch,” Cutter said instead.

Even as the words left his lips, twin crimson beams scraped across the armor of Vapor’s Bloodwing. Metal composite flashed to steam and ablative plates shattered into fragments, falling away in the face of the ravening energy.

“Shit!” Vapor cried. “Life support crash, Nav comp is down as well!”

“Pull out!” Cutter ordered, throwing his Bloodwing into a hard port climb. He wheeled the craft over and spun in an attempt to see the attacker. “I’ll get him.”

“Shield generators offline! Oh, fuck, here he –“

The blast of static was accompanied by a brilliant white explosion from Vapor’s craft as it exploded. Cutter was buffeted by a shockwave that passed almost as soon as he registered it. Tiny bits of the Bloodwing pattered against Cutter’s shields like rain on a tent.

“Mine,” Cutter said, his voice a low growl from deep in his chest. He flicked at the sensor array, setting off a sweep of his surroundings. The screen showed a blue haze as the bits of Vapor’s craft clouded the sensor, but three of the enemy craft registered on it were in his vicinity. One showed red, indicating it seemed sidelined, at least to the targeting array. The second was amber, and Cutter believed that to be the one they had just attacked as a team. It might be a problem if the pilot could forget about his damage long enough to take some kind of action. The third pulsed a bilious green, and was tracking rapidly around behind Cutter.

He triggered the rear mass drivers, feeling as much as hearing the chugging as the electromagnetic drives accelerated the projectiles to incredible speeds. As he did, he tried to imagine where the Longtail had come from and where it might be going next. He tried to think of what his own course of action would be if their positions were reversed.

“Target,” he ordered, poking the bright green object on the screen. It limned with an orange aura and he fired five of the remaining missiles at one second intervals as he twisted the Bloodwing in a spiral arc that brought him into a position where he could finally see the Longtail. The pilot had seen the launch and was now deploying countermeasures. Clouds of finger-sized flares and irradiated metal erupted into the space between the two craft.

Cutter’s face split in a death’s-head grin as he engaged the thrusters at full effect. He locked in the targeting for the cannons and laughed aloud as he passed by the first set of flares and chaff. Two of his missiles exploded there seconds ahead of his passage, and he used that effect to obscure his approach.

Coming in at a slight downward angle to the Longtail, Cutter squeezed the trigger of the cannon controls even as he fired the last two missiles. He saw the mass driver projectiles sparkle and flash as they were turned by the shields, but a handful of them slipped past the flickering field to rake and stab at the Longtail.

Out of habit, he glanced at the ammunition tally, but he discounted the numbers there as unimportant. This fight would go until his guns clicked empty and then if necessary he would ram the enemy ship. He slashed quick bursts at his prey over and over as his ship closed the gap between them. The Longtail wasn’t pushing the power as much as Cutter was.

A spray of ice crystals indicated a life support breach as oxygen vented into space. Electrical sparks followed and Cutter kept his aim focused on that point, sending a hail of cannon rounds tearing into the Longtail near the junction of the drive housing and the main body of the craft. Several of the rounds punched into the interior to wreak their havoc within the craft itself, and Cutter flashed by it as all acceleration within the Longtail ceased.

He cut power to the thrusters and flipped the attitude of the Bloodwing. It was now flying inverted as compared to his approach, but he was once again looking directly at the Longtail. Kicking the thrusters back to life, he bolstered the front shields and flew headlong into the target path of the Longtail.

No shots lanced out from the Rodentia ship, and Cutter wondered if the pilot had more important things to do. To remind the rat that he was still out there, he pressed the trigger again and watched as streams of high-velocity steel shredded the front of the Longtail. He eased off the throttle and flipped the switch for the retros, slowing his approach as he simultaneously angled the craft to be out of direct aim of the twin lasers.

His adrenaline began to climb steadily as he neared the still craft. The computer was now categorizing the Longtail with a red aura. Cutter kept his claw on the trigger despite that designation. He continued to drift ever closer, hearing his own breath coming fast and shallow. The Bloodwing edged between the firing arcs of the lasers and Cutter used his jets to keep the two craft face to face as he turned on his signal beacons. The brilliant white light illuminated the cabin opposite him and for the first time he saw his opponent.

Small and thin of build, with a pinched face that was now mostly hidden behind the bulk of a respirator mask, the rat was a hairless grey thing. Blood ran from a shallow cut on the side of its neck. The cockpit itself was a shambles, and Cutter recognized the look of a door closed and sealed against a breach. He flicked a switch and killed the beacons, using a pocket light to illuminate his own face for the other pilot. Holding up a paw, he tapped at his wrist chron and then pointed at the rat.

It sat still for a moment and then held up both spindly hands. One had three fingers raised, and the other was in a circular shape.

“Thirty minutes?” Cutter asked, making the same gesture and then tapping his watch again. The rat nodded and then tapped at the side of its respirator.

It was a horrible thought that all pilots had considered at one point or another: Slow suffocation in the endless night of space. Several that Cutter knew had vowed to take their own lives if it came to it rather than suffer the agony of their body fighting for air.

Cutter made his paw into a gun shape and waved it, then pointed at the rat and raised both paws as if indicating a question. There was hesitation for a moment, but then the rat shook its head. It gestured toward the instrument panel that was outside of Cutter’s line of sight and then jerked a thumb back in the direction of the battle. He used his hands to show sweeping gestures, then raised two fingers and pointed at himself before indicating the area behind him again.

“Two ships, huh? I guess that will help you be safe.”

Cutter saluted the rat and disengaged his craft from the Longtail, maneuvering up and around to come in behind it. He surveyed the damage he had done, and found none of it lacking. He had managed to chew the Rodentia craft nearly in half.

Chaging the attitude of the ship, he pressed the Bloodwing in against the Longtail, the nose of his ship against the rear frame of the other. From this angle he would be able to act as a pusher to move the rat where he wanted.

“But you took out Vapor and you don’t get to be safe,” he said, jamming the throttle open. It started out as slow going but soon they were leaving the battle behind them and flying hard into space.

“If they can find your ass out here in under thirty minutes then you’ve got more lives than me,” Cutter added, disengaging his Bloodwing and watching the blacked-out hulk drift silently away and into the dark.

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

“Harper!” Chino hissed. His attempt at quiet was nearly deafening in the small room. Harper turned to him, an expression of alarm creasing his face. The big elephant was standing by a door that should not have been open.

“Be quiet!” Harper said, holding the pads of his paw toward the floor.

Chino nodded, lifting a limp body into the air for Harper to see. “I think I broke him,” he said, managing to stay relatively quiet. In his arms, the mob guard lolled loosely, head rolling and legs dangling toward the floor.

“What the –“

Harper dashed across the room, abandoning the safe he had approached, and laid his paw on the elbow of the big Shepherd. He gave Chino a glare as the elephant opened his mouth to speak. After a moment of concentrating, he took a long breath and nodded.

“He’s alive,” Harper reported. “What did you do?”

“He came in and saw us, then he went for his gun. I tapped him.”

In Chino-speak, Harper knew, tapping was code for ‘I slapped him in the head with a crowbar’, and it rarely ended well for the party being tapped. When you were strong enough to bench-press a ground car, swinging a couple feet of thick steel was a devastating attack. On the plus side, the elephant had heard the approaching guard and dealt with him before anything happened, and for that Harper was glad.

Rather than belittle his partner, Harper simply removed the guard’s gun belt and wrapped it around his own waist. It hung loosely, as the rangy coyote was nowhere near as solidly built as the Shepherd that Chino was even now laying onto the floor.

“Watch the door,” he said. He returned his attention to the safe, throwing the scope into place and spinning the dials with an expert touch. In moments it was open, and Harper was stuffing piles of cash into a bag. Gems and jewelry went in as well, and although he wouldn’t keep the printed material inside the safe, he took it with him. It could always be shredded later. Certificates of ownership and stock would be problematic in the real world, so proper disposal was important. Money was money, though, and the cash was in fat stacks. Bag in hand, he made his way back to Chino’s side and patted his partner on the back.

“Time to go,” he said.

They slipped out through the door they had used to enter and once more stayed in the shadows as they passed a guard shack. Soon, they were in the clear and broke into a run until they reached the car they had parked behind a stand of wide-leafed trees.

Chino took the driver’s position and Harper leaped into place beside him. The engine rumbled to life and they sped into the night. A half mile later Harper pointed to a telecom booth and Chino pulled over. Harper stepped out and slipped a coin into the machine, using the tip of a claw to punch in a series of numbers and then fitting a scrambling device over the mouthpiece.

“There’s gonna be a hit tonight,” he said when someone answered. His voice was distorted by the scrambler, becoming deep and mechanical. “Blackie’s crew is gonna take down one of yours. He’s saying you owe him money and he’s gonna collect.”

He hung up before anything else could be said or asked, and then reclaimed his seat in the car. Chino drove them away from the booth in a leisurely fashion. Now that it was all done there was no need for speed.

Within the hour, the Rincon Crime Family discovered the theft and assault of the guard. Calls were made, and Blackie Biggs ended the evening with a price on his head.

“I thought we was going straight?” Chino asked as Harper finished counting the money. The pair had made it back to their apartment unscathed. Orderly stacks of bills took up space on the kitchen table beside an open bottle of beer.

“We are. I mean, soon. We needed a little seed cash for this trip to the Colony, right? So we’ll go straight when we get there. Meantime, just consider us slightly curved.”

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What kind of things?”

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

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

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

“So what did you find?” she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey there, Sister. How you doing?”

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

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

“I see that.”

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

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

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

“See you next time,” she called.

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

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

 

“It’s the third time it’s shown up, and I’m worried about what’s coming.”

“It’s a tarot card reading, Anna. It isn’t real.”

“Not real for you, maybe, but I’m not you.”

“Damn right you aren’t. That’s a big part of your charm.”

“Ha, ha. Very funny.”

“I thought so.”

“Think again.”

“Fine. Tell me about it, then. Why is it bugging you?”

“You can’t keep an open mind, Derek. Don’t even bother.”

“I will! I promise. If I don’t, then – “

“If you don’t then you and I are going to have a problem.”

“Indeed. So spill.”

“It’s the Tower. It signifies disaster and sudden change.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t know. That’s the scary part. It could be physical, or spiritual, or anything.”

“So it’s not something you can anticipate, right?”

“Not necessarily.”

“Then why worry? Put on a kettle and sit back. Whatever it is, it’ll happen. After that, we can adjust as needed.”

“Right. That’ll work. Let’s look at it: I go broke ‘cause it was a financial disaster. What then? The house burns down. What then?”

“A meteor hits, Anna. What then? You can’t prepare for everything. If it’s financial, we hawk some of those paintings you’ve been hoarding. That Pickman guy’s been dead a while, right? His stuff’s gotta be worth more than the cotton it’s painted on.”

“It’s canvas, and no. I’m not selling.”

“You’re creating your own nightmares, then. If you can’t adapt to the coming circumstances, you better believe that that Tower card is coming for you.”

“You’re a lot of help, Derek.”

“I’m a realist.”

 

Elements: tower, kettle, hawk, charm, cotton

“This is the worst shit I’ve ever read,” JB said as he waved a thin book over his head. “Who wrote this?”

“The author’s name is on the front,” replied his wife. She scarcely looked up from the trigger assembly she was polishing.

“Listen to this drivel, Sheila,” JB said. He opened the book to a random page. “The train rolled into the night as he sat and sipped at his tea. He loosened his tie while watching television and thinking about the tiger he was to capture.”

“Sounds like a busy man,” she said.

“Sounds like an eight-year-old wrote a homework assignment.”

He stomped his way into the kitchen, muttering mockingly as he went.

“Ooh, look at me. I wear ties and hunt tigers. I should drink tea!”

He pulled a box of tea from the cabinet and waved it as he had with the book. “Oh, yay, I have tea now! I can hunt tigers on television if I put on a tie and ride the night train.”

“Hey! They got it wrong!” he called to Sheila. “It wasn’t the train rolling into the night, the author was drinking Night Train! Cheap-ass wine will tie your brain to a jackhammer.”

“What’s all the noise?” asked his daughter, poking her head around the corner of the kitchen door. “I’m trying to watch television.”

JB pointed toward the family room. “If there are tigers on that show – “

She jerked her head back in the face of his vehemence. “What? No. No tigers. I’m watching The Midnight Meat Train. Tell you what: you make some of that tea and I’ll go pause the movie. You can come watch with me.”

 

Elements: tea, tiger, night, train, television, tie

Yeah, I exaggerated this one. It was fun, though.

The classroom was silent, awaiting the arrival of its occupants following their break for summer. Rows of desks sat patient; the blackboard was scrubbed clean.

Jordan stood in the doorway, taking in the sight and smell of it. He let himself drift back in memory to the time when he was a child and a room like this was his own sanctuary. A smile ghosted across his face as he did so.

“So now it’s your turn?” asked a voice. Jordan looked back over his left shoulder, letting his body turn lazily with him.

“Mister Devereaux,” he said with a grin. “It’s been a while.”

“I saw your name on the faculty list.”

“Yes, sir. I wanted to give something back to Edison Junior. Well, honestly, to you,” he added. He pointed to the sign above the teacher’s desk. It was of wood, with letters not an inch in height engraved upon its surface. All men are made one for another; either then teach them better or bear with them.

“Marcus Aurelius,” Jordan said. “When I was a kid I wondered what it meant.”

“And you have discovered what?”

“That it is the duty of every man to help others. That I can, with the abilities I have, teach another generation to respect and follow those teachings. If I am capable, should I not assist?”

“Every man makes his own choices, son.”

Jordan nodded. “I choose to teach.”

 

Elements: contains a line from a famous diarist.

She had a beautiful hibiscus tattooed on her left shoulder, and Synn sighed as he saw the exquisite artwork. Delicate petals and vibrant colors made an image that was the kind of thing he would normally have enjoyed looking at from a closer, more personal, angle, but the woman being dead rendered that train of thought completely moot. One hand was still clutching at the cluster of carbon-fiber needles in her neck. They were centered right above the marks left from the violent removal of her string of pearls – pearls which even now lay strewn about the scene of her demise.

In the old world, they would have tracked her killer with satellites. Before that, maybe with a basset hound or other sniffer dog. Now, they sent Synn or one of those like him. Gengineered for tracking and combat, Synn was agile and strong. His enhanced senses could follow a scent trail or see clues others would easily miss, and decades of training and deployment – both real and hypno-sim – made certain he knew how to interpret the results of what he found.

“She reeks of gin,” he said. A microphone link carried his words to a monitoring computer to form a journal of his observations. He wore a series of small video links as well, and when returning from his mission he could hook straight into that computer to build a more complete document.

 

 

Elements: gin, delicate, hook, basset hound, pearls, hibiscus