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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>>>

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The arrival at the mall was unexpected, and the method by which it arrived doubly so.

Lines stretched from the doors back along the sidewalks and into the parking lot itself, people so anxious for the doors to open that many of them had slept there the night before. A constant stream of conversation created a susurration that rivaled the sound of the cars that rolled continuously up and down the parking lanes, hoping against hope for a space — any space — to open up for them. Inside each door, a pair of security officers waited. They had keys inserted into the locks, and when the announcement was made over the mall public address system, they would open the doors and the flood of people would begin.

“What the hell is that?” one woman called out. Those who looked her way saw her standing, her hand pointed into the sky. Several other people at different sections around the mall saw what she did, and in seconds thousands of faces were tilted skyward.

Above them, trailing sparks and fire in a dramatic lightshow, something glowing was descending in a rapid arc. Ahead of the fiery display it seemed to be roiling ball of colors, never holding the same hue for longer than a second. It came closer by the second, and the spectators could hear a sharp whistling sound, so fast was its descent.

A ragged cheer began and was soon taken up by the throat of everyone present as they began to use cell phones to record what they knew had to be a publicity stunt of some kind. A skydiver, perhaps, with a pyrotechnic device to attract attention. It took half a minute for it to sink in to those present that whatever this was, it was not stopping or even slowing its approach. Suddenly, the first of the screams rang out. It was not the last.

Slamming into the roof of the mall with a sound like thunder, the glowing ball punched through the ceiling and blasted a sixty foot wide crater into the food court. Everything near was blasted away. Glass shattered. Tables and chairs flew through the air as if no more solid than feathers on the wave of force. In their individual shops, the employees began to scream. Those not injured shouted in confusion. No one had the slightest clue what had happened. Concerned faces peered out from within their stores, trying in vain to make out whatever had crashed.

In the center of the crater stood a humanoid shape. Its image flickered in and out of view as it shifted through every color in the spectrum, including those that no human could see. It took a tentative step, and then another. Feeling the rubble crunch beneath its feet seemed to embolden it, and it soon marched out to the edge of the crater and then climbed out.

Whatever the thing was walked past shattered storefronts and down the debris-strewn corridor in the center of the mall, ignoring the terrified and curious eyes that looked out at it as it passed. Ahead of it, four security guards rounded corners at a dead run, their shoes skidding and squeaking on the floor as they fixed their gazes on the intruder.

“What the hell?” one of them shouted. He reached for the cell phone on his hip.

“Are you some kind of cape?” called a second. He was kneeling on the floor, freeing a small pistol from around his ankle. It was a blatant violation of mall regulations, but he figured he might well die here without it, and their regulations had been merely a formality he danced around in case of this type of event.

The words flowed from it, inaudible at first and then simply incomprehensible. It appeared to be cycling through dozens of different languages and dialects.

“Do you understand?” it said at last. The words were melodic and in a beautiful tone.

“Yes!” the officer responded. “We understand!”

The creature had already moved on to a new language, but it backed up and when it repeated the question, three of them responded in the affirmative. The fourth was on his cell phone, notifying the police of the new arrival.

“A threat comes to your world,” the thing said. “You have defenders, yes.”

It was curiously worded, a statement instead of a question, but the officers did indeed understand what it had just said.

“The police can contact AEGIS,” one of them said. “They’re capes. I mean, defenders.”

“Bring them to me,” the creature ordered.

“Who are you?”

The head of the creature turned to survey a sign that stood propped against the open doorway into a clothing store filled with brightly-colored dresses. A darkness seemed to begin at the feet of the thing, and spread up its body like ink poured into water. Within seconds it was a glossy ebony in color. Its humanoid shape was heavily muscled but sleek, and when it turned back to the security officers, pools of white light made up what should have been eyes in an otherwise jet-black figure. It hefted the sign that advertised the sale.

“I am Black Friday,” it announced.

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.

“I’ve lived upon the edge of chance for twenty years or more” – Del Rio’s Song, Imaginos album, Blue Oyster Cult

+++++

“Sometimes life ain’t easy,” Tristan said. He flipped the thin-bladed stiletto in his paw, extending it hilt-first to Skeeter. “Take it.”

The matte black hilt seemed darker than ever against the snowy white of Skeeter’s fur. He picked it up and held it, looking at the play of light along the gleaming blade. He hefted it, testing the feel.

“No real weight,” Tristan said, crossing his arms across his chest and leaning against the wall. “Couple dozen grams is all. Once you get used to it, you don’t even think about it being there, ’til you need it, and then it’s in your hand and you’re going to work.”

“You mean, you’ve…” Skeeter began, his words trailing off as he looked with new eyes at the device in his hand.

Lean of weight as Tristan had said, the blade was reinforced by a stiffening spire of steel down its length, lending it a triangular aspect. Much like the leopard who carried it, the weapon seemed purpose built for getting in and back out of a situation.

“Yeah.” The word was delivered with a straight face. There was no braggadocio, no need to inflate past deeds. It was the simple declaration of a lifelong warrior.

Skeeter held it back to Tristan, but the leopard shook his head. A thick claw protruded from his paw and tapped on the long blade.

“First time was on Hephaestus IV. Big rat. About my height, but wider and more muscled. He was guarding an ammunition depot. Took him in the ear. Straight through the head. Guy named Yuri was with me, and he took out the other guard.”

Skeeter swallowed and his gaze became a little glassy.

“If we didn’t get that depot, the rats would have kept shelling our guys. So our unit worked its way forward until we got close. Yuri and I went in at night, all quiet-like. Opened a door for the sappers and lit the sky.”

Tristan recovered the blade from Skeeter, spinning it in his fingers like a drummer at a concert. It vanished into a sheath a few seconds later.

“So like I was saying, sometimes life ain’t easy. You gotta take a chance. Step up and give it a shot. Hell, pup, I lived my life taking chances. One after another.”

“But what happens when you take the chance and it goes wrong?” Skeeter asked. Tristan chuckled, a deep sound akin to a growl.

“Shit happens, you know? Some gambles don’t pay off, but some do. I ain’t ever had anything major go wrong. Missing a toe, got a few scars, and a chunk of my tail is gone, but for two decades kicking rat ass that ain’t much of a price.”

The door opened, letting in a wave of heat that made Skeeter wince. He turned to see Diem step inside. The expression of warmth at seeing Skeeter turned into exasperation when he saw who the young fox was speaking to.

“Gara, pup,” he said, invoking the goddess with his usual casual manner. “You haven’t been listening to this old reprobate, have you?”

“I needed some advice.”

“I was helping him,” Tristan said.

Diem laughed aloud. He unslung his rifle and propped it against the wall, and then went to the refrigerator to pull a beer from its cool confines. “You were telling war stories again.”

“That’s helping!”

“How?”

“He asked about bravery. About fear. I answered.”

Diem cocked his head for a moment and then nodded. “True. You do have that covered,” he admitted. He spun the top from the bottle and upended it, downing half of it in one prodigious swallow.

“I’m not sure how much of it really applies, though,” Skeeter said. “I mean, I’m not going to war.”

“So what’s the situation?” Diem asked. Skeeter looked at the floor and fell silent. A glance up at Tristan revealed nothing as the other warrior shook his head.

“Somebody picking on you, pup?” Tristan asked.

“You tried to give him advice without knowing for what?” Diem asked. He took another drink of his beer. Setting the bottle on the top of a counter, he leaned backward to sit on the table. His foot drifted forward in a lazy kick that served only to get Skeeter’s attention. When the fox looked up, Diem grinned.

“It’s Miranda,” he guessed. Skeeter’s head jerked up and his eyes met Diem’s.

“Who’s Miranda?” Tristan asked.

Diem made a vague gesture of direction. “Little kitten from up the road a ways,” he answered. “The one you always see Skeeter here hanging around.”

Tristan threw his hands up and howled with laughter. Skeeter shot him a dirty look.

“It’s not funny!” the fox barked at him.

“Oh, no doubt!”

“What’s the situation?” Diem asked again, dropping down until he was close to Skeeter’s height.

“I want to ask her out,” Skeeter admitted.

“I take it back,” Tristan said, waving his hands. “Not funny at all.”

Diem glared at him for a second before realizing the veteran had blanched and was serious. He put a friendly paw on Skeeter’s shoulder.

“It sounds weird, but you were right. Tristan can tell you more about fear than most anyone here. He’s lived through shit that most of us only see in our nightmares.”

“This isn’t war, though!” Skeeter repeated.

“It’s worse, pup.”

Skeeter looked up, his ears perking. “What do you mean?”

“I can roll into a firefight any day of the week. Three possible outcomes: I get dead, I get hurt, or I come out clean. All I’m risking is my life. That ain’t shit compared to putting your heart on the line.”

“You’re not helping,” Diem said.

“Just telling him like I see it. Girls are a whole ‘nother thing.”

“He needs someone to tell him it will work out.”

“And what if it doesn’t?”

“It’s Miranda!” Diem yelled. “She’s head over heels for this little mook!”

Skeeter’s head snapped up once again, eyes widening. “She is?”

Diem reached out and picked up the winter fox by his shoulders, standing him on a chair so they were eye to eye. He leveled a gaze on the youth that had seen enemy troops run in terror.

“You tell her I said anything and I’ll plant my foot up your ass,” he warned. “Now you listen to me. You swallow that fear and go ask her.”

“But what if -”

In a blur of motion, Diem flicked a claw against Skeeter’s forehead. The dull thwack sound echoed in the room. As Skeeter rubbed at his forehead, Diem pointed at Tristan.

“Twenty years he’s danced with fate. He’s dumb and a bit of a dick, but he’s still here. Fear is all that’s holding you back. All you can say is ‘what if’. Well, what if she says ‘yes’, dumbass?”

“I would die.”

“So would I,” Tristan said, ignoring the dramatic tone Skeeter used. “If she says, ‘yes, dumbass’, I’ll die laughing.”

<<<END>>>

So today’s prompt was “fear”. I didn’t know where to start when it came right down to it. I knew I was probably going to run something in the anthro setting (I have really got to figure out a name for this…) but I didn’t know what to address. My background music gave me the quote at the top of the tale, and I rolled with it. The character of Tristan fell into place – a warrior who relies on his luck even more than his skill, and has done so for an incredible amount of time. I pictured the fear he might have experienced through his years, and then decided to twist it so that it was not the story of his fear that was the focal point. Making him a mentor seemed a good angle, but taking out the idea of him mentoring a younger soldier kept it fresh. Bringing my old friend Skeeter into the mix just added a touch of fun. Hope y’all liked it. Drop a note and let me know if you’re digging these stories.

TMM

“Look out there, man,” Buck said, waving his arm in a wide sweep that encompassed everything around them and managed to slosh out a small measure of the wine in his paw. He paid no attention to the loss, jamming the bottle back to his lips for another swallow before continuing.

“Everything we are is out there. We’re all part of the dust that makes up the universe. The same parts that made you and me might have made Arktel or Venophon.”

“I ain’t no planet, man,” Eric said in reply. His eyes were half closed as he looked into the sky. His friend was raving again, as was standard when he had imbibed. For years it had been the same. Buck became more philosophical when he drank, sometimes enough that people fled from the fox when he had a bottle. Eric was more grounded, although he had been known to embarrass many Folk when he had a hit or two of Jazz. The last time he had danced naked on the prow of a tank, using the main gun as a sort of lopsided stripper’s pole. They barely escaped before the soldiers arrived.

“No, but dig it, the same stuff from the beginning of time got spread out everywhere in the universe and we’re all made of it, you know? So, like, you’ve got something in common with the sun and the stars.”

Eric fired a smoke. The sweet mint smell drifted upward, and Buck’s waving hands dissipated the cloud with ease. “So why don’t you hop the next craft out and go visit Uncle Stardust? I mean, if you’re all related and so on.”

“Blow me. You know what I mean. Think about it! The same dust –”

“No more dust, man. No more, please. Talk about anything else.”

“Like what?” Buck asked. His tone was that of a lost child, and for a second Eric felt guilt at having taken the wind out of his friend’s sails as he had.

“We need more wine,” Eric said, rummaging around in the cooler. Only one bottle remained. There were nearly a dozen on the ground, and Eric knew he had only had two. He popped open the top and leaned back against the windshield of the car that served as their couch while they were out here – and their transportation to and from the clearing where they relaxed every weekend.

“We always need more wine,” Buck agreed.

Behind them, in the car, the music changed to something darker and heavier.

“We could, you know,” Eric said, suddenly serious.

“Get more wine?”

“No. Bail on this mudball and go check out the rest of the universe.”

“The fuck?”

“Think about it, Buck,” Eric urged. He thumped a hoof on the hood of the car for emphasis. “Colonists. They always want colonists, so why not us? Making a go of it elsewhere. Away from these stupid-ass jobs we’ve got. Be our own bosses. No more –”

“They don’t have stores, man. Where we gonna buy wine?”

“We can make our own wine! Hell, we can open our own store!”

“Can we call it Buck’s Place?”

“Sure,” Eric said, caught up in the enthusiasm that was sweeping across the pair.

“Where are we gonna go?”

“I don’t know, but I say we do it. You and me, we’ve been beating our heads against a wall for years. Let’s take a chance. Next colony ship, let’s sign up for it!”

Buck grinned and pointed up. “Out there?”

“Yep. I don’t know where we’re gonna wind up, but hell yeah! We’re gonna be out there with the stars, man. That’s where the future is. That’s where we belong. Our future, written in the stars!”

 

END

Ansel lit the cigarette in blatant violation of the little prohibition sign on the wall. He was two drags in when the door opened and Miss Teller poked her head through the gap. Her mouth was a thin line and her eyes narrowed as she glared at him.

“Just what do you think you are doing?” she demanded. Ansel took a third long pull, and his words were spoken through a thick cloud.

“I’m already getting tagged for the fight. Might as well get it all at once,” he said.

“Get in my office,” she ordered. Her face looked like she had sucked on a lemon. As he passed, she snatched the smoke from his lips and crushed it on the tile beneath her heel. A well-practiced hand shoved him into the closest of the chairs in front of her desk as she waved a paw to clear the smoke smell.

He looked at her with an expression that spoke of numerous previous meetings and an expected outcome that would not be in his favor, but he kept his mouth shut. She looked at him, waiting for him to speak. After a long period of mutual staring, she broke the silence.

“So do you want to tell me what happened?”

“Fight,” he said simply.

“That much I could have surmised from your appearance if I had not been told already. Bloody, filthy, and with ripped clothing tells a story all its own.”

“Must be Thursday,” Ansel shot back.

“Is that when they pick on you, then?”

“Lady, nobody picks on me,” he said. He slapped a paw on his chest for emphasis.

You’re a liar.

“What?” he said, half-rising from the chair. His nostrils flared. Miss Teller looked at him across her graceful muzzle, head tilted to the left.

“Please remain in your seat, Mister Phillips.”

“You called me a liar.”

“I said no such thing.”

“I heard it!”

“Perhaps you did, but not from me. Tell me, if they don’t pick on you, why do you end up back here every other week?”

Because you can’t control yourself.

“What the hell?”

“Language, Mister Phillips!” she snapped, slapping a hand on the desk.

“Tell me you heard that!”

“I did indeed, and there are things I do not have to tolerate.”

“No! The voice!” he said, craning his neck to look all around the office.

You’re the believer here, Ansel. Not her. Why would I talk to her?

“This isn’t funny!” Ansel shouted, jumping to his feet. He knocked the chair over in his haste, and Miss Teller rose from her chair as well, planting her paws on her hips.

“I daresay it is not,” she replied. She pointed to the chair. “Pick that up and plant your butt in it, young man.”

It was the first time Ansel had heard anything even approximating a curse come from the principal, but he did not take the time to appreciate that he had been the one to make her lose control. He was too busy looking around the room.

“Who are you?” he asked aloud.

You really are a dense one, aren’t you? You pray to me and you don’t think I might just listen every now and then?

“No. No fucking way.”

“That’s three days detention!” Miss Teller barked. Ansel was paying no attention to her at this point. He was looking now toward the ceiling, his eyes wide.

“It can’t be,” he said.

It is.

“Why didn’t you do anything? I was getting my ass handed to me every damned day!”

Does this sound familiar, then? “Oh, Gann, just let me be strong enough to fight back and I’ll serve you forever.” And you got stronger. Faster. Meaner. You opened your heart to me and I filled it with raw power. How many of your classmates could stand after fighting six at once?

“That was you?”

I have need of warriors, Ansel. I need guardians for the temples. I need those willing to fight that will carry my words to the masses. Rest assured, it will be a fight. I am not some god of love and peace. My people need me in the trenches. In the mines. In the dark of night, when the monsters come, there will you find my priests, standing as a bulwark against their dark incursions. You said you would serve me. Will you live up to your word?

Ansel nodded, struck dumb by the words. He had always imagined Gann to be a psychological construct of some sort, there to help people deal with whatever was in their hearts or minds, but the thought that an actual god was speaking to him banished that image. He knew now with full and complete certainty that everything his father had taught him was real. It was like opening a door into a room full of pure light.

Miss Teller had flipped the red toggle on the edge of her desk when Ansel stopped talking to her. The office door flew open to reveal the twin wolfhounds that acted as security officers during school hours. Neither one looked to be in a friendly mood.

“Mister Phillips here –” she began, but Ansel cut her off.

“I need a ride,” he said, his voice low and deep. “Whichever one of you two idiots can actually drive needs to take me to the Gannite monastery.”

He turned back to look at his shocked principal. He half-bowed from the waist.

“My apologies for my behavior,” he said. “We all find our way to Gann differently, but He has shown Himself to me today. I will finish my school in His temple.”

 

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

Prompt – Awakening

“You know, for someone who’s supposed to be smart, you’re pretty fuckin’ dumb sometimes, Chino,” Harper said. His tone was flat, more a general indictment than a statement with any real malice.

“I didn’t know who else to call.”

“I wasn’t saying anything about that, man. You know I’ll be there if you need me. Just… Goddamn, man. Try to fuckin’ think now and then, yeah? You got some kind of giant brain up in that nugget. Use the damn thing.”

Chino made a chuckling sound. “I’m more the ‘act first’ kind of guy,” he said.

“That’s the problem, pal. You keep acting like this and we’re gonna need to jump a freighter. If the badges don’t come after us, the mobs will.”

“You think so?”

“Faydor already offered a hundred large for whoever took out Sonny Ears. How long til they figure out it was you?”

“You’re not going to tell them, are you, Harper?”

“Nah, Chino, man. I ain’t a snitch. Not even for cash. Especially not where you’re concerned.”

Relief washed over the wrinkled face as Chino cracked a smile around his trunk.

“I love you, man.”

“I know. I love you too, dummy.”

Their shovels clanged as they threw them into the back of the car. Moments later, they were driving north, and the shallow grave they left behind was just another disturbance in the forest floor.

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

Prompt: Non-romantic love.