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“Nothing breaks the enemy morale quicker than an armor charge,” the koala said, slurping noisily at the amber spirit in his glass. His paw slipped as he put it back on the table, and the liquid splashed over onto the scarred tabletop. Around him, heads nodded in agreement.

At her own table, Jinx nodded with them and quietly sipped from the drink in her glass, hissing slightly as the alcohol burned the back of her throat. She was watching the others in the bar, but the koala and his friends had made enough noise since arrival that they drew the attention of most everyone present.

Like this is how I wanted to spend an evening, the serval thought. Her eyes, hooded by half-lowered lids, scanned the parts of the crowd she could see. Most of them are here already, though.

“Let ‘em see the bow of a Ravager hop over the hill and they’re shitting their pants,” continued the koala in a slurring voice. He downed the rest of his drink and waved a paw for a refill. A lanky coyote with white rings tattooed on the back of his left paw hefted a bottle that was nearing empty itself. A quick tilt added a measure to the koala’s glass and the ‘yote continued with the other glasses at the table. He raised the bottle overhead and wagged it back and forth until he caught the eye of the waitress. She nodded and ducked behind the bar to retrieve another.

A lean dog stood from the shadows in the rear of the bar and approached the table hosting the koala and his associates. The Doberman’s blue and gray jacket, loose as it was, did little to conceal the heavy pistols beneath his arms. His eyes had a glassy sheen to them, and his lips were peeled back to expose his teeth. When he spoke, his voice had a thick accent that Jinx had been unable to place, and the dialect was troubling, but the tone had the air of someone used to Folk listening to it.

“You Folk to be with Chay’s Brigade, yes?” he asked.

“To Chay!” the koala cried in response, hoisting his glass in another shower of liquor. This one sprayed over a few of his companions and they instinctively jerked back from the alcohol. Two of them did, however, raise their glasses in toast as well.

“Lecton is up. Here it comes,” Jinx muttered as the drunken Doberman stepped forward another pace and leaned his muzzle down toward the koala. Beneath Jinx’s ear, the tiniest of vibrations in her mastoid bone told her that her transmission had been received. In his communications suite, Factum would be coordinating the strike, and she had perfect confidence in the octopus to handle whatever arose. If all else failed, he had a small squad of rocket-bearing troops ready to raze the building and all within it, either at her command or his. There were certain advantages to working for an outfit as well-funded and organized as Lascelle’s. The mastoid implant, for instance — an item she would have killed for back when she was humping iron on one world or another. The instant communication might have kept some of her squadmates alive.

“Chay is piece of shit,” the Doberman declared. His voice echoed in the bar, and conversations stopped all over the room as heads turned to see what was unfolding.

“What did you say?” demanded the big tiger at the end of the table. His arms were covered in spray seal dressings — a souvenir of his most recent injury — but his eyes gleamed with fanaticism as he stood and slammed meaty paws on the synthetic oak tabletop.

“In three,” Jinx said. She looked at the ounce of liquor in her glass with a forlorn sigh. There would be no time to enjoy the taste.

“I say your great leader is shit,” shouted the dog. “Selling his loyalty to enemies of the People!”

“Two.” She wished she had thought to put more failsafes in place, but getting any of the contacts to come together at once had been hard enough. It was all in the hands of the locals and their raid team now. Shedrach wasn’t going to make it in time, but with luck they could pick him up later. She snorted at the thought. Luck.

“Fuck you,” the tiger grunted, pushing back his chair and stepping out from behind the table. The koala was struggling to do likewise, and the other four Folk at the table were beginning to follow their example.

“One,” Jinx said. She shrugged and threw back the shot anyway. As the tiger closed space with the Doberman, she flicked the glass with a practiced wrist. The vid player behind the bar exploded in a crash of glass and sparks as the glass impacted. All eyes flicked that direction, even those of the two soon-to-be combatants.

“Take it,” Jinx said, dropping to the floor. She curled into a ball and covered her sensitive ears with her paws.

The door to the bar crashed open and half a dozen flattened disc shapes sailed through the air. The lucky few who recognized them for what they were had a second to take some form of action, but the vast majority of everyone in the bar was caught unaware as the grenades detonated.

Sun-bright flashes of light seared the eyes even as thunderclaps of sound erupted, the force enough to shatter bottles behind the bar. Dust rained down for the briefest of seconds from the ceiling before the antiquated fire suppression system chattered into life, raining filthy, brackish water onto the stunned bar-goers.

A line of armored Folk drove through the door of the bar in response to the grenades, submachineguns and pistols in their paws. They wore the deep green fatigues with white-lettered black banding on arms and chest common to the local militia. They entered in a staggered line, splitting to either side as they did and setting up defensive positions for their partners. Four of them marched at speed to the Doberman. He was bent at the waist, trying to recover from the concussions of only a couple seconds prior, when they reached his sides. His legs were kicked out from under him and when he hit the floor, two of the militia were on him, cuffing his paws behind his back and hobbling them to his ankles in seconds.

A string of additional enforcers powered through the doors, pairing off to approach others inside the bar as the initial four dragged the Doberman.

Gunshots rang out from the rear of the bar, their reports muffled following the ear-shattering explosions, and the militia crew began to fire in response. In seconds, the room was lit by strobe-like muzzle flashes and screams rent the air. Additional guns fired from within the shadows of the bar, and the militia saw more than one of their own fall.

A hellish volume of fire was directed toward the corner of the bar from which the gunfire had initially erupted, the militia opening up with every weapon they could bring to bear. Magazines were depleted in seconds, and the room became a haze of gunsmoke. The fire suppression system kept up a steady deluge of stinking water.

Jinx sneezed as the burned powder smell tore at her nostrils. Her paws stayed clamped down over her ears as the gunfire began to taper off. Inwardly, she prayed silent prayers to gods she knew held her in no favor. Her eyes were squeezed tight and she lost track of the seconds as she waited.

A boot tapped at her ribs and she looked up into one of the reflective visors of the militia Folk.

“You gonna just lay there all day, Jinx?” she heard. “You’re getting all wet.”

“How did it go?” she asked, accepting his paw and standing. Her balance was off, though whether from the alcohol or from the concussion grenades she could not say. She listed to her left and the room seemed to spin and shake. The officer accepted her weight on him.

“Brannock’s down. Two through the faceplate. Shale is on the truck with a bullet through the knee. Four suspects dead, seven in custody.”

Her breath caught. “Damn it.”

“We got them, Jinxie,” he said.

“No. Brannock. He’s got a pup. Eight, nine months, maybe. Somebody’s gotta tell your Captain. He’s too stupid to realize.”

“Aw, shit,” the cop said. His visor retracted and she could see his face. A calico cat with a nose permanently shifted to the left from too many fights. She recognized him as a riot cop named Tane Felder. The big cat had always reminded her of a heavy weapons troop she had known on Richter’s World before her proximity inevitably led to his shipping out in a bag. Felder had a massive automatic shotgun slung in front of his chest. “I didn’t even think –”

She pushed away from the cat’s grasp, swaying slightly before shaking her head to clear it. Definitely from the concussion, she noted as the room began to tilt once again. His paw shot out and snatched at her collar, catching her a second before she lost her balance completely.

“I’ve got you,” he told her. His arm went around her waist and she allowed the support as he gingerly walked her toward the door. She sneezed a few more times as they moved. The militia on scene had applied cuffs to the paws of everyone present. They could all be questioned later. Jinx and Felder stepped over them with little regard.

The night air was noticeably cooler than that in the bar, and the gallons of sprinkler water that had soaked into Jinx’s clothing didn’t help matters any. She felt an involuntary chill wiggle its way down her spine as they stepped out of the bar and started for the mobile command post. Flashing green and red lights lit the area, reflecting off walls and lending the night a surreal feeling.

“Our main contact in there took one in the neck,” Captain Donnes said as they approached, showing as much concern for Jinx and her condition as Jinx herself had for those present in the bar. “I hope you’ve got enough evidence to deal with these bastards.”

Jinx spat onto the ground, noting idly the pink hue of her saliva. At some point she had bitten her tongue.

“I’m not worried about that right now,” she told the bulldog. “Brannock has –”

“You’d better fucking well get worried about it!” Donnes shouted, glaring at her from within the pressed confines of his immaculate uniform. “This was your scene, and we’ve got to have something to show for it. That’s why we hired you mercenaries.”

“And if you’d done it my way, we wouldn’t have this problem,” she countered, narrowing her eyes. She waved a paw in the direction of the armored van where the prisoners had been deposited.

“Toss a fucking frag in there and call it quits. These aren’t shoplifters.”

Donnes bristled at the implication, slamming a closed paw onto the folding table that had been dragged into place for his use behind his command truck. A sheaf of papers in a pale folder rustled and several pages flew free to flutter to the ground. A second later, the entire folder followed suit, scattering surveillance images and fugitive alerts across the pavement.

“We aren’t some kind of babysitting force here!” Donnes shouted. He stood up tall, his jowls flapping at a level that would make Jinx look up if she deigned to give him that satisfaction.

“No, you aren’t,” she said in a voice like silk. It was totally devoid of emotion, but so smooth it drew attention. “You’re the peacekeeping force here, and I’m telling you that to keep that peace, you don’t want to waste time with trials and media attention for those Folk in that truck. They are professional killers and agitators.”

“We took care of them in there,” Donnes sneered. “They can’t be all that impr –”

“In that bar? Gann’s balls, do you not understand that they came there expecting to find a quiet drink? Holdout pistols and knives, maybe, and even then they brought down two of yours. If they had known you were coming, you wouldn’t have made it past the front door. None of you. Correction: none of us. They would have sliced me, too.”

“I thought you were supposed to be good.”

“I am,” she responded, breathing in a slow, deep breath. The scent of gunsmoke was still thick in her nose, but she relished the fresh air. “Damned good. One on one? Two even. Maybe in a stretch against three of them, I’ll put all my money on me. Near a dozen of them in one place, though?”

She leaned in close and Donnes matched her move, bringing their faces near in anticipation of her next words. When they came, they were icy in tone.

“I’d have traded the concussion grenades for incendiaries.”

“There were civilians in there. Innocents.”

“I never claimed to be nice,” she said. “You hired me and mine to get close to these filthy fucks. Did you think you were getting the puppies from Howler’s camp? They would have drawn you pretty pictures and told you how bad these Folk were. Maybe those idiots from Chay’s?” she continued, hooking a thumb over her shoulder toward the bar, where the militia crew was even now dragging out the mercs taken into custody. The koala was covered in a fine film of his own vomit, and the big leopard tasked with getting him out was holding onto one booted foot rather than touch the sticky wetness.

“The department put out the call,” Donnes defended. “Not me.”

“And they came to my boss, who then asked for me, so Folk like you wouldn’t have to mess up your pretty uniforms. You wanted someone who could handle getting dirty, and that’s me. Kind of a specialty.”

“One can only imagine,” he replied, looking up and down her length. His lips curled as he took in her sodden clothing and disheveled appearance.

“Your dog Brannock has a pup,” she said, noting the way he scanned her. “Got a mate and pup waiting at home for him to come back. Maybe you should think about that instead of how dirty you want me to be.”

“That’s not what I was –”

“Deal with your Folk, Captain,” she said, emphasizing the rank with a hiss of pressure from behind gritted teeth.

She pivoted, pushed past Felder and marched into the night.

 

<<<END>>>

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

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

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

“Can I help you find anything?”

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

“Ummm,” he said, “The uh, the –”

He waved in a vague motion toward the shelves.

“Books?” she prompted. He nodded.

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

“Is there anything specific you are looking for?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I am an avid reader.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah.”

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

“Cron,” he said. “My name is Cron.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How much what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So I ain’t gotta pay for these?”

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

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

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

“You wanna read my old comics?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, now, I can take ‘em like this.”

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

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

“You mean the library?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uhh, yeah. How did you…”

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

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

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

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

“You got me,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where ya been?” she asked, swallowing.

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

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

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

“Jori’s nice,” he said.

“Jori?”

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

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

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

“I’m glad.”

“Thanks for telling me where to go.”

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

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

“I know just where to start.”

 

<<<END>>>

“You made a tank.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the armor?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m impressed,” VonHogan said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gara provides for us in Her own ways.”

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

“Guessing I said something wrong?” he prompted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VonHogan nodded to them both.

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

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

“Of?”

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

 

<<<END>>>

 

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

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

“Doesn’t that seem odd?”

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

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

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

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

“What did they say?”

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

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

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

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

“It’ll get better,” she promised.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are we in the right place?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“I thought I saw someone.”

“Don’t do that,” Miranda whispered.

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

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

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

“Who’s in here?” the voice demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where?” shouted another voice.

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

The thunder of booted feet ran down the adjoining alley.

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

“He’s real!” called the next.

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

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

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

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

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

“Where have you two been?” she demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We could ask Diem.”

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

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

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

“That might work.”

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

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

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

 

<<END>>

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

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

–Not coming?

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

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

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

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

“Good morning.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“As a medic, yes.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good enough.”

His phone buzzed, vibrating against his breast.

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

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

–Why are you leaving?

He snorted and dropped it back into his pocket.

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

“Nah. It’s personal, not business.”

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

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

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

–You know why. I need to go.

–I can’t. I have a life here.

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

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

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

–Mom’s dead. Nice try.

–You know what I mean.

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

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

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

–I’ll call you later.

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

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

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

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

“Are you all right?”

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

“Well, if you need –”

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

“Looked like something pretty important.”

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

“You, uh, said you were in the army.”

“I was.”

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

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

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

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

“Innocence,” Lin said with a mocking snort.

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

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

“That oath means that much?”

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

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

“Welcome to ArCorp,” the monkey announced.

<<END>>

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“In the store. Anything good?”

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

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

“Hey, I’m just –”

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

“Now,” she said.

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

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

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

“He’ll get it. What about you?”

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

“You a medic?”

“Nah. Learned basic aid in the army.”

“Lucky you were here.”

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

“Ah. Bad luck then?”

“More than you could know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

<<END>>

Author’s note: The following tales are a composite of a single event, each told from the point of view of their narrative character: A local townie bent on revenge, a corporate employee, and a street thief.  Each piece was designed to be a small bite of the environment at hand. The stories are set in the fictional world of Lester Smith’s Dark Conspiracy roleplaying game (Copyright 1991, Game Designers’ Workshop).

 

Anthill Morning

The Shooter

He’s ahead of me in the crowd and I ain’t planning to let him get away. That stupid red shirt from last year’s Decline concert marks him good and gives me a point of reference, but on the other hand the weather is not as crappy as usual and so the streets are packed. The sidewalk is like swimming through people, and when I try stepping onto the street itself I damn near get a Zil enema.

Homey’s keeping up a moderate pace. Doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. That makes it easier to follow someone, but to be honest I would just as soon he gets where he’s going. Shooting a man on a city street ain’t big on my list for today.

Witnesses are gonna be a bitch no matter what. Pop a couple caps in some monkey, even here in the upper Anthill, and folks are gonna take notice. The kick will be limiting exposure. If he’ll just go into a store or something, somewhere that limits vision and blocks some of the sound, I’ll splash his head all over the walls and just keep trucking. I kind of hope he goes into some clothing store. Wrap the .45 in a heavy shirt or something, and maybe that will mitigate the sound. Worked for Tyrone What’s-his-name in that spy film last year.

He strolls past the big Asian market thing like he can’t even hear them calling out to him. I snatch up one of those little bottled soda things and toss some aged mama-san a couple wadded notes as payment. I don’t care about any change, even though I hear her call out that I have some coming. I just turn and wink at her while taking a drink. She smiles and pockets the change.

If things go the way they could, I won’t need any money after today. Either I’ll get back the case and be able to sell it for enough to retire, or I’ll get arrested — or I’ll get dead. Either one means about the same thing as far as those bits of scrip go.

He starts cutting eastbound and passes by a Night Shift. I see his eyes reflected in the glass. I’m too close. If he sees me… The .45 feels like a brick in my waistband, but if I have to I’ll drill this asshole right here. He runs a hand back across his hair, slicking it down where the wind is getting to it.

The rain starts. Not sure why it waited this long, but it’s those early showers that just feel good and get you a little wet. The big storms will come later, not that this murdering sack of shit is gonna be around for any of it. That ain’t the kind of wet he’s gonna be. Dude comes into my house and ganks my friends, steals my cargo, and thinks I ain’t coming after him, then he needs to think again.

I stop for a second at a vendor. Let him get a few extra steps. The distance will help. I hadn’t realized I was getting that close until I was looking over his shoulder. A couple bucks later and I’m munching on some kind of meat on a stick. It’s either really shitty myco or it’s fairly tasty mouse. I ain’t asking which. I see him further east, ducking behind the big grocery store. I’m actually glad he didn’t go in there. They’ve got sec men that have good relations with the local badges. That means they remember people who do things like execute their customers. Hell, they’ll probably shoot back, and they actually know what they’re doing. Me, I’m running off what that Devil Bat showed me when he sold the gun to me.

I round the corner and see that he has passed the big game shop. There’s a little space out beside it with some tables and benches and stuff where people used to meet for chess games and romantic talks and such. I can see him making a casual approach. There are half a dozen people there at various tables. I’m throwing out the two Dobies making out, and the dude smoking a cheap cigar while he reads the latest issue of HiTek Dreamz is a no-brainer. It’s the mook in the business suit that looks entirely out of place and I figure that’s his mark. He’s gonna give my case to this nome wannabe? Not today.

As he takes another slow step forward, I make three of my own. My heart is racing faster than my steps. I reach for the metal and it fits my hand like it was made for it. I bring it out of my waistband and look down to make sure the safety thing is off. I cock it with my thumb and make the next few steps his last.

“This is for Shank and Leo,” I say as the gun comes up. He starts to turn and then it’s bucking in my hand. So loud. I can see the empty shell flying up and away as I pull the trigger again. His head is pretty much gone. He’s still falling but I grab the case and rip it out of his hands. It’s already sticky with his blood. So is Suit Boy, and a part of me thinks that’s pretty funny.

I turn and cut back up parallel to Penn in the alley. I keep seeing his head crack open. I’m gonna puke. I know I am, but I can’t yet. Heading north now, putting on speed. The badges will be coming. CorpSec or HardCop, it won’t matter if I get caught. Only difference there will be Corpers putting me down while the real ones do the arrest thing.

There’s a mushhead sitting by the sidewalk at Mackie’s, behind his coin bucket. Looks like he ate half of PharmaTech’s inventory. I can hear the sirens as I kneel down by him. Jesus, he stinks. He turns and mutters something as I shove a pile of scrip in his bucket and tell him some crap about God watching over him. The .45 fits real good under the piled up coat and assorted crap he’s got stacked beside him. I pat him on the head like a puppy and keep moving, though I change to the west now. Two blocks up and no pursuit. Time to change directions.

It’s about two more blocks when the thought of what I did really sinks in. I grab a trash can out beside Taste of Taipei and rip off the cover. The maggots crawling over whatever is in the can make it even easier and the fried mouse comes back up in a rush of cheap Japanese soda and bile. I wipe my mouth and straighten up.

“You did good back there,” I hear. I jump. Whoever they are, they got close without me hearing. I turn to see her, all slick looking and very much at ease here. Nice clothes. Heh. Nice rack. I look back up to see her smile. An eyebrow arches and she glances down at my waist. As I start to look down too, she’s in motion. The foot hits me square in the balls and the world explodes into brilliant swirls of color. I reach for her but she’s already inside my grasp. I can feel the knife then, in and out, in and out. Stabbing me so fast. It doesn’t feel like anything at first but now it’s starting to feel somehow cold and hot at the same time. That obsessive part of me wants to count the times she put it in me but I can’t. Making the thoughts stick is hard.

I can feel her pulling the case. It’s mine. I need it. You can’t have it. Gotta keep hold.

Cold.

Getting dark. Why is it so dark?

 

The Buyer

What a filthy place.

How do people even live here?

I dodge a puddle of water that is brimming with scum. That would ruin my shoes.

I passed out of the last Controlled Zone five blocks ago, but this area should be classed as a complete NoGo. I saw actual street gangs. Not the kind on the trid, but real, actual criminal gang members, with knives and bats and stuff. One of them even had a gun. I saw the handle thing sticking out of his pants. The briefing dossier on this area is in serious need of a rewrite.

This had better pay off or I am going to be angry. I can’t believe I had to come here. I deserve so much better than this. It has to be Brantley and his interference. I’ll be filing a complaint as soon as I get back and can get the stench of this place out of my clothes.

I step around a bundle that might well be a used diaper and keep walking. There’s a man in a robe up ahead, waving some kind of book. He sounds like some kind of trid evangelist. As I get near, his eyes light up and he starts talking to me like I’m some kind of long lost family member.

Someone bumps into me and I spin, reaching up to hold onto the thick packet in my breast pocket. Well, she wasn’t attacking me. She looks to be intoxicated or something. It’s a pity. She’s a pretty thing. She lifts her breasts and wiggles them through her soft grey blouse.

“Wanna party?” she mumbles, smiling at me. Why on earth would anyone want to ‘party’ with someone obviously on drugs? Unable to form words to express my level of discomfort and lack of desire to be with her, I point to my wedding band and turn back in time to see the evangelist grinning at the girl. She wanders away singing as he begins to tell me something about my soul. As if I need a lecture on my soul from a man lusting after that drug-addled street girl.

Giving up on the evangelist, I turn away and nearly walk into a gorgeous young girl with bright purple hair. I never thought that facial piercings were all that attractive, but on her, they certainly seem to work. For a moment I am lost in thought, and then I remember why I am here, just in time to catch an angry glare from the hairy man in the leather straps that is her escort. He looks like one of those arena fighters Mildred likes to watch on the trid. Knowing what I’ve seen in this area, he’s probably her pimp. I sigh and move on. It’s for the best. If they knew what I was carrying, they would probably rob me.

I step around the edge of some store selling “smoking accessories”, although what I can see inside there doesn’t have anything to do with decent cigars. There are yet more freaks in there. This place is horrid.

Someone has their music turned up too loud. It’s offensive. No one wants to hear your – it’s in a car? That loud and it’s in a car? How can they drive? If this was home, the security forces would have torn that thing into scrap metal and you dirty people would be – don’t get out! Don’t get out! No no no.

That man just pulled some kind of giant gun from under his jacket and stuck it in the nose of the man on the corner, and then dragged him right into the loud car. They just took that guy right off the corner! No one’s going to stop them. No police, no security force. How do people even live here?

There’s a coffee shop up ahead on my right that doesn’t seem to have too much going on. Maybe I can get something to drink. I wonder what the chances are of them having a caramel macchiato?

I order one and the fat man behind the counter – with a nose ring, of all things – tells me they only have coffee. I get one with as much cream as they will put in it. Powdered cream in what was undoubtedly thrift store coffee. It tastes as bad as it looks but it’s vaguely approaching coffee.

It’s started to rain, and I notice no one is carrying an umbrella. The majority of the people get closer to awnings or doorways, but no one is putting on any protective gear. What are they going to do when the acid hits?

South of the alleged coffee shop, I see my meeting place. Just past a place selling games and cards and little tiny figures, there’s a picnic area — or at least that’s what it looks like. Plastic tables and benches, a random assortment of round tables with loose plastic chairs, and the occasional trash can.

I take up space in a seriously uncomfortable chair. I’m going to get dust all over my suit, but at least I’ll be able to see the seller when he arrives. I figure I will have to burn the suit anyway. After being down in this neighborhood, there is no hope for it. I can smell the stink of a bad cigar on the wind, and when I look, I can see the fat man smoking it. He’s reading some magazine. HiTek Dreamz? Really? Look at you. The closest you’ll get to anything HiTek is right there in your magazine. You’re as likely to end up in my part of town as those two nasty men kissing behind you. Nobody wants to see that! Save it for the bedroom.

He’s three minutes late. Three minutes. I’ve seen men fired for less. When he gets here I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. I do not like being kept waiting. A lack of punctuality shows disrespect for your business partner.

Is that him? That’s a courier case, at least. He’s heading my way. It looks like this is the right guy. Time to remember that stupid code phrase. What was it? I can’t remember. Think. Think. Here he comes. Something about a giraffe.

Who is that? Dear sweet Jesus, he’s got a –

He shot him! He shot him! It’s so loud! I can’t hear anything. Oh God, he just killed him! It’s all over me and I’m gonna be sick and oh my God please don’t kill me!

He can keep the case, just don’t let him kill me please oh please.

He’s running away and I hear the men behind me screaming and running. All I can see is this thing on my table. It’s like some kind of opened fruit. A moment ago this was a human being. Now it’s just –

I lean over and vomit onto the concrete. My hands are shaking and I heave again. My eyes are stinging from the acid going up my nose.

“Well, damn. That’s gonna leave a mark,” I hear. I straighten up. There’s blood and brain on my shirt and I feel my body trying to be sick again. Swallowing, I turn to look.

She’s lovely, even squeezed into whatever that outfit is. I suppose it must be fashionable somewhere. I wish my suit wasn’t ruined. I can at least smile at her. She looks familiar.

“Hey, aren’t you -” I start to ask.

She sticks a hand out and I automatically reach to shake it before I realize she’s holding a knife. The smile hasn’t faded from her mouth, but she’s holding a knife on me!

“Inside right breast pocket, mister. You know what I’m here for. Don’t try to play hero and you’ll be back in your MikeTown haven by sunset. Anything stupid and they’ll find your bloody corpse right here with dead boy.”

As if I’m going to do anything. She’s got a knife. I’m not some trid hero fighter. And just like that, there goes thirty thousand. How am I going to explain what happened here? Money gone and nothing to show for it? God, they’ll fire me.

She’s a ghost now, just a flicker of motion beyond the next building, moving at a full run that I couldn’t keep up with on my best day. I scratch my head and look around. Everyone ran away, but now some people are starting to drift back and peek around the corners of the buildings. Oh no. They’re going to think I did this!

I’m up and moving. Back past the front of the game store, with its inhabitants peering through barred glass at me as I run. My suit is filthy and no one pays me a second glance this time as I fly past them. If they let me keep my job, I’m never coming back here. Not once.

 

The Booster

“Bring that case and all will be forgiven.”

You know, when you hear that kind of thing, it makes you wonder why you got into this line of work in the first place. When it’s coming at you from the Don, that question is a deafening scream. Most folks don’t get a second chance, but based on my past history, he’s prepared to allow me a shot.

So to make reparations, I’m shadowing this MikeTown idiot through the south side. According to our intel, he’s meeting with the seller this morning. If I follow him, he’ll lead me straight to the case.

Friggin’ tourist. He’s so lost here. You can tell he doesn’t come down from his ivory tower real often. I keep wanting to walk up and escort him to where we’re going just to get past the way he stops and stares at everything. I mean, seriously? What kind of dumbass is gonna give the hairy eyeball to a crew of Ragged Ones? I just hope he doesn’t do anything irreparably stupid before I can get to the case. After that, he’s on his own.

He wanders along with his head up his ass, heading straight for a street preacher. Dude’s all waving his arms and lecturing, but this idiot is gonna walk right into him. I wanna yell at him: Skirt him. Go right. Go right — but it won’t do any good.

And now I’ve gotta go past him while he hears the good word or some shit. Well, at least I can make this a profitable move.

I bump into him as I pass, just so. Two pockets checked and I’m snatching what feels like a bankbook of some type. No heavy wads of scrip. Unless this book has a fortune hidden in about three sheets I’m screwed.

“Sorry, man,” I mumble, taking on the affect of a stoned out Gidget. I let a sleepy smile pass across my face as I see him protectively clutch at the right breast of his immaculate suit. In response I cup both of mine and shake them at him a little. “Wanna party?”

He looks disgusted – which is, I must say, kind of an ego blow – even as the street preacher licks at his lips and grins at me. At least I’m not completely scragged.

As the mark sputters a protest I slide past, stumbling through the steps of some dance that goes with the Queenly Flux tune I start warbling. I slap the ass of an over-pierced drag queen with purple hair as she walks by, escorted by a tatted-up bear in some S&M leather harness crap who gives me a dirty look but doesn’t say anything.

I’m past them now and veering into a shite little bodega. I duck behind a merch rack and wait for Idiot Boy to get away from the preacher. Cursing my luck at picking the place with the most hideous fashion ever, I pluck a t-shirt from a rack and slip it over my head. Great. Alabama Meat Packing. Really? Souvenir shirts from a meat company? Whatever. It’ll keep the mark from recognizing me, I guess. I top it off with a skate beanie and an Adolph Coors – the only water I can see in this place with an honest-to-God factory seal on it. Twenty-seven bucks later, I’m out the door about fifty feet behind Suit Boy…and then ducking in the doorway of a taquiera while he stands open-mouthed and watches a Devil Bat snatch-and-grab. It’s a money hit, what with them actually throwing the guy in their car rather than just whacking him.

I flag the shopkeep and order a taco. The mark is arguing with the counter guy at a coffee shop, so I might as well get a snack. Why in the hell can this asshole not just go to his damned meet? I slip the pinched bankbook out and give it a glance. Not a bankbook after all. Corporate ID pouch. Nice. That’ll bring a few ducats.

It starts to drizzle. Cool drops. Not too thick yet, but as humid as the air is, it’s coming. I want to be through with this before the chem storms hit.

He moves again after a few minutes sipping at an overpriced something in a brown cup and now he’s cutting south toward some kind of game shop. There’s a Korean joint here, too. I’m half tempted to wait in there, but I just know the meet will come and he’ll wind up leaving some other way. I’m not going home without that case. He goes past the game shop to a section with tables and chairs, looks around and takes a seat where he can watch to the west. I slip into the shop itself.

It’s warm and dry in here. Some fuzz-faced dude with a fistful of card decks gives me the once-over. I grin and peel off the Alabama Meat shirt. He drops his cards when I toss the shirt to him. The beanie goes with it. I ruffle my hair back up, but the spikes are a lost cause, thanks to the stupid hat. Beardly McBeardson seems to think it looks good, though. That or my cleavage. Either one works.

I glance out through the window and Suit Boy’s still sitting there, looking around at the people at other tables. I pick up some big box with starships on it and pretend to read the back so I won’t get chucked out.

“You, uh, you play Centauri Command?” asks Beardly. I smile.

“No. Just checking it out. Do you?”

He starts to answer, but the sudden eruption of gunfire outside silences him. I spin and leap out the door, the game box sailing across the room as I do. Suit Boy is sitting with a terrified expression on his face — along with a lot of blood and brain. There’s a dead guy splashed on his table and some dickhead in faded jeans and an oversized FunkFerret t-shirt is ripping off my case. Dead guy is the meet, then. Great.

The FunkFerret guy is bailing and Suit Boy is puking his guts out. Everybody else is running and screaming like they were the ones that took a bullet. I catch a bead on the runner and then wander over to Suit Boy. There’s a .45 casing on the table. That’s something to keep in mind when I find the shooter. He’s got a cannon.

There’s a snick as the switchblade snaps open, and a minute later Suit Boy is passing me his wallet. Yeah. There’s the cash. A quick glance shows it to be probably twenty kay or more in Ford-Revlon scrip. I blow him a kiss and take off, hot on FunkFerret’s track.

He’s fast, and he’s blowing past crowds like someone who just shot a man. No attempt at stealth. That’s either gonna make this easier or one hell of a lot harder. If he attracts security attention, we’re boned. Cutting back behind Hubcap Haven and pushing those stringy legs for all he’s worth. Glad I’ve always been a runner. He won’t get away based on speed or distance alone.

I slow to a gentle walk now as he kneels by a human speed bump in front of a Mackie’s store. Nice chunk of change he’s adding to the boy’s bowl. Back up and moving, but this time he’s at a slower pace. No running now. He seems confident that there is no pursuit. He knows these alleys, though, and that puts him one up on me.

I catch up to him as he’s barfing out beside some Chinese joint. Why is it everybody’s gotta puke around me? These guys are gonna give me a complex.

“You did good back there,” I call out, and he whirls. The case is still dangling from his left hand. Predictably, he scans my body, so I smile and look down like I’m admiring his package. He glances down, too, and when he’s not looking at my eyes I know he won’t see it coming until it’s too late. Snapkick to the jewels, baby. I hit him like I’m punting at the Superbowl.

Before he can move, I’m in close, the switchblade working with me in a series of stabs that are not so much graceful as they are frequent. As fast as I can work the blade I’m tagging him, right through the FunkFerret logo. I can’t let him get to the pistol he had. Blood runs thick and hot over my hand, and his slapping blows are slowing and getting weaker. I grab the case with my left hand and boot him in the guts to break his grip.

He hits the deck and I’m gone.

 

<<End>>

 

 

 

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.

Today is one of those days when it hits hard for some reason. The pain. The heartache. That desire to go through and delete everything you’ve ever scribbled down, rip up the papers, and set up a bonfire. With any luck that fire will burn high and hot enough to roast all your future desire to write. Maybe it will free you of that literary albatross around your neck and you can continue your life as a normal human, without being consumed by the urge to set down words and pass them along to be read and (hopefully) enjoyed.

I got a little too close to that fire once before. It’s hard as Hell to come back from it. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever be completely returned. I mean, if I really was, wouldn’t this be one of those 2500-word days? When I sit down and thunder away on the keys, spewing content and building yet another chapter in some monumental epic series of books that would make all the other monumental epic series on the market look like a bound sequence of Mad Libs filled in by drunken giraffes. That kind of day?

But it isn’t. This is the day when my heart and my head can’t communicate well with one another. All I can do is look at everything I’ve written and think to myself what a steaming pile of orcshit it is. Even my stuff for Camp NaNoWriMo looks like shit to me today. So I sit here at the comp, and I flit from one WIP to the next, glaring at them as if they were unwanted religious seekers knocking at my door. Each one is trying to hand me some piece of tripe I don’t want to read, and yet I have to if I’m going to continue the tale.

So I pick one and I drop ten or fifteen words in it. Just a couple of sentences. Hit ‘SAVE’ and move on to another. A couple more sentences there. Nothing of substance anywhere, just a few words here and a few there. Those words might well disappear when I edit the work, but for now, they represent one step on the journey away from the bonfire.

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I may never fully recover from the self-loathing and the pain that cut me off from my muse, but I’m going to keep trying. She would want that. (Yes. I am referencing mythical creatures, and gladly claiming that one of them thought I was important enough that she would devote herself to letting me write her words. Why not? Dumber shit happens on this planet every day and no one thinks twice.)

This blog post, you’ll notice if you take the time to look through the rest of my site, is one of very few that isn’t some form of fiction or interview. I don’t write from the heart (cue sappy music here) very often. Most of what I do is purely for fun, and with the devout hope that someone somewhere will read it and say, “Dude, that was cool. Thanks for sharing it with us.” I have no illusions about being the next Burroughs, or King, or Lovecraft, or Tolkien, or a host of other names. I’m just a mook who likes telling stories. If you like reading them, then hey! Welcome! Look at some of the other stuff on here. Maybe something will make you smile.

So there you have it. A rambling, probably nonsensical, look at how I felt today, and the fact that I still fought through it. Tomorrow is another day, and it could go either way. I hope, though, that I will take the time to set pen to paper/fingers to keys/ etc., and tell at least some part of a story…or nine.

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>>>