Zeke

All posts tagged Zeke

 

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

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

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

“It’s loud,” said one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You a Tolean?”

When she shook her head, Sergeant Sharn responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t see why it’s so important.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So we just kill them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“But they work good?”

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

“So how come you don’t use them?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Mag?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“How much weight? Twenty keys?”

“I… I guess.”

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

“So I could carry…”

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

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

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

“You a gunner?” I asked. He nodded.

“Trained to the GH460.”

“Good model.”

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

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

“What happens if you run out?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re welcome to, Rory,” he said.

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

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

“Why are you here, Mag?”

The question comes without warning. No pleasant conversation leading up to it, nothing. It’s not like I’m not used to it. I think everyone in ArCorp has asked me at some point or another. In a world of specialists, I stand out – because I’m average.

I’m not a sniper, or a gunner, or a scout. I don’t drive a tank like it’s a sports car. I’m not special. All I do is go out every day and do my job.

Today is no different, and the only reason the question feels unusual is because of who is asking. Lissa is spectacular. I don’t think I’ve ever crushed as hard as I did the first time I was around her. That feeling is mostly gone now, buried beneath the afternoons spent sweating and bleeding under the same terrifyingly bright sun. Now she’s just a partner, or at least that’s what I tell myself. The delusions burn away like paper in a blast furnace when she speaks to me on a personal level.

“Well, I got on a ship, and it flew through space, and then it landed, and –“

She slugs me in the shoulder. Her paw is like an iron block and I feel the blow all the way through to my chest.

“You know what I mean, dickpuppet,” she says, shaking her head.

I shift the rifle a little on its sling and get it in a spot that doesn’t make my shoulder feel raw. That’ll last probably about another ten minutes.

“I go where the money is,” I tell her, but it’s an obvious lie. She doesn’t buy it. I guess my delivery really sucks.

“You could have had real money if you’d signed up for the airdrops on Sethyn,” she counters.

“At least that place has a real name.”

I step around one of those weird local cactus things. Sharp, barbed spines on them with a fiery toxin that make them about as much fun as reaching into a bucket full of broken glass to feel around for an arcing electrical wire. Sure, my boots should protect me, but seriously? Like I want to wander around through this whole sweep with that shit in my feet. Did I mention that I have shit for luck? Taking a risk like that is sure to bring something disastrous and stupid to the team.

She is quiet for a couple hundred more paces. Somewhere in the line behind us is Duggan, her partner for well over a year. I can tell she would rather be with him, but the Sarge has paired us together. Ordinarily I would be content just to march and get where we’re going, but I sense she wants to talk. I don’t really want to disappoint her.

“Petty criminal,” I confess, and she looks at me in sudden shock. Her sparkling eyes have gone wide and her mouth is open just enough to show those delicate points of white.

“I got caught stealing from a local Magistrate’s house. After his sec boys beat on me for a while, I got ‘volunteered’ for the local militia. I did okay there, and when the recruiter rolled through telling us how wonderful life was in the army, I raised my paw. I’ve done dumber things in life, but not many.”

“What did you steal?” she asks.

“Time,” I answer. She looks at me with one brow raised.

“Time?”

“Yeah. With his daughter.”

Her laughter is like a silken cloth caressing the pleasure center of my brain. Images flash through my head of hearing that laugh for the next twenty or so years. So much for the ‘crush is gone’ thing.

“That’s a great story,” she says after she stops giggling.

“Thanks. It got me a few years behind the butt of an L5.”

“Well, then it’s not all bad. You could have had that piece of shit 67 they used to issue.”

Now the talk turns comfortable. We’ve been here on this planet for a month and shared little more than six words. It’s because she wondered who I was. She’s not the only one. I wonder about that myself from time to time. What kind of mutt gets into a life like this because he can’t keep it in the sheath?

“So what’s your story?” I ask. She tightens up her grip on the rifle she carries and I think for a second that maybe I’ve touched a nerve, but it looks like a gesture of comfort for her. She treasures the rifle more than any prospective lover could expect, and it shows. We all get protective of our weapons in the field, but I think that her feelings for what she holds go beyond that.

“Typical, I guess. I wanted out of the home situation. Signed up to get away from my parents. They weren’t abusive or anything,” she hastens to tell me, and the expression on her face tells me she’s truthful here. She seems afraid that I’ll misunderstand her motives and lay blame somewhere.

“They just treated me like I was an inconvenience. By the time I was old enough for the militia, I knew the family’d be better off without me around, so I jetted. Signed up and went in with what I had on my back. The Combine came around after I’d been in for about a year. My scores caught the recruiter’s eye and he offered me a new bunk. Next thing, I’m hunkered down in a field snapping up Gun Bunnies. That’s how I met Duggan,” she adds, with a rearward jerk of the thumb.

Duggan is a lifer, and no doubt of that. Some Folk dream of retiring and leaving the killing behind. Some are a little more devoted to their craft. Duggan makes the most of what he is, I suppose, and he’s a killing machine. I don’t mind dropping a toothie, mind you. It’s just part of the job. Duggan, though? He lives for it. I doubt he has any outside interests or anything. He’s got kill marks all over him, and he would never blend into that mythical ‘polite society’ thing.

“We were on Ixxat,” Lissa continues. “Duggan’s running an MG, keeping lines of rabbits down. The toothies send a team of squirrels around the flank to silence him. I caught their advance and set up position behind him; started popping one nutmouth after another. Everyone they sent got put down. Eventually we started working together. He maintains the automatics, and I keep the distance threats from getting close enough to be an issue.”

“I didn’t think we had a dedicated sniper. That’s what they told me, anyway.”

“Oh, I’m not one,” she says, although I see her happiness at being compared to one. “I’m just good at long shots.”

“Yeah. I hear you regularly pull off seven hundred meters.”

“Who’s been talking?”

“You know how it is. Word gets around.”

“Good optics and an amazing weapon,” she says with a wink. “I can’t do the klick-and-a-half-all-day stuff that a true sniper can, but at seven, I can make reliable kills. Much past nine, and I’m hoping like hell I can tag ‘em. It’s like training, right? Where they made you make five hundred with the L5. They know in the field you’ll be inside of three most all the time.”

“Most of my days were within a hundred. That was on the days when they weren’t in my lap.” I look down into the waist-high grass we’re cutting through. It feels kind of good brushing against my lower legs. Soothing, somehow.

“Gara,” she says with a shudder. “I hate having them that close.”

“Me too. It just happens that way. I wind up in the middle of them and then the shooting starts.”

“Have you spent much time talking to Sergeant Sharn?”

“I’ve spoken more to you on this march than I’ve spoken to anyone since landfall,” I admit. Her brow arches again.

“Shy, are we?”

“Not really. I just do my job and go home, you know?”

She nods and I can see in her eyes that she knows. I’ve seen that look before on Folk who have been in it. It’s that look that tells you, I’ve been where you are and I know what you’re thinking, but having someone else around doesn’t automatically mean they’re going to disappear. Yeah, sometimes they do, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s okay to let someone in.

“Well, he has a thing for getting in real close,” she adds. “You know, like paws-on kind of close.”

“I much prefer not touching their kind. Takes forever to get the stink out.”

“Right? That’s why I like to keep them at range.”

“Can’t say as I disagree with that idea. With any luck I’ll just get to sit back and hand you magazines.”

“You should come hang out with us some night,” she offers suddenly. She sounds surprisingly sincere, and I can tell it was a spur of the moment decision to, in essence, ask me out.

“I don’t get out much,” I hear myself reply, and if I could kick myself in the face for that, I would. About a dozen times.

“First drink is on me.”

I shake away the image of body shots inspired by her last comment and shuffle the rifle again, flipping it on the sling so that it hangs over my right shoulder and points to the ground. I’m trying to think of something witty to say, something that won’t come out like, “Ogglebooglewogwog” if I manage to speak at all.

“I should warn you,” she continues, looking directly at me as she walks. “I don’t give up easy.”

“Then you should know I’m from a backwater town and I have really cheap tastes. That whole ‘first drink’ thing might end up costing you three seconds’ pay.”

She smiles and is about to reply.

The ‘click’ is a tiny snick of metal on metal that barely carries to our ears but seems somehow to echo loud as thunder. My hands are in motion, swinging up the rifle and mounting it to my shoulder as my eyes sweep the surrounding area for the toothies. I feel the cold rush of adrenaline through my veins and I am ready for whatever comes.

Or so I think. The muted whimpering sound from my left draws me up short and I turn to see Lissa standing stock-still and looking down at her foot. The clicking sound makes sense now.

“Pressure release. Don’t move,” I tell her. The words are unnecessary. She knows the drill as well as I do. They’re just something I can do.

I touch the microphone feed on my headset, breaking a radio silence that has existed since the third step off the transport four hours ago.

“Mines, mines, mines,” I chant in a husky voice that I hope isn’t a scream. “I say again: Mines. Lissa is on one.”

“Lissa?” Duggan responds. Anything else he has to say is covered by Sergeant Sharn. His frequency locks out the lower-ranking turtle.

“Full stop. Defensive stance. Mag, what can you tell me?”

“Pressure release,” I repeat. I’m kneeling now, and brushing away some of the thick yellow sand. I can see part of the device beneath her foot. I look up into her eyes, smiling in the most reassuring manner I can. I can deal with mines, but this situation was not what I wanted.

“Looks like a Frilltac Nine,” I report. “I’ll take a look at it.” I lay a comforting paw on her lower leg and use my other to cut off the transmitter. Not only do I not need to have the chatter distracting me, I don’t want any of them to hear anything said. The things Folk say when they truly believe they are about to die can be embarrassing if they don’t.

“I’ll get you out of here, Lissa,” I promise.

“Do it and all the drinks are on me,” she says, trying not to stutter. I see her swallowing again and again.

“Well, that’s not much of an offer. Remember? I’m cheap.” I lean over to blow against the dust, sending a cloud of it into my nose and eyes. Whoever planted the Nine was smart. There’s a blob of adhesive covering the hole where I could have safed the device with a wire. Did I mention I have shit for luck?

The first bullet hits her in the chest, just above the line of her breasts. I can hear it hammer into her armor and then she is toppling backward, unable to keep her balance. The sound of the shot rolls in behind the impact, low and loud. Without thinking, I grab her foot and press it as hard as I can to the fuse, throwing my own weight atop it as I hear her body hit the ground. She makes a strange, creaking noise as she fights to regain her breath. As she twists to fight the sudden pain, I keep wrestling her foot.

“Lissa, stop!” I tell her. Her boot is trying to slip from my grasp. “Stop moving or you’ll kill us both!”

Around us the entire force has opened up in a comforting display of weapons fire, and I can hear the sharper reports of toothies answering with shots of their own. I focus on the task at paw, blocking out all the sounds as best I can.

She is breathing again, with a thick wheezing noise as part of it. Based on the shot I heard, it’s got to hurt a lot. Probably dented the sheathing of her armor. She has stopped fighting me, and for that I’m grateful. I change my grip and lever my body into a partial rise, lifting my bulk away from the hole I have made. It takes a moment to get back to the semi-clear access I had before, and working with only one paw makes it even harder.

“M-Mag?” she chokes out.

“No. You’re not gonna die, so the answer is no.”

I hear her wheeze. Faster and shallower than before. She is starting to hyperventilate, and I can tell she’s about to speak again. I cut her off.

“Too many times. Too damned many times, Lissa. Always asked to get a final message to a sister, or a husband, or a fellow troop. Not this time,” I say, digging in my pocket. With a snick, the switchblade flicks open and I set to work on the adhesive.

“This time,” I continue, prying at the blob. It starts to give way and then cracks. A chunk falls away and I redouble my attack – on it as well as on my plans. “We’re making it home. I’m gonna take you out and we’re gonna have a drink. We’re gonna talk. I’m gonna tell you shitty jokes and you’re gonna laugh even though they suck. And then I’m gonna walk you home and when we get there, I’m gonna kiss you goodnight, and I don’t give two fucks if Duggan himself is standing there. Even he isn’t stopping me.”

The plug snaps free and I yelp out in elation. I paw around in my pouches until I find the little pack of spare parts. There’s a spring in there that should do the trick quite nicely. I rip the pack open with my teeth and the contents scatter into the dirt. I can taste the yellow dust as I grip one end of the spring in my teeth to straighten it. It has a metallic flavor, but I guess that could be from the spring I’m chewing on.

“You’d better,” I hear from Lissa as I slide the stiffened wire into the safety. It goes through to the other side and my confidence goes up a thousand points. I don’t have the specialized knowledge that a demo crew would, but I do know my job. I bend the wire so it can’t come back out. If I’m successful, at least no one else will have to worry about this particular little banger.

I shove Lissa’s foot away with all the force I can muster. If the Nine goes off she should be protected by me being in position above the explosion. A second that feels like an eternity later and I whoop in triumph.

“Get up and get in the fight, soldier,” I tell her, pointing to her rifle.

She grabs me by the strap over my left shoulder and drags me close. I taste her breath for the second before her lips touch mine. There is no deep passion, no promise of undying love, but there is a feeling that passes between us in the brief contact. I know for sure the crush is alive and well, just as much as she is.

“I didn’t want to wait,” she says.

Before I can answer, the barrel of her rifle passes by my head and my world becomes a blur of sound as she cooks it off. Behind me, the rabbit she has shot falls aside with an empty space where its brain was.

I roll over, shoulder the rifle, and rise into a crouch, seeing a dozen of the toothies popped up from their hidey holes. I flip off the safety and go to work.

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

“You all right, there, Sarge?”

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

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

“Always.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great! So now I’m a waste?”

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

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

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

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

“No one is.”

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

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

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

“So what’s the plan?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

“You think?”

“Educated guess.”

“Thanks, boss.”

VonHogan raised his coffee mug in salute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Duggan?”

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

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

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

“I… I have a date.”

“No shit.”

“Nope.”

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

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

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

“Her family. They’re Toleans.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, I appreciate –“

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

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

“It is?”

“Yeah. Extra crab. She’ll like it.”

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

“Like what?”

“Me and Lissa. We aren’t –“

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah? Something good?”

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

“Thanks, Sarge. We’ll be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, ma’am. Just call me Zeke.”

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

“Maureen it is, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This one is for you,” he said.

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

“I know. I did, though.”

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

“You got me a book with no words?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No guns would be good,” Fiona said.

“If you like rats.”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you learned agility?” Sean asked.

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

Then it came.

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

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

“I’m a sergeant with ArCorp Security.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t be anyone else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Tolenacht.”

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

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

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

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

“Daddy!”

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

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

“Thank you,” Colleen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applause came from the next room.

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

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

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

Zeke smiled as he found victory on yet another battlefield.

 

After Action Report

Sergeant Zeke Sharn

 

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re quiet,” he said.

“Ummm, okay?”

“It’s a compliment,” he assured her.

“In that case, thank you.”

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

“Colleen Goodwin.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The laugh? Or just the tension breaking?”

“Yep.”

“Glad I could help.”

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

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

“But not you?”

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

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

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

“Ah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zeke?”

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

“Really?”

“Please?”

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

<<<END>>>

Fiction Fridays – (Changes)

 

Zeke

Zeke’s memories of the war were filled with blood and fire, and there was so much of it that plagued his mind on any of the long nights. Oh, there had been camaraderie, of course, but those happy moments were small in comparison to the horrors that had come from the ratholes and the slippery, stinking close combat that had come to dominate his dreams.

His claws, wet and dripping with blood and ichor that he did not want to remember. Ears pounding with the continued gunfire. Fur stained a deep brown up both of his arms from the quantity of blood he had spilled.

He looked at the papers and took another long drink of his coffee. The writing was small but his eyesight was still keen. He knew what he was doing. It just felt strange, going back into the world that had spawned his nightmares.

“It will be different this time,” he said aloud. His lies echoed in the apartment.

There was little to slow the sound. He sat in a simple chair beside a small table. A vidscreen was on the wall but had never been turned on in the whole time he had occupied the space since arriving on this planet. The kitchen was where he spent most of his active time, cooking and eating at the short stone-topped bar, and then cleaning in preparation for the next meal. Beyond that he had a latrine and a shower, and a bed that was far too comfortable for an old campaigner. His clothes took up nearly no space in the large chest of drawers inside the bedroom.

“Fuck it,” he said, giving up the fight for excuses. The pen made thick black lines as he scribbled his name in the blocks.

Seven signatures and nineteen sets of initials later, and he was through. He picked up the comm and dialed the preset.

“Zeke Sharn,” he said in a flat tone when the other end of the call opened. “Come and get it. I signed.”

He closed the comm, cutting off the honeyed words that spilled from the other party. He drained the rest of the coffee and headed for the bathroom, dropping his clothes on the floor on the way in. Brilliant white LEDs lit his muscled form in automatic response to his entry. Scars formed a roadmap of bitter memories across his exposed flesh, and they stood out in stark relief against his grey fur. He had long since stopped seeing them as anything more than decoration, nothing greater or lesser than the colorful tattoos that had faded through the years.

He stepped into the shower and turned it on as hot as he could stand. He was toweling himself dry when the door chimed. He wrapped a black-and-grey patterned kilt around his hips and walked to the front. The portal opened to reveal a dun-colored dog in a business suit and a tall, lanky cheetah wearing some kind of jumpsuit. He had a holstered pistol at his waist, but these days that wasn’t unusual. It was the beret on the big cat’s head that caught Zeke’s eye, and a moment later a grin stretched his lips up over the rows of sharp teeth.

“Long time, badger-boy,” the cheetah said. Zeke chuckled and nodded, and then stepped back to wave the pair into the apartment.

“Papers are on the table,” he said. The suit went to collect them, and Zeke turned back to the cat. The two slapped a tight grip that turned into a brief hug with emphatic back-slapping.

“Didn’t expect to see you here,” he said. “Hell, I didn’t expect to see you anywhere.”

“I got out too,” the cheetah said. He looked around the room, shaking his head. “Love what you’ve done with the place.”

“You know I’m not much for decoration.”

“Not even a picture, and I’ll wager there’s dust on top of the vid.”

“Not so much,” Zeke said with another grin. “There would be but I keep it clean.”

“Old habits, eh, Sergeant?”

“It’s just Zeke.”

“Not once you sign in under me.”

“You’ve got that kind of pull? I thought this was a corporate gig.”

“It is, and no, I don’t have any stroke. I am, however, gonna tell the big brass that you’re crazier than a gutted weasel and that if you aren’t on my team you’ll cause no end of trouble for them.”

“And they’re going to believe you why?”

“He can sell it,” rumbled the dog. He was approaching the pair once again, tucking Zeke’s paperwork into a leather valise. He extended a paw and Zeke took it.

“Zeke Sharn.” When the dog answered, his words came in a string that had little space between them and tumbled forth at high speed.

“Cyrus. Cyrus Love. Don’t make fun of the name. Welcome to ArCorp. I’m your liaison. I’ll be helping you acclimate to the company. I figured I’d play it cool while you two reunited. Captain VonHogan tells me you saved his life a few times.”

“Angry squirrels.”

Zeke and the cheetah erupted into laughter at a shared memory. After a minute, Zeke shook off the mirth.

“Sorry. I’m a shitty host. Would either of you like some coffee? Water? Or…well, that’s about it.”

“We’re good,” VonHogan said.

“All right, Captain,” he said, emphasizing the title. “That’s gonna take some getting used to. Not just Tarlen any more. Last time I saw you they had you fast tracked for a Sergeant’s slot.”

“A lot happened while you were gone.” The tone was no longer jovial. Now it spoke of horrible memories, the kind with which Zeke was all too familiar, and Zeke hurried to change the subject.

“So when do I start?”

“You are employed as of now, Mister Sharn,” Cyrus explained. “We will take you back to the headquarters building where you will meet with our personnel department for processing. You’ll receive your identification card and your salary and benefits package will be discussed with you at that time.”

Zeke looked at the smirk on the face of the tall cheetah. “What are you hiding?”

“Me? Nothing. Well, mostly nothing. Once you get finished running around and being told how welcome you are in ArCorp, I’m gonna run you down to the armory and get you properly outfitted for training. We’ve got liftoff in thirty days.”

“Liftoff? To where?”

“Metatropic shithole they call Z262. Colony ships are going in and we’re gonna be part of their security.”

“What are they expecting?” Zeke asked. Cyrus stood beside the pair, completely blocked out by both of the warriors.

“Initial data shows some indigenous life similar to dinosaurs, if smaller. Reptilian and amphib, lots of spikes and teeth. That ain’t the good part, though.”

“What is?”

“The colonists are miners. This Z262 place is apparently rich in industrial grade gems. Diamonds and rubies. Emeralds. Sapphires.”

Zeke’s lips peeled back across his sharp teeth again. “Which the rats would love to get hold of for their laser program.”

VonHogan started bouncing on his feet like a child at a party. He mimed a dance. “And that means squirrels. When they show up we’ll be waiting. See why I wanted you?”

Zeke raked a set of claws across his scalp, scratching at the tips of his ears. “What makes you think I want to play again, Tarlen?”

The cheetah laughed and turned to look at the suited dog. “You know, Cyrus, in this universe you can change a magazine, a diaper, or even a river’s course if you want. But the one thing nobody can change is the fact that Zeke Sharn hates squirrels. This time, he just gets paid better for killing them.”

“Z262 is thick with gems,” Cyrus repeated. “It is probable that there will be an incursion of some kind once the mine is established.”

Zeke shook his head. He knew he would soon be plunged back into the depths of the same fighting that haunted his dreams. He had known it from the moment he spoke with the ArCorp recruiter. VonHogan was right, though. Given half a chance, Zeke would go after squirrels even if he wasn’t being paid. He excused himself and ducked into the bedroom. He grabbed the only things there that mattered. The beret that matched the one VonHogan was wearing went up onto the top of his angular, striped head and the knife that had been his constant companion for years went into the waist of the kilt. Everything else he simply abandoned, walking away from this parody of a life with no regard for it whatsoever.