Fiction Fridays – (Changes)
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.”
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.”
“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.