Story Work

I told Jinx before we headed out on this mission that our combined bad luck was gonna get the whole crew fucked, but as usual, no one listened to me. As she runs by in a crouch, equipment weighing her lithe body down while she makes her way through the shrieking laser fire to the makeshift piece of cover Varr has dropped behind, I can’t help but wonder whether next time someone will pay attention. 

I’m muzzle-down in the hot sand, switching out for a new magazine as she goes past me. She’s got her weapon in one paw and a can of ammo for Varr’s MG in the other, responding to the big bear’s call for additional rounds. He’s good for suppression, I’ll say that, but I’m glad I’m on the same team as Duggan. Even though the tortoise is certifiably whacko, he does tend to run a little conservative with his ammunition. That makes it much more likely that he will have more of it when the final wave comes. Varr, on the other paw, sometimes seems to pour his out there like he’s in a training bay and will always have more at the ready.

I hear the sharp whistling mixed with the disturbing screams of the zap guns. 

“Incoming!” I shout, wriggling lower into the sandy depression. I’ll be scrubbing the yellow dirt from my hide for a week, but that’s a small price to pay if I can avoid pulling fragments of metal out of my ass.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Jinxie dive the last three meters to the pile of rocks where Varr is based, sliding across the sand and stone and ending up slamming her head into the bear’s massive boot. 

Then the first of the mortar rounds is impacting and I’m not watching her any more. Twenty meters out and on my one o’clock. A gout of yellow sand spews skyward, mixed with the filthy black smoke and chemical stench of their explosive. Another hit, five meters closer but more to my three, and I hear metal whicker overhead.

Candi is up now, Varr’s machinegun spewing streams of cover fire, and the MM8 in her paws is chuffing out round after round. Five, six, seven, I see before she drops back to the ground and hunkers her stripes down in the same abrasive yellow dirt as I am buried in.

Her grenades detonate as they strike, frags and incendiaries, and the mortars fall silent as a nightmare of fragmented wire and burning chemical sweeps across the area she had targeted. The rounds hit so closely to one another that their effects overlap, and any toothie caught in that mess isn’t going to be an issue for a while. 

I socket the Victor back onto my shoulder plate and look through the rear sight. A flicker of movement beside a rock is enough and the weapon pushes back at me as I squeeze the trigger. Downrange, my round caromes off the stone and into the distance with a sharp whine. Two lasers open up in response, neither of them coming close to me, but both drawing return fire from others in the team. At three hundred meters plus, we’re none of us sure of a clean hit, but the bullets and pulses from either side are just as lethal as if we were on top of one another.

The rats are buried in behind a wide stone formation, and even with Candi bombing the left flank and Sergeant Sharn and Diem working their way to the right, there’s a lot of cover between the rats and my bullets, which, to be honest, pisses me off.

We haven’t even reached this supposed mine we’re headed for and already we’ve got toothies entrenched and waiting for us. How did they pick up our route? They set up the ambush where we would have the least available cover, and I gotta give them points for that, but again, no one was supposed to know our travel plans. I would have waited until our truck was right on top of the position, but no one ever said rats were smart. Well, I guess they did, but, yeah, whatever.

I pop three more rounds at the rocks covering the toothies. Best to keep their heads down. Even as I ride that recoil I know Diem and Sergeant Sharn are going to work their way around and flank the opposition. Diem is like a ghost when he does his thing, and if he can lead Sergeant Sharn into those stinking ranks, the two of them will cut through the fur like a bullet through a melon.

The sounds of the fight are all around, but in the middle of it I pick out the heavier, flatter sound of Lissa’s long rifle. She’s off somewhere to my right, next to Duggan, I’m sure. Her bullets are gonna be hitting their marks. At three hundred she’s just getting warmed up. Pike will be holed up with Nik, keeping a watch over the medic until he’s needed. The civilians are all cowering behind or under the crawler, and I’d just as soon that’s where they stay. 

A sudden shift in the fire shows that one of the toothie bastards has noticed Diem and Sergeant Sharn moving in on them. Seems that all of a sudden they’re more interested in pouring their fire on the scouts. 

I key the mic on my helmet as sand erupts into fragments of pink glass in front of me, the laser blast hitting far too close to home for my liking. “Charlie Three, Echo Five. Hit that rock formation. Cut us a hole!”

I get a click in the earbud. I suppose that’s Pike responding. No one else seems to be tying up unit air time.

I pour on the heat, keeping the rats in front of me down. Ejecting the spent magazine, I fish out a spare from my chest rig.

“Hotel, Charlie Three. Super-heavy on three,” I hear over the push. 

Super-heavy? What does that even mean? The seconds are in motion and there’s no time to wonder.

One. I shove the mag into my Victor and seat the first round.

“Echo One and Two clear and evading,” Sergeant Sharn speaks into the net. I see them moving, dodging laser fire as the horrific shrieks of the zap guns cut through the air like saw blades. One of the brilliant crimson pulses tags Diem as he is twisting, ripping away a piece of the rucksack that bounces just above his tail but hopefully not injuring the big leopard.

Two. Candi stands again, fires another grenade toward the left flank. I put two quick rounds out. No real target yet, just more suppression. The stone ahead of us is thick and bluish-gray, and the chance that I’ll get a shot through one of the gaps is minimal, but anyone behind the feature is going to want to keep their heads down.

Three. From behind me I hear the roar of ignition followed by the hiss-crack of a rocket passing overhead. Spent fuel particles fall onto my exposed fur. Someday, someone is going to do a study on these chemicals, and they’ll find out that idiot dogs like me were exposed to more deadly crap than even the toothies could come up with. Then the corp will be all, “Oh, we’re sorry. We didn’t know rocket fuel was bad for you. Sorry about your lungs filling up with slag, and of course that pup you had with eleven eyes. Here. Have an extra check for your service. That will make up for it.”

The rocket slaps into the base of the stonework and detonates with a thunder that takes me by surprise. The flash is like staring through a telescope into a sun and I blink rapidly to clear my vision. Out of reflex I clench down, firing shot after shot in the direction I was last aiming, hoping to keep at bay anything that might approach until I can clear the brilliant blue afterimages from my vision. Beneath me the ground vibrates like a plucked guitar string. Fur ruffles and skin prickles as a shock wave passes over me. The sand around me feels alive for a moment, moving and crawling in response to the blast. It’s in my muzzle and I’m coughing and sneezing before I can even stop myself. The Victor locks open and I flick the magazine release without thinking. I don’t hear the box hit the ground. All I do hear is a whine. A wave of heat sweeps past next, so hot that my eyes tear and for a moment I’m that stupid cub again, opening the oven to get at the roast Mama was making. It makes the afternoon heat of the colony a pleasant thing by comparison. The air is nothing but the scents of chemical explosive and dust, and the sky darkens around us in response to the tons of sand blown skyward. The rain begins then. Not of water, but of small bits of stone facade and sand, mixed with random pieces of toothie attack squad and their equipment. Chunks of harder things bounce off the ground and ping off my helmet as I look back toward the rat barricade.

Rather, where it used to be.

The space before us is barren now, a scorched thing of shattered ground and smoking ruin. 

All the shooting stops. The sudden lack of noise is a palpable thing. It feels creepy, like that moment in the vids where the cubs are looking for the killer in the woods and you just know it’s too quiet, so something is going to happen soon.

Time to take the chance. I stand up from the fighting position, turning slowly to take in the sight of our troops all looking in wonder at the devastation. Completing my scan, I see Pike beside the crawler. He’s got an oblong squared tube in his paws. Shorter than I expect to see, the tube is also as bright red as a zap gun pulse, as opposed to the dull gray of a Mark Six.

“What is that?” I call, but my voice is tinny and distant to my own ears. Pike doesn’t even seem to hear me. He’s still staring at the wasteland he has created, that lopsided grin of his twisting his muzzle. He sees me looking his way, points to the scorch mark and replies in words I can’t make out. I swear to Gann he looks like he’s trying not to dance.

It feels like forever before everyone is back to normal. By the time the ringing in my ears has quit, we’ve rooted out the pawful of remaining rats that were not behind the stone wall and put them down. Sergeant Sharn has one low-grade officer alive that he’s questioning with Jinx and Diem, and Jinx ordered me to – in her words – “take care of what needs to be done” until they were finished. 

“Well, I just thought we needed something with a bit more punch,” Pike says when I question him. “Back in the camp, before we left, I talked to Brother Vincent from the Garan Temple. He took a StarBreach and modified it a bit for us. Little bit more boom-boom, yeah?”

“First off, when did we get a StarBreach and why?” I ask. The rockets are made for shattering the internal bulkheads of starships in boarding actions. I can’t even remember the last time I saw one. I’m damned sure there wasn’t one on our equipment lists.

Pike grins even wider. “On the trip over here, I spent some time playing Faraway with the Marine reaction team on the ship.”

“Let me guess: you never bothered to tell them that you aren’t new to the game?”

“Well, I’m not exactly a professional! I mean, any more.”

“So when you played, someone gambled away a rocket?” I ask, returning to the original question. I gesture toward the empty red tube that is now propped against the trailer.

“Sort of.”

“Sort of? What’s that mean, Pike?”

“Well, we brought six planetside,” he says. 

“And your dumb ass wonders why I don’t play tiles with you.”

In the crater left behind by Pike’s rigged StarBreach, Duggan is kicking around bits of rubble. He says it’s a search for intel, but I’m figuring he’s looking for anything still usable. We’ve all scavenged here and there, and considering the toothies seem to be here in larger numbers than ArCorp had estimated when they sent us, we might well need everything we can find. Then again, detonating some massively upgraded rocket on that spot keeps the chance of finding things low. Given that it’s Duggan, of course, it might also be that he’s looking for ears or paws to tie to the front of the crawler.

“So what kind of modifications did the Garan make?”

“Increased yield mostly. He reduced the shaped charge effect in exchange for more coverage. It will still cut armor but not as well as it was designed to. He also said it’s got a lot more range.”

I nod and turn back to the scene, taking a moment to spit sandy saliva from my mouth before ensuring that everyone is taking the time to replace the ammunition and equipment they expended. Having a truck with our supplies on it is pretty convenient, and I, for one, plan on making the most of it. Boxes hold spent magazines and empty casings recovered from the dirt. When we shut down for the night, we’ll work on cleaning and reloading the mags. The casings we’ll take back to the colony for Rust to reload. 

I look around and take stock of the Folk on the team. Most of us are just running a simple ruck with enough to hold us over for a short span. There are pros and cons to that attitude, and it’s important to look at both sides of that particular coin. If we get isolated away from the crawler for an extended period we’re operating on limited supply, and if we lose the vehicle altogether we’re dead out here. Still, we’ve been enjoying the luxury for as long as we can. Given the nature of this hit, I’m thinking it’s time to leave that behind.

I see Nik working his way in our direction and flick a paw his way. The rangy wolf jogs over, his helmet strap flapping under his chin.

“Hey, Mag,” he says. “You hurt?”

“Not me. We got anything?”

“Mostly overpressure issues from Pike’s rocket thing. Diem’s having some hearing problems but they should fade within a day or two. Candi took a round in the chest. Armor stopped it, and she’s good. Didn’t even knock her down.”

A lack of casualties is great news, and he chuckles when I tell him so. We slap gloved paws and he is off again, checking up on the rest of the crew. 

“You all right, there?” Pike asks as I scribble notes on a pad. The page is dirt-smeared and my pencil skips a couple times. I can still read it, though, so I don’t really care. It’s just there to keep the information clear for the brass.

“Never better. Do me a favor, though?”

“What ya need?”

“Don’t waste those big bitches, if you brought more than one. Stick to the Sixes. Save the monsters for the moment it all goes to shit. Good call breaching the stronghold there, though,” I add, waving a paw toward the smoking wreck. 

I don’t want him thinking he did something wrong. It’s difficult to think of these things. I have to make sure he gets what I’m saying but I don’t want to come across the wrong way. I try to remember the times someone in charge told me things and did it without making me feel stupid or put upon. It’s way past time I stop being in charge of anything.

“I brought two. I didn’t know there would be a reason for them, but I figured we couldn’t go wrong if we needed a hammer. Besides, I kinda wanted to see what it could do.”

I give him a good-natured shoulder check and leave him to keep track of the resupply. 

The civilians have emerged from beneath the crawler and are holding their own little conference. It’s easy to tell that they don’t know what to make of the events of the ambush. None of them is injured when I check, though, and they’re quick to tell me Nik already took a look at them. I take a moment to assure them that everything is all right. It can’t be pleasant for someone not used to what we do to be caught up in it so blatantly. For us, the ambush is business as usual. For the mining specialists and sci-techs, it’s a glimpse of their own mortality they didn’t want. A couple of assurances go a long way toward keeping them from completely losing it.

From her place about sixty meters out, Lissa smiles around her sharp little teeth and flashes me a paw sign to check my welfare. I reply with the twin claws and she does the same. She jerks her head toward where Duggan is stumping toward her from the rubble and gives me the same sign. Sweet. At least I won’t have to check on him.

Varr is as problematic as I expect. Angry and frothing, stomping his giant feet back and forth. I already see a circle cut into the sand where he’s pacing.

“Fucking Pike stole -” he begins as I walk up. I stiff-arm a paw into his chest and cut him off.

“My call, not his.” I let my lips peel back. “This isn’t about who gets credit for what. It’s about saving our collective asses. You want to play one-up games, start walking. It’s a long trip back to the camp, but if you take it slow you’ll make it.”

“Fuck you, Mag,” the big grizzly snarls, spitting down at me. The gobbet sails past onto the ground with a thick slapping noise. “You ain’t in charge.”

“He kinda is, honey,” Candi says. She’s on her knees, collecting spent casings from Varr’s machinegun for the reloaders. “Jinxie told him to -”

“I heard,” he says, eyes still fixed on mine. He’s looking for a weakness, but I’m past the point of caring. He’s the stereotyped grizzly, full of raw fury and that bluster that leads to a roaring charge. I learned a long time ago that things generally go better for you if you don’t let the anger get that big a lead. Up this close, I can smell his frustration as clearly as the reek of his breath. He’s near to going off, and if I don’t reset him, he’ll be on Pike’s ass and he’ll stay there. We can’t afford internal feuds.

“Calm down,” I tell him. “Think. Use that big head for something besides a helmet rest. Somehow the toothies knew we were coming. They had us pegged to location and travel directions. Placed a reinforced ambush right in our way. You think we ain’t gonna see more of them? Like they’re gonna magically show up here and nowhere else?”

“They knew?” His voice is low now, and he looks around with a sudden suspicion.

“Yeah. Ambushes don’t just happen.”

Candi does a really good job of looking uninterested, her claws scraping empties into a mesh bag. Sand runs from the little holes like it’s measuring the time we have left until something else goes wrong. Of course, having me and Jinx both on this trip pretty much guarantees it won’t be long. 

“You think we’ve got a symp on board?” she asks, never even glancing up. I don’t need to look to know that her lips never twitched as she spoke. We’ve all held conversations like this in the past: low volume, no movement to give away our words, and a disinterested manner that will make an onlooker shift their view elsewhere.

“Could be. Here, maybe. My coin says back on site.”

The thought sickens me. How could anyone side with the stinking rats over our own kind? Setting us up to get greased on the way to this stupid fucking mine? Everybody’s in this for the profit. Doesn’t take much to understand that there’s profit to be made by betraying the mission as well, but anyone stupid enough to think the toothies will pay off is in for a rude awakening.

“Who do you think it is?”

“No clue. Each one of us can only be sure of one set of intentions. Anything past yourself, well, that’s just assumption.”

I’d like to think I can trust everyone on the team. For that matter, I’d like to trust the civilian complement as well. It’s just not that easy. I know I’m not the one who gave us up. My heart tells me to trust Lissa as well. Duggan and Sergeant Sharn are so full of hate I figure they’re good to go, but even those decisions I base on assumptions about their character and motives. This could get ugly real quick.

Varr hefts his MG and pats at the receiver with one enormous paw. “I’ve got something for when we figure it out.”

“We all do,” I tell him. “For now, restock your ammo. Start carrying an extra belt, ‘cause I’m thinking we’ll have more ears to count than you can carry soon enough. Candi, I want you with a full complement of grenades. We’re all gonna have to go back to a full loadout.”

It’ll be hot and uncomfortable, and everyone will gripe about it, me included. But at the end of the day, when the toothies come knocking again — and it’s obvious that they will — we need to be be gunned up sufficiently to make them regret it.

I take the bag of empties from Candi so she’ll have both paws free. The sling bag full of grenades the tigress wears on her hip hangs loose for now. She’ll go back to a full vest of them after this. The thought of her vest draws my eye to her armor, where a streak of discoloration marks an impact point. 

“How’s the hit?” I ask, gesturing with my chin. She looks down to the blackened mark on her chest plate, sneers around long teeth in response.

“Good shot, whoever they were, but they’ve got those light carbines. The plates stopped it cold. If it had been a zap, it might have even hurt.”

I grin at her bravado. “Keep an eye on it? Tell Nik if it -”

“Yeah. I got it.”

“All Hotel elements, Echo Three.” Lissa’s voice on the unit push. I swivel my head her way to see her down on her ass, rifle propped against one upthrust knee, facing out to the east-northeast as she sights through the optics attached to the weapon. Duggan has finally cleared the rubble pile and  is standing beside her. His machinegun hangs loose on its sling, so whatever she’s got can’t be too bad.

“All Hotel elements,” she repeats. “Shrieker herd inbound. Looks like they will pass without incident.”

I hate those things and that stupid sound they make when they’re fighting or playing or whatever else they do. I don’t know who decided to call them Shriekers. It’s not the best description of the barking/hooting/squealing noise that comes out of them. Still, when someone says Shrieker, we all know what they mean. Half a meter of angry bird-lizard with sharp claws and too much appetite. Singles, they’re some scary stealthy little things. Two or three at a time, and you’d better not be alone. Put them in a group, though, running and making noise, and they’ve got all the subtlety of a shotgun to the groin.

I key up. “Echo Three, Echo Five. Divert them if you gotta.”

“Echo Three clear.”

She knows her job and everyone knows she knows her job, but if I put my name on the order it falls on me if anything goes wrong. At some damn point Jinx needs to come out and take over again. I’m not meant to lead. I’m just a dog with a rifle.

Sweeping up most of my empties takes only a minute or so. One of these days, I need to put a bag on the side of the rifle to catch them and save myself some labor. The box full of casings on the truck is nearly overflowing, and this is the first interaction we’ve had. I scratch down a note for the brass that we might need to watch our ammunition use a little more closely. Special note to discuss it with Varr. I crack open a case of Victor magazines and fill the carriers on my vest. I drop a couple of spares into a pocket as well. A little extra weight, sure, but worth it should it all come to a head.

It hits me that I will need to remember to remind our interrogation team to resupply as well. With that, the thought comes again that Jinx really needs to come take her op back. She and Sergeant Sharn are the ones that should be doing this. Not having a Lieutenant along to lead is weird, and it’s taking some getting used to.

“Echo Three firing.”

The flat crack of Lissa’s rifle. Downrange, one of the feathered reptilian things stumbles and falls. I can’t see the detail, but knowing Lissa I’ll wager she took it in the head. The others scatter for a second before merging back into a herd. They’re angling a few degrees away from us now, their path avoiding the twitching corpse. If they’ll avoid trampling it, we can add the thing to the pot tonight.

Candi and Varr are working their way back to the crawler, both of them looking at the rest of the crew with suspicion obvious even from a distance. Maybe I shouldn’t have told him. He’s still got that glaring angry I-want-to-smash-something look in his eyes. Hopefully I redirected him from his anger at Pike.

By the rubble, I see Sergeant Sharn stand up from where they are working to interrogate the last rat. His head swivels until he fixes on me. He looks about as happy as I expect, which is to say not at all.

I spit again into the yellow sand and take off at a jog before he even has to raise a paw. I reach the badger’s side as he’s taking a long drink from his canteen. He looks disgusted, which I completely understand. He lowers the polymer jug from his mouth and extends it to me. A mouthful of warm water feels good going down and helps to cut the sensation of dust wiggling around in my mouth. I forgot to make sure everyone was drinking enough. Was I supposed to check that? There’s a reason I shouldn’t be in charge.

“What’s the word?” I ask, trying to focus on something other than my own shortcomings. His reply is a bitter growl from behind rows of sharp teeth.

“We got fucked. Someone passed on our info.”

A glance past him shows Diem and Jinx rifling through the pockets of the rat. It doesn’t seem to be offering any resistance. When I get a glimpse of its sightless eyes the reason for that is clear.

“Toothie say who?”

“Negative. Just that they knew we were coming, and they know where we’re headed.”

“We gotta reroute.”

He nods, tilting his helmet back far enough to show the stripes in his fur. One claw worries at an ear and then he’s wiping a palm across his face. When he speaks, he uses his paws to draw lines in the air, illustrating his words.

“Get with the driver. Let’s swing about ten, maybe fifteen, degrees west of our expected pattern. Make a wide loop. Tell him to plan on passing the mine and coming back to it southbound. I want to be far enough from the mine that if they’ve already got there they won’t even hear us passing by. First chance they get to see us should be when we drop in to frag them.”

“We could drop a couple Folk to recon it as we pass,” I suggest. “Diem for sure, maybe Lissa and Duggan?”

His expression is hard when he looks up. “Might just do that. Get some idea of what’s there, and be able to put a spike in a toothie neck if we need it.”

I suck at a tooth and hit the canteen again before passing it back. He looks up at me, dark eyes glittering.

“How are you holding up?”

I chuckle a little. “I’m okay, Sarge. Really wish you and Sergeant Fell would pick someone else to hold it together while you’re busy, but I’m okay.”

“Yeah? Well, tough. We picked you ‘cause you’re the right dog for the job.”

“I keep forgetting things, though.”

“And next time you won’t. Give me a sitrep on what’s going on.”

I spend the next couple minutes updating him as he watches me from under the rim of his helmet. I know he’s taking in my words but he’s also evaluating my performance. Behind him, Diem and Jinx abandon the corpse and confer briefly between themselves.

“Good job,” Sergeant Sharn says when I finish. “You’re taking care of your troops. Don’t beat yourself up over minutiae. Now I want you to tell me one thing you think we could be doing better right this minute.”

“Physically, I’ll go with cover,” I say without hesitation. “I see the need for interrogating the prisoner, but that little voice in my head is shouting that we should be doing it in the back of a moving vehicle. We’ve been exposed here for too long. We need to be moving or in an established position of cover. If they drop in a sniper on us, we’re done for.”

“What made you say ‘physically’?” Jinx asks, pivoting in place to fix me with her gaze. 

“Cover is a physical thing.”

“Yeah, but why did you emphasize that? You could have just said ‘cover’ and be done, but you didn’t.”

Why did I? I wrack my brain for a second.

“Folk have other needs beyond physical,” I catch myself saying all of a sudden. The words come out in a rush, and I try not to attribute them to anything or anyone in particular.

“Troops sometimes need someone to keep their spirits up and keep them focused in the right direction. It’s easy to get caught up in petty shit and miss the mission.”

“So you’re saying we should examine their emotional needs as well?” she asks, practically spitting to clear the word ‘emotional’ from her muzzle. The face she makes is not pleasant.

“If you want to call it that, Sergeant. We’ve got a varied crew here, including a group of civs, and they’re already hyped ‘cause the toothies hit us like this. Emotionally, they’re gonna be on edge. They’re gonna want to lash out, and if you don’t address it, that lashing out will be internal. I’ve been there and seen that more than a few times, and it’s never pretty.”

“Maybe we should get them milk and cookies with their chow?”

I’ve never seen Jinx like this. She’s confrontational and harsh, and that’s not like her, unless you’ve pissed her off. Images scroll through my head as I try to figure out what I might have done wrong. To buy myself time, I shrug and point toward the dead Shrieker.

“I was thinking more along the lines of fresh meat.”

The serval’s head quirks to the side, letting me see the religious symbols she has painted along the rim of her helmet to ward off bad luck. She lets out a quiet giggling sound. Not what I expect to hear, but it beats a dressing-down.

“You think that will help?”

“Can’t hurt. Better than field rations.”

Sergeant Sharn looks up at her. “He’s getting a handle on it.”

She nods and looks back at me. Her eyes are still hard, as if she’s troubled by something, but she doesn’t look angry any more. 

“So you’re learning,” she tells me. “Leading these Folk isn’t easy.”

“That’s a fact. I can’t even remember to tell them to drink more water.”

“But you made sure everyone was all right, made a blanket decision to increase the armament to patrol level so we wouldn’t be caught with our asses hanging out, and took the time to evaluate our tactical position. Folk can remember their own water.”

I look at her and all I can do is stare. I didn’t think of it that way. I guess that’s why they’re the ones in charge.

“Well, he’s yours,” she says. Sergeant Sharn lets out an exaggerated sigh.

“Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

I look back down at the badger and he has a paw extended. I see the pin before his words even register.

“We talked with the Captain before we left.”

Two angled black stripes of metal lay in his paw.

“Congratulations, Corporal.”

It’s been a while since I posted anything here, and that’s about to change (’cause, y’know, this is a new post and all).

So, here it is: On October 3, the new book drops!

Thorn in Her Side is book #8 in the Tulsa Immortals series. Created by Audra Hart, the TI stories tell the tales of a group battling supernatural threats while hiding in plain sight as the Twin Ravens Motorcycle Club out on the back roads of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Twin Ravens include vampires, witches, shifters, demigods, and even a dragon or two. Each of them fights to protect the world from darkness, but also to find their own little bit of happiness at the same time. Penned by Audra herself, as well as the amazing talents of Elaine Barris, A.M. Halford, and now yours truly!


Zak Thorne is a sorcerer. He’ll gladly tell you he’s not a good one, or that he only knows parlor tricks. If you ask, he will conjure up a tiny flame to light your smoke, or a breeze on a hot day. He’ll even cool off your beer for you, as long as you’ve got a spare one for him. His abilities far outstrip what he will reveal, however, and the smart-assed spellslinger known in the MC as Thorn will soon need them all.

Today is Hallowe’en, and for Thorn, that’s the worst day of the year. It’s the anniversary of the brutal murder of his family, and the memories drive him deeper into the bottom of a bottle to hide from the pain of the past. As if that isn’t bad enough, he wakes up to find out that his one night stand isn’t what she seems, that there are bounties on his head for his past behavior, and that the day is just going to go downhill from there.


Lori Dane is the one bright spot in Thorn’s existence. His best friend since they were old enough to know what best friends were, she’s blossomed into her own kind of power. Lori handles the legal matters that crop up for the Twin Ravens, which is not a small list. When it comes to Thorn, though, she has her hands well and truly full just dealing with his attitude.



When life throws a new set of curves at the pair, they’ll have to come together as never before to escape, and Thorn’s revelations under fire will strike him with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Will he finally figure out what he’s been missing all these years?



Thorn in Her Side is available for pre-order now, and will drop on October 3rd. Get your copy reserved today! Click HERE for the link!


Find more delightful reads by Elaine Barris!

Dig on the sultry works of A. M. Halford!

Read up on the tasty tales of Audra Hart!

Also, click the LINK for more Tulsa Immortals goodness!


E Pluribus Unum

+++Author’s Note: So I’m stumbling through some old files and I ran across this one. I wrote it many many years ago and it’s just been chilling on a disk ever since. I had it show up online a couple of places, but now it seems to be lost to time. It’s a little bit of Warhammer 40,000 fic I cobbled together one night. It’s pretty rough, but then again, so is my brain. Y’all enjoy!+++


Nobody told me dying would be like this.

Laying on my back on the ground, blood soaking through my uniform shirt.

I can still feel.

The butt of my lasgun is jammed against my hip. The air is creeping over the hole in my chest, cool tendrils caressing me like Alicia’s hair when she rested her head on me. There’s a bit of rock behind my head, not sharp, but sticking up enough to feel.

Alicia. God-Emperor, but I miss her. I wish I’d stayed home instead of signing up.

What happened anyway? What put me down?

Hey, hey, hey! Marauder overhead. Someone’s going to get pasted. Give it to them, flyboys.

Oh, Emperor’s blood, it hurts. Somebody get me a medic! I can’t reach my kit and it hurts so much!

Filthy Eldar bastards! Yeah, we hear you screaming. Hope you’re hurting real bad over there, you pointy-eared freaks. See what you get, messing with Captain Mancara’s boys? That’s right, mutie! You get screwed nine ways over!

There’s sand in my eyes.

Stop standing on me. Hey, idiot! Get off my legs! Come on, bro, don’t stand on me!

There were warning signs on the troopship doors. Why would anyone put warning signs on those doors? ‘CAUTION’. Like the door is more dangerous than what it opens onto. It sure wasn’t for us. Never has been. Back on Uvril III, sixteen guys get cut down by beastmen when the doors open. Don’t remember a single one of them saying he stubbed his toe.

I smell smoke. Chems, too. Burning plastics?

How long am I going to lay here? Is this what eternity feels like? Will I be like this forever? Emperor, no! It can’t be like this.

Ah, listen to that whine….heavy plasma gun cooking off. Autheril. Best shot in the Fourth! That’s showing them, Autie!

He’s been in for what? Seven years? Eight? Came in as a replacement on Shindar Prime. Two years before the Captain notices him and then he goes straight into Support. Stone-cold shooter.

He was with us on Mollak Secundus when the orks landed. Thousands of them. I can still see them as they ran up the hill. That Commissar with us, what was his name? Griza? Griva? Oh, well, he’s dead now, so it doesn’t matter. Standing there yelling orders. Then his arm comes off. Must’ve been thirty rounds hit that man while he stood there looking down at his arm.

Can’t believe I can’t remember his name. Seems like I should remember something like that. A man falls beside you, you should at least know his name.

I can’t feel my legs now. That can’t be good.

Golden Throne, Imperator Ultima, stand with me now in my time of need. Guide me into Your Holy Grace. Let my life be an example and my death be with honour. Let me carry no trace of heresy.

Alicia, I am sorry. I’m sorry I never married you. Sorry we never got to grow old together. Sorry we’ll never watch our children play in the fields.


Las-fire to the east. We were moving east. It’s Imperial guns, too, not Eldar. Get some for me, boys! Looks like I won’t be there at the victory party. Somebody raise a glass for me. To me.

Somebody remember my name…

Holy Father of Mankind, I commend my soul to You. Save me from the taint of Chaos. Guard me always from evil.

Where is the medic? I’m bleeding here!

Stupid. Should have ducked. It was a shuriken cannon. Huh. Now I can remember it. Dark blue armour. Massive crest on the helmet. Boots reinforced, spikes on the heels to hold the heretic in place when it fired. When it shot me. When it killed me.

I’m getting my uniform dirty laying here. I hope they clean me up before they bury me. No point, I guess. They bury you in the dirt anyway.

Why is no one helping me? Oh, Emperor, I never helped the fallen either. Strange it takes something like this to show just how much of a bastard I really am. Did they think this way, too? Did I rush past them to the line, too busy to even offer comfort to the dying? By the Golden Throne, did I step on them?

My name will be inscribed in the Regimental Honor Rolls. I will be remembered.

A medic! Praise the Emperor! Yes, I can feel it! It hurts! Help me, man! Yes, I see your bloody fingers. Two! You’re holding up two fingers! Yes, there’s sand in my eyes, but who cares? Get me a bandage and some Morphex! What the hell are you doing? NO! No, oh Emperor, no, don’t let him close my eyes…

I don’t want to be dead.

Don’t give up on me.

It’s so dark.

Imperial Father of Terra, hold me in Your Holy embrace as I…


“Another one,” noted the Graves Registration Trooper as he examined the stretcher brought to him by the pair of exhausted Guardsmen. “That’s about the four-hundredth one you guys brought up today. Anyone important?”

“Naw,” answered the first Guardsman. “Just another stiff. Bled on me, though.”

Breathing heavily from exertion, his partner nodded to the man from Graves.

“Can ya just take his damned tags so we can throw him on the bus? There’s another two hundred out there,” he griped, jerking his head toward the line of Guardsmen carrying the dead.

“Yeah, yeah,” replied the Trooper. He pulled the tags from around the Guardsman’s neck, snapped them off the chain and slipped them into a handheld auspex that whined and rattled as it absorbed the data stamped on the chip. It made a beeping noise as a rune flashed from red to green and the Graves Trooper removed the tags, jamming them roughly into the mouth of the corpse. A tiny strip of parchment came from the side of the auspex and he casually dropped it into a box with all the others.

He never bothered to look at the name.



++NOTE: “Bait” was a story I wrote a long time back as an entry to a superhero fiction contest at Gordie Laughlin’s ‘Heroic Monkey’ site. Took first with it, so it was a good one to throw out there. It was reprinted over at Freedom Fiction ( about three years ago. I decided to put it here just for posterity’s sake. I hope you enjoy. TMM++



My jacket was smoking. That last shot had come a little too close for comfort. I ducked to the left and rolled across the street, coming up with my back against an alley wall. The wall opposite my position glowed for a second and I jumped and ran down the alley before it could explode. One day I was going to find the Hunter that invented those damned rifles and put my size twelve in his ass.

What have you got?

The voice in my ear made me jump for a second, even as used to it as I had become over the past few months. There’s just something about a quiet voice whispering into your ear while you’re dodging some kind of high-energy discharge weapon that makes you jump.

“Two up, one down. They’ve got phasers.”

It was not the most original name for a weapon, but once the rifles showed up, the name hit the press and in the span of a couple of days it had become common. Of course, with the press now mostly a thing of the past, it was a moot point as to who got the blame for it. On the lucky side, it was pretty rare to run into the things any more. We could put them to good use… if I could get away.

Current location?

“Running like hell down an alley,” I muttered in reply, vaulting over a trash can that was long-since picked clean.

Specifically. It was not a friendly request.

“Northbound from Figueroa somewhere, back behind the old Arby’s, I think.”

Intercept inbound. Link to them on Seventh.

“About time,” I said, skirting around a Dumpster. There was a guy curled up on the other side of it, wrapped in his old fatigue jacket. I cursed aloud as I skidded to a stop. I didn’t have time for this, but I certainly wasn’t abandoning him to the tender mercies of the monsters behind me.

“Come on, pal,” I urged, reaching a hand down to him. “Hunters coming, and they ain’t particular.”

“I got nowhere to go,” he said, looking up at me through glassy eyes. His beard was filthy and unkempt, and he spoke the words with a sense of conviction I had never heard from someone saying they were homeless. I wondered briefly how he had wound up here, in Hunter turf, without being taken. I pushed the question aside and grasped his arm anyway, hoisting him to unsteady feet. He smelled like cheap wine. A lot of it.

“Then you come with me for now. We’ll find you a cookie or something.”

Veil chose that moment to arrive, in his usual manner, erupting into existence from within a lavender-scented cloud of grey smoke. He was side by side with Athena, his head about even with her muscular upper arms. Athena smiled in that dazzling way of hers as she saw me.

“Find yourself a friend, Bait?” she asked. The smile may have been incredible, but there was no emotion at all in the way she termed me ‘Bait’. It was how she saw me.

Who am I kidding? It was who I was. I was of little to no use in a stand-up power fight. I’ve only got the regen to speak of. No strength, no speed, no power blasts, no flight. No offensive capability on a level with any of the known Defenders. I can shoot, though, and Hunters die just like anyone else, if you put enough bullets in them. Cyber had tried to hook me up with some prototype plasma gun or some such right after I started working with the group. At two hundred yards, it hit like a double-barreled shotgun at close range. Looked good at first glance, ‘til you realized it took thirty seconds to recharge and made some God-awful whine while it did so. I figured in thirty seconds I could put one hell of a lot of lead downrange, and I have found the sound of firearms to be psychologically much more comforting than a computerized voice saying, ‘ten seconds to recharge’.

I didn’t bother with a response. I didn’t have to. The two Hunters had entered the alley, and they had the phasers up against their shoulders. Veil gestured and a wall of smoke flared into the space between us and the Hunters. Beams crackled and hissed as they struck the barrier. Luckily, the weapons tend to liberate all their energy on the first thing they hit. Good if you’re behind a smoke wall. Bad if you’re in a crowd of people.

“It won’t last,” Veil said. His voice was calm, but then it always was, when he bothered to speak at all.

“It won’t have to,” Athena said, gripping the Dumpster. She braced herself and heaved, lifting the huge metal box over her head. With a grunt of effort, she threw it over the smoke wall. It crashed to the pavement a second later, accompanied by a yelp of pain.

“That’s got ‘em,” she said happily, bounding past me and my semi-conscious burden. She ran headlong into the now dissipating smoke, passing through it like a swimmer entering water. A scream of horror sounded for a second, then ended abruptly in a choking gurgle. As the smoke cleared, we saw her standing over the downed Hunters. Her foot pinned one to the ground by its furry throat, and she was squeezing the life from the second in a terrifyingly powerful bear hug.

“Three down. Complete,” Veil announced. I knew without looking that he was not speaking to me.

Recall is authorized. Bring any captured weaponry.

“Yeah, ‘cause we figured we’d leave it all laying in the street,” I murmured.

That would be unwise.

“It’s sarcasm, you moron.”

Discontinue it.

“Bite me, Mister Personality.”

“Come on, Evan. Drop it,” Athena ordered, returning to stand near us. She was spattered with blood from the Hunters.

“You can bite me too, Sky Queen,” I said.

“I bite you, you ain’t getting up. You or your new boyfriend.”

I made a cutting motion in the air with my hand. “You may be seven feet tall and blond – which, let’s face it, years ago I would have killed for – but I’m telling you, you keep pushing me and I’ll walk. You can go find your own Hunters. See how that works out for you.”

“We did just fine before you came along,” she defended, sneering down at me. I shrugged with my one unencumbered shoulder and made a show of yawning.

“Yeah? How often can you die, sweetcheeks?” I asked, deliberately turning my back and walking away.

“Thass a weird question,” the old vet I was carrying slurred. “Nobody gets ta die more ‘n once.”

It would have been an odd question back in the day, even for me. Back when life was relatively peaceful, it was probable that nobody would have come up with it. Even back when Doctor Shaitan and his zombie army invaded, there was little actual loss of life (what with the good Doctor being disposed more toward enslaving folks than eating them). Once the Hunters landed, though, all bets were off – as was the whole ‘not eating folks’ arrangement. And God help you if you were one of the ‘powered’ set. I knew Big Blondie wasn’t going to answer me. Even as good as she is at fighting them, she couldn’t play the bait the same way I can.

“Yeah, pal, I know,” I said as Veil created another smoke portal. We stepped in, Athena and Veil coming with us, and the world changed to a kaleidoscope. Everything swirled and twisted, and reality seemed to roll over on itself. I hope someday we’ll run into someone other than Veil that can transport us, but for now, we’re stuck with some kind of dimensional shift that makes you feel like you’re Alice going down the rabbit hole after dropping some acid. Naturally, Ronnie the Rummy barfed down my left sleeve. Woo hoo. Now the jacket’s burned and a drunk puked on it. Oh, yeah. That’ll bring the girls a-running come party time.

Cyber was waiting when we got back to the safehouse. As usual, he was halfway tied into a chair, with drool running out of his mouth like a faucet. His eyes looked vacant, but I guess mine would too if I was mentally linked up with half the surviving computer systems in the city. It was kind of disconcerting when I first met him, but now I expect to see him that way. On the few occasions you get to see him kicked back on a couch or some such, not linked in, that’s when it gets to feel weird. Standing guard over him was the slab of muscle everyone called Block. Not much upstairs, but able to bench-press a truck without breaking a sweat. Playing bodyguard to a super genius tied to a chair was about his speed.

You have a civilian.

Not only does the voice run through your head when you are in the house, but it comes from the speakers that are hidden all over the place. Hidden in every wall, every bookcase full of remote-controlled cars and helicopters and submarines and robots. Where Cyber doesn’t have speakers, he has cameras. Or computers. Or satellite links. Anything that he can join with. If there was still someone sending out electric bills, I would hate to see the one that came with this place.

“Good guess,” I shot back, dragging the old man over to a couch.

I fail to see how bringing him here is wise. The potential for release of information to unspecified parties –

“I don’t care,” I growled. “I’m not leaving him out there for the Hunters.”

His presence constitutes a danger.

“And how safe is the life we live, anyway?”

“We are trying to protect people, Cyber,” Athena added. “I was doing this back before the Hunters arrived, and it wasn’t safe then, either.”

I turned and looked at her over my shoulder, arching an eyebrow. She shrugged and hit me with that smile again.

“I’ll take care of him,” I volunteered. He had already marked my jacket, so why not?

He will be a drain on our resources, you understand. It was a statement, not a question. I turned a baleful eye toward the chair in which he was strapped.

“Yeah, I get it. You don’t want him here. I’ll take him to my place. Just give me a minute.”

“I don’t need nobody to help me,” the man said, his voice slurring.

“I don’t doubt it,” I said, my eyes flicking across the ‘Screaming Eagle’ patch on his shoulder. It was stained with mud and grime, as was the man himself, but I knew what kind of man it took to earn the patch. “Still, I’m taking you there. Get you a hot bath, some decent food, maybe?”

He looked up at me, eyes focusing just long enough for me to see the loss that was in them. I knew that look. I had seen it more than a few times in the past few years. Every now and then, I even saw it when I wasn’t looking in a mirror. It was the vacant, distant expression of a man who has lost everything he held dear.

I wiped the filth from my sleeve in Cyber’s bathroom, trying unsuccessfully to suppress a chuckle at the image of the much-maligned rubber duck that was perched on the soap tray of the bathtub. Whether it belonged to Block or Cyber I neither knew nor wanted to, but it was one of those old touches of home you don’t get much these days. Whichever one of them owned it, chances are it was something they brought with them to the safe house. When we scavenge, we’re usually after more practical items. Food, weapons, clothes, those sorts of things.  I checked my wires and the Kevlar plates. Everything was good, or at least as good as it gets.

“Let’s go, buddy,” I said as I stepped back into the living room. I helped him back to his feet and we headed for the door.

“Sure you want to do this?” Athena asked, stepping halfway into my path. I grinned a bit.

“Why? You don’t think he deserves it?”

“Oh, I’m sure he does,” she replied, eyes narrowing at my implication. “I just want to make sure that you’re up for the walk.”

“I can deal,” I told her. “Thanks, though.”

“Welcome. I’ll walk you.”

Great. Yet another statement masquerading as a suggestion.

Exercise caution. Recent video pickups show a marked increase in the probability of Hunter encounters.

“I know,” I said with a nod as I opened the front door. “I’m the one they keep eating, remember?”

Athena tagged along with us as we walked. We must have made a fine sight. A seven foot blonde Amazon, a stumbling filthy drunk, and yours truly (still wearing the stinky burned jacket that kept slapping against the backs of my knees now that we had the wind behind us).

“Where we goin’?” the man asked, his voice pitched low. We had walked until sun had dipped below the horizon and shadows lengthened on the walls of the buildings that surrounded us. Sound seemed amplified, and the sense of it penetrated even the thoughts of the drunken man.

“Safe place. Quiet. No Hunters,” I said, shifting beneath his weight.

“They’re everywhere,” he replied.

“Not at my house.”

“Good. I hate ’em.”

“No arguments here,” Athena butted in. Her head was in constant motion, scanning our surroundings as we moved. I knew the route better than she did, but she was better at spotting them than I was. Finding their ambushes the hard way was more my job. Watching for them in advance? Definitely not my style.

“We had ’em in Hollywood,” the man continued. “Had ’em held. Then they broke through the lines up in Colo – ”

“I know,” I said in a voice scarcely more than a whisper. “I remember.”

“Not my fault,” he mumbled.

“Not at all,” I agreed. Athena looked at me, arching an eyebrow. I shook my head to keep her quiet. My own memories screaming in my head were enough noise at this point. I had finally figured out why the old man seemed so familiar, and it was dredging up images I thought were long since behind me. Hollywood. God, what a nightmare.

I heard a can skitter across the stone of a street. We all fell silent. Athena pointed to herself, then ahead and to my left. I nodded and indicated the right.

“Leave me here,” the man whispered. The look in his eyes had gone from hopelessness and loss to grim determination. I still chuckled a bit.

“I’m the bait, pal. Not you,” I said as Athena took off in a jog. Her feet made so little sound on the pavement that it was hard to believe she was not levitating.

“You got something to live for,” the soldier countered. “I don’t.”

“Two things. One, I’m not worried. I know what’s coming for me. Two, I’m counting on you and men just like you to teach the new generation. Back in the day, we were called heroes. Now, we’re just guerrillas in a war we didn’t want. You and yours, the ones that are left? You can teach us.”

“I can’t teach nobody nothing,” he said.

I leaned in close, holding him against me so that he could not evade. I could smell the stench of him now, see the dirt clogging his pores, taste the layers of sweat and grime that coated his flesh. I breathed my next words into his ear.

“I know who you are, Liberator.”

There was silence for a moment, followed by a voice filled with sorrow.

“Not any more.”

“Every day,” I countered.

“No!” he said, his voice a whip-crack of anger.

“You want to run away from life? Fine by me. But, like I said, I know who you are, and who you were. You were a Captain once. An Airborne Captain. Maybe sometimes, you should remember that you didn’t just fight mutants. You used to teach people to fight, too. You can do it again. Teach us. Teach them. Help us fight these bastards back. We’re cutting their numbers, but it’s never enough. They get one of us for every ten of their own, and that means they will still win. I don’t care how many people you’ve lost, you don’t get the luxury of coming out here to die.”

“I didn’t -” he began, but was cut off by an animalistic squeal of surprise and agony from ahead and left of us.

“Contact,” I said, lowering him to the ground. I slipped a pistol from the rig under my jacket and extended it toward him. He shook his head, gesturing toward his eyes. I laughed aloud and nodded as I turned and sprinted away. Before the Hunters came, there was no lack of video coverage of Liberator in action. In the war, he was a rallying point. Anyone who had ever seen him in action remembered those sapphire-hued energy beams, and would forever.

I rounded a corner to see Athena going toe-to-toe with a pair of Hunters. She hits with a fist like a freight train, but sometimes it’s difficult to hit a Hunter. They move like weasels on crank, and some folks have been known to say Athena’s punches are a little slow. Of course, it seems no one says that to her. Not after I did, of course, which is how I know how hard she hits. At the moment, though, she seemed to be holding her own with no problems. It was the other three Hunters closing in from above, their slinky forms crawling down the walls of what used to be a Post Office, that left me concerned for her welfare. Happily, none of them had phasers this time. Just claws and a lot of teeth. I grinned maniacally, raising the pistol in my right hand as I drew one with my left. Both of them cracked, three-shot bursts ripping fur and sending a pair of the new arrivals tumbling to the street.

“Blondie ain’t the threat, Rover!” I shouted at the remaining Hunter on the wall. It jinked to the left as I fired, staying barely ahead of a trail of bullet holes. “I am!”

The hissing sound came as no surprise. You hunt enough of these things and you get to the point where you can smell them. I knew there were more of them. I wasn’t certain where they would come from, but I knew they would come. I always bring them out. You could hear that quiet hiss just before they attacked. It’s like an old teakettle just before it makes that loud squeal.

“Go get the old man!” I ordered Athena.


“Take him to Cyber! He can help!”

“Oh, God, Evan! Here they come,” Athena called. She could see behind me. I laughed, a low, demonic sound even to my own ears.

“You should see the look on your face!” I yelled to her as the first of the Hunters hit me from behind and above. Two more came in behind it, and a second later it was like it was raining fur. Claws raked lines through the armor and into my flesh as I screamed. The pistols chattered like angry squirrels, tearing and blasting holes in the furry mass that was landing on all sides of me now. I could smell their musk, its stench overpowering my own blood. I felt rows of teeth biting down and tearing back and forth as the beasts tore and shredded my body. There was nothing but pain now. I could not tell if the pistols were firing. I could not feel them in my grasp any longer. I was kicking and screaming. The taste of my blood was thick in my throat. This is the part of the job I really hate. I tried to gurgle out a command to Athena but only managed to cough up thick gobbets of blood. I didn’t need to speak. She could see them as easily as I could feel them. I gave up calling and fought to relax, to simply accept what was happening. My vision went dark and I welcomed death.

What felt like a thousand years of raw agony later, I saw a blurry image. Blond hair.

“You alive in there?” she asked. Her breath was horrible. Not that I could smell it, but the motion of the air against my mangled flesh brought fresh waves of pain. I tried to blink twice. I could hear my pulse in my ears; feel flesh slithering and knitting together to repair the horrendous damage. This pain is almost as bad as the original. I amend my earlier statement. This is the part I really hate. The coming back part.

Athena had been kind enough to clear my throat once it had shape again. I took in a torturous breath of air and coughed, shrieking at the new and unique ripping sensation that the cough created.

“What happened?” I heard. The voice was deep and raspy. Liberator had followed us, or simply gone toward the sound of the explosion.

“This is what Evan does,” Athena explained. “He dies for the cause. Every day. It’s why he’s good bait. Hunters are carrion-eaters, and they smell the stink of death on him. He’s wired into a heart monitor and strapped with explosives and shrapnel. When his pulse stops, the charges go off. After that, he comes back.”

“That’s horrible,” the old man said. Even with my ears only partially regenerated I could hear the wonder in his voice.

“It…it ain’t…pleasant,” I gasped out.

“Why do you do it? Keep doing it, I mean?”

“Why did you?” Athena countered.

“We need your help,” I croaked. My throat was almost back to normal. I knew I must still look horrible, but at least I could talk.

“I don’t know what I can do to help. I’m just…”

“The best. You’re the best that’s left. There are resistance teams scattered all over the world now,” Athena told him. “The ones of us who were just mutating when the war started. Those of us left after it was over. We need a leader. Someone who can crystallize the movement.”

“And you want a tired old drunk who’s seen too many of his friends die?” he said. The bitterness in his voice was unmistakable.

“We want you,” I said, forcing myself to a kneeling position on the pavement. It would be a few minutes before I was strong enough to stand. “The old you. Be Liberator, or be the Captain you were. Your choice.”

The street filled with the scent of lavender as Veil arrived. “Again?” he asked, looking at me. He had been nice enough to bring me a new jacket and some pants. I nodded, blinking away the minor ache the motion caused.

“You have a reason now, Captain,” I said, slipping the pants over limbs still prickly from the air. “Help us.”

He turned a frosty glare on me for a moment. I met his gaze without looking away. There’s not much left to frighten me with.

“I know you’re tired of seeing people die,” Athena said, her voice a purr. “Help us put an end to it.”

I grinned and he flinched a bit. Apparently my face wasn’t quite back to normal yet. “I’ll be there with you, Sir. I’ll be your bait.”

“Why…” he began, but words failed him.

“Hollywood,” I said simply, turning my body partially away from him. He was left staring at the tattoo on my upper left arm that rebuilds with me every time: A black shield with a white and yellow eagle’s head, and in stencil-style lettering above it, the single word, ‘AIRBORNE’.

“The first time I died.”






“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.



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.”


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.


“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.”



“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.”


“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.


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




“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.


“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.



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.


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.


“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.