All posts tagged Duggan

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.”

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.”



“Why are you here, Mag?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least that place has a real name.”

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

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

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

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

“What did you steal?” she asks.

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


“Yeah. With his daughter.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who’s been talking?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shy, are we?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“First drink is on me.”

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

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

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

She smiles and is about to reply.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“M-Mag?” she chokes out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t want to wait,” she says.

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

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







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

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

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

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

“You all right, there, Sarge?”

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great! So now I’m a waste?”

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

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

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

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

“No one is.”

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

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

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

“So what’s the plan?”

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

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

“I know.”

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

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

“I don’t think so.”

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

“You think?”

“Educated guess.”

“Thanks, boss.”

VonHogan raised his coffee mug in salute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“I… I have a date.”

“No shit.”


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

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

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

“Her family. They’re Toleans.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Look, I appreciate –“

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

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

“It is?”

“Yeah. Extra crab. She’ll like it.”

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

“Like what?”

“Me and Lissa. We aren’t –“

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, yeah? Something good?”

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

“Thanks, Sarge. We’ll be there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please, ma’am. Just call me Zeke.”

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

“Maureen it is, then.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This one is for you,” he said.

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

“I know. I did, though.”

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

“You got me a book with no words?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Thank you,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No guns would be good,” Fiona said.

“If you like rats.”

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So you learned agility?” Sean asked.

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

Then it came.

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

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

“I’m a sergeant with ArCorp Security.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t be anyone else.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is Tolenacht.”

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

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

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

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


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

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

“Thank you,” Colleen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Applause came from the next room.

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

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

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

Zeke smiled as he found victory on yet another battlefield.

The sheet had once been white, but the dismantled weapons that took up space on the fabric had long since stained it. This wasn’t the first time the sheet had been used for this purpose. On one side of the table, Duggan hunched over the frame of his machinegun. He had the grip section in one tattooed hand and was using a stiff-bristled toothbrush to scrub at the interior, clearing fouling from where it had built up in the trigger assembly. There was a little bit of carbon there, but mostly it was the omnipresent yellow dust.

“This all you’ve got?” Lissa called from the kitchen.

“Is what all I’ve got?” he asked. He picked up a slim pick and slid it in behind the hammer, flicking away a tiny bit of burned oil.

“There’s a bottle of Smitty’s in the refrigerator. Cheap wine? That’s it?”

He blew across the springs, examining them under the brilliant light streaming from the directed overhead lamp.

“Look in the cabinet over the sink.”

From the kitchen came a rumbling and shuffling noise, followed by a delighted yelp. “Been holding out on me, have ya?”

“Always do, fam. Always do. If I told you everything there wouldn’t be any surprises.”

Lissa appeared around the corner carrying a dark brown earthenware jug and two mugs. The cork popped free from the jug and she tipped it up, letting a pale amber liquid flow into one of the mugs. “You got a full jug of Buck’s Best? How much did this run you?”

“Two squirrels and a rabbit.”

She stopped mid pour. When he looked up from the bolt group in his hand, she was staring wide-eyed at him. He looked back at her with a flat expression.


“You… Damn it, Duggan, you’re trading corpses for liquor?”

“Of course not,” he said with a gentle smile. Her shoulder slumped and she licked at her lips.

“Had me going,” she confessed, beginning to pour the second mug.

“It was just the pelts and teeth.”

He reached out for a bottle of solvent, dripping three drops onto his cleaning brush and setting aside the bottle before looking up at her again.

“What? Nobody wants toothie meat.”

“Tell me you’re kidding, D.”

“Should I be?”

“You’d damned well better!”

He shrugged and returned to his cleaning task. After a moment, his shoulders began to rock a little and soon he could not hold in the laughter. It echoed in the house and he set aside the bolt, pushing back from the table and standing before grabbing his mug from the mongoose. He took a deep swig of the fiery liquor as she looked up at him. Her eyes were wide again, but this time, her overall expression was that of disbelief. She reached out and jerked his mug back out of his hand and tipped the contents into her own mouth.

“Hey, that’s mine!”

“Serves you right,” she said in a huff of whiskey-scented breath. “I was beginning to worry.”

“Give me some fucking credit, Lissa. Body sharking for whiskey?” He shook his head in mock sadness as he sat back down.

“If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t think twice. But, damn, I’ve seen you pull some twisted shit.”

“I’d never do that. I mean, not for alcohol. I might trade them for –”

“Stop!” she yelled, punching him in the arm before he could finish the sentence. It was marginally akin to slamming her fist into a wall, and had she not had so much time to practice the maneuver she might well have injured herself. Working with Duggan for as long as she had, this was definitely not the first time she had smacked him.

He tilted back his head and roared with laughter.

“Why does anyone think you’re funny?” she asked, hopping onto the chair opposite his own. She filled his mug again and pushed it his way before swiping one of his cleaning rods. By the time he had calmed enough to answer, she had a solvent-soaked rag down the barrel of her rifle.

“What do you mean, why? It’s ’cause I am funny!” he told her.

She looked at him, holding a neutral expression. “You know what’s funny about you, Duggan?” she asked. There was a sharp hint of challenge in her tone. He looked in her eyes for a moment and then back down at the bolt he held.

“What is?” he asked. His voice was uncharacteristically soft.

Lissa let the moment stretch until it was on the verge of becoming uncomfortable. Waiting until the big turtle raised his armored head to look at her with a mix of suspicion and dread, she grinned in a dazzling display of sharp white teeth and spoke.

“Your mom.”

The room echoed with the shared laughter of the two partners. They reveled in the old joke and even after their laughing died out, the occasional snicker could be heard.

Duggan lifted the mug to his mouth and took a hefty swallow of his whiskey, years of experience allowing him to do so without even wetting the unlit cigar that nestled in the corner of his mouth. Setting the mug aside, he grabbed for the tiny bottle of lubricant that stood in the center of the table. He tapped the tip in a precise series of movements, each transferring a drop of a thin grey solution onto different parts of his weapon that were wear-prone. He ran a short line here and a trio of drops there, a ritual he had practiced so many times he could quite literally do it in the dark.

“So… You gonna stay here?” Lissa asked in a quiet, tentative voice.

“I can come home with you if you want, Lis’,” he said, lips peeling back in a grin. “Didn’t know you felt that way.”

“In your dreams, shell-boy. You know damn well what I mean.”

“Got a month to figure it out, yeah? Before we gotta get the papers in, I mean?”

She snatched up the lubricant and dripped it onto the exposed action of her rifle. Using the tip of a finger to smear it around on the metal, she concentrated on the task just enough to make it clear to Duggan that she was holding back.

“You made up your mind already, didn’t you?” he asked. “Staying.”

“Think so, yeah.”

“Think the toothies will keep coming?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Signed my re-up this morning. Fucking hot on this bitch, but there’s a shitload of killing to do.”

She nodded, snapping a retaining pin into place. Her hesitance was a thing of the past. “We go somewhere else, there’s no telling what’s gonna happen, right?”

“Probably wind up in some piece of shit garrison, waiting for someone to jump at shadows.”

“Building security for corp-types who think they’re important.”

He shook his head. “Nope. I’d sooner get fucked by President What’s-his-name.”

“I’ll sell tickets to that one.”

He snapped closed the cover atop his weapon and worked the charging handle several times to ensure that it moved smoothly. Standing from the table, he stood the machinegun in the corner. Beside it was a 200-round canister of linked ammunition.

“So what’s for dinner?” he asked.

“How should I know, dumbass? It’s your house.”

“You wanna eat my cooking? I mean, if you feel up to it…”

“Nope,” she replied, head popping up and swiveling back and forth in an exaggerated negative motion. “Nope nope nope.”

“The Strip?” he asked, hooking a thumb over a shoulder in the general direction of the ramshackle buildings that had cropped up as businesses since the colony had been established. More than one had put together some form of restaurant.

She nodded as her rifle clicked together. She ran it through a quick series of checks to ensure it was working properly. When she was satisfied, she stood it up next to his machinegun. They made a great pair: One sleek, trim, and fast and the other heavy and brutal. She chuckled to herself as the similarity sank home.












Duggan was ugly by most Folk standards, and he knew it. His bald head was crisscrossed with scars and his beak-like nose had been broken more often than he could remember. A close encounter with an axe-wielding hare had taken his right ear. His plastron was awash in graphically violent tattooed threats and the entirety of his shell was decorated in kill markings. He would never make it in civilized society, but the big turtle didn’t care. It wasn’t civilized in the hole that he and his partner occupied. It was hot and still in there, and Duggan was bored.

“Hey, Lissa,” he called. His voice was a deep, sepulchral thing, garbled not at all by the butt of the unlit cigar in the corner of his mouth. He always had one there, and only a very few of his fellow troops had ever heard him speak without it in place.

“Send it,” Lissa replied, without turning her attention away from what she was watching. She had her paws wrapped around a rifle, and the stock of it was snugged up tight into the pocket of her right shoulder.

“I thought these dipshits were supposed to move by now.”

“Should be any time.”

He tapped at his chron. “Naw, fam. Shoulda been by now. Maybe half an hour or so ago.”

“Then stop bitching and get your ass behind that nailgun. If they move, we gotta zap ’em first. You want McEnroe and BigButt to win?”

He made a snorting sound. “Those two couldn’t beat you to the punch if you gave them a five-second lead.”

“I don’t intend to give them the chance,” she said. Nimble fingers made a minute adjustment to the holosight atop her rifle without her moving the weapon.

Duggan checked the belts leading into his machinegun again. The waiting was what killed him. The boredom of holding his position while waiting. Once it all dropped in the pot, Lissa knew he’d be the usual killing machine the crew knew him to be, but at the moment, he might as well be chewing off his own claws.

“Me either,” he muttered, patting the stock of his weapon. A garish drawing of a screaming rat was painted on the butt.

“The Cap says we’re in for a lot of action on this one,” Lissa said.

“His mom’s in for a lot of action.”

She laughed at the familiar joke. “Supposedly they dropped in a battalion of rabbits the other day.”

“Good,” Duggan said. “Can’t wait to get me some ears.”

“Frayker said he’s gonna be the first to get some,” she countered. The words were barely out of her mouth when Duggan was back with his usual.

“His mom’s gonna be the first to get some.”

“What have you got against Frayker’s mom?” she asked.

“Not as much as I did last night.”

“Damn, dude, that’s just ugly.”

“So’s Frayker’s mom.”

The two shared a round of laughter. The commentary was an easy back and forth thing with them, and spoke of partners who had held similar conversations many times in the past. Duggan cracked the seal on a canteen and slurped noisily at the warm water inside it. When he offered it, he finally got Lissa to take her eyes off the firing line. She gripped the canteen and hoisted it, pouring water past tiny pointed teeth. Taking a second mouthful that she let sit for a while before swallowing, the mongoose turned back to her rifle. Duggan drained another slug from the canteen before shoving it back into his belt.

“Thanks,” she said. “I was getting kinda dry.”

“Same same. Figured if they aren’t moving, we might as well get a drink. Hell, I’d have brought some of Smitty’s wine if I’d known they were gonna just sit out there on their tails.”

“That shit’s nasty,” she said, a shudder rippling down her back.

“Nasty? Girl, I watched you drink your body weight in that!”

“Think that’s when I decided it was nasty,” she explained. “The hangover that next morning was a thing of legend.”

“Well, if you’re interested, I’ve got a couple bottles back in the hootch when we get out of here.”

“Beats another night of that local beer,” she said, pragmatism winning over flavor.

“That isn’t beer. That shit’s right up there with that grey pasty stuff in the mess hall.”

“Right? What the hell was that?” Lissa asked.

“I don’t know, but it tasted like ass,” he said, leaning against the front wall of their hole. Above them, the logs shifted enough to send a cascade of yellow dust down onto them. Neither of them took any real notice. The dust was a way of life and they had grown used to having it in everything they ate, drank, or slept in.

“It did,” she agreed. “Y’ever wonder whose side the cooks are really on?”

He chuckled.

“I could see you cooking for the toothies,” he said. “Today’s special is cyanide casserole, you beady-eyed shitsuckers!”

“I got a nice hot meal for ’em right here,” Lissa responded as she grinned at his comment. She patted the forend of the rifle. “Let one of ’em pop up their ugly little heads and we’ll see how hungry they are.”

“I’m hoping for more than one,” Duggan said.

“Company strength ain’t just one.”

“I know. I was just saying.”

“I know,” she repeated. “I’m just picturing a couple hundred dead toothies all stacked up in a pile, waiting for the fire units.”

The comment brought a smile to Duggan’s face. “I’ll take mine well done,” he said.

“Aww, damn, man. Why’d you have to equate them to food? Now I ain’t gonna be able to eat my bucket of grey ass-paste when we get back.”

His chuckle began quietly but a moment later he was struggling not to burst into raucous laughter. “Pretty sure that’s a country song,” he said when he had recovered somewhat. Lissa giggled.

“It was raining out, and I couldn’t eat my –” she began. Her voice cut off and she leaned deeper into the rifle butt. Duggan needed no words to tell him what the gesture meant and he stood up into the firing slit beside her, gripping the machinegun and slipping the safety.

The rifle barked beside him, the action cycling and ejecting an empty casing that bounced off his hardened head with a pinging sound. Three hundred meters out, a flash of crimson in the air announced her hit as clearly as any range monitor could have.

“Dinner’s served, you needledick bastards!” Duggan roared as he squeezed the trigger. His boredom vanished as the big weapon thundered and hammered itself into his shoulder. He was home again.