All posts tagged Jinx

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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her breath caught. “Damn it.”

“We got them, Jinxie,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I thought you were supposed to be good.”

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

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

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

“There were civilians in there. Innocents.”

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s not what I was –”

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“In the store. Anything good?”

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

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

“Hey, I’m just –”

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

“Now,” she said.

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

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

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

“He’ll get it. What about you?”

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

“You a medic?”

“Nah. Learned basic aid in the army.”

“Lucky you were here.”

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

“Ah. Bad luck then?”

“More than you could know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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