Barghest Chapter 7

I wanted to delve a bit more into the culture that is present in the future society I have envisioned for Barghest. The interaction in this chapter dips into that, describing how medical and genetic research has impacted individuals and shaped the world that the Sol Coalition is operating in. Please leave me your thoughts – and I hope you enjoy!

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Hour 0900, Day 073, Year 2148

Ninety-second anniversary of the Rajasthan Reactor Catastrophe. Death toll estimated at 600,000.

 

Two days of light duty and an equal number of hours of mandatory counseling – required after a live weapons fire exchange, and Maker had herself under control again. She wasn’t better. She didn’t feel less guilty – although the psychologist had worked hard to try to get her to admit to the emotion. But she had pushed it down far enough that she could function, and possibly make something better of the time she had left to serve on the Pershing.

Kerry was waiting for her when she got off her shift on Thursday. It wasn’t too surprising, he often went with her to the mess or a rec hall if their schedules lined up. It was illegal to discriminate towards Genetically Modified Humans, had been for years, and the SC enforced the letter of the law. But it did not stop anyone from thinking less of people like Kerry. Can’t outlaw assholes, Maker thought as they walked together.

“Workout?” He asked quietly. “Today is Thursday, you are cleared for cardio, right?”

“Yeah, I- Thursday?” Maker paused, recalling her ride in the lift with Bretavic. “Actually, I was invited to a card game, but-”

“Bretavic,” Kerry nodded, “he asked me too.”

“Really? I – I mean, that’s great but -”

“Surprised he asked a tuber like me?” Maker flushed at Kerry’s casual use of the derogatory term, but her friend’s quick smile forgave her assumption. “I was too.” They walked in silence for an entire section. “So,” he said casually, “do you want to go?”

“I’ll lose,” she said seriously. “I am terrible at cards, you know that.”

“You have money?” Kerry’s thick, dark eyebrows lifted in question.

“Some.” She hesitated, “I could spare a few hundred credits, I guess.”

He snorted, “That’ll ensure they invite you back, if you lose that amount.”

“If I’m going, so are you,” she hit him lightly in the ribs with her elbow. “Today everyone has to get out there make a new friend. Even if it hurts.”

Kerry stopped them at the lift and hit the controls. “It almost always does. Except without the friend. And getting out there usually consists of a bar fight.”

“Yeah,” Maker smothered a laugh, “but the hurt is usually on the other guy.”

“Of course.” Kerry fell back into his customary silence after that, and they made their way to Maintenance Bay  6. Maker punched in the door code, and Kerry frowned.

“It’s ironic,” she informed him with a smile.

“I do not think you know what irony means,” he replied seriously.

It took them a few minutes to find the cluster of soldiers in a far corner, behind a stack of crated repair parts. Two tables had been set up and the men and women were using storage containers for chairs. Several field canteens, presumably of alcohol, were being passed around to fill a variety of cups. As Maker and Kerry approached, talk slowed. Most of the faces were carefully blank, but a few looked hostile. Maker was about to suggest that they turn around when Bretavic stood and offered them each a cup.

“You’ll play at my table,” he announced loudly. There was some place shuffling and resettling, but the release of tension was palatable. Hands were dealt and Maker relaxed for the first time since she had arrived on that mining station. An hour later – seventy-two credits in the hole – Maker folded early, sitting back to drink contraband moonshine that had the kick of rocket fuel and listen to the conversation around her.

“Sounds like a lot of talk to me,” a soldier stated flatly. She took a swing of her cup that left Maker wincing, but the woman didn’t even flinch. “Election campaigns will start in a couple  of months – the liberals that want to run for office always throw out the idea of pulling back the military to get the voters stirred up.”

“Right,” the man next to her snorted, “and then nobody ever says anything concrete about plans, and next thing you know mandatory service levels are increased or recruitment quotas go up. Anyone that believes Congress wants to downsize the fleet should have their genes examined. Idiots,” he added and increased his bet.

“I’ll see it,” the woman responded. She continued, “A politician saying they want to bring home soldiers is like an officer saying tubers are valued team players,” her voice dripped with condescension. “A whole load of shit that looks nice on a poster.” She glanced up at Maker, then her eyes slid to Kerry. “No offense.” She shrugged.

“None taken,” Kerrysaid evenly. “I’ll see and raise you five.”

“Little bit taken,” Maker said dryly. She was the only officer at the table. The woman laughed.

“I’ll see your five and call.” Bretavic swore loudly as he lost the hand to Merrick. He poured himself another drink while the younger man cleaned up the markers on the table. “Suck it up, Maker. You’re an officer, get used to being hated.”

“Not hated,” the veteran corrected, “just don’t expect friends.”

“And here I thought maybe later we would braid each other’s hair and trade diaries,” Maker deadpanned. She spoke in a monotone, “Now my feelings are hurt. Ouch.” They all laughed and drank and played another hand, which Maker quickly folded out of so she lost only the ante.

“Point is,” the female soldier said as though the conversation had never stopped, “it doesn’t matter if the Cullers stay outside Far Sol Space for another five years. As long as there are reports of the slimy little fuckers anywhere in this arm of the galaxy, no one is going to want to reduce Earth’s defenses.” She took the hand with a crow of triumph and counted her markers.

“Lucky for us,” Bretavic said sourly.

“You’re damn right,” the veteran agreed, either ignoring or not noticing the large soldier’s sarcasm. “That’s job security. As long as there are Cullers – they’ll need somebody to blow them straight to hell. I get paid to make greasy smears out of space lobsters. That’s easy money.”

“You should really needlepoint that on something,” Maker said. Blank looks met her archaic reference.

Kerry noted, “Recruitment poster.”

“Ha!” The woman laughed, and punched the veteran in the arm, “that would get training numbers up.” She spread her finger out and outlined an imaginary advertisement in the air over the table, “Come, re-enlist with the Sol Coalition. Make greasy smears out of space lobsters.”

“Don’t forget the easy money,” Bretavic pointed out, frowning as a new hand was dealt. “I think that sums up this whole war nicely.”

“Easy money,” the veteran and woman repeated in sync, then laughed. Their chuckles were only lightly scented with alcohol, but Maker couldn’t help the shiver that danced along her spine. She might have agreed with the sentiment a few weeks ago, but after the mining station, she didn’t see a lot of humor in the idea. Thankfully, conversation soon turned to a recent training test that had been completed by one of the many platoons aboard the Pershing. Maker picked up her cards. She had a pair of twos and an ace. With my luck, she thought, I’ll end with just the twos.  She threw in her marker with a sigh of resignation. Her contemplation of what to keep in her hand was interrupted by an argument between the veteran and Bretavic.

“-the hell! No way you scored that high!”

“Jealous, Bretavic?” He smirked, “Try getting onto the mats every once in awhile, instead of using bar fights to polish your martial skills.”

“I call bullshit,” the woman said, tossing her cards and folding. “If you scored that high, you’d have already been flagged for special ops. You’re a liar and ugly – it’s not a good combination.”

“You weren’t saying that last night, Tremaine,” the older soldier grinned. She flipped him off.

“The score isn’t the only requirement for special forces,” Kerry said quietly. All eyes turned to him in surprise, he hadn’t spoken much since the game had begun. The heavy muscles in his shoulders shifted under his uniform as he shrugged. “Genes.” Maker saw the flash of pity in Bretavic’s eyes, while the other two soldiers remained silent. Kerry gradually stiffened, as he realized he had drawn attention to himself. They couldn’t know for certain, although Maker did, but they could easily guess how well a Genetically Modified Human would do in training tests. Kerry had been specifically bred to be a soldier, which was fairly obvious from his build and reflexes. Maker had tested out with him at every step of their training and could attest to his near perfect scores in anything related to strength, agility, or motor skills. Her table companions had been right when they made the comparison to politicians’ promises. No tuber, no matter what was said about equality, was treated fairly in the Sol Coalition. It was a load of shit.

“That explains it,” Bretavic broke the silence, pointedly looking over the veteran. “Too much Neanderthal DNA, right?”

The table was silent for a long minute, and Maker held her breath, wondering if Bretavic had stepped over a line. Finally, the woman barked out a laugh and slapped the man next to her on the shoulder. “He caught you out, idiot! I always suspected – what with the back hair!”

The veteran leaned back in his chair and grinned, “It’s a sign of virility – back hair.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Bretavic mumbled, disgusted.

Maker let out a silent exhale, grateful that the attention was off of Kerry. Her friend had a difficult enough time as his appearance was so obviously caused by now-illegal mutation; he didn’t need the first social time he had taken part in on the Pershing to single him out from other soldiers. The nickname, tubers, already spoke volumes about how most people felt about the technology that created him – and thousands more like him. It took a tremendous amount of science to combine human sperm and egg with DNA from non-human sources. Whether the result was a live birth or not, the individuals were labeled by their start in a test tube. Even before the Sol Coalition had banned the practice on Earth, it had been a procedure that was frowned upon. Only those who were truly desperate to set their offspring on a different path chose Genetic Modification.

It had been particularly popular with debtors and parolees that owed years of service to the government. When the ban on the procedure was extended in 2124 from Earth to all Sol-controlled systems, black market operations sprang up on independent mining stations and colonies. Those couples that paid for a GMH pregnancy in the years following gave everything they had – and oftentimes the promise of years of future income – to scientists that promised the world but rarely had the credentials or equipment to deliver on those guarantees.  Many of those born from such procedures developed chronic issues that actually barred them from successful entry into the military and specialized service fields that their parents had envisioned for them. A high percentage ended up serving in the same mining and terraforming camps where their parents were bound. Having genetics that were labeled superior or desirable did not mandate an easier life.

Although GMHs were given full access to citizenship rights almost ten years before either she or Kerry were born, equality was still a long way off. Legally, Kerry couldn’t be denied the rights or privileges available to any human. In reality, his file – like that of every soldier – noted his genetic profile and his assignments reflected how his superior officers felt about it. Luck hadn’t been in his favor when his profile was compiled either. His mental capabilities were above average for a soldier. His physical abilities were well above minimums even for special forces troops. Aesthetically, however, Merrick was not an ideal soldier. His musculature was over developed, giving him a hulking appearance which was not lessened at all by his shorter than ideal height. His jaw was wide and his nose almost flat. Combined with his thin lips and extremely dark skin the heavy bone structure made him stand out sharply against the tall, athletic stereotype of a soldier. Eighty-five percent of Sol-born humans received embryonic gene therapy to maximize their DNA. The process didn’t allow for additives like those that Kerry had received, but it did allow parents to select the best possible combination of traits for their children. It resulted in a nearly homogeneous army. Symmetrical facial features, skin tones ranging from honey and caramel tones to a deeper mocha, and two generations of selecting for height meant Kerry was an anomaly in almost any crowd.

Of course, Maker had the same problem, to a certain extent. Although she wasn’t as obviously different as Kerry, her father’s choice to restrict her gene therapy to only medical needs and leaving her appearance up to nature had a visible impact. Her mother’s family was from Japan, and she had inherited her short stature from them, rather than her tall, blonde American father. Her skin was as pale as genetics allowed without abnormality; the combination of milky almond Japanese skin with scorchingly pale Scandinavian heritage made her a sharp contrast at the opposite end of the spectrum to Kerry. Two new recruits, one the result of desperation and hope, the other of hippie rebellion against the system, found each other the first day of training and had quickly formed a friendship. Maker often felt she didn’t deserve the sort of dedicated loyalty Kerry gave her, but she did her best to offer him the same.

She pick up her cards without really looking at them a determined that the hand would be her last. She was almost out of money, and Merrick seemed comfortable enough to stay without her – if that is what he wanted. She had a  new duty shift the next day, and wasn’t looking forward to slogging through training on a few hours of sleep.

“The bet is to you, Maker,” Bretavic leaned around Merrick’s bulk to catch her eye. “Just fold already so I can collect my winnings.” He grinned.

“What the hell,” she smiled back and tossed in a marker. “This is my last hand anyway. Call.”

“Past your bedtime, little girl?” The veteran grinned. “Probably for the best, as you won’t beat my straight.” He laid out his cards and sat back, crossing his arms smugly as the woman next to him groaned. Both she and Merrick had folded early.

“Fuck all,” Bretavic swore, tossing down his hand. “Two pair, you lucky bastard.” The veteran was actually reaching toward the pile of winnings in the center when Maker put down her cards. She blinked in surprise, not having paid much attention to the last game. Bretavic barked out a laugh, “A Full House, Aces over twos! Get your hands off the credits, Uesegi!”

“You been setting me up for the long con this whole game, Maker?” The veteran, Uesegi, frowned, but he didn’t sound upset.

Maker shrugged, smiling. No one could be angry about what was clearly a lucky hand. She had lost more than she won over the course of the night, so no one could say she came out ahead. “Yeah, that’s it. You caught me. A few more weeks of losing my paycheck and I would have had you just where I wanted you.”

“Now you’ve done it, Sargent,” the woman laughed as Maker picked up the markers, “You’ll have to come back and lose next time just to prove Bretavic didn’t bring in a ringer.”

“That won’t be a problem,” Kerry deadpanned. Maker elbowed him while everyone else grinned and chuckled. More drinks were poured as she tucked her winnings into her uniform jacket.  She didn’t admit it, even to herself, didn’t even let her thoughts go there, but as she walked back to her shared quarters, she felt a little less guilty. A little more at peace.

Barghest: Chapter 8

Barghest Chapter 6

Previous Chapter

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Hour 1325, Day 104, Year 2119

 

Fortieth anniversary of the passage of the first legislation restricting the rights of Genetically Modified Humans. These Lynas Laws defined GMH as incorporating non-human DNA, legally demoting them to less than human.

“This morning I was on the Senate floor, a wet Paris spring outside the windows, listening to debates on the war and reading a live transcript of a strategic planning session on Kuiper Station, and now here I am having lunch in Omaha with you. The marvels of the modern age can still surprise me sometimes, Avani.”

Sudarshan nodded politely, but she did not drop her guard, despite the casual surroundings. The noodle shop was far too small to be expected to offer indoor dining, but an April snowstorm had covered the sidewalk tables in a layer of wet, cold snow. The owner had squeezed a tiny table and two chairs in a corner between the counter and the front window to accommodate the Prime Minister, leader of the Sol Coalition Senate, for a luncheon meeting. Most of the business seemed to be in deliveries made out the back entrance, so their meal was undisturbed except for the polite service of cups of delicate tea and steaming bowls of fragrant noodles.

“I find it especially striking when I come home. To think, my grandfather used to bring me here when he came back from Washington. That was just after the Repulsion, and he was overseeing the reverse engineering of the Culler ships that landed on American soil. Oh,” the older woman reminisced with a smile, “the base here in Omaha was such a small place then – barely equipped to deal with the soldiers and scientists that all flooded in, doing everything they could for the war effort – to ensure the survival of humanity.” The Senator smiled and took a bite of her noodles, “Mm, delicious as always. You can’t get Vietnamese anywhere that is better than this. Not since the Red War.”

Sudarshan, despite her tension over being summoned by the Prime Minister more than seven thousand miles from the Sol Coalition Congressional Hall, relaxed somewhat as she also began to eat. The highest member of the Senate, the Prime Minister, was an unassuming American woman. Her hair was thick and white; unlike most women her age she had forgone pigment treatments. It contrasted nicely with deeply tanned skin and bright blue eyes. The woman was quite fit, which was appropriate given her campaign persona of a hard worker and no-nonsense legislator. Sudarshan had only met her a few times before, and never in a personal meeting, but she found the relaxed, friendly manner of senior Senator to be at odds with the whispered rumors that she was a tenacious political shark.

The Prime Minister set down her spoon and took a sip of tea before continuing, “He would not recognize the city now, my grandfather. Tripled in size and home of the Sol Coalition’s largest research facility on Earth. I imagine he would be quite proud of some of our accomplishments.”

“Due, in no small part, to your efforts, Prime Minister,” Sudarshan ventured tentatively.

“Oh, no, I cannot take responsibility for that. North America pooled its resources to establish this base, the location is entirely a logistical issue. Besides that, to claim, even privately, that my efforts as a servant to our government are in any way personal would be rather disgusting, don’t you think?”The Prime Minister smiled as coolly and charmingly as on any of her campaign ads

Sudarshan hesitated, sure that there was a verbal trap ahead of her, but not able to see it. . “We are all only working towards the greater good,” she responded slowly. The senior politician’s smile remained, but her gaze hardened into something that sent a shiver down Sudarshan’s spine.

“Sam,” the Prime Minister called out. The owner popped out of the kitchen, a damp towel in hand. “Give me a few moments, please, would you?” He nodded and immediately disappeared into the back. The sounds of water being shut off and muffled conversations abruptly stopped as a door slammed shut. Sudarshan was suddenly very aware that the only person who would witness the remainder of the lunch was the Prime Minister’s personal security guard.

“The greater good,” she said the words slowly, as though testing their flavor like a Vietnamese noodle. The shiver froze around her spine, and Sudarshan felt a tightness in her chest. “It is interesting that you would use such a phrase, Avani. Exactly what greater good were you working toward this morning when you voted against the Emancipation and Suffrage bill?”

“The party has always held conservative views toward the GMH population,” Sudarshan quickly responded. “I was only-”

“And who, exactly, told you that a publicly promoted conservative view translated into a vote against the E&S? Or did you deduce that little nugget on your own.”

Sudarshan bristled. She had been prepared to be chastised for something, but she wasn’t about to put up with personal insults, not even from the Prime Minister. “I know what the party supports, ma’am, perhaps even better than you, given your tone. The future of Genetically Modified Humans is not one of Emancipation and Suffrage, and least not yet, and if you do not understand the gravity of this matter, of what it means to us all, to the war, then-”

“You twit.” The Prime Minister’s expression did not change. She still smiled and held her cup of tea with an easy gesture, but her voice dripped with anger. “You want to play at shaping the future, at determining the fate of a species? I should take you over my knee for that kind of ignorance. You want to use your former position in Congress, your knowledge of Project Hellhound to justify your actions. If you think that one operation is enough to support such a conclusion, that the party wishes to see GMH individuals held as property indefinitely, you are far more stupid than even my most pessimistic assessments.”

“I have the support of-” Sudarshan began hotly, but she was cut off.

“You have the support I allow you to have,” the older woman said sharply.

“If we want to win the battle in Near Sol space, we need-” again she was overridden.

“Battle, you think this is about a battle?” She set down her cup with a definitive clink. “I am shaping the future of our species, and you want to throw away our best defense, your career, the power of our party in the Senate, the security of our solar system – for one war? Do not be so shortsighted,” she spat. One bluntly manicured nail pressed into the cheap table as she made her point. Blue eyes glittered like ice. “You have seen a fraction of the intelligence, the scouting reports, the research assumptions. Cullers,” she dismissed the species that had come close to destroying the Earth with a hard breath, “what are they but cannon fodder – a prelude to something more? Humanity is on a galactic stage now, one battle, one war, is nothing in contrast. Our plans must be designed to carry us forward, to ensure survival, physically, culturally – morally – beyond species that have not yet even crawled out of the oceans on planets that spin hundreds of light years away.  I am smoothing the way for humanity to endure, to thrive, to expand and seize our future – to command our future, and you whine about one battle?”

The Prime Minister sat back in her chair, lips pursed and breath coming hard through her nose. Sudarshan did not move. Every rumor, every whisper she had heard ran screaming through her brain. They were all a shadow in comparison to the woman before her. There was no denying that the Prime Minister was the power behind her party – and her party was the power behind the Sol Coalition Congress. It ate at Sudarshan to humble herself, to admit to wrongs she still didn’t believe she had committed, but the Prime Minister was capable of decimating her career without even getting out of her chair.

“Ma’am,” she began, but one creased palm made her swallow her words.

“I am not finished.” She closed her eyes for a moment and then opened them slowly. “Gillian has requested a new chair person for the Oversight Committee. Tomorrow, the Chair will tender his resignation from Congress and you will recommend Representative Soledad Venegas as a replacement. When the session closes next week, you will go visit your family home in Renukoot. When session resumes, you will change your views on the GMH issue. You will admit that you have reconsidered and you were wrong. When the Emancipation and Suffrage bill is reintroduced, you will support it.”

“The voting equilibrium will be disturbed, there will be members of the party that will be unhappy,” Sudarshan warned. She chafed at having her vote determined for her, chafed at the prospect of admitting publicly that she had made a mistake – when she truly felt she was acting in the best interests of humanity. “Members of the opposition will try to take advantage of any discord in the upcoming elections.”

The Prime Minister frowned, “At least you recognize that much. Perhaps you are not a complete loss.” The insult was stated with the same tone that would have been used to asses overripe fruit. Blue eyes relaxed, and she sat back, considering Sudarshan with a calculating gleam that made her skin crawl. “Reparations will be made, do not concern yourself. In the meantime, you are going to become a moderate candidate, Avani. I am going to save your career, but do not ever think to assume such grand plans without consulting me first.”

“I can take care of my own career,” she said tightly.

The Prime Minister arched one dark eyebrow.  “It was never yours to take care of.” Quietly, she listed the names and amounts of every contributor to the first campaign that had gotten Sudarshan into a state office position. “Did you really think your supporters saw your social media outpouring and handed over their credits?” Sudarshan could feel the blood draining from her face as the realization sank in that her life had been so carefully manipulated without her knowledge. “You succeeded because there was something in you that could be useful to us, to me. There still is, if you can follow orders. You want the war with the Cullers to end? It will happen, but there are those of us who know better how, and when, and in what way it might benefit the greater good.”

“Ma’am,” the security detail held out a phone, the screen indicating it was on hold, “An urgent call from the Secretary of Defense, ma’am.”

“We’re done,” she dismissed Sudarshan and took the phone with the same hand. With a knot of humility, anger, and fear in her stomach, Sudarshan rose and stepped toward the door. Behind her, the Prime Minister answered in her practised, cool voice, “Helen Maker, here.”

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Barghest: Chapter 7

Second Alliance – Incentives

I posted the fifty-second chapter of Second Alliance to this site today. That is 569 pages. For three years, including a nine month sabbatical while I switched jobs and dealt with other, uninteresting life issues, I have been working on this piece of fiction. It was a writing exercise that turned into an epic tale that I am incredibly proud of; at the same time I wish I had put this kind of creativity and energy into an original work. Regardless of the effort, this needed to be finished. I needed to finish it, and I am close.

Just prior to today’s post, I finished fleshing out the framework for the rest of Second Alliance. It isn’t fully written, but I can practically taste the Fin and I am excited to share it. I write a few chapters ahead of when I post, so I have an estimated 6-8 chapters remaining left to write. That is about 75 pages, depending on how wordy I get. Which, as you know, is pretty wordy. We are nearly there. Thank you for going on this journey with me.

And now, for the shameless self-promotion:

I write every week, and I haven’t held any chapters hostage for comments or reviews. They are posted as soon as I have written a new chapter and edited the next to go up. However, I want to get to the end and hear your thoughts on it  almost as badly as I don’t ever want this story to be over. So, I am willing to offer us both, reader and writer, an incentive. For every review that is posted to my original book, North Sea Dawn, on Amazon, I’ll post another chapter of Second Alliance – with a maximum of one chapter per day. That could mean ten new pages a day. Don’t worry, I’ll still finish and post approximately every 2 weeks if no one is willing to buy or borrow North Sea Dawn in the Kindle Lending Library and review it. If you do review, send me a link to it with your screen name so I can thank you.  When Second Alliance is done, I would like to put something new out on Amazon. Maybe Barghest, which I am currently posting to my blog (space, genetic engineering, and political intrigue – oh my). Maybe Nordic Diner (ah, NaNoWriMo, sorry I failed you – again). Maybe that steampunk idea that is still churning around in my brain like a pushy salesman (hey, this is a nice watch, this is the watch for you, just try it on). I can’t move on though, until the massive, massive cast of characters in Second Alliance all get their planned ever after and the future of demons is determined.

Let’s do this, together. Give this story the culmination that has been so long in coming. Let’s all gasp and cry and laugh and cheer and shout for the characters that we love – and the ones we love to hate. And then, after a respectful period of reflection (and by that I mean raving about the things that you would have done differently and lamenting that it is over), let’s find a new journey.

I know it is going to be good.

Barghest Chapter 5

A/N: It has come to my attention that some readers may not realize that the chapters in Barghest are skipping around in the timeline. I have listed the date in which action is taking place at the top of each chapter, along with some historical information about the universe in which Barghest is set. However, I understand that given the delay between postings, it is harder to keep track of a fictitious timeline than it might be if this was being consumed in a single reading. So, for the sake of simplicity, chapters featuring the character Maker are taking place in the present. (That’s the simple past tense for those grammatically inclined.) Other chapters are generally taking place prior to Maker’s personal timeline, but I have written those sequentially. I am aware of five past tense forms in English – if you know of more please share – and I try to use them all in combination with as many hyphens, italics, semi-colons, and commas as I can get away with. See previous sentence for reference. I do love emphasis.

If you are having any issues with following the story line, let me know why or how and I’ll see what I can do to correct the issue. Thank you for reading!

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Previous Chapter

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Hour 0830, Day 001, Year 2115

35th Anniversary of the assassination of President Aiden Murphy during his inauguration speech as he declared the commitment of America to a united earth confederation. Vice President Haifa Ahmed Al-Sindi was sworn into office minutes after her running mate was declared dead.

“Five series, Dr. Gillian. Five.” Representative Sudarshan punctuated the number by pressing her palms flat against the table on either side of her tablet. Her manicured nails clicked against the steel. “I have provided everything you have insisted is necessary for the success of Project Hellhound. The Oversight Committee for Defense Research has spent more on funding your facility than on cleanup of the Michigan-Pennslyvania and Showa crash sites combined. And yet, I have here your most recent quarterly report.” Gillian opened her mouth to respond, and Sudarshan glared to let her know she wasn’t finished.

“And yet,” she continued, “as I was on my way to a session hearing, sipping my coffee and listening to my daily calendar, I read this: …twenty-six series is not viable for field deployment…” Sudarshan flicked one finger across the surface of her tablet, “…inability to assume effective leadership…” She looked up, brushing a non-existent stray hair back into her chignon. “I understood you corrected that defect in the twenty-twos. So why is it, then, Doctor, that despite trillions of dollars, years of research, the brilliant minds recruited to this staff, that you still have not produced results?”

Gillian remained silent for a long moment, her jaw clenched in obvious anger. The white scar tissue that covered nearly half of her face remained smooth, while her undamaged skin was showing the inevitable signs of aging. It only reminded Sudarshan of how much time had been lost. If her election went well, in less than a year she would be moving into a Senate office and handing the leadership of the committee and Project Hellhound over to a junior Representative. She needed progress, concrete proof of success. Her entire career had been dedicated to finding a solution to the loss of life against Culler forces – and all of her bets were placed on Hellhound and Gillian.

“If I may, Representative?” Gillian motioned toward the door. Surprised, Sudarshan nodded. She stood only a beat behind the doctor, picking up the tablet, and followed the white-coated woman through a security door – not the one by which she had entered the office and began walking through several corridors. “Series 26 does display some undeniable indicators that they will not perform in the field as the project requires. However,” she cut her eyes to Sudarshan and the representative bit back a tart comment. “However, that does not mean they are incapable of ever being utilized as soldiers.” The two women entered an observation area, not unlike the one Sudarshan remembered vividly from her first visit to the facility. On the opposite side of the glass was not a small sterile room, but rather a large space not unlike a public school gymnasium.

Two rows of pre-teens, mostly boys, faced each other. A bearded man in generic exercise clothes walked between them, calling out commands for a set of exercises. Each child performed perfectly in sync with the others. Each increasingly complicated task was done without hesitation. The leader reached the end of the row, nearest the glass and turned. Sudarshan could not help but make a small noise of surprise when a short-haired brown tail flicked into view – attached to the man’s backside.

“That is 22-B, and this series follows his commands easily – far better than any of our staff. I believe it to be instinctual.”

Sudarshan studied the man more closely, but could not quite believe he was the same individual she remembered from the many reports on him and his series. “The ageing flaw,” she said uncertainly, remembering the primary reason for the discontinuation of the twenty-two series.”

“Correct. From the outset, one of our objectives has always been to reduce maturation time of the subjects – reducing the total cost of ownership and the investment period in each individual. With the 22s we managed to achieve maturation at the chronological age of eleven years, but the cellular degeneration in most subject could not be prevented from continuing at that rate. Bee is one of the few that responded positively to treatments to slow his progression, but still his aging makes him unsuitable for the field.”

“Yes. And while it may be considered efficient of you to have found a use for outdated models, I did not come here for a history lesson, Doctor. If these subjects can take orders, something which you vehemently stated was not possible, then in what way are they unsuited to their purpose?” One of the young men in line muttered something out of the corner of his mouth, startling a laugh out of the boy next to him. Their instructor, tail whipping angrily, was in their faces in an instant. Although no sound was being piped into the observation room, it was still clear that the youths were put into their place as they dropped to the ground and began push-ups with twin grimaces of shame.

“The twenty-two series had cellular degeneration issues. The twenty-threes were too empathetic. The twenty-fours were incapable of the spacial learning required for modern weapons training. The twenty-fives had hormonal imbalances that made them emotionally unstable. We have corrected all of those problems with the twenty-six series, and-”

“But,” Sudarshan interrupted, “You have brought back an old one. I would think you, of all people Gillian, would know the inherent danger of a hybrid killing machine that refuses to recognize authority.” She had intended the comment to give the doctor a reminder in humility – and warn her to stop wasting time. It resulted in an unexpected smile. The rough skin of Gillian’s cheek pulled down on the corner of her mouth, making the toothy grin nearly grotesque.

“Indeed – but that is not what we have here. What we have are killing machines – exactly as you requested. Intelligent. Strong. Agile. Capable of ending life but with an understanding of the value of the same. Physically, mentally, and emotionally mature at approximately fourteen years from extraction. They only need one change in your deployment parameters to make them effective.”

“Are you suggesting,” Sudarshan narrowed her eyes and gestured with a disgusted motion toward the fanged, tail-sporting male on the other side of the glass, “that I recommend to the SC High Command that they send a dog into battle to command their elite forces?”

“Bee is not a dog,” Gillian bit off. Silence fell for another moment while both women tried to rein in their tempers. “And I would not recommend he enter the field, even if he does live long enough for these subjects to be deployed. She turned tightly on a low-heeled shoe and opened another security door. “I am recommending,” she said in a calmer tone, “that the twenty-sixes receive additional training and classification as general support forces while the twenty-seven series matures. Once ready, the twenty-sevens will be capable of commanding their predecessors as well as receiving additional training for special forces missions and highly independent decision-making.” They passed through two security doors, the second guarded by another individual with a tail.

The female, wearing a modified version of fatigues, greeted the doctor with a dipped head and a smile that bared pointed teeth. She sniffed overtly at Sudarshan.

“She is with me, Ae,” Gillian stated calmly. The guard was female, and clearly dedicated to her duty. She took their security cards and carefully compared the photo on Sudarshan’s to her face and the information terminal on the wall before scanning them in and stepping aside. Sudarshan did her best to keep her expression from not reflecting the morbid curiosity that swirled in her mind as a brown tail flicked at the button to open the door. She followed Gillian inside and the door shut behind them, leaving them alone in a five by five room.

“Decontamination will take a moment, breathe normally,” Gillian instructed. Sudarshan had toured research and medical facilities before, so she was prepared for the cool hiss of gas and the glow of UV lighting against her closed lids. After ninety seconds, a chime sounded and another door opened. The room she stepped into was another observation space, but this one was manned with several technicians at computer stations and lab tables. The quiet activity would have been commonplace in almost any biotech facility, if not for the wall of glass that dominated the room. On the other side were four bays of artificial wombs, clustered in groups of twenty-five per bay. The mass of technology that was supporting the lives of one hundred genetically designed beings was phenomenal.

The costs of it all was staggering. Sudarshan had never seen the gestation lab, but she was aware that no hospital on Earth, or anywhere in the Sol Coalition, could boast the level of care that in the Hellhound facility. WIth good reason. Artificial wombs had been declared restricted technology, usable only to save viable pregnancies if the parents did not have any other children. Even if they had not been so carefully controlled, the expense of a single device, even for the few months to mature a regular human infant, was far beyond the means of all but a tiny percentage of the population. Before her were enough machines to grow an army from nothing but artificially constructed DNA, nutrient packs, and energy.

“These are the twenty-sevens. They are the culmination of my work, Representative, and hundreds of other scientists.” The quiet pride in Gillian’s voice was obvious.

“When will they be ready?”

“Extraction is typically around forty-six weeks, since we corrected the aging issue.”

“When will they be ready for deployment,” Sudarshan clarified. She could not take her eyes off of the small bodies, visible as shadows in the pearly liquid of the wombs. So much potential. So much expectation.

“Like the twenty-sixes, they will be mature at fourteen years.” Dislike hardened her next words, “But I strongly recommend that they spend at least an additional year in field training exercises.”
“Noted,” Sudarshan turned to face the doctor. Tearing her eyes away from the tiny soldiers growing at her direction. Tearing her mind away from the possibilities of the future. “Our losses pushing the Cullers out of Near Sol space are unsustainable. We need those soldiers, doctor.” She handed back the tablet loaded with reports and data on the project and turned to leave. “And for gods’ sake,” she tossed over her shoulder as she pressed her palm against the security lock, “stop naming them after the alphabet. It makes the field reports damn confusing.”

***

Next Chapter

Barghest Chapter 4

Previous Chapter

***

Hour 0900, Day 073, Year 2148

Ninety-second anniversary of the Rajasthan Reactor Catastrophe. Death toll estimated at 600,000.

Maker clenched her jaw and tried to ignore the hot ache in her shoulder joint. The surgeon in charge of the bone reconstruction had protested her discharge, claiming the artificial ligaments needed more time to fully attach to the new clavicle. Unfortunately, an official inquiry into her actions on the last mission superseded medical authority. The doctor had practically snarled when he tossed a sling at her, growling about barbarian recovery procedures. She had left the sling in her bag in the corridor before she was escorted into the hearing. Standing before a panel of officers, at least one of whom she knew had a personal dislike of her, was not a time to look pathetic. Lieutenant Commander Soon had made it clear during their time stationed aboard the Pershing that he felt it was his responsibility to make her life a living hell. Maker still wasn’t sure why, but she wasn’t about to expose any weaknesses. Any more weakness, she snorted to herself.

Most of the bruising on her face had faded, but there was no doubt that she had been injured. The brace that kept her two new vertebrate properly aligned made her uniform coat bunch and strain. Unlike the sling, she couldn’t just remove it. Vertebrae were much more sensitive to misalignment than shoulder joints. Just thinking about it made her shoulder throb.

“This inquiry is called to order,” the Commander chairing the meeting stated. She dropped the gavel with enough force to echo in the mostly empty room. Lieutenant Commander Soon sat straight, nearly leaning forward in his chair in anticipation. To the Commander’s left sat an older officer who took no pains to hide his bored expression from the intimidating woman speaking. “Sargent Clara Maker, Service Number SC2144-E56-00861, you have been notified of Questions of Concern regarding the performance of your duties and the accuracy of your field report during the mission noted as,” she paused and consulted the tablet in front of her, “2148-RD-237.” Maker was vaguely surprised that there had been 237 Recon and Detain missions authorized so early in the year. Must be a real scramble for the paper pushers, she thought sourly. “Do you understand the Questions as they have been posed?”

Maker didn’t shift her gaze from the Commander, although she could feel the attention of the other two panel members on her. The Questions of Concern had been listed in the summons she received while she was in the hospital. Although a lot of statute and protocol was mixed into the language, the message was basic: they thought she fucked up. It wasn’t an unsurprising conclusion. Her sergeant’s stripes weren’t even broken in, and a simple bag-and-drag had resulted in the death of nearly half of her team, including the commanding officer. The killing of two Cullers and capture of another only added a layer of strange to the fucked-up. The blatant flaunting of the order to remain covert was a frosting of insubordination. A bitter sprinkling of incompetence from the damage inflicted on the mining station was the final touch on her shit sandwich.

Incompetence on insubordination on strange on fucked-up, she summarized internally. Yeah, I understand the questions.

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am,” she said aloud.

“Very good,” the Commander said, scrolling through her files. She flicked the one she wanted onto the wall display. “Let’s begin with a review of the field footage.” The lighting dimmed.

Maker tried not to fidget or relax her posture as they forwarded through hours of pre-incident footage from the multiple angles offered by each soldier’s personal recording device. The playback was paused only a few times to highlight the lieutenant as he gave orders to switch shifts or stay focused. Her back ached and her shoulder burned; her arm felt like a lead weight pulling down on the socket. She was unsuccessful at controlling her blush when they slowed the images down in time to catch her exchange with Rodriguez. The older panelist chuckled. The Commander remained impassive. Lt. Commander Soon sent her a glare.  After that, the film became uncomfortable to watch. She flinched when her own video feed was enlarged to show her clumsy attempt to back away from the Nick she had thrown alcohol on. The muscles in her back twitched in remembered and real pain as she watched her fall from the pipe to hit the floor. The tech displays were overlaid on the recording of her vision, and Maker stood still while she watched her team’s lights go dark all over again.

Kerry’s transmission seemed louder and more frantic as it played in the meeting room than it had on the mining station:

“Transport down! Cullers! Two in the bay, one in the weeds! Request immediate assistance! Respond!”

“Retreat! Cargo is expendable, if necessary! Go, Go, Go!”

Her video shook as she had run down the alley, and then the Culler was on her. Maker broke out in a sweat, just watching the attack. Then the video feed went dead. Sound had continued to record, and the room sat in silence, listening to her heavy breathing, her grunts and screams of pain, the grating words of the Culler. Video flicked in and out a few times. Once it showed the blood-soaked face veil as she ripped it off and vomited on the ground. Her arms had been shiny-wet with blood welling out of her body armor and making her gloves slick. The second time lasted longer, and captured Bretavic on the edge of the hole in the floor, his gesture to the corridor, and the first charge of the Cullers. Her shot had gone wide, ripping through the wall of a shop.

Then there was the noise and confusion of the fight, the explosion. Maker watched while a cold sweat made her skin clammy. The increasing desperation in her recorded voice as she tried to raise someone on the comms made her nauseous:

“This is Command, respond.”

“Command calling, over.”

“Command here, call back.”

“This is Command, please respond.”

Then there were her threats to the miners, and her discussion with Kerry and Rodriguez on the transport. The feed ended, and the lights slowly brightened.

“Sargent Maker, is the evidence shown here, incomplete as it is, accurate?”

“Ma’am,” Maker had to pause to gather enough spit in her mouth to speak. A trickle of sweat slid under the collar of her uniform. Her stomach was twisting again, with fear or guilt she wasn’t sure. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Do you expect us to believe that you took out three Cullers on your own, Sargent?” Soon leaned forward in his chair, his forearms braced on the table. “What really happened while your video was out?”

“Sir, I could never have terminated those targets on my own, sir.” Maker swallowed again. In another time and place she would have savored the smug look on Soon’s face, knowing she had the power to wipe it away. Reliving the disaster of her first command obliterated the petty impulse. “The first target, Species Cancri 8 -”

“Nicks, I believe you called them.” The older officer who had laughed at her exchange with Rodriguez smiled.

Maker nodded stiffly, and continued, “That was dumb luck. As you could see, my aim was off and I nearly broke a leg trying to get to higher ground. The second one was as much Rodriguez’s success as mine. Likely more.”

The Commander glanced down at her tablet. “That would be Private First Class, Rodriguez?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Maker agreed. “The Culler in the alley-”

“The one who killed your commanding officer,” Soon interrupted. Maker nodded jerkily. “But you had no trouble with it.” His contempt was obvious.

“No, sir. Bretavic’s team had already wounded it, and it still dislocated my shoulder, snagged an artery, and destroyed my tech.”

“Thing probably died more from the ceiling crashing down than the girl’s shot,” murmured the old man in amusement.

Maker didn’t wait for Soon to interject again, she was desperate to get the inquiry over with. Her body hurt, and she didn’t want to think about what had happened on the station for a moment longer than she had to. She spoke quickly, “The other kill and the capture were similar. They were already injured, and I took wounds, from the enemy and my own actions, and destroyed a significant amount of personal and corporate property, in order to survive. The mission objectives, as stated by my commanding officer prior to his death, were achieved. The subsequent loss of life and breaches in protocol are solely my responsibility. I am prepared for whatever decision this body hands down.”

The room was quiet for a moment, then the Commander spoke reproachfully, “This is an inquiry, not a court marshal, Sergeant. No executions will be held today.”

“I have heard enough,” the oldest member stated, rolling his shoulders. “This evidence and testimony, combined with what we reviewed earlier, confirm for me that Sergeant Maker acted to the best of her ability within the confines of her orders and the situation.” The official statement was spoken with a practiced tongue, and the officer casually slapped his palm onto his tablet to sign his decision.

“I object,” Soon said flatly. His eyes sparkled with malice. “I am not satisfied, nor do I feel that Sergeant Maker has conducted herself in a manner befitting a member of these forces, much less an officer. I recommend that this case be forwarded onto the Justice unit for an expedited court marshal.” He, too, pressed his palm down, but with a barely suppressed smile. The bottom fell out of Maker’s stomach. She had wanted it to be over, but she hadn’t honestly expected that result. Her eyes turned to the Commander.

“The circumstances presented here are unusual in the extreme, as are the actions taken by Sergeant Maker,” she said slowly. Soon’s white teeth flashed in a savage smile. His satisfaction was premature, “The veracity of her statements is not in dispute, and has been confirmed by other accounts. However, given the preparation and intelligence provided for the mission, and the challenges posed, as well as Maker’s own inexperience, I believe that she displayed quick-thinking, courage, and grace under pressure. These are the basis for a fine soldier, and a fine officer.”

“Provided she doesn’t blow herself up first,” muttered the third member.

“Indeed.” Maker might have imagined it, but she swore she saw a crinkling at the corners of the Commander’s eyes. “This body has a majority. All Questions of Concern have been addressed, and no further action is indicated.” The Commander sealed her palm print to her tablet and then banged the gavel again. “The meeting is concluded. Sergeant Maker, you are dismissed.”  Soon stormed out of the room; the Commander followed more sedately. Maker simply stood, blinking, for a few moments wondering what exactly had happened. She slowly pulled her injured arm to her chest, cradling her fist against the opposite shoulder.

A voice at her side startled her, “That was quite a thriller you treated us to,” said the older officer. Maker was surprised to note the bars on his cuffs. His badge read, Sullivan.

“Captain, sir,” she said weakly.

He chuckled, “In my day we would have pinned a medal on you for killing those Culler bastards. Still, try not to end up here again, eh?” She turned to follow him out, and they parted at the doorway. He threw a wink and a parting comment over his shoulder, “And tell your mother, next time you see her, not to worry about the favor. I don’t like serving on these things, but reading this mission report was the highlight of my week.” Her mouth fell open, she was sure, and she stared at his back as he walked away.

She wasn’t sure how long she stood there, trying to process that she wasn’t going to be disciplined – and why. It was Bretavic that finally caught her attention as he limped around the corner, a cane gripped uselessly in his hand and a brace on his leg. “Hey,” he called out, drawing the attention of several administrative staff in the hallway. He ignored them. “Shouldn’t you be in the infirmary?”

“I could say the same for you,” she answered automatically. Then she shook her head to clear it. “Inquiry,” she said shortly. Her shock at Captain Sullivan’s comment was wearing off, to be replaced with anger.

“I take it everything went okay?” At her nod, he continued, “I tried to tell them, but that Soon was a real jackass.” She began a slow walk back toward the lift, her ire continuing to build. Favors, it always come down to favors, she thought. She needed a painkiller, and a soft bunk, and some method of reaching through subspace and misguided, unwanted maternal protection to slap someone. Her shoulder throbbed. “Rodriguez asked me to wait around for you after he got done with them, but I had to report for a physical.”

“Everybody okay?” Concern for her team pushed aside the irritation for a moment.

 He listed out the other soldiers, two of whom were still in the infirmary listed as critical. ““Kerry and Rodriguez are clean. They had duty this shift. So…” His voice trailed off, and Maker shot him a glance. The big man looked uncomfortable. He was substantially cleaner and healthier than the last time she had seen him. She hadn’t known him well before the mission so she couldn’t determine if uncomfortable was usual for him. His jaw was showing a five o’clock shadow, strange since it was barely 1200 hours, and his uniform had a few creases. Not enough to take a penalty from an officer, but enough to be noticeable. She might have stripes on her sleeve, but Bretavic had seniority over her. Between that and flying her out of the FUBAR mission on the station, she wasn’t inclined to mention anything about regulation dress.

He shifted a few times and an awkward silence grew between them. “What?” she finally asked. She pushed the button for the lift and stepped in when it almost immediately opened. They were alone in the car, and Bretavic let out a pent-up sigh as the doors closed.

“I have a card game on Thursdays.” He said it with an air of challenge, as if Maker cared that he engaged in gambling. It was prohibited, but not enforced, and it wasn’t like she was going to get into trouble. “Stop by, if you want.”

Oh. Maker blinked. Despite coming completely out of the blue, she recognized an offer of friendship when she saw it. Maybe I will get into trouble. She reflected on the meeting she had just be subjected to. Screw it. “Yeah, thanks. Where at?”

“Maintenance Bay Six. Security code 1234.” He grinned, showing off straight, even white teeth that almost made him handsome. He was at least a decade older than her, but still a private. Maker could guess what had held back promotions. As if it was just one thing. “It’s ironic.”

“I get it,” she responded dryly. A tone sounded and the doors opened.

She heard him call after her quietly as she walked away, “And find a fucking sling, Sarge.”

Her surgeon was fairly upset to find out she had let the weight of her arm hang from his “perfectly good capsular ligament”, resulting in dislocation. He had a nurse hold her while he reinserted it – sans anesthetic. When she woke up, she found that she had been restricted to bed rest in the infirmary for a further two days. It wouldn’t have particularly hurt her feelings, if she hadn’t been itching to make a call.  Rodriguez visited once, although he spent most of his hour flirting with a resident. Kerry came as well, and, in the true vein of the friendship they had forged years before during basic training, he mostly sat quietly and listened while she talked. Although he surprised her by sending a few new novels to her net account as well. It gave her something to do besides practice the lecture she was waiting to give.

Within twenty minutes of being released, she was back in her own quarters. She shared with another non-commissioned officer, but her bunk mate was luckily on duty. Maker flipped on her display and opened her net account. She had to look up the code, but the call was picked up right away.

Perry, here, state your business.” The voice was clipped and professional. Maker expected nothing less from a member of that crew.

“Sergeant Clara Maker, Service Number SC2144-E56-00861,” she responded. She didn’t bother sitting up straight, although she knew the communications officer on the other end could see her. As was protocol for an active-duty ship, the camera on that end remained dark until permission was granted by a senior officer. “Requesting to speak with Captain Yamamoto, immediately.”

“Sergeant,” the officer’s voice dropped about ten degrees. “That is not in your pay grade. Submit a formal request.”

“Is Commander…” she wracked her brain for the man’s name. It had been years since they met. “Alarcon available?”  There was a long pause, and Maker vacillated between anger and hope. Anger for the Captain. Hope that the Commander remembered her.

“Go.” The single command came from a new voice, just as concise as she recalled.

“Commander Alarcon, this is Sergeant Clara Maker. I need to speak with Captain Yamamoto as soon as possible, sir.”

“Sergeant,” he hesitated, and then the display activated. A middle-aged man, his skin dark and silky looking, stood with the communications officer behind him. “The Captain is off duty. Can this wait?” His face was calm, but not unkind.

“No,” she said, just as evenly, “it cannot.” The display went dark again and a protest by the communications officer was abruptly silenced. There was a minute of nothing while the indicator lights at the bottom of the screen blinked to show the communication was being held in the system.Then they flashed green.

“Yamamoto, here.” Her voice was a little rough, she had obviously just woken up.

“Lin,” Maker said flatly. The camera on the Perry immediately switched on. Yamamoto looked the same as when Maker had last seen her, almost two years prior. Her skin was a flawless almond. Her hair, despite the mess of sheets and dented pillow on the bed where she sat, lay in a smooth black curtain just past her jawline. The blue pajama set was not standard issue sleepwear, but they displayed to advantage a body that had been well-taken care of for the last four and a half decades.

“Clara,” she didn’t raise her volume, but her eyes widened in surprise. “Is something wrong? I thought you would be in the infirmary for another few days, at least.”

Maker tried to keep her anger behind a cold voice, “Why would you think that? In fact,” she could feel her blood pounding in her ears and had to grip the edge of her desk to keep from pointing an accusing finger at the screen, “How did you know anything about my injury?”

“That,” Yamamoto frowned and waved a hand as if it wasn’t worth mentioning. “I would never know anything about you if I waited for you or your father to inform me. The Chief Medical Officer on the Pershing is an old friend. He notified me as soon as you were admitted.” Maker ground her teeth together with fury, but her mother continued as though she couldn’t clearly understand the expression on her daughter’s face. “Your surgical report showed several coral grafts and some artificial bone. Are you rejecting them?”

“Why ask?” Maker spit out, furious. “Why not just ring my doctor and ask him?”

“Clara, that would put him in an awkward position, don’t you think?” Her gentle chiding sent Maker’s blood boiling. “Now, if you would simply add me to your information release form, we wouldn’t need to go through this. I barely had enough time to call up your grandfather’s old classmate to help smooth out the inquiry.”

“Captain Sullivan-” she began, but was cut off.

“Yes. I hoped you were sufficiently respectful during the inquiry. You will never get a decent posting once you are commissioned if you don’t-”

“I will say this once more.” Maker leaned in close to the screen, focusing on her mother’s face. She kept her voice low, knowing that the walls in her quarters were not thick enough to keep her neighbors from overhearing if she shouted. “I have no intention of being commissioned. I will not re-sign once my obligatory two years’ service is up. I do not want your help. I do not want to use the Yamamoto name or connections. I. Do. Not. Want to speak with you. Stay out of my life, Lin.”

She ended the transmission and logged out of her account, locking the station. As soon as she had her breathing under control, she grabbed her dopp kit, towel, and a change of clothes and went to wash.

It was a short walk to the showers in her section, and they were nearly deserted. When she finished, Maker wiped the steam from the mirror. Her wet hair looked nearly black, the unruly waves slicked down against the back of her neck. The white of her skin looked deathly against the bruises under her eyes. Freckles, cultivated during a childhood spent under the Earth’s atmosphere, had faded to nearly nothing; they took on a green cast under the harsh lighting. Her new scars were minimal, courtesy of laser stitching and low-impact techniques. Only slightly shiny patches on her pale skin denoted where a talon had pierced her calf and the bullet trail across the top of her thigh. A silvery line, barely wider than thread, traced down her arm to end in a faint starburst where her damaged tech had burned her. With the mirror, she could see the still healing pink tissue on each shoulder; her left was surrounded by fading bruises from the recent dislocation.

It didn’t seem like enough. Four soldiers were dead but she had to search for a visible sign of her injuries..

It was too much. She hadn’t wanted to be a soldier, would never have joined if it weren’t compulsory. Nineteen years old. Four months left to serve and she wanted nothing so badly as to just go home.

She could feel hot tears pricking at the backs of her eyes, which made her angry. She shouldn’t be crying. She wasn’t hurt anymore; she didn’t have the ashes of a loved one on their way home in a jar. She didn’t have any reason to cry. Still. Maker yanked on standard issue loose grey shorts and tank – the contrast to Yamamoto’s attire was satisfying. On the way back to her quarters she kept up a pace that was uncomfortable for her healing body and fell into her bunk before any moisture leaked out onto her face.

***

Next Chapter

 

Barghest Chapter 3

Previous Chapter

***

Hour 1630, Day 87, Year 2109

Forty-seventh anniversary of announcement of the first successful Genetically Modified Human (GMH). Revelation that human DNA had been augmented with that of a cuttlefish spurred public outcry, protests, riots, and unprecedented funding.

Bee lifted his head slowly above the vegetation where he had been hiding. He could smell the animal ahead of him, and his mouth watered, but he swallowed it down and waited. The white coats called the game Group-Dynamics-Planning-Exercise-One, but Bee and the others called it what it was: surround-wait-pack-pounce. There were lots of things that had two names. There was the name the white coats spoke, and the name Bee and his pack spoke.  He was Bee, or sometimes 22-B when they were talking about him instead of to him, but his real name was long-crouch. His favorite game was sniff-listen-follow-find, but the white coats called it Sensory-Perception-Assessment-and-Expansion-Exercise-Three. The white coats had funny, long names for most things – even themselves. Some of them were Doctor-word-word, others were Mister-word, and there were at least ten more that Bee heard every day.  Sometimes the white coats spoke too short. Today the first meal was called Protein-Supplement-MRE-Six, but the pack knew it was hot-meat-ran-fast-ate-green-good-death and oily-smooth-salty-swimmers. The white coats were smart, and they knew where the food was and how to open the doors, but they weren’t very good at naming things.

Second meal had been smaller than normal, so Bee and the others had known there would be a food game. Gee had complained and pouted, but Bee and the others were excited. Food games were fun, and the food was tastier and more…more… Bee struggled with a description. Game food was bright and big in his mouth and sometimes crunched or squirted when he bit down. It was wet and hot sometimes, and it made his nose feel full and tingling with scent. It was just more.

It had been nearly time for third meal, and his stomach felt empty, when the white coats came. Soft-rough-mother was with them, and that made the whole pack even more excited. The white coats called her Doctor-Gillian or Wendy or sometimes Boss, but when she watched a game, at least one of the pack was always picked to do something special afterward.  It was hard to always tell how to get picked. Sometimes she wanted the fastest, sometimes the most patient, sometimes she picked the one that made all the rest of the pack listen.

Bee thought he had it figured out, though. The white-coat that was sweet-flower-bitter-herbs always sat by the window after second meal to watch them. She used a stick and wrote on her light pad and if Bee came to the window, she would watch him. He knew she was writing about him, because sometimes she drew pictures too. He recognized himself from the mirrors in the enclosure. She made his fur dark and his mane streaky. And she wrote his name next to those drawings: 22-B. That was him. He had watched sweet-flower-bitter-herbs long enough that he knew some other words too. Like Positive. Pat. Training. Good. Obedient. Alpha.

That was what soft-rough-mother wanted, he was sure. The white-coats said that word ‘alpha’ a lot, and although none of the rest of the pack seemed to recognize it, Bee knew what it really meant. First-kill-hot-blood-protector-front-walk-listen. Sometimes Ae was that. Once or twice it had been Jay, but usually they worked together, mostly, and if there was a problem with their plan, each of them tried to win on their own. But soft-rough-mother wanted one of them to be in charge. She wanted one of the pack to make the others listen, even if something went wrong with a plan. Soft-rough-mother was going to give special treats and attention to the one who could make the others listen. The way the white-coats listed to soft-rough-mother.

Bee wanted special treats. He wanted attention from soft-rough-mother. He wanted her to put her hand on his head and use her good-boy-good-girl voice and tell him he did well. He wanted to be allowed to sit on the ground next to sweet-flowers-bitter-herbs and watch her draw him, to lean against her warm leg. Bee wanted to be the alpha.

He tried to explain it to the others after second meal, but only Ae had understood at all. The words were hard – hard to make sounds that meant what he was thinking. When third meal was late, he had finally given up trying to convince them.

Follow, he had growled. Listen. My plan. My kill. Pack bite hot meat hot meat hot meat. Obey. Hot meat hot meat hot meat.

Then soft-rough-mother had come in and the game began. “Group Dynamics Planning Exercise Number One, attempt 34, series 22 primary group.” She held up her clicker and pinched it three times, click-a-click-a-click-a, and that meant listen. “Covert. Team. Hunt. Ready.” She held her hand flat in the air, and brought it down as she said, “Go.”

Bee and the rest of the pack were good at that part. Before her hand could reach her side they had scattered into the plants that were thick around the walls of the enclosure. Bee was as quiet as he could be, climbing up a rock and laying on his belly in the deep shadow of a tree. He watched the clearing below and the game box that was lowered to the center. He could smell his pack, waiting, watching. He could smell the white-coats – more than usual, and not just soft-rough-mother in the enclosure with them, but also the trace of sweet-flowers-bitter-herbs that filtered through the vent under the glass and others too. One in the enclosure and many in the corridor and behind the glass.

Bee flicked his ears, and his hairs told him that the air was changing direction. The scent of the game animal blew toward him, and then the game box opened. He tensed, alert, and his surprise was only overcome by the spike of ready-smell that Jay and Ee were giving off. Bee screwed up his throat and moaned as low as he could. They had all been practicing making the sound. The white coats couldn’t hear it, but they could feel it or see it move in Bee’s chest if they were close enough.

The ready-smell died off, and Bee knew they were waiting for another signal. That was good. They listened. Listening meant alpha. He turned his full attention back to the game food. It wasn’t hairy, but had ridges on its back that looked hard to chew. It moved, slowly, and that surprised Bee. Game food had never moved before. It also excited him. He wanted to chase. To pounce. Bee dug his claws into the rock to help himself stay put and moaned again. If he wanted to chase, the others would too. They couldn’t, not yet. He had to wait first to see what the game was.

The game animal crawled off of the metal box that held the prize. It moved cautiously, curled up and taking tiny steps that made its ridges stick out. Bee waited, the hot smell of blood and the sound of it pumping through the game food making his mouth water even more. It seemed like forever, longer than forever, longer than the pack had ever waited for game animals. Then the animal relaxed. It picked up a broken leaf from the ground and rolled over onto its back to hold the green thing while it ate. The game animal had a soft, soft belly.

Bee dug in his blunt toe claws and leaped, without making a sound. He landed a little further from where he had wanted to be, but he still got one hand buried into the game animal’s belly. It made a shrieking sound and thrashed, but the rest of the pack was there. Jay stepped on its tail, even though it had little spike that made his foot bleed. Aa dug her claws under its chin, and Dee rammed his face under one flailing leg to bite at the joint. Bee roared. It sounded loud to him, and all the pack but Aa and Jay backed away and circled the game animal. Bee looked to Aa, just to make certain she knew he was first-kill-hot-blood-protector-front-walk-listen and then he snapped his mouth around the underarm where he could hear and smell the blood pumping hard. It sprayed on his face, and the game animal stopped moving.

There was a click, and the prize box opened. The pack smelled excited, ready. A few even let out whimpers and whines. But they waited. They were listening. Bee stepped away from the game animal and walked carefully to the box. Spit was starting to leak out of the side of his mouth, but he ignored the feeling in his stomach that said he should take all the food. He reached in one hand and pulled out the largest piece of food. He took one bite, one big bite of hot-meat-ran-fast-ate-green-good-death and then he used his claws to cut it into two halves. He gave one to Aa, and one to Jay.

Aa waited, although her lips were shiny with spit too. Jay bit into his, then stopped when Bee growled. Jay sat down and waited too. Bee was still hungry. His stomach felt even emptier, but he was sure that he knew what soft-rough-mother wanted. He couldn’t help but sneak a glance at her. Her face was flat, but she smelled happy. Bee felt a rush of happiness too. He would be alpha. He would be good-boy-good-girl head-pat-pat. Bee stepped away from the prize box and called to the others.

My plan. My kill. Good pack. Eat. Eat. Eat.

And they did. The pack yipped excitedly and bunched around the prize box. Since Bee hadn’t taken a full share, there was a little more for everyone. Bee knew that was important. He promised the pack if they listened, they would get more. That made trust. The white coats liked trust. The pack liked trust too.  Bee made sure everyone ate equally, although he had to snap at Ach to keep him from sneaking a second piece. Then he walked over to soft-rough-mother. He sat down at her feet and waited. When she didn’t immediately praise him, he began to worry that her happy smell wasn’t for him. Then she slipped her clicker into her pocket. She bent a little at the waist, she was tall for a white coat, and smoothed her palm down his head to rest her fingers against the back of his ear.

“Good boy, 22-B. Good job.”

Bee closed his eyes and leaned into her warmth.

ooo

“It isn’t conclusive, not at this age.”

Dr. Wendy Gillian acknowledged her fellow researcher with a nod, but continued to watch through the one-way mirror. After the resounding success of the Group Dynamics exercise, she had let 22-B choose his own reward. That too, was a test of sorts. She knew he had to be hungry, but when presented with a choice between a double-portion of protein, fatty acid, and simple sugars or a single portion of protein and physical contact with her assistant, he had chosen Lupe.

It made sense. All of the primary group had an extra twist to their genetic structure, a marker that made them want to please. But B had always shown an extra willingness, desire even, to seek praise. Gillian was surprised, however, that he had been the one to finally leap into a dominate role. There were others that occasional showed capacity for it; J in particular was more aggressive than the rest of the pack. Aggression, as exhibited by many species on Earth and Keres 6b-3, was not always an indicator of leadership skills.

Dr. Bantan was going on about personality fix milestones and cognition development. Gillian ignored most of it. She had heard it all before, even published some of it herself. It was an old argument. She interrupted him instead, “Have you noticed he watches her stylus?” Gillian toggled the camera zoom in on B’s eyes. He was following Lupe’s progress with her drawing and accompanying notes carefully. The male was sitting on the ground at her feet, leaning into the side of her thigh to peer over her arm. His food had been finished long ago, but Gillian was content to let the special treat last at least until Lupe was finished with her current assignment.

“Hm.” Bantan moved to stand next to her, and then pulled up the feed on his tablet. He replayed it several times, drawing a few lines over the image to highlight B’s gaze. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he said quietly.

“What?” Gillian pulled her eyes away from the subject and research on the other side of the mirror and glanced down.

“I think he is reading.” Bantan shook his head. Gillian was just as disbelieving. The 22 series had been genetically dialed back, as the specialist termed it. They were less human and more animal than many previous series. The return to something closer to the original subject species was an attempt to better understand where the sequencing and accompanying training had gone wrong. From a strictly genetic standpoint, they were animals with some human DNA. Not the other way around. Reading, and other high-level intelligence tasks, had been hypothesized to be years down the road in their development – if not completely impossible.

“Send Lupe a text,” she decided suddenly. Bantan typed while Gillian dictated. They could both see the moment the message went through. B stiffened and his eyes snapped to the tablet in Lupe’s lap. She tapped on the screen to pull it up, and the watched B’s eyes scan over the text.

Count to five, then read aloud:  22-B is a good boy.

Lupe frowned, but they could see B nearly vibrating with excitement before Lupe spoke. All of the subjects had been conditioned to the phrase ‘good boy/girl’ and the praise of a head pat. Gillian’s heart picked up pace, but she tried to keep her excitement in check. She dictated another message, and B leaned so far over the tablet when the chime sounded that Lupe couldn’t see the screen.

Pat 22-B.

The subject turned and faced Lupe so fast he almost knocked the stylus out of her hand. It took her a moment to realize that he was waiting, head lowered and hovering under her free hand.

“Son of a bitch,” Bantan whispered.
Gillian stared at him with wide eyes. This was it, she was sure. Nearly two decades of her life, full use of her left arm, and half of her face had been given to the project. The tall, furry six year-old on the other side of the glass was the breakthrough she had been hoping for – had though was years and another two or three attempts at sequencing away. Her theories could be proven. Here. Now. Nurture conquers nature. Gillian had to breath deeply to keep the sheer exhilaration, the joy, from exploding. “Design the test – I want to start tomorrow. For all of them, this group and secondary. Keep the team small – Eyes Only. We need to get this figured out before Congress decides to send the twenty-twos to war.”

***

Next Chapter

NaNoWriMo: Fifth Post

Another year, and November rolls around again. Lo, and behold, I still haven’t finished last year’s novel project. I do, however, still have a few devoted readers who ask for updates. In thanks, I brought this one out and polished it up. At my current rate of publishing four posts per year, this story might be finished before I am old enough to retire. On the bright side, I’ll have plenty of time then to write the sequel.

 

Chapter 4

 

When Elsa woke, it was early afternoon and her alarm clock was buzzing in increasingly loud bursts that kept an off tempo to the headache simmering at the back of her skull. She stood on wobbly legs and grimaced as a thousand little aches and pains – only some from sleeping on the floor – made themselves known. She sank onto the edge of her full-sized bed and shut off the alarm, debating briefly the merit of calling in sick before giving in to the inevitable. “Somebody’s got to pay the bills,” she said to herself. She gently peeled the towels from her forearms, sticky clumps of scabs came away with the cloth. Kurt had obviously cleaned her arms before he wrapped them, but now new blood and thin yellow pus oozed sluggishly from the wounds. She undressed carefully and brushed her teeth while the shower warmed up.

Glancing into the mirror, she let out a gasp. Her reflection stared back at her. Limp black hair had escaped her thick braid and hung around her face, emphasizing her wan complexion. Dark circles, a blue that nearly matched her eyes, radiated out almost to her cheeks. Her lips were chapped and cracked, and tear tracks streaked her face. She leaned closer, the salty residue was tinged with blood. “Holy hell,” she breathed, staring until steam fogged up the glass. It was enough to make her wish she had more than a cracked, nearly empty powder compact and clumpy mascara in her medicine cabinet. However, she doubted that any amount of makeup would be enough to make her look like she hadn’t been hit by a truck.

After a short shower, she carefully taped cotton balls coated with antibiotic ointment to her arms and covered them with layers of ace bandages. She made a mental note to use the first aid kit at work and dressed in loose khaki pants, a white polo and tennis shoes. She gave up trying to braid her hair, her arms had started to burn, and left it hanging halfway down her back. She picked up her backpack and locked up before walking down three flights of stairs and out to the bus stop. Elsa nearly fell asleep on the bench, barely keeping her head from falling onto the shoulder of the woman next to her.

By the time she got to the library where she worked from three to ten, the throb in her head had grown into a three piece band, with a lot of percussion. She clocked in and re-shelved books for nearly two hours without thinking about the diner or the toothpaste twins. Reaching up to put The Wonders of Yellowstone next to The National Parks: America’s Best Idea she overheard another clerk talking a few rows over.

“A brunette helped you last time? Well, you probably mean Elsa, she knows everything about everything in the library,” the clerk said, and Elsa froze – the heavy book poised above her head. “But if we can’t find her, I’m sure I can help you.” There was a low rumble, a man’s voice talking too quietly for her to make out, and then the clerk laughed. “Oh, I’m so not a bookworm, you’re right! My mom said if I wanted to join the sorority, I had to pay for it myself.” The rumble sounded again, closer this time. They were moving her way. Elsa took a quiet, deep breath. She knew she was overreacting; she helped people at the library all the time. She even had a few regulars, retired people and struggling students, who asked for her. This was probably nothing; Kurt had scared her into seeing the boogeyman around every corner.

“You know, I get off at seven, if you’d like to talk more.” Elsa let out a little sigh she hadn’t known she was holding. Lana the Greek had a discriminating eye, she wouldn’t hit on some whack job with fork marks on his neck. She tuned them out and tried to concentrate on the Dewey decimal system. Yellowstone went back on the shelf, but the strain of holding the heavy book for so long must have broken open a scab, because blood was seeping through the bandages. A girlish laugh erupted in the next row, startling her. “Good-looking and funny! You probably have girls lined up – I love a guy with a great smile, it’s something…”

Pulse pounding in her ears, Elsa stepped slowly off the ladder. She couldn’t focus, couldn’t listen to what they were saying over the sound of her own blood. She crouched behind her book cart, watching between the shelves as two people moved down the row. It’s nothing, you’re overreacting, she told herself; but panic was rising in her chest again. The pain in her head and arms faded to the background, the irrational urge to run, run as fast and as far as she could taking hold of her. They were almost two thirds of the way down now, and would be turning up her aisle in minutes. Elsa had to physically hold onto the cart to keep herself from sprinting away. Her knuckles turned white and her breathing sped up to keep pace with the fear that was flooding her.

“Elsa!” She nearly fell over, she spun around so quickly. One shoe caught her other leg and she landed on all fours, hair streaming around her face. Scott was standing next to the ladder, a concerned look on his face. They had been friends for years, since he had first come into the branch library needed help with a term paper. “Hey, are you okay? I didn’t mean to startle you.” He bent over to help her to her feet and sucked in his breath when he saw her bandages. “Oh,” he put his left hand in hers and slid his right under her elbow. “You weren’t at the study carousels today when I came in. I thought you had forgotten you were going to help me over your break with that German exam I have coming up.” He turned her towards him, away from Lana and her friend. “It’s a good thing I came to find you. You’re practically dead on your feet.” He frowned, his eyes running over her tired face and loose hair.

“It’s not a big deal,” she struggled to sound nonchalant, but it came out as a whisper. She could feel her muscles shaking with the effort not to turn and look behind her. Lana and whomever was looking for Elsa had to have been two-thirds of the way down the aisle by now. In another minute they would reach the end and turn up her row.

“You look like shit,” he pointed out bluntly. “And you’re bleeding!” He walked her to the toward the elevator that led up out of the stacks to the main floor. “You need to take off early. I can drive you home, and we can stop by urgent care on the way.” The elevator doors shut behind them, and Elsa sighed in relief as she leaned against the wall.

“Thanks for the concern, Scott, but I’m sure I’ll be fine. Besides, we’re short a clerk already, and someone else called in sick.” Away from the stranger, Elsa felt a little foolish. It might not have been the guy from the diner. Of course it wasn’t, she told herself. That guy was dead in an alley somewhere or drugged up in a hospital – people who were thrown through plate glass windows did not stroll around libraries less than 24 hours later. Not without drawing a lot of attention. Her panic subsided, and it was replaced with exhaustion. The pain in her head and arms returned with a vengeance.

“Take the rest of the day off, you’re gonna scare away the story hour kids.” His face softened and he put one hand on her shoulder. “I know you need the money Elsa, but if you exhaust yourself you’ll be out for more than just half a shift.” Elsa pushed aside surprise and twinge of shame at knowing Scott was aware of her financial situation and instead reflected on the whispers of fear still coursing through her, and the pain knocking on her brain.

“Maybe you’re right,” she conceded. “But I’ll take the bus home, no need for you to drive me.” Scott hrumphed, and tried to convince her, but eventually conceded. He helped her gather her backpack and clock out, and managed to get her shuffled to the bus stop in just over five minutes. She listened in silence, trying to quash her remaining fear, to his admonitions to take better care of herself, and demands that she call in sick to the diner, while they waited. She was more than ready to wave good-bye and close her eyes once she got on the bus and it pulled into traffic.

She had almost fallen asleep when the driver announced the stop right before hers. The bus pulled up to a well-maintained shelter across the street from a pharmacy. Elsa stumbled out the door, regretting not raiding the first-aid kit at the library when she had arrived at work. Her purchases nearly cleaned her out of cash, but she knew it was a hell of a lot cheaper than a visit to a clinic. And the young, disinterested, crayon-red haired cashier didn’t even raise an eyebrow at her appearance.

She didn’t want to wait for the next bus, opting instead to walk the quarter mile to her building. The sun was hot, the air sticky, and sweat was dripping down under her waistband by the time she reached her neighborhood. She was too tired to notice the new layer of graffiti in the alley or bother acknowledging the silent stares of the young Latino men holding up the lamppost on the corner. If she had been in a better mood, she would have found them funny. They usually whistled and called ‘sup, chica’ to every woman between the ages of twelve and fifty that walked down the street – even her despite her baggy, nondescript clothes and complete disinterest in attracting males. It had always made her uncomfortable. Apparently it only took an assault and lack of sleep to turn them off.

Her feet dragged up the third flight of stars and she barely managed a nod to her neighbor as he came into the hallway. A baby’s wail followed him, not entirely muted by the closing of the door. He grimaced by way of apology and she returned it with a smile that must have looked about as genuine as it felt. He glanced at her arms and opened his mouth but she slipped into the apartment and closed the door before he could say anything. Scott had been enough, she didn’t need a second person who was concerned for her wellbeing. With a sigh, she leaned against the door, trying to tune out the muffled sound of the colicky baby coming through the wall. “Just let me get through this week,” she quietly begged the universe. “No more flatware in necks or broken chairs or homeless men in my apartment. Just work and sleep and hot showers.” Elsa stumbled over to the bed and pulled her plain red comforter over her before falling into a deep, dreamless sleep.

The insistent buzz of her alarm clock sent fresh spikes of pain from the base of her skull straight to her eyelids. She dragged herself into her diner uniform, which was just her khakis with a red t-shirt and useless little kerchief headband that barely met the requirements of the health code. Elsa managed to snag a bottle of water and eat most of a breakfast bar on the way down the stairs. Inky blackness filled the night; the stars obscured by low, heavy clouds. Rolling brown-outs due to the heat had resulted in few streetlights and little sky glow. Or maybe, she reflected, the lack of working streetlights was a result of the Latino men on the corner. They had been joined by several cars and had a stereo turned up while they talked. She passed by two teenage girls on her way up the street; they stared with interest at the muscles and tattoos on display.

The ache in her head was replaced with increasing anxiety over the state of the diner as she drew closer. Even if she was arrested, she wanted to help pay for the damages. It would make it that much harder to meet her monthly bill payments, but she could scrimp a little more. She might as well unplug her tiny refrigerator and save the electricity – there wasn’t any food in it anyhow. And if she started getting up a half hour earlier she could save her bus fare and walk to the library. By the time she rounded the last block, she had decided that she would empty her savings account, all two hundred sixty-three dollars, to pay what she could on the windows.

Her feet slowed to a near standstill as the diner came into view and she could feel her mouth fall open, but wasn’t able to do anything about it. The front window had been repaired. A waitress stood behind the counter, cutting pies, while a new bus boy collected dirty dishes and wiped down tables. Five of the booths were full, most of the tables occupied and several customers sat at the counter. Two couples walked in as she drew closer. Their loud laughter and unsteady feet alerted her to their recent evening at the bars a few blocks into a nicer neighborhood. It was as if the incident with Kurt and the toothpaste twins had never happened.

Elsa ducked down the alley and came in through the employee entrance. She was torn between wanting to know what had happened to get everything cleaned up so quickly and dreading facing the consequences. She barely got her backpack shoved into her cubby, her apron was still bunched in her hand when the cook, Tom, poked his head around the corner.

“Elsa!” a string of profanities followed, “what happened last night? And why is your phone disconnected? Get in here and talk to me, I’ve got burgers on the grill.”

“Elsa’s here?” a voice called from the front. Elsa stepped into the kitchen, struggling to tie her apron on without opening any stitches. The second-shift waitress stuck her head in through the order window. “Oh, my gosh, you have to tell me what happened! Are you okay! Did someone break in? What happened to the window? Did you, like, have to hide from some serial killer or something!” Her eyes were opened so wide, Elsa was afraid one of them might pop out and land on the grill.

“Leave her alone, Miss Nosey! She’s talking to me,” Tom bit off. “You can give her the inquisition after you take care of those customers.” He pointed with his spatula.

“It’s like you aren’t even human,” the waitress said with narrowed eyes before flouncing off to take orders.

“The manager called me in at seven this morning,” Tom said in an undertone. “When the morning waitress told him you weren’t here when she showed up at six he almost had an apoplexy. She called the police, and then him. He called the night cook, who said you sent him home at three. The police were here taking blood samples and photos. Then that idiot they hired to cook for the morning shift showed up at seven-thirty, drunk, and it turns out he has a warrant out for domestic assault. That kept the cops too busy to ask who was minding the store when the break-in happened.” Tom slapped cheese on a burger and looked at her seriously. “So who was minding the store?”

“Nobody,” Elsa responded, managing not to blink or shift too much. She felt like her eyes were going to tear up in an effort to hold Tom’s gaze. “I dropped a coffee pot and got broken glass all over myself around three-thirty,” she showed off her bandages. “I locked up and walked home to take care of my arms.” Inspired, she raised her eyebrows, “Didn’t anybody see the note taped to the window?”

“The window got broken last night,” Tom crossed his arms over his chest. The spatula stuck out like a gavel, waiting to bang against the grill and declare her sentence for lying. “Apparently someone broke in, got into a fight, had pie and vanilla ice cream, left blueberries out to ooze juice all over my clean kitchen, cut apart a chair with hydraulic metal shears, and left. Not necessarily in that order.”

“No kidding?” Elsa tried to inject as much shock into her voice as possible.

“Pfft, you’re a crappy liar. When the cops question you, try not to look so unbelievably innocent.” He turned back to the grill, “And your phone?”

“Disconnected two months ago, turns out they want you to pay for it. Can you imagine?” She finally wrapped the ends of her apron around and tied it in the front, grabbing a fresh notepad and pencil before heading to the front.

Tom snorted in agreement, or maybe just understanding, “Capitalism, am I right?”

Elsa refilled coffee cups and soda glasses in relative normalcy for the next twenty minutes. She was in the middle of taking an order when Scott walked in, he nodded to her and took a seat at the counter with his laptop bag. Elsa was on her way to give him a soda when other waitress cornered her behind the counter. She was outraged that Elsa had missed the commotion.

 

“But you could have seen a real crime take place! There was a fight, and who knows what would have happened. If you had been here, they might have taken you hostage! There could have been a standoff with the cops!” The waitress looked excited at the prospect. Scott caught Elsa’s eye behind the other woman’s back and raised his brows, mouthing, hostage. Tom snorted in the kitchen behind her.

“Instead I had to go and slice my arms to ribbons. What was I thinking?” The dry tone was completely lost on the buxom brunette.

“I know right? I bet you would have been on the news.” She said ‘news’ with reverent, breathy emphasis – placing it in the same category as front row tickets to the Rolling Stones, a spiritual experience in Tibet, and multiple orgasms. She tossed her apron into a laundry basket in the locker room and went to change in the restroom. When she emerged, a ruffled blue skirt that barely touched the tops of her thighs was paired with a draped, backless top with sinless printed in gold letters across it.

“Hot date?” Elsa asked, interested in a train wreck kind of way. The outfit screamed available with a tenacity that bordered on desperation. She dropped off a new order for Tom. The waitress crouched in front of the chrome coffee maker and applied an additional layer of smoky eye shadow. Scott nearly spit soda on his fries. His eyes opened wide and white against the dark of his skin. Clearly he was not used to waitresses showing quite that much leg…and bottom.

“This is what it take to get the really good guys, Elsa. You should try it sometime, or, at least,” she paused, looking over Elsa’s standard braid and baggy pants with a frown of distaste, “try something. If you aren’t careful, the only guy you’ll get is someone like that bum over there.” She jerked her head towards Scott and stage whispered, “I don’t think he even has a job.” Elsa repressed a grin. Scott was the opposite of a bum. His family had money – serious, hospital wing named after them kind of money – but he was low key about it. The other waitress would have been fawning over him if she knew. Anyway,” her voice returned to normal, “if you had been here the manager wouldn’t have had to come in to talk to the police. Now he is super cranky about having contact information about everyone, he even said he wanted to install a time clock to keep track of when we come and go! It is so unfair!”

“Completely unreasonable,” Elsa agreed, tossing an ice cube down the Scott’s neck to get his attention. He jumped off his stool to shake out his shirt, but it took a few moments for the glazed look to leave his face. Apparently it was not a turn off to be discarded as dating material because of his status as an unemployed student. “Soon he’ll be doing background checks on employees.”

“Holy crap, you think so?” she breathed. Elsa shared a look with Tom, but managed to keep a straight face.

“Da, comrade,” Tom gave a stiff-armed salute.

“I don’t even speak Spanish,” she said with disdain, turning on one clear plastic wedge sandal and heading for the door. Tom took in her entire outfit as she moved into the room.

“Try not to walk by the church in that outfit!” The waitress gave him the finger on her way out. The drunk double-daters snickered loudly and a group of blue collar men whistled as the bell tinkled over the closed door.

The next few hours passed uneventfully. Tom served burgers and fries to the bar crowd. The busboy did dishes and mopped the floor before going home at two. Scott, without any barely dressed girls to ogle, moved to a booth near the back hallway and pulled out a laptop, clicking away while he sipped at a soda. Customers drifted in and out, and by three Elsa was dead on her feet. Her arms ached and although her headache had subsided, her eyes felt dry and gritty.

“Go on home, Tom. I’ll be fine until the morning shift comes in. You’ll need the sleep if you’re going to pull another double tomorrow.” She collected the salt and pepper shakers and sat down at the counter to refill them, trying to shake off the prickling sensation that someone was watching her. After all, the chances of another grinning sadist dropping by, the second night in a row, were slim. She tried to ignore Kurt’s voice echoing in her head, advising her to find a new job.

“Nah, you should be the one to go home. You look terrible,” he said, scraping down the grill and wiping his hands on his grease stained apron.

“Wow, you really know how to turn on the charm. Seriously, go home. I wasn’t even here for the action yesterday. I doubt I’ll have to do anything more strenuous than wrap napkins and pour refills.”

“Humph,” Tom grunted, but untied his apron. “The usual night cook is coming in at five to fill in on the morning shift.” He tossed the grimy apron in the laundry basket. “If you really think you’ll be okay?” He laid one beefy hand on her shoulder, his round belly taking up most of the space behind the counter.

“I think we’ve met our quota of crazy already, Tom,” she replied. He shrugged, but his eyes remained worried.

“I’ll pray to St. Michael to watch over you,” he said.

“Then I’m sure I’ll be fine.” She smiled reassuringly until he was out the back door, then slumped against the counter – barely moving to refill the pepper shakers with one hand. She shuffled around the diner, replacing full shakers and wiping tables, for once the quiet, steady hum of the diner at night not soothing her. She was grateful for the occasional click-clack of Scott’s laptop and the gentle swipt of turning pages. When she was finally left with nothing to do but make the pies for the next day, she leaned against the work table…and promptly fell on the floor when her weak and injured arms gave out.

“Elsa? Are you okay?” Scott was leaning over the Formica to see through the kitchen doorway. Elsa sat on her butt on the floor, letting the cool of the concrete seep into her skin. She hoped it would wake her up.

“Nothing hurt but my pride, thanks,” she called, but remained seated. A large, bony dark hand appeared in front of her. Elsa shrunk back in surprise. Her heart skipped a beat and she chided herself for being so easily frightened. It was just Scott. They had been friends for years. He came to the diner to study a couple of nights a week. He was just trying to help her. It was normal. Everything was normal.

“You look like you’re about to pass out, sweetheart. I don’t think your boss would mind if you took a little break.” She looked into his worried brown eyes and let out a little sigh of relief. Scott would not hurt her. He didn’t want anything from her. Well, except German declensions; he was barely passing German. She took his hand lightly and allowed him to lead her back to the counter. She balked however, at letting him get them something to drink.

“No, no,” she waved him off, “union rules.” She fixed herself a glass of ice water, briefly wondering what Kurt was drinking to beat the heat, and poured Scott another soda.

“There’s a waitress union?” He asked, motioning for her to join him at his booth.

“Not that I know of, but one can never be too sure.” She sipped her water and nodded towards his open books. “How is the studying coming?”

“Finals, ugh,” he said. “I don’t know what made me think taking German as a summer course was a good idea, but I regret it. I hate German. I hate bratwurst. And beer. And leiderhosen. I hate gravy on meat and verbs that have gender. I hate yodelers and sound national economic policies.”

“But Germany always had such nice things to say about you,” Elsa laughed. She turned his laptop around and corrected a few mistakes. “You know, this would have been easier if you hadn’t put it off so long. Aren’t summer courses always harder?”

“Yeah, but I kept thinking if I ignored it, my mother would agree that a foreign language is a dumb requirement for an engineer. I already know enough Spanish to order beer and find the bathroom, but no, she thinks German is essential. Barf.”

“Why German?” she asked absently, still correcting errors.

“Oh, you know,” he waved her off and took the laptop back. His voice became high-pitched and a little nasal, “One day you’ll be running the company, and the Germans contract blah, blah, blah.” He scanned her changes while she sipped her water. “That makes so much more sense,” his voice normal again, h smiled and typed a few more lines before saving the file. “I don’t know what I would do if I hadn’t found you in the library freshman year.”

“Probably your own homework,” Elsa responded dryly. Scott laughed in agreement and she shrugged, only wincing a little at the ache in her muscles. “Besides, what else was I going to do with German? I’ll never travel. What a waste. I should have taken something else in high school.” She scratched gently at her arm, trying not to open any scabs. She felt him watching her and tried not to squirm under the pitiful encouragement she knew was coming. It was the worst part about their friendship.

“You could always study it in college. I know somebody at the financial aid-”

“Nope,” she said more with forced cheerfulness, the same way she always did when he broached the subject. “You’re right. German is dumb, and I have work to do. So, tell me about your raid.”

“It was pretty epic,” he began, his eyes brightening with excitement as he turned to his favorite topic: computer games. For a short while she was able to forget about the last horrible 24-hours. Even her money problems seemed a little further away. Gradually she became aware that Scott, although engaged in the conversation, continually scanned the room. His eyes followed a pattern, going over each window and past the door and then flicking up to the security mirror to check the kitchen and rear hallway.

“If you have someplace you need to be, don’t let me hold you up,” she said, sliding out of the booth. His distraction hurt more than she thought it would, but she wasn’t going to beg him to hang out if he had better places to be. Unlike her, Scott had lots of friends. He had other people, people who owned computers and went to college, to talk to. She, on the other hand, had a growing sense of uneasiness that had nothing to do with Scott. The now-familiar prickling on the back of her neck urged her to the safety of the kitchen. She felt stupid, leaving him in his booth and hiding behind the swinging saloon doors, but she couldn’t help feeling paranoid.

“No place to be,” Scott said with a small smile, “But I didn’t mean to keep you so long; you probably have work to do. Do you mind if I hang out a while longer? I still have a few pages to go.”

“No problem, stay as long as you like.” Elsa backed behind the counter, forgetting about bruised feelings and concentrating on the increased tempo of her heart. She had one hand on the door frame when an uncomfortable cold settled in her chest. At the same time, a car backfired. Elsa stared out the front window, looking for the junkier that was no doubt making its way down the street and trying to ignore the way the hair on the back of her neck prickled.

“Elsa,” Another backfired sounded, and a hairline crack appeared in the newly replaced front window. “Get down!” Scott yelled, swept his laptop and books into a backpack and crouched next to the booth. His eyes were focused on the front door. Elsa backed into the kitchen, unsure where she should direct her attention. Logic told her there was no danger, but that would be the same logic that saw nothing wrong with giving Kurt discount pie. The sound came again, the front window cracked in a spider web pattern around a small hole. A container of oil burst in the kitchen behind her. “Elsa!” Scott called again, and dove behind the counter, pulling her legs out from under her.

Barghest Chapter 2

I love writing from multiple points of view. Maybe that is poor form; perhaps it is a sign of an embarrassingly short attention span. In either case, it seems to work well for me. I get the opportunity to hint at things the main character(s) can’t know yet. Hello, foreshadowing. I get to some up what might otherwise being boring background information, utilizing an ancillary character to give a better understanding of the larger universe in which the story is set.  It is also helps me to move along a story when I am stuck or not sure how to transition to the next phase of action. And anyone who has read Second Alliance or Nordic Diner knows I love to write about the villain. Love. It.

So, I have set the scene. Now it is up to you to wonder who is the villain in Barghest. Were they introduced in Chapter One, or will they be here, in Chapter 2?

 

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Previous Chapter

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Hour 0432, Day 062, Year 2148

Ninety-second anniversary of the invasion of Earth.

“That was a hell of a hickey I saw on your neck in the showers last week.” Dan Rodriguez didn’t smile, but his dark skin crinkled around the eyes. Under the shadow of the dirty hat that disguised his standard issue Sol Coalition haircut, he held a vapor pen to his mouth. It wasn’t switched on, but he made a show of using it periodically.

Sergeant Maker kept her eyes on the entrance to the poorly lit commons area they had been staking out for almost twenty-four hours. The niquab that covered her hair and lower face was hot in the recycled air of the station, but it made her pale skin less noticeable in a crowd where humans were typically stained and scarred from deep mine gases.  Without looking at the newly minted private, she responded, “I saw you there as well. My condolences on your shortcomings.”

Unfazed, Rodriguez continued, “Just say the word and I could give you better.”

“Fraternization between junior and senior personnel is prohibited, Fuzzy.” It was true that Maker hadn’t been an officer very long. Also true that there were more experienced, older soldiers on the mission, but she was second-in-command, and most of her team didn’t like her to begin with, so there was no point in giving them any infractions to hold against her. Rodriguez had slept with most of the women in their unit, and some of the men, so shutting down his advances wasn’t a hardship. Only the soldiers on their level were on the same channel, but that wasn’t enough to keep the playboy in line.

“But what is fraternization, really? Surely a little rub and su-”

Faint static in their sub-dermal receivers cut off whatever the private had been about to suggest. “Not to interrupt you, ma’am,” Bretavic drawled, “but we have movement at Position 2.” Maker leaned across the small table to pour more of the low-grade alcohol into Rodriguez’s cup. He slouched in his seat, affording her a better view over his shoulder and easing his hand closer to the service weapon concealed in a pocket of his baggy pants. When she took her seat again, she turned so she faced a service corridor. The station was in the middle of a mining shift, so there were only a few stalls open and even fewer patrons milling around or seated at the common-use tables in the center of the space.

“Copy that,” Maker replied quietly. Rodriguez stared at her face, his mouth tight while he waited for her to assess the situation behind him and for command to make the call. “Two Nicks, could be our targets.” Native to the Cancri System, Nicks were easy to identify. They were bipedal, but had reverse joints and four limbs of equal length. Officially, their species was known by their home system and planet. Unofficially, any human who had served outside Sol used the derogatory term for the lightning fast thieves. Maker focused the scanning capabilities embedded in her contacts; in less than two seconds, she had information on the radiation signature of their technology. It matched the mission file. “Identity verified. Confirmation?”

“Identity confirmed,” came Bretavic’s low response from the second position. Bretavic had been on more operations than the rest of the team combined, and while he didn’t seem to respect Maker – it obviously had more to do with his thoughts on officers than her personally. His call was could be trusted. That should have been all she needed to request the Go order, but Maker hesitated.

“Position 1, status.” The lieutenant in charge was stationed out of her line of sight with his own partner, down a service corridor. His voice snapped with command, bordering on irritation.
“Status,” he said again, this time demanding an answer.  It wasn’t intuition, or some gut feeling; no sixth sense stopped her from making the call so the lieutenant could send her fire team into action. She didn’t think it was fear. She couldn’t have said why, but she took three long, deep breaths before she opened her mouth.

“Hold,” their transmitters barely vibrated with Bretavic’s whisper. A third figure, shorter and more fluid than the Nicks, eased around the edge of the corridor and hovered at the entrance. “Sarge?” The question was breathed more than spoken, but Maker was already scanning. Culler, she thought with a new iron ball of anxiety settling in her belly. She double-checked readout overlaid on her vision before she spoke. None of the mission briefs said anything about Cullers, but if there was one on the station, so close to the border, her superiors would want to know why. There was only one way to find out.

“Command, Position 1 reporting unknowns. Relaying data.” She casually tucked her hands in her sleeves, surreptitiously pressing the code on her touch pad that would send the image to the lieutenant.

For a few tense moments it was quiet, then the lieutenant’s voice was in her head again. “Field call. Additional targets. Alive, if possible.”

Maker’s gut was churning. They had set out with four people, including the lieutenant, ready to take down two Nicks. Bretavic and his partner at the second position would provide backup. There was another two covert soldiers on the level below them, and two in the docking bay. That left the pilot and medic on the ship. Standard operating procedures required a minimum of four heavily armed soldiers for every one Culler. That meant that Rodriguez and Maker would have to deal with the two Nicks on their own. She swallowed and sweat dripped down her temple.

“Additional objective,” she confirmed. “Painting targets.” With a subtle press of her fingertips against the palm of her glove she transmitted visuals to the rest of the team. Through the tech of her contacts, she watched each of the Nicks and the concealed newcomer light up with a yellow glow.

“Party crasher is ours, Team 2. Team 1, you have original targets. Secure and detain,” the lieutenant’s voice was flat, “collateral authorized.”

Maker could feel sweat was dripping down her back and spit collecting in her mouth, but her voice didn’t waver, “Copy.” She and Rodriguez weren’t prepared to handle two Nicks on their own but there wasn’t any alternative. Bretavic and the lieutenant would have the significantly more dangerous target; without any heavy munitions they would need backup as soon as it was available. That meant Maker and the fresh-out-of-training camp private needed to work quickly. The Nicks moved closer to the tables, close enough that Maker could see, unaided, the sandpapery texture of their skin. The third opponent hung by the entrance for several long minutes before easing into the narrow alley behind a row of stalls.

“Go,” the lieutenant ordered.

There was no response from the other maneuver team, but Maker knew they were already in action. She stood and stretched, slowly, before picking up the alcohol carafe and moving around the tables toward a bar. It was the distraction that they had planned to begin with, but her palms were clammy with sweat under the added pressure to succeed. Both Nicks watched her; her contacts tracked the movement of their eyes as she crossed in front of them. She purposefully tripped over a metal chair as she passed, and Rodriguez used the noise to conceal his approach behind them; as soon as he was in position, Maker tossed the alcohol straight into the Nicks’ faces.

The action was recorded by her contacts. Rodriguez slapped cuffs on the upper limbs of one Nick, but the rookie didn’t move quite fast enough to complete the circuit on the ankles. His opponent whipped around, prehensile tail emerging from its tunic to slap the gun out of the private’s hand. Rodriguez rolled to avoid a follow-up kick, but was hit with the tail on its reverse swing. He slid across the floor, knocking over a table and chairs with a shout of pain. The Nick leaped after him, the open end of a pair of electronic cuffs dangling from one leg.

Maker had no time to spare a thought for her partner. The alcohol served in the mining station was poor quality, but high proof. Her Nick bellowed with rage and its tongue slithered out of its mouth to swipe at the liquid burning its eyes. It seized the table between them with one lower limb and flung it out of the way – leaving Maker to stumble backwards into a chair, pulling her weapon and firing as she moved. The first shot was wild, narrowly missing Rodriguez. The second short burst hit the Nick in the hip. Blue blood spattered the floor and tables behind the creature and it stumbled, letting out another deep cry. It’s tail lashed around dangerously. Move, move, her mind chanted. She used the chair as a springboard to fling herself onto the roof of the bar. Her foot caught in the chair back, wrenching her ankle and knocking the seat into the Nick’s legs. She had to crouch awkwardly to fit between the thin metal sheets and the ductwork for the common space, but the height put her out of arm’s reach. Maker holstered her primary weapon and pulled out a net gun. The first shot tangled up the Nick’s left arm; she cursed.  The second hit the center of mass and brought one hundred eighty kilos of tail-slashing anger to the floor. She activated the trigger to magnetize the net. She had forgotten to check the setting – it higher than was recommended for a Nick. The alien would likely have cuts from the pressure, but at least she could be certain it would not move while she assisted Rodriguez. He desperately needed help.

The private had managed to pull a secondary weapon, but not his net gun. The whites of his eyes were large with fear and Maker’s sensors were sending off alerts in the periphery of her vision that his adrenaline had spiked beyond acceptable margins.  Other alerts were softly flashing for the four soldiers in the alley and she could hear shouting. One soldier’s indicator light went out. This is so, so stupid, her brain was pointing out to her, but she ignored it.  Rodriguez fired three bursts in rapid succession and Maker took some slag in her shoulder as she pushed off the roof, reaching for a handhold on a suppression pipe. She fired her net gun at the ground near the Nick’s feet at the same time her hand connected with the hot metal cylinder. She could feel her grip slipping, and only prayed she could hold on long enough. Her heavy boots swung out toward the Nick’s face, but she had not caught it unawares. The net was only tangled around one leg so the creature hissed and ducked, turning and flicking its tail to wrap around her ankles and yank her from the ceiling.

She lost her grip on the pipe with a sharp curse and a friction burn that was painful even through her glove. The artificial gravity slammed her into the floor, and her already injured shoulder clipped a chair on the way. She was stunned for a precious few seconds, while her display was screaming at her that her team was in danger and a target was closing in.  She fumbled with the clasp on her weapon holster, and drew the gun in time to fire point blank into the bare foot of the Nick as it was poised to stomp on her chest. It screamed and flinched away from her, scrambling for purchase but unable to crawl away from the magnetic lock of the net Rodriguez had fired.  The private was pushing to his feet, one arm was bent unnaturally but her tech notified her that he had already used his field meds to dull the pain. She was panting when she pushed onto her feet and with manipulation of her control glove she dimmed the stats for Rodriguez.

With the closest proximity individual muted, her tech turned towards the next member of her squad. The lieutenant was dead. Maker’s breath caught in her throat. She scrambled with the controls in her glove to pull up a locator map. His body was only a few feet from the corridor where he had been positioned. The Culler had taken him out before he could even fire his weapon. As she verified the readout that specified brain death, her stomach clenched and the hairs on the back of her neck stood up higher. That thing, the enemy, was still on the station with them. And she was now in command.

Another indicator on her display went dark. Another soldier was dead. Her back was throbbing, but she ignored the med kit on her belt. She didn’t have time for it, and her tech was streaming reports of Bretavic’s team that made her swallow curses. “Secure and notify transport of incoming,” she ordered Rodriguez. She didn’t wait for his nod or acknowledge the pale strain in his expression before she forced herself into a jog. There was no one to dodge or yell at to get inside as she approached the far end of the commons area. All of the walkways had been deserted within moments of the first shot. Some shops had been hastily closed. Others held the telltale anticipation and occasional terrified movement that betrayed their occupants.

The alley was quiet and dark when she approached, and Maker’s breath was hot inside the veil over her face. She almost tripped over a body a few feet from the entrance and she quickly put her back to the wall to scan her surroundings. The corpse at her feet wasn’t the only one in the alley; another body lay half in- half out of a shop, and there was a dark, shiny wet trail the width of a man’s shoulders up the side of a building and onto the roof. She double checked her display.  The second position team was alive, their stats below desired levels but steady. With a press of her fingertips into her palm she activated her locator. The two soldiers were outlined in blue, one hidden from normal sight by a twisted pile of sheet metal and debris. The other lay halfway down the alley, faintly visible in the indirect glow that bounced off of the ceiling.

“Eyes,” she whispered. Her legs were shaking. Her belly cramped and she had the inconvenient urge to urinate. The word was inaudible, but the vibration in her throat was picked up by her implant and transmitted.

“Eyes plus thirty,” she heard the quiet voice, knew it was Bretavic under the debris. His stats were not good, but he sounded more angry than in pain. “Your right, roofline.”

Maker kept her eyes moving over the buildings, searching for movement while she quick stepped to his location, and knelt next to an opening in the debris. “Status.” A long piece of hair had worked out of the veil while she fought and stuck to the sweat on her temple.

“I can cut free with my torch – maximum sixty seconds. Gonna be noisy.” She couldn’t see his face, but she could hear the wince in Bretavic’s voice, “Right leg is toast. We both used our meds, my partner took another hit to the head.”

Maker was supremely aware of the slight weight of her med kit against her hip. Each soldier had only been issued one for the mission. Nicks were tough, but two on one was a good bet with the element of surprise. The third enemy had put them on the losing end of all but the longest odds. It didn’t matter. A Culler needed to be dealt with as soon as it was identified, and Maker wouldn’t have minded some answers for why the mission was blown all to hell. She swallowed and brushed the sweat from her eyebrows. Why the Lieutenant is dead. Why Private –  she silenced her thoughts with a shake of her head and focused. Without her med kit, she could only take one, maybe two hits before she went down. An officer’s first priority had to be the mission, then the team. Her gut churned. She didn’t know any of the men well, but she didn’t think she could sacrifice them to ensure success and quick movements were more easily tracked by Cullers, so escape would be difficult. Unless they had a distraction. Or a decoy. So, so stupid, she repeated to herself.

“Wait for my signal, then get cutting. Grab the bodies, if you can.” She stayed close to the left wall of the alley, running her fingers a few millimeters over the uneven surfaces of poorly repaired shops, and jogged forward. She scanned the area, visually and with her tech while she unclasped her kit, folding it open with one hand and toggling the dosage on the transdermal syringe. She crouched in preparation, and then her transmitter crackled.

“Cullers! Down, three down!” The all team channel was wide open, something that could only be done by the commanding officer unless casualties were taken. Weapons fire was close enough to be heard through her transceiver over the screams of the soldier six decks below. Kerry, heavy weapons support for the nondescript little hauler they had come in on, had gone through basic training with her. His familiar tone was even despite his volume and situation. “Transport down! Cullers! Two in the bay, one in the weeds! Request immediate assistance! Respond!” Maker almost dropped the kit, her brain trying to claw its way out of her head with fear, trap! Trap! Trap! They had all recognized the Culler that followed the two Nicks into the commons, but none of them had anticipated more. She cursed herself; it was her fault. Her fault that they hadn’t immediately notified the transport. It had been her call to maintain transmission silence with the ship that was waiting for them in the docking bay after the lieutenant went down. Her fault that two soldiers were dead on their level and three more bleeding down below.

“Go!” This time she yelled the command while she jumped away from the wall. She slammed the blunt end of the syringe into the soldier’s neck hard enough to damage the skin. Maker’s boots pushed against the floor, adrenaline and terror surging through her veins. The sound of a gasp for air and the sudden rise of the soldier behind her barely registered. “Retreat! Cargo is expendable, if necessary! Go, Go, Go!”

She knew that they obeyed her orders. They were well trained, and her display tracked their movements until she pushed team location to the bottom of her tech priority. An explosion shook the entire deck, making her list to one side in her sprint. There was only the flash of yellow across the corner of her vision as she reacquired a painted target and then the Culler was on her. Thirty kilos of damp cloth and wiry muscle dropped from directly above, striking her wounded shoulder and back. The impact sent her flying forward and she didn’t manage to tuck before she hit the floor. Maker threw up one forearm in defense and scuttled backward on one hand and her knees as the Culler bounded forward. The hooked talons of its arms easily pierced the ceramic weave of her body armor. Her visual display winked in and out as the circuitry in her glove and sleeve was ripped away, leaving a long, shallow gouge in her arm that welled blood. A moist, nearly featureless head pressed close to her and she gagged on the smell of rotting plant matter and tasted bile in her mouth.

“Human,” it said, making the sounds of the word despite not having a mouth. The talons withdrew and rose again. Maker fired.

Her weapon was at an odd angle, given that she could barely feel her hand, but four incendiary rounds punched into the soft underside of the Culler in rapid succession.  An unholy sound of pain and fury, like dry ice grinding together, pierced her ears.The fifth and sixth rounds tore chunks of white flesh away and found purchase in the ceiling. Incendiary rounds were stupid, and overkill. Her weapons instructor would have had her running laps, full gear, for firing at that range in an enclosed space. Lucky for me, he’s not here, she thought wildly, or lucky for him.Then her delayed ammo exploded. A splatter of gore hit her and she curled onto her stomach before the structural beams above began to fall. Two heavy weights, one after the other, dropped on her back and neck. She wasn’t sure how long she lay flat on her stomach, but when she became aware of the wet veil sticking to her lips and tasting of rot she threw up. She tore the material from her face and rocked stiffly to the side, away from her vomit. The motion slid debris off her back, freeing her.  Kinetic absorption layers in her armor softened again, but moving did not become easier. The floor was slick with the ichor of the Culler and her own blood, and she fell twice, banging her knee hard, before she could brace herself. Her vision slid sideways, or maybe it was the floor that was moving, but she crashed into the wall and fell again before the world righted itself.

“Report,” she rasped, shaking her head to push away the ringing in her ears and the black halo that threatened to seal her vision and drop her back into unconsciousness. The communication implant was barely functional, little more than an open channel, without the connection to the tech in her armor, but she tried to contact her team anyhow. “Report,” she demanded again, this time louder. She forced her legs to work, and although she felt the pain in her knee and back it was a distant second to the fire in her arm. She switched her weapon to her off hand, which was in better condition as it only had a single puncture wound at her collarbone.

“Two levels below you, Sarge.” Rodriguez’s voice sounded far away, and she could hear the tremor in it. “I left the door open.” She saw what he meant as soon as she cleared the alley. A smoking hole, approximately two meters in diameter, had been blasted in the floor of the commons area. Bretavic was leaning heavily on his partner, standing at the edge. He lowered the body of the lieutenant down carefully. Then, between the two of them, they managed to shove a snarling, netted Nick through the hole before seating themselves on the lip.

Bretavic looked over at her, but Maker didn’t hold his gaze. The corridor the Nicks had first entered through was full of shadows that had not been there moments before. As though all of the artificial lighting had been turned off, the space was one large darkness. Maker’s throat felt tight, she was sharply aware of the warmth of blood as it ran down her arm and pearled on her fingertips before plopping against the metal floor plates.

“One in the weeds, confirm please,” she whispered. Bretavic slowly turned his head to follow her line of sight.

Kerry’s voice, thick with breathing sounds, came through, “Correction. One cold in the bay, two in the weeds. Both bloodied.”

Two Cullers, holy hell, she thought. An inappropriate urge to giggle pushed against her lungs from the inside. If her tech was still operational, it would have been flashing medical warnings and situational readings. She shifted her weight and bit off a scream when the exposed meat of her arm brushed against her hip. Tech would have shorted itself out anyway, trying to record this FUBAR mission. One Culler had wrecked two soldiers and nearly ripped off her arm. In her current condition, with the second team wounded and vulnerable in the center of the room, two of the aliens would leave nothing behind but bloodstains and service tags.

“Status,” she said. Even she could hear the high-pitch in her voice.

“Position 4 – A is KIA, B Med. Position 6 – A Steady, B Med, Position 7…A Med, B KIA.”

Two more dead, in addition to the lieutenant and his partner, including the pilot. The medic injured and out for the fight, same for Merrick’s partner. The only other soldier they had with real flying and maneuvering experience was Bretavic, and he was several floors and two Cullers away from the ship. And injured.

It was supposed to be a simple snatch and grab – two Nicks that intelligence reported had flight records and communication codes for some runs through Culler space. Nicks were strong and fast, but not well armed. It was why she was assigned second-in-command; her first time out as an officer. It was why she had the specialized recording tech along with her field gear. So I can be evaluated. The giggle warped into a full out laugh and she had to swallow it hard. She was now responsible for seven other lives, plus at least one Nick that she was supposed to bring back still breathing. And the bodies of the fallen. And a Culler that should be taken in for questioning.

Eight days as a sergeant had to be some kind of record.

The darkness in the corridor shifted. Maker blew out a long breath and brought up her gun – elbow slightly bent, both eyes open. She toggled through the magazine selection menu with her thumb. Incendiary and pellet rounds were empty. She had a full load of armor piercing. From the corner of her eye she watched Bretavic free his weapon; the faint blue glow of his munitions selector mirrored her own.

“Team Two en route.” Maker stated calmly. A distant part of her mind was proud of that, despite that sour ball of fear trying to rip through her gut. Bretavic turned his face to hers, and his mouth was turned down in a frown that threatened argument. He knew what she was planning, and he didn’t like it. If she had been faster, or a better shot, or had any experience outside of boot camp and eighteen months on border patrol, she might have come up with a better idea. But she wasn’t. She didn’t. She was responsible for the team, and they needed to get back alive – or at least in as few pieces as possible.  “Sending you wings, transport.” Bretavic hesitated, then nodded subtly. “Fuzz has the cargo. You are on mission. Repeat. On Mission. Fire it up and you are go to launch at will. I am in the weeds. I say again. I am in the weeds.” Bretavic wrapped his free hand around his partner’s vest and his bicep bulged under his armor as he lowered the man into the hole and let go. His eyes stayed on the shadows, but he lifted one hand above his head, and she could clearly make out his middle finger as he gestured toward the corridor. “I read you Team Two.” She responded. “Out.”  Bretavic pushed off the edge and disappeared below.

There was almost an equilateral triangle between Maker, the corridor, and the hole, but the path that would have been her likely escape route was heavily littered with broken tables, chairs, and unidentified bits of tissue that might have once been a Nick. She picked up a table as quietly as she could, not that the small movement was easy to hear past the whine and grate of tons of stressed metal and machinery that made up the mining station. She went down on one knee and braced her weapon against the edge of the table. Surprisingly, her injured arm obeyed her command and managed to rip the ordinance pack from her belt. She raised the pack to her mouth, and tasted copper and salt on her lips as she ripped it open with her teeth.  Two coils of detcord, each spiraled like a snail on a peel away sticker, fell out along with a simple detonator.  She removed the backing from one and pressed it against the tabletop – dead center. The other she tucked into her pocket.

It was the first rule of munitions training not to put things that go boom anywhere near your genitals, but Maker wasn’t expecting to live long enough to worry about the condition of her reproductive system. In the deep recesses of her mind, she felt a little distant regret for that. Then darkness shifted again, and she could barely make out the shine of emergency lighting on wet, grey skin. She took a deep breath, ignoring the stabbing pain in her back and clicked out the only insult she had ever learned in Culler:

I’ve got garbage that is faster! You’re too weak to eat!

The effect was both better and worse than her exospecies linguistics instructor could have ever known. The scream that rent the air was painfully high pitched and accompanied by a blur of movement from the corridor. One Culler streaked to the right, towards the hole, while the other barrelled straight for her. There wasn’t time for multiple shots. With a gentle recoil that belied the force of the projectile, an armor piercing round fired. Maker didn’t watch to see if it hit the target near the hole, but surged to her feet with everything she had, throwing herself back toward the alley and pressing the detonator.

Time slowed down. A white haze pressed around her, vibrating slowly in synchrony with the hum in her ears. Her feet were strangely hot, but there was a breeze on her face. She could feel her heart beating, pushing blood through her veins, into her head, forcing her to think. This was really stupid. Maker blinked, and then time caught up with her. She slammed against the back wall of the alley, shoulder first, breaking through the thin metal of a poorly secured door and crashing into an empty shop space. Her armor reacted accordingly, the layer of kinetic gel hardening to absorb the energy and then releasing into a fluid state again. It wasn’t enough to keep her from feeling it – and did no good at all where her suit had been damaged. Agony lanced up her arm and radiated from her back like a fission reaction. She thought she cried out, but she couldn’t hear any sounds. She brought a hand up to her head, trying to find the split that must be in her skull because her brain felt like it was going to explode. Sticky, hot liquid coated her fingers and made the grip on her weapon wet. She stared at it for a moment, dumbly, wondering why her ears were bleeding.

The last Culler found her like that, slumped against a dirty wall and looking at her own blood. It was on her before she even knew it was there. Bony legs, slippery with the mucus secreted by Culler skin, pressed into her thighs. One talon stabbed into the wall by her face, flicking curls of metal against her cheek and forcing her to look up. The other talon found the hole in her less damaged shoulder and dug in, twisting and turning until she thought she would pass out from the pain.

It was bleeding. Thick, goopy liquid coated its clothing, pumping from a hole in the chest. She briefly considered that it was almost exactly center of mass – just like during training. Then the creature twisted that talon again and she screamed.

“Human,” it said. It made several clicking sounds, but her brain couldn’t even begin to process a translation, and then, “Human was waiting for the traders.” Maker’s pants were wet, not from urine, she was fairly sure, although that wouldn’t have surprised her, but from the combination of cold sweat and blood that was dripping off her body. The Culler leaned in close. Its eyes, larger and blacker than seemed possible, dilated, revealing a silvery center that seemed to bore into her. “Why.”

Maker felt like a ton of bricks had been pressed onto her chest. Her brain was being squeezed, and it hurt. Holy hell, everything hurts, was all she could think. There was more clicking, and the talon withdrew from her shoulder. Both razor sharp appendages reached toward her face, pricking lightly against her flesh – just enough to break the skin. “Human.” The word sounded tinny, like it was coming from far away through an old fashioned megaphone. “Tell.” As if in slow motion, the skin of its jaw and neck split. It wasn’t a mouth – Cullers didn’t have mouths according to exobiologists. It was a beak and stomach. Like an octopus, Cullers ground their food and ingested it directly.  Maker had never seen one outside of a textbook. It was less attractive in person. Her head was ringing and her tech was flashing and blinking with red warnings. The beak moved sideways, grating against the hard plate of bone underneath. It sounded anticipatory.

Maker squeezed the trigger.

She could feel the burn against her the top of her thigh where the bullet grazed, ripping right through her armor until it connected with the pelvis of the Culler. Its beak gnashed shut and she was grateful for the blood in her ears so she couldn’t very well make out the shrill sound of its scream.  It fell backward, flopping, almost comically, like a fish out of water, and flailing with its talons – less comically. One bit into Maker’s calf and she let out a guttural shout. Her bloody, numb right hand wrestled for her net gun, and when she finally got it to fire, it only captured the Culler’s top half.  She had no way to turn on the magnetic locks, so it was just a wire mesh that the thing couldn’t seem to cut through, even with its deadly talons. Maker stared at it for a few precious moments, stunned that she was alive – mostly.

She holstered the net gun, and an overwhelming sense of exhaustion came over her. She tugged at the niquab still covering her hair and neck with her gun hand, but it was too difficult to remove. Maker decided that was fine, because where it had been too hot before, she now felt a shiver dancing along her skin. She might have curled up right there, tried to rest in the shell of the building, if the owners of the shops had not started to reappear. She saw one on the far side of the commons, barely noticeable with the near-dead flicker of her contacts. Another leaned out of a building, speaking into a communicator and pointing to the trail of Culler-bits that had been smeared across the floor. The mission was supposed to have been easy, quiet, and not leave any impression with the locals that the Sol Coalition had any interest in the little mining station. Somewhere in her most-definitely concussed state, she realized that plan would be blown to hell once station security arrived to find her, the shot-up Culler, and all of her Coalition issue equipment.

“This is Command, respond,” she rasped. Maker struggled to her feet and only had to pause for fifteen or twenty seconds to steady herself and be certain she wouldn’t throw up from dizziness. “Command calling, over.” Her throat felt hot and raw, but she kept repeating the call out, softly, as she picked up one twisted corner of the net. The wires bit into her glove every time the Culler moved, and Maker finally turned and shot the thing in the foot. It still struggled, but not so violently. She bypassed the hole in the floor, knowing she would not be able to jump down two levels, even if she used the Culler as a landing pad, and headed for the corridor.

Locals were noticing her, and they weren’t friendly. Several armed residents of the station followed her progress closely. “Command here, call back,” she continued to try to raise the transport as she limped down the hall. There was a small standoff at the lift doors, and Maker wasn’t sure what finally made the armed miners move: the sight of her gun, or of the snarling, shrieking Culler behind her. She kicked the creature in the head with her boot once she had it in the lift. The movement sent a spear of fiery agony up her thigh and into her back. At the push of a button they descended to the docking level without any further noise from the prisoner. Unfortunately, it seemed to come around as she approached the bay and the growing stench of rotting plants. What little was left of a Culler after a vapor round from a heavy rifle dripped from the walls and ceiling. It made her prisoner thrash wildly. She shot at it again, but missed. “This is Command, please respond.”

“Transport here, Command.” Static and crackles accompanied Bretavic’s deep voice, but the transmission was understandable. Maker’s heart seized hard and then started beating in relieved double time .  The soldier continued, “Locals are starting to rumble, time to go.”

Maker entered the bay to find the ship prepped and ready; the thrum of the engines reverberated dully against her throbbing ears. A loose group of ten to fifteen miners blocked the door to the operations center; there would be no leaving the station without accessing control for the docking doors. Rodriguez was braced against the hydraulics for the ship’s ramp. Next to him, holding a heavy rifle and surrounded by spent cartridges, was Kerry. Rodriguez looked pale, but determined, as he kept his eyes on the crowd. Kerry was as complacent as ever, his weapon on the miners. He glanced at her quickly, and spoke to the private with his usual calm tone.

“Sarge could use help.”

Without responding or looking away from potential hostiles, Rodriguez holstered his handgun and held out his arms for the rifle. Kerry handed it over before drawing his service weapon and sidestepping toward her. Maker would have met him halfway if she didn’t have to stop twice to kick at the snarling Culler. Adrenaline was wearing off, and pain and exhaustion were rapidly taking precedence. She issued orders in what she hoped was an authoritative voice, but she doubted it came out that way, “Warm up the forward cannon.” Kerry took the net from her and hauled the Culler up off the floor with ease, never losing his targets. He moved quicker than she did, easily picking his way through the blue Nick blood that streaked the ramp even with his thrashing package.

“I’d appreciate it if you’d open the door,” she called out to the miners. Her voice sounded strangely far away and outside her own head. A few men shifted, looking at one another, and one raised a gun.

“Target painted,” Rodriguez said softly. She was close enough she could have heard it without the transceiver, if her ears weren’t still bleeding sluggishly. Her tech flickered, for a moment showing the aggressive miner outlined in yellow.

“Hold targets,” Maker stated flatly. She couldn’t feel the gun in her hand, couldn’t feel much of anything past the pain. So much pain in her arm, shoulders, back, thigh, calf. So much pain that it blended together into a red haze that surrounded her vision. The mission was mostly screwed. They were supposed to bring both Nicks in alive; one was dead and she wouldn’t be surprised if the other followed soon, if the amount of blood he left behind was any indication. They had involved locals, and although their armor was unmarked and mostly covered by civilian clothing, the miners would have had to be brain dead to not suspect the Sol Confederation. One fourth of her team was unconscious, another quarter dead, the rest severely injured. We’re already FUBAR, she thought, there is really no reason to be polite. She focused on the crowd. “You can open the door,” she told them, “or I can.” She stepped onto the riser for the transport and spoke lowly so that only the transmitter would pick it up, “All aboard, raise the hatch.” As the hydraulics began to work, she called out to the miners, keeping her gun ready, “You have two minutes.”

As soon as the ramp was sealed, Bretavic leaned out of the cockpit to nod at her, but she couldn’t manage a response as she stared at the floor of the cargo hold. All of their dead had been recovered, and someone had attempted to cover them with a cargo tarp. It wasn’t large enough. Too many bodies, she thought woodenly. Only their faces were concealed; their legs stuck out, stiff and spattered with fluid. Maker couldn’t stop staring at the boots. The lieutenant’s were polished to a high shine. Despite orders to remain covert, he must not have been able to help himself. Habits ingrained during training were hard to break. She looked down at her own feet. Her rough black boots were dusty and scuffed before they became covered in blood. I should take better care of them.

Rodriguez found her standing in the hold next to the stretched out corpses of her team. He escorted her out of the cargo area and helped her to lie down on an empty bunk where he could administer meds and emergency bandages. Maker was vaguely aware of Bretavic noting the dock doors opening and ordering the team to strap in, but she could focus on little past the sweet relief of pain killers as Rodriguez injected her. Kerry joined them there once they were in open space.

“Passengers secure?” Her tongue felt thick in her mouth, and Kerry’s dark hair and skin looked fuzzy. The flat nose and wide cheekbones that signaled his genetic modifications blurred a little, so that all she could clearly make out was the white of his eyes and teeth.

“One Nick, one Culler. Both pissed as hell, but they’ll live,” he responded and took a seat on the floor in the narrow walkway between the bunks, his back against the bracing near her feet.

She glanced at the bed opposite her and could make out a soldier’s form. “The others?”

“They’ll make it,” Rodriguez replied. “Although you might not. Shit, Maker,” worry seeped into his voice, “why the hell didn’t you follow Bretavic down? You’re lucky those Cullers didn’t eviscerate you.” She pulled her eyes away from Merrick’s head to look at the private. He was frowning, the expression making his handsome face even more attractive. He was only a year younger than her, but in that moment of drug-induced simplicity he looked sickeningly youthful. Eighteen, she recalled from the mission brief files, probably not even done filling out yet.  He could have died, like the others. Hell, I almost shot him myself…a couple of times. Rodriguez cut away the clothing and what was left of her armor over her chest and shoulders. She had never seen anyone die before. Suddenly she felt sick again, and had to close her eyes and breath shallowly to hold back the urge to vomit. The private didn’t seem to notice as he continued to work, or he attributed it to pain. “There’s nothing I can do for your shoulder joint, anyhow. Hopefully the medics at base can save it. But you’re going be in surgery for a long time, at best.”

Maker swallowed several times, and was aware of the weight of Kerry’s head, leaning back against her uninjured leg. She should have been more concerned with her shoulder, but what had been fiery agony was subsiding into a dull throb that seemed far away. Everything seemed far away. She realized it was the meds, making her comfortable and loosening her tongue, but it didn’t stop her from mumbling, “Just make sure they take the det cord out of my pocket, first.”

***

Next Chapter

Dogs and Other Beasts

What is it about dogs? Or the slightly more animalistic (or really animalistic) beasts that we so often become enamored with? Obviously, those who read my fanfiction and are fans of the Inuyasha universe are familiar with the attraction. Claws, growling, dominance and possessive instincts…*sigh*

Where was I? Oh, right, werewolves.

It isn’t much of a leap, to go from dog demons to humans that turn into canines. Anyone who has looked at fiction bestsellers in the past five years, or movie releases and tv premiers, knows how popular that fascination is. Add that to the Beauty and the Beast concept and the romance practically writes itself. Now, there is a character concept that has been done. And done. And done. But I still love it. I think, too, that there is more to delve into here. Discussing the base instincts (excuse the self-reference) of human beings allows for deeper discussion of psychology, the juxtaposition of a character that is an overt expression of what we evolved from, of what we might be without society and learned behaviors, and a physically weaker character that can display superiority in a variety of ways. Belle has the power to end the curse. Kagome can purify history’s greatest evil. In the most trite combinations, the big strong ‘beast’ overpowers the – eventually – willing delicate beauty. It can be so more than that, though. It can be a discussion on what makes man? How is he (and I use that term as a neuter) reconcile the dichotomy of genetic drives with higher aspirations?

I am sure any philosopher or literature student would scoff at this, or point out the flaws in my reasoning. However, the discussion got me thinking. And noodling. And imagining. So, take a look at Chapter 1 of Barghest,  below.

***

Hour 1006, Day 269, Year 2102

Sixty-ninth anniversary of approval by the American Surgeon General for embryonic gene therapy for medical conditions which impact either mortality or quality of life.

 

A scraping, grating sound was dulled somewhat by the thick, one-way glass that was between Representative Sudarshan and the enclosure for Test Subject 21-G.  The Representative had to force herself not to grimace; instead she folded her arms over her chest in a practiced manner that gave her an air of authority, without looking aggressive. Dr. Jenssen pulled a stylus from his coat pocket and tapped on a control pad in his hand. Data flashed to life on the glass, outlining the subject, displaying vital statistics, and highlighting significant results. Sudarshan ignored most of the glowing text to assess the subject personally. She could only see the top of his head, as he was crouched in a corner. One hand, lightly dusted with short brown hair, reached out to the wall and dragged down the polymetallic sheeting. Curls of material flaked up and away from his nails, deepening two parallel scratches on the wall.

“You can see here,” Jenssen pointed to a chart and drew a curve to attract her attention, “21-G has exceeded conservative projections for all skill areas and resistances. Sensory perception and strength are both far above estimates, and intelligence appears to be within acceptable parameters. Unfortunately, out of the twenty-five subjects that were viable at extraction, he is the only one to remain intact and operational, so our efforts to study and assess him have slowed somewhat as we need to reduce risk of damage for the last product of the 21 series. Also, many of the results are open to interpretation, as we have no means of establishing a control or baseline for comparison.” Jenssen flicked away the data, and pulled up another set of charts.

He would have continued, but the grating sound started again. Sudarshan watched 21-G drag his middle two fingers down the grooves in the wall again. “Why is he doing that?”

Jenssen glanced up from his tablet. “Oh, marking territory. We’ve seen that in 82% of all viable series to date. The behaviorists believe that it is essential, but my chief geneticist assures me it can be coded out, if it is a problem.” He gestured with his stylus, “This graph-”

“And his attitude,” Sudarshan interrupted again, “is he always like this?” She had read the files, of course. That was her responsibility as the new Chair of the Oversight Committee for Defense Research and Covert Operations. The Representative was aware that Project Reform had made tremendous strides in genetic modifications and splicing. The prospect of a new kind of soldier, one that was stronger, braver, and faster than humans but also intelligent was tantalizingly close. However, the challenges were still significant. Congress had spent trillions, would spend trillions more, if requests for the next five year funding allocation were approved, but Project Reform had yet to produce an individual that could operate in the field.

“Ah, yes,” Jenssen cleared his throat and smiled. Fine wrinkles appeared at the corner of his eyes, but his mouth was stiff. “Although 21-G is obedient and excels in combat simulations, he is withdrawn and has…difficulty…interacting with others.”

“Difficulty?” Sudarshan stepped closer the the glass and squated down. From a lower angle she could see the subject’s face. His skin was the same non-descript brown of his hair, or perhaps a shade lighter. His cheekbones were wide and high, his jaw pronounced and broad. The ears were further up on his head than a human’s, and edged with long, pale hairs the moved gently in the artificial currents of the hvac system. She couldn’t tell the color of his eyes as they were closed, but she knew from the file they were green – and shone red in low lighting. “Is that what you call the maiming of two technicians and the death of another? And I understand he killed five of the six other 21 series models in his group.”

“Well,” Jenssen coughed and shuffled his feet. “After the challenges with motivation and passivity in the 20-series, we made some adjustments to the genome – which was extremely successful. The results were exactly what we were hoping for.”

“Dead scientists?” she murmured. Her eyes traced over the broad shoulders and heavy musculature of the subject. His simple grey scrubs were stretched tight over long limbs. Thick hair was tied into a simple ponytail at his nape, and darker brown hair grew on his face and neck. “That is not a promising goal, Doctor.”

She could hear Jenssen’s umbrage rising in his voice. “The staff…incidents…were the result of security procedures that were not properly followed. Dr. Gillian was aware that no personnel are allowed direct contact with the subjects unless they are anesthetized. Despite that, she entered the enclosure to begin an unapproved behavioral study. When 21-G attacked, the technicians intervened.”

“I read Gillian’s report. She stated that increased socialization would curb the violent tendencies and establish trust and loyalty.” The Representative studied the subject’s feet. They were larger and broader than an average human. She recalled from the file it was a result of increased height and body mass. His toes were pressed against the floor, his heels raised and nearly under his body.

“Yes,” Jenssen’s tone was saturated with derision, “And the former Oversight Chair took those concerns seriously. We did institute controlled interactions between subjects – which resulted in aggression and violent outbursts between them. Of the fourteen that were still viable at the time, G killed five that were in the same control group. The sixth was left alive with only non-lethal puncture wounds on the neck.” The display on the glass flickered, and new data, including images of subjects that had refused food and one that killed himself by puncturing her abdomen with his own claws. Behind her, Jenssen was sounding more confident. “The other control group was declared non-viable within a few months. Gillian’s research is pedantic, at best. If we threw out the behaviorists and psychoanalysts and focused our resources on the hard science, I promise you we could produce the outcomes the Committee is looking for in another two or three serieses.”

“Such ego,” Sudarshan murmured under her breath. She pressed her palms against her knees to stand, and in the split second that her attention turned from the subject, he exploded into motion. Later, review of the security footage would show that he had braced himself to move and his eyes had been focused on a faulty seal at the bottom of the glass. It would be hypothesized that he could see or sense the residual heat from the bodies of those in the observation room as it seeped out under the window. Whatever reason he had, however he accomplished it, the result was a terrifying impact when his body slammed into the mirrored side. Four inches of reinforced plastiglass shuddered and cracked in a spiderweb pattern.  Sudarshan fell backward onto her hands with a strangled gasp. Jenssen screamed.

Alarms sounded and high inside the enclosure, vents opened releasing a sedative gas. Sudarshan flinched, her heart stuttering, as 21-G hit the glass again, the second time with his fist. Small chunks of material splintered and fell out of a tiny hole that centered on the impact. The Representative stared into the subjects eyes. They were pale green, flecked with brown. Despite the fury etched on his face, Sudarshan saw something else there too. The sedative took effect before he could connect a third time, and both the observation room and enclosure were swarmed with security personnel. Sudarshan refused assistance and stood up on her own, watching as they strapped the subject down and loaded him into a confinement chamber the size of a large coffin. When she finally turned around, she was unimpressed to find Jenssen, pants soaking wet, breathing from a portable oxygen cannister and ranting about protocols and autopsy schedules.

Sudarshan ignored him and pulled aside one of the guards. “Take me to a secure line, and get me the next most senior staff person. Now.”

Two days later, Representative Sudarshan was on a transport back to the Sol System. Dr. Jenssen’s contract had been terminated, and he was strongly encouraged to review the binding non-disclosure and non-compete portions of his agreement. Dr. Gillian, fresh from transplant surgery, had been reinstated and promoted as the head of research. She had insisted on foregoing her scheduled skin grafts and reconstructive procedures to begin work immediately. Project Reform was under new leadership, and a new strategic plan. The Representative accepted a drink from her assistant and settled in to listen to reports on the latest debates on the Congressional floor regarding oceanic reclamation. She could afford to focus on domestic matters, assured that she would soon have exactly what humanity needed to search out their enemies and erase them. Her last act, before she closed the files on her tablet, was to authorize a new code name for the black operation.

Project Hellhound would make her career.

***

Chapter 2

Pacing Yourself

I can turn out around ten pages a day. That is ten actual pages, not double-spaced comic sans pages, mind you. Sometimes that seems like a lot. A great deal of action can happen in ten pages, or a dialogue with two or three really great lines, or an inner monologue that gets to the heart of some personality quirk or psychological tension.Those days I can whip right though it and wonder where the time went. Then there are days when ten pages can seem to take forever, when I have to switch perspectives three or four times just to slog through it. At the end, though, there is another chapter, so yea me.

Then again, what is that worth? Ten pages in a day? That’s about nine hours at my desk, including time to check email and take care of a few other issues. So it takes roughly six hours, cumulative, to write and rough edit ten pages. As a wage, that is pretty bad. But as a part of the creative process, I wonder how it shakes out? Regardless, it doesn’t seem to matter if I am loving a scene and the words are just flowing along, or if it feels like my fingernails are being pulled out just to come up with another sentence. One workday equals about ten pages. At least I am consistent, I guess. Maybe I should learn to type faster. Anyone know where I can pick up a copy of Mavis Bacon?

If you write, or know of an author that has quoted a page or word number, let me know.

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