Archive for February, 2014

The battle had settled into an elaborate, deadly dance.

They’d been at this for hours; both sides had taken losses, and it was small comfort to Darin Krell that “only” two on his side hadn’t disgorged active emergency beacons for search-and-rescue teams to retrieve. That was still two pilots he wouldn’t see at debriefing, assuming he got that far. Two families now missing loved ones. With the battlespace still too hostile for SAR to actually get in there, there was plenty of opportunity for that number to get worse, one way or another.

And that was just this particular engagement. Skirmishes had been going on for three days now, with no decisive changes on either side; either group could get reinforced anytime, but nobody had yet.

Nobody wanted more casualties, at this point. They spent most of their time outside direct engagement range and conserved their dwindling missile stocks. Even when the two forces came close together, everybody was more worried about staying alive than scoring hits, and that went for both sides.

Unfortunately, fatigue was setting in. Tired people slipped up, and when the stakes were this high, even a tiny slip could be fatal.


For the few minutes it took to walk back to his apartment, Damien Collier kept half-expecting the wolf next to him to disappear – to turn out to have never have been there after all; just a daydream, a figment of an overactive imagination.

Seriously, what were the odds? Naomi Peltier had been his great high school sweetheart – maybe not the first girl he’d dated, but the first one he’d really clicked with. They’d given each other their virginity – anxious to do it right, he’d studied up, thanks in large part to a guide he’d found online that had been targeted at curious teens and somehow not been shut down for “providing pornography to minors;” he thought it had gone okay, a positive experience for both of them, even if it had involved more giggling than actual passion. That had come later, as they got used to each other, and they’d had it in spades. Neither of them had been plagued by the jealousy that seemed to break apart so many of their fellow dating students. They’d compared notes about their attractive peers; Damien rather suspected that Naomi had a touch of the bi, too, whether or not it was enough to actually act on like his had turned out to be.

Then, with their passion still burning ever-brighter, he’d been dragged across the country by Dad’s promotion. He hadn’t had any means of contact that wouldn’t be lost in the move; she’d given him her email – but apparently her family had recently changed providers and she’d given him the old one. All he got in response to his “here I am” mail had been a bounce. He’d got permission for a long-distance call, only for that to be a wrong number. And with Naomi’s dad a teacher who’d rather not be pestered in off-hours by random students – or the irate parents of same – their number wasn’t in the phone book.

That had been hard. He’d tried not to show it to anyone, but suddenly being without even that distant connection to her had left him reeling and off balance. School had been a struggle; teachers and parents alike had chalked it up to just getting used to the different expectations of a new school, but the truth was that for a little, he just couldn’t be bothered to care enough to put in his best work.


Technicians working on the Azemi L97 Slipdrive engine had been pretty negative about it. Whatever virtues it had in terms of license fee, construction cost, and efficiency of both power and fuel was countered, they’d said – at least in those reviews that weren’t cursing tirades – by its maintenance demands. While parts weren’t an issue as such, the thing required regular adjustments, a task seemingly needing three hands while in cramped crawlspaces that even one tech could barely fit into, never mind two.

Kirrik, then, was doubly fortunate; he was far smaller than any other tech he’d met during his career in space, and any of his six limbs could be brought to bear when he needed a hand. If the work needed to set up and tune the L97 was complicated and needed him to move three things at once, that was still easier for him than bringing heavy force on one thing. Indeed, the extra bits were a joy to work with for now, though that’d probably ebb as the novelty wore off. And a secondhand focusing matrix with less than two hundred hours on it – the “heart” of the engine, the only part they hadn’t been able to fab new – meant that even those much-bemoaned extra adjustments would be less than had been demanded by the decade-old, much-abused, more-patches-than-not monstrosity that had been saved from the recycler to get their ship moving way back when.

Completing that thing’s long-delayed journey to be reduced to fab material had been one of the biggest guilty pleasures of Kirrik’s career.


The grotto was just as Arkin remembered it.

Hardly a surprise, that. The mountains were treacherous; only one with wings could hope to get this deep into the range, and even then, only the surest of fliers would make it past the chaotic winds. He was Frostkin, though – he didn’t need to fear the cold, and could take the longer, surer approach through the chilly currents up above the peaks. It was still a difficult flight, though, and one with no reason to attempt – unless one knew of this place.

Arkin had only shown it to three others in his life. The first was dead now, rest her soul; she’d chosen the risky path of the warden, though, and he thought her spirit would find satisfaction that she’d died protecting her home. The second was as a stranger to him now, cold and aloof, living as a moneylender of all things.

The last, dearest to his heart, was still out there somewhere – his hearth rune still glimmered, however faintly, or at least it had a few days ago when last Arkin was home.


Garik was long-accustomed to rising before the Sun – as apprentice to the old shaman Temen, he needed to be ready to greet the new day if he was to practise his art. But this night saw him rising early even for him, shaken out of his cot by the keen-eyed spearman Relin, watching over the camp for the night as he so often did; and to Garik, it felt as though he’d gotten scarcely any sleep at all.

Of course, it had been difficult to find sleep in the first place, with anticipation and anxiety for his role in the day’s ritual warring in him. Perhaps what sleep he’d got hadn’t been very restful.

Well, it would have to suffice, one way or another. This was a very important day – the Turning Sun rite only came once a year, as winter began to give way to spring, and to be the junior celebrant in that rite was a once-in-a-lifetime happening in all but the leanest and grimmest times; any youth would only be chosen twice if there were no others suitable to choose from.


The hatch swung open. Galen Quolar took a few slow steps through it and along the docking tube, gazing through the window.

It still felt so unreal. Was it really happening at last?

How long had it been now? Five standard years at least – seven by the local calendar, almost eight. Shorter though they might have been in technical terms, the passing of those extra seasons had made it feel that much longer since he’d had to abandon his old transport, as it made ready to explode around him.

No one’s fault, the recovery teams had said. The black box had shown a failure in the reactor’s cooling pump, but the maintenance records were good and the parts had all passed QC. It was just a fault that had slipped through the net – not the pilot-owner’s fault, not any technician’s, not the manufacturer’s; just blind bad luck.


She recognized him instantly, of course, even from halfway across the park.

No matter that they’d moved apart four years ago, in the tumultuous midst of adolescence; one didn’t soon forget his like, with the brilliant, fiery plumage and a body that had only become more fit and athletic over the years, and that wasn’t counting what they’d had together. If she hesitated a little before changing course to cut across the park, it was because she almost thought she might be imagining him, not because there was any doubt about the face in her mind.

He turned toward her, and paused, looking right at her and apparently going through much the same mental double-check; then he grinned, lifting a hand up high and waving. “Naomi! Hey, Naomi!” He started towards her at a dash, weaving around a few indignant passersby in the process.

He knew her – that clinched it. It really was him. She lunged forward, colliding with the bird a half-dozen steps later in a tangle of limbs.