Current Track: Blabb

Downed and awaiting rescue, Kalija reflects on who she is, and the trilogy comes to a close with a familiar character...

And that's all she wrote! Here is the final chapter of the last novel in the Moreauverse trilogy that Cry Havoc! kicked off. I hope you've enjoyed them, and I hope it ends things cleanly! We find out some back-stories, we give Kalija a sense of who she is, and there are a few easter eggs for you long-time readers :) Thank you, everyone, for coming for the ride. And special thanks to :iconSpudz:, who can be my wingman any time.

Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.

The Mighty Wind Arisesby Rob Baird — Ch. 7, "Roaring seaward"


Mother-Age (for mine I knew not) help me as when life begun:
Rift the hills, and roll the waters, flash the lightnings, weigh the Sun.

O, I see the crescent promise of my spirit hath not set.
Ancient founts of inspiration well thro' all my fancy yet.

Howsoever these things be, a long farewell to Locksley Hall!
Now for me the woods may wither, now for me the roof-tree fall.

Comes a vapour from the margin, blackening over heath and holt,
Cramming all the blast before it, in its breast a thunderbolt.

Let it fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow;
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Locksley Hall"

The black lifted — how much later she did not know — into a blurry, mottled brown and green. It took another minute for Kalija to determine that she was lying on her side, face down on a slope, with her helmet pushed unceremoniously into the ground cover of a heavy forest.

Her whole body ached, but she forced herself to the effort of extricating herself from the seat and getting, slowly, to her feet. She didn't know exactly how long she'd been unconscious, but the sun was still high enough for plenty of light to filter through the tree cover. 

According to her checklist, once she was certain that she hadn't been killed the next task was to find out what had happened to Barton Glenn. She switched on the flight suit's battery, which was supposed to recharge through her movement, and tested the radio. “Hey, Alamo?"

No answer. Did that mean that he was also knocked out? Had he landed somewhere that the radio couldn't reach? Was it simply broken? No easy way to tell, although when she ran a self-test the suit didn't report any errors. All the same, the silence was a little disconcerting.

Particularly because it was her fault. Alamo hadn't wanted to attack again; he was more experienced, and she should've listened. What if he'd been badly injured? What if he was dead? What the hell kind of shepherd had she turned out to be? Calm down. Calm down — you can find him, you just need to get your bearings. Take a second...

The dog unfastened her helmet, lifted it off — and immediately gasped in surprise. The scent of nature flooded her muzzle — pine, and the thick earthy aroma of disturbed loam. Hints of vegetation, flowers begging for attention from insects and animals, drifted past. 

Just like she was back on the Dawa Free Colony. Out beyond the edges of the town. Walking with one of her friends. Picking mushrooms with her mother, who had always loved the trees and gentle hills around the Colony. She'd been a corporate dog, confined to the barracks of an urban campus somewhere — after they'd moved she'd made Kalija's father promise that the family would never leave it again. 

Instead of taking a second her ears went back, and her muzzle drooped. She could picture her mother clearly — almost always a quiet, reserved shepherdess, given to the canine conceit that appreciation of nature bordered on a commandment. And why not? Why not, after the campus? After everything she'd gone through... she'd warned her daughter, of course...

Kalija had to sit down and catch her breath. She'd done a good job of dismissing her mother's objections as short-sighted; as dwelling on the past. They were not, exactly, on speaking terms — and she'd done a good job coming to terms with that as well. Now, though — now there was nothing but the sounds of the forest around her. Not the constant white noise of a busy fleet carrier, and human chatter; not the smell of human cooking and human machinery and human clothing.

How ironic it was, that she found herself thrust back into nature by her own mistakes. That second run — yassuja, that had been dumb. What had she been thinking? That she could pull it out of the fire, as she always did. That she was peerless; mythic, practically, and heroes did not face such petty things as defeat.

Kiru kog dhulkozhit," she muttered to herself. “Such a good job you've done. Again. The best job. What a hero, Kallich. Such a good pilot your plane is gone and you can't even find your comrade."  Her ears pinned back even further when she realized the berating was coming in Nakath-rukhat instead of English. Then a flood of anger. At herself, mostly — but at the Intruder, too. At CODA. At her mother. The world.

Doesn't somebody have to guard the flock? That was what Major Benjamin had asked.

Ukkokhda," she growled. The word did not truly have an English translation — it meant an object whose smell was so offensive one should not even roll in it. If she was meant to be a shepherd, Kalija had not acquitted herself well. Commander Putnam had trusted her, and her payback had been one stupid mistake.

She stopped in mid-thought. It wasn't that the self-judgment was wrong, only that it was unproductive. There would be time for it later — yassuja, clear tasks to accomplish and here she was whimpering like a pup with a thorn in its nose. That was unlike her. The self-criticism wasn't, but it needed to have a good reason — and dwelling on her mother or her language was not one of those.

Why shouldn't she have used her native tongue? She was a dog, after all. And as a dog... 

Kalija lifted her muzzle back up and sniffed carefully. Nothing — no sign of Barton's scent, but also nothing she would've expected from the recovery seat, no spent fuel or ozone. So the odds were, then, that he lay somewhere downwind of her. Even deadened — she used an anesthetic to keep the smell of the Bellau Wood from overpowering her — her nose was more sensitive than any human's, and she trusted its judgment.

Next steps, in that case. The back of her seat had a survival kit in it — water and a water filter; a radio with a spare battery. An automatic carbine, which she took with slightly more hesitation. Who knew what was out in the woods, though? She slung it over her shoulder, clipped the radio to her suit, and set off.

Every few hundred meters she paused to call in on the radio again; still there was no answer. Bit by bit she found she was relying more on her senses; it was easy enough to get back into a hunter's mindset. Her ears swiveled, listening for anything that might indicate the landing site. Rustling finally gave it away — rustling that she followed, triangulating studiously, until she was close enough to pick up the smell of the human being she'd spent months sharing quarters with.


“Over here," he called back.

She found her bombardier seated, back against the coarse bark of a thick-trunked pine. His helmet was off, and his face looked unnaturally pale. “Why didn't you answer your radio?"

He held up the arm of his suit, both to wave and to show the utterly smashed panel on the arm. “Got lucky."

“Apparently. You alright otherwise?" She couldn't see whatever was left of his egress and recovery unit, but he was carrying the carbine so he must've made it some distance. “Mobile? Talkative?"

“Lucky, mobile, or talkative? One outta three ain't bad," he said.

“Which one?"

“Feel real wordy."

She frowned, splaying her ears, and knelt closer to examine him. “You know what's wrong?"

“Right ankle. Fucked."

The suit showed no obvious signs of trauma, but since it was designed to keep them safe in space the fabric was self-healing and often masked any damage it had suffered. “How bad?"

“If it ain't broke... it's actin' real good," he joked. The effort was fairly unsuccessful — considering his strained, wan expression. “Won't bear weight. Hurts like a bitch." 

“No offense taken," she tried, but her sense of humor was in no better order. “You didn't take your meds?"

“Worried I might pass out before you showed up. Knew you'd find me, though..."

She waited for him to pull out one of the single-use anesthetics and press the injector to the side of his exposed neck. Presently a deep sigh suggested it had started to do its work. “Tried the radio?"

“Yeah. You?"

“Not yet," Kalija said, though the look on Barton's face implied that it wouldn't have mattered. She powered it up and switched on the antenna — a small drone which, when deployed, hovered in midair a few meters above them, twisting in all directions to find the best angle. A light on the radio was supposed to switch from amber to blue when it had established a link with the tactical network.

It stayed amber. “Glad it ain't just me," Barton said.

“These hills." Kalija shook her head. They had landed — or tumbled down into — a valley; its extent was hidden by trees, but the walls had to rise at least a hundred meters to either side above them. “Must be blocking the signal?"

“Reckon so."

“Have to get some altitude, then."

“Might could."

“Up, then," she said.

Barton got to his feet, laboriously; she had to support him, and the progress was slow. They had no energy for speaking — she even had to give up her panted attempts at encouragement, settling for each step gained as a point of pride. The painkillers, also, had clearly not been completely effective — her ears wilted at the sight of his wincing.

The sun was well on its way down by the time they reached the top, or what seemed to be the top; in any event the slope flattened, and they could see it beginning to descend again. Kalija switched the radio back on and waited. Nothing. No blue light. Alamo gritted his teeth, and slumped from the tree he'd been leaning on all the way to the ground.

“Okay..." The dog tried not to seem too dispirited, herself. “Then we'll have to keep going."

“Right." Barton's voice was completely dull.

“We can rest a bit..."

“Right," he said again.

She tapped her foot against the ground, nervously. “Then we'll head, uh... well..."


She'd never seen the man so beaten. A snap decision came to her — as it came often to pilots. “I'm going to climb this tree, and... we'll see where to go, alright?" 

He nodded in answer, though his eyes were shut.

Having made the promise, she was left trying to figure out how it might be answered. Barton had drifted into complete unconsciousness when she decided that the suit would have to come off. It was too heavy, too bulky, and despite its many features none of them were terribly useful. Time to get back to nature. Mom would be proud.

Perhaps, or perhaps not, but between her lightened frame and her claws she was at least able to climb. A difficult struggle took her to the first branches; after that the going became easier. An hour later she was nearing the top — branches that were almost too heavy for her weight, and required careful planning to negotiate.

Finally, able to go no further, she stopped, and looked carefully around.

Mountains. Everywhere. The reddening sky sat above a bowl formed in rippling peaks. To the northwest, they rose more than a few kilometers over her head — even to the east, though, a gentler rise ended at least a kilometer in greater altitude. The secure, narrow-band radio required a line of sight to some relay station: it was clear why it hadn't been able to find one.

Kalija's ears wilted, and her tail drooped. But she had to climb back down; it was that or falling. Silent, gritting her teeth, she started the climb. She swore inwardly at every branch and bit of bark that caught in her fur. Even the exertion was not enough to stave off the dark thoughts that started to return. 

Rather than try to cling to the trunk she dropped the five meters back to the ground from the lowest branch; the impact startled Barton awake, and he blinked in surprise at the dog's arrival. And, no doubt, her incongruous appearance. “Well? Good news?" It carried the faintest, meanest glint of hope.

Kalija's limbs ached from the climb. The pads on her fingers were scraped, and the fur was matted with sap. She wanted nothing more than to curl up, too — but the way he'd asked... She forced a little grin, and shrugged. “Know why we didn't get a signal. This is still in a basin." 


“We'll have to climb out." The mutt said it lightly, as though she'd been suggesting a round of drinks instead.

“How far?"

The west was safer, because it was closer to the separatist lines. But there was no way Barton could make it; they would have to head east instead. From their current position on the ridgeline to the top of the lowest hill could not have been, in her estimate, any less than ten kilometers, and twelve hundred meters in elevation. “Couple klicks," she told her bombardier. “We'll go east. But... tomorrow. First light."

“Lot of climbing?"

“A bit. Not as hard as getting up here was."

He seemed, for the moment, pacified by her answer. She tugged her flightsuit back on, aware that her strength was fading extremely quickly. With the sun hidden by the mountains to their west, the temperature dropped swiftly. Despite her fur coat, the heating elements of the suit were more than welcome.

“You'll be ready for tomorrow?"

“I guess," Barton said. “Right now I'm... 'tired' ain't right. Drained."

“Exhausted," she agreed. Empty. The dog had nothing left to give; she eased herself onto her back and stared up at the branches over them. “Long day. But..."

But. She wasn't certain what she'd intended to follow that, and it didn't matter. At rest, the allure of sleep was far too great. She was unconscious before the train of thought had even left its station.

SAM batteries and enemy fighters and mechanical difficulties were one thing; the real enemy of any pilot was the laws of physics. Gravity had it out for anything that flew; materials science had harsh words for the things combat maneuvering did to an airframe. Drag made even the act of staying aloft a grind.

And inertia...

Kalija awoke the next morning as a body most assuredly at rest. Her muscles staged a defiant revolt at her every attempt to get up. She was reduced to rolling on her side and levering herself to an awkward sitting position, where she paused for an increasingly desperate negotiation. Let me finish this hike and I'll start being more serious about those calisthenics. Nothing. Let me stand up and I'll have Taru give me a nice massage. Almost. Two massages?

With a groan, the dog managed to get to her feet.

“Ready?" Barton asked her.

“I guess. Are you feeling better?" 

“If you double up, the painkillers kind of work."

“I see."

“You should try it." 

She worked the ache from her limbs as best she could, and followed Barton's lead in eating one of the sugary bars in their survival kit. Supposedly, it was calorie-dense enough to stand in for a meal; it was maddeningly sweet, also, and the dog presumed that this was intended to offer some psychological hint to its efficacy.

It did help, a little; at least it was enough to keep her going as they started out. An hour into the hike and everything faded to a dull roar — a reminder of physical pain that she stayed aware of mostly as an academic fact rather than a source of concern.

By mid afternoon, they had reached the lowest point and were back on the climb. But their pace slowed to a crawl, with the need for frequent pauses. Evening descended again and they had managed only two small hills. Their destination was still some distance ahead. Every half-hour she checked in on the radio, and every half-hour they heard nothing; it was hard for the dog to keep their spirits up.

This time, when they stopped for the night, Barton had nothing to say; he stared into the darkness so motionless that she could scarcely even tell when he had fallen asleep. She wanted to help him; she wanted to be able to fix everything — but she was powerless, and a second day of hard walking sapped most of her own energy.

Worse still, Barton was almost out of painkillers, and though she gave him her supply that would only serve for another day and a half, at most. While the dog was able to narrow her focus the same way as she did on an attack run — seeing only the next step in front of her; the next obstacle to detour around — her companion faltered with the stress on his leg. She was compelled to support him, which slowed them further — in the early afternoon, at last he tripped and pulled them both to the ground.

“Son of a..." He sighed. “Sorry, Elvis."

“It's okay." She brushed the dirt off. “We'll just —"



“Ain't..." He trailed off, and slumped. He was sitting awkwardly — one leg folded beneath him, one straight; barely propped up on his arm. Barton looked, if she was honest, like a doll that had been tossed into the trash and expected to remain there. “Two days of this; I ain't got it in me. I'm sorry."

“We can rest," she offered, though he was right — two days of a difficult hike was no trivial matter. “Excuse to eat. Try the radio again."

He ignored her. “How much further?"

“A bit..."

“Elvis. Hey. Please. How much?"

“Maybe another four kilometers."



This time when he sagged, his arm couldn't catch him and he dropped flat. “I'm sorry," he repeated. “I just..." 

“We can wait." 

He tilted his head back, examining sky filtered through the cracked window of the trees. “Ain't like Texas..."

“The scenery?" 

Barton didn't answer. A minute later he spoke again, without prompting; his voice was quiet. “Elvis. Kalija, right? That's how you say it?"

“Close enough." He'd put the stress on the wrong syllable.

“You know that part where the one guy says 'you gotta leave me behind'? 'I'm just slowin' you down'?"

“No. And don't be stupid."

He closed his eyes. “Practical."

“Of course. You're my bombardier; it's your job to be practical. I'm a pilot, I don't have to —"

“Yeah. You do."

Kalija felt a human phrase spring to mind. “Like hell I do."

The man swallowed heavily. “Look, it's the only way to do this. You can come back for me. I'll be okay..." 

“You're my bombardier," she insisted. “And it's not up to you. I will fucking carry you. I've done a lot of stupid things — a lot of things without thinking. This isn't one of them. You're coming whether you like it or not." 

Barton's eyes were open again — but he couldn't manage to look at her. “Don't make this harder than it needs to be."

Rather than answer, she let the snarl come first — a fierce, angry growl that would've put any dog in its place. “Shut up. The decision is made. You don't get to be left behind. I'm fucking through leaving people behind." Rash as it was. Emotional as it was. “That's not what shepherds do! I'm a fucking shepherd, remember? Let's fucking ask. Do we leave people behind? Do we?" She looked around, as if expecting an answer from the trees.

“Come on..."

Do we? Hold on, let's ask." Eyes narrowed and ablaze, Kalija went for theatrics. She clicked her useless radio on, and kept none of the guttural snarl from her voice. “Does a fucking shepherd leave people behind?"

“You need to —"

“Quetzal Four-One. Uh, say again your last? Who is this?"

Her muzzle dropped. She glanced to the radio, and the blue light greeting her. “Quetzal Four-One, this is Tracker — wait. Strike my last. Wagon Five-One-Oh. Intruder from the Trailblazers, on the Bellau Wood." 

“Wagon Five-One-Oh, identify yourself."

“Kharåk Kalija Shada. Lieutenant. Hotel foxtrot one-oh-seven-niner-seven."

“Wait one, Wagon." In the silence, the dog turned to her bombardier with a grin that was as elated as it was bewildered. “Wagon, Quetzal. Uh... um. Rag dhanhalat?" 

He was going through the secret duress questions every one of them prepared — to identify themselves, and also to allow for safe communication. If she'd been captured, one answer was designed to secretly alert her rescuers to that fact. “To huhkunån dhanajoat," she answered.

His pronunciation — phonetic — had been atrocious, but he understood her answer well enough. “Got it. Okay, Wagon. What's your situation? Have you and your bombardier linked up?"

“Affirmative. Lieutenant Glenn is with me. We haven't been able to get a signal, so trying for higher ground. Lieutenant Glenn has a broken ankle but we're otherwise in okay shape. Plenty of food and battery power. Over."

“Great. Okay, we'll trade good news for good news, then." The voice on the radio had become friendly and reassuring. Kalija didn't know who she was — 'Quetzal' was one of the standard callsigns for the search-and-rescue units. “We'll get an SAR team in as soon as we can. We just need to fix your position. Over."

“Copy that."

“Uh. It seems like we're having some difficulty with that. Wagon, any chance you can get to higher ground? Over."

Kalija looked to her bombardier, daring Barton to answer. “Quetzal, affirmative. We'll call in again from the summit of this hill, how's that? Over."

“Copy. We'll be standing by. Quetzal out."

“Hey, wait. Quetzal. Tracker One — my wingman — uh — how'd the mission go?"

“You were the only airframe loss." Quetzal paused. “When we didn't get a signal, Nazca assumed the worst. It was good to hear from you."

“Likewise. Wagon out." She grinned, and offered a paw to help Barton up. The man took a deep breath, gritted his teeth, and grasped it — still unsteady; he practically fell into her. It was okay. She could handle him. And because she could handle him, she would handle him. “Told you it wasn't a debate."

“Got lucky. An' it's a climb..."

It was — it took the rest of the daylight, and the sky was already fading to deep blue when the pair made it to a small clearing on the eastern slope of the hill. From the summit they could see more peaks off to the east — but far enough in the distance that Kalija thought they wouldn't hinder things too much. “Quetzal Four-One, this is Wagon Five-One-Oh. How do you read? Over."

“Wagon, this is Quetzal." A new voice, with the same enthusiasm. “Five by five, over. Can you switch your locator beacon on to confirm? Over."

The dog checked that it had been set to the proper code, and did so. It wasn't good practice to leave it on for long — it sucked down battery power, and there was no telling who else might be trying to find them. “Beacon active, Quetzal."

“Wait one." Kalija looked up, permitting herself to wonder which of the stars was actually the SAR vessel. “Okay, Wagon, you can switch off. We have a good lock on your position. Next question for you guys. You're not mobile, right?"

“Not really."

“The marines have secured a checkpoint at Camp Woodrow, on a highway south-south-east of your position about two hundred klicks. Unfortunately it looks like there's heavy enemy activity north on that road, so if you can't meet us halfway we'll have to find another solution."

Two hundred kilometers was not exactly a day trip even if they'd both been completely healthy. “That's not really possible, Quetzal."

“Copy that. Stay put, then. We'll need to come in with heavy cover, so Nazca is asking for a delay of six to eight orbits to prep the SAR mission. Can you wait until tomorrow?"

Neither of them wanted to; that much was clear from Barton's expression. But they'd flown air cover for such missions before — they knew the stakes. “Rather they not risk another pilot on a rush job," the man said. “I'm fine."

“You're sure?"

“Yeah. Better than walking."

“Quetzal, roger. Nothing is critical here. We can wait."

“Understood. We'll call back in the morning with more details. Sit tight. Quetzal out." 

“Six to eight," Kalija groused. “Tomorrow noon, then."

“Maybe." Barton took the opportunity to slip from her arm, hobble two paces, and take a seat against a windworn boulder. “What's another night. Already been two. They just want to make sure it's done right. This stuff's risky."

“I know..." She sighed, and sat next to him. “At least we don't have to move any more."

“My ankle hates me." Barton looked down at it; his expression was one of mutual dislike. “Thought I liked hiking, too."

“I didn't. If the fates wanted us to walk places, they wouldn't have given us Intruders." She ran her paw over her thigh, and grimaced. “I hurt in parts of me I didn't even know could hurt. I think my claws hurt."

He laughed. “Yeah." But then they fell quiet, too tired for the smalltalk. It took a more serious question to animate the man again; he prefaced it by resting his paw on the dog's shoulder. “Hey, Elvis? I got a question." 


“What did you say to him? The guy on the radio?"

“My secret question? You want to know my secret question?"

He shrugged. “Was it a curse word?"

“An private joke. My father was a soldier, you know? The question in Nakath-rukhat was, 'where is your father'? He lives in a small town now. That's not what I said. I said something a visiting human teacher made me learn." 

“Which was?"

Eight years later, she still remembered the intensity of the human's voice, and the clear effort she put into her speech. It was the closest she'd ever come to seeing a human speak proper Nakath-rukhat, even if it was with a heavy Seattle accent. “Jaghan halat, najoat to hukhunån, dhanato inaniy. Dhansashid res-kagakag, zada dhanzathaja res-dohokhag to zaich, to hukhukån laza. Nan jaghan kaddal ka nån dhansakhohu; zada jaghan dakhulja dhakugusu tikh nån daquranja nalkugusat laza." 

Barton looked at her blankly. “Yeah?"

Zada nån nakå chathaja kodhakigu, huz nån jisha genakh dhasathu," she added. “'Do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.' It's from a book of yours, I think; a human book."

“The Bible. You're Christian, dog?"

Canine spirituality was complicated and ill-defined. Many of them professed to believe in a sort of animism — that every plant and stone had some metaphysical aspect to it, and that they were all connected in some fashion. Respect for nature was deeply ingrained in nakathja, many of whom had spent their entire lives in the white, antiseptic confines of corporate barracks in walled cities. 

They did not truly have gods, although the most common Nakath-rukhat oath — yassuja — was a combination of the human name Yassu Nazarethun al-Krist, and the plural suffix ja. Many Jesuses. Even if they did not take everything literally, the lesson of fellowship and good deeds was one that tugged at the pack inclinations of the nakath.

“No. Or... I mean. I dunno, Alamo. I don't know that I believe anything about... good and evil, but she was one of the only humans who ever looked like she cared about us." For Kalija, who had never lived in slavery, it was also her first exposure to an actual human, instead of the stories related by her elders.

Barton nodded, and lapsed back into reflective meditation. After a time, it was clear that he was trying to find the strength to say something; she didn't prompt him and at last he took a deep breath. “You know, you should've left me. I mean — not just then, earlier too, but... but then, for sure." 

“According to you."

“But if they hadn't called in. Would you have? Left me?"

“Not a fucking chance. I'm serious. I would've carried you."


“Because in that case, I would've had to." She turned; looking him straight in the eye. The answer came as easily as if it had been in one of their training exams. “It's what you do, Alamo. You do the right thing."

Barton's breath had caught, and when he let it out it was in the form of a sigh. He swallowed. Then he blinked a few times, and turned his eyes away from her, out towards the horizon. She let her words hang, rather than prodding him, and the quiet dragged on so long that her ears twitched when he broke it. “So." 


Again, he waited, but she could tell he was marshaling his strength. He spoke slowly, pausing now and then to collect his senses. “I was on a ground training op. Qualifying on the new model, which had a lot of new software updates and sensor packages to go along with the upgraded ACS system and engines. And they done pushed a new patch the day before, so we had to redo all the briefings and everything. Everybody on the flight was pretty impatient, I remember that, but the weather... God, but I ain't seen a day like that in years. You could see forever. My pilot, Stoli — really good guy — said they only made days like that for the recruiters. Not a bump.

“We come in on final, and I lock up the localizers. Stoli switches the ACLS on, and you gotta understand, okay — there's a lot of beacons. It's a huge training base, so it ain't like they can help it. Might could be they figure most pilots want to land manual anyhow, but we were testing the ACLS as part of the software update so we didn't have a choice. And as we're coming in, we hit this one point. Just the perfect point. ACLS loses lock on one beacon, switches to the next... but it passes the localizing signal and the signal to update the beacon reference ID at the same time. 

“Now… the problem is that localizing signal is in a different process on the computer, and it finishes first. So the ACLS assumes that it's still the old beacon, which isn't a problem because it's all redundant — except that in this case, for a fraction of a second — the numbers add up and it thinks we're at a negative distance from the runway. System crash. Controls revert to manual, but the crash takes out the ACS while it's rebooting, and Stoli has no authority. We both punched out. Nobody died, but the Intruder plowed right into the flight line. Seven airframes completely totaled. Software errors, you know?"

It was the longest she'd ever heard him speak at once, and when asked the question it took the dog a moment to reply. “Pretty serious error..."

“The software company wasn't the lowest bidder, either. That, and the founder was close to a congressman. Might could get suspicious about the quality of the work." Such corruption wasn't unheard of; Kalija nodded sympathetically. “Wasn't the kind of thing they wanted public. They offered to buy us both out."

“You said 'no.'" It didn't surprise her that he would've.

“Yeah. Then they leaned on Stoli. His folks are outlanders. They said if he was willing to take a package, they'd get his folks citizenship, too. Find him a nice job somewhere. He wasn't exactly fixin' to retire, but I can't really say I blame him for takin' the opportunity. When it came to me, I mean... I'm just some dumb asshole, Elvis. I don't even have folks to threaten. Finally they said it was my fault — 'cause I did the localizers wrong. They said there'd be a board of inquiry. I could take the easy way, or the hard way. But I was thinkin', what happens if I don't tell the truth? Who's gonna fix it?"

“The software?" 

“Needed a full audit. At least — needed more than that, really. It was really a fluke that this happened — maybe it wouldn't ever have happened again. But... something else. Ain't like those guys would only have been sloppy once. What if somebody found out on a sortie? What if it was SAMs instead of beacons? Couldn't let that sit on me. I took the Board. Found somebody willing to make a real case. And I said my mind. Said, you know: y'all can do what you want with me, but I ain't gonna let somebody else die 'cause Congressman Riddick picked the wrong friend to write mission-critical code."

Kalija nodded slowly. “But you were found at fault."

“Twenty percent at fault. Said I coulda done the ACLS different. Lost a rank on it, but they didn't kick me out and didn't take my wings. You ain't been to Texas, right?"


“There's a place in San Antone. Used to be a church or a mission or some bullshit; I ain't much for history. But my advocate, before we went in to hear their finding, told me the story. During some war between Texas and Mexico, these guys — these Texans — they decide to fight. It was a hopeless battle; they were completely outnumbered. But they wouldn't surrender. Even though they knew what the consequences would be, they didn't surrender. They fought 'cause... well, like you said. 'Cause they had to."

“And they lost."

“Yup." Barton chuckled, weakly, though the story had animated him into something closer to normalcy. “When he was done, my advocate patted me on the shoulder. An' he goes: 'Lieutenant Glenn, here's the thing about last stands. Everybody says, remember the Alamo. They don't tell you it was a massacre.'"

Against all odds, though, he'd survived. Only a rather dim reputation to show for it — and a new name. “Did they fix the computers?"

“Yeah. That was the hell of it. Congressman Riddick took it harder'n I did. Poor dumb bastard." Barton didn't appear to have much actual sympathy to spare. “Alright. Your turn, Elvis."

“My turn?" 

He nodded. “Told ya my story. It's your turn."

“I don't have a story," she said.

“Bullshit. Pup, I been with you a long damn time now. I can read you. You got stuff you're carryin', same as me. Out with it."

Kalija's ears wilted. She knew that her tail was tucking; that her shoulders sagged.

“Go on," he said. “Say something."

Say something.

She shut her eyes, and when she opened them it was four years earlier, in the council house at Dawa. Say something: the question was coming from Iskoshunja, the sharp-toothed, angry corgi who was also the township's mayor. “You must have something to say." 

Kharåk Kalija Shada swallowed heavily. “My father is a good man, comrade," she answered, keeping her voice as level as she was able. “He also knew that service is a virtue. I am doing his legacy a service. I am honoring him, and in honoring him I am honoring all of us."

Iskoshunja curled her lip. “With the humans," she spat. “Your service is here, comrade Shadla. There's a place for you in the planting council. We require the help of every free nakath."

“I can't stay here forever," Kaija protested. “Honored comrade, this opportunity..."

“The opportunity to abandon us? Abandon the Commonwealth? This isn't a joke — not a hobby. Not some project to be cast away because you're bored."

When informed that Kalija had been accepted at a human college and, by extension, the Colonial Defense Authority, Iskoshunja had been furious. Even now she was barely keeping her anger in check. The special meeting, before the Dawa leadership council, was intended to make Kalija see reason.

In truth the mutt understood Iskoshunja's objections. She'd been a corporate dog, and abused terribly in her adolescence. Her son was a half-breed, like Kalija, but the rumor was that the pregnancy had been forced as part of a human scheme. Iskich loved her son without reservation, and she swore that he would never have to deal with the human race.

The nakathja of her corporate campus had rebelled, when the Yucatan Alliance fled from planet Jericho. They'd declared a sort of independence, and fought to keep it. Unlike the dogs who served in the military, the Commonwealth's citizenship was not a gift from benevolent human overlords: it had been taken, and they were justly proud of that effort.

For the mayor, then, Kalija's decision was a sort of betrayal. It was a betrayal for the dog's mother, too — the shepherdess was part of the same rebellion that had formed the Commonwealth of the Enlightened. Now her daughter was spitting in the face of their sacrifice, volunteering to return to human servitude.

But Kalija had waged her own quiet, unintentional rebellion for years. When her brothers and sisters looked to the soil and found peace and solace in tending orchards and working on the irrigation ditches, she had walked with her head turned skyward. When the teachers lectured on meditative happiness and contentment with the pack, she had looked to the little spaceport and hounded the freighter crews with incessant questions.

She'd started building little gliders as a pup, with parts begged for or scavenged from the recyclers. Proper dogs were meant to play at shepherding or farming: she envisioned herself aloft, borne on metal wings. Her mother had demanded that she stop; it was her father who had snuck her spare parts and explained how microelectronics and radios worked.

The thought that she might leave for schooling was not itself offensive: a few freeborn nakathja had done so already, studying agricultural sciences or architecture. The idea to build a weather control station came from one such student. But when she spoke of deep space, and of flying, the others looked at her askance. They reminded her of the peaceful solitude of nature. 

It is kutun, Shadla, to revel in the scent of a spring morning in the forest valley. It is kutun to sing with the rainfall

Kutun was a word with no good translation to English. A rite, a ritual; an action that was blessed and proper in and of itself. An expected behavior: to break food with one's mates, to love one's pack, to embrace simplicity and calm. For creatures that had endured four centuries of toil and slavery in the factories and reeking cities of the Alliance, the ascetic life was a gift. They had no love of machines, and no context for a young girl who did.

The Colonial Defense Authority was the last straw. The acceptance letter, to training in the Fleet Air Arm as a naval aviator, was her ticket to freedom, and she'd shown it as such to her father. She would always remember the look on the Border collie's face — that mix of pride and regret; of longing and fear. “Let me be the one to tell your mother," he'd said. 

Even still, even from well outside their home, she'd heard the howled rage. The council meeting was the inevitable result of the argument that followed.

“You have only one question to consider." Iskoshunja's lip was still curled. Her name meant sharp teeth, and Kalija well understood where she'd acquired the moniker. “Where is your pack? Who is your pack?"

“Here. The Commonwealth," Kalija replied.

“Then you'll give this nonsense up. This ukkokhda." 


Iskoshunja growled. “Those humans you so adore — you and your father both, damn him. My mate died fighting next to them, and before his body was even cold they were trying to take us back into slavery. You will not go, Kharåk Kalija Shada."

“I will."

“Then you're mistaken. This is not your pack."

In the heat of the moment Kalija did not flatten her ears in deference; did not adopt a submissive slouch, with her tail tucked. She answered in a snarl of her own, and a half-step forward that raised the hackles of Iskich and the other dogs on the council. “Perhaps you're right," Kalija — a pup of only seven years — dared to say. “My pack would not talk of chains while trying to leash one of its own."

Iskoshunja switched to English for her reply — the only time Kalija had ever heard it from the corgi. It was a proscribed tongue, coarse and for coarse matters. For most of the Commonwealth, to speak in it trod the border of profanity and insult. “Get out. Find some human's hand to lick. Go."

“Gladly," Kalija hissed back. “I would rather wear their collar than yours."

The corgi's claws raked divots in the wooden council table. “Leave now, dog, while you still can."

Anger had sustained Kalija for the next few months, before the first flickers of regret. Iskoshunja had good intentions, despite her temper — a temper she was entitled to, from what had happened to her. After the Commonwealth's rebellion she'd kept them together, found the land at Dawa, formed the council, and taken them from scattered refugees into a self-sustaining commune.

She could be proud of that. Nakathja everywhere knew of it. There were always immigrants, and they were always welcomed. Kalija had not truly meant her words: no slight from a fellow nakath could ever equal what happened in the corporate barracks. Yet she could not bring herself to apologize. It was not Dawa she missed but her family.

Or any family. She endured the teasing of her classmates because at least they had a common purpose. She welcomed the mocking gaze of her instructors: it meant they acknowledged her existence, and she challenged herself to best their skepticism. When she erred in training Flight Instructor Simms had not made her run laps like the other students: he had thrown a tennis ball, over and over.

And Kalija had fetched it — over and over. Until it began to happen less often. Until his derision became less reflexive. Until the day of their exams: a brutal, rapid-fire interrogation from a panel no less hostile than the Dawa council had been, about everything from elementary physics to the design of flight-control AI to the history of space exploration. She'd been exhausted at the end.

“You'll never be human," Simms began her evaluation. “Real humans won't accept you. They'll be skeptical. They'll be mean. They'll look for any excuse to hate you. Scoring a decent grade on that test doesn't count. If you'd wanted to pass, you'd have needed to be twice as good as any of them."

Humans couldn't always read body language, but she'd learned to keep her ears from splaying anyway. “Yes, sir." Drained from the examination, she braced herself for what would come next. Enlistment in the regular service, perhaps; she had no other choices.

“You're on the next lighter out of here. You understand?"

“Yes. Sir."

“NAS Honolulu — VT-61. Report to Captain Delgado as soon as you land. If anyone can teach you to fly an Intruder, she can."

Shocked, she had a moment to be grateful that the degree of her surprise was mostly lost on the human. “Ah — yes, sir." When he dismissed her she was still too astonished even to wag her tail. 

His voice caught her halfway through the open door. “Cadet?"

“Yes, sir?"

He pulled the tennis ball from his pocket and tossed it underhand to the mutt. “Good luck."

That had been more than a year before, though she scarcely recalled the passage of time. It was strange to think, now, that it had been four years since leaving Dawa. Four years since she'd seen her family in person; four years since hearing a conversation in animated Nakath-rukhat or catching the smell of the town's frequent communal dinners being prepared. “It has been, though, I guess..."

Alamo had listened to all of it in silence. “And you can't go back?"

“No. They cast me out. My mother won't talk to me. With the exception of my father..." She shrugged, and fell back on the same reflexive response. “I've gotten over it."

Her bombardier stared pointedly. “Have you, then?"

Before she could reply, the radio clicked to announce an incoming message. “Wagon, this is Quetzal. We've got some bad news and some slightly worse news."

Kalija frowned. “Go ahead?"

“We think that the Guard tracked your transponder beacon. Orbital imagery suggests you probably have incoming. They landed a search party about thirty minutes ago, off to your east."

“Headed our way?"

“Affirmative, Wagon. It's not very many and thermal is difficult to sort — we think maybe forty or fifty individuals. It's a search party, so they're spreading out. Note that you may be able to evade northwest while we check this out."

Evade? What the fuck are you talking about? “Quetzal, my companion isn't really mobile. Do you have an ETA for contact?"

“If they head straight in, maybe two hours."

That wasn't the end of the world. Two hours was enough time for the fleet to at least direct some support their way, and she knew from experience just how effective that could be. “Two hours. Copy."

“That was the worse news. The bad news is, the tracking system's got a minor malfunction on the Bellau Wood. They're not authorizing any launches until it's repaired. Plus one, maybe two orbits." 

Kalija shut her eyes and thought of nice things in order to keep from cursing. “Quetzal, I take it this means you don't have the SAR inbound, either?"

“Negative. Orders from Nazca is we don't send the SAR without cover, and we won't have cover until Bishop gives the all-clear."

She managed to tell Quetzal that she 'understood' with a straight face and no further profanity. Barton Glenn waited until the dog had put the radio away. “Well, we didn't have any other plans for today."


“Just sitting around."

Capture, they both agreed, was not an option. This had been made clear by Dr. Müller as well: the success of the air campaign had also made for extremely vicious propaganda. Captured airmen, in the piss-off's words, had “unfortunately bleak prospects."

But nor could they run.

Some good fortune was with them. Their suits were well-insulated, presenting almost no thermal signature to anyone looking. The fibers could change color, up to a point, which gave them some camouflage. The clearing made for high ground, with a commanding view of the other hills. 

And the wind was blowing in their direction. Sure enough, Kalija caught the unmistakable scent of human beings. It was still faint, but growing stronger. “Yes," she told Barton when he asked. “I'm certain." 

“Just that I'm supposed to be the one detecting things," he said.

On the next orbit, Quetzal told them that the Bellau Wood had yet to launch its fighters. Two more cycles, the voice on the radio said. Might as well be next fucking year.

The smell had gotten stronger. The search party had to be close — a kilometer, at best. Kalija fidgeted, checking her map; they were trying to figure out what direction to expect the first encounters from. “You want to make a run for it?" Barton asked.


“I can stay here. Hold 'em off... you'd be able to get away."

“We stick together."

“Last stand, huh?"

She forced a grin. “You ought to be familiar with that kind of thing. Maybe they'll pass us by." With his helmet on and the active camouflage working, Barton almost faded into the underbrush; Kalija could do the same.


Five minutes later, her ears caught approaching movement. She tapped Barton's shoulder, and pointed to the edge of the clearing, where a man was stepping into view. He wore the uniform of the Territorial Guard, and his weapon was slung in favor of a handheld scanning device he swept back and forth in a steady arc.

Kalija switched the safety of her carbine off. She hadn't fired a weapon like it since training — and had not been particularly fond of it then. You had to be too close to use one of them. She preferred to take care of things at a far longer range.

The soldier wasn't making an effort to hide. His body gave off plenty of heat — more than enough for the targeting computer to lock on to. Now it was a matter of waiting, and hoping that he wouldn't notice them.

“I'll shoot first," she whispered to Barton. “If they notice me, I can run..."

He dipped his head so slightly it barely counted as a nod. “I'll cover you."

Despite her hopes, the Guard searcher didn't turn away. He kept coming closer, treading a careful path across the clearing. A hundred meters became sixty, and then forty.

And then he was looking right at her. His head tilted; his eyes narrowed on the display of his tracking gear. He opened his mouth, and without giving herself time to think she pulled the trigger. 

The carbine, which fired magnetized bolts instead of using chemical propellants, was deceptively quiet for the damage it did. The round took the soldier square in the chest — he was close enough that she saw the impact clearly. His eyes went wide in shock. For a second his mouth worked, wordlessly; uselessly — then he tumbled forward to the ground.

Kalija's ears went back. Objectively she knew it was nothing she hadn't done before — that the soldier was far from the first whose life she had ended — but the others had been kilometers away, perceived only through computer screens and easier to ignore.

Still, it was done: he lay motionless, and a minute or two of silence followed before the next figure came into view. Seeing her fallen comrade, the soldier raised her voice to a shout. “Bill — hey — Billy! Fuck — they're here some —"

Her words cut off, too abruptly — Kalija glanced over, and saw that Barton had taken the shot.

“You know, this ain't gonna be a real nice place to hang out..."

The mutt nodded agreement, and went for her radio. “Quetzal, this is is Wagon Five-One-Oh. We are going to be under imminent heavy attack. Really imminent."

“Wagon, understood." That was it, though — there was nothing that the monitor could do. They would've felt as Kalija had before, staring down at a situation unfolding beyond her control. “We won't make the cycle in a half-hour, but we should be able to get the one after that."

Kalija frowned, hoping for a misunderstanding. “Quetzal, confirm, you're talking at least two hours to launch?"

“Ah... wait out, Wagon."

She saw movement off to her right — snapped over, and fired a few rounds just in case. “You caught that, I guess?" she asked Barton.


“I don't want to seem like a pessimist..."


Kalija swallowed, and checked her carbine. Thirty rounds of ammunition left, and another magazine in her pack. It was no longer a matter of survival; there was no possibility of that. “Just so we're on the same page."

“Well, we did pretty good."


She heard the snick-snick-snick of disturbed air as he fired off a suppressive burst, to no great effect. “I said pretty good. Ending kinda sucked." Another burst punctuated the declaration.

The shape of the hill, and its fortuitous trees, gave them some concealment, but little cover — and the Guard was getting better. Any answer was postponed by the deafening clatter of a machine gun, tearing a rain of splinters from the trunk only a meter or so above their heads.

More worryingly, the incoming salvos were coming from further and further to the dog's right. They were being surrounded — or flanked, at least, and kept pinned down by the sheer volume of fire.

“Do you think maybe if I left cover and drew their fire, they might leave you alone?"

“I think that's a dumb idea, Elvis."

Probably he's right. Probably they wouldn't. But maybe... “I could try to —"

“You had your chance to run," he reminded her. “We go out together, Elvis."

The carbine's trigger clicked in irritation when she pulled it. The magnetic rails had plenty of charge; she was out of ammunition. “Last magazine," the dog muttered. “You know the worst part?"

“We haven't gotten to that."

Neither of them had been hit, it was true. But nor were they accomplishing much to speak of. “We're not even doing anything. Some last stand — you know how much time we bought?"

“Twenty minutes. So far." 

Quetzal had wanted two hours. Kalija gritted her teeth, took aim at a sprinting shape, and pulled the trigger until it went down. So much for the precise application of overwhelming force.

Moreaus did not, as a rule, indulge in superstitions about death; Kalija had never feared her own and she did not find herself doing so now. Instead of fear her thoughts were dominated by a sense of frustration.

It had all been so... pointless. The whole struggle. Finding her wingman. The tree. The long hike. The giddy elation when they'd made contact with the fleet. Hearing Barton's story, at long last.

And it was not that none of it mattered. It had mattered — it had mattered because they had tried. Because they hadn't given up — not even at the end. Twenty rounds left in her magazine and they hadn't given up.

But nobody would know any of it. Her story ended abruptly — interrupted halfway through. The ending, as Barton had put it, kinda sucked. Ten rounds left.

She turned to her bombardier. “Almost out. I think this might be it." What I wouldn't give to be flying, one last time. “It's been an honor, Alamo."

He turned; their eyes met, one last time. Barton nodded. “Same, Elvis."

Kalija, so very much more than a hound dog, took a deep breath. One final defiant thought blazed in her eyes. Her paw tightened on the grip of her carbine. She planned it like any other attack. She would sit up, out of cover; take careful aim. Squeeze the trigger. And do it all again. She would —

The mutt was still hidden when the far edge of the clearing vanished in a cloud of dust and thrown rocks, and before she could even stop to ponder her own confusion it was blasted from her mind by the roar of a shockwave.

Flickering, almost too quick to notice, a shadow swept past. Kalija glanced up just in time to see its owner. Dark apparitions, silhouetted against the hazy sky, fell heavily to earth and then rose to mechanical feet. She peeked her head out, feeling she was watching the unfolding first act of some particularly violent apocalypse.

The dust had not even settled, but already the marines were back on their feet, and hunting. They spread quickly — their movements as precise as they were decisive. By the time Kalija could see the trees at the edge of the clearing again, the area appeared to be completely secured.

“Lieutenant..." An approaching figure with a computer-modulated voice glanced at the readout on their arm, and then looked back up at her. “Kalija?"

Her ears had pinned of their own accord, although she was slowly regaining her situational awareness. These were friendlies — CODA's forces. Kalija and Barton Glenn were alive; more than that, they had been rescued by the black-clad angel asking for her name. Plain as the question was, its answer took an odd effort nonetheless. “Yes. Yeah, that's me."

“Good to meet you, ma'am. I'm Lieutenant Raposo." The powered suit of an espatier concealed entirely their figure behind the slick curves of finely crafted armor. It was alien. Imposing. Shocking, even.

A marine was very nearly a tank and a starship all at once — rockets and gravity compensators amplified their jumps into soaring, kilometer-high arcs. Their helmets had complicated sensors just like an Intruder pilot did; their weapons were laser-precise and heavy enough Kalija would struggle even to lift one.

Lieutenant Raposo lifted the suit's visor to reveal a dark-skinned, finely boned visage with sharp eyes and a white smile. She held out the hand that did not grip her rifle, and shook Kalija's paw with deceptive, almost unbelievable gentleness. “We're with the 74th Spaceborne. Down south."

Kalija was still trying to process everything — chiefly the reversal of her impending death. “The... the firebase. Camp... Woodrow?"

“Woodrat," Raposo corrected. “Yeah. Camp Woodrat. It's just a FARP right now, really; we're still setting up."

Forward... her brain felt fuzzy. Forward-area replenishment point. “Nazca said there weren't combat units there."

“There aren't." One of the other marines had helped Alamo to his feet, Kalija saw from the corner of her eye; there was no more shooting, and the dust had cleared to reveal the sky, and the clouds, and the stubby, mothering form of a hovering Strix dropship. “We're the support company. Engineering and logistics, that kinda thing — prepare a base for the Strixes and Griffons so the 74th can operate without having to take the elevator all the time."

Slowly, dumbly, she flicked her carbine's safety back on and walked through the implications of what Raposa had said. They're engineers? Not a trained assault company, not the elite orbital infantry they told stories about — men and women like Pavel Vartan, or Spaceman English. “Then..."

“Come on. We can talk later." Raposa tapped the side of her head, dropping the boom of her mic down. “Fiddler Six, this is Mason Two-Six Actual. Bring it down and let's get out of here."

The CLS-37 'Strix' was most often compared to an egg, although Kalija's impression was of something fuzzier — a guinea pig, or a groundhog, or an overfed hamster. Its fat teardrop of a fuselage ended in two slab tails that canted towards each other like they were bowed in prayer. If so, they prayed perhaps for flight, since nothing in the machine's short wings suggested physics would be of much help.

Marine Strixes were painted in olive drab; they had mounting points for rockets and missiles beneath the wings and big rotary-barreled machine guns in pods behind the cockpit. They could hover to support their platoon with remarkably devastating firepower.

This one, though, was a clouded gray, and instead of hardpoints it had cranes stowed along either side of the fuselage. There were no weapons; no complicated countermeasure systems or blisters concealing targeting sensors. The thermal tiles looked worn, and it had clearly seen much use — but not as a gunship. 

Raposo admitted as much, when they were seated in the cargo area — Kalija and Barton Glenn and a dozen suited espatier. “Took some improvising, yeah. We didn't have much time, and we didn't have any heavy weapons. Sergeant Lujan came up with the shock and awe." She pointed across the cabin to a man who raised his hand in greeting.

“Rigged the cranes to toss out some demo charges. Strapped 'em to signaling rockets. Think they worked pretty well as a distraction. That, and of course we had some help..."

Barton shared his pilot's expression of impressed disbelief. “Help?"

“Yes, sir."

“Did Admiral Lane order y'all over here like that?"

“No, sir," Lieutenant Raposo said. “We heard on the radio that there was a crew down and in contact, and the Fleet couldn't launch a rescue op in time. Captured pilots aren't treated so well."

“Yeah and, uh, 'cause rumor was one of them was a 2130," another man added, using a well-dated, CODA-bureaucracy term for moreau. “That got the captain's attention, on account of he used to serve with a morrie. Uh, 'moreau.' Dog. Canine-Yucatec. Uh, ma'am." 

“'Morrie' is fine." It sounded like something Corinna Benjamin might've said; besides, the man did have her affable accent.

“An' he said they get it bloody awful." 

This was an understatement; nobody would say it to Kalija's face but the mutt knew from countless stories what her fate would've been. Moreaus were a very convenient way of testing every new form of torture. “That's true..."

“So when he asked for volunteers, it didn't take long." Lieutenant Raposo didn't seem to think much of it.

But the dog did. To think that they'd done it so easily; so willingly. “We owe you — I mean, I — we'd be dead if it weren't for you. Or worse, like — like he said. I don't even know what to say. Y-you didn't know us. You had no idea who we were — I — I'm not even human, you knew that, and..."

Raposo shook her head, though even without the helmet her heavy armor gave the gesture a muted subtlety. “'And,' my ass. No 'ands.'"


“You do the right thing."

Hearing it said by someone else was strangely jarring. The mutt nodded softly. “I know."

The marine grinned, opened her mouth to say something, and then halted, her eyes flicking up as she caught a transmission over her headset. “Two-Six Actual. Copy that. You two want to get straight back to your ship?" 

Barton looked at his ankle, and then over to the dog. “If possible."

“Yes, ma'am," Kalija agreed.

“Cool. Never seen a fleet carrier from the inside." Lieutenant Raposo tapped her headset. “Confirm, we'll recover if possible. Er. Say again? Ah. Yeah, of course."

Kalija's head cocked. “Something up?"

“Our help," Raposo explained, and pointed an armor-gloved finger out the window behind the dog.

She turned, searching. At first she saw only the blue sky of a sunny afternoon, in the company of soft clouds. Below them, an expanse of trees and rocky valleys that slashed the forest in jagged lines. The horizon was knife-sharp, without a trace of haze.

And it was against the horizon that she saw it. A dark, grey shape. Its blunt nose and angular sides spoke to a body shaped by function so completely that it had a beauty all its own. There was menace in its tall, straight tail and raked stabilizers. There was a warrior's fury in the glow of its powerful thrusters. There was a threat in its broad wings, heavily laden with weaponry.

A threat, and a promise made by the closest thing God had ever come to a perfect bird of prey. I may be a monster, it said, with bared fangs. But I'm yours. And you're mine. And we keep our own safe. Raposo turned to a panel on the inside wall of the Strix, and twisted a dial to turn the intercom on. 

“ — Six, standing by." 

“Fiddler Six, this is Tracker Lead. Nazca has you cleared to the ascent marshall, reference one-zero-zero. We gotcha covered."

“Tracker, this is Fiddler Six. Roger that. Good to have you."

As Kalija watched, the Intruder banked sharply and pulled away, taking up position closer to its mate. Tracker Lead sounded like Hobo — who would he be flying with? Red? Woody? It didn't seem like only two days since she'd seen them last.

Their landing was unexpectedly sedate, though it took much longer than a proper trap. The pilot guided them in the same way starships had docked four hundred years before — a careful dance of movements barely at a walking pace by the end of it. 

And then they were aboard.

The Strix's door slid open to the hangar deck. Two of the Bellau Wood's doctors were already waiting, looking expectantly at Barton Glenn, who was slowly getting to his feet with the others. The deck crew had set about inspecting the dropship, preparing it for its return to the surface. Alert, and standing still and calm in the throng of activity, Commander Grace Putnam was watching.

Kalija straightened up, raising her paw in salute. “I report my return aboard, ma'am."

At this, Putnam smiled. “Very well."

The mutt dropped her paw, and jumped carefully down from the Strix. In a sense it was strange to think that so much metal and plastic and flesh, hurtling defiantly through the stars, could be anything like home — but home it was. She helped Barton to the deck, and though he tried to wave off the hovering stretcher presented by the medical team they were having none of it.

“I'll... be right back," he promised.

Kalija made to follow Putnam forward, off the flight deck, but the doctors were having none of that, either. “Your debrief can wait, lieutenant," her commander assured her. “Go get yourself checked out."

Fixing Barton Glenn's leg took longer than the dog's largely perfunctory physical; she passed the two-hour wait going through the mission logs for any real clue as to what had happened. When the Texan finally reappeared, with his ankle tightly wrapped and wearing scrubs and a scowl instead of his flightsuit, he noticed the computer she held immediately. “Well?"

“I don't think they're going to blame us, at least."

“Least somebody won't…" 

“Based on the data from the other bird's flight computer, at least, it was a very lucky snap-shot. Unguided rocket, maybe. Recoilless. There's no guidance signatures in the logs." So much for the Big-Sky Theorem.

“I don't feel all that lucky." 

“You feel anything?" 

He snickered. “Drugged. We still flying?"

She nodded. Now the rebellion had taken earnest shape; the government's control was starting to splinter. That had, in fact, been part of the problem: constant sortieing could not be sustained indefinitely. It wore heavily on the machinery — to say nothing of the men. The equipment failure that kept the SAR team from launching had also held up flight operations across the continent. 

“And those two planes we saw?"

“Hobo and Red were the alert five strike fighters. I think they got special permission to launch..." 

John McCaffrey confirmed it, when they met him in the squadron ready room. “Of course we did. We got word that the combat engineers were willing to try a rescue, and Nazca let us commit the strike element. Nobody was about to hang our pilots out to dry, you know? Looks like we cut it awfully close, anyway." 

“You made it, though," Barton countered. “That's what matters."

“We did it for dramatic reasons." 

Still, it was a close thing, and they were off the flying rotation — if for no other reason than because the squadron was waiting on a spare airframe to be repaired. Kalija was starting to become agitated, two days later, when the intercom paged her to the hangar deck to receive a visitor.

She didn't know who to expect. An investigator, was her only thought; perhaps they were still reviewing the loss of Wagon 510. Alamo suggested a photographer for the pinup he'd been talking about; when she growled, and tossed her computer at him, he let it strike his chest with a knowing laugh.

The visitor, though, was neither an investigator nor a photographer. Instead she was another moreau, a Border collie like Taru Ikaja — only shorter, and dressed in far more casual human style. All the same, she wore her loose-fitting t-shirt and jeans like they might've been a uniform.

Alhakhnan goru, jananga. Dhallatha shiran?" she asked. It was a traditional nakath greeting; Kalija figured the newcomer might have been from Dawa. She wondered if they might've heard something about the incident… if her father might've pulled some strings…

Shiran," Kalija answered; wherever they came from, they were on a Confederate ship and it seemed proper to speak a Confederate language. “Ghanrukha kihad na Angallash." 

Angallash?" The Border collie looked at her carefully, fixing her in sharp eyes. Then she smiled. “So you are the one. Kharåk Kalija Shada — some people would say it's a bit ironic, you wanting to speak English. You're one of the few of us to have never had an English name."

The other dog didn't speak with much of accent beyond the one compelled by moreau physiology; Kalija guessed she was probably one of the old corporate dogs. “I do, actually. Elvis."

“Not quite what I meant." The situation perplexed the mutt: two nakathja would ordinarily have already been sniffing and nuzzling — this one had kept her distance. And she smiled. “My name used to be Jules Verne. I go by Runshana now, though."

Kalija's jaw dropped, and she immediately stiffened up. “Sir — I'm sorry, I —"

“No. No, please. I'm traveling incognito." 

But even still Kalija knew of the dog and it was impossible to relax completely. Julie Verne was a legend amongst the moreaus. She had been the one to start it all, years and years before — a C&S specialist, like Buckeye 3-7 had been. Now Runshana was who every nakathja could point to, when humans asked if they belonged. If they were good enough. If they were just dogs.

“I'm actually not even supposed to be here," she continued. “I'm stopping by. I wanted to talk to your… CAG, isn't that how you say it? He and I have some history. And then I heard about you, and I wanted to see for myself."

Kalija swallowed, and flattened her ears deferentially. “See… me?"

“Can we walk?" 

The mutt nodded, and together the two made their way through the hangar deck — Runshana seemed just as at home amidst the noise and the activity. Kalija supposed she must've been used to it: life in the orbital infantry was nothing if not loud.

“When I joined up, they said I was the first. The first moreau to have ever enlistened; the first to go through OCS. A few years ago, I heard rumors of something else. Another first. The first freeborn nakath to join. The first one to graduate flight school… which one's yours?" She looked around at the parked Intruders curiously.

Kalija coughed. “I broke it, ma'am."

Runshana took that in stride. “I wanted to be a pilot, at first. I had a glider's license. But my vision isn't the best, so they told me 'no.' Considered flying starships… but, well, it turned out I was good at jumping. Do you like flying, Elvis?"

The first time Runshana addressed her directly, she'd already switched names; Kalija had to smile. “Yes, ma'am — it's like nothing else. I think there was an accident — that I was born with wings, and they just got lost somehow. I've found them now."

“So I see. You're good at it? No, no. I take that back. Of course you are." She stopped for a moment, watching a repair crew dismantling an Intruder with the efficiency of starved piranhas. “Do you have second thoughts?"



The mutt flattened her ears back. “Sometimes."

“If it was worth what you gave up? I heard what happened at Dawa, too. I know."

“Yes. I wonder if it was worth it. If that's what you mean."

“My first tour, after I'd given up everything to get out of my contract and join CODA? I got this." The short Border collie bent over, and tugged the left leg of her jeans up. The fur of her calf was black and white; at her knee it switched to the same blue-grey as the rest of her pelt. The transition was stark. “Both of them. Bad luck, I suppose. In sickbay, I remember another moreau came to visit. And they said… they said that I had to keep going because I would be an inspiration to every other — that that there was something else beyond the barracks. That's an awfully heavy ruck to carry, you know?" 

“Yes, ma'am."

Runshana kicked her leg to settle the jeans back into place, and started walking again. “But I did. I guess. I kept going. I don't know that it was worth it… but I hope so."

“You inspired me. You and my father; you both did. I never thought I'd be you, and I never thought I was setting an example for the nakathja, but I…"

“You know they're watching. In the corporate camps, or out in the mines — or even on Dawa, in a classroom, some pup is going to be reading about you knowing that it could be her some day."

Kalija knew that it was true, although it wasn't something she dwelled on. It was, as Runshana put it, more of a burden than she was willing to consciously take on. And it didn't matter: “Yes. But I'm not doing it for them. I'm doing it for my wingman, or the guy on the other side of the radio asking for air support."

The collie looked her over; her smile softened. “I think the next generation is in good hands. That's what I wanted to see, I think. I'm here to get briefed — seeing who has my back. I've been asked to take command of the 7th Spaceborne Division. It's an intriguing opportunity…"

She had, the younger nakath knew, come a long way from her enlistment. She would've earned it; CODA had no reason to treat its moreaus with any special privilege. As a flag officer, though? Kalija was slightly in awe: “They must trust you a lot, ma'am."

“They're pragmatic; they need the experience. The 24th Pathfinders is on Pike already, as you know; I guess they'll pull the 15th from the Rift and by then we'll have most of an expeditionary force together. They're taking this planet seriously."

Müller, their political officer, would no doubt have more to say. They'd all heard rumors of the build-up, though most still assumed it was largely a show of force. If they could demonstrate to the Kingdom that CODA was willing to commit to Pike, perhaps they'd be less inclined to continue meddling. “Then we're staying too, I suppose…"

“I hope so. We have to be able to count on you guys in the Fleet Air Arm. It'll be strange, not dropping on every operation — seeing things like you do, I guess, from the air. I suppose I finally do get to fly…"

“We'll keep an eye out for you, ma'am."

“I know you will, Elvis." Their circuit had brought them all the way to the door of the hangar deck. “This is more than I could've hoped for, when I heard about you. But I should've known, huh? That your head would be in the right place. Just remember: what matters is this stuff here. The people you serve with. The mission. And the ripples carry."

“We've already come a long way, haven't we?"

The Border collie paused for a spell, before answering; a uniformed marine took advantage of her silence to approach. “General. The ship's ready, ma'am; we can depart whenever you're ready."

Runshana nodded in acknowledgment; Kalija found herself startled by how much respect the short canine commanded — for the other marine was paying rapt attention, and despite her stature there was no question about his own faith in the dog. “I guess I'll be off. Lieutenant, I suppose you'll be getting back to your life here…"

She'd pointed to the door that led forward, from the hangar deck to the rest of the Bellau Wood. The mutt hadn't thought of it that way — that her life was the fleet carrier and the men and women it sheltered — but nor could she argue. “Yes."

“You hesitated?"

“Just realizing, ma'am, that it's the first time I've really had a… home."

Runshana didn't chide her; didn't say anything to suggest any doubt. “It's a good one. You were right, I think: we've come a long way. And there's further to go. We'll both see it, I guess. In some ways I envy you — you're where I was when I joined. You're at the start of something neither of us can even guess at, probably. One hell of an adventure, though. Are you ready?"

She asked the question rhetorically, judging by the grin that followed, and turned to leave. Kalija watched; the collie's stride was even and crisp, with the bearing of unmistakable authority. Runshana knew what Corinna Benjamin had known; what Barton Glenn had picked up on their very first encounter. She could be relied upon. She knew her calling.

She was a shepherd: she would give her life for the sheep. It was kutun.

Soon enough they would find a replacement Intruder for her — supposedly a spare was being ferried in from Havana. Soon enough she would be back in the catapult, waiting for the signal to launch. She would hear her wingman's voice in her headset; see the stars in a beckoning canvas as she raced to join them.

Soon enough she would listen attentively to Bucky Fuller giving the debrief; joke with Lieutenant Commander Jovanovic about the food and terrible coffee. Immerse herself in the squadron's budget. Try to get Alamo to watch one single movie without nudity. They were her pack, after all.

Kalija grinned, and spun the hatchway wide without a second thought.