From the new Cat among Dragons book: Shadows and Anguish. Release Date June 16 or so. Possible earlier.
Chapter 1: Aftermath (November 2009)
Brigadier General James McKendrick pushed open the door to the 58th Regiment of Foot’s underground shooting range, looked around, and whistled in astonishment. There were ten shooting positions, an armory, and two offices, plus storage areas. Although the range only went up to fifty meters, it was much better than he’d anticipated. The redheaded Scotsman continued in, noting that there were two people currently working, an instructor and a student, at the position farthest from the door. A corporal came up to meet him.
“Good morning Corporal Lavoisier,” McKendrick nodded.
“Can I help you, sir?” the noncom asked, glancing at the case in the general’s hand.
“Yes. Fifty rounds of 9mm and a ten-meter target please, Corporal.”
Lavoisier checked his clipboard. “Position three is set for ten meters, sir, and I’ll bring your ammunition. Do you have your own protective equipment?”
“Affirmative. Position three. Thank you, Lavoisier.” McKendrick was trying hard to learn the names and faces of most of his new command, but there were still some people he didn’t recognize by sight. Like the instructor and student at position one.
McKendrick finished checking his pistol and getting everything adjusted to his satisfaction, then accepted the brick of ammunition from the corporal. He set to work, shooting five rounds, checking his target, then shooting again. Officially the Army only required general officers to meet the annual basic proficiency level, but McKendrick suspected that, in his new position, the minimum would no longer pass muster. After half an hour or so he took a break and noticed that the instructor and student had changed places.
McKendrick went back to his practice, then stopped when a flash of light caught his eye. As he watched, another three silent flashes lit the corner, then stopped. A male voice with a German accent said, “How can you use these sights, ma’am? They’re dancing all over the target.”
“Sorry Sergeant, I forgot to reset them,” a female voice replied. “Here. Turn this, then push this in. Now try.”
Three more flashes, and the first voice announced, “Much better, ma’am.”
Curious, General McKendrick started to walk over to the first shooting position. Lavoisier appeared at his elbow. “Use these please, sir. You don’t want to startle Commander Na Gael and Sergeant Weber right now,” the Frenchman cautioned quietly, handing the general a small pair of field glasses.
“Thank you Corporal,” he replied automatically, taking the binoculars and focusing on the target. Although he didn’t hear the shots, holes appeared in the paper, drawing closer and closer to the bull’s-eye. After ten more shots, the German stopped firing. “Your turn, ma’am. Upper left corner, five shots.”
The woman stepped up and took the rifle, resetting the sights as the sergeant watched from his seated position. She brought the weapon up to her left shoulder. Five more silent flashes, and a coin-sized cluster of holes appeared on the corner of the paper. The woman moved something just above the trigger and lowered the rifle as the sergeant shook his head, then removed his earmuffs. “How long since you fired that, ma’am?”
“August, I believe, Sergeant Weber. I’d have to check the logs,” she said after thinking for a moment. “By the way, did you feel the trigger get heavier on your last few rounds?”
“Yes ma’am. Is that some kind of warning?”
“Exactly. At this setting, with eleven rounds left the trigger pull increases as a warning, since there’s no other good way to tell how much gas you have remaining.” Clicks and pops told McKendrick that the woman had partly disassembled the rifle.
“And since gas discharge varies with power setting, a straight volume indication would be useless,” Sergeant Weber said, thinking aloud, as the woman put something back together. “That’s enough for today, ma’am. One more session with a standard rifle and we can run that demonstration RSM Chan asked for.” The sergeant stood up and caught sight of McKendrick. “Commander Na Gael, we have an observer.”
The woman turned slowly. McKendrick realized that this was one of the people he’d not met individually, although he’d seen her at the large, whole-unit briefing a few days earlier. There could only be one female with a missing eye in his command, so this was his civilian xenology specialist, Commander Rachel Na Gael. The small, lean woman stood at parade rest, her black-shadowed brown hair pulled back in a tight crown of braids. Her grey jacket and split skirt matched her grey eye. McKendrick was a bit nonplussed to see that she had a holstered pistol on her left hip, the holster sitting on a heavy gun-belt the same black as her eye-patch. Sergeant Weber stepped partway between the general officer and the civilian.
“Good morning sir. Can I help you?” the German rangemaster inquired.
“No, thank you Sergeant Weber. I was just observing your practice once I finished my own. I trust you don’t mind?” McKendrick replied.
The brown-haired sergeant shook his head. “No sir, not at all.”
“What type of rifle is that, Sergeant?” McKendrick pointed to the woman’s weapon. As he did, she slid it off her shoulder and handed it to the German, who presented it to the general.
“It’s a blast rifle, sir. Extraterrestrial technology. It’s Commander Na Gael’s personal rifle—although she doesn’t carry it in the field,” he added hastily at the general’s odd look. The weapon weighed perhaps one kilogram at most, including the sling, and McKendrick gave the thing a careful inspection before returning it to the rangemaster, who passed it to its owner. “Nice weapon. Where’d you get it, Commander?”
“It’s a trophy sir. I captured it on the battlefield and had it modified to fit my smaller stature, then customized the sights,” she said, running her arm through the sling and snugging the weapon against her back.
“Thank you. I’ll let you return to your work,” McKendrick said. He packed his own weapon and left the range, noticing as he did the xenologist and rangemaster disappearing into the office, deep in a discussion of something.
Wolfgang “Wolf” Weber was still uncomfortable using RSM Chan’s office, and Rachel gave him a sympathetic smile. “I noticed that Colonel Khan fled back to his own cubby as soon as he could,” she offered in German.
“I don’t blame him, ma’am. I’d be scared of what might be living under some of those paper stacks,” Weber snorted and Rachel managed a chuckle.
“RSM Chan asked after you,” Weber continued in German. “He should be back next week, if he doesn’t kill one of the nurses first. Or his nephew,” Weber mimicked the young man’s hand-wringing manner. Rachel rolled her visible eye. “I told him you were doing fine, as far as I could tell.”
The woman started to lean back in the chair, then caught herself and growled. “I am fine, mostly. Still sore in spots. Still don’t like having people come up behind me, but that’s not new.” Weber caught a little hesitation in her voice.
“While we don’t have an audience,” she leaned forward again, “thank you. That’s twice now I owe you my life. You and Sergeant Lee.”
Weber studied the woman before shaking his head. “No debts. You saved my nephew and you’ll do the same for me if I am in trouble. I’m curious, ma’am. How much do you remember of . . .” he hesitated, “of that?”
Rachel stared off into the distance, then closed her eye. “All of it. At the end, I remember you two forcing the door, seeing a grenade in your hand and thanking God that the angel of death had come for me. After Lee got the drug flow stopped? Nothing until I woke up in my ship.”
Weber watched her closely as she fought to keep herself under control, and decided that he and Sergeant Lee would never, ever tell her or anyone else how she had implored them to kill her, then fought alongside them as they made their escape, not stopping until the drugs had worn off and she passed out. No, Weber thought, some things were best taken to the grave.
He coughed, bringing Rachel’s thoughts back to the present. “When do you want to do that demonstration?”
“Whenever works for you and the RSM,” she said quickly. “Chan suggested that we not say anything to Vienna, since my cover story is Royal Navy and everyone knows that Royal Navy personnel can’t shoot straight with anything smaller than a fifty caliber anti-aircraft gun.” Now it was Weber’s turn to snort, and he gave the alien a skeptical look, eyebrow raised. She did her best innocent ingénue impression, failing completely.
“November tenth should work, then,” he decided after looking at a calendar.
Lieutenant Colonel Rahoul Khan and Major Sandra Monroe knocked on the door of the lab, but there was no response. After making certain the light was green, they entered and Khan called “Commander?” There was still no answer, and the two officers frowned. Khan saw papers on the desk and the computer on and running, so the xenologist had to be working. Monroe looked around the lab. “I don’t see her, sir,” the blond Canadian said.
“Rachel?” Khan called, louder this time, and was rewarded by a faint voice replying “Up here, Rahoul.” The South Asian officer saw that the door to the Wanderer’s quarters was open, and he hurried up the spiral stairs, Monroe close behind. “Beside my bed-nest,” the voice directed them, and Khan charged around the corner, then swore as he dropped down beside the woman.
She was kneeling on the floor, blood pooling around her hands and arms. “Rada Ni Drako, what have you done?” he demanded, fearing that she’d broken her promise and tried to take her own life.
“I changed into full cat form,” she explained, “and I was fine until I extended my claws.”
Khan looked at the wreckage of Rachel’s hands and swallowed his gorge. “Monroe, the washroom door’s at the foot of the bed. Get a towel and bring it here,” he ordered, then helped the alien sit up.
“You are a bloody fool, Rada—ah, Rachel. Literally,” he growled, but there was no real anger in his voice.
She nodded in agreement. “I didn’t think. I was so taken aback by what I saw in the mirror that I just reacted and flashed my claws. Major,” Rachel said more loudly, “there’s a first aid kit behind the mirror.” Khan moved to her other side, and with Monroe’s help bandaged the tips of Rachel’s fingers enough to stop the bleeding. Khan’s anger at Tarqi da Kavalle and Brigadier Evelyn Jones flared again as he watched his friend clenching her teeth while they dipped her fingers in alcohol.
“Well, at least I know that the da geschkachk failed at one thing. My claws are regrowing, and since I know it now I can try to keep the skin from closing over them,” the Wanderer observed.
Khan, amazed at her stoicism, sighed, and Monroe winced. “Monroe and I will be in the kitchen. Get changed before you scare someone,” he said, gesturing toward her blood-soaked shirt cuffs. Monroe helped haul the other woman to her feet, and the two humans retreated to the tiny kitchen. The blonde looked around, taking in everything.
“Never been in Rachel’s quarters before?” Khan asked.
“No sir. I had no idea this was up here, although it answers a few questions,” she replied, sneaking a peek into the small fridge, then blushing as a dry voice advised, “There’s nothing alcoholic and the chocolates are wired to an alarm system, so don’t bother.”
She spun around to find Rachel and Rahoul watching her. “Curiosity killed the—” he started, and the alien cut him off.
“Don’t, or I’ll start telling new father jokes,” she cautioned. Monroe shut the door, still flushed, and noticed that Rachel had put on black gloves. “So, what can I do for you?” Rachel asked.
Khan looked down at the xenologist. “You can come to dinner with us. It’s about time you showed everyone that you’re still alive and functioning.”
“Rumor control, in other words,” she said lightly.
He pointed towards the door. “Lay on, Macduff.”
Monroe watched the two as they left the lab and started down the corridor leading to the main headquarters. No wonder some of the troops call them Shere Khan and Bagheera behind their backs. Both had a feline way of moving, both were very aware of their own dignity, and both had an interest in poetry. Monroe had figured out within weeks of starting her tour with the 58th Regiment that Khan and Na Gael were close friends, and what she’d seen in September only confirmed that. They trust each other with their lives. I hope I find someone like that, she mused.
Rachel glanced over her shoulder. “How are you doing, Major Monroe?”
Sandra caught up with the pair and shrugged. “I’m fine. Sometimes I’m angry, sometimes sad,” she admitted, and the older woman nodded sympathetically.
Khan opened the door to the officers’ mess and Rachel gathered herself before walking in as if nothing was the matter and never had been. There was a small flurry of motion and interest as people realized that she was there, but it quickly subsided. As usual, she just found an empty seat and started eating, joining the conversation or not depending on the topic. Khan and Monroe kept an eye on her, but she seemed to be doing fine aside from her touchy hands. Good thing it’s stew today Monroe thought, feeling a bit of pity for the alien.
The officers and xenologist acted as if it were a normal meal until Captain—soon to be Major—Kwame Ngobo stood up and tapped his glass for attention. “In light of recent events, it has been decided to change Commander Na Gael’s radio call sign.” Rachel leaned back a little in her chair, waiting for the announcement as someone called out, “Captain, I hope you’re wearing body armor!” Ngobo didn’t dignify the comment with a reply, but said instead, “From now on, she will be designated Manx One.”
Rachel chewed and swallowed her mouthful before standing up to reply. “You do realize, Captain, that you will have to watch your back very carefully for the rest of your life, which may be quite short indeed?” She sighed, acknowledging the joke at her expense, and turned to the rest of the grinning officers. “And I don’t suppose even offering my year’s salary as a reward will induce any of the rest of you to tell me who came up with this idea?” Since she didn’t get paid, the only response was laughter and she bowed to the group. “Thank you, jackals. It’s good to be loved. I think.”
“Sir, who did come up with the idea?” Monroe asked under her breath as Khan sat back and watched the show.
He smiled. “I don’t know, Monroe, nor do I want to know. But if it helps lift her depression, I’m all for it.”
(C) 2016 Alma T.C. Boykin All Rights Reserved