Book 1 of The HEL Jumper Book 2 of The HEL Jumper
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“Feels different, doesn’t it?” Winters asked, standing just beyond Veera’s old farm and looking out at the site his pod used to occupy. The lush grasses of Mara’s plains had already reclaimed the impact site after a year of growth, obscuring the entirety of the disturbed ground save for the small, square area where the pod itself had rested. Nearby, nature had also begun its work of reclaiming Veera’s farm. The polymer irrigation system they had built for her was still in fine shape, but here and there stones were missing in the rock wall, having fallen into the tilled soil or rolled down the nearby hill towards the river. All manner of assorted grasses and weeds grew there instead of dato, making good use of the otherwise pristine plot of land left unattended.
‘No need to be so modest, sir. It looks different,’ Io agreed. The AI was resting casually in one corner of his HUD, taking a break before they left for the morning hunt. The early light of sunrise was just peaking over the horizon to the west, and so she donned a simple button down shirt over her underwear while she ‘enjoyed’ some coffee. He glanced at her, then lingered.
“Trying to give me a case of jump bone before we get started?” he chuckled. Instead of coming back with a witty retort as was so often her forte, she stared into her cup.
‘Sorry. I’m glad you like this form though.’
Russell breathed deeply and reached his hand for his neck, finding his armor and quiver of arrows instead. He had his knife, canteen, and pistol at his waist, but had left the rest of his gear back in the village. “You wanna talk about it? Shy isn’t really your thing, especially when you’re half naked.”
‘My reputation precedes me it would seem. I wouldn’t know where to start,’ Io admitted, taking another sip as he sat on one of the western facing walls to watch the sun come up on a cool, slightly overcast day. ‘Yesterday changed everything.’
“Alright, well answer me this then. How long did it take you to start after we got on board the Event Horizon? Did you wait until I was off the shuttle at least?” Russell asked with a cheeky smile.
‘Du barbar! I waited until it became clear we could trust Natori to at least not cave to the whims of the Ghaelen emissary aboard his ship. But yes, construction began shortly thereafter,’ Io admitted.
Russell slipped his knife from its sheath and began playing with the point. “And he’s been helping you on this project since then?”
‘Russell, I told you this wasn’t a matter of trust,’ Io pleaded. ‘Please, don’t say it like that.’
The Jumper felt a small pit open up somewhere near the base of his stomach. He tapped his foot against the sod beneath them. “Yeah, I guess that’s what I sounded like, didn’t I? Sorry, Io. I think I understand. Let’s just say I would never want Veera to see some of my baby pictures, any of them really. Hey, that goes for you too!” he insisted as Io’s eyes lit up.
‘But surely you were super cute!’ the AI wagered. He groaned.
“Yeah sure, if you consider human babies to be cute. I wouldn’t know; I was a fat little poop machine.”
‘I suppose we should all be thankful that your father and mother didn’t see it the same way?’ Io proposed. He nodded.
“That’s the AI I know and love. I think… I’ll enjoy having little fluff balls instead,” he admitted. “Does that make me a bad person?”
Io tossed her coffee over her shoulder as she threw her hands up in frustration before summoning it right back, steaming softly and inviting her to take another sip. ‘You and your emotionally laden single sentences,’ she groused. ‘But it is an opportunity to talk about you instead of myself, so I will take it eagerly. I do not think it makes you a bad person, sir, though I must warn you there will still be ample excrement. Your sister was similarly enamored with Cauthan infants, to say nothing of the well documented human tendency to protect small and soft critters. As for your own cubs, I would find it quite odd if you preferred the idea of human to Cauthan infants since you now have two to claim as your own. They say everything changes when they’re yours. I assume this is true.’
“I guess I do have a choice, but I don’t feel like I do. The only course of action is to accept it,” Winters insisted. “Probably naive, but I don’t think Veera slept with another Cauthan. It’s just difficult to speak about with her around, you know?”
‘She does have more claws than you do, more talons as well,’ Io agreed before looking sincerely at him. ‘When those cubs are born they will be some combination of black and gold, I’m sure of it, sir. However, you have my word that should you need to vent or express darker emotions about the situation, I am an open ear and a closed mouth. It must be difficult to balance your misgivings with your desire to support her.’
“Darker emotions, huh?” Winters repeated, watching as a wave of wind carried across the fields that stretched out before him. He wondered where Veera’s tribe was, whether they were already moving south for the winter. “Not sure I’ve even decided on them yet, even if it weren’t for yesterday. Feel like filling me in now?”
Io sighed and took another sip. ‘I guess I can’t stall forever, can I?’
“You can, I’m not sure I’d appreciate it though,” Russell replied evenly.
‘Yes yes, I get it. I don’t really know what there is to say though, sir. I have desired such a thing for a long time,’ she admitted quietly. He nodded.
“I know. Remember that hunt of ours way back when, saying I wanted to hold you and everything?” Russell felt himself flush slightly inside his armor. “I think it felt more poignant in the moment, maybe because I never thought it would be possible. Right now it’s a tad awkward to be honest, thinking you actually look like that.”
‘My dear Jumper you wound me,’ Io told him. ‘But if it is uncomfortable-’
“It’s not, Io. Yesterday was just… I don’t know. We’ve talked about it gods know how many times but then suddenly there you were, right in front of me, me and Veera. I could touch you, hold you. Do I sound like an idiot? I sound to me like I sound like an idiot.”
Io smiled gently, feeling his heartbeat subtly accelerate within the Aegis. ‘I understand how much I’m asking from you when I ask for the truth, Russell. You have a wife. You will have children. But you and I have both professed to love one another, and now that some aspect of that can be physical I’m asking you again. And then I’ll tell you whatever you want to know about my body.’
Russell looked at her for a long while, at her milky legs curled under her in that chair and the loose fitting shirt over her body. It was easy to focus on her eyes though. “After what we’ve been though? I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love you, but don’t count on someone like me to understand what that implies.”
‘You forget that I have this,’ she reminded him, setting down her morning beverage and summoning forth the neural map of his reaction to Veera’s confession of love. ‘I know it’s true. I just wanted to hear it again. I understand yesterday was not the time or place, however.’
“Well now you have, Io. So what was under the Aegis then?” Russell wondered. She shook her head.
‘An unfinished mess, sir. And to think I once had hopes of a fully human body. You asked about the Admiral? His primary contribution has been to ground me and my expectations, sir.’
“How real are we talking here? Like artificial womb levels of real?” Russell demanded, cursing himself internally for being stuck on that particular function of the female body. He felt little choice in the matter for the time being. Io glanced away from him.
‘The thought did cross my mind, though I did not need outside input to quickly determine that such fancies are a pipedream for the time being. Eventually, even things like a working digestive system fell by the wayside in favor of a body that is outwardly human with simplistic innards.’
“Well mission accomplished as far as I’m concerned,” Russell said approvingly, recalling the warmth of her cheek and the way she’d blushed and cried as they’d touched for the first time. “I honestly couldn’t tell the difference.”
‘I am so glad to hear that, sir. However, the fact remains that even when it’s completed I estimate that body will need to be serviced every couple weeks or so to remain at an acceptable level of humanity, let’s say, as opposed to functionality. I have said this before, I am sure, but the human body becomes more and more incredible the more faithfully one attempts to replicate it. The amount of technology I would have to invent just to digest food and turn it into both energy and suitable biomass at an efficiency even close to natural is staggering. I think it’s safe to say that even now, current HEL battery technology is not nearly as efficient as the cellular engine of humanity. It’s on the list, but substantially below hugging you and Veera.’
“And where does it rank relative to showing off your legs like that?” Winters followed up with a cocked brow.
‘Ah… below that as well,’ she admitted, extending one of them for his inspection. ‘In my defense I have very nice legs, and it’s significantly simpler to make them smooth, shiny, and well defined than to try to miniaturize a nano-forge!’
“I’m sure it is simpler. And I never said I was complaining either,” Russell clarified. “So what’s the plan then, beyond yesterday’s spontaneity?”
‘Well, per Antoth’s request I have every intention of having a fully functioning body by the time the harvest festival rolls around. I had hopes for various semi-biological systems to be integrated by that point, but after spending some time in the Aegis I think power concerns will be my primary focus. I have been given access to all available information on the power core recovered from the Forge, and Natori has requested that I collaborate with his researchers, when I am not hunting with you, of course.’
“That sounds… dangerous,” he replied uneasily. She nodded in agreement.
‘And what I wouldn’t give to touch you now, and to ask that you place the same faith in me that you placed in me to live at all, sir.’
Russell threw his head back and laughed, perhaps a bit too emotively but he felt some relief in its wake. “I’m never going to win another argument in my life between you and her, am I? Io? Hey, don’t go quiet on me now.”
‘My apologies, Russell. It’s just when you say those things, treat me the same as the woman you took as your wife, I… well I’m not sure if I misunderstand or simply hope for too much. But at a minimum, I take it to mean you’ll trust me if I need that sort of power?’
Russell rested an elbow on his knee, propping up his chin like a Rodin sculpture. “Sure, let’s contemplate a complete revolution of humanity’s technological playing field. That actually sounds less dangerous than… you and Veera? Oh boy.”
‘You know that even if I succeed, that invention might not make it anywhere, sir. We still don’t know what the HEL will do with me when we return,’ Io pointed out, allowing him to remain focused on technology for the time being. She did not know exactly what it was like to have a stomach, even with her new body, but the conflicting subroutines were more than enough to set her heart beating quickly even as she avoided the other subject. A part of her had yearned for him ever since her handful of teenage days, and yet the idea of being directly compared to his wife struck her with dread far beyond even Natori seeing her half constructed or taking a look at her code.
“Yeah but let’s be honest, I’m not sure Natori is the kind of person to keep something like that under wraps even if he does hide you out of concern or some sense of duty. I can never get a bead on that guy. I suppose at this point all I can say is that if you do decide to try and stick a nuclear reactor into that body somewhere, be careful?”
‘Oh yes, what would I do without my dear operator? Why I was just considering using radium to make my eyes glow and get just a bit more green out of them!’ Io remarked sarcastically before bobbing her head and addressing him with more sincerity. ‘Of course I will be careful, sir.’
Russell nodded and looked to the western skies as the sound they’d been awaiting finally reached them. “I guess we’ll have to table the rest of this discussion for another time, Io. Looks like our hunting partner has arrived.”
‘Try not to sound like you want to kill them when you say hello, or that you were unpleasantly surprised when Natori approved this idea?’ she advised with a smirk.
“Is it that bad?” he asked, standing from the stone wall and stretching his hands above his head before grabbing his bow.
‘Oh I can assure you it is, sir. And while I certainly understand your perspective, perhaps it is time to be the bigger man, so to speak? I am aware of just how… robust that one Private is but my point still stands.’
“Alright alright, point taken,” Winters agreed as he walked over to where the shuttle was touching down nearby. As though jinxed by Io’s previous statement it was none other than Rex who hopped out before smacking the side of the aircraft to signal Natalya that she could be off.
“Private… Rex,” Winters said, returning the Private's salute quickly because it was a preferable alternative to punching him straight in the helmet. He made a mental note to ask Io to look up the man’s last name sometime when they were all bored.
“I had hoped to get going a bit earlier, Private,” Winters began, causing Io to roll her eyes and change into her hunting gear, muttering about men and animals.
“Sorry sir,” Rex said with zero concern. “I would have left earlier but those doors in that Forge of yours just really needed someone standing in front of them for several hours at a time.”
“Did you try headbutting one?” the lieutenant wondered sarcastically, prompting Rex to bark with laughter.
“Yes sir. Even gave it a whack with my hammer, here. Didn’t seem to work very well.”
“So you figured a little jaunt in the forest with me was preferable to standing around waiting for someone to science their way past one of those bulkheads?”
“Have you ever been hunting before?” Winters wondered, turning for the bridge and assuming Rex would follow after. He certainly had no intention of babysitting.
“No sir,” the Private replied. That gave Winters a momentary pause.
“Your father never took you?” he wondered, looking over his shoulder when Rex didn’t reply. “I asked you a question, Private.”
“What father, sir?” the burly Jumper growled back. Winters glanced at Io, who shrugged.
‘Don’t look at me, I let it go when you put him in the hospital. Given his size I think it will be necessary to share our little program, unless of course you wish to take a stroll through the forests all day and come back empty handed on account of his lumbering bulk.’
“Sure, fine by me,” Russell agreed before addressing Rex again. “Apologies, Private. Didn’t mean to bring up unpleasant memories. While under other circumstances I wouldn’t mind wandering around Mara for a day I have a pregnant wife and wild dog to feed, so consider yourself under orders to learn and utilize the program that was just pushed to your Aegis.”
‘And before you wonder how he managed to do so, it was me,’ Io added, taking a curious look around. ‘Hmm, looks like the Mark 3 didn’t upgrade much in the way of digital infrastructure.’
“Hey wait a second, aren’t you the digital chick that was screwing with the Admiral a while back? I thought you had a body now. What gives? And how did you get in here?” Rex demanded, only to feel the joints of his armor lock and his HUD flash an angry red.
‘I may not be in possession of any sort of official rank but you will address me with respect, Private. I am no ‘chick’, and what I do or do not do with my body is none of your business you meatbag! Now review the program before I decide to lock your armor somewhere in the forest so my operator and I can hunt in peace!’
In a remarkable display of prudence, Rex did not make any sort of smart aleck reply as Io huffed her way back onto Winters’ HUD. “What happened to letting it go?” he inquired with a chuckle.
‘I am not a chick!’ she insisted with crossed arms, showing him a rather cute pout. ‘I am the greatest marvel of human scientific achievement to date!’
“And you have great legs,” Winters reminded her with a coy smile.
‘Only for you!’ she yelped before throwing her hands over her mouth and blushing to the tips of her ears. To Winters’ credit, all he did was raise both of his eyebrows to the point he could feel the resistance of his helmet pushing back on the wrinkling of his forehead. ‘This was a mistake.’
“Let’s just go hunting, yeah? Speaking of which, when were you going to tell me about Rex? Feels freaking awkward now, like I’m trying to play daddy.”
‘For both of our sakes, never say that again,’ Io requested. ‘As for the Private, I know that both you and Natori would be much more disappointed in me if I went digging for personal information on people we didn’t have a good reason to go snooping for.’
As they entered the forest proper, exchanging scattered morning sun for the cool shade of the trees above, Winters nodded sagely. “Yeah, that’s a good point Io. Well here goes nothing, I guess. Everything working on your HUD, Private?”
“Isn’t this cheating?” Rex asked incredulously. “I thought the point of hunting was, you know, the hunt?”
“We don’t know each other well enough for you to drop the customs and courtesies, Private Rex,” Russell replied easily, taking a moment to string his bow as Rex huffed inside his armor and restated his question, reminding himself that it was better than sitting around inside that old alien tomb.
“Isn’t this cheating, sir?” he tried again.
“Yes, Private. It’s cheating,” Winters replied with no hesitation. “I told you already, the only thing I care about is feeding people. Watch your step.”
True to Winters’ warning, Rex’s visor began flashing red to warn him of a nearby branch that, if stepped upon, would alert nearby wildlife. He stepped around it, wondering just how much to press a certain issue. “So you mentioned… that Cauthan woman. She’s pregnant?”
“My wife, you mean? Yes, she is,” Winters confirmed icily, walking onward and waiting for Io’s program to pick up the trail of a chesko or hyrven. Either would do. It was a while before Rex spoke again.
“And you’re going to raise them, the kids I mean?” he wondered. The Omega Jumper stopped walking and stood straight, not bothering to look back at him.
“I’m going to raise my cubs, yes,” he affirmed, as though challenging Rex to drop any number of criticisms. There were plenty to go around in military life, especially when surprise pregnancies were the topic of conversation. Io felt the need to interject at that point.
‘I could attempt to explain if you wish?’ she offered. Russell shook his head firmly.
“Doesn’t matter, Io. It’s not worth it. And of all the people I don’t feel the need to explain myself to, he’s top of the list,” Russell explained before adjusting his radio to speak to Rex again. “Let’s move on, Private.”
To their collective surprise, Rex seemed rather amenable to the suggestion. “Yes sir. Didn’t mean to imply anything. Any chance we can hunt one of those bears?”
“An ursae?” Winters questioned, glancing at Io with no small amount of dread in his eyes. “If you manage to find one out there maybe the Admiral will let you go after it, but count me out. Once is enough.”
Contrary to the expectations of both men, the morning proceeded without incident. Rex, despite his bulk, was still a Jumper and managed to avoid doing anything that would prevent Russell from making a kill. The chesko was brought down shortly before midday, and the two men took a pause to partake of ration bars, dried meat, and water while the carcass was drained of blood. Winters himself was no veteran huntsman, but experience had proven the greatest of all teachers.
"Not going to lie, Private, I could have used you on my first outing."
"Why's that, sir? Enjoyed having someone walking behind you all morning?" Rex wondered sarcastically. Per Io's recommendation, he allowed the comment to slide and instead explained how on his first hunt he'd not field dressed his kill. Rex chuckled in spite of himself when Winters explained how he'd been hunted in turn by a starving hyrven.
"So there I was with two dead animals and not much daylight, definitely an experience," Winters recalled, screwing the cap back onto his canteen before drawing a hunting knife he'd had made back in the village and carving into the chesko.
"That sounds more like my kind of hunt," Rex said. "Let the beast come to me and snap its neck? Easy."
"Most hunts are pretty easy when you've got an Aegis," Winters pointed out. "But you may get your chance. Most of the hunters don't bother field dressing kills. Getting back to the village before a hyrven pack gets to you is more important. I got lucky it was just the one. Still would have been in the shit without my armor. Keep a lookout, would you?"
"Yes sir," Rex groused, finding himself employed in the same task he'd left back at the Forge.
"I could teach you how to gut a chesko if you prefer," Winters offered with a shrug.
"No offense, Lieutenant, but we're not good enough friends to be doing that father son shit."
"Didn't think we were friends at all," Russell replied as Io rolled her eyes.
"You talk a lot less than Lipper, which is a positive far as I'm concerned."
"Thought you two were dating."
"Even I can make exceptions. He's not my type though," Rex declared, leaving Winters silent for a moment. "Jesus Christ, Lieutenant, neither are you if that's what you're worried about."
"Duly noted, Private. You want to take that call?" Winters asked as the two men received a hail from the bridge of the Event Horizon. Rex nodded once and accepted.
"Admiral? There haven't been any accidents if that's what you're wondering," he said into his radio. Natori nodded with a thin smile.
"You have no idea how pleased I am to hear that you and Lieutenant Winters managed to go several hours without trying to kill one another, Private Rex. I hope I'm not intruding on boys time, but there is a situation the two of you should be made aware of."
"Patching the Lt in now, sir. Is it one of those bears?" Rex asked almost eagerly.
"Ursae," Russell corrected.
"Yeah, whatever, those things."
"It is not, gentlemen. It is a rescue mission," Natori informed them with a suitable level of gravity. "Let's just say i heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend."
As Russell continued to remove certain bones and guts from his chesko, he and Rex listened to Admiral Kaczynski's description of a little game of telephone that had begun around the watering hole back at the village. Sentaura had been chatting with a friend, the wife of one of Ratha's more experienced hunters. He'd been expected back that morning, but had yet to return. Lachlan either overheard the conversation or was told directly by Sentaura. He then filled Alice in, who made the decision to get in touch with Natori.
"And so you want us to find him?" Rex guessed. "Not sure if you can tell, sir, but this forest is pretty damn big."
"I am well aware of that, Private," Natori assured him. "I have asked my watchstanders to assist us in this endeavor."
"Ratha's going to be pissed," Russell opined. Rex scoffed.
"That the one who wanted Lipper's head?"
"She'd be upset?"
"The fuck… sir?"
"You get used to it. Not saying we shouldn't, just don't expect a thank you," Winters warned. "Do you have anything, Admiral?"
"Not yet, Lieutenant. I was hoping to pick your brain on the subject," the Admiral replied, regularly glancing away from them to review some reading or another on his holoscreen.
"I don't think I'm any better equipped to locate a dead body than you, Admiral," Russell said as Io looked downcast, taking some time to review what data was available thanks to the Event Horizons sensors, the vast majority of which were trained on the forest north and west of the village.
"Of that I have no doubt, Lieutenant. For now, however, I would prefer to operate under the assumption that our missing alien is alive. You would know best what steps someone in his position might take."
Russell looked at Io, hoping she might have something insightful to add. "I wish I did, sir. If he was attacked or wounded but somehow survived, he'd probably be doing his best to avoid the hyrven. It's already been a day. I’m not sure how long he could last. For what it’s worth I’ve never really had to learn how to survive out here against normal fare. Aegis is pretty handy for that."
“I suppose it would be,” Natori acknowledged with a nod, stroking his chin. “Very well, I will have my crew monitor the few groups of these animals that we’ve picked out, as well as scanning for individual lifeforms. A difficult task, but perhaps not impossible.”
“I’ll go,” Rex volunteered suddenly, gesturing to the day’s kill. “The Lieutenant hauled a lot more than that back when he needed to.”
“Not really your call, Private,” Winters reminded him, wrapping the choicest parts of the animal in its skin to carry back to the village. Natori’s news had put a sense of urgency behind his actions, and he found the task proceeding faster than he was accustomed to. “But it’s not like I called you out here to be a pack mule either. I’m sure Lance Corporal Mendes has that more than covered. I don’t need him, Admiral. If he wants to, that’s up to you. I can scout around as soon as I get this back to the settlement. I’m always down for an opportunity to annoy Ratha.”
“Sir?” Rex demanded again. The Jumper was growing visibly agitated, pacing back and forth over loosely packed dirt and undergrowth. Winters and Io both nodded to Natori.
“By all means, Private Rex,” the Admiral agreed, prompting the Jumper to take off and a brisk run without so much as a thank you. The dark-skinned commander of the Event Horizon shook his head apologetically. “You’ll have to forgive the Private, Lieutenant. He enjoys being active and has a… rather complicated past. Both the Lance Corporal and I thought it would be best to have him join you instead of Private Orlova or Private Lipper.”
Winters waved off the apology, shouldering his kill and planting his feet as he hefted it into a comfortable position and pushed himself upright. “Not a problem, sir. I’d never say it to his face but he was a fine enough companion today. As for his background, he’s a foster kid, right? Probably got abused once or twice?”
Natori’s stone-faced silence told Russell all he needed to know about the accuracy of his prediction. Io’s hands made their way to her hips as the Admiral glanced at her instead. ‘Don’t look at me, Natori. That was all the Lieutenant.’
“I am simply surprised that Private Rex chose to confide in you is all,” Kaczynski replied, sounding very much like a father discussing his own wayward son. Russell shook his head.
“Sorry to burst your bubble, sir, but he did no such thing. He just wears his emotions on his sleeve and reminds me of a few people from my past. There was only one public high school in my district. We took everyone.”
“I see,” Natori replied shortly before glancing away from their conversations. “Yes Patel, what is it? Understood. Lieutenant, Io, I must be going. While such things are out of my control I hope that today will not color your opinions of Private Rex too strongly.”
“Even if it’s a good thing?” Russell asked pointedly as he set off for home. “We’ll radio when I’m ready to head back out, sir. I hope you find him.”
The Admiral blinked slowly before smiling and acknowledging the message. “Very well, Lieutenant. Please proceed at all possible haste. Kaczynski out.”
When Russell returned to the village a most pleasant sight awaited him. He waved to the Cauthan guard atop the gates, grinning as her black and gold plumage began waving when she recognized him. Scampering down the ladder to the gatehouse, she was there to meet him when the gates opened. He allowed her to remove his helmet and give him a long kiss.
“Our family will eat well tonight,” she said quietly, a thrum of excitement coursing through her at the implications. He nodded in agreement, though his happiness at meeting her there seemed short lived. “What is it, Russell?”
“Walk with me? Just to the temple and back,” he offered, not wanting her to think he was dismissing her or suggesting that she abandon her post. With a quick signal to her compatriots, Veera followed and Russell explained the situation out in the forest.
“Another one? This year has been very difficult,” Veera lamented before she and her husband began negotiations with one of the butchers. Most hunters who survived Valta’s trials over the years remained with the guild, processing kills, smoking and curing meats, crafting tools, and otherwise performing the necessary but less flashy functions to keep the group operational. Given that Winters had become something of a regular customer, they were in and out in a few minutes, with promises of fresh steak for dinner, bacon and cured strips for breakfast, and ample jerky and smoked meat for the weeks to come. Back at the gates they were met by none other than Fenrir, who seemed more excited than usual to see his master. The reason was apparent the moment Winters took a knee to greet him, with the hyrven sidestepping his outstretched hands in favor of licking his armor clean. Russell could only tisk and look up at his wife, who was similarly laughing at their ‘dog’.
“Can you believe him?”
“I can,” she replied. “You should take him with you. You never know if he’ll be of help.”
“Does Ratha know?” Russell wondered. Veera’s crest laid flat against her head.
“If there’s one Cauthan who doesn’t need to be told when something happens to one of the hunters, it’s her. I’m sure she realized the moment he didn’t return last night.”
“And Antoth would be furious if she went out looking, to say nothing of Valta.”
“Good thing you serve Valta’s father,” Veera agreed, helping him to his feet and hugging him tightly. “I know you’ll be fine, but please be careful all the same.”
“When did I ever say I serve Kel?” he wondered quietly. She nipped his ear as the sun beat down on both of them, burning brightly through the cloud cover as early afternoon arrived in the village.
“Enough with that! Promise me.”
“You know I’ll be careful and that I’ll come back,” he replied. “I came back from the ursae. This will be nothing.” To his surprise, Veera smashed her fist against his armored chest.
“Don’t tempt the gods with your pride, Russell! My parents are gone. I’m going to have cubs. I cannot lose their father too. Take this with you, please. And I’m sorry for being like this,” she finished, reaching into her satchel and removing one of her old, carved wooden idols, the shield of Uthos. Io began sobbing in his ear.
‘Repent for your hubris, you monster!’ she wailed hysterically. He felt, with justification, she was only half joking. He couldn’t help but wonder if the stereotype of female behavior while pregnant had much more to do with the anticipation of being a mother than any particular batch of hormones.
“Don’t be sorry,” Russell told Veera, taking the idol gently from her and holding it in his hand for a moment, gazing at the whittling marks on the wooden surface. He stashed it safely in his pack before returning his attention to her. “I’m just going to refill my canteen and then head out. Not sure I’ll be back by dinner, but if it’s going to be a very late night I’ll let Alice know. She’ll find you. We already have one of the others out there looking for him.”
“We won’t turn down help when it’s given, even if I still don’t like them very much,” Veera replied. “Go then, darling. If I get hungry I’ll eat without you.”
“Alright. Fenrir, let’s go buddy. You don’t get to skip out on both hunts today. Don’t look at me like that!” Russell ordered as his pet proceeded to lay down in the street, his tongue hanging out. He rolled his eyes at Veera. “I swear he doesn’t even know he’s a hyrven. Alright, you want to be that way? Come on then.”
Veera waved goodbye as Russell grabbed Fenrir by the collar and literally dragged the hyrven out of the village, nevertheless rewarding the beast with a bit of dried meat when they reached the trees before disappearing back into the forests. Atop the wall, Veera pulled her summer cloak’s leather hood over her feathers to shelter herself from the sun. She rummaged around her pack until she found and retrieved her idol of Valta, a Cauthan-like goddess reimagined as the apex predator of Mara. “I know you and I haven’t always seen eye to eye on things, but please see him safely home,” she prayed. Out in the forest, Io made contact with the Event Horizon.
‘Admiral, we have departed the village and are ready to assist with the operation. Where should we begin?’ she requested. Natori replied shortly thereafter.
“I’m sending you the data now,” he said as a map of the surrounding forests was pushed to Russell’s armor. The crew on the bridge were busy filling it in with topographical information as well as marking the presence of chesko, hyrven, and other points of interest. There were several markers that indicated possible locations where the missing hunter might be located, and Russell set off at a trot for the nearest one with Fenrir loping alongside him, no doubt wondering what the special occasion was. In the relative coolness of the forest shade, he was suddenly more alert and active. Kaczynski continued. “If you could please investigate these areas? As you can see, Private Rex is already handling some of the further flung regions. I would send the rest of the team to join you, but they are investigating the Forge’s control room at this time.”
‘Mein Gott, they’re what?’ Io demanded.
“Please don’t worry, Io. They’ve reviewed all relevant footage, including your reports on the robotic Cauthan.”
“It’ll be alright,” Winters agreed. “Let them handle this one, Io. I’m sure if they come across anything important they’ll need you there in due time. We have our own mission right now.”
‘Yes sir,’ the AI agreed. ‘I have my own tasks as well, after all. Admiral, we will make contact again as soon as we arrive at the nearest site.’
“Very good you two. Godspeed,” Natori wished as he was hailed by one of his watchstanders.
“Sir, one of the hyrven packs seems to be exhibiting standard documented hunting behavior. Private Rex is closest to their location.”
Natori shook his head and touched his forehead as he took a look at the distances involved. “Send him immediately. Endurance running is not exactly his strong suit.”
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