The leaves rustled softly as Lissa shifted. The roughness of the tree bark pushed through her clothes and the cold night air bit down to her skin, but boredom gnawed at her more than anything else.
Waiting is the worst part.
She pulled her enerpulse pistol out of its holster and examined the weapon. The metal was sleek and dark, not a single mar nicked into the clean surfaces. No chances of a misfire. Lissa pressed the pistol between her knees and cupped her hand over the energy capsule holder. She unlocked the cover and slipped it back. The power source gave off a faint glow, and her black glove gobbled up the soft white light.
The rhyme surfaced automatically: White-hot, killing shot.
Lissa slid the cover closed. The lock clicked and she placed the pistol back in its holster. The weapon rested against her hip with an easy familiarity. When Lissa shifted again, pulling her legs close to her body, the pistol shifted with her and its momentum felt anxious. Hungry, almost. Lissa did not like that feeling. She distracted herself by knuckling her thighs, working the stiffness and the cold out of her muscles. She should have dressed warmer, should have worn an outer layer over the hunting outfit, but that would have called for thicker, heavier clothes prone to catching on the branches. Better to suffer the chill than a fatal snag. As Lissa looked out beyond the tree leaves, she was glad that the air was not quite cold enough to spike the world with frost, but the night was still treacherous.
The full moon hung high in the sky and stained the world silver-gray. The sparse trees stood tall and still, their leaves bleached white. Shadows clung to the tree trunks and the underside of the thickest bunches of leaves, waiting out the midnight hour. Beyond the last lonely trees, the distant shuttles gleamed the color of old bones. The windows of most of the shuttles gaped wide and dark, but there was one vessel with a healthy interior glow. The live shuttle waited for the signal to cast off and head for the starships docked just beyond the atmosphere. That signal wouldn’t come until one last passenger had boarded. Lissa waited for that passenger, too.
She stretched her arms and looked wistfully at the shadows beneath the trees. She was in a good sniping position, but the place was unsafe. She had time for one shot, and then she needed to move. The instant she left the shelter of the leaves, she would be caught in the open and the dark hunting clothes would not help her under the glare of the moon. But for that, there was Blade.
Lissa glanced at the branch below hers, at a black patch darker than the surrounding night. The blackness slowly resolved itself as Blade, the arkin that had been with Lissa for years. The arkin lay stretched out along a thick branch, her back legs dangling off the limb. Her front claws were hooked into the bark, and her chin rested on her foreleg. Her wings were folded neatly along her back, but her tail flicked restlessly and the stiff tufts of fur at its tip scraped against the tree bark. The arkin’s tail made little more than a faint hsssp every time it touched the tree, but the sound was enough to set Lissa on edge. She preferred silence.
“Easy now,” Lissa whispered. “Just a little longer.”
Blade sighed once, very softly, and her tail fell still.
One quick shot, Lissa thought.
It was always one quick shot. That was how Lissa worked: clean and fast. She never lingered, never wasted time or let first chances go by. She usually aimed for the head, but the heart or some other soft spot worked just as well when the target did not present itself cleanly. She did not like to draw things out any longer than she had to. The quicker she took down the target, the quicker she got off-planet, collected the bounty, and paid the medical bills.
She was behind in payments. Most of the recent high-paying assassination bounties had surfaced in dangerous territories, either within easy reach of the Star Federation or deep in Anti-Neo-Andromedan strongholds. This bounty was at the very limit of her comfort zone, and the proximity to the Star Federation space station made the target especially dangerous. Taking out an officer was risky enough, but to do it on Earth via long-distance sniping was to slap the Monitors across the face. One quick signal to the station and by dawn the planet would be swarming with Star Fed ships.
With dry amusement, Lissa thought of the target profile broadcasted by the contractor. Target’s smuggling activity, the profile had said, interferes with private operations. Vague connection to S.F., bribery suspected. Terminate on sight.
Lissa translated that as “Kill the problem, reap the reward. If you’re smart, investigate the Star Fed connection before acting.” Some data sifting revealed that the target was a smuggler of steadily increasing renown. His Star Fed connection was that he was bribing a low-ranking officer, trading goods for a blind eye and a reasonably clear smuggling territory near Earth. More sifting, and Lissa discovered that all of that was the back-story for an undercover Star Federation officer in the field. He had claimed the records of a recently deceased smuggler as an identity boost.
Lissa suspected the contractor had left that detail out in hopes of attracting a sloppy hunter. There was no better way to avoid paying off a bounty than to set the Star Feds on an unskilled hunter. But there always was the chance that someone like Lissa would pick up the trail, and the last thing any contractor wanted was a revenge hunt. Most contractors only broke the scheduled exchange if they knew for certain that the winning hunter no longer roamed the stars. The smart ones never broke exchanges at all.
The way this bounty was set up, the contractor would be waiting at the rendezvous well ahead of schedule with the payment in full, but Lissa had almost withdrawn from the hunt anyway.
She usually passed on the Star Federation contracts. They were few and far between and always offered high bounties, but the last thing Lissa wanted was a captain or a commander honing in on her. This time, however, she was desperate enough to pick up the trail.
Desperate, but not reckless.
She had mapped out the locations of the shuttle area’s securities and had practiced the escape flight with Blade until their muscles could flawlessly relive the memory of the motions. There was a ship waiting to take them off-planet as soon as the hunt was over, and Lissa was confident that they’d be able to outrun the Star Federation. Earth was close to the main Star Fed station, but just far enough to give the escaping ship a small crack to slip through. Full evasion would depend on the skill of the transport ship captain, but his reputation as a smuggler preceded him. He’d know how to hide her. Lissa just needed to survive the initial rush of Star Feds and she’d be free and clear, but she never let herself forget that she was holding tight to threadbare luck. One wrong move and everything would unravel.
She couldn’t afford to lose this bounty. Aven’s life depended on a successful hunt. His treatment had already tapped into the reserve funds and once those dried up, the doctor would be pulled out, and Aven would have a couple of weeks left. Maybe three or four, if he was lucky. Or unlucky, depending on how the disease played out.
He needs you, a voice whispered across the years, more than you need him. Take care of him. Lissa was trying, but that had been difficult enough without the virus.
Lissa stretched again and pushed the thought away. She would have more money and Aven would have more time. His doctor—a man who had fought the medical board for the resources and the chance to save Aven’s life, and who had only won after Lissa assured him and the board that she would cover the treatment’s cost herself—had promised a breakthrough within the next few months. He said that he felt he was getting close. Lissa wanted to believe him, but knew better. Still, she felt a faint flicker of hope. Although that might not have been rooted entirely in Aven’s progress.
Most of her money went towards his treatment, but the remainder was spent on supplies, temporary shelter, and charters between planets. She travelled more than she really needed to. She could have set up a more permanent base and stayed close to Aven, but she never felt at peace if she was still for too long. Sometimes guilt pricked at her, and she wondered if Aven begrudged her long absences. He had to be lonely, but he tried very hard not to let her see. She doubted that he hid the loneliness for her sake. His pride had always been a bigger stake, sometimes to the point where she felt suffocated by his shadow, but that was not why she travelled.
And she wasn’t travelling. She was running. Running as fast as she could, but the money had run faster and now it was almost gone.
Almost there, she thought. One quick shot.
Even when Aven had been healthy and strong, their lives had come down to one quick shot. One quick shot had kept them alive once Aven had learned how to stomach taking a life. He had proven to be a very quick learner, and so the Shadow was born.
The Shadow had roamed the galaxy for several sidereal years now, hunting high-bounty targets and always staying just ahead of the Star Feds. One quick shot brought in the much-needed funds for travel, food, and temporary shelter. Eventually, one quick shot bought them Lightwave, a small, fast, beautiful starship. When the virus took hold in Aven’s lungs, one quick shot funded the treatment after the money from the sale of Lightwave had run out.
Five long sidereal years of one quick shots and medical payments and charters to planet after planet after planet had slipped by, and now another payment was due, and now there would be another quick shot. Then there would be the trip to Phan, and the short reunion. Lissa hadn’t seen Aven in months, and guilt pricked at her again, although the feeling was growing weaker all the time. Aven did not seem keen on putting the medical funds to good use.
“Physically,” the doctor had said, “he’s started to improve. Mentally, he is failing, and that will undo everything.”
Years of illness had gnawed away at Aven, and he was losing the desire to hold on. Lissa couldn’t believe he was giving up now, after all they had been through, but in spite of her pleas and reassurances and occasional bursts of rage, Aven had decided that now was as good a time as any to slip over the line. Part of her wanted to let Aven go, but the rest clung to him. He was her only surviving family member, was all that was left of a life so far away that it felt like someone else’s life. She wanted to hold on to that past life, but Aven did not care enough to keep a firm grip, and she hated him a little for that. Maybe that was why she had let so much time seep in between hunts.
Take care of him.
Lissa frowned and stretched again, working the cold out of her arms. She reminded herself that the other high-bounty targets had all been in very dangerous territories. Pursuing them would have been suicide. Tonight’s hunt was risky but easy, and would be over soon. The target was in sight.
Lissa moved into her sniping position. It was awkward on the tree branch, but she crouched low and quickly found her balance. She drew her enerpulse pistol and sighted along the barrel. She watched her target’s vehicle—a bulky but sturdy mess of metal and engine—draw closer, a faint whine growing louder as the craft sped forward. The vehicle slowed as it reached the docking area, and approached the live shuttle at a low, cautious glide. The target’s craft paused a short distance from the waiting shuttle, and the shuttle’s doors slid open to let the captain emerge. The captain stood in the spilled light from the shuttle’s interior and made an annoyed gesture at the target’s vehicle, which quickly touched down.
Lissa’s grip on her pistol tightened as the vehicle opened its doors and a lone figure emerged. Lissa hesitated just long enough to confirm the target’s identity. Then she rolled her shoulders a little to compensate for the distance.
One quick shot–
Chapter 1: Names
Orion’s hard gaze was something Lance was only half-aware of as he sat in his private quarters of the Star Federation space station, staring through the thick pane of glass that made up an entire wall of his quarters. The other three walls were dull gray, unornamented and cold. A large cot stood in the corner of the room, a mess of tangled blankets on top. There was a padded mat in another corner where Orion slept. Save for the large hover chair that Lance sat in, there was nothing else in the room. The place even smelled sterile, but Lance had grown used to that. With the exception of Orion’s bed, Lance had never needed anything other than what the Star Federation provided. His clothes were stored in a small closet built into one of the walls and so well hidden that the seam of the cabinet was invisible. Lance had no other possessions. Born and raised on the Star Federation station, he was used to this kind of life. There had been a time when he had hated living like this, but those days were long over now. He also spent so little time in his quarters that the state of his room did not matter. And when he did stay on the station for extended times, he was content with the cot, the chair, and the view of the stars.
Lance often sat staring out at space, losing himself in his thoughts. Every so often, a starship would streak across the field but Lance would only give them passing glances if he looked at them at all. Today, Lance looked in the direction of Earth. He would be headed there soon, and after uncovering an unsettling clue in the Coleman murder case, he was not looking forward to the journey. He had been staring towards Earth for the better part of an hour now, growing more and more uneasy as the time slunk away.
Stand and Protect.
Tail twitching in irritation, Orion whined and tapped Lance’s leg with a paw.
“Knock it off,” Lance said without breaking his level stare at the stars. “You’re not that bored.”
Orion groaned loudly, but walked away and stretched before lying down and closing his eyes.
Lance looked out into space for a moment longer, then sat back and lifted his datapad. He studied the three displayed images. Two of them were dark and blurry, impossible to see any definite details. The third, however, showed the bounty hunter commonly called the Starcat bright and clear. She crouched on the edge of a building, poised to leap, and looked back over her shoulder, surprise and rage boiling in her eyes. She had survived the jump and evaded capture, but the damage had been done. The Star Federation knew her face.
The Starcat had the habit of stalking her prey for days before moving in for the final strike. She enjoyed forcing her targets into fits of paranoia, and loved toying with their fear. She wasn’t the only bounty hunter that mixed work with play, but her physical characteristics made her unique and proved that the name “Starcat” was not solely based on her behavior. Her body was humanoid, but her face was distinctly feline, complete with a set of long white whiskers and a catlike nose. She also boasted a wicked set of fangs and clawed hands and feet that served as her weapon of choice over energy-pulse firearms; many of her targets were found with deep slashes in their bodies, and missing limbs were not uncommon. She only used an enerpulse pistol or rifle when she couldn’t get close enough to use her claws. That happened rarely.
“What do you think,” Lance said as he turned the datapad, showing Orion the Starcat’s picture. “Cross her off the list?”
The arkin looked at the picture, snorted, and pulled the corner of his mouth back into a half snarl. His yellow eyes flashed, hard and bright against the slash of black fur across his brow.
“I thought so.”
The Starcat was a very skilled assassin, but she had slipped up and her latest target had escaped. The target, a human male badly shaken by his time as prey, had delivered to the Star Federation a scrap of hair torn off the Starcat in a struggle. With the Starcat fully identified and traceable, Commander Keraun had lunged after her trail. Lance had contacted Keraun just a few short hours ago, and learned that Keraun’s squad had found fresh leads and was beginning to close in. The Starcat was nowhere near Earth and Captain Coleman’s murder site.
Lance looked away from the Starcat and focused on one of the dark, blurry images. A few vague details separated one fuzzy picture from the other, but Lance had studied both so closely that he could tell them apart at a quick glance.
The first image showed a glimpse of the Phantom, one of the deadliest bounty hunters to ever roam the galaxy. The hunter lived up to his name. After he struck, he evaporated into the unknown and was not seen again until his next target had been chosen. The Star Federation had picked out a few dark, blurred images of him from security feeds, but all this really showed was the hunter’s lack of fear and his ruthlessness. He liked to get close to his targets and confront them directly before taking them out, and he never seemed to go after live bounties. Not from what the Star Federation could tell, at least. Every Phantom target that the Star Federation knew of was deceased.
Aside from the behavior brand, the Star Federation knew only two facts about the Phantom: the hunter was male, and he traveled with a large arkin. The species of the Phantom’s traveling companion had been known for the past few sidereal years, but despite their best efforts, field soldiers and Intelligence members alike had failed to learn any additional information about the Phantom’s arkin. Thanks to Orion, Lance had been put on the squad that performed the field investigation, but even with his knowledge and Orion’s help, all that the squad had learned was that the Phantom’s arkin was just as elusive as the hunter himself. Orion was able to pick up on the scent of the Phantom’s arkin at each hit site, but the trails always went cold and there wasn’t even a scrap of fur waiting at the end. Sometimes there were paw prints and claw marks, but these revealed nothing other than the animal’s impressive size.
Looking at his datapad now, Lance knew that he would not discover anything new about the Phantom. He wasn’t upset about that. He would not need more information about that particular hunter. Not today.
The final image on the datapad offered even less information about the featured bounty hunter. Unlike the Starcat, the Shadow left no trail to follow. Unlike the Phantom, the Shadow kept well away from all targets. Glimpsed or not by survivors or security devices, he or she immediately slipped away after each hit. Nothing was known about the hunter, no physical description or trademark other than keeping a disturbingly impressive gap between him or herself and the target. The Shadow never wasted time, never wasted chances, and never wasted shots. The hunter’s sniping abilities were legendary, rivaled perhaps only by the Phantom. The Phantom had the most hits, but the Shadow held the record for the greatest distance.
The Shadow was one of the newer hunters on the top of the Star Federation’s list of Alpha Class criminals. Lance had not thought that the hunter would have been bold enough yet to go after a Star Federation soldier, let alone a captain, but the Shadow had never conformed to what were considered to be the traditional rules of the bounty hunting game. The Shadow had gone after high-bounty targets from the very start of his or her career, attracting a lot of attention before gaining experience. But the hunter also let long periods of inactivity slip in between jobs. Five sidereal years ago, there had been a shift in the Shadow’s pattern, and the strikes became somewhat less common and pulled within a shorter radius, but there were still surprisingly long lapses between targets, which meant only one thing: the Shadow hunted for money and nothing else.
Most bounty hunters paralleled the Starcat and the Phantom, taking time to torment their targets and trademark their hits. But not the Shadow. That hunter was in the game strictly on business. Lance knew that if he could get one small clue about that business, he would have the chance to come closer than anyone ever had to capturing the Shadow. But that was too much to hope for.
Lance sighed tiredly and lowered the datapad. “Maybe we’ll learn a bit more today.”
Orion blinked at him.
“Coleman was an idiot,” Lance said, “and I have no idea how the hell he secured his rank with all those shady stories tied to him, but let’s make sure he didn’t die for nothing, yeah?”
Orion growled softly in agreement. And with that, Lance’s communicator came alive.
Lance accepted the transmission, and a holographic projector in the little machine displayed the head and upper torso of a member of the Intelligence Unit. No matter how many times he spoke with one of the many Yukarian members of the Intelligence Unit, Lance was always unprepared for the large, glittering black eyes that fixed on him. A pair of long antennae sprouted from the Yukarian’s angular skull just above the eyes and matched the bluish-grey skin of the rest of the Intelligence member’s face, although age had stained the tips of this Yukarian’s antennae a deep blue.
“I apologize for the delay, Commander Ashburn,” the Yukarian said, his voice a deep rasp. “There were a few files that needed my attention, and then Captain Backélo wished to speak with me. I hope you are not too inconvenienced?”
Lance had stiffened at Backélo’s name. “What did the captain discuss with you?”
“Captain Backélo requested to see any new data that had come in. He said that he wanted to know exactly what was important enough to warrant the attention of all captains serving under you, Commander Ashburn. I’m afraid he was very persistent, but as per your instructions, I refused to give any information and told him that you would explain everything in the mission briefing.” The Yukarian’s antennae twitched. “He did not seem pleased.”
“I don’t suppose he mentioned having his crew together?”
“He did not, Commander.”
“Wonderful,” Lance said, wondering how Backélo could have found the time to prod around the Intelligence Unit.
Backélo was one of the five captains accompanying Lance to Earth and, like the other four officers, was supposed to be preparing for the voyage. He needed to assemble a squadron and see to the initial preparations of his assigned ship before reporting to the briefing room. Enough time had been allotted to the captains for that, but just barely. Lance himself had managed to finish his own tasks a little earlier than he had thought he would, and he had decided to review the evidence from the Intelligence Unit. He wasn’t surprised by the delayed response from the Yukarian, but the news about Backélo angered him.
If Backélo holds me up, I’ll have him patrolling the trade routes.
It was one of the harsher punishments. Patrollers kept a lookout for bold pirate fleets that sabotaged radars and made runs on merchant starships, but for the most part, the task was slow, monotonous, and draining. Trade route patrollers often limped back to the Star Federation space station physically and mentally exhausted, even when they worked in teams and undertook the task in shifts.
Backélo will work alone if he’s not at the briefing.
“What did you wish to discuss, Commander?” the Yukarian asked, bringing Lance out of his cloud of anger.
“I need confirmation on something,” Lance said. His voice was tinged with heat, but he brought himself under control. “Bring up the shuttle dock security footage from Earth. Watch very closely after the camera swings around.”
As the Yukarian brought the recording up, Lance activated his own copy of the recording on his datapad. A hologram projection came up and displayed the last few moments of Captain Coleman’s life. For what felt like the hundred-and-first time, Lance watched Coleman’s transport vehicle as it came to a halt and hovered in front of the shuttle. The shuttle doors opened and Lance watched as the shuttle captain stepped out.
“Let’s go,” the shuttle captain growled, waving at Coleman’s vehicle. “We’ve waited long enough for you.”
Coleman’s transport touched down. The door opened, and the Star Federation officer stepped out alone. He stood looking at the shuttle captain, his skin bleached white and his copper-colored hair turned a bizarre shade of red by the moonlight. Coleman wore heavy traveler’s clothes and carried a pack slung over his shoulder. He was ragged and dirty, but he stood tall and his shoulders were squared. He looked relieved to be boarding the shuttle. He took a step forward, and disappeared in a flash of white. The light was there for only an instant, and then Coleman was falling to the ground, half of the side of his skull exposed and blackened, and the edges of his remaining skin scorched. The camera abruptly whipped around and focused on a few sparse trees that bordered the shuttle docking area. Lance heard the shuttle captain’s startled and then horrified cries, but the trees remained the focus for the remainder of the security footage.
“I don’t see what you’re talking about, Commander,” the Yukarian said after the recording had ended.
“It’s subtle,” Lance said, “very subtle, but it’s there. Watch the shadows around the base of the tree on the far left of the recording just after the camera switches.”
The Yukarian’s head turned as he replayed the footage. After a while, he opened his mouth to say something, but froze and let the words die. “I see it, Commander.” The Yukarian’s antennae twitched. “How did you think to look there?”
“Call it a combination of desperation and a lot of luck. Also known as intuition.”
The Yukarian did not laugh. “The shadow is too large to be that of an Earth bird,” he said. “Perhaps I can determine the actual shape.” The Yukarian worked in silence, and made a clicking noise when he had finished. “This does not look like anything to me, but does the shape have any meaning for you, Commander?”
Lance’s communicator beeped, and a second hologram flickered into sight. It showed the shadow from the security footage, but from what the Yukarian had calculated to be an aerial view. Lance studied the shape. “It’s what I thought it would be,” he said.
“It has wings, and a body large enough to support a passenger. Check the infrared levels for the source.”
The Yukarian’s antennae twitched. “You do not seem to need me, Commander.”
“I said I wanted confirmation,” Lance said. “Please confirm my worst fears.”
The Yukarian looked at him for a moment, then turned and began to work again. Lance adjusted his own hologram and displayed the infrared levels. There were a few bright blotches throughout the image, most likely birds or bats, but there was one on the far left that was a little bigger and brighter than the others. It had been dismissed as nothing more than a bird a little closer to the camera, but Lance had seen the shape of the shadow it cast. His projected aerial view of the shadow had been considerably rougher than the Yukarian’s, but it was close enough.
“Based on the height from the ground,” the Yukarian said, “and the angle of the light, I have a few rough figures for the size of the source.”
Lance’s communicator beeped and displayed an image of the source in infrared framed by numerical calculations. Lance read the data, and then nodded. His own results had not been far off.
“The data suggests a large creature,” the Yukarian continued. “Winged, it would seem, just as you said. But there are a number of creatures that could fit these proportions, if they are accurate.”
“They’re accurate,” Lance said. He stood up and moved to Orion’s side. He wrapped his arm around Orion’s neck and pulled the arkin into the communicator’s range. “This is the species.” Orion blinked at the Yukarian, then yanked his head free. “What we need now is the individual. Which bounty hunters travel with an arkin?”
The Yukarian reached up and ran a three-fingered hand along one of his antennae. “Most notably, the Phantom. He is the only one on the Alpha Class list, however. There are a few assassins in the lower tiers that travel with arkins, but I doubt any would have pursued a Star Federation officer, and certainly not with this degree of finesse.”
“Very true,” Lance said. “Which makes the Phantom our bounty hunter. Or it would, if that was the Phantom’s arkin.”
The Yukarian’s antennae twitched violently. “We have no data on the Phantom’s arkin, Commander Ashburn. How can you—”
Lance cut across him. “I’ve seen the paw prints left by the Phantom’s arkin. That beast is very heavy, and very powerful. The data from the security footage cannot match that arkin. The arkin we’re dealing with now is smaller and lighter, but a lot quicker. Unless the Phantom is terribly underweight, this beast would never be able to carry him.”
The Yukarian traced his antennae with a finger again. “But what more does that reveal? You have determined the Phantom is not the one who assassinated Coleman, but there are no other Alpha Class criminals who travel with arkins.” He paused thoughtfully. “I suppose a lesser hunter could have taken the assignment, but…”
“But none of them would have gone after a captain as their first Star Federation target,” Lance finished. “Even if they had not broken though Coleman’s back story, the Star Federation connection should have warded them off. So it must have been a reputable hunter. And,” he glanced at the infrared display, “after seeing how well this hunter’s managed to keep hidden, and how far away they were when they took the shot, we know for certain that the hunter has a lot of experience and skill. That makes me think of the Shadow.”
The Yukarian’s antennae twitched again. “The Shadow does not travel with an arkin, Commander.”
“Not that we know of, but we know very, very little of the Shadow. Traveling with an arkin would explain a few things about the hunter, especially how he or she is able to escape so quickly after each hit.”
“There are other explanations for that, Commander.”
Lance’s temper flared. “If you have them, by all means, share them. I would love to know that I’m not sending my soldiers chasing after one of the deadliest and most unpredictable bounty hunters in the galaxy, but it looks like I’m doing exactly that. And there’s no use in denying it, because when they have to come up against the hunter, they might survive a few seconds longer if they’re warned than if they charge in blind.”
The Yukarian looked unblinkingly at him for a long time. “I confirm the identity of the hunter as the Shadow, Commander Ashburn,” was all he said when he finally broke the silence. Then he broke the transmission.
The hologram flickered and faded, and Lance threw the communicator across the room. It hit the far wall and rebounded with a click before falling to the floor.
Lance dropped to the floor next to Orion. He leaned against the arkin and put his hand on the beast’s head. The arkin’s gray fur was thick beneath his fingers, soft but tough. He rubbed Orion just behind the ears, and the arkin slitted his eyes in pleasure.
“I need a break,” Lance said. Orion grunted, and Lance lightly tugged one of the arkin’s ears. They both knew that was not going to happen. Too many lives would be lost if it did.
After a few more minutes on the floor, Lance pushed himself to his feet. Orion rose with him, and they crossed the room. Just before they stepped through the door, Lance bent down and picked up his communicator. It was undamaged. That did not make him feel any better.
End of excerpt from Chasing Shadows.
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© 2014 K. N. Salustro