Authors: Rhi Etzweiler
The Mother Commander balked, belligerent. Marc couldn’t think of any other way to describe the pinch of that particular facial expression, and wondered what it would be like to scent that. Probably rank as all fuck, like the stench of methane from accumulated fecal matter when the bio-recyclers broke down.
Beside him, Hamm bared his fangs to the gums. His mane fluffed as he bristled and growled, vibrating the air hard enough for everyone to feel. Marc watched the varying degrees of reaction, from twitches to outright flinches, and suppressed the urge to sigh.
“Sir. You should apologize for the offense you’ve given. Immediately. Commander Orsonna’s made a commendable effort to communicate verbally with us. You’re giving offense with your nonverbal communication, though. I’d go so far as to even say it’s contradictory. He can understand you even if you can’t understand him.”
Makko interjected, nodding. “I can vouch for that.” The biologist tapped a fingertip gingerly at her ear, and turned to the Mother Commander. “I think I managed to . . . proposition Chief Reccin earlier while I was getting this implant.”
“I have everyone’s best interest in sight, Mother Commander.” He glanced around at the armed guards and the C-C team, then at Reccin and Hamm. “Seems rather apparent that you outgun them. That isn’t likely to change, even after the C-C team disarms.”
Unless you continue acting like a prick.
The scouts were still there, Marc knew that. He didn’t see any just cause to alarm the skittish guards, the C-C team, or the commander with that though. They weren’t close enough to present an immediate threat. Not like a scout with a sniper rifle.
Andruski added his confirmation. “I’m translating accurately, sir. But the sergeant has a better grasp of what’s being said through other channels. For now.”
“How long has he been planetside?” Their leader eyed the lieutenant major, then addressed Cortannas while motioning at Marc. A sharp, swift gesture that made Hamm tense.
“Your concern is valid,” Cortannas said, pinning Marc with an expression of suspicion and mistrust. “He’s done little beyond assisting the furrs since our arrival.”
“It’s possible I’ve been compromised,” Marc agreed, overriding anything else Cortannas may have offered. He couldn’t help glancing at Hamm again. The furr’s gaze remained clear and steady. “I don’t even know how to explain it. Except to say the interests of the furrs are every bit as important to me as the interests of SFI here on Horace Deuce-Niner. I can assure you I will remain balanced.”
“That’s not the duty you’ve been tasked with.”
“You’re correct. It’s not the duty the Mother Commander tasked me with. Commander Orsonna, though, assumes I will fulfill this on his behalf. That’s not a trust I’m willing to violate.”
“You won’t take offense, then, if that assumption is advantageous to the Mother Commander.” Cortannas curled her lips into a sneer as though unimpressed, but kept a civil tone. “If Orsonna expects this role of you, then you can provide it—to the Mother Commander’s benefit, I’m certain.”
Of course he would. Marc did his best not to frown, suddenly gripped by the thought that Cortannas had suspected he would take up arms against them and turn this into a bloodbath. The fuck? “The Mother Commander would not require me to act unethically in the execution of my duty.”
“You’re correct in that observation, Sergeant.” The Mother Commander seemed to straighten and gain height as a mask of diplomatic precision slid into place. “Commander. We will permit your retention of Sergeant Staille as a diplomatic asset for the duration of negotiations and the presence of Mother Diaspora in orbit around Horace Deuce-Niner. Our operations here focus on acquisition of large deposits of white carbon. It’s also been brought to our attention that your culture boasts a variety of unique bio-tech developments that would be advantageous to us as well.”
Marc’s pulse pounded in his temple. The Mother Commander’s little spiel sounded oh-so-benevolent and gracious. Along with the mild spike of adrenaline in his blood, the combination made him nauseous. “Is there some reason why we wouldn’t give equal weight to the best interests of the furrs?”
You know, as opposed to negotiating for the right to rape and pillage.
This was such a mess, and he had no idea how to fix it, how to even start. Or even if there was a way to.
He needed to figure something out really quickly, though. Hamm might not expect it of him, he knew the furrs in general didn’t expect any such thing. But Marc did. He expected it of himself. It was his one shot at forgiveness, his only way to make amends for every pink mist he’d crooned and crowed over, oblivious and ignorant. Inexcusably so.
Hamm had no idea what white carbon was, or where on Soma it might be. It was probably safe to assume they could find what they wanted well enough, but how much more destruction would it require? He raked his claws through the dense mane on the side of his neck. Andruski—whose role as the furrs’ human ambassador was an increasingly distasteful prospect—wore a startled expression similar to the one Marc had worn the instant the processor had engaged.
Andruski’s processor had been interfacing long enough that the man should’ve acclimated. To some degree, at least. And yet the lieutenant major looked as though he might maintain that state of surprise. If that were the case, Hamm would leave the human to Reccin to deal with. Because, no way.
No way would he be able to deal with that wide-eyed look being pinned on him constantly. Not even if Soma demanded it of him.
He glanced at Marc again, worried by what he saw in the lines of his form. His body language roared at him, and it didn’t say anything encouraging.
“There are stipulations restricting that best-interest consideration.” The human commander spoke as though biting each word from Marc’s flesh. The fierce gaze suggested a desire to do just that.
“Yeah. The sustainment of life, longevity, and quality of life aboard Mother. Which is why Commander Orsonna should understand why we kept pushing. Why no one bothered to notice the predatory attacks weren’t random, but resistant.”
“In this, I think we are much the same.” Hamm shifted closer, resting his hand heavy atop Marc’s head as he addressed the Mother Commander. “We furrs are also guilty of only seeing what we want to see.”
Nearby, Reccin rumbled his agreement and glanced at Marc. “I’ll admit I still dislike the implications of sympathy with someone not furr.” He snuffled, and shifted his attention to Makko. “Abnormal doesn’t mean wrong, though. I’m beginning to understand that. It doesn’t justify abuse.”
The Mother Commander watched them each very closely as they spoke, gaze unfocusing slightly as Andruski finished translating. “Our communication failures thus far only give us ample room for improvement.” A smile at Marc, then, baring more teeth than any benevolent expression should, “Wouldn’t you agree, Sergeant?”
“Yes, sir.” Marc gave off a strange blend of scents, deferral and disapproval. He baffled Hamm yet again with the apparent lack of respect for his superiors. Humans had a strange sort of hierarchy. “Ample room.”
Hamm flexed his hands, claws half unsheathed before he caught the involuntary response and relaxed. He wondered about the attitude shift from the Mother Commander. He took a slow, deep breath to catch a whiff of the cause as he watched the humans converse rapid-fire. His translation device seemed as though it were keeping pace with the humans’ conversation, but little of what they said had context or value for him.
“This does not appear to be going well for your human, Commander.” Largely unconcerned judging from his scent, Reccin seemed content to let them argue it out regardless of how long it took.
Hamm angled his head. “My human? They’re disagreeing over how much we can be told. Whose human is he now?”
Reccin gave a long rumble. “It’s not me you need to convince. It’s her. Them.” His chief looked past him and he hackled at the male’s expression, the subtle scent-shift that was cold, hard, and wary.
He didn’t need to look to know.
He’d known it would come to this, the moment that scout had registered his scent and then Marc’s. He couldn’t put his head in a hole and ignore this any more than they could ignore the humans. He pivoted to face it head on, determined to somehow do what was right. For the furrs. And for himself. He just wished there were an easy answer. One that satisfied both races without contradicting itself all over the place like a kit with the runs who didn’t make it outside fast enough. Shit and smell everywhere, and no good to come of it. Except an even bigger mess to clean up.
Sergeant Dehna led the mob of furrs. Beside the linguist was the scout from the edge of the clearing. Reccin growled. “Why did she pull my patrol scout from his position?”
Though the younger male appeared a little wide-eyed, he wasn’t trying to break away from Dehna. That may have been because she had her claws sunk into his shoulder. His adolescent mane wasn’t dense enough to hide her fingers. Even if it had, Hamm couldn’t mistake the faint tang of blood in the air.
No questioning what this was about. When Dehna wanted something, she got it. By whatever means. A rather resourceful female, their linguist.
Arrayed behind her and the scout was a bevy of furrs. It looked as though she’d emptied headquarters for this confrontation. Emptied it of everyone, judging by the flash of colors grouped at the back, lingering near the tree line. The feathers. Come to watch so they’d know who their alliance was with. Standing aside for politics that didn’t directly involve them, though the outcome would influence matters.
Substantively. For the feathers, the furrs, and even—he threw a quick glance at Marc and the Mother Commander—the humans.
“This doesn’t look good.” Marc glanced at Hamm before focusing on the furrs advancing across the meadow. His hand twitched toward his death stick, and Hamm stared in disbelief. Had the human just considered raising that weapon to defend a furr?
“Understatement, Sergeant. This looks like a display of hostility.” The Mother Commander shuffled, weight shifting nervously, voice carrying an edge of disapproval. “If this is how—”
“If I may, sir.” Marc stepped closer, lowered his voice. “You’re correct, but it isn’t focused at the humans.”
“At us, you mean?” The Mother Commander arched a brow.
“Right, yeah. They’re here for Hamm. To depose him.”
“I see.” The commander of the human forces blanched and glanced between the furr commander and the approaching faction. “How does that bode for a peace treaty? A trade agreement?”
“We can hope Hamm’s successor is benevolent enough to barter with us.”
“Hope?” The human leader wasn’t pleased with Marc’s vague assurance. “Not an option, Sergeant. I need certainty. We can’t afford to go elsewhere; the reserves won’t last that long.”
“I wouldn’t wait around for someone to scratch your itch, humans.” Their leader’s selfish focus annoyed Hamm, though he could admit a distinct lack of perspective. No doubt the priorities of a space-faring race would be different than their own agrarian structure. “I fought Dehna just to keep your scout alive long enough to question him. You’ll want to get back in your shuttle and leave. Now.” He included Marc in that as he swept his gaze over them.
The Mother Commander backed up a step under the force of Hamm’s gaze, and the C-C team mirrored the action with greater haste. They’d seen a little of what was coming.
Marc didn’t move. He lifted his weapon, holding it angled across his body again. And he shifted—to a position that gave him a clear line on Dehna and the rest of the furrs. What he hoped to accomplish, Hamm wasn’t sure. The death stick wasn’t a close-range weapon; it’d be useless.
The landing party retreated to the area between the shuttle crafts. “Sergeant Staille!” Hamm wasn’t certain which of the humans had called for the sniper, but Marc’s only reaction was whitening knuckles as his grip tightened on the rifle. Hamm glanced at the huddle of humans, wondering how they’d ever managed to survive on their own planet.
And then he thought of the number of furrs they’d killed.
Dehna halted a few feet away. “You have to choose, Hamm. Step down, or kill the human. You can’t have both.”
Marc lifted the death stick a fraction, to a more shallow angle, the business end coming up almost parallel to the ground.
“Has my behavior suggested preferential treatment, Sergeant Dehna?”
“It’s our law, and you know it. But yes, it has. Anyone else would’ve killed the human already. Anyone else wouldn’t have stopped me from doing it.”
Hamm exhaled hard, nostrils flaring as her pheromones flooded the air. She was trying to influence him? Or was she exerting her dominance over the others arrayed behind her? “Maybe it’s time for the laws to change, then. I’m still fit to serve the best interests of our allies and my fellow furrs here. For all of us. Do you want peace? Or do you simply hunger for dominance?”
“I want them gone! We all do! They don’t belong here! The simple fact that you tolerate them alive, permit them to walk among us unharmed, is proof you aren’t fit to lead. If you were, they wouldn’t be here right now!” Dehna bristled, her voice charged with emotion, every syllable as much a snarl as a word. “What started as one prisoner has become seven. How many will you allow? Next they’ll have a settlement and live on our land. They’re aliens, this is not their place. They don’t belong here.”