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Under a Blood Red Star

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DATE: 2511.May 3
outside of Serenity Township, in the Serenity Valley on the planet Hera

The sound of gunshots woke Daniel from a deep sleep. Granted -- gunshots at a distance were more regular than birdsong around the Horca family farm these last few weeks, as the armies of the Alliance and Independents took up positions up and down the length of Serenity Valley. The locals had all been given evacuation notice, but some few hold-outs like himself just hunkered in and reinforced root cellars to do double-duty as bomb shelters. After all, livestock and bank mortgages alike would not take care of themselves.

But these gunshots? They were close-by. Too close. Close enough that whoever was doing the shooting had boots on the Horca family’s third-generation land claim.

The gunshots hadn’t woken Daniel alone. Punk was barking from her place in the barn, the tri-colored sheepdog sounding twice her true size and viciousness. Daniel rolled out of his bed, kicking free of his quilts even as there came a second volley of gunfire. Rifle fire, from the sound of it -- certainly it was heavier caliber than any of the neighbors used for hunting. As Daniel was reaching after his work boots, an aircraft of some type came screaming past overhead, rattling the farmhouse windows. THAT would be Alliance. Those poor Independent bastards had no air support left, not since the day both the Serenity View township landing dock to the north and the Companion Home hospital on Whore’s Peak to the southeast had both been blasted to bloody chunk.

Daniel sat long enough to shove one foot into one boot, and was repeating the process with the other when the aircraft engine noise ceased and -- kabooom-- there was an explosion so loud and so close that the bedroom window actually cracked. Daniel hit the rag rug on the floor, arms over his head, half expecting the shaking house to come down around his ears. Thankfully, that didn’t happen. Counting his prayers, Daniel picked himself up. There seemed to be a moment or two of calm after that blast -- but as he looked toward the broken window, he saw the flicker of flames close by. Then Punk began barking again, her tone now frantic, and Daniel heard Jinx’s combative squeals join in as well as the mare began to kick at the metal-reinforced walls of her stall in the barn.

Tāmāde! If his barn caught fire, he’d lose all of the spring planting Khorasan seed. The spring hadn’t happened this year because of the damned civil war, but farmers always lived in hope of the next planting. Daniel scrambled out of the bedroom door and down the second-floor stairs, taking his chances with the flapping shoelaces. His bird gun was already loaded and waiting beside the front door. Daniel snatched it up on his way out, hardly slowing.

The night outside was lit by fire. A Hóngyīng fighter had crashed in the teff field that grew between the Horca family home and the banks of the Serenidade River, and the fire was spreading rapidly through the grain -- only a week shy of harvest. Daniel stood and stared for a moment in horror, then dashed for the barn. If he could get the tractor out there fast enough, maybe he could carve out some fire lines and protect the western half of the field. He threw open the barn doors with a violence that scared a barking Punk silent. Instead of leaping eagerly for her regular seat beside him in the tractor, the tri-colored dog scrambled instead deeper into the barn, taking refuge between the palette of wheat seed and the barrel of molasses cob just past Jinx’s stall. The red roan’s head snaked out of her stall and she took an angry bite of air as the dog scampered past.

The tractor’s engine coughed and died at the first attempt, then rumbled to querulous life with the second. It lurched ahead as Daniel hit the throttle, but the solid old beast of a machine had been made for work, not for speed. Daniel rumbled out of the barn and out toward the burning field, but by the time he’d reached the dust-paved lane that reached on down toward the Serenidade, he could see that the size of the fire had doubled. It was clear that the only thing he might accomplish by driving into the field would be to get himself either roasted to death, or choked out on the billowing black smoke.

Daniel cut the engine and swung out of the tractor cab. He stood and stared at the moving flames, gut-sick at would likely prove a total loss of the teff harvest. Smoke from his burning crops rose up into the night sky. At this hour, White Sun, Red Sun, and the protostars Heinlein, Himinbjorg, Lux and Qin Shi Haung hung low like a string of beads in the night sky, brighter than normal what with the blackout of Serenity Township. Hera’s sister-world Shadow was normally just a speck at the end of that constellation, but tonight, the planet was still burning red and ugly, cutting through that smoke like an evil eye.

At least the gorram fire’ll take care of the gorram broadleaf weeds, Daniel thought, trying to comfort himself. A good burn puts nutrients back into the soil. All I’ll have to do is find a way to make ends meet until the next planting…

That was when he saw movement from the corner of his eye. A man was staggering out past the back of the pumphouse, trying to make for the cover of the barn. “Nǐ tāmāde!" Daniel shouted, reaching back into the cab after his gun. But before he could even take aim on the stumbling figure, the man went down, falling first to his knees, and then onto his face in the dirt between two outbuildings.

Daniel growled a curse and walked warily toward the prone figure, his shotgun at the ready. But the man didn’t move, not even when Daniel prodded him in the ribs -- hard -- with the toe of his boot. Close-in as Daniel was now, he recognized the man’s uniform coat as the long, brown standard-issue trenchcoat worn by the Independents.

“Zhànqǐlái!" Daniel told the soldier. The other man stirred and attempted to do as ordered, getting so far as propping himself up on one arm -- and when that failed him, using his long gun as a brace. That was a Mauler Electric-M semi-auto AR -- and assuredly not standard issue, so far as Daniel knew. The browncoat coughed and spat out a mouthful of blood, shaking violently from shock.

“Āiyā,” Daniel groaned, seeing that. He threw an angry look back over his shoulder toward the crashed Hóngyīng. That Alliance fighter craft had nothing to fear from the standard-issue Grizzlies carried by regular browncoat Infantry. But the extended range and extra kinetic punch from a Mauler clearly had clearly brought the suck to that poor pilot’s day. The downed warbird had plowed a deep furrow through the center of the teff field. If kissing the dirt hadn’t killed its pilot, the fire that followed certainly had cooked him like a Sunday goose.

Daniel turned his attention back to the wounded browncoat at his feet. For a moment, dark thoughts scudded through his mind, as ugly as the raw wound that was the remains of Shadow burning in the sky overhead. Certainly this poor sod was as guilty in the loss of the season’s crop as the bùyào liǎn Alliance. But instead of putting the shotgun to the soldier’s brainpan and putting him down, Daniel found himself reaching for the browncoat’s arm.

“C’mon, amigo. The purple-bellies will come looking for their lost bird,” he said, trying to haul the wounded man to his feet. The soldier was a deadweight at first, as he struggled to get his boots beneath him. He was several inches taller than Daniel and broader as well. The browncoat refused to leave behind his weapon, and struggled as well to pick up a big canvas bag he had dropped. Daniel reached after it and slung it over his other shoulder, staggered himself now under the combined weights.

He got the wounded man as far as the shelter of the barn. “We gotta doctor you up fast,” Daniel said, as he helped the browncoat sit on a bale of hay. The automatic-motion lights had come on, giving Daniel adequate light to do his doctoring by. The man fumbled a stimstick out of a thigh pocket and injected it straight through the filthy fabric of his BDU’s. He grimaced as the drug hit his bloodstream, but the palsy left his hands. The bright LED light was not flattering. At first, Daniel thought the ugly burns that disfigured half of the soldier’s face were from tonight’s conflagration. But no -- those grisly scars weren’t recent. The unscarred half of the man’s face was sweating and wan beneath a layer of grime. There was a bleeding furrow through the soldier’s short-cropped red hair just above one ear, and he had a red scarf wrapped around his midsection as a makeshift bandage. It was soggy with blood. The soldier was pulling a small kit from the cargo pocket of his uniform pants. He pulled off the bloody scarf and rucked up the blood-stained shirt to expose a long, deep wound that gouged a valley across his abdomen just above the hipbone. He applied a stream of coagulant foam from a can that was down to its dregs. After thriftily pocketing the emptied can, the soldier followed it with a layer of spray-skin from a dispenser that likewise went empty, this time with only a portion of the open wound covered.

“Here,” Daniel said, wincing in sympathy at the wound. He had pulled down the crate of horse medicine from its place on the tool shelf moved to help the man. “This will hurt like a sumabitch, but it’ll help,” he said, selecting a covered crock and taking out the tarry paint brush that was resting in the thick gel inside it. He offered it to the soldier, who took it gingerly.

“Turpentine and honey?” the soldier asked in a voice that sounded rusty.

“My mother used to swear by it,” Daniel said. The scarred browncoat nodded approval and applied it to his injury without flinching. Daniel had the bandage roll and a clean rag and offered those next, putting the remedy crock away as the soldier quickly bandaged up his side.

More than just the wounded browncoat stank of fresh blood -- the canvas bag he carried reeked of it, which Daniel noticed only when the smell brought Punk out of hiding with enthusiasm. Daniel quickly rescued it from the collie and took a look inside of the bag. He was relieved to find the bloody trophy to be only butchered meat, along with a wide half-circle shaped piece of metal. The man had been out on a foraging raid, he deduced. Daniel took a judicious sniff and decided the rich red meat was bison, not beef. Fresh, no taint of decay.

“You been poaching at the Beartooth ranch,” he said -- and not approvingly, either. For a moment, he puzzled over the half-circle with its tightly-strung lengths of rubber before making sense of it. It was an improvised hunting bow, fashioned out of a bike wheel and lengths of catapult rubber. The notion of some raider sneaking on the neighboring ranch and taking out one of their prized buffalo with a makeshift bow and arrow was an irony that the Beartooth family, so proud of their Cree heritage and customs, would no doubt appreciate.

The soldier’s expression was difficult to read -- he didn’t look like a man who smiled much, although these days, few Daniel knew did. “Our supply lines are cut,” the browncoat said with an edge of apology. “My unit’s starving.”

Daniel nodded. Rumors were that things for the Independents in the trenches of Serenity Valley were worse than bad. “Bào qiàn,” he replied. “Tiān xiăode,” Daniel added, returning the box of horse medicine to its shelf. “We’ll all be starving before this xuèxīng tā mā battle is over.”

When he turned back, he saw a flicker of an expression break through the scarred man’s grim face. Guilt, Daniel reckoned. You had to be a ranch brat or a farmer’s sprout to recognize honey-and-turpentine salve. And to understand as well what the loss of what a single bloodstock could mean for a small operation like the Beartooth clan’s. Or Daniel’s own, he amended, with a bitter glance outside toward the burning field of grain. “C’mon, we need to get you to the root cellar,” he said, shouldering the bloody game bag and turning toward the barn doors, with the intention of leading the soldier to the house.

Behind him, he heard Jinx’s angry sequel as the big mare cow-kicked the wall of her stall. And then, above them -- the higher-pitched hum of a hovercraft engine. Several of them.

"Āiyā! Huàile!" Daniel cursed, spinning on his heel and grabbing the wounded soldier by the shoulder. “They’re here! You’ve got to hide, or we’re both dead.”

The red varnished roan overo stamped her hooves and bugled an angry challenge at the aircraft which buzzed over the barn’s roof as it circled to land. Daniel cursed again and pulled the wounded browncoat with him down toward the red mare’s stall. The only exits from the barn were through the two sliding doors that faced toward the farm’s central courtyard -- or up the ladder into the hay loft and through the hayloft door, which again faced toward the house and the courtyard. An axe would take out the boards of the back wall, but that would make it obvious to even the most èr bǎi wŭ Alliancer which way they’d gone.

“This ain’t optimal,” Daniel said in tight apology, as he hauled open door to the mare’s stall. “But it’s the best we’ve got.” The big roan sidled stalked the stall door, ears pinned as she eyed the stranger. The man hung back, savvy enough to read the mare’s unfriendly body language. Daniel growled and seized the roan by her halter. "Chica, we ain’t got the time!” he growled at her in frustration. The big mare took a half-hearted nip at his arm, and he cuffed her in response. “Stand!” he commanded firmly, trying to echo his mother’s exact tone.

The overo mare’s red ears swung forward, as if sharing the echo of his mother’s voice. Jinx had been an orphan foal his mother had bottle-raised -- she had been at best a temperamental saddle horse but had become downright dangerous since his mother had passed during the Antonine Plague two summers back. Daniel had not had the heart to part with the mare, despite her combative nature. His mother had loved the beast far too dearly.

Jinx snorted now, then ducked her head as though in submission. “Kuài diǎnr!” Daniel said, shoving the game bag into the soldier’s arms and pushing him toward the stall. The man ducked beneath the roan’s varnished neck and past her into the stall, and the mare shifted to follow him -- hopefully with less-than-murderous curiosity. “Stay low! Wedge down beneath the manger,” Daniel told the other man, listening to the sound of the aircraft landing outside.

“Wait!” the browncoat said, as Daniel began to close the stall door. The wounded soldier reached out and smeared a ball of horse dung against Daniel’s shoulder. He recoiled a step in surprise, then realized what the other man had done -- the shit smear was masking the damp stain of fresh blood that the soaked game bag had left on Daniel’s shirt,

“Xie xie,” Daniel said with a snort of almost-laughter. He quickly wiped his hands through the layer of dust and cobwebs that was gathered along the shelf below the window, hoping to camouflage any remaining bloodstains under a layer of dirt. Outside, he heard an officer snapping out deployment orders. Time was up. He took a last, sweeping look around the barn for any remaining overlooked clues, then headed for the barn doors. It was easy to assume the facade of an angry farmer, innocent of any aiding & abetting and righteous with wrath over the destruction of his spring harvest.

“Tāmāde shì zěnme huí shì?” he yelled as he went through the barn doors -- only to come up short, finding raised rifles aimed at him from close quarters. Daniel put up his hands, not needing to act shocked and frightened.. “What the hell! This is my land -- my home! Get your gorram pea-shooters out of my face!”

“Back against the wall and arms up, sodbuster,” one of the marines snarled at him. “Save your breath until the Brigadier is ready to have words with you.”

Not seeing any viable alternative, Daniel did as he was told. There were two transports crowded into the dusty yard between his family home and the barn. Eight soldiers had deployed out into the courtyard square, including the four who had their guns on Daniel now. As he watched, the second aircraft’s hatch opened and disgorged another half-dozen armed soldiers, who spilled out of the vehicle with menacing speed. In their wake followed a short, almost stout woman of middle age, whose short-cropped dark hair was streaked with natural grey. Her face was soft but her eyes were sharper than obsidian. Daniel did not need to decipher the officier bars on her tailored uniform to recognize this woman was in command. She did not need a gun in her hand to deliver the impression that she was an immediate and present danger. She spared a cold glance toward Daniel, then turned to receive a report from a pair of grey-clad marines who came trotting out of the burning grain field. Daniel kept his hands up and watched as those two made their muted report. Both appeared reluctant to speak, and whatever message they were delivering, the officer’s shoulders had gone unnaturally stiff. There was a long moment of silence when they had finished. She finally dismissed them with a curt gesture and they faded back like dogs relieved to have avoided a kick.

The woman continued to stand there for another long, silent minute, facing toward the burning field as though staring out toward the scorched wreckage of the downed Red Hawk. Punk timidly limped out of the barn and came to stand beside him. The dog pressed against his leg and trembled, refusing to lift her head to look at any of the soldiers. A team of four Alliance marines emerged from the front door of Daniel’s home, having completed their inspection, and reported to their waiting sergeant. That man then cautiously approached his commander and stood at parade rest, ready to be called upon to presumably state that the soldiers had determined the Horca family home was empty.

There was a rapid-fire bang-bang-bang from inside the barn, where Jinx had returned to kicking the reinforced wall of her stall. The surly mare was territorial and did not like strangers. Daniel wondered if she had already brained the wounded browncoat -- if she had, the browncoat had at least had the good manners to die quietly and without alerting the enemy.

The enemy. Daniel found himself looking up at the night sky and watching the red, angry glitter of Shadow overhead. Before that moment, he had not consciously thought of the Alliance as being his personal enemy. He had never cared enough about the War for Independence to pick a side. The cause of the Independents had always seemed to be a fool’s dream to him, while the politics of the Core worlds were as remote as the White Sun and the Red Sun in their prayer-bead constellation in the pre-dawn sky above. All Daniel had ever wanted was to be left alone by either side of this fight. Certainly Alliance apathy had contributed to the fungal plague that had burned through the Serenidad River Valley two years ago, but the so-called patriots who sat in the capital building of Hera had not been any more helpful. His mother had been firmly an Independent; his father’s sympathies had been with the law-and-order of the Alliance. Both were dead of plague now, unable to see the war had been delivered to their very doorstep.

Both of his parents would have wept to have witnessed the fleet of Alliance cruisers that had turned Shadow to glass overhead. And both would have taken the same risks their son had to help any wounded browncoat who had come staggering onto their farm. Now, under the threat of Alliance guns, Daniel watched Shadow burn in the sky above him and found himself wondering... what he have done if the injured soldier had been Alliance and his hunters all browncoats? Would he have still offered a wounded man shelter?. Daniel was still uncertain of that answer when the Alliance Brigadier finally turned away from the smoldering teff field.

The woman’s face was set in controlled, grim lines, but there was a raw, feverish intensity to her dark eyes that made her gaze difficult to meet as she strode up to him, tailed by an honor guard of marines.

“Where is the soldier who shot down that warbird?” the woman demanded. She had a crisp, commanding voice that made even a civilian’s nerves want to flinch to attention.

“The asshole who’s burned up my spring harvest?” Daniel barked back at her, refusing to be intimidated while his boots stood on his own land. “Gorram góu zaĭ zi had better hope you find him or her before I do, I’ll skin the bastard and feed him to my pigs while the wáng bā dan is still screaming.”

The woman stood square and stared him in the eye, and it became increasingly difficult to meet that steady, unimpressed glare.

“Search the barn,” she said then to the soldiers flanking her. The sergeant made a series of hand signs and four of his soldiers peeled off and went through the open barn doors as if expecting to face fire from a platoon of enemies. Punk whimpered and shifted against his legs, seeking to hide behind his knees.

They wouldn’t find the wounded browncoat, Daniel promised himself, listening helplessly as the troopers began their search. If the man had done as Daniel had told, he would be tucked up in the gap between the floorboards and the bottom of the mare’s manager. There was no way the purple-bellies could see anyone hiding there, not without opening up Jinx’s stall and stepping inside. And no one who Jinx didn’t know was going to be able to open her stall door and step inside --not without starting a whole new battlefront here in Serenity Valley. Daniel was betting his own life on that… and knew it.

The Alliance officer’s sober stare never left his face. Waiting for the sound of a screaming horse and gunshots that never came, Daniel held her gaze until he couldn’t any longer. Jinx did snort and sequeal at the intruders, but it didn’t sound like any of the soldiers were willing to risk the fierce mare’s teeth and hooves. Daniel stood with his shoulders braced against the barn’s outside wall, waiting and trying not to sweat too much under the officer’s unflinching stare. He tried to hang onto his anger, but his sense of relief was piercing when the uniformed woman finally turned her gaze away, looking up toward the red star that was a burning Shadow in the night sky above the peak of Sentinel Dome.

“There was an ancient poet on Earth-that-Was who said ‘I am better able to imagine hell than heaven; it is my inheritance.’” The officer spoke impassively, her words clearly rhetorical. Behind them both, Daniel could hear the stomp and clatter of the soldiers searching through the barn. Jinx bugled at them in angry challenge and battered at the walls and door of her stall, while the farm’s erstwhile guard dog, Punk, shivered and shook against the back of Daniel’s legs. The Alliance officer continued to study the angry flicker of Shadow for several moments longer before turning back to Daniel, as the clatter of combat boots came back toward the barn door.

“It’s all clear inside, ma’am,” one of those armed and armored men reported, as all four trooped out of the barn. Back inside, Jinx whinnied and delivered a final cowkick to her stall as if proud she had chased off the invaders of her realm.

Daniel found himself once again under the cold scrutiny of the Alliance officer. “I want the insurgent responsible for this,” she said, with the tilt of her chin toward the burnt-out wreckage in the teff field. Her voice was as bitter cold as sleet. “Understand me, nóng, when I say that I will have this man. I will have him. And I will have any of his compatriots, or any fool who takes pity on him and provides him aid in any fashion. Do you understand me?”

Daniel held the woman’s dark-eyed stare -- and recognizing the oath of righteous violence unconcealed in those simple words, he felt an ice-cold shiver travel down his spine. He didn’t know who this woman was besides that she was an officer of an occupying army. He did not understand why she was directing such hatred toward a single enemy soldier. But it had something to do with that downed Red Hawk fighter. Perhaps the pilot had been her lover. Or -- he took a rapid re-estimation of the age-lines around the woman’s mouth, and the depth of the fury in her eyes -- perhaps the dead pilot had been a family member. Maybe even her child. He couldn’t know for sure without asking -- and Daniel sure as hell wasn’t going to let his curiosity play tomcat. Instead, he ducked his head respectfully. “Shì de, xiáo jiě,” he answered quietly.

The officer studied him, no doubt committing every feature of his face to memory. Then she pivoted on her heel and strode away, back toward the sleek transport that was waiting for her. The sergeant called out more commands to his troops and most of them loaded back up on their shift, leaving two behind to guard the burnt-out field and its wreckage, and two to stand wary watch in the center of the courtyard. Daniel slumped back against the barn wall, keeping a wary eye of his own on that transport until it had lifted up into the sky and skimmed its way back over his farmhouse, headed north over the Serenity Township and toward whatever distant command post the Alliance held over Serenity Valley.

It left him chilled that the officer had made no further, dramatic threat. Somehow, that left the promise of violence she had left him with more visceral. More real. He had no doubt that if the officer discovered Daniel had aided and abetted her enemy, that her vengeance would be swift and merciless.

Daniel shook off that sense of foreboding. He turned and walked back into the barn, whistling at Punk to follow him. The soldiers had made what mess they could, spilling over tools and upending tack. Daniel began to put things to rights, only cautiously moving past Jinx’s stall when it seemed natural to do so. He didn’t think the Alliance soldiers would have left behind any electronic surveillance -- but he wagered it was worth taking that precaution, at least for as long as Alliance boots were still planted in his courtyard.

“Hush,” he told the varnish roan mare, as she snaked a long, red head and neck over the stall door. Her ears were still flat against her skull, and he could see the lather of angry sweat on her hide. “Those sumbitches are just going to hang out in the courtyard for as long as they feel able,” he said as if just trying to be companionable to the temperamental horse. “You’re not going to get your regular morning turn-out, not until those bastards have hauled away the wreckage of their downed bird.”

Jinx gave a surly snort and kicked out against the wall behind her. “Gāisǐ de mă,” he said fondly to her, slapping her neck. “Just calm the fuck down and wait. I’ll bring you breakfast in the morning, and we’ll reassess the situation then. Maybe go for a trail ride for something.”

That earned a second, fierce snort and the mare turned away from him. He watched her drop her head and nose about underneath her manger -- her ears flickered forward as though listening to something Daniel himself couldn’t hear, and then she pivoted away with a snort of satisfaction and lipped up a wisp of straw to chew on. The mare’s attitude was belligerent but relaxed. Daniel couldn’t help but wonder if she’d already brained the wounded browncoat, and if that was why she wasn’t fussing about having an intruder taken shelter underfoot. That might solve a lot of my problems if so, he couldn’t help but think, as he turned away from the stall and went about the motions of cleaning up the barn. However this plays out, I’ve got to get that guy out of here before the Alliance catches him still on my land, or my spring harvest isn’t all that will be burned to the ground.

Daniel managed an hour or two of sleep on the living room couch, with Punk squeezed onto the couch beside him. He was up again at dawn, when several heavy trucks came rumbling up the road from the direction of the township. With several small combat helos buzzing overhead to provide protection, a unit of soldiers wrestled the wreckage of the downed Alliance Red Hawk onto a flatbed and drove away, taking the four armed guards with them.

Mindful of the Alliance officer’s threat, Daniel went cautiously about his morning chores, keeping an eye to the sky in expectation of minder drones or some other source of surveillance. The browncoat was awake and on his feet when Daniel went into the barn. The man had mucked out Jinx’s stall and taken a curry comb to the mare, who stood uncharacteristically placid as Daniel found the other man cleaning out her hooves.

“You need to stay inside and out of sight today,” Daniel said, taking out from the inside pocket of his coat a bundle of injera, wrapped in a kitchen towel. The spongey bread was several days old, but Daniel’s own pantry shelves were bare and there was nothing else to spare for his guest.

“I need to get back to my unit,” the soldier said, his eyes flickering to the flatbread that Daniel set aside for him. He straightened from being bent over the mare’s high hoof, moving stiffly and in evident pain from his wound.

Daniel looked at the man, thinking him crazy. “You get yourself caught by the Alliance, there’s a fēngkuáng de nǚrén waiting to catch you and pin your ballsack to her trophy wall. And when she’s done with you’ll, she’ll come after me for having given you shelter. You sit put today. I’ve got to ride into the township, if the Alliance will even let me through their checkpoints. I’ll check around quiet-like and see what I can do to get you out of here. I’ve got some black market contacts who owe me favors who I’ll slide word too -- our mutual best chance at surviving this is to get you smuggled out of here. You can find your own way back to the front lines once they’ve gotten you to Aphrodite or Sturges.”

The scarred man was frowning, but after moment he nodded agreement to that. He limped out of the mare’s stall and left her to Daniel. Daniel set about tacking up the roan, who took the bit with relatively little fuss. At least Jinx seemed to be enjoying herself after last night’s events. She must have scared hell out of at least one of the purplebellies searching the barn, Daniel thought with bitter-flavored amusement.

“There’s well water from the tap, and injera on the shelf there,” Daniel told the browncoat as he let a saddled and bridled Jinx from her stall. “I’ll likely be until at least late afternoon before I’m back. Don’t leave the barn -- I’d be surprised if there aren’t eyes in the sky on the homestead today. If the troopers come back, your best hiding spot is still under the manger.”

The browncoat nodded. He rose stiffly and carried over the blood-stained game bag. Jinx pinned her ears and stamped a forefoot in distaste at the smell of it as the soldier tied the bag securely behind the cantle of the saddle.

“Don’t let it go to waste,” the scarred man said, then fished something else from his pocket. He looked at it for a moment, then held it out to Daniel. “This should be worth something. Can you see it gets to the ranchers I poached from?”

Daniel accepted the offering. It was a large clasp knife with a scrimshawed bone handle that was aged and worn almost to the color of butter. The carving was intricately done and featured a powerful, shaggy beast with humped shoulders walking through a river, with a jagged mountain range behind it. The scrimshaw bear was not high art, but clearly the knife was an heirloom of some sort. Daniel nodded and pocketed it. He doubted that parting with the heirloom was easy for the browncoat, but the man’s scarred face remained impassive.

On impulse, he held out his hand, with the realization that he was risking his life for a second time now for this man whose name he did not know. “Daniel Horca,” he said.

The browncoat’s grip was strong and brief. “Gunnery Sergeant Benjamin Carver, 13th Orbital Mechanized.” The man took a step back as Daniel put a boot in a stirrup and swung into the saddle. Jinx grunted and tossed her head, automatically seeking rein he wasn’t willing to give her yet. Daniel settled into the saddle and double-checked the canteen slung over his saddle horn before he gave the mare a press of leg to move out. He nodded farewell to the soldier, satisfied the man would do as asked.

“Horca,” the soldier called to him as Jinx stepped out of the barn doors. Daniel caught himself before looking back, conscious again of the threat of Alliance spybots overhead. “I owe you,” Carver called after his back.

“Shì de,” Daniel answered, giving the roan mare the rein she wanted to burst into a lope. “Yes. You do.”