At the best of times, I am not the most patient of people. This was not the best of times. I was cold, wet, and hungry. I was tired– exhausted, even. I had watched a weekend that was supposed to be a welcome shred of rest go from bad to worse to something so unfathomably, irredeemably ridiculous that I could feel the hysteric laughter bubbling up the back of my throat. If someone said I looked like I was at the end of my rope, I would inform them that my rope had snapped sometime last week. Or I’d just cut to the chase and bite their head off.
Sometimes it’s just fun to write Miranda. Okay, scratch that. It’s usually a whole lot of fun to write Miranda. And the bit above is no exception. There’s a certain catharsis to getting inside her head when she’s about ready to start (or finish?) a fight, and if you said that might reveal more about me than anything else, I’d smile and shrug and admit that you’re probably right. And then I’d remind you that that’s half of what makes it so much fun.
“See if I let you go investigate anything on your own ever again,” I muttered. “‘I’ll be careful,’ you said. ‘It’s nothing,’ you said.” My mutter became a growl as I lost my footing on the steep slope and half fell, half slid a few feet down. Somehow, I stopped myself before tumbling off the edge and down the rest of the way to the canyon floor below.
Tanner wasn’t around to hear my rant, but that wasn’t about to stop me. With all the practice I was getting, once I finally got to deliver it to my brother’s face it was bound to be a rant to end all rants. It would remain unparalleled for all eternity. It would be the platonic ideal of a rant. Or at least one that would make him think twice about getting himself captured while gallivanting around without backup.
I tried not to think too hard about the fact that I was doing more or less the same thing.
Hey, look! An excerpt! This is one of the stories I’ve been looking forward to writing, mostly because it puts Tanner and Miranda in a situation that I haven’t played with much: on their own. But the question remains… do they get into more trouble when they’re together or when they don’t have each other to hold them back?
I knew it the second the door slid shut. It wasn’t going to slide back open as easily, and I had three hours before Tanner got back. Assuming everything went right. Judging by our track record from the last couple days, that meant it would probably be more like five, and then he wouldn’t be able to get the door open anyway.
I growled out an emphatic oath.
Granted, it wasn’t as bad as it could be. The emergency lights were still giving off their vaguely neon glow. Stuck though I was, at least it wasn’t like no one knew where I was, and I had food–or at least a couple of protein bars–in my backpack, as well as enough water that dehydration wouldn’t be a problem.
And given that this was the bridge of a military-type ship, I supposed that having a door fail secure on me because I got careless and snipped the wrong wire was probably the most benign thing that could have happened. Well. Aside from nothing, of course.
I groaned softly as I looked around the room. Five hours. About thirty cubic meters. We had said we would need to go over the area with a fine-toothed comb. Looks like I was going to get a chance to do just that.
So much for fobbing that particular task off on my unsuspecting brother.
All things considered, the Duster Gang’s hideout was one of the best ones I’d seen. For one thing, they hadn’t set up shop in the Outlands, and I appreciated the change of scenery. For another, the panoramic view of the valley was truly impressive, and made moreso by the clear and cloudless sky: unless I missed my guess, that smudge off to the southwest was Coville itself. But the best part was the water.
There was a whole pool of it in the deepest part of the cave: cold, sweet water. As soon as Tanner and I saw that, it made sense how the eight scruffy miscreants we had tied up and disarmed in the mouth of the cave had been able to run their cattle rustling outfit for as long as they had. It was one thing to have enough water for a handful of people. It was another entirely to be able to keep twenty or thirty head of stolen cattle in good condition while you waited for a chance to sell them off.
Somehow, I managed to avoid venting my spleen until after we were out of Kemp’s earshot. Or until I thought we probably were. Or could argue to Tanner that I thought we were when it turned out he heard us—or rather, me—after all, and it came back to bite us. Not that he didn’t deserve every word I said, of course, but working with a butthurt and testy ranger would just be working for trouble.
So, I waited until we were out of earshot. Probably. And then I let loose with nine hours worth of frustration and righteous annoyance.
“…and he’s probably just working as a ranger so he can get filthy rich,” I finished. It didn’t sound right even as the words left my mouth, but I didn’t particularly care.
Tanner raised one eyebrow. “I’ll ask Paul next time we see him how that’s going for him.”
I glared at him. He would derail a perfectly good rant with a quick dose of logic.
“Alright, look. I’m the first person to admit that the last job got a little out of hand.” That was, of course, not strictly true. Or true at all, really, but admitting that would undermine the point I was trying to make. “But don’t you think this might be a bit of an over-correction?”
The “this” in question was the job that Tanner had just finished telling me about. It was a bit of a departure from our usual fare, if only because we wouldn’t be getting paid to do it.
“Actually, I’ve been wanting to do this for a while. We just couldn’t have afforded it until now.”
“So, you’re saying that letting Surr hire us was a good idea after all?”
Tanner narrowed his eyes. “No. And don’t push it. But we did, and there’s no reason we can’t make something good come out of it.”
He was baiting me; I could tell by the wicked twinkle in his eye. That, and he was my brother. It was usually a good bet.
“See, I thought having money in the bank account was something good.” Of course I took the bait. What else was I supposed to do with it?
“It is. But only because of what we can do with it.”
“I should have known you were going to go all philosophical with that.”
He grinned. “You really should have.”
I signed. “Fine.” Then I grimaced. “I don’t know if there’s any way to say this that won’t make me look like a heartless mercenary, but I’m going to try anyway.”
“You know, it’s never a good sign when you have to lead with that.”
I did know, but that didn’t mean I was about to let it stop me. “You have a point, and I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t do this. I actually think it’s a good idea, truly. But this whole thing is going to be a bigger…” I waved my hands around and tried to come up with a better word than the one that first came to mind. I failed. “A bigger thing than the jobs we get paid for. If it all goes south, we’re not going to have a lot to fall back on.”
I didn’t mention that this particular job seemed at least as likely to go off the rails as the aforementioned and much maligned Surr job. Because doing so would invite a little too much scrutiny into the nature of a whole bunch of our jobs, and we’d need more time for that discussion. That was strange. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I was being the voice of reason to our little family enterprise. What was the world coming to?
“I’ve thought about that. And first, I don’t expect things to go sideways.” I opened my mouth to remind him that that was exactly how we were going to get jinxed, but he waved me off before I could get the words out. “But, even if they do, we’ve got enough people around here who like us now that we’d be okay. Heck, if we get hurt trying to help out the whole colony, Folks around here are going to make sure we’re taken care of.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’ve been thinking about this for a while, haven’t you?”
“A bit, yeah. I just didn’t want to bring it up until we had the foundation to make it possible. Or at least something other than a patently bad idea.”
A part of me still wanted to argue the point. It might not be a bad idea anymore, but I wasn’t sure that meant it was a good idea. More like an idea that involved a whole lot of risk and not much in the way of reward. Not for us at any rate. The only problem was that while it wasn’t the best set of circumstances for us personally, if we succeeded in pulling it off, it was undeniably going to make things better for the colony as a whole. And that gave me the sinking feeling that the only reason I was really balking at it was the selfish thought that it wasn’t going to be worth our time. Maybe it wasn’t the only reason, but it was probably the biggest reason. And I didn’t like that.
And that’s how Tanner and I ended up offering our services to a group heading out into the deep Badlands with the intention of setting up some basic defenses for the group that was already out there figuring out a way to safely provide more water for the growing colony.
Now. Before we go on, let me do a little to mitigate some of the damage done to my reputation by admitting that I was less than enthusiastic about the idea of offering our services free of charge, despite how important an endeavor it was. First, despite the fact that it was deeply important, it wasn’t an urgent problem. Not yet, at any rate. But the colony was going to be growing. A lot. Maybe not this year, and maybe not the year after that, but construction was already well underway on a sister ship to the Overland, and as technology continued to advance, it was growing easier and easier by steps to reach this planet. And that was without counting on whether or not the Anchor station tests continued going as well as they seemed to be. Because once that was done, things were going to be getting even more crowded out here.
Add to all that the fact that we had already heard for sure that there was another big colonization push going on back on Earth, and it didn’t take a civil engineer to figure out that we wouldn’t have anywhere near enough water to go around once everyone showed up. So, instead of waiting until everyone was actually on their way and we were all living just short of disaster, a number of bright minds among the Verdant colonists decided to get together to do something about it before it became a problem. They had tried to get official backing from any number of the colony companies back on Earth, but hadn’t gotten more than what amounted to token support. Certainly, they hadn’t gotten the financial backing that would make it easy to pay for the time of a couple of freelancers at the going rate, and the defense system they had provided, while not terrible, was certainly not top of the line, either.
It just so happened that Tanner and I were going to be able to help with both of those.
“Miranda, get back in bed or I’ll break your other leg.”
That was my brother’s version of compassion for the wounded. But, as I was only ninety-nine percent sure that he wasn’t serious, I muttered something derogatory about his bedside manner and limped and crutched my way back to my sickbed and dropped back onto it. I also let my crutches clatter to the floor in a noisy protest. It was an exercise in cutting off my nose to spite my face, of course, since I was going to be the one to have to pick them up next time I wanted to get around the room, but for now, I allowed myself to take some pleasure in annoying my brother.
“I’m not useless, you know,” I said. “I can still help.”
Tanner didn’t turn around as he answered me. “Sure. Right until the pain meds kick in. We went through this yesterday.”
And the day before, and the day before that. Though, granted, yesterday had been the worst.
“Fine,” I grumbled. “But don’t come complaining when you can’t find any leads.”
So… it’s not a full story, and there’s no guarantee that this is the start I’ll be sticking with, but enjoy the first couple paragraphs of a new Tanner and Miranda story!
“Tanner,” I said, “you’re not nervous, are you?” The corner of my mouth twisted up in what could best be described as a wicked grin.
“I’ll be fine.” My brother cast a look in my general direction that was probably meant to chasten me. It didn’t work. “How long until orbit?”
“Orbit? Just a couple minutes. But it’ll be an hour or so before we rendezvous with the ship.”
He just grunted in response.
The ship in question was a derelict that had shown up above Verdant a couple days before. At least, everyone assumed it was a derelict, given that the scans we’d managed had shown minimal power and no one had responded to any of the messages sent on all the common frequencies. It was the sort of thing that would probably end up being a non-event, but was still just strange enough that it merited a closer look. And seeing as Tarj and all the other Rangers had their hands as full as always with things on the surface, that left it up to a couple of freelancers like us.
Which was how my brother and I ended up sitting across from each other in the passenger compartment of a skylark-class shuttle, strapped in and buckled up while a woman named Amanda Vasquez flew us up to orbit. Our gear was all secured as well, though in a smaller pile than usual. You packed different for a quick trip into vacuum than you did for a week in the Badlands.
I, for one, was looking forward to the change of pace. Tanner was somewhat less enthusiastic, as evidenced by the greenish hue his whole face took on every time we hit a little bit of turbulence.
“It’ll be better once we break out of atmo,” I said, trying to look and sound as sympathetic as I felt. “I promise.”
He spared a glance at me and forced his grip to loosen enough on his safety restraint that his knuckles went from corpse-white to panic-pale. “I know. I’m okay. I’d just forgotten how much I hated ever leaving dirt.”
We knew Trevor Cossak was going to catch up with us eventually. We knew it, but I had been hoping it would be somewhere other than in this remote and utterly godforsaken corner of the Badlands. At least there was cover. I gripped my pistol and twisted just enough to look over the top of the massive boulder Tanner and I were both currently hiding behind.
I swore and slammed back down. Lafayette wasn’t missing much by way of his aim. And I still wasn’t sure exactly where he was.
“Okay, now what?” I hissed the words, exchanging a glance with my brother. I was all out of ideas this time around.
Tanner just shook his head. So much for that.
The sky above was clear and blue. The world around us was silent—ominously so. If I popped my head up again there would be another rifle shot, and I had the impression that Cossak wasn’t firing warning shots. If he got a clear bead on us, it was game over. And seeing as half-second stolen glances weren’t giving us any idea where he was actually hiding, they weren’t worth the risk.
“Well, we can’t just sit here and wait,” I said.
“We can’t really do anything else,” said Tanner. “Unless you’re trying to make his job easier.”
His job, because in one sense, the man was just trying to fulfill an obligation. Cut out the part about that obligation being handed to him by a certain colony mob boss, and you almost sympathized with him.
“His job’s going to be plenty easy if we just sit here and wait for him to work out how to get closer,” I said. But while that was true, I knew Tanner had a point. Which meant we needed another option.
I turned and looked at our surroundings for the eighth time. And for the eighth time, I came away with the same impression: this particular little pocket in the canyon wall, situated as it was behind a decently sized boulder, provided both lovely cover and no way out. There was at least a couple dozen yards of open ground surrounding us, which would give Cossak some trouble getting closer to us, but that was only the thinnest of silver linings.
At least it wasn’t going to get that much worse.
That was the last thought I had before I heard a clatter of rocks on the steep slope above us and looked up just in time to see a couple of armed gangmen taking aim at us from above.
We both turned and fired, and both gangmen came tumbling down with his own mortal wound opened up in his chest. But the damage was done. The seconds we spent dealing with them were enough for Cossak himself to break from his own hiding place and cross the precious yards of no-man’s land we had hoped would protect us.
By the time we turned back around he had already flanked us. I fired three shots, each one hitting dead on. Each one falling short against a personal shield device that I had, up until this point, thought was mostly fantasy. Tanner shot him too, but the only effect the rifle shot had was that it caused the shield to flicker. Slightly.
“Don’t suppose you’re going to let us surrender, are you?”
There’s nothing fun about looking for a new roommate. The whole process can go wrong more ways than it can go right, and the stakes for it going right are higher than most. You’re looking for someone to live with, after all—it would be nice to get along, nice to tolerate each other’s company, if not enjoy it. Yet all too often you have to consider yourself lucky to just not mind sharing space.
And all it takes is one bad experience to make you twitchy about the whole thing. Sure, the statistics say you’re unlikely to ever run into someone truly dangerous. And even if you do, you want to believe you’d notice that something was off before you invite them in to live between the same four walls as you. Problem is, statistics aren’t guarantees. And once you lose that gamble once, you’re bound to make extra sure about anyone responding to your craigslist ad.
Which was how Amanda found herself sitting at the corner table of a coffee shop a few blocks from her apartment, waiting for who she hoped would turn out to be as good a roommate in reality as she was on paper. She’d gotten there early, more by accident than design, though she hoped it would give her a chance to collect her thoughts and relax. It hadn’t worked; mostly, it had given her time to remember how optimistic she’d been about Lilith when she moved in.
It had been fine at first. Lilith was nice, if a little odd. She’d was a little pale, but she’d also only gone out after dark. She seemed to eat blood sausage with every meal, but everyone had their dietary quirks. That colony of bats had moved into the walls about a week after she had moved in, but that could hardly have been her fault. Just coincidence.
Until the Incident, everything weird was easy enough to explain away. But when your roommate tries to bite your neck and only fails because you happened to have the presence of mind to fling the jar of powdered garlic at her, you end up feeling a bit paranoid.
Amanda shuddered and tried not to think about it. She also touched her hand to the small silver cross at her neck, just to reassure her subconscious that it was still there. Fortunately, any further recollections were preempted by the arrival of her potential new roommate.
She was a small woman—barely five feet tall and slight of stature—with red hair in a pixie cut and pale grey eyes. She approached the table and greeted Amanda with the most musical voice she had ever heard.
“I’m so glad you had time to meet! It’s Amanda, right?”
Amanda smiled and nodded. “And you’re Morgana.”
“I am!” said Morgana, and she laughed.
After that, the two of them just talked for a while, asking all the simple, silly questions anyone does when trying to find the first pieces of common ground on which to build an acquaintance. It went well. So well, in fact, that Amanda found herself thinking and hoping that she had found that rare gem of a person who could be both friend and roommate.
Of course, she had hoped that of Lilith, too, and not without reason.
And maybe it was extenuating circumstances that had nixed that dream, but it’s once bitten, twice shy, and Amanda had no desire to get bitten a second time. Granted, the fact that they were meeting in the daylight was a good sign, but she’d be happier if she could confirm those results with a couple of other subtle tests.
“So, what about cooking? Do you like fiddling around in the kitchen?”
Morgana’s eyes lit up for at least the twentieth time. “I love cooking! And baking. And experimenting. All of it! Do you?”
Amanda grinned back. “Absolutely. I’ve got a few go-to recipes that I stick with for the most part, but I’m a firm believer in the idea that garlic makes almost everything better.”
“Ha! Me too,” said Morgana. “If this works out, we should absolutely cook dinner together every now and then. I always like it better when I get to cook for someone else.”
Test number two, passed with flying colors. Amanda felt some of her tension bleed out of her shoulders, and she allowed herself to feel almost hopeful. It seemed unlikely that Morgana was going to be the sort of roommate who might be tempted to suck her blood.
Just to be sure, of course, there were a few more questions, a few more tests. Amanda turned the conversation to their favorite books, and was pleased to see that her mention of Dracula left Morgana unfazed. Morgana complimented her necklace and touched it without flinching when Amanda held it out to her, apparently unworried by the fact that it was both silver and a cross. Casual mentions of both wolves and bats got no response. In fact, nothing gave Amanda any cause for concern, and she felt a little silly when she arranged for a small mirror to tumble from her bag in such a way that it allowed her to check for a reflection. It was there, of course.
After that, even her most paranoid instincts were content that Morgana was likely to be a top notch roommate. She would move in at the end of the month, and they would likely be in constant contact even before that. When they went their separate ways that afternoon after enjoying almost an hour more of friendly conversation, Amanda felt more relaxed than she had in months.
“Oh!” Morgana turned back a moment after she left the table. “Before I forget, I should let you know. I have the worst reaction to anything made of pure iron. I just touch the stuff and it makes me go cold and numb all over. Just so you know!”
It wasn’t until after Morgana signed the lease and moved in that Amanda remembered that an aversion to cold iron was a known characteristic of the fae folk. And when she did, a sharp thrill of panic ran down her spine. But only the one. She’d rather live with a fairy than a vampire any day.