Despite the midsummer afternoon reigning over the countryside, the temperature hovered under the guise of a late autumn morning. Breezes wafted through the open windows and gaps along the jeep’s plastic siding, swatting five within the vehicle and rolling over one in its bed. The jeep itself was jostled and tremored as it travelled over dirt roads, which had been cut months before, and atop pathways dotted by discarded stone and unfinished signs. Jostling in time with the jeep were quiet strums, hurried twangs, and words barreling with a heavy drawl and which were, on occasions, aided by a younger voice. The radioed tune, driven by guitar, diminished over minutes before giving way to light applause, while those within the jeep, having listened to varying degrees, glanced up and around, as if freed from the song’s trance.
“That was Mississippi Slim with his young ward, Little Elvis Presley, for the United Nations’ lunchtime entertainment in this episode of ‘Voices of America’. Coming up next…”
The driver reached for the radio and lowered its volume while scanning the expanse of rugged grass and spurts of trees. “That’s the music you Americans are exporting nowadays?” he laughed.
“You blokes call that music?” the man behind him inquired.
“Don’t hate it until you’ve tried it”, the front passenger remarked. “What are they exporting from your countries?” He looked to the driver. “Igloos and maple syrup?”
“You wish you had our maple syrup, colonel; and I’d take either of those things over your ‘music’”, the driver mocked.
“The best tea this side of India”, the back-left passenger answered.
“The manpower to end a world war”, the back-right passenger proclaimed.
“You seem to have mistaken Russia for America again, comrade”, the colonel jeered.
“Must we reexamine the numbers?” the back-right passenger replied. “Without Russia’s manpower, Europe_”
“No, we don’t want to reexamine the numbers again, corporal—or”, the driver laughed. “Whatever you’re called in the Red Army—’Egg-crater’ or something.”
“Efreitor, efreitor, efreitor”, the corporal sighed.
“A freighter?” the back-left passenger cackled. “Sure you’re not in the Red Navy, mate?”
“I am certain my training guarantees me a better naval officer than anyone else here.”
“Because Russia’s naval achievements are so unquestionable”, the colonel humped.
“Did you even see the ocean before you crossed the pond?” the driver laughed.
“I got a better question”—the colonel pivoted and shifted his hat to look past his seat—“for our ‘special consultant’.” The Russian corporal unlatched and lowered the back’s plastic window and tapped the shoulder of the outstretched fifth, whose silver hair flailed and slid across his acoustic guitar. “Hey, Woodwind, can you play like those fellas on the radio?”
“Well, obviously!” Flute reared up, looked back, and swatted his guitar. “I’ve been playing this thing since they first made them. But who wants to hear that stuff?”
“Precisely”, the back-left passenger uttered.
“I know what you all want to hear”, Flute continued.
“No, you don’t”, the driver uttered.
“You fellas want to hear my song again_!”
“No”, the interior passengers grunted.
“‘Special consultant’”, the colonel continued. “I don’t know if car crashes will bother you, but we don’t want to fall asleep and crash in the middle of nowhere_”
“The Northwest Territories”, the driver corrected.
“So nowhere”, the colonel continued.
“My people called this ‘nowhere’ home for millennia before your people dropped by”, the driver corrected.
“Don’t go grouping me in your land disputes, private; my people were shipped here against their will.”
“It is karma then”, the corporal reasoned, “for both of your peoples. If things go as bad as the UN is expecting, no one will call this land home.” He looked out of the window, scanning that pristine expanse once more, while the back-left passenger sighed, and while the colonel rested his legs on the dashboard.
The private, after glancing to the colonel and then to the rearview, churned his jaws. “Hey, no need for dolor this early in the afternoon. The war hasn’t even started.” He raised his hands from the wheel but grabbed it as the jeep veered. “We’re about three minutes out, eh. You know what time it is.” As the colonel lowered his legs; as the corporal looked ahead; and as the back-left passenger smirked, the private swatted the steering wheel. “Drum roll for ya, colonel!”
The colonel threw off his hat. “Time to place your bets!” He looked back. “What kind of accent will the commanding officer have? Y’all already know my answer_”
“Being in North America does not necessarily mean he’ll sound American, colonel”, the private groaned. “There are more countries on this continent than the States.”
“None of importance”, the colonel scoffed.
“I read officer’s file”, the corporal noted, “it was Russians who trapped him; he will speak with Russian accent—the accent of his motherland.”
“You Russkies trapped him, but my people took care of him, since no one else could take the cold”, the private scoffed.
“Gentleman, we know how this will end”, the back-left passenger noted.
“How will it end, lieutenant?” the colonel huffed.
“He’ll have heard the best accent and will have decided to mimic it. In this and every possible case, it is the Queen’s English.”
“I bloody disagree”, the corporal laughed.
“Seems to be the trend everyone else is moving towards”, the lieutenant noted.
“We’ll call it linguistic propaganda on the Royal Military’s part”, the colonel noted while looking out. He huffed and turned as the jeep passed a pedestrian, hatted himself, and spun to Flute. “Hey, was that him?”
“Yep”, Flute replied while strumming.
“How did he get up here?” the colonel asked.
“He walked—he always walks.”
“Wasn’t he in Arizona yesterday?” the colonel gasped.
“Sure”, Flute replied.
The colonel, first raising his hands, looked to the back passengers, who shrugged, and then looked ahead as the jeep slowed before a road sign with:
BASE SEVEN – ARCTIC MOBILIZATION BATTALION
UNDER THE ADMINISTRATION OF THE ALLIED ARMY
ESTABLISHED 14 JUNE, 1947
The jeep crept on as the hillside gave way to elongated barracks and vitreous stalks, and it decelerated as the passengers found, atop an adjoining boulder, a bestial individual seated upright.
A polar bear, he was dressed in blue and green fatigues, partly slouched and with his jaws grinding as he chewed the gut of a frozen trout. After looking to the vehicle with sapphire-blue eyes, he gasped a visible puff and shoved the fish between his jaws, straightened while chewing its remainder, and stood. Rising to nine feet and first teetering, he ambled to the jeep. The jeep, as if petrified within the ursine shadow, came to a sharper halt and then deactivated. The officers, glancing at different times to their sidearms, disembarked, while Flute toppled from the jeep’s bed.
“You the commanding officer?” the colonel called as he strode to the bear and pushed out his chest.
“Da”, the bear barked. “I am Colonel Rurik!” he proclaimed with a smile and a salute. As the American colonel looked aside, the Russian corporal cackled and jabbed his back.
“Watch yourself, freighter”, the colonel grunted. “Colonel Rurik, you must know the deal by now. Show us the battalion.”
“Of course, of course”, Rurik proclaimed while pivoting about. “Follow me, sirs!” He walked, and the four officers and Flute followed along a hillside. As they came to a fence before the barracks, Rurik stopped beside a guard booth and saluted to the arctic fox seated within who leaned towards a radio transmitting static and occasional outbursts of jazz and who pressed a switch to raise the gate. They proceeded, with the strums of Flute’s guitar then being overshadowed by chirps, whistles, and sprinting patters.
The four humans examined the lanes between each barracks, watching young-adult beasts of pale covering and green and blue fatigues travelling in lines, packs, and flocks. Cats, dogs, rodents, mustelids, and ungulates of frigid climes jogged or sprinted. Penguins, seabirds, and high-soaring fowl sat around chilled pools. Primates and bears constructed small buildings from hyaline brick; and cetaceans and pinnipeds swam and dove within a manmade lake.
Along the far sides of the base ran varied beasts who maneuvered through obstacle courses, while before a fifty-foot climbing wall in one course, a snow leopard knelt. As a hare ran past the snow leopard and knelt at the wall’s fore, the snow leopard called, “Eject!” The hare skipped, spread his legs, and kicked, with a protrusion of ice erupting below him and propelling him to the wall’s peak. “Good!” the snow leopard applauded before toppling the icy construct and stepping back for the next runner.
On an opposite end of the base, dozens stood in lines of ten and outstretched their hands, wings, or fins. Between their appendages appeared cold air currents, while, below them, patches of frost took shape. Seconds more, and the currents spiraled into whirlwinds that inched in height.
“I thought they made ice”, the British lieutenant remarked to Flute. “Not…create bloody cyclones.”
“Not really make ice”, Flute replied while strumming a hurried melody, “but more, steal the thermal energy from their surroundings. The easiest medium—outside of water—is the atmosphere. Stealing energy from the immediate atmosphere creates disequilibrium, which generates small-scale air currents, like how weather occurs. By manipulating how much thermal energy they’re taking and where they’re taking it from, they can control how the effects of their ability manifest.”
“So if all of them worked together, they could create…storm systems?” the corporal inquired.
“Yes, correct!” Flute replied.
“It’s amazing”, the Canadian private noted as he watched another group press their hands against the ground and tense. With a blue flash, a column of ice ascended from each officer’s hands or wings and then crowned itself in a tree-like canopy, with some of them rising to ten and twenty feet.
“It’s okay”, Flute hummed.
“I’m sorry?” the colonel grunted as he looked back. “We’ve got a battalion of Jack Frosts at the ready.”
“This isn’t the apex.” Flute looked around. “Their abilities are still developing, just like the others. The carnivores’ red energy didn’t manifest at first. It took a lot of buffering and specialized training; some contemplation on their part; and some deduction from your scientists.”
“Okay, and what’ll it look like when they’ve reached ‘the apex’?” the private inquired.
“I dunno”, Flute humphed. “But what they have now is enough for the tasks we need them to do.”
“But are they enough?” the British lieutenant inquired while turning. “Colonel Rurik, what are the battalion’s numbers?”
“Of the ten thousand sent here with the potential for developing ability, five hundred have shown it.” Rurik looked up as a swan flapped overhead with a tail of frost. “One thousand more have shown strong immunity to cold and are being trained at Ottawa as immediate support officers. The remainder were sent back to be trained as auxiliary members alongside of human armies.” He looked back and nodded before continuing, but the officers stopped.
“What?” the lieutenant mumbled to the American colonel. “Is that right?” he asked Flute.
“Probably”, Flute replied with a shrug.
“That can’t be right”, the private noted. “I saw the reports. The ones who can manifest the red energy—they’re at around five thousand, but we thought they were the lowest by a huge gap. This battalion is an order of magnitude smaller.”
“Because this ability is unnatural”, Flute reasoned.
“As they all are?” the American colonel remarked. “Before this whole—whatever You Three are doing—started, I’d play fetch with a dog and not expect it to throw the disk back or critique how I threw it.”
“The critique is intended to be helpful; a lot of you don’t move efficiently”, Flute reasoned. “This specific ability is difficult for me to explain without giving you_”
“Migraines for the rest of our lives. We got it the last few times”, the lieutenant sighed.
“Exactly”, Flute countered. “It means that, more than the other abilities, the chemical and physical aspects of this one are the least natural for this planet. With that in mind, fewer of the species are able to take with the methods we used. However, even these numbers are enough to deal with the wildfires we’re expecting. If you have more questions, you can ask the Director.”
Rurik stopped and spun. “Is Director coming here?”
“Yes, he should be at the gate by now.”
“Oh!” Rurik hopped back and reached into his pocket. “This is momentous occasion. He will be elated to see our growth!” He extracted a whistle dented with bite marks and blew a harsh and sporadic chirp in two-second bursts. Around him, those within the base scrambled, and as orders were relayed, the humans looked about, and the Canadian private staggered.
“Hey”, the private remarked while looking left. “Hey, Colonel Rurik, who made that one?” He pointed, as the other human officers turned, to the field’s western end, where stood another ice tree with a fifty-foot-wide trunk and a canopy of hundreds of spinous branches that peaked at just over two hundred feet.
“Troublemaker”, Rurik growled. He lowered his whistle. “He is most adept officer here; figures out new maneuvers and techniques before we even have chance to develop or teach them, but is also picking fights with whomever he can—officers here and visiting officers from other battalions. He would make good, strong leader”, Rurik pronounced while beating his chest, “but until he can act right, I have designated him as night guard.” Rurik looked to the humans. “He is not needed for this meeting. Knowing him, he would pick fight with Director.” Rurik then looked down the path and squealed at an individual striding past the gate. “We must meet Director now!”
Brutus opened his eyes. With his large arms crossed behind his head as he lay on one of his ice tree’s branches and peered to its colossal peak. While yawning, he pushed up. As the leaps and slides of another above him trembled his equilateral ears, he looked over the branch. “It doesn’t look like sundown to me, Tiberius.”
“Did you hear?” the white-furred macaque gasped as he landed across from Brutus, “The Director is here!”
“Yay”, the lynx yawned. “I thought you had good news, like we had gotten better rations.”
“There are also humans!”
“Oh huzzah”, Brutus mumbled while scratching his ruffs. “Did they promote you because you’re excitable, corporal?”
“They did commend me for my morale, but the humans—they’re our superiors”, Tiberius reasoned.
“In rank; nothing more.” Brutus rolled onto his side and slid his claws between his felid teeth. “It’s barely—what—minus three centigrade at night, and the humans that drop by need quadruple layers to sleep ‘without experiencing hypothermia and dying’.” He rolled to his knees and balanced on his toes. “They can’t even run our obstacle courses! And you can’t throw them more than ten feet without risking snapping their tiny chicken legs!” Brutus raised his hand as Tiberius reared back. “I don’t mean to offend any chickens; in fact!” He pointed. “I hear even chickens have better legs than them. No wonder they need us. They’re frail without their tanks and planes.”
“Right, but…maybe if you meet the Director…maybe he’ll see that you’re worth more than the night patrol.” Tiberius looked aside. “You could get transferred to Central Command in Utah. I bet there are a lot of strong soldiers there.”
“The only thing I hate more than holding up my ‘allies’ is giving adulations, corporal.” Brutus scratched his spiked hair and squinted towards the battalion-beasts and the humans around whom they gathered. “Don’t you have to lead a stampede or…?” Brutus’s words trailed, and his eyes twitched. He stood but then bowed, outstretching his 6'4” frame to creep.
“Brutus?” Tiberius called.
Brutus looked to the figure nearing the human officers. He winced at a flash emanating from the figure; he squinted at a rush of polychromic static that engulfed the figure; and he bowed as the space around the figure warped into a compressive parallax, but then reset. “Do you see that, Tiberius?” Brutus mumbled, his pupils dilating. “There’s something wrong… There’s something…” He crept to the branch’s edge.
“And we have five hundred soldiers with ability, all very, very strong”, Rurik pronounced as he walked with the Director and pointed to the bestial officers scrambling around him. “We have trained them very, very well!”
As Rurik pointed to varied beasts, Flute, standing perpendicular to the Director, strummed in gradual time while glancing to the humans grouped together and jotting notes. Flute spun back to them, but then smacked his fret, spun to the colossal ice tree, squinted at a column of frost arcing from the tree, and grimaced as he found a shadow darting along the ground.
Flute turned. As he looked past the Director, his hair deepened to piceous black; his arms bulged with rising muscle; and, as his pupils brightened, black stripes crept along his skin. Flute stepped while flashing tigrish canines, but was caught—by the Director’s pinky. At once, Flute’s vehement guise and chatoyant frame reverted to a countenance human and calm. He stepped back and adjusted his guitar.
As Flute reached to strum, Brutus crashed, with a blast of frost decelerating the lynx’s plunge and gusting from his touchdown. As the humans, Rurik, Flute, and the Director were blasted by a frigid gale, Brutus pounced and, while smiling, outstretched his right. As Rurik teetered, Brutus breathed an icy gust into his palm. As Flute’s fingers contacted with his strings and as the humans started to wince from the biting cold, Brutus forged a whirlwind in his right. He then thrust his windstorm at the Director, but locked as the Director’s right hand reached to intercept. The Director flicked.
Brutus wretched as his whirlwind was atomized; Brutus recoiled as a pulse knocked him back; and Brutus coughed as he spiraled to the ground. “How…?” Brutus looked to his right palm stripped of fur. He then looked to the Director and pushed to his knees, but was enshrouded.
“Brosok!” Rurik bellowed as he crashed onto Brutus. “Blokirovka molotka!” he roared as he twisted Brutus’s arms behind his back. “Odin, dva, tri!” Rurik counted as he squeezed Brutus’s limbs. “Dlya Rossii!” Rurik bellowed, a chute of frost beaming from his mouth.
“Dlya Rossii!” the Russian corporal howled.
“That hurts, oaf!” Brutus snarled.
“Have you lost your mind, soldier?” the American colonel howled while wiping frost from his clothes. “Assaulting a commanding officer is worthy of immediate detention!”
“What’s the matter, soldier?” Brutus cackled. “Can’t take a few playful hits from some wild beasts?!”
“I only see one wild beast here.” The colonel stepped back. “Colonel Rurik, please escort_”
“It’s okay.” As Brutus grunted, the American colonel turned to the Director. Rurik, after nodding, pushed from Brutus and stepped back. Brutus pushed to his knees but turned to Flute strumming his guitar behind him. Scoffing as Flute flashed his tongue, Brutus spun to the Director kneeling in front of him.
“That was fast!” Brutus gasped while showing his furless palm. “Faster than anyone I’ve ever seen! Beasts from other battalions have said they were fast, but none of them were faster than my gaze! But you!” the lynx pointed while hyperventilating. “I couldn’t follow your movements! No! To me, there were no movements; just instantaneous motion! I’ve never met someone…” Brutus leaned. “You’re not like the other humans… You…” Brutus wagged his finger. “Were you glowing earlier?”
“They say you’re talented”, the Director remarked.
“Understatement of the year”, Brutus murmured.
“You could be invaluable to this organization, but it’s difficult for you to be utilized if you keep picking fights with allies.”
Brutus inhaled as his mesmerized gaze collapsed. “It’s not my fault they can’t keep up”, the lynx scoffed while looking away.
“Maybe they can’t—not with someone as gifted as you—but that doesn’t mean that they’re not only just as useful but worthy of your respect”, the Director replied. “Everyone is working towards the same goal, officer.”
Brutus sneered and looked to his claws. “Can I leave now ‘Director’, or do I have more scenes to shoot?”
“Many more”, the Director chuckled. “But what’ll it take for you to rein in your fighting spirit—to convert it into something beneficial to everyone—Officer Brutus?”
Brutus, first staring at his white claws, grinned at the Director. “I’ll make you a deal, sir: the day I’m able to land a blow on you is the day I’ll ‘calm down’.”
"Is that everything?”
The elevator opened, and Colonel Clooney walked with bags in hand. With the numbat captain staring at a touchscreen beside him, the fox strode past the nurses station and turned to a corridor on the northwestern wing. He then turned to an open doorway on his left, where to Joseph sat on an examination table and Khristya viewed a hologram of the cougar’s nervous system. “This is odd”, Clooney remarked while reaching into one of the bags. “I’d expect Officer James to be using this as an excuse to be alone with the lieutenant.”
“He’s nowhere near that clever”, Joseph countered. “But I’m here for legitimate research.”
“Does it involve explosives?” Clooney asked.
“Not this time”, Khristya replied while typing.
“I’m trying to figure out why using my dunamis makes me sick.” Joseph raised his gauntlet.
“Perhaps the Ex-colonel installed a virus into the dunamis’s programming”, the numbat suggested while scrolling through his touchscreen. “That virus_”
“Throws the nanite cooperation out of equilibrium; in turn causing Joseph’s own nanites to act out of order; perhaps interfere with his digestion and-or metabolism”, the flying fox finished. “I already scanned for that, captain. I’ve detected interruption with his nanites, but nothing like what you’ve suggested.”
“Well, whatever”, the numbat grumbled, “maybe I’ll forget your order next time.”
“Nonsense”, Clooney yipped while handing a packaged, foot-long sandwich to Joseph. “‘Literally every meat they have on the menu except for hornet’”, the fox recited before reaching into his bag and pulling out three red apples. “And three apples for the lieutenant.”
“Boring”, the numbat mumbled.
“Thank you, colonel”, Khristya replied as she grabbed the apples and placed them by her side.
“It’s nothing after what this team did for my jurisdiction.”
“I didn’t know we helped that much”, Khristya replied.
“You didn’t”, Clooney stated. He stepped out of the room. “I’m still trying to keep ARK from being blamed for the destruction and environmental damage at Chippewa Lake, and my commander is probably not winning reelection. I think he needs a break from the stress, but he’s probably going to promote me out of spite.”
He continued on with the numbat. After passing empty hospital rooms, Clooney came to an intersection, beside which Lieutenant Colonel Augustus stood with arms crossed. “Has anyone done anything suspicious?” Clooney inquired while reaching into a bag.
“Nothing we haven’t come to expect”, the pinscher replied.
“The usual for you”, Clooney spoke while handing a wrapped sandwich to Augustus. The colonel looked left. “‘Everything Joseph asked for, but include the hornet’ for the WINTER master who never gave us warning of his arrival despite what his Movement Forecasting Clause Agreement requires”, he pronounced while handing a sandwich to Glenn seated along the wall with his halved katana in hand. “We don’t sell hornet here, anyway.”
“Hornet’s not even edible, captain”, the numbat remarked.
“It is if you try hard enough”, the burgundy-red saurian replied.
“‘Something that will remind me of Peoria; don’t hold back on the spices’ for the lieutenant colonel.” Clooney turned to Lieutenant Colonel Scott seated atop a weathered stone a little less than three feet in height.
“Nice”, the black bear replied as Clooney handed him three sandwiches. He smelled them and nodded. “Smells just like home.”
“You did not grow up in Peoria”, Lieutenant Kevin grunted across from Scott, his hood draped over his snout as he scrolled on a touchscreen.
“Kevin, you will not get food if you keep it up”, Scott huffed.
“And I am not going to ask how and from where you received that touchscreen.” Clooney handed the retriever his sandwich. “‘Surprise me—I bet you have excellent tastes’”, Clooney recited.
“Thanks, lieutenant commander—I mean—colonel”, Kevin answered with a smirk. “Have I ever told you_?”
“We don’t have Vanguard openings in my jurisdiction, thank you”, Clooney continued. “Two orders of ‘the best thing you have, but on the hardest bread you can find’.” He handed a sandwich to Captain Wallace and then to Lieutenant Captain Albert.
“That’s not what I said before someone copied me”, the coywolf grunted while lowering his un-stringed bow and grabbing his sandwich.
“‘Like how they make it in Southern Jersey’”, the pelican pronounced as he grabbed his sandwich.
“Same thing”, Clooney grunted. “And ‘whatever Lieutenant Colonel Scott is getting, but for a normal beast’s metabolism’ for Little Augustus”, he spoke to Lieutenant Captain Andrew as the shepherd retrieved his sandwich.
“Thank you, sir”, Lieutenant Captain Andrew greeted with a nod. As Clooney rolled his eyes and turned to the intersection’s opposite hall, Andrew looked to Augustus and nodded. Augustus nodded in retort.
“I bet you have openings for him”, Kevin murmured.
“‘I have many walnuts, but thank you, colonel’ for Mister Fakes His Accent.” Clooney raised a bag of acorns and dropped them into Woodson’s lap.
“You have accent too”, Woodson retorted as he chewed on a walnut and scratched his inch-long hair.
“‘Fish’ for the anatine lieutenant of few words and many grunts.” Clooney handed a clear bag of uncooked, unseasoned trout to Edwin, seated atop his cloak and fisting his right wing. Edwin looked up as the bag was dropped to his lap. “A surprisingly complicated order involving several vegetables not grown here and therefore which cost extra for Officer Nee”, Clooney continued, while the turtle examined the scars on his long neck by a sphere of water hovering before his face.
“Thank you, sir”, Nee replied as he retrieved his sandwich.
“And ‘oh yeah, sure’ for the officer who was not paying attention when I asked for his sandwich order.” Clooney stopped in front of James. Though eclipsed by the colonel, the young fox scrolled through a touchscreen with ‘RENTAL’ printed at its peak. Clooney, after rolling his eyes, raised the sandwich and glanced to the list of names through which James scrolled. He then dropped the sandwich onto the touchscreen, causing James to skip. “Beef-berry with fresh lettuce for an added crunch”, the older red fox pronounced. “I figured, since we’re related, you have similar tastes.”
“Oh, right”, James coughed as he opened the wrapper. “Thank you, colonel.”
“And putting in a request for a new dunamis is relatively easy”, Clooney noted. “Back in the day, beasts who didn’t like theirs would go out of their way to break them and get new ones. It was a logistical nightmare. Luckily, they closed most of the loopholes behind it. You can prove yours was broken beyond your control with corroborating reports from unrelated officers so you don’t have to worry about added paperwork.”
“Yeah…right”, James hummed. “I just…I’d rather not have to retell that story.”
“Why not?” Albert called as he lowered his sandwich. “Look at it this way: Steven’s had the same dunamis since he joined.”
“Yeah, I know…” James hummed while sniffing his sandwich.
“But it’s because he never stood his ground against an opponent he knew he couldn’t beat”, the pelican continued.
“A fair point”, Clooney remarked.
“Right, but…Steven’s never had an opponent he knew he absolutely couldn’t beat…right?” James asked.
“Whoops”, Glenn muttered.
“He dueled me once”, Kevin muttered while unwrapping his sandwich.
“Well that’s beside the point, officer”, Albert pronounced.
“Getting to a more relevant issue: has he budged?” Clooney asked while looking to the locked door across from James, its window lined with frost.
“No, not yet, sir”, James replied, while Edwin, his neck straightening, looked down the hall.
“Does Drake not need to relieve himself?” Kevin inquired. “It’s been a bloody week.”
“He might be used to sitting in…” Glenn squinted while sniffing. He then glanced to Wallace lowering his sandwich and also sniffing.
Clooney looked down the hall, to the elevator, and to Lieutenant Commander Soren and Colonel Brad striding through that floor. “How in the…? Lieutenant commander, what?” Clooney pointed to Brad, and Brad smiled and waved.
“It is nice to see you as well, colonel”, Brad replied with a curtsy. She turned to the connecting hall, where Glenn, Wallace, Edwin, and Kevin stood several yards off. The spotted, white cat then glowered at Kevin—driving the retriever to hide both of his rapiers behind his back—and then to Scott, covering his rock. “Nice rock, lieutenant colonel!”
“Right, okay”, Scott pronounced while chewing his second sandwich, “but you can’t break this one too.”
“Can’t I?” Brad cracked her neck and grinned, but Soren spun her about.
“Per Goshote, the colonel’s MFCA has been suspended.” Soren then grabbed Augustus’s sandwich wrapper and pocketed it. “It smelled intriguing”, he pronounced to the chewing pinscher.
“Due to?” Clooney inquired.
“The meats and, I bravely postulate, some of the seasonings”, Soren answered.
“No, her MFCA”, Clooney grunted. “The one thing that every jurisdiction in the Central College has been able to agree on in the last five years has been the necessity of the MFCA for Colonel ‘Whatever-You-Call-Her-Now’.”
“Smart!” Kevin barked. Brad pointed at him.
“Ah, of course”, Soren pronounced as he hopped past Clooney. “Dire circumstances.”
“Such as?” Clooney asked, while Soren stopped beside Drake’s door. “No one budged when the Landing Point report was released despite several ‘alleged’ intrusions by Part-time Guilds-beasts, a wealthy mad-raccoon laying waste to the museum, and a fake-accented corporal having figured out a way past your field.” Soren, his feathers trembling, glared at a smiling Woodson. “And there hasn’t been any word of sanctions or retaliations after either the infiltration of three Seasons into SUMMER’s Domain, or the death of a Guilds-beast from Old Spring. Ten years ago, and me saying that sentence would have triggered a war.” Clooney flailed the bag holding his sandwich. “What’s pacified the Sixteen enough to keep this area from turning into a catastrophe?”
Soren raised his beak and glanced to Glenn lowering his sandwich and staring at his katana. “The Covenant of Mysteries.”
“Primarily only benefits the non-Guilds, if we’re honest”, Clooney pronounced. “It doesn’t broker treaties, and any pacts of nonaggression are flimsy without ARK codification; in that case, they become only mildly flimsy.”
“Correct”, Soren sighed, “but it’s also a framework for the primary defense of the continent. When something threatening to at least the continent is at play, the Covenant of Mysteries forces the Sixteen Guilds into cooperation.”
“‘At least the continent’”, Clooney repeated, “what does that mean?”
“It means I need to move the captain behind hither door to a more secure location”, Soren replied.
“More secure?” Clooney grunted. “Stone-Shatter Hospital and Medical University has the largest ARK contingent in Yankton outside of the conservatory, is funded and backed by SUMMER, and has not had an ant-caused fatality in three decades.”
“Stone-Shatter also has the cheapest med-school tuition rates in the entire continent”, the numbat continued. “If you enroll now_”
“No”, Clooney interrupted, “we’re not advertising.”
“I thought we were always advertising?”
“Not secure enough”, Soren replied. “For the sake of this thought game, consider the possibility that Guild-boundaries mean nothing in relation to this extended team.”
“That is terrifying to consider.” Clooney glanced to a smiling Brad.
“Lieutenant Colonel Scott”, the crow began, “I need you, your lieutenant captains, and your hooded ne’er-do-well to remain here for as long as possible in order to avert pursuers. If said hypothetical pursuers see that you have remained, they may suspect that the captain, his former captain, and his team are also present.”
“After that, can I visit Peoria?” Scott gasped.
“If your mania drives you to, I will not prevent your self-medication”, Soren replied.
“Says the crow who barely restrains his kleptomania”, Brad murmured before pointing at Woodson winding back an acorn.
“Says the psychopathic murder-cat!”
“What was that, Kevin?!” Brad snarled, prompting Scott to cover his rock, Woodson to compress into a ball, and Clooney to cover his head.
“That was Glenn!” Kevin screeched as he ran down the hall.
“Don’t put that on me, Kevin!” Glenn roared as he pointed at Kevin but then collapsed.
“The Exit Agreement for your MFCA’s suspension included no damage on ARK grounds”, Soren pronounced, driving Brad to ease. “Colonel Clooney, you must delay your notification to Commander Oberon of my arrival by no less than two business days to give us a reasonable head start”, the crow continued, while a sighing Clooney stood.
“Why are we being pursued?” James asked, while Khristya and Joseph stepped into the intersection.
“I figured after so many recorded instances, you would no longer question that facet of your life”, Soren noted.
“I don’t want to become jaded to being someone’s enemy”, James retorted.
“Then don’t befriend Guilds-beasts”, the numbat huffed.
“A more answerable question”, Brad continued, “where are we going more secure than the university backed by the strongest Season?”
“Second-strongest”, Glenn grunted.
“We need a meeting place with a safe house rated against heinous levels of destruction.”
“That does not answer my question, lieutenant commander”, Brad continued.
“Captain Glenn”, Soren called, “I need you to not listen to the following sentences in order to answer your father truthfully when he inevitably questions you about Captain Drake’s location.”
“Right, sure.” As Brad turned to Glenn and pulled back her cloak, Glenn slammed his hands onto his ears, bowed, and hummed.
Soren turned to Brad. “Call the ranch.”
“What?” Brad barked, while Soren walked to Drake’s door.
“How come he didn’t say, ‘you mean, “What, lieutenant commander”‘?” Joseph inquired.
“He knows not to say to that to me”, Brad explained with a smile, while Soren turned the handle.
The white-haired crow pressed the entryway, with the ice along its interior shattering from inward motion. Soren then looked to Drake on the hospital room’s floor, his arms on his knees and his head bowed. “Captain, it’s time to leave.”
Drake looked up.