Introducing Even the Score

 

One, two, three,
How many will my victims be?
One, two, three, four,
How many more to even the score?

When Taro Hibiki leads a survival class into the backwoods, he has two goals: to prove himself as an instructor, and to propose to his beloved Rafe before he loses his nerve completely. In the wilds might seem a strange place for that, but it’s where Taro feels most at home—and the only place the couple can escape all their other responsibilities.

BFR’s colonists claim the name stands for “Big Effing Rock,” and boast of their planet’s dangers. Yet more treacherous than sight-scamps or bomb bugs is a human seeking vengeance. Soon Taro’s students are dropping one by one, and no matter what Taro does, the killer stays a step ahead. Worst of all, Taro suspects the students are targets of opportunity—that the ultimate goal is Rafe. Taro would die for Rafe in a heartbeat, but who’s going to take care of Rafe if he does?

As it happens, the killer has a plan for that, too.

Even the Score will be available December 1st from Turtleduck Press. It takes place two years after the events of His Faithful Squire. Find a chronology of the Dream’verse here.

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Trust Rafe to set the scene perfectly. We huddled in the deepest, narrowest part of a canyon called Fools Rush In. Sharp grey cliffs rose all around. Rafe the Victim lay in a tangle of rocks at the base of a blank face of stone, blood smeared in a few choice locations. I’d had to limit his artistic vision on that effect. Let him have his way and the trainees would declare him DOA due to blood loss, neatly avoiding their second test. I sat beside him, flicking through the files of my first class on a borrowed handcomp. There wasn’t much. Profile pictures carefully taken to erase all hint of personality, supposedly relevant facts that meant nothing…a criminal conviction ten years ago, high scores on an IQ test, parent of a toddler. Well, that one meant something, maybe—might mean that McCarney was used to life-and-death decisions while dead of sleep deprivation, unless he let his wife handle all that.

A stingfly fluttered by; I swatted it away from Rafe. “You’re sure you’re all right?” I’d moved a lot of the rocks from his chosen spot, but he hadn’t let me move all of them, for “verisimilitude” he said.

“I’m fine, my love.” Rafe smiled under the hat shielding his eyes and scratched at a patch of red on his arm. “Have you ever known me to suffer in silence?”

“Have I ever known you to do anything in silence?”

He clutched his chest. “Taro Hibiki, you wound me!”

“I’m gonna,” I warned, “if you go overboard. It’s a test, not a comedy club.” Finally I heard the skimmer coming up the canyon. “Let’s see if they spot me,” I told Rafe, pocketing the comp before easing farther into the brambles that bordered the tumbled rocks.

“Not a chance, ninja-boy!” Rafe said. I shushed him before anyone could see him talking to what should be empty bushes. The trainees knew I’d be watching from somewhere. Let that be enough warning to find me.

The white skimmer flew low and slow, gliding just above the clifftops as it followed the course of the canyon. On one wing was the red stick-and-snake, the symbol for first responders. Around the tail was the swirl camouflage background of brown, green, and grey that signified Backwoods Deployment, background to the winged white axe of Search and Rescue.

At least one of the trainees had their eyes open; as soon as the skimmer was fully visible it gave the wing-waggle that meant the victim had been spotted. Rafe raised an arm in response. The skimmer lifted, to hover atop a cliff across the canyon from Rafe. Two figures jumped out of it and darted into the brush. The skimmer lifted, moved, hovered in another spot. Another pair of “rescuers.” Five times total the skimmer dropped people before pulling into the sky.

“Eight forfeits say the first team walks right through the laserweed,” Rafe muttered. I snorted.

“No bet, Rafe. I say one of them falls in it.” Since when did he know laserweed on sight?

“Ouch.”

“Pretend I’m not here, remember?”

“Help!” Rafe shouted. “Oh, help, it hurts! Oh my stars! Oh, help! Oh please, oh help!”

“Theatrical bastard,” I muttered. He tossed me a grin.

“Oh my land, won’t anyone help me please?”

“God, will you shut up?” demanded a pale blonde as she stepped into the clearing. Stephanie Rector. I’d had her in my newb class once. Rafe admired the shape of her coveralls before he remembered I could see where his eyes were.

“Help?” he said.

“Yeah, okay.” She looked around, didn’t spot me, spoke louder. “So we got blood on the arm, ankle caught, clearly delirious. I’d be guessing you fell while climbing. So even though you’re conscious, I’m going to be real careful moving you in case of spine or head injuries.”

“Please,” Rafe said. “I’m delicate.”

Rector snorted and knelt, tossing long curly hair over her shoulder. She wore it loose, because that’s what you want in the backwoods—ample handles for something to grab you.

“Next,” Rector said, “I’m going to want to make sure there aren’t any injuries I haven’t spotted.” She pulled on a pair of gloves. “Universal precautions…” she muttered, and began an examination that made Rafe jump.

“Buy me dinner first!” Rafe yelped.

I breathed deeply and stayed in the bushes.

“Just checking. I’ve heard you men value some parts more than others.”

“Why don’t you give him a blow job while you’re there?” a brown man with brown hair asked as he strode up, pantlegs smeared with laserweed juice. Few minutes to soak in, fifteen minutes to hit him… “Make sure you pass.” Lujan, the nasty brown man was Alex Lujan.

“Shut up,” said the dark-skinned man two steps behind him. Faizal was his name, Kaseem Faizal. “What injuries does the patient have?”

Rector repeated her findings. “So we’d call for an evac. And be told—?” she asked Rafe.

“To get me to a place the skimmer can pick us up, of course,” Rafe said. “You’re a pilot, Stephanie. Would you want to land down here?” Trust Rafe to go straight to a first-name basis.

“Want to?” Rector asked. “No. But in an emergency, I would.”

Grabby and stupid. I made a mental note.

“Right,” Rector went on, unaware of me plotting to fail her. She pulled bandages from her bag. “So I’m going to splint your arm just in case, and then I’m going to pull your leg—”

“Got it,” Faizal said, lifting Rafe’s ankle from the cleft between two rocks. Rafe, of course, yelped pain.

“Splint it first, you dumbass!” Lujan snapped. Too late, the limb had been moved.

“It’s clearly not—”

“You think they’re really gonna break his leg?” Lujan asked. “You gotta at least check. Tootsie here was too worried about other parts, she didn’t grab him there.”

“Kiss off—Lujan, was it?” Rector asked. “Just kiss my ass, Lujan.”

“Bare it, sweetheart.”

More trainees showed up to cluster around the victim. Rafe let them fuss over him, but when they picked him up, he rattled in his throat and rolled his eyes back. Rector shot him a sharp look.

“What?”

“You screwed up, that’s what.” I stood. The trainees jumped, nearly dropped Rafe. “Put him down,” I snapped. “Hurt Rafe and this will be one miserable trip.”

Freed, Rafe hurried to my side. I swept the students with the look Eve gave new recruits who were already fucking up.

“Rector, you blew it,” I began. “You knew he might have spinal injuries, but you didn’t check his spine. If you had, Rafe would have told you he had a fractured cervical vertebrae. As you didn’t, you killed him when you moved him.” I pointed at the brown man. “Lujan, you’re an asshole. Stop it. Search and Rescue has to work in close conditions; that bullshit won’t cut it. Faizal, Lujan was right. You should have checked his ankle before moving it. You caused your victim increased pain and trauma. The rest of you took too damn long. The it’s-only-training shit will get you failed in my class. Ravid—” I pointed at the young redhead, “where the hell were you?”

“I—I—”

“Tripping over his tongue, sounds like,” Lujan said with a chuckle.

“Better than traipsing through laserweed, dickwad. You might want to go wash your pants. In a minute.” I stood at parade rest. “All right. I’m your instructor, Taro Hibiki-Marcori. Call me Hibiki unless you’re whining. Then it’s Backwoods Survival Qualification Instructor Kentaro Hideaki Hibiki-Marcori sir, and if you can’t remember all of it you don’t get to whine. You’ve already met Rafe Ballard.” Rafe gave them a bow. “He’s our volunteer victim for this trip. He’s also going to cook for you when you’re not showing off your survival skills, so count yourselves damned lucky.” I slipped an arm around Rafe’s waist. “Two more things about Rafe. First, he’s mine. Rector, touch him again and I’ll break seventeen bones at random. Second, Rafe is not a qualified Woody, so part of your course will be to watch out for the civilian. If Rafe gets hurt,” I held each person’s eyes for a moment, “you fail.” I met each set of eyes again. “Any questions?”

“Lujan,” Rafe breathed. I shook my head. No bet. Sure as hell the brown man would be first to be an ass.

On cue, Lujan sneered. I raised an eyebrow.

“Got a problem, Lujan?”

“Not sure I want to learn what you got to teach.”

“Tough shit.”

“Don’t mean survival.”

“I know. And for that you’re carrying the tent.” I looked over them again. “We should have eleven. Where is—” I pulled out the handcomp, “—Elias McCarney?”

Dead, it turned out.

 

I found the body at the bottom of the cliff, a sprawl of limp limbs with his head bashed in, sort of like Rafe’s pretended predicament only with more blood.

“‘Elias McCarney,’” I read from the handcomp. “‘Twenty-three, highly-qualified pilot. Next of kin Gwendolyn McCarney, spouse. One child.’ Who was teamed with McCarney?”

Ravid, big-eyed and looking about twelve, raised his hand like a kid in school.

“He—he was right behind me, sir. I swear. I didn’t notice when—”

“Ever hear of the buddy system, Ravid? If you’d noticed when he tripped—” I shook my head. “Scratch that, you don’t have the mass. If you’d grabbed him you would have gone too. And he died when he hit bottom, not a damned thing you could have done then. You start telling yourself it’s your fault, and I will kick your ass up between your ears.” I put the handcomp away. “This is why we’re here,” I told the class. “Because half a second of stupid makes you the victim instead of the rescuer, and we don’t need that shit out here. Banish the stupid now—if it doesn’t get you dead, it will get you failed.”

I set the trainees to hauling the body down-ravine for pick-up, and watched. The whole trip was a test, after all, and it was my job to protect them and all future rescuees, victims, and bystanders from the stupid.

With only bland profile pictures to go from, I’d attached names to hair, faces, skin color. Now I filled in some of my knowledge base, starting my mental gradebook. I’d compare notes with Rafe later, when I put my impressions in the handcomp. Even on BFR, you couldn’t just fail someone. You had to prove you had reason.

First to step up to the too-common job of picking up the dead was Kaseem Faizal. His hair was black and straight, skin just the shade of the burnt umber paint Rafe had used in the private room of the restaurant. He looked stiff and annoyed, but he was the one to wrap a blanket around the corpse’s ruined head. He wanted to be a doctor, and backwoods survival was a requirement for a free ride to the university’s med school.

Leonard Kizzie took his time pulling on gloves before he bent to help. Pale gold hair, dark gold skin, but the insides of his wrists were lighter so most of that was tan. Muscular with scars on his arms and a bit more chest showing than average. He wanted to be a Bouncer, to police the backwoods of BFR and live the rustic life.

Petra Khumalo, skin two shades darker than mine and frizzy black hair. She kept one eye on me while she worked clearing brush to make moving McCarney easier. I’d met her once or twice for pilot things. She knew my reputation and my nickname. The fact that she’d come anyway spoke for her courage. Or her lack of sense.

Gedeon Alcor, tanned like the leather vest he wore, long silver hair in a braid down his back. Thin and wiry, and wanting to be a survival instructor himself. He was the one to stuff a stretcher under the body, moving the baggage efficiently and emotionlessly.

Alex Lujan, brown asshole. ‘nuff said. He haphazardly cleared brush just to look like he was doing something.

Viktor Zlin, another with a worker’s tan though he wore a large hat over short brown hair. A big man and a hermit-to-be, Zlin wanted a backwoods land-grant. He had leather gloves and moved brush to more effect.

Joss Ravid, nineteen-year-old nothing much yet. He was the palest of the lot, with red-orange hair to set it off. He wanted to be a Search and Rescue hero. I’d figured a few days of the reality would cure him of that. Now I revised that to maybe ten minutes, seeing how Ravid—Joss. He was just a kid. Joss watched with wide eyes. Probably his first brush with real death. Blast.

Bao Chen. Skin a shade lighter than mine, suspicious green eyes slanted like mine. More than Khumalo, Chen kept a wary eye on everything around her. A street rat, I bet, though that wasn’t in the packet. It didn’t need to be. I knew the breed.

Takeisha Burck, working with Alcor without a word. Black hair cut close to her scalp, skin black as good motor oil with the blue sheen even. A pilot and a veteran, so we’d met a few times. She wore black Fleet fatigues same as me and looked like she never ate. Not like me.

And last, the pretty Stephanie Rector, skin just a shade darker than Ravid and her eyebrows were dark brown despite the blonde hair. She straightened up McCarney’s body on the stretcher, like comfort mattered now. Then she caught Rafe’s eye and winked. He grinned and shook his head. Did she think I was kidding about the seventeen bones?

When they had the body on what little flat ground we had, I pulled out the satellite comm, our one and only link to civilization for the next week or more.

“Morici,” came back as soon as I was done calling. Rafe grinned. Lavon Morici was one of his favorite people on the planet, or so he told her often. “Scare someone off already, Major Trouble?”

“McCarney fell off the damn cliff,” I said. “Landed on his head.”

“Ouch,” her voice answered. “That’s a shame. His kid’s cute as hell. ‘Kay. How long till the first pick-up point?”

“We’ll be there in twenty minutes,” I told her. “Thirty if I let Lujan wash the laserweed off.”

“Aw, let ‘em. They’ve got a week of hell ahead, why not start slow?”

“You’re expecting mercy from Taro?” Rafe cut in. I stuck out my tongue. Morici laughed over the comm.

“What was I thinking?” she asked. “See you in twenty.”

 

 

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