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been out in the night; sample.

____& Buddy

For the millionth time, Cal reached down to her hip and brushed her fingers against the leather holster, checking that her spitter was still there. Leather was an expensive material, even in the primarily agricultural Volcanic kingdom, and it was very uncommon to see a field officer wearing even this small amount. The holster, of course, had been a present from her mother – supposedly a congratulatory gift for joining the force, but in reality designed to show off a non-existent status. ‘It will help with the promotions,’ Jade had insisted fondly as she’d buckled it around Cal’s waist, making no secret of her ambitions for her daughter. Cal could take or leave promotions – and would certainly leave them if they came with the stipulation that she should be saddled to a desk for the rest of her career.

Satisfied that her weapon was still safe on her hip, Cal reached up and touched the little black box clipped to her pointed ear flap. It hummed gently as it activated.

“I’m in position,” she muttered under her breath, praying her aja would be able to hear. Her prayers were quickly answered by a loud snort through the earpiece.

“About time,” Buddy muttered back. Cal imagined that with his ability to shadow-travel, he must have been camped in his given position for a while. She would have smiled if she wasn’t on the job.

“Don’t move until I give the word,” she whispered back over the earpiece. “We have to catch Xieite red-handed or else this whole op is pointless. He’ll just pitch up somewhere else and then we’ll have to start all over again. No Xieite, we abort – got it?”

“Got it,” Buddy grumbled. He sounded displeased, but accepting. Cal understood his feelings exactly. She had enough evidence to know that a lot of the black market trading in ajas could be linked back to retired Colonel Xieite, one of the Volcano’s leading aja collectors, but not enough evidence to be able to take him to court. Xieite belonged to one of the untouchable elite in the Volcano; to take him or any of his kind on, any case had to be completely watertight. The only way she could bring him down was to have a whole bunch of reliable witnesses catch him red-handed. It had taken months to track down this base of operations – if Xieite suspected anyone was onto him, he could just close down here and open up somewhere else, which would set Cal and Buddy back to square one.

Unfortunately, a big shot like Xieite rarely came down to the base. Cal and Buddy must have done a dozen recon missions here already, but they hadn’t caught sight of him yet. Once they spotted him on premises, they could call in backup and get enough police witnesses to cement a court case… but until then, it was just one big, long waiting game.

A big, long waiting game with no support. Too many members of the military elite benefited from the black market, and a number of them were collectors. The police, like everyone else on the Volcano, took their orders from the army. Going up against them was tantamount to handing in one’s resignation at best, and tying one’s own noose at worst.

Cal took her hand away from her earpiece and rested it on her holster again, keeping her eyes trained on the gap through the crates. A couple of trappers were having a heated but frustratingly quiet conversation next to a roped up aja, whose moans destroyed any chance she might have had of eavesdropping on the exchange. Its pale crystal coat and snowy mane and tail identified it as an ice aja – uncommon, but not especially valued in the Volcano. Unless a collector had already put in a request for one, the poor creature was probably destined to be shipped off to another kingdom for a higher price. Cal felt a heat in her chest which had nothing to do with the stifling temperature of the warehouse. It was intrinsically, morally, and utterly wrong for an aja to be so imprisoned. Aja trappers and traders were the worst kind of people.

Her earpiece suddenly hummed back into life.

“Abort,” Buddy hissed. “Scoria’s here.”

Cal swore under her breath. “You sure?”

“Nah, just pulling your tail,” Buddy scoffed back, the sarcasm evident in his handsome voice. “
Yes she’s here, Caldera. Abort now.”

Cal swore again. “Call me ‘Caldera’ again and I’ll dock your tail.”

She ducked back down under the crates and started to crawl back towards the bolt-hole, taking extra care. Silence was valued over speed, here. Damn Scoria.

Scoria was Xieite’s top man – or, well, woman. If she was here, Xieite didn’t need to be. She also had sharp eyes, a sharp mind, and sharp knives. Cal only knew her by reputation, and she had no desire whatsoever to meet her. Or her knives.

She made it to the bolt-hole and scrambled through it, already feeling a deep sense of relief. A crackle of light in the shadows dead ahead indicated that Buddy was already here, which meant they were both just one shadow-travel away from bed. As far as Cal was concerned, she was home safe now.

It was a rookie error, and she should have known better.

She kept her hand on her holster as she moved away from the hole in the wall, but didn’t check around the side of the building before she started towards Buddy, who was still waiting patiently in the shadows. She’d barely taken one step before a voice with the quality of a bucket of ice reached her ears and caused the hair to prick up on the back of her neck.

“Evening, officer.”


Cal snorted awake. Literally, snorted. Her mother would have thrown a fit.

“Charming,” the same voice sniggered as she sat up and blearily rubbed her eyes.

It was Pit, of course. It was always Pit. Despite having been with the force for longer than Cal, Pit had never quite moved beyond being perceived as an intern, and always got saddled with messenger-type jobs. He didn’t seem to mind. He had about as much ambition for himself as his parents had had for him when they’d named him.

“Gerroutta my office,” Cal grumbled, checking her earpiece and her spitter. She wasn’t supposed to have a spitter still, but she’d refused to turn it in. Technically she’d never been supposed to have the earpiece – Rock tech was regarded with great suspicion in the Volcano – but Tephra had never tried to take it off her. He knew better.

“Not your office,” Pit pointed out annoyingly. “It’s the Alliance office, big shot. Anyway, Tephra wants you.”

“Move your unworthy tail outta my Alliance office, Pit,” Having stood up and moved around her desk, Cal punched him on the shoulder. “Unless you want me to split it for you?”

“Hilarious,” he replied sarcastically. “So original. My tail and I only wanted to bask in the glow of your golden light, you know.”

“I don’t allow baskers anymore,” she held the door out for him. “But I do still do autographs now and then.”

Pit grinned, and they fist-bumped as he led the office and toddled off down the corridor. Banter was the only way for a female officer to be taken seriously.

Rubbing her forehead where it had been resting against her desk, Cal trudged unenthusiastically in the opposite direction, towards Tephra’s office. Tephra, her immediate boss, was a decent enough guy – he was the one who had let her keep her spitter, and he’d tried to get her transferred back over to the main force a few of times in the past two years. He’d been blocked every time. Cal supposed he was prepared to give it another shot now, but she wasn’t sure how many more times she could have her hopes lifted and crushed again. She really ought to just turn in her notice, but she couldn’t imagine herself doing any other job. At least while she was still attached to the force she could kid herself that she was somehow helping people, even if in her heart she knew it wasn’t true.

Tephra’s door was open, so she didn’t bother knocking. He was sat behind his desk, shuffling papers with pudgy fingers and the same expression Cal wore whenever she was forced to look at paperwork. Ruddy-faced and overweight, it was hard to picture him out in the field. He glared at her as she strolled in.

“Sloppy,” he growled. “At least act like you give a shit, Cal.”

Cal glanced down at herself. Apart from her shirt, which was crumpled where she’d fallen asleep over her desk, she looked as neat as every other desk jockey in the building – and neater than Tephra, who was wearing a shirt without a collar and was missing his tie. She kept her mouth shut, and made her feelings plain with her facial expression. Tephra’s lips twitched.

“Take a seat,” he gestured towards the empty chair in front of the desk. He shuffled his papers again. “The head honchos of the Alliance have been in touch. They want a ker for a field mission.”

Cal’s jaw nearly hit the ground. “An Alliance field mission? Are you pulling my tail?” Tephra’s eyebrows knitted together. “Er – I mean, understood, sir.”

“You’ve been selected,” he continued, ignoring her slip up. “The mission’s off-planet, so you’ll need to – ” He broke off to glare at her when she made a noise. “What?”

“Permission to speak freely, sir.”

“Granted.” He sighed. “With a due sense of dread.”

“What in the name of Paradise?” She exclaimed, throwing her hands up into the air. “The Alliance on Xara is nothing, Teph, you know that. It was only set up ’cause of politics – it doesn’t do anything. How come the Xaran branch is just being called up for missions now? And off-planet? Don’t I get a say…?”

“You say too much,” Tephra grouched, but then he sighed again. “Look, off the books, Cal, this is an opportunity for you. Allianah herself asked for a ker. If you impress her, no one is going to stand in the way of you getting your old job back. You never know, you could even end up in some comfortable position off-Xara.”

If I impress her,” Cal muttered.

“You impressed me,” he said quietly. “And that takes some doing these days.”

Cal was too thunderstruck to even smile. It was the first time she’d ever heard him compliment anyone.

“You go and show Allianah what you’re made of,” Tephra smiled. Cal half expected his face to crack. “And the entire Volcanic army will be eating out of your hand.”

To be continued.
photo by Rodolfo Azraiza G

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