The Cow and The Scientist

This is a story I wrote as an homage to all of the /k/ works I try to preserve. Everything here is written based of the old /k/ommando stories and lore they made for Frankasia and the /K/onvergence.


>Be me
>Scientist of the Balthazar’s second research division in Frankasia
>Dr. James at your service
>No that sounds retarded. pretentious
>The second research division is more of a discovery team, using a single scientist with a group of technicians and mercenaries to explore.
>This gives us very free reign over what we look for, biology, chemistry… magic.
>My background is in chemistry with a focus on drug design.
>Balthazar has my group contracted for NuMagoTec, one of the BioMagiTech corporations that sprung up after the convergence.
>It’s hard to believe that it was almost six years ago.
>My team is composed of twelve humans, seven mercenaries, four technicians and myself.
>Most of the time the techs just call me Doc.
>In the beginning I asked them to call me Dr. James, but they just kept it short.
>So I guess I brought it on myself, I always thought the full title was pretentious.
>My team is now responsible for running ingredient discovery with local brews and ingredients, to investigate the remedies and potions of small towns for any useful compounds.
>I had been following a lead on compounds native to certain moss species in this region which brought us close to orc territory.
>Or at least that was my team’s focus until we began getting shot at.
>But hey, let me think about myself just a bit longer before reality comes back, oxygen deprivation makes the mind go to strange places anyway.
>Balthazar requires all teams to be armed, but as a Scientist I didn’t see the need.
>They still made me pick something so I did my ‘research’ if you will, and picked something in 10mm.
>The S&W M&P 2.0 in 10mm.
>Balthazar sent this one to S&W’s New Performance Center to get it magically enhanced with recoil reduction, weight stabilization and those weird dwaven SureFeed mags.
>It was modified with an integral compensator and fiber irons.
>They paid well to get me on this team given my reputation as this ‘prodigy’ of the late Dr. Norman Urslan who I only got to study under for a year.
>Nice but stern guy, I apparently have the same knack for molecular identification as him.
>I think I just got lucky with Neopsudophedrine and endohydroxyquionone.
>No that’s not what I ended up naming them, it’s what the team dubbed them before I could finalize the names.
>But as my first instructor told me, let some people do the hype for you.
>I just fed in to the proverbial hype with my prior research and due to my status as a single man with little attachment to Earth, Balthazar gave me a generous offer for their exploration teams.
>Not that I don’t enjoy the money and all, but I’m required for year long expeditions for at least five years except in specific cases such as grievous injury or death.
>But I’m getting paid a quarter million per expedition, and all of my expenses are paid for by them.
>That’s right, I have a silver Balthazar corporate card.
>Which that’s probably one reason my team is being butchered by orcs right about now.
>I whipped it out in a shitty area… someone saw it and thought they might get lucky…
>The other reason was that I might have pissed off a nearby chieftain by not asking for permission to enter his land.
>Well it’s not his land, the Elves don’t recognize their claim to this region…
>But at this point I’m probably going to get killed for their shitty political game so fuck the Elves, I think it’s their land.
>The seven mercs that Balthazar had added to our team of twelve are already dead, or I think one ran away…
>My two remaining technicians are armed with an FAL and an M4.
>I just have my pistol looking like a coward as we run through the tight forest canyon, twelve foot high stone walls holding us within their grasp as trees barely let enough light to the floor of the stream that ran through the canyon.
>Just sixteen hours ago I had been enjoying tea with a local alchemist discussing the silver Henruli moss that inhabited their nearby caves, and now I’m running for my life with the two technicians that were supposed to be carrying my isolation and analysis equipment.
>I say supposed because they dumped my mobile GCMS machine back about six miles ago.
>Continuing the misfortune I had encountered so far, the technician that was supposed to ensure the health of the machine with the FAL drops like a rock as a large caliber round punches through his chest.
>Damned orcs and their shitty mosins.
>The remaining technician was smart enough to grab one of the Merc’s distress beacons, a small soda can sized contraption that would emit a beacon and team priority.
>The nearest Balthazar mercenaries should already be on their way…
>Or so the instructions for the beacon say so, not that I am very trustworthy of printed instructions upon a metal tube.
>Me and this technician, I think his name was Jeraldo, are running through ankle high water on treacherous river gravel with a rapid ‘splish, splish, splish’ and trees providing what was once convenient and comforting shade now only making every shadow take on a shape of a menacing orc.
>The technician yells something to me but I don’t really understand between the adrenaline, extreme exhaustion and sudden onset of tinnitus from the gunshots.
>As I look to him for any sense of understanding, his left knee is turned in to a bloody mess by an Orc with a lucky burst of automatic AK fire.
>He just yells to me and holds out the beacon, a look of desperation and hope in his eyes as he hands me our one chance at rescue.
>I take it and keep running, the canyon alight with the sounds of M4 fire.
>Right up until a single crack of a mosin silences the defiance of the M4.
>Who’s damned idea was it anyways to give tribals modern weapons?
>I keep running like it’s the only thing standing between me and a dozen murder hungry orcs.
>Because it is.
>My body was not meant for this, I was meant to be in a sterile lab for years, going between sitting at my computer and hunching over analysis machines…
>I hazard a few shots back, firing my pistol for the first time in my ownership of it, knowing I only have a single spare magazine on my person.
>Yeah in hindsight it’s stupid to blindly return fire, but to be fair I never thought having a gun would be necessary.
>Take six shots back to discourage my tribal pursuers to unknown effect.
>The canyon walls begin to grow more shallow as I run, I’m reaching the end of this formation.
>I hope that they won’t be able to track me once I dart off in a random direction…
>My hopes are shattered as I reach the narrowing and flattening end of the canyon to the towering figure of someone large with what looks to be a high caliber machine gun slung in a low ready.
>The damned tribals have outsmarted me, no rather, outran me.
>What a terrible end.
>I’m met with the sound of .50 BMG firing out of the end of an M2 Browning as I feel time slow.
>By all accounts, all the papers and studies I’ve seen, I’m about to go in to shock.
>This is the few moments where my mind will have precious few seconds to itself before the pain of my injuries yet to register take over.
>My body grows heavy as my knees begin to give out, the adrenaline crash and exhaustion of almost nine miles of sprinting hitting my unprepared body as fast as an irresponsible teen in a BMW meets a light post.
>I feel the weight of my own body take over in slow motion as I see glimpses of the tribal in front of me.
>Large curved horns sticking out of their head, mixed in with salt and pepper hair in a dotted pattern.
>Overtly large chest, an obviously well endowed female with no obvious musculature but fairly soft features of someone well fed.
>A swaying tail, once again in the black and white hair style…
>Overtly large thighs…
>Wait a minute…
>Those are hooved feet.
>This woman, sporting an FDE shirt, woodland camo pants, a matching backpack….
>She’s a mercenary?
>Gravity finally catches up to me and I’m left on the ground with the pain of overexertion and searing lung pain from my run.
>Yep… there’s the tunnel vision.
>At least I probably wasn’t shot by her.
>Let sleep take me as I hear cursing obscured by .50 cal fire.

>Awaken shortly after to a putrid piercing smell and a vicious smack to my cheek.
>The large woman stands above me with a cracked vial of smelling salts.
>”WHAT ARE YOU DOING WE HAVE TO GO!” She yells at me, beginning to drag me from my field lab coat.
>I can feel the gravel catching as she drags me a few feet before a tribal yell breaks the windy activity of the forest.
>The sounds of air disrupting the leaves and branches is quickly overshadowed by tribal roars and the breaking of branches underfoot as one of the orcs begins to run at us from the small lip of the canyon.
>With my newfound alertness from the salts I hold up my right hand, which thankfully still had the Balthazar provided pistol and unload the entire mag in his direction.
>Miss all but three shots, but 10mm is the future (or so I’ve been told) and takes down the big green bitch.
>Hardly get a look at the now limp orc with a mosin clattering to the gravel coated ground before I am slung over the shoulder of the woman.
>I’m met with her large chest impacting my face as I am hefted up unceremoniously within her grasp and my gun taken out of my hands like a toy from a disobedient child.
>My alertness is waning as I bounce on the mound of flesh repeatedly, my face is forced repeatedly in to by the wonderous force of gravity.
>I can feel that the mercenary is running quite fast even with the heavy machine gun and me to weigh her down.
>After a few minutes of running I am placed down on to the now soft grass.
>I finally look up, dazed with the repeated impacts of the mass of this woman’s breast, to get a good look at who just pulled me from what I had assumed to be certain death.
>Bovine features, horns typical of a Holstein but the right one looks damaged on the tip somewhat.
>Ears, tail and legs are all covered in the salt and pepper hair that are in line with the Holstein cow variety back on Earth.
>I remember that this was a breed of cattle specifically bred by humans for dairy production from my early college zoology course.
>That would explain the nearly F cup size breasts affixed to her.
>Even for her species, that’s still pretty big, and the thighs and hips more befitting of a Venus figurine in a museum.
>One of her ears has a hole through the tip of it, as if done intentionally with a hole puncher.
>Blink a few times as I see the pants cut off about where the legs transition from human to bovine, just below the knee.
>The fur goes all the way down to a set of hooves, clad with horseshoes.
>I look back up to her face and she is looking at me expectantly.
>”So what the hell was that?” She asks, moving the M2 on her shoulder to a slightly more comfortable position against her bag.
>”We.. we pissed off the local orcs.” I say, rubbing at my neck to avoid eye contact with this large woman.
>”And you’re one of Balthazar’s?” The bovine woman asks, holding my pistol in her left hand.
>I look down at my deep blue lab coat and pull it taught so she can see the Balthazar Second Research Division logo on it.
>”Okay look smart guy, that doesn’t tell me who you are or what credentials you have, or why you have a Balthazar’s Mercenary distress beacon. You could have just taken it off someone.” She says, looking down at my gun to take note of the high cost parts.
>The bovine woman checks the empty chamber, given the magazine was empty and the slide was stuck open to show enchantments in the interior of the slide, only somewhat visible. “This does lend to your credibility though…”
>”I’m… Doc of the Second Research Division. Here.. I have my card somewhere in…” I pull at my cargo jeans to try to get at my PDA, a folding tablet about half the size of a full keyboard, but she stops me by tossing my gun in to my lap.
>”It’s alright, I belive ya’, only a real egghead would have been that unprepared for an ambush…” She says, standing up with her M2 shouldered.
>I stare for an uncomfortable moment as her thighs meet my eye level before I scurry to my feet, not wanting to seem more unprepared for the reality of who responded to me.
>I had met beastfolk in the past, several on my journeys but most of them had strange features that humans would consider unsavory.
>This was the first that I would consider remotely compatible with humans, albeit large for my stature.
>My eye level is just above her chest level, leaving me staring in to her collar bones.
>”Oh and that beacon… turn it of, will ya’?” She asks, flicking her finger up and down at me.
>”Yeah, I can do that” I say, flicking the overly large red switch of the beacon to the off position.
>I hear a small chime from the woman’s PDA in her back pocket.
>”Alright… and that mean’s Balthazar’s money has come through. Congrats, you’re on your own now!” She says with a smug smile, looking to her PDA, a map already pulled up.
>”Wait wait wait… that’s it? You just run with me for five minutes, get me to turn off the beacon and you get paid?” I say, releasing the slide on my empty gun and slotting it in to the back holster.
>”Yep, now unless you can pay me some more… I’m out of here. Job’s done, human.” She says, starting to walk off with a wiggle of her hips playfully, her tail swishing as if to bid me farewell.
>”Woah woah, now hold on a second… My whole research team just got killed or lost… Which means that given the importance of my work, I’m sure we can arrange a premium here.” I say, trying to grease the wheels of greed for this mercenary so I am not left alone.
>”How big’s the crew budget?” The bovine woman asks with practiced candidness, pausing to look over her shoulder at me if only to tempt my offer to be sweeter.
>”Six million in crew per year, Three million gear expenses, one million immediate approval general expense account.” I rattle off trying to bode her in.
>My lure seems to work extremely well as she nearly skips back to me with a wider than normal smile.
>She gingerly sets out her hand to shake, slightly compressing her chest as she does, “Hi then, I’m Clara.”
>I hold out my hand and she grips it with a pressure that would undoubtedly strangle me should my hands ever stray too close to her body, “My starting costs are a minimum of 150k, I get an initial gear expense of 10k, and I pay for none of the lodging.”
>I try to smile as I feel the small bones in my hand begin to grind up against each other in her grip, “Yeah.. I think we can do that”.
>”Perfect, now let’s get as far away as possible from here so we can settle this with official documents… after a drink or two of course” Clara says with a sincere smile contaminated by an undertone of seductive greed.
>I can tell she uses her unusual stature and build to distract the people she is hired by.. but I am just as disarmed any of her other clients likely were even knowing about it.
>Remember that book you read about behavior… be assertive and demand absolutely.
>”Of course… but I will need my equipment first.”
>She looks at me like I just tried to load an AR with an AK mag, which I may have attempted early on in my field training.
>”We’re not going back, those orcs are still covering that area.”
>I clear my throat and raise my head up, trying not to stare in to her collar bones… and the bountiful mounds beneath.
>”Balthazar only pays out the ten million budget for active research. If my deadlines are not met, they close the contract and pull the team out.” I say with the sterile and practiced assertion of a scientist ready to fight bureaucrats for more research money.
>Clara sighs and shrugs, unslinging her M2, “I’m going to charge a premium for doing the work first…”

>With my pistol drawn and Clara leading with her M2 we stalk cautiously back through the canyon under the fading light of a passing day.
>I didn’t see the bodies of my team but the blood and viscera that some of them left are left as markers to the terrible scene that had transpired not an hour previously.
>None of the gear was left…
>We get to the spot upstream where my mobile GCMS machine had been unceremoniously tossed aside alongside a burst bag of sample vials only to see the impression the machine had made in the dirt with the remains of the small vials embedded in river mud.
>”Well, looks like we will have to go mark this for a retrieval team” Clara says in a hushed voice.
>”Are you kidding me? That’s a four million dollar machine, by the time they get here it’ll be torn apart for necklace beads.” I say, trying to keep my voice low.
>I kick the dirt at where my prized machine had been left and get an idea, “You know… machines like that, especially a gas chromatography AND mass spectrometer would be worth a sudden hiring bonus… especially given the machine’s value. How about one percent?” I say, trying to keep the overly suggestive tone out of my voice.
>”Two and I get it back to you tonight.” She says, already following the tracks left by the orks.

>As we walk with the last throws of daylight peering in through the trees, Clara pulls out a monocular with a large ring clamp and attaches it in front of her right eye by her horn.
>Smart, all I have are these shitty digital night visions held on by a tight rubber strap.
>Which I have right he- … fuck they’re in my bag.
>They were in the duffle carried by.. Irene? I think?
>I should feel worst about forgetting their names but they’re all dead now.
>I let Clara do most of the pathfinding, right up until the last few strands of sunlight die off to let an inky blackness settle around us.
>Now I can’t see a damned thing and I keep tripping on shit.
>Clara gets fed up with me after my third fall at the hand of a devious branch.
>”You know what Doc? Just grab my tail.. it’ll keep your clumsy ass of the ground” She says, slightly embarrassed but more frustrated than anything.
>”Are… are you sure?” I ask, hazarding to not want a sexual harassment charge on my record.
>I am smacked in the face by the tuft of her bovine tail “I said grab the damned tail or you’re going to draw every orc in a mile with your clumsiness.”
>Reach out until I feel the soft fur in my hands, to which I am led like a blind dog on a very warm leash.
>She leads me step by step for several minutes until I see the dancing hints of firelight in the distance.
>”I’ll try and cover you if you can get your gasology machine and other VITAL equipment.” She says, emphasizing the required briefness of this Orc encounter.
>I pull out my pistol, “Can do… just the machine bag… and my bag… and maybe the field test equipment…” I begin to think of all the items I might need and quickly realize I won’t be able to carry it all.
>”A functional lab team needs to have the field equipment that necessitates three bags. I can maybe carry the machine and my bag, but I’ll need help with the other two.”
>Clara doesn’t seem to like this, clenching her forehead with two muscular fingers, but keeps moving forward.
>”Alright… fine. Just make sure you check your weapon… I think you’ve been empty this whole time.” She says, pulling up the M2 to a low ready.
>Go to check the mag but find the mag well only.
>Fuck I lost the magazine somewhere.
>Load the full spare I had on my belt, only to hear Clara scowl at this complete lack of weapon sense.
>She leads me further until we hit the edge of the encampment.
>I can see three canvas tents assembled by carved sticks in a circle around a fire.. I can make out figures at the edges but I only count four confirmed.
>Through the inky black of the forest I can barely make out the large figures of orks but my vein attempts at reconnaissance are interrupted by the sound of an M2 being hefted up.
>My reaction time favors me in this moment, allowing me to cover my ears just before the .50 begins to bark out lead.
>”GO NOW!” Clara yells as I stutter step forward with my 10mm drawn.
>I only have… oh shit how many rounds is in a magazine even?
>If Clara finds out that I don’t know, she will probably leave me here to die or provide a beating worthy of a Louisiana Lizardman trailer park.
>Pick up speed as I remember my company-mandated training…
>’Go without doubt, even a second of it will kill you’ was the motto of my old mentor.
>Thanks you old manticore asshole.
>Keep moving forward until I almost run in to an Orc barely lit by the fire who looks about as confused as I am.
>About to say “Oh fancy meeting you here” but I flinch and end up pulling the trigger on my 10mm, nailing the guy in the right shoulder.
>Figure that this is the part where I should go without doubt.
>Put two more in to the heart area and move up.
>Reach the edge of the firelight and see another Orc in front of me, armed with a rusted out AR.
>Fire off three shots, not even sure if I hit him.
>Doesn’t matter because he’s taken down in a hail of .50 from my left.
>Clara’s burst firing, keeping things tight and efficient.
>See frantic movement in the tent on my left and have just enough time to put the barrel of my gun on what I suspected was the head of an orc inside.
>The figure moves sharply, startled by the cold iron I press hard in to the back of his head.
>”How many?!” I yell.
>”Iz jus’ me boss.” He says in a low drawl thick with anger.
>”Where did you put my machine?” I ask, finger tightening on the trigger.
>”Roit’ in ‘ere”
>The orc bursts up, my gun thrown out of my hands faster than I can move by a blade jutting out of the tent, cleaving the paltry fabric in twain.
>I see my 10mm spin in the air above me as the blade nearly misses my nose by a few inches, leaving the tent torn asunder by this massive figure.
>An orc with a cartel-like jungle machete steps out, muscular body covered in old cuts and looking about ready to cut me apart as two .50’s catch him in the side.
>Idiot brought a blade to a gun fight.
>In the cut up tent I see the GCMS box unopened and still locked, the small electronic lock evidently having been hacked at a few times by deep gouges in the metal.
>”Let’s hurry, the machine is in here.”
>Clara rushes up to the tent and throws the box over her front, using the weight to counterbalance the M2 hoisted at her shoulder and her own personal bag.
>Search the other tents to find my personal backpack not even opened, the lock still intact, and the chemical supply and lab bag open, but nothing inside disturbed.
>Sweet, we must have just caught them as they were about to go through them.
>I’m carrying my bag and the lab bag, Clara’s got the chemical bag in her left hand.
>She’s loaded up like a farm animal, but seems undisturbed.
>Find my pistol in the dirt and hastily wipe it off and set it back in my holster.
>”Is that it?” Clara asks, ready to move, her subtle musculature showing through her arms and legs, primed to go.
>”Unless I want to grab some of the other personal gear… but you know what?” I stop to pull out the Balthazar distress beacon.
>The beacon has an on-off switch, but I remembered a small settings pad that allows you to put it on recovery mode so it’ll set up a little ‘hey, come get our shit’ signal.
>I stuff it in one of the tech’s bags, “I’ll tell them this was your idea… a little bonus will probably be sent to you if another mercenary can recover this gear.”
>Clara raises an eyebrow, rolling the possibility of money around in her head and lets out a quick thanks.
>”Alright, let’s go” I say, hefting the bags on my shoulder.
>As we begin hastily marching back, Clara looks to me under the monocular and asks, “How much did you promise again?”

>Me and Clara arrived in to Danyaton in the early morning, the original objective town of my research team.
>I am flanked by large stone homes carved of older bricks made of the mountainside or newer concrete buildings sculpted by both magic and engineering.
>The old outweighs the new by a lot, but the inn me and Clara are heading to is a newer construction of concrete and composites, using the latest mage-directed construction for near-earth living.
>It’s a location that accepts Balthazar cards, (should) have room for the team, is labeled on most up-to-date maps, and should have a connection to the internet.
>I imagine that a best western style hotel just slapped in to a large fantasy town would describe this place well.
>It’s early dawn and both of us are extremely tired, each of our steps slowly growing more weary on the packed gravel as we march up to the inn.
>The name of this inn, Enrique’s Fantastic Beds, is emblazoned over top the structure in bold neon.
>Both of us, tired and dirty, enter in to this Earthly structure, a respite in what would have been otherwise a B-rate hotel back on Earth.
>On this side, given the fact that it had running water and electricity, this is a five-star resort.
>I, not paying much attention to the front desk given my state, walk up and slap the silver Balthazar card on to the desk and ask for two rooms.
>The attendant smiles and gently asks me to read the sign next to the card reader.
>’Due to high demand from recent caravans, we may ask that some parties share a room. Thanks for your understanding.’
>”Fine… Clara, are you good with that?” I ask, turning to look at the cow girl.
>She’s glaring and huffs before saying “At this point… I’ll take a barn again if it means a few hours of rest”
>Quickly pay with the Balthazar card and get to our room.
>Throw open the door to feel warm air flow out to us, shag carpet beneath our dirtied forms and extremely bleached towels and bedding.
>The room only has a single large king bed and a desk in the corner, which will likely be a source of contention between me and Clara.
>At this point I’m too tired to consider asking about such trivial things like if the bed or the floor seemed a more appropriate place to pass out.
>I begin to set my bags down when I see Clara, like the tech before her, unceremoniously dump the GCMS machine on to the rug of our inn room.
>She, in contrast, gently sets her M2 down on the suitcase rack before walking in to the bathroom, closing the door behind her.
>Given that she has already claimed the bathroom for the time being, I wearily take out and unfold my PDA.
>It’s already connected through the provided Wifi and my Balthazar Secure Connection (their shitty corporate VPN that monitors everything) is active.
>I see that I have one notification from my main contact, the Research Manager Zeddik.
>He’s this hotshot half-elf half-dragon guy that’s really good with money thanks to the management taught to him by his bank manager mother and his money-hoarding instincts of his father.
>Unfortunately, that means he only thinks of the money, so getting something out of him is always a business ordeal, including (or so I had been told) his signature on a birthday card.
>’Check in was missed yesterday, I need the results from the southern village to make sure you’re still alive. -Zeddik’
>Begin typing, ‘Whole team is dead, Orks ambushed us. A single merc responded. She’s a beastfolk with an M2 Browning, goes by Clara. Singlehandedly retrieved all necessary gear and placed beacon on residuals. Promised her quite the budget to get her to help. She got the GCMS back, so please be a little lenient with the demands. -Doc’
>Zeddik replies almost immediately, ‘Unfortunate. Liquidating remaining salaries and stipends. Feel free to reallocate without breaching corporate’s guidelines. Send the requests my way. Make sure you get the merc’s details and the data.’
>Follows up with ‘I trust your judgement with her pay for the most part, you did get your previous team cheaper than most.’
>Feel a ping of guilt at the fact that I had talked some of my techs down from a higher sallary with the promise of recommendations to future positions…
>Drag the GCMS machine over to the desk and begin to set it up to both purge the machine and purge my mind of such thoughts.
>Run a diagnostic on the particle beam for the MS fraction, run an Argon purge on the GC portion.
>Machine returns all expected values, reporting low battery.
>Cool it’s working, unaffected by blunt force trauma unlike myself.
>Plug the machine in to the wall and watch the charge rate.
>The machine will be ready to go in two days.
>Okay, so that means we have to stay a minimum of three nights.
>Not terrible by a longshot.
>I pull up the data on the machine from the moss we ran several extractions on.
>Looks like the steam with secondary phase separation caught us something useful in the alcohol layer.
>I had meant to have one of the techs go through this last night.
>Go ahead and send the data through my PDA.
>I hear the bathroom door open.
>I turn to see Clara in what I would describe as an ill-fitting t-shirt that runs on the shorter end and a pair of exercise shorts.
>I’m frozen and I can feel my face turn hot as she nonchalantly exits.
>Her figure is entirely exposed and I’m 90% sure she’s not wearing a bra.
>”Your turn… see you in a few hours” She says, barely paying me any mind in my enormously flustered state.
>Clara simply throws herself in to the bed and rapidly falls asleep.
>At the sudden prospect of sleep I shake my mind out of the HR unfriendly thoughts that had crossed my mind and think to use the now empty bathroom.
>Besides, I only had ever dated humans, such attractions to non-humans is likely an artifact of pheromone sensitivity.
>Focusing on the task at hand, I grab a change of clothes and shower, sure to get all the dirt and sweat out of my hair.
>The bar of soap is already out of it’s little plastic wrapper.
>I have a moment to consider the implications of the same bar of soap used to wash Clara being used on myself but I quickly disregard it, as I’m tired.
>Finish washing and throw on some basketball shorts and a cotton t-shirt.
>Turn off the lights and approach the bed.
>Clara’s got most of the right side…
>I could either use my bedroll or collapse on the open left side of the bed.
>Well, if there’s enough room between us….
>Squeeze myself in to the king bed on the left, careful to leave more than enough space between myself and Clara.
>Man I always hate how when you are tired and finally get to go to bed you just can never-

>I estimate that I slept for over four hours once me and Clara woke up.
>It took both of us a moment to reason as to why we had been sharing a bed, and then also a room.
>We came to a mutual agreement that we had ‘been too tired to care’.
>Once we had at least settled the agreement on how we would take things in the future, a strictly business arrangement, we began settling the requests Clara had made previously.
>She got a little cagey when I asked for her PDA or any real credentials but eventually she coughed them over.
>She hands over her PDA with her employee profile pulled up, qualifying it with “Don’t believe any rumors you might have heard about that name”
>I wonder what she meant by that…
>Her full name is Clarabelle Reiner.
>Huh, there’s a few documents that appeared when I entered her name in to my PDA.
>Immediately notice that these documents are listed under private, so they wouldn’t appear on a normal public search.
>Frankasia internal crime services?
>FBI Interdimensional Crimes Unit?
>UN Violations of human rights form?
>They’re all linked to her name but I don’t have access to the full documents.
>She’s also missing a general writeup, which a little bio that most people have on their profiles as good practice.
>I can see Clara out of the corner of my sight watching expectantly, waiting for my reaction.
>Send her name and the budget requests over to Zeddik, with a note asking for someone above to send me the full file on this merc other than the company file.
>’Gear looks a tad expensive but given she’s your only member now, go for it. Full funds approved. Company added a bonus for the beacon and tweaked the percentage for the GCMS retrieval. I don’t think she’s going to argue. Additional funds won’t come from your budget. I’ll ask my department head for the file since you’re going to be with her for the next 9.2 months. Happy hunting.’
>I write my thanks to Zeddik.
>”So now you’re an official member of my team, apparently you impressed someone up above because they added to the pay for that machine-” I’m cut off by her PDA chiming three times.
>Clara lets out a relieved sigh at my lack of questions and checks her older PDA with a smug grin “Yep… I guess it pays to be an egghead.”
>”So what’s up with your gear? That was the only complaint by my department head, that your gear was a bit pricey?” I ask, trying to make me look oblivious to the documents.
>”Well the M2 is Bess and I’ve got some other goodies in my bag that can be expensive to maintain…. .50 ain’t cheap out here either.” She says, pausing to think.
>”Oh and of course, fuel for the main attraction” She says thumping her chest, then quickly stopping to say “no that’s not what I meant, I meant I’m the main attraction, not my-”
>”I got it.. ” I say, cutting her off.
>I am laughing on the inside but only about half of it is comedic… the other half of it is nervous.
>Here I am with a woman who’s figure is more befitting of a fertility goddess who’s both larger and stronger than me with enough weapons and strength to snap me in twain should I offend her and some kind of major incident record big enough to reflect with the FICS, FBI and UN.
>”So Clara… do you think we should start using our gear expense account while we’re here?”

>After some convincing, with Clara deploying some oh-so conveniently placed arms to squeeze her chest ever so slightly to catch me off guard, we are browsing the Balthazar catalogue rather than leave the comfortable and safe inn room.
>It seems that Clara is insistent on staying indoors, drinking and watching the most awful television when she can.
>I had only made this discovery once she cracked open a room temperature Krubel American Lager and downing half of it while staring over my shoulder.
>She’s uncomfortably close, but not uncomfortable as someone invading your personal space… the uncomfortable of having someone both attractive and dangerous lingering just within reach.
>I’m looking through the more expensive gear options which consists of large expense single unit equipment like the new Dwarven Exosuits that are prototype to the point that you have to sign a waiver for all injuries and sudden death, and kits that are for providing a small team with effective weapons and gear that would be easy to maintain.
>”Those… right there.” Clara leans in, letting her chest touch my back as she nearly touches the screen of my PDA.
>Hmmm warm and soft…
>I tap the screen, hardly paying attention.
>”Oh that’s a little steep, but if you get it without the mount it should be cheaper. I’ve already got a mount that works with ’em.” She says, eying up my screen.
>I focus a little more on what I’m about to request and I begin to see the zeros.
>18k for quad tube thermal-night vision combos with a sixty hour battery, smart target identification, PDA interlink…
>”Wha… why would you need that?” I ask, realizing the mistake in my words the moment they leave my mouth.
>”Why? Because that damned monocular could hardly pick out those orcs until we got too close for comfort. These… I could just pick ’em off from a safe distance.” She says, pushing off the chair.
>I feel a pit in my soul form from the loss of the softness at my back that I didn’t know I needed in my life.
>”Alright, I’m going to get a few things from here too, so don’t go spending our reforming gear budget on just this. I already spent around 250k equipping those guys I had with me. We need to also do a personnel request, given that the two of us won’t be able to carry everything.”
>I add a few upgrades to our request, improved digital-thermal night visions for myself, a small but expensive chemical sensor package for my PDA, some ammo for both me and Clara, and an IR laser for Clara’s M2.
>”You know, I should have a backup pistol.. and you, you should have a rifle” She says, sitting down on the bed.
>”Well, any suggestions? I was told something similar back at the main research complex but when I asked for their latest platform they just laughed at me.” I recount, remembering the old security guy’s face as if I had asked for the newest version of peanut butter.
>Clara ponders for a moment. “Adaptable given the likelihood of you getting jumped, you’re already using a higher caliber, so maybe let’s keep with it?”
>”10mm is fun, so yeah I like high power.” I say, wondering what she can pull out of her head.
>”Reliable though… you’re probably not going to be good at cleaning these things so it needs to be able to take a beating….”
>I can see the scenarios she’s thinking of in her head.
>”Let’s go with 45-70, variable scope, threaded barrel for option of silencer. Get a modernized one or one with an optic rail already on it…”
>Clara is rattling off the specs and all I can do is input that initial cartrige in the search bar of the PDA.
>Lever actions appeared
>”Cowboy guns? Are you sure?” I ask, taken aback by her choice.
>”Ranchers, lawmen, criminals alike, it’s got enough variety in the rounds you can pick that you can load up for a variety of targets, lever action means it won’t jam up like those AR-10s you see the commandos running around with in the swamps, no mags to lose either… yeah you thought I didn’t see that.” She says accusingly as I grow embarrassed.
>”Variable scope means you can stay back or get up close. Besides if you get too close then you’re going to want that pistol anyways. If you need more firepower then I’m not doing my job.” She continues, making a flicking motion as if wanting to browse the selection herself.
>”Okay… how about you just pick out mine and get whatever you want for your pistol.” I say, holding out the PDA.
>Clara takes it with a smug gaze if only to point out my mistake in handing her the key to ordering what she wants.
>”Whatever you want within reason for-” I am cut off as the PDA is worked quickly, Scopes, slings, ammo, rigs, earpro…
>”And that’s everything.” She says, handing it back.
>She just added another 10k worth of equipment.
>It’s mostly the two guns, she picked out a silver marlin for me and a…
>Desert Eagle.
>”Did you just pick the most expensive pistol in the catalogue?” I ask, genuine in my intent to figure out if she had just filtered by price.
>”If it’s not 50 caliber then it’s not worth it.” She says, folding her arms.
>Just send the request as is with a note asking to send the gear with the secondary request form attached.
>The secondary request is for an already-kitted out technician for my machine to help carry the lab supplies around.
>Problem with that is that the technician needs to have a degree in biology or chemistry or equivalent knowledge, so it’s unlikely that they will be able to lift enough.
>I think to add in a request for a full team but after running the numbers in my head, it’ll be more efficient if I can promise these few more, maybe at most four members total…
>Add a third note asking for any goodies that Zeddik might think helpful in our situation.
>I look to Clara who is watching me as if trying to dissect my thoughts as my PDA sits on the personnel page, my profile sitting next to hers amongst fourteen other faces.
>Send the request and before I can set down my PDA I get a message from Zeddik, ‘Saw all the requests. Approved. Balthazar has Air Mail coming to the region in two days, new member will be there in three. Company policy after this kind of incident is to give the team one week in a set safe location to work out of to grow accustomed to one another prior to setting out again. Once your new member is there you will have one week of time to do as you see fit. As for anything extra, the higher ups wanted to use your team as a test for something, updates on that later. I picked your new member myself, I think you’ll get along well ;)’
>I don’t like the sound of this given the ‘hand picked’ members on my previous team included a disrespectful tech who didn’t follow protocol and a paranoid who thought everyone but him was an idiot.
>Not to mention the stoner security guy who was high so often that he couldn’t hold up his gun.
>”Well Clara, it looks like we have a minimum of three days to ourselves, then a week with this new person before we get moving again” I say to the noise of the bed creaking under weight.
>Clara is already sitting back in the bed with a second beer and a sea of pillows behind her back, pulling up her PDA to watch what I think is some kind of reality TV.
>”Are you just going to sit there in your.. pajamas.. all day?” I ask, raising an eyebrow.
>”There’s no point in dooing-” She cuts herself off at the moo-like sound, clearing her throat and continuing as if nothing happened, “There’s no point in doing anything that I’m not getting paid for. So unless you’re going to go shopping or get food, I’m staying here.” She says, turning up the volume on her PDA.
>I sigh, looking over the map of the town on my PDA, which lists a few shops that might interest Clara.
>”We can get some food, there’s a military surplus shop, a gun shop, clothes and camping supplies…”
>Clara’s getting up and pulling out a change of clothes before I can finish.
>God is this how all Mercs are?

>Me and Clara went shopping for most of that day, taking our time to load up on useful things that wouldn’t weigh us down very much.
>We both ended up getting new bags, mine is a much larger travel bag and Clara got what I can only call the ruck.
>This thing would dwarf a human rucksack, it’s big enough to store her whole M2 if she wanted.
>I was able to get most of the essential lab supplies in the bottom half of my bag, helpfully separated in to four compartments.
>It’s sort of like those camera bags with separate zippers for each camera.
>Except mine is split top half and bottom half with two side pouches.
>Load up the top with my personal items with just a little room to spare.
>Put my tools and other equipment on the other pouch.
>Snacks and the likes in the right pouch, tie on the bedroll…
>God this thing looks a bit heavy.
>Once me and Clara had figured out our travel supply situation and had grabbed some local food it came down to the final struggle of the day…
>The bed situation.
>Not only would we soon have a third person to start cramping this otherwise nice space, but me and Clara were no longer numbed by arduous travel and considered such things as sharing a bed to be uncouth.
>The problem was that I had no bargaining power since once we had gotten back from our outing, Clara quickly changed in to her relax wear and gotten in bed with the flat-half finished beer from this morning to greet her.
>So I had to think of another solution rather than asking this… amazing specimen of a cow girl to please move.
>Call up the front desk for another bed, turns out they had a few.
>Clara laughs as a worker rolls a gurney-like bed in to the room and I set it up in the empty space where a couch should have been.
>They provide me with a pillow but no blankets.
>Just let out a sigh at the disappointing discovery and set up my bedroll on top of the low bed, resigning myself to the use of my thin synthetic weave blanket.
>Clara’s only taking up half of the king bed.
>I’m half tempted to just throw the bedroll next to her and declare that my side.
>Though I’m sure that’s a great way to have my arm broken.

>Day two went uneventfully, we just went out, got our meals, Clara disappeared for a few minutes before we got back to the inn but showed up eventually.
>Didn’t question it, it’s her time after all.
>Though as she worked on her fourth beer of the day just after dinner I hazarded a question that had been eating away at me.
>”So Clara is short for Clarabelle?”
>She looks at me, sitting over next to the GCMS machine in the left corner at the desk over from her comfortable perch in the bed in the far right corner of the room.
>The question stabs in to the serenity of the room.
>The soft sounds of reality TV are suddenly halted as Clara turns off her PDA.
>She just gives me a dry smile and asks her own question, “How much of my file did you read?”
>”I requested it but Zeddik hasn’t sent it over yet.” I reply honestly.
>”So you’ve seen some of the files attached to that name?”
>Her gaze is like her gun, ready to punch holes through me, menacing me from that side of the inn room.
>”Didn’t have the clearance for it. You know that’s standard right..? A background check?” I ask, hoping that this would make me seem like less of a snoop.
>Her smile falls to a neutral frown, “If you want any kind of a working relationship, friendship, whatever between us, you don’t read that. Got it?”
>I stare blankly for a moment.
>”What… do you just expect me to take your word given the severity of those documents?” I say, letting the accusing words slip without much consideration.
>She nods “After I saved your bacon, yes.”
>I sigh and realize my error, “Then I expect to be told what all of that file nonsense is all about whenever you’re ready. You have my word, I won’t look.”
>A small smile creeps back on her face, then Clara takes a sip of her beer.
>The sounds of reality TV begin to fill the room again.
>My heartrate, which I finally register as off the fucking charts begins to slow down.
>What the fuck did she do?

>Day three starts with Clara keeping a watchful eye on me throughout the morning, as if waiting for me to make a run for it.
>She paid no attention to me prior to the events of last night but I could feel her gaze at all times, only abating as I entered in to the bathroom to begin my in-town daily routine.
>It’s kind of disturbing to have her at my back as we depart for the airstrip at the edge of the village.
>See quite a few more people hanging around the lobby of the hotel than yesterday as we depart, the small dirt lot out back has several armored cars, off road trailers and wagons.
>Must be the caravanners.
>Clara kept me in her sight the entire walk over.
>I noticed that next to the air strip, where a small airport and event center sits, there’s an advertisement on the sign.
>’Local trader consortium of Frankasia 8th annual gathering’
>Huh I wonder if the company has a rep over here we can chat up while we wait.
>It’s mid fall so I figure we can just wait near the helicopter landing pads comfortably outside.
>Approach the security and pull up my credentials on the PDA and the personnel request.
>He waves us through the checkpoint after seeing my Balthazar clearance.
>I guess it’s easier when Clara doesn’t bring her M2.
>Don’t need to worry about my guns being visible since the dark blue lab coat hides the 10mm well under it’s long draped cover.
>As we get out of earshot of the guard I finally ask what has been eating at me the entire walk over, “Clara, why are you looking at me like you’re expecting me to draw on you at any second?”
>She lets out a sigh, “Well… let’s just put it at trust issues.”
>”Well I don’t know if this means anything to you but when I promise someone something, I keep it. Even after they’re gone.”
>Clara lets out a soft noncommittal grunt as we hear the approaching sounds of a helicopter.
>See the distant shape slowly form in to the silhouette of a UH-1 Huey.
>Those helicopters were considered obsolete until Frankasia needed reliable workhorses that could pull decent distances with short landing spaces.
>This huey looks to be one of those freelance pilots that does cargo runs for other companies based on the A-10 style paint job he’s got on the front.
>Most of them live out of their aircraft with major modifications being made to keep them fuel efficient or more comfortable.
>My guess is that this guy’s all about efficiency, given that the seats look like they came out of Vietnam.
>After the rotors spin down the pilot gets out and prepares to unload, followed by a passenger.
>A smaller framed, young looking skinny elf girl with prominent ears wearing similar fatigues to me, a blue lab coat without the white trim that mine has, a black blouse and faded jeans.
>Her clothes, however human, are no match for the real discriminator that sits on her back.
>There is a strange hybrid between a wooden longbow and a modern compound bow with a quiver-bag of steel and wood arrows prominently displayed draped across her back.
>She must have packed light because her personal bag with the integrated quiver is fairly small.
>This elf also must be at least as strong as I am given that she picks up a duffle bag in each hand before walking over to me and Clara.
>She approaches me and lets out a disappointed sigh muffled by the engine of the helicopter still slowing down.
>”I thought Zeddik had promised me an elf supervisor..”
>Wow, nice to meet you too
>Hold out my hand “Howdy, I’m Doc, or at least that’s what my previous team called me”
>She doesn’t take it or even do the gay elf bow they love for their greetings.
>”Illyonara, Research assistant and huntress. I was also promised that you would be using more… native gear, but your order proves otherwise.”
>Clara puts on her shit-eating grin and gives me a jab, “His rifle has some wood on it, that’s natural enough for elves, right?”
>God damnit
>”Here, let us get those bags for you. Zeddik said we have a week to get to know you better Illyonara, so I thought we could have a group dinner, maybe run you through the workings of the equipment we have…’
>She hands me the bags and cuts me off “I already know most of the equipment, been trained, won’t need your guidance to do what I need to do for this project. Also, the files you requested.” She hands me a data stick.
>I look to the files and realize it’s the entire file on Clara.
>Look to Clara and hand it over “That’s yours till we get to our agreement”
>Clara looks relieved at my decision and takes the data stick firmly.
>”So, Illyonara, let’s get situated and we can get to know each other more.”
>The elf looks between me and Clara as we take the bags and begin to walk to the inn.
>”That sounds acceptable, where did the rest of the team set up?” She asks, causing me to pause in my tracks.
>”Us three… we’re the team” I admit.

>Illyonara did not take the news well that my entire team had just died and that Clara wasn’t even technically signed on with the second research division.
>She scolded me like a superior would a mistake riddled employee and then rattled off about how an elven researcher wouldn’t make such mistakes.
>Fucking hell Zeddik, way to send me the awful ones.
>While tuning out Illyonara’s comments about my bestial decisions and clear human desires I make a note in my PDA to ask Zeddik for a discount since Illyonara wouldn’t last long here.
>’Now that’s just rude… doesn’t the little loudmouth remind you of someone?’ the voice of my mentor rings in my mind as I finish my note to myself.
>I think upon my early days of being outspoken about my opinions, even those not strictly academic that made it hard to make friends.
>Maybe I should commit myself to ‘fixing’ this elf in the ways of academia…
>We get to the inn with the noise of Illyonara’s rant about how little forward thinking I must possess to march in to hostile territory and then trust my safety to a greedy stranger playing in the background.
>In answering ‘who do you two think you are to just stay silent?’ I hand off my PDA to show Illyonara both my file and Clara’s file
>I made sure to put the PDA in public view so none of my personal details nor any of Clara’s ‘history’ showed up.
>”I’m here with an idiot and a mercenary.” was the Elf’s response to the personnel files.
>Illyonara throws herself on to the bed.
>”I was promised a whole team to work with, ample security and a camp with running water…”
>I finally speak up, “I have heard this before… Balthazar hyped up the life of a fresh research assistant…. Sorry you had to learn the truth like that.”
>Clara cuts in, “If only someone had enough foresight to think a large corporation would lie…”
>Stifle a laugh as Illyonara glares down Clara.
>In that moment, I reserve my replies to something my mentor would likely have said, trying to quell this Elf in to someone who might succeed in this field.
>”Fine… just take me to my room. I want to clean up a bit.” Illyonara says, sitting up off the inn bed.
>”Shit, you’re probably not going to like that either” I say, trying to keep it straight after her whole outburst.
>”Oh gods, is it infested with bugs or something?” She says, thinking of all the horrible situations that a lone room could have.
>”I hope not, this room hasn’t had any bugs yet.”
>Illyonara freezes, “I’m sharing a room with a male human, one of the most vile rape-hungry species of all, and a farm animal?”
>I am a little offended but that comment really irked Clara.
>Clara raises her head to look down the length of her nose at Illyonara and flexes her arms, putting her fist in to her other hand as if ready to give her a beatdown.
>With Clara’s head raised like that, I notice that she’s got a hole for a nose piercing.
>Huh she never wears one though.
>”Look, Illy, can I call you that?” I ask, trying to form some kind of casual point between me and Illyonara before Clara enacts the kinds of racial violence that you hear about on the news.
>”No, my friends call me Lilly.” She says, turning away from me and Clara, “And my friends are not humans”
>”Okay, Lilly, I’m sorry that this is the conditions that you have to be in, but can you please at least try to be nice to us? You never know if either of us might have to save your life one day.”
>Clara stays silent, watching how I deal with this situation.
>Illyonara sighs, “Look, it’s hard to trust non-elves… especially you humans given your reputation for such heinous things..”
>I give her a disappointed look “Do you think I am some ball of desire to defile you wrapped in the skin of a sentient being or something?”
>She seems to think it over and admits “It’s a bit oversimplified… but…”
>Cool thanks elf
>Let out a frustrated sigh.
>”You know what, how about I just put in a request for you to go back to Balthazar’s first division? They have far more comfortable facilities there, even an indoor pool at their main housing facility, is that alright Lilly?”
>The elf seems to wince at my use of her casual nickname but shakes her head.
>Lilly pauses, changing her tone from that smug elvish one to a far more human tone, “There’s far to many humans in first division. I asked for an elven superior because I find it hard to work with other species”
>With triumph in my head I prepare to begin Illyonara down the road to recovery from being an Elf asshole.
>I lean back in the desk chair, “How much of the department was non-humans? Elves?” I ask, baiting the trap.
>”It was thirty percent non-humans and nineteen percent elves.”
>”Well then, this team has that beat, we’re thirty-three percent elves. Besides, back on Earth, most of the leadership is humans.” I say with a smile.
>She just sits there and twiddles her thumbs, coming down from her knife-ear superiority high back to the reality she just made for herself.
>”Go get cleaned up in the bathroom. If you are going to be working with us, I suggest we talk over some lunch, try for some new introductions.” I say, letting Lilly go to the bathroom of her own accord.
>Wait till I hear the water running in the shower before I look to Clara.
>”Farm animal, who does she think she is?” Clara says with disgust.
>”I mean she did imply that I’m a rape machine… how old is she anyways? Humans always have a hard time estimating elf ages…”
>Clara thinks for a moment “I’d say she’s in her mid twenties… equivalent to the mid-teens for humans, impressionable and immature.”
>I remember from one of the otherworld species books that elves take up to thirty five to be considered mentally mature.
>To be physically mature, they take about as long as humans do.
>”So what about the stuff she brought with her?”

>We requested and Zeddik delivered… mostly.
>I started with the personnel file included in paper on top of the cases and foam lining the bags that Illyonara had carried from the helicopter.
>Illyonara of Lindenheun, Research assistant, elven educated…. magically active but untrained, excellent tracking skills, gifted learner in science…
>I set the papers aside for a look at the case underneath, opening it to reveal a shine I hadn’t expected.
>The rifle was brighter than I was expecting, a Marlin 1895 in Nickle with pale grey wood furniture.
>There’s an optic rail already on it with a variable 1-8x on it, the pale grey optic shroud covering it to match the rifle.
>The silencer has the same metal finish and the sling is a light grey.
>Alright… someone had fun making this look awesome.
>There’s four ammo types that came with it, three 50 round boxes for the ‘nonstandard’ ones and two one-hundred round boxes for the ‘standard’ ammo.
>I begin to read the labels on each of the boxes, penetrators which are cone shaped projectiles crammed in to the casing, closer to a rifle bullet but not as curved, then the hollow points.
>Laugh to myself as I pull out the 45-70 hollow point, which looks like it would kill a bear with the fragmentation alone.
>There’s the super dense expanders for magical wildlife, basically an x shaped tip on a bullet made of extremely dense materials, not good for hard surfaces but amazing for heavy muscle and fat.
>And then the ‘standard’ semi-flat nose copper jacket 45-70 +P.
>Clara says she knows someone who can load it two rounds at a time, but then again I still don’t know much about her past so I can’t tell if she’s lying.
>Set aside the rifle for now with the ammo boxes stacked in a neat little pile.
>Pull out the enhanced digital night visions for myself, won’t test them just yet but the smart thermal will be killer if I can use it with the sight on the lever action.
>See a few extra mags and more 10mm, pack those away in my bag.
>Ear pro for me and specially made earpro for Clara and Lilly.
>The company that made the non-human earpro designed little clamp-on over-ear style shells for in-ear protection for the cow ears and elf ears.
>Hand the cow designed earplugs over to Clara, who looks impressed at the construction.
>Finally get to the real juice of this delivery and pull out the phone sized attachment for the back of the folding tablet PDA.
>Slap the new chemical analysis module on the back where the contacts are and latch it down with a satisfying click to hold the module to the PDA.
>The PDA quickly loads drivers and then begins to display a whole bunch of data, temperature, pressure, oxygen concentration….
>A much more compact version of those other lab instruments we have.
>I’ll just leave the larger ones at a drop location in one of the nearby courier services, won’t be needing all the extra weight.
>The PDA alerts me to the presence of bioactive agents in the air.
>Pull it up to find minimum concentrations of beastfolk and elf pheromones present in the air.
>It’s damn near the limits of detection for the sensor package but that’s cool that it can detect bioactive agents.
>There is a small problem with this, some humans are affected by the particles that Frankasian species put out in to the air, about one in forty or so.
>I’m mildly sensitive to them, with others having only the ability to smell them, others getting some strange urges in response.
>Humans don’t really have detectible pheromones like the Frankasian species do, for some uncovered evolutionary reason there’s a higher presence of smell-based identification over here.
>My sensitivity is quite subtle, but can make itself more apparent with stronger scents.
>Like that wolf-girl who went to a lecture in heat my freshman year.
>Man that sucked for the two of us who were sensitive.
>The other guy had to get up, trying to hide the obviously massive erection he had.
>I on the other hand distracted myself with the lecture on organic-inorganic complexes found in Frankasian wildlife, sometimes finding myself taken by the girl’s fluffy tail or athletic build.
>Which led to the reason why some elves see humans as those ‘rape hungry monsters’.
>There was a major incident early on in a major Elf city with someone who didn’t know they were extremely sensitive and was brought over to this side within the first month of the convergence.
>That’s how researchers learned about scent sensitivity and a screening program for people heading over to this side.
>I wonder why Clara hasn’t caused mine to go off more than the one time I can recall.
>My mental tangent is broken by the sound of a heavy slide releasing.
>Look up to see Clara fiddling with the Desert Eagle, checking it’s heft and feel of the high caliber pistol.
>It’s clear that she likes it.
>There’s another item in the last duffle bag, it looks like a leather gun belt with two pouches and little loops for large rounds.
>Given the 45-70 size loops on the belt, I infer that it’s probably for me.
>Take it and put it on, ensuring the good fit under my lab coat and gleefully finding that it comes with a holster for my 10mm.
>Now I can set aside the hard plastic one, it kind of sucks and digs in to your side after a while.
>Put the 45-70 super dense and penetrators in the two pouches, give myself five hollow points and then put the normal ammo on the rest of the belt.
>I see Clara nod in approval to my gun belt as she finishes attaching the IR laser to the M2.
>”Well, we’ll have to take these out to the range tomorrow. I’m sure yours is sighted in but this laser will need some tuning… probably at night too.” Clara says, sliding the Deagle in to her new holster.
>She’s got a leather belt now with a Texas star on the buckle.
>Is she intentionally turning us in to cowboys?
>My question is put aside as the bathroom door opens with Lilly stepping out in what I would consider more elven attire.
>She still has the lab coat on due to the colder temperatures but underneath is wearing one of those one-piece archery outfits with the tight fitting corset and long leather hand straps.
>Her light green shirt flows in to silk weave pants that is clearly for better movement.
>”Alright… I’m sorry for the rough start, but I’m ready if you will both learn to accommodate me.” She says, moving some half-wet hair out of her face.
>Well it’s not the best apology I’ve gotten but for an elf like her… yeah it’s enough.
>”Sounds good, Clara are you ready for some good food?” I ask
>Clara’s ears perk up, she knows what I’m about to propose.
>We had been neglecting to go to a particular diner in town until we had our third member.
>It’s a slightly more expensive earthen restaurant chain that popped up on this side as an ‘experience’ for otherworlders to get a taste of earth.
>It also happens to be the only place you can get decent whiskey.
>I didn’t realize that Clara preferred whiskey over her Frankasian beer, but once she had heard that there was a Solvay’s Earthen Eatery in town, she had asked me to go several times.
>”So long as it’s your dime, I’m ready” Clara says, putting the Deagle in a more concealed appendix carry.
>I figure I should do the same and take off my gun belt.
>And back to the shitty holster we are… fuck me.
>Lilly looks oddly between us, “Guns… at dinner?”
>”Would you rather a waiter give us an odd look or be unarmed when orcs raid the town?” I say.
>Lilly rolls the idea over in her head looking to her bow, “So what about me then?”
>”Looks like we need to take you shopping for a gun” Clara says, heading for the door of the room.

>After Lilly kept talking on and on about how elven wood bows are far better than earthen steel firearms and yada yada… we just left the hotel room with her following us.
>I tuned her out as I thought about drinking something tonight…
>I had a bad history with liquor in grad school, drove away the girl I liked because of it.
>Maybe just tonight, it’s worth it to test myself given that I hadn’t had anything more than a singular beer in the last three years.
>Hear the absence of Lilly’s rant behind me and see her looking at her PDA, Clara’s profile pulled up in full with my own profile minimized on the side.
>She’s putting two and two together with the form titles that I saw.
>Lilly gives me a knowing look that I had probably given those files to Clara.
>Then pulls up mine.
>It doesn’t list anything terrible, under my notes from the psych workup they saw that I didn’t drink, might freeze under pressure and had a minor sensitivity to otherworld species scents.
>I see her pause on that last part, looking back up to me, then back down to the PDA.
>Lilly looks like she’s about to scream.
>”Hey, it’s off hours.. don’t worry too much about the expeditions once we’re off earth working hours” I say, trying to get her to put down the PDA.
>She looks uneasy and puts the PDA away as we approach the restaurant.
>Solvay’s Earthen Eatery.
>I can smell a cacophony of Fajitas, hamburgers, Bratwurst, Curry…
>There’s literally at least one meal for every country and culture thanks to the miracle of cryo-magic to preserve all the ingredients required.
>A human waitress comes to greet us and gives me a friendly smile, leading us to our table.
>She probably was just happy to see another human that doesn’t work at her place.
>This far in to Frankasia, humans are far more rare, about one in either fifty to one hundred, and this town is right around the six thousand size.
>I can see Lilly and Clara both light up with excitement as they peruse the menu.
>There’s really only one thing I get when I visit one of these places, that’s their Cajun option.
>Places in Frankasia have vibrant food but they don’t have an equivalent for Cajun food.
>It’s quite disheartening that the culinarians of Frankasia never replicated the boldness and spiciness, given the variety within Cajun cuisine itself, an intricate blend of French and southern cooking.
>So I get some time to peruse their drink menu with my order secured.
>I can already see Clara eyeing up the whiskey selection.
>”Given the fact that a twelve person team is now being run by us three, feel free to get whatever you want” I say, trying to make Lilly see that I’m not going to be a stickler.
>The waiter comes back and I just tell her to get me whatever Clara gets for the drink, which she orders a Double Old Fashioned with Bullit Bourbon.
>Ask for a plate of Mozzarella sticks for the table.
>Oddly specific drink order for Clara but the waiter just nods.
>She’s about to go when Lilly asks for an Elven wild wine.
>Then we get to sit witness to Lilly trying to convince the human waitress that she’s of age and that her preconceptions of age do not cross species boundaries.
>It was funny for about five minutes but then Lilly began to slip in to that smug condescending elf manner.
>I just told the human waitress that Lilly was in fact, of age, even if she didn’t act like it.
>That got a smirk out of the waiter who just nodded, trying to hold back what looked like a torrent of hysterical laughs.
>Lilly seems to get the message that all the evil humans are out to either get or rape her and goes quiet.
>Great that went well.
>”So what continent do you usually order from Clara? Lilly?” I ask, trying to bridge the conversation to something more pleasant.
>Clara comes out with a big smile and just says “North America, gotta’ get Texas, since it reminds me of home.”
>Lilly, thinking that this is just a strategy to get at her again just says “Italy”
>”You know, I used to make a lot of cheap Italian dishes back in my college days…” I say as the Mozzarella sticks are placed at the table.
>”Have you ever had real spaghetti and meatballs?” Lilly asks dreamily.
>”Yes, in fact that’s a very easy meal that I got tired of due to how often I made it.” I say, matter-of-factly
>Lilly seems to go in to a daydream, as if envisioning the true depths of good pasta.
>”Back on earth, at least where I lived, you could get really good sauce off the shelves of any grocery store, the meatballs already made, the pasta ready to cook and then just throw it all in to a pot and it’s done.” I say, recounting the many night where I made a lazy pasta dish due to how inexpensive they were.
>”I want to go see Italy one day…” Lilly says.
>”You know, if you really want to see something impressive, Texas is always there with their BBQ and wide open ranges…” Clara says, starting to talk as if nostalgic for a place she didn’t know existed ten years ago.
>”Clara, have you been to Texas?” I ask
>”It was where I escaped… I mean appeared on this side. I was fairly young tooo-” Clara stops, having made the moo-ing sound again unintentionally.
>I can see Lilly’s brow furrow at this sound but I try to pay no mind to Clara’s tick.
>She clears her throat and continues “I was young, and had to grow up by myself doing ranch work.”
>”You’ll get to see Earth and all it’s great sights one day Lilly, I have seen many of it’s wonders myself…” I say, thinking back to my childhood of privileged travel.
>”Why did you leave?” Lilly asks
>Ah yes the accursed question I had just unwittingly baited.
>”The people.. the world… it didn’t seem all that magical anymore. Life over there became dry until Frankasia entered the picture. This, the convergence, it was a blessing to bring back the unknown.”
>I marvel at the idea that I had become disenfranchised with the world because of how we had been on the verge of being able to explain most things with math…
>”I am not proud of what I was back then… leaving to see this new world gave me an excuse to live my life again.” I add, leaning back in my seat with consideration for the second woman I had loved and lost over my infatuation with science.
>”I was quite bad in the dating scene too…” I muttered.
>The waiter arrives back at the table as I think to myself, delivering on to me god’s apology for the burden of sentience, Alcohol.
>She places the fine looking whiskey cocktails in front of me and Clara, and wine in front of Lilly.
>Time for some real teambuilding.

>Through the course of the dinner, Lilly had not realized I had the waitress stealthily refill her wine glass at the halfway point has had quite a bit to drink.
>Thanks to the strength of elven wine, she had become markedly more tolerable to talk with as if she had forgotten that we were ‘non-elves’ entirely.
>Of course, given the spaghetti, the wine was not hitting as hard as say, Clara on her fifth Double Old Fashioned.
>Clara, having gotten the BBQ Ribs, was left unguarded to the strong drinks, no grainy or wheaty food to absorb some of the whiskey.
>A strange thought crosses my mind briefly, ‘is it alright for a cow girl to eat beef?’
>I brush it aside for now.
>She seems to be having quite the time, talking to Lilly about Texas and ranch life, shying away from the details of when and how she got there.
>Apparently Clara worked as a ranch hand in a horse farm near San Antonio, leaving for Frankasia after the farm got bought out.
>Once or twice in the conversation she accidentally made more moo-ing noises, each time trying to disregard it as if it was nothing.
>I could see Lilly on the verge of asking what the noises were about but with a stern look from me, it seemed to clear her curiosity.
>Clara’s been doing mercenary work for at least five years…
>I caught her mention something offhandedly about a dairy farm in her younger years but also disregard it quickly.
>Lilly, by contrast has the story of what happened to some of the major Elven cities in Frankasia just after the Convergence.
>Telling of how humans were different from the migrants, our currency being far more powerful than theirs, even a hundred dollars could get you started in Frankasia.
>It let a lot of people down on their luck get out of a tight spot.
>It also let some real psychos disappear out here.
>They had names for the different roles people had out in Frankasia, commandos are the more code-abiding and adventurer types while renegades are the more dangerous and murderous types.
>All and all it didn’t help with the human reputation but to some residents, the business was too good to pass up and spurred up a massive new tourist industry everywhere on both sides.
>I mean everywhere, there’s a middle of nowhere town in east Kansas that ended up getting a semi-stable portal connected to caves on both sides that became a tourist destination.
>For the most part I nursed the strong drink and just enjoyed listening.
>I can feel it run through me, the presence of alcohol making itself known in my veins with a dull warmth.
>This sensation caused so much fear in me for the longest time, but in the company of those around me, I felt safer.
>Go ahead and head up to the bar, thinking of a nice souvenir for the road.
>Pay for the food and drink but ask the bartender if I can buy a specific bottle of whiskey from them.
>The guy working the bar just shrugs and tells me it’s a little overpriced but he’s got some stuff that no store in a hundred miles would have.
>Ask if he’s got anything from Texas, which he brings me a small handle of something called Larceny.
>It’s pre-convergence and is apparently well rated.
>Use the silver Balthazar card because fuck me if I’m buying this myself.
>It’s for team building.
>Wave the girls over as the bartender hands me back my card, indicating that we are good to go.
>Check my PDA, approve a nice tip for the waitress in the receipt.
>Clara and Lilly see the bottle in my hand, Clara looks at it with a desire I had never seen in those eyes before.
>Lilly seems a little tipsy but doesn’t seem interested in drinking more.
>We start walking back to the inn and realize an important fact about drinking with pasta.
>’You see’ I begin to tell myself in my head, ‘Pasta is an osmotic environment…’
>I give myself a mini lecture in my head to basically say the pasta absorbs some alcohol and depending on the pasta, it can dump it all as it is digested giving you a second more sudden wave of drunkenness an hour or so after you finish the drink.
>Lilly is in for a ride.

>We all burst in to the inn room triumphantly as we more or less collapse in specific areas.
>I threw myself in to the desk chair, leaving the new bottle of whiskey I have upright on top of the desk.
>Lilly figured that the smaller bed in the corner would be a good fit for her, given the relative differences in size between her and Clara.
>Or at least that’s what I think happened because she just silently claimed it.
>Clara just ends up sitting on the bed, still eying up the Larceny.
>”So! Lilly, you got some of the more elf-oriented options on the menu… how about trying some real American fire?” I say, taking off the plastic tab to reveal the cap to the Whiskey bottle.
>Hear a little beep from my PDA, ignore it for now.
>”No… I am not drinking human poison for you to make me vulnerable to your whims!” She yells while being face down in the pillow.
>”If he tries anything, I’ll break his arm. Sound good Lilly?” Clara says, just looking for an excuse to get that bottle open.
>”Woah woah.. that implies that I would try something in the first place” I say in mock offense.
>I get the top off the bottle, using the provided hotel glasses, I pour us each a measure of the whiskey.
>”So, I never had this much one-on-one time with my last team… here’s to a closer and more functional team.” I say, handing out the glasses.
>Lilly sits up in the small mobile bed and takes the glass cautiously.
>”To second division’s best, and new beginnings.” I say raising my glass.
>”To the money of second division” Clara say with a smug grin.
>Lilly lets out a sigh “To elvish advancement” Lilly says
>We all drink deep of the whiskey.
>Damn that’s good.
>Is that the hint of blackberries in the air?

>After a night of swapping stories about grad school, elvish society and ranch life, we turned in for the night.
>Lilly and Clara took to the beds but that left me with quite the conundrum.
>I had a chair.
>They had beds…
>I think if I had climbed in bed with Clara, I would 1. Wake up with a broken arm, 2. Lilly would never trust me.
>It’s not like there wouldn’t be ample space between us either, it’s a big bed.
>Settle on pulling the bedroll off of my bag and just laying on the floor.
>Though I had to try my hand at stealth to pluck a pillow off of Clara’s bed.
>I don’t think she noticed.
>God this looks depressing, the single flat pillow on the soft matte rubber padding that is supposed to act as a ‘better than nothing’ mattress in the wilderness on a bare hotel floor.
>Take off my lab coat and use it like a blanket… yeah make the homeless feel really take shape.
>I lay around like this for a while but eventually get sick of trying to fall asleep and grab my PDA.
>See the notification from second division manager, the guy above Zeddik.
>’Hey I didn’t know if Zeddik told you yet but we’re rolling out some experimental gear to teams and management thought your team could use the boost and given the good frequency of reporting and recent losses, you could provide us with valuable data on investing in smaller teams with more equipment to help reduce the human cost of exploration. Please download the attached files, [XPC-1231.APK] and [User-Guide-XPC.pdf]. The first will act as your key and the second will provide instructions on how to maintain and use your new equipment. It should be completed at the airfield tomorrow. Thanks, Toriel.’
>Zeddik’s boss is giving us something new?
>Huh, I’ll check that in the morning.
>Send him a thanks and tell him I’ll review the materials in the morning.
>To new beginnings.

>Wake up to the sound of a PDA chiming incessantly.
>It’s mine…
>Clara and Lilly are both angrily turning in their beds at being woken up at…
>Fuck it’s just after 10 am.
>I meant to get up at 8.
>Telling time in Frankasia is different than Earth, their days are twenty six hours.
>So it’s fun when you get to say thirteen o clock.
>Oh yeah my PDA.
>Answer it and start walking over to the bathroom to try and give Lilly and Clara a few more moments of sweet sleep.
>”Hello, this is Doc of second division?”
>”Ah Hello ‘ere lad!”
>It’s a dwarf and I can hear the sounds of a machine shop in the background, pneumatic wrenches going and heavy machinery at work.
>”Good morning, what can I do for you?”
>”Sorry, did I wake ‘ya?.. Anyways, Y’er car is ready for pick up out at the Danyaton Airfield.” He says over the static sounds of a welder.
>”Yeah… wait, a car?” I say, trying to figure out what I was just given.
>”Yep! Only well-equipped machine shop in town’s got us a lotta’ good business! Anyways, she’s ready!”
>The dwarf hangs up leaving me bewildered.
>I exit the bathroom to see Clara in her pajamas and Lilly still in her elven attire.
>”Alright.. I guess let’s get ready. Second has sent us something due to our unorthodox team size… some kind of vehicle. I’m not sure how useful it’s going to be given the total lack of gas stations out here, but they sent it.”
>Clara seems unphased at this but Lilly perks up at this prospect, “So I won’t have to carry all this stuff around?”
>She just points to her bag.
>Bitch you were only going to carry that?
>”I guess…. let’s go and check it out once we’re all ready.”

>It was so much better than I expected.
>The dwarves opened the bay doors of the hanger they’re working out of to reveal a matte black light armored vehicle similar to a Humvee.
>It’s got big off-roading tires, at least a foot of suspension, two large spotlights on either side next to the mirrors…
>The front end looks stubby with little room for a large engine, but it makes room for the back end with an enclosed truck bed and a large frame for a gunner position.
>There’s a simple aluminum shell over the back of the bed that can be removed with the hatch cut out for the gunner spot.
>It’s got Humvee style doors in the back of the moderate sized cabin to get to the low truck bed.
>I’d have to crawl through it, Clara’s probably going to have to squeeze through it if we ever need to use it.
>Given the door arrangement, it’s a four seater but the fourth seat in the back is pulled down to reveal electrical hookups and we can even set up a mobile lab in the back.
>That’s why it has such a large passenger cabin, so we can store our equipment.
>It’s got a decent interior… kind of utilitarian with hidden storage bays, netting and rough materials but that’s to be expected.
>PDA mount in the dash for all the controls and stuff.
>Minimalist display next to the steering wheel…
>The dwarf taking us through the machine taps the display with an ‘expected range’ number and a battery percentage.
>Acting on a very good guess, I climb up the side mounted ladder to see the entire roof coated in solar, this machine is fully electric.
>There’s two bundles on either side of the car that I thought was camo netting until the dwarf pulls back the rolled flexible solar to make an awning around the sides.
>So we can’t take off the rear cab without affecting our charge rate, but given the coverage of the solar sheets we can effectively camp out of it so long as we have provisions.
>I pull up the two files that Toriel sent over and pull up the PDF as the dwarf leaves us with the vehicle, tending to the workings of his hanger-turned-machine shop.
>Seats that can lean back in to beds up front, room for two in the back, two more in the bed gives us a total capacity of 6.
>Up front where the typical gas engine would be is equipment we will need to survive, water storage and purification, small hotplate.
>There’s a cargo rack accessible from the outside of the XPC… experimental personnel carrier.
>Wow creative.
>I’m just going to call it the buggy, given that the suspension reminds me of a beach buggy.
>I can see Lilly getting giddy over not having to walk between villages and having heating for those long winter nights that are fast approaching.
>Check the armor rating… good for everything up to small explosives, rear bed is rated for .45 ACP at most.
>Look up to see Clara climbing in to the rear of the buggy, checking out the gun position.
>”Bess should fit up here just fine… there’s even a small ammo rack in here!” Clara calls down from the hatch.
>We thank the dwarves for their work and get in.
>I take the driver seat, Clara grabs the passenger seat and Lilly is in the back left.
>There’s not much of a center console but I realize it’s so anyone can get to the back hatch without too much interruption.
>This thing is surprisingly well thought out for an experiment, though I’m sure it’s pushing the definitions of road-legal back on earth.
>I lock my PDA in to the mount on the dash, using the pins on the bottom of the PDA to connect it.
>The whole system comes to life and I feel the heater kick on, warming the cool metal of the cabin.
>It had been cold the last few days, not too terribly cold with a jacket… but this is a nice change of pace.
>The gear selector is only Park, Neutral, Reverse and Drive.
>Oh yeah, electric.
>Throw it in drive and bring it slowly out of the hanger.
>Wave to the dwarves as they close the hanger doors behind us and bring the buggy to a stop.
>Both girls look to me wondering why I had halted until I turn to ask Clara and Lilly, “Seatbelts?”
>I’ll be damned if I don’t bring a little of that Earth uptightness for safety with me…. sometimes..
>Clara already knows what to do, but Lilly is left looking at us like I had just made up a word.
>”The thing on your left, pull it down and buckle it in to the seat.” I say, pointing to the seatbelt hanging by her left shoulder.
>”Why do I need that?” She asks, both out of curiosity and to be difficult.
>”It’s because if we hit something going sixty or so, you won’t fly in to the seat in front of you and die.”
>She puts on the seatbelt without another word.
>I can feel this thing is sensitive, the gas.. accelerator peddle is really touchy.
>It’s like this thing is a cat ready to pounce.
>I drive it to the end of the air strip taxiway slowly, keeping under 15.
>”What are we doing over here?” Asks Clara as I line up the car down the air strip.
>”Indulging myself” I say as I slam the accelerator to the floor.
>Feel the traction control kick in and we rocket down the air strip, getting to sixty in about three or four seconds…
>I’m loving this, Clara lets out a surprised yell and Lilly begins to scream with fear.
>We hit the halfway point of the runway at about a hundred and six.
>Go ahead and let the buggy slow down naturally as we coast to the end.
>As I begin the drive back to the inn, I know that this machine, this beast will be the highlight of my expedition.
>Pull up to the other armored cars with various trader logos on them.
>Park in perfect equidistance from two other nicer travel cars.
>I take my PDA out and we head back up to the room, rushing up the stairs as if we had all just gotten off a roller coaster.
>”So let’s load up… you two alright if we take this thing out for a three day test?” I ask, looking between the two excited non-humans.
>Lilly just nods and Clara looks like she’s in the middle of a gambling win streak that just won’t end.
>”Let me mount my gun and you’ve got me in” Clara says, pulling out an M2 vehicle mount from her bag.

>So to kill two harpies with one stone, I devised a plan for us to run to the local caves just outside the orc territory to the north in order to get some samples of a native moss that is used in most of the local medicines.
>We can use the buggy to get there in less than a day, spend half the day in the cave and then then drive north in to the wilds.
>We will set up camp and then set up the back of the buggy as our mobile lab.
>This would take us a bit off track from where my other team had planned our expedition but at this point nothing had gone as planned and I can change the expedition’s course as we need so long as we get results for second division.
>We can camp for a day to run any more extractions and secondary passes for analysis with the lab, check how long we need to charge for… and then be on our way to the town of Harsburrow the next day.
>A three day trip out of our week of adjustment time, we can get some results and then maybe squeeze another few days out of Harsburrow before we have to get back to our more hazardous work.
>I would eventually have to venture in to the orc’s land to the east if I am to track down the few variant species of that ‘healing moss’ that I had been reporting on for the last month.
>But we can at least have a few nice days in Harsburrow, which is a more earthenized town.
>It for one, has a population of at least thirteen thousand, has an electrical grid and sewer, reliable internet access and best of all…
>Harsburrow has hot springs, spas, nightclubs, human shopping and good roads.
>It’s one of those ‘go see the wilds in style’ kind of touristy towns with activities like hiking and hunting for the guys and spas and shopping for the ladies.
>And because it’s the largest town farthest from any portal, it’s seen as one of those ‘more authentic’ places.
>Even though the average Frankasian experience is no AC, no electricity, water from a creek and threat of raids.
>I’m sure Lilly would call me a racist for that but then again it would be funny to hear her say that.
>Elves, massive hypocrits.
>I just hope that I can show Clara that she can trust me enough to tell me what those documents on her profile are…
>And Lilly will warm up to me as a researcher and coworker rather than a sexual predator and filthy human.
>One can dream I guess.

>We rose earlier in the morning to begin packing the buggy for the long trip ahead.
>I had to make two trips between the room and the parking lot because Clara was busy mounting the quick release mechanism on the car so she can just take the M2 off as she needs.
>Throw the GCMS and lab equipment bag in the back of the buggy.
>As I’m doing this I find out there’s under-seat storage.
>Decide to unload the second compartment of my backpack in to the storage.
>Now I’ve got half of my backpack empty for samples or other equipment.
>Strap down the bulky GCMS machine and secure the lab equipment bag with the cargo netting so conveniently placed on the roof.
>Clara finishes up with her M2, swapping the large torque wrench in hand for a box of .50 BMG, placing the large ammo box on Bess.
>I guess now that Clara doesn’t need to haul her backpack around she can carry the big metal ammo boxes attached to the M2 rather than a slung belt.
>From my approaching view of the buggy, I witness the moment Clara looks to the affixed machine gun with the satisfaction of a proud parent, wiping the sweat off her head.
>Her shape is mesmerizing and the light plays of her skin as if she glowed, silhouetted by the rising sun.
>Catch a whiff of hay.
>Slap myself a little to clear my mind.
>Focus Doc, focus.
>My eyes linger on Clara in the truck bed as I link my PDA and the buggy as Clara puts the torque wrench back in a hidden toolbox embedded in the truck bed.
>Didn’t know we had a tool box, that’s really good to know.
>Using the PDA’s interface, I start up the fans to cycle the air in the buggy, pulling in fresh fall scents in to the cabin.
>”You’re more than just minorly sensitive, aren’t you” I hear Lilly’s voice from behind me.
>Her sudden presence startles me and I look back to see the partially disgusted and mistrustful face of Lilly.
>I remembered I last saw her putting her bag together upstairs, “I thought you were still in the room”
>”I finished….” She says, staring me down waiting for my answer.
>”It’s nothing I can’t handle. Sometimes it’s more subtle, sometimes it’s very apparent. I at least know about it too.. not like those commandos who think they’re in love with say… a harpy who just tried to kill them or something. Poor bastards got hit with a chemical cocktail to tame them.” I say, taking a deep breath of the fresh air.
>”Not that I don’t find some features attractive, but I don’t want that to rule my decision making especially with you two.” I add.
>Lilly looks unexpectedly fine with my explanation, her gaze turning from disgust to almost having a hint of respect.
>It doesn’t last long though, Clara opens the door to the passenger seat.
>I turn back to face the dash, we’re already full on battery, estimated range 400 miles.
>Look to Clara, yep large cow lady is as intimidating as ever.
>After a quick stop at a travel store for provisions, we should be ready to roll out.

>As we drove from Danyaton I found out through our small talk that I am the only one able to drive by Earth standards.
>Lilly grew up on this side, so cars are few and far between unless you’re within a hundred or so miles of a portal.
>Clara only ever handled a large farm truck on the ranch, never having received her license or attempted driving on a main road.
>Eventually, following the map on my PDA, the landscape before us transforms from a dense forest to a moderate plains with trees speckled in every so often like raisins sullying an otherwise great cookie.
>The hills here are annoying in their inconsistencies, the form of one staying true to a gaussian distribution, smooth rise and smooth fall while other offending hills hid sharp drop-offs and falls that could spell a short lived end for our buggy.
>Given the situation, I wish I had bought one of those drones from the Balthazar catalogue given it’s ability to scout ahead and find a good route.
>Lessons for next time.
>The world comes back in to focus as we peak over another hill and roll gently down the other side.
>We’ve averaged around forty miles an hour for the past hour and a half thanks to open dirt trails.
>Crest another hill and see the black opening of a cavern ahead.
>There’s signs of habitation that become visible near the cave as we grow closer.
>I spot two areas of charred dirt, likely fire pits, roughly cut lumber near the entrance, and a ‘refuse’ pile out to the side.
>”Clara, watch over the buggy, me and Lilly will head in to the cave to take samples.” I say as we pull up about a hundred feet from the cave.
>There’s very few trees here, the nearby forest tree line looks to be about a half mile.
>Clara should have no problem with the sightlines here.
>”Wait, you want me to go in there?” Lilly asks, taken aback.
>”Yes, it’s where the species of moss I’ve been studying inhabit.” I take my PDA off the console to power down the buggy.
>Lilly looks to be frustrated, declaring “I can’t use my bow in a cave!”
>”Then let his be a learning point, we can get you a pistol or something in Harsburrow. Now we’re going to be in an enclosed space, bring your ear protection.”
>I throw on the large earmuffs of my earpro and toggle the ‘hunting mode’ which amplifies quiet sounds while reducing loud sounds.
>Lilly puts in her small earbuds and takes a knife from her bag, strapping it’s sheath to her left upper arm for quick access.
>”Clara, I’m not taking the lever gun, so if you hear us yelling, I want you to take that. A .50 in a space like that is a little much.”
>Clara nods, trying to fit through the small back hatch, eventually pulling herself up to the gunner position.
>I pull my 10mm to check the chamber, it’s loaded and ready.
>Ensuring that I have more than one mag, I take two extra mags and stuff them in my back pocket.
>With my own defense prepared, I throw on a small sling bag on with my sample collection gear and grab the digital-thermal night visions, given that the cave will likely be too dark to see anything.
>Me and Lilly both exit the buggy and I wave to Clara as we begin to walk to the mouth of the cavern.
>Catch a hint of pine in the air.
>I can feel my hairs raise.
>Is this the predatory feeling of a hunter ready to ambush it’s prey?
>Look to Lilly and the poor girl is wide eyed as we approach.
>The sensation clouds my mind but I do my best to shake it off, focusing in the moment.
>We both get right up to the mouth of the cave.
>The floor is smooth and worn from water and time.
>Flip the night visions down and toggle thermal.
>Don’t see anything so I start walking in.
>Don’t hear anything either…
>Lilly is following behind as we get about fifty or so feet in.
>There’s goblin bones next to an old pile of broken tools and a torn blanket.
>”Oh, I think we’re good. Old goblin bones just in there. This was probably an old camp.”
>Lilly lets out a sigh of relief.
>I change over to hybrid thermal-digital mode and get a better view.
>There are sword marks gouged in to the floor and ceiling.
>”Yeah, adventurers or something must have came through and cleared the goblins out. Keep an eye out for old traps.”
>Further in to the cave I see a flat opening on my left, then a far more person-shaped opening on the right.
>The cave diverges….
>”Lilly, how well can you see in the dark?” I ask, looking to her with my night visions.
>”I can see well enough… it’s a little bit dim but I can manage.”
>”Then if you feel safe, go take the right, I’ll try and squeeze through that opening over there.” I point to the small flat opening.
>”Alright…” She says uneasily.
>I go ahead and start crawling in to the just over two foot space.
>It goes on for what feels like twenty feet but I can see it opens up.
>There’s a temperature gradient, it’s getting far more moist and warm.
>It opens up in to a small underground mineral pool, smelling of iron, dirt and decay.
>And there’s the characteristic smell of that moss.
>It’s an earthy mint smell.
>Under the greyscale optics I can’t see details very well but I can see small tufts of dark moss growing like a fungus across the walls of the pool.
>Around the pool sit chunks of lukewarm rotting flesh, absent of flies or other scavengers that would have made a feast of such refuse.
>It is likely the remains of animals that got stuck in this pool…
>The flesh is too broken down to identify the organism it had come from, especially under the low light conditions so I turn my attention to the moss.
>With a dexterous hand I collect a tuft of the small fibrous plant with my tweezers and cram it in to a 500 mL bottle.
>I grab six or seven of the tufts, gathering enough to fill the bottle.
>After my ample sample collection, I use one of the small 30 mL bottles to collect the mineral water in case I need to further analyze the environment.
>The water reeks of iron and rot so I am beyond curious to see how this has affected the moss.
>As I’m zipping up my bag I hear a quick but apparent scream.
>The scream’s brief sound is cut off by the blade of silence that fills the cavern.
>I just run to the wall of the mineral pool and begin to climb up to the opening.
>Fuck the walls are slippery.
>I clamber through the opening and draw my pistol.
>With adrenaline making itself known in my body, I run left to the person sized opening and can see shapes under thermal.
>It’s far too dark to see with the digital sensors but I can see three small lanky shapes surrounding a much larger female shape.
>They hear me approaching and turn to look at me.
>I’m about to raise my gun and fire when I’m cracked in the back of the head by something hard and heavy.
>Hit the floor on my side.
>The scent of iron fills my nose, my vision blurs and shapes suddenly no longer have meaning to my injured mind.
>I can feel warmth running down the back of my head.
>Have the mind enough to look to see a larger thermal mass approaching me…
>In my adrenaline filled haze I pull the trigger six times as I barely hear the muffled gunshots, muffled less by my earpro than the complete borderline consciousness I am experiencing.
>The mass turns in to a blob on the floor and stops moving.
>I drift my vision and my arm over to the other three figures.
>They’ve stopped doing whatever it was they were doing to Lilly and are walking towards me.
>I don’t want to shoot because I might hit Lilly.
>Let one of the little heat blobs get close to me and then with whatever awareness I had left at that moment I reached out and pistol whipped it.
>It yells as my swing misses and begins to back away.
>The other two seem to get an idea and start to circle around to my sides, one at each side.
>One of the shapes pulls an object from a belt…. a knife?
>I know that if I fire at one of the shapes, the other one will likely kill me.
>Fire five times and let the shape to my left be turned in to a pool of heat on the cold cave floor.
>As my consciousness ebbs, I feel several kicks and strikes to my back, the gun being knocked from my hand at one point.
>I can barely see Lilly trying to drag herself away from the shape approaching her as my clothes and skin are torn to shreds by small clawed hands.
>A concussive blast rocks through the cavern, the blows to me cease with all the suddenness of the sound.
>Another large blast rings throughout, converting the shape lingering over Lilly in to paste upon the far wall.
>The sudden noise shakes me awake as I register someone large with a rifle next to me.
>Oh she smells like hay..
>Blink a few times and try to get up.
>My sense of balance is off and I feel absolutely nauseous, with a throbbing pain building in the back of my head and back.
>”Are you good?!” I hear Clara’s muffled voice echo in my injured mind.
>”safe!” I say, trying to convey my awareness, only to show the complete absence of it.
>Clara is about ready to drag me out when I begin to walk over to Lilly.
>I can’t see any details under the thermals but she’s also a little leaky like me, a small stream of blood running from her head.
>In my stupor, I lean down and try to pick her up.
>My head throbs as I throw my strength in to the attempted carry.
>She just throws an arm over me and I help her to her feet.
>Clara is checking the area, her motions faster than I can follow, but I lead Lilly out of the cave.
>The sunlight hurts my eyes as I reach the mouth of the cave and I flip up the night visions.
>The world is somewhat blurry but I can see Lilly’s clothes are torn, she’s got quite the nasty head gash, she’s going to need stitches.
>She has tears streaming down her face and is softly repeating the word ‘no’ over and over again.
>The cuts in to her clothes look less to hurt and more to disrobe…
>I can feel my mind slowly coming back under the increasing dose of adrenaline my body churns out.
>There’s a few more large gunshots from behind me and then silence.
>I counted seven.
>Me and Lilly make it to the buggy, my confusion finally clearing up with some lingering haze in my mind.
>The throbbing pain is still ever-present.
>I see Clara leaving the cavern with the lever action slung over her shoulder and dragging a small flailing green…
>I should have stayed with Lilly.
>The doubts begin to flood in to re-analyze the situation and my faults, but my priority turns back to Lilly as I hear Clara yelling at the goblin.
>She hits it in the face a few times with the stock of my rifle, asking the same question over and over.
>I don’t listen to what she’s yelling, my focus being entirely on the medical kit in my hands.
>It’s more of a medical bag that was strapped to the cabin roof of the car.
>I’m pleasantly surprised to find all kinds of injectors, pills, chest seals…
>Lilly’s trying to blink the concussion away, or at least I think she is.
>Her absent eyes show a lack of comprehension as I still hear the muttered denials.
>Likely concussion, pretty severe one too.
>Same for me, but I start working on her, taking some iodine and cleaning the wound on her head.
>Then I pull out the sutures.
>Thank god they opted for the curved needles.
>Tie off the chitin-based string and begin to weave Lilly’s head back together.
>We can probably find someone who knows biomancy or healing magic in Harsburrow.
>Does Lilly know magic?
>”Doc…” Lilly says softly, a tear running down her cheek.
>I try to keep my mind focused as I finish the stitches, “Yes Lilly?”
>”You’re bleeding…” She utters.
>Place a small bandage over top to keep the stitches hidden better.
>I’ll need to take it off in a few hours to let the wound breathe but this should help keep the tissue together.
>”Just a scratch… we need to make sure you’re alright first.”
>I try to keep a smile on my face but the throbbing in my head isn’t helping.
>There’s a few painkillers in the medical kit so I give Lilly and myself one each.
>Lilly’s starting to come out of her daze and she climbs up in to the buggy.
>She starts sobbing softly.
>I feel a stern hand place itself on my shoulder.
>”You’ve got a big gash on the back of your head and it’s dripping blood all over your coat.”
>I can feel Clara lean in, her breath on my back, the scent of desert air and grass making itself known as she grows closer.
>”You got hit from behind…. you didn’t check your corners did you?” Clara says, taking the stitching kit for herself.
>I can feel her go to work quickly, working faster than I could with a precision that only comes from experience.
>Within a minute I’m having my head, neck and coat wiped down by Clara to clean off the excess blood from her stitches.
>I wasn’t paying much attention.
>I kept rolling over the scene in my head of Lilly and those figures…
>The goblins were trying to get her clothes off.
>”Are they all dead?” I ask Clara.
>”No.. there’s eight more out hunting now, or at least that’s what the fucker begging for his life said.” Clara lets out a frustrated huff and adjusts my shouldered rifle.
>”Can you see if the kit has Dendroxomethylepherine? It is probably labeled DOXYL, one each for me and Lilly.”
>I hear Clara dig through the bag as I stare back at the cave, “Doxyl, for concussions, head injuries… stimulant and recovery agent? What’s with all these warnings?”
>Trying to answer Clara’s question I begin to rattle off the main facts I remember seeing in the paper on the drug, “It is not good to use if you’re non-human but in my opinion, the side effects and induced brain recovery is better than neural scarring.”
>Clara hits me in the neck with the injector, the sharp pain startling me.
>Nearly instantly I feel the world come in to focus, all the edges in my vision sharpening and my heart bursts back to life from it’s sullen slow beat to a heavy and ready fast pace.
>I hold my hand out for the other injector and Clara, not questioning my judgement, hands it over.
>”Hey, Lilly, I’m going to give you something for your head. It might make you a little sick but it will help your brain.” I say, approaching the sobbing elf.
>She has her face burried in her hands and doesn’t respond to me.
>I grab her far shoulder slowly and brace her in a small hug so she wouldn’t flinch at the next part.
>Jab the injector in to her neck and hit the stub.
>Lilly jerks violently at this and I pull the injector free.
>She falls on to the floor of the buggy’s interior.
>I give her a moment to herself as she curls up and her sobbing begins to subside.
>In the span of a second I’m holding myself in the doorway of the buggy to ask Lilly if she is alright, and suddenly I have a violently emotional elf on top of me in the grass holding a knife to my throat.
>She puts her free hand to her head as if suffering some kind of extreme mental episode.
>”Lilly what the hell!?” I yell, Clara grabbing at Lilly’s shoulders to pull her off me.
>She looks at me wide eyed as Clara peels her away, holding the knife firmly in her hand.
>”FILTHY HUMANS! YOU COULD NEVER KEEP YOUR URGES TO YOURSELF!” She yells, wildly thrashing in Clara’s grip.
>”That wasn’t me! There were goblins!” I say, trying to plead my case.
>”YOU SAID IT WAS CLEAR! YOU PLANNED THIS! YOU WANTED TO-” She stops abruptly and looks down at her torn clothes.
>”THEY WANTED TO DO THIS TO ME, BUT YOU WANTED ME FOR YOURSELF!” Lilly yells the accusation as Clara struggles to keep the knife from digging in to my neck.
>”Lilly, I’m not some god damned monster, I would never do that to anyone on my staff, or anyone period.” I struggle out, trying to keep Lilly’s sudden burst of strength at bay.
>Lilly is having none of it, trying to shake herself free of Clara when Clara grabs Lilly’s wrist and begins to twist, pulling her arm in to an uncomfortable position.
>Clara yells “God damnit Lilly, don’t make me break your arm!”
>Lilly stops and I can see some odd process working in her head as if gauging how fast she can get at the knife lingering in the grass.
>”Hell, you think humans are liars, but what about me? I promised you I’d keep him from trying anything right?” Clara says softly, holding Lilly tight against her body in a firm grip.
>The clear show of dominance seems to be frying this poor elf’s mind, the forces of human hate and beastfolk dominance fighting each other.
>Take a deep breath in and pull myself off the ground to approach Lilly.
>She shifts uncomfortably in Clara’s grip and her eyes dance over me as I grow closer.
>The scent of pine and grass run through my mind as I pull the 10mm from my holster and flick the safety on.
>There’s absolute fear in those elven eyes as Clara twists the struggling elf’s arm back further.
>”Clara, let her go” I say, setting down the pistol in to the grass just in front of Lilly, “If you don’t trust me, then we do this the American way.”
>Clara lets out an amused huff as Lilly is released, falling on to the grass in a confused stupor.
>After a moment Lilly picks up my pistol as if to cradle it.
>Clara takes a few steps back as Lilly investigates the foreign weapon.
>She holds it in an unsafe way, finger on the trigger but that’s why I put on the safety.
>”What… what do you mean?” Lilly asks confused, not understanding the words and the alien object in her hands.
>”I lived in a world where the citizens couldn’t trust the power of the government to not fuck them over. The founding fathers of my nation knew that would happen one day and gave every American the right to own weapons. If you can’t trust me, then you should be as armed as I am. If you won’t trust me, then trust in your ability to defend yourself.”
>Clara kneels down to match the level of me and Lilly, “We can get you something better in Harsburrow, that is a little big for you… and you don’t put your finger on the trigger unless you’re ready to kill something.” She says, eyeing Lilly’s trigger finger.
>I pull the holster off my back with the spare mag still nestled in it’s pocket.
>”At least take it till we get to town. Will you at least trust me enough to clear out the rest of the goblins?” I ask, offering her the holster.
>She takes it and stares at the man-made iron in her hands, “I’ll trust you for now, human.”

>We drove to the treeline a half mile away with a decent sightline on the cave to wait for the goblins.
>Clara has my rifle and is sitting up in the gun port waiting with her NODs mounted to her horns.
>The sun is about to go down and I’m running Lilly through the mechanics of the S&W, trying to get her to understand the parts, function and safety bits.
>Especially the safety bits after Lilly flagged me twice.
>She seems to be picking it up quickly, especially having been cracked in the head with a rock earlier.
>Clara told me when we were setting up over here that there was a hobgoblin in the cave with them.
>Though it had been shot several times, she still made sure to put one through the guy’s head.
>She muttered something to the effect of ‘filthy creatures’ as she screwed on the silencer to my rifle earlier in the day.
>”Now, where is the safety again?” I ask Lilly, who dutifully points it out on the 10mm.
>”Perfect, that’s pretty much all I had in way of instructions.” I say, leaning back in the drivers seat.
>Lilly tests the mag release a few times, getting a feel for the reloading action.
>”Now I know how to kill you quickly if you try anything” She says, her tone telling me she’s only half-joking.
>I lower my voice as to try to keep Clara from hearing, “Why do you think I would ever do something like that?”
>”Sensitive individuals, no matter how sensitive, are considered dangerous for a reason.” She says, pulling back on the slide to chamber a round.
>”Where in Frankasia are we considered dangerous?”
>”Lindenheun, an Elf city for Elves with restrictions for entry.” Lilly says as if reciting a passage she’d read a hundred times.
>”Well that’s not very ‘cultured’ of your people.” I say, trying to lighten the mood.
>”It’s the last bastion where my family felt safe to raise me, so I’d say it’s justified enough.” She says deadpan.
>Okay, touchy subject.
>”Look I don’t know who or what kind of humans you’ve known in the past that have convinced you that all humans are animals, I can tell you for the most part we are very in control of ourselves.”
>”You can never tell with *you* people.”
>Laugh to myself, this young elf reminds me of the most southern woman alive entering in to Old Detroit.
>Lilly looks confused, almost daring me to make the joke in front of her while she’s the armed one.
>”What?” She finally asks.
>”Oh it’s just the way you said that. You probably read that humans were far more hateful of themselves before the convergence? There’s still groups out there but the common man seems to have grown more tolerant of other human races since other species became a thing. It seems that species-species racism helps soothe those kinds of things…”
>She grows silent and holsters the pistol as she stares off in to the dim horizon, the sun finally setting.
>”Look, I don’t need you to like me, nor do I need you to be a friend. I just need you to trust me and my judgement, alright?”
>Lilly ignores me, staring out the window in to the darkening wilds just outside of the buggy.
>I start to dim the interior lights so we won’t stand out against the dark.
>”When we get to Harsburrow, I’ll pay for all of your new gear. You can keep the bow, I won’t make you get rid of it in favor of a rifle, I just want you to have a pistol or something comfortable to use in closer situations. I’ll also cover anything else you might need, even new clothes.”
>She turns her head in a sidelong glance and I hear an almost whispered thanks from her.
>”See, now that’s the spirit.” I say, flipping down my night visions.
>The buggy is rigged so that there’s almost no light coming from it except the dash.
>The sky fades to an inky black as the last strands of light fall behind the horizon.
>I get up to go ask Clara something in the rear when I feel a tug at my coat.
>Look back to see Lilly grabbing at the end of my lab coat.
>She’s visibly mustering up the courage to say something.
>”Thank you, for not just running away in the cave.” She pauses, letting go of my coat only to follow up with “even if you are a beast.”
>”Any time” I say, fighting the urge to call her a ‘knife-ear’ for that last part.
>Turn my attention to the rear hatch where Clara is watching over the forest edge and the clearing to the cave.
>”You see anything?” I ask, pulling myself in to the truck bed.
>”No, but I think that if they’re not back in the next hour or so, we should just set up inside the buggy and take turns on watch.” She says in a low voice, keeping her head on a constant swivel.
>Clara waits for me to fully get in the bed before kicking the hatch close with her hoof.
>I figured she’d want to talk one-on-one eventually.
>”So are you going to keep her around after she tried to kill you?” Clara asks bluntly.
>I let my head fall back to the wall of the truck bed as I sit, “Yeah, she’s going to feel like an outcast anywhere in this field. Science is still nearly 80% humans and higher education is 92% humans.”
>”So not only are you going to let her, a threat to you, stay with us, but you gave her a gun too?” Clara asks, seemingly frustrated with my reasoning.
>”Look, I need her to trust me. She’s not going to get anywhere without someone extending an arm and pulling her up to where the rest of the industry is.”
>”That’s not your responsibility!” Clara snaps, quieting down as she realized her mistake, “that’s not your responsibility at all.”
>”Clara, my instructor took a chance with me. I would never have gotten here without him. I owe it to him to do the same for someone else.” I close my eyes to hide Clara’s shapely outline fade from my mind.
>Her frustration fills the air in a musk of dirt and gun oil, “Doc, it’s one thing if you are taking a career risk, another if you’re risking your life”
>”On this side there are no safe bets, at least I can learn that from my previous team.” I hold my eyes closed for a moment to remember my previous team the best I can, only to find the frustratingly vague image of people I hardly remembered taunting me.
>I open my eyes to see Clara down in the cab with me, moving to sit next to me.
>”As much as I make it out that I’m in it for the money, you’re kind of the first guy I’ve worked with that didn’t just order me around, pinch pennies and try to ‘get friendly’ if you know what I mean. I hope I’m not jumping to any conclusions but you’re someone I don’t want to see dead in the dirt from his own mistakes.” She says, the frustration and pressure in the cab suddenly being replaced by an uneasiness from her and a lingering sense of regret.
>”And you even trusted me with this.” Clara holds up the data stick with her full file on it.
>”A little trust goes a long way right?” I say, toggling the thermal on my night visions.
>I see Clara’s face as a black and white hue, the features of her hair lost to the lightness of her cheeks and darkness of her eyes.
>With the scent of oak and hay I find my heart skip a beat as I look at her with my eyes hidden behind the NODs.
>She just stares back at me expectantly, seeming to sense the momentary lapse in my mind.
>”You know what Doc, you get us some real rooms in Harsburrow and we can talk about this” Clara says, putting the data stick away, “In the mean time, we’ve got goblins to hunt.”

>I sat in the back of the buggy for half an hour after me and Clara talked, leaning the seat back and trying to think over what Clara had said.
>Clarabelle how you make me think….
>The way she made me feel in that moment was like having someone gently caress your mind…
>I know those feelings can’t be mine, the sensitivity must be making itself known.
>I’m about to pull out my PDA to see if my chemical sensor picked up a high count of beastfolk pheromones or not when I hear a tapping on the roof of the buggy.
>Clara’s signaling that she sees something.
>”Nine sigs, dead ahead. Exiting tree line with torches…. they’ve got something with them. I count one live, two dead… no, one live, one barely alive, one dead.” Clara’s voice comes in through the back of the cab.
>”They’re not carrying animals…” She adds, bracing herself in the gun port, “Get moving, we can hit them halfway in the clearing.”
>Clara’s harsh whispers echo in the cabin as my rifle is slid forward through the port.
>I grab it and secure it on the back of the drivers seat as Lilly looks at me anxiously.
>She’s about to ask me something as we both hear Clara rack the M2.
>”Remember what I said Lilly, point, aim, shoot.” I say as I connect my PDA to the buggy.
>Start the buggy in night mode so it won’t turn on the lights and also reduces the electric motor’s power to try and quiet it down.
>Toggle my night visions to hybrid mode and slowly begin to bring the buggy within range, trying to make out the terrain with the graininess of my NODs.
>We get within a couple hundred feet behind the next hill when I can clearly make out the goblin’s shapes.
>I hear Clara tap the roof of the buggy and I stop.
>Throw on my earpro and I can hear Clara whisper for us to get moving.
>Lilly barely makes out a worried “She isn’t going to shoot with us down there right?”
>I quietly tell her “She’s done it to me before…” as we exit the buggy with as much stealth as we can.
>Pull the lever action over my shoulder and check the chamber.
>Normal rounds loaded, silencer on front.
>Lilly has her bow out but I can see the 10mm in it’s holster on her hip.
>Under the cover of a moonless night we get within thirty yards.
>Me and Lilly are in the grass as the goblins are walking just to our right.
>I wait for Lilly to take the first shot with her bow, she’s aiming for the torchbearer.
>Right as I hear a ‘thuck’ of an arrow leaving her bow I take my first shot.
>It’s not loud but it’s not quiet, the quick hiss of a 45-70 travelling downrange with a small crack of the shot make themselves known as the torchbearer falls and the goblin holding the live target falls.
>The torch hits the ground and the goblins begin to run for the only cover in 1000 feet, the cave.
>I start running forward with Lilly behind me as we approach, one shot hissing out after another with arrows raining down until we hear it.
>Clara lets loose the M2 and all it’s fury as the goblins running for it in front of us are torn to shreds by tight concentrated bursts of machine gun fire.
>We make quick work of the goblins that ran, leaving only the goblin with the dying figure in hand, dragging it slowly with one hand.
>As I come in to the torchlight I can see a shitty beaten up pistol in the goblin’s hand.
>It’s pointed at the head of what looks to be a male elf, barely alive, bleeding from his nose and mouth, face bruised like he had just been fed through a rock grinder.
>In their shitty goblin speak the goblin starts making demands that I can’t understand.
>I begin to raise my rifle but the goblin yells and stuffs the pistol in the guy’s bloodied open mouth.
>Let the rifle fall on my sling and raise my hands up.
>The goblin chuckles and points the gun at me.
>I hear Lilly begin to speak in what I recognize as fine elvish, the goblin turning his attention to her, but not his gun.
>The goblin began yelling out what sounded to be demands when in a fraction of a second, Lilly goes from having her hands at her sides to the 10mm being in hand and pulling the trigger.
>There’s a fluorescent yellow mist coming off her hand as she fires and the goblin’s head is destroyed in a fine red mist before he can even respond.
>She doesn’t say anything as she approaches the dead goblin and kicks the fidgeting corpse away from the elf and proceeds to empty the entire 15 round magazine in to his torso.
>I can hear someone flinch with each shot behind me and I turn to see a partially clothed elf woman holding her arm across her chest to hide what little shame remained of her tattered shirt.
>The elf lady shakily asks something in elvish, which catches Lilly’s attention.
>Her ears perked up like a cat hearing it’s name.
>”He’s alive… but he needs help.” Lilly says, turning her attention away from the dead goblin.
>Deciding that it’s safe enough with Clara watching us, I take off my lab coat and offer it to the elf woman.
>She offers what I assume to be thanks and covers herself in my minorly stained coat while keeping an eye on the elf man.
>”Lilly, how much first aid training do you have?” I ask using the spreading firelight to look over the mess of the male elf next to us.
>”Not enough to fix that…” She mutters.

>With the elf man between me and Lilly we drag him back to the buggy with the elf woman following us.
>The third guy looked a bit like the man, obviously related, but had been dead for quite some time.
>I can see Clara watching the tree line as the fire behind us burns to dim embers.
>The patchy grass and stone is reduced in a small area to charred stone as I turn on the interior lights of the cab to get a better look at the man.
>He’s beat to hell, I think he’s got a broken rib, it’s not disconnected so it’s just a partial fracture…
>There’s a tooth missing and the tip of his tongue is bit off.
>His nose is definitely broken…
>Figure that I can’t remedy this very well so I use what little medical knowledge I have to lie him flat in the bed of the buggy and start an IV.
>With injuries like this he needs painkillers, strong ones.
>I start pulling drugs from the fully stocked medical kit and think for a moment as my gaze runs over the lab bag.
>”Lilly give him one mil of this solution in to the IV bag and two mils of the kickstart” I say, handing her a set of capped sterile needles, morphine and KickStart Cell Regenerator.
>I had read the manual for the mixture, it’s a set of growth factors and synthetic structures that persist in the body to tell it to start repairing itself.
>Apparently it reduces scarring too.
>Not good for crossing certain barriers like the blood-brain barrier but great for broken bones.
>The problem with it is that with certain non-humans it has a tendency to turn tissues black over time and cause some cellular decay.
>With the male elf situated and Lilly watching over him, I turn my attention to the moss I collected earlier, finally taking a look at it for the first time.
>The plant is blood red and far fuzzier than it’s southern cousin.
>I figure that this is normal for this plant variety and begin to cut it up with a set of scissors to get it in to a round bottom flask.
>”Clara, do you think you can drive? I’ve got an idea.”

>Lilly is talking to the elf woman in the truck bed while Clara drives us slowly north in the direction of Harsburrow.
>I can’t understand what the elves are talking about in their language as I sit in my shakey mobile lab setup in the back seat.
>There are struggled gasps as the male elf coughs up foamy dark blood and wearily looks around.
>Clara did what she could for him but he’s clearly in pain with a double dose of morphine.
>Turn my focus back to the lab in front of me.
>This will be the ninth attempt at isolating the primary compound of this moss varieties healing properties.
>Given the trend of the moss isolates I had analyzed previously, this variety could provide a concentrated version of elven healing potions.
>I’m trying to keep the reagents I’m using as non-toxic as possible, swapping chloroform for ethanol.
>This time my reaction is being run in a moving car as well, adding a variety of motions to disturb the solution.
>Clara saw the state of the guy and said we should call off our little trip to get him to the medical center in Harsburrow.
>I know that it’s at least a day’s drive north at my speed but we can’t manage full speed at night unless we find a trail.
>And I have a fire hazard of a lab setup in the back…
>While I’m waiting for the chopped up moss in the ethanol to start boiling in my setup I finally ask Lilly the question that had been on my mind, “What was that with the goblin back there? Did he say something to you?”
>Lilly scowls, “They’re all the same… he offered up both Liara and Jorel in exchange for a ’bout’ with me.”
>”And was that magic?” I ask, thinking back to the glow I saw in her hands, “your file said you couldn’t use magic”
>”For the most part, no… I’m not gifted like my sisters..” She admits, looking down at her balled up hands, “But I know a trick or two.”
>”And those two… what about the third guy?” I say, changing the subject.
>Lilly jumps at the opportunity to disregard the topic, “He was Jorel’s brother, he had a wagon they were on heading south.”
>I watch as the ethanol begins to fume and boil, turning an odd red color as the moss soaks.
>”Well, if I can do this correctly, I might have something to subside the guy’s breathing problems and save him another day’s worth of agony.” I say, collecting the red fumes in my precipitator.
>I know that if there’s bone fragments that have punctured his lung, he’s going to need painkillers to breathe…
>The painkillers might not be enough to subdue it, he’s going to feel like he’s choking…
>He needs a surgeon but as far as I know, neither me nor Clara have any real experience with it.
>I focus back on to the reaction taking place in front of me, this time I used an enzyme buffer to partially digest the moss prior to extraction.
>The primary compound I’m looking for is likely a small or mid sized chemical under 500 Daltons….. maybe 1000?
>It’s very late in to the night and I can feel the fatigue grasping at me and the head injury making itself known by slowing my normally quick mind.
>Take the alcohol precipitate from my reaction and hit it with pure water, causing a bunch of oil to crash out of the solution.
>It goes from a clear deep red to a brown cloudy mixture.
>Swirl it around and transfer it to the microcentrifuge.
>The isolation works and produces a crimson organic layer and a murky brown aqueous layer in the small centrifuge tube.
>Take the oil in a syringe and insert the syringe tip in to the GCMS machine.
>The machine, waiting on the sample, begins to aspirate it from the syringe, sucking the entirety of my sample in to the machine.
>Start getting results from the MS in fractions, I’m seeing….
>small miscellaneous organic structures, mostly small molecules for signaling, metabolism…
>There’s the larger lipid structures for the cell membranes, steroid structures, and larger protein fragments.
>Then I start getting junk… except a sudden spike in the reader for a copper-conjugated structure.
>What in the world is that?
>It’s a structure not too dissimilar from one of the primary ingredients in healing potions, using a copper-bound molecule to trigger increased oxygen uptake and kicking up the cell’s metabolism.
>This one… it has two secondarily bound structures that are analogous to functional biological tags…
>It’s a remarkable structure, highly aromatic, bioactive, resonant!
>I stare in awe at what I see and given the fraction that it came out in, I’d have to run a purification column for heavy small molecules…
>We don’t have those in this small compact lab, it’s for identification not purification!
>Jorel, the male elf, is croaking as he tries to suck in another lung full of air.
>This concentrated oil is not too dissimilar from the healing potions sold by alchemists on this side to various effects, but to my analysis, I believe that this could be the beginning of a family of new drugs.
>If this is anything like the ‘true’ healing potions that is imbued with magic, I should be able to administer the oil and see some benefit.
>Lilly and the female elf, Liara are watching me as I approach with my vial of crimson fluid.
>”This will either do nothing or provide him with some respite for the next six hours or so” I say, offering the vial to Liara.
>She says something in Elvish and takes the vial, pouring it in to the broken man’s mouth.
>Lilly’s slender brows furrow in concern, “You’re testing an unknown compound on someone who’s injured?”
>”I’m testing the isolate of a brother of an ingredient that is known for making healing potions.” I calmly say.
>To the sounds of Lilly’s protesting behind me I head back to the mobile lab setup.
>Pull myself back through the port in to the main cab of the buggy and begin to take apart my lab setup, briefly opening the door to toss out the used ethanol and water.
>Once it’s all secure I pat Clara on the shoulder from behind the driver’s seat and simply say “Let’s go faster”

>Clara did her duty well, turning the nearly twelve hour drive in to an eight hour drive.
>After consulting the map and the dim light of early morning, she had found a trail that lead directly to town.
>Given the relative smooth terrain, Clara used the entire might of the buggy to send us at dangerous speeds down the open dirt trail.
>I had noticed that Jorel’s breathing had steadied and just two hours before we had reached the town of Harsburrow, he began to cough again.
>Clara had reached a top speed of seventy or so when we hit a straight dirt road for several miles.
>It’s uncertain but I think we might have hit a goblin at one point because I noticed a fine warm liquid sprayed across the front of the buggy under my optics.
>Couldn’t make it out well under the thermals and the spot lights were firmly positioned for maximum distance on that road.
>Once we had reached Harsburrow we only had twenty one miles left on our battery.
>So much for our plans…
>Clara stopped in front of the local medical center, a small hospital just near the southern edge of town.
>As they took Jorel on a stretcher with Clara giving them a list of what we had given him, I slipped Liara a few gold pieces.
>Balthazar recommended we keep some local currency in case, but I had never needed it.
>Liara thanked me for everything and asks if she can do anything in return.
>Under Lilly’s judging gaze, I hold out my PDA and pull up my contact code.
>”Just let me know if you two get back safe and if Jorel thinks it’s a good idea, I’m naming the potion I discovered Jorel’s tonic.”
>I can feel Lilly watching my every move as if I was going to slip Liara a bill at any moment.
>Liara just thanks me and follows after her husband’s stretcher, still covered in only my stained lab coat.
>”Doc, Lilly, you two should go get checked out for your head injuries…” Clara says, leaning against the buggy with a satisfied look.
>”I’m fine… for the most part. I might go ask for a heal spell or two but Lilly…” I turn my attention to her, “You need to get checked over. I want you evaluated, mind and body.” I say, feeling absently for my lab coat.
>There is only a look of betrayal on Lilly’s face as I begin to walk towards the hospital entrance.
>I hear Lilly cautiously walk behind me and ask “You’re going to use this to send me back, aren’t you?”
>”I’m going to use this to determine how close I really came to death with your little outburst.” I open the door to the hospital, looking back at Lilly to hold the door for her.
>She silently walks in to the lobby with a receptionist waiting on us.
>”What have I done so far to make you think I would try to deceive you?” I ask softly as I pull out my PDA and Balthazar card.
>”Hello, how can I help you today?” The elven receptionist asks.
>”We both need some healing, took a blow to the head each from a nasty hobgoblin. Afterwards, she started acting odd” I say gesturing to Lilly, “I want a psych evaluation on her to make sure everything is alright.”
>”Then I’ll need some form of payment… and if you’re in the NuMago Healthcare system, this should be a breeze.” The receptionist cheerily chimes as I hold out my PDA and Balthazar card to show her the identification codes for me and Lilly.
>”The company is in network, and if you can, please have an elven doctor look her over. She’s more comfortable with that.” I clarify to the receptionist.
>The receptionist works at her older desktop system and types for a moment before telling Lilly to “Head to room C5 down the hall on the right.”
>Lilly walks out of sight in to the hallway, never looking back to me while the receptionist scanning the Balthazar card and handing it back to me.
>”You’re all verified and paid, please go to the clinic room on the left.” She tells me.

>I walk out of the Harsburrow Medical Center under the expectant gaze of Clara in the driver’s seat of the buggy.
>Given the dried spatter across the side of the buggy and fragments of green skin across the outside of the front right tire, I confirmed my suspicions that we had hit a goblin on the way here.
>With my mind renewed and refreshed by the on staff mage, I pick out that Clara means to corner me alone in this moment.
>Not wanting to delay this inevitable confrontation, I open the door to the buggy.
>”The mage… doctor.. guy told me that there’s better parking out back.” I say, getting in to the passenger seat.
>Clara only responds by flicking over the data stick to me, landing it square between my legs.
>”Read it.” She says sternly, starting up the buggy.
>”Why so sudden-”
>Clara cuts me off, “Don’t make me second guess myself… but I think you’re the first decent person I’ve met over here and after all that, I want to make sure you know you can trust me.”
>Trying not to summon the ire of this goddess and beast of a woman, I plug the stick in to the port on my PDA.
>”And I see the way you look at me sometimes…” She adds abruptly as we pull in to the back dirt lot of the hospital.
>”Well, it’s not exactly me-”
>Clara cuts me off again, “Don’t… just… read.”
>The file finally loads on my PDA.
>I’m met with a picture of a younger Clara amongst at least a dozen other cow girls, blurs across their bare bodies.
>They’re all in cattle stocks, a yellow tag in each of their ears.
>Every single one of them has a look on their faces I can only describe as empty.
>There’s an IV clearly hooked up to each of them.
>”Kidnapped by some freaks on your side… they thought we would be more productive than the failed cattle herd they had.” Clara says as my gaze lingers on the photo.
>Scroll down to see the forms all documenting the bust, nineteen girls taken from Frankasia, all kept for at least two years.
>All of them were experimented on with drugs intended for livestock.
>”Oh my god Clara…” I mutter
>Read a section from the FBI form, ‘Victims were treated as livestock to the most brutal extent yet observed. Each had been given an array of drugs intended for dairy cattle, forcing their bodies to change. Some victims began forced hormonal changes. Each given pacifying drugs, some will never recover from their vegetative state. One dead older (35) victim found, drugs likely killed the minotaur woman due to the sudden systemic drug load given. All victims have burn scars on posterior consistent with cattle brands and piercings added to their ears for livestock tags, piercings in nose consistent with nose rings.’
>”Five years stolen from me” She says throwing the buggy in to park.
>”Jesus Clara… have you ever told anyone about this?”
>Clara leans her head back to rest on the headrest, “Nope… don’t make me regret this either.”
>”Did they get the guys that did this?”
>”Just one… they keep saying there was only one.. but I remember three.” She says, looking at the form I’m reading over.
>Clara closes her eyes and continues, “They kept telling me it was my imagination… I was drugged and couldn’t have seen it for real…”
>”You’ve been looking though?” I ask
>”Absolutely… I gave up after a while and began working as I am now.”
>”What happened? You said you lived in Texas before this… right?” I continue asking questions, my mind working to try and fill the blanks of her file.
>”Read the second page of the FICS report.” She flatly says.
>’Victim 12, Investigation found her case consistent with twelve of the nineteen girls present where immediate family living with the victims were murdered upon their abduction. No closest family, mental state unstable. Prone to sudden outbursts. Recommend placement in Project Big Star, ranch for troubled kids. The drugs really screwed with her, she’s either going to need lots of therapy or medication for a long time.’
>”Clara… I…” I stop talking, at a complete loss for words.
>She looks down at her chest, hands balled up in her lap.
>”I’m not torn up about it like I was after… I’m mad… but mostly disconnected from who I was before…” Clara says, trying not to let a flood of emotion behind her eyes be known.
>Her voice betrays her, letting a quiver out.
>”And that damned mooing isn’t normal either… it’s-”
>All I know to do is to get up from my seat and throw my arms around the cow girl.
>She doesn’t fight it, resting her horned head against mine as I barely hold her in my arms.
>I’m delighted by the scent of fresh hay and desert air.
>”You know Doc, most people would just tell someone they’re sorry after hearing about this…” Clara says in a soft voice.
>I release her after a moment longer, her shifting hand almost reaching out to ask for just a moment longer.
>”I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me, I just really thought you could use it.” I say, returning to my seat to I lean back in the chair and let out a sigh.
>”I know why, Lilly told me everything.” She adds, the words piercing the silence that hung in the air.
>”What do you mean?” I turn to look at Clara, who’s looking more thoughtful than disappointed.
>”You’re god damned scent sensitive.. and that you said you might find some aspects of me attractive?” She says with an amused but convicting tone.
>”That little snitch…” I say playfully, trying to lighten the mood a bit.
>”She thought I would have hated that… hated you for it, but to be honest, I don’t mind it.” She smiles at me, making my heart skip as I see a genuine care behind her eyes.
>I’m at a loss for words again when she says “Just don’t try anything… and get us some real rooms this time, alright?”
>”Maybe a little drinking to ease your mind too?” I ask, tapping at the storage compartment where I had the Larceny.
>”Oh, a man of the silver tongue bidding I spend time alone with him drinking.. what did I just say about trying something?” She laughs and goes silent for a moment.
>Our private moment is interrupted by the opening of the rear driver side door.
>Lilly practically tosses a bundle of paper at me, “There, they said I’m physically fine, but not suitable for work with human teams. Happy?”
>I unroll the sheet that haphazardly landed on me.
>The doctor must have dug deep, the sheet lists off all kinds of reasons why Lilly shouldn’t be working with us, ‘Narcissistic about elven race, incapable of understanding other species, emotionally immature, trauma from near-assault, severe distrust of humans’
>There’s a small note about healing a hairline skull fracture as well.
>”Most of this is about what I expected…. looks like you’re all clear.” I say, much to Lilly’s surprise.
>”Then what was that all about? Why have me go through all of that if you’re just going to say ‘oh you’re fine’!?” She blurts out in the back seat.
>”Because people all deal with severe experiences differently… and not only did I want someone to make sure you wouldn’t murder me in my sleep, I wanted to know that even in spite of all of this, I’m still keeping you here”
>”WHY?” Lilly yells, throwing her arms high above her head.
>”Because if I send you back you’re not going to go anywhere in this field! You’re not going to get to work with anyone else acting like that! You- YOU are going to destroy your chances of doing research and it’s a godsend for you to have ended up with me because I’m the only one who would put up with this kind of shit!” I yell back, losing my temper.
>Clara wears a small grin at me finally reaching this point.
>Lilly is wide eyed, finally putting the pieces together in her head.
>”Do you think that you can only work with Elves? Do you think that you can just avoid anyone not like you throughout your whole life? It’s impossible!”
>Lilly is completely silent as I toss the papers aside and lean back in my seat, taking my eyes off Lilly.
>”Look… where do you want to be in five years? Why did you take this job in the first place?” I ask, a forced sense of calm in my voice.
>I hear the movement of lips and Lilly shifting in her seat as if trying to force an answer out, “I want to run a pharmacy in Lindenheun.”
>”Alright… you know who runs a majority of the advanced pharmacy schools that you no doubt want to get in to?”
>”hum-” Lilly starts as I cut her off “Humans… yep.”
>”Look, I would have never gotten to where I am without a mentor who took a chance with someone everyone else avoided… I am doing the same here, so please, Illyonara, just… try and not be an asshole.” I say, clutching my forehead with my right hand.
>”Now Clara, please… get us to a hotel so I can pass out, we’ve been awake for twenty seven hours..”

>Clara drove us on the paved roads of this wonderous town, build like a small American town with cottages and village shops dropped in every other building.
>It has an electrical grid and well-built streets which allowed for a smooth drive.
>We checked in at Norana, a fairly nice hotel even by Earth standards.
>I had gotten three rooms for a week and asked to set up the buggy at the top of the small parking garage with it’s solar extended, but the receptionist had told us there would be no need since they had golf cart chargers we could use in the bottom floor.
>When we parked, I gave Lilly her keycard and just told her to use her PDA to charge to my card if she needed anything till tomorrow.
>Upon figuring out how to link my corporate card to PDAs, I also linked both Clara’s older beat up PDA and Lilly’s small new PDA to the buggy so they could access it.
>I handed Clara her keycard and simply told her I was a man of my word, grabbing my bag and leaving for my room.
>This hotel is one of those spa-destination hotels that the husband books on vacation to keep the wife happy, two different restaurants in the building, a whole massage parlor…
>I skip past it all to get to my room on the third floor.
>Once I enter the sweetly clean room with decorative wooden paneling everywhere, I throw off most of my clothing to enthrall myself on the fine linen covered bed.
>It’s like falling in to a pile of clouds.
>I had been awake for far too long and the sweet embrace of sleep quickly grasped me.

>After I had awoken around dinner time, I showered and threw on a nicer set of clothes, a blue silk button up and khaki pants.
>It had been at least twelve hours since I had last ate and I saw charges come through my PDA from Lilly, but not Clara.
>I find Clara’s room and give it a knock.
>Clara opens the door to the sound of crappy reality tv… which I recognize as the show of 10 lamia girls all fighting over one guy on an island or something…
>She’s cleaned up, her hair back in a bun, she’s wearing a flowy white blouse and a tight pair of faded jeans.
>And she’s even gone as far as to have polished her hooves.
>”Excuse me… but I believe I told you that all expenses would be on me… so, how would you like to join me for a fine dinner in the rooftop restaurant?” I say, pantomiming an overly charismatic man, holding out my hand as if offering it to a fair lady.
>”Why, such a lovely proposition…” She says, taking the hand and stepping out of her room.
>She giggles at this fairly domestic display of us both and gives me a small twirl.
>”Can you tell I have my Deagle tucked away?” She asks, turning her back to me.
>I look at her waistline, and a little below but see no sign of the large pistol.
>”You’ve made it invisible.” I say, trying to keep up this playful charade.
>Clara lets out a sigh and swipes at a stray strand of hair, “You know Doc, having someone know is a little liberating… like I don’t have something held up inside anymore… but I can’t help but feel a little unresolved.”
>I blink a few times, having the playful scene shattered by her sudden admission was unexpected, “We can talk more about it over drinks in my room, if you’re still alright with that?”
>”More than you can believe” She says as we reach the elevator.
>I hit the roof button and the two of us ascend in to one of the finest dining options in the city.
>Given that my budget was for at least a dozen people, me and Clara splurging for one night won’t hit us that hard….
>Or at least I tell myself as we are led to the table by a waiter dressed up nicer than both me and Clara.
>The waiter places us at window table, looking over the sun-set draped city below.
>It’s so much cleaner than the Earth cities I had visited, each building made with purpose and care for the Frankasian structures, every building constructed firm and decorative for the Earthen structures.
>”I’ll leave you two with our drink menu for the moment” the waiter says, departing from our little table.
>Me and Clara sit amongst diners that consist mostly of happy couples in various stages in their lives, some look young and newly wed, others look old and ready to celebrate their 30th anniversary.
>”So Doc, what are you drinking tonight?”

>After a fine meal with lots of fun topics bounced between me and Clara, the conversational gears oiled by the lubricant of two strong drinks each, we headed back to my hotel room with the intent to continue our night.
>”So, is it weird at all? You are.. part cow right? And you had a steak… is that part cannibalism?” I ask, feeling the liquor far more than Clara evidently is.
>”I don’t think so… we’re very different species, the beastfolk and your livestock cattle…” She says, stopping for a moment in thought as I’m unlocking my door.
>”Or I thought at least..” She mutters in a woeful tone.
>In my clouded mind I realized I had just hit on her past with a sudden and awakening hammer.
>”Sorry to bring that up…” I begin to say, but Clara just pushes me in to the room once I get the door open.
>”You can apologize by pouring me a glass of that amazing whiskey you got.” She says, sitting on the couch.
>This room is far nicer than our last one, having a king sized bed, a couch, several freestanding lights, a desk with a lamp, a wardrobe, and a TV.
>I take the bottle out of the small fridge below the coffee maker and with the set of glasses and Ice, I pour us each a generous measure of whiskey.
>”Clara, why did you trust me to know all about your… your youth?” I ask, handing her the glass.
>”Because I think… I was told that…” She takes a deep sip of the whiskey, “I needed to get out a lot of what I had been feeling… five years of my life turned in to a haze… being with my parents one night and a dreamless mist… then suddenly I’m all alone on the other side, five years older with none of the experience.”
>”Clara, I think you’re asking for a friend” I say, setting aside my glass.
>”Do friends say they find each other attractive?” She says accusingly.
>”Look, it was a moment of weakness…” I say, holding my hands up in surrender.
>”Do you think I’m attractive?” She stops me in my tracks with her question.
>In a fraction of a second my mind is ablaze with predictions for answers, if I dodge it, she’ll think I hate her, if I say no, she’ll call me a liar…
>”Wouldn’t any man think the same when seeing you?” I say, trying to keep it smooth.
>Clara smiles, shaking her head, “Oh you think you’re sly…”
>”Look Clara, I’m no psychologist.. I took a single class freshman year, and all I can tell you is that I’ll do my best to fill whatever role you ask of me, coworker, friend…” I feel the whiskey roll around in my mind, emboldening my statement, “I thought you were a little scary and greedy at first, but you’re far more kind than you let on.”
>”How about drinking buddies for tonight?” Clara asks
>”Drinking buddies that vent to get their feelings out… then maybe relax and let the past die off by watch snake island season two?” I propose, taking my glass in hand again.

>For the next two hours I listened to Clara’s held back griefs over the events in her life, the parts of her parents that she can remember, the barely remembered home town, the ranch she grew up on trying to reconcile it all in her head…
>By the end of it, she grew back in to her normal attitude, stating that she had already been over it for the most part, that the last step was ‘to share what’s left of it with someone else’.
>She was still hung up on the two faces she remembered clearly, asking me if I had believed her, to which I answered that I trusted her judgement.
>We burned the night away after that in a haze of whiskey and shitty television, bouncing between soap operas of dark elf families, basically Mexican soap operas with more rape, murder and incest, and the snake island lamia bachelor rip off.
>The last coherent thought I had of the night was staring deeply in to Clara’s eyes as we drunkenly watched the lone bachelor attempt to fend off six lamias on a full moon.

>The sun shined it’s early dawn light on to my closed eyes with a persistence only befitting of a cosmic entity.
>I feel the weight of pillows at my back and an encompassing warmth that I welcome as I open my eyes to the hotel room.
>A pleasant arid smell fills the room.
>My mind begins to reconstruct the events of the previous night and given the dehydration I am now experiencing…
>I had quite a bit to drink.
>There is a distinct lack of clothing on my body, only a pair of basketball shorts and boxers to hide my manly aspects.
>As I try to rise out of the bed, I feel a weight on me slump off on to the bed.
>My half-awake mind, still putting together the flashes of last night’s events realizes that this is in fact, not normal.
>Attempting to decipher this unexpected data, I turn to see the source.
>Clara, bereft of her top, leaving only her bra to poorly conceal her features opens her eyes in a sleep-filled daze.
>This unexpected turn makes me shout with a sound that I could only describe as ‘WhaATTHE FUU-”
>My shout was cut short by Clara’s yelp of surprise, which caused her to jerk backwards in the bed and almost take the bedding and herself off the side.
>She hides her chest under the blanket and we both stare at each other as if to question who was the cause of this.
>”We didn’t…” I say, racking my brain for the missing segments of last night.
>”Gods no we didn’t… I’d remember something like that” Clara says, shifting in the bed to better hide her ample chest.
>”Yeah… what.. did we do?” I say, pausing at the image of Clara’s close face, gazing in to her deep eyes.
>I blink the image out of my head as I collect a fresh set of clothes from my bag.
>”I probably just fell asleep here and got comfortable without thinking….” Clara says, looking embarrassed at the situation.
>”We probably would have awoken in similar conditions had we camped out overnight… minus the elf.” I say, trying to avoid eye contact.
>Clara clears her throat, “That’s about what I would expect… so let’s say we practiced sharing a space for long journeys?”
>”Exactly” I say, fast walking my way over to the bathroom with clothes in hand.
>I can hear Clara quickly get out of the bed and put on her shirt.
>And zip up her jeans…
>Oh god she wasn’t wearing her jeans either.
>I rinse myself off real quick and make myself presentable in my fresh clothing and I exit to see Clara, now fully clothed sitting at the bed.
>”No hurt feelings over this?” She asks, staring me dead in the eyes.
>”None.. honestly we should watch more terrible TV together, that part I remember being quite fun” I say with an innocent smile.
>”Less drink next time…” Clara says, standing up and heading for the door.
>She pauses as the door is barely cracked.
>”Though having someone that close was refreshing” She says smugly before closing the door quickly behind her.
>The gentle scent of arid desert air and grass under the hot sun fills the room.
>Heart is racing at Mach two as a flood of imagined possibilities fill my mind of what me and Clara could be.
>Calm myself down and shake the scenarios from my head.
>It’s time to get to work.

>I knock at Lilly’s door and to my surprise she opens it on the third knock.
>She’s already dressed in a deep blue outfit with a long fitting but slim elven casual shirt and a black skirt that tows the line between mid thigh and low thigh.
>It seems she’s going for the every-elf look with her sandal-style shoes that have cross-straps all up the calf.
>”Morning Lilly, it’s time to get you some necessary gear” I say, trying to sound more casual.
>Lilly, evidently having my moment of anger in the forefront of her mind just quietly nods and exits her room.
>I go collect Clara and we both act as if it was the first time we had seen each other that day.
>Lilly could see something was up given my somewhat awkward demeanor and Clara’s forced look of calm.
>Her face said it all for her, but she still didn’t say anything as we marched ourselves to the less expensive restaurant in the lobby of the hotel.
>For us, a standard breakfast was complimentary but we chose to enjoy a full American breakfast of pancakes, eggs, bacon, hash browns and sausage patties.
>Made sure to get orange juice because citrus was hard to come by in Frankasia.
>It was the crappy concentrate orange juice but by god did it taste good.
>Living in small villages and going from town to town made you appreciate the standards of Earth food much more.
>And hygiene standards too…
>I can see Lilly working through her food with eager bites, going through the pancakes and bacon first.
>Clara seems to be more reserved, taking her time to enjoy every moment of the banquet before her.
>My own pace falls in line with Clara, taking the time to appreciate the recent availability of Earth style food.
>And even the shitty processed orange juice reminded me of home…
>More of my early days in school but still…
>We pay and leave as most of the conversation falls between me and Clara, trying to decide on a .380 or 9mm as we walk through the streets of the early morning tourist town.
>I don’t clue Lilly in that the conversation is about her but we eventually settle on some kind of compact 9mm PDW… or a small compact frame pistol.
>It’s around 10 am and we make our way to the only gun shop in town, guided by my PDA.
>Thanks to the presence of a cell network in the town, I also get an alert from the buggy telling me that it’s at 75% charge.
>Lilly remains silent as I approach the door to ‘Harsburrow Armoury’.
>It’s mostly a tourist destination for people who don’t have any gun experience and get curious…
>Or people who are avid gun nuts and want to get in some range time with rare weapons.
>Their secondary business is a gun shop for adventurers and locals.
>From their FM (Frankasian Maps) profile I saw a lot of good reviews and pictures of strange and rare things, then some strange Kel-Tecs.
>Somehow the convergence only fueled the cocaine driven madness of those Kel-Tec engineers and they started producing downright indescribable mechanisms of madness.
>I let Clara take the lead as she’s the most familiar with gun stores.
>We enter to the delight of two dwarves manning the counters, “Woah welcome in big lass, what can we sell you today?” the first one asks.
>”We need to get the little lady here a gun after a run in with some goblins” Clara says, gesturing to Lilly.
>The dwarf helping us laughs, leaving Lilly with a sour look on her face, “Ah, the girl’s wake up call… every adventurer has one, damned vermin are only useful for the lessons they can teach.”
>”We were hoping to get something in 9″ I chime in.
>”9mm pistol, full frame or compact PDW… maybe .45 if it’s weighted well.” Clara says, stepping up to the glass counter to get a look at their selection.
>”I’ve got something that might fit your bill… adaptive yet compact.”
>The dwarf pulls out a larger looking p320 and a strange looking plastic frame that looks like a backwards AR lower.
>In a smooth motion he takes the pistol apart, taking off the slide and separating the trigger group from the lower grip.
>He slots the trigger group in with a solid click and slides the slide on.
>The pistol is now has a second magwell up front you can use as a foregrip… cool.
>Then he hits a button on the side and a small wire stock slides out.
>”That’s cool” I say
>Clara clears her throat, “For that to be useful, she has to be comfortable with it. Can we get range time with the 9 version?”
>The dwarf pulls out another p320, setting the framed pistol and it in to a small plastic box.
>He adds some magazines and ammo with it as the other dwarf begins to work the register.
>I walk over to the other dwarf and begin to pull up the PDA and my card when he shoes me away, saying “You’ll pay for it if you don’t buy it”
>March myself back to my position behind Clara and figure that it’d be better if I stayed quiet.
>The dwarf putting together our gun box slides it over to Clara with eyes and ear protection already stacked on top.
>”Go teach ‘er how it’s really done with dwarven iron instead of elven wood!” he says with a laugh as Clara picks up the box and hands us each a set of protective gear.
>”You know it” She chimes as we walk down the hall to a marked door labeled ‘Gun Shop Range’.

>The whole range was marked up like a safety officer expected the patrons to be blind, ‘Always wear eyes and ears’ signs plastering every stall of the range.
>Listed rules hung next to the door, asking to not use magic while firing, no steel ammo… etc.
>Lilly didn’t make a noise until Clara firmly stood behind her and grabbed at Lilly’s arms to position the small framed girl with the even smaller framed gun.
>She let out a small yelp of surprise as Clara’s chest rubbed up against her shoulders, but once Clara let out a sharp ‘hey!’ to get her attention again, Lilly firmed up and held the framed pistol at the ready.
>Clara had spent at least ten minutes in the indoor range giving her a rundown on how the gun operates, proper safety with it, and most of all, how to hold it.
>It all came down to this moment where Lilly would reveal if she had been paying attention or not.
>With a firm grasp and the small optic up top turned brighter, Lilly lets six shots ring out down range, the 9mm giving Lilly some trouble as she tries to control it.
>”Okay, okay… remember, tuck in to it and place the stock…” Lilly’s posture is fixed by Clara.
>”Lilly, give this one three shots and then I’m going to start testing your accuracy.”
>She takes it up in hand, but Clara moves in to correct her posture again.
>From back where I am, I barely make out Lilly’s face turn red with Clara entering in such a close distance.
>Yeah I get it….
>Lilly leans in to the stock a little before sending three controlled shots down range, all a little low, but on target.
>”How is that?” Clara asks, picking up the slide-locked pistol out of Lilly’s hands.
>”It felt like I could control it…” Lilly stammers out, looking back at me as if to look for the okay to continue.
>”Then try this, it’s going to kick a little more so be firm!” Clara says, loading a new magazine and handing it to Lilly.
>Lilly aims in, firms up and fires ten rounds in a rhythmic burst.
>I can see from the new holes on the target where she had started, drifted up, then overcorrected and came back down.
>”That was.. powerful” Lilly says, looking down at the framed pistol.
>”That’s because it was. The higher power ammo made by the dwarves kicks a bit more but really send’s em. Now quick, bandit with a sword!” Clara says, pointing to the target down range.
>Lilly obliges, firming up to control the wieldy beast in her hands that lets forth a burst of brass and flame, each rapid trigger pull unleashing a mixture of dwarven and human brass.
>She stops abruptly to see the gun lock empty.
>I can see the satisfied grin grow on Clara’s face as Lilly drops the mag on to the bench, and with only minor hesitation, she grabs the magazine from the front well and loads it in to the pistol.
>The slide slams forward and she fires off the entire magazine.
>”Perfect… how’d that feel?” Asks Clara, absolutely beaming joy at Lilly’s performance.
>”Like… Like I won’t worry about goblins anymore.”

>Lilly brightened up after we left the gun store, her framed pistol sitting firmly against her lower back.
>Her attitude was definitely better than before when she did speak, though she only did so when prompted.
>As we went from shop to shop, Lilly ended up being the center of attention given that she only had a minimalist setup.
>We had picked up a small shoulder holster rig so the gun would be just behind her lower back and she could have four mags, two in the gun and two on the sling, in her immediate reach.
>Clara insisted that we get her the extended thirty round magazines and at least three hundred rounds of 9mm.
>Thanks to the relaxed Frankasian laws and the Travelers Safety Act, Lilly could tote the pistol around without worry of concealment.
>After a few stops of getting her extra clothes, a better set of wilderness boots, a head mount for Clara’s old monocular and an improved backpack that she could even hook her sling to, Lilly adopted more of her old fervor for talking, but still acting more reserved and polite than her previous self.
>The day burned by quickly, smoldering in to a sunset by the time we had returned to the hotel.
>Me, Clara and Lilly all sat inside Lilly’s room, letting her put together her gear and advising her how to set up her bag since it used a very ‘human’ organization system.
>It took a while for her to finish but eventually I decided that I had seen enough of this new Lilly to assure her that her efforts had not gone unnoticed.
>”Lilly, you seem much more reserved today… not that I’m saying that it’s a bad thing, but I also wanted to thank you for making an effort to be more respectful of both me and Clara.” I say, catching the unprepared Lilly off-guard as she rolled up her shirts.
>”What you said… about my future… it made me think about what I was making for myself.” She says, slowing her progress of rolling up a new Earth-cotton blouse.
>”That’s good, I hope you don’t feel like I forced this on you… but I need a coherent team. You’re more than thirty percent of that team too, you know.” I say trying to lighten the mood.
>”No one changes voluntarily” She says quietly setting the now rolled blouse in to her bag, ignoring my attempts at eye contact.
>”Look, Lilly, I don’t care much if you are cursing my bloodline under every breath, I just want you to know I appreciate your efforts today.”
>I can see a thin smile form on her lips, quickly quenched by a forced subservience and neutral expression.
>”Can I at least get my pistol back?” I ask, holding out my hand to receive the pistol.
>Lilly takes the hard holster out of her nightstand and hands it over.
>”And if it means anything to you Lilly, I know the formulary at the Pharmacy School in New Detroit in case you need a connection.” I say, taking the 10mm back in to my possession.
>Lilly perks up at this, asking “You would do that?”
>”Who am I to get in the way of another’s dream?” I reply, trying to keep a kind smile on my face.
>She begins to beam and Clara clears her throat, interrupting the moment, “Doc, don’t we have to get you a new coat?”
>”Oh, thanks for reminding me Clara. Sorry Lilly, we need to run over to the outdoors center tonight… it’s going to get colder tomorrow and I don’t want to be without a little coverage.” I say, standing with Clara.
>Lilly nods, the smile fading from her lips but satisfaction in her eyes remaining visible.
>I can tell Lilly questions why Clara chose that moment to take me away but seems to shrug it off.
>We both leave Lilly to reorganize her newly acquired equipment and head to the elevator.
>As soon as the door closes, Clara turns to me expectantly.
>”Can we talk tonight?” She says, leaning up against the handrails of the elevator.
>”We can even repeat last night…” I sneer to myself.
>”Don’t push your luck, Doc” Clara warns.
>We both wait in silence as the elevator slows to the ground floor.
>Clara is the first to break the moment of silence before the elevator doors open.
>”You’re very taken by me, aren’t you?”

>I pondered the question as we entered in to the tourist-oriented outdoors center FWO, Frankasia Wilderness Outfitters, and as I approached the hiking jackets I had an answer I was unsure of saying aloud.
>Clara browses with me and picks up a matted leather jacket, holding it up to my chest as I look at some synthetic outdoors outfits.
>In my state of thinking over my answer, rolling over it’s significance in my mind, I just agree with her that the jacket is in fact, fitting.
>I pay for it and we are about halfway back to the hotel when we reach a small park, fine trimmed grass, streetlights lighting up the concrete paths, bushes and trees to provide some encouragement to engage with nature in the center of this otherwise budding urban center in the middle of a wild world.
>I stop in front of the small fountain in the center of it, depicting mermaids and sirens at a rocky waterfall.
>The sounds of running water and flowing air play across my ears as I turn to face Clara.
>”Clara… I’m very conflicted.”
>Sensing that this was the beginning of my answer, she made her response curt, “How so?”
>”I don’t know if these feelings are mine… or if they’re the artifact of my body. I don’t know if it’s appropriate to feel a certain way for someone that is working with me.. I especially don’t know if admitting to it would do more harm-”
>As I am about to finish my preface to what I was feeling, I feel a strong arm grip around my new jacket and pull me close.
>I feel a slap across my face.
>”Do you have to analyze everything?” She yells, releasing my arm with a shove.
>I take a few steps back, trying to balance myself from the sudden motion, “Clara, I don’t want to ruin what we have now.. or at least what I think is the friendship that we have.” I respond firmly, steadying myself and taking a firm step forward.
>”So you would rather sit there and watch, like you’re running an experiment? Checking to see how I’d respond to things? You’re a dense man if you don’t think I know how you feel. And don’t tell me that it’s all ‘just an artifact of your body’ either!” She says, emphasizing the last part with air quotes and an overly comedic rendition of my voice.
>”Damnit Clara, I don’t want to doubt how I feel, I just want to know how I feel! This is why I only ever dated humans… why I thought I could never love anyone else because I wouldn’t know how I really felt!”
>Clara raises her head up to look down the length of her nose, an honestly frightening sight to see such a large woman stare at me in such a sense of disgust, “How do you really feel about me then?”
>”I think I love you!” I admit, scowling out the emotion to both Clara and the fountain as if some military interrogation had wrenched a secret from me.
>Clara’s look softens as she sees a tear run down my cheek.
>It was hard to admit such a thing, for once, forgoing my mind’s automatic attempts to analyze my emotions, forgoing any skepticism that anyone in science is trained to feel.
>It went against my very nature and felt so wrong, letting tears well in my eyes as the world behind Clara seemed to blur in the motion of liquid welling in my eyes.
>With a deep breath only three tears escape, my grip on the world tightening back to it’s refined gaze of analysis.
>”I just don’t want to fuck it up with doubt.” I say quietly, looking down to the bottom of the zipper of the new jacket.
>Clara sighs and grabs my arm again.
>I brace for another slap but this time a soft warm pair of lips meet mine.
>Clara plants a firm kiss upon my lips and we both linger there for a few seconds, enthralled in it.
>The scents of an arid texas ranch fill my mind, the animals that live on it, the hay they feed on, the arid air, the gun oil of Clara and her M2…
>The kiss releases with a wet sound and I can almost taste her lingering on my lips.
>My mind races with images of us in throws of passion, what our children might look like, and how wonderful our future could be together.
>”Then don’t fuck it up” Clara says gently, releasing me from her iron grip.
>She turns and saunters off, giving an almost exaggerated wiggle of her hips as she does.
>”See you tomorrow, Doc.” She says playfully, leaving me alone in the dimming light of the park, frozen with emotion and feeling I was unprepared for.
>I knew one thing in that moment, standing alone in the soft wind alone in the dim light of the park, that my dreams that night would be of Clara.

>The remaining week went by quickly, with me, Clara and Lilly familiarizing ourselves with our gear, taking the buggy out on shorter trips only to return to the comfort of the hotel at night.
>Clara took the time to drill both me and Lilly in proper use of our weapons, familiarizing us with how to move with each of our weapons and running scenarios with soda cans acting as targets.
>Me and Clara would never share a room like the first night, but we came close a few times thanks to her goading me in to her room with the promise of a liquor filled night of watching terrible television together.
>Between us, things had become extremely casual, no longer did we each ensure that we looked all proper when I would arrive for another episode of snake island, dark elf days, or F.i.e.n.d.s.
>I made sure that Lilly would never find out about Clara and I’s feelings, else she might have thought I was trying to force myself on team members.
>We had agreed to hide our more casual affairs behind closed doors but had agreed that the appearance of friendship would benefit our situation with Lilly.
>Lilly had warmed up to me slightly, taking care to replace her normal inclusion of ‘brute’ and ‘animal’ with ‘human’.
>It had all the implied insult but somehow seemed more respectful.
>And she also no longer blurted out such vile and unprovoked insults, only making small comments on modest failures.
>One good example was when we had ventured out to the forested area we called our ‘range’ for the third time, I caught my thump on the slide of my pistol as I was reloading only to hear the quips of Lilly about humans being slower than elves.
>Almost every other night me and Clara had shared some time together, always watching a crappy show about six kikimoras trying to be the ‘best maid’ to one human guy while I rested my head against her chest.
>On the last night before our week ran out, Clara kissed me again.
>This time, she made it a more sensual affair, exploring my mouth with her tongue.
>It felt like we could have done that for hours but she left me wanting after only a few seconds.
>I had never been with a woman that made me feel so alive as Clara, all my worries in the world had melted away as I walked back to my room, drunk on love and liquor.
>I almost didn’t feel my PDA buzz a notification as I unlocked the door to my room.
>A notification from Zeddik had appeared asking for us to resume normal operation the next day.
>He also added that they expected new data on the moss lead by the end of the week.
>This provided an opportune moment to sift through the rest of the now dried red moss samples me and Lilly had retrieved from the goblin cave, albeit with the distraction that such a kiss with Clara would bring.
>It was only when I pulled the sample of the cave water when I noticed something abnormal about the sample.
>The water was a dark brown and clouded unlike what one would expect of a fine mineral rich cave water.
>When I analyzed the contents, a strong signal of organic debris flooded my results, necessitating further refinement.
>After centrifugation and other extraction methods I had began to find abundant biomolecules consistent with blood components.
>That water had been contaminated with blood.
>I thought back through what I had seen in the goblin infested cave and it was likely runoff from hunting kills or…
>Or I had crawled in to where they put their victims after they died.
>This particular moss strain also revealed some potency in compounds consistent with other species I had found with alterations to the metal-organic complexes, likely due to the mineral and iron rich environment.
>I mark this down with my extraction notes and prepare a file to send to Zeddik in the morning.
>With this discovery, it noted a trend that the closer in proximity I was to Orc territory, the more potent the moss became in it’s healing ability.
>This was consistent with preliminary satellite data collected from the FSA, Frankasian Space Agency, that had six satellites in orbit to date, one for studying mana currents across the planet, one for general mapping, two for interstellar observation and two for strictly military use.
>The mana observed in that region was far more dense than in the surrounding region, suggesting that the mechanism I was studying was not purely chemical, but etheric.
>As I wait for the file to send, I remember reading about the first rockets to be brought over to this side to determine if the portals were wormholes to parts of our universe or tears in our universe to another.
>The star maps generated from those two satellites showed that it was likely to be another universe.
>That discovery alone spurred on a slew of scientific interest and lots of corporate interest in Frankasia that would eventually lead to the creation of my team.
>I heard a confirmation chime from the report being sent, which generated the need to visit orc territory, which I knew would be inevitable.
>There were choice environments for that moss deep within the territory with rich mana pockets in the more peat-riddled swamp that formed in the lower damp pockets of temperate forest.
>I went to bed that night debating on if I wanted to place us in danger like that again, if I wanted to place Clara in danger…

>It had been one month since me, Lilly and Clara had began travelling together and I had run out of excuses for us to not enter orc territory.
>I had asked for more recent satellite images and then flubbed a report about how ‘mana dependency’ might not be the main factor and that we should ‘be searching around for more established methods’ to Balthazar so I might garner just a few more weeks of time.
>They bought my reasoning but I had reached the limits of sample collection and time-buying reports… except for one variant of the moss species that only grows in swampy regions, the only moss species that lived in the orc territories.
>Our time had been well spent in a string of towns north of the orc regions, Dhanrig, Spretzton and Loham’s Bridge, serviced each by knowledgeable and kind apothecaries.
>In the last town, Loham’s Bridge, I had become familiar with an apothecary named Urkman, a half-dwarf who took our quest of medicine discovery as a godsend.
>He handed over sample after sample when I told him I could identify the primary active components of any elixir or potion, which gave Lilly a good amount of hands-on training.
>Lilly had gotten quite good at deciphering the results the machine spat out and after I had taught her a few tricks for extraction and isolation, she had warmed up to me.
>Not in the same way Clara had, we often found ourselves stealing moments to have dinners together and private moments to talk more of our pasts, never moving beyond the occasional but passionate kiss.
>I think both of us knew that if we began a more intimate relationship, we both wouldn’t be able to contain ourselves.
>Nor would we be able to hide it from Lilly.
>Though, one alcohol-fueled night we did wake up in the same bed bereft of most clothing and we had to figure out if we had in fact shared a passionate night.
>The jury is still out on that one and I found myself wanting to share a bed with her more and more.
>If we survived our encounter with the orcs, we could go south to an island chain known as Enasia and have a far more relaxed expedition, given that it’s a tropical paradise with excellent accommodations due to it’s proximity to a portal.
>We were on the verge of a cold winter with every day bringing more and more frost, though if we could manage it, moderate temperatures on the beach sounded far more fun than trudging through sub-zero temperatures for three months.
>It was time to say goodbye to Loham’s Bridge and make for the swamps.
>And time for me to break the news to Lilly and Clara.

>The morning came quickly to our small tent encampment around the buggy.
>I rose in my second-to-last set of clean clothes, unzipping the tent flap to reveal a grassy field next to Urkman’s shop.
>Morning sunlight glinted off the frost that encased the thin Frankasian grass to shine as if the grass was alight with celestial fire.
>Patches in the frost around Clara’s tent told me I was not the first to awaken this morning.
>I slip on my boots and dawn my jacket to follow the footsteps to the front of the buggy where I find Clara watching over a percolator coffee brewer at the hotplate inside the front hood.
>The buggy’s front kitchen area was a stroke of design genius that I had reported it’s usefulness to Balthazar several times.
>In place of the normal engine, they had put a water storage and purification system, a sink, a small stove and a pull-out countertop.
>”Morning Doc, coffee?” Clara asks, setting the silver brewer aside.
>I take a deep breath of the morning air, the scents of nature, gun oil and coffee fill my lungs.
>”Please, and Clara, I have something important to tell both you and Lilly.”
>Clara pulls two metal mugs from the cabinets fixed beneath the kitchen arrangement, “Always something important to say…. did you get some rotten news?”
>”No… we’re going to venture south.”
>Clara pauses with the brewer in hand, about to pour the first cup of coffee, “Damn… I guess I’m taking my coffee Irish this morning”

>Me and Clara had our small talk while we began to pack up our camp, Lilly joining us about half an hour later.
>Lilly, ever perceptive, could see the shift in Clara’s mood and the anxiousness in my movements as we loaded our camping supplies in to the bed of the buggy.
>After I make my goodbyes to Urkman, we climb in to the buggy and quietly strap ourselves in.
>I break the tense silence with one sentence.
>”We’re going to have to enter Orc territory.”
>Clara remained silent as Lilly’s face contorted in disgust and released a scowl.
>”I have a plan, alright? If we can get in to the edge of the swamps, Lilly you get to stay behind in the bullet proof car and wait. Me and Clara will go out in to the swamp and retrieve one, ONE.. sample. We get in, driving like hell and before the orcs can even set up firing lines on us we get out.”
>I wait for it to sink in as both of them roll the idea over in their heads but I follow up with the sweet reward.
>”Once we finish off the moss dataset for Balthazar, the next region to study is the Enasian costal towns to the south. Every day would be full of ocean breezes, warm sun, maybe a dip in the ocean. It would be a nice place to spend the winter instead of further north where we’re expecting a much colder winter this year.”
>Clara is the first to break the silence of thought, “it would be worth it to spend the next four months sunbathing…”
>Lilly, looking like she’s about to burst in anger at the thought of being thrown in to a death trap holds back a surprising amount of emotion to only say “It’s a plan only a human could think of…”
>”Alright… then let’s get rolling.” I say, powering on the buggy.

>Using the PDA’s maps, we formulated a route that would be as quick as possible to roll in and out of the orc territory and likely positions for the moss’s growth.
>Lilly fidgeted in the back seat of the buggy for most of the day, seeming to grow more and more uneasy as we grew closer to a hostile area.
>The night would come sooner than expected so we had stopped about twenty miles out from the border of ‘claimed’ orc territory.
>All possibilities of ‘asking nicely’ to enter the territory unmolested were dashed thanks to an elven adventuring party that had tried to kill the orc leader a few weeks ago.
>I was about ready to set up for a long night when Clara suggested that we hit the swamp at night to try and minimize visibility.
>My original plan was to hit the orcs in the morning, maximizing the visibility of the moss while still having some orcs be asleep.
>Now that Lilly had a night optic, Clara’s old monocular, I figured that this would be the safest plan of action.
>We waited just two hours after sundown to gear up, all of us using our night visions and turning off or covering every single light source in the buggy.
>Clara had mounted her M2 again and climbed in to the back of the buggy, preferring to keep low in the back until she really needed to lay down some hate.
>The electric drive of the buggy allowed us to glide quietly across the landscape, only the noise of displaced dirt and flung gravel marking our presence in the night.
>Once we had reached a trail that lead straight in to Orc territory was when I let my anxiousness over returning to such a place get the better of me.
>I put the buggy through hell on the trail, going from twenty to thirty miles an hour to around sixty.
>The uneven terrain made for a rough ride, Clara barely able to hold herself steady in the back as we screamed down the trails.
>If someone heard anything, we’d be long gone before they could check it out.
>I had to follow the main trail for six miles to reach the first swamp but we would trail the edge of it for another mile before hitting the most likely location for the moss.
>Everything went smooth up until we made that first turn to reach the first swamp.
>Through the passing shapes of trees I see hundreds of pinpricks of fire atop the swampy waters.
>As we grow closer, canoes and individuals can be seen wading through the waters all in a bid to reach an island in the center of the water.
>A large single structure sits on an island, spearing out of the peated soil like a monument with smaller huts sitting around the edge of the island.
>We are driving right next to a village or gathering.
>I doubted they would see us until I hear distant pops of gunshots and a stray round bouncing off the hood of the buggy.
>”Fuck, they know we’re here.” Clara says.
>”It’s fine, we have maybe twenty… thirty seconds longer till we hit the mana dense regions.” I say, checking the PDA’s sensor package.
>The ambient mana count kept ticking up, the level at 43 mOc from the background 12 mOc.
>I knew the level I was looking for registered in the upper 90s.
>My concentration on the level was torn from the PDA as Lilly lets out a sharp cry.
>She saw hundreds of torch light around a large multi-level wooden structure, surrounded by walkways that shoot like veins through the mud.
>There are orcs arriving to it in a large gathering much like the one we had just seen.
>I can see the mana count hit a critical level.
>It’s not a good position, we’re stuck on a trail and the location of the mana dense region is in the middle of a small mud pond near one of the walkways.
>Most of the orcs are near the temple-like structure but we’d have to be fast to make it out without them catching up.
>Slam on the brakes and throw the buggy in to park.
>”Clara, now!” I say, grabbing my lever action from behind the seat.
>Me and Clara exit the buggy at a sprinter’s pace, me with my lever action trained on the massing orcs around a hundred yards away, Clara with her Deagle raised watching the opposite direction.
>I take a step in to the peat from the dry dirt trail and feel my feet sink in about six inches.
>It makes a wet squelching with every step, slowing me down greatly as the mud suctions me to the spot.
>Clara’s a lot faster than me, reaching a downed tree in the center of the peat.
>Right as she does I hear gunshots, snaps and cracks, plops of bullets hitting water.
>They’re coming from behind us, the direction we drove in from.
>This draws the attention of the orcs at the temple, at least fifteen begin to walk over, two obviously armed under the view from my scope.
>”Shit… Doc hurry up and find some of that damned plant!” Clara hisses, hunkering behind the downed tree.
>She’s not shooting back, they can’t see us… they don’t know where we are right?
>My question is answered by a bright light blinding me from above, my entire world turning white for a brilliant second.
>Clara hisses a curse and I can hear a distant yell of pain from the buggy as a flare makes its existence known above the sky of the temple.
>I blink the purple from my vision to see Clara looking at me with wide eyes, realizing that she could see me easily.
>There’s only a few seconds where I point to a clump of deep blue moss on the trunk of the tree when I hear the shots grow closer, more accurate…
>A hail of gunfire lands around me as I throw myself to the tree, landing mostly in the peat.
>Numbness grips my lower left side as I drag myself through the mud to the cover of the downed tree.
>Clara spares no time and rips the moss away from the tree, no sample container, no gloves, no fine knife to preserve the structure, tearing it from the tree limb.
>I pull myself from the mud to find that it’s hard to lift my side but I pay no attention to it as Clara begins forward back to the buggy, visible outlines of orcs closing in on us from both the temple and the trail, their shots growing ever closer.
>She’s about halfway back with me close at her tail when my leg goes numb and I crash in to the peat.
>Searing pain runs through my calf.
>My side already hurt but now this…
>My leg feels extremely warm and I hear Clara gasp and squelch her way back over to me.
>”Get up!” She yells, grabbing me by the jacket collar.
>I try to stand as she pulls me forward but my right leg no longer responds to my actions, a limp and dull feeling being the only feedback I can register.
>The world begins to grow cold as my leg and side feel extra warm.
>Gunshots in the distance are now too close…
>The M2 spits forth it’s fury as I see the maddened face of Lilly commanding it’s .50 caliber might at our main armed attackers.
>She swings it wildly at the muscular figures of orcs approaching from the temple, forcing any not cut down to dive for cover.
>Tracer rounds light up the swamp as Clara all but throws me in to the back seat of the buggy and tosses the blue moss in an open beaker strapped to one of the instruments.
>I hear her clamber in to the driver’s seat as I lie face down on the hard rubber mat.
>The buggy bucks with electric might and speeds down the trail in the planned escape route.
>Though, one diverging detail from my plan was that I wasn’t the driver, and that the world was getting both colder and duller.
>I can hear yelling… Clara is yelling at Lilly, who now seems to be looking over me.
>When did she get here? When did I get turned face up?
>The buggy jumps violently as Clara throws the buggy down the uneven dirt of the trail, Lilly desperately tearing my mud covered clothes off.
>I catch glimpses of blood soaked gauze and other shapes I recognize from the medical kit.
>In a blink, Clara is over me, working as frantically as Lilly is with medical supplies in hand.
>There’s not much more I see between a teary-eyed Clara looking over me and a thick enveloping darkness that seeks to comfort me from all the loud noises with a quiet embrace.

>I awaken abruptly to the color white in my clouded vision.
>My jerking motion is halted by a stabbing pain from my abdomen.
>All I hear is a steady beep and a startled male voice.
>”He’s awake! 203’s up!”
>I can’t wipe away the grime of buildup on my eyes so I try to blink the haze away.
>The clouds over my eyes clears up and I can see the cheap roof tiles of a hospital room.
>I look down to see myself covered in a light blanket in a hospital bed, a male human nurse standing in the room’s doorway.
>Before I can even ask anything, the nurse begins to hurriedly run out of the room, leaving me with unanswered questions.
>I remain content with my surroundings for a half hour until unfamiliar sounds break the monotonous noises of the machines monitoring me.
>The sound of iron on tile and a lighter noise of fine shoes on tile approach my room.
>I am first met with the gaze of a man who knows himself superior, looking over a piece of broken equipment.
>Zeddik, the well dressed half-elf half dragon enters in to my hospital room followed by a casually dressed Clara, who seems to be overjoyed that I am alive.
>”So, your plant-” Zeddik begins but I cut him off with my ragged voice.
>”Moss” I correct him.
>”Yes, the moss, once processed, revealed the final compound in a series of compounds that will prove extremely useful to us. We are working on a synthetic version of the identified chemical that should outcompete KickStart and Adrenoheal once we get past the FDA. Thanks to your team, you have a patent to sign off on.” He says, completely ignoring the obvious things you should ask someone in the hospital like, ‘how are you’ or ‘glad to see you’re alive, what do you remember’
>Zeddik was never one to ask the more human questions.
>”Who finished the research?” I ask curiously, my voice clearing up with use.
>”I believe her name is Illyonara, the elf I had recommended to your team. She still hasn’t left the lab. She insists on doing the full analysis herself which I told her would likely take a long time, but she seemed keen on doing it for you.” Zeddik says in the trained voice of a businessman.
>”Anyways, you’ll be delighted to know that your performance will net you at least 1% of total sales from this product and discretion on how it is distributed to you and your team has been left to you. So far, your team has been unofficially dissolved and will be redistributed around Balthazar-”
>”No” I cut off Zeddik again.
>”What?” Zeddik asks curiously as if a fly had just told a human he could not swat him.
>”Clara decides what she wants… Lilly is getting a recommendation from me for further schooling, and I… I need a break from Frankasia” I say, checking out the nasty wound of a through-and-through gunshot hidden by the blanket.
>”Well then, I’ll have your royalties worked out by the end of today and have the standard company leave policy sent to you. Enjoy, you two” Zeddik says walking out of the hospital room without uttering another word.
>Clara sits down next to me and leans on the rails of the hospital bed.
>”You didn’t run fast enough.” She starts, looking at the wound I had uncovered.
>”I didn’t, but I had you to save my ass again.” I say with a lighthearted smile.
>”Damaged your lower intestines on the first one, massive internal bleeding. Second one fractured the tibia, also lots of internal bleeding.” She says, reciting the diagnosis.
>”Well, someone must have worked some magic right?” I say, moving my hand to meet Clara’s.
>She shies away from the touch, “I got lucky. Your heart started to give out and I started hitting you with everything we had.”
>”How long was I out?”
>She answers quickly, “Week and a half”
>We both sit in silence for a moment before an important question dawns on me.
>”We’re on Earth aren’t we?”
>Clara nods as I put the pieces together, given that Zeddik doesn’t ever leave the Balthazar corporate office and no hospitals this nice exist outside portal cities in Frankasia.
>”How long till I’m discharged?”
>”You have to show that you can move around but they said hopefully by the end of the week” She says, turning to look away from me.
>”Clara… can you do something for me?” I ask gingerly.
>She turns to look back at me, expectant.
>”They must have you in corporate housing… not that comfortable. I’ll link my PDA, go to my apartment… feel free to make yourself at home.” I say, struggling to reach my PDA next to the bedside table.
>It still has the large chemical module attached to it, making it difficult to pick it up but I managed to send authorization to Clara for access to my apartment.
>”And that’s it? You expect me to just go there and start living there till you get out?” She asks, questioning my sanity more than what I meant by it.
>”It’s up to you now… where you go and what you do… merc.” I say, leaning back in my hospital bed.
>Clara puts on a fake smile and holds up her PDA, “Cheaper than corporate housing… you’ve got yourself a deal Doc”

>Clara visited me several times until I was discharged.
>She was there waiting for me in my car, just a plain looking sedan, and helped me move from the wheelchair to the passenger seat.
>I couldn’t use crutches because the lower abdomen muscles were shredded and I would put too much strain on them.
>So there I was, bound to a wheelchair for the next four foreseeable months.
>Clara didn’t drive me home, but parked just down the road at the research center for all data Balthazar received from Frankasia.
>”You know Doc, if I didn’t know any better, Lilly is trying to show you up with all that work she’s doing” Clara says, helping me out of my car in to the chair.
>I stay silent as she rolls me around the facility.
>We reach the second division lab and the door opens to reveal a ragged looking Lilly at a lab bench pipetting small amounts of a blue fluid.
>”One moment… I’m almost done preparing these samples” Lilly says, registering the sound of the door.
>”I thought that was my job” I say, trying to sound lighthearted.
>Lilly turns around sharply, quickly capping the vials with her gloved hands and running over to me.
>I can see bags under her eyes and definite signs of hunger on her face but she throws her arms around me in a hug.
>”Oh you frail human, I thought you were gone!”
>”Why the sudden change.. I thought you hated me still” I say with a chuckle as Lilly releases me from her grip.
>”Well.. I wanted to prove myself to you.. to show you that you took a chance and made it work….”
>She pauses and looks to the research bench, “I still do, and I hope you will like what I’ve done.”
>”Lilly, don’t run yourself ragged. Go store those things and go get some sleep. They’ll be there tomorrow” I say, waving my hand dismissively.
>”But what about the analysis? You’re in no state to do it.” She quips.
>”You’ve already earned my recommendation and a spot on the authorship for this patent. Getting on that .50 was enough for me…” I say trying my best at a sly grin.
>Lilly lets out an excited squeal and then hugs me again.
>”Oh thank you! I’ll take your advice too… I need some real sleep” She says, giddily exiting the lab.
>Clara and I stay silent for a moment until we hear the door close.
>”She did good… don’t be so hard on her” I say to Clara’s sigh.
>”I think that was overly generous to give her all that.” Clara says sternly, turning my wheelchair towards the door.
>”You don’t even know what I have in store for you”

>Clara wheels me in to my townhome-style apartment across town from the research center.
>She pushes me over the doorstop with little effort as I take in the dusty two-story apartment.
>It’s got a flight of stairs that separates the bedrooms from the kitchen and common area, which wouldn’t have been a problem normally.
>Given my injuries, I’ll probably be able to manage living in the downstairs since there’s a bathroom hidden under the staircase.
>I can see Clara’s been sleeping on the couch as I am rolled next to it, a familiar blanket and pillow sitting on the left-hand side.
>”Alright Doc.. here you are. I’ll get my stuff and check in on you later tonight.” Clara says, walking over to her bag at the couch.
>”You know, I need a full time assistant now… and it pays well.” I say with a tired but lighthearted look.
>Clara sits down on the couch and I wheel myself over slowly.
>She helps me up on to the couch next to her and we sit staring at the blank TV for a moment.
>”I have one more thing to sweeten the deal…” I say, raising my arm to Clara’s cheek once more.
>She’s silent as she watches me move closer, our lips meeting and exploding in to a bout of mouth exploration.
>We stop after a minute and I lean on her shoulder.
>”Do you think this could work?” I ask, staring at our reflection in the blank TV.
>”More than you think Doc.”


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