“They always fit in the movies,” muttered Dax as he pulled the uniform on.

“Sorry, maybe you’d like me to stop and use a tape measure next time.” Athellus was massaging his wrist: the sentry had twisted at just the wrong moment. “At least he was bigger than you, not smaller. -That buckle goes the other way, so you can pull the belt taut.”

“Yeah yeah, all right. Damn, what’s wrong with these sleeves?”

“Extra padding,” Athellus told him. “Standard issue. This rotten weather’s the problem, the padding in the cores coagulates and tightens if it gets damp.”

“What for?”

“So if an Earthborn bites you and tears an artery, you don’t bleed to death so quickly,” Kaire said.

“I had to ask…”

Dax rolled the sleeves back slightly, did up the collar, and put the waterproof over his shoulders. There was an elasticated cap inside the hood to keep it on his head: the white forelock vanished under it. “Well? How does it look?”

Athellus gave him a critical once-over. “Not bad. It’s once you get inside that’s the problem.”

“Let me worry about that. I just want to get close enough without getting shot to begin with.” Dax took the sentry’s pistol out of its holster, looked at it, then pushed it back and snapped the holster closed again. “Where’s my phone?”

“We’ll hold onto it for you.”

“No. I need it with me.”

“That thing keeps going off. It’s a risk -”

“One more’s not going to matter. Gimme.”

Reluctantly, Athellus put the cell phone in his hand. “Dax, are you absolutely sure you want to do this?”

He seemed to consider, then nodded. “Yes. I promised to help and this is something only I can do.”

“…All right, then. Take the sentry’s position and wait for your relief to come along... shouldn’t be long. Go back to base with them. If they ask who you are or what your unit number is, say you got dragged in at the last minute and no one’s given you one yet. Be pissed about it.”

“What about a name? What should I say?”

“Uh –“ Athellus thought it over. “Your family name is all anyone will notice. Say your surname is Nors. Richta Ai Nors had half a dozen kids, so her name’s not uncommon. Once you’re inside no one should bother you. Just scout the place and then leave, discreetly. Keep it simple and play it cool. If you get into trouble, don’t be a hero or take any risks, just run away. We’ll be watching for you and we’ll come to help.”

“Okay.” Dax took a deep breath. “Wish me luck.”

 

The relief patrol came by after an hour, the rain waxing and waning from a drizzle to a drumming downpour. Standing there under the angry sky, steaming in the thick uniform, Dax had had time for blind terror to come and go, and to wonder what the hell he had been thinking. While he’d been talking to Athellus it had all seemed so simple, so basic. Just go along with the patrol into the guard post, a place surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, wander around pretending to be one of them, get the lie of the land, and waltz right back out again. That’s all? Sure, no problem. Wish me luck!

But on some level, as time went on, he began to feel genuinely all right. There was something almost… comforting about the uniform he was wearing, probably because it was the first time he’d been able to stand out in the open in Nones, and not feel like he’d get shot or eaten on sight. He felt good, and calmer. Not that he’d have said no if Kaire offered to linger nearby as backup, even with the way she seemed so moody right now, but… he thought he could cope on his own.

His quiet cheerfulness seemed to freeze as he heard the sound of boots tramping over wet concrete, getting closer. The cell phone was a silent weight in his right pocket, feeling like a time bomb and a jack-in-the-box all in one.

“Crappy weather,” greeted the first soldier in the patrol. There were five of them, all kitted out as he was in waterproofs, guns slung to their backs. Dax had expected to see an enemy, but the one who had spoken was a ruefully-smiling character, younger than Dax himself, with freckles dusted across his face and a large dent in his cheekbone, as if it had been broken and carefully reset. The soldier jerked a thumb at one of the patrol. “We got your relief if you’re ready to head on back.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” said Dax. I hope I don’t have to shoot you or anything later on. Instinct prompted him to improvise, elaborate. “How are things looking?”

The soldier laughed. Another of the patrol, a dark-skinned woman, rolled her eyes. “Captain Lessinger’s on the warpath again.”

Dax felt the role settling on him. “Oh yeah? What is it this time?”

“Something about the Earthborn moving around out there.” She shrugged. “What do we know?”

“I guess I’ll find out when I get back. I - hope they’ve got some chow going.”

The freckled Evinthei peered at him, as if suddenly curious. “Hey, I thought Parrow had this spot.”

Parrow… Must be the guy we got the uniform from… thank god there’s not a nametag on this thing… He fought his panic, remembering Athellus’ advice, and made himself shrug. “Don’t ask me. I haven’t seen anyone since I got stuck out here -”

The soldier folded his arms. “Did that little shit exchange shifts with you?”

Dax wavered for a moment - No! Tell them what they want to hear! “Well - yeah. Yeah, he did.”

“Son of a bitch,” said one of the patrol, the one meant to relieve Dax. “Probably warming his toes at the post right now.”

“Trust Parrow,” said the freckled soldier. “If he could Gate he’d get paid for a dozen work shifts a day and spend them all with his girlfriend.” He turned back to Dax. “You’re not one of Lessinger’s regulars, are you? Well, I’m not gonna stick you on report, this once, but if he does it again, radio it to me first, okay? Even if he says he’s got a chit.”

“Sure. Sorry.”

“Okay, fall in line, let’s get you back.” The freckled soldier began speaking to one of the others while Dax fell to the back of the line, sweating.

That had been close. If not for that little prompt in his head, the consequences could have been - well, that instinct or whatever it was might well have saved his neck.

 

His first impression of the guard post was that it looked impregnable. There seemed to be soldiers everywhere he looked, dressed in those dark grey waterproofs, moving with a quiet and cheerful purposefulness that was somehow very chilling. There were four of them in a knot by the door of the barracks, which was a three-storey building, long and low. He could catch a glimpse of people on the roof, even catch a little of their conversation over the heavy rain. The windows of the barracks were lit with that almost chalky yellow light from fluorescent bulbs. Dax stared at them with a kind of hunger: after more than a week of rising with the dawn and bedding down at sunset, artificial light seemed astoundingly novel.

“Later,” said the freckled soldier with a nod, leading the rest of the patrol off without another word.

For a moment Dax stood stupidly in the middle of the courtyard, not sure of where to go or what to do. Then he remembered he was supposed to be scouting out the area, and looked around. But there just seemed to be people all over the place, moving back and forth, talking, sheltering under the eaves. How was he supposed to remember all this?

Forget it. Athellus can spy out the outside of the building on his own, right? He needs to know what’s going on inside.

Dax pulled the waterproof a little tighter around him and headed towards the doors, bracing himself as he passed the four soldiers nearby. There was a guard on the door who looked bored and soaked: he just waved Dax past. Dax nodded to him with feigned disinterest, and went inside into warmth and light. He was about to strip the hood from his head and sigh with relief when his fingers stopped dead: on no account must he take it off, not yet.

The interior of the barracks opened into a long corridor with doors leading off it. Dax thought there were probably bunk rooms beyond, judging by the shadows he had seen from outside. The corridor had two tables shoved against one wall with several canisters on top: they were metal, and warm to the touch. Dax could smell coffee when he was near them, and there were dirty mugs left nearby. On the opposite wall was a line of coat hooks with waterproofs hanging from them, dripping on the floor.

And then he spotted it. Hanging from one of the hooks, sodden with water, was a stocking cap someone had left to drip dry. He looked around. There were two officers talking at a distance, one leaning casually against the wall, but neither was looking in his direction. Quick as a flash Dax yanked the hood back, snatched the cap, wrung it out a little and pulled it on, covering the white blaze at the front of his head. He could cook up a good reason for -

“Enough!”

 

 

 

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