There Be Mature Content Here
Please be advised that the following is intended for mature readers only.
(Finished – 9/8/2021)
Pyxis The Restrained
Gary calls out to me. “Heya, Pyx?”
I gotta turn and look over my shoulder at him. Which is odd—and so incredibly frustrating—because Gary’s straggling behind me.
Like, way behind me.
Gary looks up from the ground—where he’s pointing at something covered by Briarwood’s dense undergrowth—to me. “Is this War-wolf droppings?”
“Droppings?” Normally, I would’ve sounded ecstatic about Gary’s possible discovery.
Because truly, just think about it. What could a War-wolf drop? Hell, what could it even carry? It doesn’t have any hands.
But, I’m not ecstatic or interested because my thoughts are consumed by my mate.
I’ve lost her.
Gary wrinkles his bushy brows at me. “We ain’t lost. Two-Four-Kay is just thatta way.”
Sure, he’s pointing off toward the settlement, but I can’t go there because Luna’s there with Jo. And if Luna’s there, then I’ve gotta be elsewhere. If I continue being around my mate, then she can’t do all the critically important tasks that she has to do: heal the sick humans, feed the younglings, and fix the drill.
And even knowing all of that—that Luna has important work to do and I’ve been doing nothing but slowing her progress—I still want to be wherever she is, doing whatever it is that she wants to do. Which means I gotta force myself to do what a real Akupara would do.
A real Akupara would stifle their instincts and do their duty.
So here I am, drudging through the forest to look at what-ever-it-is that a War-wolf’s dropped. And it’s—
Oh. It’s shit.
Just a dried up pile of shit.
“That’s shit, Gary,” I say as my father’s raspy, air-starved voice echoes in my head.
“Don’t backtrack, Pyxis.” My father had told me. “Follow the strongest stench.”
And yeah, I’m frustrated. I’d just backtracked—and risked giving in to the temptation to just keep on backtracking all the way back to Luna—to look at animal scat. And this pile of scat’s so dried out that it’s not even filling the air with its shitty-ness.
“It’s not that dried out,” Gary mumbles as his cheeks flush. “I mean, I could smell it a ways off.”
A ‘ways off’ for Gary means taking a ten, teeth-grindingly long, seconds to stumble upon a pile of shit. For me, that ‘ways off’ means spending an agonizingly lengthly amount of time in my mate’s territory. And since I can’t be with her, this whole ‘let’s look at dried up shit’ moment is destroying me.
Hell, can humans even comprehend what this feels like?
“No,” Gary whimpers as he’s backing away from me.
Why is he backing…
Then I hear it. I’m growling.
My chest is heaving, my nostrils are flaring, and my hands are curled into tight fists. Of course, Gary can’t see the whole flaring nostrils thing because I’m wearing my faceplate, but still.
I must look like a feral beast.
Which explains why Gary is backing away from me on trembling legs.
I reach out to steady him. “Gary—”
He jerks back, stumbling and falling into the War-wolf shit.
I step forward. “Let me help—”
He scrambles to his feet.
And I hate that I’m forced to witness, in a hyperaware moment, the clumps of shit falling from my friend’s threadbare clothing. To watch as his once red-with-exertion cheeks drain away to a sickly white. To catch with cutting clarity how his eyes, which are wide open and bright with fear, scan the trees. And he’s not trying to seek out any prowling War-wolves.
He’s looking for an escape.
I’m the big bad War-wolf.
My chest squeezes as I force myself to speak. “Gary—”
Several humans charge out from the heavy foliage, shouting and waving mining tools at me.
The human version of a coordinated attack should have been fascinating to watch unfold. Their posturing—bellowing nonsense and wildly jabbing their pickaxes at me—would be, at least, three to four lectures-worth of How to Not Ambush Your Prey.
Like I said, it should have been fascinating. Only, it isn’t because I’m in no fucking mood to be fascinated.
Gary turns a bit slow—but that’s to be expected—toward his fellow settlers. “Benny? What’s—”
“Told ya we’d catch up to him,” Benny cuts right over Gary as he addresses the other human men with him. “These alien fucks are as slow as old Earth turtles.”
I’ve got no idea what a turtle is. I don’t even care that I’m not curious to find out. All I see is that the humans are fanning out around us, which is making Gary whip his head about in confusion.
Gary settles his wary gaze on Benny. “What cha doing, Benny?”
Benny tips his chin toward me. “Collecting and escorting F.B. here back to Two-Four-Kay.”
“Escorting?” Gary shakes his head as his eyes widen with alarm. “I don’t think this’s the best time for—”
“Don’t matter what ya think, Gary,” Benny snaps.
“Now, hang on just a second here,” Gary holds his hands up, doing that human gesture that’s meant to calm someone. “Take it easy.”
“I ain’t the one who can make things hard,” Benny says as he points at me. “But you, Akky, you get me. Don’t cha?”
Actually, I get what both Gary and Benny are attempting to do.
For Benny, he’s here to delivery a summons—one not issued by Jo but probably by another Akupara—and haul me back like a prized bounty. Hell, Benny’s even thrilled about it, too. He’s placed himself front and center—not sheltering behind his minions—and his eyes are bright, almost manic looking. He thinks I’m easy pickings because I’m not wearing my armor.
Well, Benny’s not the first idiot to make that mistake.
And Gary? He’s trying to caution Benny to back off because I’d failed to restrain my feral, mate-mad instincts. Gary now knows what’s inside. He’s cautious of the warrior, not the armor.
Good ol’ Gary’s turning out to be the smartest human male on all of Warren’s.
I’m gonna miss him.
“Did ya hear me, F.B.?” Benny’s snapping his fingers.
“Nope.” I shake my head. Just one sharp swipe from left to right. “Not at all.”
Benny gives me a smug smile. “Brack wants to see ya.”
He means Bracys, one of my mother’s advisors. Which makes sense. Like I’d told Luna before leaving her: Benny’d seen me wrapped in sheets and mostly outta my armor. So, of course he was gonna tell Rodgers, Jr., and Rodgers, Jr. was definitely gonna tell someone from the Bale. Bracys is the obvious choice.
I just thought I’d have more time—perhaps run one last pass through Luna’s territory—before being recalled to the Bale. But this way is much better for everyone.
Being sent back to the Bale means that I won’t be tempted to go to Luna. She’ll be able to get all her important work done without any distractions.
“Fantastic.” I nod at Benny, doing my best to infusing my voice with idiotic enthusiasm. “Let’s go.”
Benny makes a show of having his males surround me. When we start marching—well, walking at Outbaler pace because I won’t go any faster—Benny again compares me to an old Earth turtle.
Part of me wants to ask Benny about turtles. Another part of me wants to pummel him into fleshy bits.
I let those two parts battle on because they’re doing a fabulously job of distracting me. If not, then I’d have to admit that I’m backtracking toward Luna, all while following the faint stench of fear and War-wolf shit coming from Gary.
So, yeah. I’m gonna imagine leaving a trail of Benny-parts in Briarwood as I crawl my way back to Two-Four-Kay. It’s for the best.
It really is.
Luna the Baby Bunny
I jolt awake to a deep, gruff Akupara voice and a blinding beam of light.
“As I said before,” the Akupara says, “we’d find her hiding. Again.”
Yeah. That’s Kin, Pyx’s brother and Rez’s mate. I’ve started thinking of him as Kinixys the Fun-Killer. And right now, he totally ruined all my fun. I’d been having this awesome dream about being back in the bolthole under my modular with Pyx. And we were—
Jo groans. “Keep those thoughts to yourself, Baby Bun—Shit. Too late.”
Yep. Jo’s not getting an apology from me, just a dismissive huff—which, of course, gets stretched into an undignified, jaw-cracking yawn. But still. I’m so not sorry. Pyx was doing some heart-poundingly amazing stuff to me until Kin woke me up.
Oh, and also, it’s gotta be said. “I’m not hiding.”
Kin, who’s squatting before the bolthole’s openning, gestures to me with his massive, armored hand. “You’re huddled in the dark with tree leaves camouflaging the entrance to your…tiny tunnel.”
“It’s a bolthole,” Rez and I say at the same time.
“It’s a strategically placed cache of supplies,” Rez continues, and I can hear the long-suffering tone in her voice. She must’ve explained to Kin several times the purpose of our boltholes.
I mean, we’re not all armored-up alien warriors who lug around a stash of supplies and weapons at all times. H.A.R.E.s don’t carry shelters on our backs. We gotta carve out our safe-burrows—er, safe-harbors.
And being the duck-my-head-and-hide kinda girl that I am, I’m glad that Rez is out there with her mate, a badass Akupara warrior. My gladness doesn’t dismiss that Rez’s a bonafide badass all on her own. I’m just so freaking relieved that she’s not alone. Because if any of the settlers wanna tell her that she’s banned from Two-Four-Kay, well…
Jo had been all by herself when those idiot settlers had run her outta town.
“It’s not like they had pitchforks,” Jo mumbles.
I know that, but I still feel really bad about it.
“Really bad, huh?” Jo scoffs and shakes her head at me.
Fine. I feel ashamed and guilty because it’s all my fault. I got too distracted and never fixed the drill.
Jo growls as she points her finger at me. “You’re not too distracted or frustrated or angry or anything else, Luna. You’re too scared.”
Not this crap again.
“Yes, this shit again!” Jo fumes at me. “I am so sick and ti—”
“Time out!” Rez shouts as she starts crawling into the bolthole. “Time-fucking-out, you two.”
“Mate,” Kin dips his head as he calls after her, “the last time you argued inside one of these boltholes—”
“I know. I know.” Rez rolls her eyes while she shimmies into place between Jo and I. “But it’s different this time. Cuz we’re not gonna fight, are we?” Rez pins first me and then Jo with her hard stare. “We’re gonna fix this shit.”
“Oh good god!” My shoulders droop in relief. “Finally!”
“Yeah, finally,” Rez says with a determined nod. “Hey, Kin! Listen up.”
“I am always listening, my mate,” he mumbles back.
“It’s time for you to go do something else,” Rez calls to him over her shoulder.
“Do something…” His voice lifts and trails off. The poor guy’s obviously confused, which just seems to agitate him. “You wish me to leave?”
“Go patrolling or, I dunno, set some traps or something.” Rez gestures to Jo and me. “Some badass girl talk is about to happen, and you’re gonna wanna be elsewhere when it’s going down.”
Kin grumbles. “None of those words made any sense.”
“Leave!” Jo, Rez, and I all bellow at once.
Truly. If Rez’s waiting for Kin to get gone so that she can tell me how everything’s gonna be fixed, then Kin’s gotta get going.
“Very well.” Kin’s voice has recovered his unflappable, authoritative tone. “I’ll go find more rope.”
“You do that.” Rez says, but I kinda think that she’s not really listening to him.
Me, though? My brain’s forming a mental image of those two.
I shake it off because I need to focus here. For the first time in forever, my body feels like an entire spaceship is being lifted off of me.
Everything’s gonna be fine.
“We need to address the main issue.” Rez points at me. “No more secrets.”
“What?” I jerk. Rez’s disappointing start—to address the ‘main issue’—is like a slap to the face. Hell, it’s a fist to the gut. “No! It’s the little things that’ve gotta be fixed.”
I dart my eyes between Rez and Jo, looking for understanding. For support. For something. I get nothing but pitying stares.
“Seriously?” I can’t help the pleading in my voice. “That’s all you two care about? Our secrets?”
You’d’ve figured that, after trying so dang hard for so dang long to fix the little things that have always been overlooked, I’d be pissed that my efforts are being dismissed as well.
Only, I’m not. I just wanna quit.
“Of course you,” Jo says. “Because you’re—”
“It’s not because I’m scared,” I snap at her. “I’m not scared. I’m dangerous.”
Rez tisks me like I’m overreacting. “You’re not dangerous, Luna.”
“Not dangerous?” The low tone of my voice is scratching my throat with so many ugly things…
…anger at Rez for talking down to me…
…anger at Jo for just standing by, day-after-day, and not using her genetic modifications to freaking help me…
“Don’t work like that,” Jo mumbles as she points at me. “And you know that, Luna.”
“Yes. I know that, Jo,” I hiss back at her. “I’ve always known that. But I keep on hoping that you’ll at least try to fix all the things I mess up. But I guess that’s just one more way that I’m so disastrously me. Because all I can do is this.”
I snatch up one of our water canisters. My hands, which have been heated by my anger and frustration, are blazing hot. The all-enviro-durable metal doesn’t even smolder. It ignites and bursts, curling open like a flower bud. The instantly-evaporated water inside escapes as a puff of scalding steam.
“And this ability,” I hold out the flaming canister—offering it up like the damning evidence that it clearly is, “can’t fix shit. Anytime I touch anything, all I do is burn it into the ground.”
It really burns—my pride and my self-esteem—that the scientists linked my healing ability to my burning hands. I can’t help anyone without harming them.
Why would the scientists make me this way? It’s all so freaking messed up…
“Okay.” Rez nods her head once. Her lips are pressed together, turning her mouth into a determined frown. “Is it me or is it time to douse that thing?”
We’re all standing outside of the bolthole and Rez is running her hand over my shoulder, doing her best to soothe me. “Luna, stop moping and listen to me.”
I ignore her. Crossing my arms over my chest, I direct my glare at the still-smoking hole-in-the-ground.
I’m not moping. I’m fuming because I just set a fireproof canister on freaking fire, and Jo and Rez are still treating me like a temper tantrumming toddler.
“You’re wasting your breath, Rez.” Jo waves her hand at me. “Baby Bunny never listens. You gotta show her.”
Really? We’re regressing to Show-and-Tell tactics?
Jo arches her brow at me. “You’re the one actin’ like a toddler.”
“Unless you have something to say that actually fixes problems,” I point at her, giving my finger a good, hard jab, “then keep your all-knowing bullshit to yourself, Joia.”
“Bullshit,” Jo chuckles dryly. “You know, there’s an old Earth saying about monkeys.”
“Yeah.” I scoff. “I know.”
“Nah, ya don’t know.” Jo taps a finger on her brow, directly over her right eye. “It’s monkey see some obvious shit before its own damn eyes; monkey do something about it.”
“That…” I comb through my memory. “Yeah. That doesn’t sound right.”
“Well, it ain’t monkey listen to some heart-to-heart bullshit; monkey make the world all better.”
“That also doesn’t sound right.”
I mean, where’s the bit about infinite monkeys using infinite time to solve any problem?
“Because you ain’t got infinite time, Luna,” Jo says like I’m an idiot.
I point a finger at her. “That,” unfortunately, not having endless time does sound kinda right, “isn’t my fault. I am trying to fix stuff. It may not be stuff that’s obvious to everyone else, but it’s obvious to me.”
“Obvious?” Jo spats. “You wanna see something obvious?”
Uh. That sounds like a trick question. So, no?
“Come on, Luna.” Jo stomps off into the undergrowth. “I got something obvious to show you.”
“You do?” I’m pretty sure she does have something to show me.
And I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to see it.
“Trust me. You’re gonna wanna take a look at this.” Jo calls back to me. “So hop along, you blindfolded little bunkey. We got some obvious shit to see.”
I’m following Joia through the forest, all the while fuming and grumping. I’m the one who knows all about Earth monkeys. Not Jo. She’s never been interested in anything from Ancient Earth. So, of course, she can’t possibly know more than I do about them.
“They had tails,” Jo says without turning to look at me. “Did ya know that, Bunkey?”
Um. No. I didn’t.
“What’s with this ‘bunkey’ business?” I shoot back at Jo, trying to sound all unimpressed and not at all curious.
Jo lets out a sharp, dry laugh. “Bunkey business. Good one, Luna.”
And… I don’t get it.
“Cuz ya don’t know everything about monkeys,” Jo says as she stops. “Or about Fanboy.”
She grasps some thick, umbrella sized leaves and parts them like a curtain.
And… I’m speechless.
Before me is a clearing. Which should be impossible. Rez, Jo, and I had neglected our boltholes for just a few days, and Briarwood had almost reclaimed them—hiding them under dense foliage while various War-animals used them for their dens.
But the clearing isn’t the only thing that has me silently gaping. It’s the mansion-like cabin in the middle of the forest.
Still stunned, I step past Jo.
If stumbling across an area of Briarwood that’s cleared of its dense undergrowth is an impossibility, then the structure before me is pure fantasy. First, it’s made of wood and the settlers at Two-Four-Kay have never been able to harvest Briarwood’s lumber. Second, the building itself is something I’ve never seen before, let alone imagined. It may have started out as a cabin, but the original structure was added-on to and expanded into…
Well, it’s not a lodge. More like a fortress.
Rez steps up next to me. “Remember how I said no more secrets?”
“Sure.” Maybe? Honestly, I don’t know what she’s talking about.
“Jo and I knew about your cabin,” Rez says, her face all scrunched up in a cringe. “We’re super sorry about not telling you.”
“No we ain’t.” Jo brushes past me.
“Wait. What?” I pivot, turning to look at each of my friends.
Rez is still kinda cowering, like she’s waiting for me yell at her. Whereas Jo’s shoulders are slumped—not in meek apology, but something like defeat.
I don’t like this. Rez never backs down and Jo never quits.
“What’s going on here?” I gesture toward the cabin-on-steroids. “Whaddya mean my cabin? This isn’t mine.”
Rez glances to Jo. Good god, she’s deferring and Rez never freaking defers. However, Jo still has her back to us and says nothing.
Rez looks back to me, then sighs. “Come on. You gotta see this.”
My legs obey Rez, shuffling me forward, while my mind’s clambering to run away.
As I approach, my gaze is drawn upward. One. Two… Five-stories. Unbelievable. Back in the settlement, Rogers, Jr. had put a shack on top of a modular and renamed it The Tower to satisfy his ego. But this—which is supposedly mine—is five-freaking-stories of premium Briarwood hardwood.
Oh, and there are windows, too. The amber tinted panes aren’t glass. When I get closer, I get a jolt. I know this matte, flat surface—
“Over here,” Rez says from inside.
The massive wooden door is already open. So I follow. The soles of my boots are scrapping across bricks on the other side of the threshold. Those bricks? Yeah. I definitely know those—
“There.” Rez is pointing down a corridor lined in polished wood. “It’s down there.”
I shake my head. “I don’t wanna—”
“Go, Luna,” Rez says firmly. Then she softens. “You owe it to him to just go. See.”
Him. I have a sinking feeling in my gut that I know exactly who ‘him’ is.
I go down the hallway, passing door after door. It’s too much. I stop counting after seven or so. The hall ends at an expansive room. Again, my gaze is drawn upward as I walk inside. The soaring ceiling overhead must be three-stories high.
With a shuddering sigh, I force my gaze back down as I slowly turn. I take it all in. The clean counters. The numerous baking units. The cold storage units. The shelves and shelves of bread pans.
“Pyx made it for you.” Rez says from behind me. “It’s all yours.”
“No,” I say on a thin breath.
Because, he shouldn’t have. He really, really shouldn’t have.
I hear Jo huff, which means she must be behind me as well.
“Course he should have,” Jo says, her tone calling me an idiot.
But, I’m not just an idiot. I’m freaking incompetent.
Jo sighs heavily. “No. You ain’t incompetent, Luna.”
“Yes!” I turned toward her, shouting as the beautiful view of this absolutely stunning kitchen gets blurred away by my tears. “Yes. I am! I can’t do anything, Jo! I can’t bake anything. I can’t fix anything. I can’t heal anything—”
“Luna!” Jo yells.
But I shriek right over her, “—because my stupid fucking hands only hurt people!”
Oh my god! How could Pyx do this? How could he do something so good and thoughtful—something so incredibly Pyx-like of him—yet it’s tearing me up like shards of glass?
“Because. You. Are. Scared!” Jo shouts. She throws up her hands. “And I get it, Luna. I do. But what I don’t get is why you blame yourself for your hands. You don’t hurt people.”
I hate that I’m sniffling instead of shouting right back at Jo. “But I do hurt—”
“You regrew the skin on my scalp, Baby Bunny.” Jo’s voice has softened, yet her tone’s infusing each word with unflagging certainty. “You reattached six of Rez’s fingers.”
Rez flexes her fingers and shrugs. “They still ache sometimes because of the rain and all.”
“Delorez!” Jo hisses as she tips her head toward me.
Ah, I must have a horrified look on my face. Because, why wouldn’t I?
“But they’re fine.” Rez rushes to say as she hides her hands behind her back. “Really. Totally fine. I can punch the shit outta assholes, so I’m all good.”
That’s kinda a disturbing image. Rez punches people and then they poop?
“Hey, Luna.” Rez pulls my attention back to her. “You saved my hands.”
Between her open expression and emotional tone… Yeah. I get what Rez is trying to tell me. I know what her hands mean to her.
“And you saved my harebrain,” Jo shrugs. “So, there’s that, too.”
But Jo’s being too generous.
I look at her headscarf. “I can’t fix your hair.”
Jo frowns at me. “You’re not meant to fix shit, Baby Bunny. Know why?”
It’s kinda obvious. “Because I suck at it?”
Jo shrugs her casual ‘it’s no big deal’ kinda shrug. “Because there’s nothing to fix.”
Unbelievable. How can Jo not see? “But—”
“You’re only meant to heal.”
“Healing is fixing!”
“It ain’t.” Jo taps her headscarf. “People get scars for a reason, Luna. When you heal, you mend. Things get knitted and sutured. They’re not good as new.”
I sniff. Fine. That all makes sense. It does.
But I still glare down at my hands. “All that doesn’t explain why my hands hurt people when I’m trying to heal them.”
“Because healing hurts,” Rez says.
I shake my head. “It shouldn’t.”
Rez is nodding emphatically. “It does when you make it happen all at once.”
Confused, I turn to Jo. “Joia?”
“Healing ain’t quick or painless. So when you,” she wiggles her fingers, “make it happen immediately, instead over days or weeks or months of rest?”
My throat goes dry, and I force myself to swallow down bile into my churning belly. So, after the scientists’ barge had crashed on Warren’s and I’d fixed my friends—
“Healed.” Jo points at me. “When you’d healed us.”
“I’d hurt you.” I grate out.
“Yeah, it’d fucking hurt, Baby Bunny.” Jo points off, up and away from Warren’s. “Those scientists taught you—hell, they trained you—to accelerate healing within a matter of seconds. And it got them what they wanted. A way to torture and kill their victims. Their victims, not yours.”
Okay. This should make me feel better. Jo—who knows everything—is telling me that my hands aren’t my fault. So, I should be feeling relief and hope and tons of other good stuff. Right? I should be able to tackle all my problems with both a clear head and clean conscience.
“Wrong.” Jo shakes her head and she looks disappointed. “No more quick fixes, Luna.”
Then her gaze flicks up and behind me. I turn to see Emys—wearing her full armor—striding into the kitchen.
“Luna the Baby Bunny will do one more quick fix,” Emys says as she approaches. Emys never says hello. She just issues very Emys-like demands to announce her presence. “The drill. Fix it.”
“I can’t.” Admitting that is not liberating. It’s down right depressing.
So, I chuckle because I’m kinda sick of crying. Which just makes me laugh even more.
Hell, I think I’m cackling.
“You will fix it,” Emys says.
I’m pinned by her gaze even though I can’t see it because of her matte faceplate. How’s that possible? Because she’s freaking Emys, the Last of the Akupara.
So, yeah. I’m pinned and kinda squirming as all my demented hysteria dies.
Of the many things that I’ve got only a slim chance of actually fixing, the mining drill is definitely not one of them.
“I can’t do it.” I have no idea how to fix the drill. “Really.”
“You must,” Emys says. “If not, then Pyxis the Restrained will pay the price.”
This chapter is complete! I’ve enabled commenting and have added my own thoughts as well.
As always, thank you so much for reading!
From Slow & Steady: The Velveteen Tortoise
Copyright © 2020, 2021 by Bex McLynn
All rights reserved