APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 4 May, 2001


Black Talons

Part Six: Steppin' Out

Harman Meyerhoff

[NOTE: Continued from Part Five, which appeared in Volume 3, Number 3 of APAGear II. -ED.]

I love Marabou. Not even dragging two uptight CNCS Gear pilots, a rookie Kay-det, a Northie spook, a Norguard Gear mechanic, and a borderline mental case through its' balmy streets is enough to detract from my love of being out on the town in the best city on the face of Terra Nova.

But this was extra-special. I was not only in Marabou, but also going to the Snake Pit. I always visit, but the trip to that little place toward the edge of the military-industrial areas is always laced with excitement. It's like Saturnalia when I finally see the wrecked naga-armor plate signboard and smell the food from the street.

Yes, it's also a bar, and a bar within only about two kays of the military district. But let me stress it's most definitely a 'Bar and Restaraunt', more in the spirit of how historic texts described a Brittanic earth "Public House" than something you'd find near the Zoo. And that night, using that spirit of fun and comradeship, I hoped to make the final welds to our team. The combination of alk and grub would have a vital stake in ensuring that we'd live together, fight together, and drink together, and do it all voluntarily . Or at least with a mite less bickering.

Having left my hastily-assigned quarters inside the bases' transient officer housing facilities earlier that night, I'd spent over thirty minutes simply coercing everyone to change into street dress and venture out with me.

Ranging from outright hostility at the prospect of "going out to the fleshpots with a drunken heathen" to Temples innocuous inquiries about the percentage of young people likely to be around, I'd found it far more difficult than the old standby method of shouting "Let's go to the Snake Pit after duty!" into the unit rec room five minutes before you were going to leave.

Ahh well, as a duly self-appointed tour guide, manager, squad leader and general emmisary of the People Of The Southern Hemisphere, I strongarmed them until I had everybody following me out the door.

Needless to say, they weren't universally happy about it. And with humid air skwirling through my lungs and my favorite clothes and a brand new cloak on my back, I was nigh exstastic as we trudged across town. I figured rather than take transport, a good walk would hopefully wear down their guard and tire them out enough to dissuade a brawl.

"Are we there yet, commander ?" Wallace rumbled, seeming to spit the moist ocean air from his lungs like it was trying to choke him.

Rounding the corner, I could see we finally were.

You mightn't expect a crowd anywhere in the depths of the semiindustrial blocks between the maglev and boardwalk, but here was one.

A two-wide column about twenty people long was lined up along the side of a ratty looking cinderblock hangar building, a battered Gear engine welded over the thick double doors, and two suited bouncers with machetes were flanking the entrance as a third suit prowled the line, checking IDs and member cards.

Overall, it seemed to disturb my mates, as Vesping and Mallinaux both looked fairly nervous at the thought of being turned away by the knife wielding G-men.

I however, had no such common sense, cutting to the head of the line and flashing my dogtags at the lead guy.

After growling something and moving as if to push me out of his way, I again brandished the clearance chip I carry strung next to my dogtags and voodoos into his ugy mug again.

He looked at me like he was a basilisk and his flinty gaze would somehow make me wither.

I simply stood there, then tapped the Red Charon also hanging on my necklace.

He blinked, and, grunting again, paused and swung up his dataglove to scan the chip. After a moment, the glove beeped, and he motioned for me to enter my code.

Easily done, the chip was progged to 0451, and after punching it in, the readout glowed green and beeped again, this time in a three-tone welcome.

Rockface smiled and motioned me and my comrades forward, up the steps to the door.

I again put my chip in a reader and typed my code, but this time nothing happened.

The Veeshaft uses little disposable cercachips as a sort of one-night passport and bar tab rolled into one, but a select few get permanent authorization tags. Mine was one such, and

I was damned if I knew why the friggin thing wasn't working. Had Lisbeth got enough dough to upgrade it again ? And if so, where'd my cut gone?

I started a profane monologue and tried typing the code in a second time, paying so much attention to getting it right that I never even noticed that the door had swung inward until something warm, black-haired, and pleasantly yielding leapt out of the doorway and wrapped itself around me.

As the adrenaline kicked in my senses were bombarded with the smells of amour berries and the feel of warm flesh pressing in on me...

I vaguely identified the form as it wrapped itself around me, delivering a rib-cracking hug and several kisses amid and squeals of happiness.

"Nice to see you too Xia..." I grimmaced, feeling a dagger pommel becoming intimate with my kidney and a quantity of that luxurious black hair get inhaled as she crushed the air from my lungs again.

Finally, Xia deigned to disentangle herself from me partways as she surveyed my comrades.

I took that opportunity to check myself for a third arm.

Not that way, damnit!

Judging by the way everyone was staring at me (and that included the line of patrons and the three bouncers) I figured I might have just such an appendage.

"You'll have to introduce us to your friend ..." Wallace said condescendingly, his tone verging on outright insult.

Well, it was Xia, and that automatically meant Lotjnant Nordlunder Prude would probably get all uptight, but I sure as hell wasn't complaining.

To offer you readers some simple background, Xia Delacroix was scout and spotter for Sargeant LePierres cadre, and later my cadre, when I was in the MILICIA. She piloted a Hunting Chameleon for about three years, and nearly bought the farm on the same mission that gave me my claw, Elisabeth her cybernetics, and LePierre, Chang, and Corazon shallow graves ouside Miechan Township.

But, barring the three extra 18mm navels across her stomach and a sensitive digestion forever after, Xia got through relatively unscathed.

And it would'a been a shame if she'd been scathed.

Imagine a hot, 170cm tall girl with long black hair, more pronounced than average hints of terrasian ancestry, and a body that served as model for the nose art on no less than three striders, and wrap all around one of the most competent snipers and spotters, and least sociable persons I've ever known. As an afterthought, add a pair of cutoff combat fatigue shorts, tanktop, and a jeweled dragon-head dagger with a twenty centimeter blue carbon-steel blade.

Sound good? Isn't. If you think I'm a bit unstable, don't go near Xia unless you've got a very gregarious personality, an instinct for handling dangerous people, and least an escouade of backup. A very determined deathwish is also a good prerequisite.

Then my mind slipped back into groove, and my mouth caught up a moment later, mouthing the prognosis of Oh... Shit...

Insulting someones' charachter is a no-no. A foreigner insulting a skilled martial artist armed with a knife, especially a somewhat sensitive one, in her home, and aiming it about her greeting a close friend, is the height of that special gene-pool-cleansing kind of idiocy. When the person is also somewhat less than stable, it usually speeds up the natural selection process.

The immediate and violent response was Xia reacting to Wallaces' scornful remark in painful, direct, and unfriendly terms. The pause to glare was hideously long for those of us (me) who knew she was capable of killing him instantly.

So for about a quarter second, she just stood there, slooowly narrowing her eyes and standing stiff as a statue, all the warmth draining out as she prepared to do bad things to my fire support pilot.

I believe that was where our beloved Boyden caught his mistake. Still, too late. Far too late.

Almost in slow motion everyone backed away from Wallace.

Then Xia reaced for her dagger, and blurred into what I'd best describe as a forward handspring, followed by a sweepkick, a knee in his guts as he went down, then a twist midair to land crouched underneath him, wrapping her arm around his head and performing a twist-and-hold to his neck. A little more pressure and his head would'a popped off like a ripe berry.

Then time resumed normal speed, and suddenly it seemed Wallace had somehow teleported to an obviously uncomfortable posture sprawled out across the concrete, and Xia was kneeling next to him, one knee in his midsection and her left arm wrapped around his head, fingers threaded through his hair and beard. Slowly, seeping predatory malice, she leaned over him further, pressing all warm and close as her dagger hovered gently a few inches south of his belt.

Smiling a humorless smile, she tightened her grip on his hair and yanked his head around a few degrees more than it was intended to and huskily whispered something in his ear, pitched friendly but apparently less than congenial in phrasing.

Some days I really think not one person in our old unit knew what "tact" was, nor has figured it out since. I'm sure Xia and I sure as hell haven't.

Meanwhile, Wallace let out a little squeak as Xia clinked her skinning knife against his beltbuckle to further enlighten him to his perilous condition.

Wallace swallowed hard, apparently choking on his foul words of choice and started phrasing what had better've been his immediate and complete apology, as Xia was gently and in no uncertain terms showing him the high probability of his becoming a eunuch in the immediate and painful future.

"Let him go. He's just a stupid Northie." I groaned, trying to defuse the situation.

Not that it would. Xia is more than a little bloodthirsty and singleminded when provoked.

Thankfully, she's just as erratic as I am, and my personal luck was finally begrudgingly extending its protection to the norther on the pavement.

"So no great loss." Xia smirked, finally easing off of Wallace and resheathing her knife.

She then straighened up from her crouch in a most pleasing manner, and smiled at the rest of the squad with her most charming smile, as if to say "I'm not going to kill you, silly peoples".

Like I said, social interaction isn't a strong suit among the members of my old cadre. Meanwhile, Wallace had painfully gotten back to his feet.

Incidentally, nobody helped him up after his grand-mal faux pas.

"Well, I'd say introductions are well overdue and pretty much shot to hell, but here's trying; Xia Delacroix, this is Sergeant Antoine Mallinaux, Lieutenant Juno Vesping, Morgan, Kenji Kage, Sous-Caporal Morgausa Temple, Chief Tech Rachel McConnoly, and you've already met our beloved Boyden Wallace." I announced, trying to hurry through intros before someone else got knifed.

Fortunately, the mere makeup of our party stunned Xia into pacifism, and she was chewing on her lower lip in thought as she beckoned us inside.

The Snakepit is my home, and not just in the "away from home" fashion. I've got a sometimes-used apartment upstairs and a thrity-percent share in the business, and even if I'm not there often, the public downstairs still refects me quite a bit. The best description I could give is quite confused but fairly accurate: a great big cozy lounge composed of museum pieces, adjoined by a good restaraunt, and with a gymnasium-sized dance hall taking up the remaining floorspace inside the hangar.

While there are three entrances, one to each section, I always use the main door, which leads into the denlike lounge and bar. My section.

Between the luxurious carpet, subdued lighting, leather and velvet uphostery, and the wafting scents of some of the best food you can get, it conveyed a knockout aura of class and style, as was not lost on my ruffian squadmates.

"Wow. C'mander, I mean, Mister Kzyn, this place is incredible!" Temple whispered, as if she were afraid to disturb the sleepy, contented ambiance.

"Glad y'like it runt." I conceded magnanimously, chucking my cloak onto an intricate mahogany coatrack. "But you don't need to whisper. This place is supposed to be fun in a loud kinda way." I added, suprised I'd managed to time my entrace so badly as to arrive between songs.

Noticing movement, two of the locals approached, swishing and practically purring to see me.

Hey, I'd already seen Xia!

These were the cats. We've got about fifteen of em, and they're another of our attractions. Even if they do sometimes get into the dining area, nobody ever complains, and we've gotten return visitors simply because they liked sitting in the lounge petting a cat.

True to form, Tahkrashi and Spat came dodging through, under and around patrons, then vaulted a sofa and leapt onto me.

Takhrashi (What the hell that name means, I'll never know...) hurled his ample ten kilos of tigerness into the air and latched onto my vest, hanging by his claws and marwling exstatically.

As I repositioned my vest and tried to simultaneously pet and support him, Spat decided to follow, leaping aboard my shoulders and shoving a tail into my ear.

It's hard to stay dignified with two cats using you for transport, but I didn't much mind. I'm rather more comfortable around cats than people. But I was supposed to be a host...

Somewhat unhappily, I unhooked Takhrashi and passed him off to Xia. He seemed a bit put out over me letting Spat remain perched on my shoulder, but hey, she'd claimed a nonencumbring perch and didn't seem to weigh as much as an antigear rifle.

As this all took place, I was fairly well aware of about forty people staring at me, and felt my social claustrophobia begin to rise.

Fortunately, with a slight clicking tapping to start the beat and warn the patrons, the music started back up. Four-thousand-odd Earthyear-old North American Swing music. It's something I discovered in school, when I was doing historical research and stuff and came across some fantastic audio files of the genre. Since then I've scavenged quite a few more recordings and even shared it with two local bands that've since adopted the style and both of whom now play at the Veeshaft.

The music is perfect- loud, boisterous, and fun, it changes what could be a sleepy lounge into a vivacious and energizing pulse for diners, dancers, and even those who just want to unwind.

A few decades ago there was a great fuss about the colonization of Terra Nova resembling the Old Earth "wild west", resulting in a fad of six-round revolvers, "cowboy" hats and other associated mass-media nonsense.

Well, it's approaching the 1940s now, and while reliving the disgustingly ethnocentric, intolerant, and ecologically destructive ways of 19th century Old Earth might not be the best thing to imitate, recreating the style from the first half of the terran Twentieth seems fun in my corner of the universe.

As if to fit the style, one of the first things you see coming in off the street is a massive armor plate from the side of a Nagas' cockpit.

It's said that the first crew-produced decorative art on war machines was done during the terran 1930s' and 40s', so we have a panel from my demolitions squad Naga.

Lady Xia A beautiful half-woman half-snake creature, resembling a serpentine mermaid, has emblazoned the Serpent Queen LongFang for as long as the MILICIA 99th SkyHawks 17th Cadre (Mad Dawgs) and 24th FiSup Cadre (LongToms) were stationed near each other. My interpretation of the mythic beast unmistakably resembles Xia both out of a lack of available models (Elisabeth claimed to be too self-conscious...) and as a thank-you for her spotting assistance in one particularly difficult raid. After we got mauled at Miechan, the techs from the 24th gave us the painted armor plate in exchange for the promise of free ale when they rotate to Marabou. Ever since our discharges, we've honored that, and the image has hung prominently in the foyer.

"I had to add in the snakes over the original." I murmurred, still amazed with the painting. While morality isn't so much of a concern in our easygoing civilization, I'd clearly realized that painting Xia topless across our neighbor-units' sole strider could result in my painful castration if Xia took it wrong.

To preclude any unnecesary and unliscenced surgery, I'd added two earth-styled cobras curling from around her waist to cross her back and come up across her ribs, covering her breasts with their extended frills.

As happened, I shouldn't've worried. Upon being presented with her likeness, during a R&R rotation to a supply depot, Xia had quickly lost her false veneer of shocked indignity and broken out laughing when she'd seen our apprehensive faces. However, I heard something about one of the 'Toms techs gettin the shit kicked out of him after saying something to her.

We moved through the lounge like it was another world, drinking in the smells and sights as we approached the dancehall.

To get to the dining area, we would have to cross the dancefloor, a swirling chaos of dancing people, swirling lights, and the boisterous music.

"Meet on the other side!" I shouted over the happy din, following Wallaces' bulk as he plowed through the patrons like a juggernaut.

Spat perked up, draping herself over my shoulder, her tail sticking up like a Gear com antenna as she people watched like a miniature mahout.

I hung back a little, enjoying my handiwork as I people-watched, observing the visitors to my incongrous establishment.

Two patrons were hanging from the ceiling in the gearsim pods, drinks were being slid across the bar as glass-sharks swam through the lighted tank beneath the counter, and dancers and socializers formed knots everywhere, forming a moving kaleidoscope of conversation and motion.

Moving through the room and tryng to keep everyone together felt like herding a bunch of wild springers through a jungle, and I fevrently prayed our elite commandos would manage to regroup on the far side...

Waiting for Mallinaux, McConnoly, and Morgan to catch up, I found myself standing next to Wallace near the dining area doorway. It felt completely normal to me, as I've always been a wallflower, but Wallace seemed agitated somehow, rigid and unmoving, staring straight ahead and acting hunted.

"What's eatin you? You had it coming with Xia, y'know. No offense..." I inferred, peering up at him as he inadvertently flicked a glance to his left.

"It's not that, I do think I rather deserved some correction from your friend." He responded through clenched teeth.

"Then what's the problem?" I demanded of the stiffened northerner.

Again he accidentally flicked a glance to his left, toward the bar. Realizing what he was doing, he consciously shifted a quarter turn to his right, facing towards me and looking for Mallinaux and company with a certain desperation in his eyes.

Curious, I sidestepped his bulk and peered toward the bar, then laughed out loud.

Perched on a barstool and clad in only a swept-back vidfab cape, compwatch, and sandals was a pretty ashanti girl, busily scrutinizing Wallaces' profile with a more than just a bit of interest.

Why she'd waste the effort on him , I wasn't sure. Then again, I was currently a walking catrack, and that can hurt a first impression.

Making the best of it, I shouted "Why, I think she likes you, Wallace!" with malicious ingenuity, giving Boyden a friendly slug on the shoulder as I snickered at his predicament.

"Is she still looking at me?" He whispered, nervously trying to turn away and still keep an eye out for our mates.

I again sidestepped him to reconnoiter.

The ashanti was still there, subcosciously tapping her foot to the heavy bass beat and bringing some interesting secondary motions into the action.

"Yup... Staring at your ass too." I added as an afterthought, laughing as he jumped at my remark. When I checked Wallaces' hunter again, she had noticed me and made a face in my direction, gesturing for me to step aside. Apparently I was blocking her view.

Over the din and distance I resorted to using bar sign-language, pointing first at Wallace and then at her in a querying manner.

A nodded affirmative and a wicked grin answered my gesture-question, and I nodded knowingly and smirked back, physically hauling Wallace around and giving him a shove in the direction of the bar, pressing a 20-dinar into his hand.

Unfortunately, our mates caught up with us at that instant, producing such a pitiful wave of relief on Wallaces' face as to match anything I've ever seen.

The sight of Kage towing Temple along by one arm even as she continued to chatter with the young trooper following her was pretty amusing too. She'd somehow met and hit it off with the SRA soldat all in the five minutes we'd been inside.

"Damnit Kenji, don't let her go... We'll never find her again!" I muttered, spooking away the amourous Soldat with a flash of my Charons.

"What's eating him?" Temple asked, quickly forgetting her friend as she noticed Wallaces discomfort.

Smirking and pointing, I indicated the ashanti girl over at the bar.

At that insant, McConnoly, Vesping, Xia, and Mallinaux appeared from the dancefloor, distracting Kage enough for Temple to slip away.

Like a rambunctious prarie jackal she skittered and wove around bodies to the ashanti girl, talking with her for a moment before heading back to us with a satisfied grin.

Passing a slip of paper to Boyden, we took the opportunity to head into the dining area as a unit.

Wallace almost tripped over me as he read the short note, flushing at whatever it said, then tossing it aside.

"What was that about?" Mallinaux asked, noting his squadmates' unusual behavior.

I merely pointed over my shoulder and headed after everyone, laughing as he tracked the vector, identified its origin and meaning and dove after the paper scrap.

Just then we passed through the massive french doors leading into the dining area. The swing music was louder, the dance music quieter, and the sounds of happy conversation and laughter audible over and adding to the happy din. Then, like a FAE bomb shockwave, the smell of the food caught me, and I could hear inhalations from all quarters.

While this may sound like a sales pitch, 'We at the Snakepit serve authentic bioengineered old-terran produce, the highest quality hybrids, and Real Authentic "Home Grown" (for me anyway) Cow Steak.

(Did I mention I hate eating springer?)

Not waiting for anyone, I caught back up with everyone, snagging a few menus from the stewards' station and steering us toward a table as the pounding and roaring of the latest song began to fade away with distance.

I could feel my charges reacting positively as we headed for a table, Wallace so happy it was almost comical, the wafting smells of dinner made hunger an infectious sensation. Everybody seemed a little excited, happy, and suddenly starving.

McConnoly and Vesping were lurking somewhere behind an ever-thinning dam of affected boredom, but the their eyes made obvious it was barely skin deep. And Temple... I barely could believe she hadn't snapped her neck checking for more SRA soldats. While she was doubtless a little disoriented in my alien environment, she probably coulda cared less so long as she could find someone to hook up with.

"Well, what'dya think?" I asked, guiding everyone toward one of the larger dining tables, from which they could see the dance floor and kitchen.

Unfortunately, we, as to say I, became waylaid yet again. This time I saw her coming, and intercepted her before she could do herself harm.

Elisabeth, Snakepit genral manager dash barkeep, and a fellow casualty from Miechan.

She came out of that cursed hell-op in several pieces and severely perforated, and I can vividly remember tying off a smart-touriquet on what had been her left leg. And I remember Xia and LePierre trying to free her from her tattered restraints as her Jaeger sprayed fuel, ready to ignite at any second and turn us to ashy smears on the desert sand.

I still sometimes hear the screaming. But even worse, I will always remember having to manhandle LePierres' headless corpse from his gear just to gain use of his Emed systems and keep her breathing after the GREL counterattack.

Still, I feel quite a bit of pride and protectiveness in having not only stabilized her, but in also flying, one handed and bleeding, all of us still alive all the way to the MASH.

And somehow, Lisbeth made it.

Despite the GREL bandits best efforts, she's still alive. She left Miechan with about two functioning limbs left if you had added them all together and averaged them, but she's still kicking today.

It's hard to believe. She caught the worst of the initial GREL-assisted rover rocket volley, and the front of Fenris (her Dartjaeger) was basically nonexistant after the AGM hit. The fireball ripped just about everything but the duralloy chassis into little pieces of tinfoil, shredded her legs, and gnawed off her right arm from the elbow down.

But for being missile bait, she's remarkably not-dead. In fact, just by looking at her, you probably wouldn't guess what happened to her.

From her right eyebrow down to her jaw, there's a scar about an inch wide with a steel plate forming most of her eye socket and a few vanity scars she insisted stay etched across her pretty face.

And the reconstructive steel protrusion is a clean silvery slash polished to a silver gleam and intricately detailed. After I was good enough to be out and about at the hospital, I continued my role as protector, so as she started her slow recovery, I'd killed time and boosted her self-esteem by etching and decorated that surgical steel plate to the point where I've heard patrons ask if it's purely decorative implant-jewelry. It might be medically necessary, but I'll be the first to admit that the beautiful precious-stone inlay dragon that crawls all the way up from her cheek to her hairline is pretty damn decorative.

While her face might've come out alright, from the neck down she's about a one-to-eight ratio of ironmongery and woman, though most of the iron is hidden by regened tissue or wrapped around her innards.

While MILICIA medical is sometimes fairly comprehensive, they don't enjoy paying for limb regrowth, especially for someone who's leaving the service the instant they recover. So rather than a full replacement of her entire left leg and the lower part of her right arm, she got new legs, a steel hand, and a Ruby Tear.

Personally, I'd've gone with a steel leg, but I am the bastard standing here with a steel-reinforced arm (well, wrist) of my own.

Apparently she thought legs were more important than a hand, and if that was her psychological priority, I wasn't one to worry.

Instead, I, in what may have been the one true act of true deep-felt caring I've ever exhibited (or simply the desire not to be around depressed people), began doing some serious ornamental detailing to her new metal hand.

While most male persons wouldnt've minded seeing Elisabeth showing skin before Miechan, the combined work of the reconstruct docs on the squishy parts and my efforts into precious-metal inlay and etching on the metal parts make her almost better than the original flesh.

While we aren't going to afford a complete hand regen for her anytime soon, she's looking good with a gem-crusted bionic hand, some vanity scars, and her dragon. Some days, I'd wager Tin Lizzie looks almost better than Xia.

Just don't tell either I said that.

"Hariq!" She shrieked, dropping a stack of menus and charging. Spat bailed my shoulders and leapt for cover as Liz practically leapt onto me, throwing her arms around my neck and laughing. Much as with Xia, the lower instincts part of my brain idly predicted this was to be another pleasant experience. The forward part of my brain didn't have time to respond, though if it'd had the time, I'm sure it would've agreed. It would've had that time to respond had she not led with her right hand.

While government regs say a powered prosthetic cannot exceed 125% of human norm strength or conceal a weapon (oops for me...), it still neglects the fact that an intricately-detailed prosthetic forearm and hand, with corundum-gemmed knuckles, a kilo-and-a-half internal powerpack, and no padding pseudoflesh will land like a sledgehammer, accident or no.

It's hard to express your joy and delight in seeing someone for the first time in a cycle when they've just clipped off part of your jaw with a steel-shod uppercut as they initiate the greeting.

"Oh dahmn, a'm so clumse Hariq..." She yelped as she saw my eyes cross.

"Unghhh..." I emoted blearily, staggering back a step and debating the merits of going down for the count.

She tried her best to keep me from falling on my ass, which merely complicated matters, as I had already commited to going over like a cut log.

Thankfully, someone (Kage maybe) had the quick reactions to shove a chair under me, right as Elisabeth tried to grab my arm and hold me upright.

As I collapsed into the chair, Elisabeth once again forgot about the increased grip of her iron arm, and remained tethered as I folded into the chair. With a shriek and a grunt, she was pulled over on top of me.

Coming back to my senses as I hit, I had about a quarter second warning before a tall blonde barmaid landed in my lap. One helluva way to come back to reality.

Not missing a beat, though with more color in her face than a GREL and obviously embarrased as hell, Lizzie twisted around and completed her abortive hug and kiss in a most pleasant manner.

When she finally paused for breath I tried to manage a "Missed you too" and extricate myself before my dignity evaporated completely.

I have this thing about my dignity. As to say I like to keep it at all times, much as a cat does. Public embarrasment makes my dignity go away. I therefore attempt to avoid such things. Attempt.

Regardless, Wallace was back to glaring his perpetual Denouncing Glare, this time with Vesping joining in. However, the look of suprise on Temples' face was priceless, and Kenjis' perpetually stone visage was cracked by a wicked smirk as I floundered.

"Umm..." I started, then went charging into that place right beyond where I've lost all dignity.

If you're already over the line, might as well go for the distance...

Screw them , I thought, and accepted another kiss. Which was promptly interrupted by Spat trying to regain her perch.

Finding that impossible, she decided to lick me and Elisabeth as consolation.

Yelping and wincing as kitten claws punctured formalwear, I shifted Elisabeth off me and into what had been my seat in a single rolling move, passing the cat to Temple (whose eyes lit up as the cat started purring) and pushing in Elisabeths' chair like a gentleman as I grandly motioned the gawping throng of Talons to be seated.

"Laydes and shentlemenn, Today we have our famed qook Messir Hariq Qsyn presiding oper our kicchen, and todays specials are truvly speccial." I declared comically, waving and retracting my fan of menus. True cooks do not limit themselves to what the customer "thinks" they want.

Motioning to Xia to be seated as well, and pushing in her chair in the same gentlemanly fashion, I whispered a question into her ear and received a minute affirmitve nod in response.

I must've been grinning broadly at the good news, as Wallace started into Distainful Grimace mode. Why does everyone think such things when they see me smile around a pretty girl? And more importantly, why do the religious ones always think it first? He'd been looking at the friggin ashanti chick!

Bowing while my temple throbbed murder, I took my leave of them, keeping the fan of menus away from their greedly little hands as I dissapeared toward the kitchens posthaste.

Spat had been about to ambush the back of Wallaces' head...

I doubt many of you readers have ever been inside a big restaraunt kitchen before, but you've doubtless seen them in trideos. Basically, it's just like your kitchen at home, but about twelve times bigger, with every appliance quadruple sized and (if rumor be true) everything always turns out delicious.

The kitchen at the Snakepit is even better, in a homey way. We keep the cats onhand in the public rooms for ambiance and because everyone likes them, and we administer the kitchen the same way. While cats are not allowed inside, the general style of the kitchen remains the same as the rest of the establishment- open and friendly. We've a long bar where a determined customer can walk up and watch the food being cooked, and numerous ranges studding the dining room for finishing showpiece dishes.

Also, rather than antiseptic tile and stainless steel, the walls and floor are all wood, albeit varnished with a plastine sealant to prevent steam from warping the boards, and the high ceiling is festooned with hanging bundles of spices and smoked meats. Within this aromatic bower lies an enourmous stone hearth, about four cubic meters of brickwork and fire, upon which you can roast a cow, charbroil half a barnabus, or bake enough bread to feed a small peasant army. Flanking the gaping maw of the oven is a bank of wide countertops, coated with appliances like smaller stoves and mixers, and a huge pantry niche filled with a bank of spices of every description.

Throughout it all, cooks scream orders and dash about furiously, while the servers drift gracefully to and fro, weaving through the steam as they collect platefulls of the cullinary delights for delivery. Typically, we have three cooks and a pastry chef always on call, but one omnipresent person always stands out. Not only is he always somehow managing everything at once, but also cooking something himself. Henri Csaltos is the best damned chef I've ever met, and that's saying a lot. An expatriate Mekong, permanent one-sixth shareholder, and head cook at the Snakepit, Henri is like a classical hero, only wielding frying pan and spatula instead of sword and shield. When you enter his kitchen, prepare to be roared at, steamed, spattered with cooking oils, and otherwise recieve the same treatment as a good aged steak, albeit all by accident.

My entrance was no exception, though I had prepared myself by stripping off my good tunic before entering, replacing it with a cooking apron. (Yes, if you must know, it is one of those chintzy ones adorned with a cartoon picture of a FlammJaeger and the legend "Kiss The Cook - Or Else! ")

Proceeding deeper into the steamy and fragrant depths, sounds appropriate to an ancient battle with a dragon, even interspersed with roars, drifted to my ears. Taking form in the mists, I could see a giant flailing through the mists, the back of his shaved skull rising and falling as he literally hacked at a side of some unidentified animal, singing in some ancient dialect as he made coldcuts the hard way.

"Henri!" I shouted, repeating myself several times, barely making myself heard over his bull roar.

When he did hear me, he thankfully dispensed with a hug (he was wielding a cleaver!) and simply reached over his head, unhooking my favorite skillet and some herb bundles, which he passed on to me.

"How many?" He asked simply as he snared me a large slab of butter and a basic implement kit. In cooking, like surgery, nothing's quite as helpful as a satchel of prepacked equipment.

"Ten, counting me." I replied, cranking up the heat on one burner and splatting a goodly half-cup of the butter into the skillet. Following that, I added some onion, garlic, and jantha leaves, followed by some other spices. While it started hissing and blending, I returned my attention to Henri, who had rummaged through the cooler and found me a white-paper wrapped chunk of cow steak, as well as another frying pan and a smaller package containing frozen chicken, fish, mercy rice, various veggies, and cubes of farm-raised Crockamander in a pre-mixed proportion. I immediately dumped that into the smaller pan and added a block of cheese, stirring it as I added basil and cormoran berries.

"What you do to your head Kzyn?" He roared over the sizzling sauce, expertly slitting open the beef package with a a machete-sized cleaver.

Anticipating my next move, he saved me time by liberally coating the steaks with a half cup of the special spice mix from my kit and dropping them into the frying onion and butter.

"Elisabeth hugged me." I replied vaguely, but by his booming laughter, he'd seen. Now I'd never get my dignity to come back.

"Thanks..." I mumbled, snaring the emptied package and draining the juices into the pan as he added the breaded, spiced meat. They hit sizzling, and soon the smell of my cooking mingled with the million other swirling odors of the kitchen.

"So, are they the commandos from Westphalia, with you in charge?" Henri asked suddenly, making me nearly choke on air and causing a delicious golden-fried chicken finger to be hurled into the rafters with force born of complete shock and powered by an enourmous adrenaline rush.

"Henri, for your sake; you don't know anything, you don't say anything, and I sure as hell don't ." I rasped, immediately guessing he'd overheard something or everything from a loose-lipped customer.

"Of course, of course!" He relplied blandly, then elbowed me in the ribs and whispered: "Someone we both know told me, he was much impressed with your chicken when he last dined here, and decided to repay the favor by saying he's very impressed with you volunteering to go."

I almost choked on that. SIU brass might or might not care about me, but knowing one particular high up was paying specific attention was very unnerving. Even if he was happy about my actions.

Coming out of his whisper like a pro, Henri flipped his cleaver and caught it neatly, speaking at his normal volume as he announced:

"If you know some folks who are , you tell them to kick an earther in the ass for me, please. I fought the purples during the war, and we don't need them coming back to Terranova."

Trying to remain noncommittal, I merely nodded as the enormity and depth of what we were doing resurfaced.

Weakly, I muttered, "Pass some sopping bread, please..."

"Hey hey! I got food!" I announced, wielding a skillet in each hand and a tray of vegetable dishes resting across my forearms.

Immediately Xia and Elisabeth perked up, and, catching the cue, so did Vesping, Mallinaux, and Temple.

One of the cats jumped onto the table, but Elisabeth unconsciously scruffed it and plopped it back on the ground. Most guests don't mind the cats, but we try to keep them out of sight when we're serving people food. At least until we've hooked the customer and they don't mind anymore.

Meanwhile, Morgan and Wallace continued arguing vehemently over something, until Kenji awoke and resumed his function as buffer between the reactionaries.

"Smells 'licious Harik" Xia drooled, helping me unload my tray as I passed off a skillet to Temple, who just barely managed not to buckle under the weight and dump it in Morgans' lap.

"I must admit, that smells good." Wallace rumbled as I passed the other skillet his way.

Glowing with the joy only my simplest persona can feel, and which I rarely allow to surface, I gathered and distributed the remaining dishes from Henri and sat down to my meal.

"Wallace, you do the honors?" I asked when the food had been passed, and motioned Temple to nudge Morgan, who'd already started in on the food. Couldn't blame him, but if our beloved Boyden would like to consecrate my heathen cooking, S'be't .

"Why thank you co... Harik." Wallace replied in suprise, and started to say something.

However, Temple had botched her nudge, and Morgan began to choke.

"For chri.."

With the same perpetual lack of emotion, Kenji brought his palm down on our Intel Officers' back with a mighty slap, expelling the offending nugget across the table and into Vespings' lap.

I supressed a guffaw with my napkin.

As Juno came to the slow realization of what had just happened to her civvie suit, Kenji forcibly resumed his stolid immobility, and Morgan resumed breathing, albeit with a crimson face.

Xia snickered at him.

Vesping looked down at the ruins what must've been a fairly pricey off-white outfit. Her face changed shape in the most horrific manner conceivable as she surveyed the damage wrought by my Spark Chicken Goulash.

Two cats leapt for her, appearing suddenly from under the table and industriously disposing of the offending nugget. Then they popped up to either side of her plate, waiting expectantly as a plate of meat approached, two furry periscopes peering over the rim of the table.

Temple giggled.

Mallinaux unashamedly cracked up.

And then the whole table burst out grinning and laughing, except for Wallace, who put on a resigned expression and tried to sit down.

"Hey hey hey! You owe us a blessing, Norther! Prophet might not like me, but you're here to keep us on his good side!" I demanded, raising my waterglass and spearing him with my own patented glare. The Deer In The Headlights effect worked, and he stood and called down a mumbled blessing on our mixed company. Thankfully, he also was good about keeping the mission secret by simply using the phrase "sucess in our great endeavour". I wasn't sure that was a SRID two tables down, but...

Paranoia is only paranoia when they aren't out to get you, and SIU and SRID are completely different. Hell, one man isn't an organization anyway...

Following that, we proceeded to scarf. "Fried-Cow" steaks, kannach springer (ugh, but I make it palatable), my aforementioned Spark Chicken, linguini, pierogis, sapa-salads and fruit. Following that, we ate about half an almond-anise cake, a 20cm square pan of baklava, and around five liters of ice cream. Like the meat, it was also shipped in from my familys' cow-farm over in Aquitaine, leaving me reasonably sure it was free of northie mind-control drugs.

Finally, after gorging on the fruits of my creativity and the agreement we have with the local greengrocer, we ran out of food, gutroom, and willpower. Everyone was too far stuffed to even groan mercy except me and Temple.

Then, when we could hold no more and couldn't run, a special treat from Elisabeth.

Unfazed by our unanimous (that means the girls piggied too) gastatory excess, Elisabeth went running out into the back room, returning with a keg.

I know what comes from kegs.

I also know what comes from Elisabeth Kegs.

"You didn't." I declared incredulously.

She grinned at me and tapped it, expertly pouring off a pint mug of something viscous and golden.

"What is that?" Temple asked disgustedly, though it was probably more a function of her gorged stomach than anything wrong with Lisbeths latest batch.

"Nye Kultoorney, Skraeling ..." I muttered, taking the proferred mug and knocking back a gulp.

Lethal. For me, that is. Most people drink alcohol, though I never quite understood how feeling drunk can equate feeling good. However ... sugar apparently does all that and more for my metabolism, and this stuff would do in anyone, sugar fiend and alcoholic alike.

It was Mead. Brewed from sapa, honey, and with more than the occasional javaworm, it was the Drink of the Gods In Valhalla, the third or fourth oldest alcoholic beverage known to man, and absolutely delicious.

After that, I vaguely remember feeling warm, gorged, and happy. Therefore, it was quite unpleasant to wake up alone, cold, and back on base. Still, it had been a hell of a sendoff.

However, there was excitement in store. We were to begin Zero-G training immediately.

In afterthought, I was glad I and everyone in the squad had gorged that night, because nobody was keeping anything down for the next week.

To Be Continued...

Spark Chicken! Cook Authentic Snakepit Cuisine in your own home!

Recipe copyright TN1937 Harik Kzyn, Marabou SR. Copyright enforced by legal measures, but we have Gears to back us up too!

What you need:

Wash and dry meat thoroughly, then slice into strips approx 2cm wide, set aside.

Begin heating pan on medium high heat, adding approx 1/4 of your butter and all of the sapa syrup. Continue to add butter throughout the cooking process.

Combine spices and bread crumbs in bowl, mix thoroughly.

Thoroughly bread meat and place in frying pan, then add half of remaining spiced crumbs and allow to cook to golden brown on one side, checking regularly.

Flip meat and add in the remaining bread crumbs, and the fruit juice. Also add any remaining butter.

As the current side approaches half-done, add in the vegetables and cover for remainder of cooking time. Alternately, wait for the meat to finish cooking, then remove it and stirfry the vegetables in the flavored oil.

Feeds four suburbanites, two badlanders, or a GREL (Minerva class or smaller).

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APAGear II Archives Volume 3, Number 4 May, 2001