The Longest Shard, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers.
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[Here Be Spoilers-if you haven't read Soldier of Fortune, and don't like spoilers, this is where I recommend going back and reading Soldier of Fortune first]
“I don’t get it,” Renny said as Gideon finished the tale.
“Don’t get what?”
“Why you’re here.”
Gideon stared at the other man. “I just told you.”
“No, you didn’t.”
“Yes, I did.”
“You said you read an article in a newspaper.”
“Yes.” Gideon nodded.
“About a dead soldier.”
“You never said who died!”
“Oh.” Gideon thought back, realized Renny had the right of it. “It was Hamish.”
“Hamish Costanza… one of my officers.” He angled his head in Renny’s direction. “You might remember him from the night we stole the Bounty? He was singing that really annoying song you used to whistle—oh,” he said, blinking as it struck. “Is that why you were whistling it all the time?”
“I can’t believe it took you this long to put that together,” Renny said, his voice arid as the ground on which they sat.
Gideon couldn’t either, but then, he’d never liked the song.
“So Hamish was a member of your company?” Renny asked.
“One of the six who survived Nasa,” Gideon confirmed.
“And now he’s dead?”
“Cut down by a Midasian sword near the Asgard border. He was covering the retreat of his fellow sappers,” Gideon said. “They made it. He didn’t.”
For a moment all was quiet, but for a quick rustle of motion from the other side of the boulder.
“So?” Renny asked.
Gideon glanced his way. “So what?”
“So, one of your old company died in battle. It’s a war. It happens. Why would his death send you off in search of your own?”
“Because he’s the reason I’m here!” Gideon’s throat was too abused to manage a shout, but it was enough to elicit a hiss from somewhere behind his boulder.
Renny thought about that. “I thought you were here because you committed treason.”
“I confessed to committing treason,” Gideon replied. “On the grounds Hamish and the rest of the company wouldn’t be put in front of a firing squad.”
“So you were all traitors?”
“None of us were traitors,” Gideon told him. “I was framed by a corrupt, Earth-bound general.”
“How melodramatic,” Renny judged. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Gideon sank back against the rock. “He said something at the end, but… it didn’t make any sense, so I still don’t know.”
“And meanwhile, you took the fall to protect your underlings. How idiotically noble.”
“I suppose you’d have let them die.”
“Goes without saying.” Renny shrugged. “So, to sum up, you made a bad deal to protect Hamish and the rest of your motley crew. Hamish then smogged the deal by dying to save his new company—obviously bad decisions roll downhill—and because of that, you’ve decided to chuck it all and die a slow, horrible, meaningless death.”
“Better than living a long, sunsburned, pointless life,” Gideon said bitterly. “Isn’t that why you left?”
“Yes, but I’m me, and you’re you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“It means all I had was hate, while you are the living, breathing—for now, at any rate—epitome of Johnny on the Spot.”
“I don’t know what that means either,” Gideon told him.
Renny sighed. “It’s an Earth thing. It means the person who’s always there when trouble is brewing, but more, the one who will step between that trouble and whoever it’s meant for.”
“Possibly because he lives with the delusion that his actions make a difference?”
“Johnny sounds like an idiot,” Gideon decided.
Gideon replied with a sneer.
“And now I’m expected to believe that you, unlike poor Johnny, are no longer living under the same delusion?”
“Believe what you want,” Gideon said. “Because now I’ve done what you asked… and asked, and asked… and told you why I’m out here, I’ll be moving along now. Alone.”
And the sooner the better, as the suns had sunk far enough that Tyche was halfway below the horizon. Soon, Nemesis would follow, and hard on their heels would come the moons, and the cold of the night.
Perfect weather for a body wanting to put as much distance between himself and salvation as possible.
With that intent, he put a hand down to shove himself to his feet—and immediately snatched it back with a curse.
“What is it?” Renny leaned over the skeleton.
“You’re still here?”
“Obviously. Is it a scorpion?” Renny asked. “An adder? Ooh, maybe it’s a tarantula.”
“It’s not a tarantula, it’s a cut.” Gideon held up his hand to show the dark red line welling along the calloused palm.
“A ghost can dream,” Renny sighed.
“We don’t believe in ghosts,” Gideon reminded him, his gaze dipping to the ground where he spied, not the jagged edge of bone or rock that he’d expected, but a slender, oily seam of black peeking through the sand next to the tooth-marked tibia.
“What is it?” Renny asked.
Rather than answer, Gideon carefully brushed the drifted sand away to reveal a gleaming—and all too familiar—length of shard.
“Huh,” Renny said. “So that’s where that went.”
“This is… you?” Gideon asked.
“Apparently?” Renny said, pursing his lips as he studied the pathetic remains.
“How can you not know?” Gideon asked, peering at the pale figure.
“I’ve never seen me from this particular view,” Renny pointed out dryly, then grimaced. “I don’t seem to have aged well. Careful with that,” he added as Gideon drew the warm length of shard from its burial ground.
Gideon raised the slick black dagger, mindful of the edge as the rags Renny had used for a grip disintegrated at his touch. He watched them fall, shreds and patches of bleached gray, drifting like ash to the desert floor.
He looked at Renny. “Did you use it?”
“Why?” Renny asked back. “Do you want to quit? Ah, but I forget,” Renny continued before Gideon could find a response. “You already have. It’s just a matter of your body catching up with the idea. And it will, eventually,” he promised as Gideon held up the shard, now gleaming wetly red in the light of the setting suns. “But until it does, there’s a long, cold, thirsty night to get through, followed by another long, sunsburned, thirsty day before you’ll be allowed to leave the field of battle.”
“But you stopped here,” Gideon said.
“Perhaps I did,” Renny said. “But I was always one for taking the easy way out, wasn’t I?” He straightened from his crouch and stared down while Gideon continued to look at the inky dagger. “Is that what you want?” he asked. “To take the easy way?”
Gideon continued to stare at the shard, thinking of that night ahead, and the day after, then frowned as the rustles he’d heard earlier resolved into a spatter of earth, and a too-familiar hissing.
“Well?” Renny asked as Gideon rolled to his knees to look around. “What are you waiting for?”
“Quiet,” Gideon ordered, tilting his head to listen.
“Rude,” Renny commented, but sprang back when Gideon forced himself to his feet. “Wait,” he waved his hands as Gideon started to walk away from the pile of bones. “Where are you going?”
“I want to see what’s making that noise.”
“What noise?” Renny, predictably, followed Gideon around the pile of rocks that had sheltered his remains, and halted, as Gideon did, on spying the source of the wind-like whispers.
Here, in a hollowed-out nest, amidst the ruin of what had been a clutch of eggs, a single draco hatchling was crouched. Wings not-yet-dry flapped at the ghostly shape of the viper Gideon guessed was responsible for the destruction of the rest of the eggs.
Gideon felt a small tickle under his heart at the sight of the tiny draconette—it was, at best, half the size of his own hand—flapping and snapping at the viper’s weaving head.
Even as he internally cheered for the little guy, the viper hissed and recoiled, its hood flaring.
Gideon’s hand tightened around the shard.
“You have got to be joking,” Renny’s hiss echoed the viper’s. “You’re not really thinking of getting in the middle of this?”
“Shut up, Renny,” Gideon said, moving around the last, low humps of rock.
“Fine.” Renny’s voice was a shrug. “Leap into the fray like always. But, and also like always, your actions won’t make any difference.”
“Why not?” Gideon asked, despite himself.
“A new-hatched draconette won’t last the night without its mother,” Renny said, pointing to a motionless hump that, when Gideon looked closer, proved to be the body of a fully grown draco.
Gideon felt a twist in his chest as Renny’s truth landed.
Sure, he could save the fledgling life now, but only in favor of a longer, slower, death.
Not much of a victory.
But even as he began to turn away, the viper uncoiled and sprang forward, only to strike a bit of shell, because the draconette had also jumped, just high enough to avoid becoming viper chow, while emitting a high-pitched keen that Gideon thought was meant to be intimidating.
As the tiny reptile flapped its wings in an approximation of a landing, Gideon let out a guttural, “Smog it.”
“You’ll only live to regret it,” Renny promised.
“You had your chance,” Gideon snarled, before leaping in to join the fight.
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