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]
Day 1561 - 1562
Exhaustion, thirst, and heatstroke made for a sketchy leap, and a worse landing, but even while he landed hard on the left knee, Gideon drove the shard deep into the viper’s bloated, immobile middle.
That’s what you get for gorging, Gideon thought as the snake began to lash wildly on either side of the weapon.
At his left, the draconette hop-fluttered closer, hissing its own anger at the viper.
“You tell him,” Gideon said, falling back on his heels.
“Mind the snake,” Renny said.
“Wha—Ow!” Gideon flicked his right hand, but the viper, not yet aware of its demise, hung on.
With a few of his drill sergeant’s favorite curses, he opted to pound the remaining vestiges of life out of the stubborn reptile with a handy rock.
“That’s the third viper you’ve killed,” Renny observed. “The Keepers are going to put a warrant out.”
“Go away, Renny.”
“I wish I could.”
When the snake finally ceased twitching, Gideon withdrew the shard pinning it to the ground and, with a grimace, used it to slice the bite open, allowing the venom to bleed out.
At his side, the draconette fluttered and let out a worried-sounding croon.
“It’s okay,” Gideon told him. He glanced at the dead mama draco, and considered the lack of numbness in his wounded hand. “I don’t think it had too much venom left.”
In response, the draconette climbed onto Gideon’s leg, where it reared on its hind legs and let out a piteous cry.
“Uh-oh. I think he’s hungry. Are you hungry?”
The draco’s cry redoubled.
“I’ll take that as a yes.” Gideon paused, thought. “What do little dracos eat?”
“How would I know?” Renny asked when Gideon looked at him.
“Useful as ever,” Gideon complained, and turned to the tiny creature. “So, what do you want for breakfast? Wait,” he said, suddenly inspired. “How about some fresh desert viper?”
“Eww,” Renny said.
“Think of it as poetic justice,” Gideon told him, coaxing the fledgling into the palm of his uninjured hand and scootching over to the deceased snake. “There you go,” he said, holding the baby up to the front half of the corpse.
The draconette chirped, very like a bird, and crawled from Gideon’s hand to perch on the remains.
As Gideon watched, he poked at the scales with his pointed muzzle—very beak-like, now Gideon got a close look—then turned its eyes to Gideon and chirped again.
Then it cried again.
Which was when it hit Gideon how very much like a bird the dracos were, and that a mama draco probably fed her brood in the same way a mama bird did.
“Oh, boy,” he muttered, his gorge rising even as he reclaimed the shard he’d let fall while cleaning out the bite.
“Never, have I ever, been so happy to be dead,” Renny said as Gideon made the first cut.
Gideon said nothing—mostly because if he spoke he might start dry heaving—and did the needful.
He tried, and almost succeeded, in convincing himself it wasn’t too different from the time he and Dani had gone to a restaurant in the Ford city of Epsilon that featured a series of uncooked dishes.
He even, once the draco had inhaled the offerings Gideon left, forced himself to swallow a few bites of the inadvertent dinner himself.
“Well, now you’ve done it,” Renny said as the draco crawled back onto Gideon’s leg.
“Done what?” Gideon stroked a gentle finger down the scaled back, noting the warmth. Not cool like a reptile at all.
“Saved yet another small, unregarded life. Worse, you’ve committed to keeping it alive.”
Gideon’s eyes rose to find Renny lounging on the other side of the viper’s remains. By now the suns were truly set and Renny, like the rest of the desert, had become a pale rendition of himself.
“I guess I have,” Gideon admitted, looking down at the tiny beast, watching the first of its lids dip.
“But will it be enough?” Renny asked.
Gideon looked up. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean… Colonel Gideon Quinn, commander of the Dirty Dozen. The man who stole the Bounty, and the Midasian cannon blueprints. You’re the soldier who convinced the Deltan Seventeenth Mech Brigade to attack their own allies! What sort of satisfaction can you hope to find in a lifetime spent stepping between vipers and dracos, villainous guards and inmates, villainous inmates and guards, Pavel and… everyone?”
“That’s not what it’s about,” Gideon said, surprising himself by the sudden realization. “That’s never what it was about.”
“Let’s suppose I believe that,” Renny said after a beat. “What happens when there’s another Hamish? Or another Cassandra? Because there will always be another loss.”
Gideon remained silent for a moment, then glanced down at the sleeping draco. “I guess I’ll just have to make sure there are more wins.”
“And there’s that ridiculous optimism I always despised.”
Gideon’s lips quirked, then he turned to the east where moons were rising, washing the desert in waves of silver and telling him he had a good twelve to thirteen hours of night left.
He could probably make it in nine.
“As fun as this has been, it’s time for me to go,” he said aloud.
When he heard no answer, he looked up, then all around, but nowhere did he see a hint of snarky hallucination.
“Okay?” he said, frowning at the empty space, then looked at the curled-up draco, its tail twitching lightly near its nose. “Okay,” he said again. “I guess it’s just you and me.”
By the time the moons were well risen, Gideon, dangling a viper tail in one hand, was retracing his steps in the direction of Morton.
The little guy had woken from his nap, and now perched on Gideon’s shoulder, one taloned paw resting behind his ear.
The moons had climbed high enough that, if Gideon looked back, he might have seen their light reflecting from the shard Gideon had planted atop the mound of sand he’d piled over Renny’s bones.
But he didn’t look back.
Back, he’d discovered, didn’t tell the whole story.
Instead he fixed his attention on his path, and the people waiting at the other end.
He even allowed himself to think of Dani, and how he never wanted her to learn he’d taken the long walk.
He never wanted her to think he’d taken the easy way.
“And who knows,” he said aloud as tiny talons pricked through his shirt, “we could still see her again. Someday. Somehow.”
The draco’s tail twitched, and it trilled in what sounded like agreement.
Gideon’s lips tugged in a smile. A real smile. “I guess we should come up with a name for you,” he said to his scaled companion. “Any ideas?”
In response, the draconette let out a ululating croon and, possibly because he was thinking of Dani, the sound put Gideon in mind of her favorite classical artist.
“Elvis it is,” he said, and continued to retrace the shadowy path he’d first taken on the long walk from despair.
* * *
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