Tale of Fortune, originally published in spring of 2020, is a time-hopping prequel to Soldier of Fortune, and offers no spoilers.
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Gideon entered the mess a few minutes later than his usual, but as he strode up to the chow line, he smiled brightly at Mama, who was doling out the rations this morning.
Undaunted by her answering scowl, he collected his tray, which he was grateful to see included a cup of tea alongside the usual water and food rations, and sidled over to join the table where Doc, Nyal, Kneecaps, and Pavel were already seated.
“—has to be goat,” Pavel said, facing off with Kneecaps Mololo.
“It’s no such thing,” Kneecaps replied, waving her spoon in Pavel’s face.
Since Kneecaps had gotten her nickname for being notoriously short, and therefore inclined to target her enemy’s knees, and Pavel came in full Pavel-size, the confrontation came off looking like a gnat threatening a mammoth.
“You say I am wrong?” Pavel asked, his muddy brown eyes narrowing.
“Morning,” Gideon said, drawing both Pavel and Kneecaps from their argument before asking, “Has anyone seen Renny yet?”
“I try never to see Renny,” Kneecaps groused into her kibble.
“Haven’t seen him,” Nyal said with a shrug.
“Why?” Doc asked, with noticeable suspicion.
“No reason,” Gideon said, sliding into the space between Nyal and Pavel. “So, what are we arguing about?” he asked, while slipping a small stack of spent matches in Nyal’s direction.
“Oh, thanks,” Nyal said, sliding the matches—which Gideon knew he was using to build the Nike clock tower—into his pocket. “We’re trying to guess which protein was used into today’s rations,” he said, in answer to Gideon’s question. “It’s different from the usual factory chicken.”
“I am saying it is goat,” Pavel said.
“And I’m telling you it’s out and out soy,” Kneecaps countered.
“What’s your take?” Gideon asked Nyal.
“I was thinking almond paste,” Nyal said.
“Almond is too smogging pricey,” Kneecaps told him.
Gideon looked at Doc.
“I have no hive in this meadow,” the medic said.
“It’s soy,” Kneecaps insisted.
“You try,” Nyal said to Gideon.
“Okay,” Gideon agreed, then dug in with his spoon to take a bite of the disputed kibble. He held the freeze-dried pellets on his tongue for a moment, savoring the nutty essence as they softened.
“Well?” Kneecaps pressed.
Gideon held up a “just a second” finger, closed his eyes, chewed and, at last, swallowed. He opened his eyes, saw the others all staring at him. “It’s not vat-grown goat,” he said.
“Told you!” Kneecaps said.
“It’s not soy or almond, either,” Gideon cautioned, tapping his spoon on the side of his bowl. “It’s cricket.”
“No way,” Kneecaps said, then tasted another spoonful and frowned. “Huh,” she said.
Pavel was also chewing, his face scrunched in what Gideon took to be a thoughtful expression.
“How can you tell?” Nyal asked, poking at the remains of his own breakfast.
“Some of my missions strayed pretty far from the usual supply lines, so we had to forage, or starve,” Gideon told him. “One of my company had a dab hand with toasted crickets,” he added, once again thinking of Hamish Costanza who, besides being a connoisseur of bad music, could also cook anything you put in front of him.
Wonder what he’s up to these days? he wondered to himself.
Hopefully not eating dehydrated cricket, his self responded.
Accepting this was not a fruitful route of inquiry, Gideon dug into his kibble and listened as the chatter moved from the breakfast menu to the panto Lonnie meant to put on that evening, if his cast wasn’t too knackered from a day in the veins.
He was about halfway through the bowl, and Nyal was just finishing his review of Lonnie’s last directorial effort, when Renny finally appeared.
To Gideon’s eye, the Adidan appeared agitated, and his dark eyes flashed murderously as they aimed in his direction.
In response, Gideon smiled, and raised his spoon in a toast before turning back to his meal.
He was just taking a slow, appreciative sip of his tea when Renny slid into the spot to Doc’s left.
“Doc,” Renny said, then looked across the table. “Gideon. You look—rested.”
“Renny,” Gideon set his mug down. “You look like you’ve seen a viper.”
As the antagonists’ eyes locked, Kneecaps rolled her own before picking up her tray and making for the dish-washing line.
“Funny you should mention,” Renny said, ignoring Kneecap’s abrupt departure. “Oddest thing, but when I woke up this morning, there was a viper draped over the foot of my cot.”
“First crickets, now snakes.” Pavel took his tray and departed for less graphic waters.
“Keepers!” Nyal said, while Doc let out a long-suffering sigh.
“A viper?” Gideon asked. “You mean, like the one with the white scales, and the hood that does this?” He put his hands to either side of his head and exploded them out.
“The very same,” Renny said.
“Wow.” Gideon shook his head. “You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Very lucky,” Renny agreed, “as the viper turned out to be dead.”
“Eww,” was Nyal’s pronouncement.
Gideon leaned on his elbows and peered at Renny. “So, you’re saying a desert viper came slithering into your cell and just up and kicked it on your cot?”
“I suspect its neck was broken,” Renny said. “Before or after its head was smashed. It’s hard to say, really.”
“Ack,” Nyal said, then looked at Doc, who’d started to cough. “You okay, Doc?”
“Wrong pipe,” Doc croaked, rising from the table with his tray. “I’ll just go find some water.”
Gideon turned his attention back to Renny. “Maybe it was trying to slither up the wall and just…dropped on its head?”
“From the looks of the thing, it would have had to have dropped a few dozen times,” Renny said.
“Huh.” Gideon thought. “Maybe it slithered up the wall and fell a few dozen times.”
Renny’s eyes narrowed. “And why would a viper do such a stupid thing?”
Gideon’s lip curled. “Maybe it’s a really stupid viper who never learns from its mistakes.”
“You know, I don’t think snakes actually have necks,” Nyal observed.
“Excuse me?” Renny turned to the young man.
“You said its neck was broken, but I don’t think they have necks, as such. I mean, aren’t they all neck?”
Now Gideon turned to see Nyal sketching a long, sinuous shape with his spoon. “And I don’t think they have bones, really. It’s more like cartilage.” Then Nyal lowered the spoon and looked from Gideon to Renny and back to Gideon. “You know what?” he said, shoving up from the table, “I think Doc needs—I mean, I think I should go check on Doc.”
“Good idea,” Gideon agreed, but Nyal was already halfway to the table where Doc had settled after his strategic retreat.
Gideon turned his attention back to Renny.
“How did you get a dead viper into my cell before the morning bell?” Renny asked.
“Friends in high places,” Gideon said, thinking of CO Kamal, who’d been on night watch, then he focused on Renny. “How did you get a live viper into my cell, after lights out?”
“Friends in low places,” Renny replied, glancing towards the door of the mess, where CO Kozinski leaned against the wall, eying the inmates with a bored expression.
“That is low,” Gideon agreed, then leaned in even closer as Renny took a sip of tea. “How about we try this… you tell me why you hate me so I can apologize and we can both move on?”
“Do you know what’s funny about that?” Renny asked, setting down his mug and picking up his spoon. “What’s funny about that is how you believe any apology would ever be enough.”
Apropos of nothing, this was one of my favorite scenes to write. No idea if that translated to the reader, but the way Remy and Gideon's verbal fencing just flowed onto the page was a joyful experience. Most scenes don't form so easily, so when it happens, I get to take a day off from the imposter syndrome that dogs most creative's heels. On those days, there is celebration, and sometimes baked goods.
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