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Seeing Red
Part One


Ever since I was a little girl I heard the stories, you probably know them too. I vividly remember sitting on my father's lap as he told me about the great hero Red Eye, because that's what he is: a hero. As I grew older I asked myself "Who is Red Eye? What more is there to the man than just the legends?" and so that is what I set out to discover.

Luckily for me this legend came back from the dead, and I got the chance to talk to people who know him well, as well as a rare glimpse into old archival footage. Through my writing I hope to illuminate his life, to see the hero yes, but also the family man, the gourmet chef, and staunch defender of our moon. In short, I hope to help you see Red.

Unique Origins by Black Tiger

Present day

The librarian sat at a computer, Black Tiger hovering over her shoulder. "Everyone already knows about Red Eye's birth. I'm sure I've seen the doctor's report in here somewhere."

"I already saw the home movie. His daughter, Shade, kept it. How gross is that, watching your father being born?" Black Tiger wrinkled her nose. She wasn't entirely naive in the way that such things happened, the education system on the Dark Moon of Plundarr was sufficient for that, but the thought of watching something like that rubbed her as wrong, especially when you knew the people. She had, indeed, managed to watch the video and wasn't looking forward to going over it again before she wrote out the unique birth of her hero.

"It could be worse. You could be watching your own birth. Ah, here we are. I hope it helps," the librarian said, pulling up a file on the screen. Black Tiger thanked her and began to read. Shortly she would begin writing.

126 years ago

Karnin watched, hands trembling, as the doctors and nurses scurried about the room. Equipment was set up and his lovely wife wasn't looking quite so lovely now. Sweat marred her usually pretty face and her legs were splayed in a most undignified manner. And yet there was a tingle in the air, a magical feeling as the time for his son's birth came closer and closer. His hands could hardly keep the video camera steady while the head doctor moved into position.

The child would not be normal, he'd been told, a genetic defect had ruined his eyes and could pose problems down the road that no one could foresee. There were options, of course, infrared technology was a specialty on a moon that saw very little light. Specially designed electronic devices would be implanted, but that too came with a great risk.

The truth was, nothing of this magnitude had ever been encountered before. There were so many unknown variables involved that one couldn't hazard a guess on what the boy's future would be. It was entirely possible that the defect or the devices could kill him.

But all thoughts of doom and gloom were shattered by that single piercing cry. It was the sound of angels to Karnin's ears. For one glorious moment he felt like the happiest man on the moon. The doctors had finished extracting the squirming bundle from his mother's womb, cleaning it and wrapping it gently. The parents were finally getting a chance to meet their newborn son, and were given a few precious moments to welcome him into their family before he would be rushed off to be checked over. "He's beautiful," Nuizelle said, staring down through bleary eyes.

"He is. Our son," Karnin chuckled softly. The word 'son' felt unusual to his tongue, but it tasted wonderful. The child was bald and pale, with startling unformed lumps in his eye sockets. He'd been warned, but seeing it was another matter. "Hello Somrak, welcome to the Dark Moon."

The operation was a success, all things considered, and a week later little Somrak was brought home for a small celebration with a few family members. Birth rates were low on the Dark Moon, for no apparent reason, and so every child was welcomed heartily. But the uncertainty in his future caused more than a few people to stay away.

Somrak turned his head this way and that, the tiny mechanical devices allowing him to see normally, as well as the infrared spectrum, swivelled this way and that trying to soak in the new information. It was, in fact, one of the concerns that the doctors had expressed, that the child's brain could be overloaded and that they should stick with a single spectrum for the time being.

Everyone had questions, which they asked while cooing over the infant, asking how the new eyes worked and what the options were for the future. Karnin understood the fuss, but found himself tiring of answering the same questions over and over. His wife was still drained from the pregnancy, and all he wanted to do was cuddle up with his new family and get some sleep.

Years would pass. Karnin and Nuizelle would rear Somrak as best they could. Fear of the genetic defect that had rendered him blind prevented them from trying again, especially when Somrak's teeth failed to develop, only a hardened set of gums. They didn't want to take the chance of something even worse striking a second child. But Somrak would grow up to make them proud. He learned to cope with his deficiencies and rose above them, becoming the great hero we know him as today. It wasn't always easy, ask any parent and they'll tell you that, but despite the setbacks Karnin and Nuizelle would love Somrak forever.

Present day

"My education probably wasn't much different than yours," Red Eye said. He was, truthfully, a little embarrassed to be having all this fuss made over his life, but he wouldn't object to it. Black Tiger was visiting him on Third Earth and the two were currently seated in his bedroom drinking a thick syrupy tea made from local tree sap and leaves.

"That's okay," she replied. "Tell me about your name. Everything I've read says you were born Somrak, but no one calls you that."

"No. I haven't heard that name in a long time. School was difficult, intellectually I was near the top of my class, but socially I was lower than scum."

114 years ago

The day was turning out exactly as he'd expected. His class had wandered into the thick jungles that coated the surface of the moon for some wilderness training. In another four years he would be doing his obligatory patrols of these same jungles, searching for invaders and keeping the dangerous predators away from the cities. The patrols were an essential part of life on the moon, and one that every citizen had to take part in.

Somrak was looking forward to it. His classmates were being as cruel as ever, making fun of him and poking him when the teachers weren't looking. One day he would be out there in the wilderness, surrounded by people in whom he had to trust, and he would be able to vent his frustrations. "Hey red eyes! Think fast!" Somrak didn't turn, he just ducked as a dead rat was thrown in his direction. It was Joren, a tall boy who enjoyed making life miserable for him.

A quick look around indicated that their teacher was still preoccupied with another child and a first aid kit. Their lecture for the moment was on indigenous plants and one had stupidly touched a poisonous kind with their bare hand. Why couldn't Joren have been that boy? "What's the matter, red eyes, don't like my gift?"

Gift? His only gift was his ability to come up with stupid insults. It wasn't very creative of him to refer to him by the colour of his mechanical eyes. It would be like calling Joren 'blond hair' or something. Still, the taunting would only continue, and possibly escalate if Joren thought he could get away with it, until he responded. He picked up the rat, turned and regarded the bully. The infrared spectrum showed no fear in him, which meant that he was either confident in his ability to back up his words, or too stupid to know better.

"Was that a gift? I'm sorry," he said, slipping the rat into his mouth and crunching on it whole. "Thank you for the snack."

"That's gross. You're a sick man, red eyes." It seemed to work, as Joren turned to look for an easier target. He wasn't particularly proud of what he'd had to do, but he was learning the easiest way to defeat the bully was to do the unexpected. With the distraction taken care of, Somrak returned to examining the fauna, trying to recall what he'd read in his texts.

He was staring at a tiny white flower, edible, high in protein, but tasted awful, when he heard a sound he'd only heard in video footage. Instantly he scanned the area for the source of the sound, even as the teacher tried to corral the students. The thamram was a large predatory feline that usually kept away from civilisation, but it had been known to make exceptions when food was scarce. "Look out!" he shouted, spotting the beast moving swiftly through the foliage, brilliant yellows contrasting with the surrounding purples. He switched to regular vision automatically even as it leapt out, savagely pouncing on a young girl.

She screamed, a piercing sound, while the slavering creature snapped its jaws at her. He knew her well, one of the few classmates not to call him names, and death was a common enough occurrence on the Dark Moon, and so he felt spurred to action. Before the death blow came, Somrak's pistol was out and he'd managed to squeeze off a pair of shots to go along with the four that his teacher had fired. Training started coming back into the students, and they too drew their weapons to assist their classmate. In moments the thamram was dead and Somrak found himself helping to pull the carcass off the woman.

"I'm very impressed with you, Somrak," the teacher told him after an emergency team had arrived. The girl, Twyla, would live, though she would forever remember her brush with death just as she would the one man who hadn't panicked under the pressure. "You did well. Your marksmanship needs a little work, but when it's time to do your patrols, you'll serve the moon well."

"Thank you," he replied. He didn't think he'd done anything special, he'd just done what anyone would have done, the only difference was that he moved quicker.

"Yeah, you did pretty good, red eyes," Joren said, "how'd you draw your weapon so fast?"

Present day

"That's it? A bully's nickname sticks?" Black Tiger asked a little incredulously. It seemed too simple an answer, like there should have been a mythical artifact inlaid with ruby eyes that granted him supreme power, or something.

"That's all it is. Joren called me 'Red Eyes' for years, and when we happened to get assigned to the same patrol group the call sign stayed with me. Our class was divided in pairs among some of the veteran patrols. I still remember, shortly after my sixteenth birthday, meeting squad twelve."

110 years ago

They looked larger than life to his young eyes. A six person group who had been active for a long time. They'd lost one of their number a week or so ago and were looking to take on a full time replacement. If either trainee proved themselves worthy they might get chosen. That was just added pressure. This was squad twelve!

Somrak had done his research. This squad was one of the better ones. They weren't flashy, but they were efficient and he saw the beauty in that. He also saw the beauty in the team's leader; from her muscular legs to her short cropped hair. He'd always been fascinated by hair, resulting from the lack of hair on his own head, yet another blessing of his genetic defect. "Red Eye and Joren reporting for duty," he heard Joren announce, saluting.

"Red Eye?" Dawn asked, arching an eyebrow.

"Somrak, actually, but we all call him Red Eye on account of his red eyes."

Dawn nodded curtly. "We operate out of this location. We split the team in half, four out in the field, four in reserve. We've helped keep our sector secure for thirty years, don't screw that up. You can leave your things third door to the left and then come back out here. We haven't had a chance to clear Nightrunner's stuff out, so don't touch. One of you will work with me tomorrow, the other will go with the others in the field."

Somrak lifted his bags and walked steadily down the hall, even though his stomach was doing all sorts of tricks. Their basic education had taught them what to expect from the wilderness patrols, but seeing the equipment scattered across the control room, seeing the confidence exuded by Dawn and the others, he wished the walls could talk so they could tell him what they'd seen.

There was a different feeling entirely when they entered the dead man's room. There were a pair of beds in here, a desk and a set of bookshelves. Somrak walked over and examined the titles, a whole lot of scientific journals, from the looks of things. "Hey, check it out. This must've been Nightrunner," Joren said, holding up a picture. A grim faced man, stared back at them, streaks of black camouflage paint still staining his cheeks.

"Put that down. Remember what Dawn said?" Somrak snapped, a little harsher than maybe he'd intended. His parents had taught him to respect authority and his elders, and that's what he intended to do here.

"Yeah, I heard her. I call top bunk."

The rest of the day was spent being shown what the various pieces of equipment were for and going over the team's ground rules. Most of it seemed, to Somrak anyway, to be common sense things. Following orders, sticking together, keeping eyes open and the like. Dawn seemed particularly interested in Somrak's mechanical eyes, making sure that he could see normally and asking questions about their capabilities. She'd read the reports on them long before he'd set foot in their little compound, but clearly wanted firsthand knowledge and it was something he immediately respected in her.

As the morning turned into afternoon four of the squad members went out on patrol, leaving the new recruits at home to watch how things went. There were two communication stations, one for speaking to the squad and one for monitoring other frequencies. The latter was for a number of reasons, mostly if another squad needed assistance or if a civilian should report seeing something that needed their attention. Typically the other two members of the squad would be backups to the first two or be performing checks on the motorcycle like vehicles that the team used to get places in a hurry.

Somrak watched raptly as the duo worked. The patrol, from the sounds of it, was going smoothly. There were no recent signs of intruders, and only the briefest sightings of any animal larger that a rat. Nothing out of the ordinary, Dawn assured them. There was very little chatter, thankfully, and the team made good time. It was almost unfortunate that there wasn't any unusual activity, as he'd half hoped to see them in action, get a taste of what it was really like before he was dropped in the middle of it. Still, if it was an indication of what to expect then he could look forward to plenty of quiet days.

About a week later he would experience his first taste of action. While the Dark Moon of Plundarr was generally left alone by her neighbours, on account of its reputation for not allowing anyone to leave, the occasional foray was made by both the other moons and the Mutants themselves. A report had just come in indicating that a Mutant cruiser had been spotted hovering briefly over the outskirts of the city and that all squads were to immediately send units out to investigate. It was Somrak's turn to be outside so he suited up in the black uniforms that were specially designed to mask one's body temperature. The enemy was getting clever, and it was up to the Darkling scientists to make sure that they were even more clever.

"Ponacht will be in charge of this run," Dawn reminded them, taking a seat at one of the communications stations. It would be her voice they would hear while out there. "Stick to the grid and report anything even remotely suspicious."

"Shouldn't we leave the rookie behind?" Ponacht asked, adjusting the heavy rifle slung over his back. Over the last few days Somrak had found it hard to get a good reading on Dawn's second in command. He seemed to have a dislike for trainees, but he sensed that there was an underlying reason for it. Grief over losing Nightrunner, perhaps? Either way, Somrak knew enough not to get involved in a dispute between them.

"Nothing better than a Mutant invasion to test his mettle. Better to know now that he's not cut out for this than later." Dawn turned her focus to the entire team then. "A Mutant cruiser isn't likely to have sent down more than a dozen people. Engage them if you're sure you can handle them, otherwise wait for backup to arrive. Understood? Good, get going."

They stepped out of the small compound, located at the heart of their designated sector, and began walking through the dense foliage. "Spread out," Ponacht said, "fifty feet, standard search pattern."

Somrak obeyed, taking one of the middle slots. The suits they wore weren't perfect, if he looked carefully to either side he could barely make out a shimmer marking where the others were walking. Dawn's voice chimed over the headset indicating that there were still no reports of Mutant activity from any of the other channels. The jungle was teeming with life, but he still couldn't make out any signs of anything large enough to be a Mutant.

It bothered him. Mutants weren't known for being particularly bright, but surely their scientists must have come up with something to make them feel confident in sending a group in. Camouflage technology? A new weapon? Or had they in fact done anything at all? All were plausible options. Of course, if they did have new technology and the Darklings were able to find it, then they could turn it over to their own scientists for study.

He turned his head this way and that, trying to pierce the dark, listening for any unfamiliar sounds, and trying to detect the foul stench that typically clung to Mutants like a damp rag. Nothing out of the ordinary yet. He'd already been in these jungles a number of times and was starting to get used to the sights and smells. A bird, somewhere high up in the trees, chirped a pleasant song. The strange pyramid shaped plants that were purple and green in regular light seemed to grow everywhere in this region. Faintly he could smell the leavings of one of the many creatures that used the jungle as a home.

An hour of hard walking later and he saw it. A flicker of dark yellow that lasted for all of two seconds before reverting to a dull purple, which he reported immediately in a hushed tone, marking the spot. "Affirmative. Ponacht, get your group closer to the spot Red Eye found," Dawn said over the radio.

They moved, and Somrak was impressed with how the veterans seemed to make the progress look incidental. If he didn't know better, he would swear that they were only headed towards the mysterious blip by sheer co-incidence. The Mutants, assuming that's what it was, would never suspect a thing until it was too late, even if they had some means of detecting where the Darkling patrol was. He saw the flash again, whatever it was was definitely moving, and this time Starim saw it too. He picked up his speed, adjusting his angle.

"How many of them are there?" he asked himself quietly. Just because he could pick out one blip now and then didn't guarantee that there was only one Mutant roaming around. In fact, it was just as likely that one Mutant was wearing a defective suit or something. Now that they were definitely closer he could see the same faint blurring that the Darkling suits gave off. "Stolen suits?" he whispered.

"If they're stolen, we can beat them," Dawn replied. "Ponacht, use the flash bombs. Make sure you all turn off your infrareds."

Somrak obliged. He'd been through that before. Especially with his mechanical eyes it was dangerous. The light from the spherical projectiles would hurt anyone wearing such goggles. It wouldn't be much better for those with normal sight, but at least it wouldn't have as great an effect.

Darklings, by nature, weren't accustomed to great quantities of light. Their moon was usually plunged in darkness thanks to the great canopies of trees that blotted out the sun. But they were trained to adapt quickly to bright bursts, especially the patrols who used such weapons to their advantage.

"Ready in three, two one," Dawn counted down for them. Somrak looked away for a second as the brilliant light filled the jungle floor. Startled shouts erupted, and Somrak quickly looked with regular sight. A Vulture and a quartet of Monkians stood rubbing their eyes, even as the light began to fade again.

"Surrender or die, Mutants," Ponacht said sternly, as Somrak and the others moved in. With their regular night vision superior to that of the Mutants they could pick out their targets relatively easily. Somrak picked a brawny Simian who was reaching for something on his wrist.

"Caw! We choose flee," the Vulture said. Rifles fired even as the Mutants tried to activate their transporters. The Vulture and a Simian managed to hit theirs, though Somrak would put money on the Simian being dead on arrival, while the other three apes collapsed on the ground.

"Mission accomplished, Dawn, send a cleanup crew. We'll want to look in to where they got these outfits from, they look like they were adapted from some of ours."

"Copy that. Stay where you are. Teams are on the way."

Present day

"The Mutants had expected to fail," Stalker said. Being of higher rank than Red Eye, Black Tiger's father had access to some of the intelligence reports from the planet Plundarr. She sat with him in the kitchen of his home, as her Tigress mother brought them sandwiches. "The whole exercise, as it turned out, was to find out how our infrared technology worked. Each of the Mutants was wearing an electronic device that collected all kinds of data on the squad. I don't know how they found out that the typical squad carried four people, but they did. That's why five went down, in the hopes that at least one would return with serviceable data."

"I never would have thought that. Mutants aren't known for their brains," Black Tiger said, chewing thoughtfully. "But then, they were led by a Vulture, weren't they."

"Exactly. Our teams analysed the recording equipment, but there was nothing we didn't already have. A few expressed concern that the Mutants might learn something of value from it, but the attitudes of the era were that Mutants were dreadfully inferior to Lunataks. 'No Mutant has ever been a match for a Lunatak' as I've heard it said. We know a little better now, but that's small comfort."

"The thing is, from what Red Eye said, the excitement of the day didn't end there."

110 years ago

Fresh off the thrill of a successful hunt, proud to have been the one to pierce the Mutants disguise, Somrak returned to the compound. He had basked in the afterglow of all the praise from rest of the squad through the waiting and travelling, he'd even almost driven his motorcycle into a tree he was so distracted. Even grumpy surly Ponacht had managed to mutter a congratulations his way. Life was good.

When they got back Dawn gave him and the team the rest of the day off, sending them to the city for some celebratory drinks. She would hold the fort, and Joren volunteered to stick around in case anything cropped up, Dawn could handle field work on her own, and Joren could take the communications. It was a little unusual, given their growing friendship, but Somrak couldn't be mad at Joren, he was probably feeling a little jealous that it had been Somrak and not he who had been instrumental in the victory.

And so Somrak found himself at a little hole in the wall place that Starim claimed to frequent on occasion. Of the group, Somrak found he liked Starim the best. He was the newest addition and seemed to have fun now and then, which the others didn't. Ponacht especially. It was hard to fathom the stoic man even cracking a grin. The atmosphere was nice, a few dim lights ensconced along the walls, soft music, and a crowd of Darklings all seated around a number of tables.

They found a seat by the door and ordered some alcoholic drinks and the dinner special. Chunks of wild pig basted in a creamy white sauce. "You've got that look on your face," Starim said, watching Somrak eat.

"It's not bad," he lied. Even though he'd only been with the group for a week, he had developed a reputation for being a finicky eater. He loved eating, experimenting with flavours and textures. Somrak's parents had owned a restaurant, and his strangely developed mouth had given him a different perspective on food. Joren had, of course, proceeded to tell everyone about his eating habits from their time in school together.

"But?" Starim prodded.

By now the rest of the table was listening intently. The times that people let him mess with their foods the results were always very good or very bad. "Well, the meat's fine, though it could be cooked a little bit more, but the sauce could use some parsnips and maybe black water beans."

"Black water beans? Nah, this stuff is fine without that spicy kick. Parsnips aren't a bad idea though. You should write a cookbook one of these days, just get someone else to try the recipes first."

"How to combine your leftovers in one tasty meal," a young woman's voice said. Somrak turned and found Twyla standing behind him. The squad she'd been assigned to had just come through the door and were soon mingling with them. She looked great, she'd survived the encounter with the thamram quite nicely, with only a faint scar on her shoulder. "Still experimenting, I take it?"

"This is Twyla. We were classmates," Somrak said, suddenly remembering his manners. After the introductions were finished between the two squads he asked "What brings you here?"

"It's all over the news. Squad 12 stops invasion. Darkwin over there has run into Starim a bunch of times and figured we'd find you here," Twyla explained.

"He was right. Hey Darkwin, you ready to defend your drinking contest title?" Starim replied with a chuckle.

All things considered, Somrak decided he didn't like the feeling of being drunk. He'd consumed alcohol before, of course, but never in such quantities. Ponacht had been inclined to leave him slumped over the table, but Starim and the others had persuaded him otherwise. The only downside was he'd been unable to vomit on Ponacht.

He'd woken up the following morning in a strange bed, staring up at an unfamiliar bunk, and feeling as though there were a spaceship firing its engines in his head. His eyes had been on all night, they caused him some discomfort if on too long, but he was sure that most of it could be blamed on the alcohol. Deciding that it wasn't going to do him any good to stay in bed, whoever's bed this was, he sat up and took stock of where he was.

"At least I didn't wake up next to anyone," he said blearily, his mouth tasted like old socks. It was a nasty flavour that he had yet to find a use for. It was Starim's room, which didn't take away the question of what he was doing in there. Starim himself was fast asleep, snoring gently. The veteran had probably been carrying him and figured that Somrak's room was too far to bother with.

Slowly he made his way to his bedroom to get some clean clothes before hitting the shower. The door hissed open and immediately his senses were assaulted by an unfamiliar odour. Something wasn't right. He switched to infrared and was doubly surprised. There were two life readings in Joren's bed. Pieces of information clicked in far faster than he'd have liked. Dawn's lectures about the dangers of the life and how one should value the opportunities for friendship that came along. Joren's lack of desire to celebrate with him. The fact that Starim had taken him to his room instead. The lovers were blissfully unaware of his presence, so he grabbed a spare uniform and rushed to the showers.

He turned the shower on full blast and let the water cascade down him. The whole situation bothered him, not the fact that Joren and Dawn were sleeping together. They were both adults, they had the right to consent to any outside activity even if it did seem strange that they'd only known each other for a week. No, what bothered him was that a man that he'd called friend had decided that sex was more important than sharing in his triumph. That was why Joren had volunteered to stay behind, surely. Maybe Joren wasn't as good a friend as he thought he was. Maybe the old bullying Joren was still there. Somrak promised himself to talk to Joren when he woke up.

Ponacht was the only one up by the time Somrak made it to the kitchen for breakfast. He sat at the counter with a data pad in front of him, going over the local news. "You made the front page," Ponacht said, barely lifting his eyes. "'Mutant invaders stopped by local teen.' Doesn't make the rest of us sound very good."

"I wouldn't have been the hero if that Simian's suit didn't have a tear in it."

Now the elder Darkling put down the pad and looked at him. "That's not what you were saying last night." Sharp eyes roved over Somrak's features. "Ah, so you've been to your room then. Jealous of him? In this business, kid, let me tell you. Our life expectancies are short. The good ones survive, but out there is a wild animal with our name on it. We've learned that you take the opportunities for sex, no emotional attachment needed. Heck, I bet if you asked she'd bang you too. Dawn's fair like that."

Somrak's jaw dropped. "She would?" There was something in the prospect, but he shook his head vigorously. That wasn't what he was upset about. "I mean, no. The problem is Joren. How could a friend do that to me? He should have been out with us last night."

Ponacht snorted derisively. "Like I said, when opportunity knocks you answer, because it might not knock again before you kick the bucket. My betting? One of you and Joren won't be alive by the end of the year."

"What's going on here?" another Darkling, a woman named Narda asked, coming in and helping herself to the pot of coffee brewing by the stove. She was the team's best field medic, though they all had some basic skills. Such skills were vital when the nearest hospital might be miles away.

"Somrak here is preaching about loyalty and friendship because Joren chose Dawn over him."

"You're not gay, are you Red?" Narda asked, surprised.

"No, of course not." The words came out a little harsher than he'd have liked. It wasn't that there was anything wrong with people who were, it was that he couldn't even stomach the thought of himself and Joren in that kind of relationship, especially given how angry he was with his friend at the moment. "I just think his friendship with me should have meant more than a casual fling."

"And he doesn't notice the hypocrisy," Ponacht sighed, clearly giving up on the conversation and going back to the data pad.

Somrak looked from one Darkling to the other in confusion. "You don't remember last night? I think you spent half the night talking to what was her name again? Twyla? You tried to go back to their compound too when they left."

He did? He didn't remember that at all. Somrak remembered Twyla coming over to the table and catching up with her for a bit. Had it been that long a conversation? He flushed in embarrassment and he mumbled an apology.

"Don't worry about it. Even Ponacht was your age once. Tell you what, come down to my room tonight if you want to talk about it some more." And if he thought his cheeks had burned before, they burned brighter now.

Never turn down an opportunity, they all said. He supposed they were right, he'd always been curious, and now he had a chance to find out. Oh, he would still talk to Joren but then he would have a different talk with Narda.

Present day

"Red Eye told you about losing his virginity? I'm not sure if I feel comfortable with my daughter hearing that," Stalker said.

"Dad. I'm not much older than Red Eye was at that point," Black Tiger tried to explain, "And I went through the same program he did. I didn't try anything, but the opportunities were there."

"That doesn't make me feel more comfortable."

"Fine," she took a quick sip of tea. "To make you happy, he just told me about the offer. No details."

"That's better."

110 years ago

Both Somrak and Joren were left behind, at Ponacht's suggestion, during the day's patrol. Dawn took Narda, Starim and Gweyth with her out into the field, leaving Blacksun and Ponacht behind to handle the radios.

He found Joren working on one of the motorcycles as he entered the garage. "Well?" Somrak prompted, catching the other's attention. Joren wiped at his brow and looked inquisitively at him. "Was she worth it?"

"Oh hell yeah. You should've been... well, actually you shouldn't have been there. I didn't know sex could be that good. I mean, I banged two of the girls in our class but they were nothing like Dawn." Joren had missed the tone. It didn't surprise Somrak. He didn't like being subtle, but he'd felt a slightly more diplomatic approach had been called for, in honour of whatever existed of their friendship.

Walking over and pretending to examine the motorcycle himself, Somrak flicked speck of dirt off the mirror. He was grateful that he had no tear ducts, he knew that the betrayal was eating at him. Or would he be saying something different after being with Narda? Maybe he should wait until then for this conversation. No, if he put it off he might never get around to doing it. "So sleeping around was more important than sharing my moment?"

Joren laughed. He'd always found that laugh to be annoying and squashed the urge to belt him for it. "That's what this is about? You get a bump in the head or something out there? This life, it's all politics. You want the money and fame, you gotta do what you have to do. Squad 12 is a damned good group and they happen to have an opening. I intend to fill it, and what better way than by banging the one who makes the call. You? Sure, this was a moment of glory for you and some day you might be somebody important, I doubt it but you never know, but I'm doing what I have to do to be someone important myself. Maybe I'll get married, have kids, get moved to central command. If that means pissing you off, yeah it was worth it."

It was honesty. Brutal honesty, Joren's body temperature fluctuated within acceptable levels, and somehow that angered him even more. A tendril of something black and solid caught his wrist before he could take a swing. Somrak turned and saw Ponacht looming in the doorway and not looking pleased at all. The tendril was made of an inky substance that could be solidified at the wielder's whim. "That's enough, you two. Go to your room, Somrak. I'll let Dawn decide what to do about this when she gets back."

Somehow he'd expected that might happen. Ponacht and Dawn had discussed the situation and she had encouraged him to keep an eye out for trouble. As soon as Somrak had gone into the garage Ponacht had abandoned his post and watched through the walls with his infrared goggles. Joren must not have been wearing his, otherwise he would have seen Somrak becoming more and more agitated. Ponacht knew there would be violence if he didn't intervene, and it was a good thing he had. The penalty for brawling could be severe depending on the commander. Dawn could be strict, and she would doubtless have come down hard on Somrak.

Not that he particularly cared about the boy, but Joren was certainly asking to be belted based on what little he'd heard, and Somrak showed the more promise between the two. Assuming neither was gotten rid of there would be a need to change accommodations. Which meant that the vacant room next to his would be filled. Perhaps he would recommend it for Somrak.

Dawn didn't look happy in the least as he entered her office. Joren had been led by Ponacht into their mutual room and Somrak ordered to follow. She waited a long while before indicating that he could sit in the single chair opposite her desk. "I've heard Ponacht's report, I've talked to Joren, now I want to hear this idiocy from you."

Haltingly he spoke. He tried to explain the situation. In truth it felt awkward complaining to his commanding officer because she'd been sleeping with his best friend, but that was just the spark on the kindling of the feeling of being betrayed. What had fanned flames to a roaring inferno had been the smug attitude, the implication that Somrak was worthless and, perhaps, that he'd been merely using Dawn to further his own ends and that those ends might cost him his future. There were squads that were always looking to fill vacancies, squad 12 rarely was one of them.

"It's none of your business, but I'm going to tell you what I told Joren anyway. Last night was meaningless. I had a need and he filled it, that's it. If you think that's going to influence me in the slightest you're dead wrong. He's a good looking man, but in the end he was just the right man at the right time."

Somrak shifted in his chair. Her eyes never left his, gauging his reactions no doubt, weighing them against Joren's for the possible opening. "He is right about one thing though, you're no one important right now. You got lucky yesterday, and that's about half of what our job is about. The moon is big, and the patrols out there can only cover so much ground. Don't let it all go to your head or the next time you might get overconfident and be carried back here in a body bag. I've seen beginner's luck too many times to count, and I really hate contacting families afterwards to tell them that their kid got his fool head blown off. Now then, there's the question of how we're going to go from here."

Now he sat straight up. He didn't think she was going to have him relieved of duties, her tone didn't suggest that, but there were a number of other punishments she could mete out. "You're grounded for a month. No working in the field until we're confident you've cooled enough not to get yourself or anyone else killed. Of course, that means we're going to get a real good idea of what Joren can do out there."

It was a slap in the face, and his cheeks burned even though she hadn't raised her hand. A month would give Joren a huge advantage in the competition. "Good, you get it. This will test your resolve; you can either crumble and give up or push extra hard to impress. You'll be moving out of your room, there's a vacant one down the hall. Ponacht tells me you've got other accommodations for the night, so you can wait until tomorrow when Joren's out on patrol to move your belongings."

Now his cheeks burned for a different reason. It surprised him a little that the older gentleman would even discuss Narda's offer, but now it seemed he didn't have a choice in accepting it. "What about Joren, is he being punished?"

"For what? From what I can tell, all he did was insult you. In the grand scheme of things that's nothing. He's a got a month in the field to impress or screw up, if he does the latter then things may change. Until then, no. Is there anything else?"

The woman's tone was aggravating, but she was also his superior. With no other recourse Somrak shook his head and left to grab some dinner.

Present day

"My friendship with Joren never recovered," Red Eye settled back in his chair in thought. It was odd how they'd started as enemies, had a brief friendship, and ended as enemies again. "But I don't think either of us knew how far we'd drifted. About eight months later, our mandatory terms were coming to an end. Joren was still in the lead in the race between us. I was now going by my nickname permanently, when we got the call."

110 years ago

"Listen up everyone. Things just got interesting. Princess Luna's going to be visiting the capital today on a surprise visit. The government has asked the local squads to double their efforts on the outskirts of the city, and are pulling others in to be help. The last thing we want is the heir to the throne being killed off on our watch, so get geared up and ready to go," Dawn said.

The capital! Red Eye could scarcely believe his ears. He'd always wanted to travel there. It was said that there was a proper space port there and everything. A place of such decadence that they had cleared trees out of the way to provide natural lighting for their great city.

The city nearby built directly in the jungle, incorporating the massive trees into homes and businesses. There was a single landing pad built high in the tops and supported by a network of girders and beams. He'd never been up there, but he'd heard the view was spectacular.

And the princess too! Relations between the moons weren't the greatest, but there was a certain respect afforded to the queen of the empire. She was said to have been chosen by the gods themselves, and even the Darklings own goddess Tesudas backed her. That's what the priests said, anyway. He'd seen pictures of both Queen Cresca and princess Luna in the news reports, but had never imagined he would see either one of them in person.

Like the rest of the squad he was eager for the royal visit and went to his quarters to change. He picked his cleanest suit and dressed quickly, checking his weapons meticulously to make sure they were in working order. Sidewinder, rifle, pacifier, flash bombs, and more, each taking a designated spot on his person. He was amazed at how much this compound felt like home now, though given that it was the only physical structure apart from the very rare foray into the city that he spent time in, it probably shouldn't have been terribly surprising.

It seemed so long ago that he'd come here, and soon they would be coming to an end. Joren would surely get the vacant slot and he would have to go find another squad or look for other employment. His parents might hire him on at the restaurant, he supposed.

Shrugging, and doing a last minute check that he had everything he needed, Red Eye joined the others in the hovercraft that would be their transportation to the city. He sat next to Narda, and smiled at her. She'd been his first lover, but had never invited him back. But they'd maintained friendship regardless. "That's everybody," Dawn announced, as she and Blacksun clambered in, the latter taking the driver's seat. And then they were off to the capital.

The capital was everything he had imagined and then some. Though Darklings preferred solitude and night, here in the capital it was clear that attitudes were changing. Red Eye even caught a glimpse of a Graviton walking through the open aired city. All his training had not prepared him for the great ball of fire hanging in the sky, casting searing golden light on the city.

He must have been gawking out the window, because Narda poked him in the ribs. Dawn was talking. "We've been assigned to monitor the perimeter of the banquet hall where Princess Luna will be eating dinner with the city elders. You see anyone that looks even remotely suspicious, report it. The local forces will take care of the doors. We'll split in to pairs. Ponacht and Red Eye, Blacksun and Starim, Gweyth and Narda, myself and Joren. North, east, south and west respectively." The squad leaders with the trainees; it made sense but Red Eye always felt a twinge of anger whenever Joren and Dawn worked together. It wasn't rational. Apart from that one month stretch they'd probably spent equal time with the older woman. He wondered, inappropriately, whether the two had ever slept together again.

Putting all other thoughts aside, knowing that none of them would help him in his defence of the future queen of the Lunatak empire, Red Eye followed Ponacht to the northern side of the banquet hall. There was a small park here, consisting mostly of a wide open grassy area and a handful of young trees. On either side of the park there were some stores and, he knew, residences further along. It was a large stretch of land for two people to cover, but they were well trained.

Their uniforms and armaments would mark them for who they were immediately, so there was little point in trying to blend in with the people casually walking around. Many, it seemed, were unaware that they were to be visited by royalty. "Look alive," a man's voice said over their radio. Obviously central command was taking control of the mission, he thought, as the man continued. "Princess Luna's ship has finished docking, they'll be making progress towards the hall shortly coming from the north."

"North?" he almost said aloud. They'd be passing his station. That made him and Ponacht even more vital to the protection of the princess. An assassin waiting along the route would have opportunities out in the open.

Red Eye switched to infrared vision and scanned the trees in the park, double checking that no one was hiding in them, especially the ones closest to the main roadway. His infrared didn't work nearly as well in these open aired conditions, or maybe it was just that he was more accustomed to the darkness of the moon. Ponacht was watching the people on the streets, looking for anything that might be a concealed weapon. He didn't have the advantage of switching effortlessly between normal vision and infrared, so he left some of that to Red Eye.

Nothing yet. He switched his focus briefly to the buildings along the other side of the road. A skilled marksman could be hidden up there, he figured. Still nothing, but that was no guarantee. "Royal progress turning on Gateway," the headset chirped, updating him. That was the main street, if he remembered correctly from the briefing in the hovercraft, and they would be within sight in about twenty minutes.

Deep down he could feel the tension mounting. All those months ago Dawn had been right; he'd gotten lucky, he'd thought that it was going to be nothing but moments of glory in the field, but the truth was that it was a hell of a lot more dangerous than he'd ever imagined. A second encounter with a thamram had taken fourteen stitches to mend and he counted himself lucky for every one of them. Only Gweyth's sharpshooting had spared him from a visit to the morgue. If he screwed up here and the princess died it could lead to war.

Fighting between the moons was common as rain, but something like that could unify the other four moons against the Dark Moon, leading to the deaths of many, the raping of resources and... he shook his head again. He had a duty to perform and worrying wouldn't help him any.

Once again he caught sight of the Graviton, waddling down the street. An assassin from another moon might make sense, especially if the blame were to be pinned on the wrong moon. He scanned the man, at least he thought it was a man, for hidden weapons and didn't find any that tripped his infrared. The man's stress levels were slightly elevated, but that might be for any number of easily explained reasons. He would keep an eye on him regardless, just in case.

"Here she comes," Ponacht spoke into the radio. "We have visual confirmation."

Red Eye swept the region again. The Graviton was wandering the wrong direction, others were not. A few people were standing on both sides of the road now, peering down trying to catch a glimpse of the princess. Someone threw a hat in the air, causing Red Eye to gasp. He nearly drew his rifle to shoot it down when sense overtook him.

He could make out the motorcade now, a heavily armoured car led by a dozen footmen. The people were cheering for her now, optimistic that her rule would bring even more glory to the Lunatak empire. And then they were passing his position, his heart leapt to his throat, eyeing the crowd fervently, not wanting to be held accountable if something were to happen. And then he saw her. The camera footage had not done her justice. She was squat, bearing the family curse wrought on Luna's grandmother by some sorceress on a planet he'd never heard of. Luna was also hideous in appearance, slathering on makeup to try and hide her imperfections. It didn't work. A paper bag over her head would be more effective, he thought with a dry chuckle.

Present day.

"Are you sure you want me to print that?" Black Tiger asked sceptically.

"The book isn't about her. She won't bother to read it, heh, heh, heh," Red Eye replied.

110 years ago

Snapping his eyes from the grotesque creature, Red Eye resumed his duties, watching for any signs of potential attack. He was starting to feel optimistic that everything would go smoothly when there was a sound of gunshots. "We're under fire. Western section of the banquet hall. I count six trying to get to the service entrance," Dawn said over the radio.

"Get the princess inside, squads fifteen and three, additional support for the princess," central command ordered, though the local forces had already come to the conclusion that getting Luna to safety was a priority.

"Rest of squad 12 get over here," Dawn snapped. Six on two weren't good odds, and Red Eye knew it. He trusted that Dawn was easily a match for any one that might be attacking, but Joren was still a trainee, while his combat skills were improving he still made mistakes. He ran, pushing his way through panicked citizens, certain that a pair of heavily armed men running through them wasn't making them feel better. The sound of energy weapons grew louder as he and Ponacht rounded the bend. Dawn and Joren were pinned down behind a car while five Darklings returned fire from behind another.

A sixth was sniping from a rooftop. "I'll take the sniper," Red Eye said to Ponacht, pointing. The veteran nodded, moving quickly to take cover behind another car. It gave him a better angle at the five attackers, but soon found that the sniper still had a clear line of sight on him.

The building in question was an apartment of some kind. Infrared allowed him to keep track of where he needed to be, though he kept to normal vision to help him read the signs inside better. He found a stairwell and hoped it led to the roof. Tesudas was smiling on him, it seemed, as he found himself at the doorway to the roof in only a few minutes. He switched to infrared to confirm the marksman's location. He was a little to Red Eye's left. The door would shield him from view when it opened and would make for adequate cover. Depending on how good he was, Red Eye knew he might only get one shot, so it would have to count.

Red Eye drew his sidewinder first. A clean shot with it would imprison the sniper in fire, buying him time to get in close and subdue him with the pacifier, a club like weapon that delivered a powerful electrical charge.

The door creaked alarmingly when it opened, drawing the sniper's attention to his visitor. Sidewinder and rifle fired simultaneously, a bullet piercing his chest even as the other man was engulfed in flame, it wouldn't kill and wasn't really fire, but it rendered a man inert for a time. Staggering, blood beginning to spill from the wound, Red Eye tried to walk over to his prisoner. "Sniper subdued. I need a doctor," he gasped.

Only his training and willpower got him within striking distance. "Idiot, your princess is a dead woman," the sniper said, struggling against the fire. "We were just the diversion." Red Eye managed to strike at him with the pacifier before collapsing on the ground beside him.

"You're a lucky man." It was Starim speaking as Red Eye opened his eyes. He was in a hospital bed, he could hear the monitors and machines chirping away, could feel the fluid line in his arm. "Your chest took a nasty hit, and you should probably be dead, but Tesudas must like you."

"I don't feel very lucky right now," Red Eye replied, sitting up. His chest was bandaged tightly, and he wondered what the wound looked like. There would be a scar, he supposed. "What happened?"

"With the sniper out of the fight we had an easy time of getting the others. What we didn't know is that there was a second group in hiding inside the banquet hall. They wanted us to rush the princess inside so that they could get her in their real assassin's line of sight. Twyla, I know you remember her, saw him before he could get a shot away and saved Luna's life."

Red Eye nodded. "The sniper said that they were the distraction. I guess he wasn't lying."

"Yeah, well, Luna wants to see you and Twyla personally. You've got invitations to the Royal Moon as soon as you can, the rest of us just got a private thanks at the banquet hall. Like I said, the goddess must happy with you, lucky bastard. A few days with your girlfriend at the royal palace?" Starim grinned. There was no malice, jealousy perhaps, but no malice.

"She's not my girlfriend," he said automatically. They were friends who had seen each other all of twice in the last eight months. It hardly counted as dating in his books.

"Whatever you say. Rest up for now. Dawn's asked me to brief you on royal protocols so you don't make a complete idiot of yourself over there. See you later."

Present day

Shade sighed. It had been so long since she'd heard her father and mother speak of that long trip to the Royal Moon. She was almost afraid she would leave out details. Still, Black Tiger wanted to hear as much of Twyla's version as possible and her father was admittedly a little biassed in his stories. "If I recall, they boarded their ship without any difficulty..." she began.

110 years ago

Red Eye had never so much been to a space port let alone been on a ship itself, so the entire experience was exciting. His chest had healed sufficiently, and the doctors had cleared him to make the voyage. The fact that he was going to a whole new moon to see the princess, someone who might be a useful person to know down the line, only served to raise his excitement level to heights he'd never experienced before.

And he was going to share the experience with Twyla. Starim's teasing aside, the thought of something between the two of them had crossed his mind. She was reasonably attractive, she seemed to enjoy his company, and they had a solid friendship to form the basis of a relationship. Whether she would be interested in pursuing something long term remained to be seen, but they would be stuck sharing a room for a few days.

The ship itself was a small sleek Darkling shuttle, painted black to blend in better with the night sky, though there were lights illuminating the side for peacetime travel. A pilot's section was separated from the rear section by a solid wall of steel with a separate door. Twyla arrived late, and only allowed her giddy expression to slip for an instant as she regarded him. "I'm fine. The doctors say I'll be better than ever," he assured her.

"That's a relief. I wouldn't want you to die before you get a chance to meet her trollness." She winked conspiratorially. "I already met her after the action, but she wants to publicly thank me, or something."

"You deserve it. You saved her life, I just saved my squad."

"We were both doing our duty. It's good that someone out there acknowledges the work that we do. It's a thankless job."

"The squad is thankful, central command seems happy too. That's all that matters to me." The shuttle began to move and lifted off the ground. It was breathtaking, watching the canopy of trees and city scape melt away into the distance as they rose through the atmosphere. He didn't have words to describe what he was seeing, the splendour of the cosmos unfolded around him, the sun shining off to the side, the Dark moon turning slowly.

Twyla matched his gasp, and clutched his hand as the pilot angled the shuttle slightly, causing the massive planet Plundarr to fill up the view. He'd seen pictures of it, knew that it was bigger than the moons, but to see it like this made it feel more real, brought it into focus just how much it dwarfed the moons. If the Mutants could ever unite themselves and launched an invasion of the Lunar empire they would win hands down.

"I wouldn't share this moment with anyone else," he murmured, managing to tear his eyes from the window momentarily. She didn't respond, so he wasn't sure if she'd heard, but then she didn't withdraw her hand either. He chose to leave it for the time being and try and bring it up later. They spent the rest of the trip in silence, taking in the sights.

The Royal Moon, largest of the five moons of Plundarr, lay below. There were many legends concerning the formation of the moons, with the most popular being that the other four had somehow been split off from the Royal, how else to explain the variety of terrain on the main moon? The pilot, Red Eye suspected, was taking something of a scenic route as he managed to angle the small shuttle so that they could see some of the landmarks they'd heard about in the news, including the large palace.

All too soon their flight was over and the shuttle was landing at the space port. The rear hatch opened and they found themselves face to face with a Royal Lunatak in a gaudy silver and purple outfit. "Greetings, Red Eye and Twyla of the Dark Moon. I am Selendil, representative of the queen. I have been assigned to escort you to your lodgings. This way please," he gestured, a rather exaggerated motion in Red Eye's opinion, but then Starim had warned him that there were many on the moon who seemed to enjoy flaunting formalities. It was, he'd said, becoming almost farcical among the upper class. Starim stressed that laughing at them might be taken poorly.

He led them from the shuttle to a waiting car, and from there delighted in pointing out historical locales. Which statue was dedicated to which hero from which war and which buildings Queen Cresca had been present at during their openings. Selendil seemed especially proud of a bench that had been named after his father for service to the throne.

The journey finally came to a halt at a large building adjacent the palace. Official visitors, he explained as he gestured them to follow, were housed in a single building for security reasons. There was a tunnel that led from one to the other, protecting them from any harm the public might wish to cause them. Of course, he assured them, no one would want to harm two of princess Luna's heroes here on the Royal Moon.

A pair of lumbering brutes carried their bags. "Guardians," Selendil explained. "Luna has one named Amok that she's rather fond of. Long lived, fiercely loyal, incredibly strong, agile, and immune to any psionic attacks. We're looking at ways to increase their intelligence without taking anything else away."

Red Eye had heard of this. Long ago the Psions were the unofficial rulers of the moons, everyone knew it but none could prove it. That was until a pair of genetic engineers lucked on a species that was resistant to such powers. They could even pick up on when other people were being influenced by psionic attacks. Once the crown got their hands on these creatures, part of the Guardian program as it became called, Psion influence dwindled.

"Ah. Here we are. The itinerary calls for you to meet Princess Luna privately after lunch tomorrow, followed by a public dinner with both the princess and the rest of the royal family. I expect you're hungry and tired after your long flight, so I will leave you to it. There's a direct line to the front desk, our kitchen is open all night, and I'm available if you have any needs that our dedicated staff can not fulfill," Selendil said, brandishing a keycard from his pocket and handing it to Twyla.

"Thank you. You've been very helpful," Twyla said.

Once their bags were dropped off and the door was closed again the Darklings erupted in fits of laughter. "Very helpful if I have trouble sleeping tonight. Did he ever shut up?" Twyla asked.

"I don't know, I'm wondering what furniture will be dedicated to you if his father got a bench," Red Eye replied. Despite the formalities, he had to admit that was a nice room. Far larger than his accommodations back at the compound. Walking around he judged it to be triple the size of his room. A full bathroom, a small living room area, a kitchen, and a spacious bedroom with, he noted with a twinge of regret, two beds.

The furnishings were all appropriately sized for Darklings, making him suspect that the staff at the hotel must have different rooms for the various races. A bed designed to comfortably fit a Psion would be far too large for a Royal. And no chair, other than one specially designed for it, would do for a rotund Graviton. This room was definitely designed with them in mind. Heavy curtains that covered the windows would blot out all the natural light, creating an environment more like home. There were even some native flowers kept in the bedroom to provide a homey smell. They'd done their work well in the effort to make their clientele comfortable.

The first order of business was inspecting the menu. To no surprise the food was organized by moon, with plenty of native dishes. Brandwurt meat pies, stuffed dremmin, and all kinds of pastries. Since the royal government was paying the bill they settled on food they never would have been able to afford on their limited budgets. The cooks did their best, but there was something missing, it just didn't taste quite like either expected it should.

Finally they settled on the couch, stuffed, and turned on the local news. Twyla reached over and supplied a bottle of wine, Graviton made as they were well known as the best purveyors of alcoholic beverages. It was strong and sweet, and they sipped their glasses in silence for a long time before Twyla set hers on the floor. "Did you mean it?"

Red Eye looked sharply at her. The news was talking about a daring daylight robbery that had been thwarted, so he wasn't sure what she was talking about. "Mean what?"

"Earlier, in the shuttle, when you said you wouldn't share this with anyone else. Did you mean it?" His words came back, faintly he imagined that he could still feel her hand nestled in his.

"I did. We've been friends a long time and I would be interested in pursuing a relationship." Instinctively he switched to infrared, hoping to confirm what he thought. Indeed her body temperature was higher as blood coursed rapidly through her system, and not just from the wine he suspected.

"I thought you'd never ask." She moved closer, shifting her lithe body on to his lap and pressing her lips tightly against his. He moaned at the boldness, the feel of her tongue slipping into his mouth, her hard back beneath his fingers. A yearning he didn't realize he'd possessed came loose like floodwaters through a broken dam.

Effortlessly he lifted her up and carried her into the bedroom, roughly shoving the beds together. Wanting to enjoy this moment he turned his eyes back to normal vision, though there was something erotic about seeing her obvious arousal even through her clothes. He ached to finish the act and stripped quickly. "It's so big," Twyla gasped, watching wide-eyed as his...

Present day

"Shade!" Black Tiger gasped. She was no stranger to the concept of sex, but to hear someone talking like that about their parents was shocking. She tried to pretend that her parents were virgins, it made life easier for her.

To her credit the older woman had the decency to look ashamed. "Sorry. My mother was strange when it came to sex education. Five years later they would have a bundle of joy they named Shade. But this time around they got lucky in more ways than one. Anyway, the next morning..."

110 years ago

Having untangled from both sheets and one another, Red Eye and Twyla dressed simply in their uniforms. Jet black body suits with white markings that denoted squad number and rank. They'd come armed with their sidewinders too, but left these behind at the hotel knowing that they would be confiscated for the royal meeting. They ate breakfast in silence, letting the events of the previous night soak in.

Selendil came promptly at one o'clock, knocking sharply on their door. He wore a different gaudy outfit today, this one gold with purple trim. There were tiny silver crescent moons embroidered on the trim, making it look even more hideous. Red Eye wondered how he was going to avoid staring at the thing all day without laughing at its pretentiousness. "Oh good, you're ready. Princess Luna doesn't like to be kept waiting. She's in her study at the moment, if you'll follow me."

His training had ensured that they would be ready. Red Eye wasn't sure how Twyla's had gone, but Dawn drilled home the need for efficiency and didn't tolerate tardiness. One dragged themselves out of bed for briefing regardless of how one felt. Dawn was sympathetic to illness and injury, but had wicked punishments if the 'illness' was self inflicted. Red Eye saw Starim suffer for a night of hard drinking. He hadn't gone on patrol, of course, but he'd spent the day clearing away the thorny bushes that were encroaching on one side of the compound.

They were escorted back through the hotel and down through a tunnel. Selendil explained that it was a bit of a shortcut today as Queen Cresca was allowing people into the throne room to plead their cases. She liked to do it at least once a week to create the impression that she cared what the people thought. Selendil didn't phrase it that way, but Red Eye suspected it was the case. The tunnel emerged in a heavily guarded room just behind the throne room, presumably so that the royal family could use it in case of emergency. Two of the soldiers, both from the Royal Moon, followed them through a twisting set of halls, past ornate pictures of past rulers and famous battles.

There was a painting of the previous queen, also named Luna, fighting Mumm-Rana hanging outside the study. It was quite well done and Red Eye could see that she must have had some beauty before Mumm-Rana had struck her down. He also wondered whether the beard and moustache had been on the original sorceress.

Selendil rapped on the door. There was a sound of movement within, and finally the door was opened by a hulking brute. Red Eye hadn't seen Amok in the carriage, but assumed this must be him. He made him feel small, and Red Eye made a note not to anger the great beast. "You've done your duty, wait outside," Luna called. Selendil bowed, his forehead coming close to the floor and stood at attention beside the doorway.

"Come," Amok said, backing up. Once they were in he closed the door and took his position near his master. The study was a small room with bookshelves and file cabinets. The throne room was the seat of power for the Lunar empire, but this room was where the formalities of power were conducted. There was an unoccupied desk along one wall and a couch beside it where Luna was seated.

She wore an elegant purple dress. It was actually quite lovely, even if the diminutive creature wearing it looked out of place in it. If Red Eye's impression of the woman, seen briefly through the window of her carriage, had been negative it didn't improve seeing her up close. She was tiny, her legs were almost useless from what he'd heard, and her head was a size too large for her frame. "What idiot insists on knocking on the door to a study?" Luna grumbled.

It took a little effort not to cringe at the sound. Her voice was grating, even if he agreed with her sentiment. That was something he could appreciate in the woman, if it was an indicator of her personality. "I think his name was Selendil," Twyla offered.

"Hmph. He only has the job because his father was a general at the battle of something or other. Twits like him will be out of a job when I take the throne." She was bating them, seeing if they would say anything against her mother. Whether it was looking for traitors or potential allies, Red Eye couldn't quite tell. He hoped that Twyla had caught on too.

"Even bootlickers have uses," he replied evenly.

"I suppose so, not that my boots get very dirty. So, you're the one who nearly got killed trying to take on a sniper. Even caught the spy for me," Luna turned her full attention on Red Eye. He nodded. "Good. Our interrogators are doing their work on him now. We'll either find everything we need or he'll die an excruciating death. And if he co-operates he'll still die, just a little quicker." She grinned at the prospect. One did not try and assassinate her and live to tell the tale, apparently.

"I was just doing my duty, your majesty," he said, meaning it.

"It's just Luna, I can't stand the titles, and I'm glad to hear it. My mother and I are of the opinion that loyalty is to be rewarded. The two of you were keys to protecting me against those assassins. Name your price, and don't give me the usual garbage about my safety and happiness being reward enough. I have the bootlicker, as you called him, out there if I want that."

Red Eye laughed, but kept it short. A royal favour was no small thing, and a number of things jumped to his mind. He could probably get the spot on squad 12 this way, but Dawn would resent that, it wouldn't be a posting he'd earned but had been given. Twyla surprised him by answering first, though it was her request that surprised him more. "My mandatory term as a squad member is almost up, your maj... Luna, and I'm looking to my future. I've been thinking that I would like to open a restaurant in the city of Nasalgiv, with a house nearby, but I'm a little short on funds."

"Money? Money is easy. And you?"

The request blew him away. He couldn't help but picture himself sharing that life with Twyla, sharing a love for one another and a chance to experiment with his cooking. It was like she'd asked for his dream. He could still do his squad work too. He nearly asked Luna to marry them then and there, he was pretty sure she had the authority to do so. "The local hospital in Nasalgiv has done so much for me over the years, replacing my eyes among other things, but the local mayor is talking about cutbacks to their funding..."

"And some pressuring from the Royal Moon might help? Oh I love those conversations. I can be very persuasive," she grinned wickedly, eliciting a chuckle from her equally persuasive Guardian. "Selendil!" The door opened instantly, and the Royal stood at attention. "Take these two wherever they want in the city. Just make sure you're back in time for dinner or my mother will be very angry."

"Your wish is my command, my queen. Right this way."

As they left Red Eye was certain he'd heard Luna turn to Amok and say "I was hoping one of them would ask me to have him throttled." But when he looked back she was reading a book instead.

Selendil proudly showed off his city, even though doing so was keeping him from his 'vital' duties with the queen. In truth it was a lovely city, though Red Eye and Twyla had very little to compare it to. Nasalgiv was so different, built within trees and letting nature dictate to some degree where the roads were. The Royal capital was another story. Lunis was all about grids and order, with towers and large buildings whose purpose neither could guess at.

There was some plant life here and there, mostly the odd tree planted at the side of a road, though many of the residential buildings had small gardens. They didn't have a destination in mind, they merely asked to see the city. If Selendil hadn't been around, Red Eye might have asked more about Twyla's dream restaurant, had she said it knowing that it was one of his passions as well? How prominently did he feature in that future? Or would he. They were still young, almost seventeen years old. Was it too soon to be thinking of the future? How was he to know that this was 'the woman' for him?

Turning his attention momentarily from the future he tried to concentrate on the present by making polite small talk with their host. If he noticed Red Eye's preoccupation he didn't let it show and happily took him down a side street where there were some fabulous gardens.

They were returned to their hotel room to freshen up and relax for a half hour before the dinner. Twyla rummaged around in her bag for the black dress she had purchased for such occasions, while Red Eye made sure that his uniform looked crisp and neat for their visit. She, of course, had had more time to prepare while he was busy convalescing in the hospital. Twyla also looked gorgeous. If their host wasn't waiting outside he might have been tempted to make love to her then and there.

His thoughts must have been transparent, as she kissed him full on the lips. "Later," she whispered, slipping away before he could break protocol, and opened the door.

As before Selendil led them through the tunnel, though this time there were fewer twists in the halls before they arrived at the royal banquet hall. A room that probably held about three hundred people was arranged with tables and bustling with activity. Servers ran about, making sure that glasses were filled with all sorts of liquors, double checking the place settings, and ushers were guiding people to their seats. Selendil left them in the care of one of these before moving to his assigned seat.

The two Darklings were led, as they expected, to the head table and seated near the centre. Only the queen, king and Luna would have places of greater honour. The room's occupants were mostly Royals, though there were a small assortment of Icewalkers, Psions, and Gravitons about. A trio of Darklings that neither Red Eye nor Twyla knew were given seats nearby, though not close enough to speak with them.

When it appeared as though everyone else had arrived, the large doors at the far end of the hall opened, admitting Cresca and her consort Orias, followed immediately by Luna astride Amok. It appeared as though Cresca had not been struck quite as harshly by the sorceress' curse as she stood a little taller than her daughter, though both were dwarfed by the king. Red Eye wondered how Cresca had survived bearing her daughter with such a tiny frame. The only possibility was that the doctors had worked very hard on keeping mother and child alive.

Cresca raised her arms in the air, calling for silence, and spoke loudly. "Ladies and gentlemen, you have been invited here to help honour two heroes from the Dark Moon. As most of you know, while visiting their moon, my daughter and your future queen was ruthlessly attacked by unknown forces. It was only through the efforts of these two, and many loyal citizens like them, that this cowardly attack was thwarted. On behalf of the empire, you have my gratitude and I present you with these medals as a sign of our appreciation."

A young man emerged from a doorway, and presented them each with a silver crescent shaped medallion emblazoned with the word 'bravery'. "Your majesty, I speak for the people of the Dark Moon when I accept this token of your esteem. It is the duty and honour of all loyal citizens to do what they can to ensure the continued survival of the throne, long live her queen," Twyla said.

Starim had advised that he let Twyla do the bulk of the talking. She had greater confidence and tended to speak more clearly. However, he felt it was important that he acknowledge the thanks himself. "May the perpetrators of this act learn the true meaning of justice."

The crowd cheered and Cresca favoured them with a wide smile. "That is exactly how I feel about it too. An enemy of the throne is an enemy of the empire, and I feel proud to see so many loyal citizens here tonight. Perhaps we will get a public execution when the traitors behind this assassination attempt are revealed. On with the feast!"

Food came out then, slabs of meat, plates of vegetables and fruits, breads and cheeses. Red Eye had never seen so much food in one place before. Instantly he began to determine which combinations would go well together and tried not to try anything that might be interpreted as 'weird' by any of the other guests. "What motivated you to go after the sniper on your own like that?" Orias asked, sitting to Red Eye's immediate right. While Cresca was the true ruler of the empire, Orias stood second in line to the throne. Most people only saw the lengthy line of Lunar queens and assumed that males could not inherit the throne but this was not the case.

"I didn't stop and think about it, your majesty," Red Eye replied. Just because Luna didn't like the formalities didn't mean the rest of the royal family felt the same way. "My team was in danger and I saw a route to help them."

"You didn't think? I see many people here who don't think, and none of them would have done what you did. Perhaps we put too much faith in the Icewalkers as warriors, maybe we need to employ more Darklings in our army."

Red Eye snorted, even as he dipped his slice of bread in a dollop of mustard and some kind of fruit preserve. The Icewalkers were renowned as the best warriors in a strict one on one encounter. Their ferocity, it was said, often allowed them to be the better in two on one encounters. Red Eye didn't believe a word of it. He'd seen Dawn in combat and would match her favourably to anyone that the Icewalkers might put forth. "They have their uses," he finally conceded. He hated playing the role of diplomat, but there was too much on the line. There were too many ears listening to his every word, including people who would no doubt try and spin what he said to their purposes.

The rest of the dinner went much the same way, with small talk and a seemingly endless stream of foods being provided. He found himself most comfortable when talking about less political topics with Orias and with Cresca. The queen took an interest in why he was mixing a little wine in with his gravy, which allowed him to comment on how the combination of the flavours worked favourably on his palate, and soon had her trying the same. This led to a fascinating discourse on food and recipes and a halfhearted offer to work in her kitchens should he ever decide on a career change.

By the time Twyla and Red Eye got back to their room they were both more than a little tipsy and very full. They collapsed on the beds and contented themselves with holding one another's hand until their meal had digested a bit more. "That went well," he said, turning his head slightly.

"You saw the cameras? We'll be on the news back home for sure," she replied. "I hope our squads approve."

"My radio hasn't gone off yet, so Dawn can't have objected too much," he smiled his toothless grin. She looked so beautiful he could hardly believe that he was here with her, that she had no other men in her life. It seemed impossible, and yet there it was. His eyes travelled over her perfect body, as much as that dress allowed. The smooth skin of her neck, the faint scar from so many years ago barely visible on the shoulder, the gentle swell of her chest, the flat stomach and those muscled legs. He couldn't imagine a more beautiful woman.

"Red Eye," his eyes snapped back to her face. She was watching him intently, her lower lip trembling just a little. "Marry me."

It felt like being hit in the chest, a second bullet piercing his skin. Marriage? Had she really offered him that? It was so sudden, but it was what he wanted. Was it too soon? He was only sixteen, almost seventeen, after all. And yet... "When opportunity knocks you answer, because it might not knock again." Ponacht had said that to him, and he was right. Squad work was dangerous work, either one of them could be killed at any time, leaving the other to ask 'what if?' He knew it and so did she.

She was also waiting expectantly, tears starting to form in those beautiful green eyes as she thought she was being rejected. He brought his mouth close to hers and whispered "of course I will. Together forever."

Present day

"The week would only get better. Hero, husband and, when we got back, official squad member," Red Eye said. It had been the happiest period of his life. The birth of his daughter came close, but that had led to darker moments. "Joren saw the writing on the wall. He knew that there was no way he would beat me for the slot in squad 12, so he resigned and took up with another squad. Two months later, Twyla and I were married and she was opening her restaurant. Dawn gave her blessing, provided that I remained dedicated to the team. Two days a week I spent with Twyla, the rest with the squad. She didn't like it, but our love was strong. I still remember when she came to the compound four years later and announced that she was pregnant."

Black Tiger smiled, imagining the scene. The child, of course, was Shade who would one day join squad 12 herself and work alongside her father until he received a promotion to central command. Familial relationships within the squads were rare but did happen. She remembered her own time doing squad work, having to prove that she was more than just her high-ranking father's daughter.

"Having Shade made her the happiest she'd ever been. It was like having a piece of me at home at all times. It also hurt our relationship, in the end, I think. We married too young, and I was too focussed on my career, I see that now. But hindsight is worthless, isn't it."

On to Seeing Red - part two
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