SC's Musings Upon The Sierra
It had been a long and arduous day. Joe had drawn the dawn guard duty, awakening quickly with a gentle prod from the tabby cat at 1200 UTC. Aramis had been asleep before Joe had built up the fire and assumed his duty station at the mouth of the cave. The sun would rise in a little more than an hour.
His first hour on duty had been quiet enough. Early morning on the desert was always the quietest part of the day, and the coolest, too. It wasn't cold enough to see your breath, but the temperature was probably in the low forties. Joe pulled the fabric cloak about his shoulders a bit tighter against the slight chill and mentally cursed the Rules Of Engagement that forbade he and his crew to wear more modern clothing. He missed his leather drover and denims.
There was no moon. Yet even with her absence, there was enough starlight to see by. The enormous granite mountains towered above them to the west, a massive barrier separating them from the verdant valley the maps claimed existed on the other side. The snow blanketing the steep slopes almost seemed to glow, providing stark contrast to the dark, rocky slopes below. Up there, two miles above their cave, wind whipped snow off the crest of the tallest peak into a small plume, trailing away along the crest to the north. Yet there was little sound, certainly nothing to belie the wind that was playing at altitude.
The desert valley stretched away from the opening of their cave towards a huge dry lake, the nearest shore of which was about a mile away. Dry and remote, the valley was not desolate. Various cacti, sage, and yucca covered the valley floor, interspersed with the occasional juniper tree. All this looked to Joe's eyes as a dark, even carpet beneath the starshine, across which nothing moved. The nocturnal non-sentients had given up the hunt for the night, and since the Sander's departure there had not been much in the way of fur-kind occupying the valley.
Joe glanced into the night sky as he rustled quietly in a pack at the mouth of the cave. Up there… he thought. Lord, I miss it.
As his watch wore on, as he assembled the tools required for his task, the horizon to the east began to fade from black to a deep purple, to a faded blue. Thin, wispy clouds, way up in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, took on gray overtones against the brightening sky. It was coming. The temperature began to drop noticeably. He would be here soon.
As their cave faced west Joe saw none of this, but instinct told him it was time. He cocked an ear towards the interior of the cave. The steady, even breathing of three felines and a canid told him that all of his companions were sleeping well. Good. They had earned a rest.
The old cast-iron pot began to emit low bubbling sounds after it had been in the corner of the fire for a few minutes. At almost this exact same time a gentle breeze sprang up out of the northwest as the cold air from the snow pack to the west began to sink into the valley in advance of the dawn. Joe shifted his position near the fire a bit to keep comfortably close while still being able to watch the desert beyond. Night vision was critical on guard duty, and he was careful not to diminish his by sitting square to the fire and staring at it.
She had joined him shortly afterwards. He had just poured himself a cup of what passed for coffee on this world when there was a gentle stirring from within the cave. He had looked up, half expecting to see the familiar form of the snow leopard / tiger hybrid that was their leader emerge from the darker depths of the cave. He was not disappointed, however, when the slim, enchanting form of the Siamese approached the small fire.
She smiled in greeting as she seated herself next to him at the fire ring, wrapping her fluffy tail about herself in the process.
Without being asked he found and filled a second tin cup, holding the cup in his paw in such a way that the handle was pointing towards her when he passed it to her. Vapors from the hot coffee drifted towards Cindy's nose, and her smile grew a bit in size as she took the cup in both of her soft paws.
"Thanks," she said quietly. The coyote nodded in reply, smiling as he sat back against a rock and resumed his watch over the valley.
They sat together quietly for several minutes as they each sipped at their coffee. The crest of the mighty mountains to the west began to grow light and take on a pale, milky glow. He was almost here.
"Who are you, Joe?" It was almost a whisper, so quiet that her question might have been blown away on the gentle, cold breeze had they been out standing in it.
He tore his gaze from the desert and looked down into her green eyes. "What?"
She sipped again before replying, and snuggled deeper into her own cloak. "I asked about who you are." She smiled, the tips of her white fangs visible for an instant. "We told you about ourselves that morning of our first breakfast together, all about ourselves, remember?"
The coyote nodded, sipping his own coffee. His eyes squinted slightly as he exhaled into the cup.
"You told us all about your mission here, but very little about yourselves."
Joe smiled. "I guess we don't want to sound like we're full of ourselves."
"I had quite a long conversation with Aramis while you were sleeping," Cindy said. "He told me a lot about how you move from…" the feline stared at the coyote. "…from one world to another."
Joe opened his mouth to reply, but Cindy stopped him with a raised paw. "I couldn't understand it, and don't really want to. The fact of the matter is that you are here, and I want to know who you are, not who you represent." She sighed. "And no more about your mission. I've heard quite enough about that."
The loss of Demi still weighed heavily upon all of them. Though they had searched for two days, and used all of the magical powers available to them, they had so far turned up empty-pawed each evening.
Joe let his eyes wander casually but carefully over the dry wash that cut across the alluvium near the entrance to their cave, and then stared at the valley for a few moments. The mountains to the west were growing lighter by the minute. He'd be having to get up to greet Him before too much longer.
"I'm just a soldier," he said quietly, turning to face her.
The Siamese stared blankly at him. "Surely there is more to you than that."
Joe shook his head in the negative. "Aramis, he's the magi. He has powers that I can't begin to fathom, nor do I particularly want to. Tiger, he's the leader. He's the most connected of us. When The Boss speaks, it's usually to and through Tigermark. The depth of his faith astounds me."
Cindy smiled briefly. "You're talking about them…"
Joe grinned briefly as well. "I suppose I am." He was quiet for several long moments, ears erect and nose twitching, sniffing the wind, watching the desert and the sky, listening. As the seconds ticked by he sipped his coffee.
She waited patiently, watching his eyes.
"I am from a place and time very different from your world. My society is industrialized, mechanized, computerized. Machines do much of our menial tasks for us." Another coffee sip. "We wage war with machines, never seeing our opponent, only his tools. We have the technology to completely annihilate our planet several times over, but we have yet to actually do it. We can travel from one end of our planet to the other in a matter of hours in complete comfort and safety."
Joe took a slow breath. "Yet our missions have sent us to so many places in time and space that I have become, if not comfortable with, at least acclimated to many different epochs and cultures." The coyote paused. He didn't like talking about himself much. The things that really mattered bothered him a bit too much, and the rest… well, didn't matter much.
"I am a soldier." A sad, wistful expression crossed the coyote's face for a split second. If Cindy hadn't been staring at him she'd have missed it completely. "Most of the time my goal has been honorable and clear, but that doesn't make it nice. I've taken lives with any tool that was close to paw, from a flint knife to particle beam weapons. At one time or another I've been a cavelryfur, a horse soldier. I was a warrior with bow and spear. I've been a tanker. I've commanded ships of war. Flown as a pilot. A…" Joe shuddered briefly at the memory of a verse from his past. "…I'm a destroyer of worlds." He paused.
A gust of wind rustled the sage near the mouth of the cave. Joe looked up to the snow covered peaks to the west. They glowed ever brightly, and the sky overhead was taking on hues of orange and pink and gold and red.
Once again he stared briefly into her green eyes. "We've fought in battles paw to paw, slinging steel, looking down the sights of guns, working the directors of a cannon, with a targeting radar, and from the decks of starships. My friends and I have been back and forth through time, across galaxies, and fought in battles beyond belief. Yet we stay together somehow, and stay alive." Again the coyote stopped, growing tired of the train of thought.
"On my home world I have a wife and three pups. They mean everything to me. Usually I am allowed to bring them along on missions, to at least share the target world with them, if not my physical presence in it."
"I'm sorry," Joe said contritely. "When you deal in military operations a lot you tend to pick up the vernacular. Not target in the sense of being something aimed at, simply in terms of being a destination."
Cindy sat in thought for a moment, her face unreadable in the low light of approaching dawn. "Tell me about your wife, Joe."
The expression on the coyote's muzzle softened, his eyes grew distant. "A prettier fox you'll never meet. Her name is Annie. She's smart, playful, giving, committed, the best wife a fur could want, the best mother I've ever seen. She's a little shorter than you, glittery auburn fur, strawberry blond hair, blue eyes, a big fluffy tail." Joe stopped, swallowed. "I miss her."
Cindy put her cup down and reached out with a paw to take Joe's free one. "Tell me what you do on your home world."
"I used to be Joe Everyfur," he grinned slightly. "I had a regular job that allowed me to be home every evening and gave me days off from work regularly. I was happy raising my pups and loving my wife, and life was sweet. But then… then something happened. One day a monstrous evil was perpetuated upon my society, and my world changed. One day my simple life derailed and I was suddenly, irrevocably set on the course I'm on now."
Cindy's eyes had widened a bit. "What happened?"
A sour look crossed the coyote's face, and he ran a paw briefly through his hair as he studied the valley. "Innocents were murdered. Thousands of them, all at once, for some silly, ideological difference of opinion between furs of much power and little grace. The act set into motion a whole string of events that culminated in me meeting Tigermark one day. During that time I had gone from being the happy Joe Everyfur to being a small part of a huge war-making machine. I was becoming one of them, evil."
Cindy stared at him as he once again glanced at the mountains.
"Tigermark is a leader for a reason, Cindy. His heart and mind are aligned with the true leader, the one God of the universe. He found himself in a similar position, having to pray for deliverance from the world he found himself in as I was from mine. The one God heard him as he heard me. Tigermark sought me out and made me see the rightness, the correctness of what it is his team does."
Joe hated this part. It sounded stuffy and self-indulgent, and he hated to hear the words slide from his lips. He much preferred to keep his paws bloody and dirty, and to keep his mouth firmly shut. "We do the bidding of our Master, Cindy. We serve the Lord as soldiers. We don't preach, we don't witness, we don't comfort, we don't love. We fight. We fight well. Someday when our missions are done He will let us return to our worlds and our families for good. None of us know when that day will come."
"Your god sounds an unpleasant fur," Cindy ventured, a hint of sarcasm edging her voice to match the skeptical look on her face.
"Oh no, Cindy, no! He is a God of love!"
"How do you balance that against your assignments? How do you explain him to those small Sander kits who are now orphans thanks to that damn hydra?" Here Cindy rubbed her thigh subconsciously, running her paw over the barely discernable scars from the wound that just a few days ago had been her death sentence. The tiger had called upon the healing powers of their god, and she had suddenly been whole again. There had to be something to their god, then! Her thigh was proof!
Joe sighed, staring at the snowpack above. He flinched visibly, a smile suddenly creasing his muzzle. The very tip of the highest peak had suddenly burst into a flaming orange and pink glare, difficult to look at. Joe carefully placed his old tin cup in the sand next to the fire ring and turned to face her as he stood, holding his free paw out to her as he pulled gently on the paw he held.
"Come and meet Him. He is here," he said excitedly.
She rose slowly as he took her other paw. "What?"
"He's here. Now!" Joe sounded almost breathless. "Come on!" He turned and tugged her arm, drawing her out of the cave. "Come on!"
As she let herself be pulled towards him, the coyote began to trot away from the cave, towards the dry lake bed. "Where are we going?"
Joe giggled, staring at the snow-covered peaks opposite them as she drew along side him in a trot.
"How's the leg? Can you run?"
His enthusiasm, his sudden giddy happiness, was infectious. She giggled in return. "Yes…"
And they ran. For all they were worth, they ran towards the alkali flatness in the distance. She heard him laughing as he ran, saw the wild joy on his face, felt his energy as he stretched into the terrain, mastering it as he covered it. And she was with him, by his side, where she had wanted to be. A joy filled her heart.
As they ran he watched the mountains ahead. Already the sunlight was creeping down the snowpack, the valley filling with reflected daylight even though the sun had not yet crested the mountains of their cave behind them. Joe's mind concentrated on the joy of the moment. They dodged around cactus and brush, feet flying, eyes on the goal ahead. His grip on the Siamese's paw tightened as they leapt across a small dry gully.
In not too long a period of time they burst out of the sage at the edge of the dry lakebed and slowed to a stop, huffing and wheezing from the exertion of covering the distance in such a short time. They both stood bent, with paws on knees and breathing hard, trying to catch their breath.
"I'm gettin' too old for this shit…" Joe laughed.
Cindy smiled at him.
"Look…" Joe pointed west with a paw. "He's here."
The sunlight was at the opposite shore even as they stood in shadow watching, and it was racing towards them. The air was suddenly still, motionless, quiet. Turning around, Cindy looked at the ridge behind them in the east just in time to see the glare there become bright enough to be visible through eyes that were suddenly tightly shut. A gentle breeze brushed her face, and with an almost physical impact she felt the warmth flood over her fur, her mind, her soul.
"Good morning, Lord," she heard a whispered voice next to her. She opened her eyes to look at the coyote next to her, who was suddenly standing tall, feet slightly apart, arms outstretched above his head, paw pads facing the sun as he tilted his head back to smile at the sun and the sky. He stood motionless like that for several minutes. At first she had looked at him, and then after a few seconds had emulated him, paws above her head, facing the light of a brand new day, eyes shut against the brilliant light.
Emotion stirred within her, joy filled her heart and she didn't even know why.
"Lord, this is Cindy," she heard his voice say. She did not look at him, she kept her eyes shut, facing the sun. "Protect her as you protect us, keep her close to you. Show her your love and grace, as you do at this time in this place for your faithful soldiers. Protect her, nurture her, know her heart, and reveal yourself and the love of your Son to her."
She felt a paw take one of the ones she still held above her head, felt herself infused with an energy and warmth and peace she had never known. She kept her eyes shut tight against the glare and the heat of the sun, even as she felt a kiss brush the side of her muzzle. She heard a voice whisper "I love you" in her ear. Her tail flicked in joy. It had sounded like his voice…
Yet when she opened her eyes to look at him he was down on his knees, paws together, whispering as the sun shone down onto the top of his head. His ears were erect, his tail straight out behind him, absolutely still. She stood next to him, slowly returning her paws to her side, wondering while waiting for whatever was to come next. What had just happened?
Presently, as the sun continued it's climb, Joe ceased his muttering and looked up to her with a broad smile. He actually looked younger, she thought, like the mental and physical scars of toil and battle had suddenly, if briefly, been erased from his visage.
Suddenly the coyote was on his feet beside her, an arm about her waist, the other paw sweeping in an arc overhead.
"Isn't this awesome? This is for us, you and me. It is His greeting."
Joe's gaze slowly swept the sky, now a brilliant blue against the high wispy cirrus clouds overhead. She thought she saw the barest hint of a tear of joy in his eye as he turned his head to take in the mountains in the east as well as the west, and stared for long moments at the sun as it slowly climbed above the ridge above their cave. The ground began to warm beneath their feet, and a little breeze sprang up off the lakebed, warm and delightful.
"This is the first day, Cindy."
"First day of what?" she asked with a small smile.
"This is the first day of your new life. The better life. The life of relationship with the one God and his Son. My Master has chosen you. You are now my sister, you are one of us. Kindred." Joe's arm about her waist tightened.
She turned her head, and her green eyes locked on his blue. A brief hint of conflict flickered across her face for only a moment and then was gone in the calm of his gaze. She was home now, home with family. She felt it, felt the connection, felt the sudden inner peace, the release of history and memory and pain. Somewhere before them, in a juniper tree at the edge of the lakebed, a bird began it's morning song.
Joe's free paw clenched in a fist before them. "This is what it's all about, Cindy. The will of the Master. A better life for the souls we free from evil through our work. We fight and suffer that others may be set free. There is no glory, no reward, nothing except these brief moments of communion with Him, and His Son, in Their creation." Joe grinned, a gleam in his eyes as his gaze swept the desert one last time from the lakebed, before they started walking back towards the cave.
"It is more compensation than I deserve," he said without remorse.
Suddenly she grinned at him, her heart utterly happy and at peace.
"Hey old fur, feel up to another run?"
And just like that she was gone in a little puff of dust, streaking away from him across the salt flat of the lakebed, towards the sagebrush and juniper trees. Towards the cave and their friends.
And while part of his mind still worked and worried over Demi, and that damnable Cutter, and bemoaned his lack of tools and technology, the grin that split his muzzle was almost feral in delight and raw, sensual joy.
He waited until she disappeared into the sage. "Old fur, hey?" he broke into a run. "We'll see about that…"