Valen patted Gable’s muscular neck as they trotted into Lensterville. They’d been ten days out, mostly soldiering Sipio’s vast northern plain and this time of year that meant heat with a capital “H”. Valen could feel his own sweat trickling through the hairs on his chest and back and every time his Ranger issue travel cords relaxed around him, his scent rose like steam washing his face.
Not so Gable’s smell, though. Gable was a Callisto class ModEquid, part horse part…something. Valen was never sure what and Gable liked to keep him guessing. Mostly horse on the outside, Gable’s sweat was the sweet musk of heavy horse, working horse, a gentle giant unless riled and it took a lot to rile him. There was a tang of trail dirt and rich plains tallgrasses and lathering brow and flanks that Valen thought wonderful, comforting, reassuring, and it made him proud that Gable had taken so to him.
“Let me know when,” he said to the horse.
Gable smiled back, Any time you’re ready.
Valen performed an emergency dismount, Gable still trotting so that Valen landed running beside him on the horse’s left, reins in Valen’s right hand. He knew Gable liked to run side-by-side, the two of them together, and the horse always smiled laughter at the man’s two-legged gait.
No speed, Two-Legs, he would smile at Valen.
“Yeah, well…speed when I need it,” Valen said back.
When they were out Ranging and neither Gable nor Valen could sense any activity in the tall grasses of the plain, Valen would amuse the horse by dismounting and running beside him for a while. Eventually Gable would be laughing so hard he had to stop, blowing, his nostrils flaring like wind cannons. Even at Gable’s twenty-hands height, Valen could stare the horse eye-to-eye.
I chose you good, Gable smiled at Valen. Valen was chosen to Range Sipio due to both training and genetics. A long drink of water, Valen was rail thin with a large ribcage and a prominent brow ridge, the former to give his lungs room to breathe in a low density atmosphere and the latter to protect his eyes from Sipio’s twin suns. His people had been farmers and Rangers on four worlds before he settled here.
But it was Gable, the warhorse, who had chosen Valen to ride.
Sometimes, on the hotter days, Gable’s flank gills, beautifully placed so that neither saddlebags nor saddlepad would interfere with them, would open to cool his internals. Valen always took some time to rub Gable down, to use some of his own water to sponge Gable’s sides, when he did that.
Gable always smiled his appreciation.
At night, when they’d made camp somewhere deep in the plain and once the suns had set, the cold would set in. When they ranged the deep north, Gable would open one gill, facing Valen, and rotary breathe to warm him.
Sometimes Gable would ask Valen to read him something from The Library. Sometimes they had to wait for Valen’s mini to capture a Reader but when it did, Valen would read from the classics; Nora Roberts, J.K. Rowling, David Baldacci, Elmore Leonard. The occasional Steinbeck but never a Faulkner or Hemingway. The readings turned into a trail game. Gable would smile a line from some book and Valen had to guess the book or Valen would quote and Gable would guess. Gable was getting pretty good, too. He might not know the book but he could guess the author most times.
It broke up the monotony of patrolling walking grasses and smart waters, creatures with enough intelligence to be tamable and not enough to be dangerous.
Occasionally they’d come upon a Behemini encampment. Valen would call it in and Dusters would arrive within a few hours to relocate them. The Beheminites weren’t indigenous. They came from somewhere millennia ago and then something happened. Whatever their plans were for Sipio, those that settled lost contact with their people or were forgotten, did the best they could until all their tech gave out and then just did what they could. For millennia. Once great beings left with only myths of their greatness.
Valen walked Gable into his stall at the post’s stable. Two Tlinglets, each carrying grooming supplies and a bucket of sweetfeed on their bodyhooks, ran up to them. Valen said, “Take good care of him, okay? He’s been out a while.”
The Tlinglets bowed, their version of a nod because Tlinglets had no neck. One of the first humans on Sipio, Warner something or something Warner, nicknamed them Gumbies but nobody knew why. In any case, it stuck.
The Tlinglets were interesting beings. Not so much aboriginal as just plain simple, there were three types; green, yellow and brown. The green were closest to their evolutionary forebears, the walking grasses. The yellow were social and sociable but with some kind of indiscriminate biology that nobody had figured out yet. The browns were huge tree-like creatures, mostly immobile and evidently either the oldest Tlinglets or the oldest form of Tlinglet. Again, nobody knew.
What intrigued Valen the most about the Tlinglets was their language. Their word for horse, for example, was ‘GodDog”, so similar to the Lakotah aboriginals of the American plains name for horse, Sunkawakan, “god’s dog”.
The Tlinglets were familiar with dogs, or at least dog like creatures, and had no difficulty adapting to Ranger patrols in Sipio’s northern mountains, where ModCanids were the rule. The Tlinglets took to the ModCanids and vice versa in a Sipio day, the Tlinglets’ natural ability to communicate ultrasonically gave them the ability to hold backroom-like conversations with the modified dogs, both dogs and Tlinglets laughing while their human allies wondered at the joke.
“Tchure thing, Falen,” one of the Tlinglets said as they went to work.
“Thanks, Jake,” Valen said.
The Tlinglet who hadn’t spoken stopped sponging Gable, “I’m Chake, that’s Kossamer.”
“Oh, sorry. I’ll be in Compton’s office then in the barracks if you need me.”
Sipio’s nights were always cold when compared against the warmth of binary sun days and even with the barrack’s thermopiles set on high, the bunks were still cold. Not that it mattered to Valen. He hadn’t slept on a mattress since he was a kid and barracks life was just a necessity between Ranging missions.
Valen, Glam’s signal collapsed, Gable frowned.
Valen whispered into the air over his bunk, “Tell me more.”
Gable frowned the particulars. Glam. Calibre class ModEquid. Advanced research mare. Northern plain. Far side. Weather going negative. Reports heavy horizon.
“Did they go out of Repeater range? Is she combat capable? Who’s her rider?”
Standing station. Combat minimal. Siobhan. Signatures gone. The big horse paused.
“Are you concerned?”
Glam carries my foal.
Valen moved his blankets aside and swung his legs down. “Good a reason as any to get back on the trail. I didn’t know ModEquids could have foals.”
ModEquids can do many things. I’ll be waiting at the post gate.
Valen paused. That was odd. Gable would normally wait by the stable door so Valen could check the horse over once, sometimes twice, just to make sure Gable was trailworthy. It was part of Valen’s training and just plain good practice, kind of like carrying extra fuel cans if you had no idea where you were going or when the next fillup would be.
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