Pandora 0.15

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"We would have caught more, but they had a device that regurgitated smoke, and they used it to get away," Many Kills explained. "But we will be prepared for it next time."

Well. What did you even say to that? We knew from our experiences with the drones that the Psittacans were excellent ambushers, but killing was far easier than capturing.

"You want to capture them?" Captain Chui asked.

"Of course!" This from Completes The Whole. If he'd had a nose to wrinkle in disgust, I had the sense he would have. "We kill only at greatest need. There is no true honor in killing. Capturing your enemy, now there is the mark of a true warrior."

Something occurred to me, and before I could stop myself, I looked at Many Kills and blurted out, "But then how did you get your name?"

"Me? I'm the best hunter in the tribe," he replied, as if it should be obvious.

"He is, too," Sunlight said, her tone long-suffering. "We try not to talk about it too much. It makes him insufferable."

Completes The Whole snapped his beak at them in warning. At the same time, Captain Chui sent me a look of mild disapproval. Both Many Kills and Sunlight quieted, their crests wilting in dismay until they looked like nothing so much as kids caught with their grubby hands in the cookie jar. (Though significantly more feathered.) I shifted and tucked my hands in the pockets of my shorts. I felt a strong urge to scuff my toes against the wood beneath me, but didn't dare; the noise might just attract more attention.

"I can't promise you that you won't have to kill any of them," Captain Chui said, as she ducked to study the prisoner where he sat on the branch. "They may not give you any choice."

The mercenary was young, and I wondered if he was a rookie; that might explain why he was the only one who got caught. Why does he look like that? His skin had a grayish cast that almost made him look like a corpse. The darkness of his hair and eyes didn't help, either. And all that dark armor, a mixture of thick but flexible leather and some other material, maybe some kind of ceramic, just exacerbated the problem. I leaned forward very slightly, trying to get a closer look, hoping I might get a hint.

"Haven't seen much of that stuff around," Diver said, nearly causing me to jump out of my skin.

"What? What stuff?"

"He's got a special kinda 'bot. People call it Ironskin, on account of not being very original. It's real hard to bond with, like only one in a hundred-thousand or so can manage. Probably why they brought along such a rookie."

I shivered. Dermal chroming—beyond my personal nanos' ability to heal me faster—always creeped me out a little. I could never help wondering if it was painful. This...this looked like it might hurt a lot, or at least be unpleasant. Did the nanos replace skin, like I saw with the dermal flaps used by cheats in the dens? On second thought, I'm not sure I want to know. For all I knew it could be like having large grains of sand lodged in your skin, and that just wasn't a place I wanted my brain to go.

"I don't think he'll talk to me, I'm afraid," Captain Chui reported, after a few minutes of observation. "They can be braggarts. If he was going to talk, he'd already be running his mouth."

She must have known precisely how he would react. She reared back out of reach just as he spat at her; the glob of spittle landed harmlessly by her boots. The prisoner glowered at her. They won't come back for him, I realized. This is it. He screwed up, and they're going to leave him to his own devices. Probably laughing the whole way. He knew it too. Yet even knowing it, he refused to talk, as if by some miracle keeping his mouth shut might preserve his place among the Titans.

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