The shirt was too small. Too tight across the shoulders, and the long sleeves didn't reach his wrists anymore. He'd always been a skinny bastard but punching Scars in his Interceptor javelin was padding out his guns.
Still, it was his only long-sleeved shirt, which he hadn't worn for years. Icetide this year had been relatively mild, until today. Whatever Shaper relic was producing the snow and cold weather had decided to throw in a freezing cold snap for New Year's Eve. Hopefully the cold snap was temporary.
Kelly Falco tugged the sleeves as far down as they'd go, put on his favourite warm vest, and left the apartment. The sun had just set, and the chill outside was as solid as a body blow.
Lights and cheerful noises filled every street and lane. Fort Tarsis was neck-deep in New Year's Eve celebrations. Months earlier, the Fort's governor had organized to bring in travelling merchants for the season. They now filled the Fort's central courtyard and bazaar with stalls.
A lone Sentinel, outfitted in javelin, stood at the busy tunnel between the bazaar and courtyard, keeping watch on the revellers.
Kelly stopped next to the Sentinel. "All good, Nasir?" he asked.
"Nrrrgh," his friend grunted. Kelly surveyed the area. "Not many Sentinels around. Who else is with you?"
If a javelin could slump, Nasir Davall's certainly did. "Tchang called in sick," he said. "Larsen didn't even show up. Cal Andrin was here earlier, then he had to go somewhere and said he'd be back in half an hour. That was an hour ago, I think he bailed too. So guess who's the responsible loser who has to ring in the new year holding a truncheon instead of a beer?"
Kelly punched Nasir's arm. "Tough luck. I'll hang out with ya. Just let me get some cider."
"Bah!" Nasir waved him off. "Watching you drink is just more depressing. Get lost!"
Kelly laughed, and did.
He wandered about the merchant stalls. Food and drink, ornaments and toys, were all for sale. Fort residents were everywhere, braving the cold to enjoy themselves and splurge a bit of money, before everyone gathered to ring in the new year. Not to mention the activities for children and adults alike. The snow army in the courtyard centre was a main feature, where people had been building snowpeople and creatures all Icetide. Even a petting zoo in the corner of the bazaar, with the usual grabbits and saurians, a baby korox, and even a young wyvern, wings hobbled and still too young to spit fire.
The drink stalls were selling cider, mulled wine, and hot chocolate; it was tradition to break out the harder alcohol after midnight. Kelly was buying a cider when someone called his name.
Lucky Jak clapped him on the back. "Just the man I was looking for. How'd you like to ring in the new year while hanging out in a warm place?"
Kelly sipped the piping hot cider. "What? Where? How?"
Jak winked and steered him toward the courtyard's northern stairs. "Gotta thank Miss Ryssa Brin," he said. "Poor lass was stressed out over her plants, worried that today's cold snap would kill them. So a few of us rustled up those ancient heaters from storage and put them in her office. Outdated ember-burners. Might turn you chimera but at least you'll be toasty when the change comes! Ryssa was so grateful she let us hang out there tonight, so long as we don't touch her stuff."
They climbed the stairs to Lieutenant Brin's office, which was now covered on all sides by heavy curtains to keep the cold out. The inside was crammed with heaters and Freelancers. The Sentinel lieutenant was clearly elsewhere.
Kelly recognized them, all friends he'd worked with. "You brought half the Enclave here," he said. The office was hothouse temperature. He stripped off his vest and rolled up his sleeves.
"Nonsense," Jak said, "there's only ten of us. We who moved the heaters could invite one more person. Exclusive access, mate! Now grab a seat, Rythe's gonna deal another hand. Just don't touch, move, or sit on anything covered by a blanket, or Ryssa will be mad."
Everyone was deep into the third card game when the curtain pulled back to reveal a javelin helmet. "Er, fellas," Nasir said, pushing up his faceplate. "We, um… We got a problem. Needs Freelancer expertise."
No one looked up from the game. "What problem?" Kelly finally asked.
"Er, so." Nasir looked supremely awkward. "You see. It's a grabbit problem. I'm not joking, this is serious!" he added when someone burst out laughing.
"What, Sentinels can't solve even a grabbit problem?" Rythe snorted. "Go away, we're busy here."
Nasir grimaced. "Guys, this is serious. Commander Vule's waiting. Really, I need one of you. Just one!"
Jak sighed. "Fine. Draw straws everyone."
Mel cut straws out of Brin's discarded plant clippings and held the bunch out to the group.
Kelly stared in dismay at his short straw. "Oh, come on. Nasir, why aren't you taking care of it?"
"I'm the only one on courtyard patrol," Nasir said blandly.
Kelly groaned. "Who wants to do me a favour? I'll make it worthwhile. Shout all your drinks tonight. Take one of your future contracts and send you the full bounty. Any takers? Jak?" He looked around plaintively at the smirking Freelancer faces.
Jak smiled sweetly. "Mate, I invited you here. You owe me a favour!"
Archie raised an eyebrow, then raised his bottle at Kelly and took a swig. "Buy me drinks? I'll buy your drinks just to see you play Sentinel Quincy." It was no big secret that Kelly loved that kids radio show, Detective Hops Mysteries.
Mel scowled. "Just go take one for Team Shitmobile." She flipped their squad salute: middle finger upraised.
"Clean outta luck, Kelly Falco!" Rythe snickered. "Go on. Show the Sentinels who's the Big Star! And get your ass back here before the new year countdown, okay?"
Kelly glared at them. "Damn it!" He knocked back his second hot cider, slammed the mug down, and stalked out of the office.
Nasir trailed after him. "Look buddy, I'd help, but..."
"Yeah, yeah, go back to your depressing sentry post," Kelly growled. "So? What's this grabbit business?"
"Um, that's all I was told," the Sentinel said. "Go to the strider depot entrance, eastern ramp. Vule is there. He'll brief you. I gotta go." He scuttled off.
Kelly sighed and trudged toward the eastern ramp. Under Fort Tarsis' upper residential and commercial levels were floors that housed foundries for engineering and metalworks. And below those were the strider depot and cavernous warehouses for storing cargo and supplies. The ramp led to these lowest areas.
Sure enough, Vule and another Sentinel stood at the ramp's big gates. The Commander was dressed in civilian clothes and grimacing like he'd just fallen into a stinkhand bush.
Vule didn't waste his breath. "Good, you're here. Officer Andrin, brief the Freelancer."
"Well..." Cal Andrin shuffled his javelin's feet. "I was called to patrol the strider depot. Just a quick sweep. There are lots of out-of-town merchants here, so we gotta keep an eye on any cargo that're just transiting and aren't here for the Icetide festival. Anyway, one of the containers... contains grabbits. Stuffed full of cages with a grabbit each. I was patrolling the area, and thought I heard footsteps. So I checked, and found the container unlocked, door open, and all the cages empty. But I also saw a few grabbits running around in the distance, so I think they weren't stolen. Just let loose. I couldn't catch them though."
Kelly shrugged. "They're just a few grabbits, right? Let 'em go! I'm sure the governor can pay the merchant for losses."
Vule pursed his lips. He opened an access door in the big gate and beckoned Kelly in. The door slammed behind them, leaving Andrin on the other side to stand guard.
"Not that simple, Falco," the Commander said as they walked down the broad ramp, their footsteps echoing in the space. "These grabbits are an Arcanist's experimental batch. I don't know the details, but they've been…altered. Altered to become deadly. Oh, they won't hurt you, but they're meant to be lethal to any grabbit they share food and fluids with. The normal grabbits turn sick and die a few months afterwards. And this lethal trait gets passed to all their offspring too. Contact with just one of them can wipe out whole warrens. I'm no Arcanist, I don't know how it works exactly. But if these grabbits are lost, we'll have a big problem."
"Huh," Kelly said. "What's wrong with that? Those grabbit warrens near Memorial Gate are forever a nuisance. We need something like this to clean out the infestation."
Vule glared at him. "Freelancer, stop being obtuse. You know what I mean. This is an Arcanist shipment with Arcanists on either end. So important that the cargo manifest was flagged for extra security. Fort Tarsis is going to have a hairy time with Antium or Heliost or both if we lose this cargo. The grabbits must be retrieved. All of them. Understand?"
"Good." Vule held out a large key. "This is the only key to the container, held by the strider operator at all times. I have no idea how it was unlocked. Don't let it out of your sight."
Kelly stashed the key in his cargo pants pocket. "Why do you need me to handle this?"
Vule raised an eyebrow. He looked almost amused. "From all the shenanigans that goes on in the Enclave, I gather that Freelancers are good at dealing with things off the record. So deal with it, and don't report to me until the cages are filled with those lost grabbits." He turned and jogged back up the ramp.
Even stiff-shirt Vule was in a hurry to get back to the celebrations.
The strider depot was freezing, and Kelly rolled down his sleeves. He'd left his vest in Brin's office, damn it. More reason to hurry. Midnight was less than two hours away!
The grabbit container was easy to find: the only one with the doors open, and with meshed windows to let air and light in. Kelly counted thirty cages, all empty. Unlike the container door, each cage had only a latch keeping them closed.
Something moved in his peripheral vision. Kelly glanced to see a grabbit scurrying away. Another grabbit squeaked, far away. They were here.
Thirty damned grabbits to catch in a few hours. If he was wearing his interceptor he could probably run them down. But all he had now was wits and skills.
Kelly dredged up childhood memories. He'd learnt many grabbit-snaring tricks while roaming the Everweald on Mom and Dad's strider, but that needed materials and time. Maybe he could call them. Grabbits were curious critters. He and his sister had practised their grabbit calls and competed to see who could lure the wild ones to arm's reach. Worth a try...
It took ten minutes of sitting under a strider, squeaking like an idiot, before one grabbit appeared, making an answering trill. It hopped closer, and snuffled his shoes. Kelly reached out slowly and picked it up. It didn't struggle, just twitched its ears and squeaked. It must be used to being handled.
"So you're a killer grabbit," Kelly muttered. It looked pretty normal. Same horrible bug-eyes and alarming mandibles. Same tufted ears, although the right ear looked weird. It looked like the ear-tufts had been docked with a scalpel to form an unnatural, angular point, shorter than the left ear. Otherwise, it was still a grotesquely cute grabbit.
Kelly secured it in a cage and went back to his post. Five minutes later, he had caught two more grabbits, both with their right ears docked. He was shoving them into the cages when a voice said, "Hey! what's up here?"
Kelly slammed the cage doors shut, spun around and sidestepped in one move. The girl standing at the container's entrance flinched backwards and squealed.
"Sayrna?!" Kelly exclaimed. "What the blazes are you doing here?"
"Omigod, you scared me, jumping around like that!" Sayrna gasped. "How'd you do it so fast?"
"Uh, flying an interceptor, I guess," Kelly stammered. He eyed the girl. "Why are you here? And why are you holding grabbits?"
"What, these?" Sayrna looked at the two grabbits she was cuddling in each arm. "I borrowed them."
"'Scuse me? Borrowed? And you're gonna tell me someone gave you permission."
"Yeah! Uncle Vonnie, who else?" Sayrna seemed to have recovered her nerves. "The strider driver who's transporting these grabbits is a friend of his. I wanted to pet a grabbit. Not those scruffy ones in the petting zoo, y'know. A proper fluffy one. So Uncle Vonnie asked his friend, and I got to borrow these! I'm bringing them back now."
She entered the container, and brought up short at the sight of empty cages. "Hey, what happened here?"
Kelly crossed his arms. Sayrna acted cute, but she was from a Regulator family. He had to remind himself of that. "You know who let the grabbits loose?"
"Ummm, no?" Sayrna coaxed her grabbits into the cages. "I only borrowed two, and now I'm bringing 'em back. Maybe someone else let them out. Seriously, I don't know anything." She latched their cages and looked at Kelly. "I'm not making any trouble!"
"Yeah, says the one 'borrowing' grabbits from cages that don't belong to her!" Kelly shot back.
"Hey!" Sayrna exclaimed. "I got permission. Uncle Von—"
Kelly held up his hands. "Okay, okay. Since you like petting grabbits so much, help me get the others back in the cages. They're hiding around this area." He smirked at her. "Then you won't get into trouble with Fort Command."
Sayrna made a face. "This Freelancer needs some help, huh? Fine!"
Together they coaxed all the grabbits out of hiding and back into their cages. Sayrna was quite good at it: the critters seemed to flock to her. All of them had those asymmetric right ears, Kelly noticed.
At last, thirty grabbits were found and retrieved. Sayrna cooed as she put the last one away. "See? Easy! That Sentinel didn't need to freak out like that."
"What Sentinel?" Kelly muttered as he double-checked the latches on each cage.
Sayrna coughed. "Why else would you be here? Sentinels can't even handle a few silly grabbits by themselves, they gotta call you in."
"Maybe I just came down to play with them too. I mean, everyone knows I'm a fan of Detective Hops." Kelly gave her a toothy grin.
He got a raspberry in return. "Sure, 'Quincy'. We're done now, right? I gotta go. Happy new year, Kelly!" She waved at him.
"Happy new year." Kelly watched Sayrna disappear through the cargo depot, leaving not by the nearby eastern ramp but another exit. She was amusing. Maybe he could chat with her again after the New Year celebrations, never mind that she was a Regulator.
He turned and examined the two grabbits that Sayrna had been carrying when she appeared. Sure enough, they had asymmetric docked ears. The left ears, not the right.
The container key was in Kelly's pants pocket, heavy against his hip. Vule had said this was the only key, kept safe by the strider operator. Didn't Sayrna say that the strider's driver was a friend, or 'friend', of Vonnie's?
Kelly stood there and thought. The chill sneaked past his shirt and gnawed at his skin. The depot was utterly quiet, too deep in the fort to hear any festive sounds. It would be midnight soon.
He sighed, locked the container doors, then headed up the ramp and to the upper levels in search of Vule.
The Fort was heaving with excitement. The food and drinks were gone: now everyone was holding small homemade lanterns, ready for their customary New Year lantern flight.
Ten minutes to midnight! Kelly hurried.
He found Vule lounging at a balcony above the courtyard, a lantern in one hand and -- of all things -- an ice cream cone in the other. The Sentinel Commander was in a festive mood. He nodded distractedly as Kelly made his report. "No trouble at all? Any clue about who made the footsteps that Cal Andrin heard?"
Kelly shook his head. "No trouble. No clues."
Vule cracked a half-smile. "See? You Freelancers can deal with it. Alright then, I'll put your word into the report -- tomorrow." He took a bite of the ice cream and waved Kelly off. "Happy new year, Freelancer."
"Well, well, well: Big Star made it back!" Rythe exclaimed as Kelly entered Brin's sweltering hot office again. "We were taking bets on whether you'd get back before or after the lantern flight."
"So how did it go? Catch all the grabbits? What happened?" A chorus of questions arose from the other Freelancers. Someone put a glass into his hand.
Kelly shrugged. "Sentinel Quincy solves the case," he said, to laughter all around. He sniffed the clear liquid in the glass. His favourite gin!
Jak said, "Just in time. Five minutes till the year ticks over. Look, Team Shitmobile got you an early drink and made your lantern. Grab it, we're all ready." He held up a lighter.
Amidst the chatter and excitement, Kelly pulled on his vest and grabbed the tiny, flimsy lantern. As per tradition, it was made of colourful paper cut into an aerodynamic shape, with an unlit candle stub inside.
People were packed into the courtyard and bazaar, overflowing into the side streets and balconies. Countless lanterns glowed, ready to be thrown into the sky at the stroke of midnight.
The Freelancers crowded onto the steps. Jak walked about, lighting everyone's lanterns. For once, all of Fort Tarsis was together united -- Sayrna, Vule, Nasir in his javelin, were out there. Also somewhere out there were two stolen killer grabbits. Kelly thought, if the grabbit infestation outside the Fort crashed this coming year, he'd know who was responsible.
Someone started counting down at thirty seconds, and soon everyone in the courtyard was chanting. Kelly took a sip of gin, then joined the New Year countdown.