by Rich Hanes
This is the first scene from my novel, Foxhunt!. If you like it, please buy it at Amazon.
The Creator so loved us, that He gave His life so that we should live.
-The Memoria, The Book of Max, Chapter 19, Verse 41.
Captain Sebastian Valentino slammed his fist on the steel desk and sent pens
careening across it. His russet fur bristled beneath his white tunic. "I don't want to do this!"
"It's your responsibility."
"I don't care."
Guidance Officer Jordan Randolph herded his pens and returned them to their proper place. "You must care, you came to see me."
"Don't play your mind tricks on me, human."
Randolph reclined in his chair and tucked his hands behind his head. "Mind tricks are games for foxes. That's your department."
"Don't bring my genus into this. It's not your job to prejudge me."
"You should know better, Captain," Randolph said. "Genus is crucial to all the Created like yourself."
Sebastian turned away, brushy tail lashing. Even when he stalked about Randolph's cramped office, the bipedal fox was short, unimposing, chest-high to the human. "Maybe you're right," he said.
Randolph gestured to the chair in front of his desk. "Of course I am. Now stop prowling and have a seat."
Sebastian stiffened and stared out the window at the far side of the office. A few centimeters of hardened plastiglass were all that protected them from the void of space. The placid vista of the planet below betrayed the danger of hard vacuum.
He dropped into the offered seat. "Fine."
"Now, tell me what has you afraid."
"Who says I'm afraid?"
"You do, with your actions and tone of voice." Randolph folded his hands on his desk. "I've studied enough animals to recognize fear and anxiety."
Sebastian frowned. "Animal?" he said, then shrugged. "Maybe I am, and why not? I've never done the Rite of Passage before, dig?"
"I'm sure you've taken part in one. When was the last time?"
Sebastian twisted his lips in thought. "About seventeen years ago, 487 or 488."
"Tell me about that, what was it like?"
"Haven't you studied our rituals, human? You should know."
Randolph frowned, but stayed calm. He had to be careful with the agitated creature before him. "I have, yes, but only in books. I want to know about your experiences, in your own words."
"You're not going to tell anyone about this, are you?"
"You have my word."
Sebastian knit his brows, eyes tight on the human before him. Randolph had always been a fine guidance officer. Sebastian had trusted him in the past, but he'd never disclosed such personal memories. Maybe it was time to start.
"It was for my aunt Josefine," Sebastian said. "She lived on the far side of Mursankhovel, so I didn't know her well and didn't really care when she died of age, but my mother made me go to her Passage anyway. Elder Marquis conducted it, I didn't know him well either."
Randolph grabbed a notepad and scribbled notes. "This was when you were on Wopat?"
"Yes, a few months before I was conscripted."
"It sounds like you didn't know most of the others in your city. Were you always so alone?"
"We were unwelcome in most homes."
"Because you're a stray?"
The hair stood on the back of Sebastian's neck. "I don't want to talk about that."
"Very well." Randolph jotted more notes. "Let's go back to the Rite. What do you remember about it?"
"Not much. I wasn't really interested. There was a lot of prayer, in Volpa. People talked. We passed around her zulicans, looked at her, then she was buried and we went home."
"Who was with you?"
"Just my mother."
"Your father wasn't there?"
"He was busy."
"Busy with what?"
Sebastian narrowed his eyes. "I don't want to talk about him."
Randolph crossed something out. "Okay, never mind that. I think you're afraid because you don't know what to do."
"Nonsense, I know what to do, it's all written in the Memoria."
"Then what frightens you?"
Sebastian frowned and held his paws together. It took a few moments for him to compose his thoughts. "When Josefine died, only her bloodkin cared. There were ten of us at her Passage. Not even her neighbors came. It was disrespectful. I'm afraid that's going to happen again, and Adrian deserves better."
"Why would it happen again?"
Sebastian shook his head slowly. "The others, they won't understand what's happening."
"Because they're not foxes?"
Randolph had hit a sore point.
Sebastian tensed and lurched across the desk, thrusting his fist at Randolph. "It shouldn't be like this! Adrian shouldn't be so alone, no bloodkin, none of his pedigree, not even one of his House. There's only me. The others won't understand it."
Randolph remained calm.
"Does it really matter if they understand?"
"They should appreciate Adrian's memory as much as I do."
Randolph adjusted his glasses and set his notepad down. "Is the Rite of Passage for them, or for Adrian?"
Sebastian tensed up. Randolph was right. The ritual wasn't for Sebastian, or for the crew, but for Adrian. Even if the non-foxes amongst him didn't understand the ritual and its symbolism, their presence at least honored Adrian's memory.
Randolph gestured at Sebastian. "Besides, you're already prepared. You've got your tunic and sash on. You owe it to Adrian, it's your duty as Captain and the only fox in the crew. You can't back out now."
Sebastian tugged at his ceremonial tunic. Only the vibrant zulican blossom pinned to its breast and the sash across his shoulder broke its off-white cotton. "You're right," he said.
"Do you feel better now?"
"Yes. You're pretty wise for a human, you know."
Randolph smirked. "Weren't you just scolding me for bringing genus into this?"
Sebastian stood and gestured Randolph forward. "All right, I give. Now come, it's time."
The pair stepped into the corridor and headed for the starship's cargo bay. Almost the entire crew was present in its confines, huddled together on folding chairs, waiting for their captain.
Sebastian stepped up to the makeshift podium before them. A hard grip on its steel surface didn't help steady his trembling paws.
"Rite of Passage commences now. All stand."
In unison, three-hundred four bodies rose to attention.
"Let it become known that the Passage of Adrian Miller begins at 1201 Galactic Standard Time, fourteenth day of month of Aquarius, year 505 Post Founding. Be seated."
Sebastian folded his paws behind him. It was a struggle to maintain his grasp on the common Mahonic language.
"Opening begins, with short prayer. We gather to mourn passage of Adrian Miller, from this life to next. We commend its spirit into waiting paws of Max, He Who Watches. We know someday we--I will join Founder, and our--my ancestors and elders in Everlife. Opportunity must be taken to reflect, remember at any time we can be called to Everlife. We must never forget that our actions shall be judged when we pass, and take solace in knowing He Who Watches will reward those who live righteously. Fallam."
The crew responded to the prayer call with resounding silence. They didn't know how to answer.
Sebastian grabbed a non-descript book from a folding table. Even his genus' Book of Creation didn't help still his trembling paws. "Reading and sermon phase now begins."
He settled onto a page and began to read.
"I had spoken to my Creator many times before, but He was caught off guard by my question. Even His practiced, steady delivery faltered in the face of my inquisition. By now, He was reaching the end of His lifespan, and I thought that surely He should have had the foresight to anticipate the question.
"'My Father,' I said to Him, 'my instincts have filled me with the desire to mate and breed, and I have begun a family with my lovely mate, Zulica. We have five beautiful kits, yet I am troubled.'
"'What disturbs you, my son?' said He.
"'Life comes from breeding, copulation, and mateship within a species. You are my Father, yet You are not even one of my genus. I beseech thee; where have I come from?'
"'I was afraid You would ask this.' My Father sighed, sitting heavily upon a steel crate. 'You are My pride and joy, Max. I have nurtured you and raised you, and you are the pinnacle of My Creation. You are the smartest I have yet made. But I fear not even you can fully understand your origins.'
"'Father,' I implored, 'I must know how I came to be. I see no foxes older than I, none that may have birthed Me. You are not like I, nor are the Others. You have no fur, no muzzles, no tails. I must know my beginning, I can no longer sleep. It consumes me like fire.'
"A sad look washed through His eyes. 'Much as I love you, My son, mere words are not capable of expressing the details, the concepts within. You are more intelligent and educated than any of the other species, but you simply cannot understand.'
"With clenched paws, I pleaded with him. 'Is there some way I might learn, Father?'
"Finally, He relented. Sitting perfectly still, He beckoned to me. 'Come. Touch my mind.'
"I had never touched my Creator's mind before. I was hesitant to do so, but I did, for it was the only way. I grasped His smooth, round skull in my padded fingers. Within seconds, I linked my thoughts to His, the information flooding into my brain, flowing like water from His mind to my own. And it was finally revealed to me.
"It was so terrible, so undignified, that I could not believe. But I knew it to be true, for my Creator's thoughts could not lie. Even writing in retrospect, I tremble and shudder in memory of the information. It was instantly apparent why He had refused to tell me; I was unready to understand all that had gone into me. More than just the physical details of my origin, I was granted insight into the horrifying reasons why I was created. It was not love at all, but hate. I was created only to destroy. I suddenly knew all, each abhorrent, ghastly detail of my own existence. I dare not share the truth, as my mind aches just recounting it.
"Shocked and frightened, I tore out of the mindlink with such speed and force that my mind caught fire. I fled, running into the barren wastes, brimming with tears, not to return for a fortnight.
"The Creator was hurt, too. When I returned, Zulica told me that He had sat and wept in privacy every day I was gone. The Memoria, The Book of Max, Chapter 16, verses one through thirty-three."
It took all of Sebastian's will to keep from choking up, yet none of his crew shared his passion. How could they act this way? These were the words of Max Himself, and they all sat, staring stoically ahead.
"What does passage mean for us?" Sebastian placed the book down, held his paws behind his back, and strolled across the breadth of his gathered crew. "What is significance of it? Max tells of time when He faced great difficulty. He wanted to know who He was, why He was here, how He was here, but He couldn't bear truth. Then, instead of face it, He fled. Why?
"Sometimes we face difficult questions, like Max. We want to know why bad things happen. We read the Memoria, let it guide our daily lives, pray, and still face hardships."
Sebastian sighed. This wasn't right at all. He was reciting another sermon he'd heard before, but to his predominantly canine audience, it meant nothing.
He shook his head. "Think about a time you lost someone or something dear to you. You wanted to know why, didn't you? Why this happen to me? We don't want to face thought that our lives are random, only we guide ourselves. We want to believe the Creator, or the Founders, still have control, and that everything has reason.
"But sometimes, things just happen. Max wanted to know truth about where He came from, but when He found out, He didn't want to know anymore. We want to know why things happen, but we don't, because we can't bear to understand. We have to accept events are beyond control, that we live and die with no plan, no influences except those we make."
He looked over the sea of canine muzzles, and saw only empty, confused stares. Sebastian shook his head and sighed. "Never mind, forget. Move on to Remembrance phase. Anyone who wishes to say words about Adrian can do so, testifying under watchful gaze of Max."
They remained painfully silent. What could they say? They hadn't known Adrian like Sebastian had.
"If no one has something to say--"
A lanky canine with silver and tan fur rose from the ranks, a jackal over two meters in height. Sebastian gestured him forward. "Come, speak, Senior Lieutenant Corey Delzano."
Corey shuffled to the podium, bowed to Sebastian, and turned to face the crew. "For the last four years, I served under Adrian as third-in-command, and yet, he was not known well to me on a personal basis. Little of his time was spent socializing. I feel as though I, of the non-vulpines, knew him best. He, or his influence, was around always, omnipresent. One could feel his touch and effects. Always, he was busy with critical matters; always, he was checking this or that for our Captain; always, he was vigilant and dutiful, close to the Captain like his right paw. Outside the Captain, he was rarely social, so I earned the task of conducting activities related to crew efficiency for him. He concerned himself with the big picture. From Sebastian to Adrian to me.
"He was an excellent strategist, complementing our Captain's tactical abilities. When he spoke of strategy, logistics, he did so with deep affection. Once, he buzzed me in early morning, awakened me, and asked my opinion on Alliance weapons manufacturers. Our dear Captain led us into and out of battle, but it was Adrian who ensured we had supplies and equipment for victory. Without him, the Star Rangers would not be where we are today."
Corey leaned down to Sebastian, grasped his shoulder in one massive hand, and spoke softly. "Perhaps this is unorthodox, but I had a gift for Adrian." Corey reached into his jumpsuit's breast pocket, withdrew a small gold object on a chain, and offered it to Sebastian. Its cruciform shape glittered under the cargo bay's fluorescent lighting.
"What's this?" Sebastian asked.
"It is the Ankh of Kohoutek. I understand it is foreign to your culture, but I desired him to have it. It is our symbol for life and death. We are buried with it, a sign that we are the favored of Kohoutek. It is also a harbinger of good fortune. When given to one of another species, it is a sign that they meant much to a jackal at one point. He taught everything to me, even if it was not his intent. I had intended to present it to him when he returned from the mission."
Sebastian coiled up the small chain. "Thank you, Corey. It's quite thoughtful of you."
Without another word, Senior Lieutenant Corey Delzano turned on his heels and retreated to his seat.
Sebastian placed the ankh aside. "I realize most of you never knew Adrian," he said. "He was solitary, uncomfortable with crowds and other genera. He spent much of his time planning. He was modest and quiet, attentive to duty and detail.
"I remember when I first met him. We just advanced from Garrison Defense Forces to Star Alliance National Military. We had differences, he was from House Florenzo, I'm from House Lafayette. He had a pedigree and a long family history, and I did... not. We also shared much in common. We were young, idealistic, in second of four years mandatory service, sprinting through the ranks. We became tight, unified during our advanced training, as I was cross-trained on how to operate a modern titan. I already knew how to fly an aerofighter, so Adrian was important, the voice of reason while we conducted ground warfare. We served together in San-vel Vel-fyarffor nearly three years, star-hopping around the nation, me doing my war patrols in the aerofighter squadron, and then being redirected for urgent on-the-ground titaneering combat. I--We piloted a two-seat titan, so his voice was constant and reassuring as my gunner. I missed him when I was flying solo, but such is the will of the Alliance.
"He elevated in rank faster than I, because he was calm and methodical, and I was aggressive and independent. Even when he became my commanding officer, even when we fought against the Canis Dominion in the Tariff Conflict, we were still friends.
"When our tours ran out, I embarked as an independent mercenary and I sought to employ him. For four years, he turned me down, saying he wanted no more combat. When I finally incorporated the Star Rangers, I offered him the chance to be second in command, and he accepted. While an excellent gunner, his real strength was computers, strategy, logistics, and the big picture.
"It was Adrian who devised the architecture for nearly every mission in the past seven years. He came up with the order of battle, what force composition was required, and I executed it. It was his attention to detail that made us, and kept us, #1 in MerCom's mercenary rankings.
"I constantly lauded his war planning, but he was soft-spoken and modest. I would praise him for a well-planned operation, and he would merely smile and nod. He never talked about his personal life on-duty, it was always business. He told me once that if you fail to plan, then you plan to fail. He was an excellent officer: dutiful, responsible, focused. In a thousand generations, I could not have found a better executor, a better assistant captain... a better friend."
Sebastian screwed up his muzzle, choking back the tears that longed to emerge. Even though talking about Adrian relaxed him and his speech, he dare not cry in front of his crew.
"Now let us begin the Touch phase." Sebastian grabbed a bundle of flowers from the table. "The zulican flower is the most sacred plant to the vulpine genus. Max Himself discovered them growing wild in the otherwise-barren wastes of Genesis, the lone native plant-life of our home planet. He named them after His mate and our fellow Founder, Zulica, for it was said that their vibrant orange petals matched Her magnificent pelt, and were the only thing that could rival Her beauty.
"Our ancestors cultivated them, cherished them, and when we departed the cradle of Genesis for the stars, we took the zulican with us. It thrived upon the worlds we colonized, growing in the harshest of soils, sprouting and spreading as did we. It is said that the flowers represent our genus' very vitality, blossoming freely when we prosper and withering when we falter. During the Golden Age, much of the galaxy was covered in zulican flowers, but when we stumbled and fought each other, they retreated. When we fled a system, the zulican flowers upon it died, for they cannot live without our presence.
"They are the ultimate symbol of the vulpine genus, our common origins, eternally binding the Houses despite our differences. Max said that its three petals stand for our birth, our life, and our death. Its ability to thrive in harsh climes is representative of our survivability, and its majestic appearance symbolizes our beauty. It dies when one of its petals is removed, a message that should our genus become divided against itself, we will fall. As the only native plant to Genesis, it is also a memento from our homeworld and humble beginnings.
"Every fox throughout the galaxy takes these lessons to heart and cultivates their own personal crop of zulican flowers. They follow us wherever we venture. These are Adrian Miller's zulicans; with his death, so comes theirs."
Sebastian waved a paw over the blossoms, whispered a short prayer in his native Volpa, and offered them to the dog seated closest.
"They will now be passed around," Sebastian said. "Touch them with the utmost of solemn respect, and reflect upon the way Adrian has touched our lives."
He stepped back to watch the path of the bright orange flowers. Paw to paw they travelled, through the hands of collies, gersheps, goldas, corgen, dingos, dholes, coyotes, carthagans, and the dozen non-canine minority present.
At journey's end, Randolph returned them, the lone human in his crew. He smiled and handed them to Sebastian.
"That was a lovely sermon, sir," Randolph said.
Sebastian nodded absently, distracted by the flowers. He stroked the delicate, velveteen petals; only an hour ago, he had retrieved them from Adrian's quarters, and their life was already fading.
"Thank you," he said, stepping back to the podium. Only one final task remained.
"The concluding stage begins, the Farewell. The casket will be opened, and each will file past, saying a short prayer for the departed's spirit. This is the last chance to say goodbye to Assistant Captain Adrian Miller, for after this, the casket will be permanently sealed."
Sebastian placed his paws upon the pine surface of Adrian's coffin. It lay horizontal, with little flair or flourish, elevated on a pair of universal cargo containers. All that denoted the box's significance was its coat of paint, the cerulean base and tan trim of Adrian's native House Florenzo. Sebastian had taken an entire day just to paint the casket in the House Florenzo tincture. It was the least he could do.
With a solemn heart, he drew open the upper half. There Adrian lay, silent and peaceful, naked as per custom. He'd never looked better; Sebastian couldn't even tell he'd been shot.
Something was missing.
His hackles raised, his fur bristled. He spun on his heels and pointed an accusing paw at Corey Delzano. "Where is it... where is it!?"
"Where is what?"
Sebastian clenched his paws into tight fists. "Adrian's fallora. Where is it?" Corey stared back in stunned silence. Infuriated, Sebastian snatched the waist end of his sash and waved it at Corey. "This! Where is Adrian's?"
"In his belongings, where it has been packed."
"You miserable cur!" Sebastian said. "You told me you knew our rituals, the Rite Of Passage! You said you studied our sociology and culture! You said that you'd be able to handle preparations while I organized service!"
"I was never told of your sash! They said your kind was buried fully naked!"
Sebastian stalked up to the seated jackal. His fury was hampering his common language skills, and he began dropping extraneous words. Reverting back to his native Volpa tongue.
"Do you have idea what you done? You know what fallora means to us? It is civilization, sentience, connection to past and ancestry. It separates us from stupid dogs like you! Without it, he's worthless, savage like you pathetic lappunds!"
"I swear by Kohoutek, I did not know--"
"Shut your ugly brown vullisvolk face! Your thoughtless actions, empty promises have disgraced honor and memory of my best friend!"
Randolph stood. "I'm sure Corey meant no offense--"
"Muzzle it," Sebastian said. "This Ritual is terminated. All leave. Now."
He turned his back to his crew. He had failed Adrian on the mission, failed him again by passing such a solemn duty to an Outsider. He had been so careless, and had only himself to blame. What was he thinking? How could he have let an Outsider disgrace Adrian like this? This was Sebastian's fault. He had failed Adrian.
The congregation ebbed away, silent save for the rustle of tails upon fabric and boots upon steel. Corey approached from behind and placed a paw on Sebastian's arm. It felt cold.
"Go," Sebastian said. "Leave now."
"Leave, affakravox. There is nothing to say to you."
Corey clenched his paws, wrung them, and stared down at the smaller fox. His jaws worked as if he wanted to speak, but Sebastian kept his back to him. Crestfallen, Corey left the fox alone in the cargo bay.
Sebastian fell against the coffin. He slammed his fist on it and mumbled in his native tongue, but the Volpa came out incomprehensible, discomforting. And like his Creator, 490 years before, the fox wept.