Energy reserves: -2,9%
Badass pushed Tooler off Noisome and helped the badger up. Tooler didn’t resist, shocked by the creature’s unexpected intelligence. Noisome sat up,
breathless, and tried to bare his teeth, but he was too weak to manage it. He panted angrily, staring at Badger-Bart as the man returned from the sett
with a happy grin.
“Why’s this one still alive?” Bart asked, noticing Noisome, and kicked him before anyone could react. Noisome whined and rolled away.
“Wait! He is intelligent, he talked to me,” interjected Tooler and jumped between Bart and Noisome. Badger-Bart burst out laughing.
“Yeah-yeah, sure he is.”
“I’m serious, Badass heard him too.”
But Badass was already next to Noisome, who lay curled up between the grassy mounds. The badger’s snout was bloody, his tongue lolled between his teeth and it was hard to say whether the creature was alive or dead. Badass felt his hands shake in a burst of adrenaline. He wanted to kill Bart there and then, beat him so deeply into the ground that not even the bastard’s nose would stick out. He’d never felt anything like it while hunting the spider-rats. He had been scared then, most of the time, worried that the creatures might eat him, but the urge to kill now reared its head.
“Let’s skin them right here,” Badger-Bart continued, throwing Keio and the dead badger to the ground. “No point dragging the innards home.”
“What’s wrong with you?!” shouted Keio, lying on the ground. Her hands were bound behind her with a vine and she tried, in vain, to sit up.
“We can’t skin them, these badgers are an intelligent species.”
Tooler spread his arms helplessly, wanting to stop Bart but not knowing how.
“So what if they are,” Badger-Bart shrugged. “They’re dead now and we shouldn’t let them go to waste.”
At that exact moment, Badass thought that Keio wasn’t the only one who lost her mind on this planet - Bart wasn’t exactly in his right mind either, there must have been something wrong with him if he let things get so far. If they wanted to build a new life on this world, a humane society, then this wasn’t the way to do it. He picked Noisome up, carried him to a smoother patch of earth and set him down more comfortably.
“Listen…” Bart scratched himself with pleasure. “It’s a question of survival. There’s few of us, we’re on an unfamiliar planet. This isn’t the time for fanciness or pity.”
“Yeah,” agreed Naiscy, whose arm was bloody. She must have been bitten by a badger and was now angry. “We should listen to Bart. It’s thanks to Badger-Bart that we’ve managed to survive so far.”
Keio had finally managed to sit up and headbutted Bart in the knee in helpless rage, but the man just pushed her off like an annoying insect.
“Why don’t you just ask the badgers for advice?” Keio said. “They’ve lived here since the previous settlers, they know the conditions and the landscape, they have technology.” She sobbed angrily. “But you… you’re greedy like roaches!”
The rest of them had gathered around the argument, looking in confusion from the unconscious Noisome, lying before Badass, to the badger corpses,
to Bart and Keio. Everything that had been so clear was suddenly turned upside down. There were now several leaders, several conflicting courses
of action - and they felt uncertain.
“And you!” Keio turned her furious glance to Badass. “Is that how you thank your allies who saved your life?”
Badass had nothing to say to that, the woman was right. But looking back, he couldn’t tell what he should have done differently and when. Every decision seemed unavoidable at the time. But as he had said that morning in Sprucetop: you couldn’t change the past, only the future. He stroked Noisome’s fur.
“I think we’ve gone too far. We won’t leave a very reasonable impression of humans if we fall onto an unknown world and immediately set off killing and robbing the locals. We must reach an agreement with the badgers, make peace and work together.”
“It’s probably a bit late for that,” said Leidi, glancing at the corpses. “I doubt they’d be willing to work with us now.”
Badass felt as if something had burst within him. The noise and hiss of the explosion drowned out all other voices. Gone was the whisper of wind in the leaves, the hum of insects, even the cries of birds, no animals roared in the distance and the chorus of frogs, shouting at each other over the lake, had fallen silent. It was as if the whole planet, even the earth below him - Mortalis itself - withdrew before Badass’s internal war, waiting for him to act.
“We’ll offer them something in return, to make up for our attack,” said Badass into the silence. Bart’s mocking laughter arose, breaking the spell. He could hear the frogs in the distance again, the wind running through the woods, the rustle of the trees.
“And what would that be?” Bart asked. “We have nothing! Maybe we’ll bring them badger skins as a sign of peace? Huh?” He guffawed loudly. There was something slightly crazy and maniacal in his laughter, something previously hidden, rising slowly to the surface. The others had gotten over their confusion by then and started talking at once. Those who had been startled by the attack on the sett and the bloodbath argued for peace, others were against it. Badass could barely shout over the commotion.
“Let’s ask the badgers themselves,” he exclaimed. “When last we spoke, they wanted me to find someone called the Iron Merchant. It seemed to be pretty important for them. Maybe we can start with that?”
“You can start, if you want,” Bart snapped. “I intend to skin those badgers.”
“Stop!” said Badass threateningly. Bart tilted his head. “And what if I don’t? What then? You’ll come at me? You’ll kill me?”
Badass’s eyes narrowed and he leaned closer, his fingers tightening around the axe, knuckles white. A nervous silence fell around them. Bart tensed up as well and they stood facing each other, ready to strike at any moment. Badass made one last attempt to solve things peacefully.
“I’ll give you my wolverine skin for these badgers. You’re already tanning it anyway. But I won’t let you skin them.” Seeing that Badass wouldn’t back down, Bart retreated a bit. He might have thirsted for the blood of badgers, but killing a human was something else.
“All right,” Bart agreed. “The carcasses are yours, if you want them so much. They’re pretty pitiful anyway.”
“And let Keio go,” added Badass. Naiscy glanced angrily at her.
“No way! That mad woman bit me.”
So it was Keio, not the badgers, thought Badass, but didn’t relent.
“It’s no big deal, the nanobots will repair it.”
That seemed to settle the matter and the tension sparking between them started to dissipate. Even so, the party divided itself into two groups. One of them gathered around Bart and Badass was sad to see Naiscy among them. The others looked towards Badass and Keio. Leidi stepped up to him.
“I can handle the negotiation with the badgers. I don’t want to stay in the same camp as Bart.”
Several others joined Leidi’s declaration. Bart, who had been discussing something with his sympathisers a few paces away, heard that, grunted and spat loudly. As fate would have it, the glob of spit fell on the snout of a dead badger, drawing some protests from his own ranks. Naiscy frowned as well. The necessities of survival were one thing, she could understand those, even ignore a few things for their sake, but defiling a corpse was another matter.
Badass glanced at Leidi and nodded, thinking whether her feelings of guilt over her experiments in the Sundisk’s genetics lab had anything to do with her decision. Maybe she wanted to make up for it somehow? Badass nodded again and forced himself to smile. He wanted to reconcile with Leidi and this move was a good opportunity. Even Naiscy immediately approved.
“Let it be so. This woman, Leidi and other volunteers will stay here to negotiate and we’ll leave the badger carcasses behind.”
Seeing Badger-Bart apparently content with this decision, Badass started to suspect that they wanted to get rid of his supporters, leaving the more active ones here.
“What will we do with the rest of the stuff?” asked a thin, young man, his lap full of loot stolen from the sett. It was 2-RD, Bart’s new apprentice, whom he’d been training to hunt the spider-rats. Badass glowered at him.
“Set it down and leave it here.”
The youngster sighed, glanced at Bart, who shrugged indifferently and let his things fall to the ground. He kept only a belt with many pockets across his chest,
that seemed to be his own handiwork. Leidi was already fussing with Keio, untying her hands.
“Tell them I’ll find that damned Iron Merchant and drag him back to their sett on a leash, if I have to,” Badass promised Keio before they left.
“See that you do. Empty promises won’t help negotiations,” replied Keio.
“Oh, I will. I think I already know where to find him.”
Leidi stepped up to Badass and embraced him.
“Be brave,” she said.
“Me?” wondered Badass. “It is you who must be brave, you’re staying behind in the sett.”
“I don’t know, the badgers seem safer company than Badger-Bart.” As if confirming her words, they heard Bart’s voice.
“We’ll bring this idiot along as a hostage.”
Bart stood tall over the still-unconscious Noisome. Badass narrowed his eyes and turned, reaching for his axe.
“What did you say?” he asked, and it sounded like a snarl.