VetTech Pagnotto is about to find out if he has what it takes to be a Hospitaller.
Oulu is Pagnotto’s first mission off Hephaestia as a Wutenigel handler. He and the Wutenigel he’s named Thumb have come with Ascalon company to Oulu as a supernumerary. Thumb can identify and name every scent it encounters. With Pagnotto and Thumb as part of Ascalon company, the Hospitallers hope to find the source of recent terrorist-style bombings.
An attack on a Texarkanian community pulls the Hospitallers deeper into the global conflict. Uncovering secrets puts the entire company at risk of total annihilation.
Can Pagnotto and Thumb survive long enough to do their part in the mission? Can they survive a world seemingly hell-bent on their destruction?
Standoff on Oulu is the third book in the Stories of the Orphan Corps series. Just like Rescue on Gimhae and Deceit on Panchala, Standoff on Oulu is a self-contained story full of martial adventure, political intrigue, moral dilemma, and an abundance of destruction.
Get Standoff on Oulu now and be part of the Stories of the Orphan Corps universe.
It’s the next best thing to being there. (And less dangerous.)
Veterinarian Technician Grade Four Estaban Pagnotto, could see the stares even as he sought to not see them. It was difficult not to notice when every other Hospitaller on the cutter was looking at the same spot. He understood the reason, but that did not make it any easier. But then, the Wutenigel strapped into the jump seat next to him had been under his charge since it was a welp.
Still not looking, Pagnotto put up a hand and stroked the top of the Wutenigel’s had. The broad, flat hairs were smooth, as long as he pushed with the grain. The other way, he’d rewarded with a palm striated with scratches. That was something he’d learned early in his burgeoning days as a Wutenigel handler.
The Wutenigel, who Pagnotto had named Thumb, leaned into the caress. It made a chuffing noise, similar to a feline just prior to regurgitating a hairball.
“That thing going to throw up?”
Pagnotto looked forward. The cargomaster, Sgt Brewer, had a concerned look on his face.
“He’s purring.” Pagnotto kept his grin tucked behind his teeth. He knew that Thumb’s ‘purring’ was disconcerting to anyone one who hadn’t worked with Wutenigels. He’d felt the same way.
“That’s purring?” asked a private first class sitting in a jumpseat opposite Pagnotto. “If it is, I don’t think I want to hear it angry.”
“You’d be surprised,” Pagnotto said. He gave Thumb’s snout a gentle tap. “Guard.”
The broad, flat hairs on Thumb’s neck stood, like a wreath of death. Thumb’s eyes narrow, and then it began to chirp, like a robin on a spring morning.
The silence elsewhere in the bay of the cutter was as unusual as Thumb’s warning sounds.
“Wait, that’s supposed to scare someone off?” A corporal, one of the last to board, was leaning forward as he spoke.
“Still,” said Pagnotto. Thumb went silent, his hackles flattened. Pagnotto rewarded the Wutenigel with a sticky biscuit the size of his palm. “It’ll scare someone off if they don’t know better.”
Thumb opened its mouth to eat the biscuit, revealing more than a hundred sharp, pale-red, needle pointed teeth.
“I’m scared now,” said a Hospitaller who’d had the unfortunate luck of having to sit on the other side of Thumb. The simple gray shoulder cord meant she was a buck private. Likely on her first deployment. She took a sideways look at the Wutenigel and then asked, “How can something be so scary and be called ‘Thumb’?”
Pagnotto returned to stroking Thumbs head, eliciting the chuffing sound of happiness.
“When Thumb was a welp, it used to try and suckle on my thumb.”
“Oh, okay,” the private said. She held out a hand. “May I?”
“Sure. Just do it like I’m doing it so you don’t hurt yourself.”
With some trepidation the private put her hand on Thumb’s head and stroked with the grain. Thumb’s chuffing noise increased. The private paused.
“Is that a good sign?”
Pagnotto smiled. “It is.”
“Wait,” said the private first class on the opposite side. “You put your thumb in that mouth? With those teeth? Let me see you thumbs. You have thumbs, right?”
Pagnotto gave two thumbs-up and said, “When they’re welps, they don’t have teeth. And even after that, they come in slow, so it’s used to it.”
“Why do you say it?” the private stroking Thumb’s head asked.
“Because Thumb isn’t male or female, not yet. Two more years and Thumb will decide.”
Everyone paused as the tone of the cutter’s engines shifted. They were maneuvering to dock with the carrier ship, Gastone.
Even though it was temporary, this was Pagnotto’s first time assigned to a unit on a carrier. In fact, this was the first time he’d ever been assigned to a different units since he went to Hephaestia to train with the Wutenigel.
“Hey, what’s he doing?” The private next to Thumb was leaning away from the Wutenigel.
Thumb had its nose pointed in the private’s direction and was making a series of grunts and low whistles, backed by a pulsing hum.
Pagnotto laughed and touched Thumb’s head. The Wutenigel stopped the sounds. “Sorry for laughing,” Pagnotto said. “Thumb was naming you.”
“Naming me?” The private pointed at her chest. “I have a name.”
“We all do,” said someone on the other side of the bay.
A rough vibration rumbled through the cutter.
“Preparing to dock,” said Sgt Brewer.
After the sergeant gave his explanation, Pagnotto gave his.
“Wutenigel identify everything by smell. Then they give that smell a name. The sounds you just heard, private, are the sounds of your name/song. Fifty years from now, you could cross his path and he’d still remember you and your name/song.”
Pagnotto could see a lot of amazed looks on the faces of the Hospitallers around him. What they didn’t also know was that he had been chosen to work with the Wutenigel because he had an eidetic memory primarily focused on sound. He had not yet forgotten a single name/song that Thumb had shared with him. Likely, he never would.
A loud thunk reverberated through the cutter as the carrier’s docking clamps latched onto the aft end of the carrier. The bright red interior lights flickered, replaced by a cool white. What ever attention had been focused on Pagnottto and Thumb, shifted to exiting the cutter and moving onto the loading deck of the Gastone.
Pagnotto had already unlocked his restraints and was undoing Thumb’s when someone tapped his shoulder. Before he could turn to see who it was, Thumb began emitting a name/song. It was new and easy to recognize.
“Private,” Pagnotto said.
“Hi. I just wanted to thank you for introducing me to your Wutenigel. And to tell you my name isn’t ‘private,’ it’s Lamb. Pvt Debbie Lamb.”
She held out her hand and Pagnotto shook with his.
“Who are you attached to?” Pvt Lamb asked. It wasn’t a line like someone would use in a bar. It was the kind of question any Hospitaller, any soldier, would ask another.
“Ascalon Company, Italia Lange,” said Pagnotto.
Pvt Lamb grinned. “Me, too.”
Pagnollo, Pvt Lamb, a second private, and a sergeant were met by Cpl Barber, Ascalon Company clerk. He checked their identification and names against a roster on his tablet, shook hands with everyone but Thumb, and started them on the extended walk down to the Italia Lange deck of the Gastone.
Along the way, Pagnollo learned that the other private was Pvt Garza, also on his first assignment, and Sgt Washington had just signed for six and was coming over from Anglo-Bavaria Lange on the drop-ship carrier, Garnier. He was filling the position of squad leader that opened after Ascalon company’s last deployment.
At the company offices, Sgt Washington, as senior of the four new transfers, went in Maj Bass’s office first. He came out a few minutes later and nodded to Pagnotto and the two privates before exiting.
“The major asked to see you last, Pagnotto,” said Cpl Barber. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“No,” said Pagnotto. As if he could contest the major’s request.
Pvt Lamb gave him a sympathetic smile before entering the office with Pvt Garza. They were inside the office a little longer than Sgt Washington and left just as efficiently.
“Okay,” Barber said. “It’s your turn Pagnotto.”
Barber stepped back away from the hatch, his eyes more on Thumb than Pagnotto.
Pagnotto stepped over the hatch threshold. Thumb bounded over right behind him.
“VetTech-4 Pagnotto reporting for duty, Maj Bass,” Pagnotto said. He’d come to a halt on the customary position, making his right turn and saluting. Thumb had followed close behind and sat to Pagnotto’s right as Pagnotto reported in.
The major nodded and Pagnotto dropped his salute. “Who’s this?” asked Maj Bass. He leaned forward, over his desk, his attention on Thumb.
Pagnotto pointed with a hand at Thumb. Thumb responded by pushing its head against the tips of Pagnotto’s fingers. “This is Thumb, Major. A Wutenigel.”
The major nodded and sat back. “At ease Pagnotto. I’ve never seen a Wutenigel in real life. Just images and vids and I have to say, they look less terrifying there than in person. How dangerous is he. Her? No, wait, they choose their sex after some years. I read that. I think. That right Pagnotto?”
“Yes, Major. Two more standardized years and Thumb will be of age.”
“Anyone know how they decide?”
“Population, they think,” Pagnotto said. “More turn female if the population is low, more males if the population is high. Some stay neutral.”
“Especially if they are off Hephaestria,” Maj Bass said. “That was in the brief I read, too. Is the brief correct, Pagnotto?”
“I’m told the same thing, Major.”
“Great.” Maj Bass stood. “Mind if I let Thumb smell me?”
“No, Major. Please go ahead.”
Maj Bass came around his desk. As he approached Thumb, the Wutenigel began making the chuffing noise at the back of its throat. The major paused.
“That’s a happy sound.”
“I’d been told that if you think of sounds oppositely, you can better understand a Wutenigel’s emotions. So if Thumb starts sounding friendly to my ears, I should back off?”
“It’s not likely to happen, Maj Bass, but yes, that would be the wisest action.”
“Great.” The major smiled at Pagnotto and then focused on Thumb, slowly extending his hand.
Thumb looked at Pagnotto, who nodded permission. Thumb leaned forward on his front paws and sniffed at the major’s hand. A repeating combination of clicks, throaty whines, and whistles came from deep inside Thumb’s throat.
Pagnotto tilted his head, momentarily confused by the name/song. There were thousands of name/songs in his memory and it took a second for the answer he sought to sashay its way forward.
“Major Bass? Are you related to First Sergeant Katharine Bass?”
Major Bass grinned, looked very pleased. “1stSgt Bass is my fraternal twin sister. You’ve met her, then?”
“Before I received my orders, Major. 1stSgt Bass came to Hephaestria with General Comb from general headquarters.”
“So how’s that work, Pagnotto?” The major smiled at Thumb and returned to his side of the desk. “Are the name/songs exact?”
“No, Major. That’s what stumped me for a moment. It was close. An extra thump at the end of the song. 1stSgt Bass’s had a slightly higher tone.”
“I don’t know what’s more impressive, Pagnotto. The Wutenigel’s ability to identify smells or your ability to interpret the songs. Either way, I’m glad to have you along on this mission.”
“You sure that thing will be safe?” Sgt Aguilar’s voice made it clear he had his doubts.
“I’ve slept in a room full of them, Sergeant.”
“Yeah,” said Sgt Aguilar. He still sounded doubtful. “But maybe you don’t taste as good as me?”
Pagnotto laughed. “Sorry, Sgt Aguilar. Those teeth are used to tear open seed pods back on his homeworld.”
Sgt Aguilar pointed a finger Thumb, quickly pulling it back as Thumb pushed his snout forward. “That’s a vegetarian?”
“It takes a chainsaw for us to tear through the seed pod casing,” Pagnotto said. He pulled out another sticky biscuit for Thumb as he talked. “Wutenigels can cut through in one bite. Once their teeth are in.”
“So he’s safe.”
“Yes, Thumb is safe,” said Pagnotto. He decided it wasn’t worth the effort to explain Wutenigel gender to Sgt Aguilar.
They’d entered the 1st platoon bunkroom. It was on the same deck as the other companies of the Italia Lange, but more aft of center. The thrum of the engines was a white noise of sound here. The bunks stuck out from the two bulkheads like stubby teeth. Tables with benches ran down the center. Lockers were set into the bulkheads between the bunks. Several small groups of Hospitallers were grouped around two of the tables. Pagnotto could see several other Hospitallers reclined on their bunks, tablets resting in their hands.
The conversations that had buried the engine thrum ceased the moment Pagnotto entered the room. A different conversation fired up the moment the men and women in the room noticed Thumb.
“What is that?” Someone in the far group asked.
Sgt Aguilar clapped Pagnotto on the shoulder. “VetTech Pagnotto.”
Everyone laughed, Pagnotto included.
“Seriously, Sgt Aguilar. Is this a nightmare? Should I wake up?” The Hospitaller talking had the two colored braid cord for a corporal. She’d stood and was looking over the heads of two other Hospitallers.
“This is a Wutenigel,” Sgt Aguilar said. “And this is its handler, VetTech-4 Pagnotto. And he will answer all your questions.”
Pagnotto did his best to answer all the questions. It took some time. Thumb seemed to enjoy the extra attention and the extra sticky biscuits. They had to demonstrate the name/song several times. This included ‘guess the object in the box,’ which Thumb got correct every time.
Finally, when most of the Hospitallers in 1st platoon were satisfied with Thumb’s skills and mostly assured they would not be eaten in the middle of the night, Cpl Cross showed Pagnotto to his bunk.
“Fortunately there’s plenty of extra bunks for visitors like yourselves,” Cross said. So you can have a bottom bunk and your Wutenigel can have a bottom bunk of his own.”
Cpl Cross stroked the top of Thumb’s head, eliciting the chuffing of happiness.
“Thank you, Cpl Cross,” Pagnotto said. He unhitched the duffel he was carrying, letting it hit the floor. His other gear was in a locker that would be secured to a bulkhead in the ready-room. For now, he was free to relax
“Chow’s in two,” Cross said.
As she walked away, Pagnotto tapped the second bottom bunk and Thumb jumped on it, sniffed it, name/songed it, and laid down. Pagnotto forewent the name/song for his mattress and laid down, too. It had been a long day and a half of travel.
“Wait, corporal?” Pagnotto reached up and touched the steel plate of the bunk above his. “What’s with all these names?”
A rough estimate made it out to fifty names. Many were dim with rust, a few were still bright with youth.
Cpl Cross knelt by the bunk and looked up. She nodded and said, “Those are the names of every Hospitaller who ever slept in this bunk.”
“Is that allowed?”
Cross patted Pagnotto on the arm and stood. “It’s not not allowed. And no Hospitaller wants to be forgotten. I’ll let you know when it’s chow call.”
She walked away, leaving Pagnotto to examine the names. Privates, corporals, sergeants. All of them had occupied the bunk at one time or another. They’d all scratched their names here as they laid on their backs.
It was a fixation among Hospitallers. The only family that would mourn their loss was the one the worked beside, fought beside.
Pagnotto dug into a pocket and pulled out his pen knife. The same knife every Hospitaller orphan received on their fifteenth birthday. He flipped it open and began to scratch his name next to Pfc Felix Murray.
“Never forgotten,” Pagnotto whispered into the silence. “Always remembered.”