As far as Sparks was concerned, there were two chapters to his life – Before Marshaling and After Marshaling.
Before Marshaling, that was the Academy and flight simulators and his brother, Carson. That was his folks and their expectations and always being the second favorite son (no one ever told him so, but he'd spent his entire life with Caiaphas Nevada and wasn't a complete moron, so. He knew). That was also the war and the smell of burnt ozone and suddenly going from second son to only son.
After Marshaling, that was dust and Mars and the Red Plains Rider. It was his pistol in his hand and the feel of Mercury heaving under him as he rode across the desert and a parade of progressively crazier and stranger aliens, not the least of whom included his partner. Sometimes this life overlapped with the previous one in glancing, casual ways (stiff calls over subspace around Christmas time, a USSA ship in need of repairs requesting an emergency parking permit), but for the most part they were wholly separate from each other and that suited Sparks just fine.
Which was maybe why he never really thought before about introducing Croach to either of the elder Nevadas until his mother showed up out of the blue on his doorstep. Well, the marshal station's doorstep. Whatever. He didn't even know she was back in system again until he walked through the doors his own self and was greeted by the unmistakable sound of his mother's laughter.
He stood on the threshold long enough for the AI to peevishly tell him “The marshal station doors are still open, Marshal Nevada,” leading to the two other occupants to take notice. And boy, was that a surreal image to behold. On one side, Stacy Kerns-Nevada, hair still more black than grey and tied back in a neat bun, dressed in her crisp, blue USSA uniform. Take away the fact she was his mother and she appeared every inch the perfect space force officer. A far cry from Croach, in his dusty buckskin trousers, worn boots and shirtless vest. Even their skin tone seemed at odds, Croach's freckled blue contrasting with Stacy's olive.
“Noodle!” Stacy smiled, deepening the lines around her mouth and eyes. She waved him in, like he'd just arrived home and she had a casserole waiting for him.
“Mom,” he answered, feeling more than a little wary. Where his mother was, his father was sure to follow. But he was a dutiful son, least so far as Stacy was concerned, so he removed his hat and kissed her on the cheek. He ignored the intensely curious look Croach gave him. “Didn't tell me you were planetside.”
“Oh, we weren't going to be originally, but we made good time on the Centauri run and your father's given the crew shore leave for the next few days.” She gave him a solid hug before stepping back to assess, taking in his well-loved clothing, the low-slung laser pistol and the three-day stubble. She never commented on it, didn't even seem to mind the fact he tended to live rough, and yet it still made Sparks feel all of ten years old again, caught tracking mud inside her military-neat house. “So good to see you, Noodle.” He got another hug.
“Yeah, uh, you, too.”
Croach's frown deepened. “Pardon me, Commander Stacy Kerns-Nevada, but that is not Sparks Nevada's designation.” He tilted his head. “Has it been so long since you have seen your offspring that you have perhaps forgotten it?”
“Croach!” Sparks squawked, but that just prompted another peal of laughter from Stacy.
“It's a nickname, Croach the Tracker,” she said, giving his hand a little pat, which didn't seem to help the Martian's confusion at all. “We give them as terms of affection.”
“Ah, yes. Of course.” Which in Croach-speak meant he was still baffled by this human custom but was making a mighty effort not to appear rude.
Sparks decided that if he was going to be spending the rest of the day chaperoning the both of them, he needed quite a bit more caffeine. He busied himself at the ancient food dispenser, programming in a dark, black roast before sticking a mug into the alcove. As he waited for it to percolate, he leaned against the wall and tried to appear casual as he asked, “Dad down here, too?”
“No, he wanted to oversee the re-stock of supplies. Next mission is going to take us out for six months into the black and you know how he gets on the long-term voyages.”
Sparks rolled his shoulders back, some of the tension draining from him. “Well, shame he couldn't make it.”
Stacy's eyes narrowed. “Lying doesn't become you, Noodle.”
“'m not lying!” Her eyes narrowed further. “Just, y'know, not so – I mean – ah hell, Ma, we'd just be fighting anyway.” He took his finished coffee from the alcove and swallowed as much down as he could to prevent himself from talking anymore.
“You could try speaking to one another, like civilized adults. I hear that's all the rage these days.” She turned to Croach. “Do Martian fathers and sons ever argue so much they no longer speak to each other? Even if it's only because the two of them insist on being the stubbornest pair of asses this side of Jupiter?”
“Oh, come on, Mom, don't bring Croach into this-”
“We are taught to always be respectful of our progenitors and if there is disagreement between blood relatives, we can seek out St'ave H'rvey the Arbitrator of Family Feuds.” He tilted his head. “However, I am given to understand by the works of Rebecca Rose Rushmore that this is an option unavailable to humans and is the cause of much upset among your species.”
“You read Rebecca Rushmore?” If Stacy had been a dog, her ears would have perked right up. Sparks started developing a bad feeling about the direction of this conversation.
“We all read Rebecca Rose Rushmore. She is how my tribe learned to speak the geographically isolated Earth dialect known as English. My own female progenitor is particularly fond of The Bakula-Mulgrew Family Saga.”
“Oh, I love that series!”
And bad feeling confirmed. His mother and Croach. Bonding. Sparks made himself another cup of coffee, bigger than the first, and prayed that someone came in to ask for his help catching some robot outlaws before he was forced to oversee the creation of Mars' first Rebecca Rose Rushmore Fan Club.
He did not get robot outlaws.
He instead got an in-depth discussion on the difference between the Bakula-Mulgrew series and the Sheriff Brooks of Bebhionn trilogy, followed by a brief argument regarding Rushmore's use of common characters across all of her novels and whether one was expected to accept that they were all within the same continuity (Croach insisted it was obvious they were intended to be part of the same universal canon and he had a ten part presentation - with Venn diagrams - on that very subject if Stacy would care to sit down and listen; Stacy declined).
Then they moved on into criticizing his reading preferences.
“Hey,” he said. “I read.” They gave him twin looks of weary skepticism and how his mother in a matter of hours was able to teach that emotion to Croach when he still had difficulty defining sarcasm to the Martian was beyond him. “I do! Read the paper off the 'net nearly every morning.”
“That's not really the same, Noodle.”
“You cannot compare the talent needed to develop an entire fictional narrative to the mere stenography of journalism.”
“Okay, A, I have actually known journalists and that is... not completely accurate and B, I might be a little bit busy marshaling, y'know, an entire planet to have time to sit down and read at length any time I like.”
His mother sighed. “Oh, Sparks, did Space Sesame Street teach you nothing?”
“Yeah, I'm going back to my paperwork now.”
Or at least he would have if Felton didn't run right through the doors at that moment.
And he did mean through. As if the doors weren't there.
“Marshal! Marshal! Haaalp!”
And maybe Sparks was just a touch too happy about this development because he stood so fast he ended up knocking both his comm unit and a half dozen pens off his desk. “Yes! Felton! There an emergency? Robots? Science aliens? Someone trying to blow up the planet?”
“No! It ain't -” Felton blinked, looking even more startled than usual. “Why? What did you hear?”
“Nothing, Felton. Just tell me why you're communicating by hologram right now.”
“Right, of course, Marshal, ha – oh, pardon me.” He noticed Stacy for the first time, immediately removing his hat. “Didn't see you there, ma'am.”
Stacy flapped her hand at him. “Oh, don't mind me. I'm just visiting my son.”
“Visiting? Say, are you the marshal's mother? I didn't even know he had family. Suppose it's right nice of you to come on down though, wish my mother would.”
“Oh, sorry, Marshal. But, Marshal! Halp!"
“Yeah, we got that part already. Help with what?”
"Well, see I was going to the bank on account of it being Wednesday an' I always go to the bank on Wednesdays, since it's right next door to the bakery and they've got those sweet scones on special today an' you know me, Marshal, have a big ol' sweet tooth, can't ever hardly resist 'em.”
“So, right, I was standing in line to make my deposit, like I normally do and I was thinking on those scones and hoping they had the chocolate ones this week, like I normally do, and then do you know what? Armed robbers come in, that's what! And Marshal? Marshal, that is not what normally happens!”
“I wouldn't reckon so. Where they at right now?”
“That's part of the problem, Marshal! They shoved us all into the back office like a herd of hypercattle an' locked us in, but I guess they forgot about the old holo-emitters they still have here from back when this was the theater building, so Mister Stewart, he said he could get 'em up and running again an' I said well, I should go get the Marshal as it would be easier to get past the robbers being incorporeal an' all so, here I am. Or at least my projection is, on account of me currently being held hostage in the bank.”
“Incorpo – Felton, you realize you ain't invisible, too, right?”
“What?” And then in the tinny distance, Sparks could hear a man yell, “Hey you, the hell you think you're doing?” Followed by Felton's hologram abruptly being yanked backwards by a pair of disembodied arms entering into the projection field. His left foot managed to stay in sight just long enough to kick outwards twice before that, too, vanished.
Sparks immediately opened his desk drawer and found the extra charge for his pistol. “Croach, need you to go scout out the bank, see if you can get a read on how many guys we're dealing with. I'll meet you over there.”
Croach sketched a quick, formal bow to him and slipped out of the station. Sparks unlocked the weapons cabinet and grabbed his robot fists. “Mom, sorry 'bout this, but -”
The whine of a pistol charging interrupted him. He turned and saw his mother strapping one of his extra holsters to her hip, her regulation weapon out and ready.
“What're you doing?”
“What's it look like I'm doing?” She sighted her pistol and slid it into the holster. “You didn't think I was just going to sit here looking pretty, did you?”
“Um, no?” Yes, actually, that was exactly what he thought. And judging by his mother's expression, she knew it, too.
“Sparks Hansal Nevada, who is a highly decorated USSA officer with nearly thirty years' experience?”
“And who out-performed you, your father and half of last years' Academy graduates in marksmenship tests?”
“Now, what was your plan about stopping these terrible men at the bank again?”
“I was... going to ask my mother if she wanted to help?”
She patted his cheek. “Good boy.”
The bank occupied the substantial part of one corner along Main Street, the marquee from its original use as a theater still hanging above the primary entrance. It actually still worked but instead of lighting up with announcements about the latest traveling musical or the newest play from Mars'. Own. Saldana. Pines! it just projected its name, along with time and temperature. Or at least it should have, but it remained dark and blank.
Not the most encouraging of signs.
The two Nevadas approached from an angle, trying to avoid the sight lines from the front of the building. The general store across the way offered decent cover behind its sidewalk display, so Sparks hunkered down behind it while Stacy shooed prurient gawkers off the street.
“Geez, Croach! Give a man a heart attack, why don't you.”
Croach tilted his head. “I am unable to attack your heart from this position without a great deal of difficulty and at least one extra joint.”
“You – you know what? Ain't important. What's the situation on the inside?”
“I perceived at least three humans with two weapons a piece, one of whom appeared to be what you designate a cyborg. There are also fifteen humans and one resident of the planet Pal'chikov all in a single room in the rear of the building.”
Sparks swore creatively for a solid fifteen seconds before his mother swatted his head and said, “Language, Noodle.”
“Not exactly my top priority now, Mom.”
“No reason to let your manners slide.”
Sparks sighed and rubbed at one ginger eyebrow with the knuckle of his thumb. “Alright. Croach and I'll stay here, wait 'til they come out, try and get them further away from the building. Mom, go around back, see if you can get the hostages free that way.” He dug around in the pocket of his duster until he found an extra deputy's star and handed it off to her. “Comm me when they're clear.”
She gave him a jaunty little salute and sidled her way around the corner. Sparks tried not think too much about the fact that she would be on her own and he may not know anything was wrong until the shooting started. Tried to remind himself she was right about her abilities and qualifications and that she could take care of herself.
“Your female progenitor is quite capable, Sparks Nevada.”
Sparks started, realizing he'd been staring after her. “Yeah.” But he was still gonna worry, because, well, she was his mom. Sue him.
“Right. Let's wait 'em out.”
Didn't take long for it. Three figures emerged from the shadowed entrance. One man, maybe thirty, thirty-five, with a short, compact build and a face a mess of pockmarked scars. Woman next to him looked about the same age, though she was nearly half a foot taller and had a plasma rifle slung over her shoulder. The third, the cyborg, Sparks recognized.
“Aw, hell. Deforest Barrett.”
Croach's mouth turned down. “He has a 'Wanted' holo posted in your office.”
“Five counts of armed robbery, fourteen counts of fraud, one count of attempted murder, and two counts of impersonating a priest.”
Croach's frown deepened. “I believed he would be taller.”
Sparks shook his head. “Croach, pal, that is the least of our problems.” He needed Barrett and company focused on him, give Stacy enough time to find the hostages and get out of there. “Hey, Deforest!”
The cyborg looked over as his two companions swung their weapons up to bear. He focused on the barrels and pile of rope giving Sparks most of his cover. “Oh, hey, that you, Marshal?”
“Yeah, 's me. Whatcha doing out here, Deforest?” Next to him, he heard the soft fzzt of Croach drawing on his quantum bow. The heat from the arrow warmed the side of Sparks' face as his partner found an exposed target between the cracks of their hiding spot and took aim.
“Aw, see, I was just trying to have a quiet day, Marshal. Visiting the bank, taking out some cash, making sure it all was real peaceful-like.”
“Well, that's a bit of a problem, Deforest.” Sparks slowly withdrew his pistol, unlatching the safety. “Seems that money don't belong to you.”
“Think it does, Marshal. Think me and this little ol' bitty detonator I got makes it so.”
His breath caught. From the commed star on his chest, he heard his mother say, “Bit of a development here, Noodle. Going to take a little longer than I thought.”
“Croach,” he hissed.
“I see it, Sparks Nevada,” Croach murmured back, his bow as steady as it came.
Sparks raised his voice again. “You're not gonna blow those people up, Deforest!”
“Well, that depends on you, Nevada, now don't it?” Barrett shuffled a little bit closer to the throughway, a little bit closer to a set of modified horses enjoying a drink from the public trough. His partners kept their weapons trained on Sparks's location as covering fire, the hulking cyborg holding the detonator in plain sight above his head. “I'd hate to for my finger to slip simply 'cause I was startled by something.”
Sparks eyes flicked back to Croach. “You got the shot?”
“Marshal, I'm warning you -”
Croach let go of the tension in his bow, the techno arrow flying straight and true. It hit Deforest in his raised hand, the little detonator flying out of his grip. The device landed on the ground, tumbled once, twice, then lay still, halfway between Barrett's gang and the marshal trying to arrest them. Outlaws and lawmen spent a few moments in complete silence as they stared at the little box between them.
Over the comm, his mother said, “Right, I'm going to try something.”
Things moved rather quickly after that.
Sparks broke cover, firing off three quick shots at the short man. He felt the scorch of a plasma blast just barely miss his side as he whipped around the store's support post, his cover now far more limited.
“Okay, now if I recall my IED diffusion training correctly, the wire cuts should be 'green before red, you'll never be dead.' Or, hm, is it 'red before green, you'll be totally clean?'” floated over the comm.
The tall woman made a move for the detonator only to slide to a stop before one of Croach's arrows skewered her arm.
“Red? Green? Mrs. Nevada, you sure you know what you're doing?” Felton's disembodied voice chimed in.
The short man's rifle jammed and Sparks took the opening for a flying leap, slamming a robot fist into his scarred face.
“Now, Mr. Lagravenese, if you don't hold still, I won't be able to see which wire to cut at all.”
The tall woman switched from her rifle to a long knife, taking a wild swipe at Croach.
“Wh-what happens if you cut the wrong wire?”
Sparks tried to grab the detonator but a shot from Deforest's build-in raygun sent him scrambling back.
“Well, I don't mean to alarm you, but there's a not insignificant possibility we might just all blow-up.”
Croach blocked the woman's next swing at him with the hard edge of his bow.
Sparks dodged another shot and returned fire.
“Hold very, very still. Almost have it...”
Sparks seized another opening for the detonator and succeeded this time, sliding to his knees to scoop it up. He experienced a momentary thrill of triumph...
...before he froze at the cold feel of a raygun barrel pressed against his temple.
“End of the line, Marshal,” Deforest told him. Croach, his bow now pressed against the tall woman's neck in a sleeper hold made an abortive move toward them, only for Deforest jam his gun further into Sparks's skull. “Ah, ah, ah, Marjun, don't think you're quick enough to outrun a laser.”
“Gonna kill me anyway, Croach,” Sparks said. “You do what you gotta.”
Deforest seized him by the hair, jerking his head up in a painful stretch, gun never wavering from his temple. “Not kiddin' here, Marjun. You let my associate go an' you let me walk away with my bitty bomb or I kill the marshal, right here, right now.”
Croach glanced down at the woman sagging against him, then back up to Sparks. “Sparks Nevada.”
Sparks swallowed, manged out a “Yeah, Croach?” before Barrett yanked at him again, wrenching his shoulders and upper back.
“I am under onus to you on behalf of my tribe.”
“If you die, I will not be able to fulfill my onus, and will thus bring shame to all tribesmen of G'loot Proctaw.”
“Yeah.” Sparks closed his eyes and waited for the inevitable. “Sorry 'bout that.”
A shot rang out.
The hand around Sparks's hair went slack and the marshal found himself slipping sideways. He caught himself at the last moment, bent over in an awkward arch. It twinged his abused neck and shoulders, but on the upside, he wasn't dead. Which, ah, how wasn't he?
He looked up and beheld Commander Stacy Kerns-Nevada slowly lowering her still-smoking pistol.
“How you doing there, Noodle?” she asked and it sounded so tender, for a moment he thought he might actually weep.
“Oh, y'know.” He coughed, tried to clear the painful lump in his throat. “The usual.”
Stacy called in a group of MPs to haul off Barrett's crew. They took Barrett as well, still stuck in permanent error mode since Stacy's well-timed shot, and figured they'd try him in a federal Alliance court if he ever rebooted. Sparks would only be too happy if that never happened.
He took a week's sick leave and pretty much had Stacy mothering him non-stop the first two days, all your back still okay? you need another pillow there, Noodle? how about some more tea? Sparks grumbled the whole time, but was secretly sort of thrilled about it.
On the third day, she was due back on the Indomitable.
Sparks sat on his porch, nursing a coffee and watching as she kept double- and triple-checking her gear. When she wasn't busy double- and triple-checking him, that was.
“Now, I made you enough soup to last you the rest of the week. You know how to warm it up?”
“Yes, Mom, pretty sure over the course of my thirty-some odd years, I've learned how to warm up soup.”
“There's no need for the attitude, young man. Oh! You still have your pain pills?” Sparks poked at the little bottle standing next to his elbow. “Remember, it's one every six hours until Friday and -”
“No heavy lifting for at least another two weeks afterward.” Sparks tried and failed to hide his smile behind his mug. “You sure it's me with the pulled out back?”
She stared at him for a long, long moment, before leaning in and wrapping her arms around him. She didn't say anything, just held him and he let her because the best thing about his mother, about his relationship with her, was that sometimes neither of them needed to say anything at all.
It was only when Croach approached that she pulled back, finger dabbing quickly at her eyes.
“Commander Stacy Kerns-Nevada,” he said. “Greetings.”
“Greetings to you, too, Croach the Tracker,” she answered. “Delivering Sparks's morning paperwork?”
“Indeed. He insisted on it.”
“Damn straight I did,” Sparks said, holding out his hand for the pile. Sick leave was great and all for his back, but the hell if it wasn't incredibly boring. At least he could still perform the best part of his duties while laid out on his sofa.
Stacy smiled, a fond thing. “You're a good friend.”
“I am merely fulfilling the duties I must in order to achieve onul equilibrium. Friendship has no bearing on it.” Croach paused and, for the first time since Sparks had known him, looked distinctly uncomfortable. “However, as your actions allowed me to continue the work to fulfill my onus to Sparks Nevada, I am now under onus to you as well.”
She blinked, seemed baffled for a moment, then pulled Croach into a grade-A, giant Kerns-Nevada bear hug.
“Er,” Croach said.
“You're a good friend,” Stacy repeated and when she released him, gave him a wide grin. “Don't ever let anyone ever tell you different, Bunny, even if that anyone is you.”
She gave him a quick peck on the cheek, then turned to give Sparks the same. “Take care of yourself, Noodle.”
“You, too, Mom.” He paused, sighed and added, “And tell the old man, 'hi' for me, 'kay?”
The sun had nothing on Stacy Kerns-Nevada when it came to the brightness of her joy. “I'll get the two of you talking yet,” she told him and without waiting for a reply, grabbed her bag and departed for the morning stage
Croach frowned at him. “Your mother did not refer to me by my proper designation.”
“Nickname,” Sparks said.
“You spoke of that as a term of affection.”
“And your mother has given me one.”
Croach stayed quiet a moment longer, looking down at the ground. He scuffed his boot in the dirt. “Very well, I shall accept this 'nickname' as a part of fulfilling my onus to her.”
“Not how it works, but okay.”
“I shall contact her and tell her so.”
Now there was a terrifying idea, Croach and his mother in regular contact. But what the hell? Maybe Stacy could get the opportunity to fret over someone else for a change of pace and there were certainly worse people out there than Croach who could be fretted at.
He patted Croach on the shoulder, said, “You do that,” then walked inside to get another cup of coffee.