It was a somber moment.
The trooper they had rescued, Spitz, was dropped off at the nearest base hospital - Seattle - before the return flight to Hawaii. No sooner had the pilot reached an altitude of ten thousand feet, than she cried out in alarm, and the transport had lurched. For a few seconds, they were were freefalling, before the copilot took control. Hook hurried forward, to find the pilot quietly sobbing. The copilot said nothing, but flipped a switch, and the speakers came alive. SICON rews flooded the airwaves with report after report of the arachnid offensive on Earth. Paris. Washington, D.C. Los Angeles. Beijing. Sydney. Berlin. Moscow. Bombay. Cape Town. Cairo. Lisbon. Bogota. Rio de Janeiro.
The bugs seemed to know how to demoralize humanity. Because it certainly affected the pilot's ability to fly. When Hook moved back to the cargo hold, the faces of the troopers displayed a wide range of emotions. Shock, anger, frustration, bitterness.
Hook's squad had heard the news.
More than any of them wanted to hear.
The only silver lining to be found was the MI squad who took on, and defeated, imposter bugs in North Dakota.
Back at the barracks, Hook successfully concealed his tension the moment he stepped through the door. Chiquita, Cyber, and Kai moved to the back of the open-bay barracks, where their bunks were. Doc, Nanoforge, and Smoke, all three feeling out of their league, quietly took the front three beds.
Hook barely had time to gaze at the memo on his desk, when the door to his tiny office opened, and Chiquita approached his desk.
"Note to self: lock door behind you," he said drily.
She ignored the sarcasm. "When were you going to tell us?"
She looked at the ground. "You knew. Long before the mission. You knew those three were going to be joining the squad."
Hook closed his eyes, and leaned back in his chair. "What gives, Chiq? That they're new? Or that I didn't tell you?"
At that, Chiquita's eyes flashed. She approached his desk. "Didn't you see how that Marauder driver nearly killed Cyber?"
Right behind Chiquita, Nanoforge stormed in.
"Talking about me, Mills?" He said, looking at her nametag; there was a gleam in his dark eyes. "It's a pity the lieutenant didn't mention us before we met. I was so hoping my reputation would've preceded me."
Not to be outdone by a man five inches taller than her, Chiquita glared back. "My, my. It's so sad when a trooper has to rely on his poor marksmanship as his reputation."
Hook ignored their bantering, and tried to recall M'Ril's soft voice. Always, after the debrief, Hook and M'Ril would lapse into T'phetti, and talk freely. Mostly about the Hellions, but sometimes about her family at home. He loved to listen to her. She was full of grace and wisdom, and every moment spent with her was one more moment spent away from the war. He could still see her. As well as the remaining Hellions: T'Phar, Villetran, Kudro, N'Rairi, Deveraux, Leung. In Hook's drawer was a photograph of his family.
Tophet, when FedNet went looking for a squad of Skinnies successfully integrated into the Mobile Infantry, it was no surprise that Hook's Hellions were on the top of the list. Hook wanted no part of further propaganda, but it was T'Phar who suggested that it might be best for both parties. In a sense, T'Phar was right. Hook memorized every detail of that snapshot.
The FedNet reporter tried hard to get the Hellions to be as casual as they could. But how do you get two Skinnies to relax and be "normal?" Nothing the reporter did gave him the desired outcome, and the harder he tried, the more the Hellions - the human ones, at least - began to laugh. T'Phar and M'Ril weren't blind to the humor, and they themselves began to laugh.
And the moment was caught forever.
It was magic.
One of the few times Hook allowed himself a moment of pride. Plenty of other lieutenants commented to him how much a family the Hellions were. The framed portrait sat on his old desk, within easy reach. Now, it was relegated to the bottom drawer, which was barely used. Even now, it was hard for him to stomach that they were gone. All of them.
Mother, most of all.
Damn it! he thought, slamming his fist on the desk.
Nanoforge and Chiquita jumped, and looked over at him.
Hook had forgotten they were there. "Follow me," he said sternly.
Out in the open-bay barracks, Hook crossed his arms over his chest, and began to pace.
Seeing Nanoforge and Chiquita standing at attention behind the lieutenant, the other four squad members moved to stand before Hook.
Hook gazed at each trooper in turn. "It's been a few weeks since Steel, Roland, and Mills have used rank with each other. Now that the team is almost complete, let's call it, teamwork. That's right, boys and girls - can we say, 'teamwork?'"
No one said anything.
"I can't hear you," Hook continued.
Kai's jaw dropped open. "Is he serious?" She whispered to Cyber.
"When am I not serious, Roland?" Hook asked.
Kai blinked. "Teamwork?" she responded meekly.
"Very good. Now, rank. That's right - rank. We now have two Marauder specialists. Something I was afraid SICON wouldn't remember to send over. Corporal Forge and Corporal Jackson, who is our new medic. With Private Martin in the back, that leaves us one trooper short. But no worries. We've done well, so far. Grab your gear, people, we're heading over to the trainer."
"Right now?" Chiquita asked.
"As good a time as any. Why?"
She hesitated. "The news, sir. The bug attacks."
Hook turned sharply, and stared her down. His tone was far from friendly. "All the more reason for you to work as a team."
She looked down, and managed to whisper, "Yes, sir."
Nothing else was said as the squad scrambled to retrieve their armor and Moritas. It didn't take long for them to enter the arena of sim-combat; no other squad was in the building. It seemed the news of the attacks earlier in the day had shocked people into the lounges, cafeterias, or restaurants to watch the news.
Hook knew, he could feel it - there would be a time for battle. And it wasn't too far off.
The training officer actually seemed relieved someone was there to use the building. Get his mind off home, back in India; yes, Bombay was attacked, but that didn't mean any of the other cities were free from harm. His shaky hands programmed the battle, and he watched the squad fight.
Hook watched, as well.
The Cyberfreak, Kai, and Chiquita moved fluidly, as if the three could read each other's body language. Knew when it was time to duck and roll, fire and run, empty used clips and bang in new ones. Kai and Cyber were almost shoulder to shoulder, and without speaking, knew which bug to kill, thereby saving their ammunition. Chiquita stood a few feet behind, protecting them from behind.
The new trio, Nanoforge, Martin, and the new medic, Jackson, were nothing like that. They were all alone, firing wildly, and all over the place.
Hook raised an eyebrow.
Martin, the other black trooper, seemed to wince a lot, and favor his left leg. An easy target for the bugs, Martin was "killed" almost right away.
Jackson was next; he had seen Martin "killed' and went to help his fallen comrade. And was "gored" himself.
That left Nanoforge and the other three.
While Jackson and Martin were frozen in place, Nanoforge managed to hang on a few minutes alone. But alone, he was targeted, and it didn't take long for the sim-arachnids to get him, as well.
Cyber, Kai, and Chiquita held out another twenty minutes. They'd been in this position before. They knew how to read each other, knew how to read the bugs. Hook allowed himself a tiny moment of pride.
And then swallowed it.
He had nothing to do with their formula, save those long hours in the trainer. He had given them no advice. Had not taught them enemy movement. These three were a team because in their own way, they had bonded. He wasn't sure if they knew themselves, but that bond would save them. Or at the most, add a few more minutes to their lives.
Somewhere deep inside himself, Andrew Hook knew it was time for a change. If he was going to unify the squad, if he was going to add, and continue to add, days instead of minutes to their lives, he was going to have to teach them.
And that meant more contact with them. The office could no longer be a refuge. He would have to be....accessible.
He shuddered involuntarily, and closed his eyes. His stomach tightened, and he shook his head slowly. L'Mal, andu pre'quez. Mother, help me.