Lieutenant Hook sat in stunned silence.
Even as he continued to watch the Sky Marshall on the large screen, even as Sanchezs lips moved, Hook heard nothing, save the echo in his head.
A head-on attack on the hive with only 150 Marauders?!
SICON was hoping for more than that, but production was lagging; not to mention nearly all maintenance crews were already overworked. The Mobile Infantry should count its blessings that they secured 150 Marauders.
Hook couldnt move. He was still pondering the attack with only Marauders. Most of the other officers in the large briefing room exchanged worried looks or whispered comments. Standing on the shadowed platform below the screen, General Redwing frowned at the buzz in the room.
Ladies and gentlemen please!"
All commotion ceased while the Sky Marshall allowed her to regain control.
Now is not the time. There will be ample opportunity to discuss this outside the briefing. For those squads with more than one Marauder-qualified driver, select only one and send them to the main hanger.
General, maam, a young lieutenant in the front row shook his head in disbelief, what did the Sky Marshall just say about the Psy Corps?
Redwing sighed. Werent they listening?
He said that each Marauder will not only be armed with two dozen of the Mark-46 missiles and refitted to carry more firepower. As well as one Psy-operator will have their own Marauder to oversee and protect.
What will that do?
On her glare alone, Redwing made the young lieutenant squirm in his seat.
Sharaabi looked up from her digital notepad and stepped onstage. A psy-operator is able to influence an invisible shield over the Marauder, thereby giving more protection and hopefully longer range than a normal frontal assault.
Redwing broke back in. The driver can go further, inflict more damage. The bugs wont see the Marauders until its too late, hopefully ensuring their survivability.
Sharaabi was the only one who noticed the worry flicker across the generals face.
Sanchez cleared his throat. You all have your orders in hand. Once you open them, the colored page will coincide with the map out in the lobby. Find your grid and get your people there, pronto! We dont have much time. Good luck.
Sky Marshall Sanchez stepped away from the camera, a silent cue for the sitting officers of the Mobile Infantry to jump to their feet at attention. As the screen went dark, Redwing left the room, flanked by her staff.
Ten seconds later, nearly everyone had opened their orders.
Except for Hook.
When Redwing left, he slipped out from his row and went to the lobby, planting himself dead center in front of the floor-to-ceiling worldwide map. Earth had been divided into primary colors: blue, red, green, yellow, black, brown, and white. His eye fell to where he was standing: Oahu.
Hawaii was red.
Hook sighed and opened his orders, just as the doors to the conference room were thrown open and a mad dash of officers rushed towards the grid.
His orders were red.
He looked back up.
The Hellions would be part of the first wave.
Lieutenant Hook put his game face on .not that he needed help in looking even more intimidating. Not that he cared how Nanoforge would react, Hook was simply curious how he was going to break it to the Ape that he was going to spend his time with one-hundred forty-nine other Marauder drivers.
He sighed who was he kidding? He didnt want to admit it, but he admired Nanoforge. The black man was incredibly efficient, intelligent and dare he say it? Funny, indeed. The rare moments he allowed his new squad to be themselves, Nanoforge fit in with the rest of them.
They all fit in. With each other. Hook cursed silently.
The new Hellions.
And they were. The New Hellions.
Hook opened the door and stepped into the interior of the barracks. He was greeted by the curious faces of his squad. Chiquita was already barking, Officer on the deck! Hook waited for the silence to become tense and then moved to stand his full height before Nanoforge.
You have one hour to get your gear and take your Marauder to the main hanger. Youll be joined by a hundred forty-nine other talented drivers like you.
Nanoforge was taken aback. What? The main hanger?
Chiquita felt a shudder go down her spine. Sir .whats going on? Why is he leaving us?
Hook sighed and rubbed the back of his neck wearily. Let me congratulate you people. You are to be the diversion of a frontal-assault on the main hive. A simultaneous assault of one hundred fifty Marauders.
Their jaws dropped, while both Doc and Kai let out, What the ?
Nanoforge felt his stomach drop. Oh, really? He asked softly.
Hook paced and then stopped in front of Spitz. Do you have anything to add, private?
She swallowed tightly, feeling all eyes on her. Then she sighed, Ill be your guardian angel, Forge.
Forge narrowed his eyes. What?
As your local psy-operative around here, even halfway around the world, youll still be in my sights .as it were. Ill be your invisible shield while you attack.
My lifeline in case anything happens.
In case anything happens.
All the same, lieutenant, Nanoforges mind raced of various scenarios of his life coming to a complete halt beneath the caverns of the Earths crust, this wouldnt happen to be an all-volunteer force, would it?
Hook barely reacted. Didnt you volunteer when you signed up?
Nanoforge sighed. Hook jerked his chin towards the lockers. Get your gear.
Nanoforge stepped backwards, saluted, and moved to his locker. Hook looked at the remaining six.
As for the rest of you, grab what you need. We have a rendezvous with a transport in two hours.
Kai flicked her gaze towards him before staring straight ahead again. Where are we going, sir?
As soon as Hook shut the door of his office, everyone rushed over to Nanoforge.
Oh, my gosh, Chiquita was the first to say anything, I am so sorry.
Dont be youre not the one heading into the hornets nest.
Spitz gingerly rested her hand on his arm. Dont worry I will be there for you.
He stopped and looked at her. For the first time, really looked at her. Thank you, was all he could say. She gave him a sad smile and squeezed his arm before leaving him to pack. Kai and Chiquita embraced him, Doc and Cyber shook his hand as they all wished him luck. Something none of them felt but all were hoping for.
Only Smoke held back. No one paid attention to quiet Smoke. Everyone was already lost in their own thoughts.
He struggled with his anger, afraid if he slammed his fist down on his desk, it could be heard out in the open-bay barracks.
Japan. Of all places .Didnt SICON read his file? Didnt they know?
Of course they know!
Redwing was the one who finalized their orders. It was the General who authorized what squads were placed where. And she placed him nearly the same lat-long where the original Hellions took their final bow. Hook nodded, although there was no one else in his office to see him.
Oh, yeah she knew.
Smoke winced as he reached into his locker one final time. He caught his breath, nearly falling into his locker. He squeezed the metal tightly, struggling to suppress the sharp pain on his left side. Maybe ten seconds passed and he quickly looked up, making sure no one saw him.
By the whispered conversations of his fellow Apes, he was assured they didnt. He shoved his electronic notepad into his flight bag then quietly closed his locker. Looking around the old room, he studied the others briefly.
Nanoforge and Doc talking casually but not too casually. There was an air of apprehension between them. Cyber and Spitz sitting side by side on Cybers bunk, wordlessly checking their weapons one more time. Kai and Chiquita softly speaking as they dressed in their full armor. Smoke sighed and subconsciously rubbed his left pectoral. The pain was numbing and he hoped his heart would survive him the trip.
Doc left Nanos side. Smoke nonchalantly placed his flight bag outside of the door. No one noticed. Not even Spitz.
Hey, Nano. Forge looked up at the other black man.
A silence fell between them as they simply looked at one another.
Finally, Smoke nodded. Mind if we talk outside?
Nanoforge grimaced. The fresh air might calm my nerves. Yeah, sure. Well go outside.
Smoke followed Nanoforge outside, glancing over his shoulder one last time. Spitz began to look up and immediately Smoke thought of Chinese checkers. Just something to allay her rising suspicions. She looked over at Cyber when he shoved a fresh clip into his second Morita.
Nanoforge stared out across the base, soaking in the hurried movements of SICONs Mobile Infantry. The sky was dark with transports coming to and fro, and he could see a mass of Marauders over at the main hanger. He sighed. He would be there soon enough; he wasnt in a rush to be on time.
What did Hook say? They caught him on the ledge when he tried to roll his Marauder
Yeah, he remembered that night vividly. He never thought hed find another compatible squad.nThe other six in Hooks new squad they werent exactly family, but they werent strangers to him anymore, either. Somehow, when they werent even looking, theyd crossed a threshold that united them. And he was suddenly sad to be parted from them. He turned to talk to Smoke but he was struck from behind hard! and his world went black.
Smoke caught him and struggled with the taller mans dead weight. He grit his teeth, suppressing the rising pain on his left side again but he managed to keep Nanoforge falling completely on his face.
Chinese checkers, Smoke whispered aloud, Chinese checkers.
Inside the barracks, Cyber frowned and looked over at Spitz when she absentmindedly whispered, Chinese checkers.
Smoke gripped Nanoforges shoulder tightly. Goodbye, my friend. I wish you the best of luck.
And then he grabbed his flight bag and raced around the barracks for Nanos Marauder parked fifty feet away.
Spitz slowly looked up at the door.
Cyber watched her put her weapon down as she got to her feet. He grabbed her arm wondering at her pale tone.
Spitz? He asked worriedly.
She didnt reply and hurried to the front door.
Cyber followed her, even as Doc and the girls watched them. Spitz opened the front door to find Nanoforge lying prone on the porch. Doc jumped to his feet. Smoke! Cyber caught on and hurried around back of the barracks.
Smoke was the last Marauder on the massive transport. There were other Marauders in line but he asked the guy in front if it would be okay to allow him to settle in. Something in Smokes eyes made the other drive nod assent. The doors were closing even as the transport pulled away.
Was there a briefing Nanoforge was supposed to attend? Was SICON going to brief them on the way? How far away were the Marauders going?
Oh, well that would teach him for reacting spontaneously to his gut instinct.
He blinked, completely surprised by Spitzs voice in his head.
Hook stared hard at Spitz as she sat on Cybers bunk; Cyber and Doc were having a difficult time carrying the unconscious Nanoforge to his bunk.
Tell him to get his butt back here! Hook snarled.
The lieutenant wants you back here. Youre not a designated driver, Spitz sent, not really expecting an acknowlegement from Smoke.
Chiquita paced, chewing on the corner of her thumbnail while Kais leg bounced up and down. She could feel the anger radiating off the lieutenant. Spitz blankly looked over at Hook.
With all due respect, sir, hes not coming back.
Hook cursed aloud this time, something that made them all jump. He grabbed Spitz by the shoulders and Cyber almost dropped Nanoforge to protect Spitz.
Thats Forges job, Smoke. I need you here!
Spitz slowly looked at Hook. Its too late, he says.
There was a briefing going on but Smoke didnt hear it as he silently explained his actions to Spitz.
Realistically, it was only a matter of days. Not even weeks or months. Dont you see how perfect this is? Odds arent in our favor, you could see it in Forges eyes. Why not give him the chance of survival?
Because, Spitz interrupted, we dont know how this is going to end.
Well, then, ask Forge yourself.
We would .if he was awake, Spitz chuckled. Only something Smoke heard.
Spitz, he paused, trying to formulate his words. And then sighed. I didnt think I could find another family so soon after I lost my squad. But I think I was given a second chance. I think we all were. So let me do this for him. For you.
Smoke was surprised that he felt alone when he didnt feel her presence anymore. The words of the briefing fell upon him and he blinked, realizing the transport was descending.
And then Spitz was back: The lieutenant says to take care of yourself.
Smoke smiled. Tell him .tell him, thank you.
I will. And Smoke? Ive got your back.
The transport doors opened.
Chiquita rubbed her arms, shivering in the warmth of the barracks as goose bumps dotted her skin. I had no idea!
Doc sighed. He told me as much, the other day.
Hook shot him a look. Dont you think I shouldve been told?
He made me promise to keep it secret.
This time, Hook let his anger get the better of him, and he slammed his fist into the old wall.
Everyone exchanged worried looks but no one spoke, ignoring the hole in the wall.
Hook looked at them. Wake him up! Weve got work to do!
Cyber rolled his eyes as he went back to Nanoforges bunk; after all that work placing the big man on the bunk. Hook slung his Morita on his back, checked his ammo, and grabbed his helmet before shoving the door open and walking out into the afternoon sun.
Chiquita sighed as she followed him outside, Kai right behind her. Spitz held Cybers equipment as he and Doc helped a dazed Nanoforge out of the barracks. Nanoforge shook his head to clear his blurry vision. I cant believe I let him get the better of me.
Doc smiled sadly. I cant either. Do you know how heavy you are?