As he came around the corner, the sim-instructor stopped in mid-stride when he saw Lieutenant Hook waiting for him: Hook, and three enlisted personnel. One of them being the irritating Cyberfreak. Hook stood with his arms crossed, and an icy gaze on his weathered face. Cyber and his two female counterparts silently watched as the sim-instructor unlocked the room.
Hook said nothing as he led the way into the battle-room. Dressed in full combat gear, he was ready to see how these three would handle teamwork. It had been a full twenty-four hours since Cyber joined the squad, and neither Kai nor Chiquita had spoken to him since his initial entrance. Hook handed over the clipboard to the instructor, and with a sigh, he loaded up the program.
Cyber closed his eyes upon hearing the hum of artificial intelligence come to life. Hook caught Chiquitas hesitation, but when he turned to face her, she looked away. Was it his imagination? Or did she seem to move closer to Kai? The lights dimmed, and the four warriors responded by drawing their rifles.
The second an arachnid appeared, Cyber was all over it. Blasting away at the sims, he dominated the kills - Cyber was in his zone. Every kind of bug, every kind of gravity, Cyber eased his guilt. There werent that many bugs left for the other three, but neither female complained. Hook took mental notes.
And then upped the enemys difficulty.
Before the first round was complete, word had spread quickly that the Cyberfreak had found a home squad, and was even now practicing with them. The instructor booth filled up with curious onlookers. In their element, the four troopers freed either guilt or hatred on the sim arachnids. Not a single word was spoken between any of them. Peripherally, Hook checked his squads performance.
Whenever Kai was more then five feet from Chiquita, the elder female moved to her side; as if of one mind, they would shoot, shoulder-to-shoulder, or back-to back. Cyber was left to his own devices. Neither female ever looked at him. And if Kai ran out of ammo, Chiquita was quick to hand her another clip. Kai made sure she paid her back in kind.
Once again, Cyber made his way to the center of the room, killing any bug that neared him. Just as the females ignored him, he paid no heed to the bugs that neared them. The girls should handle their own kills.
Third round, last clip, Cybers mind boiled over. He felt the heat of Juliets grenade, heard the angry screams of the Romeos, tasted the bile that rose to his throat then opened his arms and died.
Hook waved the sim to end.
In the center of the room, Cyber still stood with his eyes close, his arms out wide. While the scores were tallied, he turned and found Hook before him.
Feel better? Hook asked in that deadly whisper.
Cyber clenched his jaw but returned the glare. Do you?
Hook raised an eyebrow. It will never go away, he said quietly.
I dont want it to go away.
Over Cybers shoulder, Hook watched Chiquita and Kai silently watch their exchange.
What of them, Cyber? You ready to give them up?
Cyber didnt turn around. Theyre not my problem.
For a few seconds, neither man moved a muscle.
Then Chiquita stepped forward. But youre my problem, trooper. Youd better answer the lieutenant with a sir.
Cyber noticed a spark of light in Hooks eyes; one that died a second later.
Theyre not my problem. Sir.
Hook refrained from using the rebuke on his tongue, and reloaded his rifle.
Again, he said simply.
And the room darkened once more, rifles at the ready.
It was 1930 hours when Hook called it quits.
They were exhausted, although none of them told him so. He could see it.
It was after breakfast that Hook began their training, and he worked them through lunch and dinner. Cyber maintained his score, while both Kai and Chiquita had dropped somewhat in their standings. Yet even Cyber couldnt hide the ache in his shoulders.
Back at the barracks, he watched as the three wearily stumbled to their bunks.
As they eased out of their armor, Cyber completely ignored the two females; in turn, Kai and Chiquita carried on a whispered conversation. Chiquita tapped Kai on the shoulder before heading outside to stand watch; she avoided Hooks gaze when she moved passed him.
Kai avoided him, as well, on her way to the locker room to take a shower.
Hook looked back over at Cyber, who was watching him. Upon meeting Hooks steady gaze, Cyber finally looked away and climbed into his bunk.
Hook stepped outside.
Chiquita stood at attention.
At ease, private.
Chiquita relaxed somewhat.
Hook clasped his hands behind his back, and fell silent. This was too soon. A completely new squad, with others soon to be arriving. Why in the world was he still in command? Why hadnt he died with the Hellions back in Japan?
He had been blessed with an abundance of self-assurance once. Now, every move he made, he second-guessed himself. Where was that inborn confidence he once had? Granted, he had been able to sleep more and more, but he wasnt sure if that was from the sleeping pills, or because he was worn out.
Did these troopers even deserve him as the man who owned their lives?
He shook his head to clear his thoughts.
Hook blinked. What is it, private?
Chiquita transferred her rifle from one shoulder to the other. Sir, you were talking to yourself.
Without wanting to, a smile appeared on his lips. And what was I saying?
Im not familiar with it, sir, but it sounded something like Mril. Emeril something like that.
For a split-second, Hook froze, then turned to Chiquita.
She was staring out at the base, watching as other troopers and Fleet personnel went about their pedestrian business.
Private, how do you rate Cyber?
This time, she met his questioning eyes.
My honest opinion?
I wouldnt have asked.
She paused, searching for the right words. I dont trust him. He doesnt have the correct motives.
What are his motives?
He wants to die, she said simply.
So do I, Hook thought.
But instead, he sighed. And what do you think his motives should be?
If any of us are going to survive the next firefight, we need to be a team.
Im glad you mentioned that. Back at the training building, you seemed protective of Private Roland.
I dont mean to be, but, yes, I guess I am. Isnt it my job to protect my fellow ape?
But you didnt extend that same attitude towards Cyber.
Or yourself, if you noticed, sir.
She stepped forward, suddenly flustered. Its not that I dont mean to ignore you, sir, but you are the lieutenant
And I should know my way around, is that what youre saying, sergeant?
Sort of. I know you took us in there to check us out, to see if we meshed or not. Well, I was watching us, too. Cybers too he wants to be alone, sir. And right now, hes not concerned with anyone else but himself. I wont allow that. At least, not again.
Their eyes met and held.
There was no scorn in her green eyes, and she didnt glare at him the way Cyber did.
Hook recognized the look in her eyes, suddenly becoming uncomfortable. A Hellion once held him in the same regard; subordinate to him, but mother to all. One who didnt hold him blame as she froze to death in her methane-suit.
Hook clenched his jaw. Carry on, private. He said brusquely, before heading back inside the barracks.
Chiquita sighed. Was it something I said?
All she wanted to do was comfort him. Regardless that he had been her commanding officer for a few brief days, it was obvious that he was in so much pain. Why was it that she and Kai could get past their loss, and yet the two men in the tiny squad held in everything?
For the umpteenth time in her career, she was thankful that she was a female. There was no logic in keeping people at bay. Especially when they were in your squad.
Oh, yeah this new squad was heaps of fun.
At breakfast the following morning, Kai steadied the aluminum tray in one hand, while pouring herself some milk in the other. Behind her, the cafeteria was full and boisterous. For the most part, no one was around that she knew; old friends and acquaintances had been reassigned while she was still recuperating.
Chiquita was usually her breakfast partner. And lunch partner. And dinner partner.
But her squad mate was behind schedule.
Kai was beginning to realize that Chiquita hated the morning alarm. Grabbing some silverware, Kai turned to sit down to eat, but was nudged from behind enough that her tray and glass fell to the floor in a loud crash.
The cafeteria populace hushed as one, and looked over at her.
Even though she wasnt wearing armor, Roland suddenly felt flushed, as if the temperature increased in those few seconds.
Well, sneered a trooper from another squad several barracks down from hers, if it aint one of Private Roland, from Hooks squad.
Slowly, she looked over at the trooper. Walkers squad, wasnt it?
What do you want, Finley?
Nothing you have, Roland.
Trooper Finley crossed his arms, malice clearly written on his features.
She tilted her head to one side. You gonna pick up my tray? Or am I going to have to make you do it?
He laughed. Roland, youre just an orphan. No one here will take you. You do realize thats why youre with Hook. Because even SICON didnt know where to put him.
Finley didnt get the chance to finish the word before Kai had lowered her head and shoulders, and tackled the man.
The fight was on.
The other troopers in the cafeteria rushed forward, not to stop the two, but to cheer on the fight. A half-circle formed around Kai and Finley, the mob shouting and yelling encouragement or ideas.
Finley surprised Kai with a good kick to the chest, but even as she fell, she managed to snag his leg, and twist it. He crashed into the silverware stand. They both leapt to their feet, and rushed forward.
Kai ducked his swing, and came up with her own right hook, catching him squarely in the jaw.
He was dazed, and fell back into the arms of his squad mates, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth. Finleys friends, Brown and Park, glared at Kai, who maintained her poise, her eyes challenging them. They left Finley in the care of their friends, and rushed her.
She got the first offensive blow against Brown, but found that Park was ready for her. And not only ready, he could match her, move for move.
At one point, Kai ducked when she shouldve jumped, and Parks foot met her mouth: a flash of light, and the warm taste of blood in her mouth startled her. But that only heightened her adrenaline, and she attacked the two men from Walkers squad with a vengeance.
Park easily dodged her, and she fell right into Browns territory. He knocked her down so hard, she wasnt sure if she could get back up.
She didnt have to.
Brown had been thrown down beside her, surprise in his cold eyes.
Kai felt herself being pulled up, and she looked right into Cybers eyes.
Get out of here! He hissed.
I just saw Chiquita. Shes bringing security.
Cyber pushed her away from him, simultaneously ducking Parks blow and sending Brown back to the ground.
Get out of here! Cyber snarled.
Kai hesitated; the odd mixture of pleasure and pain in his eyes stopped her. The wretched motto of the Mobile Infantry forced her back into the fray, and Cyber winked at her when she took on Brown, and he took on Park.
They all stood at attention.
Lieutenant Hook, and behind him, Private Mills, and behind her, Privates Steel and Roland. There would be no nicknames in this office.
Not at this moment.
Hook was beginning to see a lot of Redwing and the interior of her office. Momentarily, he wondered if it were appropriate to ask her out.
She rested her dark eyes on his blue ones.
He shrugged inwardly. He doubted shed see the humor in his offer.
Need I say anything else, lieutenant? She asked coldly.
No, sir, came the expected response.
Then please escort your charges back to the barracks. Theyve just been assigned restricted access, the training building and the barracks only. Understood?
At this, she looked over at the three enlisted troopers.
Both Kai and Chiquita answered timidly, but Cyber was as forceful as Hook. Redwing raised an eyebrow.
And to show how we deal with troopers who dont seem to understand the rules, your meals will be delivered to you. Is *that* understood?
This time, all three answered with a strong, Yes, sir.
Hook bit down his smile. Redwing looked over at him, and watched him for a few seconds more.
Dismissed, she finally said.
Hook and his entourage exited her office.
Redwing turned to face her window before anyone could see her lips turned upward in a smile of her own.
Cyber, Chiquita, and Kai could feel Hooks aggravation, and remained quiet as he led them to the training building. Even the sim-trainers didnt complain when he ordered and got a room emptied for their target practice.
At first, the scenario from the day before repeated itself: Hook stood behind the others, watching them, studying them. Kai and Chiquita fired shoulder to shoulder, and Cyber remained in the middle of the room.
But somewhere along the way, Cyber found that Kai was now alongside him, watching his back, handing over fresh clips.
Hook raised an eyebrow in surprise; he glanced over at Chiquita, who pretended she didnt notice. After several minutes, Hook moved in beside her.
Hook kept them there for another hour.
No one said anything on the ride back to the barracks.
Hook had that way about him.
It seemed that, in his presence at least, no one spoke unless spoken to first. It wasnt that words were useless, but he conveyed an air of intensity and precision. It was the one thing Cyber appreciated about the lieutenant, and the one thing that intimidated Kai and Chiquita.
Hook followed them into the barracks, the heat of the late morning sun already warming the barracks.
Walking back to their bunks, Chiquita touched Cyber on the arm.
Her touch threw him off.
Thank you, she said softly.
Cyber stopped in mid-stride.
He blinked. For what?
There was a smile in her voice. I think you know.
Standing in the doorway that separated his office from the open-bay barracks, Hook clenched his fist, then closed the door. Things were falling into place.