The trip to the surface was brief, a symptom of the different mentality between recon and extract. Most people know, but few comprehend, the difference in time it takes to search even a small amount of ground compared to the time it takes to traverse it. Still, as damaged as I was, it was a welcome moment when my feet touched ground on the beach. I would have glanced back, but Shannon was already on the beach waiting, and right now her eyes were better than mine.
And now she’ll want to talk about all the awkward parts. “Can you find your truck from here?” I wasn’t certain where we were, but it wasn’t the same beach where we went into the ocean.
“Do you have pathfinding powers? Is that how you tracked them to their base?” Shannon’s body language was hard to read with her powers active, but she didn’t seem hostile, merely evasive.
I limped further up the shore, doing my best to pretend I wasn’t in agony every time I stepped with my bent leg. “Sorry to disappoint, but I’m totally lost.” With my GPS busted, I was even telling the truth. Granted, it was a simple matter to ask command to guide us back to the truck, but I couldn’t do it myself.
The shadows retreated from Shannon’s face; she was smiling, but it was forced. “I guess I’ve gotten so used to you being able to do anything that I’m starting to ask what you can’t do, instead. Don’t worry, I can lead us back.”
“That’s good.” As I limped up the beach, I reconsidered my stance on the pain chip, then once again rejected it as an option. As stupid as I knew it sounded, there was something unnatural about the inability to feel pain that went beyond the millions of dollars of cybernetics inside me.
Shannon approached me. “Here, let me help you.” She ducked under my arm to let me use her as crutch to make my way up the beach. My battery started replenishing immediately as the Lynx vanished from sight. Now with a clear view, I could use my scanners and enhanced senses to get a good idea of her emotions. Her heart raced and her skin warmed, for reasons unrelated to the physical effort.
“Thank you,” I said. I used my arm to squeeze her shoulder in a one-armed hug.
She stopped, then turned her head to look up at me. Her lips trembled for a moment. “About, what we talked about earlier. Perhaps we can wait until I’ve had a chance to decompress?”
Ah, yes, that conversation. Gonna have to deal with that real soon. “It has been one hell of a night,” I said, even as I squeezed her arm a bit harder. Her eyes widened in realization, but it was too late. “Sorry.” I pulled the trigger on my stun weapon. I lowered her to the ground, making certain she was comfortable and only out for a short period of time. There are some sick fucks out there who would give their left nuts for this weapon alone.
<My ETA is five minutes.> Now that I was alone, I allowed myself to groan in pain as I forced myself to my feet. Lynx had returned in full force now that I was no longer in contact with Shannon, lashing out at everything that couldn’t escape her range in time. So, even bugs have an instinctive fear of her power.
I limped my way back into the water, opening my satchel to extract another of those metal sleeping bags. This time, I instructed the forcefield system to handle all the manual labor involved in suiting me up and strapping me in. Moments later, I was safe on Artemis, fighting down a wave of nausea that made my injuries a welcome distraction. Back on Earth, chemicals were left in the bag that would reduce it to rust in minutes.
“Don’t worry, sir,” one of the male nurses said even as he helped me onto a gurney. “We’ll get you into surgery right away.”
I considered attempting to convince the doctors that the debriefing should come first, but something told me the argument would fall on deaf ears. In part thanks to Phoebe’s declaration that I was more dead than alive, and in part because I no longer had an adrenaline rush keeping me going. “That’s good. If you’ll excuse me, it’s time for a nap.”
I’m not certain if I finished that sentence, as the next thing I knew I was in a surgical bed next to Phoebe, with my internal clock informing me that four hours had passed for me while I was unconscious. Funny, the original surgery only took half that long.
We weren’t quite alone in the room, but the medical faculty were avoiding eavesdropping range like their careers depended on it. Looks like they took the prior warning to heart. My initial series of stretches were met without pain or warning signs, as if I’d woken up from a pleasant nap rather than the most invasive surgical procedure yet devised by man.
I sat up in the post-op bed, turning my head toward Phoebe. I still needed to find my balancing act with the woman, but for now her face carried the look of someone who had something important to ask, but didn’t know how. The strategy of avoidance had worked thus far, so I opted to continue with it.
“Looks like your work was impeccable as usual, doctor.” That’s a safe compliment that can’t be mistaken for romantic interest, right? “I’ll try to take better care of it in the future.”
She forced a nervous smile. “Are you going to go back to Lynx?”
Oh, of course that’s what she’s worried about. “The mission’s over. Better that we avoid getting too entangled with-” I stopped there, having realized too late that I made a mistake.
“You jerk!” Heads turned, startled by Phoebe’s sudden outburst. A heartbeat later, her hand hit my cheek with a resounding clap. I could have avoided her; even without the cybernetics, I was a trained soldier and she was an ordinary person with no combat experience. Instead, I took the blow like a man.
She pulled her hand back to her chest, then bolted from the room, wiping her eyes with the back of a hand while her bare feet smacked on the linoleum. The nurses gave me glances which ranged from confusion to sympathy. Some looked worried, as if I might be upset with them, but I just shrugged and got myself out of bed. I needed to hit the showers to cleanse the salt off my skin.
I took the ivory which the Thassan gave me to the shower; it was in sore need of a cleaning as well. Now that my cybernetics were functional and in contact with Artemis’ computers, I could read the symbols caved into the tooth, all of which spoke of bravery in battle, wounds taken in the line of duty, and great honor as a warrior. These were rare treasures, with fewer than a hundred examples ever making their way into human hands. In fact, in most countries it was illegal for private collectors to own such artifacts, even without considering the endangered status of blue whales.
The realization that I was given the highest symbol of respect their people had to offer sat in my mind as I considered my actions. Perhaps I should have tried to stop Phoebe, explain to her that what I did was the adult way to handle the situation. Exploiting Shannon’s insecurities would have made me far worse than a ‘jerk’, it would have made me a rat bastard. This is for the best, right?
The trophy, now cleaned of salt, silt and blood didn’t offer any special wisdom to my questions.
I was just getting dressed when Professor Abernathy spoke through my internal communication. <Doctor Reed informed us that you’re ‘back to your old self’. Somehow, she made it sound like an insult. Would you like someone to talk to her?>
There’s the understatement of the week. <I think it’s better to let the situation resolve itself organically. I presume I have a bit of downtime between missions. If I feel it’s still a problem later, then perhaps it’ll be time to involve a mediator.>
<If you insist,> she said. <We’re ready to do your debriefing, now. Meeting room one, if you please.>
<I’ll be there in five,> I said. A quick change into another set of clothes, my own this time, and I made a bee-line straight for the meeting room.
I spotted Doctor Patil and Professor Abernathy right away, along with another man I didn’t recognize; he was an older gentleman, perhaps in his early fifties and of obvious East Asian descent. On the wall-mounted video monitor, another older gentleman that I did recognize. “General Lindsey, Sir.” Despite it not being protocol in these circumstances, I gave him a quick salute. So much for any theoretical divorce of this organization from United States’ control.
I wondered what time it was for him, and some internal mechanism informed me it was roughly two-thirty in the morning where I lived. Whether Lindsey was in the same time zone, the computer didn’t know, but no matter how you looked at it, it was the middle of the night.
The man saluted me back, of course. “Doctor Patil informs me you’ve had an eventful day, soldier.”
“That is putting it mildly, sir,” I said as I took the seat nearest the door, across from the screen which displayed General Lindsey. “The mission started at approximately seven in the morning, Pacific time. It was initially meant to be a simple infiltration and recon mission, but the client withheld critical, need-to-know, information.”
From there I spent roughly half an hour recounting the highlights of the mission, including some details about Lynx. I portrayed bringing her back to base as a matter of concern for how the client would react to the death of one of their heroes during my mission rather than regrets on my part, though I doubt he bought it. From there, I gave a blow-by-blow of the conflict with Thassans in the ocean, which ended with me placing the ivory trophy on the table in front of me.
“So in your first mission, you were nearly killed in action by a foreign Imbued?” Lindsey did not sound happy with that news. “I was under the impression you were wearing anti-powers armor.”
The Asian man I didn’t know cleared his throat. “With all due respect, sir, my armor was not at fault.” I mentally referenced the information I had on the project, which would make this man Tian Han. He was considered one of the best metallurgy Gadgeteers on the planet, and essential in both the Blue Steel and Icarus projects. “The equipment withstood multiple strikes from shockwaves delivering almost eleven thousand metric tons of impact force.”
“That is roughly the same impact force generated by a semi colliding with concrete barricade at over ninety miles an hour,” Patil added. “Blue steel’s absorptive features are the only means by which anything shy of a tank could have survived the initial attack, let alone the followup. Most Apache helicopters aren’t equipped with that level of destructive force.”
My boosted mental abilities and engineering degree knew Doctor Patil was, deliberately, overselling Skeletor’s damage potential. To start with: water was softer than a semi, and an Apache’s anti-tank loadout was specialized in piercing armor. In addition, they had a much shorter refractory period between shots. Perhaps on paper the numbers were in Skeletor’s favor, but reality was never as simple as the numbers. Take this conversation, for example; if Lindsey was as educated in physics as those on our side of the table, he never would have smiled.
“I suppose that is a better performance than you promised the Joint Chiefs of Staff with this project of yours, doctor,” the general said after a brief moment. “While we’re on the subject of successes, just how much did the Canadians shell out for their lapses in judgment, anyway?”
Doctor Patil nodded toward Professor Abernathy, who took the cue. “In total? Four point seven million dollars.”
General Lindsey chuckled. “Five mil to come in and save them from an international incident, plus god knows how much collateral damage from restless natives? They got quite the bargain. I think that’s my favorite part with this as a corporate project rather than as a government organization. When we come in to save another country’s ass they don’t have to pay us, even though they should. Keep this up, and you’ll have this project in the black by Christmas.”
“It was a nice windfall,” Doctor Patil said with the casual confidence of someone used to such things, though his emotions were a blend of relief and fear. “But I’d prefer most of our missions be more reasonable than this one.”
Lindsey nodded his head. “Good luck. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to get back to bed.”
“Thank you, sir.” Patil waited for the screen to go off before exhaling.
The way they talked about that kind of money may have sounded cavelier, but it was a matter of perspective. A single modern tank costs about five million, and the aforementioned Apaches were ten times that last I checked. Canada didn’t have the same economic muscle as the United States, but the cost of a single tank to win a war before it started? They would pay that with a smile on their faces. Just a matter of perspective.
All a matter of perspective. I ran my thumb over the ivory. For most people, this is a trinket worth a grand or two at most on the back market, but for the warrior who gave it to me, it represents a lifetime. “Almost five million dollars for a day’s work. How much did we initially charge?”
Professor Abernathy, after a glance at Patil, answered. “Two hundred thousand for the investigation, if it led to the apprehension of the suspect or suspects that may have been involved. While an on-the-spot execution wasn’t part of agreement, they agreed that it fell within the spirit the contract.”
I bet they did. “I can’t help but feel I’ve earned a portion of that extra payment. And I happen to know exactly what I want to buy with it.”