Price Blue Steel, Chapter 20

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.”

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11 thoughts on “Price Blue Steel, Chapter 20

  1. A/N- Warren goes to some truly absurd lengths to avoid having awkward conversations about relationships, doesn’t he?

    I don’t know what a tank would think of getting hit by a semi… I looked for information, but I’m starting to get the feeling that kind of information is classified or something. Oh, and Apache helicopters are fucking expensive. Indisputably badass, but expensive.

    And we’re nearing the end, so expect a “final thoughts” on this book shortly- I has thoughts to give there.

    Oh, and voting. I’d like you guys to keep doing that. Still fighting over that place in the Top 15. Keep me there and I’ll solve the mystery of Warren’s final plans without forcing you to wait ’till Monday. :p

    http://topwebfiction.com/vote.php?for=price

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  2. Wow, nearly done with this book already? I didn’t expect that. Good news is that in that case, I think this has been a resounding success for your goal to finish stories without too much bloat creeping in. And in hindsight it makes sense to end the story after this mission.

    As far as an introduction to this story line goes I think you did a fantastic job. I would love to read another Warren story soon. Having a (mostly) emotionally mature main character is very refreshing, and between Phoebe and Shannon the character interactions are interesting and filled-out enough that I can’t wait to see what happens next.

    I really enjoyed the feel of this chapter. It was really good at setting the tone for the decompression stage of the story. Shannon is going to wake up alone and probably incredibly pissed, not to mention heartbreakingly disappointed. Phoebe being mad at Warren for leaving Shannon behind is just an extra big tug on the ol’ hearstrings.

    The debrief was really interesting as well. Although I didn’t realize that the entire story took place over a single day. I thought there was more of a time lapse between Warren bringing Lynx back to be healed, and then them meeting up later and heading out to the ocean. I also really enjoyed the researchers twisting the numbers a bit to make things sound more impressive to the General. Gave it a very authentic feeling to me, which may be strange since I’ve never actually been part of a military covert R&D debrief.

    Warren getting the ivory charm was really nice. I am assuming that the Thassan warriors hunt blue whales to get that ivory instead of just collecting it from ones that died naturally. In which case it would probably look very much like an underwater version of the old mammoth hunts, and probably be as dangerous if not more so. And since blue whales dwarf even old mammoths, a single one should be able to feed an entire… village? School? Clade? It should be able to feed an entire whatever of Thassans for a good long while. Any hunter who helped take one down would obviously have earned that charm, and putting Warren on that level is a hell of a compliment.

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    1. Yeup. Done already. But don’t worry! For the sequel comes right after! No, seriously, check the final thoughts. No vote. No break. Straight to sequel. Also. Phoebe and Shannon should get together and give each other hugs. (ETA until someone requests that as an interlewd… 3… 2… 1…)

      Well, the *whole* story was roughly two days total. Upgrade one day. Next morning, start mission. Fight Shannon ~ 8am… go off to the ocean ~5pm or so… sunset in summer ~ 8 or 9 or so… aquatic adventure ~ an hour. Surgery wakeup ~ 1AM (Pacific time). So… yeah… all one day.

      First thing you learn as a scientist who’s also a businessman: learn to shovel on the bullshit. I don’t know how it works in military parlance… but given that it’s military, I think the primary concerns are of the “does this explode more than that exploded?” variety. Either way, Lindsey’s got no direct control over Blue Steel (yay, civilian contractors!)… he’s just a client/backer, but they do want to make themselves sound good to him.

      Thassans have their own words in their own language, but we surfacers usually use the word “tribe” to describe them, just as we would any other natives. And while Thassans are known to hunt whales (mostly the Killer Whale variety- but those are really dolphins), the hard part is finding a place to hunt them… most whales can go far deeper into the ocean than any Thassan could possibly survive. So there’s a lot more to this hunt than just the kill…

      Either way, I’ll go into further details on Thassan culture some day. I plan a book for it.

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  3. Typos:
    being able to do anything, that I’m starting -> being able to do anything that I’m starting
    suiting me up and strapping me. -> suiting me up and strapping me in.(?)
    Back on Earth, chemical was left -> a chemical was left
    status of Blue Whales. -> blue whales
    ——

    Wow, that’s it? This book seems really short. Not that it isn’t satisfying, but it also leaves me with a hankering for more. Not to mention that there are tons of hanging interpersonal stuff.

    Oh, and the bone brings to mind the souvenirs from Young Justice.

    As for Phoebe, I think that went about as well as could be expected.

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    1. Oh, don’t worry, I’m going to be milking the relationship between Warren and Phoebe for at least two seasons.

      I hadn’t even thought about Young Justice (proof that being amazing and being popular aren’t always the same thing)… but now I’m going to have to make Warren hoard souvenirs…

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  4. For a second there I thought Lindsey was going to stay on board as a more permanent commander, despite Patil’s natural talent at the job. That’d probably do more harm than good though by tying Blue Steel directly to the American government. Plus Warren’s doing just fine on his own.
    I wonder what they would have done had Warren refused. Would they have recruited Hairstyle Girl instead? I think it’s clear Warren’s military experience is necessary; anyone else wouldn’t have even gotten past Lynx, or come up with the “refuge in audacity” plan. And the communicator works much better with Warren’s two streams of thought. Would they have refused to take the job to make time to train her?
    It makes me wonder. In a lot of these stories we get Just the Right Character in Just the Right Situation, just like how Warren was better than anyone they hoped to recruit, and Chloe and Dom pairbonded at exactly the same time. Maybe I’m just carrying it over from In Triplicate but it feels like fate has a huge role in the Priceverse. It doesn’t help that the only in-universe term for whatever causes powers is Loa, which implies there’s some kind of intent behind it all.

    *takes breath*

    Anyway, this chapter made me happy. It’s fun seeing the behind-the-scenes, especially when it’s so well thought out, with politics and money being a concern. Usually the best we get in movies is the hacker trope, or the improbably-multitalented forensic scientist. Seeing all the different gadgeteers who worked on Warren’s armor makes the world feel so much more real. Personally, I’d really enjoy a chapter showing what goes on while Warren’s off on a mission.
    The various cryptic hints about Patil’s background are making me really curious as well. Maybe it’s already mentioned in the first few chapters, but was the entire project his idea? I can only imagine how much ass-kissing he had to do to get himself an entire moon base and fill it with talented Imbued.
    Finally, I can only hope Warren’s going to buy some kind of blue steel ring for Shannon so she can have some human contact, maybe even a real relationship. After all, that’s the least he can do to make it up to her.

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    1. Well, the project is owned by civilians, even though the base itself is owned by the US government- they do the work and upkeep, and the ‘feds get a moon base without actually having to pay to have a moon base. It’s kinda like the relationship the government has with nuclear power plants.

      They might have recruited Hairstyle girl, instead. Or kept an eye out for another likely candidate- they may even have considered Alex, after testing to see if the weak charge granted by Ferne would sustain the armor (spoiler: it wouldn’t)… and had Erica not been killed by Kitten, and her powers were on record, she would also have been worth considering. Coulda made for an interesting story between her and Phoebe… but, alas, not meant to be…

      And they *did* look at Wiki… but rejected him on grounds of “too young” and “not fit for duty”.

      Remember- Phoebe alone spent hundreds of hours over the course of five years searching thousands of records compiled by every nation which shares its records with the United States for the perfect candidate. It stands to reason that, with that many rolls of the dice, they’d have found someone. Which was Warren, of course (if he wasn’t the perfect candidate, Blue Steel would have a different main character).

      Now, the In Triplicate stories put a lot of focus on Fate and Family- because their story was meant to capture the feel of Tristan and Isolde. While Zach’s was meant to capture the Arthurian story of functional immortality (Excalibur’s main power- none who wield it can be wounded in combat), and revenge. Kitten wound up playing a role somewhere between Morgana and the Black Knight.

      Blue Steel’s running something along the lines of the Odyssey at the moment.

      Future books in this setting will explore the rest of the cast and crew in greater detail… part of what let me keep this story a reasonable size is sitting secure in the knowledge that I have enough mineable material to create ten books this size for these characters.

      Patil’s not the sole proprietor of the moon base- he’s not even the absolute top dog in his own corporation (which serves a function in Price similar to what Boeing does in our world- a contractor with its fingers in a lot of industry, both military and commercial)- though he is high on the list of “people who get excellent results that make us lots of money”.

      So… yeah… when you’ve got a rep as a golden goose in a multinational corporation, you can usually get what you want.

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  5. Blue Steel seems very short but if you view it as the intro 2hour special for a series it works, probably more of a result of your usual very large books than it actually being short though. From a writing perspective though it likely feels short since it breaks the normal acts flow of a narrative that everyone is used too. It kinda feels like it’s the Intro and Setup only with only the first act conflict being shown still liked it though.

    One small thing that slightly broke my suspension of disbelief is the money discussion, 5 mil is what a government spends on paperclips, the salaries alone of the personnel shown so far at the moonbase would run close to that yearly and the Blue Steel itself would likely have a hundreds of million dollars pricetag associated with it’s development. Basically 5mil would be a reasonable amount but it would be the equivalent for a normal person to maybe 5 thousand dollars and the characters you’ve got here would be very used to working with dollar amounts in this area.

    Just a minor break for me though, the story itself is very strong with some excellent characters for later growth.

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    1. I get the feeling it seems short because people are accustomed to webfiction being bloated beyond belief just to drag out the story as much as possible.

      Where I’m trying to write fiction intended for actual novelization which just happens to appear online as well. And compared to literature like All Quiet on the Western Front, Lord of the Flies, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird… I’m more or less hitting the same word-count regions…

      Also- why’s the money discussion break suspension of disbelief? Patil and Lindsey talked about it like it was a scoreboard counter, not like it actually mattered.

      The only person in the room for whom it was anything but a minor detail was Warren- who’s from a small town who grew up in the 70s and 80s who then went into the military because it was a job, and afterward didn’t exactly become Bruce Wayne. To him, five million dollars is a big deal.

      Also- the blue steel metal itself has been being used on probes being launched at the sun (for SCIENCE!) for over a decade now… that part of the project has paid for itself.

      More than that, most of Warren’s equipment is either available to civilians (mapquest, anyone?) or is produced by Imbued, and thus doesn’t have the same “research time”, but is also impossible to replicate by others.

      But mostly? It’s only Warren who’s impressed by 5 mil. And he was reminding himself (and the audience who, like himself, also thinks 5 mil is a big deal) that it’s not as impressive as it sounds on their scale.

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