Chapter Thirty Four
After Don had gotten a little a little bit off of his chest with him and Arma earlier, the two of them have spent the rest of the day considering what they should keep in their shuttle for such serious emergencies. They hadn’t thought about the high probability that one of them could be seriously damaged or even completely incapacitated. What Don told them makes them think about a lot of things.
While Arma has finally lured Five away from the lab for a moment, to catch up on things with her, he’s decided to head downstairs and corner Valerie in the lab before she can disappear on him. The two of them are done, but they can’t avoid each other forever. It’s probably been a straight month since they’ve even said a single word to one another. When he steps into the little computer room and sits down across from her, she turns and looks at him the same bewildered ways she did the day he was brought back as a machine. It’s hard to look her in the eyes now, since he’s moved on with Arma, but there’s still supposed to be that same trust between them.
The main reason he came down to see her is because she used to work for AMF, Advanced Machine Forms, the company that originally designed and built the Five-Series bodies. He and Arma need to know what kinds of supplies they should have at hand to keep themselves alive if they get beat up out on their own in space. He could keep things strictly professional between them, but he knows it’d be cold and would only create more distance between them. Things have been incredible with him and Arma, all while she’s been having a rough time. He can see it on her face well enough, and she’s always been the best at hiding her feelings
“You doing ok Valerie? Five said you’ve been pretty distant with her for a while. She’s worried she did something to make you resent her.”
Valerie searches his face for a second before shifting her eyes away, to the door. “No, she’s fine. She didn’t do anything. I’m just burnt out is all. I feel like I’m not earning my keep around here, and that everyone knows it. I’ve got nothing to show for myself, and I don’t even know what to tell Sy when he asks where we’re at with the project. Honestly, no one even needs me here. I don’t even want to be here anymore anyway. Hell, I never did.”
He looks at her and shakes his head. “You know better than that. You’re still going through with it though right? To the other side?”
Her eyebrows are pinched together while she looks back at him, but she’s deep in thought. Her eyes open a little when she catches his eyes. “Yeah. I guess I am. You know, you’re right. This whole thing’ll be nothing but a stepping stone in the end anyway. I kind of forgot about having my own life, and the big picture. Someday, this whole shit show will only be a little story we tell around the campfire.” She finally smiles at him. “It’s a good thing you came down. I’ve been working on what all we need to make our own bodies on site. Five and Gabriel have the brain thing down pretty good. Now all we need are the frames.”
He looks at her face, like he used to. He still misses her, and what they once had. She was supposed to be the love of his life, his forever, but things happen. “I saw you got a kitten. I guess he’s kind of grown now, but he’s yours right? The white one with the three black spots. He wouldn’t let me pick him up, but he does like… Arma.”
“Hey, don’t feel like you have to hide from me about it. I suppose I could’ve seen that coming from miles away, but I…” She looks at him regretfully. “The two of you are like pieces of a puzzle, you know. I might’ve been a close match Aaron, but in the end, it seems only the two of you could ever have gone together. It breaks my heart to see you smile the way you do with her, but I don’t think you and I were ever going to be like that.”
When he gets up out of his chair, he puts his hand on her shoulder. He regrets saying it as soon as it comes out. “What would either of us know? We were never even given a chance.” She lowers her head and folds her hands in her lap.
He looks at her a little awkwardly, before changing the subject. “Well, anyway. I kind of hoping you might help me figure out a kit I can put on the shuttle. A kind of trauma-kit if you will. We need to be able to patch ourselves up and whatnot if we shot up or something.”
She leans forward and nods her head in thought. “Yeah, that’s pretty easy. It’d basically be some glues, reinforcement swatches, and, well, that’s about it. Most everything else would be way too small for you to work on. All your nerves and muscle fibers have tiny sputtered traces on them. Maybe I can get you some of the bigger hardware spares.”
He still feels a little awkward, and more or less slinks out of the office. “Hey, it was good to see you Valerie. I’ll see you around huh.”
In the morning, after a night of tediously loading miscellaneous things into the new shuttle, he and Arma decide to take a break up in her apartment. They’re starting to feel a little more confident in having their shuttle set up the way they’ll need it for missions. No one else but them will ever use it, so they won’t need to worry about the techs taking things in and out. At least not until more of them are brought back as robots anyway.
Suddenly, the whole base starts strobing orange and then both of their combat coms light up. Don is giving the two of them a half hour to get their flight suits on and be in briefing room. They have a pretty good idea about what’s going on, so they quickly gather everything on the immediate list Valerie made for them.
By the time they reach the briefing room, they’re catching the tail end of Don talking the two of them up, even though they’re late. The room goes quiet for a moment, while apprehensive faces look up at them. Don already levelled with them yesterday, so he’s the one to go ahead and break it to them. It’s not all that unexpected, but still has him nervous as all hell.
“The public was just notified that the upcoming Mars crew launch has been cancelled. That means we’re on, like right now.”
“How much time do we have?”
Sy checks his phone to see if he has any more updates. “they want us as fast as we can get to the pad. Their shit is already being staged.”
Don sets his hands on the table and interlocks his fingers tightly. “Vaun and I were going to take lead on this mission, and pack the two of you along with us, for the… physical work of course.”
His voice is monotone, trying to hide his nervousness. “Uh huh.”
“But, after seeing you two in action myself…” He looks at both Sy and Vaun, not relieved, but in a way, unburdened. “We’re sending you up in your own shuttle.”
Arma is super excited. “Hell yeah!”
He’s not excited though. He’s standing stiff, with all his muscles tensed. He puffs his cheeks out when he exhales a deep breath. He knows what’s coming. He nods at Sy. “I totally understand. She and I talked about it quite a bit last night. It’s time you guys started playing it safe.”
Both Don and Vaun share looks, like something is funny. “Oh, no, we’re still going. We’ll be bringing up the big guns from behind”
He sits down with Arma and then takes her hand in his under the table while he addresses Don. “You know what’s waiting for us up there.” He looks around the room at the others. “You were gonna do it anyway though weren’t you. With or without us.”
Sy leans back in his chair and scrapes his hand down his face, trying to keep the unimaginable out of his mind. He angrily speaks under his breath. “These mother fuckers can’t even afford us either.” He huffs. “But we can’t let our neighbors get splattered all over the news can we. Not by the likes of Smekov or any of those other second rate pieces of shit. No, We’re getting them to Mars, and we’re gonna rub it in everyone’s faces while we’re at it.”
Arma pulls his hand over so she can put her elbows on her knees. She gives them that deep reassuring voice of hers. “Don’t get me wrong, we’re nervous as hell about how much is at stake, but yeah, I say we take the chance to put our foot down hard up there, like we’ve been needing to do for long enough.”
What she says gets him a lot more motivated. “It seems like it’s time we teach the world why no one fucks with Space Security Forces… again.”
He smiles over at her, but notices the others are still holding something back. He cocks his head to the side and then smirks, thinking about the whole mess they’ve gotten themselves into. “You guys probably wondered if this was gonna be the job that broke SSS didn’t you. You’d be going down with the ship if you had to.” He shakes his head and looks around at them with even more confidence. “It’s not gonna happen. Not today.”
Vaun chuckles and then looks down at the table. Everyone can see it in his eyes what he expected was going to go down. “I cleaned up my apartment last night. Shit, I even made my bed.” He shrugs his shoulders “There’s really nothing else in my life but this. I mean, don’t get me wrong, none of us were ever going to throw in the towel. I consider every job might be my last.” It’s a lie. He knows when something like this is more than likely to go south in a big way. He doesn’t tell them that his pistol would be lying, alone, on top of his coffee table, waiting for whoever might find a place for it at their side. Half of the finish on it has been worn off over the years, but it’s never let him down.
Sy interrupts everyone by getting into the details of the briefing, as seriously as he always does. He turns on the center holograph projector and loads up their main gunship. “Like one would expect, the Mars mission was originally scheduled for the obvious optimal timing spot, but because of what’s been happening in orbit lately, we’re launching right now, ahead of schedule. It’s not great, but they say they can swing it.”
Don adds in. “You may not be aware, but the weather is, uh, kind of shit out there right now too. No one will be expecting this. It’s gonna be a surprise launch for sure.”
Arma is a little worried. “Uh, do they know the weather is shit?”
Sy chuckles at how sincere her concern is. “Oh, it’s hardly a bother. That damn thing is so heavy, I doubt a hurricane could push it around. Besides, we’re doing it like this because we don’t want anyone else catching up to us. We’ll already have enough to worry about, won’t we Aaron.”
He breathes out through his nose, knowing it’s going to be bad. “Whatta ya suppose we do about those things. The one I dealt with had some pretty serious firepower on it.”
“You’re not gonna find a better long range gun than what we’ve already got on the ship, nor a better target tracking system. We might be able to pick a couple of em off before they start hiding, but the two of you are still gonna have to get out there and flank them while we’ve got their heads down. We can’t have those things still crawling all over everything by the time the colonists show up. We’re talking a short window. Kick ass, and do not fail, or they’ll probly all get killed. Then we look like asses.”
Arma’s mouth has dropped open a little with what she’s realizing. “You mean these things are already on the cargo site?”
Don belts out a laugh, forgetting to not make it sound like a completely lost cause. “You don’t think the Mars folks asked for everything we have because they merely want an escort? Bet your ass everything’s already crawling with those things. They’ve probably already gotten into everything by now.
The sound of boots running down the hallway gets them all to look up to the window in the briefing room door. Teams of people are scrambling to get the shuttles loaded and ready. All of their heads turn again when they see Five and Gabriel scurrying down the hall too, with what looks like small white beer coolers in their arms. He and Arma know what they are.
Thinking nothing of it, Sy taps away at the keyboard and loads up the Mars crew rocket onto the projector, then zooms it way out to fit the whole thing in alongside theirs. He and Arma look at it incredulously, not sure if it’s a prank or what. He thought he understood the rocket equation, but apparently someone has a trick up their sleeve. Both of their ships are on nearly the same size of engines.
“Uh, why does it look like that thing is gonna come up seriously short?”
“Don looks at him a little confused, as if he should know better. “Cause you can’t launch that big ass thing all at once. It’d be way too tall. Their second stage rockets will be waiting in low orbit, and then the third set is a at the accumulation site.”
“Great, so we at least know where we’re gonna get ambushed at then. And they’re going to be holding rocket engines hostage.”
Arma slings her hand up, as if they’re already screwed. “We’re gonna have to check every inch of everything. You know they’ll have sabotaged everything. If we get the upper hand, you know they’ll blow em up.”
When everyone notices the disheartened look on his face, since he’s been thinking to himself, the room goes quiet. He looks toward the hallway, thinking of how the whole base is mobilizing for this. “You suppose Cris and Gerald might try to pull some shit in the middle of all this?”
Sy sits back and folds his hands in his lap. “I’ll personally be watching the perimeter in the tilt-jet with Mikel and Alexis on the guns. If I see anything stupid anywhere near the launch site, we’ll bring down the thunder for sure. I don’t think they’ll show though. We have every bit of cause to stomp the shit out of any danger to a launch like this, investigators or not.” His eyebrows scrunch together. “Wonder if we should make a move on them though, at the same time, while they’ll think we’re busy.”
Don calls up Selner on his com to get a status update. “Where we at with those ships?”
“Uh, we’ve got both trucks loaded, but we’ve kind of got a thing… Five is up here and she’s got these boxes for you guys, she’s sayin we gotta put em onboard. She says they’re for, uh… your brains.”
The look on Don’s face is of absurdity, but Sy’s eyebrows only raise slightly, smirking with a little bit of amusement. “Yeah, put em onboard.” He looks at the Don and Vaun with a smug smile. “There. You two get your dumb asses killed, you’ll still get an earful from me after we bring you back.”
Sy stands up and quickly taps through the rest of the launch arrangements on the projector, showing how the main gunship will launch from the pad, and the new smaller one from the tube. “There’s really not much else to show. We’re pretty much winging it anyway. Get your gear and let’s get goin.”
When the five of them get to the main hanger, both of the big trucks are already warming up. His and Arma’s ship is in the back of the giant flatbed, and the main battle shuttle is in the back of the even bigger one. All eight wheels are squatting on both trucks. This time around, they’re all being escorted by full teams of guards, armed with nearly everything they can pack with them.
As soon as Five spots Arma, she rushes up to her with something folded up in what looks like light brown suede, and hands it to her. She puts her hand over her wrist and looks up at her, as worried as she could ever be.
“I want you to carry my knife, so I can be there when you need me.”
Arma flips over a layer of the suede and looks down at the gleaming winged figure of Five in its leather thigh sheath. He can see her eyes glisten when she pulls Five into a tight hug. She kisses her on the top of the head and quickly starts unbuckling her own knife and sheathe from her waist.
She holds it out to Five as if it were the most delicate thing she could hold in her hands. “And I can watch over you.”
When Sy shouts for them to load up, he and Five can only share a nod between themselves before heading out. While he drives, he glances over at Arma while she carefully finishes buckling the heavy leather sheath around her thigh, loops the top strap around her belt, and then secures the knife in it.
He wasn’t expecting her to be so quiet on the way out of town. It’s hard to tell if she’s worried, or if it’s something else. Either way, she doesn’t look like she wants to talk about it, so he leaves it be. Nearly all the way out of town, she stares out the front window, not hardly turning her head at all.
Even though, she’s clearly stressed, he finds it quite soothing to be alone with her in the truck for a little while. The front bench seat is so wide, he can hardly brush her shoulder with his fingers when he reaches across to her. When he gets her to look over at him, he holds his arm out for her to slide on over to him. When she does, she wraps both of her arms around him and lays the side of her face across the back of his shoulder. He tilts his head back a little, to put his cheek on her head for a moment. She takes a deep breath and lets it out.
“I love you Aaron.” It’s the first time she’s said it to him, even though she’s been waiting for so long to.
He takes his hand off the wheel for a second and lays it just below the back of her neck. “I love you too sweetheart.”