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Chapter One: Binary Nexus

Captain Hesperus

Harbinger of the End Times and Apostle of Ghan
Administrator
Supporter
Hercules stood at attention watching the presentation and chuckling quietly at the excited kids describing what had probably been a terrifying and heart-stopping event. Such bravery, both from the tanker, the pilot AND the children! Hercules had no illusions that these children would, if necessity demanded, join the ranks of the ASC and go on to fight hard for the world they loved. His only hope was that all this unpleasantness would be long ended before they ever had to fire a shot in anger. Then, the Professor and.... uhhm, Doctor Hitomi stepped forward and started calling out names. Three men went and climbed into the three waiting mecha, while Powers allowed the rest waiting with Hercules to stand at ease. Hercules relaxed his stance, moving his feet shoulder-width apart and pulling his big forearms behind his back. Once there, he clenched his fists and started flexing his biceps, tensing the muscles of his forearms, upper arms and shoulders, then relaxing them. This would do after the aborted attempt at push-ups this morning. He stood, thus, basking in the warm sun following the previous day's storm and a night of furious activity. But, all too soon, the peace was shattered.


The first man to be called, Lieutenant Shan, clambered out of the hover tank and began throwing vile abuse, first at the young Zentraedi woman, then at Hercules himself. Hercules locked eyes with this man, this insolent little prick, as he cursed and threw unfounded accusations, but stood his ground. He clenched his fists behind his back until the knuckles popped, one by one. As the man's words flew at him like the burning shrapnel of an exploding grenade, the protective words of his Mama were like a great chunk of blasted APC armor. Hercules, you have great strength in you, a power of destruction rarely seen in this world today. But you must hold it back, because if not controlled, it could destroy you as easily as anyone else. Be brave, my son, face your foes and be merciful where you can.


So he smiled. He smiled broadly as he looked down at the insignificant man, howling like a spanked child, as he vented bile and abuse against people he didn't know.


"Yes, Lieutenant,", he replied, once the young Zentraedi had said her part, "I am kinda lazy. I enjoy my food, I'm enjoying this warm day's sun, I'm enjoying being around these other young men and women. I can't say I disagree with you about my country's past foolishness, but I will say this.". At this point, his grin vanished as was replaced by a bluntly fierce expression, "Before that unfortunate time, there were different Greeks. There were Greeks who stood against the aggressors who threatened from the East. There were three hundred Greeks that resisted the march of ten thousand. I model myself after those Greeks, those who faced impossible odds and gave no thought to turning back, to yielding one foot of Greek soil to Persian invaders. But yet, I am lazy. I am lazy in that I cannot be bothered to step forward and physically discipline a noisy upstart who dares to stand in a uniform of honor and throw vile and unfounded allegations at those who would be his comrades and fellows. But rejoice! You have requested a transfer. If the colonel grants it, I'll be waiting for you, outside the base's perimeter, outside this uniform, one man alone. If you are any sort of man, you'll meet me there and we'll see who's lazy."


He then turned to the colonel, saluted and returned to an easy stance.
 

Dannigan

Kaerri's Man. =)
Supporter
The moment Herc attempted to lock eyes with the lieutenant, Shan rolled his own eyes in disdain. As Toph and Herc spoke, Lt. Shan made a big show of putting his thumb and forefinger over his nose as if something stank horribly. The more they talked, the worse the lieutenant's expression became. It were as if he were begging someone, anyone, to get the talking to stop. He paid their words as much attention as he would have paid a fart coming out of pig's backside.

Once Toph and Herc were finished, he immediately exclaimed, "Do you hear this nonsense? Does anyone else have something they wish to add?" He held out his arms in blatant challenge to all present.

Behind him, Colonel Sharp appeared to be biting his tongue. He gave every recruit the same look he had given Toph and Herc.

Lieutenant Shan took on an expression of surprise when not one or two but many of the recruits spoke up in one way or another.

"YOU are the disgrace to the uniform, not her!"

"We didn't win the war alone!"

"Have a good transfer, you jerk!"

Roughly half of the recruits in the assembly spoke their minds and stood by their every word.

For a few moments, silence reigned as the colonel and the sergeant seemed to be counting heads. They look towards one another and nodded. Then the colonel spoke.

"Lieutenant Shan, I have fought to protect your freedom of speech, but you have said enough."

The lieutenant bowed to Colonel Sharp. "Forgive me, sir, but what you ask of me..." he glared hatefully at Toph and Herc, "...is too much." Then he turned and walked proudly down the runway.

Colonel Sharp and CSM Powers then turned their attention to the assembly. CSM Powers eyes turned to ice as he stated the following:

"If you spoke... take a walk."

He pointed down the runway to the receding figure of Lt. Shan. Powers made eye contact with many of the recruits including Toph and Herc.

An invisible and emotional shockwave blew through the assembly. One by one, about half of the recruits broke formation and began their long, long walk down the runway.
 
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Captain Hesperus

Harbinger of the End Times and Apostle of Ghan
Administrator
Supporter
Herc sadly saluted the colonel and turned away. He understood now what he'd done wrong. The colonel's implied silence was a recommendation to him and he'd ignored it. He felt shame as he walked back to his barracks. 
 

Psychie

Princess Psychie
Toph feels her shoulders slump.  Perhaps she was not ready for whatever special project this is, after all.  Damn that bigot.  I don't know what's worse; losing out on this chance, or having that ass SEE me lose out on this.  She snaps off a salute to the Colonel, then heads off to the chow hall.  I'll drown my sorrows in cake.
 

Sherwood

Luna's Concubine
Supporter
Mario is not taken by surprise as much as the pink-haired lieutenant is; he's spent more time with hard-assed NCO's than she has, apparently.  But it was disappointing to see the big Greek walk off.  But if you can't follow orders as simple as the one to be silent, well, you get what you get.  He keeps his mouth shut, but trades a glance over at Lt. Mackenzie.  At least she didn't say anything.  Damnit Mario!  Stop thinking with your dick for a minute and focus on the moment at hand!  The only possible good thing with losing the candidates that they did is it might make it easier to get into the finals for this special project. 
 

Kaerri

Dannigan's Lady
Administrator
Supporter
Elinor looked in surprise at Toph, and greater surprise at the big tanker, who all but challenged Shan to a fistfight.  Hadn't they seen the look the colonel gave them?  Well, maybe not, if they were too busy looking at Shan, but from where Elinor stood, he'd clearly been silently ordering them to not say anything.

Once Toph and Herc were finished, he immediately exclaimed, "Do you hear this nonsense?  Does anyone else have something they wish to add?"  He held out his arms in blatant challenge to all present.


Behind him, Colonel Sharp appeared to be biting his tongue.  He gave every recruit the same look he had given Toph and Herc.

Elinor rolled her eyes in exasperation (at Shan, not at the colonel), but seeing as that silent order was now clearly extended to everyone, she maintained her posture, and was all the more surprised when half the remaining recruits ignored him.  Not that she disagreed with a word they said, but...

Colonel Sharp and Sergeant Powers then turned their attention to the assembly.  Sgt. Powers eyes turned to ice as he stated the following:


"If you spoke... take a walk." 

Elinor winced, feeling that order like a cold blast, and was suddenly glad she'd held onto her own temper.  It saddened her to see Toph walk off, and the other recruits, especially since she had the same opinion of Shan that they did.  All the same, this was a special opportunity, and you had to keep your nose clean to qualify for this kind of thing.  Particularly after they'd had evidence (thanks to those first two idiots) of how easy it was to wash out of this one.  Her own determination to make it, whatever "it" was, redoubled, and she looked back to the colonel and Powers so as not to miss any further cues.
 

Dannigan

Kaerri's Man. =)
Supporter
Herc sadly saluted the colonel and turned away.

He felt shame as he walked back to his barracks.

She snaps off a salute to the Colonel, then heads off to the chow hall.

Colonel Sharp returned the salute to both Corporal Papadopolis and Lieutenant Kirin but gave no other expression to either of them. He simply returned his attention to those who had obeyed.

But Herc and Toph's move toward the barracks and the chow hall is immediately spotted by Command Sergeant Major Powers. "Kirin! And Papadopoloo or whatever your name is! That is not the runway! Are you too dumb to know what a runway is? Now walk the goddamn runway! All of it! To the end!" He pointed. It was very far away (well over a mile). He turned back to the remaining recruits. There was a lot of space between the remaining recruits now.

"Who else wants to take a ride on the Boot Leather Express?!" Powers had done more than sensed blood; Powers the Great White Shark had tasted blood and was hungry for more.

He keeps his mouth shut, but trades a glance over at Lt. Mackenzie.

Mackenzie glanced back to Mario. She winced in great dismay; a pained expression exposing her saddened heart as she watched half of the hardest-working, highest-scoring young people on the base walk down the runway with faces filled with shock, shame, and self-disappointment. The Valkyrie pilot's heart went out to each of them. Mario also noticed a Powers-like glare of teeth as Mackenzie stared at the small speck down the runway that was Lieutenant Shan; it may have seemed to Mario that the Californian woman had more than just a few words ready for the likes of him.

Despite the colonel's words about washing out, the crestfallen recruits did not walk as a group but in lonely singles, silent and avoiding each other as they took one step after another down the runway to slowly disappear.

A mechanical sound whirred as the canopy on the AJAX rose upward. Lieutenant Himmelwasser calmly climbed out with a small smile on his blond features. He looked once at the assembly and paused in thought, then he returned to his spot without a further word. Corporal York appeared moments later out of the tent Professor Stein had entered. The red-haired youth stepped politely between the Ghost Riders with a little bounce in his step. Then he stood beside Himmelwasser in perfect attention and a goofy grin on his country features. He glanced up at Himmelwasser who glanced back down at the smaller American.

Professor Stein then emerged from the tent, took one look at the remnants of the assembly and muttered something that sounded like, "bloody hell." Meanwhile, Doctor Yashida gracefully exited the AJAX and without any revealing expression whatsoever, joined Colonel Sharp as the three of them met again. They spoke quietly amongst themselves. They showed each other their laptop screens frequently. They seemed to be making adjustments of some kind. The professor mentioned something and the other two nodded in agreement. Then the trio turned back to face the assembly.

Colonel Sharp paused and collected himself. Whatever emotions he was feeling were concealed behind an image of practiced professionalism. "Lieutenant Mackenzie." Shirley proceeded forward with a bright smile and a salute which the colonel returned. She seemed as ready as anyone could be for what lay ahead. "This way, ma'am." As they climbed the Veritech Hover Tank, there was a THUNK sound as Shirley slipped and cracked an elbow solidly against the unyielding mega-damage hull of the hover tank.

The Ghost Riders winced, Hairball worst of all. Apparently there was some truth to Mackenzie's history as being the Empress of Evil Luck.

Shirley cringed on one knee. Powers watched all but said nothing. "Oww, oww, oww!' Shirley's face seemed to cry, but she swallowed the pain like a champion and in the end gave it no voice whatsoever. Then Shirley rose up, let out a deep breath filled with discipline and focus, and stepped inside the tank along with the colonel.

"Lieutenant Hall! If you please." It was Professor Stein. The large fellow pointed toward her, wiggled a beckoning finger in what could only be described as a wizardly manner, and then nodded as they went inside the tent together, him holding the flap for her in a gentlemanly manner.

That left Hitomi Yashida. Her very pose radiated confidence and encouragement to all that saw her. That small smile, the turn of her cheek, and the look in her eye seemed to have some kind of positive effect on the people that watched her. "Corporal Zuko? May I have the pleasure of your company?" She spoke the name as if he were some kind of celebrity. Then they too made their way into the cockpit of the AJAX and slipped inside as the canopy fell.
 
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Sherwood

Luna's Concubine
Supporter
Mario nods in reply, and follows the attractive Asian woman to the Ajax, with a bit of confusion.  "Um, ma'am?  You do know that I am a tanker, and not a flyer, correct?  I'm not sure just what I am expected to do here, but it might be easier for me in a hover tank."  Either way, he follows her orders to the letter.  If she tells him to take off in the damn thing, he'll do his best to make it fly.  Might kill himself in the process, but he'll still try.
 

Psychie

Princess Psychie
Toph hears the bellow of the NCO, and immediately turns down the runway at a hearty pace.  She may not be one of the special ops team that Colonel Sharp is setting up, but she is still a damn good soldier and pilot, and she will make her exit with her head held high as a proud officer, pilot and doctor of the TASC, even if it chafes her ass to do so.


As she runs, she catches up to Hercules.  "I'm wanting to say thank you for standing up to that Lt. Shan, and I'm sorry it cost you your chance to be a part of what they are doing in there.  I know you didn't do it just on my behalf, but thank you anyways."  Toph offers up her relatively tiny fist to bump against the massive man's hand.  "Want to join me for a brew, since we both seem to have the afternoon open now?"
 

Captain Hesperus

Harbinger of the End Times and Apostle of Ghan
Administrator
Supporter
Hercules changed his heading from the barracks to the distant end of the runway. Two and a half kilometers of open reinforced concrete beckoned. But.... the sun was still shining, the air was still fresh after yesterday's chaos and the soreness in his limbs was starting to fade. He wasn't 'in trouble', he'd simply washed out of whatever project Colonel Sharp was recruiting for and ticked off Sergeant Powers. He could deal with that. No doubt Tahel would scold him for being so hotheaded, claiming that was her job, while his old sergeant would simply laugh til he fell of his seat.


The sound of fast moving feet drew his attention and he turned to see the little lieutenant who'd been the first target of Shan's tirade approaching. He slowed his massive stride to allow her to walk alongside him without too much effort. She was quite pretty, her pink hair a contrast to her blue eyes and her thanks made Hercules feel a mite uncomfortable


"It...ahh..was nothing. Uhhhm... bigots like him are not needed in a place like this.", he replied, spreading his arms out wide to indicate Eglin, "Here there are enough threats to deal with: Malcontents in the wilderness, hurricanes in the ocean, Anti-Unification League cells scattered around. With all that, we need to have each others' backs. A barking, toothless dog like Shan would be a greater threat than anything we face out there, so I'm glad he is leaving. Not that I won't be waiting for him outside the gates when he leaves."


He thought for a second about the young officer's offer and his olive cheeks flushed red. "Errr... I don't know... uhhm... you're a lieutenant and I'm... ummm... a corporal. I don't think.... ahhh... that's allowed.", he stammered, his tongue starting to feel uncomfortably too big for his mouth.
 
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Kaerri

Dannigan's Lady
Administrator
Supporter
Sad as it was to see all those other recruits leaving, Elinor found it almost amusing to see the reactions of those leaving the "interview" areas.  It was not hard at all to avoid smiling at Shirley's misfortunate misstep, though.  Poor girl, not her day, is it?  She heard her own name being called and immediately responded.  "Yessir," she said, trotting over to the professor.  She nodded her thanks when he held the "door" for her, then entered, looking curiously around her.
 

Dannigan

Kaerri's Man. =)
Supporter
Mario nods in reply, and follows the attractive Asian woman to the Ajax, with a bit of confusion. "Um, ma'am? You do know that I am a tanker, and not a flyer, correct? I'm not sure just what I am expected to do here, but it might be easier for me in a hover tank."

As they settled into the comfortable seats in the AJAX cockpit, Hitomi offered Mario a thin smile coupled with a serious glance. They could see each other very clearly on the combat monitors before them. Her tone was friendly, but her words were to the point. "Believe it or not, corporal, we civilians can tell the difference between an A.T.A.C. uniform and one belonging to T.A.S.C." she gave him a look that seemed to say, "Give me some credit here, buddy; my doctorate degree is both real and really earned." Then she added, "Just look around. Your T.A.S.C. friend joined Colonel Sharp in the tank, didn't she?" She left it at that.

Mario saw Hitomi tapping into her laptop with fingernails that smoothly flowed over the keys as easily as Mario operated the cadillac stick in his VHT. There was something about the way the lady-doctor took in whatever information she was absorbing; it was as if it were processing great amounts of data in a short time were something second nature to her. Mario saw her fly through what must have been a dozen electronic pages, her eyes always falling to where they needed to be and nowhere else, putting pieces together in some internal jigsaw puzzle.

The Hawaiian-Japanese woman looked into Mario's eyes with her own golden-brown orbs. She kept that small smile about her - there was something about the combination of her stunning beauty, professional tone, body language, and that smile that together somehow seemed to put a person at ease. It was as if nothing was bothering her at all and that feeling seemed to extend itself to whomever she was with. It lent to an atmosphere of comfort inside the AJAX cockpit.

"O.K., Corporal Zuko. I'll be asking you a number of questions on a wide variety of topics, many of them unusual. Speak freely in your answers. Don't worry; there is no grading scale here. If at any time you feel uncomfortable with the questioning, you are welcome to pop the canopy - that's the red and yellow button on the far, far right with the safety cover on it - and exit with no questions asked. There is no time limit in this exercise. You may ask for clarification, but I do request that you speak from the heart and not what you think I might want to hear. We begin now."

The contents of Hitomi's laptop screen seemed to intrigue her. "Oh. Came back on the SDF-1 after the Pluto incident, hmm? What's it like to be one of the youngest human space travelers in all of history?"

However Mario answered, Hitomi did not spend any time typing. Her focus was entirely on Mario. She seemed to regard him warmly, perhaps admiringly.

"Quite a nice video to you and Lt. Mackenzie earlier! This says... you had a highly-unusual combat event take place at Mile Marker 25 yesterday where you and T.A.S.C. Lieutenant Mackenzie and the infamous Ghost Rider 'Hairball' saved some fifty lives, military and civilian, while laying waste to an entire cadre of oncoming, fully armed and armored Malcontents and their mecha. Our forces didn't suffer a single living loss." She folded her hands and smiled. "Incredible! I've seen the footage from Lt. Mackenzie's aircraft, but I lack your perspective. Go into detail and tell me what happened."

Again, Hitomi listened to Mario's every word, only occasionally offering a nod of acknowledgement or small query of clarification.

"As that happened, think back to just you and your Veritech Hover Tank. Did anything happen between you and it? Leave nothing out, no matter how crazy it sounds."

As Hitomi listened, it may have seemed to Mario that she was again, with the precision of a surgeon and the patience of a saint, collecting pieces of a puzzle from his words just as she had on her laptop. She kept whatever conclusions she was coming to to herself.

She smiled once to Mario as if pleased with something about him when an urgent electronic message notification sounded from her laptop. Her eyes peered to it. "Pardon me a moment, please."

She read it. Then she shook her head as if in disbelief, causing her healthy black hair to bounce. She read it again. Then she stared outside of the canopy in silence. She was clearly not pleased with what she had read.

She sighed and spoke plainly with a real tone of apology to her words. "Corporal Zuko, I'm sorry but I must conclude this interview. I have just received notification from the head of the base to do so with..." she closed her eyes, "...orders to have you to 'take a walk.'"

"I do think you deserve to read this for yourself. Here." Hitomi shifted in her seat and swiveled the laptop around so that Mario could clearly read the important parts of the message.

It was an official document from the office of General Steele. It involved the words, "...Corporal Zuko is found guilty of reckless action during live combat resulting in the complete loss of a fully-functioning Veritech Hover Tank..." "...all combat records and evidence onboard were lost..." following with "...all consideration for honorable award through meritorious action has been denied..." and finally "...no charges will be pending at this time..."

It was electronically signed by none other than Brigadier General Steele, Commander of Eglin ASC base...

Hitomi's beautiful face lost its smile. She stared at Mario like a woman whose puzzle had been completely taken out of her hands along with what appeared to be a terrific opportunity with an enterprising young tanker. "Corporal." She leaned in. "Mario. I'm sorry. If you need a few moments to collect yourself here before going out and facing the world, you are certainly welcome to them." Her expression seemed to add, "If you want to talk, I'll listen to you."

With that, Doctor Yashida sat back in her seat and kept the laptop aimed at the camera so Mario could reread it if need be. There, she silently and gracefully fumed like a dragon denied. She looked to Mario as if to wonder what could have been going through the mind of the brave, young Italian tanker.

*
She heard her own name being called and immediately responded. "Yessir," she said, trotting over to the professor. She nodded her thanks when he held the "door" for her, then entered, looking curiously around her.

"Welcome to my office, my dear," Professor Stein told Elinor as, despite the abundance of sunlight outside, they entered into the very dark and mysterious atmosphere provided by the tent. Elinor knew there was a Valkyrie in Guardian mode but feet from her, but there was only a single light coming from a laptop perched on a plastic table with two opposing and equally-plastic chairs beside it. Professor Stein, dressed finely in his suit, waited for Elinor to be seated prior to seating himself at his laptop. The professor's chair groaned as he set his full weight into it.

"Good 'evening,'" he quipped as he looked about the gloom. "Not my idea of an interview area, but in the army, you act with what you are given, isn't that so?" As they settled in, he brushed his beard unconsciously with one hand while examining the laptop's contents with keen, inquisitive eyes like a wizard of old poring over some dusty old book of spells. Quickly satisfied, he spoke to Elinor with a strange accent, both American and British-English, his every word pronounced and clear, but with the use of conjunctions.

"All right. First, the 'pre-ramble.' I'm going to ask you a number of questions. Answer them any way you want, just be honest or you're wasting both my time and yours. Ask me about the questions and I'll respond with a limited amount of clarification. If you come to find you've had enough of my verbal poking and prodding and want out, the door flap is over there along with the runway. Like Hiram said, there is no dishonor to walking.

"I'll add that I am no military man but a scholarly counselor to this whole blasted thing so you don't need to impress me. In fact, were it up to me I'd pop us a couple of beers before we began, but again," he shrugged his large shoulders, 'you act with what you are given.'"

The light from the laptop seemed to illuminate the professor's eyes in a way that some might have found intimidating though he did not in any way seem to be intending this effect. Professor Stein appeared to be a man of great size and even greater will; anyone with a shred of empathy had but to look into those eyes, which had seemed to have seen far more than most mortals in his time, to note the indomitable will behind them. It seemed to be a special something about him he could not hide. Nor did he try.

He chuckled. "So... Your story, my dear. 'Farm-girl aspires to fly in the contrails of her gutsy United States Air Force grandfather and in the doing so, fly and test experimental aircraft and aeronautical transformable mecha for the benefit of all remaining human lives on Earth though it might cost her her own.' Am I warm?"

As Elinor replied, Professor Stein made no attempt at subterfuge as he examined Elinor's every facial reaction, every change of tone, word usage, body behaviors, and the like all while seeming so very calm and complacent, the two of them might as well have been sharing a pot of afternoon tea.

"All right. Earlier today, I watched what could have been easily mistaken for some state-of-the-art high-flying action movie in the combat footage supplied by Captains Loper's and Gonzalez-Rodriguez's cameras, and your own experimental VF unit - that is, until the damned thing lost power and Loper was forced to blow its head off."

Professor Stein motioned at Elinor with his hand in a way that seemed to dare her to go back to those moments and tell all. "Give me everything. Tell me what the hell happened, no matter how usual or unusual, mundane or macabre. I promise you, I won't think you are any less mad than I already am. Got it? Go."

He sat back and listened without a hint of judgment to everything Hall had to say. He blinked often, his mind moving inside his head like a jet streaking across the sky with full afterburners flaring. Thrice, he paused with a raised finger and asked for her to go into detail about some sentence or another. Clarity was not enough for the professor; he was not satisfied until the images in Elinor's mind were the exact same as in his. The whole time he seemed to leave his own opinions and wonderings completely out of the conversation.

At another point, he typed up his laptop, goofing twice and quietly exclaiming, 'goddamn fat fingers of mine' and showed Elinor a three-dimensional holograph of the Valkyrie model she had flown. He asked details and here Elinor's own education spoke to her telling her that her interviewer was more than some blackboard-scrawling professor for he asked the kinds of questions a true engineer would go after. A voracious engineer.

It shortly became clear to Elinor that Stein did not possess a background in aeronautics, but he definitely understood physics on a scientific level that seemed to surpass hers. In no time at all, they were talking shop about the details of the situation like a pair of professionals deep in their trades, teaching each other things (Elinor doing most of the teaching) and discovering that each had minds like sponges with high-end technical data being the only water on the floor worth mopping up.

Just as things were really getting good, Stein's laptop beeped rudely. "Oh, what the hell is it? We're in the middle of an interview here!" He growled at the unwelcome intrusion to what was a very enjoyable moment to answer it. He read it once. Then Elinor saw him grit his teeth. He clenched one big fist.

Then he said, "Do excuse me one violent action." Then he slammed his hand down on the table to hard it shook and cracked. Then he turned the laptop toward her so she could read it while he leaned back, looking like he wanted to punch more than a helpless plastic table.

It was an official document from the office of General Steele. It involved the words, "...interview with Lieutenant Hall is to be terminated immediately..." "...official documentation has been presented by Eglin ASC base Research and Development division providing plausible evidence to suggest damage to Test Valkyrie and experimental AMVP unit were completely avoidable..." "...new evidence points entirely to operator error..." "...grounded until further notice..."

It was electronically signed by none other than Brigadier General Steele, Commander of Eglin ASC base...

Professor Stein hissed, "Blast it all!" He glared at Elinor, seething. "Forgive me, my dear, but it appears I get the enormous displeasure of having to tell you to 'take a walk...'"

He added softly (or at least he tried to), "A word of wisdom, my lady. Burn off some steam here before you venture out there in front of your peers if you care to. A few minutes won't make any goddamn difference to the likes your general!"
 
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Sherwood

Luna's Concubine
Supporter
Mario does his best to be as honest and complete as he can with Ms. Hitomi, starting off as she asks him about his life on the SDF-1 as it flew from Pluto back to Earth.  As she takes in all the info, the topic of conversation now moves onto the fight with the Malcontents.  This causes him to take bit longer to answer.  "Ma'am?  I don't know if this means anything to you or if I'm just giving you a reason to down-check me, but as the fighting was going on, I should have been able to last longer than I did.  One of the soldiers firing at me made a perfect shot, and somehow knocked my reactor off kilter, and the tank was a goner.  But, the weird thing about it is, nothing on the instrumentation indicated to me that the breach was about to happen.  The way I found out about it is . . . the tank itself told me.  I know it sounds crazy, but it was like I was in the middle of a conversation with the tank, and it was speaking to me.  No, that's not quite right.  Maybe it was a thought from . . . somewhere?"  He looks troubled as he ponders his words.  "There was something going on that told me the tank was about to blow, and if I hadn't listened to it, I wouldn't be here talking to you about it right now.  Its like I was at one with the tank.  I know that you probably think that I'm bucking for a psych discharge, but that's not true at all.  I love being in the ATAC, and I wouldn't trade this for the world." 


He has a feeling that things are going well enough, then there is the troubling message that sends Ms. Hitomi for a loop.  Mario can feel his face begin to drop as the civilian tells him that it's time to 'take a walk'.  He wanted to scream and yell that it wasn't his fault!  That tank was going to explode, and there wasn't anything he could have done to stop it, other than let the lives of the civilians get flushed down the toilet.  Mario reads the message over and over, struggling to understand.  I don't really give a damn about medals, even if they would look nice on my uniform.  But to completely disregard my work keeping everyone alive out there?  This . . . hell, there is no other way to say it.  This fucking sucks large, wet donkey ass. 


Marshalling his emotions, Mario manages to say, "I understand, ma'am, and I'm sorry to have wasted your time with me.  I am going to say that, given the same set of circumstances, I probably wouldn't do anything different than what I did yesterday.  Those kids are alive thanks to me and Lt. Mackenzie, not to mention the brave members of the Tactical Corps that stood their ground and gave me enough time to get there to make a difference.  I guess it doesn't really matter, but that video from the school is all the reason that I need to keep my head held up high."  With a sigh, Mario climbs out of the cockpit and, before making his way out to the runway, he pauses to go and make a personal thank you to Hairball for the well timed missile strike yesterday.  "Whenever you are ready to look me up, I'll buy the first round of drinks.  I owe you my life, and so do those kids.  Thanks."


Finally, with that bit of business done, he gives a crisp salute to the Colonel, wishing that he wasn't disappointing the officer as much as he feels like he is.  Time to take a walk.
 

Psychie

Princess Psychie
Toph lets out a laugh at the very shy behavior of the large man.  "I didn't say we were going to have a torrid love affair where I was going to be having your love child.  I said we could sit down and enjoy a cup of tea and talk about the other person's job, and possibly make a new friend.  To keep things kosher, lets have our chat at the mess hall, and you can be stunned at the sheer volume of cheesecake I plan on eating, wondering how I can put it all away and still fit in my uniform."
 

Dannigan

Kaerri's Man. =)
Supporter
Marshalling his emotions, Mario manages to say, "I understand, ma'am, and I'm sorry to have wasted your time with me. I am going to say that, given the same set of circumstances, I probably wouldn't do anything different than what I did yesterday. Those kids are alive thanks to me and Lt. Mackenzie, not to mention the brave members of the Tactical Corps that stood their ground and gave me enough time to get there to make a difference. I guess it doesn't really matter, but that video from the school is all the reason that I need to keep my head held up high."

Hitomi nodded to Mario. "Corporal, you may have washed out, but you have not wasted my time at all. There is something extraordinary about you; don't let someone like this general take that away." She folded her hands. "Oh, and if it were me in your boots at Mile Marker 25?" She nodded. "I would have done the same."

As Mario departed, Hitomi found herself the only human being in the AJAX cockpit. Unheard by all but her, a tiny, inquisitive, "mwerroooooo?" issued forth from her large purse.

"Shhh. Back to sleep," she replied, pushing a small metallic paw back inside. She made a few notes on her laptop and readied herself. It was time to interview another recruit while there were still some left.

With a sigh, Mario climbs out of the cockpit and, before making his way out to the runway, he pauses to go and make a personal thank you to Hairball for the well timed missile strike yesterday. "Whenever you are ready to look me up, I'll buy the first round of drinks. I owe you my life, and so do those kids. Thanks."

The gargantuan destroid pilot grinned in a way that made him look even more drunken than usual. His drawl was slow and slurred as he winked. "Awww, it's nuthin', little pal!. *snort* We gotta shtick tagether *hic!* because we're aaaaallll in dis tagether, yannowhutImean?" He yawned, covering his mouth with a mammoth hand. "Beshides... all I did was *uuuuurp!* fire da mishuls; Mack! She's da one dat puttem where it counted while you *snort* did alla da blockin'. You da man, Zuko!" He pointed at Mario with both hands, smiled, and winked, confident in his words.

Finally, with that bit of business done, he gives a crisp salute to the Colonel, wishing that he wasn't disappointing the officer as much as he feels like he is. Time to take a walk.

(Mood music)
"Don't Answer Me" by The Alan Parsons Project

Partial lyrics:
If you believe in the power of magic
I can change your mind
And if you need to believe in someone
turn and look behind.

Colonel Sharp saluted the recruits that saluted him as they left the assembly, those that remembered to. He kept his face otherwise as blank as could be, betraying no emotion whatsoever. Except for Mario. When Colonel Sharp returned Mario's salute under the Florida sun, there was a message in the expression of the old soldier - he looked over Mario's shoulder and down the runway. A nudge of his chin in that direction indicated that there was something down that way that Mario should take note of.

Perhaps at that time Mario remembered that Colonel Sharp was one of the interviewers just as Doctor Yashida and Professor Stein were. So why then was the brave tanker of many battles standing out here instead of interviewing the last recruit he had called? Why did his eyes stay fixed on what they were gazing upon?

The Ghost Riders stepped forward, but paused so as not to break formation. But they all saw her. Everyone saw her.

There, at the edge of the assembly, not far from her Corvette Stingray stood Lt. Shirley Mackenzie. Her interview too was over and done. Her head hung low, her shoulders slumped as she walked by Reggie. Reggie shook his head as he saw her despairing face. She could not face him and he could not chase her to comfort her.

Shirley approached her father. Turning to him, they looked into each other's eyes, but Shirley seemed to see so much more than just the strong-hearted man dressed crisply as a Command Sergeant Major. She saw the sacrifices he had made for her. All of the sleepless nights. All of the days helping her study and work hard. Every hour he had spent helping her instead of doing something fun or relaxing. She saw all of the times he was there for her when she needed him. Each time he had put her life forward at cost of his own. Each minute of encouragement. Every last moment a gift.

That's why it hurt so badly.

It was clear to anyone watching that she had felt she had somehow let him down. That was the one thing Shirley Mackenzie could not take. Even though it was not true, the torment of her failure made her feel that it was. All of the pain and strain she had been holding in rose to the surface there and then. Her cheeks flushed red. Her eyes filled with tears that sparkled brightly in the sun. All she could do was look up into his face and see all of his sacrifices made towards this moment. Her moment. All gone. All in vain. Her day had started out horribly, continued horribly, and now, finally, this.

"I just want to die. What else is going to go wrong today?" her expression seemed to beg.

For a moment, Sgt. Powers was absent. Mr. Jamal Powers reached up to put a hand on her shoulder, but Shirley spun away before it could be done. She walked down that runway, past her Baby, past her friends, teeth gritted, teardrops dripping as if they were her last. She bit her lip as she took step after step down the tarmac. Her hands shook.

She took off Hercules's loaned cloak for it had become too hot to wear it. She folded it across her arm and moved on, seeing nothing but her own blackened bare feet as she half-marched, half-stumbled down the runway toward failure, toward darkness, toward her very uncertain future, looking very much alone though a dozen eyes followed her.

Colonel Sharp looked straight at Mario without a word. He glanced at Shirley then back at Mario as if to say, "Maybe you want to take action here, son? You're the only one who can."
 
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Sherwood

Luna's Concubine
Supporter
Mario shakes his head in disbelief.  Are there anyone in this bunch being chosen for this special project at all?  Or is this just an exercise in futility, some kind of bullshit test from the General?  He moves down the runway to intercept Shirley.  "Hey, Lieutenant!  Don't go anywhere without me!  I still have to say a heartfelt 'thank you' for coming to my assist yesterday.  You were totally awesome, and I can't believe that a pair of hero's like us are getting bounced from this.  I guess that the fact that I lost my tank is a reason not to give out a medal, but hey!  I was being a living shield for those civies, and even a single missed shot could have taken out that whole busload of kids."  He falls in next to the lady and matches speed with her.  "No matter what else goes on today, just remember how you felt when you saw that video from the schoolkids.  I don't know why you weren't selected, and its none of my business if you don't want to tell me.  But I can say with absolute certainty that a lot of people would have lost their lives yesterday if it weren't for you.  That Zentraedi squadron would have wiped those Tactical Corps troopers aside without a second thought, and my engine was going critical from a well placed hit.  I would have been dead along with those kids, so I have a life debt that I now owe you.  It may be against the rules for an enlisted to be involved with an officer, so I'll just show my appreciation for you some other way."  He gives her a grin, hoping that his cheeky behavior can get a positive reaction from her.
 

Dannigan

Kaerri's Man. =)
Supporter
(Mood music)
"All Fired Up" by Pat Benatar

Partial lyrics:
Ain't nobody livin' in a perfect world
Everybody's out there cryin' to be heard
Now I got a new fire burnin' in my eyes
Lighting up the darkness, movin' like a meteorite.

If there was one gift that Mario was born with, it was the gift of charm. Shirley's head turned almost instantly upon hearing his voice as he joined her on the runway. As she did, Mario saw her tear-stained face beneath that tousled black mane. Her eyes blazed with deep sorrow and barely-contained fury. Her chest heaved as she breathed deep ragged breaths. Once they were out of earshot of the assembly, she responded. Not like a girl, but like a wounded tiger.

"Oh, he bagged you too? Over a faulty mech? That son of a bitch!!" she cried.

"Get this! I helped save FIFTY people and he cans me for flying a trainer into combat instead of a fully-armed Valkyrie? Like we had time to go back and get one!" She sarcastically mimics a scene. "Oh, time out there, hostile Malcontent platoon! I have to return, drop off Rothschild, arm up in a Super Valkyrie, fly back here, and bomb the daylights out of you! You all just cease fire and play Scrabble until I get back, won't you? There's a bunch of good green-skinned sweeties! Be right back! YEAH, RIGHT!"

"Then he nails me for going into combat with a civilian, y'know, sweet Rothschild, but again there was no time!"

She half-consciously squeezed Herc's jacket as if it were someone's neck. She gazed seeing faces that were not present. "But the worst part of all this... ground me if you must, Steel, but damn it, leave Rothschild out of this! How in the hell did Rothschild deserve to be permanently banned from mecha operations at Eglin? Being with the mechs is his dream as much as it is mine!" She shook her head. "Hit me if you have to, but God! Why kill his dreams?! He's just a kid! He doesn't deserve this! ANY OF THIS!"

"Y'know, it makes a girl wonder; maybe this whole assembly thing was just a farce, huh? He's the general here; he can do whatever he wants as long as he covers his butt! So why not make a big show of 'testing us' when he's already decided who he wants in the squad? His squad? That way, he can say, 'Oh, yes! I was fair! Look at the assembly!' Meanwhile, he's crushing our very dreams!"

Shirley's fists clenched. She flared with womanly hate as they walked down the runway together. "I'll calm down later... O.K.? But right now? Right now, if I had General Steel in front of me, I'd chew him out to his face, SO HELP ME GOD!"

*
General Steel looked out from the other end of the runway.

(Mood music)
"Parris Island" from the Full Metal Jacket Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (instrumental).

It was his runway. For Eglin was his base. Every person on it his responsibility. Especially himself. People feared him. People hated him. People reviled him. People put him in charge.

At six feet, four inches tall, ASC Brigadier General George Steel had the body of a battleship and the presence of an aircraft carrier. In his pristine battle dress uniform, clad in more earned medals and honors than most soldiers ever saw in their lifetime (including the coveted Special Forces badge, Combat Infantry Badge, three Silver Stars each with Valor device, and Purple Heart), General Steel stood like a monolith, a statue made in tribute to war. His thick, trimmed moustache blew in the wind under a hat that barely concealed his ever-dark gaze.

If he was the top brass here at Eglin, it was only because he alone was the biggest, baddest force on the base, the undisputed alpha of this great pack with a fearsome fury so great it would even give battle-hardened Meltrandi cause to pause in their tracks. It was a reputation no one had given him; he had earned it every bloody step of the way. As such, no one on-post or off challenged his authority and that was just how it was.

George Steel had done more than survive the Rain of Death or the horrible days that passed afterwards - he had thrived. As a leader of men and women, he had helped to turn holocaust into a history where humanity still had their place on planet Earth as the top of the food chain. Not the Zentraedi. Not the Meltrandi. Not even the Robotech Masters should they come this way. Earth belonged only to humanity.

Beside General Steel were a dozen armed men and women wearing custom-made ASC megasuits of black and gold. They stood on guard, operated nearby computers on benches, and appeared ready for anything. They too needed no introduction to anyone who served on Eglin ASC base - these were General Steel's personal special forces unit - the Slayers (also known as Steel's Slayers). Behind them were several staff cars and APCs. Above them all was the general's own mobile command unit, a massive ten-wheeled armored monstrosity decked with cannons, missile launchers, and communications gear should the worst come to pass.

It was this scene that Toph and Hercules found themselves approaching at the end of the runway. The General had been here the whole time. Waiting.

To the side of the vehicles were each and every soldier that had failed before them save Lieutenant Shan. These recruits were face-first in the tarmac doing push-ups, staining their best military uniforms as two of the Slayers growled instructions at them. Each of these recruits had a new look in their eye - one of resolute determination. But the most-determined of them all glanced at Toph and Herc before his gaze passed beyond them. One of the Slayers, sitting on a portable bench with a laptop in her lap, nodded obediently to the general as she relayed some information to him.

One of the Slayers motioned to Toph and Herc. "Step forward. The general desires words with you..."

As this occurred, Corporal Papadopolis and Lieutenant Kirin found themselves face to face with General Steel who did not look upon either of them. Instead, his grim gaze went toward the assembly. He spoke calmly, his bass voice rumbling like a drum of war. Only Toph and Herc were near him now.

"Why... are you standing before me?"
 
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Captain Hesperus

Harbinger of the End Times and Apostle of Ghan
Administrator
Supporter
Hercules watched with wary eyes the scene before him. The intimidating SpecOps soldiers in their armor, the mobile command center, the other 'washouts' doing PT and there, in the midst of it all, the head honcho of Eglin. The original Man of Steel, General Steel himself. 


Hercules' body rid him of any signs of fatigue or pain from his previous night's exertions, his morning exercises and the long walk down the runway, a primal 'fight or flight' instinct preparing him for any and all eventualities. There was something wrong here and he was on his guard, far more than he had been at the Colonel's gathering. 


The soldier ushering him and the lieutenant into the General's presence did nothing to assuage his concerns and the General's question had him even more on guard. 


Hercules snapped to attention as if he were in his dress No. 1 uniform in the center of a parade ground, not in slightly rumpled, slightly sweaty fatigues on the far end of a runway. His hand whipped to his forehead in salute and his voice issued forth like a thunderclap.


"Sir! Corporal Hercules Popadopolis, formerly 228th (Mediterranean) Division, 19th Armored Regiment, 1st Company, 'Legend' Squad. I was ordered by Colonel Sharp to walk to this end of the runway for not keeping my big fat Greek mouth shut when so ordered, sir!" 


His hand remained firmly glued to his forehead until his salute was returned and his physical form was rigidly erect until he was ordered to stand at ease, though he doubted either would happen any point soon. 
 

Psychie

Princess Psychie
Before reaching the end of the runway, Toph changes gears a bit while talking with Hercules. "If I may ask, you mentioned something earlier that has hit close to home. I had a run in last night with some rather unpleasant people that said they were a part of something called the Anti Unification League, and then you mentioned that group yourself. What do you know of the AUL?"  Please please tell me that you are not a part of them.


Then, as they are walking, she sees the assembled group of soldiers, including the distinctive black armored figures of the Slayers up ahead.  That must mean that the General is here. Ah, there he is. What's going on?  When faced with the General, Toph snaps off a crisp salute. "Lt Toph Kirin, reporting as ordered. I was instructed to take a walk after being confronted by Lt Shan spouting off anti Zentraedi rhetoric. When I told him that I forgave him, i disobeyed orders to keep quiet. If I can't follow simple orders, I could put others at risk."
 

Captain Hesperus

Harbinger of the End Times and Apostle of Ghan
Administrator
Supporter
Moments earlier


Hercules turned to look at the lieutenant. Someone else who'd had a run-in with those AUL bastards. But, as evidenced by her presence here, she had come off better for it. All in all, it appeared that the AUL had experienced a night of failure upon failure. The realisation came to him that he had pondered too long on the fate of the xenophobic organisation and not answering her question the moment it became too late for him to reply. 


Never mind, there would probably be time later for that.
 
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Kaerri

Dannigan's Lady
Administrator
Supporter
"Welcome to my office, my dear," Professor Stein told Elinor as, despite the abundance of sunlight outside, they entered into the very dark and mysterious atmosphere provided by the tent.  Elinor knew there was a Valkyrie in Guardian mode but feet from her, but there was only a single light coming from a laptop perched on a plastic table with two opposing and equally-plastic chairs beside it.  Professor Stein, dressed finely in his suit, waited for Elinor to be seated prior to seating himself at his laptop.  The professor's chair groaned as he set his full weight into it.


"Good 'evening,'" he quipped as he looked about the gloom.  "Not my idea of an interview area, but in the army, you act with what you are given, isn't that so?"

On entering, Elinor stepped to one side and waited for her eyes to adjust before looking around.  It felt odd to take a seat prior to the "superior" in this "office" doing so, but it was what he seemed to want.  "Yessir," she answered, though his question seemed rhetorical.

He chuckled.  "So...  Your story, my dear.  'Farm-girl aspires to fly in the contrails of her gutsy United States Air Force grandfather and in the doing so, fly and test experimental aircraft and aeronautical transformable mecha for the benefit of all remaining human lives on Earth though it might cost her her own.'  Am I warm?"

Elinor felt her face heat.  "It seems kinda high and noble when you put it like that, sir.  But yes, pretty much.  I mean, someone's got to do it, and I'm a pretty good pilot, and I like doin' it."

"All right.  Earlier today, I watched what could have been easily mistaken for some state-of-the-art high-flying action movie in the combat footage supplied by Captains Loper's and Gonzalez-Rodriguez's cameras, and your own experimental VF unit - that is, until the damned thing lost power and Loper was forced to blow its head off."  Professor Stein motioned at Elinor with his hand in a way that seemed to dare her to go back to those moments and tell all.  "Give me everything.  Tell me what the hell happened, no matter how usual or unusual, mundane or macabre.  I promise you, I won't think you are any less mad than I already am.  Got it?  Go."

Elinor nodded a little warily.  That bit about I won't think you're mad almost made her think he was expecting something strange to have happened.  "Well, sir, it started, for me anyway, yesterday mornin' when Captain Loper and I went out to see the so-called engineers who dreamed up the AMVP in the first place..."  She took the professor through the events of the flight, at least as calmly as she'd summed it up for the colonel yesterday (though not near as dry as the report she'd written up after landing and cleaning up).  At first she didn't mention that odd voice in her head, nor the vision of the elephant, having by now almost convinced herself that she'd imagined it all.  However, while answering all the professor's questions and seeing his clear interest, she did hesitantly bring it up.  The holo created by his laptop intrigued her, and she quickly found herself at ease and getting into technical detail (as far as she knew it, which wasn't much where the AMVP was concerned, but a lot more in depth with the Valkyrie itself).  It was nice to talk to someone who understood this stuff; even if she clearly knew more about the Valkyrie's systems than he did, she didn't have to dumb down any of her explanations.  She'd just been getting to really enjoy herself when the computer signified an incoming message.  The professor's violent reaction startled her, until she read the thing for herself...

It was an official document from the office of General Steele.  It involved the words, "...interview with Lieutenant Hall is to be terminated immediately..."  "...official documentation has been presented by Eglin ASC base Research and Development division providing plausible evidence to suggest damage to Test Valkyrie and experimental AMVP unit were completely avoidable..."  "...new evidence points entirely to operator error..."  "...grounded until further notice..."

Elinor's mouth twitched as she read the letter, fighting to keep her face still and failing.  For several moments she could only stare at the screen in disbelief.  Completely avoidable?  Where in hell does he get that?  Grounded?? What the hell?!  Professor Stein's voice recalled her attention outward and she stared up at him instead.

Professor Stein hissed, "Blast it all!"  He glared at Elinor, seething.  "Forgive me, my dear, but it appears I get the enormous displeasure of having to tell you to 'take a walk...'"


He added softly (or at least he tried to), "A word of wisdom, my lady.  Burn off some steam here before you venture out there in front of your peers if you care to.  A few minutes won't make any goddamn difference to the likes your general!"



"I.. Thank you, sir."  She swallowed and looked back at the screen again.  She felt like she wanted to punch something herself.  Or cry.  Or run screaming around the base a hundred times.  Or stick the general in her Valkyrie and see how he did!  Those last two were definitely out, and she'd never been able to cry in front of strangers, which, nice as he seemed to be, this civilian was.  Instead she slid out of the chair, went to one knee, and quietly punched the ground several times, alternating hands and muttering under her breath.  Most of it was wordless growling, but some words emerged here and there: "Fuckin' REMF...'new evidence' my ass...damn poké-heads...like to know what he'd've done with the damn thing!"  With that last she finally stopped and stood up, brushing off her trousers and hands before wiping her face with her jacket sleeve.  She then ran her hands over her hair to make sure it was still tidy.  Presentable and cool once more, she turned to face the professor.  "Thank you, sir.  Maybe we can meet less officially and talk some more.  It was fun, before my superior stepped in."  She even managed to say that evenly, without any sarcasm.  Grandpa Will would be proud.  I hope.  She saluted the professor (he'd earned it, in her opinion) and left the tent with her head high.


Facing everyone outside was a separate trial, but those minutes the professor had recommended had restored enough of her cool to enable her to face them calmly.  Wordlessly she marched up and saluted Colonel Sharp, nodded to Sergeant Powers, and turned to walk the runway.  She remembered the colonel's words at the start of this, and kept them in mind as she walked.  No disgrace in her bearing or on her face, she held her head up and her back straight as if she'd been turned down for being right-handed when they'd been looking for lefties, or something silly like that.  As far as she was concerned, it was silly -- no one who'd heard the real story or seen the tapes could possibly blame her, right?  She figured the only real mistake she'd made was to let those game-brained engineers talk them into going up without any real info.  Well, maybe there was something in the AMVP's design that would've told her how better to handle it?  She wasn't sure whether she hoped it did or hoped it didn't.  More than anything else right now, she wanted to see that "new evidence" and be told just what exactly she should have done differently, so she could do it right next time.  She sighed, the smooth rhythm of her steps faltering just a bit as she remembered.  If there was a next time.  If the general didn't decide one mistake meant she couldn't fly at all.  She didn't want to think about that, but the next thought was another she didn't like.  I hope Loper didn't get in trouble over this too!
 

Dannigan

Kaerri's Man. =)
Supporter
"Thank you, sir. Maybe we can meet less officially and talk some more. It was fun, before my superior stepped in."

"I would like that, my dear." Professor Stein replied with the best grin he could muster before showing her the way out. What he did after Elinor's departure, she could not tell.

Facing everyone outside was a separate trial, but those minutes the professor had recommended had restored enough of her cool to enable her to face them calmly. Wordlessly she marched up and saluted Colonel Sharp, nodded to Sergeant Powers, and turned to walk the runway.

Colonel Sharp returned her salute but if there were any further feeling from him, she could not sense it. Sergeant Powers nodded back but he did not appear pleased by her leaving. Or any of them for that matter.

As time and chance would have it, Mario, Shirley, and Elinor walked themselves down the runway in the Florida afternoon only to arrive at the end of the road together. This began their own discovery of General Steel and his haunting entourage of professional soldiers waiting all this time at the other end. As it was, the three recruits witnessed firsthand the following exchange between General Steel, Lieutenant Kirin, and Corporal Papadopolis.

Hercules snapped to attention as if he were in his dress No. 1 uniform in the center of a parade ground, not in slightly rumpled, slightly sweaty fatigues on the far end of a runway. His hand whipped to his forehead in salute and his voice issued forth like a thunderclap.

"Sir! Corporal Hercules Popadopolis, formerly 228th (Mediterranean) Division, 19th Armored Regiment, 1st Company, 'Legend' Squad. I was ordered by Colonel Sharp to walk to this end of the runway for not keeping my big fat Greek mouth shut when so ordered, sir!"


When faced with the General, Toph snaps off a crisp salute. "Lt Toph Kirin, reporting as ordered. I was instructed to take a walk after being confronted by Lt Shan spouting off anti Zentraedi rhetoric. When I told him that I forgave him, i disobeyed orders to keep quiet. If I can't follow simple orders, I could put others at risk."

Hearing them, the general seemed to seethe inside. There was the undeniable hint of menace in his voice and manner. "So. You believe it to be so simple a matter, do you, lieutenant?" He spoke slowly, each word forged from the black furnace of his displeasure. "When did the two of you come to the conclusion that rank was something you could dismiss at your whim? You believe you can listen to whomever pleases you most and to Hell with the rest?"

He glanced at the computer monitors on the bench where his Slayer awaited further orders. "I watched all of your performances from here. These monitors are connected to the cameras inside the very mechs you interviewed in. I saw and heard all."

As he spoke, the five recruits present could see the looks on the faces of some of the other recruits that had made it here previously, especially the first two who had fought over whose jacket Lieutenant Mackenzie should be wearing. As they gasped and sweat during their push-ups, they looked several times at the five assembled recruits with hopeless expressions.

They seemed to be telling them, "Beg for mercy!" "Just do whatever he says and maybe he'll go easy on you!"

General Steel stared at Toph and Herc as if he wanted to spit. "Am I to understand the two of you would rather pay heed to some foolish lieutenant than a colonel? My colonel? The only man I trust as second in command in all of Eglin base?" He glared like a demon upon Herc and Toph. "Do you dare think my choice of commanders is not good enough for the likes of you? Is this your way of challenging my judgment? Is that what you are attempting?" Steel did not seem to be asking these questions rhetorically; he wanted answers.

"And you," his aimed finger at Mario, Shirley, and Elinor may as well have been the SDF-1's main gun for all of the power his voice and manner carried. "Front and center." He pointed beside Toph and Herc. "Present your pathetic excuses for failure in my beloved army. Enlighten us as to why performing things your way was best instead of the way things should have been performed and how that will help free Earth and her people from the Zentraedi menace. Describe why the ASC's investment in each of you was not wasted effort. Your sorry examples do not behoove your current status in my army or this assembly. Be assured that better men and women will take your place in my special squadron."

General Steel now stared at the five of them as if he were imagining not if, but how quickly he could drop all five of you in a five-on-one melee. "No. I have changed my mind. Instead, just answer this," he boomed with a hellish glare, daring each of you.

"After what you have done, tell us why I should consider keeping utter failures like yourselves at my honored Eglin base. Speak freely or not at all."

Meanwhile, the perspiring soldiers virtually under the Slayers' heels seemed to entreat the five recruits to just beg for mercy as they had and get the humiliation over with.
 
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Kaerri

Dannigan's Lady
Administrator
Supporter
"I watched all of your performances from here.  These monitors are connected to the cameras inside the very mechs you interviewed in.  I saw and heard all."

Elinor suddenly felt a lot more worried about her career.  Oh, hell.  When called up, she saluted and took her place at rigid attention beside the others.

"After what you have done, tell us why I should consider keeping utter failures like yourselves at my honored Eglin base.  Speak freely or not at all."  

Elinor knew she ought to be afraid.  And on some level, she probably was afraid.  What she was first and foremost, though, was angry.  However, she knew darned well that "speak freely" did not include disrespecting one's superiors, and so she paused a moment to collect her thoughts into something that wouldn't get her court martialed.  Even while she thought, however, she didn't look down or away.  If the general wanted her opinion, well, she'd damned well give it to him, and she wasn't ashamed of anything that had brought her to this point.  "Sir.  You surely know as well as I do that the whole point of flight test is to find out what works and what doesn't, and how to fix it.  Well, yesterday we found somethin' that didn't work, and unfortunately we didn't find out how to fix it in time.  As you know if you've watched the tapes and read my report."  There was a kind of challenge in her eyes, not exactly defiant, nor insubordinate, but nothing like as submissive as those poor sods doing pushups, either.  "Sir, if you know what else I could've done, or if you can point me to someone else that does, I'd surely like to know what it was, 'cause I did all I knew how to do without lettin' that thing drive me right into the Gulf."
 

Sherwood

Luna's Concubine
Supporter
Mario can feel a bloom of red hot rage burning inside of him as he stand in front of the General.  With a few deep breaths to compose himself (no need to test the limits of 'speak freely' now, is there?), the young Corporal locks himself into the position of attention and puts on his best poker face.  "Sir, if you really have to ask why we are worthy to be here, you obviously didn't pay that much attention to the activities of Lt. Mackenzie and myself yesterday.  I'm not able to speak for the others here, but what we did was, in my personal opinion, performed in the finest traditions of the military!  Look at the video of those kids.  They were all dead before I showed up.  Those Tactical Corps marines did an awesome job in buying enough time for me to arrive in my VHT, not knowing how long it would be before any kind of relief arrives, and what do they get?  A rookie pilot in his first field deployment, all my myself against a Zentraedi squadron led by an Officer Pod!  If it were not for the selfless actions of Lt. Mackenzie coming in with an unarmed trainer, distracting them before calling in the artillery strike, I would have bought myself a piece of property to call my own for all eternity!" 


He takes a deep breath once more before continuing.  In a much more calm tone of voice, he continues.  "With as many lives that have been lost in the War, every man, woman and child we now have on this planet are worth more than a dozen hover tanks.  Not only that, as those youngsters grow, they will remember the Lieutenant and myself put ourselves in the way of enemy fire to save their lives, and that will affect them for the rest of their lives.  The odds are good that they will all go into the military, to serve and protect the few lives that are left on this broken world.  I wasn't out there, trying to get a medal!  I could give a harry rat's asshole about that.  I am here to save lives and protect everyone I can, and if that means putting myself in the line of fire with my mecha, even losing my own life in the process, that is a sacrifice I find myself willing to make!  Given the same choices that I faced yesterday, you can bet your goddamned ass that I would do it all over again!  If that is enough to make me 'unworthy' to be assigned to the same base as you, sir, then ship me out and let me do my job somewhere else.  And if speaking my mind has just fucked over my career for the rest of my life, so be it, but you did say to speak freely.  SIR!"
 

Captain Hesperus

Harbinger of the End Times and Apostle of Ghan
Administrator
Supporter
Hercules listened to the two new arrivals and their responses to the General's order. As they spoke, he considered his own position. He had not done anything as distinguished as test flying new mecha, nor saving the lives of a bus full of kids. All he was was a big muscly Greek who'd served time in the Marines before doing his duty behind the sticks of a M.A.C. II.


"Sir!", he replied from beneath the salute that still had not been replied to, "I have no reason to give for staying at your base. I'm just a big Greek mech pilot offered a chance at something greater. Whether I achieve that or not, I still come away with experience to grow from. But, since you allowed us to speak freely, I'd just request you reconsider these lieutenants' and this corporal's applications. If what they say is true, then they've served in the best traditions of the RDF and the ASC, putting their lives on the line for the good of others. That is all, sir!"
 

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