Chapter 19: Rimfire
There was still a half an hour before launch so I went back to watching the security cameras. What's she going to do? Come over here and tuck me in? Get real. I waited until two minutes before launch before getting on the special couch. It looked like any other couch except for the straps, extra padding, and no back. I slipped a Silver Hand disk in the Wearman and grabbed a few more albums before strapping in. I just got done when the Rimfire started to shake. Soon the sound and vibration of thrusters filled the halls. Slowly, I began to feel movement. As the shaking and noise grew louder, so did the feeling of weight on my chest. The music was soon drowned out by the noise. Soon it was difficult to even breathe. After what seemed like hours (which the clocks claimed to be only thirty minutes) Dass's harsh voice once again came over the intercom.

"We are in Orbit. Algol, can you hear me?"

A static filled voice answered, "Yes, Rimfire, we copy."

"This is Rimfire, we are operational." Clapping and cheers were heard in the background. Dass continued, "Fireflight, this is Dass. The nice folks who paid for your suits would like to see them; scramble for the news crew in the shuttle off our bow. All pilots to the Circus. I threw on my armor and rushed out the door. Over the years I had gotten so used to putting on the full metal gear, that it could be done faster than normal people could put on regular clothes.

Tammis caught up with me with helmet in arm, "Why are you bringing your Mauser and SMG with you?"

"The adoring public might want to see them. Besides, I feel safer." Actually I brought them out of habit. Not being a real fighter, I tend to rely on intimidation than actual gun play (and seeing someone in heavy armor and an equally heavy gun to match can be really intimidating).

As promised, the Rimfire crew had painted our personal insignias on our shields. Larani led us out. The news shuttle was far off and we gave them quite a show. Those extra hours of practice really showed off in our acrobatic maneuvers. Suddenly a single plasma bolt hit the shuttle, and sent it spinning off into space. As the shuttle crew called for help, a large shape seemed to appear out of nowhere, and attacked us.

This strange mekton reminded me of an insect. It had a central body with a long flexible tail. On each side of the back was a pylon connecting the body to a nacelle. Each nacelle had a weapon in the front and four objects that looked like remote units. The tail also had a weapon and was positioned like a scorpion as it charged us. Fireflight was quick to respond. We scattered and fired from several different angles. The boggie was hit several times, but it didn't seem to do much good. "Conners! Go after the shuttle!" Larani shouted.

"Captain, I can do more-" I started to protest.

"No buts, go do it!"

I left the fight with regret and relief inside me. Regret of not being able to help my friends. But relief of not doing anything life threatening. The shuttle was easy to catch though it was time consuming. Over the radio, I could tell the fight was going badly. Almost everyone was hit at least once and the Scarab (what the Rimfire identified the boggie as) took little damage. Larani had to tell me several time to rescue the shuttle and not to come back. I hurried to finish the task. Needless to say, the news crew was happy to be saved.

But as I passed the fight on the way back to Rimfire I heard Celine report that she's been hit several times. I could see the Scarab closing in on her mekton through the telescopic lenses of the mekton. The Scarab fired a multitude of blasts from its nacelles and tail. One shattered her shield and the other struck squarely in his chest. I could see a series of small explosions and hear Celine yell, "She's gonna blowwwwwwwwww!"

The destruction of his mekton cut short her last words. Without remorse the Scarab turned to another Sentinel, Karin I think it was, and charged. She was barely able to dodge with everyone (especially Tammis) expressing their disbelief over Celine's death. By then I was close enough to Rimfire to quickly secure the shuttle and return to the fight.

Things were looking bad for us. We had just lost one of our own and that thing was hardly scratched. I placed a well aimed shot at the base of the tail. Someone else already tried this stunt but was unsuccessful in removing it. However my blast hit close enough to the previous blast to finish the job. With its only adjustable weapon gone, it released two pods from the outside of its nacelles. These pods were armed with a single laser and made a dangerous replacement for the tail. I swooped in from under and stabbed with the beam sword. The armor was tough, but I could tell it was penetrated from the shower of sparks.

The Scarab reared back and fired everything it could at me. At such a short range, missing was impossible. Red lights flared across the controls. I could feel that time was short for this Sentinel. With a frantic pull I released the ejection chamber. I remember flying into the air behind a fireball where my mekton once was. The explosion knocked out my radio, but from the looks of things, everyone including the Scarab thought I was dead.

This wasn't the first time the enemy took me for dead, and it wouldn't be the first time I made them regret that mistake for the rest of their lives (all five seconds of it). I hit the Wearman and the jet pac at the same time and flew in the direction of the Scarab. My target had turned towards Larani and Tammis and was using all eight of its pod cannons. Using my teleoptic, I found the hatch to the cockpit. It was locked, but the Mauser did its usual good job of lock picking. The hatch blew open just before I landed there.

The mekton stopped as if aware of my actions. I leaped inside before the cannons could point themselves in my direction. But in my hurry, the Mauser was left outside. It mattered little. If I succeeded, I could get it later. If not, well at least it wouldn't fall into Axis hands. There was no more than an airlock between me and the pilot. I grabbed for the handle the same time he did. Then we were both rocked by blasts from Fireflight.

While the pilot was knocked free from the door, my cyber grip held me there. The air rushed out, nearly blowing me back as I opened the door. A shot hit my shoulder and was deflected off into space. "Buddy, that was the second excuse you gave me." I told him.

He was in easy reach. All the pilot had was a simple space suit with a helmet that was actually connected to the mekton computers. A split second decision made me fire my SMG into his chest instead of a more dramatic head shot. Silently his body was filled with red holes and the faint sound of air hissing could be heard. As the pilot died I felt this pain inside my head. I felt the mekton reach out to me like how electricity flows to the alternate wire when the primary one gets cut. Some sort of bond formed between us. I had instinctive knowledge of the ship's systems, including how to connect the controls into my vehicle link and interface plugs.

Another blast rocked my back to the real world. I patched the on-board radio into my own, "You can stop firing. I have taken over the Scarab."

The sounds of gasps of surprise lasted only a minute. Larani asked what happened. "I got on board and killed the pilot. How is everyone?"

With the exception of Celine, everyone was alive and their mektons were still operable. Eiran grabbed the Mauser as I did the rewiring. When the final connection was in place, a new series of sensations came over me. I felt the dull throb of wounds, my eyes were expanded to include infrared and radar functions, and it felt as if I had another hand of the six remaining blaster pods. All it took was a thought to return them to their storage compartments in my nacelles and to begin the flight home.

The news crew were just treated for minor injuries. Dass and the media were there to greet us as we exited the circus. Dass offered his hearty congratulations on a job well done. Holographic flashes went off like machine gun fire as the reporters made me the man of the hour. My exposing of Taylor and rescuing on the fan carrier were dug up as examples of "acts of loyalty and courage of an alien for his new-found home". But no one was in the mood to celebrate.

I absorbed the news's attention to cover the other's escape to the privacy of their quarters. They asked me questions ranging from the current political situation to who would win at some of the more popular sports this year. I fed them some lines about squashing Axis and up holding freedom and liberty, but my heart wasn't really in it. After one forever ended and a second one begun, Doss herded the reporters away. Just before the door slid closed he gave me his personal congratulations.

The first place I went to was Larani's room. She invited me in without turning around. Sitting there, with her back to the door, was Larani nursing a large cup of something that looked like brandy. The bottle was next to it and the aroma of alcohol hung around it. I sat next to her and said, "There was nothing you could have done."

"Bull!! I could have done plenty." the brandy spoke for her, "I could have charged it and did what you did: broke in and shoot the pilot. But nooooo, I had to send Mr.Edgerunner off to do some mundane chore. I had to let him know who's boss of this outfit. You know why I sent you instead of Eiran or Laian? Because your ego needed to be taken down a few notches. You come to my world through some fancy shmancy gate and the first thing you do is save my second in command. Then you save the whole stinking station by leading the assault against that Aggendi. Without a mekton nonetheless. They made you, a common criminal, Sergeant, a rank which took me years to obtain, because in addition to that you bribed them with technology they had to rip from your dead friends!! You flash around your cybernetics and guns and hog all the glory. Fiora, Taylor, the assassin, the secret message, the Fog Hunter, you just swagger in all by yourself and solve the problem and I hate you for it!! Next thing you know, you'll be in charge of Fireflight instead of me!! Everyone else respects you more as a leader anyway!!"

Her ranting turned into deep sobs as she collapsed into my arms. I wondered how much of it was true. How much blame was on my shoulders? Then something else came to mind. How much would the others blame her for Celine's death? I was able to eliminate the Scarab in less than a minute while the others couldn't do it at all. Was I really being elevated to superhero status by exploiting my unique nature or using my years of experience and equipment to the best advantage? I had no easy answer for anything.

I was an Edgerunner. I live for today because there might not be a tomorrow. Old habits never die. In Night City, I put everything I had into my current task, be it revenge or my business. It was the only way I knew how to do things. Here I was doing the same thing, striving to get ahead, pushing myself to the very limit. A different globe meant different rules. Now someone I knew died possibly, indirectly because of my actions. The stakes were higher than a few thousand eurobucks or the latest bit of hardware, now I was playing for a whole world. Larani did have a point, my individual actions did inadvertently undermined her authority.

But was it her need to demonstrate that she was in charge that made her order me to get the shuttle instead of fighting the Scarab? She knew I had the most public coverage of all the Fireflight members, so if she wanted to deflate an overgrown ego, then why did she send me to save people who would only feed it? The question was not whether or not I could have saved Celine if I was not ordered away. The question was whether or not the crew thinks I could have saved Celine if I was not ordered away.

While I was lost in thought, Larani drifted off into a drunken sleep. I gently set her on the bed and left. But as an after thought, I snatched the bottle of brandy and glass and sneaked them into my quarters. After locking the door and removing the ammo from my PUG, I proceeded to get stinking drunk.

The next thing I remember, I was surrounded by clouds. No, a fog with scattered patches of air. There was no ground or horizon, just cloud-like fog. Someone appeared before me, a humanoid shape a hundred feet tall. That's when I realized that I was not human. I was the Scarab, fully restored. A face emerged from the fog, it was Celine. I remember panicking, firing every weapon I had shouting, "Impossible! I killed you!"

The lasers had no affect. Celine merely lifted his arm across her chest and absorbed the blasts. "No, you did not kill me. Axis did." she said simply. "Do not blame yourself or anyone else but Axis for what happened. What happened to me could shatter the team. When I was alive, I could tell there were divided loyalities. Some were still followed Larani while others, like myself, felt that you should be leader. I died under Larani's command. It was not her fault. I know that things would not have been different even if you were there. But the others do not. I can feel that everyone now thinks you could have prevented the inevitable."

"Tell them this, Celine. Let them know Larani was not to blame."

"Why would you want that? Isn't this the perfect opportunity to seize control? To be on top? You would make a fine leader for Fireflight? Isn't this the way Edgerunners do things?"

"Yes, but now is not the time. Larani knows more about Algol than I do. She worked her way through the ranks as I did back home. She has the respect and trust of the brass in the military. Besides, what would happen if I made a mistake? That's what happened with Larani. I know you said it couldn't be helped, but the others don't think so. We are all capable of error and making one, even when it costs a life, shouldn't always be call for replacement."

"Yes, Fox, this is a war, and it war there are casualties. Maybe you will be next. But am I a real ghost or just a brandy induced hallucination? I may not have the ability to talk to the others."

"You have to be a ghost, it is the best way, the only way, to really educate the others. Go now my friend ... and good-bye."

Celine faded away, as did the reality of dreams, to black. The ship's alarm woke me. I was on my back in full armor on my bed. Groaning, I prepared for another day starting with a shower. I flipped through the TV stations looking for something interesting. By accident I cam across Larani talking with Haversom via my patch to the security channels. The topic was Celine's death and the recent media coverage.

"...Fox is being made to be the best hope for the UAA. There are even some people who think he is the real leader of Fireflight." Haversom said.

"I made a command decision in the heat of battle. Besides, what does it say about us when an alien is in charge? It says that we can't take care of ourselves."

"Hold on Kynis, I'm on your side. Yes, Tremaine's death is unfortunate and couldn't be avoided. But the public is losing faith in the UAA's ability to do its job. Placing Conners in command may be something to consider, especially with what happened with the Scarab."

"Can nothing be done?"

"Fireflight is one mekton short and the Scarab has clearly bonded to Conners. The only way to remove the bond is to remove the neural interface and that would practically destroy the mekton."

"So we need this mekton and Fox is the only one who could pilot it, right?"

"I'm afraid that is correct. I can send replacement parts easily, but a whole new mekton is going to take some time. It might be impossible since there you have acquired a spare."

"The 'spare' is also bigger and more powerful than our Sentinels. If he flies it, it will only reenforce the belief that he's really the leader."

"Yes it is a tough situation. You must admit that overall he has followed your orders without protest. Even if he was in charge, I still think he would consider you as leader."

"Is that what you're suggesting? Put him in charge?"

"No, you have earned the right to be leader. The Sergeant has experience in leadership and combat. He's shown his battle skill both in and out of a mekton. I hate to say it, but in many ways he is more qualified than yourself."

"But he's not military! He never once went through even basic training! What does he know of discipline? Of protocol? He spent most of his life in a world of anarchy, what makes you think he can change now? How much do we know about his past? Only what he told us. It's shady and criminal at best and we can't confirm any of it so it's probably worse! Put him in charge and the whole operation will blow up in our faces like one of his damn pistol grenades!" Larani shouted.

"Captain Kynis, you will speak in the proper tone of voice to me. You are letting jealousy get in the way of your better judgement. You will not loose your authority over Fireflight and the public must be made to see that. Without formal training, Conners will never become an officer. He has gone as high as he can with his current background. I am making Sergeant Conners a special operative of Fireflight. You will retain overall command and decide the general course of action of your squad. Conners will merely be allowed more freedom in his choice of actions, something which fits his personality, though he will remain under your command. Please understand that this goes beyond Operation Rimfire. Algol needs a new set of heroes and Conners has been placed first in line for the job. Even Delaney admitted today that he has some respect for Conners and he's been the loudest voice against Rimfire. This could help get him off our backs and let us do our jobs more effectively."

"So this has turned to politics now?" Larani was disgusted by the possibility.

"Delaney has gotten quite powerful recently. He must be controlled if the UAA is going to survive. You do your job and let me do mine."

The briefing concluded and I switched off the screen. I was becoming a new hero now eh? My thoughts drifted back to my own heroes, family members, fictional characters, and twentieth century celebrities. I also remembered legends made about heroes, of how they distorted reality and even might have been completely made up. What kind of stories will they be making about me in a few years? The public knew little about my history, no more than I told them. As far as they're concerned, I grew up in a combat zone and clawed my way to the top of the heap in my field, whatever it may be. A bit of mystique goes a long ways towards developing a good reputation. My pondering was interrupted by someone knocking. Larani was there and asked to be let in.

We sat across from each other at the small table. She sighed and summoned her courage and dignity before she spoke, "First I want to apologize for last night. I had no right to speak to you the way I did. You actions are an example for everyone and it was wrong of me to be jealous of your success. Second is about the Scarab you captured. Ens. Harris reported that the neural interface which controlled the mekton has permanently adjusted to your cybernetics. The computers refuse to acknowledge any pilot but yourself. Since your Sentinel was destroyed, it was decided that after repairs and necessary modification, you would receive the Scarab as your mekton. Finally there will be a ceremony shortly for Celine after which you will be the first person in the UAA to be given Special Operative status. Because you have received no training in the UAA ranking system, I will tell you what it means. Special Operatives are not bound by military curfews and movement restrictions. But they are still subject to orders from their superiors and they are required to check in every twelve hours with a twenty-four hour grace period when they are off military property. After that it is assumed they are either AWOL or in a situation where they are do not have access to a radio. So don't get cocky! Insubordination is taken less seriously for a Special Operative than a regular soldier. You can let your maverick spirit run wild, but don't push it. You are still part of Fireflight and still part of the team. Thus you will remain onboard the Rimfire. Any questions?"

"Yes, is there anything else? Anything apart from what you were ordered to say?"

"What do you mean?"

"Did you mean what you said about being sorry? Earth has a saying, 'In wine there is truth.' The truth might be exaggerated, but the feelings are still there. Now how much of last night was really how you feel?"

"Yes I was mad at you over Celine's death. Mad that you didn't disobey orders and come back. You always struck me as a person who threw away the rules when the were inconvenient even though you haven't done so yet. Truthfully, I don't know why I sent you. It wasn't because of you ego, your head's just the right size. Nor was it because the media recognized you. That much I know for certain. I also know that I resent you somewhat for getting as far as you did without any training. If the UAA didn't need you as bad as they did, I would have never let you on the team. Is that what you wanted?"

"Yes, thank you. It's nice to know where I stand with you. I won't let you down. Do you want your glass and bottle back?"

"You drank the WHOLE thing? Sheech, you must have been more stressed than I was. Just throw them all into the disposal unit. I really got to you didn't I?"

Now it was my turn to sigh, "When I got back here, I wondered if I was doing more harm than good. What I have done so far here is try to match what I did at home: use what I got to the best advantage. I'm not used to being a leader in combat. Out of gunfire where organization is needed, I feel at home. I dislike taking orders, especially when the person giving the orders is far away. People like me are much more likely to follow orders from a leader who is in the fight with you. Heck even though I'm Briareus's boss, I still do what he says when the drek hits the fan and the guns are firing. But you have seen battle. You have my respect as a combat leader. I have faith that you know best, I think we all do."

This made her turn away. Larani was relieved and happy from my speech. She thanked me in a voice that was trying to hold back tears of joy and left. I wandered down to the circus to check on things. The circus is a large carousel with our mektons lined along the circumference. The center was a zero-gee repair area. Currently the Scarab was floating there, its belly towards me. It looked different now. There were two servos near the front on the sides. Sentinel arms were being moved to be connected to the servos. The tail was also being reattached, but it was beefed up with improved armor. Fortunately the weapon was still there.