Leaving System/The Underground

((MNS Archangel))

The carryall started docking procedures with the Archangel, leading to a lot of clamor and banging that echoed through the vessel and then through her mech's cabin. It was the only sound she could currently hear. The music she shut off soon after liftoff and she’d never gotten around to turning it back on. She tried to check her feed, but most of the communications had been shut down following the evacuation, and the general chats she’d been locked out of. Potential breach of quarantine.

Soon enough she felt the weight of artificial gravity pull her back to her seat, and picked up some distant trace of a klaxon announcing her presence.

She wasn’t too broken up about them locking her out of the system, it was standard procedure following this kind of incident during this kind of event. After all, the arm she’d cut off with the emergency hatch closure was still twitching on the floor behind her, but so far it had failed to prove it had a mind of its own. She just wished they had given her access to her music so she could put her mind somewhere else. Somewhere not down on that planet with Davis.

Another klaxon sounded, this one on the inside, and she could see in her cameras as the carryall's door slid open, allowing a team of six in full seal suits to enter, two carrying incinerators. The clean-up crew, and they’d have a hell of a time doing their job, she was pretty sure some meat had gotten ground up in the hydraulics.

She jammed a thumb to the loudspeaker. “Permission to come aboard, fireteam?”

That startled them, and just like that she could talk on the radio again.

”Gunnery Sergeant Herric, please don your emergency breather and exit the vehicle slowly. We have your exit covered.”

More than most in this situation would realize, they had strict orders to ensure absolutely nothing escaped quarantine in the event the biological hazards proved contagious by any measure. If that meant gunning her down as she dropped the ladder, that meant gunning her down. It also meant if she honestly thought she’d be turned into one of those things, she’d handle it herself.

But, no green scales or abnormally flaking skin, nor anything else that said virulent, extremely dangerous biohazard, so she retrieved the rebreather from the box they kept the masks in, covered up, gage the twitchy arm a kick to the side and opened the bottom hatch. The ladder dropped, and she slid down the ladder, keeping her back towards the fireteam.

”Stay facing away from us Gunny, and take four steps back,” the unidentified voice commanded, ”Arms in the air just like you are.”

”I know the routine, squad, just scan me already,” she replied on the air. ”Really lookin' forward to bein' out of this suit.”

She waited, heard a few shuffling footsteps and some button pressing, followed by an audible chirp that indicated she was clean, at least in a medical sense. Hands fell on her shoulders and she was good to put her arms down. ”Glad to have you back Gunny, lets get you out of here.”

As they exited, two more fireteams, ready with incinerators, lumbered up to the door and entered behind them. She could hear them starting up on the exterior and cleansing away anything the carryall had missed in its pre-flight purge, torching away all the little bits that had been sheltered in the nooks and crannies of her servers and access points. The escort team brought her straight to the medics on site, and she could see down the bay of the ship that most were getting the same treatment, with full physical exams ensuring nothing came back from the planet's surface.

Which, she thought, includes Davis.

It took about an hour for the containment crew to finish with her, releasing her through a cycled airlock that let her in, shut, decontaminated the air with some fresh smelling chemical, then spat her out the other side, into the hall full of probably a hundred other Marines anxiously waiting for their mates to pass quarantine. Several artillery pilots were there to greet her, pulling her in for rough embraces and clasping forearms. Some infantrymen also greeted her, and actually thanked her for the fire that her section had provided planetside, but she didn’t really keep track of everything that was said. She was looking for two in particular.

One found her first, and showed it by crashing into her arms and delivering and kiss, holding her tight as cheers erupted around them. Shorter than herself, thick black hair that she preferred drawn in a high and tight bun, and a face defined by sharp angles that culminated in an arched nose and V-shaped chin.

“Nadia!” Alicia exclaimed once she got her lips away from hers, “Whoa, hey! Slow down a little, still in public here.”

Nadia buried her face in her chest and said something muffled that she couldn’t hear. Behind her, Samantha McCormick, her gunner, arms crossed and a thin line drawn over her lips. “I filled her in on my end, you’ll probably be filling her in on the rest though,” she said.

Alicia looked between the two then waved McCormick over. They traded a quick one-armed hug over Nadia, and spoke quietly. “Is he really gone?”

Alicia nodded, “He’s gone.”

There wasn’t really much else to say about it. Nadia squeezed tighter, and all Alicia could do was lift her up and return the favor.

“Ow- ow! You’re crushing me!” she complained, breaking out a smile as Alicia kissed her on the cheek.

“Well that’s what you get for ambushing me,” Alicia joked. She would kiss her again before setting her down and finally winning some breathing room.

They stood together, the hallway evaporating into mere setting and white noise, just holding hands. Alicia remembered when they met four years ago, Nadia an experienced tech and herself a new pilot with a need to make sure her ride was fit for battle. She had the same bun back then, and most days was covered in oil, grease, or hydraulic fluid, which made shaking hands after hours of work on the walkers a challenge of the highest order. Nadia had shown her just about everything to know on working with the walkers, and in turn they spent free time in the machine shop where Alicia proved herself a supreme gun tech and surgeon with the drill press.

Come to think of it, neither of them really spoke about anything but mechanics and tech until about ten weeks in, after a night of drinking and watching old movies they both had staches of. Waking up in her bed was a surprise to both of them, one that broke that ice of being each other’s type. Took less than a week to start properly dating, which at the time was frowned upon by both their commanding officers. She was pretty sure it still was.

They still had their arguments, hoverjets versus treads and wheels was a common one and always a source of entertainment for technician crews. Nadia was a tea drinker, while Alicia preferred her coffee as dark as her partner's skin was. And they both grew up wearing pants, so it was always a contest for that honor when formal events were held out of uniform.

Four years, across two ships, and still going strong. This is what she fought to come home to every deployment.

In the course of an hour, most of the Marines dispersed, having collected their cohorts from quarantine, and Alicia had finished her debrief on the mission by the end of three hours. The general consensus was that she had performed well, but would need further psychological evaluation following the loss of one of crew. While it offended her, she thought they were probably avoiding his name to avoid conflict. She was told a memorial was being planned for them.

She didn’t really hear much more about it until an hour later, when she was released to some free time to unwind. Her mech was still being cleaned by the containment crew, apparently, she really did a number on the external systems, which she only learned from Nadia when she visited the motor pool.

“I’ll call you when she’s back here so we can work on her,” she had said.

Unfortunately, they had tacked on a heavy list of duties to perform and there was little room to slide in and work casually, so Alicia found herself putting up with a few Navy crewmen in one of the rec rooms.

It wasn’t particularly nice, even compared to other Mandate Military recreation centers, but the acoustics were decent, and someone had left a hybrid guitar there long before she arrived. It had taken some tuning, but she had gotten it to work and played it regularly, a skill she never really got around to bragging about. She didn’t have any performance clearances from Naval high command, so all her showing off was done off the books and unspoken for.

The Navy boys were far more invested in drinking for their time off. The bar she knew didn’t have anything that would really knock her or any other Marine out, but it got enough traffic to stay relevant in the ship's payload.

She was able to pass another hour perhaps before some other Marines poked their heads in.

“Hey, Reyes. Glad we found you here.” one said, a slighter younger infantryman with the chevrons of a corporal on his combat shirt. “Sergeant Boyyez said to ask how you were feelin’, and if we were gonna have a memorial of our own after hours.”

“Boyyez sent you?” she asked. Boyyez was an infantry sergeant that she came to know after joining this ship's Marine detachment. “I thought Boyyez was injured back planetside?”

“He was, one of like- eight, I think. He’s caught up in sick bay with some nasty bite marks on his leg.”

She thought for a moment, “Tough old bastard still thinking about others then,” she mused. She honestly hadn’t given it much thought. It had been a while since they had significant losses like this, and typically memorials were held a few days after, which now that she thought about it was also weird. The fact that she hadn’t really caught that just proved how out of sync she was following Davis. God dammit, she internalized her frustration.

It took a moment for her to realize that the corporal and his buddies were still crowded around her, hanging on her final decision.

Alicia sighed, “Look, boys, normally we have time to plan one of these. We have to find a space that’s not gonna get us busted, secure food, drinks, spread the word, and get all the equipment moved without being obvious. A guitar,” she held up the rec room's example, “is difficult enough, imagine moving a drum set.”

Some of his lower ranking buddies looked crushed, but the corporal just nodded along as he understood.

“Listen, if you can get a couple other Lances to help out, we might be able to swing this without the brass coming down on us,” she said. “We still need a proper distraction to keep them off our asses.”

“I think I can arrange for that,” the corporal nodded, “Anyone in particular to ask?”

“Lance Corporal Vega,” she responded, “He should be able to work out some trouble to keep command's eye off us for a few hours after the official memorial. Carrim may be able to get something done as well, or at least be able to get some others on board, maybe mock up some special orders for personal unit bonding or something like that.”

He nodded, “Alright, sounds like a plan. And… you’re sure you’re good? Heard through the underground you lost one of your own today.”

Leave it to the E-4s to know everything. “Yeah,” she replied, “I’ll be up to bat. Just have everything set and give me a location.”

“Copy that ma'am, thanks for lookin out for us out there.”

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