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Longsword R: Requiem
Posted By: Sterfrye36<Sterfrye36@yahoo.com>
Date: 5 January 2007, 9:43 am

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      Marcus was awakened by a buzzing noise, feeling as exhausted as he had been when he fell asleep. His head was resting on the Bible that his parents had given him, the pages ruined by his tears. He felt slightly hung over, and was as miserable as ever. The major groaned; all he wanted to do was fade back into the oblivion of sleep, but the buzzing was persistent. He pulled his head off the Bible and rubbed his eyes before he activated his computer terminal, his fingers sluggishly tapping away at the keyboard.
      The screen popped to life after a second or two and asked for his username and password. Marcus entered his name and rank followed by his serial number. The computer processed the information slowly as it always did, which was one reason why he'd always hated using his computer. It was always time-consuming to operate, a result of the UNSC not willing to spring for high tech ship-board communication. He clicked on the e-mail icon which did not open for another three seconds; there was only one new message indicated by the icon, a shiny new envelope, brightly outlined in yellow to show its urgency. The cheeriness of the icon was altogether too happy to his current mood, but he opened it up and read it at a snail's pace.

UNSC Maverick Internal Communications
Encryption Code:
Public Key: file /thunder-hand-six/
From: Lt. Commander Joseph Saldanna, Air Boss UNSC Maverick/ (UNSC Service Number: 19472-`04391-JS)
To:Major Marcus Easley, Commanding officer UNSC VF-32 Swordsmen/ (UNSC Service Number: 01837-18437-ME)
Classification: NORMAL

/start file/

      Great flying out there yesterday! I swear, I have never seen a single pilot get twenty kills in a single furball let alone take out an enemy assault carrier and assist on a destroyer! Your group was unbelievable to watch on the sensors. It was like you guys were some sort of scythe, cutting down Covies like wheat. Great job once again, Major; you ought to be proud.
      I was sorry to hear about your losses, though they are admittedly light. Two members…some squads have been totally decimated, like the VF-114 Aardvarks and VF-124 Gunfighters.
      Look, Steven Olive and James McCall were both good pilots (even if Olive was an asshole). This is why I'm notifying you of your new orders. As soon as you can, you need to board the next supply shuttle to the surface to get a pair of Longswords to replace those that your squad lost. They're stationed at Ellsworth NAS in South Dakota. They're running everything from shuttles to E97Ds to get up supplies; go ahead and grab a ride down with one of the Roughnecks' birds out of your home bay.
      I would normally ask someone else to do this, but you probably need a breather from the ship. Don't tell anyone I said to, but go ahead and grab a squadmate and get a little shore leave down there. The head mech down there, Jividen Reno, is an old ballplayer friend of mine from college. I've fired off a message to him through non-UNSC channels and called in a favor. He's an unusual man. Played middle-linebacker in high school and college and nearly went pro, but his number came up. "Captain Red Ass", we used to call him. Real taskmaster and he's not the friendliest mech you'll ever meet.
      And if you're worrying about records, don't be; books are more easily fixed than you might think. The Longswords will have a slight "maintenance problem", if you know what I mean. See Mount Rushmore or go to a show. Enjoy yourself, Marcus.

      P.S. There's some major stuff going down planet side, too. The Covenant landed in New Mombasa and things got ugly real fast. There was some sort of massive explosion that wiped out a good part of the city, including Commander Keyes's frigate, In Amber Clad. Nobody knows what's going on down there now. Covenant are all over the place, too. Some more ships jumped in and made a beeline for the hole in the defensive net. They barely squeaked through. I'm not too worried, though. From what I hear, Spartans are everywhere.

      Joseph Saldanna

      Marcus rubbed his eyes again. He appreciated what Saldanna was trying to do, but he knew he'd rather just get the work over with. His old habit for dealing with stress was beginning to kick in again: bouts of being a workaholic followed by bouts of extreme aloofness. The major knew it was happening and he didn't care. In a bizarre way, the familiarity of the routine was almost comforting on its own.
      Robotically, he opened up and wrote a message to the first Swordsmen that popped into his mind: Chase Warner. While he waited, his gaze drifted down to the Bible on his desk, still open to John thirteen. Impulsively, he wanted to grab the book and heave it across the room like a tomahawk, but was stopped by the buzzing noise again. Warner had responded almost immediately, good-naturedly joking about how few hours of sleep he had gotten since he had helped Marcus take out the assault carrier. Marcus glanced at his watch on his left hand; it ran on Zulu time as was the standard for all UNSC ships operating in Sol.
      It's 1730? He'd been asleep for about seven hours, so why was he still so tired?
      He shoved the thought out of his head as he stood up and walked to over to his closet on stiff legs. It had, unsurprisingly, very few articles of clothing as the major didn't wear much besides his flight suit and dress uniform. The only other items of clothing in the closet were a few pairs of jeans, shorts, shirts, underwear, socks, and his bomber jacket, all of which were stored in boxes that were bolted to the wall, saving the need for hangars.
      He detached a small briefcase from some clips on the left wall of the closet and then stuffed in a clean t-shirt and jeans. After thinking for a moment, he grabbed his bomber' jacket, too. It was probably pretty cold in Rapid City.
      As soon as he had finished packing, he made for the door, only to be surprised by a loud, brusque knocking. Marcus opened the door to find Chase already packed and a Cheshire-cat like grin reaching from ear-to-ear.
      "Ready to go?" Chase asked.
      "Yeah," Marcus muttered, not really sure that taking another squadmate was such a bright idea. But, then again, how would they get both interceptors up to the Maverick?
      They traveled to the Swordsmen's home bay, number four, which was located on the port side of the ship, passing the occasional giddy partygoer. Nobody was smashed, though. Somebody had shown some prudence and made sure that no one managed to get more than about two drinks. The Covenant had been beaten pretty badly, but that did not mean that they weren't sending a second wave in soon; the UNSC couldn't afford to get drunk on its success.
      They arrived after only a few minutes of walking. Chase moved to open the door to the bay, but it slid open before he touched the controls and both pilots were gruffly knocked out of the way by a cart that was carrying a large assortment of foods. More carts followed, the personnel pushing them panting from the exertion. There were dozens of them, many so overloaded that food nearly spilled off with the slightest jolt. Others followed with electronic equipment, spare parts, and assorted odds and ends. Chase glanced at Marcus, one eyebrow arched in a confused look.
      "I guess you weren't kidding when you said they were running everything up here. I lost count after forty of those things."
      It took several minutes for the men to pass through and leave the door clear enough to get inside the bay; another group of men was off-loading from an Eagle Eye, racing towards the door without any hesitation.
      Both men were thinking it, but Chase was the one to voice the question: "What's going on? Were we that low on supplies?"
      It wasn't unheard of to see the occasional supply run by a Pelicans, but it was unusual to see them done by the E97D ACCs. The runs were mainly done by supply shuttles from the surface that ran on a regular schedule, but for whatever reason, it appeared that every single VS-98 Roughneck Eagle Eye was flying supplies up to the Maverick.
      Chase spotted one on the closest landing pad right as it was about to launch; the two pilots could clearly hear its engines spooling up with a loud whine. The Eagle Eye's pilot clearly intended to simply skip using the landing pad elevator and simply fly up through the air lock if for no other reason than to show off his skill. Chase reacted first, dropped his briefcase, and ran towards the Eagle Eye, his arms pin wheeling wildly in an attempt to gain the pilot's attention. It didn't seem to do any good; the Eagle Eye lifted off the deck, swayed a little, stabilized, and began to climb. By this point, Chase was jumping up and down and yelling like a madman to no apparent effect.
      However, at the last possible second, the Eagle Eye's pilot happened to look down at the deck briefly and noticed him. The pilot shook his head in evident frustration, and powered down the engines. The Eagle Eye dropped much faster than it should have, actually bouncing off its landing gear as it came down hard on the deck. The boarding ramp came crashing down with a loud clang in much the same manner. As Chase and Marcus clambered aboard, Marcus caught a bit of the Eagle Eye's nose art: there was a small, bearded man in magician's robes waving a small radar antenna about.
      Great, just what I needed, Marcus thought, instantly regretting the fact that he had woken up and gotten his orders.
      He and Chase were flying down on the Merlin.

      It didn't take long for it to start. From the tales Marcus had heard, it never did.
      The pilot glared over at the mission commander irritably as the MC loudly slurped a globule of liquor through a straw.
      "Sir," Anton Penny said as he threw an extra-menacing glower in Adam Martinez's direction, "I can't concentrate on flying with you sucking on that straw!" Timothy Macabee immediately began to giggle at the unintended double entendre while Jonathon Roy Goodnight simply shook his head in abject annoyance.
      Martinez laughed. "And I can't enjoy my tequila with you yelling in my ear from two feet away, idiot. So why don't you jusht be quiet and fly the bird? You agree, Jonathon?" Martinez asked as he glanced over his right shoulder. In response, Goodnight simply raised his left hand which had a carrot sticking straight up, clenched between his middle and ring fingers. It took Martinez a full second to catch on.
      "Look," Anton said as he threw the MC another intimidating glare, "for all I care about your precious tequila, you can take that straw and shove it up your—"
      Goodnight broke in mid-sentence as he swiveled in his chair to give them an ugly look. "Blast it, I can't concentrate on my scopes with the two of you talking, so why don't you both just shut up, okay?"
      "What the hell do you need to watch your scopes for?" Penny jabbed. "We're the first flight off the Mav this time around. Your scopes are empty."
      "If there's nothing out there, then you obvioushly don't need to be worried about flying this bird, do you, Penny?"
      "This is different! You never know when something could pop up out of nowhere!"
      "Well if my scopes are totally empty, you shouldn't be so worried about popping up, should you?"
      "The scopes are totally empty?" Martinez questioned aloud. "That makes it just a little less empty than your love life, doesn't it, Dinero?"
      "No," Goodnight jumped back in, "it's about as empty as your stomach after you've puked everything up from sucking down about seven of those bottles through that straw!"
      Martinez slowly arched an eyebrow at Jonathon before answering in a slightly slurred voice, "Tell you what, Rabbit," Adam said as he looked over his right shoulder again, "why don't you forget about the shtraw and just shuck on my—" Adam was cut off as a carrot that Goodnight had thrown zeroed in on his right eye, nailed it, and caused Martinez to yelp in pain.
      "Arr right you little frrickin' ninja, when we set feet on sholid ground again, I'm taking you out!" Martinez yelled drunkenly, clutching his right eye in pain.
      "Taking me out?" Goodnight asked in a mocking tone. "To where, Taco Bueno?"
      "That does it! I'm going to kick your—"
      "Al right, all right, enough already!" Chase half-yelled from his jump seat behind the cockpit to stop what could have easily become a fist fight in a few more seconds. "Save some for the Covies guys, come on."
[inden]The ride continued on for several seconds in a tense and uncomfortable silence. Finally, Chase, wishing to get the crew members' minds on another track, tried to get a conversation going.
      "So," he began, "what do you guys think of the progress they've made on the Maverick? Another day or two before she's ready to go, right?" Martinez turned himself around in his chair to face Warner, unbuckling his restraining harness in order to do so. His left eye regarded Goodnight threateningly.
      "No, not that long. Maybe another couple of hoursh." Chase blinked in surprise.
      "Are you kidding me?"
      "No, I'm not kidding you. Another ten hours and she'll be good ahsh new," Martinez said, rolling his eyes slowly. "Penny, why don't you turn thish bird around and give our passengersh a good—" Martinez was cut off as the Eagle Eye suddenly spun completely around and flung from his seat. He rocketed past Marcus and Chase, clipped Goodnight with his arm, bounced off the opposite wall, and finally crashed into the back of Macabee's chair with a loud thump. Instead of getting mad, however, Macabee laughed harder than ever; Marcus gave him a low, sidelong look. Just what was wrong with that guy, anyway?
      Penny caught the two Longsword pilots' attention with a curt whistle as he pointed out the front of the "greenhouse" cockpit. Both pilots' jaws dropped an inch or two as they gawked at the Maverick, which was still docked at the Forrestal repair station.
      Only seven hours earlier, the Maverick had been a mess all along the rear-port quarter. The Covenant frigate that had collided with it had literally torn the titanium-A battleplate from the Maverick like a fisherman would had removed a fish's scales; the last either pilot had seen of her, her superstructure had been exposed. Marcus rubbed his eyes to make sure that he wasn't seeing things, and when he realized he wasn't, he shook his head in utter amazement.
      The men aboard the Forrestal had done some amazing work; the ship appeared practically undamaged aside from a few traces of plasma scarring on her hull. Most of the damaged section of the ship had brand new battleplate covering it. If Marcus hadn't seen the ship before, he knew he couldn't tell how the damage had been done. The sheer speed and exactness with which the repairs had been made was mind boggling. Martinez had been right; it would only be about another ten hours before she was space worthy.
      That left some questions: why had the repairs been completed so fast? And for that matter, how? The ship was modular, of course, which allowed damaged sections to quickly be replaced by identical ones, but the speed with which this repair had been done was almost inhuman. Why?
      As if he had read the major's mind, Penny spoke up in an irritated tone. "Honestly," he began, "I think we're about to ship out. Repairs were way too fast, even for the situation we're in." Chase blinked in surprise.
      "Move out? Where to? They know where Earth is now; it makes no sense to pull us out from Sol."
      "Look, I agree with you," Penny grunted. "But stuff's been happening way too fast. The Maverick suddenly got some sort of new weapon that appeared out of nowhere, the Covies immediately jumped in, a Covie cruiser jumped in and fought for us, and the Mav will be repaired, re-armed, and re-supplied in less than a full day."
      "The Covies just got here," Chase countered. "Maybe they just rushed everything a bit."
      "Yeah, they did, but why would they repair the Mav ahead of the Bunker Hill?"
      "Less damaged, maybe? The Bunker, from what I saw of her anyway, was a total mess. She had her nose crushed back in on herself. All the Maverick had was a gash, albeit a big one."
      Penny began to reply, but was interrupted as Tequila groaned and hauled himself into a crouching position before forcing his dazed eyes to lock on to Penny in a look of contempt.
      "Anton, you shorry shon of a—"
      Martinez was stopped short as yet another of Goodnight's carrots lanced into his mouth like a dart and lodged itself in the back of his throat. Adam's eyes went wide as he gagged and reflexively stiffened up by locking all of his limbs out. Unfortunately, his feet were still in contact with the floor, so he was sent sailing into the ceiling, headfirst, with a solid thwack. The impact knocked him out again, but, amusingly enough, dislodged the vegetable from his mouth. Macabee snorted and Roy fingered another carrot like it was a Cuban cigar. The RIO tipped it in Adam's general direction like some sort of mafia don, mocking him. The display was even enough to get Marcus to give a weak chuckle.
      Laughing nearly as hard as Macabee, Chase leaned over and whispered to Marcus: "Hey, you think maybe I could get him to teach me how to do that, later?"
      "Why not?" Marcus asked in a dry voice. "After all, who needs throwing stars when you've got high-velocity vegetables?"
      "Cool beans," Chase said, nodding his head appreciatively.
       After he finished laughing and wiping the tears from his eyes, Penny continued. "So, uh, anyways, as I was saying…I could buy that if the Mav was a flagship, but she isn't. The Bunker was."
      "The Admiral is also dead."
      "No, actually he's not."
      "He and the bridge crew barely managed to get sternward before the ships collided. But the fact remains that she's still pretty darn powerful. I'm just saying that they should've worked on 'em both equally."
      "Which would you rather have, though: a cruiser at one-hundred percent, or two cruisers at twenty-five percent?"
      Penny dropped the point. "Okay, you're probably right, but if we aren't shipping out, then why are we dropping off food supplies?" The question caught Chase off guard.
      "What's more," Penny continued, "is that she was filled to the brim with food already. She's way overstocked now, and we shouldn't be concerned with food, us being right here in Sol. The only conceivable reason for us overstocking is that we're deploying. Plus, we've taken up a few tech guys, which is bizarre; there're plenty on the Forrestal as it is."
      "Maybe they just needed some extra—"
      "Did I mention that we had to detour to Sydney to pick these guys up?"
      "Sydney? You're sure?" Chase said, the first hints of uncertainty beginning to creep into his voice. Tech guys from Sydney could only mean one thing: ONI.
      "No, we picked them up at Disneyland Outback. Of course we picked them up from Sydney."
      "Okay, let's say they are deploying us…where to?"
      "Your guess is as good as mine, Warner." Chase leaned back in his chair, digging through his mind to get an idea of where they might deploy to, but came up with nothing. Nothing he could think of made any sense. His deliberations were interrupted as a buzzer sounded from the cockpit.
      "Okay, we're about to hit the atmosphere. Tighten your belts," Penny ordered. Chase stared over at Martinez, who was floating in mid-air, completely limp.
      "Uh…shouldn't we buckle him in?" Penny gazed over his right shoulder at Chase and grinned.
      "…Nah, I'm sure he'll enjoy the ride," he chortled as the first major turbulence hit the cabin, knocking Martinez around like a super-ball, and the "green-house" canopy gained the characteristic hellish coloring around its edges as the Eagle Eye plunged to Earth.

      Twenty minutes later, the Eagle Eye had touched down on the flying line at Ellsworth and Chase and Marcus disembarked from the Merlin, leaving that particular flight crew to its own squabbles. It had been an unusually warm winter in the City of Presidents, and that meant that it was only about fifty degrees; cold enough for long-sleeve shirts and jackets, but not cold enough to get seriously bundled up.
      They hitched a ride aboard one of the trucks that hauled supplies to the Eagle Eyes from the depot. The first thing that struck the two as they rode toward the hangars was the flatness of the land. Save some hills in the distance to the west, the land was totally unremarkable, somewhat resembling the vast concrete tarmac they were driving on. The only things of note about the area was that there were deep, black thunderheads gathering in the western sky, slowing blowing in over the hills. Lightning was faintly flashing in the distance, and a few seconds after each strike, they could hear a low rumble as the thunder reached them.
      A few minutes later, the truck reached the hangars and the two pilots hopped out. Chase asked if he could use the truck's radio to help find the mechanic, but the truck driver shook his head.
      "He hardly ever turns it on. It'll be faster if you just go inside and search. He'll be easy to find, though. Look for a shaved head and a mad-as-hell expression." Chase chuckled as he and Marcus walked off.
      "Thanks for the lift, private," he said over his shoulder. The driver looked warily at the pilots as they entered the hangar.
      "You won't say that to me after you've met him," he muttered before putting the truck into gear and driving off towards the flightline.

      When they entered the hangar, the pilots were worried that they might not be able find the head mechanic within the miles of square feet that t the hangars provided. The space was a relic from the Cold War. The original hangars had been built in 1957 to service the massive B-52 Stratofortress bombers. The "BUFFs" as they had been known, short for Big Ugly Fat Freaks, had been powerful machines, but in general, bombers' time had come and gone, replaced by strike fighters and orbital bombardment. It was sad, really, Marcus reflected as he entered the noisy, vast hangar. Bombers had been interesting planes. Big and slow at first, they had quickly evolved to become supersonic and stealthy demons, raining death from above, from the legendary B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator to the B-1B Lancer and B-2 Spirit. The hangars bore tribute to the birds' size as the original hangars had been torn down centuries ago and had been replaced several times by increasingly high-tech and comfortable buildings. The new hangars still used some of the old foundations due to the enormous amount of floor space that it offered. The room that the structures offered had become an advantage as fighters became bigger and bombers began to be phased out. The UNSC still had a couple of the "big heavies" sitting in flyable storage in one of the hangars, though every UNSC pilot knew that "flyable storage" was the greatest oxymoron invented by mankind. Those few remaining bombers had most likely been cannibalized for spare parts.
      As he looked around the hangar for Reno, however, something caught his eye in the back, over three-fourths of a mile away in the mile-long hangar. Marcus squinted, trying to make out the poorly lit shape. It was massive, around half as tall as the hangar itself. After a moment, Marcus let out a long, low whistle. Huh. Who knew they still had those in storage?
      At the back of the hangar was a bird that should have been retired years ago: the Rockwell B-763 Cutlass. It was big, bad, ugly, and, for lack of a better term, a bit of an anachronism. Unlike the Longsword, the Cutlass was not made with maneuverability in mind, but rather to bring the stick at hypersonic speeds from the upper atmosphere. Watching a Cutlass fight against ground fire at lower altitudes was like watching a pack of wolves attack an enraged elephant.
      Its design was large and squat, though the lowest point of the airframe still hung thirty feet off the ground. Its only resemblance to the Longsword was in its flying wing design, but it was so much thicker that no one could mistake it for the fighter. The Cutlass's four gigantic Pratt and Whitney PDE-OV10 Bronco engines were built straight into the airframe, extending flush from the front of the flying wing to several feet past the trailing edge. No thrust-vectoring nozzles were equipped to the engines as the Cutlass didn't need maneuverability but relied on its insane speed to outrace AA fire and enemy fighters. Some pilots had compared it to the classic comic book character Juggernaut because of its ability to fly over things in straight lines.
      Though to the untrained eye it appeared like an easy target, it compensated for its maneuvering shortcomings and large size with more than mere speed. Its radar-deflecting design, large ECM suite, self-defense weaponry, excellent A/G weapons systems, and absurdly large payload made it one tough bird. Indeed, a single Cutlass could carry more munitions than half a squadron of fully loaded Longswords.
      What was it doing here? It didn't appear as if it had been cannibalized…
      Right then, however, Chase tapped Marcus's shoulder and directed his attention to a bald man who was screaming at some subordinates halfway across the cavernous hangar. As they walked towards him, the ex-football player's face turned an ugly shade of purple that matched the flames belching out of the malfunctioning pulse detonation engine he was repairing. The color provided an odd contrast with his shaved head and weathered face.
      The pair managed to get the head mech's attention and he walked over to greet them with a brusque, "Who the hell are you?"
      If either pilot had doubts as to whether this man was the head mech, that greeting removed them.
      Marcus shook his head and sighed, "I'm Major Marcus Easley and this is first lieutenant Chase Warner. We're here to transfer two 'Swords up to the Maverick. We were instructed by Joseph Saldanna to seek you out and discuss the so-called maintenance issues that the Longswords are having."
      The rugged, purple face didn't change expression at all, though the color did drain out of it, returning the head mech to an almost human complexion.
      "Oh," he said gruffly in a way that seemed to indicate their very presence offended him. "Well, follow me outside." Without another word, the mechanic abruptly spun around on his heels and marched off towards the tarmac. The two pilots traded looks with each other as they followed. Saldanna hadn't been joking when he'd called Reno "Captain Red Ass". As angry as Reno had been a moment ago, neither pilot particularly wanted to consider how hard the man could hit in his college days; the man must've been a terror on the field.
      Reno stopped a few feet outside the hangar, his arms crossed and still wearing the same expression. As soon as the pair caught up, he informed them, in a tone usually reserved for discussing ex-spouses, that the Longswords they were supposed to take actually were having "maintenance issues", and that one of them could take some time off.
      "Why one?" Chase asked.
      "Most of our pilots have either been re-assigned to a ship-borne station or are running supplies. All the ones we can grab for maintenance, we've grabbed. We've got six or seven working on the 'Swords right now. Standard procedure for a maintenance problem dictates that we need at least one pilot who's checked out on the bird in order to make sure everything's fixed, and only you guys are actually available."
      "Even if it has nothing to do with a pilot's knowledge?"
      "Not for minor problems, but we couldn't, uh…look, we're having to yank an engine apiece off of these things in order to buy a few hours for you, okay? You're lucky that there was actually something wrong with 'em in the first place, or else I'd have told Saldanna to go screw himself. We need a pilot; it's demanded by the rules, and we're stretching those as it is."
      Warner beat Marcus to the offer, "Don't worry about it, Marcus. I'll stay behind. Marcus tried to protest.
       "No buts, sir. You look even more tired than you think you do. I know you were close to James, Marcus, and it shows. Go to a show and have some fun." Reno looked up in surprise.
      "That's your plan? To go a show?" Marcus sighed.
      "I suppose so."
      "Well, you won't have any trouble getting tickets. Downtown's almost completely deserted. The Covenant have everyone spooked. Can't say that I really blame them."
      "Any suggestions as to shows?"
      "No," Reno said, his tone still unchanged. "You might want to take a look at Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse monument. They're both just amazing."
      "Well," Marcus said as he turned to leave, fully intending to simply get wasted at the nearest bar, and to hell with the consequences. "I guess I'll just see what I find." He got about five yards before Reno suddenly spoke up again with an unnerving—and possibly malevolent—gleam in his eye.
      "On second thought, if you get the chance, go see La Cage aux Folles at the Black Hills Community Theatre. They're at seven-thirteen, on Seventh Street. Go ahead and catch the matinee if you get the chance." Marcus nodded.
      "Good show?" he asked, but Reno had already huffed off back into the hangar, all but dragging Chase behind him.

      Marcus changed into a pair of jeans, a black long sleeve t-shirt, and sneakers in the barracks and stored his flight suit in an empty locker. He did, however, remove his M6C pistol and its holster from his flight suit and strapped them on under his bomber jacket. Carrying it wouldn't be a problem. His military I.D. allowed him to carry the sidearm into just about any venue he wanted. He knew it was probably paranoid, but if there was one thing his abusive uncle had taught him, it was he could never be too careful amongst strangers.
      He called in an auto cab and was off towards Rapid City a little while later. He tried to remove his memories from his mind and stare out the window, but it didn't work. The clouds he rode toward reflected his mood as they tossed and swirled about as if they were in a dark, bubbling cauldron, and when he realized it, he became restless. His thinking kept returning to his deceased wingman, his friend…
      Had he been? The concept gave Marcus pause. He'd been able to keep his emotions—his secret—bottled up inside himself until James had come into his life, way back when Becker was reconstructing the squadron before the incident at Gethsemane. They'd both been requested by Becker personally after he'd had a look at their service records. Both of them had just completed training, both were fresh, eager pilots. James had been more eager of the two, though. In fact, he'd been something of a wild man. He'd loved to pull near regulation defying tricks in his bird, listen to hard rock…he even enjoyed the occasional beer.
      At first, that had surprised Marcus. He'd always viewed Christians as wussy, backwards hicks who went to a social club each Sunday morning. He even saw his own parents that way, though he still loved them as his family.
      James had been different: he was eager to fight. Marcus couldn't figure it out. All throughout his childhood, Marcus had been told that peace was holy; Jesus was the Prince of Peace. It simply followed common sense that they'd all have no spine. But James…he relished a good fight, something that had challenged Marcus's views. At first, he'd tried to explain it away to himself by dismissing James as a fake who merely claimed to follow Jesus' teachings. During one of their heated debates in Afterburner, though, that stereotype was crushed.
      Marcus, he remembered James saying, Jesus was no doormat. Remember, he kicked the traders out of the temple, knocked over their tables. He got mad.
      Marcus had tried to counter by pointing out a verse that talked about turning the other cheek, but James parried the point by arguing that the Bible never called for people to be stupid.
      It was maddening. No matter what flaw Marcus saw in Christianity, James had a perfectly good explanation, rationalization, or interpretation that blunted the argument. He wasn't triumphal, either. He was, frustratingly, pretty modest. Still, whenever he beat Marcus in a simulation exercise, he'd talk trash. How was it that he could be a practicing Christian and still function like a normal human being? The two versions of Christianity that Marcus knew, the one that he saw in front of him in James and the one from his memory clashed often and James almost always came out on top.
      He looked out the windshield of the automatic cab, frustrated. The storm seemed to be growing stronger; lightning was coming more frequently and the thunder was no longer a small rumble but a mild, window buzzing roar. The sky was darkening to a dangerous hue, a mixture of purple, black, navy and red—and was becoming darker by the minute. He cursed under his breath.
      Damn it, James.
      The cab stopped suddenly, yanking him out of his reflection, but not his mood. He entered his military I.D. PIN into a keypad built into the dashboard in order to pay for the ride, and then exited the cab. It drove off a few seconds later to pick up its next customer.
      Marcus turned and faced the Black Hills Community Theatre, which was, much to Marcus's surprise, decked out in outrageous colors. Blue, pink, bright orange. The contrast was enough to cause Marcus's eyes to ache as his rods and cones strained to realize each color. He averted them to the pavement and rubbed them. Maybe a show wasn't such a great idea. What was the name of the thing, anyway?
      Easley looked at the garish poster in front of him; the majority of it was taken up by the title, La Cage Aux Folles, and a flat-out ugly hag, her arms wide open, apparently belting out lyrics. Crowded around her ankles and legs were some moderately good looking women, though none of them were particularly attractive. It was probably some sort of French variety show, he decided. What the hell had he gotten himself into?
      He swung his gaze to the right, towards the ticket booth. It was traditional in style; someone still had to be inside to operate it. Marcus looked quickly at his watch. According to the sign on the booth, it wouldn't be open for at least another half-hour. His mood grew stormier by the minute.
      Since every bar he'd seen on the way in had been closed and deserted, the major decided to read the show's playbill, if for no other purpose than to keep himself from getting bored. He grabbed a copy from a little holder mounted on the ticket booth leaned up against the booth and began to read, his mind only half on the text as his thoughts began to wander back to James.
      What had aggravated Marcus the most about James, though, was that James wasn't afraid to offer his true opinion on anything, and it was mild each time. The subject of homosexuality came up one night during dinner in Afterburner where James's position shook Marcus to his core. Other pilots around the table cracked jokes about it, using high voices and goofy lisps. Even Marcus did, though only through the need for conformity. James made an extremely mild joke, but then said, Well, guys, it may be funny, but I feel pretty sorry for gays. They never get to feel normal. I don't approve of what they do, but I do feel sorry for them. The statement collided so directly with Marcus's image of Christians as fire-breathing bigots that he had to leave the table and get to his stateroom. His hands were shaking as he unlocked the door. He knew that he had told himself for years that they were bigots in order to justify his aloofness and hatred for Christians. But here was someone who was…
      Wait, what did I just read? Marcus snapped his eyes back to the top of the page and began reading, his breathing heavy and labored.

      As a long-running Paris boulevard comedy, later as a highly original classic film, and one of the biggest Broadway musicals ever produced and a major hit in the West End at the Palladium, La Cage aux Folles has billions of fans. Jerry Herman's music and Harvey Fierstein's book added new dimensions to the story of the homosexual lovers whose twenty years of domestic tranquility are shattered when a son, fathered during a one-night heterosexual fling, decides to marry the daughter of a bigoted politician.
      Georges and his friend Albin, stage name Zaza, run a St Tropez nightclub, La Cage aux Folles, where the stars and the chorus line are mainly men in drag. Georges and his friend have lived happily together for many years. Their apartment is also home to their black 'maid' Jacob. And, as of today, Georges' son Jean-Michel (the result of a casual liaison some twenty years before). Jean-Michel has news. He's engaged to Anne. That's the good news. The bad news is that her father is head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party, whose sworn aim is to close the local drag clubs. And her parents want to meet their daughter's future in-laws, including his real mother. Jean-Michel has described Georges as a retired diplomat, which could lead to trouble. Jean-Michel has a solution. Albin will absent himself for the visit - and all the furniture will be changed for something less spectacular. When he finds that he's to be marginalized, Albin is deeply hurt. Has he not brought up Georges' son, man and boy, and been a good mother? He quits the club in a thoroughly justified huff.
       Next morning Georges finds Albin on the beach and suggests he dresses up as a macho uncle Al. Why not? Back at the apartment, now transformed into a cell reminiscent of a monastery, Georges receives a telegram. Jean-Michel's mother Sybil isn't coming. What to do? A ring at the door. Anne's parents arrive. Albin flees to his room, emerging as a buxom forty-year-old. Jacob has burned the dinner. A trip to a local restaurant, Chez Jacqueline, belonging to an old friend of Albin and Georges, is quickly arranged. No one has briefed Jacqueline on the situation and she asks Albin for a song. Alas, as Zaza, he completely forgets himself and at the song's climax tears off his wig, revealing his true identity.
       Back at the apartment the Dindons make their disapproval known. Their daughter is not persuaded. She's in love with Jean-Michel and will stay with him. The Dindons prepare to leave. Their way is blocked by Jacqueline, who has arrived with the Press! How piquant to have a picture of the most notorious anti homosexual with the most famous St Tropez homosexuals. Georges and Albin have a solution. Anne and their son must be allowed to marry, of course. And the Dindons will be allowed to escape - through La Cage aux Folles next door! And that is what happens, with the Dindons dressed as artistes of the revue, and Mr. Dindon as the ugliest drag queen imaginable! So all ends happily - at least for everyone for whom it should.

      At that moment, something deep within Marcus snapped. Roaring, he went berserk, crumpling the playbill up into the tightest ball he could manage before he began to rip it to bits. The pieces of paper wafted to the ground; Marcus snarled as he stomped on them, trying to shred them into confetti. In his frenzy, he whipped around to face the poster. Wild-eyed, he glared at the transvestites, realizing them for what they were as his anger exploded. Blinded by his wrath, he cocked his right arm behind his ear and launched his fist clear through the glass. He bellowed as the glass cracked and splintered, cutting his fist in the process. Marcus gingerly pulled his bleeding fist out of the hole it had made before he slammed a kick into what remained of the pane, crushing it. The glass fell to the ground in shards, tinkling as it hit the cold, hard concrete.
      Still screaming, Marcus clutched his hand, instinctively trying to staunch the bleeding, but it continued to flow easily. He wrapped his hand up in his shirt, hoping that it might stop the blood, but the shirt was soon soaked in crimson. He wanted to grab the poster and tear it too, but found he couldn't; the anger slowly began to subside as the pain, confusion, and a sense of panic started to set in. Surely someone had seen him obliterate the glass. Marcus's eyes darted up and down the road, instinctively looking for witnesses. Instead, all he saw was a flash of lightning as it struck only a buildings away, temporarily blinding him. The thunder sounded like an incoming mortar shell and hit with equivalent force, knocking Marcus off his feet. His hands shot to his ears; he could already feel them bleeding and ringing like some sort of gory alarm.
      Lying there facedown on the rough concrete with stars in his eyes, it took him several seconds to notice that large, dark spots had begun to appear on the sidewalk without a sound. They were quickly joined by more dark spots. More and more and more. It was raining.
      The next thing he knew, he was up and his feet were pounding on the ground as fast as they could. Marcus didn't really care where they took him, either. All he wanted to do was get away from the theatre and all the painful memories it had somehow unleashed on him. He dashed down the street and ducked into the nearest alley before hitting a T-intersection and making a wobbly turn to the right, heading north. His throbbing hand, ears, and panicking mind gave him extra energy to keep his legs churning, himself never knowing which turn he would take next.
      He wound his way through several more alleys before bursting out into another public street. He sprinted across without bothering to check for traffic, his fear spurring him on. Another alley. Another turn. Another set of high-walled buildings.
      The rain had become an unrelenting torrent of water, bouncing off the buildings, off the dumpsters, doorways, and drainpipes, drenching Marcus as he ran. It was so thick that he was thoroughly soaked within a minute. The lightning was striking over and over again, always too close, only a few blocks behind as though it was chasing him. Each time the lightning struck, the thunder nearly knocked Marcus over.
      The Major stopped running after multiple city blocks, unable to continue. He was completely out of breath; though he'd only been running for a few minutes, it seemed like he'd been running his whole life.
      Marcus collapsed up against a doorway underneath a small overhang, the rain coming down in a solid wall. No matter how hard he tried, it seemed that he couldn't catch a second wind.
      Another blast of thunder hammered him against the door. Easley fell to the ground face first without any effort to remain standing, his ears ringing from the explosion, his mind and body numb.
      Marcus lay there in a large puddle for what seemed like a long time, his tongue tasting the ice cold, dirty water, the rest of him feeling the freezing rain as it cut into him, lashing him cruelly. Really, he didn't care how long he lay there. The pain and panic subsided as he breathed deeply and tried to calm himself down. It took a while, but he finally managed to succeed in relaxing a little bit and slowing himself down long enough to think.
      You damn idiot, what were you thinking? Nobody saw you smash that glass. All you had to do was walk down the street and get under some cover when the rain hit, but noooo, you had to tear off down the street screaming like madman. Idiot. Your hand still hasn't stopped bleeding, but so what? You're damn lucky you didn't sever a major artery, dumbass. You can't do anything now; it's probably almost time to get back to Ellsworth, anyway.
      When he finally mustered the energy to roll over and sit up, he was startled by the sound that greeted his ears.
      Total silence. No thunder, no merciless rain, not even the howling wind. Even though the sky was flashing with noiseless lightning, it was darker than ever, at this point nearing a deep black that covered up almost all light. Everything was still completely silent.
      The stillness sent shivers up his spine. He cleared his throat to make sure he hadn't lost his hearing from the blast of thunder. Fortunately, he could hear himself. At the very least, he wasn't deaf.
      Marcus unsteadily got to his feet, dizzy from the loss of blood, and tried to reorient himself, the silence far louder than any blast of the terrible thunder he'd experienced earlier. He looked around, unsuccessfully trying to remember which way he'd come from. Everything had been a blur as he ran; there was no chance he could find his way back easily. He sighed, trying to decide on his next plan of action. Maybe he could get to a public phone and call another taxi or—
      It was a small sound, but it still made his skin crawl. He looked up and down the alley as he had done earlier with the street. Nothing. Maybe he was just imagining things. He was tired and—
      He looked up and down the alley again; still no sign of anybody. Instinctively, he reached down and felt his M6C underneath his soaked bomber jacket. He drew it slowly, feeling its metallic, reassuring grip in his hands. He flicked the safety off before checking both ways once again. Without looking back, he reached behind himself with his left hand and tried the door; no good, it was locked tight. With his back flattened against the wall, he began to move to his right, avoiding a small dumpster and a few trash cans as he inched his way towards the street.
      The Major's eyes instantly whipped back to his left as he tried to find the location of the sound. He still saw nothing but he dove behind the dumpster anyway. On the edge, he waited several seconds before peeking around the corner of the dumpster, his pistol leveled at the far end of the alleyway.
      Absolutely nothing, not even a piece of loose trash, moved.
      The word was whisper soft, consoling, spoken quietly into his right ear instead of his left where it had been only moments before. Marcus, already on the edge, reflexively swung himself around in an attempt to use the butt of the M6C as a cudgel on his stalker, but the pistol swung through empty space and slammed against the alley wall. The pistol went off with a loud report that echoed furiously, releasing a bullet that ricocheted dangerously around the alleyway, releasing puffs of dust where it had struck the brick walls before finally slamming into the dumpster behind Marcus, scan inches from his head.
      Instinct took over once again and Marcus was on the move, running with his M6C in his hand, too scared to think clearly. He shot out of the alley like a bat out of hell before slipping on a puddle of water and skidding out into the street. His feet quickly regained their traction and he was off down the sidewalk, running even faster than before. After only a few yards, however, something to the right caught his eye: an open, heavy oak door atop a few marble steps.
      The fact that it seemed to be the only open door in the city didn't enter the major's mind as he bounded up the porch and neither did the fact that he recognized the inside of the door.
      He ran through a small, oak walled anteroom that he'd come through many times before and was beginning to open another door when the realization began to dawn on him. It wasn't until after he had thrown open the second door and emerged into a large, cavernous room, that the full force of the situation hit him.

      I'm in my old church.

      The realization was a calm one, but it was enough to drop Marcus to his knees in shock, his disbelieving eyes scanning the room as his mind raced at a hundred miles an hour, but still got nowhere.
      It was exactly the same as it had been years ago. Three separate columns of theatre seats reached from the pulpit, lightly decorated with flowers, all the way to the back of the auditorium. The widest column was in the middle, and was separated from the other two columns by a comfortably wide maroon carpeted aisle. The outside columns were flanked by loggias, open air hallways lined on the inside with pillars that led to doors that led deeper into the church. Light was provided by a few electric lamps hung high from the ceiling and thin stain glass windows that ran the length of the loggias.
      The pulpit itself consisted of an ordinary wooden podium with a microphone, backed by a bench and a large table laden with communion cups and plates. Up above it and hidden behind another, larger, sliding stain glass window, resided the baptistery where Marcus had been baptized only a few years earlier. Everything was as it should have been; nothing was out of place. But Marcus had been baptized in an entirely different state.
      Marcus began to slowly walk back towards the door. When he reached it, he tried to push it open, but it wouldn't budge. Impossible, there had been no lock on this door before! What was going on? Who the hell had locked the door?
      Hoping that it was only stuck on something, he shook the door violently, but it refused to budge. He wound up and kicked the door with the same result. In desperation, Marcus finally took several steps back, got a running start, and attempted to knock the door of its hinges with as powerful a kick he could muster but only succeeded in crashing to the floor in a heap.
      Swearing, he got to his feet. Whatever the hell had whispered his name in the alley had locked him in. How had it followed him so fast? What did it want?
      Marcus tried to calm himself down again but couldn't. He leveled his M6C at the thick oak door, guessed where the lock might be and emptied the entire magazine, desperate to destroy it and escape from this place. The wood splintered and cracked from the impacts, but yielded no lock to destroy. Marcus cursed as he ejected the spent clip and slid a new one into the handle before leveling it at the lock again.
      It took another two bullets before he realized that he might waste the only weapon he had trying to get out of the building through this single door. Surely there were other exits in this building. All he had to do was find one and then he could get away from the church and whatever it was that was following him. He could probably find a pay phone somewhere outside and call an automatic cab to pick him up. Failing that, he'd have to confront this—
      The door rattled.
      Adrenaline coursing through his system, Marcus pivoted off of his right foot to sprint off towards the pulpit and then make his way deeper into the church. He pushed off, looking over his shoulder as the door banged against the frame, sounding not unlike the lightning that had chased him here to this church. He turned his head back towards the pulpit as his entire reality shattered.
      He stopped cold as his mind ground to a halt. There, standing at the front of the auditorium in front of the pulpit was Guy Nix, the same as he had been when Marcus was five years old, wearing a weird smile and looking away from the major. Stunned, Marcus Easley followed Nix's gaze only to see Marcus Easley.
      When he was five years old.
      For a full second, nothing happened, and then the pilot watched, paralyzed as his five year old self covered his eyes begin to count upwards rapidly from one.
      "One, two, three, four…"
      Nix laughed strangely. "Hold up, kid. Slow down and start over," he said teasingly as he began to slowly step towards the young Marcus. The young Marcus giggled and started over, counting more slowly, and standing on his toes in anticipation of the gift he thought he was going to receive. Nix's strange, sick smile turned into an evil sneer.
      "After all, the best things in life are worth waiting for, right?"
      Oh, God.
      Marcus snapped into action, sprinting down the aisle towards Nix and fumbling with his M6C pistol.
      "One, two, three, four…"
      The major skidded to a stop at the pulpit and swung his pistol into position. He didn't say anything or hesitate at all. The M6C kicked against the heel of his hand, roaring as it discharged five 12.7 millimeter rounds.
      The bullets all connected with their target, slamming into Nix's shoulder, side, and back, eliciting red showers of blood that spilled onto the carpet. Incredibly, Nix didn't flinch or even react as he continued towards the young Marcus.
      "Seven, eight, nine…"
      No, Marcus thought desperately. No!
      He threw himself at Nix in desperation, hoping to somehow stop his uncle's inexplicable and unimaginable act before it started. It was no good. Nix felt like a solid brick wall as Marcus ineffectually slammed into him before landing on his back.
      "Ten!" The young Marcus turned around, his face glowing, bright, and eager for the gift he thought he was about to receive; the face quickly turned to sheer terror as the five year old saw his uncle's sinister sneer and instinctively knew that something was wrong.
      Both Marcuses let loose a scream of helplessness which combined with an unexpected crash of thunder from outside, cracking the peaceful air with their collective horridness, one not knowing what was happening, the other knowing all too well.
      Silence. Total silence, even more deafening than the thunder had been pounded Marcus's ears.
      The major blinked, completely dumbfounded. Where Nix and his five year old self had been only a moment before, there stood nothing. Nothing had marked their disappearance, though the puddle of blood from Nix's wounds still sat on the floor removing all doubt as to whether they had been there in the first place. Slowly, Marcus crawled the few feet to the puddle, staring at it intensely. Some disbelieving part of his mind caused him to reach down slowly and dip his fingers in it. It was warm and sticky, just as it should have been. It smelled vaguely copper-like, too.
      None of this…none of this could really be happening. Yes, he had felt pain when he punched the glass and when the thunder had nearly ruptured his eardrums, but it was impossible for him to be in his church. His church—his real church—was several states away. But there was no way he was in an identical building, the odds were simply too long. And yet, here he was sitting in his church, or at least…
      Suddenly, it clicked. Marcus looked up slowly, only to have a blinding white light meet his eyes.

      He opened his eyes. A harsh fluorescent light greeted him. It took a moment for his eyes to clear and focus, and when they did, he realized that he didn't recognize the ceiling. It was right about then that the pain hit, a massive, throbbing headache that caused him to groan in pain.
      The groan brought a figure over him that obstructed the light; he couldn't make out the face as it glanced down at a clipboard that he hadn't noticed a moment before, but he clearly heard a woman's voice say, "Exit time is seventeen hundred. Inform the colonel, would you, Lucy?"
      He groaned again. The woman looked down before disappearing briefly from his vision.
      "Sorry about the pain. I've upped some of the meds; they ought to relieve the headaches a little bit. You came extremely close to having a bad case of the bends. You got lucky that they got to you as fast as they did. Well, now that you're breathing normally, I suppose there's no reason for you to keep wearing this."
      The woman reentered his vision before she reached down and removed an oxygen mask from his face that he hadn't even been aware of. He felt groggy and confused, though he was alert enough to attribute that to whatever meds the orderly had him on. However, that begged the question: why did he need meds? Furthermore, where was he? He managed to sit up in the bed without too much difficulty and surveyed his surroundings.
      He was in a fairly well stocked sick bay that was abnormally clean, even by UNSC standards. However, it wasn't the sick bay from the Maverick, which surprised him. His bed was in the corner, next to the door, but positioned at such an angle that he couldn't see outside. He looked around to ask questions, but realized he was the only patient in the room. The orderly had left already, so his questions would go unanswered for a while.
      His thoughts were interrupted, however, when a tall, athletic looking man in a flight suit stepped through the door. He had sandy blonde hair and clear blue eyes that betrayed his intelligence. The pilot leaned against the doorframe and crossed his arms as a bemused smile crossed his face. The flight suit had a small squadron patch on the shoulder that contained a simple skull and crossbones and the words "Fighting 84".
      The patient gawked at the pilot, his eyes wide. The pilot grinned.
      "How…?" the patient managed to get out. The pilot laughed just as the patient remembered him doing two years ago above Gethsemane when the man standing only a few feet away from him had still been alive.
      "Welcome back to life, Lieutenant James McCoy," said the deceased Colonel Michael Becker in his habitually lighthearted tone. "Welcome aboard the Valkyrie."

      He opened his eyes to see two figures wearing flight suits crouching over him, one tall and dark haired, the other a several inches under six feet with fiery red hair. The latter had his hands clapped over his ears, wincing in pain; the former had his arms extended and was making a shaking motion, causing his vision to bounce wildly.
      Right about then, Marcus's hearing kicked back in to hear his own piercing shriek. The dark haired man grimaced as his hands, too, shot to his ears.
      "Ah, damn, that's loud!"
      Marcus continued to scream, but they became softer and softer as he began to calm down. Once he had finally stopped screaming, the red haired man asked in a tenor voice, "Are you all right? You were screaming bloody murder in here."
      Marcus looked up at him before nodding slightly.
      "Yeah, I think so," he said, his voice still shaky.
      "You need to go to sick bay?"
      "No," Marcus said. "I'm fine. I just…had a nightmare." The dark haired man arched his eyebrows.
      "Must've been a hell of a nightmare, sir. You've been screaming for a good five minutes."
      "I have?"
      "Yeah. Just what were you dreaming about, anyway?"
      "I…" Marcus started, but then stopped. "Uh, wait, first off, who are you guys?"
      "First Lieutenants Beard and Varner, sir," the red haired man said, first indicating himself and then the dark haired man. "We're here to replace McCall and Olive. We're already been processed, so we'd just thought we'd introduce ourselves " Marcus nodded, now so confused that he almost gave up on trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. He held out his hands.
      "Help me up, will you?" After Varner and Beard had yanked him to his feet, Marcus stood awkwardly for several seconds, trying to process everything that had just happened. It had been a dream, obviously, but he still felt the pain from when he hammered the marquee. He felt the rain and the concrete…it had been an absurdly realistic dream, which was out of the ordinary for him. Normally, he couldn't remember his dreams at all, and the ones that he did remember were faint, fragmented, and nonsensical. But this…
      "So," Marcus said, his brain running the conversation on autopilot. "Where'd you transfer from?"
      Sterling answered first: "VF-142, sir." Marcus looked up, momentarily distracted from his concentration.
      "The Ghostriders? You're not straight out of the school?"
      "No sir, I'm with the Ghostriders. Well, actually, I suppose I'm a Swordsman now." Marcus looked at Beard.
      "And you?"
      "VF-213, sir. I was a Black Lion."
      The news gave Marcus pause. Normally, he would've gotten some nuggets from straight out of flight school, but some desk jockey somewhere must have made a clerical error. The Ghostriders and Black Lions were two of the more respected squadrons in the UNSC, the first legendary for its key part in the Harvest campaign where the group had managed to single-handedly disable a Covenant flanking attack, and the latter renowned for its record-low combat losses throughout the war, earning its pilots the oft-whispered nickname of "The Invincibles."
      Marcus simply stared at the two of them, creating an uncomfortable silence, which Beard broke by clearing his throat.
      Marcus blinked. "Oh, right. Dismissed." The pilots turned to depart the room. As he left the room, Varner looked back at his new squadron leader.
      "You sure you're going to be all right?"
      "Yeah," Marcus muttered, shaking his hands and crossing his arms. "I'm going to be just..." he trailed off as on the back of his right hand, right where he had punched the glass in his dream, he noticed a small and faint scratch that had barely drawn blood, yet was still an instantly recognizable and unmistakable shape.
      "I'm going to be just fine," he whispered as he gazed at the cross on his hand.