Ace knows he's not doing this half life thing quite right. You're supposed to get tumors, get sick, get weak, and before you get too weak to do war, you're supposed to find (or create, some boys are desperate enough not to get picky) your opportunity to enter Valhalla.
It's just - he's not really sick. The tumors are slow, and they don't bother him much. He doesn't get night fevers. He hasn't yet come into a situation what would benefit more from his death than from a little creative thinking.
It's earned him a reputation - he's The Ace, oldest, most experienced.
The thing is, being experienced isn’t considered a good thing in a War Boy. Having seen a lot of trade runs means you haven’t been dedicated enough to die for the Immortan.
Ace knows this. Has his own thoughts about it. He’s seen Imperators come and go. (Been told ‘Not very brave, are you?’ more than once, but if he’s gonna die, it's not gonna be stupid or desperate. If he's gonna die he’s gonna make it count)
He gets it, he does - the Immortan doesn’t spare the Imperators. One bad run, one lost cargo, and you don’t see them again. For an Imperator it's better to lose all their crew than their cargo.
So Ace just… doesn’t expect much from a new Imperator. This one has been a scout and a patrol leader, which is more than the last one. At least she can drive. She looks them all over with cool eyes, her expression unimpressed.
Ace tries to see them through her eyes. After the last Imperator, they're a mixed mess: maybe a third experienced convoy crew, a third inexperienced but trained up to the job in preparation of replacing crew, about a third completely green War Boys just itching to snatch a glorious entrance into Valhalla.
He's given them all a stern talk about the Imperator's arm, which is not to be touched or even mentioned, but he can see their eyes tracking it.
Machines are like better, more reliable bodies. They outlast War Boys, can be renewed, repaired, fixed in ways their own bodies can't. An Imperator who is partly machine is always going to inspire them to be idiots, Ace suspects.
He can't deny he is intrigued himself by the gleaming metal, the power it exudes. There is something holy, Immortan blessed, about a woman who has replaced part of herself with machine.
“Where are the men positioned during the run?” The Imperator asks, and he tells her.
“Where would you put them?” she asks, and he blinks at her. There is nobody in the Citadel who has been on the War Rig convoy as often as he, and he’s never been asked that.
Once he’s told her, she adjusts some small things - she likes space at her flanks, so she can swerve without worrying about her own people - and then nods and tells him to go with that.
Their first encounter with the Buzzards is a success.
That is to say, the War Rig arrives intact and still fully loaded with bullets and guzzoline.
Four crew fall in the defence of the convoy and seven more - mostly the green hands - chrome up and hurtle themselves screaming into Valhalla. That leaves Ace alone to defend their left flank. Three Buzzard buggies are lined up, and he knows that if he took his last lance and leapt, he would probably wipe them all away. He'd die as chrome and as witnessed as he could have wished.
He'd also leave the convoy's flank unguarded, and what if another Buzzard car is waiting for them?
So instead he hurls his lance, damages but doesn't explode the front buggy. Leaps to the War Rig's cab, gets on the runners beside the Imperator and asks her for her crossbow. Its explosive bolt is going to do it, from this angle, but part of him is burning with shame for even asking.
She stomps the gas pedal into its lock, swings out of the cab, and fires it herself. The front buggy explodes and the decelerating fireball wipes away the two cars behind it.
Ace wishes he'd thought to hurl himself after. Anything, even dying without glory, being refused Valhalla, would have been better than being old cowardly Ace, who needed his Imperator's help to do what he should have done.
They arrive safely at the Citadel. By the time she jumps down from the cab, Ace is crouched down by a wheel well, trying to judge how warped it is. Not the most urgent of tasks, but one that will hopefully let him escape her notice and her scorn, at least here in public. He has no doubt it will fall on him later - she saw his cowardice, must have seen all of it.
He holds his breath when she passes close behind him, and then jolts as a heavy metal claw lands on his head, lifts for a moment, and comes down again before disappearing.
"Nice work," he hears the Imperator right behind him. "Glad to still have you."
It catches up to him that that is her hand. She patted his head. With her mechanical hand. It's as close to being Witnessed by the Immortan you can come without dying.
Ace loses his balance and rocks forward, landing on his knees, and takes what feels like his first proper breath since the Buzzards.
(For their next run, she hands him an M79 grenade launcher, modified into a hand weapon.
"Now find me some crew who's here to do their job, not die shiny," she says, metal hand clapping down on his shoulder.
Ace decides then and there that he'll be with her until the end.)