Chapter 1: The Remains
He misses peace.
General Montague dies. The remaining Federal soldiers pick themselves up off the ground, pick a quiet time and place to cry, and, by mistake, pick Doyle as Montague’s heir apparent.
By the time anyone realizes who’s next in the chain of command, Doyle’s fainted once, woke up, forgot why he’d fainted, had a strong cup of coffee, remembered why he fainted in the first place and fainted again, and then set up shop hiding in the unused abyss of the old half of the medical ward—the back half that fell into disrepair when they lost too many medics to sustain it, and downsized the medbays in every Federal base in favor of upgrading their morgues.
It’s a good place for a panic attack. Very decrepit. Very, uh, every horror movie that ever took place in an insanity asylum. Truly adds to his overwhelming and oppressive sense of impending doom and failure and also dying. The dying is a big one.
Eventually, Kingsley comes to find him.
Kingsley is a broad, squat man with an underbite like a bulldog and a personality to match. He likes guns. He reads old science-fiction about glorious wars against terrifying aliens, with hundreds of thousands of casualties, and enjoys it. He sometimes turns three-hundred-year-old sci-fi into decent military suggestions—but only sometimes, if Montague’s more esteemed military opinion was to be believed. (Montague was the Brigadier, but he’d been a field nurse before the civil war.) Kingsley hated his pencil-pushing job, and talked incessantly about transferring out to a field location, while Doyle, who quite liked his pencil-pushing job, whispered to Montague during quiet hours to never let Kingsley near a gun if Montague didn’t want the pencil-pushing offices to fall into chaos from being understaffed. Kingsley never went anywhere.
Now Kingsley scrapes a chair along the old med ward linoleum and drags it up to Doyle’s hiding spot on an old, dusty mattress. Slams it down. Sits on it backwards, like every douchebag who thinks he’s cool to break common courtesy rules.
“Whose dick did you suck,” Kingsley begins.
Doyle’s only five minutes out of his last panic attack and now he’s choking on his own spit. “ Me ? I—what— excuse you ?”
“We’re both personal assistant to the Brigadier,” Kingsley says. “We should both be potentially the next general. We should both be in line.”
“It’s not a succession line,” says Doyle tartly. “Chorus doesn’t have a monarchy , Kingsley.”
“Really? Then what’s going on, Doyle? How come I hear that it’s you in line for the next spot, not me?”
Of course, that’s what it’s about. Doyle can’t help the bitterness of his glare. “I assure you,” Doyle says, “if you think that I volunteered for a position so obviously a deathtrap, you’re sorely mistaken.”
“You really expect me to believe that someone chose you over me? You’ve never so much as fired a gun!”
Untrue, unfortunately. “Nobody chose me,” says Doyle. “I’m afraid I have seniority over you; I’ve been Montague’s PA for a spot longer. Bad luck for all of us. It’s beyond my power.”
“And what are you going to do with being General?” Kingsley complains. “Pour Kimball some tea? Send her an invite to a battlefield?”
“I don’t know,” says Doyle, tetchily.
“Write a strongly-worded diplomatic letter to the rebels?”
“I don’t know , Kingsley!”
“Promising start to your career, then, isn’t it?” Kingsley says. “You pretending that it’s beyond your power when you’re the fucking general, as if there’s anyone at a higher rank than you anymore. No desire, no vision, no backbone, can’t even defend yourself—”
“Then take the damn position!” Doyle cries.
“I—” Kingsley stops. “What? Really?”
“Yes! Really!” says Doyle, and draws his lanky, stringbean frame to its mediocre height with a huff. “If you want it so badly, if you want to die like the last six generals, then, frankly, be my guest!”
Kingsley stares at Doyle with a blank expression, and for a second, Doyle thinks that Kingsley’s going to realize that Doyle’s offered him a bear-trap disguised as a military career. But then Kingsley chuckles, and smirks, and says, “Christ, Doyle, so afraid for your own skin than you can’t see a chance when you’ve got it. If you won’t, I’ll take those odds.”
“F—fine,” says Doyle, before he can really think, too affronted and terrified to stop himself. “Fine! Take the position, if you’re so eager to…"
But he trails off, because he’s not really sure what he’s daring: so eager to die? So eager to fight? So eager to protect our people?
“I am, actually,” says Kingsley, and stands up. “I’ll get this in writing from you later. Document this. In the meantime, you can—stay here, and panic, or whatever it is you do. I’m going to check on Montague’s records.” Kingsley spins around and as he leaves, throws over his shoulder: “ I’m going to make this General thing work.”
And then he’s gone.
Doyle sits, shell-shocked on his office chair in the abandoned dust of the old med wing, and realizes that it’s going to be up to Kingsley to defend their planet, their home , and all their loved ones, from the fanatical, destructive Vanessa Kimball. He just turned over everything the last of the Chorusans cling to, their home, their people , to Kingsley of all numbskulls, just because Doyle was too cowardly to bet with his life.
This is Doyle’s first decision as general.
For a reason Doyle can’t name, he becomes so nauseous at the very thought of Kingsley as general that he slinks into the actual medbay for nausea pills and walks straight into Emily Grey dissecting a dead man in the middle of her office.
“Ah! General Doyle,” she says, and doesn’t react at all when Doyle throws up a little in his mouth. She hums a fun, jazzy tune and tells her intern (a tiny girl named Emma Yamanaka) to clean something-or-other while Doyle washes his mouth out, takes deep breaths, and tries to look away from the blood. Grey knows he doesn’t like it. She scrapes off the worst of the blood, stretching from her bare hands all the way up to her elbows, and gives him time to breathe.
“I’m alright,” says Doyle, eventually, and waves to the intern, who ducks her head shyly, “Yes, yes. I’m fine. Good morning, Yamanaka, good morning, Emily, or—I suppose it’s a morning, at least.”
“It’s certainly a morning!” says Grey brightly. “Come to pay your last respects?”
That’s about when Doyle realizes whose blood she’s got on her hands and whose cavadaver she’s up to her elbows in. General Montague’s face up and washed out on the cutting—er, operating table, half his guts glistening like marbled meat in the open air.
Doyle faints, obviously.
When he wakes up, Grey’s got smelling salts in one hand and no blood in sight. “I don’t know what you expected, walking in here!” she chirps. “You really should know better. Yamanaka, take these, thank you!” and she hands off the smelling salts to the pale-faced intern.
“Yes, ahaha, right,” says Doyle. “Er—what happened?”
“I believe you were trying to pay your respects to Montague, poor dead thing. Meanwhile, I’m thinking... lobotomy, maybe?” she says, drumming her fingers along her own cheek. “Hmmmm! It’s been a while since we had a good lobotomy!”
“Your hobbies are enchanting as always, dear,” says Doyle.
“Thank you! But you should really say goodbye before I start digging around in there. Faces don’t come out very pretty when you go in through the eyes.”
“Err, no,” Doyle says, trying to avoid looking at the corpse in question, but even when he turns his eyes somewhere else, he just gets an eyeful of Grey’s jarred fingers collection. Even Yamanaka, the only person they could find to give Grey a hand in the medbay, tries to keep them under a cloth most of the time. “I hadn’t expected Montague to be here , I’d assumed that he’d be in the morgue, so I’m not here to…”
“Oh! Silly me, of course you didn’t,” says Grey cheerfully. “Morgue got downsized just in the last hour! I’m sure that when your position as the new general becomes more official, people will let you know eeeevery little thing that happens in this base, and also the whole army over half the planet! But until then, the update is that Briggs got shot and then leaked stomach acid all over his pretty organs. It’s only Rosen down there now, and everyone knows Rosen can’t do a proper autopsy, so he’s just on cremating duty. Which is excellent, of course, because now I get to do whatever I want with the bodies before I hand them over. The silver lining is always wonderful when it means I can start 3D-printing entire organs, wouldn’t you say so, General Doyle?”
“Ah,” says Doyle. “Er.”
“Anyway! I’ll leave you two to get re-acquainted before Montague gets incinerated,” and Grey gestures to Montague’s dead body. “Might as well do it now, because frankly speaking his brains are worth more to the Federal cause in a jar than they are in his head anymore. Get to it! Before they decompose too much for them to be any use to me!”
“Emily, I didn’t mean to—”
“Call me back when you’re done!” Grey calls, stripping off her gloves and waltzing to the door. “I’ve got to talk to a man about making his dog an organ donor!”
And she slams the door shut behind her, leaving just Doyle, a whole backroom half-full of unconscious and dying soldiers, and Montague.
Doyle glances down at Montague.
Montague’s got his eyes closed and all his organs covered up, thank god.
At length, Doyle goes to the medicine cabinet beside Grey’s desk and fishes out the nausea pills, and some Advil for what’ll probably become a headache, too. He looks back at Montague.
Montague doesn’t do anything.
Doyle chews up the nausea tablet and washes down the Advil with water from the sink and a semi-clean beaker.
Montague doesn’t do anything.
Doyle leans against the sink, looking from Grey’s desk to the operating table she’s got set up in her own office (for “ease of access,” she’d said), beaker of water still in his hand, and breathes in the iron taste of pills, disinfectant, and old blood.
Montague doesn’t do anything.
Reluctantly, feeling a bit like he’s betrayed Montague, Doyle admits to himself that he hasn’t got anything to say to the dead, after all this time. If he did, he’d have to say it again tonight, and tomorrow morning, and tomorrow at noon, and tomorrow evening, and tomorrow night, and then the day after that morning, and on and on. Like hobbits, frankly, if you caught his drift. Why have just one funeral in the morning when you could have a second one immediately after? If anyone grieved around here, the amount of time to do so would shut Chorus down faster than any war, break Chorus’s government faster than any rebellious anarchist.
He finishes his water and puts the beaker back in the sink. The only thing he’s got to say is why Grey’s got their dead ex-general in her office, and that’s a question for the woman herself.
Doyle takes the moment to figure out, instead, what on earth he’s supposed to tell Grey. Her, of all hyper-intelligent people, apparently taking his promotion in stride— him , of all unqualified people! There’s only so many scripts he can generate: Sorry, I didn’t want to get shot like the last six of our Generals. Sorry, I passed the buck to Kingsley. Sorry, I don’t really think we can win this war, not without the rebels destroying everything on the planet in the process. Sorry, I wouldn’t have been any good at it anyway. Sorry, I gave up my one and only chance to actually do something to help the people around me.
It’s going to go horribly , Doyle thinks to himself, just as Grey’s voice shrieks from the other side of the door.
Doyle bolts up and yanks the door open before he can really think. On the other side is Grey, face to face with none other than Locus himself, and Grey is nearly bent over with laughter. Doyle really doesn’t like how much Grey’s laughter sounds like a shriek of pain nowadays.
“Didn’t quite work out for you, then?” Grey chirps.
Locus doesn’t even reply. Just stands there, nearly a foot taller than everyone else and fully armored, silent and dark. He’s dripping blood from somewhere, which explains why he’s in the medbay. Yamanaka is hiding in a supply closet. Doyle nearly slams the door shut again and only doesn’t because he’s locked up with fear.
Here comes the other bit about being the general of the Federal Army: you have to deal with Locus .
“Policy still hasn’t changed,” says Grey sweetly, the sort of sugar that moves like poison. “I don’t know what you expected! It’s hardly physically possible for me to stitch you up if you won’t come out of that armor, is it?”
“I only came for a needle and thread,” says Locus, flatly.
“So you can do it yourself? I can see the wound on your right arm, and you’re not ambidextrous, last I checked."
“Needle and thread,” says Locus again.
“You’re no good to us dead,” says Grey, as if he hadn’t spoken. “And you can certainly die in or out of that armor you love so much!”
Locus walks around her straight towards Doyle. Doyle yelps and scrambles out of his way. Locus walks past him and disappears into Grey’s office.
“One of these days!” she calls after him, tone cheerful as always. “General Doyle, you’ve said your goodbyes?”
“Er,” says Doyle, because this is the exact right moment to tell her: No, sorry, I’m not the general anymore, I told Kingsley he could have the post. But then Locus reappears from behind him, Doyle goes woozy in the way he does right before he faints, and Doyle clutches at the door frame and forgets entirely what he’s about to say.
Locus’s helmet stares at him for a long moment. Then Locus says, “We have to discuss the contract,” and marches away, a little plastic bag of needle and thread in his hand.
Doyle feels a bit like he’s narrowly avoided death, just by being in the vicinity of Locus, but Grey’s eyes are slits as she tracks the mercenary with her eyes. Neither of them move until the door shuts, quietly, behind Locus.
“When you’re general, make him shape up,” she says. “Like a dog off its chain, except at least dogs are cute and stupid, and he’s only cute so there’s no excuse. I have better things to be doing than mitigating both his injuries and his refusal to let me heal them.”
“Sorry, run that by me again. You want to patch him up?” Doyle repeats. “You’re willingly volunteering to have extended interaction with Locus ?”
“He’s no good to the Federal Army dead,” she retorts. “And he’s doing just about most of the good around here, at least in terms of making other people dead!--But of course, I certainly can’t tell you what to do anymore! It’ll be your call to make. Doesn’t bother me, I’ll certainly manage either way!”
“Um,” says Doyle. “About… that.”
“It doesn’t! Nothing bothers me! What’s there left to bother?”
“No, no, the… general thing,” says Doyle. He tries not to fidget. It doesn’t work. “Don’t you think, um… there’s been a bit of a mistake, here? I’m certainly not qualified, I’m certainly not—not a good fit in terms of personality? It’s all a bit odd of a match, if you ask me, not that I’m trying to imply anything. Except that I suppose I am, to be transparent about it; the fact of the matter is I can name several other individuals who’d be much better suited to the adaptations such a role would require of any inexperienced soldier…”
“Like who,” says Grey, who doesn’t sound particularly interested in his answer.
“Kingsley’s always been interested in the role. At least in moving out of the office. Indeed, always been hoping to get out on the field, so he’s rather raring for the chance… I’d say he has quite a bit of promise, and certainly has a few ideas for how to fulfill some promises…"
Grey’s laughter tinkles like broken glass. “I don’t need more promises, General Doyle,” she says. “Montague gave me enough of those. Every general before him gave me more. We could use with a little change of pace around here, don’t you think?”
“Ah,” says Doyle. “Yes. Quite. Rightly so.”
Doyle doesn’t tell her.
The next tactical decision that Doyle makes is to sit alone in the empty office he used to share with Kingsley and Montague, pull out a wine glass, and raid Montague’s wine collection.
Tastes like straight vinegar, but it does the job, and eventually Doyle’s flat on his back on his own desk giggling at a very, very battered copy of Merchant of Venice . Lovely woman, Portia. Very lovely fellow, Antonio. An absolutely hilarious tale, very funny, very entertaining, with lots of great racism and threats to literally cut people’s heart out, which is a bit morbid if Doyle really thinks about it which is why he doesn’t, also includes really great jokes about terribly tragic source material, really truly the peak of literature.
At some point he becomes paranoid that Kingsley is going to come back and see Doyle giggling like a loon over a comedy that’s a thousand years old , so he packs up his alcohol and his book and forgets the wine glass in favor of drinking straight from the bottle, and instead of heading to some other sleeping quarter where there would inevitably be some other soldier drinking over a game of cards, Doyle goes to the abandoned half of the medbay again.
There’s a nice outlook back in Armonia, where Doyle grew up and where Doyle had planned to spend his career. The outlook was just far enough away from everything, but not so far away that he couldn’t be back in downtown in a quarter of an hour, with a beautiful view, too. It wasn’t the sort of place you went to read books or multitask; it was the sort of place to be alone, to let the silence bleach your head of its worries, soak in the fresh air and the boredom and cold silence until you could think again. Doyle misses that spot. He misses being alone.
Out here at Outpost 7D, the only time you can be alone is when you’re blind fucking drunk and reading tragicomedy Shakespeare in the abandoned medbay, and it’s just not the same.
Doyle stomps through the old hallways with nothing but the light of his helmet. He misses his home. He misses Armonia.
He looks ruefully at the wine bottle.
He misses Ottile and Pelosi and Masiello and Gnecco and Kleiman and Hollern and Derosier and Jaffe and Brookes and Bissen and Lechten and Hennessey and Prosser and Kent and Robbins and Herrick and Cole and O’reilley and Kramer and Stein and Fukuyama and Wilde and Shepard and Levenstein and Nomura and Lupton and Sallese and Randazzo and Weinberg and Ringwald and McKeon and Olsken and Heinski and Arnold and McGill and O’hare and Dubois and Alexis and Inoue and Santo and Packer and Nolan and Volfson and Trilck and Hollenbeck and Jarrel and Berg and Poterba and Felman and Rothschild and Hasselman and Eckroad and Halberstadt and Fisher and Haldi and Westfall and Shatkin and Masarotto and Kelsey and Samenfeld and Berti and Aghayan and Loreti and Masson and Cambern and Malster and Montello and Ross and Underhill and Candaele and Lathrop and Rabinowitz and Guadagnoli and Fenn and Guerra and Shibata and Glenshaw and Mendelsohn and Corrsin and Wager and Holliday and Cooper and Poolman and McKinney and Bradac and Mitchell and Westling and Dayton and Lunetta and Seger and Patel and Aliabadi and Schultz and Cuevas and Rhodes and Taylor and Glenn and Morris and Hermann and Beltran and Swanson and Roth and Deleon and Sanford and Kirk and Bell and Fowler and McIntyre and Suarez and Holmes and Hartman and Rose and Figueroa and Washington and Bullock and Zuniga and Heath and Galvan and Boyle and Wall and Lin and Wiggins and Jennings and Norris and Francis and Lozano and Reeves and Strickland and Marks and Temple and Delacruz and Hood and Johnston and Stuart and Davis and Elliott and Watkins and Ramirez and Costa and Davies and Bender and Liu and Christian and Castaneda and Romero and Brady and Glenn and Anthony and Joyce and Bright and Moon and Cross and Choi and Gibbs and Simon and Huang and Donovan and Everett and Butler and Kane and Bush and Salas and Olsen and Knight and Sims and Warner and Robbins and Evans and Tanner and Figueroa and Horn and Hinton and Chin and Dennis and Zamora and Cowan and Mercado and Camacho and Ayers and Miles and Garrett and Fuller and Barnes and Warren and Luna and Glover and Knox and Wallace and White and Terry and Li and Vaughan and Irwin and Rivas and Ferrel and Anderson and when he forgets the other hundreds of his people he’s met and buried he can’t name anymore, nobody will ever remember them again. He misses his sister, Delilah.
He takes a sip from the bottle.
He misses Montague.
He pulls down a mouthful of wine.
He misses Grey sometimes, even though she’s still alive.
He pushes open the door to the darkest, furthest, most cobwebbed atrium of the old medbay, and the lights of his helmet catch on the double eye reflections of a man, hair ratty and long, a shiny raw X-scar stretched across the center of his face, crouched on the dirty tile floor.
Doyle chokes on his wine and coughs all over the floor.
When he looks up, the ratted-hair man is stumbling to his feet, tugging at something on his arm with what sounds like pain. “Oh, hell, I didn’t mean to—to frighten you, it’s all right,” says Doyle, as clearly as he can through nearly a bottle of wine. “No, no, come back. Survivors are welcome here! Plenty of survivors of the war wandering around Chorus. You’re safe. You’re fine. Come, come, let me help…”
He puts the bottle on the ground as steadily as he can and gestures with both hands. The man doesn’t move. Bloody typical of refugees, honestly, sneaking into the oddest places and thinking that the Federal Army will punish them for squatting, when at worst they just want to set them up with a social security number and some soap.
Doyle takes a step forward. The man jerks backwards.
He looks terrified. And rather clean, for a refugee.
“Ohhhh, poor thing,” Doyle says, clucking sympathetically. “Come, come, really, your arm is—I know there’s something with your arm. Let me look. We can get someone to patch…”
The man takes another step backwards, but there’s no exit that way. Doyle faintly registers that the man is wearing bits of armor and kevlar, half-stripped off, but the light is too dim to see the model and make, and Doyle always was rubbish at identifying those, anyway.
“Okay, nobody to patch it. That’s fine. Come on, I’ll sit,” says Doyle, and does so, quite heavily, and blinks drunkenly up at the man. “See? Not a, uh, um, uh, um, a threat! Not a threat. You can hardly patch up your right arm with your left hand. Unless you’re a lefty, of course—are you? Doesn’t matter. Emily says it’s bloody annoying to do your own stitches. No need to be scared! We take all survivors, no questions. Promise. I know so because that was my job for, oh, years and years, and I never asked any questions, I just heard lots of stories about mothers losing their babies and daughters trying to find their grandparents and things of that sort, and I never even had to ask for them, they just come right out of people sometimes, I think. Really, come on, sit down, let me look at your arm.”
The man seems frozen. His expression could be made of stone, but something in his frozen fear tastes like live wires, exposed and rotted and spitting sparks.
Doyle is getting impatient. He pats the floor once, sharp.
“Honestly! Come here ,” he orders.
The man comes.
“Sit,” says Doyle.
The man, at length, sits.
Doyle props his helmet up for its weak lamp light, leans forward, and grimaces.
The man’s arm has a long gash right up outside, right along the divide between bicep and tricep muscles. (And hm , there are some very well-defined muscles.) It’s half-snarled with clumsy stitches that are nearly more knotted than the man’s hair. The whole thready mess is dripping with blood. If Doyle’s eyes don’t deceive him, it looks like the man held it together with tape , for a while, before attempting the stitches.
“Goodness, you must be in so much pain, poor dear,” Doyle mumbles. “Haven’t got any ibuprofen on me, or anything for—I guess this would be a tad beyond ibuprofen—are you sure we shouldn’t go get Emily? Right,” says Doyle, when the man growls, “no Emily, we’ll just do it here—hold your breath, haven’t sanitized my hands at all and we’ll need to swab this to hell and back afterwards, it’s going to be a sight more painful than it needs to be…”
“It’s fine,” says the man. Low baritone. Lower pitch than Doyle could ever reach with his own voice, certainly. Also seems familiar, for some reason that Doyle can’t think of.
“Still, dreadfully sorry about the pain, this looks absolutely nasty. How’d you get it? You don’t need to answer,” says Doyle. He clears his throat, pushes the fringes of his hair out of his eyes. The adrenaline’s got him slightly more sober faster than he’d expected. “Right. Careful, now. Don’t want to mess it up.”
“Do you know how to do stitches,” the man says, like a statement.
“Used to help Emily sometimes when she needed a hand, and she said I was fine—a natural at the sewing bit, even, but I hadn’t got the stomach for it, in the end… I could do most surface wounds, but I was just rubbish at anything with organs. Don’t even ask if there’s bones showing. I was better at keeping her field notes. I’ve got, um, pencil-pusher hands,” says Doyle. “Bureaucrat hands.” Then he laughs self-consciously, because being a career-climbing bureaucrat with an overblown resume is how he wound up becoming the general in the first place, and he’s not ready to reintroduce that black hole to his stomach again. “Hold still. It’ll hurt. I’m sorry.”
Doyle pulls. The thread slides through the skin. The man doesn’t move at all.
“Excellent,” says Doyle quietly. “That’s good.”
“I’m fine. I’ve done this before,” says the man.
“Bit of encouragement never hurt anyone. Shhh.”
He pulls the thread into place, lines up the needle, sinks the point into the skin. The man still doesn’t move. “Brave of you,” says Doyle. Pulls the thread. Lines up the needle. Sink through skin. The man blinks three times quickly, too fast to be natural. “Wonderful. Really wonderful. Keep it up.”
Again and again, thread, needle, skin. The man never moves, but Doyle can feel the strain from the extended period of endurance. One death is nothing. A thousand cuts before dying is the worst kind of torture. Stitching up this wound requires twenty-three cuts.
When Doyle’s tied off the thread and snipped the needle clean, he gets up and finds some rubbing alcohol and shushes the man when he tries to do it himself, pouring a generous amount on a musty paper towel and dabbing at the wound. Now the man’s jaw and neck flexes with the strain. “Good,” Doyle murmurs. “That’s so good. Doing so well for me.”
The man turns his stony face away.
“Aaaaaand all done! Very, very good show,” says Doyle, and rubs blood off his own hands and tries not to breathe through his nose. “You can cry now, of course, no shame in it.”
The man rolls his shoulder. Moves to stand up. “Careful! You shouldn’t be using that any time soon. Relax. Sit a while, goodness!”
There’s that faint color of disdain in the man’s face, again, but he sits, facing away like he’s got a face to be ashamed of. Maybe it’s because of his obvious bad hair day.
“...Right,” says the man. “We need to talk.”
Doyle sniffs the rubbing alcohol, makes a noise, swaps it for his wine bottle instead. Takes another drink and watches curiously as the man puts the cap back on the rubbing alcohol. “Really? We do? About what?”
“The contract,” says the strange man with the familiar voice.
“What contract?” asks Doyle.
The man looks at him like he’s unsure if Doyle is drunk or dense or just annoying.
“The contract,” says the man, as if ‘contract’ would mean anything different to Doyle the second go around. Doyle gives him another blank look. “You’re the general,” says the man.
“Ah,” says Doyle. “Hmm. Er.”
“You... are the general,” says the man.
“Aha. Ha ha. Hmmmmmmmm,” says Doyle.
The man looks at him with a whole lot of impatience for someone who’d panicked at Doyle just seeing his face.
“See, the thing is, I’m not…” Doyle begins, and stops. He fiddles with the wine bottle, but his hands are still bloody, and it’s suddenly a lot more alarming than it was thirty seconds ago.
“I’m actually…” he tries again, and stops. (Ottile and Pelosi and Masiello and Gnecco and Kleiman and Hollern and…)
“I gave the position away to Kingsley,” Doyle blurts out.
The man is silent.
“I-It’s for the best, frankly,” Doyle says quickly. “I’d be rubbish at it. Completely out of my league. And my tem—temp—temperament. I’d be, um, what’s the word. Incompetent. I’d be an embarrassment!” he says, with a little hysterical laugh. “I’d probably get the wool pulled over my eyes by any two-bit with some military lingo! I don’t know the first thing about running an army or waging a war, and I’d practically be—I’d be asking for someone to come along and sweep the rug out from under my feet, and the rest of Chorus along with it!”
The man’s eyes narrow.
“Well, disagree with me, if you think I’m wrong,” says Doyle. “Actually, what do you think? You’re a Chorusan. You’d be one of the, um, the civilians, the people. I serve you, actually. Would I have made a good general?”
Something smooths on the man’s face. Relaxes.
“Can you give orders,” he says.
Doyle thinks about it. “Um, in theory ? Technically? I’ve—oh, lord, I’ve never done it before, but the theory is sound, like you make a decision and then you give a statement in the imperative form? Yes? I know how to give orders? Should I—should I practice, or—I’ve never really been in a formal chain of command...”
The man makes a noise. Looks down. Rubs at the bridge of his nose.
“I could get better!” Doyle says. “Practice makes perfect! Look, here: I order you to—”
“You don’t have to preface it with ‘I order’,” the man interrupts.
Doyle groans. “Okay, right, yes, got it. Please—”
“You don’t need ‘please’.”
Doyle makes a high-pitched keening noise with his throat. “Yes! Right. Practice means messing up sometimes. Do I just, um, say it, or…”
“You did just fine before," says the man.
“I—I did?” Doyle thinks back. “When? Where? How?”
“When you stitched my arm."
“Oh,” says Doyle. “When I said, um, that stuff about ‘Be good’ and ‘Don’t worry’ and ‘You’re going so well.’”
The man presses his lips together. A pink tongue peeks out as he chews the top lip. “Yes,” says the man, surly. “That.”
“Those aren’t orders,” says Doyle. “I was just sorry that you were hurt and I didn’t want you to hurt anymore.”
The man huffs. “Never mind. It doesn’t matter. You can’t give me orders anyhow.”
“Right, because I’m not the general.”
“I’m a mercenary,” says the man. “I don’t take orders. I take money.”
Doyle gapes at him. “I—you— what ? Could’ve fooled me! What a coincidence! A mercenary! Gosh, we’ve got one of those! Really, what are the odds of two mercenaries on the same planet? Well, three, if we include Felix. Fascinating! I suppose war is quite the money-machine for guns-for-hire. What’s it like? How’s that, um, whole gig?"
The man makes his dissatisfied noise again. “I’m a professional. A soldier for hire. A soldier by philosophy and creed. A weapon.” And because the room is still dark and maybe the man thinks Doyle’s too drunk to see his face, Doyle glimpses how the man’s eyes go faraway and liquid-soft when he says: “I do not belong to an army.”
At that point, Doyle’s openly staring at the man, so he sees and glares. “You also can’t give me orders because you’re not the general,” he adds.
Then Doyle begins to sniffle. And he feels his eyes begin to burn.
“Wait,” says the man. “Don’t—”
Unfortunately, Doyle doesn’t really give too many damns at the current moment. He’s still got hands full of blood and a bloodstream full of wine. He just lets his eyes water and doesn’t think too hard about it. Also, all the wine that he’d been ingesting for the previous hour? Has finally gotten actually digested. Meaning that he isn’t drinking anything anymore, but he’s getting drunker by the second.
“You’re right. You’re right. I let you down, too,” Doyle blubbers through his own tears. “If I’d been general, I could’ve, I dunno, hired you? I could have made this war end? Protected this home? I had the chance, and there’s a—a million other people who— hic —would be b-better at it than m-me, but I didn’t , because I shouldn’t be, because someone should be better at it than me, there’s nothing wrong with one useless toadie climbing the government career ladder as long as he doesn’t become the general of the army when the planet’s government implodes, but now there isn’t anyone better than me, not anymore, so, I, I… you’d know, you’ve been around, it’s our home and our planet and our people…”
“Are you regretting your decision?” says the man, in unsympathetic monotone.
“No, because I’m not stupid , I know it’ll get me killed,” Doyle says sharply. “The Federal Army can’t win this war, not in any way that matters. I know that. That’s why I can’t be general! A general should believe in his—his cause, at the very least—which I do! Lord knows the bureaucracy was broken, but anarchy and panic is no answer at all!—the point stands that if we win there’ll be nothing left of Chorus to win... But even so. Even so . What little power there’s left in this army, thousands of people hanging on that thin line, all that’s left of us looking for a home and some hope of protection… and I passed it up.”
He looks down at his own wine bottle through his blurry tears. The wine is dark inside. Everything smells sour. He looks up at the strange man, who isn’t fast enough to hide his look of sympathy, and Doyle isn’t going to let that one go.
“Someone’s got to be general,” he tells the man tearfully, sniffing and sobbing all the way through. “It’s a j-job that’s got to be done. S-Someone’s got t-t-to do it, and I didn’t e-even try .”
Then Doyle does what can be only described as putting his face in his knees, curling into the fetal position, and wailing loudly. The man takes the wine bottle away and Doyle wails louder. “Stop this,” the man says.
“I caaaaaaaan’t,” Doyle sobs wetly. “I’m not the general , I can’t do your contract , I can’t stitch , I can’t read , everyone is dead …”
“You’re hysterical,” says the man firmly. “Sleep this off.”
“I don’t want to!”
“You will,” says the man. He stands up and, when Doyle continues to lie on the floor, pulls Doyle up by the underarms like a child, as if Doyle weighs nothing at all. Doyle’s too busy crying new fresh tears because he’s forgotten his wine bottle in the middle of the floor to realize that the man is dragging him to the old cots, presumably where Doyle will do the aforementioned sleeping. Doyle complains all the way there, but it’s actually quite soft, of which he informs the man in long-winded drunken detail.
“Stop talking. Sleep,” the man says.
"Noooooo,” says Doyle.
“I don’t want to,” says Doyle miserably. “Then I’ll have to wake up in the morning and do things, and I don’t want to. They’re all bad things.”
“You have to.”
Doyle buries his face in the mattress. Smells like mold. The man dusts his hands, favoring the injured arm, and turns to go. “Where’re you going?” Doyle asks.
“Don’t you want to stay?”
“I’ll be looooonely…”
“Staying is unprofessional.”
Doyle whines. Flops around on the bed. Whines some more. “Alright,” he says, and curls up on the mattress and closes his eyes.
There’s a pause. Eventually a soft weight hits him in the stomach. It’s a folded blanket. The man crosses his arms. “Don’t catch a cold,” he orders.
Doyle smiles. “Thanks,” says Doyle, and then without thinking: “It’s nice to see your face.”
Aforementioned face spasms. Something like hurt, which was the opposite of Doyle’s intention.
“No, it’s a nice face! A good face! Very, um, handsome. Wait, no, I didn’t say that—it’s just really nice to know that you’re a real person in there, Locus.”
And then Doyle freezes. Locus freezes. “Oh, hell,” says Doyle. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to figure that out.”
Locus’s admittedly-handsome face crumples with something like disgust, if disgust were terrified and guilty, as if he’d been caught red-handed at being a human being. Without another word, Locus whirls away and stomps off.
Doyle collapses into his bed and thinks about how it was for the best that he isn’t the general after all. He forgets to unfold the blanket before he passes out.
Control requires an acceptable Federal leader.
One that will be easily suitable for achieving their goals.
They don’t seek competence.
They seek malleability.
Control’s preference is for an incompetent leader.
My partner has opinions.
Kingsley is unsuitable.
I follow orders.
A leader should be willing to give them.
We shall see.
Doyle wakes up feeling surprisingly okay. Or maybe he’s still a little drunk. He certainly doesn’t feel like he’s been smacked with a wet sandbag yet.
There’s no light in the abandoned medbay, so Doyle drags himself upright and checks his helmet to see that the time is still 3:39 AM. He should go to sleep, but he feels like he’s growing dust and dirt just by being in this room.
He tries to scrape old medbay residue off his face as he fumbles out of the atrium, the exit-less death trap that is is, out towards more used hallways and into the regular medbay. All the office lights are on, but Grey isn’t in her office, so she might be sleeping for once. He snags another glass of water for the road, downs it fast, and lets himself out through a side door towards his own sleeping quarters.
The moon’s still out. There’s no guards this deep into the compound. It’s quiet. Peaceful. That’s what Doyle misses about that little outlook in Armonia, he realizes: he misses peace.
You’d think that he’d have forgotten what peace was like, considering how long they’ve been in civil war, but no, unfortunately, Doyle’s never quite forgotten; every moment he takes a moment to sip tea in a quiet room, or every moment he pens a fancy letter with a fountain pen, or every moment Grey stares off out the window and absentmindedly clicks her pen, Doyle thinks that it could be like that all the time, long enough for the rest to seep into their bones, make them heavy with lazy fullness. To enjoy being alive is a luxury that Doyle sneaks in, now and then, because he can’t bring himself to do the sensible thing and forget altogether.
It’s on this rather pleasant, if ungodly early, morning, that Doyle makes his way down the back asphalt road of the compound, and the small shape of a person on the side of the road comes into view.
“Hello?” Doyle calls.
“It’s not safe to go about sleeping in the open,” Doyle admonishes, coming closer. “I know you soldiers love your wild parties and binge drinking, but really , it’s dangerous and undignified--Kingsley, I swear, if that’s you…”
Yes, there’s Kingsley, curled up on his side on the side of the road. “Honestly! This is no place to take a nap. Get up, get up, let’s go back and wake up again when the sun’s properly out,” Doyle says, and nudges him with a toe.
Kingsley rolls over. Half of Kingsley’s brains slip through the bullet hole onto the asphalt.
Doyle’s mouth opens and out of the night, a set of hands wrap tight around Doyle’s face to stop his scream. “Careful, General,” says Locus’s voice. “The murderer could still be in the area.”
For a split second, Doyle has the odd, wild conviction that Locus’s hands are going to squeeze and smother him, drag him off into the dark as some unfortunate witness to a murder scene he shouldn’t have seen. Doyle knows that’s not right because Locus is on their payroll, and he tells himself that; but before he can make himself believe it, his eyes roll up and he faints right into Locus’s arms.
Chapter 2: The Comedian
Doyle and Grey have never been on the same level.
Doyle opens his eyes. His first observation is that he’s still alive.
His second observation is that he’s in the medbay, surrounded by a privacy curtain—not because Doyle’s shy, but because Grey can be. He is able to think this because he’s still not hungover.
His third observation is that the sound of pencil scratching on clipboard belongs to Grey herself. She’s got an odd habit of hardly ever removing the nub of the pencil from the paper, and even her manuscript comes out in long, lovely strokes, letters flowing through lines like fish in water. When he looks to his left, there’s the woman herself, one leg crossed elegantly over the other, clipboard balanced on the hard edges of her armor plates.
“Emily,” Doyle whispers.
She glances up. For a flash, she looks relieved to see him awake, although he knows she shouldn’t be, considering how many times he’s fainted and woken up in her medbay. Should be pretty standard for both of them, at this point.
“Good morning!” she says. “How is the General on this overcast—” she checks her watch “—midday?”
“Fine, thank you for asking—”
“No headaches? Pains? Bruises?” Grey asks.
“No, nothing, everything’s fine—”
“Flashbacks? Hallucinations? Vivid memories of trauma?” Grey goes on.
“Goodness, Emily, I just woke up, give me a moment to settle into my PTSD!” Doyle protests. “I haven’t even had time for tea!”
Grey sighs and taps her clipboard. “Oh, I suppose so. It isn’t a proper traumatic flashback if you don’t have a cup of tea to drop dramatically onto the tile!”
“Rightly so,” says Doyle. “Just give it a minute, and I’m sure I’ll come into my trauma properly.”
Grey stares at him expectantly.
“I didn’t mean a literal minute!”
“Oh, I’m not expecting just this second!” she says. “Take your time! I am, in fact, timing your reactions as we speak. Just a mental sanitation check, now that your physical’s come back fine. Oh! Yes, right, I also ran some scans while you were asleep, just to check that nothing had happened; all clear there, although you might have a new mole on the back of your neck, would you like me to take that off for you? Please consider your answer carefully before you give it and check if doing so will cause a mental breakdown over impending PTSD, so that I can properly set up a vidcam to record it and all your symptoms!”
“Emily,” says Doyle. “I’m fine.”
Her fingers squeeze on her clipboard. “I know that,” she says. “I’m only doing my job for the good of the Federal Army, you know! It’d be rather embarrassing to have two generals dead in forty-eight hours. A new record, too! Now, you're welcome to stay here for as long as you want,” she goes on, before Doyle can respond, “but it seems like you’ve got a line of visitors already eager to see our new general. People wondering if our new fearless General got shot in the line of duty, maybe! Or perhaps just many many loose ends that need to be tied up before you can assume office.” She gives a smile that passes for her dirty look, nowadays. “First guest is Locus. He says he needs to discuss a contract with you.”
Doyle quails under his sheets.
“Don’t worry, General, he’s not allowed in my medbay so long as he refuses to let me treat him! New rule. Made it just yesterday, actually! Exception only if he’s carrying someone else who needs to be treated. Ring me if you’re about to die, and paper bags for hyperventilation are in the bedside table, as per usual. I’ll find you a lunch. Toodles!” And she whisks away her clipboard and stands to go.
“Oh! Wait, one more,” says Doyle.
“I’m a busy woman, General,” Grey sing-songs, which is a lie. They both know a hospital is only as busy as however many people actually make it off the battlefield.
Doyle leans forward. Grey, obligingly, comes closer. Doyle glances over his shoulder, peeks out through the privacy curtain around his bed—a lot of usual folk sleeping on beds, nobody paying him much mind—shuts the curtains, leans back to Grey. She’s got a little crease between her eyebrows, although her smile doesn’t twitch.
“Two generals died within… why, it couldn’t have been more than three days apart,” Doyle whispers. “Don’t you find that... odd?”
She looks at him with blank surprise. “Jean Kingsley wasn’t the general. You are.”
Damn, he’d forgotten that he’d never told her about that—and he wasn’t going to start now. “Well, that’s two people killed relatively close to the outpost grounds. Isn’t that odd?”
“Certainly not!” Grey chirps.
Doyle has come to expect that Grey be the one to catch on to pattern and oddities around the Federal Army, so much so that it takes him aback to realize that she’s not being sarcastic. “Er— really ?” says Doyle. “Are you very sure?”
“At worst, it means some rebels have set up a camp nearby, and are participating in their favorite flavor of guerrilla warfare! Which, I suppose, would be your call to sent out a scouting party to the nearby woods and suss them out. But otherwise—nope! Not at all!”
He winces. That’s right—that is the logical conclusion, the sort of conclusion that a more seasoned military leader would draw in an instant. “Right,” he says, and coughs, attempting to fortify himself, as if he’d already thought of that. “Right, of course. Not unusual at all.”
“I have people dying in front of my eyes every day, General Doyle!” Grey says cheerfully. “I’m afraid that this point, anyone who stays alive is a very happy outlier!”
“Ah,” says Doyle. “...Quite.”
Doyle intends to lurk in the hospital as long as possible, in case Locus finds him and tries to wrangle some sort of actual decision out of him. If there’s anyone that he thinks might be able to defend him from Locus, it’d be Emily Grey.
The issue with staying at the hospital is that it’s disingenuous. It’s not like they have a shortage of beds—if anything, they have too much space for the downsizing medical budget—but there are people here who’s genuinely suffered intensely painful wounds, some that they will never recover from and are working in close contact with Grey to rehabilitate. Meanwhile, Doyle saw some blood and fainted. It really doesn’t compare.
Either way, he could do with some food, so he pulls together some of the armor plates that had been stripped off, grabs his helmet from the bedside table (and some paper bags, if he needs them), and peeks through the privacy curtain.
The first thing he does is accidentally makes eye contact with the patient across the way.
It’s not a bad thing, actually.
“Connolly!” Doyle exclaims in a faux stage-whisper. Connolly doesn’t look surprised to see him, but he does grin, wave, and struggle to prop himself up on his elbow.
A few other patients turn their heads curiously, so Doyle darts across to the other side of the room to hide behind Connolly’s curtain divider, where Connolly holds up a hand for a friendly shake. Doyle takes it, delighted. “Goodness, man, it’s been a while since I’ve seen you, hasn’t it?”
“Sure has,” says Connolly, voice low for privacy. “Heard you got into some trouble while you away.”
“And now you’ve come to join!” says Doyle. “Welcome to Outpost 7D, my dear friend.” (Connolly, his dear friend, is a man that Doyle met once at a funeral and chatted about the recently deceased, just before Doyle transferred. Friends are hard to come by in the living variety.) “And it seems you’ve seen some trouble yourself, already.”
Connolly shrugs. The stomach-bag on his waist crinkles against his exposed ribs. “A bit, yeah. The Grey lady knows what she’s doing. She’s, uh… got a heck of a personality on her, though.”
“She’s doing her best,” Doyle assures him.
“She’s got a dead man dissected on a table in the middle of her office,” says Connolly.
Yes, that one is a tad indefensible.
“Our personal bests are unique to our growths as individuals?” Doyle offers.
Connolly gives him a doubtful look, the expression of a man who’s already made up his mind to avoid Grey at all costs. Doyle clears his throat with no small measure of disappointment, makes a mental note to talk to Grey about the dead man in the office, and changes the subject: “How’s McDougal doing these days?”
“Dead,” says Connolly.
“...Ah,” says Doyle. “I trust his husband is still alive and well, back in Armonia?”
“You remembered,” says Connolly.
“Of course! Very patriotic couple.”
“Yeah, husband’s alright. Haven’t checked up on him beyond that. And how about you?” says Connolly. He gives Doyle a whiskered, sly grin. “How’s your trouble? Heard you got a promotion.”
Doyle harrumphs. Tries to not look uncomfortable. “It’s not exactly official yet… perhaps best to not go around talking about it, there’s more than a small checklist to get everything set up…”
And just thinking about it makes him wilt again, because Doyle’s got to do all that set-up for Doyle to take a job he doesn’t even want, and Doyle’s really never been so unenthused to be awake before in his life.
“You look thrilled,” asks Connolly dryly.
“I’m glad it’s so obvious,” says Doyle.
Connolly shakes his head. “Eh, you’ll do okay,” says Connolly. “You’ve got your heart in the right place and your conviction right next to ‘em.”
Doyle glances over his shoulder, then leans in. “Connolly,” he whispers, “you know I’ve never been in the military before, right?”
“I said you’d do okay, not well,” says Connolly.
“Ah,” says Doyle. “That sounds more realistic.”
Connolly wheezes with laughter. The stomach bag inflates. Doyle has to look away.
Grey waves at him from her office window, holding up a lunch tray. Doyle’s hungry up until he steps into her office and is hit full in the face with the scent of stinking corpse.
Montague’s still facedown in the middle of her office.
Doyle takes the lunch and scurries back to his bed. He has to get out of this hospital, he certainly doesn’t belong here with his silly low blood pressure, but he can’t quite bring himself to go into that office.
“It’s not so bad if you put your helmet on,” says Yamanaka the intern, in a soft, quiet voice as she passes by.
Doyle resorts to text messages. He can’t go into the room, but Grey doesn’t ignore his texts.
But when he asks about Connolly, her response is:
GRY : connolly? which one is he?
DYL : Whiskered, greying, kind of skinny, with the left earlobe pierced.
GRY : ?
DYL : First bed, left side?
GRY : ???
DYL : Stomach bag?
GRY : oh! yes the bag is for the fun little virus he picked up when he got shot through the liver! :)
GRY : don’t bother
GRY : i got him a new liver, but not much I can do about the rot in his lungs! :U only so much i can drain away. i could give him a new lung, but all i’ve got is plastic bags around here until the next shipment. and that’s not until next month!
GRY : i’ve got him with a temporary solution, but it won’t hold. he’ll have suffocated to death looooooooong before that~~
Doyle doesn’t respond. He looks at his own privacy curtain, like he could see Connolly on the other side of it.
GRY : ????
DYL : I’m sorry to hear.
GRY : if it helps i’ve been talking to him about other methods
GRY : he’s legally allowed to pull the plug whenever he wants and then everything will be fine! he’s just being stubborn
GRY : tyyyypical humans! :P
DYL : He mentioned you have a body in your office?
GRY : it’s not a secret! you can come and look if you'd like
DYL : But what are you *doing* with it?
GRY : whatever i feel like!
DYL : What?
DYL : What does that mean?
But she doesn’t respond.
Doyle and Grey have never been on the same level. Doyle is a Classics major with a minor in Public Speaking who got a degree, and a lot of B’s and B+’s to get it, and then wiggled his way into an internship through a good dose of nepotism, which later became a full-time career in politics. Grey revolutionized biotech engineering before she was thirteen.
But age and time must count for something, he supposes. And being the survivors counts for everything else.
Emily Grey was a young girl when she first entered the Federal Army, solemn and serious, dedicated and driven. She never cracked a joke. She barely smiled. She was the smartest in the room at all times, and never let anyone forget it. She’d never met a problem she couldn’t solve. Everything was examinable, if you sliced and diced the right way. At its smallest level, every mechanism would be revealed, when put back together into its whole, everything would then begin to make sense.
Biological maladies had two aspects: symptoms and causes. Symptoms were how you knew something was wrong: the signs; the side effects. The causes were the actual heart of the matter-the place where the disease lived. Treating symptoms was little more than putting out little fires, while the heart of the flame consumed everything that mattered, undeterred.
Grey was an excellent medic, because she looked for the root causes of war relentlessly, like a lost Catholic looking for God. She never found it. She was excellent at putting out many, many little fires, which is what made her so good at her job. Her job as a war medic was not to stop war, but to treat it; and anyone with the sense of proper abstract thinking could see that to treat the symptoms and not the cause of war was nothing less than to feed it. In medical terms, to simply treat the symptoms and not the causes was good field medic work, but bad doctoring, and certainly bad science.
Doyle had the honor of seeing her fail in real time. Fail, and fail, and fail.
“I’m only repairing soldiers to send them back to the battlefield so they could get themselves killed properly the second time around,” Grey said once, cheerfully, and her patient had looked at her in terror.
“Is she… all there? Up there?” the patient had asked Doyle later, to which Doyle shrugged, as if he didn't know. Then Doyle turned right around and asked Grey, to her face: “Emily! Excuse me, Emily! This nice young man would like to know if you’re crazy!” while the nice young man cowered and begged for Doyle’s mercy.
Now, see, Doyle wouldn't set up a person for that sort of public joke. Not intentionally. In truth, Doyle had expected Grey to give a wink and a smile and say something charming but entirely sane, which is what she always does with him. He’d been trying to make the young man less afraid of the fearsome Dr Grey, to see that there’s nothing wrong with her, she’s just cheerful and excitable and interested in squishy human flesh a tad more than everyone is comfortable with.
But she’d turned around and looked the man in the eye and said, in her bright, happy voice: “I am indeed! And I’m having a wonderful time of it!” And then she’d pulled out a handheld power saw splattered with blood and said, “Say, would you be up for a marrow transplant? The patient in aisle twelve could do with some, and I've got some fun new ideas on how to use a turkey baster!”
Grey had very quickly stopped having many friends, after that.
In fact, her list of contacts went something like: Doyle, Montague, some lady named Reynolds who’d died a few months ago, and sometimes Grey’s intern, on a very good day. The increasingly-tiny social circle didn’t seem to bother her.
Doyle tries not to hold it against her, or tell her to stop. He tries not to tell her anything about how she should live her life. Bad form, bad principle, just generally shouldn’t be done in the vicinity of a person like Grey, in Doyle’s opinion. When she finds a new interest, he listens; when she makes a joke, he doesn’t take it seriously. Over the years, he’s listened to her fall in and out of obsession with kidneys, ball-bearings, helmet visors, bone marrow, some neurotransmitter pathway he can’t remember, nail polish, alien artifacts, elbow joints, fingers, making nails out of hard light. He understands why she does it. He, too, holds on tight to the parts of himself he wants to save, because he might never be a wide-eyed intern who believed in Chorus’s government again, but by god, the war won’t take all of him.
He’d told her that too, once, although phrased differently. Something more along the lines of how he appreciated her sense of humor, and that he wished that she might reach out to other people and pick up some other friends to share her delightful sense of humor with.
“No, thank you,” she’d said, rather politely, and took a sip of tea. “If people think I’m a mad scientist, and if people are scared of me—good! People should be. Any animal in a corner is brittle and dangerous. And at this point, if you don’t think we’re not all animals backed in a corner, you’re really just fooling yourself!” She’d smiled at him. “It’s only being honest, Donald.”
When Grey comes out for a dinner break, she comes to join him at his bed, rather than asking him to go to her office. Doyle’s thankful, for sure. He’d barely managed to eat lunch with the thought of Montague’s filleted body in her office. Connolly gives Grey a wary stare when she joins Doyle.
“Your visitor is very insistent,” she says before Doyle can get a word out.
“Locus! I threw him out, of course, but he came back again, and I was actually mildly impressed that he even dared? He also caught the scalpel I threw at him!”
Then she both glares off at nothing and fans herself a little, and Doyle gives her an odd look that she doesn’t acknowledge.
“Why is he not allowed in your medbay again?” Doyle asks.
She pops open her tupperware dinner and says, as if remarking on the weather, “Because of all people who survive again and again and again, when everyone else rots, it’s him who survives. It's quite infuriating! Have you ever seen such nerve of a man? Won’t come in for treatment, won’t talk, won’t even take off his helmet—” She pulls out a pair of metal chopsticks and stabs them, with force, into her noodles. “And yet here he still is!”
“That… does… sound frustrating? Actually, no, sorry, I’ve no idea what you’re on about,” says Doyle.
Grey rolls her eyes and waves a hand. “Doesn’t matter! I’m sure he’s only shy because his face is horribly disfigured, or something pedantic and trite and uninteresting like that!”
Doyle thinks suddenly, clearly , of Locus’s face in the dark. A deep brown color, still not quite faded from years of living in armor, flat nose and wide lips, rough stubble around his strong jaw and streaks of grey in his hair at the temples. Only a single X-shaped mark across the middle of his face, the lines clean and deliberate, like art, if it weren’t for the implication of how he’d gotten the scar.
Grey is staring at him. Doyle tries to wipe whatever expression he’d had off his face.
“General Doyle?” asks Grey.
“What? Nothing, nothing, I was just thinking about… food,” says Doyle. “And, um, Kingsley. Wait no not Kingsley—”
Grey puts her food down. Leans over. “Doyle,” she says, again. “Is there something you know that I don’t?”
“It’s not nice to gossip about other people,” Doyle hisses.
“Doyle, you were going to be a diplomat before this war, you were going to be a professional gossiper .”
“That’s not true!—Okay, it’s a little true. But it’ll hurt his feelings!”
Grey bursts into raucous laughter. “His what ? His feelings ! General Doyle, you are a riot , sometimes—”
“You’re the one who said he can die without his armor,” Doyle interrupts. “If he’s a person under there, he’s got feelings.”
“I’m not in favor of treating a man based on his feelings, General Doyle,” says Grey. “I’d much rather treat him based on his actions. And so far, he’s been nothing but rude, wouldn’t you say?”
Doyle chews his lip. Gives her a sullen look. Sighs and lowers his voice to as low as it can go, while Grey leans in: “Last night, I’m pretty sure I went and got roaring drunk, walked in on him trying to do his own stitches, and then did his stitches for him—whoa!”
In an instant, Grey’s set her food down and grabbed his shoulders. “You what ? Where? When? Did you see his face? Did he have any unusual ticks? Tells? Mannerisms? Is he weirdly disfigured?”
“N-no, um, no disfigurement—”
Grey’s eyes widen. “Excellent! He let you? While you were drunk?”
“WONDERFUL,” Grey says at the top of her lungs in the mostly-quiet medbay. She’s grinning like a maniac. “Don’t you see, Doyle? That means it’s something else that makes him so neurotic about it, wonderful, the set-up becomes even more fascinating!”
Is this what a crush looks like? Doyle wonders. Oh, hell, if Grey’s got a crush on Locus , that’s going to get very odd for him as a superior. Oh, hell, he’s Grey’s superior now, and that’s a whole other can of worms that he doesn’t want to think about it.
“How did he react?" she says. "What did you say? Do you remember details from the injury? What was—”
“Slow down!” Doyle cries. “I came in, thought he was a refugee who’d snuck into the base, offered to do his stitches, did the stitches—”
“You did stitches while drunk,” says Grey.
“I was tipsy,” says Doyle. “Um, lightly sauced. A tad more talkative then entirely sober. I wasn’t that drunk, and I had a good teacher.”
“Of course you did,” says Grey, preening.
“Then I tied them up, and—oh, bother, I also cried on him.”
“And he didn’t kill you!” says Grey, delighted. “I knew he was a coward.”
“I’m not sure I want to know what that means,” says Doyle.
Grey grabs him by the shoulders. Looks him in the eye. Doyle yelps. “You have to meet with him to talk about this contract,” she says. “Please? Pretty please? Just tell me how it goes! Please let me dissect his brain, he never lets me and it’s so so so frustrating!”
Doyle groans. The darn contract, every single time. “I will, I will,” says Doyle, “...eventually.”
“You must tell me how it went. With notes, if you can take them! I’m thinking about making a psychological profile for him. First foray into psychology! The hardware is pretty thoroughly explored, it might be time to turn to the brain wetware! It’s the perfect transition, can slide right into AI tech and brain-body-connection technology! Oh! That reminds me—got to go and rescue the optical connection from Montague’s head before it gets too warm, been meaning to do that!”
And then she pops right back up and dashes off to her office, and Doyle tries not to think about how she’s off peeling apart Montague’s skull.
(If Montague was an acquaintance, he really doesn’t know what she’d do if Doyle died.)
It’s with that thought in mind that after dinner, Doyle takes Yamanaka’s advice and puts his helmet on to endure the smell of Grey’s office, then creeps into Grey’s office through the door to the patient ward at the same time that Locus comes in through the other door; and there’s one moment where they freeze and stare at each other, Grey bent over Montague's body and completely unaware in the middle, and Doyle does a lot of internal wailing and whining because it feels awkward because Doyle saw Locus’s face last night and it’s somehow even more awkward and weird than if Doyle had just ran into a one-night-stand the morning after, because at least then Doyle could call it a one-night-stand and know why it was awkward, but no, instead it’s awkward because Doyle happened to see Locus’s face, as if it were some secret that Locus has a head and a set of facial features attached to it, and it is somehow far more intimate than if Doyle had had the dubious privilege of seeing his dick.
Then Locus looks down at Montague’s open, rotting corpse on a bed of ice in the middle of Grey’s office, the body well into the bloating stages of decay, over which Grey is standing with a pair of scalpels, and says, “Hm.”
Grey spins around, scalpels still in her hands. “Locus! Have you come to surrender to the fact of your mortality and will now allow me to actually treat your wounds? Or do I need to chase you out of my office again?”
“I came,” says Locus, pointing across the room at Doyle, “for him. We have to discuss the contract.” He pauses. The helmet points towards Montague’s increasingly-smelly body. “But it appears you are… occupied. I will come back later.”
But he’s already disappeared, and Grey groans. “Typical! I’ll get him next time, of course, but nonetheless disappointing. Or maybe he's taken my promises to heart—he has to know I wasn't joking about the nerve gas, then...”
Doyle clears his throat, as if Grey didn’t already know he was there. “I rather think it’s got something to do with the dead body in the middle of your office?”
“What?” says Grey.
“The dead body,” says Doyle clearly. “In your office.”
She looks up from the body. Her helmet is still on and gives nothing away. “What about it?”
She’s being deliberately stubborn and he knows it. “It’s decomposing,” says Doyle, to be just as stubborn.
“He’d do that either way. At least this way I can salvage some proper science from his corpse!”
Doyle reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose, but finds that he can’t with his helmet in the way. "It's three days old, Emily. There's nothing you can salvage there."
"It's for science!"
Doyle could groan. She could justify anything, so long as she gets to watch one of her few friends turn into maggot soup.
“Emily, I ask of you sincerely,” Doyle says. “I really, truly implore you, just leave Montague alone. Bury him, for goodness’s sake. For your goodness.”
Grey’s scalpels go quiet. She’s still, poised, her whole body tuned to a surgeon’s precision.
“I know you liked him—I liked him a lot, too. He was our General.”
“Oh, I didn’t care. What does it matter who’s giving orders!” says Grey. She still won’t look at him. “Not like orders will prevent everyone from dying just the same!”
Doyle, newly-appointed General of the Federal Army, looks down. There’s no response he can give. A qualified general would prevent people from dying as much as he could, of course—if they had a qualified general.
“I understand, I do, but right now, it's not about the orders or the dying. Humans just aren’t meant to be treated this way,” Doyle insists.
Grey still doesn’t move from her hunch over Montague’s body. “And yet!” Grey chirps. “We seem to treat bodies! Exactly like this! Every single day! Shooting bodies, dragging bodies, dumping bodies into ditches...”
“No, I was—I was talking about you,” says Doyle.
“And what about me, General ? I’m still alive, aren’t I? And don’t quote someone at me,” she interrupts. “Your words or none at all, thank you!”
Doyle laughs nervously. “Ahahaha, yes, yes, I wasn’t going to—I mean, I was, I won’t lie, but—I’m not asking you to do the impossible. I’m asking you to put him in the ground. It’s like… playing with your food, or something. No, um, I don’t think that’s the right metaphor, um… it’s like drinking poison and waiting for the other to die? No, that’s something else, um… I’m quoting again, but he's not coming back even if you pick at him, Grey. I liked him. You liked him. But you and I both know that staring at him all day and turning his eyes into corn syrup isn’t going to make it hurt any less when we incinerate him.”
“Habituation is a common phenomenon observed from infancy to the elderly,” Grey replies cheerfully. “Staring at unpleasant stimuli renders it less shocking.”
“And if I stare at the sun, I’ll be wonderfully habituated to unpleasant stimuli when I go blind,” Doyle says. "You also know that, Emily, isn't that basic biology?"
Grey snorts. Doyle crosses his arms.
"Well, you don't have to take it from me, then. The person you were before this war would have been shocked at your behavior now."
"Would she?" Grey asks.
"Yes. Unequivocally, yes. Because I'm pretty sure you're playing dumb about this whole decomposing thing," says Doyle, "and she would never have stood for anything less than everyone knowing precisely how smart she was. You know he's got to go. I'm not saying anything you don't already know, and probably a million times more thoroughly! And the idea of knowing something and not using it as intelligently and creatively as possible would have horrified the person you were, and you know that, too."
Grey straightens and looks down at Montague’s body.
"I don't remember a girl like that," says Grey. But before he can respond, she says, “General Doyle?”
“Could you come and cover this body for me?”
Doyle winces. Feels his stomach flop. “Ugh, that's kind of... Do I have to?”
She doesn’t say anything.
Eventually, Doyle creeps closer, and with two delicate fingers, tugs the white sheet over Montague’s bloated corpse.
“Did you know,” says Grey, “that ninety-nine-point-five percent of the human body is recyclable in surgeries and transplants?”
He did not. “How, er... economical.”
“If you know where every part can go, and if you’ve got the room and resources to store everything, you could cut up a whole body and harvest it for organ transplants, limb donations, everything under the sun,” Grey says. “You’d never be done, thinking of all the different ways to butcher a body. What if someone needs a whole arm? Just a finger? Just the elbow? You could keep slicing it in different ways, like a jigsaw puzzle, for ages.”
“Seems time-consuming," says Doyle.
“It is,” says Grey. “It really never ends. You can just keep picking at it forever.”
She still hasn’t put down the scalpels. She still hasn’t looked away from the body. As if at any minute, she’s going to whip the sheets back off and the scalpels will come back up and she’ll get back to work, peeling part the skin, digging through the meat until there’s only the point-five percent of unusable matter.
As if she really could reuse a three-day-old, bloated, stinking, collapsing corpse.
“Should I take him to the morgue?” Doyle offers.
Grey’s helmet gives him nothing.
"Rosen is rather fast with the cremation, on a good day," Doyle says.
Hesitantly, unsure if he should be doing this, he unlocks the wheels at the bottom of the operating table and gives it an experimental push. Yes, should be perfectly serviceable; he can take it to the elevator down the hall and straight to the morgue. “I’m going to take this now,” he says. “Would you like to come with me?”
She shakes her head. “But do me a favor,” says Grey. “If you find anything interesting around, let me know. I could do with a new science project.”
“Something you can dissect?” he asks.
When he wheels the ex-general’s body out of Grey’s office, she’s still standing there, scalpels in hand.
This is Doyle's second decision as general.
Chapter 3: The Fool
The night after Montague’s body burns, Doyle pores over every detail of the machine he’s been given.
alternate names for this chapter:
The HGTV Hosts
There’s a really “Fun” thing that Locus vaguely implies may have happened to him at some point, and when I say “Fun” I mean “Yikes” and also “Noncon.” So there’s your warning tag, and heads up on that.
Montague’s office is a small affair that he shared with Kingsley and Doyle, with concrete walls, no windows, and two large wooden desks, that of course were entirely impractical due to the nature of wood as a degradable substance, but nevertheless had tickled Doyle’s and Montague’s fancy enough to salvage them from a nearby town. Doyle and Kingsley shared one, while Montague got the other.
Doyle and Kingsley were fastidious people. If Montague hadn’t gotten properly shot, he probably would have slipped and died on his own scattered papers. It drove both Kingsley and Doyle up the wall, but Doyle had had the good sense not to say anything about it, which meant that Kingsley took this as a free reign to complain at all times about how Montague’s messiness was driving him up the wall, and therefore Doyle then spent a good amount of time complaining to Montague that Kingsley was driving Doyle up the wall by being driven up the wall by Montague.
Anyway, Doyle’s the only one left. He can clean up the office however he likes, now. In lieu of bothering Grey when he feels she might need some space, he decides to do just that.
Unfortunately, Doyle can’t exactly throw out every paper clogging Montague’s desk drawers, because in the digitized military, there’s only two things that go onto paper: things too insignificant to be filed onto the online cloud drives, and things too significant to be filed onto the online cloud drives. Which means that he’ll have to go through all of these papers individually.
On the flip side, there’s one drive in particular where extremely sensitive information was supposed to be stored: the general’s personal account, now handed off from Montague to Doyle via Doyle hacking Montague’s tendency to make his password the same for all his accounts (his daughter’s name). Now that Doyle was the account’s owner, he steals Montague’s laptop and opens it up. It has five hundred unsorted, unnamed files ranging from “Screenshot_893027” to “IMPT_READIMMEDIATELY!!_09” to “lol971.” There’s half a dozen programs with no readme instructions, and therefore Doyle has no idea what it does. There are zero organizational folders.
Doyle has to take a long break to stare morosely at a cup of coffee, at that.
The General’s accounts are like a great chassis, passed on from each person to the next, and at the heart of this mechanical body is a small human, faking it until he makes it. It’s now Doyle’s job to make this chassis move. Growing up means learning to uphold the very societies that raised you, to become part of the machine, and Doyle knew that when he joined the Chorusan government with no doubt in his mind that the federal government was circular and inane.
The night after Montague’s body burns, Doyle pores over every detail of the machine he’s been given. Runs every mysterious program in the account, opens five hundred screenshots, creates a dozen nested folders that grow deeper as he finds more layers, more hinges, more knobs and wires of the machinery he’s inherited.
Every machine’s purpose, it’s makers, its intentions, its parts matter very little, in the end. A machine is the sum of its usage.
Societies and militaries might be money machines, but anarchy is the proposed alternative. Destruction uproots lives and fragile peace. The rebels don’t see that every machine can be repurposed. Anyone who burns their bridges has already burnt them too soon.
Of course, the instant Doyle goes unprotected by Grey’s scalpels, Locus comes to find him.
Locus comes through the door without knocking and Doyle shrieks. Locus doesn’t appear to notice. He says, “We have to talk about—”
Oh boy, thinks Doyle, it’s about the contract, isn’t it.
“—the contract,” Locus finishes.
“Y-yes, quite, I was definitely going to do that—” The stack of papers in Doyle’s hands slip and scatter across Kingsley’s desk. Doyle groans. Locus just stares dispassionately. “—and also I wasn’t putting that off at all, just so you know! Right, um, the contract, that’s a thing I’m going to do…”
Locus stares. Waits.
“...Does it have to be now ?” Doyle whines. “I’m afraid I’ve rather got my hands full, as you can see, there’s an ungodly amount of reorganizing that goes into the transfer of stations from one person to another. Couldn’t this wait until—” and then he thinks about a slightly-slippery memory of Locus saying You did just fine before , as if Doyle was actually capable of giving an order without prefacing it with half a dozen modal words to soften his statements, and clears his throat.
“Let’s do this at another time,” he says, and mentally pats himself on the back for not adding please.
“There’s no reason we can’t do this now,” Locus growls.
Doyle quails and immediately throws out all thoughts of resistance out the window.
“Y-y-yes, of course, let’s do it now,” he says miserably, and drags over the heated portable tea-kettle. “Take a seat, make yourself comfortable… would you like some tea…?”
Locus crosses his arms. Sits pointedly in the chair that used to be Doyle’s. Doyle takes a private moment to mourn his tea offer while he sits in the chair that used to be Montague’s.
“Right, well. I’m sorry to say that not for lack of trying, I haven’t actually unearthed your previous contract from Montague’s, er…” Doyle gestures to the whole nonsense in the office. “...unique… storage system. It is unfortunately up to you to tell me what your previous contract entailed, and I trust that you’ll be honest and forthright.”
Doyle will corroborate the facts, when he actually finds the darn paper. He’ll know if Locus lies. But it’d be rude to blatantly brandish such fact-checking up front, as least insofar as Doyle learned in his formal training.
“Of course,” says Locus. “The contract was for either the duration of the war, or the duration of General Montague’s life. Whichever ended first.”
“Mmhm,” says Doyle, and jots that down in a mental notebook. (Understandably, it’s common knowledge that people become nervous when they know you’re taking notes on them. This, of course, means that you should absolutely continue to take notes, but do it where they won’t know. Unless you’re Dr Grey, and thrive on letting people know that they should be on their toes around you.)
“The contract was on a mission-by-mission basis,” recites Locus, without expression. “Each one of my actions was considered an individual commission.”
“...Mmhm,” says Doyle, and tries not to frown.
A mission-by-mission basis? That was highly unusual for a mercenary. Who came up with that? Who’d ever prefer such a high-maintenance policy? Did this mean that by technicality, Locus could just run off and do whatever he wanted between missions?
—Actually, now that Doyle thinks about it, that’s exactly what Locus did most of the time.
Doyle clears his throat. “So Montague had no timeshare on what you do in between missions.”
“Were you paid for weapons, supplies, and intel you found between missions?”
“Sometimes,” says Locus, which doesn’t tell Doyle anything.
“Was it written in the contract that you would be paid for those things?”
“I don’t remember.”
Doyle is the picture of patience. Internally, he’s wringing his fingers with frustration. He is finding, to his dismay, that the reality of Locus’s employment with the Federal Army is far more detailed than simply Locus is a mercenary working for us. He tries again: “Do you remember if it written in the contract that you would be paid for certain artifacts or intel but not others…?”
“I don’t remember.”
Doyle mentally writes that down as there was nothing in the contract that required Montague to pay for Locus’s extra intel or resources. And the flip-side conclusion: there was no monetary reward or incentive for Locus to provide extra intel or resources.
“Did Montague pay for missions in advance?” says Doyle. “For example, booked for an upcoming ten missions or so ahead of time, or put down a deposit to keep you on-planet for future contact?”
“No. He was not allowed,” says Locus.
So Locus could suddenly refuse to take any missions for the remaining duration of the contract, if he felt like it? In this case, what was the expiration on the contract even for ? In an odd turn of events, it seemed like the expiration date wasn’t to put an end-point to Locus’s employment to the Federal Army, but to put an end to how much the Federal Army could use Locus’s employment. (Except that the Federal Army had renewed their contract with him three times in a row, now, so clearly that hadn’t stopped anyone.) (Had three generals in a row agreed that Locus was an undesirable to be kept at arm’s length?)
Doyle shifts uncomfortably. “And this is why Montague sometimes revoked payment if the mission went poorly, I presume?”
“Yes,” says Locus.
“That was written into the contract?”
“Half was paid upfront,” says Locus. “If the mission went poorly enough, he could request a refund of the down payment.”
“Could? So he never did?”
“I don’t fail missions,” says Locus.
Doyle wishes he had a tie to pull loose, like some parody of the nerves he felt at just this moment, because he was very sure that Locus had done some pretty stupid things in the past that had caused Montague to withhold the second half of the payment. Not that Locus had noticed, to all appearances.
“Right, that… right. D-didn’t mean to imply any such thing, of course! Moving quite along, um—there were price negotiations on a mission-per-mission basis, I presume?” Negotiations he can do. Not well , because he never did have the aggressive personality to really be good at it, but he can do them.
“Of a kind,” says Locus. “He made requests, and then paid money for me to follow them. I treated them as orders. And I don’t refuse orders.”
That , more than anything Locus has said so far, is perhaps the most ridiculous thing that Doyle has ever heard. “Don’t refuse orders ? Heavens! Whyever not?”
“I just don’t,” says Locus, in the same flat monotone, as if he could disguise his mulishness if he kept enough emotion out of it.
Doyle’s laugh is increasingly tense. “I, um… I see that money isn’t… quite the main focus for you, then.”
“No. I’m a soldier,” says Locus. “I’ll do what you order. That’s my purpose.”
“Oh,” says Doyle, and tries to ignore the uncomfortable flip-flop of his own stomach at the words. “That’s… good… to know… A fun fact? A hhhhhelpful tidbit? Um, a useful weapon—not that you’re a weapon, I meant..."
“I am a weapon,” Locus replies. “And if you think I’m so useful, then you should use me.”
Doyle stands up. This is fucking ridiculous . He declares, “That’s all the questions I have for today, thank you. I will consider this and get back to you.”
“When,” says Locus.
“When,” repeats Locus.
“Soon,” says Doyle sharply, before he can make himself too stressed to say so.
And to his surprise, Locus drops it without another word.
That night, Doyle paces in Montague’s office and throws a tennis ball at the wall.
Doyle hated economics and he doesn’t know the first damn thing about a bullet. Doyle’s skill-set was built ground up to become a diplomat. He was a classics and public speaking major; he was trained in perspective-taking, persuasion, connecting dots, looking for structures, turning concrete facts into abstraction, and then turning those abstractions back into concrete to win the case. You’ll never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you step into his skin and walk around in it . (Mark Twain said that, you know.)
Doesn’t do it for money, Locus says. Doyle throws the ball harder, which isn’t very hard, and grits his teeth. Doesn’t do it for money , Locus says, god fucking damn him.
Money is power; money, quite literally, defined by its ability to be traded for goods and services and people’s common willingness to interact with and respect it, are little paper pieces of power. Montague’s power was monetary. Montague’s contract with Locus was entirely monetary; it was on a case by case (?!) basis, like an idiot ; it was entirely a business transaction; exchanging money for single, isolated missions.
And now Doyle finds out that Locus doesn’t give a damn about money.
Connect the dots: Montague never had any real power over Locus to begin with. Locus, in his own—opaque way—entered those contracts under his own free will (??? unknown, not enough information) because he… got something out of it (??? even bigger unknown). Of course Locus’s mission performance sometimes came out spotty; Locus didn’t care if half of the payment was revoked, couldn’t be leashed with the threat of lesser pay. Locus is the best weapon Montague had under his thumb, and now that Doyle’s inherited him, Doyle finds out that Montague never had Locus from the start.
Doyle swears under his breath, throws the ball as hard as he can at the back wall, and yells when it bounces back and knocks over his pencil jar.
It’s not good business. It’s not good diplomacy.
He doesn’t know what he’s going to do, but he can’t possibly renew that contract.
Maybe if Doyle puts it off long enough, Locus will just… go away.
Locus does not go away.
Locus, in fact, returns at the same time the next day, and plants himself in Doyle’s chair, and waits for Doyle to write up the contract.
Doyle has a genuine reason not to write up the contract, because he still hasn’t been able to find the original in Montague’s abhorrent mess. He has, legitimately, plausible justifications to be spending hours and hours finding the contract, and subsequently a very good reason to avoid discussing any potential changes that Doyle might want to make to the contract. Doyle attempts to explain this to Locus.
Locus keeps waiting.
He waits while Doyle fumbles through hundreds and hundreds of papers. He waits while Doyle takes a tea break. He waits while Doyle takes a lunch break, which unnerves Doyle to the point that he has to excuse himself from the office to eat in peace. He waits while Doyle absent-mindedly talks to himself. He waits while Doyle downs a liter of water after having forgotten to drink anything all day, and waits while Doyle boils tea and then forgets to drink it before it goes cold. He waits while Doyle takes a dinner break. He waits until Doyle is yawning and tired and retires to his dorm for the night, and then Locus stands up and leaves with hardly a “good night.”
And then the morning after that , Locus comes back, sits in the same chair, and does it all over again.
Doyle steps out frequently to breathe into a paper bag, just from the stress of having Locus staring at him for hours .
Unfortunately, Doyle’s utter terror of Locus only lasts him about forty-eight hours, at which point he’s making himself another round of instant coffee while eyeballing Locus in the corner. Then Doyle’s mouth opens and says, “Are you sure you don’t want a coffee?”
Doyle looks at the water boiler. Back at Locus.
“Have you drank anything today?” Doyle says suspiciously, because Locus had been sitting in that chair from morning until now, and Doyle hadn’t seen him move once.
There’s a pause. Locus sits up a little straighter. “...Why,” he says, in a tone of voice that means “no.”
“Goodness!” Doyle cries. “Have you eaten anything today?”
The pause is even longer. Locus’s back is even straighter. “Why,” he says, in a voice even more irritated, suspicious, and guilty.
Doyle throws his hands up. “Lord! Really? We’re at our own base, not enemy territory; we’re not barbarians; it’s not a stakeout and you should eat something.” He clicks off the water boiler and pours the water into a tin cup, stirring in instant coffee grounds with far more flourish than needed and plants the cup on the desk at a comfortable middle distance between himself and Locus. “At least have something to drink.”
“No,” says Locus.
It’s the same sort of stonewalled, terrifying, vaguely-threatening one-word response that Locus is famous for, the kind of responses that had sent genuine chills up Doyle’s spine and kept him up at night once upon a time.
Today, Doyle looks at Locus, sitting ramrod straight in his chair, having not ate or drank anything all day because—and Doyle knows this, now—because he’s too nervous (?!) to remove his helmet to do so, and he thinks about the image of Locus’s face in the dark that he goes back to, over and over, as if he can will more details into being.
He thinks Locus’s nose was slightly hooked, like it’d been broken at least twice. He remembers the hair was tangled and fell limply in front of his shoulders, the strands sticking to each other as only old, uncared for keratin does. He remembers stubble, and lots of it, and cheeks that might (if he’s remembering it correctly) have been a bit sunken to be healthy. Muscular, in a sort of desperate, raw way, the kind of lean muscle acquired by an active predator who expended more energy than it got back for its efforts, when most of the fat stores have been used up and the body has resorted to breaking down its own proteins. He thinks he remembers—or maybe just imagines—the way that Locus had refused to flinch under the stitches, how his neck muscles tensed, the sharp breath he couldn’t hold back. That first image of him, the helmet lights in his eyes, tugging at the knotted wires of his own ruined stitches and cowering at the sight of Doyle.
The last image of him, when Doyle had ended the conversation over the contract and Locus had barely protested.
Today, Locus tells Doyle no, and instead of immediately running for the hills, Doyle says, “Well… I hardly think that a single cup of coffee will kill you. And it certainly sounds like you need it, I’m afraid, going so long without fluids seems rather bad for you. Here, actually, why don’t you come sit at this desk? Come up closer—in fact, I’m sure Kingsley has a ration bar stowed away in a drawer somewhere that won’t quite go well with the coffee, but it does provide a certain variety of taste—”
“No,” says Locus again, sounding confused.
It’s too late, Doyle is already elbows-deep in Kinglsey’s old food stash. “Whyever not? You must be starving, if you haven’t eaten all day! Not to mention thirsty, goodness.”
Silence. Even when Doyle pops back up from under the desk, Locus’s helmet gives nothing away.
Doyle looks uncertainly at the untouched cup of coffee. “What if…” he begins, and stops again. This isn’t going to work , he thinks, and then does it anyway.
“What if I strike a deal with you?” says Doyle. “ I’ll leave the room to grab a dinner plate from the mess hall. You can eat the ration bar in peace, alone, with your helmet off, so you can put actual food in your mouth. You can lock the door, so nobody else walks in. I’ll even knock when I come back, so you’re not caught unawares. Does that sound fair?”
“That’s ridiculous,” says Locus.
“It’s also rather ridiculous to not eat or drink all day,” Doyle points out.
Locus’s voice-speaker gives a crackling growl. Doyle jumps a little.
“Right yes I didn’t quite mean to call you ridiculous just your actions okay hmm I probably made that worse goodbye, please eat this ration bar ,” Doyle stammers, slams the ration bar on the desk next to the coffee, and darts out of the room.
And then immediately darts back in, slides his own two-liter water canteen towards Locus too, and then leaves.
The next day, Doyle reminds Locus to eat breakfast. (Locus does not.) And then lunch. (Locus does, but only because Doyle left the room again.) Doyle brings a second bottle of two liters of water for Locus, and sometimes, when Doyle ducks out of the room for a bathroom break, he comes back to see that there’s a little less water in the bottle than before.
“Are you bored?” Doyle asks. Locus is not.
“Should we go outside? Take a break? Go in the sun?” Doyle asks. Locus refuses.
“Did you want to help?” Doyle asks.
At around three that afternoon, Doyle heads out for a “walk,” filches one of Grey’s conditioner bottles (she tells him that he can have it but she also wasn’t paying much attention), and then puts it on the desk in front of Locus. “Grey was telling me all about this brand,” he says, as if it just happened to be in his hand and happened to occur to him to talk about it. “She’s a big fan of it, says it’s wonderful for detangling and moisturizing. Excellent for rejuvenating damaged hair, she said! There’s a good amount of them left in stock, although the company shut down ages ago. She also said that she didn’t want it. And of course, I’ve got rather short hair myself, so I don’t need it. So I’m afraid I’ve no idea what to do with it, frankly!”
Doyle looks expectantly at Locus.
Locus holds himself absolutely still like he’s waiting to be attacked by the hair conditioner. Or maybe Doyle, which is even more unlikely.
“Well, I’ll just leave this here, in case anyone wants it,” says Doyle, and puts it on Kingsley’s desk and pats it. “Anyone who could use it is welcome to take it.”
At some point during the next two hours, the bottle disappears from the desk, which Doyle takes as a win until he finds it in the trash can in the hallway. Doyle fishes it out, cleans it, and sneaks it back into Grey’s office.
“Stop doing this,” says Locus, on the fourth day, when Doyle has brought yet another pair of water bottles.
Locus stares at Doyle. Doyle immediately looks away and tries not to think about the human he’d seen under the armor those nights ago. It’s not Doyle’s fault that the image of Locus’s face in his head is a semi-drunken photoshoot of a Calvin Klein model who’s lived homeless under a bridge for too long.
And the fact that Locus looked like heated-over garbage with a good jawline entirely aside, Doyle remembers, mostly, the terror on his face when Doyle had spotted him, how frightened he’d been to be out of armor and injured. How he’d turned away in shame , knowing that Doyle had put two and two together and recognized Locus for who he was during daylight hours.
Now, everyone knows Locus fought in the Great War. When, how long, why, where—nobody could guess, and certainly nobody was going to ask. (Except maybe Doyle, if he wanted to risk death just to end an uncomfortable conversation.) They knew two things about Locus’s participation in the Great War: Felix had been there, and that Locus was the way he was because of it.
It’s unsightly to talk about, but there’s certain types of men (and in this case, yes, almost exclusively men and no other gender) who didn’t come out of war dazed or lost or weeping at odd hours of the night. Some men took to war like a fish to water. They found that guns, blood, the thrill of battle and murder sated some part of them that had always felt out of place in normal society. This was the kind of man who, to use the old Earth stereotypes, collected military memorabilia, joined a subreddit, collected guns, and then shot up a school.
And of course, it’s easy to assume that Locus might be one of those men, considering his unnatural proficiency on the battlefield.
But what made Locus so scary most of the time is that nobody knows anything about him, not that they had any confirmation of how scary Locus really was or wasn't. Enigmas leave all the fear-mongering to your own brain; of course Locus is the scariest son of a bitch on the planet, that way.
Now Doyle’s got Locus in his office, giving an incredible impression with his entire body language that he’s glowering at a water bottle like it stole his lunch money, and—well. Mostly, nowadays, Locus seems uncomfortable, like he doesn’t know where to put his elbows. For the first time, Doyle considers the possibility that, for all Doyle and the rest of the Federal Army fears Locus, Locus might be afraid of them too.
Doyle chews over the words. Thinks about which ones to share.
“Can you blame me, for wanting you to take care of yourself?” he says eventually. “Looking at the way you treat yourself gives me rashes, honestly. At this rate, it won’t be any rebels, Kimball and Felix be damned, who kill you; you’ll have dehydrated yourself to death long before they get the chance! Why, if I’m going to be the general, I might as well tell you to drink some water.”
“The wellbeing of your soldiers if none of your business,” says Locus. “You’re the general. You give orders. It is up to your soldiers to fulfill your requests, no matter the cost.”
Doyle gives him a horrified look. “Where on earth did you pick up such a notion?”
Locus remains silent.
“I would never do such a thing! How could I give orders with no regard whatsoever for those following them? What’s the point of them giving me their cooperation and civil obedience if I don’t handle it for their benefit?”
“That’s not a general talking,” Locus says. “You’re thinking like a diplomat.”
“Well, I was one, and maybe generals could have something to learn from us,” says Doyle. Then to himself, disgusted: “Soldiers’ wellbeing? Not my business? Of all the baloney I’ve ever heard! What on earth did all these soldiers surrender their power for if not to have it repaid?”
“That’s not how the system works,” says Locus.
“Yes, it is,” says Doyle. “I believe it’s called a social contract and it’s been around since Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau.” And also most people learn about it in seventh grade; it’s hardly rocket science.
“Soldiers and weapons have nothing to do with social contracts,” says Locus, as if Locus himself hadn’t been hounding Doyle for several days to establish the terms of his mercenary contract. “The point of being a mercenary is that I’ll do anything you ask… provided that you can pay.”
Good lord and Jesus . “First off, that’s completely ridiculous, even a mercenary contract is meant to establish what each party can and can’t do, and—second off, please don’t phrase it that way, you’ll give me a heart attack. Whenever you say that, um… You make yourself sound like a… “
Locus stares. Doyle flubs.
“—Well! Never mind! At the very least, it sounds like you’re offering something you aren’t!”
There’s an uncomfortable silence.
Then: “What do you think I’m offering, General?” Locus says, in a stilted tone of voice like he knows exactly what Doyle is thinking but for some ungodly, awkward reason, wants to ask anyway.
“You—you know what I’m thinking!”
Locus looks away, like he’s seeing something off in the blank concrete wall to his left, but Doyle is beginning to suspect that he only does that to avoid eye contact. Which is bizarre, considering that Locus is already wearing a helmet.
“Taking advantage of the chain of command is not uncommon in military ranks,” he says, like a mild observation.
“And it’s despicable,” says Doyle, firmly. “Absolutely disgusting, to take advantage of rank and power that way. Montague let a few of those slide, but—not to speak ill of the dead, but I know that it won’t be allowed to continue if I hear of it.”
“Hm,” says Locus, and nothing else.
“And you’re not part of the Federal Army, anyhow,” Doyle goes on. “You can certainly take advantage of that. If anyone brings that up to you, or you see that happening in the Federal Army, you can tell them to—to shove it, frankly. You’re outside the system of ranks and orders, after all, and they’ve no business telling you what to do.”
“Ranks and orders are a good system,” says Locus.
“One easily repurposed for abuse of its people!”
“It was fine,” says Locus.
Doyle shakes his head. “I won’t have it,” says Doyle, and that’s the end of that.
This is the third decision Doyle makes as general.
The next morning, Doyle pauses in the middle of shaving. Ranks and orders are a good system. One easily repurposed for abuse of its people. It was fine.
Doyle taps his razor against the sink. Frowns.
What , exactly, was fine?
Machinery does not want.
Soldiers do not want.
Weapons do not want.
It is up to superiors to take from their weapons and soldiers.
Near the end of the paper-cleaning marathon, Doyle finds a series of picture frames, and then spends about four hours framing artistically nonsensical nonvital papers in various corners of the room.
“These are brown frames,” he mutters. “Deep and rich, lovely color—walnut, perhaps? And these walls are concrete !”
He turns to look at Locus. Locus is doing nothing, as per usual, except he’s got one of the water bottles sitting near his feet.
“The color scheme, Locus!” Doyle says, exasperated. “It doesn’t match!”
Locus gives the full-body silent equivalent of a sigh.
“Oh, you’re right, I’m sure it doesn’t matter that much in the end, the important thing is that the picture frames match well with the desks, which they do. Right, excellent point, Locus--should we put two frames on the far wall, or just one? Or—oh, or three , if we’re playing it dangerous?”
“Why does it matter,” says Locus.
“In the event that I have to hold a diplomacy meeting in here, Locus! The setting is half the battle,” he says. Doyle holds up one frame to the wall, then another. “I’m hardly intimidating on my lonesome, as you might be able to tell.”
“I might,” says Locus.
Doyle is so surprised by the response that he doesn’t so much laugh as he does choke and cough on the air in his windpipe. “Y-y-yes—er—a hem —well, the trick, theoretically, to counterbalancing such regrettable unformidable-ness is to surround yourself with the proper environment! And, if you’ve got them, the proper allies! As they say: a dog’s obeyed in office.” Doyle pauses. “Marilyn Monroe said that, by the way.”
“Did she,” says Locus.
“Yes, I’m pretty sure!”
It takes about six hours to arrange three picture frames on various walls to Doyle’s liking. At some point, he asks Locus to hand him the wall-putty so he can hang the frame, and Locus does so, silent as always. The frames look absolutely lovely, Doyle thinks, except for the fact that if you went up to read them, one of them is a rental form to take out a Warthog, another is a maintenance request for the showers, and the third is a series of correspondences over two soldiers who couldn’t figure out whose gun was whose and wound up in a fistfight over it. All right from afar, shambles up close. But then again, it fits that Doyle’s new office should be just like him.
“And that’s a wrap!” says Doyle, dusting off his hands.
Locus looks from one frame to another. “I don’t foresee diplomacy meetings occurring in here if you’re the general. Your affairs would be more military than diplomatic.”
“Yes, well. It should probably also be said that I won’t be able to stay in this office, anyway,” says Doyle. “So it’s all for nothing, I’m afraid.”
Locus looks at him sharply.
“I’ll have to make like my predecessors and live mostly on the road,” Doyle explains. “No permanent office for the general when everything goes online. Just about all the data I’d need is either online or on a hard drive somewhere for portability. Apparently, I shall live like a hermit crab, desiring only what I can carry on my back.”
“Then this was pointless,” says Locus.
Doyle hesitates. Wilts. In truth, he’d done it because it was just fun, but now that he hears the words from Locus out loud, the truth of it does seem ridiculous and frivolous.
Locus says nothing.
“Tea and a biscuit?” Doyle asks instead.
Locus refuses. It’s still worth trying, though.
“General Doyle?” comes Grey’s voice from down the hall. “General Doyyyyyyle, are you in that musty old office of yours?
“Yes!” Doyle responds on autopilot. “I’m in here, Emily!”
Locus immediately bolts to his feet and books it to the door.
“Locus, where are you—”
“I’ll come back later,” he says quickly, spins around, and nearly walks over Grey in his haste to escape.
Grey immediately barricades the doorway so he can’t escape. “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh,” says Grey, with the biggest, most catlike grin growing on her face. “Fancy meeting you here, Locus! Do you come here often?”
Locus crosses his arms and says nothing.
“He does, actually,” says Doyle from behind Locus. “Every day, actually.”
Grey puts her hand on her chest, like a scandalized housewife clutching her pearls. Looks between Locus and Doyle, looking delighted. Waggles her eyebrows at Doyle.
Locus looks at Grey waggling her eyebrows and back to Doyle.
“I see how it is,” says Grey. “Well! In that case, I shall be off, leave you two to your time together—”
“Em, wait, wait,” says Doyle, because she didn’t come and find him after several days of no contact just to make fun of him. (Or maybe she did, that would be a thing she would do.) He ducks out into the hall, just catching her at the doorway. “I don’t mean to pry or push, but—is something the matter?”
Grey’s eyes flick to Locus over Doyle’s shoulder. “Paquette said that Goldman said that Ngo said that Tabor said that Bartlett said that some people wanted to host a funeral-slash-memorial-slash-service for Montague, but nobody could get in contact with you to arrange it,” she says, and looks significantly at Locus. “And yes, clearly, I see now why they said so!”
Doyle had completely forgotten that of course nobody would approach him if they saw Locus was also in the room, and also that Doyle has significantly less room to drop off the map now that he’s actually central to the running of the army. “Oh, god damn ,” he whispers.
“It’s fine, General Doyle,” says Grey, “we assumed that either you’d come out alive eventually, or Locus would shove your body in the walls and we’d know from the smell. And then we could have a two-for-one funeral!”
Weirdly, nobody laughs at this. Not even Grey.
“Come if you can, it’s sure to be wonderful,” says Grey cheerfully, which means she didn’t want to go alone.
“Of course. Wouldn’t miss it for anything,” Doyle says.
Her smile is small, brief, without teeth but without mania. It looks, for half a moment, surprisingly clear-eyed. But then she gives Locus a significant look, and asks, “And you, Locus ? Coming to the official Federal Army party scene?”
“Emily, please don’t call it that,” Doyle groans.
“I don’t know what else you’d call a gathering that includes hors d'oeuvres! Well, it used to, although we had to stop for the food shortage, and also the fact that people got very angry at me for some reason over it. Isn’t that odd! But I’m sure it’ll still be lots of fun!”
Locus says nothing.
“I understand that you worked closely with Montague while he was alive, Locus,” Grey says cheerfully. “Actually, insofar as I could see, he was the only person you really worked with! I’m sure he would appreciate it if you came, but unfortunately, he’s very dead, now, so I guess it ultimately doesn’t matter if you come or go anymore, now that the hors d’oeuvres got cancelled. And I suppose it would fit your style a bit more, staying on the sidelines away from the rest of us! Wouldn’t you say so, Locus?”
Locus says nothing, but somehow increases output of silent physical fury.
“Well! I’ll take that as a ‘no’ on your RSVP,” Grey says, and bares her teeth. “How typical.”
“Ohhhhhhkay,” says Doyle quickly, as Locus emits some sort of growling from his throat. “Thank you, Emily, we’ll be there, okay I think I need to get back to work!”
But when he hurriedly closes the door in her face, her laughter seems almost genuine.
On the sixth day, Doyle is flipping through a large manila folder and finds, about a dozen pages from the bottom, a single-page copy of a contract between Montague and a mercenary named Locus.
“Locus!” Doyle cries. “Locus, I found it! Oh, by god, finally , finally I’ve found the darn thing!” And he collapses into an office chair, clutching the page to his chestplate. “Take a look at it, Locus, isn’t it—well, it’s not beautiful, but it’s certainly here and readable!”
Locus tilts his head. Takes the page. Gives a glance over. “This is the contract,” he says by way of confirmation, in a voice that borders on amusement, and hands it back.
“Right, right, let me take a look—”
And Doyle clears his throat and cleans his glasses and pulls over a lamp to read it through properly. The terms of the contract are the same as described by Locus some days ago (Locus didn’t lie), although in much more legalese that Doyle is happy to not have to create from scratch. Always good to copy someone else’s legalese when possible, provided you understand what you’re copying.
The issue, of course, remains the same as it was when Doyle had first heard about the contract, which is that he thinks it abominable and disadvantageous, like Montague is asking to get pushed around by Locus. Although, considering Locus’s reputation—Doyle can see how Montague didn’t think Locus could be moved on any matter; certainly Locus’s willingness to wait for Doyle to find the contract has surprised him in these last few days, far beyond what Doyle could have ever dreamed of before he’d drunkenly done Locus’s stitches in the middle of the night. Most things he learns about Locus nowadays surprises him.
He wouldn’t have ever dared to insist on a change to the contract before, but now, he thinks he’s got a solid rapport to stand on. Doyle pushes the lamplight away. Pushes his glasses up his nose and looks over at Locus, who is, as ever, waiting on the thin line between patience and impatience.
“Locus, I’ve been thinking,” says Doyle. “Not to draw this out any longer than we must, of course, but I’d like to make some modifications to the contract. Is that all right with you?”
“No modifications are needed,” says Locus, stubbornly. “It’s fine the way it is.”
Doyle disagrees. Strongly. He says, “I believe there’s a few improvements that could stand to be made… You may be pleasantly surprised with what I can do! There’s some ends of this bargain that you could stand to benefit from, too!"
But Locus is already shaking his head.
“You don’t understand. It’s not about the contract,” says Locus dismissively. “You’ve never been a soldier. You’ve never had to follow orders.”
The ultimate hypocrisy of the Federal Army—the hypocrisy of Chorus’s government, when it had a functioning one. The people giving orders had never had to take them in their lives. (Doyle might not agree with the rebels, but he knows why they rebelled.) Doyle, no matter how he might potentially improve as a general, will never be able to claim he’s been in a battlefield, or shot a gun during an active firefight, or had to take an order he didn’t like.
“Yes,” he admits. “That… is true. I’ve done unsavory things for my political career, but I suppose it is hardly the same, is it?”
“No,” says Locus, and nothing else.
Doyle fiddles with his helmet. Looks at the singular eyepiece. “I upheld a broken government—and yes, I know and knew that it was broken—I stood by it because I believed that at its core, the system wasn’t wrong. Just the usage of it.” A pause. “But now I’m thinking that perhaps it was the system that was wrong. Any system that could land me as a general of an entire army… Clearly, I think we may all agree, something isn’t right. Most people I remember from those days were doing their best. There were entire offices full of useless sons and daughters who’d been ushered into position by their family money. I believe I may have gotten it backwards—the methods and systems were wrong, but the intention, the orders were right.”
“You’re sounding like a rebel, General Doyle,” Locus remarks.
“Absolutely not!” Doyle exclaims. “ Those rebels are lawless renegades who want nothing more than revenge! They’ve been blinded with lofty ideals, rather than acknowledging that society must have agreed-upon rules and details to follow in order to function! Not to mention , of course, their incessant tendency towards bloodlust and murder—they’ve had every opportunity to achieve their goals without bloodshed, and they repay our peace talks with betrayal and assassinations! I am nothing like those rebels, Locus, I assure you!”
Locus inclines his head.
“—Forgive me. I didn’t mean to get quite so heated,” Doyle assures him. “Just because I understand their viewpoints, just because I might agree with some of their goals, does not mean that I agree with their methods and actions.”
“The orders are right,” says Locus dryly. “The system is wrong.”
Doyle perks up. “Oh! Yes! Very well put!”
At that, Locus immediately looks away, for some reason.
“...Well. In any event,” Doyle goes on, when it seems Locus has nothing to say. “It’s not the same as what you went through as a soldier, of course, and never will be. I cannot claim to know what you’ve done or will do, and if I ever claim that I can understand, you have full license to smack me. Or tell Emily to smack me, maybe; that has a lesser chance of me dislocating an arm. But from my perspective, I can’t , in good faith, propose and sign this contract without making sure the system and the orders both are in the right place. There’s too much at stake! I’ve seen too many people I know die because of orders. They’ve got to be right.”
Your life depends on it , Doyle doesn’t say. Don’t you see that?
“I see why you and Dr Grey get along,” Locus says, at length.
Doyle finds himself, for the first time, giving an honest, shy smile in Locus’s presence. “You could hardly blame us. We’ve been through the same war, haven’t we? She knows what it’s been like. I like to think that I know something of what it’s been like for her, too. Hard to not feel like they’ve…” and there’s no way of putting this that doesn’t sound like a romantic proposal, but he says it anyway: “...like they’ve got some valuable part of you, after that.”
“Would you rather be alone and not at war,” Locus asks, “or together and at war?”
There’s a jump in logic that takes Doyle a second to decipher: Doyle says that they can understand each other because of shared war, so Locus asks if it’s better to have that or the opposite: at peace and isolated. As if being lonely and peacetime necessarily go hand in hand.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Doyle says incredulously. “If there was no war, then perhaps Emily and I wouldn’t have met at all, but—she could be off revolutionizing some other field of medicine, I could be a diplomat, we would stay with the friends and family we’ve lost… No, no, there’s a million other ways to feel less alone than to pick up the refugees and remains of wartime. That would be like saying I want to be general. Which I don’t! We’ve just found silver lining in war because we have to, of course, because peace is not an option.”
Locus goes silent. Then: “I’m sorry that you understand.”
“Sometimes, someone is all you have left,” says Locus. “And you might hate them. But they’ve still got a part of you. So you haven’t a choice.”
“I certainly like Emily,” Doyle protests. “Quite a lot, in fact!”
Locus shakes his head.
“You’re sorry I understand because of the war?” Doyle tries again. Locus, in an uncharacteristic move Doyle’s never seen from him, shrugs under his shoulder-armor. The move is so bizarre that Doyle nearly laughs. “Oh, psh. Nonsense. Nothing for you to apologize for, on that front. You’re the one who came to help us. It’s not like you made this war.”
Locus bows his head.
At length, Doyle remembers their original discussion about the contract, and although he asks again for Locus’s opinion, Locus does not speak again for the rest of the night.
They shelve the issue. Doyle turns over the legalese all night, thinking about what modification he could possibly make, what’s missing in this document, which he can sense but doesn’t yet know. Locus continues to wait, although Doyle convinces him to occasionally stretch his legs by doing odd check-ups around base, like Locus used to. Scares the daylights out of anyone on duty. Even Doyle can admit that it makes people perform better.
On the seventh day, during one of those rare moments when Locus is convinced to step out of the room, Doyle discovers that the last surprise Montague’s office has for him is a Vx-Pan, model 10.6.
A Vx-Pan is a recording device, shaped like a frying pan with a little screen along the “handle,” of the sort that Doyle is very familiar with. Chorusan government officials used it regularly, back when there was a federal government and enough offices and desks to hide the recorders under. Doyle had one himself in his office. He still has one under the desk he shared with Kingsley, although he’d assumed that most people had fallen out of the practice of bugging their offices for security. Doyle turns it over with no small measure of fondness.
Well, waste not, want not. (Walt Whitman said that, if you didn’t know.) He plugs in some headphones, scrolls through the screen full of recorded dates and times, and hits play on a record from just a bit ago.
“What if I strike a deal with you?” Doyle’s own voice says. “I’ll leave the room to grab a dinner plate. You can eat the ration bar in peace, alone, with your helmet off so you can put food in your mouth.”
Doyle snorts. Oh, of course, fallen for the easiest trick in the book; Doyle assumed Montague’s office was untapped, and now he’s been gotten by a trick Doyle used more than once on other people, back in the day.
“I’ll even knock when I come back, so you’re not caught unawares. Does that sound fair?”
“That’s silly,” says Locus’s voice.
Doyle puts the Vx-Pan on the desk and goes back to fiddling with the online drives, feeding entire fifty-page packets into a portable scanner, hearing his past self leave the room, not really listening.
“This is Locus. Control, come in,” says the recorder.
“Yes. Area is secure. I am alone.”
Doyle frowns at the Vx-Pan.
“Montague was removed, as you requested.”
Doyle drops his packet of papers. He doesn’t notice.
“Donald Doyle, sir. He won’t make Montague’s mistake of moving towards peace talks with the Rebels. He’s not entirely incompetent, but clearly inexperienced. Stubborn and self-righteous. Malleable to our purpose. He will make an even match for Kimball if we steer him.”
“Kingsley was too brash. Not manipulatable. He was eliminated after conference with my partner.”
“Understood, Control. Contract will be secured. Doyle has no reason to be rid of me. I will continue to watch. Update to follow on renewed contract. Locus out.”
Silence. The hum of the recorder.
The crinkling of a ration bar being unwrapped.
“General Doyle,” says Locus’s voice, in un-recorded, very real life.
Doyle shrieks and jumps and knocks over the recorder, where it crashes to the floor. Its innards pop out in a mess of wires. It might be permanently damaged; it was old as it was, as they were always delicate machines. Doyle stares at it and makes himself breathe. Gravity spins.
Slowly, Locus’s armored hand picks the recorder. Lifts it by its fizzled screen, and holds it in the air, wires dangling like broken legs. The Locus helmet turns to face Doyle.
“Is there a problem, General?” comes the voice.
The first time that Doyle had seen Locus, he’d been incomprehensible. A shape with no story, a hollow metal machine. Incomprehensibility is a vague sort of terror, leaving you to colorful, smudged feelings of what you think fear should feel like.
Now Doyle realizes what is worse: to see under the skin of a person you thought you’d known, where the deep-sea creatures swam, and every one of them was completely comprehensible, entirely vivid in their details, down to the ugly, fleshy flaps of their mouths and sharp, hungry teeth.
“No problem. N-Nothing wrong,” Doyle’s voice says, high-pitched and nervous in his own ears. “I was only startled.”
Locus puts the recorder back on the desk. Gently, deliberately, tilts the screen shut. “Run was successful.”
Everything would have made sense if a suit of armor had murdered Kingsley and Montague. But Locus’s human face, skin the color of warm earth, eyes rough and raw under long, greying hair, is the face that Doyle thinks of when Doyle says: “Of course, come in—sit, and tell me how it went.”
Chapter 4: The Justice
She can't know about this.
Doyle’s got a funeral to set up in three days. He spends one and a half of them barricaded in Montague’s office.
Refusing to allow Locus entry.
“Yes, well, I don’t quite feel well, you see,” says Doyle to Locus’s face, and gives a delicate cough into a monogrammed handkerchief. “Wouldn’t want you to catch it.”
“These suits filter all air and contagions,” says Locus.
“Oh, aha, is that so?” says Doyle miserably. “Er, but I’m really quite exhausted, feeling rather faint, don’t mind if I go to sleep if off… You, ah, don’t need to stick around, Locus, you don’t have to hover. You can just go… um… literally anywhere else…?”
Locus gives him only dissatisfied, judgmental silence.
“Okay well good night then!” says Doyle, and shuts the door. Then he presses his ear up against the door, heart in his mouth, and feels it sink as Locus’s footsteps go nowhere. In fact, he settles right up against the door, like he’s preparing for a long guard shift.
Doyle cowers in Montague’s office and sees, over and over, the wet sludge of Kingsley’s brain matter oozing onto the pavement.
The sane thing to do when you discover your mercenary is some kind of traitor is to fire him, presumably before executing him. The smart thing to do is to interrogate him, then fire him, then execute him.
Now, Doyle is not a decision-maker. He’s a rule-follower. He understood Chorusan government, and he played the game. One day he woke up as the general of the Federal Army, and found that the game had played him. What a surprise.
There’s one rule that everyone knows: You don’t fuck with Locus, because the Federal army would have been annihilated without him. You want to talk about power? The measy scraps of monetary power that Montague had over Locus? At current moment, the Federal Army appears to receive thirty percent of new supplies from search patrols led by Locus alone —out of the hundreds of people in the Federal Army—and all of those new supplies are very necessary.
The power imbalance doesn’t just have the Federal Army dependent on him. It has the Federal Army clinging to him while deeply in red, red debt to him, and it has nothing to do with money. It has to do with the fact that the Federal Army wouldn’t function without him, his performance on the battlefield, and every resource he brings them.
Between Kimball and Felix, there’s simply no question that the resources would have run dry, morale tanked, and the whole planet succumbed to Kimball’s preferred brand of anarchy. The Rebels switch easily between guerilla warfare and formalized strategy, but Locus remains their best bet against any one of the Rebel’s military tactics. Without Locus, the whole planet of Chorus will descend into Kimball’s dystopic rural chaos, with every man and woman isolated and fending for themselves.
First off, Doyle would absolutely die if left to the wild to fend for himself. He’s an indoor cat, so to speak. Second off, Doyle knows of nothing so lonely as “every man for himself.” They’re already in a state of division, one half of Chorus against the other, and Doyle really would just like to go home to his family. (Or he would, if they weren’t dead, of course.)
Locus, of course, has always credited the new weapon, rations, intel to little bases from old warns strewn across Chorus, resurfacing to take human lives again. There’s no new shipments anymore, not with the New Republican threatening to shoot any ship out of the sky. Only old bones of society, picked cleaner and cleaner every day. But nobody thought it was strange that Locus, mysteriously, pulls out new resources, when there’s no new shipments. Always coming in at the nick of time.
Not entirely incompetent. Self-righteous. Malleable.
He can’t fire Locus, because the Federal Army will collapse. And Doyle will probably die for the effort, anyway, just so the next general can rehire Locus with the same stupid contract.
And he can’t keep Locus, because Locus will kill him when Doyle ceases to be useful, just so the next general can rehire Locus, again .
With that fucking contract.
“God damn it,” Doyle hisses, and smacks his own forehead against Montague’s desk.
Doyle ignores most of the times Locus knocks, by which he means he whimpered in fear and pretended that he didn’t exist until Locus stopped. The fourth time he ignores him, Locus’s voice comes through the door and says, “You’ll want to open this door, General."
Which is exactly Locus’s usual brand of ominous, but this time the fear is needle-cold against his neck. Doyle claps his hand over the mouthpiece of his helmet, like Locus might be able to hear him breathe through the the audio filter and the door.
“He’s right!” Grey’s voice sing-songs. “I’ll tell him to break the door down!”
Doyle’s second thought is: She can’t know about this.
There’s very easy logic, here, even if it’s not the first thing he thinks of: if she knows, she’s at risk; she becomes a witness to be silenced. He hasn’t a clue how this sort of espionage and secret-keeping is supposed to work, but he knows enough that the people you really care about shouldn’t be anywhere near the dirty secrets. No, he won’t lean on her. He’s got to convincely pass himself off as functioning and, er, doing military things? Anything else, and she’ll never let it go.
But shamefully, this obvious line of logic is second to his first thought, which is: She can’t lose another friend.
She’d only just met him. She’d only just lost Montague. Doyle couldn’t do that to her, could he? Nothing will be the one cut that breaks her, but she’s already covered in the losses of war.
He buries his head in his hands and wishes, briefly, like a petulant child, that she’d just go away and make his life easier, just as strongly as he knows that she’d never do such a thing until she’d seen him show his face. Doyle, reluctantly, unlocks the door and cracks it open. Grey’s helmet is off and hm, yes, Doyle is in for it, judging by her face.
Locus lurks a good eight feet away, as if he thinks that’s how much personal space Grey requires.
“Explain to me,” Grey says sweetly, “why Locus comes to me, drags me out of my office during my dinner break, so I can make you do something as simple as come out of your room?”
Doyle looks at Locus in disbelief. Locus puts his hands behind his back and does a bad impression of being unaffected.
“Well, General? May I have an explanation?” Grey asks.
“It’s nothing. Really, it’s nothing!” Doyle adds a second time when Grey looks disbelieving and Locus crosses his arms. Oh, that’s not very convincing. Doyle has to give them something more, so they think they’ve gotten the truth out of him. He clears his throat. “I apologize for your interrupted dinner break. I’ve just been thinking about the funeral. Doesn’t quite seem like morale is at an all time high, exactly, so it’s… probably customary for the successor to have some sort of rousing speech, in the wake of his predecessor’s death…”
“Oh, good news, then! Your speeches are always lovely,” says Grey without an ounce of sarcasm, bless her heart.
“Th-thank you, dear, but—it’s worrying nonetheless,” says Doyle. For some reason, just looking at them is making his blood pressure spike; he can basically hear his own heartbeat. “Um, the, the subject material to give such a speech is... certainly new. Not exactly, er, material I was… trained in. Nobody quite gets groomed to deliver a speech to demoralized droops after the death of their general, so to speak, it’s a rather oddly specific situation… Meanwhile, the stakes are… how to say… a little higher than they’ve ever been before…”
Doyle dares a brief glance at Locus, but the helmet tells him nothing.
Grey gives Doyle a flat look. Claps her hands. Like a lightbulb, instantly returns to her cheerful self. “Well! If that’s all you’re worried about, then there’s nothing to fear. If there’s one thing you’re good ati, it’s spouting platitudes into a microphone!”
Doyle clears his throat and wonders if he’s supposed to be insulted or thanking her again.
“Honestly, look at you, getting all worked up,” says Grey, patting Locus on the arm. Locus’s helmet tilts down to stare at his own arm. “Doyle will be fine. He does this. Relax.”
At that moment, Doyle has never been so grateful to have a reputation for cowering in his office for days at a time.
“I’ll see you at the funeral, General!” Grey says, and gestures for Locus. “Also, Locus, if you’ve got the spare time and the gall to be interrupting my dinner, I have a man who needs to take his bipolar meds and I would be delighted if you would intimidate him into doing it.”
“Yes, just like that! It’s rather your specialty, being rude and refusing to cooperate, isn’t it?”
Radiation output of frustration increases from Locus.
“You’ll do a wonderful job, it’ll take five minutes tops, and then you can come back to fretting at General Doyle’s door again. General Doyle, I assume you don’t need him right now?” Doyle waves for her to take him. “Wonderful! Come on, come on!—and don’t you dare set foot in my medbay, I haven’t forgotten. We should find the man sulking around the rec room, if I’m not wrong! You can scare everyone else in the rec room while we’re there, it’ll be lots of fun!” And she sets off at a brisk stride, all but pushing Locus in front of her.
“Wait!” Doyle calls after her.
She stops and turns. “Yes, General Doyle?”
Behind her unhelmeted, unprotected head, Locus also stops and turns. In size, he dwarfs her entirely. At this angle, it looks like his helmeted face is looking straight at the back of her head.
Doyle swallows hard.
“Put your helmet back on,” Doyle says. “It’s not safe around here.”
Doyle sends a bunch of emails from the seclusion of Montague’s office and pulls together something that looks like a funeral with Paquette’s help, but in truth it’s mostly a reiteration of a previous party-plan that he’d attended before the war as an intern. Events with large numbers of people wind up having mostly the same schedules and structure, whether it’s a party or a wake.
They pick a little bit of land out behind Outpost 7D. There isn’t a body to put in the ground, thanks to Rosen now running the morgue as a crematory, but it’s the fact of the gathering rather than the physical body. Some people cry. Grey comes, and spends the first fifteen minutes arguing with her intern, Yamanaka, about the size of the urn for some reason that Doyle doesn’t pick up. Then when Yamanaka goes away, she sort of stares off into the middle distance towards the forest wilderness outside of Outpost 7D and doesn’t respond to anything or anyone.
There’s some mingling, a bit of tears that feel weirdly removed from anyone still wearing their helmet. Some people say some nice things. Montague had been their general and it wasn’t like Doyle and Grey had a monopoly on missing him. But every person who stands up ends their bit with a glance down and away towards Doyle, as if wondering when Doyle is going to have a word.
Doyle waits for Grey to say something. She never does.
Eventually, there’s no one left. Only Doyle.
In the silence, he steps up to the informal head of the congregation of fifty-odd soldiers. Takes a deep breath.
“The anarchists of the New Republic have killed our men and our trusted leaders, time and time again…”
And then Doyle nearly stops, and he hasn’t even completed his first sentence, because oh, god, that might not be true.
That might not be true.
The bit about killing their men— that was true, certainly, no way around that, but as for their leaders, there was no way to know who’d died of true war and which was merely a general who “Control” had decided they didn’t feel was suited to their purposes and then blamed on the rebels. And their purposes were explicitly to back and aid the Federal Army, provided that the Federal Army continued their war and avoided peace talks—for what? To what end? Why bother ?
Unless, of course, Locus was working for the Rebels—but he’d talked about the Rebels in the third person, didn’t he? Control couldn’t be part of the Rebel forces—
“...and on this unfortunate day,” Doyle’s mouth goes on, “I’m sorry to see that we come together in loss. Survivors of war and remnants of war come out much the same. Both of any war come out much the same, I suspect. If all we’ve got to show for our losses is a unity and solidarity in grief…”
...then this civil war, a war born out of a desire to better Chorus, has long failed and will continue to fail you, as Chorus’s civil servants and citizenry. I am sorry. As new general of the Federal Army, I stand before you to promise a move towards peace negotiations…
Doyle can’t say that.
Control, whoever they are, shot Montague for seeking peace talks.
Fifty-something faces look up at him, and Doyle realizes that he very may well have to lie through his teeth to his people , because Locus is a big, black-suited invisible gun who’ll engineer his replacement in an instant Doyle steps out of line, and then where will they be? Not only does Doyle highly prefer futures with him alive to see it, but for the first time, Doyle thinks that the Federal Army would suffer a serious, unironic loss to itself should it lose Doyle, because Doyle is the only person who knows about Control .
The instant Doyle is replaced, the new general will have to start from ground zero, and will never have seen Locus’s face or picked up Montague’s recorder. And there are fifty-something survivors of this war looking at him for a reason to go on, to keep fighting, while Doyle stands here and realizes that every botched peace talk they’ve ever held with the New Republic might not have been the rebels’ fault after all.
Doyle bows his head and prays for one—at least one —one truthful thing to tell his people.
“...if all we’ve got to show for our losses is a unity and solidarity in grief,” he begins again, “then we still have nothing less than exactly what we need to go on. In these times, we need each other—each other’s empathy, aide, memory of better days to brace us when we fall. Because we will—and it will be worth it to get up and keep going. A home is worth fighting for. A home free of terrorism, outlaws, warfare, and chaos is worth fighting for.”
He pauses, once. (One good hesitation, as a rule of speech-giving.)
“There is no better cause to live for than to be less alone, and no better cause to fight for. Hold that be true. Know it to be true, if you’ve forgotten. One day, this war will be over, and our struggles will not have been done in vain. Hold on to who you love, to yourself, to what you know to be true, for those days when we are at last home.”
And then, for a lack of any other grand ending to his speech, Doyle just stops talking.
Nobody realizes he’s done for nearly ten deafening, agonizing seconds. The first smattering of applause is weak. As people join in, it is still a timid sound, confused and scattered.
But the speech is over. And it wasn’t a lie.
Doyle feels his breath stick, harsh like panting, and lets himself peek at Locus. Locus’s helmet gives nothing away.
There , Doyle thinks bitterly, with his army’s disappointed applause in his ears: Incompetent, stubborn, self-righteous, and malleable. Just for you.
Some people drift away, but some stay—Paquette for sure, Ngo as well. Tabor wants to take the flowers, so Doyle spends a good amount of time wrapping the tiny potted flowers that had been brought out in plastic bags. It’s fine, because it keeps Doyle occupied and away from Locus.
Until he spots Grey holding an animated conversation with Locus, the man that killed Montague—Locus, the man who killed the person whose funeral they’re attending —Grey holding a conversation with Locus , when Grey herself had spent three days dissecting Montague’s bloating and stinking corpse like she could find the heart of misery in his arteries and cut it out.
Doyle’s staring, he knows, but he can’t stop: slender short Emily Grey, bright in white and purple, next to tall and broad Locus, wrapped in black and green trim. Her back is straight, her hands drawing diagrams in the hair, talking a mile a minute about something Doyle can’t hear; Locus cocks his head and he must say something she didn’t like, because her helmet turns so sharply Doyle can feel daggers from across the yard.
True to form, they’re standing in the dissembling of a funeral, and Grey looks happy.
Locus makes her happy, Doyle realizes.
Couldn’t she have picked anyone else to become obsessed with? Doyle thinks with despair. Literally anyone else? Won’t she be in danger, talking to Locus without any clue of what he’s done? What he’s doing ? What’s better: to destroy one of her only friendships and her little contacts with other humans, or play with fire and hope Locus has mercy on her?
Grey spots him. She waves him over. Reluctantly, Doyle comes closer, shoulder hunched, as if to fold himself very, very small.
The first thing he hears is Locus saying: “You wouldn’t know. You’ve never killed someone.”
Both Grey and Doyle freeze. Doyle wasn’t even there, but he feels the conversation turn on a dime in the belatedly stiffness in Locus’s body language. Grey’s helmet slowly rotates to face Locus.
“Oh? Have I not already?” she says sweetly. “People die under my supervision every day, you know!”
“It’s... not the same,” Locus says. He sounds like he knows he’s digging his own grave.
Doyle glances at Grey. She doesn’t look at him. Doyle isn’t entirely sure she he’s supposed to do if she tries to kill Locus at a funeral—stop her? Let her? Cheer her on? Isn’t it a little crass, killing a man when they just got done mourning one?
“Don’t tell me what it is or isn’t,” Grey replies. She leans in, over the distant shape of Montague’s urn. “But I know what you mean. You mean intentionally , I’ve never killed someone. And no, I haven’t. And no, I wouldn’t. But you know what?” She tilts her head, serene. “I don’t need to.
“If I could find the root cause of war, like an illness, I’d not just cut it out and away. I’d put it in a jar. I’d keep it alive, barely. I’d find what makes it tick, sing it a song, drive it mad, make it my friend, turn it inside out, crawl inside its chest and make sure that war never— never —happens again. I wouldn’t have to kill it, dear. When I’m done with it, it’d beg me to let it die.”
Almost imperceptibly, the Locus helmet slides towards Doyle.
Doyle doesn’t contradict her.
“You couldn’t do that,” says Locus. “You took the Hippocratic Oath. You’re a doctor.”
“I took no such thing. I’m not a medical doctor,” says Grey sweetly. “The ‘doctor’ in my name is because I have a PhD in biomedical technology. I’m a scientist .”
Locus bows his head. “I have to go,” he begins, and turns to leave, but Doyle grabs his arm without thinking.
“Are you quite sure?” says Doyle, before he can stop himself. “You don’t have to go anywhere.” And then adds, without inflection: “It’s not like this funeral is your fault.”
Doyle watches Locus through his own helmet cams and catalogues the telltale stiffness in movement as something like guilt sets in. Rigor mortis for the living, maybe. Doyle might be too small a man to pick his battles outright, but he’s still entirely unsorry.
“Don’t be like that,” Locus says.
Doyle frowns. “What? What am I being?”
“Understanding,” Locus spits, like a dirty word, and flees.
Doyle lets him go. He thought it’d make him feel better to twist the knife and see the guilt bleed, but it only makes him feel worse.
Whatever guilt Locus might have—clearly, it’s not enough to make him stop.
Grey turns to him, perky as usual. “Well!” she says. “Wasn’t that fun?"
Doyle holes himself up in the office again. Either Doyle keeps a loaded gun pointed at his head so Doyle can keep the Federal Army going, or he tries to get rid of Locus and gets shot. Either he tells Grey and gets her involved and ruins what little joys she can find, or he lets her walk into a lion’s den.
There are no right options. There are no answers.
(Doyle has no idea what Locus’s human face will look like when he kills him. What did he look like when he killed Kingsley? When he killed Montague?)
When Locus comes to check on him, Doyle doesn’t even open the door. He claims he doesn’t feel well.
It’s not a lie. He feels hot one second; cold the next. His sparse appetite vanishes, although he makes himself pick at snacks because he knows it’s good for him. He considers barricading the door. He knows that’s stupid, and would also be a death sentence in the event of some sort of emergency or fire, but he keeps thinking about it.
He thinks he can taste his own fear. Tastes sour like sweat. He wakes up sweating sometimes, with the image of Locus’s human face vivid in his memory, Grey’s scalpels quiet in the dark.
Locus comes by, every day. Knocks in the morning: “General Doyle,” he says, every time.
“No, no,” says Doyle, every time, and has begun to just leave it at that, failing to even come up with a proper excuse anymore.
Sometimes, Locus comes and goes, in and out as he attends to whatever business he does in his spare time. (Doyle spends a lot of time not so much thinking about what that business is, but just turning the knowledge over and over in his head, not consciously thinking about it, letting it wallow in the back of his head.) But sooner or later, Locus comes back. Sometimes Doyle hears him speaking with Grey, but his voice is always too low to hear.
Grey’s voice, on the other hand, pierces cleanly through the walls: “Oh, he’s fine! He becomes convinced he’s going to die every so often,” she says. “But he would tell me if anything was seriously wrong!”
Doyle buries his head in his arms. He turns off all the lights and tries to breathe.
“General Doyle,” comes Locus’s voice, one morning.
Doyle’s head bolts up from where it was resting on the desk. He scrubs at his eyes, even though he already feels wide awake; there’s some sort of crust in the corners of his eyes, and more than a few days of stubble on his chin. He feels disgusting. At the very least, the desk and the entire office is hyper-clean, disinfected several times, far cleaner than he is.
“No,” Doyle tells Locus through the door, on autopilot.
“Your doctor does not see reason,” says Locus’s voice.
Oh hell hell hell’s bells something happened to Grey? Shit. Damn , what was he thinking , leaving Grey out there by herself—would Locus think about hurting her to get at Doyle? But he wouldn’t have any reason to, right? Locus wouldn’t know—they’re friends, sure, but there’s no official connection—no, no, he left Grey out of this for precisely this reason, there’s no advantage for Locus to do anything to her, he’s being irrational, calm down—
“She and I have been arguing,” Locus goes on.
Doyle scrubs his hands down his face. Why, why, why does Grey insist on doing these things? She could pick a fight with a wolf and be safer than arguing with Locus , of all insane things. For all the recklessness she has, does he have to worry she’ll walk straight into a firefight, now?
Locus knocks again. Doyle’s vision goes blurry, like he’s about to faint while still sitting down.
“General Doyle. Dr Grey is convinced that this behavior is not out of the norm for you.”
Doyle tries not to think about how Locus sounds like a small, cute child tattling to settle a bet. “It’s totally normal!” he cries. He can hear the hysteria in his own voice. “Everything is—just fine, thank you! Just a bad, um, series of fainting spells? Blood pressure? Um… just fine!”
Silence. Doyle prays it lasts.
“May we discuss the contract,” says Locus.
“Your doctor told me to break the door down.”
“—What?” says Doyle, just before the wooden door cracks , and the whole thing rips free of the doorknob, the locked doorknob still bolted to the concrete wall.
By the time Doyle wakes up from his faint, Locus is sitting in his usual chair. As if he’d never left, from all those days ago, before Doyle had ever found any recorder under any desk. A ghost of some other time. Maybe Doyle has just gone back to that time altogether, and he’s going to discover the truth all over again.
The door has been wedged back into its door frame and the doorknob is full of splinters. So that’s different.
“General Doyle,” Locus says. “May we speak now?”
Doyle can’t even talk. He just stares in mute, frozen horror at the man who killed Montague, the man who, most likely, will kill Doyle. Unfortunately, staring at the other person and waiting for them to speak is usually Locus’s role in the conversation, so this tactic resolves nothing.
“...Good morning,” says Doyle.
“Dr Grey is convinced that you are well,” says Locus sullenly.
“That’s because I am,” says Doyle. “I’m, um, the picture of health! Hale and hearty! Everything is, is j-j-just fine!”
“I see,” says Locus.
This is the man assigned to kill you , Doyle’s brain whispers.
“Then you will not mind coming out of your office,” says Locus.
“Actually on second thought I think I have a mild cough and I’d much rather be left alone for the night!” Doyle says quickly.
Doyle can almost feel Locus narrowing his eyes.
“You cannot run this army from inside this office,” Locus presses. “When will we settle the contract, for one?”
“Er, soon, I’m sure—”
“Tomorrow,” Locus says.
“Tomorrow?” Doyle asks, voice climbing in pitch. “ Must it be tomorrow? Couldn’t we go for, oh, next week...”
His voice trails away pathetically.
“I will come back at noon tomorrow,” says Locus clearly. “For the contract.”
“Ah,” says Doyle faintly. “Right, tomorrow at noon… Suppose I’m not free around then—”
Doyle wishes his helmet were on, to hide his own expression of misery. “How thorough. I’ll just… pencil you in, then.”
Locus stands. “I will come back,” he says. “You will come out of your office. Then we will talk. Bring a contract to be signed.”
And then, without his helmet’s eyeless gaze moving an inch, Locus pushes the water bottle towards Doyle.
Doyle stares at it.
Then he blinks, and Locus is already disappearing out the door.
When the clock hits midnight, Doyle has twelve hours left until “tomorrow at noon.
He’s facedown on the desk and thinking about the guilt in Locus’s face, his quick stride as he left the funeral, his helmet averted away as he brought Grey to dig Doyle out of his room.
Control needs Locus’s contract to be renewed.
Guilt and regret evaporate. What Control needs , on the other hand—that’s tangible. That’s a necessity. Control, whoever they are, needs Locus on the ground and in the Federal Army.
Doyle is a rule-follower. A game-player. He’s never invented an original law in his life. Chorusan government hadn’t worked that way; it’d been a nest of inanities built on precedent which somehow made money, never mind the people who had to live under those laws. And Doyle had never gotten anywhere near legislature or executive decisions.
No, he’d specialized in speech-writing. He wrote talking points for business owners and politicians, sometimes the scripts themselves, and sent them off to negotiate or win whichever argument they required. He’d complained once to his sister, Delilah Doyle, about feeling like a con-man. Which I expected, considering the nature of PR and bureaucracy, he’d said, but I just… Oh, I don’t know what I wish.
His sister had been in law enforcement at the time. (One of the first to die.) You know what the con-men we pull in do? she’d asked. Of course Doyle didn’t know. They promise things you want, and they make you think they’ve got it. Sometimes they do! Aaand sometimes they don’t, obviously, that’s rather the point of the con sometimes. But a good hustler doesn’t necessarily never have what they promise, but they always promise what you want. Stick to dealing with what people need. Then you’ll never have to invent fantasy lies and cons to get what you want.
Like a good tyrant. It’s perfectly find to crush people’s hopes and dreams, so long as you’re honest about it, Doyle had said dryly.
Doyle no longer remembers what she’d said in response. He figures he remembered the important bits.
Follow the rules. See where they go. Find the hinges of the great machine, and repurpose it from the inside out.
Twelve hours left. He hasn’t any other option.
At 1:17 AM, there’s a knock at the office door. Doyle squeaks and shakes like a rabbit, but when the door opens, it’s only Grey.
Well, the door opens as a manner of speaking—the doorknob comes right out of the door, and she has to swing it open manually.
“Ooh, I see he’s made a mess of your door!” she says, sounding admiring. “I didn’t expect him to go through with it. Surprisingly a man of his word, isn’t he?”
Locus is dangerous , he wants to blurt out.
“The lengths some people would do to win an argument!” she goes on, ignoring the chairs completely and perching herself on the desk.
“Argument?” he repeats. “What argument?”
“He said he thinks you’re worried about dying! And I told him you’re always worried about dying, so it’s not like that’s anything new, but we both know that your anxiety is a liar, very well-known fact, you and I both established loooong ago that your fears of accidentally cutting yourself with a butter knife and then fainting and bleeding to death while unconscious are unfounded and irrational.”
“Wait—he said that he thinks I think I’m going to die?” Doyle says, astounded.
“No, he said ‘General Doyle is afraid’ and a lot of other ominous mumbo-jumbo while he waffled outside my medbay door for fear of coming in and getting his toes cut off.”
Doyle squints. “His toes…? Isn’t he… wearing full-body armor…?”
“I’m sure I’d find a way,” Grey says. “Anyway, I keep telling him that’s nonsense. You’re always worried about dying, even when we all know that’s not going to happen!”
She says it so surely, and so long has Doyle been marinating on his impending mortality, that Doyle briefly can only sputter. “I—it—Emily! I’m sorry to say, the track record of the particular position that I hold at the moment is not a position with a long lifespan! It’s unsavory, but we must face facts! It could happen!”
“That’s not going to happen!” Grey repeats.
Doyle stares at her. She beams at him.
“It’s not unlikely,” he says clearly.
“Likelihood is nonsense! A statistic isn’t going to kill you, General Doyle! A very real, very physical thing or person is going to kill you, and those things can be stopped. There’s no reason you can’t live a long and successful life as General of the Federal Army, so long all of those threats are exterminated or taken care of! And honestly, what’s the point of having a giant mercenary like Locus around if he’s not going to make sure nothing touches you."
Grey examines her nails through her Kevlar gloves. “I’m afraid he’s become very smug about having won the argument, but he is entirely wrong. Isn’t it adorable?”
I’m in danger as we speak , Doyle wants to say. You’ve come to this office at one in the morning to talk about a crush, but the man you think is going to protect me is evaluating my worth as a living person at every moment.
No, he can’t. He’s got to do this alone. If he’s ever had to be brave before in his life, it’s now.
When he doesn’t respond, she gives him a careful look. “And you’d tell me if there was something other than a statistic.”
He can feel Grey’s gaze zooming in on him as she turns, slowly, to face him, still sitting on his desk, the back of her head blocking out the dim light as she stares down at him. “Doyle,” she says sweetly. “I swear to god, if you cause me to lose an argument with Locus , of all people...”
“W-well, good! Because there’s nothing wrong, absolutely nothing, everything is fine and dandy!” says Doyle, and struggles to stand.
She puts one hand on his shoulder and pushes him back down. “General Doyle,” she warns.
“Everything is fine,” says Doyle. He can’t look at her.
“Maybe I should find Locus? Have him come and intimidate the truth out of y—”
“No!” Doyle says desperately.
“Oh, please, he’s not that scary!”
Doyle buries his head in his hands. Her hands pull at his wrists, trying to pull them away, and he shakes his head and buries deeper.
“Doyle,” she says again, sharper.
“Please, just… stop asking. I don’t want to get you into trouble,” he mumbles.
“Trouble? Doyle—oh, silly, I don’t care about trouble. I’m quite certain that if I run into trouble, I’ll shove some nanotransmitters down its throat and let the nanobots eat trouble from the inside out. I’ve been meaning to test it! It’d be a lovely opportunity.”
Doyle laughs weakly.
You wouldn’t have be afraid by yourself, some ugly voice in his head whispers. You might be a coward, but at least she’d be with you.
“I want you to think,” she says. “Is there something that you should tell me?”
Just tell her, the traitorous voice whispers.
“No,” he mumbles.
She turns to face him fully. Her eyes flicker to the contract he’d been writing up, and he quickly pulls it out of sight. She leans in, peering down at him like he’s a specimen on a petri dish.
“I shouldn’t,” says Doyle.
He scrubs at his face with his hands, rubbing his eyes under his glasses. He shouldn’t. He absolutely shouldn’t. He has to do it alone, so she isn’t in the line of fire.
“Now, Doyle,” she says, soft and sweet. “I’m going to say this once. You look at me. Understand?”
He swallows. Looks up at her from over his foggy glasses.
“If you leave me here to deal with this war alone,” Grey says, “I will be very unhappy.”
Doyle, in that moment, realizes some things about himself: He isn’t brave enough to go this alone. He isn’t strong, and he isn’t smart. He lonely and wishing he wasn’t the General and remembering far too often the open expression on Locus’s human face in the dark. He doesn’t give good orders and he doesn’t make good decisions. He is, in his rabbit heart, incompetent and malleable. He is not a good general.
He tells her everything. This is his fourth decision as general.
Chapter 5: The Diplomat
The solution is not perfect.
They don’t move from the office for nearly an hour: Doyle in the chair, occasionally getting up to pace, while she dangles her legs off the edge of the desk, swinging her feet. She picks the situation apart with a scientist’s precision, running over his plan of action over and over, feeling out its flaws. Grey is thorough and neat, for all her apparent mania. She’s good at what she does and she shys away from no details. Perhaps this is what she wanted to do with Montague: Dissect and find the singular, perfect solution.
The solution is not perfect.
“The contract proposal is designed so that he can’t refuse,” Doyle explains, “but there’s no guarantee that it’ll operate the way that I hope. Simply put, we cannot know that Locus will honor a contract that… may not suit his… employer’s… tastes. Or his, for that matter. There’s many unknowns, considering the brevity of time that we’ve known him. I cannot imagine that, if given the chance, he couldn’t simply disregard the contract altogether, or that his employer couldn’t expect him to disregard the contract and he would choose to follow his employer’s instructions as an overruling order. And I can only be so stringent with repercussions in the event of a breakage, as you might also notice—otherwise…”
Grey drums her fingers along the tabletop. “And the previous contract was so terrible?”
“Yes,” Doyle says, emphatically. “It was convoluted and bizarre! Highly unusual, and—and it enabled him to get away, quite legally, with disappearing from the Federal Army for days, even weeks if he so chose! And of course we now know that this was entirely to his advantage, the contract was designed in such a way that enabled him to juggle both disappearing to contact separate employers while adhering to the letter of the law as dictated by the Federal Army.”
“Which would mean that he never broke the original contract.”
“—No,” says Doyle. “No, he did honor the parts that the contract specified. Except for the part where the contract enabled him to double-agent Montague and then kill him.”
“I presume the contract didn’t say that Locus wasn’t allowed to kill Montague,” Grey says, “considering that most employers take that as a given.”
Doyle does a double take. Stares at Grey. “Oh my god. Emily .”
“So I’m taking that as a no. Which means that Locus adhered completely to the letter of the law!”
Doyle rubs one hand across his eyes. “Oh, what on god’s green earth is he thinking … No, the contract didn’t forbid killing the employer; yes, I am not signing the original; no, that’s not a guarantee that he won’t just break the contract later and kill me anyway.”
“I’m noticing that quite a lot of the endpoints of the problem-solving flowchart end with him killing you,” Grey says brightly.
Doyle gives a long, drawn out groan.
“General Doyle,” says Grey.
Doyle suddenly feels incredibly tired.
“General Doyle, you can fix this contract, can’t you?”
“I didn’t go through all that bureaucratic nonsense to not be able to write up an employment form,” Doyle mumbles.
She snorts. “You can do this, Doyle.”
“There’s no guarantee the contract will matter!”
“I believe we should focus on one thing at a time,” she says. “Or rather, you should. Doyle, this is what you can do. You’re good at words on paper. Or I think so, but I also dropped out in fourth grade to revolutionize science, so take that with a grain of salt. Focus on what you can do.”
“But the contract is only words on paper, Emily, it’s no replacement for the nitty gritties of power imbalances, like money or resources or physical stre—”
Grey cuts him off before he can work himself into a panic: “Focus on what you can do. I’m a scientist. I cut things open and find out how it works. You’re a diplomat. What do diplomats do?”
A lot of things. But one of the big ones was making legally binding contracts.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” Doyle says.
“Whatever for?” she replies, in the exact candy-coated voice she uses when she knows exactly whatever for.
“Well. You know.” He wrings his hands, before saying, in a gentle voice: “I suppose you liked him, right?”
“So what?” Grey replies.
“It’s just… a shame, you know… considering that it’s hard to hold on to the people who you… like, or love, or whichever word suits you… And I didn’t—I knew, of course, that it’s important for you to know! It would have been another type of dreadful altogether for you to continue being his friend while not knowing anything about what he was doing. But it doesn’t change that I… oh, I don’t know. I don’t know, Emily. I feel as if I’ve ruined a good thing you had, one of the few. And I’m sorry about that.”
She sighs, and drums her neat purple fingernails alone the tabletop again. For a moment, she looks like exactly how she used to: a lady, older now, struggling to hold on to what she wants, staring down the wooden desk and looking for the ways to make it happen.
Then she says:
“Once, a long while ago, Locus came in with severe muscle pain from some type of malnutrition. He was practically incapable of walking , and he’d been so for several days; he would never have admitted to any such disrepair to himself otherwise! Like he can lock his body up in a tin can, nail the coffin shut, bury his self before he’s gone and properly died.
“So I told him, I can hardly draw your blood and figure out why your legs are having a spasm party if you don’t take the Kevlar off, can I? I need to see your skin to put the needle in. The suits are designed precisely to prevent puncture. That way, bullets have a hard time going through, obviously, but other things are cut off too: impotable or toxic liquids and water; most sensations outside of the gloves; smells and contagions in the air. He’s wearing a no-pass zone. He cannot be poisoned; he cannot be killed; he cannot be touched;and if his suit does not permit him, he cannot breathe.
“It is thoroughly unimpressive. Bullets can bring a man into my medbay. So can simply not feeding and watering yourself properly, as we saw.
“Well! He took off a whole glove to let me find a vein, if you’d believe it! Most skin I’ve ever seen from him, most skin I’ve ever seen since. The irony, of course, being that I was wearing gloves myself for sanitation. Well, I drew the blood, ran some tests. Some electrolytes and essential minerals were dangerously low, so I told him to sit right down, he was spending the night, and he didn’t have to take his armor off if he really didn’t want to, he just had to have some skin out for the IV drip.
“And he said, that’s all? Pfft! ‘That’s all?’ Oh, Locus, you stupid, stupid man. They’re called essential minerals and electrolytes because you die without them! I told him, take it or leave it. Either you go to bed and let me keep you alive, or you walk out of here and collapse in a week.
“So he stayed, of course, because otherwise he’d probably be dead and I wouldn’t be telling you this story. But he didn’t sleep. He just sat up all night, staring at the walls, hunched over himself because obviously he was tired by five in the morning after a whole day of running missions. I offered him some sleeping pills, since having sleeping issues is hardly uncommon among soldiers, and he refused them, which also isn’t uncommon.
“I hypothesized, on the spot, that there’s only one thing that could drive a man to do that, and it’s fear. And, specifically, quiiiiiite a lot of it! Oh, he wears it differently from everyone else. He’s got more of it, and in funnier shapes. Certainly doesn’t look anything like yours! But at the bottom of it, a fear of being alive is the same as anyone else’s fear of snakes, cars, people, dying.
“For all the fanciest science in the world, all the technology and weapons and armor, all the fanciest biomedical equipment I can churn out, it turns out that most things run on the nuts and bolts of human brains: love and want and fear.
“I kind of like that about Locus.
“But I think you do too.
“I know you know how to write a contract—certainly better than me, that’s for sure! I’d be awful at it, if I tried. So I think I’ll stick to what I’m good at; keeping people alive, letting people die, keeping Locus to his word, keeping you close. Don’t worry about me. If I want something, I’ll go get it in my own way. And I trust you to make this contract work for all of us.
“You’ve nothing to apologize for if you do what you can do. And I’ll do what I can do: keeping you with me, and keeping Locus to his word.”
With an hour left to the meeting, Doyle has a final draft of the contract and approximately forty-five minutes of sleep under his belt. Grey makes two cups of coffee from the instant powder that Doyle keeps under his desk, and in the last five minutes before noon, brews a tea out of some odd concoction from the medbay.
“Did you know he’s a tea person?” Grey asks idly.
Doyle really wishes, sometimes, that he’d never seen Locus’s face. Machines and suits of armor gather no sympathy.
Grey drains her cup of coffee and puts it back on the tray. “Let me know how it goes,” she says.
“I’m sure if I die I’ll let you know,” says Doyle morosely.
She laughs, not her high, usual laugh, but darker and throatier. Then she leans over, plants one kiss to his forehead, and hops off the desk. “Don’t drink his tea,” she says, and walks out of the office like nothing had happened. She stops in the doorway, smiles, wiggles her fingers off to her left as she disappears to the right; from the left emerges Locus, arriving at noon on the dot.
Then all six-feet-and-a-half of Locus in hulking, oversized black comes into the room, blotting out the walls and paintings and dwarfing the chairs. He’s wearing full armor and his helmet. He’s carrying a gun. He is precisely what the Federal Army bargained for, and perhaps exactly what the arm-twisting, money-minded, cold-blooded, bureaucratic, nepotistic Federal Army deserves.
Locus also comes in wearing his allegiance and his agenda on his sleeve. Locus just doesn’t know that.
“General Doyle,” says Locus.
“Good m-morning,” says Doyle, and huffs a little, to try and get a little more air in his lungs, and dabs at his forehead again. “Yes. Right. Ahem. Good morning. Please, um… make yourself… comfortable?”
Oh, hell, hell, hell’s bells, he’s already fucking it up—stay calm. He has a plan. He has a script , written down to the exact pauses for breath he’ll take and the “ums” and “ers” so it’s not obvious he’s using a script.
Doyle doesn’t tell himself that he can do this, because it’s a little late for what Doyle can and can’t do. All that matters is what’s got to be done and what gets done.
Locus takes a seat. Doyle tries to stop his hands from shaking. “May I interest you in tea? Grey was just here and said that you seem to prefer tea over coffee, so…”
Locus’s voice-filter makes a low grumble.
“Of course, none of the above, certainly fine with me! Not a—”
And then Locus reaches up, unclasps the helmet fastenings, and pulls off the helmet.
Unlike the night Doyle had first seen him, his hair is neater, like he’s made some sort of attempt at taking out the tangles, wrapped into a large bun near the base of his neck. There’s more scars than Doyle remembers; there’s a jagged one across his cheek running parallel with his jaw, like it’d been made with a serrated and unsteady blade, and a a thinner one going up through the edge of his mouth, brushing his nose. The X in the center of his face remains neat. The thin, clean cuts pale to the obvious combat-situations he’d received the other two. His expression is stony, as Doyle could have expected, but for some reason, he never manages to make eye contact.
“—r-r-requirement… not a…?” says Doyle, having thoroughly forgotten the rest of his sentence.
“Stop being nervous,” is the first thing out of Locus’s mouth. Then he sits in the chair that used to be Doyle’s, pulls himself closer to the desk, and picks up Grey’s teacup with careful, reverent hands.
Out of everything that’s happened to Doyle in the course of this war, watching Locus sip tea in full-body armor may be the most bizarre.
Doyle clears his throat. “I’m not, ahem, nervous! Not nervous at all! Um, ah…” He quickly shoves his nose in his own notes. “Thank you for taking the time to meet about this contract, I understand your schedule is rather—"
Locus gives him a flat look. It’s exactly how Doyle imagined it would look under the helmet. Doyle looks down at his coffee, and already begins to regret.
“Here’s the long and short of it, Locus,” he says. “Your contract is mostly fine. I’d be interested in renewing it, on the condition of a modification from wage-per-mission to salaried pay.”
He spreads out the paper contract—scanned and uploaded safely to online drives, of course—which is much the same as the previous contract. “You’ll find not much as changed from the original contract, with that exception. As before, the contract goes until either I, as your employer, die, or the war ends, whichever comes firs—"
“I refuse,” says Locus.
Yes, well. That was predictable.
Salaried pay is a good deal, if you’re looking for job security and good pay. Salaried pay also means that Locus will have no excuse to disappear between missions, for one, as he’s being paid not just for missions but the overall time he spends on Chorus helping the Federal Army. He might be saddled with duties to perform in between missions, and he wouldn’t be able to refuse them. He may be asked to run clean-up based on unforeseen consequences of the mission. Doyle might just want to talk to him, and he wouldn’t be able to say no.
For another, salaried pay means that Locus will no longer be beholden to a paycheck. Locus would be more analogous to a typical Federal soldier, who receive a monthly wage simply to follow all orders of the Federal Army, not just the ones he’s specifically paid for. (Indeed, on paper, there’s almost no difference from a regular Federal soldier receiving monthly salary from the Federal Army and Locus, except that Locus has no official rank.) Repercussions for odd behavior or spotty service during missions wouldn’t show up in the form of his pay being docked—repercussions would take the form any soldier might receive, such as a reprimand or other duties.
In even blunter terms, Locus wouldn’t paid to execute missions; Locus would be paid to serve the Federal Army. Locus would be exempt from having pay revoked dependent on mission failure, but in return, Locus loses the ability to tell Doyle to fuck off if he doesn’t want to run a mission. Previous repercussions for a failed mission were to revoke the pay for the mission, but, as Locus so clearly said before, Locus doesn’t care about money, and therefore routinely ignored any instance where Montague revoked payment; under the new contract, Locus loses the ability to blow off a mission failure as an inconsequentially lost paycheck, because payment is no longer for missions but for Locus’s general service. And simultaneously, Doyle receives a blank check and permission to access Locus’s services at any time: between missions, before, after, completely regardless of mission success.
Salaried pay is an honor-based, orders- based system, a system that suits many soldiers very well. It is not a primarily monetary system.
Locus was the one who said he didn’t care about money.
The key to this new restriction, however, is money. The new contract is a better financial deal all around. There’s actually very little that prevents Locus from not simply disregarding the terms of the contract and carrying on as he did before: disappearing at odd hours, conducting oddly-brutal missions, only half-listening to Montague’s rebukes.
The only reason Locus wouldn’t like it is because he, for whatever reason, actually cares about following the contract of the people he’s double-crossing, but that doesn’t make sense. It certainly won’t make sense to Locus’s employer, who will tell him to accept it without a second thought.
It only makes sense to Locus, who, for whatever reason, honors the orders he’s been given faithfully, irregardless of who he receives them from.
“Are you very sure?” Doyle says, politely. “I would have thought this system would be much cleaner. Certainly less paperwork, more security, less little details about tracking which orders and which missions…”
“I refuse these terms,” Locus repeats.
His armored hands are perfectly still on Grey’s teacup. He hasn’t even put it down.
Well, it’s now or never.
“If you won’t accept the terms,” says Doyle, “I’m afraid we’ll have to let you go.”
Locus rises to his feet so smoothly and suddenly that Doyle has the conviction that he did the night that Kingsley died, that Locus is about to snap him in half and drag him away into the dark, and they’ll replace him and no one will be the wiser of this mistake Doyle has made. Locus leans over the desk. Doyle holds his breath and leans away.
“Explain,” Locus demands.
Doyle clears his throat. “Ah, yes, explanation, right in order—upon review of the previous contract, it became evident that you’re being underpaid—”
“—yes, indeed, underpaid , in the sense that most mercenaries for go by a monthly salary, either until the employer dies or the war ends, and these monthly salaries are significantly higher than what you’re getting due to an understanding that mercenaries aren’t just being paid for individual missions, but time in-between and smaller duties. The current contract doesn’t pay you for the little things you do around the base, let alone the extra resources you’ve been finding around Chorus—now, it’d be extremely difficult to put every one of your actions on a ledger—it’d be tantamount to assigning someone to follow your every move—”
“Right! Not a good solution all around, I think we can agree,” Doyle says. “Hence the modified contract! A general blanket salary for your overall work here.”
“I don’t care about money,” says Locus. “There was nothing wrong with the old contract.”
“And there’s nothing wrong with the new one,” says Doyle, “and also plenty of mercenaries out there who’ll gladly accept this more streamlined employment. You are, actually, replaceable.”
“I am not. There’s no other mercenaries on this planet.”
“It’s a rather large planet, and air traffic in and out of Chorus hasn’t been entirely cut off yet,” says Doyle. “Felix certainly had to come from somewhere. We can’t know that there’s no other mercenaries.”
Except they absolutely could—no mercenary would have hidden away for the duration of this whole war, and while there was air traffic, it was quickly coming to a dead halt. There was nobody left, and Doyle is bluffing, if Locus was sharp enough to catch it.
Doyle goes on quickly: “Should you choose to accept the new contract, you may change it at the end of my lifespan, when your contract comes under renewal with the general after me. For now, the proposed contract is hardly an extraordinary request considering that this is how every other mercenary in the universe does it, and is entirely logical for you to accept, considering that it’s a better financial deal for you.”
Locus doesn’t move. “And if I walk? Will your new hired mercenary be half as good as me?”
Locus will not walk , Doyle reminds himself, even as a cold thread of fear darts down his spine, knowing that there is no mercenary out there that could compare to Locus. Locus can’t walk, because someone out there, for reasons Doyle doesn’t yet know, has a vested interest in Locus participating in this war. Locus has his own orders—to stay here, to steer the course of this war in some way that would require him to kill Montague and Kingsley in search of a—what’s the word?— malleable general.
Between Locus’s obligation to his mysterious employer, Locus has to accept. Doyle will have to bluff.
Doyle can’t quite hold his head up high, but he doesn’t lower his gaze as he says, “Then it is the duty of the Federal Army of Chorus to go down with its planet. It will fight with or without you. And if you leaving is a decision that means the destruction of this army, then...” Doyle swallows, before he tells his one lie: “Then the army’s self-destruction is my decision to make as general.”
For a moment, Doyle can’t even see Locus breathe.
“That would be foolish,” says Locus.
“Quite,” says Doyle. “But I was never a good general from the start.”
“It is a better contract,” Doyle adds quietly. He’s gone in hard with this talk, and it’s not a bad time to ease up. “You won’t have to worry about us abandoning you, either. We certainly have depended on you heavily in the past, which is what makes you invaluable, and no soldier here would ever think that your place here is at stake, but the contract under Montague leaves you subject to merit-based or finance-based constant review. Think of this as tenure. You’ll remain with us until the end of the war or my lifespan, whichever comes first, and in return, we will remain with you. Your position will be secured. You will never have to worry about being removed from this army.”
“I wasn’t,” Locus snaps.
Doyle watches Locus struggle, his armored hands curling on the desktop. You can certainly die in or out of that armor you love so much , Grey had said. I follow orders , Locus had said. The conclusion is foregone: Locus has to stay with the Federal Army, otherwise he’d be betraying his orders to his mysterious employer, while his mysterious employer will see no reason to tell Locus to turn down a contract that offers better pay for a similar set of legal binding.
Locus doesn’t have a choice. He has to accept.
Unless he just gets pissed off and decides to kill Doyle for the convenience of it.
At last, Locus says, voice tight and furious: “What is this? What kind of war games are you playing?”
“These are hardly war games,” Doyle says. “Diplomacy is the methodology of peace talks.”
That does it. In a slight whir of armored machinery, Locus slams Grey’s teacup on the desk, pulls away and marches out the door without a single word. The contract on Doyle’s desk disappears with him. The door drifts closed. Falls shut. Clicks.
Doyle is alone.
Doyle lets out a gasp and collapses in his chair. Breathes hard like he just ran a marathon. Stares up at the ceiling. Would you look at that? he thinks, bewildered and disbelieving and grateful. I’m still alive.
And then he prays that he never has to do such a terrifying thing ever again so long as he lives, good fucking lord.
Chapter 6: The Coward
A shockingly good system.
Control asked if General Doyle is a threat.
I said there is no need to worry.
I said that General Doyle is nothing to fear.
He is an idiot.
He is incompetent.
He does not know how to give proper orders.
The situation is under control.
Until the end of his lifespan, I stay under contract with him.
His life is best prolonged and kept safe, to extend this optimal, double-edged contract.
Control believes me.
I didn’t lie.
Doyle doesn’t have advisors. He should theoretically get some, but he doesn’t even know where to start. He and Kingsley were Montague’s informal advisors, just because they used to be his secretaries, but now Doyle wonders if there’s anyone they can spare from the front lines for such a cushy job as advisor. No, Doyle suspects that in terms of making decisions, Doyle will have to go this alone.
It’s... surprisingly manageable, if Doyle can send enough emails to enough people all at once. Doyle can see how Montague did it. Each base still has a functioning chain of command, and the decisions that Doyle has to make is significantly titrated to only the largest, most sweeping decisions.
Like Locus had said once: it’s a shockingly good system.
In the space of time it takes Locus to figure out if he’s going to just kill Doyle for his audacious contract nonsense, it becomes clear that Doyle will have to begin moving bases, probably starting with a move back to Armonia. Not particularly because of any tactical advantage or disadvantage, but because historically, staying on the road or in Armonia lengthens the lifespan of the general. Friedman had moved the most by far and lasted the longest; Pascal had moved the least, preferring to stay in Outpost 4, and had been assassinated in three weeks. It’s actually not as much of a hindrance as one would think: unlike soldiers, who interchangeably moved about to keep bases running fill staff shortages, the base was not the point of a general’s posting. The general’s workspace was mostly online.
Doyle is explaining this to Grey as she welds together a metal heart out of old helmets with a soldering iron, and when he reaches the end of his train of thought, Grey flips up her mask and congratulates him.
“Stay alive out there,” she says. “Find a good medic to keep you that way. Or Locus could get it over with and try to kill you here, and then I can put your heart in a jar and never mind making this one out of scrap metal!”
“That would be the most efficient method, I suppose,” says Doyle morosely. “Get the whole business being afraid of dying over with. Can’t be afraid of dying if you’re already dead.”
Then the rest of his brain catches up to him, because it sounds an awful lot like Grey thinks he’s going to leave her behind.
“Say, um. Emily,” says Doyle. Grey snips off a fiber from her metal heart without looking at him. “Who else might be a medic at this base?”
“Yamanaka,” says Grey.
“Does she have formal training?”
“Right, right, stupid question.”
“She can sew and never faints around blood. And she can read a checklist,” says Grey.
“What an, um, enthralling resume.”
“She’s very good at sewing. My checklists are very thorough,” says Grey.
“I will certainly take your evaluation of her in good faith, Doctor. It occurred to me,” Doyle begins, “that you’re absolutely right, and that I most likely will need a medic to come with me. Among with other men and women as a sort of, um, cursory guard—theoretically it wouldn’t matter much who they are, because it’s more important that nobody’s being taken away from their post and the people in the group would be moving for other pre-existing reasons—yes, well, that’s not quite so important because there’s no way to control for quality in the soldiers nowadays, but the medic is a bit of a matter more, um, life and death, quite literally, and I was wondering if you could, er, recommend to me a good medic to accompany me on my way, to ensure that I don’t do exactly what you recommended I not do and, well, die.”
“Is that an order, General?” Grey chirps.
“A request,” says Doyle. “If I may still be permitted to make those.”
Grey doesn’t look up. Her hands aren’t moving. “Just so I know who to recommend—say that we get to the next base and your medic decides they’d rather stay there,” says Grey. “What then?”
Excellent question. Grey is always thorough. Who’s permitted to do what is always the great question when entering a proposed arrangement, particularly between parties of differing formal power. (Although in terms of informal power, Doyle should probably be more wary of Grey, rather than the other way around.)
“If they decide they’d rather stay, then—that’s fine, I can certainly do with finding another, or going some time without one at all—oh, dear—er—no, I’ll just file some paperwork about it, it’ll be fine, it’ll be managed. There may be many unpleasant things that we have to do nowadays,” Doyle says, “and I certainly don’t intend to add to it if I can help it.”
“And what happens if you can’t help it?” says Grey. “What will you do then, General?”
Doyle thinks about it. “I’ll probably die before then?”
She giggles. “Not if you’ve got a good medic!” she says, and puts her tools down at last with a slyness to her motion that lets Doyle know she’s caught on to his game. “And everyone knows I’m the best.”
“Is that your recommendation?”
“Look at you, all formal and stiff already,” Grey chirps.
“I’ve always been formal and stiff, thank you very much."
Grey bursts into laughter. “Yes, yes, alright, Doyle, I’ll come on your road-trip through a warzone with you. Yamanaka can handle this base by herself.”
Doyle beams. For the first time in a long while, tomorrow looks brighter than yesterday.
Days pass. Grey spends a lot of time reorganizing the medbay for Yamanaka to inherit, while Doyle makes arrangements for the road to Armonia. They do perhaps more of those things together than is entirely necessary.
It’s in this state that, a week before the trip to Armonia, at nearly eleven at night, both Grey and Doyle elbows-deep in shoving Montague’s odds-and-ends ledgers into boxes, that Locus finds them.
He takes one look at Grey, then at Doyle, and evidently draws his own conclusion. “I will come back,” he says, and turns right around.
“No, no, we’re not doing anything right now,” says Doyle, as if he doesn’t have a three-pound paper file of classified government traitors in his hand and Grey standing very much in his personal space. “Well, not anything urgent. What is it?"
Locus looks at Grey again. “It’s business,” he tells Doyle.
“If you’d like me to leave, you could use your words and say so,” says Grey cheerily.
“You don’t have to leave. I can’t imagine what he could say that you can’t be around to hear,” Doyle tells her.
Locus looks between Grey and Doyle, Doyle and Grey. He’s looking an awful lot for someone who came for business. “As you say, General,” says Locus, without inflection, and holds out a little slip of paper. “I’ve come to inform you that I accept your contract terms.”
Doyle knew he would. Not only would Locus’s employer not care about any such contract, but faced with the threat of Locus being fired altogether, any employer who goes to such lengths to keep their man in the game has either a lot of dirty secrets or no leverage in honest negotiation, and probably the former has something to do with the latter. It is still, of course, always a relief to see a negotiation go smoothly, like setting a dislocated joint.
“Good.” Doyle sighs. “That’s good. I’m glad.”
Locus says nothing. Just turns and makes to go.
“Locus,” says Doyle. Locus stops. There’s something wrong with the way he’s moving. His shoulders are slumped. His helmet faces down. His hands are loose.
”Locus,” Doyle says sharply, “is there something wrong?”
“What?” says Locus, which is such a filler nonsense word of the type that Locus avoids so thoroughly that Doyle is certain something is wrong long before Locus says, “No, of course not.”
“Are you sure?” Doyle says. “There’s nothing? You’re feeling all right? Sleeping enough? Are you tired? Feeling ill?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me,” says Locus quietly. He doesn’t say it like an argument or a fact; he says it like resignation.
Doyle glances at Grey. She doesn’t look at him, only watches Locus with careful eyes. Evaluating.
“We are going to Armonia soon,” Doyle tries again. “We’ll be traversing hundreds of miles of terrain, and you’ll be our best bet of making it there alive. I’m glad to have you in our service, Locus, but we want to look out for you, too.”
“I can’t function at my best if damaged,” Locus recites.
“I don’t really see the point of making it through the war if nothing about us survives,” says Doyle. “I’d like to see you make it through, too.”
Locus twitches. Like it hurts to hear this.
Doyle reaches for his shoulder.
Locus marches out of the room altogether.
Twenty-four hours later, Ngo is in Doyle’s office, scared out of her mind, explaining that Locus is still breathing but he’s facedown in the back of the armory and not moving and—
“I fell,” is Locus’s explanation, while a group of Feds whisper and tremble a good twenty feet away. Which Doyle would have been doing with the best of them, three weeks ago, but now he mostly hears the sulky pout in Locus’s voice.
“It seems you rather did more than fall,” Doyle points out. A Fed audibly gasps, like Locus is about to kill Doyle for talking back, and not for the rather better reasons for Locus to kill Doyle, which include Doyle being a legally binding pain in Locus’s ass. The idea of dying for just a conversation is rather ridiculous, now.
True to form, for all of Locus’s scary growling, he doesn’t actually snap back. “I did fall,” he insists.
“Okay, yes, technically, you did fall, but I’m saying there’s probably other issues involved. And I know that you and Grey have a thing going on, but if there was ever a time to check yourself into the medbay, it’d be now.” Doyle wait expectantly, but Locus doesn’t respond. “Come on, Locus. I’ll even go with you.”
“Is this an order,” Locus says sullenly.
Lord and Jesus. Locus fainted , and he still thinks he can get away with not seeing Grey. “It’s me being worried ,” says Doyle. “Sometimes, I have feelings that I don’t immediately turn into demands and commands.”
Locus doesn’t move. Doyle sighs.
“Fine. Yes. It’s an order. Let’s go, now.”
Locus stands slowly, to disguise what Doyle thinks is probably shaking. Feds scatter in terror. Doyle holds Locus steady by the arm.
When they get to the medbay, Grey is surprisingly lenient, considering her previous tirade to prevent Locus from ever stepping foot in her space. On the other hand, perhaps it’s clear that Locus is here to fulfill the other half of her terms: do not step into the medbay unless willing to let her provide medical care for him.
Grey draws a privacy curtain around his bed, for a lack of a private room. She has him strip out of armor entirely into a large hospital gown that’s almost laughably too small, but he doesn’t protest. He doesn’t protest when Doyle peeks through the curtain, either. When Grey suggests Yamanaka come to run draw some blood, Locus glares at her so viciously that it startles a laugh out of her.
Locus has the pale sheen of sweat, and his dark skin looks watery, somehow. He occasionally has trouble focusing, both on her words and with his eyes. He doesn’t cough, but he admits to a lightheadedness. His hands shake when he holds things. He doesn’t pass an arm strength test. He admits to muscles aches and occasional brief pain in the joints. On a pain scale of one to ten, he refuses to answer, which Grey writes down as a nine and he does not contradict. He shivers until he admits to being freezing, but even blankets don’t warm him; when she asks, he only says, “The cold is inside” and does not elaborate.
“His metabolism is shutting down!” Grey tells Doyle cheerfully, in the privacy of her own office. “I don’t know what’s up with the joint pain, though.”
“Isn’t metabolism is the thing that happens when you eat food…?” Doyle asks.
“No, silly. That’s the thing that produces the energy that keeps you alive!”
Doyle nearly bolts to his feet. “Is he dying ?”
“The decrease seems to be levelling off. Slowing down, yes, but probably won’t hit zero. Probably!” says Grey. She seems rather nonchalant, considering the situation. “Haven’t pinpointed what it is exactly yet, but I’ve certainly got some drugs that’ll keep him in good shape.”
“Treating the symptoms, not the cause,” says Doyle.
“A classic failure from Dr Grey,” Grey says, sounding unperturbed.
That, more than anything, makes Doyle pause. Years and years of failures, years and years of making jokes about it, but for all the joking, the mania, the hysterical laughter, she’s never quite sounded neutral about something. Where’s the amusement? The morbid jokes? The excitement over a mysterious illness that she hasn’t cracked yet?
“Emily?” says Doyle in a small voice.
She turns and, seeing something on his face, stops. Puts her papers down. Walks past him, shuts the door; walks past him again, shuts the other door.
She’s far away, across the office from him, when she says: “I don’t mean to lie to you, General Doyle. I poisoned him.”
Doyle feels himself sway. “Ah ah ah, take deep breaths!” says Grey, swooping in with an office chair for him to sit, but Doyle shakes his head furiously. “Well, suit yourself, but do not complain if you hit your head agai—”
“You poisoned him?!” Doyle hisses.
“I did indeed, General Doyle,” says Grey. Her voice is studiously cheerful. Her face is a mask of pleasantries. “Well, by technicality, I gave him a chronic disease by methods of poisoning; don’t ask me how it works, it’d take forever to explain how to engineer chronic symptoms. The long and short of it is that he’s a tea person, and we’re both coffee people. When else does he take off his helmet if not around you? Who else does he accept food and drink from?”
The thought of Doyle being complicit in this crime—after all the trust that Locus had given him by taking his helmet off, and that’s the moment when his trust had been betrayed? Doyle feels nearly nauseous.
“Grey, if he’s not alive to fulfill his end of the contract, the Federal Army will absolutely collapse,” he warns.
But she’s already shaking her head. “The poison won’t kill him, only make him worse until he wishes it would. At least in theory! It’s one of my own design and never been tested before on humans, of course, so it’s rather interesting to see what’s happening, but no, he shouldn’t die. Symptoms can be relieved so he can function at his best on the field, but not for longer than three days, and not by just any medic with an average IQ. He’ll have to come back to me, specifically, for continual treatment.”
“You don’t have a cure ?”
“Of course not. He may have to depend on us to function for potentially the rest of his life,” says Grey. “Which I would call unfortunate, but, if you haven’t forgotten, he killed Montague and will do the same to you!”
“Is that what this is about?” Doyle asks, disbelieving. “Montague? Revenge?”
“I certainly didn’t say no to those added perks! But no, unfortunately, I’m afraid that this is entirely insurance.”
Things would be easier if it’d been about Montague. Montague is dead and revenge is illogical, but insurance is not only logical, but useful .
“You explained it yourself!” she goes on. “You can make him sign the contract, and you can bank on him wanting to stick to honor and order, but we can’t know that he’ll adhere to the rules of the agreement. He’s not only a traitor, but a traitor whose agenda we don’t know, and a traitor that we depend on for survival! You’ve strapped a loaded gun to your back for the continuation of the Federal Army and told the loaded gun to behave itself, but the contract is only a set of rules. He doesn’t have to play by them if he doesn’t want to! Any law needs… oh, what’s the term? Law enforcement.”
“It was supposed to be a risk!” Doyle cries. “It was the only option I could think of—him breaking the contract was a risk I had to take, I signed on for the gamble when I did it. I was willing to risk my life—”
“I’m not,” says Grey.
She takes a step closer, but Doyle immediately backs away. For a second, Grey looks like he’d slapped her.
“That’s fine!” she says cheerily. “Stay there. You don’t have to forgive me. When you go to Armonia, you can take Yamanaka as your medic, if you’d like. But Locus, for the duration of his service to the Federal Army, will stay with me, I’m afraid. No other medic will be able to deal with the symptoms. If he’s going to function according to your contract, he needs to be with me, for continual application of medication.”
“So you can let him get worse and worse the instant he breaks the contract?” Doyle asks bitterly.
Her smile doesn’t even flinch. “If won’t be a problem if he doesn’t,” she says. “Will it?”
Doyle shakes his head. Closes his eyes.
“You can’t depend on the kindness of a coward to keep you alive,” Grey’s voice says softly. “You’re too full of human kindness, General Doyle, but not everyone's the same way. All the better reason for you to stay alive.”
Doyle storms out. A few faces look at him curiously as he marches into the medbay
For the first time, he notices that Connolly isn’t there.
Locus is a large person out of armor, but not abnormally so. With the help of whatever it is that Grey gave him to alleviate symptoms, he sits up painfully straight in bed. He folds his hands when he waits. His eyebrows sit low on his forehead even when doing nothing, like some kind of resting murder face, but his eyebrows also do most of the emotions that the rest of his face should be doing: confusion, disappointment, irritation, amusement, surprise. His hands are still folded. He looks outrageously patient, except for the part where his eyes dart to the privacy curtain any time it moves, like someone will burst through at any second to catch him red-handed at being out of armor.
In a shocking up-ending of Doyle’s entire worldview, Doyle spends time not hiding from Locus with Grey, but hiding from Grey with Locus.
“Being unable to find a permanent treatment is no reason to be upset with her,” says Locus.
Doyle has the sudden urge to just tell Locus everything, particularly the part about Grey poisoning Locus just to be able to make sure Locus doesn’t kill Doyle, but he doesn’t even open his mouth. He’s not going to do it. He’s not going do it because he knows—even if he doesn’t like it, he knows…
“She’s a good doctor,” Locus offers.
“Most people think she’s quite crazy,” Doyle mutters, just to be contrary, but Locus stills.
“And you, General?” Locus asks. “Do you think she’s crazy?”
“Doesn’t matter if she is,” Doyle says.
Locus looks at him sharply.
“Well—it doesn’t! She might do crazy things, but we also live in crazy times, and her heart is usually in the right place—she doesn’t hurt anyone—oh, hell, why am I defending her?” Doyle complains, slumping over.
Especially when that’s not true , a voice says. She has hurt people, now. You’re looking at one of them.
Another voice says: Were you going to wait and see when Locus would break the contract?
“She certainly knows what she wants,” says Locus. “And isn’t shy about getting it.”
Now Doyle has the sudden impulse to apologize to Montague’s murderer. (Maybe that’s what crazy is: holding on to the few things you know are true about yourself, even when everything else strips away.)
“She’s not shy, and she’s not afraid,” Doyle says, grudgingly. “Well, she is shy, and she is afraid, but she’s rather good at not letting it show.”
Doyle lets out a sigh.
“And, for that matter, she’s very rather good at doing what needs to be done. She might have the worst job in this whole base, I believe, patching up all these soldiers just for them to go off and die again. Time and time again—” and he thinks about her watching him all night, making sure that he wrote the contract to his own satisfaction “—she’s held me to a standard of doing the best I could.”
Like holding Locus to his word. Making sure he adheres to the contract.
Then Locus says, slowly: “If she did something I couldn’t bring myself to do… or if she made me do something I wanted to do but was too scared to do… I would say thank you.”
Then he crosses his arms, like he’s waiting for Doyle to either ignore what he’s said or rip him apart for it.
“...You know, I think that’s the most words I’ve ever heard you say in a row,” Doyle remarks. “It’s nice. You should talk more often.”
Locus looks down. His cheeks darken, and Doyle realizes that he’s seeing Locus, a gorgeous man possibly ten years Doyle’s senior, blush . (So that’s what’s been hiding under the helmet.)
“If the General says so,” says Locus quietly.
What an odd trio they make, Doyle thinks. Locus the remnant of some other war; Doyle the remnant of some other peace; Grey the remnant of herself. Remains stick together.
When Locus concedes to bed rest and Doyle gets up the nerve to go back to Grey’s office, she’s humming over a set of test tubes, like that first day when he’d walked in on her dissecting Montague’s open chest. He clears his throat. She freezes. Painfully, with effort, she makes herself smile and wave.
“Thank you,” is the first thing Doyle says.
“Oh, General Doyle, you don’t need to give me such white lies!” she chirps. “I understand completely . My actions might be tolerated, but you don’t need to tell me to leave if you can’t bring yourself to.”
“—Leave?” Doyle repeats.
“Leave, go away, make myself scarce, never show my face to you again—however, whichever you like! I shall give you your space from here on out, no questions asked!”
“But that’s entirely—no, I would never say such a thing—”
“I know you wouldn’t, even if you wanted to!” Grey replies. “I understand! Well, no, I don’t, considering that I say most of what I’m thinking whenever I want, but I understand the theory of it—”
She hiccups. Her face doesn’t change at all from its perfect smile.
“—see, when a person gives a damn about another person, they will occasionally keep some secrets in favor of telling—” another hiccup “—telling white lies, to preserve their fragile human psychology! Which, if I m-may assure you, is entirely unnecessary for me, as I—”
“But I’m not leaving you!” Doyle insists. Her eye twitches.
“—as I have no feelings whatsoever, considering my current and obvious state of insanity and ruthless experimentation on unsuspecting victims, as exemplified by Example A, otherwise known as Locus—”
“—and therefore I go about my day in a constant state of euphoria, impervious to any tragedy around me and other heartless behavior—”
She’s still giggling when the tears well up in her eyes. Doyle is, frankly, not standing for that, and does the first thing he can think of, which is to wrap her in a hug and hold tight. For all her talk about leaving, she squeezes him right back. “It’s really fine, it’s okay,” Doyle blurts out, “—well, maybe not okay, I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay with it but, um, I know, I get it, I know it doesn’t really matter what I think about it but I mean it when I say it’s okay—”
There aren’t good words for him to properly describe: it’s not okay, she’d obviously done it knowing it wasn’t okay, she wouldn’t apologize whether or not he forgave her and he, in fact, might not forgive her anyway, but he knows why she did it and he loves every one of her decisions even when he hates them, because they came from a person that he believes, even now, is essentially good and admirable and wonderful.
For some reason, Doyle’s brain translated all of this to kiss her , and so that’s what he does before he can think better of it.
The instant his thoughts catch up to him, Doyle snatches his entire self away for her: “Oh gosh I am so sorry, that was entirely inappropriate and we pretend it didn’t happen, you can forget all about it—you can also rake me over the coals for it if you’d rather not pretend it didn’t happen—oh, lord , I guess you can have the right to tell me to buzz off and never speak to you again, I suppose, and I’ll understand completely—”
Grey is staring at him with curiosity, which is so different from her red-rimmed eyes that Doyle has the feeling that she’s forgotten about crying altogether. “Why would I tell you that?” she asks.
“Well! It’s just! Highly inappropriate for superiors to go about kissing people who might not be able to say no!”
She sniffles. Wipes tears off her cheeks. Now she looks amused, like there’s some joke he’s not getting, but he takes that as a generally positive sign. “Then why did you?”
“I forgot I was the general for a second,” Doyle admits miserably. “It comes back at the worst times, I tell you. Really, we can forget all about it, it’s very fine—”
She leans up and presses her lips against his. Her mouth doesn’t taste sweet or brittle or sharp, not like her candy-coated smile; it tastes like human skin, and Doyle at least has the good sense to stop talking then. When she pulls away, the lingering press feels like a stamp on his lips. The seal of a contract, a commitment to each other’s mistakes, leaving some part of her imprinted on him for him to treasure and remember and in so doing, keep safe for her to revisit one day.
Then she pulls away and claps her hands together like there aren’t still tears drying on her cheeks.
“Well!” she says. “I hope that was a sufficient explanation for why everything you just said is nonsense, because I’m a busy woman and don’t have time for breakdowns and emotional conversations all day long!”
“Please don’t ask me to spell it out, because between the two of us, I am not the orator!"
“But does this mean you’re coming to Armonia after all?” Doyle asks quickly. And when she gives him a disbelieving look, he protests, "I have to be sure! I'd still like you to come with!"
She snorts. Then she starts to laugh altogether, and Doyle thinks it might even be a genuine one, because it sounds less hysterical and more tired and relieved. “Yes, Doyle,” she says, “it means I’m going to Armonia with you.”
Chapter 7: The System
“He’s a good soldier."
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
General Doyle stands in the doorway of the brigadier’s office, the desks that belonged to himself, Montague, and Kingsley all cleaned and scrubbed. There’s a jeep set out in the back, with an escort of a dozen soldiers, Dr Emily Grey, and Locus. In the scheme of things, the desks in the office of the Brigadier don’t matter much.
“General?” asks Locus’s voice from behind him. “Is everything in order?”
“As in order as it ever will be,” Doyle says, and closes the door. He isn’t leaving messy desks for some other schmuck to deal with, but there’s other messes besides paper. He’s not so great at cleaning those up. He did his best. “How are you feeling?”
“Serviceable,” Locus replies.
Locus shakes his head.
Doyle bites his lip, then says, “I don’t know if we’ve said this to you yet, in so many words, but… I am sorry this happened to you.”
“There’s nothing to apologize for, General,” Locus says. “Chorus is not my native planet. The possibility of contracting a foreign illness was always prominent. I’m sure Dr Grey will find what it is and an appropriate treatment.”
So this is what real guilt feels like , Doyle thinks. This is what Locus felt at Montague’s funeral.
When Doyle turns to go, Locus follows. People in the hallways salute and nod with a stiffness Doyle’s never seen from them. He knows it’s because of Locus in his shadow.
Outside is a series of jeeps with tinted windows and closed roofs. Locus opens the passenger door of the one in the middle. “Yours,” he says shortly.
“Thank you, Locus.”
Doyle turns his own helmet pointedly towards Locus, because Locus was never quite so courteous to Montague, which Locus studiously ignores.
Grey is already inside the backseat when Doyle slides in, poking at a tablet and a thick book of AI biomedical theory. The instant Locus closes the door behind him, Grey complains, “Can you believe Locus said I couldn’t dissect anything in the back of the jeep? He said you wouldn’t like it."
“Um—maybe not anything… organic?” Doyle hedges.
“But that’s everything fun!”
“Can’t it wait until we get to Armonia?” Doyle pleads.
Grey sighs, then nods her helmet towards Locus, outside through the tinted windows, who’s in the process of pointing at a Federal soldier and consequently scaring the visible daylights out of the man. “You should have seen him before you came,” she says. “He’s thorough, but you’d think he was convinced someone had planted a bomb in this car, the way he stripped it. Do you think that’s what it looks like when he’s worried?”
Doyle coughs. Adjusts his chest plate. “He’s a good soldier,” he says. “We always knew that.”
There’s a tap on the roof, and Locus’s helmet comes through the shotgun door. “We’re still clearing a driver,” he reports. “Otherwise, we’re prepped and ready to move out in less than two minutes. At your order, General.” And then, after a pause, he adds, “And Doctor.”
“Will you be our driver today, Locus?” Grey asks.
“I’m patting down a driver for this car. I’ll be in the shotgun seat for security detail.”
“Can you drive?” Grey presses.
Locus’s faceless helmet somehow gives her a flat look. “Of course I can drive.”
“Are you not driving us because you’re afraid of getting lost?” Grey asks, amused. “Foreign planet, foreign roads…”
“Doesn’t he need to have his hands free to be proper security?” Doyle asks.
“General, we’ll wait for your go-ahead,” says Locus instead of responding, a distinctly peeved note in his voice.
Doyle clears the amusement from his throat. “Yes, I’ve got it,” he says, and Locus’s helmet disappears.
“You spoil him,” says Grey.
Doyle turns to her to say something bitter about Grey having any right to begrudge Locus any spoiling, considering what she'd done to him; but her face is drawn and worried as she looks out the window. That's what guilt looks like, Doyle thinks, and he thinks better of saying anything. He can't quite bring himself to forgive her, but apparently, neither can Grey.
The driver’s side door opens and a Federal soldier is shoved through. Apparently Locus had found a driver that met his standards and was body-checked to satisfaction. Locus slides into the shotgun seat.
“Everything’s secured, Locus?” Doyle asks, like he didn’t know Locus had agonized over every detail in front of Grey’s very eyes.
“Of course,” Locus replies. “Would you like to corroborate with the rest of the squad?”
“No, no. I trust you,” Doyle says, and isn’t very sure if he’s lying or not. “Let’s move out, then.”
The driver repeats the command into the radio. Up ahead, the cars begin to pull away. Outside, Outpost 7D begins to grow small.
Armonia will have more people, more missions; he’ll have more people to have eyes on Locus, less time for Locus to be correspond with anyone else without being overheard. Keep him busy and most importantly, keep Locus close to himself. Doyle can play up his own reputation of cowardice, emphasize paranoid clinging to the strongest bodyguard available. Put some feelers out for Locus’s employer and follow the bureaucracy thread, like Doyle used to, back in the days before the war. Locus won’t get very far, between the two of them—not between what Doyle knows and Grey’s short leash. It’ll be a long project. (Thank god Grey will have his back.)
The mutually-assured destructive machinery of them, Doyle finds, is more than serviceable to the task at hand. Somewhere between all three of their loaded guns, they might just wring some peace from this war.
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