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Cherry Bomb

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The new armor doesn’t fit quite like her old armor. 

That wasn’t to say that there was anything really wrong with it, she just felt wrong wearing it. It was like putting on a new pair of boots that hadn’t gotten the chance to get broke in yet. It was fine , it just wasn’t hers

In many ways, it was an improvement though, half-baked as it currently was. She still had adjustments to make the fit better, and pieces of equipment from Project Freelancer to install. Even once she was through with it she wasn’t sure that she’d make it feel quite as good as her old armor. The armor that had been made for her, specialized and customized. Bespoke. For her and only her.

In a way, changing her armor to something that she hadn't used all through Project Freelancer was a good thing. It was a new layer of separation from that history. It was a chance to metaphorically wash her hands of it, even if the blood would never really wash off. 

A sad part of her knew that nobody would recognize her in the new armor. At least, not until the Chameleon Unit was properly installed and she could alter the color to her favorite shade of blue. It was the same blue that her childhood bedroom had been painted.

But the standard steel grey would have to do. The grey would have to do in the same ways that the newer gen armor would.

It was, she hoped, merely transitional.

The new armor was too light. It also didn’t protect nearly as much as her old kit had. The composite bodysuit from her old gear wasn’t completely compatible with the new armor so she’d had to loot that too. By and large it was the biggest issue, since it doesn’t fit quite right either. There were spots where it felt like it was far too loose. Doing a patch job with needle and thread would never work with the bodysuit like it did for a pair of jeans. Fitting a bodysuit with a gel layer required specialized equipment and a deft hand. Neither of which she possessed. 

She just felt exposed in the worst ways. The armor left her less covered, but it was also so light that she would never need the adjustment period she’d had when she’d gotten her PFL-issued gear. She could move and run faster. She could make more extreme bends than she’d been able to before. The new helmet wasn’t bad, with its cleaner user interface, and its refined HUD display. She could customize it more than she could her old HUD. 

The new armor wasn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. It was just different. 

She just didn’t feel like herself anymore. Not that it was really a bad thing, all things considered. 

In a way, the best thing for her current mission was her not feeling anything like herself. For all purposes she wasn’t herself anymore. 

Agent Carolina had disappeared from the wreckage of the Hand of Merope. 

The woman that she was since the crash was someone different, someone else , all in the name of necessity .

Necessity is the mother of invention, her father’s voice whispered in the back of her mind. The Mother of Invention. Another ship that Agent Carolina had ceased to exist in the wreckage of, another self already long lost. 

Actually, she might just have bad luck with ship wrecks. 

“Hey, C?” Another version of her father distracted her away from her thoughts. He was more of a brother, really, all things considered. He understood her in ways that nobody else really ever could. “Mind focusing on the fucking mission for a minute?” His hologram appeared by her shoulder, a familiar shade of blue that was different from her favorite, but just as comforting. Seeing it in her peripheral vision was quickly becoming a soothing balm when she was out in the field.

“Sorry, Epsilon.” Carolina said, fidgeting in her armor, unable to get comfortable. “Is there news?”

“Yeah.” Epsilon answered, flashing a new window on her visor for her to look at. “The chick that had your armor before you left us some stuff to use.” 

And that was a bit of a surprise. Even a pleasant one. “What kind of stuff are we talking?”

“Well,” Epsilon flashed part of the HUD again. “For one, we’ve got a base location to use. She left it logged into the in-suit tracking systems. Pretty sloppy if you ask me. I mean, rookie mistake.”

Carolina was certain that if she’d asked the right people, she would find that Epsilon-Church, whoever he was, had made the same mistake countless times before. 

A pang of loss in her chest reminded her to stay on track. Her friends were fine. She had a mission to do. Her and Epsilon both.  

“A little.”

And,” Epsilon continued. “I’ve got some communications from whoever’s in charge of their forces.” 

“Not Locus or Felix?” Carolina asked, recalling the pair of mercenaries that she was trying to track in the first place. Equipment that was way above their pay grade had turned into something else entirely.

“Nah.” Epsilon answered. “Looks like those assholes actually bother to delegate. I’m as surprised as you are about it.” 

Carolina wasn’t surprised, but that wasn’t worth discussing. 

“And?”

“Apparently the leader at the base, someone named Go,” Epsilon explained, “made a troop recall this morning.  Sounds like they’re expecting the big boys on base and they want to have their shit together for it. Might be a good way in.” 

And that certainly made sense. A recall wasn’t the same as a retreat, so Carolina had to guess that Epsilon was only right on that point. Carolina brought the tracking information to center. “So we’re trying to get in then?” She asked. “Do we have a codename to use or anything?”

“Girl didn’t leave that info in the armor. Probably a reason for that.” Epsilon explained, apparently already searching through files if the way that his avatar flickered was any indicator. “Nobody wants to have their next of kin turn out to be war criminals—”

And god, if Carolina didn’t have so many things to say to that.  

“Get to the point.”

“Fuck, okay.” Epsilon replied. “It looks like it’s probably a supply drop. Maybe even new recruits. Get in and scope it out and we’ll work from there. If anyone asks your name… eh, just improvise. I know you’re good at it.” 

“How comforting.” 

“What else do you want from me?”

“Nothing.” Carolina answered, fidgeting with the edges of her greaves one more time before she checked that her pistol and rifle were ready to go. “You did great, Epsilon. Let’s just focus on getting to this camp and we'll work from there.” 

“Sounds great, C.” Epsilon set the tracking information to the corner of her HUD. “We've got a hell of a walk to go. Should get started now.” 

Carolina frowned. “ Thank you, Epsilon.” She said as she turned in the direction she needed to go and began what would be a very long walk.


Some more extensive digging into the tracking information that Epsilon had found on the helmet was able to give a name to the hole in the ground which was apparently where the mercenaries Locus and Felix were running their operation. At the very least, it was one of the places that they went to run things. 

Carolina and Epsilon soon learned that Outpost Echo was if nothing else, appropriately named. 

The base wasn’t anything special to look at. It was simply a small collection of prefabricated barracks and buildings which had all been installed at the bottom of a valley where the hills around it rose so high that the only way to find the damn thing would be to scale them all the way. They rolled around the base, leaving anyone who looked down at it the distinct feeling that Outpost Echo was sinking and being swallowed up by the land around it. 

If someone stood down among the barracks, they would be able to shout and hear themselves for days, if Carolina had to guess. Either that or they’d feel like they might have been crushed by the hills around them.

But Carolina knew perfectly well that wasn’t why Outpost Echo was likely given its name. 

The name Outpost Echo merely implied that it was one of at least five bases. And that it was the fifth of those bases to have been constructed. 

The phonetic alphabet had a certain habit of sucking the fun and romance out of things. 

She’d had a friend once who tended to go by a name from the phonetic alphabet on the side. He’d used it from everything to making discreet mail orders, to picking up companions at bars, to just about everything in between.

Foxtrot-12, York, whatever his name was died on an island fortress in a fight against a man that he’d once called friend. 

Some days, Carolina missed Agent York. The fact that her access to his logs was only temporary was a type of blessing in and of itself. She couldn’t become like her father because of it. 

She tried to push it from her mind. “Epsilon, I’m installing the chameleon unit before we go in.” She explained to her AI partner in the hopes that she could get it running for at least long enough so that she could make it down to the base by blending in with the surroundings. Stealth was key.

“Yeah, I got it.” Epsilon flashed up at her shoulder, stance managing to be confident despite the fact that Carolina could literally see through him and that she was significantly taller than him. But he had nothing to fear. Carolina would never pull him. “Put it in.” 

Carolina knelt down in the dirt and pried open a small compartment on her chest piece so that she could find the equipment slots. 

She paused though, just before she slipped the chip that would run the chameleon unit into place. It was odd that her new armor had slots installed for Freelancer styled equipment. Either Project Freelancer’s patents had leaked when the project had failed, or the technology had been poached. It was also possible that PFL had been building armor with some sort of universal compatibility in mind, but Carolina had her doubts. PFL had been working with fairly proprietary equipment, after all.

All of the options were a little more than weird to think about. There was too much that felt wrong about it.

Carolina didn’t have the time to waste thinking about such matters though. She slid the chip into place and felt it lock in almost immediately. A hard press of her thumb down against the chip in its lodging confirmed that it wasn’t going anywhere. Carolina slapped the compartment shut and stretched her arms. 

In the end, she’d know whether it was installed properly once she got going enough for it to potentially get knocked out of position.

“Wanna try it out?” She asked Epsilon. “I think I’ve got it in there.”

“Yeah, you’ve got it. Give me about… yeah, now.” Epsilon only nodded his head and Carolina watched as the nondescript steel grey shade of her armor shifted into her favorite shade of aqua blue, before Epsilon turned it to the same brown as the dirt under her feet. “Looks like it’s working. I think you’re good to go, C.” 

“Good.” Carolina said, feeling at least a little bit relieved by Epsilon’s confirmation. Things sure as hell could have been a lot worse. “Thanks for the help, Epsilon.”

“Eh, you know how it is.” He bounced confidently, his avatar lighting up the edges of her armor. “Anytime.”

The sound of a Pelican’s engines distracted Carolina away from Epsilon and her’s shared conversation. “Hide.” She told Epsilon, and he flickered out of existence at her side so that he couldn’t be seen. Carolina kept her eyes on the ship as it began to lower itself into place. 

Shit , she didn’t have time to waste. As things were, she was already behind schedule.

“Try to keep up!” She told Epsilon before she simply broke into a sprint and began to head toward the Pelican itself in the hopes that she could make herself blend in and get a good idea of what was happening. If she was lucky, Carolina could just slot herself in among the many personnel on site. The chameleon unit had always been able to allow for her to do it before without any trouble. 

In theory, some space pirates would simply be more of the same. 

Either way, as Carolina sprinted toward Outpost Echo, all she could think of was how she couldn’t wait for the chance to get the rest of her equipment installed into the new armor. At least with all of it in place she could be comfortable knowing that she was protected. She just couldn’t use it in any way other than sparingly if she wanted to be able to keep a low profile. 

People would notice proprietary equipment from a failed military project if it got used left and right. 

She shot behind the Pelican just as it began to touch down. Clouds of dust billowed around it and gave Carolina a modicum of additional cover.

Somehow, and Carolina wasn’t quite sure as to how , she managed to get there before the ramp to the Pelican even began to drop down. She pressed herself against the back of the Pelican in the hopes that she hadn’t been noticed, while Epsilon bathed her armor in the same shade of gun metal green as the ship’s exterior. 

“Hey, C?” Epsilon asked her, deciding to pipe in his voice over her radio comms, just quiet enough that only Carolina could hear him. “We’ve got a helmet cam. Want me to run it? Could be useful to us later.”

Yes please, Carolina thought, and she heard only a tiny beep as a confirmation. The tiny red dot appeared on her HUD to confirm that Epsilon was in fact recording everything that she saw. Feeling somewhat comforted, Carolina slid her way along the Pelican, careful to keep her new armor from scraping against its hull. 

She peeked around the side only when she heard the ramp beginning to lower. 

Carolina ducked underneath the ship and approached the ramp itself, listening close as feet began to trail their ways down the ramp itself. She closed her eyes and did her best to focus on the number of feet that were moving up above her. It didn’t sound like it was a small number of people moving crates. Nothing was being wheeled down either. Human cargo then, if she had to guess. If the ship had been carrying crates, it would have been obvious.

“Five people ,” Epsilon told her. “Looks like they just got a shipment of new recruits in the mail. You think space pirates get same day delivery? I hear Amazon’s Military Support Prime is a good deal right now, something about partnering with Char—”

Whatever he was saying got drowned out by the sound of the Pelican’s ramp whirring as it prepared to retract, just as the last of the space pirates began to unboard.

Carolina couldn’t allow herself to dignify Epsilon’s question with any sort of real response. She just pressed herself in against the ramp so she couldn’t be seen, and leaned to the side so that she could get a good view of what things looked like on the other side of the ship. All that she needed was a good opening. 

With the side where nobody was standing identified, Carolina realized that she had her chance. 

Epsilon acted first, altering the shade of her armor back to the same standard steel that it had been when she’d taken it in the first place. The same standard steel shade that matched every other person at Outpost Echo, and probably more than a few people outside of it. With her armor the right color, Carolina was able to simply slide her way into place in the line, second to the end. 

Nobody seemed to notice her. It was a relief in and of itself.

Carolina stood up tall, back military straight, and waited for whatever was about to happen next. If she and Epsilon were right, then she could make herself fit in as nothing more than a new recruit. If she was taken in as a new recruit then she would have managed to successfully infiltrate a space pirate base. Or at least have managed her way past the first major hurdle which was simply getting inside in the first place. 

If not, they were going to have other problems to contend with. Problems which would at least require for Carolina to steal yet another suit of armor for herself. Whether or not that suit would fit even as half as well as the one she had on currently was a gamble in itself. 

And even then, if she failed, it would only leave the space pirates on high alert. Getting caught could not happen under any circumstances.

A woman in full armor walked to the front of the small crowd of space pirates that was forming there. A small selection of specific soldiers stood just behind her. She looked over the group of new recruits, Carolina included, turned to the soldiers behind her, and muttered something to them which Carolina wasn’t able to make out. 

“Sounds like something about choosing new squad members,” Epsilon provided her with an answer without needing to be asked. “Just play along. Think of it like being picked for kickball in school.”

Carolina had never been picked last for sports in school, especially not dodgeball. And even despite what she was actually doing she couldn’t help but feel at least a little bit miffed at the fact that she was chosen third instead of first overall. 

The man that chose her didn’t look like the strongest soldier. His enforcer style helmet bobbed as he let out a breath of relief. Mostly, he managed to look completely unimposing, despite the pounds upon pounds of plate and metal he was wearing.

“I always hate doing this,” The man said. “Since you just came in you should have a good idea of what we do here. Probably.” He let out another breath, this time managing to sound annoyed with the entire conversation at hand. “Which is mostly nothing while we wait for clear orders from either of the mercs.” He looked back at the crowd over his shoulder. “So I guess I should just get to the point, right?”

“It wouldn’t hurt.” Carolina replied, unable to help feeling at least a little bit amused. 

“I’ve got his—” Epsilon started only to get drowned out by the man continuing to talk. When the man really got going, Epsilon gave up entirely. 

“I’m Jordan Reynolds but everyone here just calls me…” He let out a resigned noise. “ Darnoldson . Nobody calls me by my real name , even when I ask . So I’m Darnoldson. I really hate that I have to introduce myself like this.” He seemed to shuffle from side to side as he introduced himself to her. “Since I picked you out of the recruit line, that means that you’re on my squad now. Which is good since we’ve been needing someone to replace Ehlers since the Chorus Fever got him.” Darnoldson paused, like he was realizing something. “You are vaccinated, right? Losing two that way is a pretty good way to get a demotion, and Go has my head on the chopping block next. I really don’t want to lose my job just because you aren’t vaccinated, or because you let your vaccinations run out.”

“So Go’s a real person then.” Epsilon added a note to Carolina’s HUD. “Noted.”

Carolina nodded along, both to Epsilon’s question and Darnoldson’s. She also made a mental note to be sure to install York’s old healing unit in her armor next. She had a feeling that Chorus Fever, whatever that was, probably wasn’t very pleasant to have to suffer through. And it wasn’t like she’d gotten a chance to get vaccinated against whatever native viruses were on a planet that she crash-landed on. 

“I am.” She lied.

“Oh, good.” Darnoldson seemed at least a little bit relieved. “So I guess that I should get you introduced to the rest of the squad but—” He looked back over his shoulder just as the Pelican that Carolina had pretended to come on began to take off. “It looks like a forth of the team just left .” 

And there were definitely things that Carolina could have said to that, but she chose to bite her tongue instead. 

Mostly, it seemed like her supposed squad leader didn’t have his shit together. Or like he was doing his absolute best to look like he had his shit together. 

In a way, she almost felt bad for Darnoldson.

Almost.

“I guess?” Carolina replied, following along as her new squad leader led her over to one of the many prefabricated barracks. As soon as the two of them were inside Carolina was presented with three doors to use. Darnoldson hesitated, like he wasn’t quite sure of where to start. A part of Carolina wondered whether he was freshly promoted to squad leader or not. The way that he continued did nothing to assuage her concerns. “Uh, so this is what standard squad housing looks like.” Darnoldson rapped his knuckles against the door that was directly in front of them, as opposed to one of the ones at their sides. “Bathroom and showers are in there, only two stalls though so we tend to go in shifts. Usually if you can hear water running it’s full.” 

And for the first time in her life, Carolina actually missed the locker room on the Mother of Invention. 

Carolina looked at the two remaining doors. “Let me guess,” She started. “Rooms on each side?”

“That’s—” Darnoldson started, only to deflate a half -second later. “Yeah. That. I’m on the left side with McTavish. You and Coyote will be on the right. Before you start worrying about it, Ehler’s stuff is already gone and your bunks have been disinfected… several times now. So you should be safe. Probably.” 

“Thanks for that.” 

“And Coyote isn’t usually here so you’ll get some privacy.” Darnoldson pushed the door to the right room open so that Carolina could see what lay inside. “That’s not to say that she’s never here, but it’s often enough that she’s gone.” 

There were two bunks in the room, one against each of the far walls of the room. The closets in the room looked like they were made of cheap plastic, meant to slot together in about twelve seconds. At the end of each of the beds was a foot locker which was clearly large enough to place armor in. A pair of small desks and a single gun cabinet filled the rest of the space. One of the two bunks had what clearly wasn’t a set of standard issue sheets on it. 

The other was bare, save for the simple bedding that sat folded in the middle of the thin mattress.

All in all, it wasn’t the absolute worst set of warzone amenities that she’d ever seen. Not that it mattered. 

Carolina could definitely make it work in the long run. Not having her bunk mate there meant that she could at least temporarily work on her armor without raising any red flags over her having so much equipment to install, or an AI. Either of those getting found out would surely sink her entire infiltration in one go. 

“Seems good enough?” Darnoldson asked. “I know that it isn’t a whole lot.” He looked at her directly, holding his head up high. “Did I—”

The left door in the tiny hallway opened behind him, and another man in armor poked his head out. “Is that the new girl?” The new man asked, head bobbing along as he spoke. He seemed curious, if nothing else. 

“Yeah.” Darnoldson replied. The second man, clad in simple recruit’s armor, stepped out into the hall to join Carolina and Darnoldson. Carolina couldn’t help but briefly wonder if she should have shown up in recruit’s armor herself. 

“Titus McTavish,” the second man introduced himself to her, almost too nonchalantly. “Former new guy. Welcome to the squad, new girl.” 

Epsilon left a note on her HUD which seemed to be an attempt at establishing what her squad’s chain of command looked like. Somehow her roommate’s absence left her with significant questions about how accurate it actually was. 

Surely there was a reason for Coyote’s absence. Epsilon made a note to try and figure out if Coyote was the woman’s real name or not.

“Nice to meet you.” Carolina said, not sure whether or not she needed to tread carefully with this new man. “I’m Carolina McCallister.”

“Carolina?” Darnoldson asked, saying the name slowly like he thought that there was something wrong with it. “I could have sworn we were—” His voice trailed off and he shook his head. “Weird coincidence, I guess. Have you done this sort of thing before, or are you just standard UNSC like pretty much everyone else?”

“Standard UNSC.” Carolina lied. Mentioning Project Freelancer was suicide . As least if anyone tried to look into the history of Carolina McCallister it would look mostly legitimate. She’d taken good care to make sure that her ‘history’ was airtight when she’d taken on the identity after Project Freelancer in the first place. “I just needed the money and it was a paying job. Bounty work isn’t exactly stable.” 

“Tell me about it.” Darnoldson mumbled under his breath.

“Well, that's good.” McTavish spoke over the squad leader. “Since that’s the only reason anyone is here. And now that you’re here, there's no getting off of this shit hole of a planet until it’s over with anyways. So welcome to the ranks, you’re stuck with us.” 

And god, if he didn’t sound like he was anything other than happy about it. 

“Good to know.” Carolina replied, not sure whether it was actually good to know or whether it was simply a sign that she’d made a mistake. “So—”

“We’ll keep you up to date with the schedule.” Darnoldson spoke up. “When Locus and Felix show up you’ll probably get an assessment to make sure that you’re actually good enough to fight. Not that it matters since you’re stuck here anyways.” 

McTavish let out a little amused snort. “The silver lining is that they need men badly enough that the standards are nice and low these days. You shouldn’t have any trouble as long as you can follow basic orders and shoot straight.” 

Darnolds sighed heavily, shaking his head in resignation. “As much as I hate to admit it, he’s right. The Mercs have different standards but you’ll be fine. You’ll see them… whenever one of them decides to show up. Once one approves you the other should too. Locus can be a hardass but if you’re competent you’ll be fine.” 

Yet another note from Epsilon popped up on Carolina’s HUD. He was apparently doing his best to work his way into whatever electronics were in the building with them. He was at least looking for a written version of the day to day schedule for Outpost Echo. If he found anything else, then Carolina hoped that it was something that would be at least halfway useful. 

“That’s good to know,” Carolina said quietly. “And my bunkmate?”

“She’s cool.” McTavish answered. “Shouldn’t give you too much trouble though. Coyote’s pretty hands off.”

If that was a comfort, Carolina wasn’t quite sure. Space was good, but she’d eventually have to share space with Coyote, whoever she was. A part of her had a hunch that Darnoldson and McTavish were a little bit afraid of her, so Carolina wasn’t sure what to think. A part of her feared that she and the woman would end up clashing for whatever reason. 

Whatever reason wasn’t ‘Carolina is there to infiltrate,’ at least. 

She looked to the empty bed and let out a sigh. “I guess I should probably get settled in, then.” 

“Yeah.” Darnoldson said. “Probably. I’ll grab you when food’s coming out. Real work starts when the mercs show up so you should take your free time where you can get it. Might as well take what time you can.” 

Considering the number of equipment pieces she needed to install, Carolina needed the free time. Desperately. 

“Sounds good.” She said as she stepped into the room for the first time and reached out so she could start to close the door behind her.

“Oh!” Darnoldson spoke up, interrupting her with a hand on the door. “Welcome to delta squad, McCallister. We’re glad to have you.”

“Thanks.” Carolina forced the words out, glad that her helmet was there to shield her expressions. “I’ll get settled in.”

With that she closed the door, and she put herself to work. 

Starting with getting her bed made.