"Now, Dad, come on," Rita whines, hiding a smile as she looks at the floor and tucks her phone closer to her ear. "You know how I feel about you bringing one of your 'lads' around to dinner. I'm not looking for a relationship right now. Work is getting really busy."
Doctor Leslie Vrataski sighs from the other side of the line, gentle and resigned. "All right, love. We'll do it your way. But we're still both of us coming home, and we're still having your birthday dinner at six o'clock sharp."
Rita bites back a sigh of her own. Six years since her mother went, and her dad still tries to keep up the old traditions that used to make Rita feel so safe and loved. He's flying back from Florence to spend the day with her. The least she can do is drive up from London.
"Fine. All right. I'll see you in two weeks. I love you, Dad."
"I love you too, chuckie."
Rita Vrataski meets her twenty-second birthday head on, in the middle of the Manchester's Southern Cemetery, as she listens to a non-denominational priest ramble on and on about dust and bones and returning to the earth. Her father, whose hands have held so much life, being lowered into the ground in his turn, does not bring her poetic justice. She stays in her spot by the grave long after everyone leaves, and watches the diggers spill clumps of soil back over the mahogany lid.
The belltower chimes two o'clock in the afternoon.
"Not yet, Rita, you haven't been born yet! It was ten minutes past two in the afternoon when you arrived, and opened that mouth of yours on the world, and you are not blowing out your candles a minute earlier, do you hear, my darling?"
Her mother's voice echoes in her head in a way that Rita is sure it hadn't in real life. Now, there is no way to know, as the only other person on the planet who would have remembered and told her is lying still at her feet, being laid to rest.
Well. To hell with this, too. There's no one left to tell her not to, when she marches into Manchester's UDF recruitment centre and lays her signature down on the line.
As a Whitehall junior analyst, she is offered her choice of appointments. No one even mentions the front lines, which is why they all look at her with wide eyes when she insists on being sent to the barracks. Sure, she knows there are more than a million ways to help win this war, but she craves blood on her hands for what those creatures have done; she wants the crunch of bone under the bullets of her guns, a body spasming and screeching until it stills.
Fuck those fuckers, anyway; if they thought this world would just roll over without a fight, they've got another thing coming.
"Recruits, my name is Staff Sergeant Carter, and I will be breaking you in for the foreseeable future, until the higher-ups figure out you know enough not to shoot each other and are thus ready for the front line. We'll start with some PT. On the ground, iso push-ups. And one."
People drop where they stand, shuffles breaking out in every direction as they wriggle for space. They push up and hold, and so Rita, new to all this terminology, does as she sees. The pose is easy to start with, but within minutes it turns into a new form of torture, something her mind hadn't thought to tell her could exist.
Sweat drips into Rita's eyes. Her arms shake, and her body aches, and she is sure she can't stand another second more of this. Why are they being forced to endure this anyway? To build up muscle? Surely there are easier ways?
There is no explanation – they don't need one. They are UDF recruits. They're here to kill mimics, so this must be useful for something if the brass is having all of them are doing it. She locks her elbows and crunches her stomach and stays. Still. This is what they're asking of her, so this is what she'll do. She is stone. She will not bend.
"And drop," Staff Sergeant Carter says.
People collapse with groans around Rita, and she quickly follows suit. She gulps down air desperately, trying to shake life back into her limbs.
"You have just completed your first iso push-up. Do you know how long you managed?"
Fifteen minutes at least. How Rita is going to do better, she doesn't know.
"Two minutes and thirty-five seconds."
The world seems to still and fracture as she realises the truth. Everywhere, her new brothers- and sisters-at-arms quiet down, faced with the same revelation.
They are not even remotely ready for what they signed up to do.
The world narrows down to a pinprick. Rita's arms feel like mozzarella cheese left under the grill too long. She can feel no difference terms of getting better. She barely lasts longer than three minutes at a stretch. She grits her teeth and keeps going.
"Bet you wish you hadn't signed that piece 'a paper now, huh, chickie?"
Rita spares the guy next to her no more than a second's thought.
"TWENTY-FIVE," she yells along with everyone else.
Hours and hours later (or twenty minutes, depending on your perception of time), Staff Sergeant Carter says, "And down," and the line collapses gratefully, people curling up on themselves with a whimper.
"Bloody hell," Carter says, shaking her dark head. "Out on the sparring mats, come along. You can sit around on your arses this afternoon in Strategy."
Rita pushes to shaking feet, wavering but catching herself without any help. The guy who had spoken to her earlier leans down, rubbing at his thigh muscles with a groan.
"Don't know how you do it," he says easily, eyeing her from under sandy-coloured bangs. "You're like a fucking machine, didn't see you move a muscle this time. Name's Hendricks, by the way."
Rita looks at him coldly. She isn't here to make friends, or get chatted up.
"Vrataski," she relents when he just keeps looking at her, palming his aching muscles. His lack of posturing is refreshing.
"Pleased to meet you," Hendricks says, offering her a hand to shake. It's warm and comfortable, and Rita lets go quickly, taking a smart step back.
Day 3 (later)
Rita squats outside the viewing room, sick to her stomach and shaking and furious with herself. She can't be this, not if she wants to wipe out every single one of those soulless monsters, out of mind and out of existence. She makes no mistakes about who her enemy is. None at all.
Which is why when two shiny leather pumps stop in her line of sight, she doesn't tell them to go to hell, insubordination charge be damned.
"How many?" Staff Sergeant Carter says.
Rita doesn't ask her to clarify. "One," she says. "My father."
Sergeant Carter doesn't say 'You're lucky,' though Rita can hear it in her silence. She knows there are people in this camp that have lost their whole families, but their rage is not bigger than hers. She thirsts for revenge no less than them.
She straightens, throws her head back, and stands to attention.
"Sergeant Carter, I understand that you have been in sixteen combat situations."
"I have," Sergeant Carter agrees with a hint of amusement, like she's waiting to see what the new puppy will do.
"I would like to request additional training. Off-schedule. Whenever you have a spare moment to train yourself, I would be honoured if you'd let me tag along."
Sergeant Carter looks her up and down, face composed into an expression of bland interest.
"You saw the footage in that room, Private, and here you are, losing your shit in public. Don't you think you'd be better off waiting until you've become more accustomed to the idea of killing mimics?"
Rita's face blooms with humiliation, but she knows a test when she hears one.
"With respect, no, sir! I I'm going to kill more of those vermin than any other recruit, and to do that I need training by the best, sir!"
Sergeant Carter's expression doesn't change, but her eyes glint with something like making up her mind. "And you think I'm your best bet? Out of this whole base of experienced commanding officers?"
"Yes, sir. You are a woman, therefore I conclude that the fact you're a Staff Sergeant now means you would be Major and higher if you were a man. There is no one else I would rather learn from."
Sergeant Carter's expression doesn't change when she about-turns and walks away. Just when Rita thinks she's blown her only chance to make a difference, the Sarge pauses.
"I won't train you, soldier. Not yet," she adds, just when Rita's wondering how she's going to keep breathing through that blow. "You're so green around the gills, you're still treading swamp water. Find me in two weeks; let's see what I've got to work with then."
"Thank you, sir!" Rita snaps out, saluting with as much proficiency as she can muster after only a week's practice. Instead of disappointed, she feels fired up, steeped in determination. She has purpose now; something to make her get up tomorrow and the day after and the day after that. She can do this. She might be just a cog in the chain, but she'll be the best damn cog they've ever seen.
"Yo, 'sup? Seat taken?"
Rita looks up into the angular face of a woman about her age, hair in tiny braids all over her head. She grins at Rita, white teeth stark in her dark face.
"Yeah, sure," Rita says uncertainly; the woman has plonked her metal tray on the table before Rita has finished speaking, climbing nimbly over the bench.
"Anyanka," she says, extending a hand. Rita takes it, dazed.
"Rita," she replies.
Anyanka grins again. "Heya, Rita. Saw ya throw Parker over on his ass this morning. Them's some nice moves, girl."
Rita smiles back, pleased. "Thanks. Been practising."
"Oh, I can tell. Sparring's better than those ass-fucked iso stands they've got us doing, though, right? At least you can move yo' behind, get up close and personal with a body, ya hear me?"
Rita shrugs. Truth be told, "I kinda like the iso stands. Used to do yoga when I was at uni. Didn't think I'd find much use for it here."
Anyanka gives her an impersonal once-over, lingering on the bare muscle showing under the sleeves of Rita's regulation t-shirt. Rita knows they're long and slim, leftovers from her days as a teenage Margo Fonteyn wanna-be. She can twist herself into improbable shapes with ease, but she still doesn't see how that will help her.
Anyanka, on the other hand, has the muscles of a bare knuckle fighter – bulky and round. She looks like she can bench-press a truck.
"You'd be surprised," Anyanka says, before shoving a fork-full of peas into her mouth. "I hear—oh, speak of the devil. Yo, Parker!"
The man Rita had slammed into the mats this morning turns from where he's been surveying the room. Rita watches in dismay as Anyanka waves him over. Oh, hell. This is going to be horrible, she has absolutely no doubt.
Except that when Parker sees them, he merely quirks an eyebrow, together with the corner of his mouth. He starts towards them without hesitation, even though there's no way he can't have noticed Rita.
"How's it?" he drawls, dropping his tray in the table and offering Rita a fist to bump. "Nice moves. Didn't expect that from a scrawny little haole like you."
Rita blinks, wondering if she'll ever understand the words coming out of his mouth, never mind the accent; but she doesn't let that stop her from touching her knuckles to his. Satisfied, Parker sits next to Anyanka, starting in on his food like it might be taken from him in a second.
Anyanka smirks at her knowingly. "What, you thought he was gonna give you macho quarterback bullshit? He's from Hawai'i, the only thing he wants to kill are mimics."
Rita swallows, looking at Parker again. There's dark ink under his shirtsleeves, curling and swirling into a pattern Rita could never follow.
"I'm really sorry about your people," she says quietly.
Parker clenches his hand around his fork for a second, but merely nods before continuing his meal. Rita can't imagine how he feels. The only Hawaiians still surviving are the ones who had been off the islands when the first wave of invasion ripped through them and left them in smoking ruins. The mimics are fierce, cunning enemies on land, but in the water there is no stopping them; they can somehow twist it around, form a vortex to propel them. Once they'd got off the coast and into the East China Sea, everything else in their way had been toast.
Anyanka is quiet, too, but she gives Rita an approving look. Well. It feels nice to have done something right. Rita is racking her brain to think of a subject change when the clang of a tray next to her elbow makes her jump and whirl around in her seat.
"Hey, hey, lookie here, new meat," the guy drawls. He is huge, built like a barn with extra bricks left over; his shoulders are twice the width of Rita's, and he's got shins bigger than her head.
Parker lifts his head. "You're new meat too, Junker, you got no space to talk."
Junker drops the leer, turning it into a hurt pout. "You don't gotta be mean about it, dude," he whines, before lowering himself into his chair with the grace peculiar to people who have been large all their lives.
Rita stares, wondering what to make of him as she watches him delicately pick two chopsticks in his left hand and wield them with the kind of dexterity she can only wish for.
"Karl Junker," he says, shoving a plate-like hand under her nose. Rita takes it and shakes as firmly as she dares. He smiles at her, looking like nothing so much as a huge teddy-bear that can pick you up and cuddle the stuffing out of you.
"Rita Vrataski," she answers.
"Remember that name," someone says behind her back. She stiffens. The voice is familiar, in a way she wishes it wasn't. "She might well win the war for us."
Face flaming, she twists her head to see Hendricks standing at her left shoulder and smiling a crooked grin. Around her, the others perk up with variations of, 'no way is she that good'.
"She asked Carter to train her," Hendricks says, a hint of dare in his voice.
Parker scoffs. "Yeah? So did I. She told me to go play at the kids' table."
"But she told Rita here to look her up in two weeks."
Anyanka turns narrow, impressed eyes on her. "Damn, girl. I knew there was something about you. You carry this buzz, like a dampening field."
"I do what now?" Rita asks, taken aback.
Anyanka waves one large, long-fingered hand around her temple. "I got this thing in my head. Been a nuisance all my life, but the Sarge seemed interested. I always know where the attack's gonna come from, who to watch, where to turn."
"And I buzz at you?"
"Not 'at' me, just, in a general 'towards' direction. Though, could be, you'll be the first to die. Those things are never accurate at predicting cause and effect."
Something cold slithers down Rita's spine; she hears herself draw in a sharp breath, and focuses on waving off Anyanka's chagrined look and the way the others swivel to watch her.
"Maybe it's me getting second helpings of desert, who knows?" she says, trying for nonchalance and a little proud at how well she does.
Hendricks scoffs. "No way you'll get seconds off Marty, she's a stone-blooded gargoyle for puppy looks."
Rita smirks. "Watch and learn, boys," she says, then gets up and walks towards Marty's station at the end of the line.
"Witam, ciociu," she says, trying out her most guileless smile. She only knows a very little of her mother's family's language – but enough to melt old ladies' hearts when she tries. Marty's face brightens up, cheeks wrinkling like an old, sweet apple left in the sun.
"Witaj, dziecko," she says warmly, reaching over to pat her hand. "A co Ty byś chciała?"
"Ah, actually, I got into a bit of an argument with my friends. They're the bunch of loons over there looking like they've never seen women talk before."
Marty looks over, scowling. "Ah, them, good-for-nothings."
"The thing is, it's Anyanka's birthday, and I only found out once the boys had eaten all our sweets. Do you think I could possibly have a second plate of that heavenly faworki? I don't have a candle, but this isn't exactly a place for celebration, so... Just this once?"
Marty looks torn between obliging Rita and maintaining her reputation, but in the end, she thaws enough to hand over a plate of crisp cake layered with powdered sugar, easy and cheap to make, yet delicious.
"Dziękuję, ciociu," Rita beams, pressing Marty's hand in thanks.
"Ay, ay, away with you," Marty mutters under her breath, fighting a smile.
Rita saunters towards their table with a strut in her step she can't push back if she tried.
"Fuck me sideways," Anyanka says, smile enormous. "Girl's a wizard!"
"I told her it's your birthday, Anya, so better pretend to blow out a candle or something."
"Give you something to blow, if you like," Parker leers, before choking as Anyanka drives her elbow into his gut.
"Keep dreaming, baby," she says gleefully, inhaling the sweet smell. "This here beauty's all mine."
Ten seconds later, half of the table is covered in powdered sugar as Rita and Anyanka fight to keep the men's greedy paws off their bounty. Hendricks sneaks under Rita's guard, snagging a piece and popping it into his mouth with an insufferably smug expression. Without thinking too much about it, Rita kicks her leg out, taking him at the knees. He slams to the floor on his back.
Everybody freezes. Rita's heart swoops to her gut, adrenaline flooding her system. Surely now he's gonna beat her black and blue.
Then, with a wheeze at the beginning, Hendricks starts to laugh. Not just snickers, either; full-out guffaws that shake the room and make everyone else want to laugh with him. He pushes himself back to sitting, taking the hand Rita sheepishly proffers.
"Smart moves, kiddo," he says hoarsely, holding onto it slightly longer than necessary. Rita ruthlessly stamps on the lick of warmth that flickers in her stomach on the tail-end of his words.
Not the time. Not the place. She's here to kill. There's no place for love in war.
"And release," Sergeant Carter says.
The recruits flop gratefully onto their bellies, panting and wiping sweat out of their eyes. Rita follows suit, because she is well-versed now in the art of not sticking out. The truth is, she could have held that pose for another hour, if necessary. And to think, the first day she had thought she was going to die if she had to do it for a minute longer. Strange, the kinds of things the mind can get used to.
"Hit the showers, that's it for today," the Sarge says loudly, sighing at the cheering. Sure as hell, the enemy isn't going to let them off easy just because they didn't get themselves killed in the first hour.
Rita jumps to her feet, shaking her arms loose and twisting a little to free up her spine. Her shoulderblades itch, and she turns to find Carter's pensive eyes on her.
"Vrataski. You stay."
Rita's heart slams into her ribcage. Halfway through the bootcamp, and she is more aware than ever before that they're barely being taught the basics, before getting thrown out there to learn in combat – if they survived. If she wanted to live, if she wanted her father's name written out in the blood of their enemies, she had to do better.
"Sir," she says, snapping to attention. The last recruits trickle out, looking over curiously but making no move to interrupt. Anyanka shoots her a thumbs-up before jogging away from the training grounds, probably to spar with Karl and Parker some more. Rita had come to know that, though they had different methods, all of her newfound friends were just as driven as her. It made her heart glad, to be amongst like-minded people again.
The sergeant walks around her quietly, hands behind her back. Rita stays as still as possible, head and shoulders thrown back, body as tight as an unplucked wire. Finally, the sergeant stops in front of her, looking her in the eye. Her blood-red lipstick accentuates her fatigues, the curls of her brown hair. She is beautiful, Rita realises – and as deadly as a pissed-off viper.
"Still want to learn, soldier?" Sergeant Carter asks calmly.
Rita doesn't move. "Yes, sir," she says, staring straight ahead at the far wall.
"Mm. You've shown promise, I'll admit. But you've also shown me just how far you still have to go."
"Sir! I'm prepared to do the work, sir!"
"Oh, I'm going to take you apart, soldier, ride you hard and leave you wet. You think you can handle that?"
"I'll take whatever you want me to, sir!"
Carter sighs. "So eager," she murmurs. "They get younger every year. Have you ever seen a Jacket from up close, soldier?"
"You're about to. I wonder... Well, we'll see, won't we?"
With that cryptic pronouncement, Carter walks away. Rita, after a moment of frozen disbelief, rushes to follow. Carter is going to put her in a real life Jacket! The others aren't due near one for another week!
Carter leads them both to a hangar a ways further from their usual training ground. When she unlocks a smaller door in the side and disappears inside, Rita doesn't hesitate – her curiosity is stronger than her apprehension. And sure enough, inside it hang row upon row of Jackets, chrome and steel parts dormant, waiting to be employed in the service of a well-trained body. Carter leads them past several sections, heading towards the middle of the hangar. She stops in front of a row no different than the others around them, except that this one has plaques over each Jacket. Carter, M. says the one above the Jacket they are facing.
"Each Jacket is tailored to its user," Carter says, reaching for the controls. "Since you have never been in one before, I'll kit you up with a training sim that we'll teach your specs to. Reaction time, flexibility, pace – unless a Jacket is tailored, you'll never be able to employ its full potential, or reach yours."
She leads them both back a row, to where unnamed Jackets are lined up. She calls one of them down, gesturing for Rita to step into it. Rita hustles to comply, stepping onto the levers that look like they're made for her regulation boots and leaning back to rest her spine against the metal ribcage that contracts until it encloses her. Carter shows her where to place her hands, how to grasp her controls. Then, she steps back.
"Well, soldier. Take her for a ride, why don't you."
Rita takes a deep breath and thinks, 'Move.' Her legs obey, and holy shit, she can feel the machine shifting with her, enhancing the power of her muscles, and oh, oh, she gets it now. She sees the need for the iso push-ups, instantly rearranging their training routine in her head. See, with a Jacket, you don't need muscle strength. You need control. You need to be able to tell your muscles to move three degrees to the left and hold, so that you can aim the huge-ass gun at a target and keep it steady. In a fraction of an instant, her yoga training comes screaming back to the surface of her mind, and she slides and twists, and shrugs, and the Jacket's arm rises and falls into position, twisting the gun to lock and load and aim with the kind of muscle memory Rita has no right to possess.
"By Jove, she gets it," Carter says, amused but not at all mocking. In fact, her smile is smug, more a smirk than anything, as if Rita just won her a well-funded wager. "Good girl. Let me suit up, and then we can really get down to business."
Two sessions later, Rita feels brave enough to approach Anyanka and lay out a little proposition she's been working on. All the recruits have had a couple of sessions with training Jackets now, and while most of them are still in the 'making them move at all' stages, Anyanka and Parker are naturals, to Rita's slightly-more-trained eye, and Hendricks... Well. Rita prefers not to think about Hendricks in a Jacket, because she's only human and she's not prepared to let a stupid crush grow into anything more embarrassing.
Her hunch delivers, and Anyanka is in fact beside herself with happiness that Rita wants to share her spoils. After training is over for the day, the four of them stay behind, and Rita takes the others through the drills Carter has her practising. It's strange to see Anyanka and the guys struggle when Rita herself feels so comfortable in her Jacket that it's like an extension to her bones, an exoskeleton she has grown herself. When Parker tries to box her in during a manoeuvre, she twists and flips, sailing through the air as if she had bounced off a trampoline.
"Fuck me," Karl says dumbly, staring. Rita straightens self-consciously, but Anyanka stomps over to her and demands Rita teach her how to do that, and soon enough the four of them are leaping fifteen feet at a go, revelling in the boost a Jacket delivers. Rita knows she is far from proficient yet; she's had less than a full week's training with Sergeant Carter, and is excruciatingly aware of just how much she still doesn't know, but it's progress, and more of it than she'd be making if she was merely a tiny figure keeping her head low in the ranks. Her blood sings every time the Jacket responds to her, and she takes up practising yoga asanas again with the kind of religious fervour she had only ever directed at her dancing, what feels like a lifetime ago.
She is holding the crane pose and regulating her breathing until it's slow and even and promising to tip her into a meditative state when a pair of well-worn boots step into her line of sight. Rita exhales roughly in annoyance and tips back onto her feet so she can look up.
Hendricks is watching her with a kind of quiet scrutiny that at once calms her down and makes her aware of every inch of her skin waking up.
"Yes, can I help you?" she says tartly, biting down on a smile that wants to lift her lips. "Have I got something on my face, soldier?"
Hendricks doesn't seem to have any such reservations. His smile is warm and reaches his eyes, crinkling the skin at the edges. It's so effortlessly charming that Rita wants to hate him a little, except that she is horrifyingly aware that she probably can't force herself to hate Hendricks even if she wanted to.
"I was hoping for some lessons, actually," Hendricks says, eyeing her legs. Rita would bristle, except his tone is too even – she can't work out what he's thinking at all.
"Are you taking the piss?" she demands, glaring at him.
Hendricks lifts his hands, palms out. "Not at all. My flexibility is horrendous. I need all the help I can get. Look, I'll show you."
Watching him try to twist himself into a Bikram triangle is actually embarrassing.
"No, no, god, you're doing it all wrong. Here, weight on this leg, tighten this group of muscles right here, straighten your back, what are you, ninety? Now, breathe. Breathe, I said, don't sip on air, feel it flow into your lungs, fill them up right to the bottom."
She realises too late that her hands are all over him, when she can feel the breath filling his chest, pushing it into her palms. He feels—good. Taut muscle, not bulky but long, with the potential to learn. And he's so warm; hot, really, under his thin t-shirt.
Hendricks wheezes after a few seconds, and Rita digs her fingers into the muscle on the right side of his spine, opposite the arm that points to the ceiling.
"Hold," she growls, and Hendricks breathes, and holds, and the awareness of the power she holds over him rushes to her head, seductive and dangerously close to something she could become addicted to.
"See what I mean?" Hendricks says breathlessly when she lets him drop the pose. "Please, Vrataski. I need this. I know what the iso-s are for, I can feel control slipping from me every time I climb into a Jacket. I'm not going to die out there," he says, mimicking her growl. He is determination personified, eyes flashing, holding hers captive and refusing to let her turn away.
"All right," Rita hears herself say. She doesn't want him to die out there, either; not when she might be able to do something about it. "It won't be easy. Takes time for muscle memory to sink in, but we'll speed up the process as much as we can. It'll probably hurt," she warns. Muscles forced to stretch day after day, being molded into new shapes and folds – it definitely won't be a walk in the park.
"That's fine," Hendricks says decisively. "I can take a little pain. In return, I'll help you with your target practise, how 'bout that?"
"It's a deal," Rita tells him gravely, offering him her hand to shake.
"You're awesome, Vrataski. I won't make you regret it."
Rita bites on the inside of her lip, fighting the furious blush she can feel trying to take over. She can't think of a situation where she could look on this moment and regret her decision.
"Good, good, now slide," Carter instructs, while a whirling metal deathtrap rushes at Rita, missing her by maybe an inch, if that. "Excellent," Carter praises.
Rita drags herself to her feet again, keeping an eye out for the racing blades. Her legs feel like rubber, and she is sweating through her tank top enough that it's dripping onto the training mats.
"You're getting there, Vrataski," Carter tells her approvingly, pressing the button to stop the fighting sim. The machines fall still, hanging innocuously over the floor like giant upside-down tulips. Rita still feels like she's so slow, so stiff; how is she ever going to learn to do this instinctively, while still keeping her eyes on the field of play?
She stands there panting for a few moments, trying to catch her breath. When she goes to put away her Jacket's gun, the ammo belt tangles again. Carter watches her wrestle with it for a couple of minutes before stepping closer and putting her out of her misery. Rita hates those stupid things. They make her wonder if their so-called superiors have ever even been in a real-life combat situation. Rita hasn't been deployed yet, and even she can see that the equipment they are being issued is useless. Those guns need something more compact that won't get in the way; reaction time is the name of the game in this war, and anything that interferes with that has to be stripped – just like the time delay on the Jackets every time she moves.
The tech is designed to amplify every twitch of muscle, and the lag is there to stop it from tearing the squishy human inside to pieces. Rita might not have the hours that Carter has, but it still makes her warm inside to know that Carter thinks she's doing so well that she should know about all the fail-safes – in case she wants to bypass them sometime in the future, when she's more familiar with her Jacket. The sense of accomplishment is unbelievable, more exciting than anything Rita has had in her life until now.
"This is good for today," Carter says, once their weapons have been put away and Rita doesn't feel like she might fall over if she tries to move her thighs again. Carter turns and leads the way into the storage hangar next door, where the Jackets live. Now that Rita isn't trying to push herself to outpace a mimic, the Jacket is smooth as silk around her, beautifully responsive. She loves this thing. It's been calibrated to her specs now, and she even has her own dock in the row behind Carter's. One day, a piece of paper had appeared on the top strut that the Jacket hangs from, Rita's name stencilled across it with black permanent marker. Rita doesn't know if that was Carter, or someone from the maintenance team, or if one of her friends had done the honour. She just knows that she's so proud to have earned it that she could burst, take the Jacket for a dance around the enormous space, maybe launch into song. She's good at this. She belongs.
"Come on and shuck the Jacket, Vrataski, you can commune with it on your own time. I'll take you down to the maintenance quarters, introduce you to Shasta Raylle. She knows more about the Jackets than anyone alive, which is good because she's the one who designed them. As part of her PhD project."
Rita blinks and hurries to obey, suitably impressed. It'll be fantastic to meet Doctor Raylle; Rita has questions. The team behind the Jackets has always been need-to-know, and Rita is so low on the food chain that the only reason she knows one of the people involved is actually Sergeant Carter's brother, Doctor Carter, is because the Sarge told her. She's been so hoping to have the chance to meet these guys; and here Carter is, dangling this golden carrot in front of her face. Rita doesn't even care what that makes her. She'll be Carter's minion any day if that's what it takes to make a difference in this war.
Carter is just reaching to unfasten and lift the front of her Jacket's cage when the door of the hangar bursts open, slamming against the opposite wall. Running footsteps come closer, and Carter's head snaps around. Rita follows, hand going for the Jacket controls in what has already become instinct. She takes an involuntary step closer when she recognises Anyanka, face blotchy and sweating, dragging Parker along by the arm and Karl by his wrist. The boys look confused, but don't fight the tow, long legs eating up the space until they're close enough to speak.
"They're coming," Anyanka croaks, eyes darting to and fro like she's trying to case all the angles. "Group of about ten, maybe twelve, closing in on the base."
"Where?" Carter barks, Jacket snapping around her again like the armour it is. She doesn't ask Anyanka how she knows, or why the alarm isn't sounding if that's true. Rita swallows down her questions, along with the dread suddenly crawling up her spine and tangling in her throat. Oh god, she's not ready. They're not ready.
"South-east, twenty miles, ETA ten minutes," Anyanka replies, sounding calmer in the face of Carter's competent control.
"Get suited up," Carter says, palming her Jacket's controls. "Vrataski, with me. We have to warn the Tower."
The Tower is in the centre of the compound, protected on all sides – the one place that has to remain undamaged at all costs so they can radio in their intel. Rita feels some of Carter's calm infuse her, and she rushes after her while the others race to their Jackets and swear as they strap in. Carter is fast, even faster than Rita has grown used to seeing from her. The soles of her Jacket set off sparks as she runs, eyes grim and focused on the horizon. Rita takes a few deeper breaths, and recalls her training. She can do this. She can. It's what she has been waiting to do ever since she got here.
"Sarge!" Hendricks calls, loping in on Carter's other side. His Jacket has three golden upside-down ticks on one strut, a freshly-minted Sergeant's marking. As frightened as Rita feels, the sight of him there, at her right shoulder, it does something to her. Her back straightens, and she grips the Jacket's controls tighter. Resolve filters through the anxiety, pushing it away. Hendricks is here. He won't let her falter. The mimics won't win if it's the last thing Rita will do.
"Sarge? Vrataski, what's the sitrep?" Hendricks calls again when Carter doesn't answer, merely accelerates.
Rita tells him what she knows as fast as she can. Like Carter, Hendricks doesn't question Anyanka's intel. Rita remembers that moment over a week ago, when Anyanka had looked like she was seeing through her, across some plane only she knew. So this is what that had been about. Rita wants to ask so many things – how does Anyanka feel them? Can she tell when they're going to come, or just when they're close enough to their target? But now is neither the time nor the place. If Anyanka's warning pays off, maybe she'll ask.
If they're all still alive.
In the end, it's almost anticlimactic. There are twelve mimics that try to attack the camp, probably a scouting patrol of some kind, and Carter and the others rally the recruits until the mimics are all lifeless and twisted like untangled skeins.
"Good work," Carter praises. Rita took out one of them herself, when it tried a surprise attack from their flank. But Anyanka's head had turned, and Rita had followed her gaze, and okay, so her stupid ammo belt had glitched again, but her eyes had caught on shattered steel sticking out from the ground, a piece from one of the barracks coming down. Rita hadn't stopped to think before she'd snatched it up with one of the Jacket's metal pincers and rammed it deep into the mimic's centre until it stopped twitching.
"Thanks, Sarge," Rita says, shaking slightly now that the adrenaline has started to ebb. "I had a great teacher."
Carter's mouth twitches, but she nudges Rita in the shoulder when they turn and start towards the Jackets' warehouse again. "I liked your move with the blade. Maybe tomorrow we'll see Shasta about figuring out some kind of sword for you."
Rita shoves the offending ammo belts into the side of the holster, rushing a little to catch up to Carter. "That'd be fantastic," she says. "Maybe see about ammo containers, too."
Carter hums noncommittally and peels off to talk to one of the Master Sergeants. Anyanka catches up to Rita a moment later, appearing on her left as if out of thin air. Her face is back to her usual darkness now, sweaty but no longer pale as a ghost.
"Yo, babe. Wanna come out with me an' Parker tonight?"
Rita squints at her. Aren't they gonna—she thought the two of them had an understanding— oh.
Anyanka watches her from the corner of her eye. "You can if you want," she says, easy and apparently unfussed either way. "Plenty of space for everyone, no need for emotional attachments to get you tangled up. It's war. Might as well have some fun while we're here."
Rita swallows. It's not like the release would be unwelcome; it's really kind of Anyanka to offer, actually. But--
"Oh, I see how it is," Anyanka says slyly, knocking Rita's arm as she goes. Rita's head snaps back from where she'd got caught up watching Hendricks talk to two other Sergeants, his Jacket washed crimson under the setting sun. She starts to say, 'It's not like that,' – but damn it, Anyanka's right. It's war. Rita doesn't want to wake up in two months' time, get ready for battle, and walk into death with regrets on her mind.
"You think he'll mind?" she asks instead.
Anyanka shrugs. "Don't reckon. He likes you, and I haven't seen him with any of the guys, so you stand a good chance. Have fun, darlin'. See ya in the morning."
"You too," Rita says with a smile. Anyanka winks at her and takes off towards where Parker is trudging ahead, nearly at the warehouse already. Rita pauses, looking back at Hendricks. He's a good leader, she sees that. Today on the field, he was relaying orders between the members of his unit with ease, seamlessly receiving communication from other Sergeants at the same time. He's firm but fair, and he trusts his men to pull their weight. He trusts her, too, and that's as good a reference as it gets for Rita.
"Hey," she calls, once Hendricks says his goodbyes and turns. He spots her right away, smiling as he lopes towards her.
"Hey," he says, falling into step towards the warehouse. "How're you doing?"
"Good," Rita says, nodding. "What's the word?"
Hendricks shrugs and winces. "No one knows for sure what prompted the attack. The radar doesn't detect any more mimics in the vicinity. Satellite confirms it. Must have been a patrol that got lucky."
"Yes, that's what Anyanka thinks, too," Rita says. She still doesn't know what's going on there, but Anyanka's intel had been flawless, and Rita has seen enough weird shit happen in the world the past few years to take some things on faith.
Hendricks hums, looking at his feet. They walk in silence a few yards before Hendricks speaks up again.
"The brass is pleased. We're being deployed on Monday. France."
"France?" Rita repeats. She went to Lyon, a lifetime ago. It had been lovely.
"Mm. Verdun, in the north. General Brigham sent word. He thinks we can make a good stand there, stop them from advancing further west. We'd better, or London's next."
Rita shudders. Feels like a lifetime since she went home, since her small flat in Bridgewater, the cat she had to take to a shelter before she enlisted. Will life ever feel normal again?
Suddenly, she's desperate to forget all that. Monday is four days away. That's a long time, when you've got nothing to do but train and – well. Indulge in another kind of training.
"Go for a drink with me tonight?" Rita says, swallowing past the lump trying to lodge in her throat. Her stomach tingles with nerves and anticipation. Hendricks turns to look at her slowly, blue eyes piercing into hers.
"Sure," he says, calm and contained and just with a hint of a smile. "I'd like that."
Rita smiles back. Whatever else happens, she's going to make sure Hendricks isn't one of the things she lives to regret.