Croy let out a quiet sigh. Newer recruits never seemed to understand how to stay out of trouble, particularly when it came to being debriefed by the higher-ups. And particularly when they fail to understand when "friendly advice" from the top brass were actually iron-clad orders.
He was standing in a beam of bright light in an otherwise pitch-black room. The shadowy outline of a crescent-shaped table stood before him, and the silhouettes of the generals seated behind it were all but invisible. Beside him stood the Fortune soldier from his patrol unit. Ground forces were usually debriefed one-by-one, but Croy was finding himself frequently called in to "assist" with sensitive incidents. He wondered if that was really the case -- standing exposed before something he couldn't see still made him uneasy, even while still clad in his Atom Armour.
"Do we have an understanding, then?" came a voice from the darkness, "Our operative simply did what was necessary to reclaim civilian contraband. He may have had to suppress any outbursts to maintain civil order, but it may be more favourable if we simply overlooked that."
Croy cut off the soldier before he could protest. "Understood -- we cannot have the military's authority undermined with accusations of civilian brutality. Rumours can't start if mouths are kept shut."
"Prudent as always, Staff Sergeant", came a second voice, "but does your subordinate share in your wisdom?"
Behind his visor, Croy closed his eyes; there was nothing more he could do for his soldier. His next words would either acquit him, or condemn him like the countless others...
A stare can tell you a lot about a person. It can tell you about fear and admiration, much like the ones he was getting right now as he strode down the long, metallic hallway. Only, these were not the disciplined gazes of caution and respect befitting of trained soldiers: these distracted expressions of open-mouthed awe were those of rookies gathered from all four corners of Arcadia.
He’d long since put it down to wearing his armour at all times. Simply going without it was the most obvious solution, but the top brass didn’t want that, citing “significantly decreased mobilisation time”. Fixing it up and maintenance was another, but the engineers cited “calibration issues”. To top it off, the brass went so far as to suggest the battered look was a sign of perseverance, and hence a strong source of military morale – that stopped him from getting a new suit of armour entirely. Not that he would have, after having finally grown accustomed to his current one.
Why the military thought it was a good idea to deprive a Spec Ops member of his anonymity was beyond him. It seemingly defeated the whole purpose of establishing a shadow unit of unknown size and composition. While focusing the public spotlight on him made the nation assume that the other members were like him, even he didn’t know the identities or missions of the other operatives. They were shadows, even from each other – except him. He was being used as the public decoy. Except it made little sense for him to be the military’s scapegoat when they had made it plenty clear how vital his role was.
He resigned himself to leaving that puzzle unresolved as he walked into another hall – and was suddenly made fully aware of his surroundings. Three thoughts registered subconsciously: the quiet, hydraulic hiss of closing doors; a steady rhythm of footsteps abruptly ending in a sharp footfall; and a subtle, tingling sensation of heat on his left temple. One thought registered consciously: someone had just exited the debriefing room, stopped at the sight of him, and was now staring at him – and a gaze of this intensity was usually hostile.
He glanced left to where the footsteps stopped: the heavy doors were sliding shut, quickly concealing the darkness beyond in the debriefing room. Before those doors stood two men: one was clad in the distinctive blue-purple hue of the Atom, while the other, who had stopped dead in his tracks, wore the dull hues of the Fortune Armour.
Judging from their body language, neither of them seemed too happy to see him.
They had just walked out of one confrontation – with his subordinate only just managing to avoid an act of treason – and straight into another one. Of all possible people to run into… Croy thought to himself as he sighed again. Just as well that he was here then, and that it was his own subordinate this time – it was a lot harder to talk some sense into hot-headed soldiers who outranked him, and he could sense the Fortune’s hostile glare even from behind his helmet.
Croy waited a moment for the private’s temper to get the better of him, and watched intently as the private made to walk menacingly towards the operative. The moment the Fortune’s first step touched the ground, Croy’s voice cut through the air with a steely edge: “Stand down, private.”
The Fortune froze; even through his helmet, the razor-sharp command had narrowly sliced past his ear like a bullet. Then, as he felt a spike of adrenaline surge through his veins, he realised he was scared.
Another order split the silence: ”dismissed, return to the barracks.” Croy watched for the twist of the waist and opening of the palms indicating his subordinate was about to turn around and try to talk; when he saw the Fortune’s wrists move, the staff sergeant thundered “NOW, SOLDIER!!” The private’s primal instincts kicked in, and the rush of adrenaline carried his body away in a sprint while his mind tried to make sense of the inexplicable fear he felt coursing through his veins.
Croy watched his fleeing subordinate, then exhaled slowly. You don’t reason with hot-headed soldiers using logic – you reason with them using their instincts. Many others in the military thought that he was usually far too lenient on his soldiers. They failed to understand that soldiers tend to get used to your yelling when you’re always doing it: rationing your voice made your commands considerably more potent when used properly with threats. And the best way to threaten is to hit them with the consequence just after they’ve clearly decided to do something, but before they can complete it.
He looked around: the Thunder operative was also gazing in the direction the private had fled. “Must you always rub so many people the wrong way?” Croy asked, “It’d make our lives a lot easier.”
The Thunder turned to Croy, but said nothing. “Okay, it’d make my life a lot easier,” Croy amended, reading the Thunder’s silence, “the brass still seems as happy as ever to call it ‘treason’ and send a soldier to prison if they don’t get the hint. I’m just trying to make sure good men aren’t going to waste.”
The Thunder gave Croy another look. “Well, able men then,” Croy conceded, “soldiers willing to serve Arcadia. Good men willing to look after their own –”
“Anyone can look after their own,” interjected the Thunder, finally breaking his silence, “but ‘their own’ is simply their own people. They see another, and they’ll regard it as the enemy, no matter what their own have done. That’s not a good man – that’s not even self-preservation. That’s self-superiority.”
They stood in silence for a while. “I’m just trying to help you, Kierens,” Croy finally said, “you don’t need to live like this, and I don’t think making enemies is helping you get any closer.”
Before they could continue any further, a low siren blared throughout the complex, followed by a voice echoing through the speakers.
“Them,” the Thunder hissed as a golden glow started wrapping around his legs, before he bolted in the direction of the mobilisation point. Croy sprinted after him. This was going to be a long day, but at least this time, they could agree on the same enemy.
“PERIMETER BREACH DETECTED IN YB FACTORY. CONTACT: MULTIPLE TERRESTRIAL LIFEFORMS. ROSTERED EMERGENCY RESPONSE UNITS TO MOBILISE IMMEDIATELY.”