Chapter 3 – Responsibility
1 Day Later
“Hmm… hm hm… hmmm…”
Colonel Saito hummed quietly to himself as he navigated the hallways of SERRCom headquarters. Hands in pockets, he casually strolled through the hallways, barely acknowledging the other soldiers and office workers he passed as he idly swept his eyes across the tiled flooring and warmly lit walls. Every several meters or so, a wooden facade would appear on the walls on either side of him, ending in an arch overhead. Saito traced one of the arches with his eyes, and then found himself looking at the lighting along the walls. The inner walls stopped short of the ceiling, giving way to a shelf of sorts in which the hallway’s lights sat. The lights then shone up on the ceiling, thereby lighting the hallway indirectly without exposing any naked bulbs to eyesight.
Weird aesthetic for a military headquarters, he thought to himself idly before rounding a corner and stopping in his tracks. Before him was a pair of double-doors, constructed out of the sort of partially translucent glass one might install in a bathroom. And above the doors was an austere, yet large sign that read out a single word: “infirmary”.
Saito stared at the sign for several moments and then glanced around himself. The time was late afternoon, but he found himself alone in front of the infirmary, left to stew in the oppressive silence. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then finally reached for the doors and pushed his way through.
Once in the infirmary, Saito found himself surrounded by sterile white tiling and clean, blank walls. He glanced toward the main desk to his left; behind a large pile of folders and two laptops sat a nurse, busy typing away as their attention constantly snapped between the two computers and the pile of folders. They briefly acknowledged Saito with a glance before returning to their work, at which point the Colonel simply continued onward. As part of SERRCom’s Headquarters facilities — which featured a campus nearly the size of the USA’s Pentagon — the infirmary was more similar in size to a small hospital than the simple handful of beds that the name “infirmary” might imply. Even so, Saito was easily able to find his way around to his destination. Today wasn’t his first recent visit, after all; he had also dropped by yesterday.
Rounding one final corner, he then stopped in his tracks, his eyes falling on the one occupied bed on the floor — and the large, dark-skinned man who sat next to it. The man’s back was facing Saito, but he could still easily discern the man’s identity: Colonel Miles Johnson, here to visit the incapacitated Captain Feng.
Just as Saito was.
Saito briefly considered turning around and returning later. Feng was part of Johnson’s squad, not Saito’s, and as such he couldn’t help but feel like he would just be getting in the way. But before he could decide whether to stay or to leave, Johnson looked behind himself, immediately spotting Saito. As he turned, his wide torso stopped blocking Saito’s view of Feng’s head — and his blank expression. The Captain was clearly awake, and even glanced to the side to make eye-contact with Saito… but the emptiness behind his eyes gave the Colonel pause. The fact that Feng wasn’t energetically running his mouth was sign enough that something was wrong, and his stoic expression merely compounded the issue.
“…Oh. Kaji.” Johnson nodded toward his fellow Colonel. “Here to check on Li?”
“That was the plan,” Saito remarked as he glanced between Johnson and Feng. “Am I interrupting…?”
Johnson heaved a sigh. “Not really.” He then waved Saito over. “C’mon. Li, you remember Colonel Saito?”
Saito approached, hands still in pockets, and stood next to Johnson. Now that he was closer, he could tell that — physically — Feng appeared perfectly fine. Nothing about the Captain’s appearance indicated that he was sick in any notable meaning of the word, and yet, the robotic smoothness with which he moved his body and head made him appear obviously unwell.
“Yes, I remember.” Feng locked eyes with Saito, his stare empty, but unwavering.
“How’re you holding up?” Saito asked.
“I’m not holding anything.”
Saito glanced uneasily at Johnson before looking back at Feng. “…Right. I meant, how are you doing? How are you feeling?”
The Colonel removed his hands from his pockets and crossed his arms as he passed Feng an incredulous look. “You do remember what happened two days ago… right?”
Feng nodded once. “Yes.”
“So the Drakkar didn’t take your memories?”
“He did not.”
“…But he still stole your Ciei?”
“It would appear so.”
“Kaji…” Johnson placed a hand on Saito’s shoulder. “Maybe we shouldn’t remind the poor boy about what happened.”
“…Right. Sorry.” Saito bowed his head toward Feng. “I didn’t mean to bother you.”
The Captain responded with a blank stare.
“…Am… I bothering you?” Saito questioned uneasily.
The Colonel’s expression clouded. Feng’s curt responses left little path for conversation, and yet his body language didn’t reflect that of someone who wished to be left alone. In fact, Saito had a difficult time reading Feng at all; he felt like he was talking to a robot replica of Feng, as opposed to the actual man himself. Feng’s skin, hair, eyes, face — they all clearly belonged to a human, but as he spoke, he didn’t emote at all. The utter lack of emotion nearly pushed him backwards into the uncanny valley, a feat that Saito never expected to see from a flesh and blood human.
“Captain…” Saito finally addressed Feng again after a couple moments of silence. “Johnson and I can leave you alone, if you want.”
Feng blinked once before replying, “I do not want anything.”
“So you’d be fine if we stayed here?”
“But you’d also be fine if we just left.”
Saito exchanged a glance with Johnson before continuing, “do you want to talk to us?”
Still with a blank expression, Feng responded, “I have no desire either way.”
“Alright…” Johnson spoke up, standing from his stool and giving Saito an apprehensive look. He then turned his attention back to Feng and forced a smile. “I think it’s time Saito and I called it a day. I’ll check on you again tomorrow, Li. Hope you have a good night.”
As Johnson turned around and began to leave, Saito remained for a moment, his eyes locked with Feng. The Captain simply returned the gaze, completely silent and expressionless. Eventually Saito turned away, involuntarily shuddering as he followed Johnson out of the infirmary.
After closing the infirmary doors behind him, Saito turned around to find Major Rachel Hackett standing before him. By her side was a man with a pale complexion and short blond hair. He slouched slightly, leaving him a few inches shorter than Hackett’s six foot height — but still a little taller than Saito. He wore the same uniform as both Hackett and Saito, even down to the ‘CSF-1’ squad patch attached to his shoulders.
“…Hackett, Travis,” Saito nodded toward the two of them as he straightened his posture.
“Didn’t expect to find the two of you here, sirs,” Travis replied. “…Though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, huh?”
“The two of you here to see Captain Feng?” Johnson questioned.
Hackett and Travis exchanged an uneasy glance. “…We thought it would be best to pay him a visit, yes,” Hackett responded.
“Seemed like the right thing to do,” Travis added. “I’m sure he’s feeling, uh… bad.”
“Well, that’s the problem.” Johnson scowled. “He isn’t feeling anything.”
“…Say again, sir?”
The Colonel stared hard at both Hackett and Travis, and then glanced down at Saito. “…You guys really haven’t ever seen what this… ‘Ciei theft’ looks like, huh? Even though you run missions against Drakkars all the time?”
Hackett pursed her lips. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say, sir.”
“CSF-1 has gone up against the Drakkars a dozen times. Haven’t you? And never before have one of you lost this ‘Ciei’ shit to a Drakkar… only when my team tags along do we see the first casualty.”
“That’s because we usually have help,” Saito countered. “This last mission was our first time going up against the Drakkars without having the Eximius Vir to back us up.”
“Oh. Right. Of course.” Johnson snorted and turned his attention away from the other three. “Gotta get yourselves saved by those kids now, huh?”
“Respectfully, sir, the Eximius Vir aren’t kids,” Hackett insisted.
“Aren’t they? Making them ranking officers ain’t gonna change the fact that most soldiers their age are only Privates,” Johnson countered. “I’ve read the briefs. They’ve been Lieutenants ever since they joined four years ago, when they were eighteen. Now you tell me: since when do eighteen-year-olds deserve the rank of Lieutenant?”
Travis shrugged. “Since they were Chaotics?”
“Is that all it takes?” Johnson turned his frustrated gaze on Saito. “They got special powers, so SERRCom bends all the rules and gives ‘em special treatment? That doesn’t mesh with what the General decided with those new Chaotics. So what, then, Kaji? You’ve been with them from the beginning. What’s so special about them, that they deserve this treatment right out the gate?”
Saito crossed his arms, his lips pursed in irritation. “You know I can’t talk about that, Miles.”
“Sure, sure, classified top secret.” Johnson shook his head. “Still don’t explain anything. Doesn’t explain why the Eximius Vir didn’t back us up, when we knew there were Drakkars there.”
“All due respect, sir, I think we had a pretty good handle on the Drakkars,” Travis spoke up. “That Faction Leader guy poppin’ up is what screwed the pooch, and having the Eximius Vir around when that happened wouldn’t have helped much, would it?”
Johnson turned to give Travis an incredulous stare. “You’re tellin’ me that not a single one of ‘em could have saved Feng from that bastard?”
Travis opened his mouth to respond, paused for a moment to think, and then closed his mouth and glanced to the side.
“And they should have been there, too. Not Fireteam Alpha. But since the General wants his Chaotics so bad…”
“Miles,” Saito muttered warningly.
Johnson looked over at Saito and then snorted derisively. “Right. Right. Out of line and all that.”
“Even so, Colonel,” Hackett commented, “I… well, I’ve never personally seen the results of Ciei theft, and I haven’t had the chance to talk with Captain Feng much since the mission… so I don’t really know what his condition is like. I’m sure it’s bad, but… respectfully, sir, that’s just a possibility we have to face every time we go into the field, isn’t it? The possibility that we won’t return.”
The Colonel stared at her for a few moments before heaving a great sigh. “Right. You’re right…” He then vigorously shook his head and slapped himself across the cheek. After regaining his bearings, he glanced between Saito, Hackett, and Travis. “Sorry about that. Didn’t mean to bad mouth anyone, this situation just…”
“I understand, Miles,” Saito responded quietly.
“Good. Now if you don’t mind me, it’s getting late, and I haven’t seen my kids in a while.” Johnson stepped past Hackett and Travis and then continued down the hallway, offering the group a simple wave as he left.
Saito silently watched him leave before taking a step forward, drawing the attention of Hackett and Travis.
Travis chuckled uneasily. “Bad timing, huh, sir?”
Saito shook his head. “No, it’s fine. I don’t even entirely disagree with most of what Miles said.”
“What do you mean…?” Hackett questioned.
“Mostly about the special treatment the Eximius Vir get. Now, we’ve seen them in action, and we know how powerful they are, but even so…” Saito frowned. “I can’t help but shake the feeling that SERRCom is too willing to bend the rules for the sake of power.”
Travis sighed uneasily. “You mean Austin and his friends?”
Saito nodded. “I know he’s your nephew, so this whole thing has to be hard on you.”
“Yeah, well…” The Captain shrugged. “It’s the job… I guess.”
“I agree that it isn’t the… ethically best decision, so to speak,” Hackett commented, “but you said it yourself, Colonel. The Eximius Vir are powerful. If these new recruits have even a fraction of the power of Mote, then—”
“—Then they’d be valuable assets to SERRCom, I know,” Saito cut in. “That’s General Lead’s entire reasoning behind conscripting them. I don’t disagree, and leaving them out in the wild untrained could be even worse in the long run anyways. But this is a damned slippery slope that we’re on here.”
“Sure, but it ain’t a very long one either,” Travis pointed out. “It ain’t like we’re suddenly discovering tens or hundreds of Chaotics around Earth. So far it’s just been my nephew and his friends.”
Saito shook his head. “I meant more generally than that. I don’t mean to pull the age card here, but I’ve been with SERRCom for over a decade longer than either of you. Hell, I’ve been here since nearly the beginning. I can even remember First Contact with the CSA 30 years ago. Ever since then, ever since its formation, SERRCom has been acting under the belief that it’s the underdog. Against both the nations here on Earth, and the forces out there in the galaxy — and for the most part, it’s true. But I was around for the beginning of ‘SERRCom Hegemony’ on Earth, and I know that we basically bullied our way into our current position, all under the justification that a more powerful SERRCom would better protect Earth from the threats out among the stars. Part of that’s true, for now. But that justification has to stop somewhere. It isn’t enough to let us do just anything we want.”
Hackett and Travis exchanged uneasy glances. “Sounds like you’ve thought about this a lot, sir,” Hackett commented.
“Yeah, well… it’s inevitable for a man in my position.”
“Speaking of position,” Travis spoke up, “sir, you might just be a Colonel, but you’ve got a direct line to Matthew Lead, the General of the Space Forces! The man in charge of the entirety of SERRCom! If you think what we’re doing is wrong, then why not just say so?”
Saito stared at Travis for a moment before looking away. “I never took a hard line for the Eximius Vir. Treating the new recruits differently would just be a betrayal to them.”
“For someone who believes that, you sure went a long way toward minimizing the suffering of my nephew and his friends,” Travis countered. “Don’t forget that I was there when you negotiated the terms of their conscription with the General, sir. I know that if it weren’t for you, then they’d all be split up and way worse off than they are now. So why can’t you take it a step farther?”
“I think that’s enough, Captain,” Hackett interjected, prompting Travis to recoil and then stiffen up.
“Sorry, Colonel,” he apologized. “I didn’t mean to speak out of line.”
“…I’ll overlook it for now.” Saito sighed and turned his attention down the empty hallway, past both Hackett and Travis. But just as he opened his mouth to speak again, he felt his watch vibrate and reflexively checked it.
“…Something wrong, sir?” Hackett questioned as Saito took a moment to read through the message.
“No. Just the opposite, in fact,” he eventually replied. “Sounds like MacTavish worked out what the message on the device we retrieved means. It’s a set of Gate coordinates.”