Simon felt Hendrick chuckle at his reply and watched as the old soldier opened his hazel eyes. Not the reflective emerald of a recently enhanced operative any longer, the biologist observed. Either ageing or lack of use was perhaps the reason for the changes. Past routines surfaced and Simon reflexively used the ex-scout’s old code name. Compass: a moment?
The retired man blinked and pressed retreating knuckles back. Oh, now I know I’m in trouble. What’re you bringing that name back for, Sir?
How far have your enhancements deteriorated?
The old scout seemed to deflate. Damn, Sir. He ran a tense hand through grey hair. That’s a personal question.
I have not seen you for years. How far? Simon persisted.
While soldiers were on active duty, the biologist had insisted, despite their chaotic schedules, in maintaining a regular series of physical assessments. For Compass, these appointments intensified in both occurrence and significance as the man aged, particularly when he outlived the majority of his generation on the field. In the twilight years of the soldier’s duty, Simon had taken personal interest in the scout’s health and performed the examinations himself. Eventually, the General had come to the chilling conclusion that Compass’ abilities were fading.
Shifting where he stood, the veteran seemed on the verge of flipping his superior the proverbial bird and walking away from the conversation entirely. When the man had finally retired from the army, Simon had given him the full physical report: from his current standing to the life expectancy of his enhancements. They had both been very aware that the decision to step back from active duty was a smart one, but for Hendrick it had been a bitter retreat.
Simon lifted an eyebrow and waited. The soldier would answer; obedience was too ingrained into his psyche for the army man to disregard a direct question, even after adapting to civilian status.
The hand on the glass contracted into a white-knuckled fist and then relaxed. Eyes closing once more, the ex-scout leaned forward to touch his forehead to the glass in a gesture of surrender. “All,” he whispered.
For a moment, Simon chose not to speak, a silent acknowledgement of the loss. The Suicide Squad’s retired Compass Arrow took the opportunity to resurrect his dignity and lifted his head to the regard his General full on, waiting for his response.
We had expected it to happen eventually, was the quiet reply. The General frowned. However, I had predicted it would last longer.
Shrugging his shoulders, the old man sighed. That was years ago, General. At that time, I had been running missions constantly. He lifted his chin. I may have been falling apart, but I was still active.
You believe that the inactivity has hastened the deterioration? Simon tilted his head, noting the past tense of the last statement.
Snorting, Hendrick gave the biologist a knowing look. The theory had been mentioned in your last report, General. It was a viable risk.
The corner of Simon’s mouth twitched. Indeed. Why haven’t you been maintaining the exercises then, if you were aware?
I’m… retired. The other man grimaced and glanced away guiltily. I got lazy.
That is no excuse, soldier. Disappointed, the General frowned down at his long-time patient and watched as the other smiled sheepishly. But, that is life. He sighed and mused, With all my preaching about the need to exercise, you’d think there would be some kind of retiree boot camp out there.
The casual tone surprised a sharp bark of laughter from the old soldier. There wasn’t all that many of us that made it to retirement; even less that stayed sane as civilians. The ex-Suicide scowled, Not much of a sample.
True enough, Simon allowed. Therefore, he sent a whisper of thought to Nathan. Captain, we have an issue.
“Sir,” Hendrick’s tone was pained. “Please don’t call me that.”
Nathan stepped over and raised an eyebrow at the retiree as he laid a hand on the tank. There is an issue?
Hendrick will supervise Rico while your team gets me out, Simon said flatly.
“Like Hell, Sir!” The ex-scout exploded. I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for far too long–―
A confused thought over-rode the raging one as Nathan broke in. Sir?
The General signalled the captain to wait and levelled a dead stare at the fuming man. You said it exactly, soldier. Simon watched as his temper stuttered and died out.
“Well, fuck,” the man muttered. He pulled back from the glass, set his jaw, and turned to take a dignified seat in a chair across the room.
The General sighed. The retreating man may have been taking great pains to disguise his anger and jilted pride, but even through distance and the obscuring amber, he could still clearly see the twitching muscles in the old soldier’s jaw. Leaving Hendrick to sort through his thoughts, Simon turned back to the captain.
Nathan was frowning, looking back and forth between the two other men. Taking the General’s attention as a cue to speak, the younger soldier asked, What is this about, General?
Simon shook his head and sent a sad quiet tendril; Compass is a grumpy old man.
Nathan blinked and then his lips spread into a smile. Silently chuckling, the captain kept his grin turned away from Hendrick. Sir, came the shining thread. Don’t ever let him hear that from you.
The taller man glanced at the other soldier who was glowering at Nathan. Duly noted.
You’re keeping him safe, stated the captain. He lifted clear shining-green eyes to lock gazes with the man inside the tank. That’s what this is about, isn’t it?
Spreading long-fingered hands at his sides, Simon sighed. He is no longer in his prime, and is now as normal as any of us can be after all of those procedures. The biologist gazed at the ex-scout, noting the stubborn scowl and the underlying hurt in those betraying hazel eyes. Hendrick is precious in that he has managed to stay alive to achieve normalcy again. One of the rare still alive, sane, and determined to stay so.
Nathan snorted. You have just relegated a retired super-soldier to the humiliating task of babysitting your new pet. Quickly muffling a pained chuckle, he shook his head. And, he has to do that, while the younger men go play rescue squad.
Captain, Simon adopted a tone much like Hendrick’s earlier one. Don’t call him a super-soldier.
“I’m going home,” the man in question declared, getting to his feet. “You can talk about me when I’m not here.” Hendrick snapped a quick salute and left to make his way, grumbling, toward the doors.
Proud, is he not? Simon remarked.
General, you are too cruel, was Nathan’s reply.
The General focused his attention on the captain. Have you at least been maintaining your regimen? Hendrick’s case has all but proven that lassitude will dull our blades.
One sardonic eyebrow lifted in answer. You’re one to talk. You’ve been floating in a tank for almost half a year. The Suicide soldier waved a hand, forestalling Simon’s rebuttal. Yes, I have. With the apparent exception of retirees, all of my people have been. Just because the army has us in limbo—
A commotion at the entrance caught the General’s notice. Rico has arrived, he pointed out.
What? The younger man swung around to see the ex-scout confronting the helpless lab tech. “Talk about bad timing,” he sighed. The captain moved across the inner lab towards the doors, but Simon, again, stalled his action.
No, Nathan. Let him rant, the General projected. He needs to get it out of his system.
“Yeah, well. Your little friend looks like he’s going to drop if—” The captain groaned as Hendrick’s voice rose a few decibels. Before, the sealed glass entry had dampened the sounds from the outer room to a quiet murmur, but now the soldier’s words were clearly heard over the hum of the machinery.
Simon shook his head and chuckled. Along with the volume, the angry old man’s hands had also risen to convey his displeasure.
“He certainly still has his parade-ground lungs,” Nathan muttered as a certain phrase was skilfully bellowed throughout the labs.
The General blinked as the retired scout apparently ran out of the common expressions and started spouting foreign ones. Where did he hear that from?
Turning his head, the captain glanced back at Simon with a wry smile. “Australia?” He shrugged. “That’s the only place I know of with spiders that big.” Lapsing into silence, they listened to the veteran rage on.
Abandoning English, Hendrick had begun to display a stunningly wide-range of tongues complete with flawless accents. He could always take up teaching languages, I suppose, murmured Simon dazedly.
Nathan’s eyebrows rose sharply. “You can’t be suggesting that we jail that lunatic in with a classroom of impressionable university students.”
It was the General’s turn to shrug. Watching the retired operative finally exit the labs, he suddenly grinned. He would have a new code name: the Professor.