IC: Onu-Koro's having a few decision moments. In a historic hut, two Akiri draft village futures in soil. In quiet private chambers, a poet puts off a personal transformation in liquid.
And in an Ussalry office stinking of cigar smoke—recently blended with notes of ketchup—one spy decides to cut the ####.
"Cut the ####, Colonel," Mars says. One of her feet’s kicking her chair up slightly, both of her eyes staring down at the man sitting behind the desk. Her hand flicks a fry out of the pack on her lap. “I appreciate that you’re giving me your robot.” She reaches over to the desk for a dip in ketchup, still looking at the colonel. “Karz, I can even understand why you’d want me to ‘take this as an opportunity t’ practice squad cohesion in suboptimal conditions,’” she mimics, ending with a blood-colored nibble that goes down smooth. "But if I’ve learned anything from all those squadron barhops, it’s that whenever you start talking about ‘squad cohesion,’ it’s because you’re about to ask for help with ‘suboptimal conditions.’ P sure you don’t need a wingman for hitting up the only stallion around," she says, jerking her fry at the statue of Stannis, “so what do you want?”
Ussalry Colonel Gavarm—veteran of the Nui-Rama Hive Assault, the hunt for Jazek Rehn, and various attempts to get an attractive stranger’s attention—is thinking that romancing the stone would be preferable to this. Well, not really, he thinks, fingers circling the case of cigars in his desk, but some wordplay on “closing the distance between a prophet and his polearm” would at least make Mars groan. And then Gavarm could say “about those squadron barhops...” And then they could trade the office for some place with greasy food and cheap drinks and start forgetting about all of this. Just like old times. Ask along Uyism, and Tarnok, and no sense not asking Leli as well…
Gavarm stills. No forgetting that. He owes it to Leli.
“I want you to listen,” he says, and Mars only opens her mouth to finish the fry. He tells her about Gyn Kirsug; not the smiling squadmate Mars met all those ops ago, but the Gyn Kirsug Gavarm knows. Gavarm tells Mars about the man who engineered Sulov’s exile, who backed Kyju’s murders, who brainwashed Leli. As Gavarm speaks, he can sense his seething: I was part of this. He can’t count the number of times he chokes up, drowning in what he’s uncovered or finally voiced. But Mars just keeps flicking out a fry, giving it one dip, nibbling away without more ketchup until she’s onto the next one. That is all Gavarm needs to swallow and keep going. By the time he’s done, the fries are nearly out, and he can speak clearly: “I’m going to kill him.”
Mars nods. “Where do we begin?”
Gavarm predicted this, and his response rolls out of his mouth like liquid. “That won’t be necessary, old sport. I’m not putting anyone else in the legal crossfire.” He draws a cigar and cradles it. ”This is a one-person job, and it has t’ be me.”
“And you’re not the right person for it, Colonel.” Mars jams a fry into the last bits of ketchup, cuts its down in two trim bites. “Yeah, you screwed up with Sulov. But you didn’t know about that #### with Kyju or Leli. ‘Your’ job? Karz no, the dude brought this on himself, and if I thought the justice system would treat him that way I’d say Nuparu should pass the sentence. Let me do it,” she says, inclining her chair until her eyes are almost level with Gavarm’s. “We’re talking about eliminating one target while avoiding legal retaliation. That’s how I got in the force, and even if this job means I have to leave the force behind, I’m the best you’ve got.”
Gavarm did not predict this. Still, he recovers in time to muster a “no.” Mars drops the chair to the ground, still looking down at him, and he adds gently, “You’re right, you’re the best I’ve got.” He runs his fingers over the cigar, assured by the familiar smoothness. “But this is my responsibility.”
“Don’t be a Maru, Gavarm,” she fires back, and the name tells him he’s stepped in it. She yanks the ketchup off the table and slides it in the pack alongside the last fries, springing out of the chair. “It’s not your Duty to clean Makuta’s ####ing kitchen sink by yourself.” He starts to move his lips, but she holds up a fry, a salty and now-cold finger. “You don’t need to march off into Mangai with just your sword and a squadron’s worth of regrets. Why tell me about this job if you just want to play hero?”
Gavarm sets the cigar down and stands up. He’s been waiting to say this, and now that he’s staring up at the person who should hear it, he knows this is his first responsibility. This won’t be another regret. He speaks quietly, accent washed from his voice. “I don’t want to play hero. I want revenge.”
Mars slides the fry back.
“I want to hurt the person who’s hurt the people I care about. And I want to stop being part of the system that made that hurt, especially if it means leaving the force.” Gavarm meets Mars’ eyes, stands straighter. “I need to do this and leave because I’m selfish. I told you about this because, with how you got in the force,” he adds—and Mars’ fingers tightening on the paper package is the loudest he’s ever heard her—“I thought you’d understand.”
“How you got in the force” hangs between them again: the story of a Le-Matoran gardener who would rather turn her knife on someone else than be cut out from her roots.
Mars puts the pack down on the table.
She nods. She pads over to Gavarm and opens her arms. And Gavarm throws his arms around her and the hug alone is warmer than he’s felt in weeks.
She pulls back, grabs the fries and slides one out again. “Copy that, Colonel,” she says, and Gavarm hears she’s not sarcastic. “Orders?”
“Key in Tarnok and Leli, and Uyism; haven’t seen them in a while, but they deserve to know.” Gavarm picks up the cigar again and imagines lighting it, blowing away his frown. Then he perks up. “Rynekk too—Po-Toa with the Sentinels,” he adds, seeing Mars’ blank stare. “And take care of yourself. I appreciate that you’ve got my back, but Exo-Matoran or not, there’s only one Mars.”
“Could say the same to you, Colonel.” Mars chews a cold fry with a liberal dose of ketchup. “You’re the one who’s about to go do something selfish, after all. Better not screw it up by becoming just another professor.”
“Come on, Mars,” Gavarm says, chuckling. “I don’t miss research enough t' become an adjunct.”
Mars rolls her eyes. “Says the man who nearly talked poor Kol Uskey’s ear off about Nui-Rama nerve clusters after exactly one drink. Can’t promise I’ll be around to shut you up next time.” She tosses the empty ketchup in his bin. “Use your own ‘nerve clusters’ and don’t make me clean up after you.”
“Good luck t' you too, Mars,” Gavarm says, and he is suddenly aware that he’s been grinning even as Mars alludes to his mission. He won’t stop now. “Don't keep me waiting when ya write.”
“Don't intend to.” Mars tips back the pack and lets the fragmented fries at the bottom fall into her mouth. She gives it an exact crunch and swallow. The pack joins the ketchup in the bin, and Mars steps over to the door. She flicks a final side-eye back to Gavarm.
“Really, don’t make me clean up after you.” She tilts her head at the ashtray on the desk. “That Gold Standard aroma isn’t exactly cologne.” Then Mars opens the door and steps out.
Gavarm’s grin has pulled back to a small smile, but he doesn’t stop. He puts the cigar back with the other Gold Standards and picks up the tray instead, moving to take out his trash.
He has a job to do.