Chapter Nine:

Everything on the Table

Aquila sat on a cot in the secret EAGLE base's medical bay. After the battle, General Kenpachi had led him down here, through the door he had believed led to a bathroom and down a long elevator ride. A medic was working on fixing him up, but there wasn't much to fix. His burns had pretty much healed on their own already. Tammy lay on another cot a few beds over, her eyes closed, while medics worked to cover her burns in salve. Katie sat beside her. Aquila swallowed and tried not to look at her or the half-dozen other burn victims being treated there.

A commotion outside the room drew his eyes to the door. He watched as a team of guards passed, surrounding the Sun Mask and his top five. The Sun Mask's eyes turned as they passed, briefly meeting his for just a moment. Aquila looked away.

"This is like nothing I've ever seen," his medic was saying to General Kenpachi. "There's barely a scratch on him. You're sure he got burned, right?"

"Can I ask you to do something?" Aquila interrupted. He chewed his lip, thinking about what the Sword Mask had said to him out on the street. "I would like a scan of my back."

Both Kenpachi and the medic looked at him. "Why do you want your back scanned?" the general asked.

Aquila hesitated, looking around the room. "During the attack on Corinth, the Sun Mask hit me with some kind of incendiary that burned through my enhancements. I think he may have planted a tracker on me then. I think that's how they found me today."

General Kenpachi looked at him in surprise for a second before turning to the doctor. "Do it," he said.

"Yes sir." A scanner was brought over and Aquila stripped off what was left of his shirt. It took a few seconds, as they had to account for the metal in his enhancements, but soon the scanner showed a slightly larger object right in the middle of his back, in the exact spot where the incendiary had initially hit.

Aquila closed his eyes. Of course. It really was all his fault. "Remove it, please," he said. He looked back at the general. "You'll need your best stuff to get through."

General Kenpachi nodded at him. "We'll handle it," he said. He turned to the medic. "Prep him for surgery."

Twenty minutes later, Aquila found himself in a separate room, lying face down on a surgical table. The medics set to work, using a heavy-duty bone saw to drill into his back, past the skin, to get at the tracker, and even then it took them a bit to get through. Aquila clenched his fist and bit the pillow placed in front of him, the pain hitting him full force as no amount of anesthetic would affect him.

After what felt like an hour of grueling torture, the tracker was removed. A plate was set before him, and a grotesque blood-covered device shaped like a drill and no bigger than a pea was placed inside of it. A minute or two later, a technician was brought in to deactivate and dismantle the device. Aquila was bandaged up and wheeled off to another room, this one bare with a high-security door where he was left to recover.

Aquila waited alone, his back aching but steadily healing itself. He knew what they were doing. Why they had left him alone in the room. For the moment, he was content to just let his back heal and not worry about it.

About an hour or two later, a knock on the door made him jump. He sat up, the wound on his back feeling like no more than a paper cut. "Come in," he said.

The door unlocked itself and Tammy Hayes stepped inside.

"Tammy!" Aquila said. "You're okay."

Tammy smiled and looked down. She looked much better than she had when he'd last seen her so many hours before. Her face had more color to it and she was wearing a fresh uniform, her left arm covered in bandages. She held a clipboard tightly to her chest as she always did. She looked up at him. "Yeah," she said. "I'm okay."

She stepped further into the room, fingering her clipboard and glancing at the bandages wrapped around his torso. "I heard about the tracker," she said.

Aquila scowled and looked down. He looked at the bandages on her arm, covering wounds that he caused. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. "It's my fault they came here. If it weren't for me, you—"

"Hey, it's okay," Tammy said, taking a seat in the small chair beside him, holding her injured arm as she did so. "This kind of thing is what we signed up for when we joined EAGLE, right? We're pretty tough around here, you know."

She flashed him a small smile. Aquila leaned back against the bed. "Are you sure?"

"Positive," Tammy said. She shuffled through the files stacked on her clipboard for a second. "So, um, if you don't mind me asking," she said. "Why are the Black Cross after you, exactly?"

She looked up at him, trying her best to act natural, but he knew her better than that. Her ears went red. "I mean, that was why you came here today, wasn't it?"

Aquila looked around the room. "I suppose there's no point hiding anything at this point, is there?" he said. "Even if this does all turn out to be some elaborate Black Cross ruse, they already know most of it. And if it's not, it would be nice to have some help for once." He closed his eyes. "I'll tell you," he said.

Tammy's eyes widened. "Really?" Out of pure instinct, her hands whipped out a pen and she got herself ready to take notes. After a slight pause, she glanced down at her clipboard, chewing her lip for a second. Taking a deep breath, she set the clipboard and pen aside. "That's probably not appropriate at the moment," she said.

Aquila smiled at her. He sat up and told her the story. He told her all about how he had joined EAGLE as a young man named Sean Cassidy, how he had been recruited for a secret super-soldier project by his commander, who had turned out to be a Black Cross double agent.

"I knew that part, actually," Tammy said.

Aquila stopped, confused. "What?"

Tammy went red again and pulled over one of the files she'd brought in. "A few months ago, one of our team's old techs created a program that would expose Black Cross spies within the system. We didn't catch them all, but your trainer was one of them. Rita Repellato, right?" She handed a sheet of paper up to him. It looked to be an arrest report with his old trainer's mugshot plastered across the top corner. "I noticed that when I was going through Sean Cassidy's file. Some of the higher-ups thought that proved your defection, but that didn't seem right to me."

Aquila turned over the sheet, breathing a small breath of relief as he did so. It was nice, in a way, to know that she had been caught. That she wasn't still out there, hiding among EAGLE's ranks.

Aquila continued his story, telling her about Doctor Kuchar and the nanites he'd injected right into Aquila's bloodstream that had converted him into a superhuman cyborg. Then he explained how he and the doctor had discovered the truth about who they were working for and had escaped from the compound.

"We've been on the run ever since," he said. "Our old handlers spread the story that we had defected, so we changed our names and tried to keep a low profile. Every once in a while, we'd slip up and they'd come after us again."

"Like in Corinth," Tammy said.

Aquila nodded. "Like in Corinth," he said. He stared at his hands, remembering the helpless feeling he felt when the base burned. "I got careless and Corinth paid the price for it."

Tammy looked up at him. "You were saving me," she said. "It was my fault if anything."

"No," Aquila said. "It was all theirs. The Black Cross's." He shook his head and covered his face with his hands. "This whole situation is so messed up. I can't even use these powers to save someone without a whole base going up in flames." He looked at his hand, turning it over and seeing the faint metallic sheen his skin gave off in the right light if you were looking hard enough. "I wish I'd never gotten them in the first place."

He and Tammy sat together in silence. Tammy looked at his hand and tilted her head like she had noticed the sheen too. She looked down at her files and then up at the door, biting her lip. "You've told me your secret," she said. "It's only fair that I tell you mine."

Aquila sat forward. "What do you mean?"

Tammy looked up at him. "You know I work for EAGLE high command, and that I was at Corinth on a secret mission for them, right?"

"Right," Aquila said.

Tammy picked up her files and set them on the bed in front of them. "I work for a secret project called the Ranger Project. It's a super-soldier project."

Aquila's eyes grew wide. He looked up at Tammy. "You mean, like—?"

Tammy nodded, avoiding his eyes.

Everything in Aquila's body told him to run. He shifted, ready to get off the bed and fight his way out of the compound if necessary.

Noticing his movement, Tammy quickly placed a gentle hand on his shoulder. "We're not Black Cross, though. I promise. We are completely totally one-hundred-percent EAGLE." She looked him in the eye. "Just hear me out, please."

Aquila stared back at her, his body tense. He eased back onto the bed. Slowly. Carefully. One eye kept firmly on the door.

Tammy sat back, removing her hand from his shoulder. She opened up her files and pulled out a diagram. "You saw the first one today," she said, holding it up to show him.

Aquila recognized the blueprints of the bright red suit of armor he's seen out on the street a few hours before. "The Red Boy," he said, taking the image and looking it over.

"That's right," Tammy said. "The Red Ranger, more precisely. Our project took a slightly different route than yours did, I think. Yours was a physical change to your body, with all the nanites and stuff you talked about. Ours is more like a superpowered suit of armor that uses an internal harness that works with the body to perform superhuman feats."

Tammy looked down at her hands. "My job was to scout out possible candidates for the job," she said. "That's what I was doing at Corinth."

Aquila lowered the diagram and looked at her. Tammy avoided his gaze, pulling at her hair for a second. "I was looking for people who could handle the physical needs of the job, strong, fast, with lots of stamina. Basic stuff, you know. But even more importantly, I was looking for certain personality traits. Kindness, loyalty, bravery. Someone willing to go above and beyond to protect other people, someone we could trust not to abuse the suit's power. Someone who wouldn't go rogue or let the suits fall into the wrong hands."

Aquila studied her face. He was starting to suspect where this was going, but he wanted to hear it from her first. "And did you find someone?"

Tammy pulled a file from the very bottom of her stack and opened it up for him. Aquila's own face stared back at him on top of the file, stapled to a recommendation sheet filled out in Tammy's handwriting. Two large red stamps covered the first sheet, one reading "APPROVED," and another, fresher, reading "REJECTED."

"I submitted you as a candidate," Tammy confessed, looking up at him. "This was all before the fight on the mountain."

Aquila stared at the file, picking it up and looking it over. "I got your approval back the same night Corinth was attacked," Tammy said. "I never got to show it to you."

"And then you looked up Sean Cassidy," he said, brushing his hand across the "REJECTED" stamp.

"That's right," Tammy said. "Going AWOL, defecting to the Black Cross, forgery, impersonating a soldier, your commanding officer being Black Cross too. It wasn't a good look, most of the higher-ups felt. I didn't believe it was the whole story though."

Aquila sat back, stunned. Another Super-Soldier project. And he'd been selected for this one too. He must be a magnet for this sort of thing.

Something occurred to him that made his heart sink a little. "So, all this," he said, "all that time we spent together at the base, talking, having lunch together, was all just because you thought I would be a good candidate?"

Tammy kept her eyes fixed firmly on the files before her. Her eyes glistened slightly. "Not exactly," she said. "Kinda. Maybe. About fifty percent. It started that way at least."

"Started?" Aquila asked.

Tammy glanced up at him. "I, um, may have let myself get a bit personally attached," she said.

Her whole face turned red, and she looked away again.

"Oh," Aquila said.

Tammy twisted her hair around her finger and looked at the door. "Some agent, huh? So much for keeping things professional."

Aquila smiled. He watched her sort through her files the way he had so many times before. "It's okay," he said. He reached out and took her hand. "I let myself get personally attached to you too."

Tammy stopped in the middle of her sorting. She looked up at him. Aquila smiled softly at her. Tammy smiled back and looked down, squeezing his hand slightly. She was so close to him. Aquila felt himself leaning toward her for just a second. But then, he remembered himself. His current situation. He let go of her hand and leaned away.

"But I can't let myself get attached," he said. "I can't get someone else involved. Not until all this is over. Not until I, and Doctor Kuchar, and our families are all safe from the Black Cross for good."

Tammy looked up at him. "Right," she said, sitting back. She looked down at her files, her eyes moving back and forth across the paper for a second. "This scientist you mentioned, Doctor Kuchar," she said. "Where is he?"

"He's safe," Aquila said. "Nearby. Well hidden. He was expecting a message from me when I finished here today." He looked up at the ceiling. "He's probably heard all about what happened today already."

"Will he have run?"

"Not yet, I don't think," Aquila said. "He's probably ready to run, but he'll wait for my message for probably a couple more hours."

Tammy considered. "If everything had gone according to plan today, if we turned out to be trustworthy, what was your plan from here?"

"I would have contacted him, gone to get him, and made sure he was completely secure. Set up protection for our family. And then," Aquila looked at his hand again. "The doctor's been working on a method to remove the nanites from my system, ever since all this began. He just barely managed to perfect it. As soon as I make sure he doesn't need my protection anymore, I'm going to take it."

Tammy looked up at him. "Are you sure?" she asked. "You wouldn't be superhuman."

"Yes," Aquila said. "I don't want this anymore. I just want to be normal, and do regular human things again."

Tammy looked at him sympathetically. She sat back and looked through her files. "Would you trust us to take care of him?" she asked.

Aquila looked at her, remembering everything she'd done for him so far. Three times now, she'd stood with him against the Black Cross. He knew full well she wasn't one of them. If she was, there had been plenty of opportunity to betray him before now. The people she worked for, he couldn't say as much for sure.

"What if you and I went together to talk to him," she suggested. "Without the rest of EAGLE. Let him decide whether to trust us or not."

She reached into her back pocket and pulled out a standard-issue tracking device that EAGLE gave to soldiers heading out on dangerous missions. "You could carry this on you. If he agrees to come, I'll let you activate it and EAGLE will come straight to us and he can be extracted safely. If not, you two can get away and I'll just go back on my own."

Aquila looked at the door. "Can we do that?" he asked, glancing at the door.

"I think so," Tammy said. She got to her feet. "General Kenpachi agrees with me, that there's more to your story than what your file shows. If he agrees to let you go, no one will stop us."

Aquila looked back and forth between her and the door. "Alright," he said, taking the chance. "Let's do it."

Tammy smiled, crossing to the door. "I'll be right back," she said, tapping a secret knock on the door and being let out. A few minutes later, she returned, followed in by General Kenpachi.

"The general wants a word with you first," she said.

General Kenpachi stepped forward, looking Aquila dead in the eye. He was now dressed in full military uniform, a far cry from the smock and apron he'd been wearing upstairs. "Mr. Cassidy, is it?" the general said. "Or do you prefer Shumway."

"Both are fine for now, sir," Aquila said.

"How's your back feeling?"

"It's fine. Healed up already."

General Kenpachi pulled up a chair and sat down. "Miss Hayes tells me you've been through quite an ordeal," he said. "If I may, I'd like to confirm it all in your own words before I let you both leave here. Is that alright?"

Aquila nodded. "I'll do whatever I can, sir."

The general sat back, putting his fingers together and keeping his eyes locked on Aquila's face. "Why don't you start from the beginning."