"And that's when I said, 'Listen, you alien slime, I ain't gonna be your bitch.' And then I blew his head off. Chief, are you listening?"
"Oh, yeah. I am." He wasn't. Even though Sergeant Johnson's stories were thrilling, he was instead focusing on Samus in the background. She'd been through line and gotten herself some coffee, and was about to try it.
The face she made was priceless.
"What are you chuckling at?" Johnson said with a raised eyebrow. He turned around and looked, and then turned back to Chief. "Ah, I see. That new cheesecake we picked up from space. She's pretty, but how does she fight?"
"Like me. But…calmer."
"Calmer? What's that supposed to mean?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
"So Cortana in your head is no substitute for flesh and blood, eh? Well good luck."
"They're just getting coffee. It's not like they're a couple."
"You don't have time for women! We're on a mission here and you ain't gonna jeopardize it."
Johnson laughed heartily. "You keep telling yourself that! I'll see you 'round, metalhead."
As the sergeant walked away, Cortana commented, "He's right, Chief. You can't jeopardize the mission over her."
"Do you know what Onyx wanted earlier?"
"No…why do you ask?"
"I was just wondering. He took her behind closed doors."
"Oh come on, Chief. He's a construct, just like me. It's not like-"
"I know," he cut her off. "It just doesn't seem right."
"Chief," said the captain's voice over the radio, "I need you to come with me to the Olympus. Apparently the Galactic Federation doesn't like us holding their star bounty hunter against her will."
"Technically she can leave any time."
"I know that, but they don't. Since you're calling the shots, I need you to give them a binky to suck on so they'll quit riding me."
"Hangar two, shuttle three. Five minutes."
He sauntered down the hallways to hangar two, not a long walk considering his stature and stride, and boarded shuttle three with a minute to spare.
"I appreciate it," Morrison said as the shuttle floated out into space. "I've been on the phone with them since I woke up. They want Samus, and they want her now."
"I'm not much of a speaker, Captain."
"All right, Moses, just tell them that we're together on this and as soon as we're done we'll give her back."
"It's not that simple."
The captain stared. And he stared. And he stared. Finally, he bellowed, "'Not that simple'? We both know she doesn't want to be onboard, and that the Federation wants her back! What's not 'simple' about it?"
"She's fallen for Anton Bartram."
"You don't know that. And are you sure it's Bartram? You've been walking by her hangar an awful lot lately. And Onyx tells me that Cortana says you're attached."
"Yeah, sorry about that," Cortana replied. "He asked why you were acting weird, and I told him."
"Well if she leaves I'll go back to normal," he explained. "It's in my genes."
"We need you normal now," she protested aloud. "Not once she leaves.
"Chief," Morrison grumbled, "we need you at a hundred percent, a hundred percent of the time. If I'm going to have my men fighting alongside you, I can't have you giving preferential treatment to the new girl."
"The first rule of being a soldier is not to fall in love. Because your heart will break if you lose that person and theirs will break if they lose you. I know the drill."
"Well 'drill' that into your thick metal head."
They rode in silence until they reached the Olympus. When they debarked, Chief immediately recognized it as being different. The lighting bore a slight blue hue, and it put him on edge. The crewmen were all dressed in flight suits. And the soldiers looked remarkably like SPARTANs.
"You must be the Master Chief," said a man in uniform. "Welcome aboard my ship. I'm Fleet Admiral Dane." He held out his hand and Chief shook it. "If you'll just follow me this way."
He led them to a conference room and they all sat down. Morrison was the first to speak. "Okay, now that we're here, will you kindly explain what all this is about?"
"Samus Aran is a legend in her own right, gentlemen. Now, it's a totally inaccurate to refer to her as Federation property, but still, we want her back. She obviously doesn't want to be your prisoner."
"She's not with us completely against her will, Admiral," Morrison explained. "We're both after the same thing, and once we get it, you can have her. It only makes sense to band together."
"Let her go first, and then we'll talk."
"Her ship is docked but not clamped down," Chief explained. "She can leave any time."
Dane's face changed. "Then she doesn't know, or she would have left by now."
"She may have become…attached to one of my crewmen."
"Really, now…" he mused. "This could be a problem."
"Admiral, please. It is in the best interests of not only the United Nations Space Command, but also the Galactic Federation that we band together. It concerns us both. And the wellbeing of the entire universe could be at stake."
"What do you mean, Chief?"
"The Space Pirates and the Covenant are trying to unlock the secrets of Phazon, with which you are no doubt familiar. If they succeed, the outcome will be disastrous."
"Are you pulling my leg, Chief?" the admiral said with a raised eyebrow. "As far as I know, the threat of Phazon is under control for the time being."
"The Pirates have given the Covenant a small quantity of both Phazon and Metroids. We have an opportunity to destroy the operation, but we'll need your help."
"Turn Samus over and we'll talk."
They went back and forth for a while, but eventually Chief won the argument. "Okay," said the admiral, "what's the game plan?"
"We're going to raid the base on Lanthana tomorrow," Chief replied. "They don't have any major defenses; it'll be a piece of cake to get in. We're after the Phazon, of course, but also Covenant access codes that will be able to get us into some of their other installations and outposts."
"Are you going to destroy the Phazon, or would the Federation be able to take some for research?"
"I personally have no qualms about whether or not the Phazon is destroyed. The UNSC is worried most about the Covenant teaming with the Pirates."
"It might behoove us to research the Phazon as well," Cortana suggested. "If we could learn some of the secrets of it, maybe we could use it to our advantage. I mined Samus's computer, and I've seen what it can do. If we can somehow harness the element's power, just think of the weapons we could build! When she fought Metroid Prime, her Phazon-charged arm cannon would have penetrated a ship's hull. Think of what that kind of power would be against the Covenant."
"Truthfully, Cortana," Chief said quietly, "I don't want the UNSC to risk corruption. I'm fairly sure we don't have the technology to contain the Phazon. My orders are to keep the Covenant and Pirates from forming an alliance, and to keep the Covenant from integrating Phazon into their weaponry. And that's what I intend to do."
* * *
"So…that bird thing is your dad?" Anton asked as he stared at the picture Samus had put up on her screen.
"No," she laughed. "Well, he was like a father to me. He raised me. Unfortunately this race is now extinct." She brushed away a tear and went to the next photo. "This is his mate, my 'mother'."
"Pretty," he remarked as she went to the next photo.
"This is Norion," she explained. "Has lots of great forests. But it was terraformed."
"Looks a bit like home," he marveled. "Hey, what do you say to a joyride?"
"What do you mean?"
"We'll go steal a fighter and fly a couple of loops. It'll be fun!"
"Or…" She sealed the hatch. "Buckle up."
"Strap your ass in that seat. We're breaking free!" She told her computer to open the hangar bay doors, and then punched the throttle. The ship surged forward and out into space. "That was too easy," she commented.
"I heard Chief and Sarge talking. They weren't holding you. And if I don't get back by 2100, they'll have my hide."
"It's only 1300," she said, punching him in the arm. "So where do you want to go?"
"How far is Aether?"
"How about Tallon IV?"
"Off limits, like I said before. They're still cleaning up what's left of it."
"You don't want to go there. Trust me."
"Okay, then where should we go?"
"How about one of your favorite planets," she suggested. "I'll take you to Aether once this is over."
"There's a planet under UNSC control with great beaches…but then we'd be deserting because we'd never want to leave. It's more common than you might expect."
"Okay, I'll take you to my favorite nebula. It's only a couple astro units away. At warp, it'll take around twenty minutes."
She was about to program in the coordinates when Anton saw something through the viewport. "Look!" he said, pointing. "That's one of our shuttles leaving the Olympus! What's it doing there?"
"I could hail them."
"Don't!" he cautioned. "They'll make us turn around and go back to the Chance! Let's just take off."
"Samus," Admiral Dane greeted over the radio, "have you decided to come back to us?"
"Negative," she replied. "I'm on a joyride."
"You know better," Dane chuckled.
She shook her head. "No, Admiral. I don't." She jammed the throttle forward and flew over the bridge of the Olympus, and then set the coordinates and made the jump.
Once in hyperspace, she gave control over to the computer. "I think I'll have to get a coffee machine on my gunship," she chuckled. "The kitchen is too tiny for much else."
"You need fuzzy dice," he thought aloud.
He shook his head. "Never mind."
"So what exactly was your shuttle doing on the Olympus?"
"No idea," he replied. "Probably some kind of collaboration or something."
"Intruder detected," the computer said in a monotone. "Following at speed, approximately two hundred miles behind."
"Looks like somebody wants us back," she sighed. "Unidentified ship, this is Samus Aran. State your intent in following." No response. "This is Samus Aran. Please respond."
"Warning," the computer whined. "Take evasive action."
The ship lurched and dropped out of hyperspace, and then the other ship joined it. She immediately recognized it as a Pirate vessel. "We've got to get out of here," she said, grabbing the stick and nimbly dodging the attacker's fire. "Where are we?"
"How should I know?" he snapped.
"Use the computer and find out, won't you?"
He went to work as she tried to fly around behind the Pirate ship, but the attacking pilot was far too skilled--especially for a Pirate. "This must be some other hunter after me," she growled. "There are quite a few that I've taken many a bounty from, and I wouldn't put it past some of them to want revenge. And to hijack a Pirate attack ship." She circled around and got a closer look at the hull, and saw, emblazoned in what had to be Pirate blood, Trace's insignia. "Oh crap."
"What is it?" Anton asked.
"Trace. He was probably my biggest threat in the Alimbic cluster. And let me tell you, he is pissed off that I came away from that with all the glory."
"What? Alimbic cluster?"
"It's in the Tetra galaxy. Far away. They had a big monster named Gorea that they locked up, and I defeated it. Trace wanted the Alimbics' Ultimate Power for himself. Naturally, I used it for the greater good and defeated Gorea. He wasn't too happy about it." She jerked the stick sideways and dodged a particularly close plasma bolt. "Trace," she said over the radio, "this is Samus Aran. This is a misunderstanding. Stand down or I will be forced to disable your ship."
"Go ahead and try," the Kriken growled. "But I'm not Trace! He died when Gorea absorbed him. You, on the other hand, have his weapon, which means you defeated him, and therefore I should have vengeance on you."
"What?" Samus said confusedly. "Whoever you are, this is a big mistake. Just think. If I was able to defeat Trace, and Gorea for that matter, what could I do to you?"
"You can die in front of me!" The ship fired another bolt of plasma, which smashed into Samus's gunship's hull.
"Returning fire!" Samus shouted, spinning the ship around and firing a pair of missiles. They impacted the enemy ship but did no visible damage. "Come on!" She fired again, but the Pirate ship's shield absorbed the impact.
"That won't do a bit of good," the Kriken assailant laughed. "I took the liberty of installing several safety precautions. And better weapons."
"Shields at full!" Samus shouted. The computer complied right before the assailant fired. The impact jarred the ship, cracking the windshield. "Dammit!" she said. "Anton, we have to abandon ship!"
"Is there even an escape pod on this thing?"
"It's going to be cozy, but yeah." She shoved him into the pod and dematerialized her suit, storing it in her belt's buffer. She got into the pod and strapped them both in, pounding the button right before the Pirate ship fired a second time. The pod lurched away from the gunship moments before it exploded in a terrific fireball. She cursed the Kriken as he turned and pursued the pod.
"What are we going to do?" Anton wondered.
"Pray," she replied. Moments later, several Federation fighters emerged from hyperspace and hailed her. "This is Samus Aran. I have Anton Bartram with me in the pod, and am requesting assistance! The Pirate ship is piloted by a Kriken bent on revenge. Fire at will!"
"What's happening?" Anton asked.
"You're supposed to be praying! Shut up and wait. Either we die or they call us back." Thirty seconds later, she heard crackling over the radio and felt the pod decelerate.
"Samus, this is Captain Bandura of the Galactic Federation. Target has been destroyed, and we are tractoring you in for transport. Hang in there."
"Your ship," Anton mourned.
"I can get another one. My computer was backed up into a hard drive in my suit. Just in case. It was about time for an upgrade anyway."
"Did you get your suit?"
"Thankfully, yes." There was a thud as the pod coupled with its towing fighter. "Life without my suit...that would be suicide." She felt the slight jolt as they jumped into hyperspace, the inertial dampeners in the pod being not as powerful as the fighter's.
"Can't we unbuckle?" he complained.
"You're crushing me."
"There is no gravity. I'm weightless."
"Well this is a bit awkward. I don't have anywhere to put my hands that you wouldn't object, and they're going numb."
"Then wake them up when we get back to the Chance. Normally this would be a cramped ride for just me. I told you it would get cozy."
"This isn't cozy! It's downright awkward."
"Come on, we're friends here!"
"Friends? I just met you a couple weeks ago. I'm crushing on you more than you're crushing my chest right now. You don't know what it's like for your heart to flutter every time you think of somebody, do you?"
"Yes, I do. He died. I cried. And I got over it."
"Did you get that flower I gave you?"
"Yes, I did. Thank you."
"I didn't come on too strong, did I?"
"Holding my hand back on Lanthana.... Yeah, that was a bit much. But I can see something in you. Something good."
"So you're saying this might work out?"
"We'll have to see. But I'm not as easy as you might think I am. You're going to have to work to land my affections."
They kept squabbling back and forth until the fighter dropped out of hyperspace. Bandura called them over the radio. "We're en route to the GFS Olympus. Once we're--"
"You're going back to the Chance," Samus replied. "I'm not done over there. There's still something to be done about the Pirates and the Covenant. And we're going to finish it before I head back to the Olympus. Tell Admiral Dane, and if he doesn't believe me, I'll hash it out with him personally. Onboard the Chance."
"If you say so, Samus." She felt a slight pull as their course changed, and then gravity engaged as they entered the hangar bay.
"Oh my God, now you're really crushing me!" Anton groaned.
"Just wait a few seconds." The fighter set the pod upright in the hangar bay, and once it was gone, Samus elbowed the button that blew the door off. Still belted in, Anton complained that he couldn't feel anything below his waist. She released the harness and they tumbled out of the pod, Anton landing on top of her.
A familiar voice scolded them. "If you wanted to be alone, all you had to do was ask."
"Chief!" Anton gasped. "This isn't what it looks like. And yet I can't get up."
"I've heard that excuse before."
Samus rolled him off and pushed herself to her feet. "Apparently he's paralyzed below the waist for the time being."
"Where's your ship?"
"In a billion little, bitty pieces floating between here and the Sherati Nebula."
"So you're going to stay a while."
"Yeah. And I'm not sleeping in this pod." She glared at Anton. "Or in anybody else's quarters."
"The only room we have left is in the Enlisted Women's quarters."
"Barracks," Anton explained, coughing to disguise his distaste.
"That's fine with me. I don't ask for much." Chief nodded and left. Then she turned to Anton and asked, "If there are barracks onboard, then why do you have your own quarters?"
"Uh, because they ran out of room in the dorm? Hey, the bed's still big enough for two."
"Be lucky I'm not wearing my suit, or this would really hurt." She swung her arm and connected the back of her hand to his face. "Pervert."