Of all the indignities the programmers could have placed on her, Sergeant Calhoun hated the sixty-fifth floor bonus level most of all - her greatest trauma, played out in beautiful full-motion video, keeping the wounds raw for the sake of letting a player step in to rescue her.
In the month since Hero's Duty had been plugged in, few players had reached the required floor, and fewer still realized there was anything there other than a few more bugs to gun down - a small mercy. Today, though, one of them - that damnably talented little girl in glasses - had gone exploring.
"Doctor Brad Scott," she heard the girl murmur. "Huh... wonder what's in there?"
Calhoun wanted nothing more than to break program and force the FPS-bot away from the door, but she knew better, didn't have that sort of dangerously self-serving hypocrisy in her, and only watched helplessly as the door slid open.
It was the same as ever - quarters for a character who'd never really existed outside the squad's mind, kept just as they'd been the day of the wedding. She held her breath, waiting as the player examined the room.
Just as always, the search showed a pair of rings tossed onto the floor. Calhoun let her breath out in a slow, calming whoosh as the computer took control, the robot picked up the rings, and she felt that familiar jolt and cried out in spite of herself.
She was at the wedding, bouquet clutched as tightly as she ever clutched her rifle as she stole a glance at the man on her right. He was smiling faintly, intent on the priest. She'd have to accuse him of daydreaming his way through the ceremony later; she knew he'd just chuckle and tell her he was daydreaming about her. Always knew just what to say, even when it was nothing more than 'dynamite gal'.
A shadow she couldn't react to swiftly enough. Shattering glass.
She could hear herself screaming, both in the cutscene and in real time, and closed her eyes to shut it out. Her mind would supply the pictures, but she tried anyway.
The images her mind brought up were different.
Colorful candy trees, improbably pink soil, fluffy cotton-candy clouds, sugar-sweet but still menacing Cy-bugs - and one tiny, slender figure, set on helping her and now trapped, huge blue eyes gazing helplessly at her as the monsters descended on him.
She'd forgotten to check, forgotten to secure the area, and as she watched, unable to move, he hopped up to meet her - and was caught by a flying Cy-bug she opened fire on a moment too late.
She tried to wrench free of the programming holding her in place, tried to reach for her gun, but she remained frozen, limbs refusing to respond, and it was the same horrible nightmare the bonus stage always was only worse, because before she could tell herself it was only a memory but this was fresh and new, it was all happening again, she'd been stupid and careless and she was helpless to stop it as the bug started to change...
She jumped, giving a ragged cry as the player opened fire on the bugs surrounding her. The kid was good; the bugs were cleared out in seconds, and Calhoun found herself staring back at a concerned little girl.
No more bugs. No candy. No goofy little grinning handyman.
Not real, she told herself sternly. Get a grip, Sarge.
She gulped past the tightness in her throat, closed her eyes a long moment to hold back threatening tears. When she opened them the player was still staring at her through the FPS-bot's viewscreen, and she gave the bot an uncharacteristically clumsy pat on the shoulder, voice rough when she spoke.
"Good... good shooting rookie. Don't know what came over me. Thanks."
The kid nodded, still wide-eyed with concern, and Calhoun couldn't help a tiny smile for a player so deeply concerned with the characters she spent her day with as she led the bot back out into the corridors.
What had come over her?
She really shouldn't have been surprised to see Felix in the entrance to Hero's Duty. He had come to meet her every day since that fateful trip to Sugar Rush, smiling and all but bouncing in place, hat in his hands as soon as he saw her. The little guy had shown a surprising interest in her work, always full of admiration, and she'd humored him a few times with trips to the target range or letting him help pick off the last bugs left from the last game of the night.
He was a good shot. It had been a gratifying surprise.
Today, though, his brightly-colored figure on her dark, dangerous turf was too much after the scene her mind had created. Calhoun froze, staring wide-eyed, before narrowing her eyes; Felix, catching her mood immediately, blinked and half-crumpled his cap in his hands.
"Uh... evening, ma'am. Are you feeling-"
Her low, rough tone earned a stare from him as well as lingering Marines. A scant few weeks ago - two and a half? Three? - he had slunk away under that demand. This time he replaced his cap and stepped close, waving Kohut and the others on.
"Bonus level," Kohut muttered in an undertone as he passed. Calhoun tried to shoot him a withering glare, but her heart wasn't in it.
Not when Felix took her hands, tugging gently as he nodded slightly to the other man.
"Oh, Tammy Jean. I'm sorry."
He was strong enough to pull her down if she wasn't guarded, but too much a gentleman to do so. She knelt of her own accord in response to his insistent tugs, albeit reluctantly; his voice was so soft, so kind, that today it gnawed away at her tough shell, and she gave him a brief, vulnerable look before lowering her gaze with a childlike snuffle.
"I'm sorry, honeybadger, I truly am."
"I know." She couldn't even force a grimace at the nickname she pretended to hate (he'd seen right through her, of course, but pretending had been a game until this moment).
He reached out with one hand, rough gloves brushing tenderly over her cheek, and tugged at her once more.
"Come on, let's get out of here. We'll go see the roster race and-"
"No!" The word came out strangled. "Not... not Sugar Rush. Not today. Please."
He frowned, cupping her chin to lift her gaze back to his. She closed her eyes rather than look at him, and the tears came; she was barely aware of him removing his gloves to cradle her face in bare hands, thumbs brushing over her cheeks.
"It was you."
That silenced him a moment.
"You." She swallowed hard. "The cutscene makes me see the wedding. Always try to... to shut it out. Never works." Another sniffle; she realized he'd pressed his forehead against hers at some point, and leaned into him. "Closed my eyes. Saw you instead. S-Sugar Rush. It... I... like you never got out..."
"Oh, honeybadger." His own voice was a bit thick; she wasn't at all surprised that he'd cry for her, and simply wrapped her arms around him.
"Both at once. I just... I..." She cleared her throat. "Wasn't expecting... and it was... this is coming on awful fast, pintsize." A lopsided smile as she tried for levity; he smiled in return, tentative, and leaned up to plant a light kiss above each eye.
"It is for me too, ma'am. I'm here. All right? I'm here."
She gripped him tighter, barely noticing the little squeaking sound he made.
"Wish I had a magic Fix-it hammer. Wish it was that easy."
"I don't mind at all, ma'am. Hard is worth it. You are worth it."
He took hold of her hand again as she released him, then placed his cap on her head with an almost mischievous smile.
"There, now. Blue's your color, ma'am, but not your mood. Let's go somewhere quieter - which definitely rules out Sugar Rush."
She gave a wheezy laugh and let him lead her out.
A few days later Felix was holding what looked dangerously like a jewelry box when he came to meet her. Calhoun froze, staring.
"Evening, ma'am." He smiled a little, head tilting. "One-month anniversary of your plug-in and three-week anniversary of... well." He chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck, and she bit back a grin.
Of course he remembered such things.
"Anyway, I remembered what you said the other night, and I... well, I thought you might like this."
She took the box from him and opened it, brow raising. Not a ring, of course; Felix would never push her boundaries so hard, and she wasn't sure what had put the notion in her head to begin with.
Instead, a little gold hammer on a fine chain gleamed up at her. She stared at it, feeling the sting of tears again, and shot him a wide-eyed look.
"It's uh... I know it's silly, Tammy Jean, I just though... well-"
"I love it." The words came in a hoarse whisper, and she smiled at him. "I love it. It's perfect." A moment more, and she cleared her throat, embarrassed. "I uh... have something for you too."
"You do?" He perked up, curious, and she felt her cheeks heating.
Honeyglows. Silly term, but she found she liked it.
"Uh... y-yeah. I'm... not... exactly a romantic. It's... nothing like this, I..." Get it over with, Sarge. She grimaced, producing a sleek black shape, highlighted in blue instead of the usual Hero's Duty red.
"A gun?" Felix blinked, taking it gingerly, and she looked away with a scowl.
"I know, kind of a stupid present. I just-"
"So I can protect myself. I get it, ma'am." He smiled, meaning every word, and she found herself smiling back as he took her hand. "Thank you. It's a great present, Tammy Jean, honest it is."
"Yeah? Well um... good." She cursed herself for feeling so awkward. "So uh... help me with this thing? The necklace I mean."
He fastened it in place and then, feeling daring, kissed the back of her neck.
"There we go. Ready, honeybadger?"
This time, she allowed herself a smile at the nickname, and she laced her fingers with his as they headed out for Sugar Rush.