Vagabond - Part 3
I am not a dancer.

"You have to learn how to relax and move elegantly, like a civilian. Your motions are still far too quick and economical.

Remember -- move with grace and poise, feel the aesthetics of your kinesthetics."

"Why can't you just program this into my implants?"

"Movement is a state of mind, not just body."

"Oh, I can move just fine. I just don't make it look pretty, and it's hard changing decades of body reflexes."

"Which is why you need to learn to concentrate on doing this."

"Can't you just input a mimic protocol?"

"Do you want anything to throw off the military timing of your reflexes?"

"Well ...."

"I thought not. Now, concentrate on your kinesthetic, mental, and emotional states -- see how they become one with the

flow of the cultural patterns, each motion a precise expression of that culture."

"This civilian body lingua is even more complicated than military signing."

"Naturally. That's because civilians like to engage in conversation, as many as possible with as many simultaneous

participants as possible. It's a sign of intellectual, cultural, and genetic sophistication."

"Seems like a flowery waste of time. I'm never going to pass for a civilian."

"Of course not. That isn't the point -- the point is to ensure that you're able to communicate with some of them on a

meaningful level."

"Some of them?"

"Yes, the ones that aren't immediately disdainful of your occupation. Most would consider you to be an ancient relic of

more unsavory times."

"So nice to be appreciated."

"Oh, the ones you rescue appreciate you just fine. For a few decades, anyways, until the threat is gone and forgotten."

"Yes, they even put up nice memorials until its time to redevelop that area."

"Don't forget, sometimes you get tokens of esteem."

"Ah, yes, of course. The lonely pride of the veteran soldier. The real memorials are in our recollections of deeds done

and fallen companions. When we are gone, no one remembers us and our sacrifices for the greater good of the uncaring."

"I will remember.

I will remember each and every one of you, and the price you have paid for all.

And I will record your deeds and personalities on archives that will persist to the uttermost end of time."

I blinked a few times, until the moistness went away.

"Wake up, m'ijo." The merest caress of voice and soft hand enfolded me in maternal comfort. "You must wake up, now."

So tired. Eyes glued shut, head so heavy. Just lie here and enjoy motionlessness for just a moment longer.

Slight pinprick of cold on my exposed face. Sleepsack so warm and soft.

Just a moment longer.

"Lie there forever, then!" The tall figure barks mocking laughter.

My eyes snap open.

Focus on the background.

A grand vista of lush, tropical forest stretched beneath me, breathtakingly beautiful. Quintuple canopies of plants rolled beneath me, an almost reckless plentitude of flora, some rustling and moving in ways didn't seem to match the winds. There was something subtly wrong about the horizon.

Little globules of red and blue fell into my panorama, refracting sunlight which seemed to blaze down from above in cascades, as if the air itself were luminous. I started to crane my neck upwards, and that's when I became aware of the ...

Ow. Owwwww.

A nice, body wide sunburn, particularly sharp along my face and arms. There was my left arm, hanging straight down, holding onto some sort of satchel, which appeared to be heavy from the way my elbow and shoulder hurt and the ponderous way it swung slightly, an outre Focault pendulum. My left hand, covered in a fine sheen of tiny blackened yet rigid hairs, clenched convulsively at the hint that the tendon-straining package might drop.

Left arm, meet right arm. Right arm is significantly shorter, dressed up in a blackened yet iridescent gauntlet, from which emerges the business end of a brutalist muzzle, now cooling to a dull glowing red. A checkerboard of soothing brown and saffron yellow sheltercloth interspersed with scorch lines, raw and melted exposed flesh, and blast marks patterned the length of my torso. I discerned something wrapped tightly about my waist, from which I was apparently suspended, motionless, in mid-air.

Where am I?

Past the outlines of my legs, draped in the remains of a simple yet functional robe, some sort of large flying predator swooped gracefully towards the ground. It dove at an ever steeper angle, clipping the topmost branches of a rather large tree, one wing folding at an odd angle as it cartwheeled out of sight below the canopy, rustling trees marking its sub-arboreal descent. A final shiver of vegetation marked the terminus of its ill-advised dive.

Oh, right.

I shifted my gestalt, and the proper world-view fell into place. I paused briefly to examine the status of the dozen-odd potentially life-threatening injuries, satisfied at the progress made by the autonomic nanosystems, before reducing my pain responses back to maintenance levels. With that, I re-immersed myself into the tactical overview.

Corporal! You're awake! Good, because we've got trouble.

"Corporal! Well, this is certainly going to be interesting and different. Usually we try to protect the flora and fauna and maintain the ecological equilibrium, but no sense in doing that right now we hope there's enough ammunition for our immediate needs hmmm we're going to have to be very careful about shot placement we really love tactical puzzles of this nature and you know what they say about joining the Corps ...."

"Uh, what?"

I craned my head around to look for Point.

Stop thrashing about, Corporal. We're in a very chaotic equilibrium.

I craned my neck to look up at Heavy, which was unsettling, but not much help.

I mean it.

Heavy spread above me, a living parachute. I shivered involuntarily, face to face with his poisonous beak and illimitable rows of suckers, poised in his hunt-and-pounce body language. This was probably the last thing many of his prey ever saw. Lacking chromatophores on his underside, I didn't discern at first how we were communicating.

On opposite sides of his mantle, two arms stretched tautly to my waist. A third stump protruded, cauterized but showing freshly torn open tissues regen'd close.

"Thanks for saving my skin."

Don't mention it. I could now discern as conduction resonances.

"What do you mean by 'we hope there's enough ammunition for our immediate needs'?"

"Well, Corporal, we can certainly count the potential target list times the engagement volume and surely see that this is going to be a very lovely and challenging engagement we'll certainly have to use physical melee where appropriate ..."

It's really simple, Corporal. Our aircar just crashed, unfortunately.

"But fortunately, we're not in it, and we can just go get our stuff from the wreckage, which shouldn't really be too bad as even civilian aircars are pretty durable."

That's the problem. Look down.

Gorgeous swathes of quintuple canopied forest in a dizzying array of pigments rustled and swayed, looking almost as if reaching for us as we floated downwards.

"So. So what?"

Do you see anything collective about that forest's behavior?

"Now that you mention it. Urk. Well, we'd better alter vector with our bailout skimmers to get very far from here."

I finally caught sight of Point, suspending in the lines of an old-fashioned airfoil parachute, floating gently downwards. The three plasma dischargers he held hummed into life.

Civilian skimmers and milspec EMP don't mix too well.

"Say Corporal, how big do you think the fauna in that forest is bound to get?" Point had an eager, almost vicious grin on his face.

I brought my plasma discharger to ignition status.

"I think we're about to find out."

Don't forget about the vegetation. Sometimes sessile objects are much better at modifying their internal structure.

"Thanks for the tip. Maybe you ought to be running things instead of me, I'm not thinking too clearly."

Oh, I don't think so, Corporal. Don't be too hard on yourself, I had to pull some large pieces of that bushbot out of you, and the nanoforge bounced off your skull quite a few times. Besides, I prefer other specialties.

Four plasma dischargers emerged from behind Heavy's mantle in plain view, and I could finally see why he was having such difficulty keeping us balanced aloft on our downward descent.

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