Lucky Triple Sevens
rating: +8+x

"That damn buzzing noise" whispered GOC Assessment Operative 'Noface'. "They won't shut up!"

"Getting your brain fried does that. To them anyways." replied team leader 'Generous' over the radio. Generous pointed her thumb over their cover. Noface squinted hard at where he thought her hand might be.

The two operatives had sheltered behind a low grey brick wall. A few meters away, two civilians yammered in the open about starfish. It contributing to the loud shouting which filled the entire town. Eyes were everywhere, in more than one way. The town was small and rustic. Each building was far apart, which made stealth challenging.

Generous noticed Noface's hesitation. "Oh. You haven't learned to see chameleon cloth yet. I'm pointing to those two. And you don't need to whisper, newbie. Suits are insulated."

Noface gave up on trying to see the nearly-invisible woman, deciding to move closer.
He accidentally kicked a rock, making a loud clatter. One of the men turned and looked straight at Noface, who froze on the spot.

"Oh hey! A kitty!" said the man.

"What? Carl, there's nothing there." said the other man, glancing over his shoulder at Noface.

"No, I swear, I saw a cat! Do you think we can tell them the good news?" said Carl.

The second man turned all the way around to stare at Carl for a long ten seconds.

"Don't be stupid, Carl. An animal can't understand the Universal Truths. Bother me if you see a person. Now, let's keep spreading the good word! Blessed is he who understands the Cosmic Greatness!"

"Blessed is he who understands the will of the Fifth Star!" yelled Carl.

Noface didn't dare so much as shake his head. "Still only hear buzzing through the audio cognitohazard filters. I suppose they still think I'm a cat." he whispered.

"Remind me, your magic have a time limit?" replied Generous.

"Ran it for days without a problem." said Noface.

"Roger. Move slower than me.", grumbled Generous. "You might not get away with what I can. Your semantic pointer trick is useful, but mind-controlled civilians are unpredictable. Be careful. We're going to that house over there, one with the tinted windows. Got it?"

"Got it." Noface said. He hoped that his team leader couldn't see the tension in his shoulders.

Generous seemed to materialize out of thin air. She appeared as a mirage-like blur of a broad-shouldered woman in dark grey armor. She started crawling from behind the brick wall. At this pace, her body settled into a blur against the light grey road that one might mistake for heat shimmer.

Noface tried to think zen as he very slowly crept after her. He paid special attention to the open pavement before him. He had no idea if his active camouflage was still working, or if he was moving too fast.

After moving a dozen meters from Noface, Generous stopped crawling. In a few seconds, she again vanished from his sight. In what felt like a full hour, surrounded by sweat and insane ranting, Noface finally made it to her position.

He internally groaned after she became visible and resumed crawling. Again. He started after her.

He had been so focused on his own movements that he didn't realize someone actually touched him.

He froze in the middle of the road. He hoped Generous noticed.

"Hey what the-" said a female voice from behind him. "What in the Fifth's name was that? Was that-… hm…"

He felt the woman's hands touching his upper back, trying to grasp what she couldn't see…He tried not to scream. Her hands went lower…
lower…
lower…

"Oh hey, kitty!" she said.

She started patting the back of Noface's calves. If she realized the semi-rigid infiltration suit did not at all feel like a cat's fur, she gave no sign. Nor did she question why this cat was invisible and human-height.

"Who's a good kitty?" she said. "Who is a good kitty? Yes you are! We'll spread the good news of the Five through this country, and then we'll all be happy together, one big family. Too bad you can't understand. Go on then, little kitty!"

Noface heard her tromping away and allowed himself to take a very deep breath a few seconds later. The sound was louder than he liked, but the woman did not seem to react.

"Hell of a Serpent's Hand trick." said Generous's voice in his ear.

"No, it's a me trick. Way too close though." said Noface.

"You were fine, Vulture has us covered. Gen to Vulture, abort shot. Tango is leaving south. Over.", said Generous.


"Copy, Gen. Vulture is resuming overwatch. Over." replied 'Vulture', the team sniper.

The lean woman observed her teammates far down below through a scoped assault rifle. Her infiltration suit blended in almost flawlessly with the mottled brick tower's roof. She lowered her rifle, brought up a pair of binoculars and gazed over the low town skyline. The town bustled with townsfolk under an unseen influence, their mouths open half the time.

"Vulture to Gen. Hostiles in your sector still unaware and occupied. You are cleared hot to proceed, over." she said.

She continued tracking her two teammates through the binoculars. She had long since tuned out the faint buzz of townspeople ranting below her perch.

"Roger, Vulture. Noface, not so close. Generous to Wheels. Sitrep on rest of village? Over." said their team leader's voice.

A skinny woman on the other side of the narrow, slanted roof responded. She sported a near-invisible infiltration suit like the rest of the GOC team. She also had binoculars up to her eyes. "Wheels to Gen. It's not looking good, I see three of those flesh pillars from this vantage point. They're dragging people up to the pillars then the victims go real stiff after twenty or so seconds. Then they join the infected mob. We keep going at this pace, there may be no one sane left to interrogate. Over."

"Noted," came the reply over radio. "Noface, let's pick up the pace. Any other concentrations of infected, Wheels? Over."

"Affirmative" replied Wheels, squinting into the distance. "Can't get full visuals, but there's a crowd congregating in the southwest corner of town. Possibly a fourth pillar. It's behind that large, blocky tan building. The one that looks like a castle. Over."

"Got it. We'll steer clear of that one. Over."

"Wheels to Noface. Ever seen anything like this before with the Serp's Hand? Over."

Noface responded, "Uh, well there was this one-"

"Gen to Wheels," the team leader interrupted. "Not a chatroom! Keep chatter off-radio! Over!"

Wheels sighed. "Copy, over and out."

Wheels made a precise set of eye movements on her helmet HUD to kill her radio link.

"Friggin' killjoy." Wheels sighed.

Vulture took exactly one second to look askance over her shoulder at Wheels. Then she returned her gaze to Noface and Generous halfway across town.

"She's just focused on the mission. Like you should be." Vulture told Wheels without looking a second time. "You're still using that thing instead of your arms?"

"You mean TX?" Wheels gestured to a large string of metallic liquid holding up her binoculars to her eyes. It protruded past her dark skin out of a rolled-up sleeve on her dark grey armor.

"You really named it that?" scoffed Vulture, still focused on her teammates.

"Wasn't me. Nerds I stole it from watched too much Terminator or something."

Vulture sighed. "Please… just focus on your task, Wheels. And use your hands, you're less likely to drop something."

"Alright, alright!" said Wheels, shifting binoculars from her liquid metal helper to her actual hands. "It's just so… awful down there. These people are turning into freaking Fifthist zombies before our eye- wait… what is that?"

"Something wrong?" said Vulture.

"My HUD shows motion sensors tripped. Many times. Lots of them coming up the tower. How'd they find us?!" said Wheels, turning to Vulture.

Vulture was already moving across the roof, breaking her active camo. "Vulture to Team, we've been made. Multiple hostiles. Moving to fallback site. Over!"

"Copy," replied Generous over radio. "We'll find a vantage to support. Stay safe. Over, out!"

The screams of the townsfolk echoed in the tower beneath them: "They must hear!" "The truth must be told!" "Interlopers"!

Wheels said, "Still filtering what they're saying, but they're angry. I doubt they mean to say 'welcome to town, ladies!' "She lifted her arms up and acrobatically flipped down the tower rooftop, into the top floor windows.

"Are you insane? We need to leave!" shouted Vulture, moving to a ledge on the opposite side of the roof.

After a moment, Wheels' head emerged back onto the rooftop. "Just leaving them a surprise!" she said. She gracefully rolled herself up onto the roof and in a flash. ran past Vulture's ledge. She leaped an impressive distance onto an adjacent building two stories below. The young woman folded her body into a roll as she hit the roof. As easily as a swan flicking off water, she folded herself out of the roll into a brisk walk, then a complete stop.

Vulture whistled and shook her head. She hesitantly looked at the long distance between herself and safety.

"Wheels to Vulture," the other woman's voice said through Vulture's helmet. "You don't want to be on that tower in twenty seconds. Over."

"Never had to do this kind of shit in Iraq!" Vulture mumbled. She took a running start and jumped off a moment too early. The sheer terror of the ground rushing up to meet her jumbled her thoughts, and she remembered too late to tumble into a roll. Then… the edge of her landing site flew up and out of her vision. She reached out, flailing and… caught something. Her hand ached from the sudden deceleration, but she had stopped falling.

"Still gonna talk trash about my friend here?" said Wheels. The metallic goop in question sprang from her hand in a string down to Vulture's outstretched hand.

"No! And if you get me up there, I'll live to mean it!" said Vulture, wriggling like a fish.

The infected townsfolk yelled in alarm from the brick tower above them.

"Don't worry about them." said Wheels. She braced her foot against the edge of the roof and strained to pull Vulture up.

"What did you do this time, Wheels!" accused Vulture.

A loud pop went off. The tower's open windows bellowed out clouds of dust. Screams echoed from the tower.

"I took out… most of 'em!" grunted Wheels. She had managed to pull up Vulture enough that she could grab the ledge and pull herself the rest of the way up.

"You idiot!" hissed Vulture. "Now the entire town thinks they're under attack!"

"Gen to Team! What the hell was that?!" crackled Generous's voice in their ears.

Vulture said, "Wheels dropped a mine on our pursuers. Pursuers are down, buzzing from below sounds a lot angrier. Townsfolk are mobilizing. Over."

"She. WHAT." said Generous. Vulture heard her team leader muttering harshly in Portuguese, though Vulture only recognized the term for 'woman of ill repute'. Which was repeated many times.

"Gen to Team, let's keep moving! Noface and I are - disregard we're engaging! You're on your own! Out!"

Wheels and Vulture started to run, moving and jumping over rooftops. They heard the faint staccato of a single burst of automatic gunfire…


…Generous's rifle smoked, briefly lighting up the damp alleyway. The blood-splattered man splashed down into soft dirt, releasing a kicking, screaming woman.

"Lady, you're coming with us! No questions! No talking!" Generous roughly grabbed the woman off the ground so quickly there was no time to struggle. She slung the civilian over her shoulders like a child would a blanket. "We have an eyewitness Noface, let's go before we eat 'nitohaz. Find something to stuff in her ears-"

The woman screamed, which like all speech not on the operatives' secure channel, filtered to a tinny buzz. Generous sighed. "Noface, shut this puta up! Use your fists if you have to."

Noface paled, not that Gen could see it. "We shouldn't-"

"This cat will feed our Lord the Fifth Star! He demands flesh!" screamed a voice behind them. A wild-eyed man lunged at Noface with a knife. Generous, one hand still securing the civilian on her shoulders, used her other hand to lift up her rifle. The assailant dropped when a crimson 7.62 flower blossomed over his heart.

More of the buzzing noise that indicated shouting. Noface turned around to see a half-dozen angry villagers with clubs and torches. Their mouths were wide open as they rushed down the alleyway.

"AAAGH! Shut up! Just shut up!" Noface screamed. He retrieved his shotgun from a shoulder sling and discharged. His first shot obliterated a charging woman point-blank, in a burst of scarlet. Generous methodically swept the rest of the crowd with a controlled long burst.

A pile of red-splattered bodies now graced the entrance of the alleyway.

"Oh my god. We just…- let's … let's go!" Noface mumbled in shock.

Generous patted him on the shoulder, though too briefly to be comforting. She still slung the now-whimpering civilian on her back like a light rucksack. She walked past Noface and said "Detour to avoid the 'nitohaz pillars over here-"

As Generous stepped over a body, it lurched up to a standing position.

Noface yelped. A second human head slid forth from the corpse's neck like a bloody mockery of childbirth. The disembodied head flew about, yelling Fifthist slogans like a deranged mockingbird. Generous raised her rifle arm and fired before the abomination finished its sentence. The head burst, its pieces bleeding and sparking. Another round went through the corpse. It staggered back to its rightful place slumped against a blood-speckled wall.

"Holy shit! What was that?" yelled Noface. He hadn't even raised his weapon before it ended.

"The unexpected. Expect it." said Generous. She fired again into the corpse for good measure and leaned forward into a run. "Stay close!"

If the rescued woman over Generous's shoulders slowed her down, Noface couldn't tell. It was hard to see anything at top speed. Noface tried to ignore the angry crescendo of buzzing closing in around them.

The two operatives turned a corner into a tunnel. The night vision in their HUDs flicked on, revealing a solid column of human eyeballs. The mass of eyes seethed as if it still had muscles. The pillar had hid in this dark tunnel that barely tasted sunlight.

Generous hesitated for the first time Noface had seen today. "Ah Gen, you little fool." she muttered to herself. "Fifthists… five pillars."

The pillar screamed. A human could not reach that volume. "THE FIFTH WILL COME DOWN FROM THE STARS AND FIVE WILL BE THE DISCIPLES WHO BRING THE-"

Even through the buzzing, far louder than before, Noface heard every word. His ears stung. Noface dropped his gun and covered his ears with his hands. He began singing as loud as he could against the sounds of the pillar, "Out in the cold, like a bundle of coal-"

Generous emptied her rifle into the column of human eyes, chipping pieces off of it. The gun clicked empty. With her arms occupied by her charge, she ran up and attempted to kick over the pillar. It withstood the fierce blow. She kicked it again to no effect as it ranted.

"THE STARFISH WILL CONSUME ALL, LIKE A TOWER OF FLESH ALL IN ITS GRASP-"

"Little packets of darkness, wanting to grow,
Well there's nobody home…!"

He fought to push the words out.

Generous continually cursed and reached for something on her belt. The woman she carried twitched, struggled, and nearly toppled both of them. Generous adjusted her stance, threw her burden overhead and drew her pistol, all in one motion. She placed a single shot on the grounded woman's forehead. The newly-infected civilian went limp.

"THE FIFTH WILL COME DOWN FROM THE STARS AND ALL WILL BE ONE AND-"

"Fucking… freak! DIE! Just die!" Generous screamed, as she emptied her pistol into the mass of eyeballs at point blank. The pillar, though badly torn up and bleeding, continued screaming. Then Generous froze. Her shoulders slumped and her gun dropped from her hand. The pillar continued to rage at both operatives.

"WE WILL SPEAK OF THE FIVE AND THE FIFTY AND ALL WILL BE WELL AND-"

"And there's a wreck in the yard-
And maybe they're coming back-"

Noface tugged at Generous's shoulders, urging her to go. His singing remained barely audible, only just keeping the Fifthist chanting out of his mind.

"Generous are you alright? Come on, let's move!-
If we wish really hard
if we wish real hard now!"

Generous looked at him with… he wasn't sure through her helmet… disappointment? Her hand shot out, grabbed his wrist and pulled him by sheer brute force towards the pillar.

"FIVE DISCIPLES BRING ALL TOWARDS US IN PEACE AND TOGETHERNESS AND-"

Noface did not stop singing. Even as he shoved his foot down and grabbed his former team leader's shoulder with his free hand.

"Won't somebody please come up with something!"

His throw took her down perfectly, to his surprise. She landed hard onto the pavement. He turned on the spot and sprinted as fast as he could, still singing. He couldn't quite see where he was running, only seeing the blurs brick walls, pavement and grey walls.

"Cause Jesus just don't seem to be
Impartially working,"

"REJOICE IN THE COMING OF THE STARFISH AND THE FIVE THAT WILL UNITE OUR-"

His vision bounced from pounding cobblestones. He put his eyes through the gestures to activate his radio. "Noface to Team, Generous is compromised, I say again, Generous is compromised! Need help! Over!"
And all of the rest are really down in the ratings,
But everyone, is going to keep on waiting"

"Wheels to Noface, why are you singing? We'll make our way there and- flanking! There! We're under fire! Sorry, Noface, we'll catch you at exfil site! Over!"

"Waiting for peace,
At the end of our street,"

Noface realized he had no idea where he was. The road was broad and poorly paved, the stone grey walls unadorned. The sounds of the pillar's rants still chased him, though his song drowned out its meaning. Faint buzzing sounds returned to prominence as he continued to sing.

"Back behind our apartments,
In our passenger seats,"

He continued to sing, even as he saw figures following after him.

"Just a moment of bliss,
Of it all of the ways,"

"The black cat! Our lord the Starfish demands we skin it!"

He couldn't hear them, but he could outrun them-

"But despair and oblivion,
Of our precarious ways,
It's ours to face now!"

Then he realized there were many of them. Too many of them. In front, in back and around. His weapon was far behind him…he fumbled for his sidearm…

The bullet caught him hard in his back. He felt his body go stiff.


Vulture peeked out from behind a toppled stone column. Clouds of dust dominated the wide-open, brown-tiled town square. She fired her assault rifle in nonstop three-round bursts. Every time, she ripped apart the silhouette of an infected civilian. Every time, more climbed over their comrade's corpse. They all screamed hymns and beat their chests to otherworldly masters. They bore self-inflicted tattoos and scars shaped after the same, like evangelists from hell. At least, that was Vulture's best guess through the dust and blood. She did not want to take a closer look.

"We'll have to fight the entire town at this rate!" said Wheels beside her. "There's got to be another way out! Down to my last mag!"

A large man closed in with a pitchfork. Wheels' liquid metal tool wrapped around the weapon and tore it out of his hand. A sharp kick to the gut dropped him. She finished him with a bullet, then retreated while Vulture covered her flank.

"Reloading!" said Vulture. Wheels turned around to cover Vulture in turn, as the townsfolk swarmed them. "They have guns, they'll shoot us if we turn our backs!"

"They'll shoot us anyways!" said Wheels beside her. She shot another attacker and-

A pair of arms burst forth from the fresh bullet wound. A second, blood-covered body emerged from the corpse.

Wheels screamed and emptied her entire clip into the abomination, shredding both bodies. They fell to the ground, completely riddled with red and holes.

A body that she was certain she had shot before was now levitating towards the two operatives. She dropped her spent rifle and drew her pistol, firing away to no avail. Vulture pushed her aside and blew the flying corpse's head clean off. Another human head disgorged from a gash in the flying corpse's chest. She destroyed the floating head with a second shot, then returned to shooting the townsfolk.

The infected climbed over bodies, heedless to their families and friends beneath them. Like ants eager to rip apart a fresh carcass.

Then Wheels noticed many human eyeballs gathering not thirty meters away. The eyeballs started to form up on each other.

"Vulture!" she yelled, still firing her pistol at anything that got close. "They're building a pillar!"

"Would love to do something about it, but I'm busy!" replied Vulture, still firing at deranged Fifthists.

A shotgun blast carved out a blood splotch from a flanking attacker.

"Don’t worry about the pillar!" said Noface, appearing beside them.

"Why is a cat talking… Wait, Noface!" exclaimed Wheels. "And you're hurt!", she said, noticing a large red gash on the back of the mage's armor.

"I-it's really not that bad." said Noface. She couldn't tell whether he was anxious as usual, or… more than usual? She pushed it out of her mind and kept firing to cover her friends.

"Pillar looks almost solid now. If it starts shouting, we'll be compromised!" said Vulture. "We need to change position! Let's go, we'll have to risk it!"

"Let's focus on the townspeople first!" said Noface. He started mechanically racking shotgun blasts at the incoming, clambering horde. He took no note of his teammates' attempt to abandon his position. The blast of a grenade went off behind them as Vulture tried to shoot her way out on her own.

"Noface, are you alright?! Did you hear us?" yelled Wheels over the gunfire and Fifthist chanting. She put a hand on his shoulder and considered dragging him away.

"Kill them all!" yelled Noface. "Kill! Kill!"

Wheels' shock cost her. Noface turned to her and she heard him say: "THERE WILL BE FIVE AND THEY WILL BRING US TOGETHER AND-"

Wheels screamed and covered her ears, to no avail. Beside her, Vulture fell to a flanking set of townsfolk. They stabbed her several times, drawing sprays of blood everywhere.

"BRING HER TO THE PILLARS!" yelled Noface.

"FIVE! FIVE! FIVE!" chanted the townsfolk. They dragged Wheels' squirming body over to the pillar of eyes.

She had no choice but to listen to its booming voice speak, rant and rave about starfish and the number five.

She saw her HUD read in bright red: "YOU HAVE BEEN INFECTED. YOU ARE TO TURN AGAINST YOUR TEAMMATES FOR THE REST OF THIS EXERCISE."

She grimaced and felt the townsfolk drop her.

A familiar voice stepped out from behind a corner. "Alright, that's enough!" Generous sighed. "Entire team's down. We failed."

A whistle blew in the distance. The men and women standing the defeated assessment operatives respectfully backed off. Dozens of bodies covered in fake blood and red paintball splatters arose and filed out of the woods. Some gave nods to the operatives. The bodies which sprung extra heads and limbs made metallic noises when carried off. GOC medics rushed onto the field to triage bruises and sprains.

Noface sighed and threw off his helmet, revealing a reedy, pale man with Asian features. He took a very deep breath, sat down and continued to breathe heavily.

Vulture wiped fake blood off her abdomen as she stood up, and Wheels tore off her helmet and clutched at her head.

The four Assessment operatives began the very long walk back to base.

—-

GOC Assessment Team 777, callsign Fingertip, stood at attention helmets off in front of Combat Instructor "Lasso". He was a grey-haired older Caucasian man with a scarred face. He spoke with a slight Southern twang which had diluted from decades away from home.

He walked back and forth on the wind-swept asphalt, red-faced and glaring at the four operatives. Like a particularly furious shark looking for an opening to bite.

"Generous" he finally said. "Can you explain why you just hand-gifted four operatives' minds and bodies to KTE-8762-Burrhus-Copernicus!?"

"I… sir, our sniper and spotter were detected by a large concentration of enemy! We were surrounded and overwhelmed." said Generous. Her round, tan Hispanic face did not show fear or sadness, but rather discomfort. As if being yelled at were a cruel reversal of roles.

"Just being discovered doesn’t get other Assessment Teams wiped out!" Lasso yelled back. He stepped forward. "I'll tell you why you failed this evaluation, Fingertip! Because that was the saddest fucking Rambo wannabe clusterfuckery I have EVER seen from Assessment! I know damn well Wheels and Noface are green like the mold on a wet sock. But you, Generous, acted like you were still in STRIKE! Even STRIKE hotshots know better than to get into a shootout with fifty times their number! And YOU, Vulture!"

Lasso turned his gaze at Vulture so sharply that Wheels and Noface flinched. Vulture's Middle Eastern features remained passive, like this was her daily routine.

"I am particularly disappointed in you Vulture. You're the only one here who's veteran Assessment and you went along with this absolutely pea-brained plan." Lasso said very softly, which somehow only made the blow worse.

Vulture's lips stiffened but she did not otherwise move.

"In the interests of actually teaching you something! Let me break down how you fucked this up! You blew the op long before the shooting started!" said Lasso, resuming his pacing in front of the operatives. "It begins with your cockamamie idea to walk into the center of town with your team split in half! While outnumbered, surrounded and unable to hear external speech with your auditory 'nitohaz filters going. Yet you decided to increase your contact area with the enemy, and reduce everyone's ability to cover each other. Brilliant."

Generous's eyes flicked down and then back up, as she fought the urge to look at the floor in shame.

Lasso said, "Now, I will give credit; Generous's stealth skills are top-shelf even among Assessment. If the rumors of what you did before the GOC are true, I can believe it. But you used that gift to walk straight into the viper's nest, then forgot it existed when the pressure was on! Didn't think you'd ever need it again, did you?"

"Sir-" replied Generous.

"I did not give you permission to speak!" said Lasso. "You get permission to speak when you run an OP better than a goddamn trainee! No, it did not occur to you to hide after you were made! Or better yet, not stroll into town like you owned it! Maybe you could have just stayed on the border of town and nabbed a few individuals until you got answers! Maybe you could have observed from outside the whole time! Noface, you look like you want to say something! You didn't plan out this clusterfuck, you may speak but it better be good!"

"Sir, there were latent cognitohazards in their speech, er, or that was how it was simulated. We couldn't have safely interrogated them." said Noface.

Lasso looked the shorter man over for a moment. "Then don't. Bring a few back to HQ where PSYCHE can handle them. Use your fucking imagination. 'Assessment' does not mean 'be heroes and save civilians', it means 'Assess!' You pass over enough information to STRIKE, they deal with the threat entity! You do NOT take direct action. That goes double for planting goddamn explosives as a first resort, Wheels! That was the single stupidest thing that's happened in a very long line of stupidity today! They teach you make a shitload of noise the moment you're found in cat burglar school or whatever?!"

Wheels cringed, seeming to become as small as possible while still upright.

Lasso continued, "Of all the fucking idiocy! Now, let's talk about your contingency plans. Or rather, lack thereof. Once found, all four of you decided to shoot and run your way out like a mindless action movie. You had neither the firepower, nor orders, to kill the entire town! Maybe you think that's all Bookburners do, Noface. Or maybe you watched too many heist action films, Wheels. Or maybe you were high on your own supply, Vulture and Generous!"

The Assessment operatives tried to look away from Lasso's gaze, and from each other.

Lasso went on. "There's more! Choosing as a fallback point an insane 20 foot jump which nearly killed Vulture! Wheels ammo-dumping into a chest-bursting animatronic that others handled with two bullets! Generous charging the eye pillar when shooting it clearly did not work! No one picking up on Noface's infection, when Opfor told him to act suspiciously to allow you a fighting chance! Other rookie mistakes that elude me right now!"

Lasso sighed, being the kind of man who has only so much shouting in him. He lowered his voice to normal speaking volume.

"Well, you didn't screw up everything. Noface's semantic thaumaturgy worked perfectly; Opfor swore you were a cat the entire time. And when you heard the auditory 'nitohaz, you distracted yourself with a competing stimulus and ran away. Something that Generous did not do, for reasons I cannot fathom. Vulture, for her part, executed her role competently. Her biggest mistake was going along with the rest of the team's stupid, stupid plan!

"I have three other teams to lecture today, so let me bring it back together. We are Assessment. We are not STRIKE. We are not Rambo. We observe, assess and report. We only dive in when absolutely necessary. Take a rest. Take in your mistakes today, and remember it for next time. And if you ever repeat the kind of bullshit you tried today, simulation or not, I will see you kicked out of Assessment! High Command be damned! I don't know why their panties are so on fire to have Fingertip in particular ready ASAP. But unless they fire me on the spot, I'm starting 777 Fingertip on the full six month Assessment course. Dis-fucking-missed."

He stormed off, leaving the four alone on the cold, windy training grounds.

Generous turned to the other three. "Hey… you guys did fine. It was all on me. I got too full of myself. I…. set us up to fail." The words almost caught in her throat.

"Nah girl, it was on all of us. Lasso pointed out that we all fucked up in some way or another. Well, me in particular." said Wheels.

"Yeah, all of us. Hey Gen. I was meaning to ask. Why did you only try to drag me when you were infected?" asked Noface.

Generous with a slight tilt of her head, deferred to Vulture.

"You'd be monkey chow if any of us seriously attacked you." said Vulture.

"Oh… uh, also, what was it Lasso meant about Gen's uh, pre-GOC job, anyways?" asked Noface.

Vulture grinned in anticipation.

"You know what? Let's talk about that after we eat so you still have an appetite." said Generous.

Noface chuckled. Generous did not. Noface's expression dropped.

The four walked off to breakfast.

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