Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Doom belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and the people at Id Software/Universal Pictures, respectively.
The Ark chamber of the facility at Olduvai was sterile and smelled like recycled air. The guy they sent to meet her, a Lieutenant Huengs, was also sterile and smelled like recycled bureaucrat. Buffy tried to remember why she'd volunteered for this operation, and then remembered the bet she'd lost with Dawn. She was so going to get her back.
“The RRTS Marines should be here soon,” said Huengs, who was listening to the device in his ear. “ETA ten minutes. They're at the Ark.”
The Ark had been...weird. She wasn't sure she liked being split apart into millions and millions of pieces and hurled to another planet. What if something important, say like her flawless taste in shoes or maybe her occipital lobe, got lost somewhere along the way? Dawn, however, had vetoed having Willow teleport her in. Something about sending the UAC into frothing hysteria over security and things that shouldn't be possible, like faster than light travel without Ark involvement. Given her choices—spending decades getting there by the space equivalent of a bus or going through the Ark—she'd decided to listen to Dawn. Her many, many degrees in everything and anything had to be worth something.
Olduvai was filled with people in lab coats who stole glances at her and whispered behind their clipboards. No one outside the upper ranks of the administration knew that an Operative was coming, so either someone had been unable to keep their mouth shut or she was just really obvious. The clothes she wore—leather pants, boots, a black, long-sleeved sweater, and a leather duster—being what they were, she was going with gossip.
“Operative,” Huengs was saying. “We have confirmation. RRTS is coming in. Would you like to see the dossier?”
“Big tough guys with gun fetishes, right?” Buffy shrugged. “I think I know the type.”
Huengs didn't smile, but then he, too, resembled a big tough guy with a gun fetish. Buffy would have been willing to bet, despite her recent losing streak, that at some point he had wanted or still wanted to be a Marine, but either couldn't hack it or went into the private sector for the money. Whichever it was, he still wasn't about to mouth off to an Operative.
The technician, Pinzerowski (“Call me Pinky.”), was ogling her shamelessly. Buffy let him both because she felt extremely bad for him and because she felt that if push came to shove, she could probably take him. The cybernetic chair gave her the creeps, though. If she were cut in half and Dawn managed to somehow salvage everything from the belly up, would she want to live like that? No,
she thought, watching Pinky catch her eye and look down, embarrassed, I wouldn't.
Then again, maybe that didn't mean anything. A fifty-year downward spiral into depression and apathy had a way of impairing a girl's judgment.
The computer voice announced the last part of the sequence and the Ark activated, a floating ball of liquid, shimmering gray, very sci-fi. Andrew would have orgasmed on the spot, a thought that Buffy immediately tried to scrub from her brain.
“Coming through,” called Pinky, and then the first RRTS Marine hit the ground at Olduvai in a spray of vomit.
Which, of course, was when her cell phone went off.
“Oops,” she said, as Pinky, Huengs, and
the spitting, choking Marine all turned to look at her. “Sorry. One second.”
She turned and walked away down the corridor that branched off into the main building, pulling out her cell while she did. Caller ID said She Who Must Not Be Named, and Buffy decided that she was going to let Dawn explain to Wheelchair Guy and Security Man exactly how a girl got cell phone reception on Mars.
Stopping just before the huge, reinforced hatch that led into the main facility, ignoring the looks she was getting from the guards and technicians, she put the phone to her ear.
“I know you want to kill me,” said Dawn's voice.
Buffy went from suspicious to paranoid in zero flat. “What?”
“It was Xander's idea,” said Dawn, and in the background someone who sounded like Xander went “What? No! No, it wasn't! Don't hurt me!”
“What are you talking about?” said Buffy, now paranoid and
irritated. “What was his idea? Why am I going to kill you?”
There was an ominous silence.
A click let her know that the line had disconnected. Buffy stared at the cell phone in her hand, wondering if her sister had really just hung up on her.
Buffy put the cell phone on vibrate and tucked it into a pocket. Huengs was coming up behind her, expression carefully neutral.
“RRTS is ready for briefing,” he said perfunctorily. “Sergeant Mahonin has been informed that you were waiting for him.”
Sergeant Mahonin was probably ready to bite nails and spit rust. Buffy knew they hadn't told RRTS exactly who would be going along on their mission, and nobody wanted an Operative on their doorstep. The presence of one automatically upgraded the situation from routine to cluster.
Now she wished she had
read the personal files. Or at least had Dawn read it. She didn't know how Sergeant Mahonin was going to react to her, not that it really mattered. If the Initiative had taught her anything all those years ago, it was that lower-level grunts hardly ever questioned their orders, and the situation had not improved over time. As long as she didn't grossly violate the Geneva Convention, they weren't likely to mutiny. Sergeant Mahonin didn't have to like the Operative. He just had to take orders.
Buffy didn't let any of that bother her as she walked back with Huengs. She had a job to do, and she was going to do it. There was a two-week vacation in Tahiti waiting for her when she was done, and she had already bought her bikini.
Another of the Marines had thrown up. The mess was everywhere and they all looked embarrassed. Throwing up was one thing—throwing up when there was an Operative around was another. The smell was really bad. They were never going to let those guys forget it.
She picked out Sergeant Mahonin right away. He was kind of hard to miss. He watched her come with a raised eyebrow, already bracing himself for bad news. The Marine standing next to him and wiping vomit from his lips stopped to whistle, long and loud.
“Maybe this won't be such a loss after all,” he said slowly, looking her up and down. “You like a man in uniform, baby?”
Pinky coughed. Huengs looked as if he was biting his tongue.
“Sergeant,” said Huengs, “This is the Operative.”
The silence couldn't have been more painful. Buffy was enjoying the looks on their faces when several people shifted awkwardly and she got a good look at the man standing quietly in the back.
The shock was total. Buffy thought maybe she'd even fainted briefly, because the next thing she heard was the sergeant making introductions.
“Gregory McGreevy, handle ID 'Duke.' Gannon Roark, ID 'Destroyer.' Eric Fantom, ID...”
He looked the same as the last time she had seen him, as if three years meant nothing. He had obviously seen her before she saw him, because her first sight of his face in one thousand, ninety-five days, five hours, ten minutes, and thirty-six seconds was of his dark, dilated eyes, the white pallor of his skin, the clenched tightness of his jaw, and the steel-grip of his fingers on his assault rifle.
“John Grimm,” said Sarge, “handle ID—”
“Reaper,” she said.
She didn't like the way her voice had come out—a low, rasping whisper, as if the shock had spread to her vocal chords. Everyone stopped everything and stared at her, and then at John Grimm.
He wasn't doing much better than she was. She could see that his normally airtight restraint was shot to hell, and everyone could see it. Even Sarge's mouth was sort of hanging open.
Dawn was right. Buffy was going to kill her.
“Hello, John,” said Buffy.