They gathered together, not to strategise or deploy but to celebrate. Their homecoming had been a happy one. Zhao had gotten a step ladder to be able to give Jenny a welcome home kiss without the other woman having to bend over. Every squad had eventually made their way to the commons room. Even Alexa and Anya eventually made their way there.
“Nice shirt,” Katelyn said. “It looked better on Anya.”
Alexa looked down. “Must’ve grabbed the wrong one.”
“Where do we go from here?” Sirvanna asked.
“Find gainful employment like responsible adults?” Katelyn asked.
“It doesn’t matter right now,” Ines said. “It’s a time to celebrate!”
“That’s right!” Yuni cried. “The war is over, you’re all invited to my wedding and there’ll never be a conflict again!”
“That’s really naive,” Alexa said. “There’ll be conflicts. Terrorists, rebels, criminals in general. It wouldn’t surprise me if we have to go into the battlefield again.”
“So Pessimistic,” Yuni said.
“He’s here,” Alena said. They turned to face the doorway. Michael stumbled in, leaning heavily on Ryu.
“His hair’s gotten really short,” Katelyn whispered. “I don’t like it.’
Trojan and Naoko were the first to approach him. “I knew you would be okay,” Trojan said. “I just knew it!” She practically lunged forward, hugging him tightly. She released him and moved back, shyly, almost as quickly.
“You idiot,” Naoko said. “How could you worry us like that?” She got quite a few open-mouthed stares. No one was used to hearing her actual voice.
“Sorry,” Michael said. “Their efficiency was far below my calculations.”
“Are you okay?” Trojan asked. “Did you hurt your legs?”
“In a manner of speaking,” Michael said. “I’m afraid the alliance didn’t much care to let me exercise and I was confined to a sitting position for months. My leg muscles are not in particularly good shape at the moment.”
“I’ll help you with your rehabilitation starting tomorrow,” Florence said.
“I’ll be counting on you,” Michael said.
“Zhao’s little brother is very clever,” Zhao said. “How did he fix the golem units?”
“It was more a matter of not breaking them,” Michael said. “I altered the program to mask their consciousness rather than erase it. It was a simple matter. The difficult part was keeping the changes hidden. I had to take advantage of a loophole in my… ‘programming.'”
“And the armoured suits?” Jenny asked.
“They had a shutdown program hidden in their code,” Michael said. “It was risky, but I gambled that my captors would be unable to find it in time. Ryu, please escort me to the centre of the room.”
“Yes, My Lord,” Ryu said. “My Lord… about what happened… the first time I…”
“It’s okay,” Michael said. “I don’t mind.” He cleared his throat. When he spoke his voice was strong and confident. “Everyone, you did very well in my absence. You exceeded all of my expectations. I know it was difficult and that we, unfortunately, lost some dear friends in the process. Unfortunately, I can’t allow you to rest yet. There is still much work to be done. For those who gave their lives, for those yet to come, we must rebuild. We must forge an equal society that we can all be proud of and in this endeavour we must not be vengeful and unjustly punish those who fought against us.”
Even the bastards behind the Golem project?
“Of course, we will hold trials for war criminals,” Michael said. “Those who committed actual crimes under the justification that they were ‘just following orders’ or that ‘the ends justified the means’ must be made to answer for those crimes. Are there any other questions?”
“I have one,” Yuni said. “Would you officiate my wedding?”
“Congratulations,” Michael said. “To both you and Miss Richards. I consider it a great honour and will gladly serve in that capacity.”
“I have a bit of a more pressing question,” Rose said. “What will happen to Blair? She has no family and she can’t bloody well continue to serve as a soldier.”
“I had planned to discuss that with her in private,” Michael said. “But I don’t want all of you to worry. Blair, can you step forward please?”
The young girl slowly came forward, arms behind her back and eyes downcast. With a visible effort, Michael managed to kneel down to her level. Ryu followed suit, helping prop him up.
“Blair, in spite of your valiant accomplishments you are still a child. It wouldn’t do for you to be out on your own at this juncture. Still, you have more than earned a say in the matter. I’ll give you two options, you can take as long as you need and pick the one you like best, okay?”
“The first option is private school,” Michael said. “You can live in the dormitory and have some measure of autonomy. I’m certain we can find one with instructors that are more than qualified to look after you. The second option is adoption. Several couples have expressed an interest in looking after you. I could get a list of candidates for you to choose from. I could even adopt you myself, if that would be acceptable for you.”
Blair looked up, studying his face. “Can I…” she shuffled her feet nervously. “Can I call you Papa?”
“If you like,” Michael said.
“Papa!” Blair cried. She rushed forward and gave Michael a big hug.
“Careful, Blair,” Michael said. “Papa isn’t as strong as you.”
She nodded, loosening her grip.