The blare of his phone alarm brought Mike awake. He popped out of bed, triggered the light switch with his corona, and shouted a general wake up call to the men's bedroom as he made his way to the bathroom. As usual lately, Mike reflected on his ease of movement. His cartilage had been touched up, ligaments tightened, joint fluid thickened, and soft tissue repaired with the teleotic talent. Whereas he had once woke contorted in pain that required a lengthy process of stretching, joint popping, and mobilizing to ease, he now experienced the effortless movement of a younger man -- one whose hobbies did not involve being repeatedly joint locked.
Washing up after completing his business, Mike paused to admire his bare upper body in the mirror. He didn't have his abs back yet, but his stomach could legitimately be called flat. His arms, shoulder, chest, and back remained as always -- slabs of solid muscle with a decent amount of definition. The only remaining trouble spot was the obliques, which still gave him a bit of the spare tire appearance. He couldn't complain, given the rapid improvement to his body composition. The muscle, always there from his hours in the gym, had been exposed through a combination of diet and teleotic manipulation. Mike thought he almost looked like the man he had been before his life went off the rails. Back when he thought he might actually make something of himself.
It had taken Tyler Marius to make that dream into a reality. And while Mike made a respectable killing machine, he had failed again and again as a leader. Bullying the soldiers under him instead of inspiring them, the same as Marius had done. Not pushing for the kinetics under his command to have training in corona wrestling. Insufficiently training the team in tactics -- they had never even covered tactical retreats. Not being there when Woodrow needed him. Having no words of comfort for Spencer in the aftermath of losing a soldier.
There wasn't anything to do about it, though. No one else could step into his role and do a better job than him. Fate or maybe just stubborn grit had made him the only full paragon from this planet. Whether or not Sam ranked as his equal on paper, he was in reality the second in command of the EDA. He had to do better. Become better. Not for his ambitions or for a spot in history. For the comrades and friends who would pay the price for his mistakes.
The list of areas he had to improve loomed large in his mind. Leadership ability. Administrative skills. Training methodology. Battlefield tactics. Emergency medicine. Effective delegation and human resource development. And of course combat skills: none of the rest would mean anything if he died in eight days when the once month grace period granted by Nallit ran out.
Mike finished up in the restroom and changed into his black EDA uniform while the rest of the troops were still milling about like zombies. He clapped his hands to get them moving, then added instructions when he saw Srinivas start to put on his workout clothes. "Standard uniform. We're skipping physical training this morning for the memorial service."
He left the room, pausing at the door to the female bedroom to listen for proof that they were awake, then moving outside to watch the sky lighten from the vantage of the rooftop. "This is going to be just great," he muttered.
"I don't care much for these rituals, myself." Mike looked up to the higher level of rooftop to spy a morose Cassandane. She continued to voice her thoughts. "I never have proper words of comfort for mourners and the heavy-handed symbolism feels like a waste of time. After the destruction of my world, there were endless memorial events in the fleet. I wanted to tell people that their public spectacles would change nothing, but such coldness from an Aoleyen would have been unforgivable. Now, given my position in the organization, I have no recourse but to attend Kendra's ceremony."
Mike grunted. "They're going to expect both of us to speak."
"I am very aware of that fact," she said.
"Got any advice on what I should say?"
"The ritual is formulaic. Relate some biographical detaiols, issue some platitudes, tell a joke, and end with a positive message about how they will be remembered."
"I don't have a joke prepared," Mike said.
"Neither do I."
Mike felt his face contort into a grimace. "Can't help but feel like we're failing the troops here, boss."
"We won't have the luxury of memorializing every fallen soldier. It might be better if they don't have that expectation."
"I'm not going to let the deaths keep happening."
Cassandane landed beside him. "Don't set yourself impossible goals, Mike. We are undeniably outmatched in the battle against Nallit and that is not the only front in our war. Every plan I have for the EDA relies on you remaining effective in your role."
Mike met her eyes for a moment that stretched too long, then issued a hasty nod. "Understood, Imperator."
As they entered the hall to join the gathering of EDA soldiers, Mike struggled to refocus on the impending speech he had not yet planned out. Varanelli conducted a quick roll call and then the memorial began.
The script went much as Cassandane had indicated. Varanelli read the obituary for Woodrow and made up one for Marius. They went around the room telling stories of their two fallen soldiers. An embarrassing number of those stories involved Mike. Apparently Woodrow had loved telling anyone who would listen about the time Mike beat him up during 'boot camp in the woods'. And the man had claimed Mike was better than all his other doctors put together for fixing his joints up.
Mike let some generic praise for the man roll off his tongue when he was put on the spot. Woodrow had stepped up at a time in his life when no one expected anything for him. He had not hesitated to put his life on the line for his planet and his friends. He would be sorely missed. When the room fell silent, Cassandane stepped forward to claim their attention. "The loss of a life is always a tragedy. But in the face of inevitable death, there is something noble about ending life with a sacrifice. Woodrow and Marius both should have lived longer. They unfortunately did not, but their deaths had meaning. Not everyone is so fortunate. I believe that if Woodrow had never joined the EDA, he would have lived some few years longer, only to die a lonely death, gasping his last in a nursing home. Be sad to lose a friend and comrade, but don't forget the fact that his few months in the Earth Defense Army had more of an impact on the world than some people's entire lives."
Varanelli took over once more, unveiling a marble plaque with the words "Earth Defense Army Honor Roll" inset in gold at the top. It had two names engraved on individual plates. Tyler Marius and Woodrow Robinson. There were a lot more plates waiting for names. Judging by the silence that descended, everyone else was wondering who would be honored next.