Following the memorial service, Sam's class started poorly and got worse. The students were convinced they should be receiving an endless stream of new techniques and so responded poorly when they were expected to run through the same basic drills repeatedly. They listened in sullen obedience, but limited their participation in the exercises to the bare minimum. Following the respectful attention she had received from them just a day ago, the disinterest struck a particularly painful blow to her ego. Sam found herself sympathizing with all the school teachers she had ignored over the years.
She eventually decided to match apathy with apathy. If they didn't want to perform the drills, then she would let them squander the time the city had paid for. Failing to inspire her students wouldn't impact her salary and the last thing she wanted was a promotion. The day crawled by slowly as she went through the motions of instructing.
Finally, she was able to dismiss the students for the day. They slumped next door towards dinner.
The first words to greet them were not at all what any of them would have expected. Greg almost danced across the floor towards them, a silly grin on his face. "Whittaker! We're going to a strip club!"
Fred Whittaker's face lit up like he was a kid spotting a pile of presents beneath the Christmas tree. "Are you serious?"
"Ski got in with the new guy an hour ago. The kid hasn't talked to a girl in months, so Haskell said we ought to head out to Cheerleaders. When the idea caught on, Ski said The Boss wouldn't go for it. So I asked her myself and she didn't care so long as Ski made sure we didn't cause any trouble." Greg puffed his chest out as if he had done something particularly noteworthy. "The girls will be ten times hotter than they were at that place outside Fort Dix. Remember that? It was all cellulite and C-section scars."
"I distinctly remember being propositioned by a woman with meth mouth." Fred laughed. "It was worth going for the story, but I hope we get to see some talent."
"Oh my God," Sam said, "you're talking like a dirty old man, Fred!"
Fred spread his arms in a wide shrug. "You're surrounded by Army Men, Centurion. We fought two days ago, memorialized a friend this morning, and now we're going to remember what being alive is all about."
Sam rolled her eyes. "Oh, wow, what war movie did you steal that line from?"
"It's not a line, Sam. I'm the oldest person in this army now, which didn't work out too well for Woodrow." Fred shrugged. "I'm not complaining about it. My alternative was sitting at home getting irradiated by resentment from my wife. Fuck that. I'm going to die a hero and get my name carved onto a plaque. And tonight I'm going to drink too much and get dances from beautiful women pretending they like me. If you don't approve, it won't hurt my feelings none."
Sam watched the rest of her trainers march over to join a circle of animated men, her lips quirked into a frown. Before she could decide whether to feel guilty or offended, Erica Spencer marched up to her at a brisk pace. "Centurion Wilcox, are you staying in tonight or attending the . . . extracurricular trip?"
Erica lifted a clipboard. "I'm making up the schedule for guard duty while the men are being stupid. Are you staying behind?"
"No! She's going!" Jess almost collided into Sam as she ended her sprint. "You're going, Sam. You have to."
"Grrr. Fine. I'm going to the 'extracurricular trip'."
The lines of Erica's face tightened. "That's just great. Enjoy getting out of work, Centurion."
As the Sergeant stalked away, Sam turned to Jess. "Why are we going to a strip club?"
"Actually, it's not we. It's you."
"What? Why would I go if you're not? These guys are going to be out of control, I can tell already. And I definitely don't want to see whatever the women there are going to be doing."
Jess sighed dramatically. "You are my eyes and ears in this, bestie. I want to go. I just . . . Srinivas isn't into this type of thing."
"Wait, so are you guys official now?"
"Not yet. I either have him scared or confused. I don't think Indian nerds know how to handle an assertive white woman."
Sam raised a brow. From her recollection, Jess had never been assertive with any of her boyfriends. Maybe this was a positive sign. "Fine. I'll debase myself to satisfy your curiosities. Just one thing."
Jess lit up. "Name your condition, mon amie!"
"I'm not reporting Mike's behavior."
"Uh, why would I care what Mike does? You're bringing up ancient history."
"Last week was ancient?"
"I'm pretty sure we had a pet dinosaur last week," Jess said.
"Oh, right, before that meteor killed them off at the start of this week. How could I forget something like that?"
"I will owe you one for this." Jess hugged her tight. "Oh, you aren't the only woman going at least. Kendra definitely signed up for the trip."
Fifteen minutes later, Sam found herself part of a convoy flying over the city in civilian clothing. Of the men, only Srinivas had remained behind. The moments before they took to the sky had been filled with brash exclamations from the guys, what seemed to her to be releases of excess excitement. Fortunately, the rush of the air prevented speech during their journey. They moved up the river away from downtown for a time before moving several blocks inland to touch down on a sidewalk.
"We go the rest of the way on foot," Mike announced. "You are allowed to enjoy yourself. You are not allowed to get out of hand. At no point are you to use your talents in this facility. You will be polite and respectful. While you have nothing to fear from a bouncer, I promise you I will come down on you like the hand of God on anyone who misbehaves. Also, there will be PT tomorrow morning. I haven't decided on the intensity level yet. If no one screws up, it could be some light stretching. Or we could mop the floor with our sweat. So it is in your best interest to keep your buddies in line. Everyone clear on the score? Good. Let's go have fun."
The new kid raised his hand. "Uh, Centurion, you said you would give me an advance on my pay?"
Mike pulled out a wad of bills. "Two hundred dollars is all you get. It goes fast in a place like this if you aren't careful."
Smith clamped both of his hands on the kid's shoulders. "I'm buying your first dance, Diego."
The group strode towards the building ahead, clumping into various sub-groups as they went. The younger ones were up front. Then came the older men. Bringing up the rear were Mike, Jimmy, Kendra, and Sam. A very large man in a suit opened the door for them as they approached. Inside, they queued up to pay their cover charge and pass through a metal detector one at a time. Sam squinted at the proximity of Kendra and Jimmy while they waited.
Then she was through the metal detector and walking into a dark room filled with strobing lights. She paused, looking around for the people she had come with. Some of them were waiting at the bar counter to get drinks, while the rest of them had gone immediately to sit around a stage shaped like the runway at a fashion show. She even spotted a pole further back on the stage.
"Afraid to go in?"
She turned a sceptical eye on Mike. "Did you want to come here?"
"I thought I had set this plan up to for the boss to shoot it down, but she apparently wasn't on the same wavelength as me. In six days there will be a price on my head. If I had my way, I would be training with Cassandane to get ready." Sam moved a half step further from Mike. He matched her movement to maintain the same distance. "What exactly are you doing here? I mean, I can understand getting out of guard duty, but this doesn't seem like your scene."
Sam folded her arms. "And what is my scene?"
"We both know it's not this."
"Fair enough," she said. "So what are we supposed to do now?"
"Get a drink, exchange some bills for singles, and find a seat. If you don't want to be approached by the dancers, sit away from the stage."
"Are they going to be . . . dancing on . . . people who sit around the stage?"
"That doesn't happen out in the open," Mike said. "You'll be fine, Sam."
She squinted at him. "Do you spend a lot of time here?"
"Not really. It's more the type of place young guys end up at the end of the night. This ain't my scene, either." Mike abandoned her in an instant when a bartender became available.
Sam wandered towards the stage area, where the others had gathered. She sat down beside the new guy Diego, who seemed to have been forgotten by everyone else. He stared up at the stage as a woman strutted by in high heels and not much else. "Get an eyeful," she said.
Diego turned to face her. "This is freaking me out. I have no idea what I'm supposed to do here."
Sam felt a smile rise to her lips. "Did you even want to come here?"
"It wasn't my idea. I mean, I spent all of last night being interrogated by ICE and I really just want to sleep now. Not that I'm against seeing some hot chicks, but this is the last place I'm going to meet girls." Diego squinted at her face. "Do I know you? You look familiar."
"I think we went up to the Angelship on the same shuttle. You went up with Lawrence, right?"
Diego's jaw dropped. "You mean Lawrence Smith? Heavyset gay black guy?"
"Yeah. He was the only man on the shuttle not ogling me and Jess."
"If you were on the Angelship, how did you get back to Earth to join the EDA?"
Sam flicked a strand of hair out of her eyes. "I jumped out of the airlock." She related an abbreviated version of her story; being attuned illegally, training with Cassandane, breaking Jess free, jumping to Earth in a spacesuit, and signing up with the EDA. Diego hung on every word, then when she was finished, he softly punched her shoulder. "You are a badass. What's your name again?"
"I'm Samantha Freaking Wilcox," she said, thinking back to her mantra when she had used to pump herself up.
"Samantha," Diego repeated.
"You can just call me Sam," she interjected.
"How could I call Samantha Freaking Wilcox, the woman who jumped from orbit, a boring one syllable name like Sam?"
"Probably very easily. Everybody else does," she said.
"Anyway, Samantha, what's the deal with Mike?"
She shrugged. "What about him?"
"There's some building thing I heard about."
"Yeah, you'll get tired of hearing about that real fast. People love to talk about the building catch. What they always leave out is that Mike didn't do it by himself. The other guy gets forgotten."
"But he did it? Caught a skyscraper?"
"Yes, it happened."
"Damn. I mean, I knew he was something else when he broke me out of that facility. He fuzzed everyone's mind in the whole place and just waltzed in to get me out of there."
"Full paragons are totally overpowered," Sam said.
"That's for sure. What about the tea thing?"
Sam cocked her head sideways. "What tea thing?"
"We had to stop at some place to pick up loose leaf tea. I never knew there were so many types of tea. He got jasmine green tea, white peony, and white pu-erh. He made a special side trip to buy three bags, but he didn't seem to know anything about tea. He was like 'is this a good white tea'? It was weird."
With every word, Sam's smile grew wider until her face began to hurt. "Oh, Diego, this information is gold."
"Sorry, I have to go talk to Mike right now. Looks like Greg picked the lady who is going to dance on your lap, so have fun with that!"