"Over there," says the hawker at the pottery stall. "Short guy in the sleeveless vest, spiky black hair. Yup. He's one of them."
Kelly sidles past a gaggle of grannies clucking over melons, and dodges behind the fruit stall's greased paper awning. The bazaar is sparsely populated this morning, damn it. The Forge is only thirty metres away, javelins standing at attention on their launchpads. His interceptor's gritty paintjob beckons to him. He speedwalks toward it, barely resisting the urge to break into a run.
They corner him mere steps from the platform. Two strider engineers, with the ropy forearms and heavy tread that he once bore. The gal says, "You Kelly Falco? The Freelancer who silenced the Cataclysm?"
Kelly sets his teeth. Here we go again. He says, "I'm not the only one who silenced the Heart of Rage."
They don't seem to hear. Big grins, claps on his back. The fellow pumps his hand, saying, "Freelancer, we wanna say thank you. We -- being me, Darai, and Yorinda here, and the rest o' us crew of Strider B-eight-four-one alias Jitterbug Rooster, out of Fortuo. Not to mention all our families and loved ones."
"We heard the news at a waypoint in the mountains, two days out," adds Yorinda.
Darai tsks. "Na, earlier! You remember when we crossed the pass, how Ferdows sat up in the middle of dinner? Says something weird's happened, and she got all those pins and needles up her back. I got 'em too, y'know. You -- you laughed and said we were all just nervous crossing that ravine. But really, we felt it when the Cataclysm was silenced."
Yorinda rolls her eyes. "Still, the waypoint was broadcasting the news, that announcement from your very own governor. And since we're stopping here before that last leg to Antium, we wanted to see the heroes who did the deed. I know we're very late. Wasn't sure if we'd find any o' youse, really. Lucky that stallkeeper pointed you out!"
If only they pointed out some other Freelancer from Haluk's strike teams. Kelly thinks of Mel Mossine, fellow squadmate. Still recovering from the battering she and her Colossus endured as they passed through the Cataclysm, she nevertheless takes her crutches each morning and hobbles her body down the great strider ramps to spend all day in the tunnels inspecting the Fort's foundations. No Freelancer has ever done these seismic tests so faithfully, day after day. She is probably down there now, far away from the roving eyes of stallkeepers and this stifling, maddening adoration.
The two engineers are looking at him expectantly. Kelly shrugs and says, "All in a day's work for a Freelancer."
Darai brays a laugh. "So modest. I hope y'all celebrated hard when you got back from that thing!"
Yorinda says, "Might be all in a day's work, but for us grunts on the ground, it's a miracle. We can't thank you Freelancers enough."
You can thank me by stowing your handshakes and getting on with your lives, Kelly thinks. The torrent of congratulations was already pouring in from all corners of Bastion when they wobbled back to Fort Tarsis with the ichor of the Monitor coating their javelins and the titanic chords of the Anthem still ringing in their ears. A month on now and it shows no signs of stopping.
Aloud, Kelly says, "Thanks. I got a contract waiting. Can't stick around."
They step back, holding up hands like barricades. "Of course. 'Lancers are busy. Lotsa work to do, Shaper weirdness to silence. Appreciate the time. Just wanted to say thanks for everything. S'an honour to meet you, sir. 'Strong alone, stronger together,' right? Have a good day!" they call at Kelly's back, as he mounts the platform to his patiently waiting javelin.
He shrugs out of vest and shoes, stows them into his locker next to the launch platform. The interceptor embraces him into its core. All systems check, clear. His travelling backpack is already secured on the javelin frame. He raises a hand to the Forge technician on launch duty.
The sky overhead is blue, speckled with white clouds. The two strider engineers are still watching as Kelly leaps aloft.
On the other side of the great walls, he pauses on an external staging platform to power down his javelin's communications module. His radio systems go mute and deaf. Then he jumps off the platform and falls down the Fort's sheer flank.
For a breath, Kelly hangs suspended in space and time. For an eternal moment, blessed silence.
His javelin gasps, then exhales propulsion in a breathy roar. The flight jets ignite, flinging him toward the rapids that surge from the shining throne of Tarsis and leap down terraces to the jungle below. Kelly kicks his heels, swivels his hips. Spray plumes as he bottoms out just above the water surface. The cliff edge rushes at him; he follows the water over, falls through the foaming curtains of the terraces, and shoots out again into clear air.
Northern Bastion sprawls before him in a tapestry of luscious jungle and proud granite cliffs. Kelly points his head northeast and flies toward the Bowl.
Fort Tarsis and its uproar fall behind like waterfall spray. At last. Peace and quiet, at last.