The mercenaries living at the Pauling Institute for the Betterment of Mankind were a rough bunch. They were, after all, a large gathering of the most dangerous people in the world, always armed to the teeth with threatening weapons such as shotguns (sawn-off, modified or otherwise), rocket launchers (old or futuristic), kindly-treated miniguns, pistols, butterfly knives, machetes, baseball bats, bottles, jars of dubious fluids and many more. Every man and woman here lived by their weapons and took good care of them, knowing that, despite the miracles of Respawn and Mediguns, their lives might one day depend on them.
All that being said, even dangerous mercenaries have to eat sometimes. The mess hall, once a robot production floor, had not only become their go-to place for a quick snack or a more complicated meal, but also the main hub for social connections. There was always at least one group of mercs who had claimed one of the old, crooked tables and a bunch of cheap plastic chairs to play cards, show off new tricks or just catch up with each other.
Unfortunately, though, these mercenaries were violent. Not only that, but most of them had short tempers to boot. The combination of volatile Soldiers, drunken Demomen, hyperactive Scouts, grumpy Spies and over-enthusiastic Medics led to confrontations much more often than the already-overworked Misses Pauling could take. Aside from keeping Respawn and the Medics busy, they also had to replace the furniture every few days.
One time Demo Owen had left his unfinished sticky bomb-prototypes underneath the table and Scout Jimmy had tripped over them, and then Soldier had decided it would be a good idea to demonstrate his new rocket launcher indoors. Shortly after that three Pyros had played “who can make the most pretty rainbow trail with their flare-gun” a little too close to the Institute’s only public bookshelf, and barely two days later Scout Thomas risked eternal damnation in the form of a lifetime ban from the kitchen when a shot from his scattergun, directed at Heavy Piotr, who had been chasing him because Thomas had put itching powder in his boxing gloves, went wide and ricocheted off the metal of the stove, hitting Spy Constantin in his upper arm and causing him to drop his pan of soup.
After that little incident, which left not just Constantin but also his kitchen helpers Medic Holger and Emily Pauling with impressive burns, Katie Pauling decided that it had been enough. One day she marched out of her office, heading straight towards the mess with a large roll of paper under her arm and a hammer in her hand, gathering a large trail of curious onlookers along the way. She wiped a tasteless black-and-white painting from the wall, spread out her sheet and ordered the two tallest people near her, Heavy Anatoly and Sniper Bailey, to hold the poster as high up on the wall as they could. She stepped onto a chair, took a nail and started hammering.
After a few minutes she took a few steps back to admire her work. There, nailed to the wall, was a large sheet of paper with a single line written at the top in black ink.
It was, of course, a Scout who first opened his mouth.
“Uh, what’s this, exactly?”
Katie glanced over her shoulder, but even she couldn’t tell which one of the four Scouts standing in the crowd had spoken. They were still clones of each other, after all.
“It’s a new list of rules,” she stated confidently. “This whole business was getting out of hand.”
There was a long silence behind her as the mercenaries slowly studied the list. It was Demo Iain who eventually broke it.
“How far does this rule go?”
“Isn’t that clear? No weapons allowed in the mess. Replacing tables isn’t cheap, you know.”
Spy Pierre snorted. “They are plastic tables. Getting cheaper ones than these would be quite the challenge.”
“Question,” one of the Soldiers barked before Katie could reply. “Are shovels considered weapons?”
Miss Pauling sighed internally. I should have seen this coming. “Of course they count. You kill people with those, right?”
Soldier studied the list for a moment. “What about whips?”
“Yes, those too.”
Katie sharply turned around. “Look, it’s a simple rule. Can you kill someone with it?”
Soldier looked thoughtful. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Then it’s not allowed.”
“Zhen vhat about cigarettes? Zhey kill people, nein?”
She sighed deeply. “No, Erwin, cigarettes do not directly kill others, therefore they are not classified as weapons and still allowed in the mess.”
Medic Erwin did not look convinced, but before he could argue further another voice came out of the crowd.
“What about m’hand? I’ve killed folks with this puppy before, so should I take it off? I can’t eat right with just m’ left hand, missy!”
The crowd parted slightly to show the face of Engineer Connor, pulling the orange glove off his right hand to show the prosthetic metal hand beneath it.
“As long as you and the other Engineers promise not to kill anyone with that hand, you’re good,” Katie replied flatly. “And keep the glove on. We don’t want machine oil in our food, thank you very much.”
Connor grinned, but he did as she asked.
“What about my ball? I want to play with that when I eat!” Scout Matt declared.
“And me golfclub?” questioned Demo Malcolm.
“Sandvitch?” Heavy Dimitri sounded worried.
“Rocket Jumpers? Those don’t kill anyone!”
“The Holy Mackerel?”
“ENOUGH!” Miss Pauling roared. The mercs quickly backed down and instinctively tried to hide their kneecaps from her.
“Yes, anything that can be considered a weapon is forbidden! It’s right there on the list! If you’re not sure, ask yourself: am I just being stupid or could I just read the simple rule?”
She looked around the mess and was satisfied to see that they were all trying to avoid eye contact.
“Have I made myself clear?”
A few sounds of agreement were muttered around in the hall.
“I said: Have I made myself clear?”
Spy Marcus cleared his throat. “Quite clear, mademoiselle.”
“Good,” Katie growled. “The next person who comes to me with a stupid question will lose their kneecaps. Now, if none of you have any more objections, I shall be in my office.”
With that, she turned on her heel and marched out of the mess just as determinedly as she had arrived and considered the matter dealt with.
Unfortunately, that would prove to be just a little too optimistic. She lived with mercenaries, after all.