Planet Chorus S-710e Therrite Mining Outpost, United Self Defense Force Proving Grounds
1653 Hours, July 21
"Move out!" The drill instructor barked at the trainees.
Through the open loading ramp, Kael saw the distant horizon simmer in the oppressive desert heat. Autonomous helicopters--about the only autonomous damn thing this mining colony's self-defense force could afford--swarmed the cloudless sky as their propellers hammered sound through the drop ship's packed cargo bay. The roar of ancient Ravager tanks broke through the noise below, gears and tracks rumbling as they rolled into a convoy down a dirt road.
"You!" The drill instructor jabbed a rubber handled steel baton at a random trainee's chest, "and YOU! Move god damn it, MOVE!"
He pointed at a rope that dangled from a hastily welded hitch, where one of the loading ramp's hydraulic arms joined the top of the cargo bay, and right next to this a black-on-orange health and safety warning in a blocky font: KEEP CLEAR OF OBSTRUCTIONS AT ALL TIMES.
Doesn't matter how angry he's paid to act, her boss at Fenris Enterprise told her on the day they left. He's just a fucking employee like the rest of us, so don't make eye contact, stay in the center of the group and you'll be back here before you know it. Easy shit, really.
The truth is it was impossible not to betray a paper thin veneer of calm when your only concern was the distant but very real threat of piracy, and your idea of mortal peril was perhaps piloting a telepresent mining drone off a cliff and losing a huge chunk of your pay.
The drill instructor's scrutinizing gaze slashed across the cabin and Kael shuddered slightly. She didn't want--
"Trainee!" Two leaping strides, and Sergeant Major Velasquez was upon her. "To the rope! On the double!"
Kael stifled a frown as the crowd parted to make way for her, and kept it so for the time it took her to reach the entrance of the cargo bay. She halted at a careful distance from the edge, looked over the yawning loading ramp and saw tiny outposts set against the desert plateau.
It was a fifty meter drop to the ground; the only way down was that rope.
A cold leaden palm dropped on her shoulder. The Sergeant Major roughly encouraged her another step forward, and with his free hand flicked a switch on his baton. The instrument sparked with electricity.
Kael wasn't afraid of him. What she was afraid of was losing grip somewhere down the rope, perhaps mid way, and dropping to the ground--splinters of shattered bone stark against her bloody heap.
She wasn't going to let him bully her, at least while she could deny him that pleasure--so she jumped onto the rope.
Miscalculation: the plastic rope was thick in her sweaty palms and her fingers slipped as she began to climb down. Seven meters to go, the rope heated and burned in her grip--she was falling--and dropped flat on her ass.
"GO-GO-GO!", Velasquez cracked through the drop ship's external speakers.
Kael didn't go.
Instead she stood and dusted her pants, and then stared right back at him. Velasquez, perhaps mistaking her momentary halt as a plea for guidance, shouted for her to go the outposts, to which Kael smirked and walked away.
A small victory.
She sat in the shade of one outpost, though the sweltering desert heat and dust proved any attempt to escape futile. It wasn't like terraforming arid regions into garden vistas was impossible--just hopelessly expensive--and even interstellar mining operations as big as Fenris Enterprise still answered to their interstellar bean counters, who frequently, and quite often illegally, cut corners to pad profit margins.
The miserable shit-heads, she thought, and I'm expected to put down my life for them? And for shit pay with it?
For the next few minutes, she watched the rest of what the drill instructor told them was going to be the relatively small Velasquez Company. Thirty-two, counting herself. Kael regarded a great balance of them with immediate disdain as the Sergeant Major bullied each down the rope. Only that stick figure from earlier, Miranda, got down the rope without even being told to.
She watched the skinny bitch closely, secretly anticipating her to splat at the last moment and embarrass herself...but she didn't. There was an Earth middle-eastern looking guy--she guessed from the traditional turban he wore--who fared better than her.
Who the hell did he piss off to get shit-canned this far from home?
They all waited for Velasquez to expertly descend the rope, as any drill instructor is wont to do. The drop ship then landed a moment later in a billowing dust cloud. He then grabbed their bags from the roof storage hammocks in the troop bay and tossed each into a pile in the dirt, and after this he called them to sort through it.
He patiently waited, watched them with all the silent vigil of a stalking lion.
"For many of you, this will be pure agony," Velasquez did not shout, did not threaten--but every single trainee stopped what he or she was doing and listened. His demeanor grave and calm, he cleared his throat and continued.
"Over the next two years, you will be introduced to the United Self Defense Force's rich culture and discipline, but first you will starve, cry and bleed before I make fine soldiers from you all."
He paused, and a deadly calm held the scene. Velasquez then saw his trainees as individuals--just a bunch of working-class kids fresh from the last year of secondary education--and not the units he'd carve of them. Perhaps to foster an approachable front, Kael noticed the slight slack in his posture, the high strung tension about his face ease up.
No one spoke.
Velasquez snapped straighter. A hard finger shot at the convoy of Ravager tanks down the dirt road. "MARCH!"
Some of the trainees turned, their faces a question, to contemplate the distance. Between the time their drop ship arrived and now, the ancient tanks must've covered at least three good kilometers. They didn't look like they were going to stop for them.
Kael saw that same thin girl from earlier at the corner of her eye. Like everyone else, she'd been put through a crash diet course over the last week, and Miranda grunted with effort as she shouldered a hiking backpack. Some short, white-haired girl took her pick from the luggage, then the middle-eastern boy again. Kael grabbed her bag next.
By the time they were a stone's throw of the trailing tank, they were all heaving; their clothes soaked with perspiration and sweat glistened from their brows. Mercifully, the last tank came to a halt, and Kael felt the growl of its powerful engine rumble in her empty stomach.
Even at this remove, Kael thought a Ravager looked too big for a tank. Each was at least twice as wide and tall as the ones she'd seen in History class. Now an entire convoy of the siege engines stretched out before her like a solid river of angular steel and gears, heavy-set with Therrite armor plating. Heat roiled off their contoured forms in great waves and made the immediate above them appear aboil.
Velasquez fast-walked past the trainees to the thin girl in the lead and grabbed her by the shoulder, spun her around. She halted in mid spin as if suddenly awakened.
"Trainee! Do you want to walk thirty-eight miles to base!?"
"That's SIR, NO SIR! And salute while at it!"
The thin girl managed one shaking arm to salute.
Velasquez tilted his head at the tank. "Get up that track pod, trainee."
The effort to throw the laden back pack damn near killed her. Quivering boots found purchase in the tank's drive sprocket and Miranda clambered up with all the grace of a sleepwalker. Kael and the other trainees then saw her lurch forward, wide eyes blood shot, and cup both hands over her mouth.
Vomit snaked between her bony fingers, a glistening mess of yellow syrup flecked with white lumps and greens. It spattered on the track pod, and dripped into the dirt. Velasquez regarded the pitiful sight, then palmed his water flask and offered it to her.
Miranda emptied it in three powerful drags, and then just stared at no one in particular. As the rest of the trainees brushed past Kael and clambered atop the track pods, those hazel eyes pinned her and her alone, but this time it was different.
Kael noticed that Miranda's clothes were dry and she wasn't sweating at all--probably heat exhaustion. This, mere hours after she'd beat her down, did her very best to give her a concussion, choked her, then the trauma from she broke her nose. That she was even conscious, never mind still participating in boot camp, was certainly a medical curiosity.
What does it take to make her see enough is enough? What kind of a life takes a person's voice like that? Had it been anything approaching an even fight, I'd have lost. No...much worse than that. I'd have been killed.
Once aboard, the trainees quickly discovered the old war machines had good pace; twisting dust clouds erupted in their wake as the massive tanks stormed down the dirt road. Soon the military base rose from the horizon as a castle of watchtowers, multi-storey buildings and towering walls.
Off the tanks, they marched out into an open field, and by then the sun had finally set and the planet's moon hung in against a starry night sky. Velasquez cast his forbidding gaze over the company, counted how many he'd broke with his boot camp's preamble. He didn't look too happy.
"Next," he said, "I will split you into teams, assign your uniforms and your ID tags which you will use to access the cafeteria and your team's living quarters in the building behind me. We will begin tomorrow's exercise at oh-five-hundred hours, so you better rest up. Any questions?"
Desert crickets resumed their night song.
"Good," he brought out his palm size computer. "Trainee Arya, Adam and Sam, you will be Team One. Come grab your uniforms and name tags."
The short white-haired girl and two boys got up. They received their equipment and were instructed to head to the building behind them. Three other teams were grouped, but there was one with four people in it. So far so good.
"Kael, John and Miranda as Team Seven. Grab your gear, eat, then get some shut eye."
Kael stood up and shouldered her bag. John got up too. He was a bit tall, a bit too lean, but still sort of cute. She was about introduce herself when she saw him turn to their third team member.
That damn skinny bitch again, of all people!
Kael had the mind to break into open protest--fight if she had to--but she had to imagine the only thing worse than being electrocuted by that baton was being electrocuted while on the brink of exhaustion and approaching starvation.
Business, for now, would have to come later.