"UP!" Velasquez barked through the intercom speaker. "UP-UP-UP!"
An instinctive fist pounded the nonexistent alarm clock on a nonexistent stool next to Kael's bunk. In the haze of the first few moments of wakefulness, Kael vaguely remembered that she wasn't home.
Kael, John and Miranda left the room with no words among them. The whole company of thirty-two trainees went to the prep rooms. All trainees--boys and girls--washed together in soapy ice water and rinsed to a cold spray.
Kael went to her locker and pressed a thumb to the fingerprint scanner. Inside, she found her Kevlar under suit and desert camo fatigues. Sewn on both shoulders was KAEL-JA21, her full designation during boot camp.
Velasquez herded all trainees from the lockers to a narrow hallway. The double-doors ahead split open, a crack of daylight shot through.
Kael and the others marched out to the same open field as yesterday, only in the morning light she noticed the obstacle course that she entirely missed the night before.
Kael couldn't navigate through its complexity even if she had its designs on hand.
"That," he made sure to point with his electric baton, "will squeeze the fat out of you. I will give each team time five minutes, and if so much as one team fails, then the whole company will have to do it all over again."
Some grumbling here and there, but they all made a single file and then listened for the next set of instructions like machines.
But that's really the point isn't it? Kael thought. Strip away the emotions, the capacity to make mistakes and natural instinct, and you have the functional equivalent of a sentry droid for a fraction of the cost.
The first to go was a brusque trainee with a neck like a fire hydrant.
Kael watched, mildly amused, as he tripped over tires, barely clung to the zip line and muscled his way through the course. He made it though, and many others did by full sunrise--far too many from the way Velasquez uneasily shifted from one foot to another.
By then, the rising sun warmed the desert with a shade of amber gold and spilled a deep orange hue across the sky. Velasquez led the thirty-two trainees on a brisk jog outside the base. They went past a field of prickly-stumped cacti, leaping sand dunes, and stopped on one dune with artificially grown trees.
By then, the sun burned the horizon.
Kael and the others hunkered down in the shade. Much farther up the dune, she saw four Ravager tanks parked before a low bridge of barbed wire. Their machinegun turrets pitched up and down and made minute adjustments.
Velasquez leaned for a moment to catch his breath. "Good...very good."
He still had his baton, but it was harmless now--the despot up in the sky was.
"Next, we check how long you can keep your head together." A cruel finger shot at the bridge of barbed wire in front of the tanks. The machinegun servos whine to life, and Team One instinctively lined up for their run.
Kael had seen news feeds of Ravager tanks in action against Ghosts, disenfranchised insurrectionists on even poorer mining outposts. She'd never thought it could be so loud--the crack of machinegun fire so heavy she felt it sing in her bones, muzzle flashes so bright she had to squint as Team One launched into their run. Eighteen others went before Kael's turn.
She flattened herself beneath the barbed wire and scurried through the course. The turrets tracked her--firing live, anti-materiel rounds powerful enough to tear horrendous wounds through two inches of Therrite armor as if it were an orange peel.
Past the gun battery, Kael sprinted up the dune and joined the other trainees jogging on the spot. She noticed a trickle of blood on her chin and realized a twisted metal barb had nicked her cheek. She grinned, brushing that realization aside, and cast a sideward glance at the shoulder-high girl next to her.
Kael didn't frown. Instead she stifled a twinge of envy. The thin girl next to her jogged on the spot--ugly bandage on her nose and all--after the fight yesterday and then vomiting from heat exhaustion afterward. Kael knew she'd never back down from a fight, but she also knew her own limits.
The rest joined them, and they all jogged on the spot. Velasquez blew his whistle five minutes later. The trainees then scrambled to the oasis hut on the other side of the sand dune; they gurgled their water bottles like animals.
Each oasis hut, set about a sand dune with artificially grown trees that served as a marker, was a dome-shaped building fit with solar panels and a wind vane. Inside the air conditioned units was a fridge, gallons of water, food rations, a COM radio and sleeping bags. Thomson blew his whistle another five minutes later.
Unlike yesterday, they all quickly ran back to the Ravagers and clambered atop the track pods because today they knew there couldn't be room for all of them on the four tanks. Velasquez handed those who were too slow, or too tired, a bottle of water and administered a shot of the endurance medical cocktail usually reserved for Amorclads--heavy shock troops.
During the ride back to the base, Kael made sure to close her eyes. It was midday, and the sun was at full bloom in the cloudless midsummer sky. The desert's horizon swam with heat, wavering and blinding-white.
They dismounted at the base, then washed together in the prep rooms and all left the mess hall. A seasoned company and a pair of Armorclads had shown up for the hazing rituals--a parade of twisted smiles and grins greeted them as they took their seats. Within moments, one team left in tears.
Kael sat down, slid her tray to the center of the table. Miranda and John pulled out their steel chairs and sat on the other side. She disregarded the thin girl for the moment and instead paid attention to the team across them.
Kael had read somewhere that if you're in a different culture, it's easier to fit in by watching the successful. Following this, she observed in particular the white-haired girl from Team One. It was her foregone conclusion that this particular trainee--ARYA-LS1221, definitely didn't belong here.
She certainly wasn't that much better looking, and was only a bit shorter than Miranda. She didn't even look that tough, Kael noted, but there was a certain peril about her, and didn't look like she was nice. In fact, all of Team One didn't seem like they belonged here at all.
They all just ran in front of those machine guns as if they weren't even there. Nobody new does that. So then, someone is making extra cash training private military company troops. Great.
Kael shifted her gaze back to her team and wondered if she might be happier in Team One. Miranda across the table tore at her tray like a starved dog. John quietly ate and for whatever reason made it a personal mission to ignore them both.
Who, she wondered, would win if they had to compete against Team One? She pondered this question while glancing over her tray, a savagely hewn amalgam of soggy stews that made her gut clench with revulsion.
While fighting Miranda, John managed to physically restrain her for a moment on his own after she wrestled away two guys, so she assumed he was at least a bit stronger than her. Miranda could endure, but she was still ultimately useless and would just slow them down as a unit. Against Team One? They'd get their asses kicked, so she had to be removed.
"So then," Kael started, "I'll imagine you're related to Cyril Reigns.
Miranda stopped eating and stared back at her for a moment, perhaps to discern her ulterior motive by looking into her eyes or such nonsense. Kael wasn't certain what the thin girl saw in her dark red eyes, but then she did something that confounded her: she smiled back.
"Just Miranda Reigns," she replied. "No relations."
"I'm sorry about your nose."
"No you're not," Miranda said, haughty grin behind that ugly bandage. "But forget about me. Tell me about you."
"My name is Kael", she smiled back.
Perhaps she was taking this all too seriously, but had Kael taken her eyes off Miranda, stepped away from her ego for a precious moment, she might have noticed that the act was in fact a diversion.
When the boot connected to Kael's back, she took the chair and the table down with her--crashed and skid clear across the floor like a hockey puck. Before John could stand, the crack of the soldier's fist came almost simultaneously with the dull thud of John's unconscious body against the marble floor.
Kael smashed into Team One's table and after that a pile of folding chairs. At length one must've thought her unconscious; there should have been broken bones, and perhaps her skull should have fractured when it bounced a good half-meter or so off the floor, but nothing was broken.
Instead, Kael burst from the pile of folded chairs.
A heartbeat later, the crowd broke into a wild chant, and no one wanted to miss the fun.
It didn't occur to Kael that people like Miranda had the sort of friends involved in organized crime, who still have to serve the mandatory two years for the free training.
In fact, at that moment nothing occurred to her. Just at the first blow thrown, her mind was gone.
Steel chair in hand, Kael closed fast on the soldier before the second chant even passed the crowd's lips. In the surprise that she was still conscious, never mind the sudden alacrity at which she moved, all he had time for was to cross his forearms across his brow.
The blunt chair sliced, swift and low--and cut deeply into bone.
A single chair was a flimsy thing, but it was steel nonetheless. The instrument struck with enough force to almost curl around his leg before the bone gave way and snapped--loud enough to report over the chanting crowd.
As to all spectators, the severity of a blow seen and not felt seemed a great deal less impressive, and this almost held true when the soldier tried to stumble after her in rage but then stomped on the broken limb, and then registered the damage. He dropped to the ground like a stone and bellowed a scream, loud and long.
The twisted steel chair met his face at speed; she lifted the chair up and smashed it back down, again and again. He tried to cover his face, but she smashed at his hands then at his face until he stopped moving. Sensing the fight was over, the chants began to falter.
But she couldn't hear them, couldn't think straight.
In a fight, any fight, her rational mind was completely unhinged--cast into an unnatural high that made time race and crawl as what felt like super cooled blood rushed through her body. She noticed everyone watching was completely frozen in place--unblinking and silent as if time had stopped.
Kael tossed the steel chair aside; the blooded instrument crashed into the wall and blew apart. It would've been the simplest thing to break his jaw right there, teach him and his friends a lesson, but this time she caught herself before the bloodlust took her mind. This apparent killer in training was still no direct threat to her, and in her eyes, as equally helpless as a child.
She still saw it in her mind's eye: the bone-crunching halt of her fist against his chin as the flesh split, and with a drowned pop, the feel of his entire jaw shear loose and glide free from its ligaments, and the sinister melody of splintering bone singing coldly in her knuckles.
Then, suddenly, a lightning bolt shot through her body and everything came back to normal. She collapsed instantly and could just see Velasquez standing over her with the electric baton, and between the spasms still had the mind to tear him down--when another shock froze her solid.
And still she remained conscious.