A frosty breeze streamed over the quiet field.
In the starry dark-blue heavens, the moon sunk at the western horizon while the planet's star rose from the east. That meant the autumn equinox would soon be at hand. Kael tucked her hands and feet together for warmth.
She wondered when they'd decide to arrest her for good. Yesterday, when three Armorclads arrived at the cafeteria and blew the doors off their hinges, heavy assault rifles at the ready, they were surprised to find one girl barely conscious on the floor, and right next to her the other trainee's body lingering in a pool of blood as thick as caramel.
Though she could barely move, her mind was still in top gear. She remembered their JAW-1221 heavy combat armor's assembly orientation videos from Fenris Enterprise so long ago. Beneath all those endurance and aggression enhancing drugs, crystallized Therrite plates, inertia dampening gels and the bullet resistant under suit, the Armorclad was still a human being--living flesh and blood that could be destroyed.
Assuming you were in a suitable combat harness yourself, and you weren't simply folded into submission, or worse--disemboweled, decapitated and then quartered to the four winds in the blink of an eye as if you were made of soft clay--killing an Armorclad was simply a matter of tearing out the armor plating where it was weakest at the shoulder blades, and then perhaps sinking a tungsten-carbide knife into the spine.
The massive shock troops closed around her like a ravenous pack of wolves, fast and steady. Behind them, a detail of emergency personnel rushed into the cafeteria. Against such overwhelming force, she'd concluded the best option was surrender, but they gave her no such chance.
The electrodes bit deeply into her neck, and in rapid succession a third blast of electricity jolted through her body. Kael still remembered the sensation of falling unconscious--instantly deafened and blinded at once, then a sinking feeling as the last impulse to spring after the particular shock troop gave way to a gripping blackness.
She awoke in a closed cell before who she assumed was the base's commanders He spoke to her as if trying to placate a truculent child, just like the drop ship pilot, and all her teachers and principals at school before that. He told her to watch her temper, all the while the three Armorclads stood ready to blast her to unconsciousness should she again lash out.
Kael had quickly assumed she the only reason she was still at the base is because someone very important and very influential had directly intervened--and broken several laws doing it to keep her here. Under normal circumstances she should've been either dismissed or at least arrested.
After that, they let her go. The three Armorclads didn't say a word to her, but took every pain not to hurt her while they escorted her back to her team's room. The whole thing didn't make sense. Why only a warning? Why was she so special that she had to be here? Perhaps this was some sort of test?
Why send three Armorclads--shock troops deployed to turn the tide of a losing battle--to subdue her?
Kael looked up and squinted in the wane morning light at Velasquez. She noticed he didn't have his electric baton and now carried a high voltage Taser, and also held a campaign hat by his chest. The Sergeant Major took a small step back and cleared his throat.
"Regrettably, I must inform you that Trainee Mike Stassen has been withdrawn from your company. He's currently in intensive care at the infirmary, but once the implants have settled in a few weeks he will be reassigned to Johnson Company. We all wish him a speedy recovery."
There were a few hesitant murmurs, and Kael felt eyes burrow into her back, but no one said anything. She was now the one to avoid, which certainly had its benefits, but becoming unpopular was the least of her problems because something else was deeply and fundamentally wrong. The lips that moved belonged to Velasquez, and the voice was certainly his own, but the words themselves were put there by someone else.
In fact, when she paid attention she saw he was trying not to look a bit scared.
"We'll begin with calisthenics," Velasquez continued. "Afterwards, we'll study firearm basics."
The day started like yesterday--they stretched, did push-ups and sit-ups. Then, team by team they navigated through the obstacle course until mid morning. They ran laps, then went through the obstacle course again. Velasquez blew his whistle, "Rest!"
Kael sprinted through the last leg of the course and trotted to a jog. Their team had finished last. Chitra was well ahead of her, but Miranda came behind--the weakling. The rest of Velasquez Company sat in the shade of the barracks near a motor pool of all-terrain assault vehicles that made Kael laugh.
In the day and age where colony worlds--however sparsely populated--were being terraformed within half a century or less, it didn't make sense for two warring states to fight for their cause in what basically amounts to a fist fight in a ground engagement.
Even a poor mining outpost like Chorus S-710e had the autonomous helicopter drones as their first line of attack and defense. In the unlikely event that those failed, it'd then be gross negligence on both Fenris Enterprise and the United Earth Government to leave the colony populations without the training and weapons defend themselves until help arrived.
Kael saw Chitra quicken his pace. He was actually avoiding her too, and he wouldn't even acknowledge her after what happened yesterday. Small blame to him, but still.
Ever since the incident with Miranda, she didn't quite feel like herself and didn't know why. Bad things just kept happening, and so far Miranda seemed like the common denominator in all of her problems since she left home.
Right then both of them were too far for anyone to directly interfere, so she decided to deal with her then and there. Kael slowed her pace, waited for Miranda to catch up.
"Just who the fuck are you?"
Miranda wiped a smear of blood from her nose. This injury, she'd reopened while sprinting through a forest of hanging truck tires in the obstacle course. Velasquez had offered her to ran laps instead, but she denied any special treatment.
"I've met plenty of your type before," Miranda started. "Headstrong, impudent, talented pretty girls. Natural-born geniuses. The world revolves around you, and anyone better is competition to be crushed--"
A swift, hard fist plowed into Miranda's abdomen--sliced her in mid-sentence. She doubled over and fell silent, eyes wide--mouth opening and closing like a fish suffocating on open shore. Kael saw Velasquez glare at them. He didn't look like he saw what happened.
Kael crouched to appear she was helping, but then slapped Miranda for good measure and then patiently waited for her to catch her breath. Beneath it all, Miranda seemed like she was having the time of her life.
Kael couldn't help but wonder how someone could care so little for her own wellbeing.
"I saw the way you stared at Arya from Team One. Deep down you're afraid of her...and even me. It would be the simplest thing to break my nose again and magically get away with it, right? But you know that's not the sort of victory you really want."
So then, it was psychological warfare all along.What the hell could this scrawny punk possibly know to be psychoanalyzing me? Kael noticed her temper swelling again, but she bided it, kept it. She wasn't going to let Miranda get the best of her again.
"So what if I was born luckier than you," Kael scoffed. "It's not like I asked for it."
"You really think that'll stop a bullet? Only the will to act matters."
Kael considered striking her unconscious right there, teaching her a lesson. She might win another petty fight, possibly get a dishonorable discharge and wind up demoted to the assembly line back home. Perhaps much worse than that. Either way, she decided against letting her win again.
"The will to act," she held out her hand, "or raw skill."
Miranda took it.
They received their water bottles and joined the rest of the company.
Ten minutes later, Velasquez led them on another brisk jog through the desert. They passed the oasis hut and stopped five kilometers later, atop a sand hill that overlooked a landing strip. Heat rose off the tarmac and made the air a wavering blur.
"This is our base's landing strip," Velasquez explained. "We can handle Raven drop ships and Halberd interceptors from atmospheric re-entry here. We'll be borrowing their board room for the evening."
The trainees followed Velasquez to the chain link fence surrounding the airport. He opened the gate. They jogged across the tarmac to a low building near the control tower. Velasquez led them to the board room.
Kael expected a well furnished interior for the commanding officers that usually staffed board rooms. Instead, this one resembled an barren classroom, and a flat screen display dominated the front. Velasquez keyed commands into his palm size computer. A moment later, the flat screen display came to life.
"You will find a replica of the MK55 sub-machine gun in your desks," the he continued. "Take it out."
Kael and the others brought the gun out. She aimed and imagined spraying a few rounds in a real firefight.
"The MK55 is light and sleek. When we train with your joint armor and weapon suits, the aiming will be partially done by the suit, but for now I want everyone to use the iron-sight."
A three-dimensional model of the gun appeared on the wide screen, and the cheap metal notch flashed. Kael aimed down the iron sight and the replica registered three muted recoils on her shoulder.
"Man," Chitra Kumar said. "If this thing recoils like that, I think I’m in love."
"The real unit recoils eighty-five percent stronger. I didn’t want any injuries on our first lesson. Now, what we’re going to discuss isn’t the principle of shooting itself. Today, we’ll focus on the ballistics of a projectile in flight. In our case, a bullet. The process begins when it travels down the barrel, through the air, and finally, through the target..."
"...farther more, bullets from small side arms do most of their damage through crushing, since they travel much slower than if fired from a rifle. Later, we will discuss and actually fire a coil gun sniper rifle, and compare the variation in ballistics. We'll start using the real thing tomorrow, so roll out."
Kael stood up and joined the company on the way out. Outside, the cold desert air was motionless. Chorus' moon hung in the dark-blue heavens at the eastern horizon, and its ambience touched the desert with livid shades of tourmaline.
In the wane moonlight, Kael saw Chitra, Miranda, and the three trainees from Team One. She now had an opportunity to make amends with Miranda, as well as competition from Team One. Kael wasn’t sure what the following months held, but she knew one thing: she’d be there.