The PuppetMature

Chorus S-710e United Self Defense Force Military Installation H-122

1400 Hours, January 17

Sergeant Major Velasquez walked out their Raven drop ship and inspected his company after six months. Results was the only thought that went through his mind. He'd done his job, taught them all he could in that time. They'd at first struggled, but now ran faster and tore through the morning calisthenics with ease.

Good, he thought. Now I can use old Ravager track belts.

Chitra, Arya, along with Adam were at the top of the class. Small surprise, these kids--no, mercenaries, he corrected himself--had seen some action before, and training them was in his opinion just ceremonial detail to keep them close to who ever they were really here to protect.

Stellar marksmen, brilliant tacticians even. A week ago, he got curious and challenged them to a game of capture-the-flag against two Armorclads...and they'd almost won. Predictably, they found everything boring, though. He'd have to ask high command at Chiron if they could slip some spare JAW-180 sniper suits, see how they'd do in a fair fight.

The intermediates, however, were his biggest concern. They thought highly of themselves because they'd never really had to try to succeed. He worried what would happen to this group if there really was no other choice. The lowest might adapt, the best will survive--but them? He didn't know.

"A great performance," he broke the silence. "Rather than jogging home, we’ll do something different...and fun, for once. After that you will have three days to yourselves and can go anywhere, but be here for training Monday. Understood?"

"Sir, yes sir!" They shouted.

"At ease. Single file, into the drop ship."

Velasquez fought back a smile while they whispered to one another in glee. That was sloppy of them to take his word so quickly. Had he taught them to trust too much? Had they already forgotten to be prepared for anything? While watching them board the drop ship, his sight caught the Team One lead.

This one quietly brushed past him as a dry breeze kicked away the thin hair from her face and revealed a pair of icy blue eyes--stark and frigid. She was by far the smallest trainee at just a shade over five feet tall and therefore should've been the one struggling, but perhaps that's what constantly set him on high alert any time he neared her--the absurd contradiction between the eyes of a natural-born killer with the apparent physicality of a ballet dancer.

"Sir, permission to speak freely?" One of the intermediates ran up to him, unremarkable save for those dark-red eyes, and if he didn't know better--was the splitting image of ARYA-LS1221. He was told to keep a watchful eye, and most importantly, his distance from this one after her frequent and violent outbursts.

"Granted", he told her.

Cold fingers closed around his heart. Stupid question, stupid kid--still ignorant of what's going on beyond this dirtball's internet. "As long as you're here, you're considered part of the United Self Defense Force. Transportation is free."

Velasquez stood there and watched JA21 sprint back to the drop ship. There was a whole new world waiting for his trainees, one he couldn’t look out for them. He stuffed his emotions into a dark corner in his heart and marched into the drop ship. He took the pilot seat and locked his flight harness.

The transport’s jet engines roared to life. It skimmed over the desert, then arced up at the clear blue sky. Velasquez cast a rearward glance and saw the trainee’s faces squelched on the Raven’s crystal-hard slit box windows. They were so excited that they forgot to lock their flight harnesses--a mistake he quickly reprimanded them to correct.

Half way into the flight, they passed a swarm of AH-666 Locust autonomous drones--assisted by assisted with auxiliary thrusters to meet the NSC Solstice star ship in low orbit. Velasquez remembered twenty years ago when he was a younger man and was so close to catching the interstellar war criminal Cyril Reigns until he activated a swarm and disappeared. They had to activate dozens of SCARAB-II tactical nukes to wipe out the drones.

Maybe there were enough resources now, enough Locusts to forego the emergency measures.

A spray of pressurized atmosphere filled the drop ship. Now, all the trainees heard was the dull roar of the Raven's engines sing through the hull. They watched the blue skies fade to indigo and the finally black, studded with stars. Chorus' oceans and continents stretched out beneath them, her curvature an ethereal band of brilliant cerulean.

Velasquez brought the Raven into a parabolic trajectory back to the surface. At first he kept the transport at a gradual pace, but a moment later plunged it at the planet at nearly full speed; the transport shot forward with a sudden thunderous crack from emergency pulse-detonation engines.

"Oh man! I can’t take this!" One trainee yelled.

The Raven shot through the skies past the adjacent continent like a comet and left ringed, fiery-white exhaust in its wake. It jarred, shuddered and jostled in the increasingly dense air, all the while the boys cheered and the girls screamed.

Moments later, the transport began to slow. Air screamed over the air brakes while the trainee’s stomachs settled, and thousands of feet below, the desert sands churned and swirled while the transport fell beneath Mach 1.

A loud thump shook the troop bay the instant the aft wheels struck a familiar landing strip. The nose wheel touched down, retro rockets fired and eased the E102-Aerial Insertion Vehicle to a halt by the control tower. The loading ramp swung open, and Velasquez smiled as his company piled out into the tarmac.

Maybe there were new challenges waiting for them, and perhaps he had to prepare them for that, but right now they were just kids. He let them enjoy their moment.

They sprinted to garbage cans near the control tower. John, Chitra and those who stomached the ride taunted those vomiting. Some were still shaking, but they were laughing too. Velasquez wanted this moment to last forever.

Kael tried to stand up and laugh with Miranda and the others, but she’d been so happy and laughing so hard that it hurt her lungs to breathe. She dropped to the ground and smiled at her friends, her comrades. Kael didn’t care what the future held; this was the best moment of her life.


The End

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