Sergeant Major Velasquez precariously browsed over the squad. He was not nearly as sentimental as last time, and his new electric baton glistened cold grey in the light afternoon rain. His company was motionless on the hard packed sand, silent as they had been after they returned from their three day break.
"I’ve only got six words for you, marines: if you’re cold, raise your hand."
Thirty-one hands shot up...in blatant disregard that he might throw them into a cruel preliminary routine for being weak. Time was running out, and he had to prepare them as best as he could.
The energy that radiated from them when he was around was now gone, long replaced by the silent vigil and perseverance of soldiers. He made them the best he could in the constrained time frame, but Velasquez still worried. Was that going to be enough? There had to be more he could do for them.
"We will practice Close Quarters Combat again. Like last time, there won’t be cushion pads, helmets or any safety gear. The reason is because when you will need these skills--there won’t always be cushion pads, helmets or any safety gear. Am I right!?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
Velasquez breathed deep, disregarded the plea for his approval in their voices. As soon as they returned from their well-deserved rest and recovery, he’d taken care not to reward them anymore, taught them to accept that simply surviving was enough. He checked the roster on his palm size computer.
"Check your fields and remember, this isn’t a barbaric fight to the death. First up, Arya and Kael."
Kael grinned when she heard Velasquez. She was first to stand front-and-center before the company. Finally, she cruelly thought, a chance to shut down the bitch.
She watched Arya. The smug Team One lead had a prim and proper gait. She was a head shorter, too. Kael was confident she could take her on, bring her down a notch.
"Good to go," she grinned at Arya.
Her opponent shrugged. In fact, she appeared more irritated than threatened.
Velasquez blew his whistle, "begin!"
Kael braced into a low stance, guarded her center line, hunched forward to pounce and block hits. Her opponent remained as she was; she didn’t even bother a CQC stance or wiping the matted locks of hair from her face. What a smug little bitch.
Kael lashed out with a hammering downward fist and--
A frozen stone smashed into her gut, ribs and forehead. Kael saw the desert and the rainy sky simultaneously tumble across her vision. In rapid succession, the sky became the ground, the ground became the sky, then everything flipped back to normal. Kael pancaked flat on her back with a dull thud on the hard packed sand.
What happened? Kael didn’t understand.
She laid screaming on the ground in an anguished stupor, motionless, unable to breathe. Kael thought she’d thrown the first blow, that her opponent wasn’t braced. She never even saw the fist smash into her abdomen, or the elbow dig into her ribs, and the vicious backhand that sent her flipping head-over-tail.
Kael heard laughter in the crowd. She gritted her teeth against the pain; blood trickled from the corner of her torn lip. The few breaths her lungs managed were short, and she fought the sensation of drowning. She knew something vital and deep was hurt.
She saw Arya, about three meters away, staring down at her as though she were an inconsequential vagabond she’d chanced upon. Kael frowned; she wasn’t going to let her win and embarrass herself in front of the whole company. Bit by bit, trembling arms responded, then the legs and she stood up--
The sudden impact felt like hailstone. It blurred--and sledge hammered into Kael’s jaw. The world twirled for three full seconds, during which she flew an agonizing distance and then slap-dashed face first into the sand with a wet, pulpy smack.
Why was she losing?
Kael’s body was numb, and she fought to remain conscious. All she felt was the sting of ice through crushed fresh, drilling deep to the bone where she got hit. She was thoroughly beaten, Kael knew, but she wasn't going to let Arya have her way so easily.
Kael stood up again. Arya was at least ten meters away now, and had to cross that distance. Good. This time she was prepared--
A solid heel smashed into her left ear. For Kael, this happened in the blink of an eye.
She lost consciousness in an instant. For all her tenacity, even she had her limits.
Arya certainly made a show of it--three-point landing after the airborne spinning heel kick and all.
Velasquez could have blow his whistle an eternity ago, but instead dumbly watched--appalled to see Kael remain standing, teetering on the spot like a pendulum. Her limbs trembled, at first in the manner of an epileptic seizure, then moments later much more violent, primordial.
Suddenly, Kael’s fist lashed out; this happened in the blink of an eye.
Arya tried to flex backwards and dodge, an impossibly lightning-quick reaction--but the solid fist crashed dead-center into her forehead. The loud report was felt more than it was heard, and the shorter opponent simply gave beneath the tremendous impact.
She flew in a sickening twist--limp and lifeless--then crashed and tumbled through the dense, hard packed sand. She drew an ugly trench up hill, halting only after the shallow gorge extended no less than six feet behind her.
She then cried out in pain, five full seconds after the blow, then fell silent.
The rest of the company ran away screaming, but Velasquez cursed as he sprinted uphill with the first aid kit. He ripped open the med kit and tore through its contents for a bandage. "Shit--hang on, you’ll be okay, you’ll be o..."
Velasquez froze, horrified.
He saw the splintered bone standing stark against her inert form. Her eyes were still wide open--scoured of their cold-blue vigor. An instance of pure shock was frozen on her face, upon which rivers of gore still hemorrhaged.
Good god, what are these kids?
The air smelled like medicine. Kael’s insides burned and felt foreign. She tried to get up, but for a moment her limbs did not move, as though to protest against her will. She sat up in her bed, pain lancing her broken ribs. She glanced at the bed next to her in the intensive care unit.
A white-haired girl lay there.
There were no casts on her limbs, an observation she made when she awoke here two weeks ago, during which she tried to recall a fight the doctor spoke to her about. Arya stared back at Kael, studied the confusion in her eyes, and only then spoke to her for the first time.
"That was a cheap shot," she laughed. "The next time we fight, I’ll kill you."
A husky, agile doctor of age came through the doors to the intensive care unit. He brought out a palm size computer and placed it near the electronic bracelet on Arya’s wrist. His wrinkles folded to a smile.
"Good, you’re able to stay awake. You heal amazingly fast. Most kids spend months recovering from that kind of injury." The elderly man entered commands on the portable computer, then checked Kael’s. "You need to stay in bed for a little longer, of course."
Kael sat up to ask for an explanation, but only then realized the throbbing migraine ripping through her skull. "The headaches are a good sign," the Doctor told her. "They mean that you only suffered a mild concussion, not permanent brain damage."
That night, Kael found herself awake at the lonely hour of midnight. The angle at which moonlight broke through the windows wrought her shadow against the white, sanitary floor. She looked at her hands, bathed in cold moonlight...and she wondered if they were her own.