“In the Army Now”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Jennifer Lange
Copyright July 1st, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
The next thing Kazen remembered was waking up with his head on Mallory’s lap. She had a towel in her hands, stained yellowish-brown.
“Kaz?” she said.
He blinked. “Mal?”
“You’re awake. Hey, Eddie! He’s awake!”
Eddie came over. They were on a bus or a truck or something. It was crowded with people their age. He looked down at his shirt. The front was covered with upchucked bread and jam.
Eddie clapped him on the shoulder.
“I guess now we know why you’re supposed to skip breakfast.”
Kazen sat up, only to wobble over in his seat. Mallory steadied him.
Eddie sat down.
“You blew out the equipment is what happened.”
He nodded excitedly.
“The shock tossed you out into the audience. They had to bring out a new set of…whatever those things were.”
“So I passed?”
“You think? You even had the executor on her feet.”
Mallory squeezed his shoulder.
“We all passed.”
He looked back and forth between them.
“Hey, that’s great!”
Eddie shoved him aside and sat down between them, tossing his arms over their shoulders.
“That’s right. The fates have decreed that the trinity is to be maintained. Brains, beauty, and brawn.”
He turned to Kazen and added,
“You can be brawn.”
“Wait, I’m not brains?”
“Mal is obviously brains.”
“You’re saying she can’t be beauty?”
Eddie looked at Mal. She looked at back, eyebrows up. He leaned back in his seat, laced his fingers behind his head, and smiled.
“Beauty is taken.”
“What’s so funny?”
The laughing stopped. The black-haired man with the pin loomed over them with a scowl on his face.
Eddie looked up at him.
“I said, what’s so funny. Thanks to this stupid test we’re going to be stuck in the military for ten years, if we even live that long, and with that attitude I’m betting you won’t.”
“There’s no need to be mean about it. It’s the law. We all have to do the best we can, and it’ll be easier if we stick together. Here, come sit with us.”
She scooted to the side. The man scoffed.
“I would never associate with people like you.”
Eddie stood up slowly.
“Something wrong with us?”
The man glared.
“Lower class scu—”
Eddie head-butted him. The man yelped and staggered back. Eddie laughed and took a step forward.
The man put out a hand to keep him away.
“You’re crazy! Do you even know who I am?!”
“No. Want to talk some more about my friends?”
It was at this point that a man in a uniform stepped in. He looked to be about the same age as they were; maybe a few years older. There were three steel diamond-shaped pins on his dark green uniform.
A third-year cadet.
He lit into them immediately.
“I swear to everything that’s holy if someone is making trouble on my bus every man and woman here march to the train.”
Eddie nonchalantly took a step back and sat down.
“No trouble. He just—”
“Do not sit when you address a superior!”
The cadet hauled him to his feet and forcibly repositioned his arms and legs.
“This is the standing position for addressing a higher-rank!”
Eddie put up his hands.
The cadet grabbed his hands and stuck them back to his sides.
“Hands at your sides when you report!”
“I was just—”
“You say ‘sir’ you address a superior! Do you understand, cadet?!”
Eddie kept his hands at his sides.
Eddie took an irritated breath.
“This man and I were just having a disagreement, sir.”
The cadet looked over his shoulder at Grath, who by this point had retreated to his seat.
“You will both sit in your seats at attention for the remainder of the journey to the train station, where you will stand at attention until the train arrives. When you board the train, you will sit at attention again until we disembark. If I hear you say one word, you will jog in place for the entire trip.”
Eddie moved to sit down.
The cadet roared.
“I didn’t hear you! Acknowledge your orders, cadet!”
Eddie stood back up.
“Stand at attention!”
Eddie straightened up. Kazen could see the frustration building in the muscles of his jaw. They practically creaked as he spoke.
He sat. The cadet growled and grabbed his arms, placing them in front of him on his knees, palms down, before stalking away. Eddie stayed quiet.
It was Mallory who opened her mouth.
“Was that really necessary?” she whispered.
The cadet cranked around.
They braced themselves.
Kazen spent the bus trip sitting quietly, thinking about just how much his life was about to change. This man wasn’t even an instructor. They hadn’t even been sworn in!
He looked out the window at the city and thought about what Remy had said. Everything would be different the next time he saw it. Once you went to Tantalus you didn’t go home until your first military leave, after graduation. Nothing would be the same by then, including him.
Five years at the academy; five years at war.
He sat back in his seat.
Mallory jogged in place.
No one said a word.
The train station was closed to the public. There wasn’t time in the schedule for teary farewells and final goodbyes. Sometimes the families of new cadets would gather outside to try to catch a glimpse of their children getting off the buses, or to wave goodbye through the station’s tall windows.
There weren’t many places the trains went. There weren’t any other cities, only factory complexes and farm bases, built on the reclaimed remains of former townships and outlying villages, all administrated by the DAN and the DIP—the departments of Agriculture and Nutrition; and Industry and Projects—The Executive had plans to repopulate along the rail lines as soon as the military was large enough to secure more land.
It wasn’t a question of driving the Arro out. They didn’t hold territory in the traditional sense. They were creatures from another place: another dimension, another planet, maybe even another plane of existence. No one knew for sure, not even the experts in the military. The one thing they did know was that the Arro could appear from nowhere, attacking anywhere at any time. The key to fighting them was a fast, decisive response; for that you needed a secure area, and that meant soldiers.
It meant magicians.
Only magicians could fight the Arro. Bullets didn’t work; neither did knives or even explosives. They could even walk through walls. Magic was the only defence.
They’d taken them off the busses and marched them into the station. Now they waited on the platform. The train had been delayed during a delivery to one of the factory complexes.
Mallory was still jogging.
She was sweating through her clothes and breathing hard. It had been almost an hour since she’d been given the order. To her credit, she hadn’t stopped, but her steps had become slower and her feet were barely coming off the ground. In another few minutes, Kazen was certain she was going to collapse from sheer exhaustion.
“You should rest,” he said.
She didn’t answer. She just kept jogging. Eddie stood beside her at attention. Kazen looked around again for the third-year cadet. He was standing at the head of the line, at ease.
Kazen took a breath.
The third-year didn’t move. He repeated himself, louder this time.
This time the cadet came back and stood in front of him. Kazen stood at attention.
“What is it?”
He thought hard about the phrasing.
“Sir, I believe my fellow cadet cannot carry on the punishment you assigned.”
The third-year looked Mallory over.
“Well, that’s a shame. Maybe next time she’ll think twice before questioning orders.”
He turned to leave.
Kazen took a step out of line.
The third-year stopped, turned, and shouted.
“Get back in line, cadet! If you say one more word you’ll join her!”
Kazen took a breath and returned to the line.
The cadet turned to leave again, but stopped a few paces away and came back.
“I’ll tell you what, cadet. I’ll do you a favour. If you care so much for your girlfriend here, you can take her place.”
Kazen lifted an eyebrow.
“You heard me. Take her place for the rest of the journey and she can stop.”
Kazen hesitated. He wasn’t in as good shape as Mal was, and he’d already thrown up today. He would never make it the whole train ride, but he couldn’t leave her like this.
“Sir, I’ll do it.”
They all turned. Taylor Lang was standing there, tightening the laces on her boots. The third-year turned to face her.
“What did you say, cadet?”
She stood at attention.
“Sir, I will replace this cadet.”
He recognized her. Kazen could tell. He looked at Mallory again.
“Very well, cadet. Begin your exercise.”
Taylor started jogging.
Mallory collapsed to the floor in a heap, heaving for breath. Kazen helped her up. As she climbed to her knees she looked up at Taylor and nodded in gratitude. The blonde woman said nothing. She was performing the punishment now. Kazen was sure that if she’d responded the third-year would have been all over her.
They all got back in line, Kazen propped Mal up on his shoulder. The third-year left. Kazen turned to Taylor.
A steam whistle sounded as the train pulled into the station.
Maybe it hadn’t been such a good idea.
Her legs ached. Jogging in place was easier than actual jogging, but after twenty minutes on the train platform and another forty on the train, even her well-trained legs were starting to feel like tree limbs.
The girl was looking better. Her name was Mallory, and her friends were Kazen and Eddie. The last of these had nearly gotten into a fight with an old classmate of hers, Adrian Grath.
He had it coming. He was too smug for his own good. It came from upbringing. She sympathized. It was hard to keep your perspective when your family was rich and connected. His mother was Melissa Grath, executor for the DIP. He was an only child. Taylor smiled. At least she’d had siblings to keep her humble.
The train departed the city at full speed. They’d left it behind over the horizon as the sun went down, along with the factory complexes and the farm bases after that; then they turned, racing toward the foothills of the Signal Mountains, north of the city.
The minutes passed by with agonizing slowness, marked only by the ticking clock and the growing weight in her legs. She wiped her forehead with her sleeve.
She’d been trying to demonstrate leadership. It was never too early to start. The instructors would be getting reports about conduct during the trip to the academy. Every little bit helped.
The train whistled to a stop. The punishment was over. She staggered to a halt. Mallory approached and held her up.
“Thank you for doing that for me.”
“Just don’t make me do it again.”
Eddie clapped her on the shoulder.
“That was incredible. You didn’t even slow down. How many miles do you run in a week, anyway?”
She kept breathing and stretched.
He paused and stared at her for a moment before he burst out laughing.
“Man, we’ve got to get you to a party.”
The third-year ushered them off the train and lined them up outside.
Kazen’s eyes widened.
Eddie came up beside him.
“I thought we were short on cadets. There have to be a thousand people out here.”
He looked around.
“Wherever here is.”
Taylor pointed up the train to the mountain peaks beyond.
“Those are the Signals. This is the north border of the NPA.”
Eddie kept looking around. There was nothing, only a train platform and the last rays of the setting sun.
The upperclassmen assembled in front of them.
A pair of soldiers came out of the train. They wore dark green uniforms and tall black boots. Their flat forage caps were green with a black visor. One of them stood quietly while the other began to arrange an assortment of materials on the platform.
It took two magicians to use magic: a magus and an initiator. The magus supplied the power. The initiator’s job was to prepare the equipment, without which there would be no spell at all. It was an effective system. One soldier to aim the cannon; one soldier to fire it.
Taylor recognized some of the materials they were using from her own studies.
“It’s a translocation spell,” she said. “They’re going to move us.”
The others turned.
“Try to stay loose.”
She could tell from their expressions they didn’t understand. It wasn’t unusual. Most cadets didn’t know they were going to be cadets until they were standing on the stage taking the test. Only enthusiasts studied magic before they knew.
Taylor had always known.
She stood at attention, forcing her tired legs to obey. It wasn’t just about leadership and sacrifice. It was about duty. Her forbearers had left her some big shoes to fill, but unlike Adrian she didn’t object to her destiny, nor did she feel burdened by that it. She was proud of her heritage and intended to do everything she could to build on the legacy that her parents and her parents’ parents had strained and given their lives to build.
The initiator handed the magus a long metal staff fitted with rings of glass and stone. The equipment began to glow and a high, distorted tone grew slowly in the air.
Taylor braced herself.
She was excited.
It had taken fifty years and two generations to pull civilization from the brink. Against inconceivable odds they had carved out the NPA, beaten back the Arro, and prepared humanity for the next stage of war.
It was their turn now. It was their responsibility, not to hold out or hold position, but reclaim the world, to finally take the fight to the enemy.
It was their job to win.
The spell flashed. A broken chord of sound and light shattered the sunset scene. Reality twisted out of shape like a highway folded into a pretzel. Taylor’s limbs warped and the air bent as she and all the other cadets were yanked through a slipknot in space.
Taylor smiled the whole way.
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