Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
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.
Executor Nightingale observed the cadets as they arrived. She didn’t know their names yet. The clerks were still compiling the report. Ms. Lang was the only one she noticed. She knew the family.
She was also the only one not vomiting. All the others were face-down on the grass. The executor allowed herself a smile, quietly recalling her own experience when she’d arrived at the academy. Translocation. It was hell on the inner ear. It would take years for the cadets to grow accustomed.
The upperclassmen surrounded the group like a pack of wolves, watching the clock. They would wait five minutes exactly and then force them to their feet. There was a lot of work still to be done to get them situated.
She spoke over her shoulder.
“Where is he?”
The sergeant-major took a step forward and pointed.
“Grey cap, third from the right at the back.”
She kept her eyes on him. He wasn’t much to look at, although raw cadets seldom were: average height; average build; brown hair. He didn’t even come from a gifted family. Yet, he had overloaded the testing equipment during his examination.
“Make sure he’s taken care of.”
The sergeant lifted an eyebrow.
“You want me to go easy on him?”
The executor turned and smiled.
“Not in the least. Just see to it he’s placed in your company.”
Five minutes. The upperclassmen started shouting. The sergeant saluted.
“I should get down there. I’ll see you for the address?”
She shook her head.
“I’m aware that it’s tradition for the executor to give the matriculation address, but I’m going to have to ask you to handle it this year. I need to speak with Colonel Agincourt.”
A prodigy, and so well-timed.
She suppressed a desire to hope beyond what she knew. The academy had seen ample gifted students, and the starting point rarely revealed how a cadet would turn out in the end. For now, Kazen Cobblestone was merely a curiosity.
Elijah would know. The aging prognostication professor had spent his entire life peering down the future’s endless threads.
There was no way he hadn’t seen this.
“You heard the man! Move!”
“Sir, yes sir!”
Mallory crawled, staggering to her feet in the midst of the loose crowd while what seemed like an entire fighting regiment of upperclassmen kicked and shoved and yanked them into line.
There hadn’t been much time to look around. The translocation was more intense than she’d expected. Most of the cadets, including her, had ended up upside down and backwards. Not literally of course, but it didn’t matter which way you were facing when you couldn’t tell left from right and up from down.
She’d stayed loose like Taylor said, but it didn’t help with the disorientation. It only meant she didn’t sprain something when she hit the dirt at the other end. Then she puked.
They marched. Her legs were like rocks, but the upperclassmen kept telling her to pick up her feet. It was impossible. She could barely stand, and they weren’t letting Kaz or Eddie help her anymore. All she wanted to do was lie down.
Me and my big mouth.
She’d forgotten they’d been drafted. Wouldn’t make that mistake twice. She’d probably jogged ten miles in place before Taylor had taken over.
They were being moved across some kind of parade yard into a huge gymnasium. It was tall, with a curved roof, and multiple sets of doors going in and out.
She couldn’t see the stars.
“I think we’re underground,” she panted.
Eddie looked at her.
“How do your figure?”
She pointed up. He looked. His eyes went wide.
There was no horizon. There was no sky, only stone walls rising in the distance to form a tall dark dome overhead. Kazen spoke back over his shoulder.
“How could they build all this?”
“Fabrication magic. I bet all the stone for the buildings came from this cave.”
Eddie was flabbergasted.
“You think we’re inside the mountains?”
Taylor shook her head.
“There’s no way to be sure. The translocation they used was very powerful. We could have travelled hundreds of miles. We could be anywhere.”
An upperclassman swept by with a scowl.
“Cut the chatter.”
They all answered.
“Sir, yes sir!”
The older cadets escorted them through the huge room covered in exercise equipment: ropes, climbing walls, and more weights of more sizes than she could count. The room was crowded with more cadets, training without pause, driven by the relentless cadence of their instructors.
The upperclassmen shouted.
They took them through to a huge locker room. One upperclassman handed them each a tightly rolled bundle of clothing, while another took their names and handed out ID tags on short metal chains from an alphabetized case.
“Line up in front of the lockers!”
They did. The lockers had keys built into the latches. They were cylindrical. Each one had a metal clip.
The upperclassmen shouted.
“You will remove the key to your locker and attach it to the chain next to your jump tags! You will then place your uniform into the locker. You will then strip and move into the showers at the end of the row. You have ten minutes to shower, shave, return to your locker, and get into uniform. If you are not in uniform by the time the ten minutes are up, you will be marched nude into the parade yard.”
Mallory hesitated at first. She took the key and clipped it to her tags like they said, opened the locker, and put the uniform inside. That was when she stopped.
So did Kazen. So did Eddie. He looked at her.
“Are they serious?”
An upperclassman stormed by and stopped between them. He turned and faced Mallory.
“What’s the holdup, mossy?”
She looked at him quizzically.
“It means you’re green. Now what is the holdup?!”
She hesitated. She didn’t want to ask anymore, but it was too late. She had to answer the question, and lying would be worse than telling the truth.
“Isn’t there a—”
“SIR!” he interrupted her.
“Sir! I was wondering why we aren’t in separate locker rooms!”
He laughed. “You think you’re still high school, cadet?”
He was right in her face.
She flinched again.
“Answer the question!”
“Do you think that when you’re in the field you’ll have separate locker rooms to get changed in? Do you think you’ll have nice clean showers?”
“Do you think you won’t ever see your fellow soldiers in the buff, mossy!?”
“Sir! I suppose not!”
“Then strip and shower, cadet!”
He marched on. Taylor was already halfway out of her clothes.
“Better hurry,” she said. “It’s already been at least two minutes.”
Mallory pulled off her shirt. She faced her locker, speaking sideways to Eddie and Kazen.
“I better not hear one peep out of you.”
They stared straight ahead and dropped their pants.
No one marched nude into the parade yard, although there were a few cadets who were half-dressed.
The shower wasn’t as awkward as she’d feared. There wasn’t enough time for it to get awkward. The soap smelled like a chemical fire, and the water was blistering hot. They barely had time to dry off before running back to their lockers to throw on their uniforms. She was pretty sure she was wearing it wrong.
The upperclassmen drilled them into line: ten columns of roughly one-hundred cadets, each column an arm’s length from the one to the right of it and each cadet an arm’s length from the cadet in front of them. They stood at ease. There were a little over a thousand.
She couldn’t see clearly to the front, but there was a row of older adults there.
“Full officers: the instructors, and maybe the department heads.”
The upperclassmen lined up at the front of the formation. One of them shouted.
A thousand boots shuffled and a thousand arms clapped to a thousand sides. The upperclassmen turned smartly and addressed the officer farthest to the left.
“Sir! The regiment has been dressed and is ready for inspection!”
The man stepped forward. He had a stern face and a closely shaved black beard. His brow was furrowed and his jaw square and hard. His hair fell down in a thick pelt like a bear-skin cloak.
He paced back and forth.
“Cadets! My name is Sergeant Major Dagnan Blackstaff. It is my duty today to welcome you to the Tantalus Academy. Tomorrow and for the next five years it will by my responsibility to make sure that by the time you leave here you are a finely tuned, conditioned, and effective fighting regiment.
He stopped and turned to face them.
“Approximately one tenth of you will not survive your training.”
They all exchanged glances. The sergeant went on.
“Those of you who graduate will be soldiers: men and women whose solemn duty is to fight against the enemies of mankind. It is a task that will claim many of your lives—
“But you can be sure that by the time I am through with you, it is a task that will claim many more of theirs!”
The upperclassmen barked out an abrupt cheer. The sergeant major went on.
“Look to your elders! They will be tough on you, but they do it to ensure that you will survive, although there will be times when you are sure they are trying to kill you!”
Now they laughed. Mallory looked back and forth between Kazen, Eddie, and Taylor. Down the line she saw Grath. He was missing a boot.
“You will carry the hope of humanity. Always remember that this regiment is your family. They are your brothers and sisters. Respect them and you will earn their respect. Work with them and you will survive. Understand them and no force in this world can defeat you.”
He held up his right hand.
“Now, repeat after me.”
Mallory started at the words. It was really happening. Five years at the academy; five years at war.
You had to take the oath. If you didn’t, you went to jail. She looked over at Taylor. She had her hand up, elbow turned stiffly. Kazen and Eddie shrugged and slowly raised theirs.
The sergeant spoke slowly.
Mallory raised her hand.
Special Thanks To: