“IB Final – Part Two”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 21st, 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.
Bastards had translocated him in right on top of a god-damned enemy patrol.
He was pretty sure there were three of them, but he hadn’t gotten a good look. Without an SR he couldn’t fight, and while the forest sported healthy undergrowth he hadn’t liked his chances trying to hide. The sound of the spell had already given away his position. He’d opted instead to remember every lesson his older brother had ever told him about running from the watch and run like hell.
Thank god for the anti-nausea meds. If he’d been retching his lunch out on the ground he never would have made it. He further thanked heaven for all the extra hours he’d spent running with Taylor. Strange, the things that creep up and make themselves useful.
They were following him. He knew that, and if they had any kind of communication gear they would have let any other patrols know his last known position and heading.
From the briefing he knew his objective was to the southwest, but he didn’t have a compass and didn’t have time to use any of the other ways they’d been taught to find north.
He changed direction. His brother always told him to put as many corners as you could between yourself and whoever was chasing you. Of course he’d been talking about the watch in the city, but even in the forest running from an Arro patrol the idea was sound.
It was also the only one he had.
He leapt over a gulch.
At least they weren’t shooting at him anymore.
The plane taxied to a stop. The sergeant-major saluted as the door flipped open and Executor Nightingale stepped down from the cabin. Blackstaff stood like a statue, neutral. Members of the executive committee didn’t typically attend these exams. As headmaster she would have been expected to monitor them if she’d been in the area, but she’d flown in from the capital. It was highly irregular. Something very important must have drawn her attention.
Who was he kidding? It was the kid.
The modified training was going well, but today’s testing would decide more than who would remain with or be transferred out of the company. It would also serve to assess the modified training itself. Some additional failures were expected. It was a more difficult program, however too many would demonstrate that the new regimen was ineffective. The new cadets would have to be re-trained, and it would certainly end his career.
Nevertheless, he was confident.
The executor walked up to him and saluted. He put his arm down.
“Where are you set up?”
They walked to the car. She was keeping it short. Professional. She was apprehensive.
The driver set off. It was a short ride. Fighting the Arro wasn’t conducive to large, centralized military installations. The forces of the NPA had to be distributed across smaller facilities for rapid response. These were the rally bases. There were eighteen spread across the territory. They’d set up the IB final in the area surrounding Rally Base Penny. Most of the facilities and towns in the region were abandoned. The committee kept talking about reclaiming the sector, but for now it was an ideal site.
The executor produced a canteen from her bag, unscrewed it, and took a sip. Blackstaff lifted an eyebrow.
“You brought water?”
She nodded and screwed the lid back on.
“For the trip. I didn’t know what you’d have available.”
“Water cooler and some pre-packed rations.”
“I hate pre-packs.”
“No extravagances, even for state officials. Your directive.”
“The committee’s directive.”
”You vote for it?”
She glared at him.
“And regretted it ever since.”
He laughed as she put the canteen away.
“What are the preliminary results?”
“Fifty-eight failures so far.”
“Out of how many?”
“Two-hundred and nine.”
“That’s almost thirty percent.”
He nodded and sat back.
“It’ll even out.”
“You sound pretty sure.”
“Most of the results are still pending.”
The car came to a stop. The observation post was a tall building in the middle of the base. They’d taken over the top floor for the test. The roof was reserved for actual territorial reconnaissance. He handed the executor a glass of water.
She took up a position in the middle of the room. The walls were set with a ring of prognostication frames. From here they could monitor every cadet in the field.
“They better. I want a good showing, but it won’t do any good if they can criticize the test.”
Blackstaff raised an eyebrow.
“They? There’s pressure on you?”
“I approved the new training. I assume the cadets from our special company are taking the same as for the others?”
“Good. The comparison will be valuable. The committee is waiting for my report. Mine and a dozen others.”
“They wouldn’t tell me. Other officers, medical personnel, probably some of your field proctors.”
”The committee is taking reports from cadets?”
She set her cup aside.
“It doesn’t matter. The executive committee has its own facilities for observation. They’re probably watching right now.”
Blackstaff stood beside her.
“So then why are you luxuriating here drinking lukewarm water and eating pre-packs?”
She gave a grim chuckle.
They stood quietly, staring at the frames. The executor finished her water and set the glass aside.
“Has he begun?”
“An hour ago.”
“Is his test the same?”
The sergeant-major slowly shook his head. The executor nodded, grasped her hands behind her back, and turned to face the frame.
This was never going to work.
Kazen huddled in the dark. The only light in the room was the soft blue-and-purple light emanating from the double-F on his right hand.
They’d dropped him in a tall village. He hadn’t stuck around on the street. The whole place was packed with Arro. It was impossible to get an accurate count, but his best guess was that they’d placed an entire company of soldiers between him and his so-called objective, a balloon hovering over a rooftop in the middle of town.
It was a ludicrous challenge.
He’d set up shop in the basement of a hotel. The upper floors were too risky. He’d managed to scavenge the materials he needed to build an SR from the kitchen and the boiler room with his double-F. He’d found the rest by picking through the rooms, ducking the corridors by sculpting holes in the walls.
Phones and radios. Thank god for Eddie.
The design was good, and the materials would pass muster despite being improvised. He’d scrounged up enough odds and ends for two configurations of the blast spell they’d been taught: one big, one small. The only remaining job was to assemble the quartz choke Eddie had designed. It would be smaller than he’d hoped. The spells would be firing hot. He’d have to be careful.
The cracking sound of a magic blast echoed in the distance. He lifted his head up and listened. It sounded a long way off. Probably one of the other cadets. They had translocated him out of the EC. He could only assume they’d done the same to everyone else: far enough apart that their tests wouldn’t interact; close enough for the sound to carry. It made for a pretty convincing warzone.
He returned to his work. The double-F glowed. Another of the tiny sheets of quartz he’d harvested from a dozen telephones reformed, folding over and melting into a perfect crystal droplet before joining its brothers and sisters in the emitter. It was painstaking work, but he had the time. The sun wouldn’t set for another two hours.
He had until then to come up with something.
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