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.
Twelve o’ clock.
Right on the nose.
Eddie watched the supply wagon materialize, lurching into existence as though it had been flung through an invisible tube. He’d been watching all morning, sitting on one of the many iron benches that flanked the walking paths of Tantalus under the guise of a little quiet study. He peered over the pages of the broad manual, one of the many handbooks on fabrication they’d been given. He’d noticed there weren’t many textbooks at the academy. It was all manuals: military knowledge in bite-sized chunks. He just wished they would hand them out before the practical exercises that had now been going on for weeks.
Anyway, reading it here gave him a perfect view of the kitchen. It was actually a pretty simple idea. He would have thought of it earlier if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with studying like mad and practically running his legs off to keep up Taylor.
Keeping up with the class.
It had taken exactly one really good night’s sleep for inspiration to finally swing around and strike. The reveille bell had rung two hours later on the academy’s so-called “day off.” He’d woken up starving. That was when it had occurred to him: everybody’s got to eat, and you can’t grow food in a cave.
So he started watching the kitchen. They pumped the water up from a subsurface well, but the food had to be coming from somewhere. It was impossible to sneak away during training, but in the two weeks that followed he’d managed to find ample time during the scheduled off days to explore the Tantalus cavern and locate what he had quietly named the “landing pads.”
Everything the academy consumed, from pencils and paper to bread and butter, arrived in the cavern via translocation. As far as he could tell there were no physical passages to the outside world. It was the only way to keep the Arro out.
The creatures that had invaded the planet fifty years earlier were from another plane of existence—at least that’s what the experts thought. They’d only been given one manual on them so far. The bodies of the Arro were impervious. That’s why magicians had to fight them. Only magic worked. No one knew why, but they did have one practical defence. The earth beneath their feet—and at Tantalus, above their heads—radiated an invisible field of magical energy. The Arro could not pass through.
Eddie chuckled. It was amazing what you could pick up when you actually paid attention in school.
He watched as a group of third-year cadets rolled the wagon away, heading for the storage buildings behind the mess hall. They’d be unloaded and back again in an hour or two to translocate it back out.
The wagons were the only way.
This wasn’t going to be easy.
He stood up. Time to get back to the IB. He had a date with a certain someone.
Okay, so it wasn’t a date. It was a study session, but it was better than nothing.
Maybe Kaz was right. He had to admit that it was going well for him here, maybe not as well as he’d like, but pretty well. It’d be a shame to spoil it by getting into trouble.
But it would take more than a passing grade and a middling career as an initiator to do what he needed. He was living a better life now, but while he was living it his older brother was rotting away in a NPA prison cell, the pitiless monotony broken up only by occasional trips to the farm bases and factory complexes for hard labour.
He’d gone to see him a few weeks before evaluation day. He hadn’t told anyone, not even his father. He’d made his brother a promise: if he made it into the military that he would do everything he could to get him a pardon.
Only executors could grant pardons. He knew he would never rise that high. His family wasn’t political enough, but that didn’t mean there was nothing he could do. A respected officer could always make a petition. He’d hoped briefly that maybe that officer could be him, but if his performance so far was any guide, that strategy wasn’t going to come together. All that remained were connections. He would need…friends.
His brother had friends; his father too. Special friends. They got them by being the man who could get what you needed, and by greasing the wheels and palms of the great NPA machine. Tantalus was military, and every bit as regulated as the NPA districts.
Just another machine.
He looked out ahead. It took forever to walk to the IB. They would only be there another week. Everyone was talking about what their assignments would be. Magus or initiator? Jump leader or soldier? He didn’t feel like joining in. He already knew where he was going to end up. He was concerned with another little benefit of moving out of the IB: moving into the stacks.
There were a few third-year cadets he had to get to know.
The study hall was crowded. He saw Taylor waiting for him at a table in the corner. She waved.
In the meantime, he had to study.
Taylor nodded. Eddie’s reaction was about what she’d expected.
“End of the week.”
“What for? We’re still in basic training. They haven’t even put us into the main school yet.”
“It’s probably to help them pick out the jump leaders.”
“What’s it on?”
“All the material we’ve covered so far.”
He slid down in his chair and stared at the ceiling.
“I suppose it was only a matter of time before my old enemy reared its ugly head. Tests. Will you help me?”
“Help you study?”
He nodded glumly. She couldn’t help but feel pity for him. They’d been working together for weeks. He was barely keeping up. Ironically it had all started with him tutoring her on fabrication, and while it was true she’d stumbled early on, in the weeks that followed their academic relationship had almost completely reversed. Now he needed her help on virtually every subject.
The oddness was that he was just as intelligent as any other cadet. He could absorb the material just fine; he just didn’t know how to get started and rarely had the drive to keep going after she stood up from the table.
Of course, according to her bunkmate, that might have had to do with something else.
She hadn’t really needed Mallory to tell her. His interest had been obvious from the beginning. To his credit, he seemed to be doing everything he could to keep his attention genuine. He studied hard for assignments and lectures, paid attention when she tutored him, and even tagged along on her off-day morning runs. It didn’t seem like he was just going through the motions; or if he was, he was throwing himself into the role so completely that there wasn’t much difference.
He could even be charming.
That was what was going to make this so hard.
She slowly shook her head.
“Did she say why?”
Eddie flopped onto his bed and undid the top button of his uniform jacket.
Kazen waited. Eddie pulled off his boots and tossed them on the floor.
“You know that test we’re taking at the end of the week.”
“Doesn’t everybody? It was on the notice board in the study room.”
“Well, I missed it. Anyway, I guess it has everyone thinking they’re going to use the results to pick the jump leaders, and the competition is pretty fierce.”
He leaned up.
“I don’t suppose you’re bucking for it?”
Kazen shook his head. He definitely wasn’t in the market for that kind of responsibility. Eddie flopped back down.
“Well she is, along with everyone else who thinks they’ve got a shot.”
He took off his hat and covered his face.
“She doesn’t have time to look after me.”
Kazen closed his book and stood up, leaving his desk to stand over his friend. He leaned against the wall.
“Don’t take it so hard. It’s not like it’s a surprise. She was aiming for jump leader from the beginning. You knew that.”
Eddie’s voice was muffled.
Kazen sat down on the edge of the bed.
“And besides, you don’t really need her help to study. You can pick up again after we’re out of the IB.”
Eddie grumbled. Kazen smiled and stood back up, clapping his friend on the leg.
“So what did you say to her?”
Eddie picked up his hat.
“To her? What did you say when she told you?”
“Basically what you said. I told her I would be fine, and not to worry, and to do her best on the exam; that I hope she makes jump leader, and that afterwards maybe we can pick things up again. It was all very supportive.”
“Sounds good. Did she like it?”
“Seemed to. She looked really relieved.”
“Think she could tell you were disappointed?”
“Well, she’s a smart girl.”
His friend nodded.
“That she is.”
Kazen sat back down and resumed reading. Eddie was quiet for a long moment before he spoke again.
“Do you think she’s too good for me?”
Kazen looked up.
Eddie turned his head.
“You know. Like do you think she deserves better?”
Kazen chuckled inwardly. Eddie always did have a bit of a sore spot when it came to self-esteem. They all did: Eddie, Mallory, and himself. His was just worse because he’d grown up even poorer than the two of them, and the clients his father dealt with were always throwing money around.
It probably didn’t help that Taylor came from a family that was both respected and wealthy.
“I don’t think girls like her care about things like that.”
Eddie didn’t seem convinced.
“What do you think she cares about?”
Kazen laughed. Enough was enough. Time to snap him out of it.
“Come on, Eddie! You don’t need me to tell you that. You know her like four times as well as I do. You tell me what’s important to her.”
Eddie sat up, growling in frustration.
“I don’t know! Hard work? Duty and stuff? She talks about her family all the time.”
“So where in that list are: wealth, status, or how smart her boyfriend is?”
Eddie blinked. There was a long pause.
“Okay, fine. Maybe you’ve got a point.”
Kazen saluted him.
He turned back to his book. A minute passed quietly. Eddie got out of bed, sat at his desk, and took out his own.
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