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.
The examination course.
The upperclassmen called it the EC, or the torture track. It was never built the same way twice, a reliable—if agonizing—consequence of having a faculty that could restructure virtually all forms of matter at will. Like the farm course, it was designed to simulate different battle conditions and situations. The obstacles found on the course were often pulled straight from municipal records, precisely mimicking the layout of the NPA capital and the installations that surrounded it.
The objectives were similarly variable: rescue civilians, eliminate enemies, secure structures, or any number of other tasks that a military unit might be expected to do. At the moment they had the advantage of not knowing how to do very much. It made it easier to predict what they would be facing. Then again, their training so far had been far from ordinary.
Taylor leaned on her knees and rested, allowing brief pause in the middle of the academy’s long jogging track. It circled the whole cavern. She looked to her left. The EC rose up barely dozen yards away.
It was sealed in an arena the size of an athletic stadium. There was no way to see the inside until you entered, and the objectives would be revealed only a few minutes prior. They had until then to prepare.
Cadets did almost everything with their jumps, including their tests in the EC. This was the only one that would be taken individually. Then they would leave the IB behind and be reorganized into the groups with which they would spend the rest of their time at the academy, their deployment, and maybe their lives.
Her family and their friends were all military, and according to them there was no group more tightly-knit. The entire military was built around their operation: fast, flexible, autonomous, and fiercely devoted to each other. At the heart of these families were the jump leaders, directing their tactics to maximize their effectiveness and secure their safety in the field.
She could do that.
She had to ace this test, and she had to do it by herself.
That was the puzzle. She’d been thinking about it all morning. No soldier was an island, and soldiers didn’t operate in a vacuum. Even more, their classes had only just begun to introduce them to the basic concepts of magic. No one had a firm foundation. So what were they testing? It seemed unlikely that it would be the subject matter. It was more likely that it would be a test of critical thinking and improvisational skill. After all, the only constants in their training had been physical conditioning and military protocol.
There was no way to prepare for a test on improvisation. She could only trust her judgement. Maybe that was the point.
She decided to focus on what she knew: light workouts, stretching, and as many complex carbohydrates as she could get her hands on. By now she could run a double-marathon.
She wondered how the others were doing.
The colonel was in his office. He opened the door as Mallory was still raising her hand to knock.
“Cadet Grey. I’ve been expecting your visit.”
She nodded. It only made sense.
“Colonel Agincourt, sir. May I come inside?”
He stepped aside and waved her in. His office was pretty bare. She would have expected more equipment, but there were only papers. He sat down at his desk, took out a requisition form, and started filling it out.
“How may I help you?”
She looked at the form.
“Don’t you know, sir?”
He looked up and smiled.
“I do, but there’s still protocol to consider. You have to make an official request.”
Mallory chuckled. This was so weird.
“Sir, I’d like to ask for some equipment.”
He smiled, still filling out the form. He looked like somebody’s grandpa. It was hard to remember he was a seasoned colonel.
He was almost done. He looked up again and covered his notes.
She snapped up, looked straight ahead, and recited her list.
“Two kilograms of leaded-glass crystal, three kilograms of brass, and one gallon of distilled water.”
He nodded, waiting.
She’d been considering two other tools, but they seemed silly. She wasn’t even sure they would have them.
What the hell.
“One pair of noise-isolation headphones and a blindfold.”
He took his hand away from the form, signed it, and handed it over.
“Take that to the quartermaster.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
She started to leave, then turned and stopped in the door.
He answered before she asked.
“It’s not cheating. People only say that because they’re jealous.”
She went to the quartermaster and then back to the IB, hauling her gear in a bag. She’d decided on the roof. The IB was already isolated from the hustle and bustle of the academy. All she had to do was avoid getting distracted by the other cadets.
The materials didn’t come pre-shaped. They were stored and distributed in standardized blocks of different weights. She would have to use fabrication to form them into the frame and the surface of the lens. The water was to clean it. Any impurities could disrupt the spell.
It wasn’t cheating. The colonel said so himself, and what better way to succeed on the test than to know what was on it before it began.
Eddie would be proud.
“I want to try again.”
Eddie crooked a smile.
“You know eventually they’ll run out.”
Kazen looked downrange. The field was littered with the broken fragments of concrete. The ground was grey with dust. Ironically, he’d been trying to avoid causing that much damage.
“Sir, what am I doing wrong?”
The academy had insisted that he and Eddie be supervised by one of the upperclassmen. They’d assigned a third-year cadet named Killian. So far he hadn’t been much help.
“I’m not here to teach you. My orders are to make sure you don’t blow yourselves to pieces. If you need to adjust your SR, talk to your initiator.”
Kazen looked at Eddie.
“He’s not an initiator.”
The upperclassmen smiled.
“He built your SR, didn’t he? I know I didn’t.”
“Well, could you have done it?”
Kazen had to admit he probably couldn’t have. Eddie’s skill at fabrication was the reason he’d asked for his help. At first he’d asked for one of the upperclassmen, but the sergeant-major had insisted that the first-year cadets train on their own for the IB final exam. If he wanted an initiator, he would have to find a volunteer from his own class. Eddie was the best choice. He was a friend, and he’d put in the most time on fabrication. Killian was only there to supervise.
Eddie grumbled. The third-year regarded him sternly.
“Something wrong, cadet?”
Eddie grudgingly stood up and got to attention. His earlier good humour quickly diminishing.
“Sir, I don’t want to be an initiator.”
The third-year smiled.
“Something wrong with being an initiator?”
“It seems like a second-rate job, sir.”
The upperclassman straightened up.
“Do I seem second-rate to you?”
Kazen tensed. Eddie answered.
“Initiators are the foundation of the military.”
“I’ve heard that, sir.”
“But you don’t believe it?”
Eddie shook his head.
Killian turned around. They’d set out a table of miscellaneous materials drawn from the quartermaster. Eddie had used them to assemble the SR. Now the upperclassman Killian walked back and forth along the table.
“Then you need to exercise your imagination. A magus might seem perfectly self-sufficient on the practice range, but in the field he’s not much more than a walking, talking power generator.”
Kazen looked up.
Killian waved him off.
“Don’t worry. The military needs power too, but it also needs tools and weapons. Equipment needs to be repaired in the field, or modified to suit an evolving situation. Someone has to be responsible for those tasks. It takes creativity and resourcefulness.”
He took the SR from Kazen and held it out to Eddie.
“Now, does that sound like you?”
Kazen looked at his friend. Eddie looked back. They stared at each other for a few moments, each one quietly flipping back through their own internal newsreel to recall the many times that each had come through for the other in a pinch. Kazen smiled. Eddie had always done it in style.
A message transmitted between them almost telepathically. His friend cracked a grin. A moment later they were both laughing.
“It does sound like you,” Kazen said.
Eddie put out a hand.
“Okay. Okay. You win. Give me the thing.”
Killian raised an eyebrow. Eddie smiled.
“Right, sorry. Sorry. Give me the thing, sir.”
He took the SR from Killian and grabbed a lump of black stone from the table. He turned to Kazen.
“You say you need some kind of choke?”
Eddie flipped the rock over in the air and caught it. His double-F began to glow.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
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