Tantalus – Issue #16: IB Final Part Three

Tantalus - Issue #15: IB Final Part Two

 

Tantalus

Issue #16

“IB Final – Part Three”

Written by Aaron McQueen

Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek

Copyright September 25th, 2017

www.patreon.com/McQueenBooks

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.

Jeannie Perryman

Donald McQueen

Theresa McQueen-Uber

Duana McQueen

Jeff McQueen

Eden Odhner

 

I.

 

“Who’s next?”

Blackstaff looked at the sheet.

“Cadet A-0016. It’s Adrian Grath.”

The executor nodded.

“Let’s see him.”

The prognosticators re-focused and the frame shimmered. The surface flickered to opaque steel and then slowly cleared until it was as transparent as a sheet of smooth leaded glass. The image of a cadet with long black hair swirled into shape. Blackstaff leaned forward.

“What’s he doing?”

He was crouched in the corner of an industrial yard, hidden in a parking lot behind the rusting wreckage of a truck, scratching something with a rock into the concrete.

The executor waved her hand at the frame.

“Bring us in closer.”

The view closed in.

It was a diagram

“Those are pad calculations.”

The executor’s gaze snapped over to Blackstaff.

“That material is unauthorized for a first-year cadet.”

The sergeant-major shook his head.

“I didn’t distribute it.”

“The textbooks are controlled.”

“He must have gotten a hold of it on his own.”

Grath kept writing, working his way through a complex bit of trigonometry.

Blackstaff tilted his head.

“How did he estimate the distance?”

The executor answered.

“There must be a vantage point nearby. Take the view back out.”

The image moved, drifting away from Grath to encompass the yard. The executor shook her head.

“Further.”

The two officers’ eyes widened as the image of Grath continued to retreat and a tall, dilapidated crane came into view. Its boom reached more than a hundred feet into the air.

Blackstaff stifled a laugh.

“He climbed the crane?”

The executor frowned.

“Take us back in. I want to see over his shoulder.”

“You want me to send someone in and stop him?”

“Not yet.”

“Why not?”

She paused.

“The new training was meant to develop this kind of initiative. If this is the solution he’s come up with, we’ll let him see it through.”

“But—”

“Right up to the moment where his life is in danger. That’s the test protocol. In the meantime read off what he’s got. We’ll check his math.”

The executor went to a table and grabbed a pen and paper. Blackstaff read the variables aloud. She copied them down.

The sergeant-major approached.

“If only the students could see you now. How long has it been since you did one of these?”

“Shut up.”

Blackstaff smiled.

“Is that an order?”

“Yes.”

He suppressed a laugh, peering over the executor’s shoulder. It was a clever idea, even if it was outside protocol. If it worked Adrian Grath was about to set the fastest IB final time in the history of Tantalus.

If it worked.

Translocation was tricky.

The math wasn’t actually that complicated. He knew soldiers who could do it in their heads, but if your calculations were wrong the magic could drop you miles from your target. You could end up a hundred feet in the air over your destination; or far worse, below it.

Nightingale kept scribbling on the paper. Blackstaff looked back at the frame.

Grath kept working.

 

II.

 

Taylor jogged, doing her best to keep an eye out as she ran along the deep wagon track. The factory complex was behind her, the fields were full and ripe, and the rutted dusty road went on for miles between.

She could see the objective, a balloon high in the air over a hill that had to be twenty miles away. She could run it, but by the time she made it halfway she would be so winded that she wouldn’t be able to watch out for the enemy, and moving cautiously would take hours. Not exactly a jump leader’s performance.

She wiped her forehead. The mud and sweat were running down her face, stinging her eyes, and she was pretty sure she was trailing a cloud of flies and mosquitos a mile long. She found herself praying for a pond.

Focus. She didn’t need a lake. She needed a vehicle. Her uncles had taught her how to drive everything from a horse and cart to a deuce and a half truck. There had to be something around here she could use. She’d been hoping to find one near the factory, but had no luck. Evidently, when the place had been cleared out, every working vehicle had been driven or hauled away.

She’d sighted a farmhouse with a barn an hour ago when the road crested a hill. She was on her way there now. A structure like that in an area like this was bound to be guarded, but there was no other option. It was that or walk.

She pulled her “weapon” from where she’d tucked it in her pants behind her back. She’d scavenged the materials from a tool shed outside the factory complex: a length of rusty steel pipe, some glass, copper for an emitter salvaged from electrical cable, and brass from the buttons on her pants, which were now held up with a length of fraying rope.

Not exactly a standard SR, and certainly not stable enough for heavy ordinance, but it would stand up to two or three well-aimed shots.

At close range.

She rounded a bend and the house came into view a quarter-mile down the road. She took cover.

Movement.

She could see them through the windows, huge shadows moving from room to room. It was hard to say how many: three…maybe four. She closed her eyes and took a breath. At least they’d give her an “A” for effort.

Taylor shook her head.

No.

She was capable of more than that. Her family always was. She crawled up the roadside hummock into the field. The crops were tall. She gritted her teeth, gripped her weapon, and moved forward.

 

III.

 

The scene was looking oddly familiar.

Mallory stopped.

She was standing at the edge of a field. It was ploughed, but had been left fallow for the season.

There was a watch tower up ahead.

Sweat beaded on her brow. Five miles across low pea fields under the sweltering sun had brought her to this place. Why did it have to be such a hot day? She’d spent so long in the lukewarm shelter of the huge Tantalus cavern she’d forgotten it was still the summer. A year ago she’d have been playing with her friends or attending vacation activities at the community centre.

Her parents always told her she’d miss her childhood. It was damn true.

She looked down at her SR. It had been a stroke of luck, finding it abandoned in the back of a crashed personnel carrier. She liked to think that some soldier in the past had simply forgotten it, but given the condition in which she’d found the vehicle she couldn’t help but acknowledge that its prior owner had probably encountered a grimmer fate.

She kept her eyes on the watch tower. There were three tall creatures inside. Arro. Or more accurately, well-trained fourth year cadets disguised as Arro. Her prognostication had shown her utterly destroying the fortification. She was having a little more difficulty with the idea now. The sun was going down, and the looming silhouettes in the tower cast long shadows across the ground. But they weren’t monsters. They were people.

How would they survive?

It had to be a trick. You could fill a library with all the things she’d didn’t know about magic. They had to be defending themselves somehow. In the end this was only an exercise. They wouldn’t risk the lives of cadets over a test.

Would they?

Mallory took a breath.

Well if this was a test, it was time to pass.

From here on she had an advantage. She looked back and forth across the field. The second patrol was at the edge of the woods, right where they’d been the last time she’d failed to consider that the watch tower might have support. They’d opened fire the moment she emerged to cross what she’d then assumed had become an empty, unguarded field. She’d barely escaped with her life, and the scramble that followed had put her off-balance for everything that came after.

This time would be different.

She configured the SR for a long-range blast and levelled it at edge of the treeline. The patrol there was less exposed. She couldn’t risk them taking cover. They would go first; the tower second. She locked her eyes on target and took a breath.

Alright.

Round two.

Special Thanks To:

Kristi Bubrig

Ryan Lewis

Nathan Liss

Kayla Liss

Zachary Grey

Timothy Tortal

 

Tantalus - Issue #15: IB Final Part Two

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