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.
Mallory felt the magic surge. It was white hot like a coal flame, but it moved like water, and there was no pain. She felt the pulse as the SR seized the energy and spun it like a thread of molten glass. A split instant later a great blast of swirling red and white light shot forward towards the distant point downrange where her eyes were fixed intently.
The corner of the concrete target exploded in a shower of dust. A bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. Other targets popped, scorched, and shattered to varying degrees along with most of the dirt in between as a result of misfires and poor aim.
Killian’s hand re-appeared gently on her shoulder. He reached out and took the SR.
“Not bad for a first time.”
She grinned like an idiot.
“You really think so?”
His eyes snapped back to her.
“Sir! Sorry, sir! I’m just a little excited.”
“You’re forgiven, this time. Good work. Step back and stand at ease.”
“Only one shot, sir?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Step back, cadet. Today’s just an introduction. They’ll have you out here again later in the wee—”
He was cut off by the sudden crack and the roar of a huge explosion further down the line. They both turned and shielded their eyes as the concrete target downrange detonated in a burst of grey dust and a shower of broken rock.
“That’ll be the genius. Bet my leave on it.”
Mallory looked down the line.
“One of the other first-years. The brass has had their eye on him ever since he blew out the equipment during his evaluation. Everyone in the stacks is talking about it.”
Killian looked up as he took apart the SR. One by one the pieces reformed themselves back into basic geometric shapes and disappeared into his pouches.
“You know him?”
“We grew up together, sir.”
“Well, look after him. He’s going to be under a lot of pressure.”
She never thought of him as anything more than a friend.
“I will, sir.”
The exercise ended and they marched them all to the dining hall for lunch. It was a quick meal, followed by more classroom training on regs. The manuals seemed to go on forever. They were reading almost one a night. After class they had dinner and then were dismissed to the IB for study before bed.
Mallory lay awake.
Maybe it was foolish to expect that Kazen would be treated the same as everyone else. They’d all been so preoccupied with basic training they hadn’t even considered that there might already be other gears turning.
Killian said they had their eyes on him.
She shut her eyes, but the images in her mind wouldn’t go away: Kazen unconscious in the square, surrounded by emergency medical personnel with the executor looking on. She’d had a grave sort of smile on her face. Strange that she didn’t recall it until now.
Wheels within wheels, all quietly turning. Why?
She fell asleep.
“He seems to be coming along nicely.”
“You’re confident he will grow? I don’t have time to invest in someone who might plateau in a few months.”
Blackstaff stood across the desk from Executor Nightingale. She was going over the reports from the firing range.
“His results were impressive.”
Blackstaff nodded agreement.
“I believe we’ve only scratched the surface, ma’am. The boy has no experience. That’s not unusual given his background, but his early classroom assessments show passable intelligence.”
She looked up.
“He’s not the genius the cadets are gossiping about, but he has potential.”
The executor nodded.
“Very well. He’s assigned to your company?”
Blackstaff nodded again.
“As ordered, but given what we’ve seen of him so far, even my involvement may not be enough.”
“You want to transfer him to special operations?”
“No, ma’am. He doesn’t have the psychology. He needs the support of a regular unit.”
“Then what do you propose?”
“I’d like your permission to modify the training regimen.”
“For the regiment?”
“Just the company.”
He held out a folder.
“Decreased class time. Greater focus on practical training. Most of the classroom work can be communicated through field exercises anyway.”
She scanned the material.
“The increased exercises will result in exhaustion. Not all the cadets will cope.”
“We’ll transfer them to other companies.”
The executor quietly massaged her jaw.
“I don’t like this. Word about a select company with special training will spread. It will cause conflict with the other units. Rumours are already circulating about an unusual cadet. This will make the whole unit a target. You know as well as I do the kind of hardships that can be inflicted right under our noses.”
“I do, ma’am.”
He waited. Finally she set aside the folder and stood up.
“Very well. Proceed as you propose, but keep me informed.”
“Of course, ma’am.”
“When will the new training be ready?”
“I’ll begin phasing in the revised curriculum tomorrow. It will take a few weeks to discover which cadets will require reassignment. The modified program should be fully implemented by the time they leave the IB.”
“Thank you, sergeant-major.”
He turned to leave. She stopped him in the door.
“You’re sure this is the right course?”
He smiled and shrugged.
“For that you’d have to get Elijah to talk.”
The executor chuckled.
“Unlikely. Why did I give him tenure again?”
“He can see the future.”
“Don’t worry, executor. It’s only just starting. Our best has been good enough for fifty years, first under your predecessor and now under you. It will continue to be all we need.”
She was silent for a moment before she spoke again, staring at her desk.
“Do you think I measure up?”
“Of course, ma’am.”
She answered quietly.
Silence. She found herself staring across the room. There was a red robe hanging in the corner.
It was like hers.
“We should head up. Lights out in ten.”
Kazen stood up. Eddie remained in his chair.
“I feel like crap.”
“Smell like it too.”
“We all smell like crap.”
They were gathered in the IB’s study hall. It wasn’t much more than an empty dorm room, but it was big enough for a dozen or so students to congregate. Most of the other cadets had already gone to bed. They’d stayed behind to review the day’s lessons. Eddie turned to Taylor.
“You’re the army brat. Did you know they weren’t going to let us shower?”
She looked up. Her blonde hair was caked with dirt.
The door to the room swung open and Adrian emerged. He was using his coat to dry his hair. He’d washed it in the drinking fountain in the hall.
Eddie looked over his shoulder.
“They told us not to do that.”
“They can go to hell. This is ridiculous. How do they expect us to learn under these circumstances? I’m so filthy I can’t think straight.”
“I think that’s the point.”
“Shut up. Not all of us are used to living in squalor.”
Eddie got to his feet. Kazen put out a hand.
He turned to Adrian.
“We’re all tired. I suggest we get some sleep.”
The man growled.
“You can’t order me around.”
He stalked away.
The door shut. Eddie took a frustrated breath.
“I’m getting real tired of him.”
Mallory leaned against the wall.
“We all are.”
Taylor went and shut the door.
“Try not to take it personally. He just doesn’t want to be here.”
Mallory crossed her arms.
“You know him?”
“We went to the same school.”
“So why is he such a jerk?”
“He’s lived a sheltered life: father killed, mother on the Executive, no siblings or even cousins.”
Mallory looked up.
“His father’s dead?”
“Two years ago. He was on one of the teams they sent to Lillyacre.”
Kazen shook his head.
“I’ve never heard of Lillyacre.”
“It’s outside the NPA. They were thinking of expanding for a new factory complex. The whole expedition was wiped out.”
“He must hate the military.”
Taylor sat back down.
“And now he’s in it, but even if his father were alive, he just wasn’t bred for this.”
“Yeah, well, neither were any of us.”
Everyone looked at Taylor. Eddie nodded grudgingly.
“Okay, maybe you.”
“Maybe it’ll get better when they pick the jump leaders and put us in the stacks. Showers. Smaller groups. Maybe he’ll make some friends.”
Eddie tilted his head.
Taylor looked at him.
“Sure. We’re only here for a couple of weeks, remember? They’ll sort the company into jumps after we finish basic. They pick the jump leaders at the same time. It’s a cadet’s first chance to rise in rank.”
“Maybe we’ll get a chance to get even.”
Taylor shook her head.
“Not with that attitude. Rank is about responsibility. They won’t promote you if they think you’re trying to get back at someone.”
Mallory put a hand on his shoulder.
“Another plan foiled.”
Mallory went to Taylor and hauled her up.
“Come on. Bedtime. Study hall is over.”
They left. Kazen headed for the door. Eddie stopped him.
Eddie sat back down.
“I saw what you did during the test.”
Kazen scratched his head.
“I’m still not sure how I did it.”
“It was pretty amazing. If you keep it up they’ll give you a jump for sure.”
“You think so?”
Eddie nodded. His shoulders sagged.
Kazen furrowed his brow.
Eddie shook his head.
“I didn’t do so good. I barely scratched that stupid block.”
Kazen leaned against a table.
“My initiator said every magician has different talents. Maybe you still need to find your niche.”
“You think so?”
“I’m sure of it.”
He helped Eddie up.
“Come on. Let’s go get some sleep.”
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