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.
Another five miles?
They never seemed to let them stop running, not for five days since matriculation. They’d already done their morning run before breakfast. Now they were heading back out to the farm course.
They’d spent their class time after morning PC—that stood for physical conditioning—being instructed on the basics of fabrication magic and the tools related to its use. The class had been perilously brief. Kazen glanced down at his hand. He was now the proud owner of his very first piece of bona fide military hardware: a small, gold ring.
The woman who’d handed them out was their new instructor, Gloria Watermeyer, a major from the College of Fabrication. She called them fabrication focuses. The sergeant-major referred to them as Double-Fs, or army wedding rings. Each one had been specifically sized for the cadet to whom it was issued. They were instructed never to take them off, not even when they showered or went to sleep.
According to the booklet, the rings were far more complicated than they appeared. The gold was only a coating; inside was a complex lattice of precisely sculpted gemstones, metal alloys, and a variety of crystals sealed in a steel tube. The components not only served as a miniaturized SR, but also as a kind of perceptual amplifier, allowing the magician to perform fabrication almost at will. The gold was to prevent corrosion.
The designers had thought of everything.
It was a simple test of sense and concentration, at least according to the major: to shape the material is to know it. It all seemed pretty far-fetched. Eddie had even called it “loopy.” But they’d watched her perform the magic right there at the front of the classroom.
The sergeant-major called a halt and the company stopped. They were in the centre of the course, standing in the middle of the field surrounded by the track. It had changed somewhat since the morning. Whereas previously there had been only an open field, instead they found a succession of tall wooden barriers arranged in a long line, each one more than twenty feet tall.
Eddie nudged Kazen.
“If they tell us to climb those, I quit.”
Kazen chuckled. The sergeant-major took his place in front of the company.
“Cadets! Welcome to your first practical training exercise!”
Taylor raised an eyebrow. PTEs were drills that combined obstacle courses with magical exercises in order to simulate a combat environment. Cadets were expected to use everything they’d learned and whatever equipment they were issued to navigate them, but according to everything she’d learned from her family, not to mention the academy manual in her dorm room, they weren’t supposed to start PTEs until second year.
The sergeant-major stalked back and forth in front of them, eyeing the ragged form of Eddie Grimsby, who was now running in place. The man had ears like a bat.
“The lesson for the day is an introduction to basic infiltration and environment control. The Arro might be able to walk through walls but we sure as hell can’t, and they know it. In the field, they will use our own structures against you, and if you cannot negotiate terrain and obstacles as quickly as they can, you will always be outmanoeuvred and I will find myself training another company of cadets to replace you.”
He put his hand on the wall. His Double-F flashed and the wood reformed itself to create an oval-shaped door. The fabrication took less than a second. He closed it just as quickly.
Major Watermeyer stepped forward.
“You were all issued a fabrication focus at the beginning of this exercise. I will teach you to use it to repeat what you just saw demonstrated. ”
Grath spoke up.
“Sir? Why not just blow up the wall?”
Taylor frowned. Adrian never did know when to keep his mouth shut.
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just destroy the wall if it’s in our way? Why circumvent a barrier if you can remove it? Or translocate yourself to the other side? Isn’t this exercise a little superfluous?”
The sergeant-major chuckled, but kept his peace. The major had probably heard the same question a hundred times, from every class of cadets he’d ever taught. Fabrication had a reputation for being “lower” magic. It was the most approachable college of magic because it required the least power, and most cadets who couldn’t qualify as magi ended up focusing on fabrication as initiators. What most cadets failed to realize was that fabrication was perhaps the most essential cog in the entire military machine. It allowed fighting units to be flexible in the field, creating and deploying whatever weapons or equipment were needed. It allowed them to build facilities and cover, repair vehicles, and even heal wounds.
The major smiled.
“What’s your name, cadet?”
He stood at attention.
“Adrian Grath, sir.”
“Stand behind the wall, cadet.”
He tilted his head.
“You heard the order.”
He walked slowly forward and stood behind it. The colonel reached into her robe and drew out a wooden rod. She held it in one hand and ran her Double-F over it. The wood twisted and warped as her hand went into her pockets for additional materials. In less than a minute she assembled an SR identical to the ones they’d fired the previous day. She handed it to the sergeant-major.
“You say it’s easier to destroy the wall?—”
The sergeant-major lifted the SR.
“—You mean like this?”
They all heard Adrian shriek as the SR flashed and the wall vanished in an explosion of charred wood and splinters, revealing Adrian cowering behind in a half-crouch, shielding his face with his arms.
The cadets chuckled.
The colonel took the SR and disassembled it.
“While it’s true that a well-calibrated SR can destroy an obstacle without damaging whatever or whomever is behind it, such calibrations require precise knowledge of the strength and characteristics of the obstacle, details that are rarely available in the field.
“Suppose this wall belonged to a civilian facility? There could be volatile materials or captives inside. Arro units routinely attack civilian areas, and as often as not they take prisoners to complicate our response; all this without even discussing the collateral damage that might be dealt to valuable supplies, equipment, and structures if the military were in the habit of destroying everything in its path.”
She went to Adrian and leaned down with a wily grin.
“Loud too, isn’t it?”
“What if this had been an infiltration?”
She pulled him through the hole and put up a hand. In a matter of moments the breach in the barrier had disappeared without leaving so much as a scorch mark. Taylor couldn’t help but notice the wall also shrank a few inches in height. Even magic, it seemed, could not make something from nothing.
The major gave Adrian a gentle shove back toward the formation. He stalked back to his place, avoiding eye contact with everyone.
Taylor watched quietly. Live fire directed at a cadet? PTEs in the first week? And they’d already been issued equipment. It was all far from standard operating protocol.
Taylor kept her eyes on the sergeant-major.
What the hell was going on?
This was stupid.
There were no further demonstrations. The sergeant-major broke them into groups for the exercise and issued only a single, brief instruction: cross the course without climbing over or circumventing the walls.
So far no one was having much luck. Eddie turned to Taylor.
“How’s it going over there?”
She scrunched up her mouth, one hand pressed against the wall.
He turned again.
“How about you, Mal?”
The barriers were wide enough for each group to have a section to themselves. He, Kazen, and Taylor were in one group. Mallory had been put in the next one. She had her eyes closed with two hands on the wall. She shook her head.
“Hey! Stop talking to my group.”
Eddie’s face flattened. Adrian was in the same group as Mal, and he was already on a power trip. This guy was such a prick.
“I’ll talk to whoever I want.”
“Well then do it quietly. I’m trying to concentrate.”
“How’s that working out?”
Adrian put his hand back on the wall and gritted his teeth.
Something flashed. Adrian’s eyes glazed over.
Eddie watched as over the course of the next minute the wall split slowly open, spreading apart to form a roughly oval gap, though somewhat more jagged than the smooth portal the major had created. When it was done Adrian stepped back in surprise, but recovered quickly.
Eddie’s face fell. Here it comes.
“Hah! How do you like that?!”
Eddie took a breath.
Adrian wasn’t done.
“Maybe if you spent a little less time on wise cracks you might have something useful to contribute?”
He stepped through the hole.
“See you at the end of the course!”
His group followed him. Mal gave him a sympathetic shrug and followed. Eddie turned to Kazen.
“What a dick.”
His friend stepped back from the wall, massaging his hand and staring at the Double-F.
“No argument here. I just wish I knew how he did it. I can’t even get this thing to turn on. How are you doing?”
“I haven’t actually tried yet.”
Kazen looked over in surprise.
It wasn’t on purpose. It was just that since he’d come to Tantalus not a single thing had gone his way. The courses were harder than any class he’d ever had to take, he’d failed to destroy his target at the firing range, and now he was expected to do still more magic he’d never heard of. He’d been hoping someone else would figure it out and give him time to review the material after class.
Five years at the academy, five years at war. That was the oath, but the manual didn’t say anything about what would happen if you failed.
He snapped out of it. Taylor was staring at him.
“We’ve been straining against this wall for half an hour and you haven’t even tried it?”
She was pretty when she was angry.
She pointed at the ground in front of her.
“You get over here right now and help us complete this exercise!”
He and Kazen shared a nervous look. He took a long breath.
“I guess it wouldn’t be right to disappoint a lady.”
She glared at him.
“Don’t you ‘lady’ me. March!”
“You remember the lesson?”
He nodded and stepped up to the wall, rambling.
“Sure. Cross the course. Just cross the course. Simple as that. Anybody can walk through walls, right? Because we have our fancy new decoder rings.”
She swatted the back of his head.
He shut his eyes and put out a hand. He felt the ring press against the wall. The major’s voice echoed in his ears: To shape the material is to know it.
What a bunch of crap.
Well, he couldn’t very well know the wall if he wasn’t looking at it. So far everyone had their eyes closed, except for Adrian. Maybe there was something to it. He kept his eyes open and brushed his hand across the wood, feeling the rough surface under his fingers. He gave it a good pound with his fist. It seemed thick. Hard. He stared at the rough-hewn grain of the surface and tried to remember everything he’d ever learned about carpentry.
Actually, it would probably be better to think of it like a tre—
The ring flashed.
It was as though his entire world suddenly zoomed in. He could almost feel his hand pressing forward. The dry wood planks, once wet with water and sap, gathered around his fingers like a sheet of a thousand muscular strings.
Not sure of what to do next, he pushed them aside. They moved like half-dried clay, binding and clutching to maintain their fibrous strength, but he wasn’t using his hands to sculpt them as such. As he worked it was more like…thinking? He didn’t understand it.
Magic. Go figure.
He withdrew his hand. Taylor and Kazen stared. He looked back at them.
The hole was a perfect circle. It had taken only seconds.
Kazen whooped and clapped him on the shoulder.
“First try! What did I tell you? I knew you’d be fine. Come on. Let’s go catch up with Grath.”
Eddie smiled sheepishly and looked over at Taylor. She had her arms crossed.
“I get to do the next one.”
Kazen looked at her.
“It’s alright. He’s got it. If we hurry we can catch up!”
She shook her head.
“That’s not the point of the exercise.”
Eddie looked back, first at his friends; then at Blackstaff. The sergeant-major’s eyes were locked on. The other cadets waited. He took a deep breath and blew it out.
“Damn it. She’s right.”
He stepped through the hole and up to the next wall, waving the rest of the cadets over.
“Alright. I’m no expert or anything, but gather ‘round. Let me show you what I did.”
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