Date: 5th April 2395
Location: New Moscow Academy
I was exhausted when I got back to my room. It appeared that the mysterious Aiden had been and gone; a different variety of things were now strewn over the bed and floor around it.
I had been at the range for over five hours, shooting targets over and over again until the Corporal finally let me leave. I had to admit that it was much less tedious than when I did the course at school, and the Corporal definitely knew what he was talking about. By the time I had been allowed to leave, I was consistently getting close groupings at a hundred metres with the sidearm, and the Corporal was hinting at training me with a rifle too; though from the small number of Marines currently at the academy, it was probably more just to give himself something to do.
Lying on my bed to rest for a few minutes, I suddenly felt a wave of tiredness sweep over me, and before I knew it, was fast asleep.
A crash followed by an “Oh, bollocks!” aroused me from my unplanned sleep. As I opened my eyes, I saw a cadet in a flight uniform standing over a pile of holopads.
“Sorry.” He apologised awkwardly. “I was just…” He looked down at the pile.
“No problem. I didn’t really mean to be asleep.” I replied. “So you’re the famous Aiden I’ve heard about then?”
“That’s me!” He beamed as his face lit up in a goofy grin. “Most people call me Energy though, ‘cos I’m always doing something. I guess either you’re Sven, or you’re in the wrong room.” He grinned.
“That’s me. Though recently everybody seems to call me Thor.” It was true; since I had been assigned the call sign, everybody used it rather than my name.
“Oh yeah, that’s your fighter in the hangar isn’t it? The one covered with kills? That commander, uhh, Griff said that he’d flown with you in combat. That’s cool! How’d you end up fighting as soon as you got your fighter?” He spoke with the same pace and energy that he obviously showed in everything else, but he didn’t seem to be arrogant and self-centred like some of the other overachievers I’d met before.
“Long story,” I replied. Frankly, I didn’t quite understand how it had happened myself.
“You’ll have to tell me sometime. Hey, I’m going for a hike through the jungle now, you wanna come along?”
Exploring the region did seem quite a nice idea. I had always enjoyed walking around the City back home.
“Cool! It’s hot and wet out there so it’s probably a good idea not to wear full uniform.” He walked over to the sequencer and created a short-sleeved tee-shirt and shorts, both in the same material as a uniform and with similar red trim and rank insignia. It was a variation of the uniform I had never seen before, but then again I had never been anywhere hot enough to warrant such a uniform. As soon as he had gathered it he headed to the ablutions block to use a cleanser.
I sequenced the same attire and headed to the ablutions. When I got there, Aiden had just stepped into one of the cleansers and was hanging in the zero gravity field.
The room was pretty similar to the changing room aboard the Tallinn, only much bigger. There were at least forty cubicles around the perimeter of the room, and another twenty in the middle.
Quickly stripping off, I got into one of the many free cubicles just as Aiden deactivated his.
“I’ll see you in a couple of minutes.” He called as he darted out of the room.
As I always enjoyed doing, I remained hanging in the zero-g field for a few minutes after the cleanser had ceased. For the first time since I had landed, I felt clean. Gathering up my things from the small bench just outside of the cubicle, I pulled on the mini-uniform and headed back to the room, where Aiden was impatiently sitting on his bed, checking his rifle.
“Ready?” He asked eagerly, the moment I stepped through the door.
“Just a second,” I replied as I recycled my full uniform, noticing his was simply strewn on the bed. After the sequencer was finished, I created a tool belt and put it on, adding a machete to the left side and a sidearm to the right.
Once I had my gear ready, I turned around to see Aiden standing in the doorway. He had his tool belt equipped as I did, but also had the addition of his rifle on his back.
“Expecting something big?” I asked slightly nervously, referring to the weapon that normally only Marines carried regularly.
“Nah, but better to have it and not need it, yadda yadda, right? Can we go now?”
“OK then, ready.” I said, after checking the sidearm as Corporal Redfern had taught me.
To my surprise, he didn’t sprint to the edge of the compound, but maintained a decently paced walk.
“We’ll just go a couple of miles in this time. It’ll be dark soon, and I’ve not been this way yet,” he said as we walked towards the tree line. In the sky, I could actually see the sun slowly moving across the sky. Though it was still quite high, it wouldn’t be for long.
I thought it was hot and humid in the Academy compound, but once we were just a few feet into the woodland, it shot up even more, the trees acting like a blanket and keeping the heat in. My cut-down uniform was drenched and I could still clearly see the Academy buildings behind me.
Following closely in Aiden’s footsteps, we hacked our way through the undergrowth, to the backdrop of dripping water and the strange warbling of native birds. The very faint green light from the sun refracted through the treetops, casting a strange green glow through the water hanging in the air and illuminating the area.
“Sweet!” Aiden remarked, coming to a stop after about 45 minutes. Standing beside him, I saw that we had run up to a large pool of water surrounded by cliffs on three sides, being fed by a river cascading over the side directly opposite us. The water was a bright and shimmering turquoise; even the drops from the waterfall seemingly held the colour. From the bending of the trees and its relatively small size; about twenty metres from side to side in the pool, we were still completely under the canopy and couldn’t see the sky above.
“This is the sort of thing you’d never see if you only flew around.” He commented as he slipped off his boots and sat on a rock, dangling his feet into the crystal clear water.
Doing the same, I joined him. The water was wonderfully cool and stripped away the heat from the atmosphere and walking.
“How deep d’ya think it is?” I asked. Looking at the way the water at the bottom of the waterfall landed, it didn’t look to be a mere puddle.
“Only one way to find out.” He grinned before removing his tool belt and rifle and jumping, fully clothed, from the rock into the water and diving below. A few seconds later, he surfaced with the same grin and shook his head to clear his eyes. “Deep enough.”
“Deep enough for what?” I asked confused, not realising what he meant until he looked up to the top of the waterfall. “You have to be kidding?” it was at least a thirty metre drop.
“I went down as far as I could and still didn’t see the bottom.” He replied as he pulled himself up onto the rock and examined the nearest cliff face. “Guess we aren’t the first to do it, either.” He commented while examining what looked to be worn ‘steps’ where others had climbed up.
I watched as he quickly and easily scaled the wall and within a couple of minutes was standing at the top, looking back to me.
“Come on! It’s easy!” he shouted down, before vanishing. A few seconds later, I watched as he appeared at the crest of the waterfall before leaping off without hesitation. I waited for just a moment before he surfaced from the water with a cry of exhilaration and swam over to where I was still sitting on the rock.
“Fun?” I asked as his grin seemed to spread even wider.
“Hell yeah. You gotta try it.”
“Another time, maybe.” I replied and tried to find an excuse, “It’s starting to get dark, we should head back.”
“You’re right.” He said, looking through the thick canopy to the darkening sky. “Time for one last thing though.” He quickly pushed me into the water and was laughing heavily when I resurfaced.
“What the hell was that?” I asked, in a little shock from the sudden immersion in the cool water.
“You looked like you needed to cool off.” He grinned and offered me his hand. Taking it, I pushed back from the rock and threw him into the water behind me.
“OK, very funny, you got me.” He spluttered after resurfacing. “Last time I try to help you. Gimme a hand will you?” He asked after I had climbed out and onto the rock.
Seeing it in his eyes, I was prepared when he tried to pull me in, and easily stood my ground, using my larger frame to instead pull him out of the water and onto the ground behind me.
“Humph!” He muttered while picking himself up and dusting himself down, though as he was now caked in mud it made little difference. He once more jumped into the pool, washing as much of his uniform as he could before climbing out, giving me a warily wide berth and getting out a metre or so away from me. “I’m gonna have to log this place.” He said while putting his boots back on, “Seems a nice place to cool off.”
“Yeah, me too.” As unexpected as it was, the dip in the pool had been very refreshing. Cleansing was one thing, but never really escaped the hot and wet atmosphere.
“I think it’s…this way.” He said, pointing along the rough direction where we came.
“You could just lock onto the Academy beacon, you know?” I said. It would guide us straight back.
“More fun this way.” He replied and headed into the jungle. I quickly did locate the beacon and it confirmed that he was heading in the right direction. I quickly caught up to him and followed in his footsteps back to the Academy, occasionally locking onto the beacon to confirm we were still heading in the right direction.
“Looks like we aren’t the only ones who know about the pool, but don’t tell anybody else.” He said as we approached the compound. “Wouldn’t want it to get crowded.”
“Yeah.” I agreed. “I might tell a couple of others, but that’s it.” I wasn’t going to keep something this good from Lark and Larenko.
We made our way through the Academy, back to our room without seeing anyone else until I opened the door.
“Someone’s found the hole, I see.” Griff commented as he lay back on my bed. “A little tip, don’t spread it around too much. You’ll never get any peace there if too many people find out.”
Quickly snapping to attention next to me, Aiden seemed shocked when I didn’t.
“So this is Lionidovna’s main boy is it?” He said as he got up from the bed, leaving Aiden at attention. “I dunno, looks a bit scrawny to me. Looks a bit messy too.” He cast an eye over to Aiden’s side of the room, which was still strewn with holopads and clothing. “I think she’s scraping the barrel a bit. Can you fly, Cadet Marshall?”
“Yes, sir. I ranked first in my class, sir.” Aiden replied smartly, but not boastingly.
“Can you fight?” He asked slyly.
“I, I have never fought, sir.” Aiden stammered.
“Well, I would advise you to stick with my main boy here, but I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the character building you’ll get when my wing continually trounces yours.”
“Bullying my cadets, Griff? Are you really that desperate?” A female voice with a thick Russian accent interrupted from the doorway.
“No, no Nadya, I was just here to talk with my main boy here.” He put his arm around my shoulders. “I have to say, I don’t think there’s going to be much competition this year though.”
“We’ll see about that.” She replied. “You could never beat me as a Cadet, and you’ll never beat me as an instructor.”
“Gloat as much as you want, you’re not going to get any chances later on.”
“Hah! Time will tell, Rostya. Come! We have alcohol to drink and stories to tell, it’s been a long time.”
“Sure thing.” He replied with a grin and headed to the door, turning back at the last moment. “I’ll speak with you later, Thor. Oh, and at ease, Marshall.” I heard him laughing as he walked down the corridor with his counterpart.
“Do you get the feeling they know each other?” I asked sarcastically as Aiden sat on his bed, wiping his forehead. I hadn’t really realised before how Aiden was a really rather small person, at least a head shorter than me and a much smaller frame, while Griff was a big guy by anyone’s standards.
“He seems much bigger when he’s towering over you.” He commented, coughing back a slight waver.
“Ahh Griff’s alright. He just likes to scare people a bit when he first meets them, or if they act too officially around him he’ll act official back. Unless it’s during an inspection or if there are higher-ups around, he acts as if you’re the same rank most of the time.” I said while recycling the tool belt and sequencing a clean uniform.
The hike had been tiring but I was still quite awake. “I think I’m going to head to the bar after hitting the cleansers. You wanna come?” I asked him while he shakily got up and recycled his tool belt after setting his rifle on the desk.
“I ahh, don’t know. I’m a bit tired and, well y’know.” He trailed off a little. He sounded a lot less confident and more timid than he had earlier.
“Something wrong?” I asked, putting my freshly sequenced uniform on my bed and moving over to him.
“No, I’m fine. Maybe another time, OK? Enjoy yourself.” He quickly rattled off before starting to dismantle his rifle.
“OK,” I replied, “See you later.”
Picking up my uniform I headed to the ablutions and enjoyed another long cycle. It may not be as refreshing as the swimming hole, but the feeling of all the dirt and grime being lifted away from you and recycled was one I always felt incredibly relaxing.
Using the sequencer by the door rather than heading back to the room, I recycled my old cut-down uniform, then pulled on my fresh standard one and headed to the bar.
Following the directions given by my neural link, I soon found myself heading towards what appeared to be more of a large gazebo than a building, filled with tables and the bar at one end. Inside, I could see that there were just a few tables occupied, and the sole bartender was looking very bored.
At one of the tables, I spotted Griff and Lionidovna, even though they hadn’t been here long, there were several empty glasses at their table and they appeared to be mid-contest at the moment, as they were both downing full pints; Lionidovna finishing a fraction of a second earlier than Griff, then cheering with her glass on her head.
After ordering a lemonade, I headed over to one of the HoloPool tables. It had been a while since I had played and I felt like I could use the practice.
I had barely drunk half of my drink and played a frame before Griff’s burly hand grabbed the glass from the side of the table and downed the remainder.
“Lemonade?! Aww, c’mon kid! You’re gonna have to learn to drink properly sooner or later.” He said in an even more boisterous tone than usual, similar to the one he was using when I first met him in the Tallinn’s bar. Throwing the glass over his shoulder he shouted for the barman to bring over three double vodkas.
“I’ve told you before, Griff. I don’t drink.” I replied as he sat on the edge of the table, causing all the balls to roll into the pockets.
“Tonight you do!” He shouted, grabbing and immediately downing one of the glasses from the tray the barman was holding as he came over.
Remembering something that Dover had said that first meeting, I had a quick idea of how to get rid of him.
“Commander Lionidovna! Has Griff told you what happened on Gamma Base?” I shouted towards the table where she was sitting, laughing at him.
“Thaaaat’s enough of that.” He said, steadying himself on the table as he hopped off it. “We’re gonna have to make you forget THAT little story.”
“What little story would that be, Rostya? Something you’re not sharing?” Lionidovna asked, appearing behind him.
“Lots, and something I’m not going to share. Nor’s Thor here, unless he wants to be given the bitch jobs all year.” He said, attempting to look threatening, but unable to keep a straight face.
“This sounds fun.” Lionidovna commented while taking the second glass of vodka. “Would it be something to do with Griffin’s legendary ability to make stupid decisions after a couple of these?” She asked, downing the vodka.
“Maybe.” I replied. “Of course, if I do as Griff seems to want me to and I do get drunk, maybe I’ll say more about it.”
“Lemonade!” Griff quickly shouted to the barman, and snatched the final glass of vodka. “I think…I think you’re right, Jonesie. Bad habit, this drinking. You stick to your lemonade, that’s a good lad.”
“Ohhh, but I want to hear about Gamma Base,” Lionidovna complained. “Go on, sweetie, I’ll make sure big mean Griffo here doesn’t make your life hell.”
“One word and you’re cleaning every fighter in the hangars until you graduate.” Griff threatened.
I took advantage of the barman’s arrival to hold off any answer while I slowly drank the glass of lemonade.
“I got a little pissed, said some things, then the rest is a blur. OK?” Griff finally admitted, not satisfying the drunken Russian next to him.
“I’m sure there’s a little more to it than that. The way I heard it, you challenged Monston to a drinking contest and ended up singing a very ironic song naked on the bar for the next six hours.” She laughed, sending Griff red. “I was at Gamma a few days later. Monston told me what had happened.”
“It was only five hours.” He muttered, ordering another round of drinks from the barman. “And it wasn’t that ironic!” He objected after a few moments thought.
This time, the barman came over with several rounds worth of drinks, hoping, it would seem, to get a few minutes peace.
“Got nothin’ on me now, kid.” He said while placing a glass of vodka in front of me.
“Just do it.” Lionidovna added, “He’ll leave you alone once you do. Probably.”
Sighing, I took the glass and tried to down it in one as they had, which quickly resulted in spraying Griff with vodka and having a choking fit while the two Commanders burst into laughter.
“Go easy, little one!” She managed to get out in between laughter. “Here, try slower.” She handed me another glass. With my throat burning, I at first tried to turn it down, but decided it would probably be easier all around if I just drank it, albeit at a much slower pace this time.
Almost immediately after finishing off the glass, while the two commanders cheered, I felt the buzz kick in.
“Happy?” I asked, fighting back a laugh.
“Very.” Griff cheered, downing a glass of his own. “Now if you don’t mind, I think it’s time for a little sing-along.” He leaped onto the table, closely followed by Lionidovna as they both started singing along with the music.
Taking another glass of vodka, I laughed as the two fought over the lyrics and tried to sing along, while the buzz intensified.
“WAKEY, WAKEY CADET!” Griff shouted down my ear from barely an inch away, causing me to scream and bury my head in the pillow to block out the sound, but all that accomplished was causing Griff to pull the pillow away and continue in a very loud tone. “Did somebody have a good night last night?”
“Ow…” I muttered, clenching my eyes shut and wishing the noise would stop.
“That’s a yes.” He laughed. “It’s called a hangover, and it’s what happens after you drink that much, especially for your first time.”
“Make the loud man go away…” I groaned, earning another head splitting laugh.
“Jump into a cleanser then have a good greasy breakfast. That’ll fix you up.” He chuckled. “Lionidovna has taken Marshall up for a bit of extracurricular flying. We don’t want to let them have all the fun, do we?”
Despite my objections, I was dragged from my nice, comfortable, quiet bed and thrown into a cleanser. As the device cleared the remaining alcohol from my system I felt a little better, but still wished I could be asleep. Once the device deactivated, I pulled on the flight suit sitting on the bench.
The size of the plate Griff was tucking into at my desk was far larger than any meal I had ever seen before, and there was a second one sitting on my bed when I stumbled back into my room.
“Eat.” He ordered, “It’ll make you feel better.”
The quantity of grease from the fry-up in front of me nearly made my stomach turn, but after the first couple of mouthfuls, the rest soon vanished, and by the time I was putting the plate into the sequencer, I was still feeling a little delicate, but far better.
“Right, Lionidovna has taken your counterpart up into the big black for some combat training. He’s a smart guy but has no experience whatsoever in fighting up there. I think it’ll be a good idea if we go give them a little…assistance, in the joys of flight.” He said while we walked from the room towards the hangars.
The sun was just coming over the treetops in the distance, casting a dim green glow around everything. The temperature didn’t seem to have dropped at all from the day before, and it was starting to rain heavily again.
“Keep your eye on Lionidovna; she’s a slippery one. One minute she’ll be in your sights, and the next she’ll be blasting you. Don’t let her out of your sight.”
As we approached the hangar, Griff clipped his helmet on and continued his briefing over the radio.
“Weapons are already set to training mode. It’s no different to what you’ve done before. Just do your thing. Skids up in two.” He finished by dashing over to his fighter and quickly running through the pre-flight checks. Since Lark had fallen out of my fighter before, I had since added a ‘check for loose pilots’ box to my lists.
Two minutes later, I was flying a few feet behind Griff as we left the atmosphere and headed towards where Lionidovna was giving Aiden some fight training.
“Shut down your engines and let the ship glide in.” Griff whispered over the radio as we approached scanner range of the two pilots. “Kill all unnecessary power. We won’t let them know we’re there until we’re right on top of them.” His voice had an evil edge to it; I could tell he was going to enjoy fighting with his old competitor.
Using the neural interface, I shut down every system aboard and lowered life support to minimum. Immediately the ship went silent and power consumption dropped to nearly nil, which would greatly reduce its scanner signature.
Like a pair of sharks, we silently slid through space until we could clearly see the bright lights of the two ships’ engines, occasionally punctuated with weapons fire as they skirmished. When we were barely a few kilometres away, Griff suddenly powered up his ship and locked onto Lionidovna, shouting over the radio;
“Targets front! Engage at will!”
By the time he had finished his shout I was fully powered and bearing down on the other fighter, while a missile streaked from his towards Lionidovna’s fighter.
Given his lack of experience, it took me no time to outmanoeuvre Aiden, and I quickly pinned him with a burst of shots which would have torn his fighter apart. Standing down, he flew out of the combat zone as I manoeuvred on Lionidovna.
She had managed to evade Griff’s missile, even at close range without any warning, and the two were now in a very close fight, each one pulling spectacular moves to gain a firing solution on the other, but both unable. After a few minutes watching the pair, I saw my chance and tore into the fray with cannons firing, clipping her left engine just enough for her ship to register a hit, immediately disabling it and causing her to momentarily spin out of control. It didn’t take her long to recover, but it was long enough, and Griff took advantage of the situation; peppering her cockpit with cannon fire and causing her fighter to shut down.
“One nothing to us!” Griff shouted over the open radio channel.
“That was low, Griff.” Lionidovna’s voice replied, clearly irritated. “You never could fight fairly.”
“All is fair in love and war, Nadya.” He mocked.
“And since when are we at war? The semester hasn’t even begun yet.”
“We’ve been at war since you decided to take your boy up for a little off-curriculum training without inviting us along.”
“Yes, because Thor obviously needs it doesn’t he?” She replied sarcastically. “Give me a break, Griff; not all of the cadets have real experience like yours.”
While the two were arguing, I flew alongside Aiden and exchanged exasperated glances. It was clear that Griff and Lionidovna had a bit of history and had decided to use us as pawns to try to get one up on each other.
“Do you think they’d notice if we vanished?” Aiden transmitted over a private channel to me. Listening in on the pair of instructors, they were both pretty wrapped up in their argument.
“I doubt it.” I replied, “Let’s head back planet side; I think I have more interesting things to be doing than watching this soap opera.”
“I’m on your four.” Aiden called as he formed up behind me. “Let’s head home.”
Leaving the two quarrelling instructors behind, we hit the engines and slipped undetected back to the Academy.