Date: 5th April 2395
Location: New Moscow Academy
“Thor, have you seen Marshall anywhere?” Griff asked with an anxious edge, as he opened the door to our room, finding only myself on my bed.
“I might have,” I replied sharply. “But I’m not sure he’d like you to know where he is right now.” Frankly, I was annoyed with Griff for making me fight Aiden, especially given his obvious lack of fighting skill, and I didn’t particularly want to talk to him either.
“Come on, Jones; don’t be an arse. I didn’t know just how inexperienced he was. Nadya’s already taken my head off once and I don’t need it again from you. Just tell me where he is and I’ll go apologise.” His tone showed just how exasperated he was and how much Nadya must have grilled him, but it still didn’t excuse him.
“You used me to humiliate him. You knew they were up there to help teach him to fight; you just wanted to get one up on Lionidovna and you didn’t care about anything else. If you order me to tell you where he is, then I will, but I really think you should give him some time.” I warned him. After landing, Aiden had been very upset and had just changed into his modified uniform, grabbed a few of his things and left. He hadn’t directly told me where he was going but I had a hunch.
“Look, I’m sorry.” He apologised honestly, “I really didn’t know how poor his skills were. You’re right; I just wanted to get one up on Nadya and didn’t think about the consequences. I can tell you’re pissed off too, and I won’t order you to tell me where he is, but please, go wherever he is and tell him I’m sorry, would you?” From his body language and tone, I could tell that he really did regret his decision, which was in all likelihood cooked up during his breakfast after being beaten under the table by Lionidovna.
“I’ll think about it,” I said, trying to maintain the sharp tone. After a few moments of silence waiting for more, he nodded and left the room. After a couple of minutes contemplation, I decided it probably wouldn’t hurt to go see Aiden. He ran off pretty quickly when we landed, but I could tell there was more to it than just the fight. Changing into one of the modified uniforms, I attached my toolbelt and headed out of the compound.
I retraced our footsteps through the forest, hacking through the undergrowth and vines towards the swimming hole. As I got closer, the faint sound of a guitar began to flow amongst the dripping rainwater and bird cries. As I approached the waterfall, the melody became clearer even over the sound of the falling water. From the tree line, I saw Aiden lying at the top of the cliff on the far side of the river, playing and apparently unaware of my presence. From here, I could tell that he had deactivated his neural link, which explained how Griff couldn’t find him.
“That’s nice,” I called from my side of the river, after slowly and carefully climbing the cliff. If Aiden was startled he didn’t show it.
“First thing I wrote. I still like it better than anything else I’ve written.” He replied without missing a note or looking over.
“You know I didn’t mean to upset you. I was just going along with Griff to annoy Lionidovna. I didn’t know you were so, ahh…” I tried to think of how to put his lack of skill tactfully.
“Crap?” He suggested with a slight bitter laugh. Putting his guitar aside, he sat up and spun around to face me, hanging his legs over the rock he was sitting on and into the water. “Odd, isn’t it? I overachieve in everything and couldn’t fight my way out of a paper bag up there.”
“It does seem a little unbalanced.” I admitted with a chuckle, sitting on a rock opposite him.
“That’s one way of putting it.” He replied, breaking a slight smile. “After my preliminary assessments, I was given the choice of where to go. I could have signed up to any division and easily have been the top guy there. You know why I went for flight?” He asked rhetorically. “Because I wanted to be just another pilot. I’ve been top of the class in everything else, when you’re top, people always expect perfection.”
Looking back over the last few days, I could definitely understand where he was coming from. Since I had arrived here, Griff had been treating me as if I was the be all and end all of pilots.
“It also means I can learn something new.” He added, “I could probably advance straight to second or even third years in most divisions.” Standing up, he grinned. “I’m going down there. You wanna talk, it’ll have to be down there, and no climbing down.” Without a second’s hesitation, he ran to the edge of the waterfall and leapt off, spinning through the air before landing perfectly in the water below.
“Well? You coming down?” He called mockingly from below when he surfaced.
“Do I really have to?” I begged. I had no problem with heights, just with falling from them.
“Yes!” He responded with a big grin, “You’ll love it, just jump! It’s the fastest and easiest way down.”
Removing my toolbelt and taking a breath, I closed my eyes and ran, not jumping; I just ran in a straight line until there was no ground beneath my feet. As the gravity took hold, I felt all my organs leap into my back and involuntarily opened my eyes. All I could see below me was the rapidly approaching water. Rapidly tucking in all my limbs, I waited for the moment where downward motion met a surface.
As the water flowed around me, I rapidly exhaled as adrenalin flooded my veins. Squinting through the clear water, I tried to find ‘up’ and swam. Aiden was sitting on a small rock in the pool, cracking up with laughter when I surfaced.
“Happy now?” I spluttered, shaking my head to try to clear it. My heart was pounding in my chest and I couldn’t remember feeling such exhilaration since the first time I was given control of a fighter. With the buzz from the adrenalin still in full force, I couldn’t control myself and quickly broke out in laughter to match.
“You…you just fell!” He finally managed to get out, “You just ran straight off the edge like a lemming!”
“Well I don’t know what I’m doing, do I?” I struggled to respond in between bouts of hysterical laughter.
“I wish I could feel like that.” Aiden replied, his mood suddenly swinging towards obvious regret and misery. Swimming over to the rock he was sitting on, I pulled myself up and sat behind him.
“It’s been so long since I did something I’ve never done. Back home, all I’d do is study and practice. I’d go into the forests with my dad and we’d hunt, build shelters, we’d live out there for weeks at a time when he got leave. Everything I know, it’s because he insisted I know it.” His head dropped to his hands and his breathing became slightly laboured. “He became a Marine because he screwed up his school time. By the time he had decided he wanted to be an engineer, he’d already missed way too many classes to catch up and couldn’t study up in time to pass the entrance tests. He wanted so badly to make sure I would pass every exam I ever took that he took all the wonder out of doing new things. With him, if I found something new that I hadn’t done before, I had to immediately be the best at it.”
He twisted around to look me in the eye, his eyes red and streaming.
“When you just jumped off there, how did you feel?” He asked.
“Exhilarated.” I replied after a moment’s thought, “It wasn’t like anything I’ve done before.”
“I don’t feel that.” He said sadly and with a hint of bitterness, looking down at the water running between his legs. “When I do something new, all I feel is dread. Flying, it’s like being bad at it makes it so enjoyable for me. Without my dad watching over everything I do, I can actually enjoy learning how to fly well. When I’m up there and I learn how to do something, without him telling me…” He trailed off wistfully, staring at the swirling patterns of the water. “You know, I’ve been here just a few days, and just today I’ve already talked more with you than anyone else in ten years. You don’t get friends when you only ever study.”
I was taken aback by his admission. He had opened up to me and clearly released a lot of emotion that he had been holding in for a long time. I got the feeling that his father had not completely provided for his every need. Thinking back, I remember my father once telling me that everyone needs to be simply held sometimes; that contact can say far more than words. Not even knowing how to begin to respond to what he had said, I simply put my arm around his shoulder and pulled him towards me slightly. Immediately, he spun around and wrapped his arms around me, crying into my uniform. It was clear that this was more human contact than he had been exposed to in a long time. Putting my arms around him, I returned his embrace and let him cry himself out.
We sat on the rock for a good fifteen minutes, Aiden’s head buried into my chest, sobbing while I held him. Eventually his jerking and sobbing subsided and he slowly pulled away.
“I’m sorry.” He apologised, looking again at the water. “I don’t know what came over me, I just couldn’t stop it.” He looked embarrassed that he had broken down and seemed now to be avoiding any contact.
“It’s okay,” I said in as soft and sympathetic voice as I could. “Everyone needs to let it out every now and then. I can remember more than a few times when I’ve just broken down for no reason.”
“It’s not okay.” He protested, “I’ve never done that before. I love my dad; I do. He’s always looked out for me and made sure I know what I need to know to succeed.” He let out a deep sigh, “I just wish sometimes he had let me learn things my own way; let me make my own mistakes.”
“He wanted the best for you. Maybe he didn’t realise you didn’t want to learn that way?” I suggested.
“I made sure he didn’t know.” He bitterly laughed. “As a Marine, he has no choice in anything; he does as he is told, all the time. In the Marines, everything is uniform; even how people think. He never wanted to be a Marine, but he accepted his job and did it as best he could. He wanted to make sure that I had plenty of choices; that I could enter any division I wanted. Since my mum was killed during a raid on Mars years ago, I’m all he’s got. I have to make him proud, otherwise he has nothing. If I told him that the way he had decided to raise me was wrong, it would destroy him.”
“Well, you’re here now, and you can learn however you want to.” I said, placing my hand on his. “And if you need to blow off steam again, just give me a shout, OK?”
He stared at my hand for a few moments, seemingly amazed that I hadn’t either made fun of him or run away. “Thanks.” He said simply, placing his free hand on top of mine. “You don’t know how much that means to me.” He looked at me and smiled a grateful smile.
“What are friends for?” I responded with a smile of my own.
“How about this?” He suddenly grinned, gripping my hand and unexpectedly jumping off the rock and into the water, pulling me in behind him.
He was once again laughing when I found the surface, gasping for air.
“Oh, you’ve done it now!” I shouted, leaping towards him and dunking him, but instead of trying to surface as I expected, he grabbed my ankles under the water and pulled me down too, causing me to lose my breath in surprise.
When I finally resurfaced, Aiden was swimming over to the bank, where he had left his tool belt. After pulling himself out of the water, he sequenced several items and tossed a few to me when I approached: a torch, facemask and rebreather.
“There’s some sort of cave down there.” He said excitedly, while clipping the torch to his wrist and pulling on the mask. “I wonder what’s down there.”
“I’ve never done any diving,” I said, worriedly, looking at the equipment and having no idea of how it functioned.
“You’ll love it.” He replied with seemingly great confidence. “It’s just like doing a spacewalk, but you don’t need thrusters.” The last time I’d done a spacewalk was boarding the Tallinn. I didn’t have thrusters, and frankly, it scared the hell out of me. “Hey, trust me! I’ve done this loads of times. If you get in any trouble, send me a message and we’ll head back, OK?”
“I suppose,” I agreed, attaching the torch and mask, letting him configure my rebreather.
Diving below the surface and into the crystal clear water, I could plainly see an opening around two metres in diameter right behind the point where the waterfall landed. Aiden swam ahead towards it, and just before entering the plume of bubbles, turned and motioned me to follow him.
Swimming through the bubbles felt extremely odd as they caressed my bare cheeks, arms and legs; as if thousands of fingers were being gently run over me. Inside the mouth of the cave, the light very rapidly vanished, leaving us with only the narrow red beams of light from the torches to navigate.
The cave twisted and turned for thirty or so metres before coming to a sudden drop. Without hesitating, Aiden swam straight downwards, until I could see he had reached the bottom another fifteen metres below. After examining the rock all around me for any potential loose boulders that might seal us in, I followed him down. At the base of the short shaft, a slightly narrower tunnel doubled back towards the entrance, barely a metre across. By the time I had reached the bottom, Aiden was already several metres into it, pulling himself along using the walls.
When my neural link connection fluctuated upon entering the tunnel, I nearly left to head back to the surface, but with Aiden charging ahead, I knew I couldn’t leave him alone.
“Sweet!” Aiden’s voice echoed over the private communications channel he had established before we entered the cave. “There’s a huge cavern here.”
Pulling myself through the tunnel, I finally came to an opening. To my surprise, not only was I able to stand, but the water stopped at around knee height. Looking upwards, I could see that the ceiling was at least ten metres high, covered in stalactites. With each step forwards I took, the water receded, until I was standing on dry land. About ten metres ahead of me, Aiden was standing dead still, his torchlight resting on something in front of him. As I approached behind him, I saw what it was; a clearly human skeleton, with remnants of a tool belt and uniform. It had clearly been here some time. Aiden was simply standing there, staring at it.
“I guess we aren’t the first to find this place after all.” I commented absently. Bending down, I identified the tattered uniform to be that of a Command cadet, though dirty, the grey bend and silver star were still clearly visible. “We should head back out and report this.”
Behind me, Aiden was still standing and staring.
“Are you alright?” I asked, standing between him and the corpse but having no effect on his apparent trance. Reaching out, I shook him by the shoulder, causing him to suddenly snap out of it and start shaking and backing away.
“Aiden!” I shouted, rushing up to him and holding him to prevent him from falling.
“That’s a….” Was all he could say. I could feel him shaking violently; even in the dim red light, I could see that he had gone pale.
“Corpse, yes.” I finished, looking around for somewhere to sit him down. Gently manoeuvring him around, I sat him on a small ledge and, taking his tool belt, sequenced him some water. Drinking it seemed to calm him down a little, but he was clearly very shaken up. “I’m guessing you’ve never seen a body before?” I asked when he had regained a little composure. Up until a few days ago, neither had I, but when I was on the Tallinn’s armoury with Pyro, we were surrounded by them and it seemed that the purposefulness of our presence had shielded me from thinking about what I was seeing.
“Never a person.” He replied shakily, glancing over to the darkness where the corpse lay, propped up against the wall.
“Are you okay to head out of here?” I asked, “We have to report this, and there must be something blocking the ‘net.”
“I…think so.” He took a deep, shaky breath from the hot, damp and musty cave air.
“Here, put these back on,” I said, handing him his mask. While he slowly replaced that, I sequenced a scanner from the toolbelt and located the body’s neural link. After downloading the identity information, I returned to Aiden and led him by the hand towards the entrance.
“Here, keep a hold of my boot until we’re through this tunnel, okay? I’ll pull you through.” I instructed him, moving his hand to my ankle where he gripped. Slowly, I pulled us both through the tunnel and back to the shaft. As soon as we emerged, the neural link re-established a shaky connection to the ‘net, but it was too unreliable to establish communications. Keeping Aiden within my reach, I led us up the shaft and through the twists and turns of the cave until we finally found ourselves back in the green sunlight. After ensuring Aiden was safely sitting on the bank, I pulled myself up next to him and contacted the medical bay back at the Academy.
“Are you sure?” The on duty doctor asked, unsure of whether this was a prank.
“Definitely, forwarding identity information now.” I replied, sending him the data I had downloaded from the body’s neural link.
“Well, Cadet Fisher, you’ve finally reappeared.” He commented, “She vanished in the last weeks of teaching three years ago. I believe her neural map is still on file. I’ll have her cloned immediately and the body recovered. Are you alright? Finding a body can be a disturbing experience.”
“I’m fine, but Cadet Marshall seems to be in shock,” I reported, looking over at Aiden, who was staring into space and still shaking slightly. “Could you arrange for someone to bring him back to the facility?”
“Certainly. I’ll have someone bring a shuttle out now.”
“Thank you, Doctor.” I replied and closed the channel.
A few minutes later, the whine of a Caravan class shuttle began to sound over the background of the waterfall and birds. Dropping through the canopy above, it circled around and set down near to us. Two medics in green-trimmed uniforms stepped out, followed by the burly outline of Griff.
After asking me exactly what happened, one of the medics gently led Aiden into the back of the shuttle while the other prepared to recover the body.
“You just can’t keep out of trouble, can you?” Griff joked as he sat on the bank next to me.
“Trouble seems to be attracted to me.” I replied with a smile.
“Too true. You’re like a walking bad luck charm.” He kicked off his boots and rolled his trouser legs up before dropping his feet into the slowly running water. “It’s been years since I’ve seen this place,” he commented, looking around. “I think I spent most of my first year at the Academy in this water.”
“I can see why,” I commented. The cool water mixed with the tranquillity of the place was very soothing and enjoyable.
“Don’t tell anyone about this place, otherwise it’ll be packed with people trying to ‘get away’.”
“I won’t. Maybe just Lark and Larenko, but that’s it.”
“Mmhmm.” He hummed, lying back in the dappled sunlight. Though there was still a lot of water falling from the canopy, it seemed that it wasn’t actually raining for the first time since I had been here. “You seem to be taking this body stuff all quite well. One might think you’ve seen it before.”
“I have, on the Tallinn.” I replied, looking at the water and thinking of the floating, lifeless bodies in the armoury, some of which I had removed energy cells from. Griff just nodded solemnly.
“Would you be able to show me where the body is, Cadet?” the medic who had been preparing asked. “If you feel up to it. You can always just tell me where to go if you like.”
“No problem,” I replied, picking up the mask from beside me. “I’ll show you.”
Biting down on the mouthpiece of the rebreather, I led the medic through the cave and to the cavern. After determining that there were no salvageable memories in the neural link, it only took a few minutes for him to recycle the skeleton and we were soon back on the surface.
“I gotta grab Aiden’s guitar and stuff.” I told Griff while he relaxed on the bank, as the medic boarded the shuttle. “Can you pick me up from the top of the cliff?”
“Sure, no problem.” He replied, reluctantly sitting up and drying his feet with a towel. He was clearly in no hurry to get going and was taking his time enjoying the serenity of the area. Following the same path I had taken up the cliff earlier, I found myself enjoying the stress of the climb rather than worrying about falling. The route I had found was fairly easy and safe and it took me just a few minutes to scale the face. By the time I had picked up my tool belt and hopped across some conveniently placed rocks over to the other side of the waterfall, Griff had lifted off and was now hovering in front of the cascading water. Passing Aiden’s guitar and rifle to the waiting medic, I took a few steps back and jumped over the waterfall and into the back of the craft.
Aiden was sitting at the very back with one of the medics, quietly talking, while the other closed the hatch and began tapping away at a holopad, likely filling out paperwork for the body. Aiden was looking better, but was still pale and looked uncomfortable. I sat on the bench facing him along the trip back, but he never looked up or spoke to me; just the occasional quiet reply to the medic next to him as he spoke.
When we landed in one of the hangars spotted around the facility, the sky was already clouding back over; ready to dispense another load of water over this part of the planet. Griff told me he’d speak later before heading off to the teaching block, while I accompanied Aiden and the medic who had been speaking with him back to our quarters.
I placed his rifle and guitar on his desk while the medic stripped him down and placed him in his bed.
“Keep an eye on him for the next couple of days,” he instructed me after taking a few scans of the still-distraught Aiden and injecting him with something. “If he seems to be acting oddly, give us a call. He’ll probably sleep for a good few hours after the dose of tranquiliser I just gave him.”
“Sure,” I replied, looking at the now sleeping form in the bed. He looked much more peaceful asleep, but that said nothing about how he was feeling.
I felt far calmer than I had in a long while, building the model frigate I hadn’t yet had a chance to start. Micro-welding and wiring the systems took me back to doing the same with my father for dozens of ship models, from fighters up to the MMV Von Richthofen; the first armed vessel launched from Earth, and the first to score a kill in ship to ship combat.
Thinking back to the boxy, modular design of the Von Richthofen; little more than a cargo carrier with a few old cannons attached, ship design had come a long way. Even the Estonia class, which was by no means new, was small, sleek and designed for combat. Where the Von Richthofen had large open cargo holds and few sealed bulkheads, the Estonia class had many isolated sections, enabling her to fight on, even with multiple hull breaches. The Von Richthofen had barely any protection from weapons fire; a titanium hull a couple of inches thick was all that stood between crew and vacuum, while the Estonia and all of the modern vessels had layered titanium alloy, ceramic and special energy-absorbing gel armour capable of sustaining heavy damage before succumbing. As for the weapons, two 120mm projectile cannons were all that the Von Richthofen had to fight with. On top of their fighter and bomber squadron, the Estonia class was armed with an MMD-41 Antimatter cannon, capable of hurling a large ball of antimatter towards a target with excellent accuracy. Four MPD-8 Plasma Cannons able to punch through the armour of similar Cannelli and Argus vessels; and a set of point defence cannons capable of destroying inbound missiles and fighters.
In order for the Tallinn to be damaged to the state she was when we left, she must have met something very large and very new.
Finally, I finished the wiring of the third deck and prepared to move onto the next when I heard Aiden stirring behind me.
“Hi,” he said, sounding depressed.
“Feeling better?” I asked, turning away from the model to face him.
“A little,” He nodded. “I’m sorry for freaking out in the cave. I guess just seeing that body, knowing someone had actually, really died there….” He trailed off, looking ashamedly at the floor.
“Don’t worry about it. Anyone would react the same way to seeing their first dead body.” I replied, trying to comfort him a little.
“You didn’t seem bothered by it much.” He said, still looking at the floor.
“Well, it’s not the first body I’ve seen,” I admitted, thinking back to the armoury on the Tallinn.
“Well, how did you react when you first saw one?” He asked curiously, looking up at me with what could be hope in his eyes.
“It was different to with you. I didn’t have time to think about what I was seeing.” I argued as his gaze dropped again. “The ship was being attacked; if I’d stopped to think about what was happening….” I shook my head and looked back to the Estonia model. Coincidentally, I was just working on the armoury deck. Looking at the model, seeing the place where I had stood, taking omni cells from the toolbelts and weapons of the floating bodies gave me a sudden pang of grief.
“I’m sorry,” Aiden apologised, sitting on the end of my bed. “I don’t know what happened but it couldn’t have been good. Just going by the number of kills on your fighter shows you’ve been through a lot more than me. I’m just being stupid; it’s not like I’m the first person to ever find a body.”
“At least it wasn’t someone you knew, even in passing. I was taking things from the bodies of people I had spoken with just a few hours earlier.” Things seemed now to be beginning to catch up with me.
“But because you did that, someone else is alive.” Griff’s voice echoed from the doorway, holding a slightly sad edge. “Think how Dover felt; he was stuck with them for a few hours, and he knew some of them well.”
I nodded my understanding, while Aiden sat confused.
“There’s nothing we could have done for any of the others. Whatever took out the Tallinn, there’s nothing a couple more fighters could have done to stop it.” Griff said sadly, pulling over Aiden’s chair.
“The Tallinn?” Aiden asked, noticing the nameplate on the model I had been making.
“She was a good ship; she died with honour and so did her crew.” Griff answered him. “Minus three.”
“Nobody knows. That’s what’s scaring intelligence shitless. In the time we were doing fighter shakedowns, she was pretty much destroyed; no distress call, no warning.” Griff turned to me, “and you saved Dover’s life — and I know exactly what you need to cheer you up, both of you.”
“No…” I muttered, pre-empting his suggestion.
“To the bar!” He shouted triumphantly.