((Since I took the weekend off, I decided I’d drop a little piece of an extremely long story. I’ve been working on a novella of Kiva and Aki’s first year at Kinnomori Military Academy, from Kiva’s perspective. This text is subject to change in the final version, but it will do for now as a special treat. Showing you this means I really love you.))
With my duffel over my shoulder, I strode through the open gates into the vast courtyard of Kinnomori Military Academy. Just inside, I stopped to take it in. I had never wanted to be here. In fact, I was only here by happenstance – a bond to someone whose dream led them here. In the center of the courtyard, an ancient live oak sprawled, its limbs trailing over an expanse of lush grass. The touch of Old Earth it provided reminded me of the estate I grew up on, where acres upon acres of grass and trees stretched. Here, in the middle of Kinnomori City, the rare tree seemed like a monument, a lonely reminder of our ancestral home. These would probably be the first real Earthen plants most of the incoming Cadets had ever seen in person.
Others walked past me, carrying various amounts of luggage. I had only the one bag. One hapless voyager was carrying three. I snorted to myself, and gave him a few days before washout. We had been told to enter the courtyard and wait, so I walked farther in, and stood near the tree. I counted the doorways leading off of the circular courtyard. Twelve. Twelve long hallways jutting out like the spokes of a wheel. One, I surmised, held the first year barracks, with separate sections for students on different tracks. On another spoke, the second year barracks. Gods of man only knew what the rest held.
I caught a glimpse of him, several meters away. He was gazing around with wonder and excitement. I smiled a little, finding myself something akin to happy for him. I looked away before he caught me watching. Aki had made it very clear that he did not want anyone to know our connection during our early days at KMA. I’d protested, not seeing the point in hiding the fact that we knew each other. But he’d maintained that there was no way the brass would admit us both if they thought we were connected. Throughout my life, I had found it prudent to defer to Aki’s wisdom in such matters. My own judgment was rather reactive. Impulsive. Bullheaded, is the word he had used on many occasions.
I gazed around, inspecting the other prospective Cadets. To my amusement, many fashion eras were represented. All post-industrial, thankfully. Long coattails, double collars, and layered skirts belonged with the foppery of the High Families. Like my family, I thought bitterly. I had dressed in my usual – solid 1920s. A shirt and muted tie, vest, and trousers. Comfortable, good lines, striking without being aggressive. No need to show up to impress, I figured. Most of the others had chosen the more in-vogue eras; the 1980s seemed well represented. One young woman had bungled her outfit, leaving her in the unfortunate situation of displaying no distinct era. I winced. I had the impression she’d been the victim of some terrible teasing in her district. And of course, there was the ubiquitous edgy bastard who went with the angles and twists of the cyber 2100s. I smiled grimly. By the end of the day, we would all be in KMA’s famous mustard yellow jacket, and our pretenses at individuality kicked under our bunks.
To my slight dismay, it looked as if I would be the black sheep as usual. I was the only throwback in sight. Everyone else had perfectly swarthy or tan skin, varying within the Optimal Standard’s acceptable shades. No one else had bright hair; no reds, no blondes. All browns and blacks. I knew I must shine like a gods damned beacon, with my red hair and pale skin. Well, what else was new?
A voice shouted above the gaggles of chattering Cadets. Another shout, and quiet descended on the courtyard.
“Line them up,” the voice commanded.
“Yes, sir!” A chorus. Then, several black-uniformed men and women wove into the crowd, yanking and pushing, placing us in exact positions. By the time they had tugged us all into our spots, we stood in straight lines, facing the woman who was speaking. Her voice carried over our heads.
“Welcome to Kinnomori Military Academy. You are supposedly Cadets for the prospective golem pilot program. We shall see. From here, you will proceed to a standard haircut. You will all receive the same haircut, women too. Get used to short hair, if you want to be a pilot. If you protest, we will send you home. From there, you will be sent to uniform fitting, and you will dress in your new uniform. From there, you will be taken to a room where you will be administered your pledge of service to the Dominion. If you have not already memorized it, we will send you home. Then, we will send you to the mess hall for dinner. If you have a problem with the food, we will send you home. Finally, you will be sent to your assigned room to settle in for the night. Is that clear? The appropriate response is ‘Yes, sir!’”
“Yes, sir!” A smattering of voices responded.
“Try again. If you learn this now, I won’t have to punish you for failing later. Is that clear?” She demanded.
“Yes, sir!” Much tighter.
“Better. Understand, if you protest, question, flinch, or cry at any point in this process, we will send you home. Is that clear?” She demanded again.
“You, first row, head for that hall,” she pointed at one kid, then pointed at a hall behind her. “Each row, follow and line up behind the last. I can’t wait to see these infantile era hairstyles lopped off.” Her tone was acid. I laughed. The boy to my right glanced over, disbelief in his eyes. It looked like he had just spent a lot of credits on his hair. Too bad. I shrugged at him.
The haircut was quick and painless. My hair had not been particularly long – more fluffy and unruly. Now it was trimmed almost down to the skin on the back and sides, with maybe three quarters of an inch left on top. I could only tell the length by touching it. It wasn’t like they’d provided a mirror at any point.
We lined up again for uniform fitting. This took a bit longer, and I stood in line about two hours before I made it to the fitting room. I’d been in the middle of the pack; I wondered how the Cadets at the back of the line would fare.
Sporting my new uniform, and carrying a garment bag with two more sets, I lugged my duffel along toward the next line, where I would need to recite my pledge of service and consign my life to the Dominion Army for the foreseeable future. Required service was only seven years after graduation, but gods of man knew how long Aki would choose to stay. And I was bound to whatever he decided. I didn’t mind that. What I did mind was the horrific yellow jacket and a tight black cap that reminded me of pictures from that OE war, where North and South America had fought, in the 1800s, or something like that. Confederates. The Civil War? Hideous.
When I saw that everyone else looked as terrible as I was sure I looked, I felt a little better. I sagged against a wall, waiting in line to give my pledge. The Cadet behind me looked sympathetic. I ignored him, lest he start a conversation.
At last, I found myself before a seated officer, with his hands on a table. I’d been told to leave my items at the doorway, and stand at attention in front of the table. I did my best to stand at attention as I had seen in holomovies, hands clasped in front of me. The officer didn’t object to my attempt.
“Liam Arthur Tawney, sir.” I added the last for good measure.
“So you’re that one. Right.” He tapped something into his tablet. “Begin.” The officer waited, in rapt attention. I could tell he felt this was a sacred moment. I took a breath, and recited the oath I had memorized. The oath I couldn’t forget. The oath Aki had been so fixated on the past few weeks.
“I, Liam Arthur Tawney, do swear fealty and obedience to the Dominion. I pledge my service to the defense and maintenance of her integrity. I submit willingly to all orders given by my superiors, as sanctioned by the Shadow Sovereign. I shall not willfully disobey or disrespect any such orders. And ever, by my life or death, if I may serve the Dominion, let it be so. By the light of the Torch, in the names of the Freedom and Perfection of Man, I so swear.” They were just words, but they were words I knew well.
“Very good, Cadet Tawney,” the officer rose and proffered a hand. I took it, and shook, “Welcome to the Dominion Army. Do us proud, son.”
“Yes, sir,” was all I could think to say. I gathered my things and left. I was guided toward the mess hall – down, to the end of the wheel spoke, then around the curving hallway that was like the wheel itself. Another officer directed me down yet another hall, and through double doors that opened into a large cafeteria. It was not unlike the one I was familiar with at KC #4, where Aki and I had gone to school. Many Cadets milled around – some sitting, some standing. Most chattering. Lugging my uniforms and duffel, I found a quiet corner to sit in, and set about making myself look as unapproachable as possible.
I stood in the doorway of the small dormitory room, stuffed duffel bag on my shoulder. The room was sparse. A bunk bed took up most of the left wall. Sheets and blankets were folded on them, ready to be made. A T-shaped desk took up the right wall, with two chairs on opposite sides. Two tablets waited in front of their respective chairs, screens dark. Behind me, other fresh Cadets bustled past in the hall to find their rooms and bunkmates. I grimaced, wondering briefly how I had found myself in this situation. I remembered, of course.
I claimed the bottom bunk, and slung my duffel onto the bare mattress. I wished there were a window. I ran my fingers back through my hair. What now? They hadn’t said where to go after finding our rooms. Maybe they meant for us to make the beds? I found I didn’t particularly care what they wanted us to do. But, guided by my promise and my greater goal, I set about preparing my bunk.
“You have got to be shitting me,” came from behind me. I turned, surprised by the familiar voice.
“Gods of man damn it all,” I replied. For such a godless society, we really did invoke them a lot. “James fucking Olivieri.”
“How in all the odds could it have been you?” James demanded, piqued. “How is it you?”
“Who else should it be?” I snarled. I had not seen him at any of the tests, written or practical. James and I were not friends. Although we had both attended KC #4, we had first met officially after one of Aki’s boxing meets, behind the school, only a few months ago. We didn’t get off on the right foot. I glared.
“Why are you even here, Tawney?” James hissed. “You can pay Sacrifice. You could be anywhere.”
I didn’t need to explain myself to him, but I answered him anyway. “To serve the Shadow Sovereign and the glory of the Dominion, of course.” I kept the sarcasm out of my voice, stayed as neutral as I could manage.
“Bullshit. Shut up. Nobody is here for that. Except maybe Hero,” James said dryly, referring to Aki. Aki’s valiant, patriotic proclivities throughout our years in KC School District #4 had long since earned him the title of “hero,” a shortening of his full first name, Hiroaki.
“Then why are you here, dwarf?” I mocked James’ stature. He was a full head shorter than me. “I didn’t see you at the sim tests.”
“You took the bottom bunk?” James complained, then tossed his knapsack onto the top mattress. “Yeah, I pre-qualified with arcade scores.”
Arcade pods. Of course. I should have guessed. Arcades had full sim-pods of their own, and scores were tied to the individual ID chips we all carried in our left hands. James must have worked for hours in those realistic golem pods to accumulate high enough accuracy and piloting ratings to pass Academy requirements. Mecha Gods was a realistic simulator, created by the Army itself for recruitment. Most people would practice on their holos at home. That meant James didn’t have a holo at home, which was unusual to say the least.
James continued, “Everyone else is here for Aequalis and a paycheck. That’s life, Red. But you don’t even need to be here. You were born into equality.”
“Do not call me Red,” I warned. I knew I had just called him ‘dwarf’ but was offended nonetheless. It was unacceptable to call a throwback out for their appearance. I had the urge to dash his head against the wall. I entertained the thought, visual as it was.
“Or what?” James turned to face me. “Gonna tell Aki on me?”
“I’ll find a way to kill you and make it look like a training accident,” I said in all seriousness. James laughed derisively. He didn’t believe me. I felt the corners of my mouth twitch. He had no idea what he would be sleeping above.
“Everything ship shape, Cadets?” A woman’s sharp voice from the doorway. James and I both looked. A slim Lieutenant in a crisp black uniform watched us, her hands behind her back. Her hair was tied in a severe queue. I recognized her as the woman who had yelled at us in the courtyard earlier in the day. Her narrow golden-brown eyes watched us. She was a perfect Optimal. Medium brown hair, dusky skin, tall. I had no idea how long she had been watching us. She waited for our response.
“Yes,” I said, warily. James remained silent. The Lieutenant strode forward. She stopped in front of me, toe to toe. Looked up. She kicked my left foot away from my right, hard.
“Feet apart,” she barked. “Back straight. Hands in front, right over left. Chin level.” I followed her directions reflexively. Her tone brooked no argument. I wanted to strangle her, but I knew that would be socially inappropriate. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw James gawping. I knew he was about to get it from her, too.
“The proper response, Cadet, is YES SIR. The proper stance when an officer enters is ATTENTION. You are no longer a civilian, Cadet. You are a worm in the Shadow Sovereign’s employ. You are a bumbling child and I am your new mother. You signed your rights to us until you turn 20. You are here to learn how to best serve the Shadow Soveriegn’s interests and thereby serve the people of the Dominion. The way is to do exactly what you are told, when you are told, by a superior, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
“Yes, sir,” I said stiffly.
“You hold your head too high, Tawney,” the Lieutenant scowled. “Yes, I know who you are, richie. The billionaire who would play Army. A silver spoon throwback. Why in the name of the Torch did the brass let you into a storied institution like this?” Her voice grew more and more threatening as she insulted me.
“Optics, if I were to guess. Sir.” I replied. Couldn’t help myself. She backhanded me across the cheek. When I recovered, I lifted my chin higher. I knew she could see the fury in my eyes. I couldn’t hold it down.
“My insults are rhetorical, Cadet. You would do well to remember that.” She laughed. “We’ll break you of that rich boy pride.” I wanted to lunge for her. I remembered Aki, and held the monster in me down.
“Yes, sir,” I repeated.
“Good. I like you, Tawney. I can’t wait to wash you out,” she sneered. Then she looked around, sniffing the air. “Is there someone else here?”
Her eyes fell on James, who still stared.
“Oh. I didn’t see you there,” the Lieutenant said snidely. Like Aki, James was a perfect Optimal except for a single glaring flaw. In Aki’s case, it was his glacial blue eyes. The less fortunate James Olivieri suffered from a case of shortness. She looked him up and down, then snorted. I relished his humiliation. The Lieutenant glanced at me, saw I had retained my position. She nodded once.
“Comms, give me them now. If you have an eyechip or earchip, hand them over. If I find you’ve held anything back, I’ll wash you out on the spot.” She waited a moment while we both stared. Taking our comms away? She snapped her fingers. “Move, Cadets. I know the thought of life without your comm is horrifying, but you’re in the Army now. Do as I say before I get angry. You’re lucky this is day one. If you hesitated tomorrow, I’d have you on the ground. Did you hear me? MOVE.”
I broke from attention and reached in my pocket. I pulled out my comm, held it out to her. She snatched it. I returned to attention. James slowly held his out, too. Her lips twisted at his tentativeness, and she took his comm with two fingers, just as slowly, mocking him.
“Chips?” She demanded. We both shook our heads. “Good, I hate chipheads.”
She turned on her heel and headed for the door. As she reached the doorway, she spoke over her shoulder.
“I am Lieutenant Carey,” she informed us, then her lips turned in a sweet smile. “I am your primary instructor for the next four years. I sleep down the hall, the end door. If you need anything, a pillow, a blankie, a snack, feel free to knock.” James swallowed hard.
She strode away. I stayed at attention a few moments longer, then relaxed.
“Jesus,” James exhaled. “All that, and I have to be here with you.”
“The sentiment’s mutual, short stuff,” I spat.
“Fuck you, Red,” James snarled.
“I hate you, too.” I smiled, despite myself. All of life was a game, and this would be an interesting round. All I needed to do was learn the rules, and then I could work them to my advantage. Not being able to message Aki would be a damper on my fun, though.
((Hope you enjoyed that. There is a WHOLE lot more already written, and even more to come after that. Please, comment if you want to see more of this. I can be convinced. I haven’t decided how to release it yet.))