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Graduation Exercise

by Geoff Hart

I took a deep breath, wasted none of it fearing the missiles or worrying over how close they were, and punched the jump button. Sure, it was "just" an exercise, but like the rest of final training, you didn't get to try again if you failed.

The familiar dislocation hit me in the gut, like being poised above the steepest drop on a rollercoaster and hanging on the edge of that first terrible, wonderful fall—then the ship blinked back into normal space before my stomach could do more than a tentative backflip. A few status lights flickered red, but I had no time to worry about them yet; if I hit anything moving this close to cee, I might as well have stayed behind and waited for the missiles.

I dropped the empty external tanks, counted three painful seconds in case anyone lying in wait had been expecting me to begin deceleration immediately—standard operating procedure—then hit the drag and started breathing again as my velocity began dropping precipitously. The tanks hurtled on ahead of me in a tight group roughly the size and shape of a ship, right on the trajectory an inbound ship would have taken. If they were waiting for me, hoping to nail me before I slowed enough to spot them and take evasive action, they were in for a very unpleasant surprise; the tanks, moving about as fast as an object can in normal space, would strike them right about the time deepscan sounded its warning, too late to do much more than look up from scan.

I continued counting—ten, eleven, twelve—while scanning the con. Lights were back to green, so I started breathing again and began a sequence of asymmetrical braking maneuvers calculated to throw me several degrees and tens of thousands of kilometres off my original path, into an eccentric inbound trajectory nobody could have predicted. More indicators flickered red, then faded slowly back through amber to green. These maneuvers would have disabled a lesser ship, but I’d learned to steal only the best. Behind me, the drag field brightened from red to orange before settling into a comfortable yellow glow. With what fuel remained, I was now committed to my final approach for better or worse.

I sat back, eyes flicking from sensors to forward and lateral screens. The port screen brightened, light flaring white-hot along my original trajectory, brighter even than the intensifying glow from the drag, which had increased until the highpoint filter cut in, leaving only a white void in its place. Farewell, brave external tanks! I'd never know whether they'd taken out a picket or proximity mines—unless I trusted the debriefing I hoped I’d live to receive tomorrow. I exhaled, and relaxed back into the cushions. Sometimes it pays to be paranoid. You learn that at the Academy even if you’re not in Intel.

***

Intel had two main sources of warm bodies, for which their need increased steadily as Earth’s sphere of influence expanded. Guys like Josh came from the Fleet or other service branches, and earned a trip to the Academy based on a superior service record. Most, like me, disappeared off the street and woke in anonymous barracks. Us, they chose solely for our ability to survive in the cracks in the system, which grew more difficult by the year. We got just enough behavior mod to break us to the harness without dulling our edge or leaving much in the way of permanent damage. We distrusted Josh’s group nearly as much as they distrusted us, but not quite as much as we distrusted the instructors.

I know nothing about educational psych, other than what I learned by surviving it. You teach prospective agents early and hard they should take nothing for granted, then repeat the lesson until it sinks in for the survivors. We lost half a dozen newbies during our first live-fire training exercise, and the week they taught us how to check for boobytraps, I ended up in hospital for a week, neuroregenerators dripping into a vein. The taser they’d left in my bunk fried most of the nerves in my leg, and it still hurts in cold weather. The first time I really believed I was going to make it was the day I broke Josh’s arm in hand-to-hand; he'd pressed me harder and faster than I’d expected, and I responded hard and fast and smooth like a machine. I felt guilty for almost a week afterwards, and made it up to him later. Oh my, how I’d made it up to him! The memory was nearly as warm as knowing we'd put one over on the instructors. Or so we told ourselves, convenient fiction.

***

The proximity alarm chimed, bringing me back to the present.

If the data I'd hacked from the school computer were reliable, the outermost planet would be on this side of the sun, close to the jump point. I'd programmed a sufficiently unstable final trajectory that even after slowing to insertion velocity, any orbital batteries that hadn't been mentioned would still have grief locking on. Short-range scan confirmed Persephone was there, a small icy rock way out in the solar suburbs. The red line creeping across the nav display still lay well inside the narrow green swath that represented my maneuvering envelope. I was bang on target, and would pass the planet uncomfortably fast—too fast, in fact, to land. I’d have a window of about fifteen seconds to bail out before the planet’s gravity flung my ship back out towards the Kuiper belt, still decelerating furiously. It'd be back for me in about a week.

I monitored the readouts until the decel warning chimed and the drag suddenly redoubled its efforts, the whine of the field generators audible over the creaking of the hull. The field light scaled up beyond violet into ultraviolet as the drag dumped momentum more vigorously and threw me hard away from Persephone, then back again. The green envelope on nav swung sharply, almost brushing the slowly lengthening red line marking my track, then centered itself. Gee flickered a moment, throwing me against my harness, then stabilized. I glanced at the timer; still plenty of time. Even so, I ran for the escape pod, chest and shoulder muscles uncomfortably tight. I banged my head on the hatch, swore, then locked down the door by reflex, sparks still dancing before my eyes. The control panel came up green, as it had done the first three times I ran the diagnostics. So I exhaled slowly, then inhaled deeply to calm myself, all the while strapping into the crash couch. More long, slow, deep breaths to relax my chest muscles and slow my heart. Midway through, the ship shuddered as most of the other pods launched ahead of me to draw fire, then acceleration crushed me against the couch as my own pod launched.

***

At the Academy, I’d greeted my first orbital insertion with a mixture of dread and excitement; dread, because I’d always been violently ill after those rare times I’d begged or stolen enough money to slip onto one of the thrill rides at the midway, and excitement because I’d been planning my escape for months and this exercise would be my only chance to field-test those plans.

I’d been paired with some other cadet, but at the last minute, Josh replaced him like we’d planned. Our partner in crime had smiled that same secret smile we all shared whenever we thought we’d outwitted the instructors, and moved off to Josh’s pod without a backwards glance. He and Josh would pay for this later, but neither hesitated for an instant; we took our wins, even the Pyrrhic ones, where we could.

I locked the pod doors while Josh buckled himself in, then strapped myself into the couch beside him. While we awaited the countdown, we reached across, arms just long enough to hold hands. We took what comfort we could from this, and smiled bravely at each other while an instructor counted down to the launch. A second or so before the count reached zero, we returned our arms snugly at our sides, safe against acceleration. Even unauthorized physical contact wasn’t worth a broken arm or sprained muscles.

I don’t remember much about that exercise; the goal was solely to teach us how nasty an insertion could be without gee-suits or a grav generator to protect us. I blacked out early on and only regained consciousness when they’d brought me back to the ship and repaired the small blood vessel that’d burst in my head. It took most of 2 weeks to return to active duty, but the lingering headache was worth it. It reminded me I could survive whatever it took to get out of here.

***

Acceleration became deceleration, and the pressure on me mounted, peaking near 10 gees. I squeezed my abdominal muscles tight, helping the gee-suit to force blood back into my brain. When the deceleration cut off abruptly, I relaxed and opened my eyes, enjoying the free fall. Never understood how that could be, given how much jump bothered me. The planet hung nearby, coming up fast, but it was the ship’s drag that caught my eye: it blazed like a magnesium flare even through the heavily tinted window, cut off in an instant when the ship whipped round the planet and arced away from me.

I braced myself for the second braking maneuver. Lateral thrust swung my helmet hard against the headrest and pinned it there, then the deceleration swung into another axis, and the change in momentum tried to tear my head off, straining still-tense neck muscles. I found myself wishing Josh were here to rub those aches away with his strong hands, savored the thought for a moment, then forced myself to concentrate; he was undergoing his own graduation exercise, and might not be waiting for me when I returned. When I returned. When we returned.

Still moving far too fast for a safe landing. You can’t simply make vee disappear, and I’d started this ride with most of the ship’s momentum despite repeated harsh deceleration. I gritted my teeth, watched the readouts, and when the console chimed softly, punched the key that deployed the ablative drag. Intel claimed it would work as well as a ship’s drag, though only once. That was the theory, anyway; I'd soon learn whether building my own one and smuggling it into the ship’s hangar had been worth the effort.

The pod trembled as the drag deployed, then the pressure on my muscles eased. A faint, reddish glow surrounded the pod, casting deepening shadows through the window as the glow brightened, shading to hot orange, yellow, and finally white. I closed my eyes against the light, half-blinded, then all at once there came a pop! and I was falling free. Behind me, stretching out into the infinite distance from whence I’d come, a trail of heated particles lit the sky, pointing directly at my current position. It was too much to hope that any waiting gunners would miss that pointer, so I keyed in the new sequence that would take me away from that trajectory. Con chimed softly, but I ignored it ’til I was certain my course was correct. Then I looked.

Of the half-dozen escape pods that had preceded me, expanding clouds of glowing debris marked the positions of four. I couldn’t see the others, so I crossed my fingers and hoped that they’d hit the planet with enough vee to rattle the teeth of anyone waiting there. Off to starboard, right about where I should've been, nuclear fire blossomed in the darkness. Sweat sprang out in my armpits and trickled down my sides. It was one thing to know that people would be shooting at you; it was something else entirely to know they were shooting at you.

Vee had dropped low enough that various orbital sensors would already be clamoring for attention, and a distressing variety of unpleasant devices would be swiveling towards me. I ejected my first load of chaff and several heat sources, then held my breath and prayed again. Lights flared around me, but not too many and not too close; other pods, following in behind me, were priority targets, and they disappeared one by one as they drew fire meant for me. Persephone filled the window now, and I was inside the range of the orbital batteries.

I fell on, bracing for the inevitable impact. There was no way for the remaining fuel to completely stop my descent, and I expected one hell of a jolt. But it was better to walk away with a few bruises than to move slowly enough at the end for a particle beam or ground-to-air missile to blow you out of the sky. The ground rushed up to meet me, deceleration crushed me hard into the couch, and at well over ten gee, I blacked out for a moment and missed the impact. Releasing the straps by reflex, I got shakily to my feet, forcing away the blackness dimming my eyes, and quickly confirmed my suit was intact—dumb reflex, since I wouldn’t have survived to check if there’d been anything seriously wrong, but they can condition you to do just about anything.

My vision cleared enough for me to check my timer, an antique mechanical device I'd stolen from Stores; I’d only been out a few seconds, but that conceivably left less than a minute before a welcome party arrived. I peered through the rent in the pod’s wall; my intended shelter was there, but farther than I’d planned. Fast as my cumbersome gloves permitted, I peeled back the cushions from the acceleration couch and found the switch I’d hidden there almost a month earlier. I toggled it, activated the secondary timer, and ran for the horizon, skimming in long, low leaps across the surface without looking back. The range of hills grew closer about as fast as the timer was counting down, so I spoke the trigger words a year of conditioning had burned into me, and when the surge of adrenaline kicked in, I doubled my pace, breathing harshly as the suit’s oxygen supply struggled to keep up. I cleared the top of the hills in a desperate leap just before the timer zeroed—or so I assume, as I was too busy looking for somewhere to plant my feet.

As I dropped below the edge of the ridge, the pod detonated behind me. My back was to the flash, but the shadows it cast darkened the ground ahead of me. When I hit, running, it was all I could do to stop without falling. I smiled. Any shuttles vectoring in on my landing position—not to mention most of the base’s sensors—were down for the duration. This wasn’t a military installation, and wouldn't have EMP-hardened electronics. When the groundwave hit, it bounced me a metre into the air despite my best efforts to anticipate.

I landed, absorbing the impact with bent knees, and set off towards the base by dead reckoning; Persephone had no significant magnetic field to make a compass useful, and I’d chosen a suit with minimal electronics to ensure I wouldn’t show up on any base screens that were still functioning. The downside to this approach was that the suit’s basic components weren’t keeping up with me, and the stench inside was appalling. Don’t let anyone lie to you—we don’t stink like guys do, but we still stink plenty bad when the heart’s pumping and the fear reflex cuts in. I hoped there’d be at least one functional shower waiting after I’d taken the base.

The landmarks were where I’d memorized them, as was the base. I spotted the laser towers, then approached just close enough to stand behind a large rock at the edge of the kill zone. Between me and the airlock stretched a longer distance than I could safely cross even with adrenaline still surging in me and making my fingers twitch. So I spoke a second trigger word that damped down various glands and eased me back into real-time. I allowed myself the luxury of a few whole-body shudders, then turned my thoughts back to business. I threw three rocks, each at a different laser, and waited until each hit the powdery regolith, intact. The lasers had indeed been fried.

So far, so good.

***

That first live-fire exercise had had only two purposes: to bring our self-confidence down several notches and to teach us this really wasn’t a game. Intelligence fieldwork would be nasty at best, more often brutally so, and it would take more than a stern lecture for us to internalize that. They gave us more than a stern lecture. Gathered round the corpses of our former classmates, I was one of three who threw up—in my case, on the boots of the nearest instructor. One man fainted; the rest of us stayed on our feet. Nobody said a thing. One instructor dragged the unconscious man to the infirmary; another wiped his boots on my jacket before handing it back to me, then ordered us to bring what was left of the bodies to the morgue. Subsequent exercises had fewer casualties. We kept our heads down, took excessive precautions, and lived and learned, though our numbers dropped relentlessly throughout that first year.

Even so, caution and training weren’t always enough, and I nearly flunked out permanently during laser drill. We’d been given ablative armor and a Faraday suit, and a warning that anything the lasers cauterized wouldn't be regenerated in time for graduation. Then they’d turned us loose with a variety of explosive devices and handheld weapons and sent us out to eliminate a mock firebase.

Yoshi, breveted commander for the exercise, briefed us on the plan of attack the night before. He was a good tactician, so nobody demurred. When we began our attack next morning, things started out well. Snipers took out the sensor array with rifles, and we followed up with well-placed grenades that crippled most of the laser towers in our first volley. The fact that the grenades survived to reach the towers suggested we’d disrupted fire control, and when enough time passed to suggest the lasers were down, I rose, rifle ready. Someone's rifle shot knocked a still-functional tower off its mounting, but the one surviving laser was nearest to me. I had time to see it whip about on its mount, beam scything towards me as I froze. I broke my paralysis and dove for the ground before the laser took my head off, but even a glancing blow still burned through both layers of armor and scalded a large patch of my butt when the Faraday suit gave up the uneven contest and melted.

I never lived that incident down, but I did live. Yoshi died under the same beam, and I think of him whenever the scar on my backside itches.

***

I surveyed my backtrail, then did it again—measure twice, live once—and confirmed nobody was following. I returned my attention to the dome. It was a standard model for planets with no atmosphere or a hostile one, and though it would’ve been trivial to blow the dome, that wasn’t the mission profile: I had to get in, capture as many of the surviving staff as possible, download the contents of the computers, then lie low until my ship returned. Piece of cake.

Riiiiiiight.

The dome occupied the highest ground in the area, probably ’cause some idiot had figured it would improve their view of anyone approaching the base; instead, it put them in line of sight of my nuke. I smiled, and moved across the intervening space fast as I could without rising more than a few inches above the ground, ready to plant my feet and change direction at the first sign of trouble. They were too busy inside to worry about a single intruder, so I made it to the airlock and started it cycling; as soon as the door opened, I tossed in a small grey canister and hit the emergency close button. Through the thick porthole, I watched the inner door cycle open and laser light flare where I would have been standing. Thick smoke erupted into the faces of the guards who’d arrived on the run. I was reasonably sure none of my classmates had infiltrated the base, but it wouldn't have stopped me if I’d suspected otherwise. That bothered a deeply buried part of me, conditioning notwithstanding.

I punched the open button, and the inner door cycled closed. The outer door slid open, and traces of smoke blew out into Persephone’s near-vacuum. I unholstered my pistol, confirmed the magazine was properly socketed, and crouched on the airlock’s floor, against the wall. The outer door closed, air began hissing into the chamber, and when the inner door opened, two bodies lay on the corridor floor, unsuited and unmoving. Rank amateurs, then. I’d been told to expect that, but given that an instructor had told me...

It was dark inside the base, but not black; pale emergency lighting shed enough illumination to get me in, and I slid through the door, careful to compensate for any gravity shift; there wasn’t any, so internal gee was down. I hit the airlock's exit sequence, encouraging them to think I’d left again, then slid aside into a darker patch of corridor and waited. Still nothing. Maybe they’d all been caught by the gas? Feeling a little more confident, I slipped from the shadows and examined the two bodies. No body armor. Obsolete, poorly maintained sidearms. In short, civilians, not even private military. The gas was nominally safe for standard-issue humans, but although one man breathed slowly and deeply, his companion had stopped breathing. That bothered me too, but not enough to slow me. I wouldn’t have been here if these were loyal taxpayers.

I moved cautiously towards con, avoiding the direct route they’d expect me to take and ready to shoot anything that moved, but nothing did except several more prone bodies, none armed and a couple maybe dead. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice observed.

Through an open hatchway, the control room was silent and motionless; even the command crew had lacked the brains to suit up when they spotted my ship, and they lay sprawled across their stations, breathing slowly in the dim light. Across the room, I saw the heavily shielded console that held the computers, but held back. A quiet voice was whispering in my ear that someone must still be conscious, armed, and dangerous. After a last survey of the room, I crouched low and slid inside, pulling the hatch shut behind me. Not taking my eyes off the room, I dogged the hatch shut with my free hand, then took my eyes off the room just long enough to open the maintenance port and trip the circuit breaker so anyone at my back would have to open it manually. That done, I rose from my crouch, still scanning the room, and crossed to the main board to disable its power supply. None of this would stop a determined assault, but at least I'd have time to prepare my response. That done, I set about demolishing the shielding round the main comp. Emergency power was online and the hardware seemed intact—naturally enough, as it was optical—but the system had crashed hard. I rebooted and sat back to wait.

The sting of the needle entering my left breast, right through the armored wall of my suit, came as something of an anticlimax.

***

Losing classmates I’d hardly known was bad enough I’d hoped it would be the last such surprise. Should’ve known better.

Towards the end of our first year, they gathered us one night, waking us from exhausted slumber, and marched us into one of the gyms in our underwear. We stood there, groggy and more than half asleep, only belatedly noticing another group about three times our size at the far end of the gym, blinking in the bright light. A motley lot, mixed races and sexes, and even from here, it was clear they were scared witless. The PA came on, too loud as always, and an instructor’s voice filled the room.

“Attention prisoners and cadets. There are currently two groups in this gym. Only one group will be allowed to leave. Best of luck sorting things out.”

We exchanged shocked glances. The other group hesitated, then all at once, came at us in a a great clotted mass, unarmed. Some showed terror; others, hopeless desperation; a few almost looked pleased, as if they were desperate to get someone's blood on their hands, whatever the outcome. Yoshi’s bellowed command brought us to our senses and we spread out to support each other, suddenly wide awake and sweating hard. We were badly outnumbered, but we’d training intensively in unarmed combat. Most of our opponents went down as fast as they came within reach; I barely even remember hitting anyone, except for one small but very muscular woman with a knife scar and rage on her face. Yoshi ended up in a prolonged duel with one tall, wiry man with a broken nose, but as he seemed to be enjoying himself, nobody intervened. Instead, we focused on our own opponents. Then it was over, and we stood there, breathing heavily, over the prone bodies of our opponents. Against the far wall, the half-dozen or so “prisoners” who hadn’t rushed us huddled together.

The PA came on again. “Cadets, perhaps you didn’t understand the instructions. Only one group leaves the gym alive.” There was no threat in that voice. Surely they weren’t going to kill us themselves after all the time and resources they’d invested in our training, but I didn’t want to dwell on what they might do instead. A few of the bodies moved at our feet, regaining consciousness.

We exchanged horror-struck glances. We’d killed few attackers in that first exchange of blows, mostly by accident; a medic could probably fix the worst damage to the rest in less than a week.

“What do they mean, complete the exercise?” Josh looked bewildered.

“You know what they want, and I’m not going to do it.” And I believed what I’d said, even as Yoshi knelt beside his fallen opponent, took the man’s head in his hands, and snapped his neck with a crack! that sounded loudly in the silence. The prisoner jerked once, then his sphincters relaxed and he shitted himself. I felt my stomach heave as the dead man’s twitching began, and fought it down. Reluctantly, several others, palefaced and sweating, knelt and followed Yoshi’s example. I backed away, horrified, unwilling to watch as Josh belatedly followed suit, deep brown skin gone pale. Within about a minute, the air stank like a poorly maintained latrine.

With each of the first wave of assailants dead, the PA chimed in again. “Cadet Morgan. Everyone else has completed the exercise. You have one minute to get with the program.”

I shook my head and backed against the wall, every limb trembling. Josh took me by the arm. “Morgan, you’d better kill one. You know what’s going to happen if they drop you.”

I tore free from his grasp. “You want me to kill someone that helpless? Look at them!” At the far side of the gym, the prisoners had backed against the wall. Two had fallen to their knees and were holding out their arms in supplication.

Josh’s voice was harsh. “You don't get it, do you? We're going to graduate together. We’re halfway there—don’t fuck up now. If it's them or us, make it them.”

“I can’t.” And I couldn’t, even though it meant my own death if I was lucky. There were worse things they could do to me.

“You can. You will.”

The other cadets watched, faces hardening. It was written all over their faces: they’d killed, and they’d be damned if they were the only ones. Five of them ran across to the survivors. I turned away, but couldn’t escape the terrified cries that easily. Soon, only one voice was left, a man begging shrilly for his life. I ignored the voice until it came from directly behind me. Then Josh spun me around, his greater strength overcoming my resistance.

“Kill him now. Damnit, Morgan, we don’t have time for this.”

I looked at the man kneeling in front of me, a livid bruise growing on his temple. “Please!” he begged, eyes gone wide.

The PA system chimed again. “Cadet Morgan?”

I looked at their faces, even Josh’s face gone hard, and anger rose in me. “Get him to his feet,” I spat.

Two strong hands held the prisoner on his feet as his knees failed him. Before I could reconsider, I smashed the bridge of his nose with the heel of my hand, snapping his head back and driving the cartilage up into his brain, killing him almost instantly. Lucky shot. I still don’t know whether I’d have had the guts to break his neck.

The gym doors opened, and instructors came to return us to our bunks. Josh laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder, then removed it before an instructor could notice, but the others shunned me for days afterwards. That suited me fine; I wasn’t sure I wanted to belong anymore.

***

I awoke, strapped to horizontal surface, a horrible taste in my mouth and a familiar, astringent hospital smell in my nostrils. Neither was half so unpleasant as the predatory smile on Lieutenant Martel’s face. He leaned casually against a wall just within my peripheral vision, a reader dangling loosely from one hand. I must have gasped before my head cleared enough to restore a measure of self-control, but he’d been watching me anyway. The smile eased into something more difficult to read, and I bit my lip, struggling to force clarity back into my head. I was in trouble.

“Welcome to Persephone, Morgan.”

“Sir.” I tried one of the keywords they’d conditioned into us, and clarity flooded over me like a warm shower. My fingertips tingled.

“No excuses, cadet? Pretty stupid, relaxing your guard that way.”

“If I’d known who I was up against, I’d have put a bullet in everyone’s head first, Sir, on general principle.” I didn’t move a muscle, not wanting him to know what I was doing but not believing for a second he couldn’t tell; after all, he’d helped train us.

“Charming as always.” For a moment, the smile was genuine. “But I’ll take that in the spirit in which it was intended. It’s still a rookie’s error. The mission was to capture most of them alive, but next time, don’t relax until everyone's tied down. And if the mission is to kill them, make sure nobody in the target area has a pulse; even then, cut out their hearts and stomp on them a few times to be sure they’re not faking.” The look in his eyes told me he'd never made the same mistake. He came closer, carelessly tossing the reader over his shoulder, and undid the straps that held me in place.

As the book continued its lazy arc towards the floor, my arm came free and as he released the strap across my legs, I swung on him as best I could from my supine position. To my vast surprise, I caught him solidly across the temple, the shock jolting my arm to the shoulder. He staggered, one arm swinging sluggishly up in a clumsy block, and I pulled a leg free and aimed a sweeping kick at his midsection. Astonishingly, the kick landed too, flinging him back against the bulkhead, and I let the recoil carry my foot backwards, converting the momentum into a roll that carried me off the far side of the hospital bed, barely untangling my other foot in time. I got my feet under me as I came slowly down under the low gravity, braced myself to spring at him or take cover, but it was already too late; Martel was tougher than vacuum-hardened jerky, and his sidearm was already swinging into line with my chest. I weighed the odds a moment, noting with some satisfaction how he'd wrapped his free arm tightly around his chest.

Stand down, Cadet! The exercise is over.” He took a shuddering breath, winced, and forced himself to straighten up. The gun was rock steady. “You graduate. But try that again and I’ll flunk you hard. Clear?” His finger tightened on the trigger, and I felt my stomach muscles clench involuntarily. I froze, doing my best impression of a rock.

Evidently, not a very good one. He took a step backwards. “Damnit, I said you pass! Now stand down.” His left arm unwound from his chest, and he winced again. “Sometimes I wish we could just use the simulators.” A bruise was already rising across the side of his face, and I clenched my jaw to hold back the shitkicking grin that was trying to escape.

His finger hadn’t moved on the trigger, so I took a slow, deep breath and forced myself to relax. “Standing down. Sir. The simulators wouldn’t provide nearly as much motivation. Sir.”

His tight grin made me wonder if he’d found the custom simulation tapes I’d worked out with a few other cadets. “No, they wouldn’t, more’s the pity.” He winced a third time. “Damn your eyes, I think you’ve broken a few ribs.” I remained silent, face rigidly composed, but watched him closely until he visibly relaxed and holstered his pistol.

“You’re alive,” he continued, “so you’re now officially a graduate. Congratulations. I’d love to reward you with the traditional furlough, but unfortunately, we’ve got work for you. Immediately.”

I thought of Josh and how we’d planned to celebrate, and the disappointment must have made it onto my face. “Get used to it, Cadet—excuse me... Agent—Morgan. We didn’t sign up to relax and tour the galaxy on the Navy’s tab.”

Being called Agent pleased me more than I’d ever expected, but not enough to overcome my anger. “I didn’t sign up. Sir. And I am used to it. Sir.” Which was only the truth. I took a deep breath, held it long, then let it out again. “All right. What’s the assignment? Sir. I assume we’ve got a week to spend together before my ship’s back?”

“Never assume, Agent. A light cruiser followed you in the whole way on a more conventional trajectory. I like your brass, Morgan, but don’t make a habit of that kind of navigation; some day, karma’s going to catch up with you, and we’ve put too much time and money into your training to lose you and an obscenely expensive ship to a chunk of rock at some godforsaken jump point.”

“Point noted. Sir. You mentioned a light cruiser?”

“I did. I’m not so enchanted with this place I’d planned to spend the rest of my career here; if you’d failed your mission, I’d have completed it for you, and the ship would have extracted me today. The cavalry’s due any moment, and we’ll both be going home in a few hours.”

“Imagine my relief. Sir. And the mission?”

“The usual: ‘Need to know’, and I don’t. You’ll be briefed aboard ship. In the meantime, get yourself cleaned up.” He wrinkled his nose, and it occurred to me that his broken ribs might not have been the only reason for his shallow breathing. “When you’re done, come back and help me tape my ribs.”

Sir.” I turned to go.

“Oh, and Morgan...?”

Sir?”

His face was unusually open, and that took me off guard. “Off the record, it’s been a pleasure. You’ve been a troublesome, disputatious, stubborn bitch the whole time I’ve known you—”

“Thank you. Sir.”

“—and you wouldn’t have survived if you hadn’t been all those things. It’s been a mixed pleasure teaching you, but a pleasure nonetheless… today notwithstanding. Just remember you’re not in class anymore, Agent Morgan. Get your shit in order. I want you back in a year to buy me a drink and brag about what you’ve done for the Navy.”

I turned away to hide my face, certain he’d read it like a book, and headed off in search of the showers.

***

In the shuttle, I closed my eyes and sank back into my seat, ignoring the curious glances from the crew and two hulking Marines. Martel had surprised me, and not for the first time. Unpleasantly, I was no longer certain how I felt about him.

I remembered far too well the first time we’d met. I was in some nameless spacer bar on Secundus—the only home I’d had since I’d been abandoned as a child. I’ve blocked out most memories of my childhood or had them blocked for me by the shrinks, but I kept those memories of early adulthood because that was the first time I’d carved out a sufficiently secure niche I could let down my guard and take a breather. I can’t remember any more where I’d been or what I’d done before that; those memories are long gone. But it must have been bad if I’d let someone cut out parts of my brain, even metaphorically. Part of me wants to know; the older, wiser part is happy to let sleeping nightmares lie. Curiosity I can deal with.

I was waiting tables and waiting for spacers to fall down drunk or stoned enough that I could rifle their pockets and drop them in the back alley to sleep it off. But this one guy had been watching me all night, giving me the creeps. He wasn’t exactly bad looking—on the contrary, he was well out of my league in the looks department—but something cold and hard in his eyes scared me. I’d seen that look before and learned to run far and fast when it turned my way. Tonight, I couldn’t. It’s not like this was a great job, you understand, but it got me off the streets, earned me enough cash for luxuries like clean clothing and unrecycled food, and came with fringe benefits like tough friends to keep unfriendly hands off me. There were worse jobs, and the guy watching me looked like he might be recruiting for one of them, volunteers not required.

I brushed past Boris on my way to pick up a pitcher of the dark local brew and a few vials of illegal drugs we’d bribed the cops to let us sell. The music was loud enough I had to stand on tiptoe to whisper into his ear, even though he was seated. “Keep an eye on the one with the shoulder holster by the lotto machine.”

“Grey hair, cold eyes, knife at his calf, watching you all night?”

I smiled and kissed his cheek. “He’s got a knife in his boot? Damn! Missed that.”

“The best, Alley Kat, and don’t you forget it.” He patted my buns as I continued on, but it was just friendly between us. He might have been willing, but I’d let him know gently enough that I’d sworn off.

I finished my rounds after dropping off the pitcher and drugs and collecting a few tips, and on the way back to the bar, I came too close to the stranger. He leaned across and caught my arm. “Let me buy you a drink.”

I tried to pull my arm free, and failed; bastard was stronger than he looked. “I don’t drink on the job.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Boris easing his way towards us through the crowd.

“Then sit down anyway. I want a few minutes of your time.” He placed a large bundle of stained bills on the table, and pulled me into the seat beside him.

Boris’ large, meaty hand fell on the stranger’s shoulder. “Let her go, buddy. She’s not the kind of employee you get to hire.”

Cold grey eyes met warm green ones. “Take the baksheesh and let us talk. It’s not your business.”

Boris tightened his grip and raised the stranger to his feet; that freed me, and I pushed back the chair and took a few steps away. Standing that close to the bouncer, the man looked to be outnumbered almost two to one, though they were matched for height. “I told you to take your business elsewhere. You can leave on your own two feet, or not. Your call.”

I didn’t see what happened next, but can make a fair guess based on what they taught at the Academy. One moment, Boris was holding the stranger’s shoulder; the next, my friend was face down on the table with his arm bent behind his back, face contorted in pain.

“Let him go!” I yelled, and the bar suddenly stilled, though the music kept blaring.

“I’d dearly love to, but I suspect I’d have to hurt him an awful lot more if I did.”

He looked like he not only meant it, but was more than capable, and that scared me. I didn’t have so many friends I could afford to lose one. “Boris, leave him be. He just wants to talk. Okay?” Boris grunted what might have been a yes, and the stranger let him up, not taking his eyes off the bigger man for an instant. I sat shakily down on the far side of the table and watched Boris face him down for a minute, then stalk off, rubbing his arm and wincing. I looked back at my table companion, and the cash was still on the table. I resisted the temptation to grab it; too many eyes were watching, and I didn’t like the odds of making it home safely with that much money in my pocket.

“I don’t whore.”

“Didn’t think you did.”

“Then why do you want to talk to me?” I was intrigued, despite myself.

“Actually, I just wanted you out of the line of fire. I need a few warm bodies, yours included. I’ve been watching you for a few days, and I like what I’ve seen.” The large pistol I’d spotted earlier was in his hand, and I'd never seen him draw.

Pressgang! I threw my chair back, hard and fast, and shouted for Boris, but it was already too late. Several other patrons had risen, pistols in their fists and covering the room. These guys were pros, though; nobody was in anyone else’s line of fire. Everyone froze. Boris leaned across the stained wood of the bar and snapped off the sound system.

“Her, the big bouncer, that one, and that one,” my tablemate spoke calmly into the silence, pointing with his free hand. “The rest of you, over there against the bar.” A few looked like they were about to resist, or to run like hell for the exits, then the flat snap! of a pistol filled the silence and one man fell soundlessly, a surprisingly neat hole in his forehead and a large, wet mess on the wall behind him. I turned away before I could see enough to get sick, and everyone moved slowly towards the bar, hands in plain sight. I felt a sting in my arm right about then, and looked down at the tiny sliver protruding about a quarter inch from my tunic. I looked up past the needler in the stranger’s hand, but things were going blurry and I collapsed across the table before I could meet his eyes.

That was a recurring theme over the next few months. I met Martel several times again during the behavior mod sessions and during basic training, particularly in unarmed combat and other classes that involved fast movement and controlled violence. He was the one who beat me half senseless day after day until I learned to defend myself, and the one who killed Yoshi barehanded the day our de facto leader lost it and turned on him in the gym; Yoshi was back again in a couple days, quieter than usual, which I'm given to understand death can do to you, even when it's not permanent. Martel was also the one who took me firmly by my good arm and guided me to the infirmary, my left arm shattered badly enough I never even felt the pain until later, when it was healing.

And now he was the one who’d told me he expected me back, alive, to brag about what I’d done.

I didn’t understand any of it, not in the least, but I knew I wouldn’t be coming back to have that conversation, not ever. They’d done their best to break me, and they’d failed; they’d given me the tools I needed to do their work, but I was going to use those tools to escape and make my own way in the world as soon as an opportunity presented itself. Eyes still closed, I smiled, cold and hard, and didn’t care in the least whether that smile alarmed the shuttle crew.

Author's notes

This story is part of my "Black Ships" cycle, set in a world inspired by the story of Commodore Perry's gunboat diplomacy to open Japan back in 1863 or thereabouts. Graduation Exercise introduces the character of Alison Katherine (Alley Kat) Morgan (though she hates her nickname), who will become the protagonist of The Black Ships, a first contact novel that explores some of the issues of colonialism, plausible deniability, and the pursuit of war by other means.

There are many influences that shaped this story. First and oldest, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (***not*** the lamentable film of the same name) was a strong influence, but leavened heavily by Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, which offered a compelling critique of much of what Heinlein had to say. Second, there are clear echoes of La Femme Nikita in the notion of a spy school based on pressganged inmates and a very dark realpolitik view of how things work. Last (and probably least expected), Star Trek—but very much as seen through the eyes of Kristine Kathryn Rusch, who provided a far darker take on what Star Trek would be like in the real world. Treat this story and those that follow as hommages to these previous works.

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