Chapter 1 - From Around the Sector
Rhiannon slipped through the crowd inside Tamar's tiny spaceport. She stopped long enough to switch her suitcase from one hand to another and get her bearings before continuing her walk. This far from home, she hoped she wouldn't be recognized right away, but she didn't want ot take the chance. She chose the Colonel KL Terin Military Academy because it was far from home. Rhiannon didn't want interference, not from the press and definitely not from her parents. Ever since her older brother's death two years ago, her parents ramped up their already over protectiveness to new levels. Rhiannon just didn't want to be sheltered. It wasn't as if she snuck away, exactly. It was a family tradition for the heir to the Duchy of Bourgon to serve in the Royal Guard. Her brother had been serving when he died. Rhiannon didn't want to be the exception; she could still hear her brother's voice saying how important serving was.
The sun glared down when Rhiannon stepped outside the spaceport. She blinked several times trying to adjust to the brightness. Holding up a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, she looked around for the bus to the Academy. The vehicle, an older turbofan-driven model in fading green, sat parked across the access road, a man in a tan uniform and beret standing just in front of it. Rhiannon hefted her suitcase and hustled across the road. She cleared her throat as she approached the uniformed man. "Excuse me," she said. "Where should I put my luggage?"
The uniformed man - a corporal, if Rhiannon read his rank flash correctly - hooked a thumb to point to the other side of the bus. "Going to the Academy?" he asked.
Rhiannon brought out her tablet and pulled up the acceptance forms to show the corporal. "I am, yes."
"Get your gear stowed and get on."
The young woman flashed a smile, then dashed around the front of the bus. The luggage compartment was still open and a number of bags of all sorts were already inside, tossed haphazardly. Rhiannon added hers to the collection, then boarded the bus. Ten or so young adults, all her age, were already seated, some alone, some already pairing up. Rhiannon made her way to the back of the bus, finding a seat in an empty row. She ducked her head down, not wanting to be recognized just yet. Her tablet beeped, reminding her that she needed to find the bus to the Academy in the next twenty minutes.
Miyami bounced from one foot to the other and back as she waited for her luggage to show up in the spaceport. It took her great effort to not look at the time yet again. Her bus was going to leave soon and if her bags didn't appear right now, she wouldn't be on it. She hadn't figured on so many starships coming in all at once, but neither had her ship's captain. Miyami looked at the time. Ten minutes. Ten minutes to claim her luggage, get through the port, and find her bus. She cursed herself for packing a trunk instead of just using a large backpack. Yet, she did need everything in there. Her ID needed the occasional tuning. Even just changing her birth year to make it look like she was old eough to enlist and attend the Academy took regular maintenance to make sure her real information didn't surface.
The carousel chugged to life. Several light pieces of baggage came out first, each item quickly claimed by their owners. The next to appear was Miyami's trunk, silver with pink and purple flowers painted on it to make it more distinctive. Miyami grabbed her luggage and hefted it to the floor. With a click of a button, wheels appeared. With a tug of the handle, Miyami pulled her trunk through the crowd and towards the exit.
The crowd never noticed the tiny woman as she wove through it. Despite the crowd, though, Miyami burst through the exit. She stopped to get her bearings. Her instructions never mentioned where the bus would be, just that it would be in front of the spaceport. Miyami looked around, hoping that the bus would be obvious. She only saw the one, green and a growing line in front of it. Miyami ran across the access road to join the line up. One by one, the young adults in front of her had their orders checked, then stored their luggage in the cargo space of the bus. Miyami pulled up her acceptance forms to show the driver, then added her gear to the rest of the cargo.
Inside the bus, the light was far dimmer. Miyami eased her way down the aisle, looking for a seat to herself. A figure at the back caught her eye. Curiosity gnawed at Miyami; the woman looked like Rhiannon Tudor, daughter of the Duke of Bourgon, but why would she be here? Miyami gave her head a shake. Her eyes must still be adjusting to the light. As she sat down halfway to the back of the bus, she took another look. The woman in the back slumped down, her head down so that Miyami couldn't see her features. With a shrug, Miyami pulled out her tablet. Must have been a trick of the shadows, she figured.
Ric watched as a teenaged girl pulling a large silver trunk dashed by. He chuckled at the sight and hoped the girl could catch up to her parents before returning his attention to the barista in the spaceport's café. The young woman walked over to him. Ric smiled, a warm grin. "A coffee, please. One cream, two sugars."
The barista returned Ric's smile. "Come right up! Are you going to be here long?"
"I'm waiting for my ride, but I'm starting at the military academy this week."
One of the barista's delicate eyebrows rose. "I wouldn't have pictured you as a soldier." She regarded him for a moment as she poured his coffee. "Pilot, maybe. Starfighter, though, not the big ships."
Ric laughed. "I thought about that, but apparently the powers that be thought I'd be perfect for armoured infantry. You know, the big suits?"
"The ones where you can sweep a woman up and hold her close?" She set down the coffee in front of Ric
"Those are the ones!" Ric tasted his drink. "This is exactly how I like my coffee." He set down his cup. "I'm Ricardo Ortiz, but everyone calls me Ric."
"Hi, Ric. I'm Abby."
"Hello Abby." Ric paid for his drink. "I bet you know all the best places to be in on weekends."
Abby's smile became demure. "I know a few good places. Some of them intimate."
Ric leaned forward. "Those are the best places."
A garbled announcement came from the public announcement system. All that Ric could make out were "attention passengers" and "last call". He paid the noise no mind. "Look, I don't know a way for you to call me yet. I still have to check in at the academy and get a room. If you want, give me a way to get in touch with you, then we can figure out when we're both free for you to give me a tour." Ric brought out his tablet and opened an entry for Abby. "I promise to be discreet."
Abby took the tablet and entered a few details before saving the file. "You better call me."
"I wouldn't dream of disappointing a friendly woman like yourself." Through the café's window, Ric spied a green bus with the academy's markings pass by. "That was my ride."
Ric shrugged. "I'll just catch the next one."
"When will that be?"
"Let me look." Ric searched for the information on his tablet. "Aha! Looks like eight tonight, local time." He turned the tablet to let the barista see the results.
Abby leaned over the counter. "You're going to be stuck here for hours. Are you going to be in trouble if you don't get to your school tonight?"
"I have no idea."
"I'm done my shift in an hour. I'll give you a lift. That way, I know where you live if you forget to call me." Abby tapped the tip of Ric's nose with her finger.
"I don't think I will ever forget you, Abby."
Dusty adjusted her hold on her duffle bag as she followed Commander Haag through the dorm. She kept her eyes down, watching the floor and the Commander's feet in front of her. The Commander stopped at the end of the hall where the last door in the wing sat ajar. Haag knocked on the door, then entered. Two enlisted men, a private and a corporal, came to attention. "As you were," the Commander said. He looked at the sheet of wood the two enlisted had up covering one of the suite's bedrooms. "What's going on?"
The corporal stepped forward, holding his hammer in a loose grip. "Orders, sir. Something about the room being uninhabitable."
"Just that room and not the whole suite?"
"Sorry, sir, that's all I was told."
"These suites hold a full squad. Where are the two cadets who would bunk in that room supposed to go?"
The corporal pointed to one of the other bedrooms. "We put a cot in there, sir. I can get another one if needed."
Commander Haag looked into the bedroom. The cot was there but still folded up. "Thank you, corporal. "Go back to what you were doing. Cadet, follow me."
Dusty nodded. "Yes, Commander." She trailed the Commander back into the hallway.
Commander Haag closed the door once the two of them were out. "I'll find out what's going on, Dusty." He took out his tablet.
"It's fine, sir. Really."
The Commander glanced at Dusty before returning to his tablet's screen. "Looks like you've been assigned to a short sqaud, just five of you."
"Sir, I can sleep on the cot. Mistakes happen." Dusty forced a smile. "Welcome to the Royal Guard and all that. You've told me stories about how datawork can get screwed up."
"If you're sure."
"I am, sir." Dusty nodded. "I'll get the cot set up and read until the rest of the squad arrives. General assembly at six, yes?"
The Commander checked his tablet. "It is. Oh, for-- Next bus goes out after the assembly is over."
Dusty's smile became genuine. "Nothing is easy, is it, sir?"
"Dusty, I need to go fix this. All of this. Get settled in the best you can. I'll talk with you later once things get quieter." The Commander turned on his heel and strode away, tapping at his tablet with every step he took.
The young woman watched the Commander until he turned the corner, then returned to her assigned dorm. The two enlisted men ignored her, favouring their work. Dusty went into the bedroom with the cot. Within a minute, she had the bed unfolded and ready for sleeping. She stretched out on the cot's tan blanket. Even with the hammering coming from the other side of the door, Dusty lost herself in her reading.
The traffic heading out of Shelter Cove City grew lighter the further away from there Lars and his family drove. The day kept them busy, with his mother and father spending every remaining minute with him before he was supposed to report to the academy. If Lars were to be honest with himself, he'd have admitted that the time with his parents was taxing on his emotions. Still, he enjoyed being with them.
The family van slowed to a stop outside the main gates to the Colonel KL Terin Military Academy. Lars was the first out of the car. He helped his mother step down from the front passenger seat as his father got the suitcase out from the back of the van. Movement bustled all around them as other students were dropped off, either by family or by the bus that sat just inside the entrance. The ground tremored as a phalanx of Centurion armour suits, the training mecha of the Royal Foot Guard. Lars watched as the phalanx maintained formation is a tight drill.
"Impressive, aren't they?" his father said.
"Karl, really." Lars' mother smacked his father's arm.
"It's okay, Ma," Lars said.
"No, it isn't. You're moving out. This day is yours, not those machine's. Your father shouldn't pay them any mind." She pulled Lars in to a tight hug. "I'm going to miss you."
"Ma, I'm just going to be here." Lars returned the hug. "I'll call you and when I get leave, I'll come home to visit. I won't be leaving the planet for at least two years."
Karl pulled his wife out of the hug with a gentle tug. "Heidi, we raised a great kid."
"And you still have Bjorn and Liz," Lars said. "It's going to be quiet without them always fighting."
"You fought with them, too." Heidi laughed. "You'll understand when you have your own family."
Lars glanced over at the other new students as they formed a line. "I should go check in. I'll call when I'm settled in." He started to pick up his suitcase, only to be pulled into a hug from his father.
"Son, I'm proud of you."
"Thanks, Pa." Lars broke free from the embrace. "I'll call tonight." He began walking into the Academy, looking back at his parents as they returned to their van. At the gates, he stopped long enough to show the guard his acceptance forms, then joined the large group milling about.
A woman in a tan uniform approached Lars. "New student?" She pointed to a group of tables with other young adults standing around. "Go there to sign in and get your dorm assignment. Then go to your dorm and unpack. You have until seventeen hundred to explore the campus and find your way around. At seventeen hundred, head to the mess for dinner, then report to the auditorium at eighteen hundred. Questions?"
Lars shook his head. "I think I got all that, um, sir."
"Sergeant Chang, not sir." She gave Lars a quick smile. "You'll get this figured out. On your way."
"Thank you, si-- sergeant."
Rhiannon stepped to the side once she entered her assigned dorm building. She double-checked the room number on her sheet, then looked around to figure out which way she was supposed to go. A smaller girl dragging a silver trunk on wheels did the same, but kept walking, not aware of her surroundings. Rhiannon made note to watch out for her, then walked to the stairs. She checked her notes one last time. As she did, the smaller girl veered sharply and collided with her. "Hello," Rhiannon said, a note of disapproval in her tone.
"Oh, sorry!" The girl looked up. "It is you!" She bowed her head. "I am so sorry, Lady Filton."
Rhiannon covered her face with her free hand. "That's not necessary."
"I should have watched where I was going, my lady."
"I mean, look, I'm just another cadet here, like you, okay? I don't want special treatment, especially from classmates." She set down her belongings, then held out her hand. "My name's Rhiannon. Cadet Rhiannon Tudor."
The girl shook Rhiannon's hand. "Miyami Watanabe. Are you in first year, too?"
"I am. What room are you in?"
Miyami held up the sheet with the details. "Looks like the fourth floor, but I don't see a lift."
"I think they want us to be fit."
"Great." Miyami grabbed her trunk. "I shouldn't have brought so much."
"Let me help." Rhiannon reached for the end of the trunk.
With effort, the two young women hauled their luggage - trunk, suitcase, and bags - up to the fourth floor, They took a rest when they finally stepped out into the hallway, gasping for breath. Rhiannon mopped sweat off her brow. When Miyami was ready, the pair began their search for their room. As they passed a lounge nearly devoid of fellow students, they saw a large young man walking towards them, he, too, carrying a suitcase. Rhiannon waved to him. "Looking for your room, too?"
"Yeah." He held up his information sheet. "I don't supposed you passed it?"
Miyami read his room number, then giggled. On seeing the expression on both the newcomer and Rhiannon, she explained, "We're your roomies. I'm Miyami Watanabe and this is Her--"
Rhiannon cut off the smaller woman. "Rhiannon Tudor. Just another student, no one special."
"Er, right, Rhiannon."
"I'm Lars Thorensen. Need help with your bags?"
"I'm good, thanks," Rhiannon said.
"I wasn't expecting the dorms to be this co-ed," Miyami said.
Lars nodded. "Same here."
Rhiannon shrugged. "We'll figure things out. It's not like we're going to share the same bed."
Both Lars and Miyami blushed. "I wasn't going to go there," the small girl said.
"We won't have the energy during the first month." Rhiannon began walking again, leading the small group. "Lars, how did you get up here?"
Lars pointed back the way he came. "There's a freight elevator. You had to come in the side door to find it."
Miyami looked down at her trunk. "Because of course there's a freight lift."
"We made it, Miyami. That's all that counts." Rhiannon looked down the hallway. "I think we're at the end of that wing." She quickened her pace.
Rhiannon unlocked the door and held it open for Lars and Miyami. She looked around the small common area and noticed the plain sheet of wood blocking one of the bedroom doors. "That's odd."
Lars set down his suitcase. "We can ask someone downstairs later. Maybe there's just four of us here?"
"I doubt it. Squads are supposed to be six students."
Miyami dragged her trunk further inside. "Hello? Anyone here?"
From one of the unblocked bedrooms, a feminine voice called back. "Yeah. If you're wondering about the board, Commander Haag is already looking into to."
"I guess you're the first of us to arrive, then," Rhiannon said. "I don't suppose you know who else is supposed to be here?"
"I haven't seen anything."
Miyami hauled her luggage into the room with the early arrival. "When did you get here?" she asked. I didn't see you on the bus."
"I got here early."
Rhiannon entered the bedroom. On seeing her new roommate, her face twisted in anger. She charged at the woman, grabbing her by the sweater and slamming her against the wall. "What the hell are you doing here?"
"What did you do, kill her best friend?"
"Dude, you should have gone with her.".
"Still, I don't lose my temper and slam everyone I meet."
"I am aware of the problem, Cadet."