Chapter 6 - Life in the Halls
"Cadet Tudor, Cadet Tyler, in the ring!"
"Advice, sir. Wisdom from a teacher. Bafflegab from an officer, even."
"Pretend you're shooting me, Your Highness."
"I found inspiration, Sergeant."
Dusty returned her gauss rifle to the armourer, making sure the weapon was signed back in properly. As she turned to leave, Ric caught up to her. "Hey, wait, okay?" he called.
The idea of pretending she hadn't heard him crossed her mind, but she had turned when Ric called. "Sure."
Ric signed in his gauss rifle then joined Dusty. "We really need to talk."
"Isn't that what we're doing now?"
"That's . . ." Ric sighed. "You didn't have to provoke Rhiannon like that."
"It worked." Dusty turned to leave.
Ric fell in beside her, matching her pace. "What happened to putting up a united front?"
"Do you think anyone in Lambda Squad could have heard me? The rifles aren't quiet, Ric. And Cadet Tudor learned how to aim. Isn't that why we're here, to learn to aim and shoot?"
"It doesn't count if she's murdering you with every shot, Dusty. What are you going to do during the break?"
Dusty shrugged. "Change into base dress, then find a quiet corner to go read before our next class."
"Can you watch out for Lars?"
"I think someone else is doing that for you already." Dusty pointed at Lars and Susanna as they returned their Mark Threes.
"How did he do that?" Ric wondered. "Oh, before you go, Dusty, Commander Haag asked me to tell you that he'd like to see you after dinner tonight."
Dusty felt her stomach drop. "Thank you, Ric." She turned and left, walking far faster than she wanted but unable to slow her pace. She reached the residence before anyone in her squad or even in Iota and Lambda.
Taking advantage of being the first back, she grabbed her change of clothes and took a quick shower, just long enough to feel clean again. Dusty towelled off and dressed, then checked her schedule. The next class was in the main auditorium. She grabbed her tablet and left her dorm. Hearing the chatter of her squad mates coming up the main stairwell, Dusty ducked down another wing, trying not to be seen, and took the back staircase down.
After a few minutes of searching, Dusty found an isolated corner to slip into. She sat on the floor, adjusting her skirt for modesty. On her tablet screen were the notes for the upcoming lecture. She barely saw the words. Instead, a tear trailed down her cheek. Dusty blinked, trying to will her body into behaving itself instead of revealing her emotions. At the same time, she felt on the edge of a cliff, an abyss awaiting her if she slipped. She clenched her fist. Why did she have to be here? All Dusty wanted is to not be the outsider. For over two years, she hadn't fit in anywhere, first with her family, then in the Grand Republic. Was it too much to ask for two years of being just another face?
Dusty pulled her legs in close to her chest. She shut her eyes tight and tried to control her breathing. Of all the people to recognize her. Of all the people in the Poulos Nova Empire to be at this border world academy. A sob wracked Dusty's body. She didn't know how long she cried, just that she did, and the effort to keep her tears to just herself began to upset her stomach. Dusty tried to bring herself under control. She dug her fingernails into the palms of her hands, trying to replace one pain with another.
Finally, she managed to recover. She checked the time on her tablet; eight minutes before the lecture began. Enough time to duck into a washroom and clean up. The rest of her squad, the rest of her class, none of them needed to see her at her worst. She could have her break down later, when she was alone. Not before.
In the washroom, she dabbed at her eyes with cold water. No one would suspect her of having cried, at least not right away. The Commander would; the Commander always knew. But that was something to worry about later. Dusty adjusted her skirt and brushed off the dirt from the floor before leaving for the lecture.
Miyami was the first to spot Dusty when she entered the lecture theatre. She pointed her out to Ric, who waved her over. There was a spare seat beside Lars; somehow, to Miyami's amusement, he had ditched Susanna between the firing range and the dorm room. Iota Squad was seated closer to the front of the lecture hall. Lars slumped down in his seat, making a concerted effort to not be seen. Miyami elbowed her much taller roommate. "Scared of a girl?" she teased.
"Susanna's determined," Lars said, his voice low in case it carried in the lecture theatre. "Really determined."
"You're going to have to talk to her, Lars," Rhiannon said. "She probably will take it well."
"Probably." Miyami giggled. "Most guys would love that sort of attention. Right, Ric?"
"Most guys are usually more active in the attention department," Ric said. "Dusty, hi." He got up to let Dusty get past him to the free seat.
Dusty flashed the merest hint of a smile at Ric before sitting down beside Lars. "The class hasn't started yet?"
"Maybe they're waiting for stragglers," Lars said.
"Ours is here." Rhiannon looked away from Dusty. "And I think this is everyone."
Miyami checked her notes on her tablet. An alarm box popped up; a maintenance warning. She swore under breath, earning a raised eyebrow from Ric. "Nothing. Just forgot to send my folks a present." Miyami tapped at her tablet. Several programs started running, accessing various databases on the planetary network, updating records. She kept her focus on the readouts from the programs, looking up only when the instructor, Major Mallory Novak, cleared her throat. Miyami cleared her screen but kept the programs running in the background.
The lecture built on the basics the class had learned earlier in the week, showing how the Royal Guard built on its history and how the different branches worked together and, Miyami had to admit, how they did not. The Star Guard, the Imperium's space navy, was considered the most prestigious, at least by the media and the general populace. It was the Foot Guards and its various units that kept the Poulos Nova Empire safe. Miyami suspected that Major Novak had a bias; her biography included fifteen years in the armoured infantry before becoming an instructor.
Miyami found the lecture dry. History was never her strong suit, but seeing how the different events over time affected her day to day life made her pay attention. She typed up notes as fast as she could work her fingers, trying to keep up with what Major Novak was saying while also trying to figure out what was important.
Her tablet vibrated. One of the programs running in the background popped open an error warning. One of the databases the program tried to update wasn't accepting the new information the application was trying to send. Miyami switched over to the program, trying to find out where it had balked and why. The database it tried to update wasn't giving a clear message, just a refusal. Miyami sent a manual query to the database. The reply was an authentication request from Tamar's Ministry of Transportation.
Miyami shut down the program and dismissed the log in request. She felt a bead of sweat form on her forehead. Dreading the worst, she sent a request to verify her vehicle license from Midori Ryu. The system paused. Miyami began working out other ways to get at the license database; none of them could be done easily where she sat, not without drawing attention to herself. She glanced around to see if anyone had noticed her yet and felt relief when she saw no one was looking at her. The tablet vibrated again; her verification request came back as positive, her license was legit.
Switching back over to her notes, Miyami tried to pick up the lecture from when she was interrupted. Major Novak, though, was now on the breakdown of units in the Foot Guard by type, starting with the infantry. Miyami couldn't help but sigh and picked up her note taking, leaving a large gap in her notes. She'd have to ask someone to compare with later and hope whoever she asked wouldn't want to know why she was missing a large chunk from the lecture.
The class ended with Major Novak dismissing the students for the day. Miyami finished typing her notes, then made a quick check on the status of her maintenance programs while the rest of Theta Squad packed up. An inbound file notification flashed in the upper right corner; the only description given was, "Today's Lecture". Miyami accepted the file transfer, then closed down her tablet.
Ric and Rhiannon were the first standing. "How does an early dinner sound to everyone?" he asked.
Miyami stood up and stretched. "Sounds great." She poked at Lars' leg. "Aren't you getting up?"
Lars sat up a bit to look down at the crowd lower in the lecture hall. "Not until Iota has left."
"Iota?" Miyami searched the crowd and saw Susanna towering over her squad mates. "Ah. You don't like her? She seemed nice when I ran into her."
"She's nice. Very nice. But you didn't have to help her this afternoon. I just need some time to myself, is all."
Ric laughed. "Dude, I'd jump at the chance to help her learn to shoot, having her in my arms."
"Yeah, but you try showing her how to assemble a rifle the same way while having Sergeant Chang staring holes through you."
"They're leaving," Miyami said. "Looks like they're going out past the podium."
Lars slumped back down in his seat. "I'm going to give them time so that she hasn't 'forgotten' anything."
"Maybe you should disappear before she remembers she's 'forgotten' something," Rhiannon suggested. "The coast is clear now."
"I'm going to give Iota Squad time to leave the building. I'll catch up."
Miyami shrugged. "Your call, Lars. I still like the idea of an early dinner." She led Ric and Rhiannon out of their row of seats.
Lars lingered once Theta Squad went outside. "You guys go ahead, okay? I'll catch up with you later."
Ric turned but kept walking, now backwards. "Aren't you hungry, dude?"
"I need some time to recharge. Ever had someone hang off you arm for half a day?"
"Yeah. I didn't need to recharge until later that night."
Rhiannon slapped Ric's arm. "Let him be, horn dog. Lars, go do what you need to do. You can message us later when you're ready."
"Thanks, Rhiannon." Lars waved to the group as they left, then moved out of the way of the doors. Once Ric, Rhiannon, and Miyami were far enough away, he let out a breath of relief. He let his shoulders droop.
Seeing Dusty coming to the doors, Lars straightened his posture. He opened the door for his squad mate. "Hey."
Dusty blinked. "Are the others around?" she asked.
"They've gone for dinner."
"Without you?" Dusty kept walking, forcing Lars to catch up.
"I needed time away from crowds. Got any plans for dinner?"
"I'm grabbing something from the base exchange."
"Do you mind if I joined you?" Taking Dusty's shrug as a yes, Lars continued, "Maybe I can get some advice from you?"
"You're a woman."
"I'm not the best person to ask."
"Maybe. But getting an opinion wouldn't hurt."
Dusty slowed her pace. "From me? I wouldn't bet on it, especially if it's about your new friend."
Lars felt his jaw drop. "How?"
A shy smile appeared on Dusty's lips. "She's been obvious." The smile disappeared as quick as it had appeared. "Lars, I really don't know what to tell you here. I'm willing to say that you've been on more dates than I have over the past two years."
"I wouldn't be too sure."
"Did your high school have some sort of celebration for graduating?"
"Um, yeah. Tamar's a border world, not some backwater planet."
"And you went to it, right?"
Lars nodded. "Everyone did. It might have been the last time to see all of us together in Vaughan's Landing."
"Who did you go with?"
"Vesta Lander," Lars answered. "And she asked me out."
"You still went with someone. That's my point." Dusty sighed. "That's more than me since I was fourteen, Lars. If anything, I should be asking you for advice. Susanna's attractive, don't you think?"
Dusty stared at Lars. "You guess? Susanna's tall and well-proportioned. I'm sure there are modelling agencies who would be upset that they never discovered her."
Lars shrugged. "You haven't been to Vaughan's Landing. Susanna wouldn't be noticeable there."
"Wait, you're telling me that you and her are what everyone looks like here?"
"But tall and strong?"
"What did you expect from an agricultural world? Vaughan's Landing is a farming town. Everyone either works on a farm or at a company that handles the crops and livestock."
Dusty opened the door to the base exchange, letting Lars go in first. "I think I want to see this."
"Vaughan's Landing has its Harvest Fair coming up. Seems like everyone else wants to go to it."
The light in Dusty's eyes faded. "Everyone?"
"Well, Ric and Susanna. I think Ric is going to try to get the squad to go, though."
"I don't think it's a good idea for me to go, Lars."
Lars looked through the ready to heat meals. "I know, Dusty. But the fair lasts a couple of weeks. Maybe we can go later, just the two of us, without the rest of the squad?"
The shy smile returned to Dusty's lips just long enough for Lars to notice it. "I'll keep it in mind. Thanks, Lars." Dusty returned to her shopping, picking up several items as Lars paid for his ready to heat meal.
Lars waited outside the base exchange for Dusty. They walked back to their dorm room in silence. Inside their residence building, Lars insisted on using the service elevator, wanting to avoid Iota Squad's room. He opened the door to Theta Squad's room and let Dusty enter first. Dusty went straight to the kitchenette and started putting away the food she bought. Lars opened his ready to heat meal, a pot pie with various different poultry as the main meat, into the microwave. As his dinner warmed up, he watched Dusty. "That's a lot of food for one person," he remarked.
"It's not just for me. I figured we're going to be busy this coming week, so now's as good a time to stock up as any."
"You didn't have to do that."
"Someone else can go to the exchange when we run low," Dusty said. "Besides, it's not like the food isn't unwanted. I think I'm the only one drinking tea, though." She checked the supply of cream in the room's small refrigerator. "The coffee drinkers can get their own supplies. They're almost out of cream. I prefer my tea black."
"I'll let Ric know." The microwave beeped. Lars retrieved his pot pie. "Want me to put something in for you?"
"I'm good, thanks. I'm just going to have a sandwich."
Lars felt his tablet vibrate. He checked the message that just came in. "Looks like the rest of the squad's going to the base café."
"I don't mind if you go, Lars." Dusty got the bread and lunch meat from the fridge.
"I don't mind staying. No one should have to spend their life alone, Dusty."
"Thanks, Lars. Really. I'm good, though. Commander Haag wants to see me after dinner, so I'd be leaving you alone here if you stayed."
Lars sat at the small table. "Commander Haag? Are you in trouble?"
"No more than usual." Dusty finished making her sandwich. She put everything back in the fridge, then joined Lars at the table. "He's probably just checking up on me."
"Because of Rhiannon?"
"It's more complicated than that, but," Dusty took a nibble of her sandwich, "yeah, because of Rhiannon and because of me. Don't worry about me, Lars."
Miyami blew on her hot chocolate to cool it down before taking a sip. She wiped a dab of whipped cream from her nose. "I think I needed this."
"How is it?" Rhiannon asked as she picked up her mug of coffee.
Ric returned from the coffee bar, carrying his cup of coffee and a plate of cookies. "I figured you ladies might want something sweet." He turned his attention to Miyami. "Or some more sweet." he set down the cup and plate, then checked his tablet. "Lars will be here soon. He's just finishing his dinner."
"I'm surprised Susanna's going to let him go," Miyami said.
"If he was with Susanna, I wouldn't have heard back from him."
Rhiannon set down her mug. "Oh, leave him alone, Ric. She's coming on to him strong. He needs a break."
"I wouldn't be complaining if I was in his shoes."
"He is coming here, right?" Miyami asked. "I want to know who sent the notes to me."
"Why?" Rhiannon asked. "You have the notes."
Miyami took another sip of her hot chocolate. "It's not that simple. Do you know how difficult it is to send anything anonymously? Everything has a trail, and I've set up my tablet to trace anything coming to it. And why would anyone give me notes and leave off their name?"
Ric shrugged. "A secret admirer?"
Rhiannon rolled her eyes. "Let's just up the creep factor, then."
"Someone too shy, then." Ric took a cookie from the plate.
"Was there anything with the notes, like a virus?" Rhiannon asked.
"Completely clean." Miyami grabbed a cookie for herself. "I triple-checked, too."
"I don't think even the Guard is that paranoid, Miyami."
"Rhiannon has a point," Ric said. "Why do you care where it came from?"
"Because no one is that good." Miyami bit into her cookie. Once she swallowed, she continued, "It also means someone saw that I wasn't paying attention during the lecture."
Rhiannon sipped her coffee. "Half the room wasn't."
Ric nodded. "I think I spaced out for a few minutes Major Novak is not the best lecturer I've seen here."
"Did you get notes sent to you, Ric?" Miyami asked.
"Nope. Should I have?"
Miyami sighed. "That's my point."
"I saw you typing away during the lecture," Rhiannon said. "I was going to ask you for your notes. I figured you were getting a lot from Novak's lesson."
"Well, um, I got distracted." Miyami felt a blush creep into her cheeks.
"Oh, looking for a present for your folks, right?" Ric finished his cookie. "I don't blame you for that."
Miyami's blush grew warmer. "Yeah, that." She recognized the person coming through the café's main entrance and waved. "Lars is here."
The small group waited for their squad mate to join them. The tall blond man pulled over a chair and sat down, setting his coffee cup down beside Miyami's. "Sorry I took so long," he said.
"No worries, dude," Ric said. He picked up the plate and its remaining cookie. "Saved one for you."
Lars took the offered treat. "Thanks. What did I miss?"
"Miyami is concerned about some notes from today," Rhiannon said.
Miyami nodded. "Did you send me your notes at the end of the lecture this afternoon?"
"We were supposed to take notes?" Lars devoured his cookie.
"Come on, Lars, be serious. Did you send me your notes?"
"Was I supposed to?"
"Somebody did." Miyami sat back in her chair.
"Wasn't me." Lars washed the cookie down with a swig of his coffee.
Ric gave Miyami a soothing smile. "Someone did something nice for you, Miyami. Just accept it for now."
"I suppose." Miyami pulled up the notes on her tablet again. Someone saw her. But why help her?
"That girl is vicious."
"I'm kicking you off the couch, Dusty."
"Please route me to either the Duke or the Duchess."
"It's my brother's birthday."