Mecha Academy - Episode 1 - Roommates
Chapter 7 - Happy Birthday
"I don't think it's a good idea for me to go, Lars."Dusty already stood at attention when Commander Haag opened the door to his billet. "Sir, you wanted to see me?" she asked.
"She's nice. Very nice."
"What happened to putting up a united front?"
"I'm not the best person to ask."
"At east, Cadet." The Commander stepped aside. "Please, come in."
"Thank you, sir." Dusty entered the apartment, then came to a stop in the sparse living room.
Commander Haag closed the door. "Dusty, relax."
"Sir, am I in trouble?"
"No." The Commander sat down in an easy chair. "Dusty, please, have a seat and relax."
"Yes, sir." Dusty perched on the edge of the couch, leaning forward.
"Do you want something to drink? I have some herbal tea still, and I might have something a little stronger."
"No, thank you, sir."
The Commander eyed the young cadet on his couch. "Dusty, I shouldn't have to order someone to relax. That tends to defeat the purpose. At least sit back."
Dusty shifted back into the corner of the couch. "Sorry, sir."
"Cadet Ortiz came to me this morning, worried about the tension on Theta Squad."
"I see, sir." Dusty looked down at the grey carpet. "Sir--"
Commander Haag held up a hand to stop the young woman. "He didn't single anyone out as the cause. He didn't ask for anyone to be transferred. He just wanted to know what to do. Cadet Ortiz might make a decent officer, if he can stop calling people, 'dude'."
Dusty laughed softly. "Still, sir--"
"Dusty, I'm off duty. Cut the formality already. You are not in trouble. I asked you here tonight to give you a break from being on alert."
The Commander smiled. "I know you too well, Dusty. You're taking the weight of the galaxy on your shoulders, again."
"I guess." Dusty's posture shifted, slumping a little on the couch.
"Are you sure you don't want anything to drink?" Commander Haag got to his feet. "I'm having a beer. Want one?"
After a moment of hesitation, Dusty nodded. "Please, sir."
Commander Haag disappeared into his kitchen, returning with two amber bottles. He passed one to Dusty, then twisted open the top of his. "I do have some concern. Sergeant Chang went over her student evaluations with me. She mentioned that you were sparring with Cadet Tudor."
"I was, sir."
"Sergeant Chang doesn't know of your history, Dusty. She didn't realize what she was doing. She did show me the recording of Cadet Watanabe's warm up in the holo-ring. That girl is vicious." The Commander shook his head.
Dusty took a swig of her beer. "I know that, sir. I mean, that Sergeant Chang isn't aware."
The Commander sat back down in his easy chair. "You do know that sparring practice means you have to throw punches, too."
"Against Cadet Tudor, sir? That didn't seem like a good idea."
"So you let her wail on you instead?"
"She didn't get that many blows in, sir." Dusty took a longer draught of her beer.
Commander Haag set down his bottle. "You still let her attack you."
"Sir, anyone else, and I would have hit back. But Cadet Tudor?"
"I understand, Dusty." The Commander picked up his bottle to take a drink. "And then there's the firing range. Cadet Tudor's accuracy had a sudden improvement. Sergeant Chang mentioned that you said something to her."
Dusty's cheeks reddened. "I may have, sir."
The Commander sighed. "I am going to pretend that you said something encouraging. Don't contradict me, Cadet."
"I won't, sir."
Dusty took a long sip. "Sir, I don't mean to be a problem. If Cadet Tudor wasn't here, if we weren't on the same squad." Her voice trailed.
"I know, Dusty."
"This isn't how I wanted things to go, sir. Cadet Watanabe has taken Cadet Tudor's side, and I don't blame Cadet Tudor for how she feels. Cadet Ortiz is only being supportive because he knows that his success depends on the squad doing well." Dusty curled up on the couch, pulling her legs beneath her.
"And Cadet Thorensen?"
Dusty shrugged. "He'll go with whatever Cadet Ortiz decides. Right now, he wants the squad to do well."
Commander Haag raised an eyebrow. "What about you, Dusty?"
"I don't want to be the reason why we fail, as individuals or as a squad. I'm afraid that if we do fail, though, I'll be blamed."
"I'll make the same offer I made to Cadet Ortiz—I can talk to the squad."
"I don't think that will help, sir. It'll just get back to me."
The Commander downed the rest of his beer. "Dusty, take tonight off. Stay here if you want. I asked Cadet Ortiz to take your squad out to the café. Do something to relax and take your mind off things for a bit." He gave Dusty a warm smile. "Let me worry about Cadet Tudor for a while for you. Find something else to do instead."
"Yes, sir." Dusty drained the rest of her beer in one long swallow.
"I'm telling you, dude, an inter-squad billiards tournament would be awesome." Ric swiped his passkey to unlock the room to the dorm. "And we'd totally clean up with you and Rhiannon shooting for us."
Lars rolled his eyes. "I play pool for fun, Ric, not for competition. It stops being fun that way."
"Ric, do you think the brass would even consider it?" Rhiannon asked. She stifled a yawn "Or even the other squads?"
"It doesn't have to be official." Ric saw a lump on the couch move. "Sorry, Dusty. Didn't mean to wake you."
Dusty rolled over, sitting up, her blankets falling to the floor. "I wasn't asleep."
"Could have fooled me," Miyami said.
"How'd it go with Commander Haag tonight?" Ric asked.
Dusty shrugged. "We talked. That's all."
"You're looking better," Lars said.
"So do you."
Rhiannon's face clouded with anger. "What does that mean?"
"You were looking better."
Ric stepped in between Dusty and Rhiannon. "Girls, all of us had a night where we could relax. Let's not spoil it now by starting a war."
Both Dusty and Rhiannon turned their attention on Ric, glaring daggers at him. "'Girls'?"
Ric took a step back away from both of them. "Would you prefer 'dudes'?"
"Whatever, Ric." Rhiannon turned on her heel and entered her bedroom.
Miyami rolled her eyes. "Really, Ric?" Miyami followed on Rhiannon's heels, closing the door behind her.
Lars came up behind Ric. "Nice one." He patted his roommate's back. He turned to head to the men's bedroom.
"Lars, wait." Ric sat down beside Dusty. "You can't keep sleeping on the couch, Dusty. I know there's not much space here, but do deserve a bed of your own in one of the rooms."
Dusty looked over at the board blocking the third bedroom. "And if that room was available, there wouldn't be a problem. But it isn't." She shrugged. "The couch is comfortable enough. And when we're deployed, we won't even get that much."
"Lars, do you have a problem if Dusty moves in with us? It'd mean the end of naked nights, but Dusty needs a place to sleep where loud people waling into the dorm won't wake her."
"You mean you," Lars said. He looked over to Dusty. "I don't have a problem. We're all adults, right."
"Hey, dude, no one has proven that on me."
"Ric, Lars, thanks, but--"
Ric cut Dusty off. "Hear that? She likes the idea. So, Dusty, tonight, you get my bed. It's kind of late right now to move the cot into our bedroom."
"Look, Ric, I can't kick you out of your own bed."
"I'm kicking you off the couch, Dusty. Sleep in a proper bed tonight."
Lars smiled. "He's not taking no for an answer. Best to give in to him."
Ric beamed. "Lars here is wise."
"Besides, he'll never shut up until you do." Lars held out a hand to Dusty.
Dusty stared at the hand. "Thanks. Really." She let Lars help her to her feat. "Ric, why?"
"We're a team, Dusty. If we can't act like one in private, we'll never act like one when it counts."
The next morning. Rhiannon stumbled out of her bedroom, sleep still in her eyes, and made her way to the bathroom. She noticed the rumpled blankets on the couch. "Oh, look, still asleep. Must be nice not having a guilty conscience." The figure under the blankets rolled over. Rhiannon shrieked. Ric sat up bolt straight. "Ric, what the--?" Rhiannon cut off her curse. "What are you doing there?"
"Why is it oh-loud-thirty?" Ric said.
Miyami and Lars rushed out of their respective bedrooms. "What's going on?" Miyami asked.
"I heard screams," Lars said.
"Where's Tyler?" Rhiannon demanded.
Ric looked over at Miyami. "Someone started screaming." He turned to Lars. "That's a statement, not a question." Ric twisted to see Rhiannon. "I don't know. Should I?"
Rhiannon knelt down to Ric's height. "What are you doing out here?"
"I was sleeping until someone rudely screamed."
"I'll start ripping out what little chest hair you have one by one until I get a straight answer, Ric."
"I let Dusty sleep in my bed. Good thing, too."
Rhiannon snarled in disgust, then raised herself to her full height. "Thank you." She turned to Lars. "Is Tyler still in your room?"
Lars shrugged. "I didn't notice. She's normally gone when I wake up, though."
"Rhiannon, why does it matter?" Ric asked.
"It doesn't." Rhiannon strode back into her bedroom, leaving the other three staring at her.
"Right, today's going to be interesting." Ric gathered his blankets. "I don't suppose I'll get back to sleep."
Lars shook his head. "Let's get dressed."
Miyami cleared her throat. "Ric, what were you thinking, giving up your bed for her?"
"Dusty deserves a good night sleep like the rest of us." Ric tossed his blankets to the end of the couch. "We're going to move the cot into our bedroom later today."
"For her? Really?"
"No, Miyami, for us."
Miyami glanced at the blankets on the couch. "Better get those folded and put away. Inspection this morning."
Rick stared at the young woman. "You're kidding."
"Why would I joke about that. I'll let Rhiannon know, too." Miyami returned to her bedroom.
Ric looked over at Lars. "We better get busy."
Rhiannon got through the inspection and the morning exercises in a daze. Parade drill passed by without her noticing. Even hand to hand training didn't register with her. She had hoped that Tyler would be paired against her, but this time, Sergeant Chang arranged the combatants by squad, and Rhiannon sparred against Frida Rath of Lambda Squad. Hand to hand was followed by a long march that allowed her to zone out. By the time the class returned from the march, Rhiannon was glad that she was numb.
To everyone else's surprise, Rhiannon decided to stay in the dorm room for lunch. She shooed everyone else out, feigning a headache. Rhiannon just wanted time alone. She rummaged through the kitchenette and was surprised to find her favourite cereal in the cupboard. As far as she knew, she ran out the previous morning. With a shrug, she poured herself a bowl, then sat down to eat.
With lunch eaten, Rhiannon took out her tablet. The hardest task she faced loomed. She dreaded making the call ever since she woke up, but it had to be done. Her finger hovered over the routing code. Rhiannon closed her eyes and pressed the tablet. The sounds of a connection being passed through Tamar's planetary network and into the singularity web were there to let users know that something was happening, but Rhiannon still hoped that a problem would occur. However, the other end of her call connected. Rhiannon forced herself to smile for her tablet's camera.
"Good afternoon," an even baritone said at the other end of the call. There wasn't a visual to show just yet. "You have reached the residence of the Duke of Bourgon. For concerns in the Duchy of Bourgon, please--"
"Code eight three seven seven alpha three four," Rhiannon said, interrupting the instructions. "Please route me to either the Duke or the Duchess. Authorization, the Most Honourable Rhiannon Tudor, the Countess of Filton, the Baroness Curren."
"Authorization confirmed. Re-routing call."
Rhiannon took a deep breath to steady herself. She pushed aside her bowl, keeping it out of view of the tablet's camera.
A video window displaying an older woman, her hair well coiffed, appeared on Rhiannon's tablet. "Oh, Rhiannon, dear. We were waiting for you call."
"Mum, hello." Rhiannon dug into her well of reserve. "How are you and Dad?"
Rhiannon's mother pouted. "Rhiannon, have you been at that academy so long that everything is now formal? There's no need for it, especially today."
"I'm doing well, too, Mum." Rhiannon heard her voice starting to crack.
"Of course you are, darling." The woman peered into her camera, looking around.
"I'm alone, Mum. In my dorm. It's lunch here."
Rhiannon's mother laughed. "I could never get the hang of time zones across different planets. It's starting to get dark here."
"I know, Mum. I would have called sooner, but they keep us busy here. I'll have more time soon."
"I should hope so, dear. Your dad and I do miss you. I don't know why you went so far away for school. There are any number of schools here and in the Core Worlds that would have been happy to have you."
Rhiannon saw the same argument she had with her parents building up again. "Yes, Mum, but I have my reasons."
"I'm sure you do, dear." The Duchess sat back in her chair. "It's just not the same here without you."
"How are you holding up? I know you loved Gavin so and his birthday was always hard on you."
"I still miss him." Rhiannon felt a tear forming in the corner of her eye. She blinked, trying to send it away. "What about you and Dad?"
"Don't worry about us. We have each other right now. I'm more concerned about you, dear. You look like you need a hug, really."
Rhiannon laughed in spite of herself. "I probably do, but I don't think I can order a corporal to give me one."
Her mother laughed. "I'll save one for you. When do you think you can visit, dear?"
"I don't know. They're not granting leave until after the big test here. I'm hoping we get a few days then. But I think it'll be the end of the year when we get enough time for me to make the trip home."
"That's too bad. How are things at the academy? Any trouble?"
An image of Tyler flashed through Rhiannon's mind. In a half-second, she weighed the benefits and drawbacks about telling her mother about the traitor. The desire to be her own woman, not having to rely on her parents or her family's titles won out. "No, Mum. No trouble at all." Rhiannon kept a smile plastered on her face, hoping that her mother would believe her.
"That's good to hear, dear." The Duchess returned her daughter's smile. "I should let you go do your cadet things."
"I miss you, Mum."
"I miss you, too, dear."
"Tell Dad I love him. Bye." Rhiannon cut the connection. She set down her tablet, then leaned back in her chair. Emotion threatened to overwhelm her, but she kept herself together long enough to clean up her mess and get to her bedroom. Rhiannon collapsed on her bed, burying her head in her pillow. Her brother's birthday always felt like the worst day of her life over the past two years. She missed Gavin so much she hurt. What she would give to see him just one more time.
After a few minutes, Rhiannon pulled herself together again. She shuffled to the bathroom to clean up, dabbing at her eyes with a cold face cloth to reduce the puffiness she saw building. Not completely satisfied that she hid all traces of her crying, she left the bathroom to go sit on the couch to try to rest before afternoon classes began.
The main door opened, letting Miyami and Lars in. Miyami rushed over to Rhiannon's side, concern on her face. "Are you okay?" Miyami asked.
"I'm good," Rhiannon said. She winced when she heard her voice crack.
Lars closed the main door. "I can take a look. I'm not a doctor, but I do have first aid training."
Rhiannon gave the tall man a reassuring smile that she didn't feel. "I'm fine, Lars. I just needed some time alone. Thanks for picking up the cereal, though."
"I used the last of my cereal yesterday morning. Didn't you pick some up yesterday while you were at the base exchange?"
Lars walked over to the kitchenette. "It wasn't me."
Rhiannon looked over to her other roommate. "Miyami?"
"This is the notes all over again," Miyami said.
"Then I should be thanking Ric."
Lars shook his head. "I don't think he's found the exchange yet." He snapped his fingers. "Dusty picked up a lot of food, though."
"Tyler?" Rhiannon got up and stormed to the kitchenette. She pulled out the box of her favourite cereal. "Tyler got this?"
The main door opened. Dusty walked in. She stopped in the middle of the common area when she noticed everyone was looking at her. "Am I interrupting something?"
Rhiannon slammed the box of cereal down on the counter. "What is this?"
"I know it's cereal. How long have you been spying on me?"
Dusty blinked. "What?"
Rhiannon dashed from the kitchenette to grab Tyler by the shoulders. "How long have you been watching me?"
Lars ran to catch up with Rhiannon. "Whoa, let's not--"
"Stow it, Lars!" Rhiannon shoved Dusty, pushing her against the wall. "What are you doing here, you traitor?"
Dusty stared back at Rhiannon, impassive. "Getting my books for the next class."
Rhiannon slammed Dusty into the wall a second time, harder. "I am done with you." She let go of Tyler, then ran out into the hallway. She found herself beside the service lift when she managed to recover from her anger. Running footsteps came from behind her. "Go away."
"Rhiannon." Miyami's tone was soft and low.
"Miyami, go away. Please."
"Do you know what today is? It's my brother's birthday."
"I am so sorry, Rhiannon."
Rhiannon's legs gave out on her. She slid down the wall to the floor. "I miss Gavin so much."
Miyami knelt down beside her roommate. She pulled Rhiannon into a hug. "I know."
Rhiannon let her head fall on to Miyami's shoulder. Her body shook as she sobbed. Miyami just held her, rubbing Rhiannon's shoulders and back, letting her roommate cry herself out.
Lars found the two young women in each other's arms. In a soft tone, he asked, "How is she?"
Rhiannon raised her head. Her cheeks were blotched. "Better. I think I need to get this day over with."
"Where's Tyler?" Miyami asked. "Rhiannon shouldn't have to deal with her right now."
"She packed a bag and left." Lars held out a hand to Rhiannon. "Let me help you up."
Rhiannon took the offered hand. "Thanks, Lars. I'm sorry you had to see all this."
Lars gave Rhiannon a quick hug. "Don't worry about it." He offered his hand to Miyami, helping her to her feet.
"Let's go back to the dorm," Rhiannon said. "There's no need to disturb the neighbours."
"She's watching us, Ric."
"And neither of you saw Dusty at all in classes?"
"If she's left, she's not our problem anymore."
"There's not enough coffee on the planet."