Chapter 9 - Obstacle Course
"Oh, no, dude, I am not digging into this without backup."The next two weeks passed by in a blur of physical training and intense study, leaving each student exhausted, both mentally and physically. The exhaustion left Theta squad too tired to do much with or to each other. Rumours about the major test, the obstacle course, ran the gamut, though. Everything from marching twenty kilometres through some of Tamar's roughest geography to dodging live fire to going through a course on the planet's third moon before running out of air got passed around.
"If I wanted that sort of thing, I'd be at a cutthroat business school."
"Then it's not dumb on your part."
"So maybe me disappearing is the best thing that I can do for her."
The day of the obstacle course, physical training was cancelled. After breakfast, all the first year squads were ordered to remain in their dorm rooms until summoned. One by one, starting with Alpha, the squads were called. Miyami sat at the window, watching the squads trek across the courtyard and out of sight. By mid-morning, she hadn't see any return, just squads summoned.
"What's going on?" she asked. "Why isn't anyone returning?"
"They could still be on the course," Lars said. "We don't know how long it is."
"Alpha was first. We should have seen someone from there. What if they were injured? Or worse?"
Dusty set down her tablet. "We would have heard sirens and you would have seen emergency vehicles."
Miyami shot Dusty a dirty look. "How can you be so calm?"
"It's not calm," Rhiannon said. "Tyler's dead inside."
"You wish, Your Majesticness."
Ric clapped his hands. "Ladies, we need everyone alive and in one piece when we get called. Neutral corners."
Dusty picked up her tablet again. Rhiannon clenched her fist for a moment, then joined Miyami at the window. "Ignore her. And don't let your nerves get to you. No one told us, but learning how to cope with the 'hurry up and wait' of the military is an asset. We're probably going to be marked on how nervous we look."
"I'm not nervous." Miyami forced herself to laugh. "Much." Another squad marched across the courtyard. "Looks like Iota's up."
"Wait, Iota?" Ric said. "Are you sure?"
Rhiannon peered down at the squad. "I see Lars' friend there."
Lars leaned against the counter in the kitchenette. "I wish her the best of luck."
"No, guys. Iota," Ric said. "Comes after Theta, not before."
Rhiannon looked over to Ric. "Maybe we're being called randomly?"
"I don't think so. Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta Squads all went in order." Miyami pushed away from the window. "Do you think they forgot us?"
Lars shrugged. "How? It's not like the alphabet is difficult."
"And we are memorable," Ric added. "And we're getting worked up. That's not going to help us. They're just trying to throw us off our game. Good thing we're ready, right?"
"Really, Ric?" Rhiannon shook her head. "We don't need a pep talk."
"We need a break," Lars said.
"Guys, we've got this. They're just trying to see if we're determined to succeed." Ric walked over to Miyami and threw his arm around her shoulders. "The last two weeks were to stretch our limits. We kept going."
Lars sat down at the table. "On auto-pilot."
Miyami turned her attention back to the courtyard. "What if we fail?"
Ric gave the young woman a quick squeeze. "We won't. Because we're not going to let each other fail." He looked over at Rhiannon then Dusty. "No one will fail."
The public address system came to life. "Theta Squad, report to the obstacle course. Theta Squad, to the obstacle course."
"That's us. We're going to march there and we're going to set records!"
Lars got to his feet. "March?"
Ric grinned. "Yes, march. We're going to form up properly and we are going to march there like we know what we're doing."
The squad made their way outside. With Ric's prodding, they fell into two lines, Miyami and Rhiannon on the left, Dusty and Lars on the right. Ric took point, leading them with a cadence. They arrived at the gate to the obstacle course and were greeted by Sergeant Chang. Ric called for the unit to halt. "Theta Squad reporting as ordered!"
"Impressive, cadets." Sergeant Chang chuckled. "Okay, you clowns, Major Novak is waiting for you in briefing room two."
"Thank you, Sergeant." Ric turned to face the rest of his squad. "Theta Squad, you heard the Sergeant. Briefing room two." He turned to face the proper direction. "By the left, quick march!"
Theta Squad entered the small building. Briefing room two was the first door on the right. Once inside, Ric saluted Major Novak and called the squad to attention. "Theta Squad reporting as ordered, sir!"
"At ease." Major Novak walked around the squad, examining them. "Nice form. Parade drill isn't all what we're looking for today. The confidence course will determine if you have what it takes to be an officer in the Foot Guard. You have been training for this moment ever since you arrived. Not everyone is cut out to be in the Guard. Success means you continue here and start your studies. However, failure here is not dishonourable, unless you do not apply yourself. If you put in an honest effort, know that you will still have my respect.
"Today's test will measure your and your squad mate's fitness and determination. There is a time limit, but I will not tell you what it is. You and you alone must make the judgment of how hard to push yourself. Medics are standing by if you are injured. Any questions, Theta Squad?"
Miyami held up her hand. "Sir."
"Sir, are we being timed individually or as a squad?"
"Yes." Major Novak checked the time. "Squad, attention!" All of Theta stood straight. "When I dismiss you, head into the hall and to your right, then go straight through the door at the end. Report to Commandant Orman outside. Good luck, cadets. Squad, dismissed!"
Ric ushered the rest of Theta Squad out into the hallway, then urged the group into a jog. Heading outside, they found the Commandant standing with Commander Haag. Theta Squad came to attention right away. "Sir, Theta Squad reporting," Ric bellowed.
"Good enthusiasm, Cadet," Commander Haag said. "Are you ready?"
"Sir, yes, sir!"
Commandant Orman beamed. "Excellent. Form up over at the green flag," he pointed at the marker, "and wait for the signal. Good luck, cadets."
"Thank you, sir," Ric said. He led the squad over to the green flag. "Okay, we can do this."
Lars looked down at the first obstacle on the course, a series of tubes at different heights off the ground. "If I fit."
"Lars, dude, we can do this. This is what we're here to do. There's no turning back now."
"And if you get stuck, Rhiannon and I will push you through. Miyami, you remembered the grease, right?"
Miyami looked puzzled. "The what?"
Ric deflated a little. "It's a joke. I'm trying to lighten the mood."
Rhiannon shook her head in dismay. "Maybe another time, Ric."
A siren blared, a single long tone. "That's us," Ric said. "Let's go!"
The squad ran towards the first obstacle. Ric dove into the first tube, sliding a third of the way through it before he had to start crawling. He emerged, head first, from the other end and found the next tube. "Keep going. Don't wait for someone to get all the way through. Rhiannon, let's go!"
Rhiannon crawled through the tube. When she got halfway, Miyami followed. Ric helped Rhiannon out, pointing her to the next tube. Lars leapt into the first tube, causing it to creak. Miyami came out and followed Rhiannon into the next. Dusty brought up the rear, giving Lars enough space to crawl without getting herself kicked by accident.
After crawling through five tubes in total, the squad ran to the next obstacle. A large pool with a rope hanging down from a crossbeam and hanging loose on a stand. Miyami stared at the pool. "We have to cross that?"
"We do," Ric said. "Lars, you first. Catch us when we swing over."
"Ric, what if we land in the water?" Miyami asked.
Ric shrugged. "Then we get wet and have to wade the rest of the way."
Lars grabbed the rope from the stand. He stepped back as far as the rope would let him, then ran at the pool. With a mighty leap, he cleared the pool, swinging all the way to the other side. The tall man threw the rope back. "Ready."
Ric caught the rope. "Great! Miyami, you're next." He held out the rope to the young woman.
"You can do it!"
Dubious, Miyami still took the rope. She couldn't get the running start that Lars had, but she still picked up some speed before she tries to swing across. The arc of her swing, though, didn't quite carry far enough. Miyami landed in the water, splashing Lars. He reached to help her out of the pool. When the rope came close enough, he snagged it then threw it back to Ric.
Rhiannon looked further down the obstacle course. "Ric, I'm going to check on the next obstacle."
"Great!" Ric gave Rhiannon a thumbs up, then turned to Dusty. "Your turn."
"No. Ric, you first."
Ric held out the rope. "Dusty, go. We're doing this as a team. No one's being allowed to lag."
"That's not--" Dusty took the rope. "Fine." She took the same running start the others had, leapt, and swung over the pool. She held on as long as possible, then let go. Lars caught her and set her down on her feet. Dusty looked back at Ric.
"Guys, go catch up to Rhiannon. Lars, the rope?"
"On it." Lars tossed the rope back to Ric. "Come on, Dusty. Let's go."
Dusty shook her head no. "Go ahead. I'll help Ric."
"Lars, go. Please."
Lars hesitated, then ran after Miyami. Dusty watched as Ric took his swing across. She grabbed his arm to steady him when he landed.
Once sure of his footing, Ric shot Dusty a quick grin. "Let's go. Time's ticking." He ran to catch up with Rhiannon. Dusty followed on his heels.
Rhiannon waited at the next obstacle, a rope bridge over a deep ditch. The bridge swayed as Lars crossed it. "Looked simple enough. Miyami's checking out the next one."
Ric examined the rope bridge. "Looks strong enough."
"Lars started when Miyami got halfway across." Rhiannon pulled at one of the strands bracing the bridge. "Some tension, not much. We could do three at a time."
"Works for me. Rhiannon, you're next. Dusty, follow her."
"No, Ric, you first," Dusty said. "Really."
Rhiannon shot a glare at Dusty. "Whatever. Just don't fall behind, Tyler." She stepped up to bridge, then took a tentative stride on to it. Seeing that the rope didn't break, Rhiannon continued down the bridge.
Ric watched as Rhiannon made her way across. "Dusty," he began.
"I'm not going to fall behind," Dusty said. "No one's going to fail because of me."
"I know. I hope you're including you in the not failing."
"Better get going before Her Imperialness yells at you, too."
"Say that to my face, Tyler!"
"Ladies, please?" Ric got up to the bridge. Seeing Rhiannon about a third of the way across, he stepped on the rope bridge. "See you on the other side, Dusty."
At the other end, Lars jumped down. He turned, waiting for the rest to catch up. Rhiannon made good time getting across, joining Lars. She glanced back as Dusty got started on the bridge. Ric waved for Lars and Rhiannon to keep going; both of them ran off to find Miyami.
The swaying of the bridge grew stronger as a gust of wind hit. Ric froze in place to keep his balance. Dusty kept moving, her pace slowed but still steady. The wind died down, letting Ric to get moving again. When he reached the end of the bridge. Dusty was only a few metres behind him. He jumped down, then waited for his squad mate.
Dusty joined Ric on the ground. "You didn't have to wait."
"I know. I'm just not letting you fail, either." He nodded at where Lars and Rhiannon went. "Let's go."
When they caught up, they saw Rhiannon, Miyami, and Lars standing in front of a climbing wall towering easily ten metres into the air with a number of hand- and footholds. "Wow," Ric said.
"Yeah." Miyami walked over to Ric. "And there's no safety gear besides the helmets we're wearing. I don't know if I can climb that."
"Who are our best climbers?"
Lars raised his hand. "Me and Dusty. We could go up first and see how bad the climb is."
Miyami gave a bitter laugh. "It looks bad."
"Ric, isn't that about three times the height of a Centurion?" Rhiannon asked.
"Give or take, yeah."
Lars looked at the handholds on the wall. "This isn't too much different from Pa's farm machines."
"Right." Ric stepped back from the wall. "Lars, Dusty, you first. Find a good way up so that the rest of us can follow. Rhiannon, you'll spot with me. Miyami can double up with you to watch Lars."
"Whoa, hey, Ric." Rhiannon flashed Lars a smile. "No offence meant here, Lars, but you're massive. How are Miyami and I supposed to catch him?"
Ric shrugged. "I could spot Lars and you could spot Dusty."
"Right. Lars, which side are you taking?"
Dusty marched to the wall, arms stiff. She looked up at the wall and its handholds, then began climbing. Lars joined her a moment later, taking a different section of the wall to climb.
The climb took agonizing minutes as both Lars and Dusty searched for the best handholds to use. Dusty was the first to pull herself on the ledge. She helped Lars, pulling on his arm as he crested the top. They waved down to the others still on the ground. Out of the corner of her eye, Dusty spotted a coil of rope half hidden by the wall's structure. She pointed it out to Lars, then ran to retrieve the coils.
"Guys, there is rope," Lars called down. "We'll find a place to secure it and throw it down for you."
"Great!" Ric called back. "Rhiannon, Miyami, you're next."
The last two young women waited for the rope to be tossed down to them. Rhiannon chose the same side Lars had and started climbing, hand over hand on the rope. Miyami followed Dusty's path at a slower pace.
Dusty checked on the progress of her squad mates. "Lars, can you help Watanabe? Pull her up, maybe?"
Lars looked down at Miyami. "Need help?"
Miyami paused in her climbing. "Yeah. My hands keep slipping."
"Okay, hold on tight. Climb with your legs, though. It'll help me."
"All right. Ready!"
Lars grabbed the rope and started reeling Miyami up, taking it slow at first then faster as she got used to his rhythm. Miyami passed Rhiannon, who kept making her own way up. Dusty peeked over the ledge. Rhiannon faltered a metre from the top, her legs slipping out from under her. She kept a grip on the rope, but couldn't get her legs back under her as the rope twisted her away from the wall.
Dusty dropped prone on the ledge. She held out her hand to Rhiannon. "Give me your hand!"
Rhiannon looked up at Dusty. "So that you can drop me?"
"I am not going to drop you, Princess. I don't care what you think of me, but I will be damned if you fail. I will not be blamed for your failure today, so give. Me. Your. Hand." Dusty leaned further over the ledge, trying to reach her squad mate.
Rhiannon stared at Dusty's hand. She let one hand go to stretch it upwards. Her fingers met Dusty's. Dusty wrapped her hand around Rhiannon's, holding it tight as she tried to wriggle back from the ledge. "Lars?"
"Right." Lars grabbed Dusty's legs and pulled her away from the ledge. "I'm massive?"
"There's two of us here," Rhiannon called. She let go of the rope completely. Part of her screamed out about trusting a woman responsible for her brother's death. That part was overruled by her sense of self-preservation which knew she dangled several metres above a very hard ground.
Dusty grabbed Rhiannon's other hand with her own free one. With Lars pulling, they both got Rhiannon safely on the ledge. Both women panted from the exertion. They remained lying on the ledge until Ric joined the group. "Really, lying down on the job?"
"Just waiting for you," Rhiannon said, huffing. She got to her feet. "Ready?"
"I was going to ask you and Dusty that."
"Ready." Dusty pushed herself up.
Miyami peered into the distance. "Finish line is up ahead, across the field."
Lars groaned. "Great."
"We made it this far," Ric said. "We can jog the rest of the way. Let's go!" He ran towards the field. Miyami and Lars followed, trying to match his pace.
Rhiannon turned to Dusty. "Never call me 'Princess' again." When she saw Dusty open her mouth to speak, she added, "Or 'Your Imperialness'." Rhiannon jogged, running a little faster to catch up.
Dusty stared at the rest of her squad. She broke into a run to keep up.
The field itself was uneven, the ground hidden beneath tall grasses turning golden brown as Tamar's autumn began. The squad's pace slowed as they dealt with unexpected bumps and dips. Miyami stumbled, but was held up by Lars before she could fall. The finish line beckoned. Students from the squads that already finished the course cheered. Ric slowed his pace. "Okay, guys. We cross the finish line together."
"Want us to link arms?" Rhiannon asked, sarcasm lacing her tone.
Ric's face brightened. "Great idea! Everyone, link up!" He wrapped his arm around Rhiannon's waist.
"Just watch what you touch." Rhiannon snaked her right arm around Ric's shoulder, then her left around Miyami's. Miyami joined up with Lars, who linked with Dusty. As a squad, they crossed the finish line.
Dusty slipped away from the rest of Theta Squad. She caught her breath and wiped the sweat from her forehead. Her body threatened to ache if she stopped moving for too long, so she kept walking. The exertion of running the obstacle course started to catch up with her. Her arms twitched, muscles rebelling. Dusty looked around for a canteen. She saw a stand with several coolers. With effort, she made her way over to get a drink. The water was cool as it went down her throat, sending shivers through the rest of her body. The second cup of water, she drank slower, savouring it.
Miyami joined her at the stand. "Hey."
"Can I ask you a question?"
Dusty shrugged. "Depends on the question."
Miyami helped herself to a cup of water. "Back at the wall, did you mean it?"
"That you didn't want Rhiannon to fail?"
Dusty closed her eyes. "I don't want to be the reason why she fails. There's a difference."
Miyami took a sip of her water. "I'm not seeing it."
"It means, if Cadet Tudor fails, it's because of what she did or didn't do, not because I did something. She's her own woman."
"You weren't going to drop her."
Dusty tried to smile, maintaining one for a few moments. "I wasn't going to drop her."
"But why provoke her?"
"I have my reasons."
"But you're not going to tell me." Miyami finished her water and poured herself a second cup.
Miyami sighed. "Okay, then maybe you can help me with this. A few weeks ago, I received a set of notes from a class, but there's absolutely no trace to them. I can't tell who sent them or how they got to my tablet."
Dusty took a sip. "Were they notes you needed?"
"That's not the point. Someone was able to hack my tablet. /My/ tablet. I thought I had that more secure than the royal bed chambers."
"Maybe your tablet wasn't hacked."
Miyami narrowed her eyes. "Do you know who sent me those notes?"
"Really, Tyler? You're going to play these games? Who sent those notes."
"You?" The anger drained from Miyami's face. "How?"
"I didn't hack your tablet. I've hacked mine. It doesn't send identifying data."
"You can do that?"
Dusty shrugged. "Not exactly."
"I saw that you were distracted and Major Novak tends to quiz us from what he says." Dusty finished her cup of water. "And I caught a glimpse of the program you were using. It's obsolete."
Miyami looked around. "What are you going to do?"
Dusty found a smile that could stay. "Watanabe, I know what it's like to have secrets. We all have them. Yours is yours, no one else's. I don't see a need to tell anyone."
"You're going to hold it over my head."
"I am going to forget what I saw. It was none of my business. But I'd upgrade that program if I were you."
"Go have fun, okay, Watanabe? We got through the obstacle course. You made it. Go celebrate that."
Miyami set down her cup. "I really don't get you, Tyler."
"I know. I don't get me, either."
When the last squad, Zeta, crossed the finish line, Commandant Orman dismissed the first year students to go get cleaned up and wait for the results. Theta Squad gathered in their dorm, dealing with the wait in their own separate manners. Miyami alternated between staring out the window and staring at her tablet. Ric bounced around the room with nervous energy. Lars sprawled on the couch, drumming its arm with his fingers. Rhiannon sat poised at the dorm's dining table, reading on her tablet. Dusty disappeared into the room she shared with Lars and Ric, napping.
"Why is this taking so long?" Miyami said.
"It's the Guard," Rhiannon answered. "They do things on their timetable, not anyone else's."
"It's the 'hurry up and wait' we saw this morning," Ric added. "Anyone want coffee?"
"You've had enough."
"I've only had one and that was before the obstacle course. I might be coffee deprived."
"I could use one," Lars said.
"Good. I'll get it for you."
Rhiannon stretched. "And put water on for Tyler."
Miyami turned her attention to Rhiannon. "Rhiannon? That's--"
"I owe her that. Just that." Rhiannon sighed. "She's a bloody enigma. And a royal pain in the ass, too."
Ric gout out two coffee mugs from the cupboard. "Do you blame her for not telling us anything?"
"She owes us an explanation."
"I don't need one." Ric filled the mugs with coffee. "Black, right, Lars?"
"Yeah." Lars got up to get his mug.
"Ric-- You know what? Never mind."
Ric added cream and two sugars to his coffee. "Rhiannon, I understand. You deserve the explanation. You have the history with her, not me."
"Still," Miyami added, "Tyler's a little odd."
"Maybe." Ric took a sip of his coffee. "I'm more worried about her emotional state. She's wound a little tight."
Rhiannon set down her tablet. "They say confession is good for the soul." Her tablet vibrated on the table. She checked the message appearing. "Looks like the final decision is in." Rhiannon read the details. "I passed. Everyone else?"
Miyami checked her own tablet. "Yeah!"
Lars read his message. "Um, guys, what squad are you assigned to?"
"What's up, dude? Didn't you pass?" Ric picked up his tablet.
"Yeah, I passed. Just check, okay?"
Rhiannon's eyes narrowed. "Fifth Squad. Why?"
"Same here," Miyami said.
"Me, too, dude," Ric added. "You?"
"Yeah," Lars said. "Now look at where our new dorm is. We don't move."
Ric beamed. "Maybe we worked so well as a team, the brass wants to keep us together."
"Could be normal," Miyami said, but doubt settled in as an undertone in her statement.
"I'll ask Susanna if she's still with her team." Lars typed up a quick message.
Rhiannon stood up. She groaned as she straightened. "I need a long soak tonight. Anyway, someone should wake up Napping Beauty."
From Lars and Ric's bedroom, Dusty said, "I'm already awake."
"What squad are you on?" Lars asked, raising his voice to reach through the door.
The incoming mail sound chimed on Lars' tablet. He read the message. "Susanna's got all new squad mates. She's in Seventh and has to move."
Miyami tapped at her tablet. "Okay, new forum posts on the message board. A bunch of us wondering who they're going to be bunking with."
Dusty emerged from the bedroom, smoothing down her clothes. "How many are asking?"
"Let me refresh." Miyami counted the new posts. "Looks like a third of the class."
The public address system crackled. "Attention all first year students. You will be given the rest of the afternoon to move to your new dorm rooms. Once moved, report to the Administration Building to receive your four day pass. Students who did not pass may pack and assemble in the courtyard. Even if you will not be continuing, know that you did your best. The Colonel KL Terin Military Academy salutes you, your efforts, and your honour and wishes you the best in your future endeavours."
Ric downed the rest of his coffee. "Well, looks like we get a head start on our four day pass."