Mecha Academy - Episode 2 - By Your Leave
Chapter 2 - Out and About
"A whirlwind adventure!"When Ric woke up, he was the only one in Lars' room. He got dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of jeans before shambling downstairs. Halfway down, he caught whiff of the smell bacon wafting up. He followed the smell to the kitchen, where Lars' mother was bustling around. Seeing Ric, Heidi pointed over at the coffee urn. "Still hot."
"I wasn't going to surprise my folks with a small army."
"You haven't had the luxury of being a tourist since your parents' defection."
"Ma might have gone overboard."
"You are a saint," Ric said. He grabbed a mug from the counter and filled it with coffee. "Is anyone else up?"
"My boys are already out in the field." Heidi grabbed a plate from a cupboard. "They'll be done in an hour. Sit. I'll get you breakfast."
Ric did as he was told. As he added a cream and two sugars into his coffee, Heidi slid a plate of bacon and scrambled eggs in front of him. He stared at the size of the helping. "Oh, Mrs. Thorensen, this is too much."
"Nonsense. You'll have a busy day today. It's good to have a hearty breakfast. What do they feed you at school?"
"We have a mess hall." Ric tasted his breakfast. "Too bad they don't have you there. I'd eat breakfast more often."
"Flatterer." Heidi grinned. "Eat up. There's plenty."
Miyami shuffled into the kitchen, stifling a yawn. "Morning, Ric. Mrs. Thorensen." She parked herself opposite Ric at the table. "I don't think I've slept that well in a while."
"I tell you, morning comes too early," Ric said. "We should petition it to come later."
"Good morning, Miyami." Heidi place a plate of breakfast in front of the young woman.
Miyami stared at the food. "Um, thanks?"
"Eat up," Ric said. "It's amazing."
"Feels weird to eat without being exhausted."
"Lars tells me about the morning exercises," Heidi said. "So, what plans do you have today?"
Ric took a drink of his coffee. "I was hoping to get to the fair today."
"Ah, the fair, the big tourist attraction." Heidi laughed. "You'll enjoy it. The Landers this year have gone all out. They want to show up the Heiburgs this time around."
Rhiannon entered the kitchen, awake and aware. "Good morning. Susanna's on her way down. Where's Lars?"
"Out working already," Ric said.
"Figures." Rhiannon sat down. "Lars is always the first one up in the dorm."
"You share a room?" Heidi asked.
Ric set down his coffee. "Sort of. There's two bedrooms. Well, technically three, but one's boarded up. Lars and I share one room, Rhiannon and Miyami another."
Heidi set out a plate for Rhiannon. "And Susanna?"
"She's in a different squad." Ric looked over to Rhiannon and Miyami.
Miyami swallowed her bit of eggs. "Seventh, I think."
"We just had some shuffles," Rhiannon added.
Susanna arrived, her hair still somewhat tangled from sleep. "I smelled bacon."
Heidi beamed. "Sit, please. I'll get you breakfast. There's coffee in the urn."
Susanna sat down beside Ric. "Lars still asleep?"
"The dude's out already," Ric said.
"The boys will be back soon." Heidi walked to the kitchen's entryway. "Lisbet? Lisbet, are you up?"
Lars' sister came in from outside. "Yeah, Ma. What's up?"
"Are your chores done?"
"I just put the eggs away. Oh, great! Coffee's ready!" Lisbet darted to the urn.
Rhiannon looked down at her breakfast. "Are these from your farm?"
"Of course." Heidi prepared a plate for both Susanna and Lisbet. "Lisbet takes care of them."
Lisbet walked over to the table, coffee steaming in her mug. "I've got hay fever. Makes it miserable to be out in the fields with Pa."
"Do you want any help while we're here?" Rhiannon asked. "I mean, it's not like we're doing anything."
Heidi waved off the suggestion. "You're here on break. You're guests of Lars. Don't worry. Besides, you'll need your energy for today. Eat."
Lars, his father Karl, and his brother Bjorn stomped inside, stopping to take off their boots. "Hey, you're up!" Lars said.
"Morning, Lars," Susanna said.
"Boys, go get cleaned. Breakfast is ready."
Karl stopped long enough to kiss Heidi on the cheek before heading upstairs. Bjorn trailed after him. Lars lingered. "Don't rush eating. The best time to get to the fair is after lunch. Everything will be set up then."
"Go on, Lars," Heidi said. "Don't make your friends wait."
Ric smiled. "We're good, Mrs. Thorensen. I haven't had a breakfast like this in a long time."
Dusty finished her second piece of toast, washing it down with the last of her tea. She tidied up her dishes, a small plate, her now empty teacup, and a knife, leaving it on the tray for housekeeping to take away later. The day ahead loomed in front of her. Hours to fill, something she hadn't had to worry about for some time. Dusty looked over at the bed. As tempting as it was to go back to sleep, she wasn't tired, and the Commander wanted her to get out. Dusty forced herself to get up from the chair. She grabbed her jacket and tablet, then left the hotel room.
With no real direction in mind, Dusty wandered away from the hotel. She caught sight of the ocean, so she turned in its direction. The sun felt warm on her face despite the chill of autumn in the air. Traffic started to build as the morning rush hour started. Dusty thrust her hands into her jacket's pockets to keep warm.
After an hour of walking, the call of nature intruded on Dusty's solitude. She kept walking, keeping an eye out for something open to the public. Spying a coffee shop down the road, Dusty hurried her pace, getting inside and into the women's washroom with some time to spare.
After she washed up, she joined the queue to order. The walk kept her somewhat warm, but Dusty just wanted to sit for a bit and rest before continuing her wanderings. The line moved quick, and soon Dusty placed her order for a herbal tea. She took her tea and found a seat in a corner. Settling in, she took out her tablet to keep reading.
After an hour, Dusty reached the end of her current novella. She set down her tablet to stretch. The tablet vibrated with an incoming call. Dusty picked it up and answered. "Hello?"
"Good morning, Dusty," Commander Haag said.
Dusty straightened up in her chair. "Good morning, sir."
"Relax, Dusty. You're on leave, remember?"
"I do, sir."
"I hope you're not still in your hotel room."
"No, sir. I'm in a coffee shop." Dusty turned the tablet to let the Commander see her surroundings. "I was just walking around."
Commander Haag smiled. "Good. I'll leave you to it. Keep being a tourist, Dusty, okay?"
"I will, sir."
"And take care of yourself. Haag out." The connection broke.
Dusty smiled as she put away her tablet.
Lars found a parking spot where he could set down his parents' van. The turbofans spun down once he shut the engine off. "Here we are!"
Rhiannon looked out at the makeshift parking lot set up in a field. To her left, she saw the main gates for the fair, with a grav Ferris wheel towering over the buildings scattered beyond. "It looks like the entire town came out."
"Just wait until tonight," Lars said.
Ric opened his door. Once out, he helped Abby and Miyami. Rhiannon left the van on her side. "How do we do this?"
"I figured we'd split up this afternoon, then meet up near the front. I wanted to check out the livestock."
"Livestock?" Susanna wrinkled her nose.
"It won't take long. And some are cute."
Ric hooked his arm around Abby's. "I was hoping to hit the rides."
"Let's not hit them too fast, fly boy," Abby said. She gave Ric a peck on the cheek. "You promised me a prize, remember?"
"I'll get you one."
"When do we meet up?" Rhiannon asked.
"How does seventeen hundred sound?" Lars said. "That gives us plenty of time to look around and do what we want."
Rhiannon nodded. "That works for me. Ric? Miyami?"
"I'll remind him," Abby said.
Lars led the group to the main gates. Once the admission was paid, the troop split up, going their own directions. Rhiannon watched as her squad mates disappeared into the crowd, only Miyami lingering. "Not sure what you want?" Rhiannon asked.
Miyami shrugged. "I don't see the draw, really."
"City girl, right?"
"So pretend you're exploring a new planet." Rhiannon smiled. "This is my first time at a fair, too." She began walking.
Miyami fell in beside Rhiannon. "You must have been to something similar."
"Similar, yes. But it was always with my family, so it wasn't quite real. Any time the Duke made an official visit to anywhere, it because a huge event and got stage managed. So we got to see things but not experience them."
"That's why you just want to be Cadet Rhiannon."
"In part. I also don't want to be more than a friend of Lars to his family. You saw how Mrs. Thorensen was last night and this morning.
Miyami laughed. "I like Lars' mom. She makes me miss mine a bit."
"Now imagine if she knew who I was. We'd still be eating last night's dinner. I'm still stuffed, and then breakfast this morning? I'm glad we skipped lunch."
"Sergeant Chang is going to work us hard if she hears about this."
Rhiannon trilled her laugh. "So, tell me about your parents, Miyami. You know all about mine, probably better than I do."
"Well, Mom and Dad work hard. Really hard. They own a small business and that takes up most of their day, and that's before us kids come into play."
"How many siblings?"
"There's six of us total, including me."
"Six?" Rhiannon's eyes widened. "And running a business? How do they manage?"
Miyami shrugged. "I think that's why they had so many of us. We help out when we can. But it's been tough the past few years. That's why I'm in the academy. No tuition."
Rhiannon gave her squad mate a quick hug. "If there's anything I can do to help, let me know."
"It's fine, Rhiannon. Having one less mouth to feed means they focus more on keeping the business going. I'm also sending home some of my pay to help out. Motoki, my older brother, is doing the same."
"Still, let me know, okay?" Rhiannon stopped at a booth filled with stuffed toys hanging from the rafters. "This looks interesting." She stepped up to the counter. "How do I play?"
The carnie looked her over. "For five credits, you get three shots. Each time you hit the bull's eye, you get a prize."
Rhiannon pulled a five credit coin from her pocket. "I'll try."
"The little lady is stepping up, folks!" The carnie loaded three light rounds into a small rifle. "Take you best shot!" He stepped aside.
"Thank you." Rhiannon raised the rifle, taking the time to get into the stance that Sergeant Chang had drilled into the first year students. She took aim at the target, about two centimetres in diameter, exhaled, and shot. A small hole appeared three or four centimetres below the bull's eye. Rhiannon chambered the next round. She shifted her aim up. Her second shot clipped the top of the bull's eye. With a slight smile, Rhiannon chambered her last round. She made a small adjustment and fired her final round. The shot pierced the target slightly off centre but well inside the bull's eye. Rhiannon handed the rifle back to the carnie.
"You've got a good eye," the carnie said. He waved along the side wall. "Anything you see there."
Rhiannon spotted a bright orange stuffed animal that looked like a cartoon crossing of a cat and a bear. She pointed it out for the carnie. "That one, please. Miyami, do you want to try?"
"I'm good, thanks."
The carnie handed the stuffed animal to Rhiannon. "Want to try again."
"Maybe later." Rhiannon gave him one of her public smiles, then walked away.
Miyami matched her friend's pace. "That seemed easy."
"The rifle's aim is off. It's a little low."
"And that's why you're acing marksmanship."
Dusty checked the address on the card Gina had given her last night with the one on the building in front of her. The structure didn't look like what she expected for a spa; the building was a low structure, one storey, split into a number of storefront. With a mental shrug, Dusty went inside. The receptionist greeted her, then returned to her call. Once she was done, she turned her full attention on the newcomer.
"Welcome to Sheltered Escapes."
"Hi," Dusty said. "I was hoping to see what massage options you have. Gina over at Rorik's recommended this place."
"Gina? Oh, Karina's cousin. He's not in today."
"That's okay. I don't have an appointment, though. Will that be a problem?"
The receptionist took a look at the schedule on her tablet. "We're booked up for massages today. We do have packages that don't include them. Would that work for you?"
Dusty shrugged. "Sure. I mean, this is spur of the moment."
"Give me a few minutes and I'll get things set up."
The receptionist disappeared into the back. Dusty took a seat and looked around. A number of posters lined the walls, displaying different hair styles and ads for hair and skin care products. Part of her disapproved; a stop at a spa was frivolous, a waste, she had to keep moving. Dusty dismissed the protest; it came from being on the run for two years. The Commander was right; she needed time to relax and be used to being her own person.
Dusty perked up when the receptionist returned. She was led to the back, where she was given a robe and shown where to change. Dusty emerged from the change room, the fluffy purple robe wrapped tight around her. The receptionist handed her off to someone named Tobias, who brought her to a well padded chair lit by bright lights.
"Please, have a seat," Tobias said. "Anna said you were looking for a package."
Dusty nodded. "I thought it might be nice to be pampered." She sat down, making sure her robe didn't open.
"Of course, of course." Tobias pulled over a stool. "Let me see your hand." Dusty held out her hand. Tobias turned it over, examining it, giving it a slight squeeze. He did the same with Dusty's other hand and her feet. "You are tense. And your hands look rough. What do you do with them?"
"I'm a student at the KL Terin Academy."
"You need a proper manicure, something to strengthen your nails. I'll also add in a foot massage and pedicure. Maybe you want something done with your hair?"
Dusty looked at her reflection in the mirror. Her hair was loose for a change, just draping over her shoulders. "Please, something shorter."
"I'll let you look for a cut while I'm busy with your hands." Tobias picked up a pair of adhesive pads. "Let me put these on you."
"What are they?" Dusty eyed the pads with suspicion.
Tobias gave the young woman a smile to ease her. "They're just to give your temples a massage. I need you fully relaxed and this will help." He placed the pads on the sides of Dusty's head. "Ready?"
Dusty nodded. The pads buzzed on her temples; she felt the noise more than she heard it. She leaned back in her chair. Tobias gave her a tablet with a window open showing different hair styles. As he worked on her right hand, Dusty used her left to scroll through the offerings. She stopped on a bob cut; the model's hair ended right at her chin. Dusty checked a few more pictures, then returned to the bob cut. "This one." She showed the cut to Tobias.
"You have a very good eye." He took the tablet from the young woman, then switched to her left hand. "Sit back and close your eyes. Enjoy the moment."
When the group met back up at the fair's main entrance, Abby had an armful of stuffed toys, Susanna had an armful of Lars, Miyami and Rhiannon had a few prizes, and Ric had a grin. "Seventeen hundred," he said. "Just like we agreed."
Miyami stared at the loot in Abby's arms. "What did you do, rob a booth?"
"Ric and I had an amazing day once I got him off the rides," Abby said.
"I didn't hear you complaining about the roller coaster, even after the third time on it," Ric said.
"I saw all the baby animals," Susanna said. "They were cute. Even if they smelled awful."
Lars smiled. "Farm life isn't all roses."
"They barn could have used a ton of roses. Really. So, Rhiannon, Miyami, what did you two do?"
Miyami held up a stuffed square apple. "Tried a few games, went on a few rides, checked out the tech demo. I didn't know you guys used legged mecha here."
"Sort of, Miyami," Lars said. "The controls are probably the same, but ours have four legs for stability. Makes it easier to get through a field with a delicate crop without crushing a few thousand credits worth of stock."
"We're not going to be able to carry all this around," Abby said. "Can we put it in the van?"
"And then can we go eat?" Miyami added. "I'm starved. I couldn't eat lunch because of the large breakfast."
Lars took the group back to the van. They placed their winnings in the back. Returning, Lars led them deeper into the fairgrounds. The crowd grew thicker, as did the smell of cooking. Lars found the sign he searched for and bright the troop over to a booth labelled Landers And Children. He recognized the young woman with long, braided red hair in the booth. "Vesta!"
Hearing her name, the young woman looked around. "Lars?"
The group stopped at the booth. "Vesta, these are my friends, Susanna, Ric, Abby, Rhiannon, and Miyami. We're in town this weekend for the fair. Guys, this is Vesta. She graduated from school with me."
Vesta waved to the group. "Hi. I heard you got in the military academy."
"We've got a pass for the weekend." Lars smiled.
Susanna pressed in close to him. "They've kept us so busy."
"Granddad's been busy all day, keeping the roast going." Vesta glanced back. "Should be ready. Six plates?"
As Vesta went to get the order, Susanna nudged Lars in the stomach. "You never told me about her."
"She's a friend."
Rhiannon stepped closer. "Lars, I don't think Vesta would agree."
"You are so oblivious." Susanna kissed Lars on the cheek. "Don't ever change."
Vesta returned with a tray holding six plates of finely sliced meat. "The prime cut." She set the tray down in front of Lars. "Let's see the Heiburgs top this. Granddad's been working on his sauces all year, and this year's spices had a bumper crop for a change." Vesta handed a plate and utensils to Lars. "Here you go."
Lars cut off a small piece of meat to taste. He let the morsel linger, savouring the seasonings before swallowing. "Your Granddad outdid himself. Guys, try this!"
Ric dove in, eating a slice without cutting it up. Once he swallowed, he said, "I'm going to retire here. Abby, try it!"
Rhiannon kept a straight face as she ate her bite. "A little strong for me."
Susanna chewed for a moment. "I'm not sure." Seeing Vesta's glare, she added, "I'm from the coast. If this was seafood, I'd be able to tell you."
"It's good, Vesta," Lars said.
"Really good," Ric added. "I don't suppose we could kidnap your Granddad for a week?"
Rhiannon rolled her eyes. "Thank you, Vesta. It is good. Just a little spicy for me."
Miyami finished her plate. "Can I get more, please?" She saw all eyes turn to her. "I'm hungry."
Vesta smiled. "I'll let Granddad know." She took Miyami's plate to get more for the young woman.
"Really, dude," Ric said, "How does everyone stay so fit here?"
Lars shrugged. "We don't always eat this well. It's not like we roast an entire bovine for dinner every day. We'd run out."
Susanna stared at her plate. "Bovine?"
"Meat comes from them."
"Like the cute little ones we saw?"
"We don't eat them that young."
"But they're so cute!"
"I'll take you to see a full grown one tomorrow morning."
Dusty returned to her hotel room, her hands and feet feeling refreshed. She was refreshed, she had to admit to herself. The entire afternoon spent being attended to. A day of not being anyone. She dropped jacket on the back of a chair. As she walked, she spied a stranger lurking in the room. She jumped back, falling over the bed. The stranger disappeared. Cautiously, she rolled off the bed, keeping an eye out for the intruder. Dusty caught movement behind the dresser. She stopped; the only thing behind the dresser besides the wall was the mirror. Feeling the adrenaline drain, she walked over to the mirror. She didn't recognize the person staring back right away. Dusty ran her fingers through what was left of her air. "What have I done?" she murmured.
She sat on the edge of the bed. Her hair, something she always got compliments for when she was ten years younger, gone. The decision was spur of the moment. She was getting attention. She was making her own decisions. She was cutting away her past. Why did all that not feel right?
It was so easy, once upon a time. All Dusty had to do before her parents defected was live her life. She didn't have to worry about how someone else felt about a decision she had no input on. And even after, she could have stayed with her family.
It was always that yet. Dusty always knew that something was wrong with her life. Somehow, even before going to the Grand Republic, she knew that her parents were hiding something. Now, she wanted to make things right. How could she when she couldn't even manage something like getting her hair cut?
Dusty grabbed her tablet and sent a quick message to Commander Haag. /I've made a mistake./
"The goal is to win the fight."
"You kept your top on all night, if that's what you're worried about."
"Lars, how big is the police force here?"
"It's just a knife."