Episode 2 - By Your Leave
Chapter 4 - Back to School
"The power of caffeine."
"You kept your top on all night, if that's what you're worried about."
"You should call for an ambulance."
A buzz intruded on Dusty's sleep. She rolled over on her side, eyes still shut, and reached out to find the cause of the intrusion. Her hand found her tablet, vibrating with an incoming call. "Hello?" When the buzz continued, she tapped at her tablet a few times before the call connected. "Hello?"
"Good morning, Dusty. It's Commander Haag. I didn't wake you, did I?"
"No, sir." Dusty pushed herself up in her bed. "I should be awake anyway."
The Commander laughed. "I hope you're enjoying your leave."
"I am, sir."
"I hate to cut your time off short, but the Commandant will be issuing a recall order later this morning. Have you seen the news from Vaughan's Landing?"
"Yes, sir. Cadets stopped a robbery. And, yes, sir, I know they are my squad mates. Sir, may I ask why we're being recalled?"
"This is completely unofficial and you haven't heard it from me, but the pistols used in the robbery are from the Grand Republic."
Dusty opened her eyes. "Sir? Are you sure? I know the news mentioned laser pistols, but I didn't think they were Republican."
"I checked with my connections here and they confirmed the make and model. Sorry, Dusty."
Dusty swung her legs out from under her blankets. "Should I be worried, sir?"
"Not right now, no. However, my connections also told me about an unusual medical report in Shelter Cove. Two men, known minor criminals and associates of each other, went to emergency rooms with injuries that the doctors say came from a fight. They're both known to work in the area near your hotel."
"Oh. Are the police looking for the person who injured them?"
Commander Haag chuckled. "I was going to tell you to be careful, Dusty. Did you happen to dislocate someone's shoulder yesterday?"
"It was self-defense, sir."
"That's what I like to hear." Commander Haag paused. "I do have one question for you. You sent me a message about making a mistake? I haven't heard anything since. Are you all right, Dusty?"
Dusty gathered her blankets around her, covering up her nightwear, a sports bra and track pants. She picked up her tablet and turned on her camera. "I went to a spa like you suggested, sir, and, well, I don't know, sir." She turned her neck left and right to let the Commander see her new haircut.
"That suits you, Dusty. I don't think you made a mistake."
Dusty smiled. "Thank you, sir."
"Be ready to leave. The order will give a time when you're due back, but it doesn't hurt to have everything ready to go before then."
"Yes, sir. I'll be ready, sir."
"I know you will be. Haag out."
Rhiannon sat in the Thorensen living room, watching the daily chaos of family life. Bjorn and Lisbet, Lars' younger siblings, bickered as they did homework. Heidi was a bundle of energy, something she channelled into a sculpture she chiselled into a block of stone. Karl came in from the kitchen carrying a plate holding a large sandwich. He sat on the couch and turned on the entertainment unit. An old film began playing, one that Rhiannon remembered her parents going to opening night for while leaving her and her brother at home. Her younger sister hadn't even been born yet.
Ric returned from the outside with Abby. "Oh, hey, I don't think I've seen this one," he said.
"You've seen the Singularity Web series?" Lars' father asked.
"Not all of them. Venitarii Four is off the beaten path when it comes to distribution."
Abby sighed. "Don't get him started, Mr. Thorensen. Ric's a little dramatic. The way he tells it, his home world only received cauliflower that was two years old by the time it got there."
Ric hugged Abby. "You listened to me!"
"That's my job, to listen." Abby kissed the tip of Ric's nose.
Rhiannon shook her head. "Are Lars, Susanna, and Miyami back from town yet?"
"Yeah," Abby said. "Lars was going to show her the animals in the barn. He said Susanna wanted to do some shopping before returning."
"Think they'd mind an extra person?"
Ric shrugged. "I don't see why not."
Rhiannon got up. She went outside, stopping long enough to put on her shoes, then wandered over to the barn. The smells of the farm wafted around her, earthy though not entirely pleasant. Still, this was Lars' home. She could see how it shaped him.
Inside the barn, Rhiannon found Lars and Miyami standing at a paddock. Lars was pointing something out to Miyami that Rhiannon couldn't see. Not wanting to startle them, Rhiannon cleared her throat. "Hi, sorry."
Miyami turned around. "Hey, Rhiannon, Lars was just showing me the babies. They're so wobbly and cute." She wrinkled her nose. "Too bad they grow up like those things in the fields."
"That's just how they grow," Lars said. "What's up, Rhiannon?"
"Just wanted to spend time with you two." Rhiannon smiled. "It was a little odd for me in your house."
"I know," Miyami said. "It's so quiet."
Rhiannon stared at her roommate. "Quiet?"
"I have five brothers and sisters, remember?"
Lars chuckled. "I couldn't imagine how busy that would be."
"We don't have animals to feed, though. Unless you count the youngest two."
"Thanks, Lars," Rhiannon said. "For letting us see your home." Her tablet vibrated. She pulled it out, at the same time as Lars and Miyami brought theirs out. "Recall order?"
Miyami nodded. "Yeah. What's up?"
"They're not giving us much time," Lars said. "Fifteen hundred. That's just four hours."
"And the train trip eats up half of that, if we can catch one in time." Rhiannon put her tablet away. "I'll check with Ric then try to get tickets back to the academy. You two should go get packed."
The return trip to the academy didn't take long for Dusty. With Commander Haag's warning, she was able to get a cab back before the recall order would create havoc for the other cadets. After unpacking, she busied herself with tidying the dorm room. Every once in a while, Dusty peeked out at the courtyard to see if anyone else was returning. She saw a few small groups and one or two lone cadets trickling in.
With the dorm cleaned to her standards, Dusty settled on the couch with her tablet, returning to her novella series. When the door to the dorm opened, she had finished a two more novellas. She glanced up as Ric, Rhiannon, Miyami, and Lars entered. Dusty checked the time; her squad mates returned with over an hour to spare.
"Hi, Dusty," Ric said. He dropped his duffle bag on the floor. "Hey, you got a haircut! It looks good on you."
Dusty smiled. "Thank you."
Miyami and Rhiannon put their luggage in their room before returning. "Did you stay here all this time?" Miyami asked, disdain in her voice.
"Does it matter?"
"Leave her, Miyami," Rhiannon said. "Wait, you didn't get that cut on campus."
"Good eye, Your Ladyship."
Ric waved his hands to get everyone's attention. "Guys, we just had an awesome time. Let's not spoil it now, okay?"
Dusty shrugged. Rhiannon strode over to the kitchenette. "I'm making coffee."
"Great!" Ric moved aside to let Lars get into their shared room. "Have you heard anything on why our leaves got cancelled, Dusty?"
"Oh, like there was anyone else here for her to talk to," Rhiannon said.
Dusty eyed Rhiannon. "Maybe it's because of what all of you did yesterday."
Miyami joined her roommate in the kitchenette. "And how would you know what we did?"
"You were on the news."
Ric beamed. "How did we look?"
"Like cadets." Dusty put away her tablet. "Excuse me." She got off the couch and went to the men's bedroom.
Inside, Lars finished putting away his clothes. "Oh, hey, Dusty."
Dusty shut the door behind her. "Hi."
"You heard about our excitement back home."
"Yeah." Dusty sat down on her cot.
Lars closed his dresser drawer. "Dusty, I feel kinda bad that you couldn't come with us."
"That's fine, Lars."
"No, really. Look, next weekend, assuming we get leave and haven't been expelled for what we did, I'll take you to the fair if you want."
"You don't have to do that, Lars."
Lars smiled. "I know. I'd still like to show you around if you want."
Dusty returned the smile. "I think I'd like that."
At sixteen hundred hours, the entire first year class was summoned to the parade ground. The squads rushed out to form up, taking longer than before because of the shuffle. Sergeant Chang berated the students for their sloppiness. She stepped out of the way to let Commandant Orman and Commander Haag to take centre stage. The Commandant cleared his throat. "Students," he began, "yesterday afternoon, there was an attempted robbery in the town of Vaughan's Landing, approximately five hundred kilometres southwest of here. A group of cadets on leave from the Colonel KL Terin Military Academy were on hand to apprehend the robbers. While I cannot condone or encourage this behaviour, the bravery and initiative these cadets displayed should be applauded.
"However, these would-be robbers had on them equipment associated with the various militias comprising the Grand Republic's army. As a result, all Guard personnel on Tamar have been placed on alert. This applies to everyone here at the KL Terin Academy, including you. As cadets, you are considered to be part of the Guard, though as non-combatants. As such, all leave has been cancelled for the duration of the alert." Commandant Orman stepped aside to let Commander Haag take over.
"With classes not due to start for another two days, that gives all of you time to work on your drills." As the crowd began to groan, the Commander held up his hands to quell the growing dissent. "You've all passed the toughest part already. All you'll be doing is practising. Sergeant Chang will work with each squad on the firing range, and Captain Ndiaye will work with all of you on your parade drill. Through all this, remember that we are under alert, but don't let that cause you worry. It's a fact of life in the Royal Guard that alerts happen and are, ultimately, for now cause at all. In the meantime, go on with your daily lives." Commander Haag gave the students a reassuring smile. "If the teaching staff isn't worried, you shouldn't be, either. When I dismiss you, go get ready for dinner. Fifth Squad will remain here. Company, dismissed!"
As the rest of the students dispersed, the Commandant walked over to the five who remained. "I take it that you are the ones who stopped the robbery?"
"Sir, yes, sir!" Ric flashed the Commandant a quick smile. "Most of us, sir. Cadet Schroeter was with us while Cadet Tyler was elsewhere."
Commandant Orman turned to Dusty. "You weren't there?"
Dusty kept her attention facing forward. "No, sir. I had other plans for my leave, sir."
"Where did you go, Cadet?"
"Shelter Cove City, sir."
The Commandant resumed his walk around the squad. "You cadets do realize the danger you were in, yes? You took on two armed criminals in the act."
"Yes, sir," Ric said. "We didn't engage them head on, sir. That would have been foolish, sir."
"Good." Commandant Orman stopped pacing once he was in front of the squad again. "I want each of you to write an essay on what happened, detailing the risks involved, due tomorrow at seventeen hundred hours."
"Sir, is that each of us who stopped the robbery or each of us in the squad? Cadet Tyler wasn't there, sir."
The Commandant stared at Ric. "Each of you in the squad, Cadet. Squad, dismissed."
As Commandant Orman and Commander Haag walked away, Ric caught up with Dusty. "Hey, sorry for getting you stuck with extra homework."
Dusty shrugged. "It's school. There's homework."
"If you need details, let me know."
"Thanks, but I think I can handle this. For me, it's theoretical."
Lars looked over his shoulder, seeing how far away the two senior were. "Is it me, or was the Commandant paying a lot more attention on Dusty?"
"If the lasers came from the Grand Republic, who would your first suspect be?" Miyami asked. She shot a glare at Dusty's back.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence, Watanabe." Dusty sighed. "I have witnesses for my whereabouts this weekend. Not to mention, if I was a spy, I'm smart enough to not provide obvious weapons to local criminals."
"And just what did you do the past two days, Tyler?"
"I spent the time away from people who don't trust me." Dusty broke away from the rest of the squad. "I'm going to the library to start the assignment."
Lars took a few steps to go after her, only to be held back by Rhiannon. "Leave her." Seeing that Lars was about to protest, Rhiannon added, "We don't need her in the dorm right now. We all have that assignment, and she wasn't there. We were. Tyler doesn't want our help." Rhiannon watched as Dusty strode away. "And I don't want hers."
Ric found Dusty on the third floor of the library, hidden behind the shelves of hard copy texts. With her still making notes on her tablet, an open text book beside her, Ric cleared his throat as he approached. "Dusty?"
"What is it, Ric?"
"I'm was wondering if you ate. I haven't seen you in a few hours and the mess hall's closed."
Dusty set down her tablet. "I'm fine, Ric."
"Are you sure?" Ric sat down across from her. "Look, Miyami--"
"Said what she said because of how she feels about me. I know that."
Ric reached out to take one of Dusty's hands into his own. "We don't all think you're a spy."
Dusty took back her hand. She glared at Ric. "What about you? Do you think I'm a spy?"
"Not at all. First of all, you're using your real name. Okay, not as funny as it sounded in my head." Ric sighed. "Dusty, you're not helping your cause with Miyami or Rhiannon by provoking them."
"And when they provoke me?"
"I've had this same talk with Miyami. I wouldn't worry about her or Rhiannon. Dusty, I'm worried about you."
"You shouldn't be."
Ric leaned forward. "I can't help it. Dusty, you keep yourself so tight, I'm worried you'll crack. If you need someone to talk to--"
"I can't. I've told you this before, Ric."
"Can't or won't, Dusty?"
Dusty closed her eyes. "Can't. Really, Ric, I can't."
"Then find someone you can talk to. Dusty, you're a friend. I don't want to lose you."
After a moment, Dusty looked up at her squad mate. "I will. I promise."
Ric smiled. "Good."
"And good work stopping the robbery."
"You would have done something if you were there."
Dusty gave him a half-hearted shrug. "Maybe."
"So what got you out to Shelter Cove? You looked like you were going to stay in the entire leave when we left."
"I was. Then Commander Haag ordered me to go." Dusty snorted. "It got me off campus for a bit."
Ric pointed at her hair. "And got yourself a haircut."
Dusty gave Ric a shy smile. "I went to a spa. The hair was part of the package. I even got my nails done." She held up her hand, fingers splayed, to show him.
"Nice. Toenails, too?"
"I am not showing you my feet here."
"Oh, reminds me, the news said that two men, known crooks, really, were arrested after they showed up at a hospital. It looked like they got beat up. I mean, one even had his arm dislocated, like someone pulled it out of the socket." Ric shuddered. "Painful. The police are looking for whoever did it. I don't suppose you saw anything? I mean, it's a long shot, but if us in Vaughan's Landing stopped a crime, why not you?"
"I didn't see anything, Ric."
Dusty checked her tablet, making sure to save the work she had done on her assignment. "Why did you come look for me?"
"I'm worried about my friend. And my friend needs to eat."
"Are you doing this to get inside my pants?"
Ric sat back in his chair. "What? No! Dusty, how could you even think that?"
Dusty narrowed her eyes. "Because I've seen you chat up half the girls here."
"Can I help it that I'm outgoing? Besides, I'll give you two reasons why you're wrong. First, while the idea of having sex is always in my mind, because I am a healthy young man off-world, I don't automatically assume that I will sleep with any woman I meet. I want to get to know them for who they are. There are emotions to go with the sex, and everyone involved needs to be there and enjoying what's happening."
"I am not ruling out massive orgies. May I continue?" Ric waited until Dusty finished rolling her eyes. She crossed her arms in front of her. "Right now, you're not interested. Your body language is saying that you're not interested, you're not looking, and, really, it's being very obscene in what it's telling me now. Also, right now? I think it's more important to be your friend than to be your one night stand. I'm from a small mining colony with everyone living in domes. I've seen what happens when a relationship goes sour and there's just nowhere to go. It causes tension, not just for the couple but for everyone around them. I don't want awkwardness between you and me, or between us and everyone else on the squad. You are far more important than a quick wrestling match under the blankets."
Dusty's cheeks reddened. "Really? You mean that?"
Ric reached out to Dusty. "I do."
"And what's the other reason?"
"You said you had two reasons. What's the other one?"
"Oh, that. You're wearing a skirt, not pants. Hard to get into something you don't wear."
Dusty blinked. "You perv." She punched Ric in the arm, not hard, but enough that he felt it. "Okay, I'm hungry. Maybe the café's still open. I'll get you a coffee."
"We need to spend more time together."
"Each squad will get a designated leader.
"Lars will never have to deal with n-dimensional calculus and I'm not going to have to worry about the historical relevance of Billingsworth Vance's 'Reclining Nude Under a Triple Sun'."
"Sir, keeping us together makes no sense at all."