Valor’s Duty Snippet 2

Here is the second snippet from Valor’s Duty, coming 18 May, 2018.  You can find the first snippet here: (Link)

Chapter 2: Sometimes I Get Myself In Trouble

 Imagine a train hurdling along at over three hundred kilometers an hour.  Now put it over fifty meters below sand and rock, in a pitch-dark tunnel.  That was the military train that I got to ride back to the Academy.  It was part of the defense infrastructure train lines that connected most of Century’s cities and all of it’s military bases.  One of my engineering projects over break had been to write a research paper about it.  There were over thirty thousand kilometers of tunnel, much of it between fifty and a hundred meters deep.  It had taken twenty years to complete the main lines, and the main sections were designed to survive near-misses from orbital ships.  It was a pretty amazing feat of engineering… the cost estimates rivaled that of starships.

Of course, what that all meant to me was that I had just over a six hour train ride.  I’d coordinated to link up with my friends, but most of that had gone out the window when the onrush of cadets had flooded the train.

When we arrived at the Academy, the masses would assemble into something resembling order, but right now, the train was chaos, with civilian-dressed and uniformed cadets running back and forth, people struggling with bags and what seemed like far too much noise after two weeks at home.

I glanced at my datapad and checked the text from Ashiri a third time.  She said she’d managed to get a spot in one of the private cars, which would be something of a refuge from all this chaos.  Ashiri’s family lived in New Albion, which meant that Ashiri had boarded the train several hours earlier, well before I’d arrived at Duncan City.  I pushed through the mess, hoping that I’d catch up to Kyle or Sashi on the way.

I finally reached the right train car, this section of the train was notably quieter and I paused outside the suite to pull out my datapad.  Since I had no idea where Sashi or Kyle had been swept off to, it was probably best if I messaged them, rather than trying to find them on the train.

I faintly overheard a voice on speaker from inside the suite.  After a moment, I thought I recognized Ashiri’s mother’s voice and I heard Ashiri respond to something, her voice oddly muted.

“You listen to me, daughter,” Ashiri’s mother grew louder, her voice angry, “those so-called friends of yours are no good to you.  Do you think it is coincidence that two years in a row you have been third place to them?  They are using you, and keeping you down!”

“Mother!” Ashiri protested, “It’s not like that at all!   I have done well!  Third in rank is nothing to be ashamed of!”

“Listen to me with respect and never interrupt!” Ashiri’s mother’s voice was sharp.  “Third is nothing.  Did your so-called friends not vie for first and second?  Do you think it coincidence that your roommate’s grandmother runs the Academy and her granddaughter finishes first almost every year?  When I was your age, I was first in everything.  What kind of example do you set for your siblings by failing to be first in all that you do?”

“Mother,” Ashiri protested, “I’m doing very good.  Better than hundreds of others–”

“You will do better,” Ashiri’s mother snapped.  “You need to do whatever necessary.  Those so-called friends of yours, you need to cut them loose.  You are better than them, you do not need them!”

“Mother…” I heard Ashiri start to protest.

“If you are not first this year, daughter, then you are nothing.  I will expect you to succeed.   Your family expects you to succeed, do not fail me.”

“Yes, mother,” Ashiri’s voice was resigned, barely audible.  There was silence on the other side of the door for a long moment.  I felt suddenly guilty and a bit ashamed as I realized I’d been listening in on the private and potentially embarrassing conversation.  I hadn’t meant to, but I’d still overheard things that were none of my business… though they were things that shocked me.

Granted, I wasn’t terribly surprised that Ashiri’s mother didn’t think highly of me.  The one time I’d really met her, I’d managed to put my foot in my mouth.  But that she thought that Alexander Karmazin and I were using her daughter to improve our own scores… that made me angry.  Worse, she’d all but accused the Admiral of rigging things so I came in first.  That idea was so absurd as to be ridiculous.  I couldn’t think of someone less likely to do that, and if anything, I felt like the Admiral was extra hard on me because I was family.

It wasn’t like I could defend myself, though.  I’d have to admit to listening in on a private conversation and that wouldn’t exactly make me look good.  At least it sounded like the conversation was over.  I reached for the door handle, but before I could touch it, the door opened.

“Oh,” Ashiri froze, staring at me.

“Hey,” I said in as cheerful a fashion as I could manage.  “I guess I found the right place.”

Something flashed across my best friend’s face.  Some emotions that came and went too fast for me to understand, maybe too complex for me to really comprehend.  Something like shame or embarrassment, something like anger.  I wasn’t sure and I was half-convinced that I imagined it all, it was there and gone so fast.  One thing I was sure, though, was for a moment, Ashiri wanted to ask how long I’d been standing outside the door.

“Yeah, this is the right place,” Ashiri replied finally, her voice almost detached.  “Where are the others?”

“I lost Sashi and Kyle in the crowd, but I was just about to message them,” I gestured with the datapad in my left hand.  Ashiri made a face, though I wasn’t sure whether that was about Sashi Drien or my excuse for why I was standing just outside the door.  “Have you seen Karmazin, yet?”

“Alex?” Ashiri shrugged, “No, I assumed he’d be with the rest of you.  Last I heard, he was going to catch the train in Duncan City like the rest of you.”  The Enclave didn’t connect into the defense train system, for a bunch of complicated reasons, not least of which was that it wasn’t technically a part of Century’s planetary government, it was a weird sort of autonomous sub-state.

“Huh, I hadn’t seen him either,” I said.

“Well, come on in,” Ashiri stepped out of the doorway.  She settled to her seat and gestured at her datapad, “I was just finishing up edits on my Military History paper for Commander Bonnadonna.”

“Ugh, that was a brutal one, right?” I stepped in and took a seat, messaging Alexander Karmazin, Kyle Regan, and Sashi Drien with our location.

“Yeah,” Ashiri showed genuine emotion for what seemed like the first time.  “I enjoy his classes, but he sure does load us down with assignments.”

Last year we’d had a ten page paper due every week for Commander Bonnadonna’s classes.  The worst part was, we didn’t get the papers returned, he just seemed to be able to magically read every paper and comment and address things we brought up in our papers during class.  I couldn’t imagine him managing to read that much every week, but somehow he did it… and he managed to make subjects that I found dry and abstract into things that mattered.

Someone knocked on the door, “Come in,” Ashiri and I said at the same time.

Kyle opened the door and stuck his head in, “Hey, Jiden, I think Sashi needs your help.”  There was a nervous edge to his voice that had me up on my feet and out in the corridor almost before he finished speaking.

I saw what he meant right away.  Just down the corridor, right at the junction from this car to the next, I saw Sashi Drien with two young men boxing her in.  I recognized both of them almost instantly, it would be hard not to, after all, since their short stature, dark hair and tan skin looked so similar to that of Sashi.  They were her older brothers, and their faces were harsh with anger as they faced her.

I studied them as I advanced.  Nahka Drien wore the collar insignia of a Cadet Commander, his tan, handsome face drawn back in a harsh sneer.  His younger brother, Toro, wore a Cadet Second Class rank.  Both of them were tense, their expressions angry and their postures showing that they were on the edge of physical violence.  I wasn’t sure how I knew that, maybe it was something I picked up from my kerala classes with Commander Panja.

Nahka looked over as I came up, his eyes darting between his sister and myself, even as he snarled at Sashi, “…bad enough that you refused our grandfather’s offer, that you resign and come home and limit any further disgrace to our family.  But this?  To take refuge with our family’s enemies?  How could you embarrass yourself so?”

“Leave her alone!” I snapped.

“This doesn’t concern you,” Nahka hissed at me.  “Go back to your real friends, hongro.”

I frowned at him, “Sashi is my friend.  Leave her alone.”

Nahka turned and stepped towards me, “You’re using her.  You’re setting her up for failure, to make my family look bad.  She isn’t suited for this life.  She almost failed out last year.  You leave my sister alone, hongro.”

I flinched at his harsh tone, but I didn’t step back.  I realized that, in his own twisted way, Nahka did care for his sister, he didn’t want to see her fail.  But at the same time, he was doing her more harm than good, he was bullying her, trying to get her to quit.

He didn’t see how capable and strong Sashi could be, because he was too busy trying to protect her.  “No,” I snapped.  “You leave my friend alone.”

I stepped past him and stood next to her.  “If not for Sashi, I would have failed out during Indoctrination.  She’s smart, she’s strong, and she’s going to do just fine… as long as you two get out of her face!”

“You shouldn’t take that tone with upper-classmen, Cadet Third Class,” Nahka Drien snapped.

“We aren’t at the Academy, yet,” I replied.  “And this kind of thing wouldn’t fly there, and both of you know it.”

They both shifted uncomfortably at that.  They monitored our every move at the Academy.  While a lot of that was hands off, this was something that was likely to get them in trouble.

“You’re right,” Nahka said, his voice low and threatening.  “We aren’t at the Academy.  Maybe someone could suffer an accident, fall down and get hurt.  Especially if she was alone and sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong.”

“She’s not alone,” Kyle said from just down the corridor.  Behind him, I saw Ashiri and Karmazin.  Nahka and Toro both looked sour.  Clearly their plan, whatever it was, had just fallen apart.

Nahka stepped forward and stopped only a few centimeters away from me.  “We’ll remember this, Armstrong.  Whatever happens to our sister, it’s on you now.”  He stepped past me and then he and his brother stepped through the doors and into the next train car.

“Well,” I said, as calmly as I could manage, “that went well.”

***

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