by Brandon Barr
Javen Worth stepped into the ICT lobby of the Ledmeer Cadet Academy and found his heart thundering in his chest. He hadn’t felt that kind of raw fear since his after-school fight with Dirk behind Mr. Smeby’s Terran history mural. Sure, he was fresh meat here at the academy, but mentally he’d prepped himself for that. He was expecting to get verbally slapped around and treated like a Moonie.
But the possibility that he might die at the academy hadn’t crossed his mind…not until today.
Now he found himself questioning his decision to enlist, and it was only day one.
Just inside the ICT door he paused. He was at the infamous Sergeant Nero’s station. He had no idea what ICT stood for, but Sergeant Nero—he had one hell of a picture painted in his mind of that man.
After stopping at Stamina, Weapons, Gene, and Psych, he had accrued a very elaborate depiction of Nero. According to the stories he’d heard that day, the sergeant was a grizzled man with red nappy hair who patrolled the school corridors with an orangutan called Sockets. The student officer from Gene said it became “Sockets” after it tore the arm off a kid, beat him one breath away from death with the dismembered arm, then chewed his ears off while he lay there unconscious.
Despite the gruesome picture of the deranged orangutan, it was Nero himself that all the cadets seemed to fear.
At Weapons, a scrawny cadet with sharp eyes had issued him his sidearm and said, “Shoot a guy in the front, spend a week in the hole. Shoot a guy in the back and they sick Sergeant Nero on you, and bitch, you gonna die.”
After that, the sharp-eyed cadet handed him the Ledmeer Academy killing policy, and said warmly, “The school prefers you settle scores in the arena with fists, but if you duel it’s a slap on the wrist for the winner and a half-assed military funeral if you loose.”
Javen sucked in a lung full of air and stepped into the ICT station at the Ledmeer Cadet Academy. This was his fifth and last station before he received his military placement scores. It had taken less than a couple hours for Javen to confirm that the next couple years of his life would be pure hell.
He’d come with a bunch of noble crap in his mind about fighting the colonists and clearing Luna of Moonies. His parents had signed the military contract with visions of Javen following in their political footsteps and running for senate or high council as his mother had. They had other motives too, though they thought they were hiding them well enough. Sometimes his parents seemed to forget he was seventeen, not seven, and capable of reading between the lines. Despite his parents hidden agenda, he’d been excited about joining.
It has been a grand idea in his head only hours ago.
He was the property of the Terran government now for two years. And a complete fool, he thought.
Javen took a deep breath to calm the pounding inside his chest, and strode further into the ICT room. The station had an immaculate lobby. The walls were lined with recent photographs of the war. Epic shots of Terran forces charging over a moon berm. A black and white of a Terran soldier posing in front of captured colonists.
“You look lost,” said a pleasant voice from behind a desk. A girl with black hair pulled back into a ponytail peered at him. She squinted at him, her eyes partially obscured under a heavy frown. “Where’s your uniform?”
“I haven’t been issued one, ma’am,” said Javen, stopping at the desk, hands folded unconsciously behind his back.
“Javen Worth, correct? You have your ID?”
She took his ID card, passed it under a scanner, and handed it back.
“You’re sweating.” She stated. “Relax. If I was going to ream you, I’d of done it by now.”
“And knock off that “ma’am” crap. You’re starting to irritate me. I go by Amanda when I’m off duty, but right now, I’m Lieutenant Brighton. Got it?”
Javen choked back another, Yes, Ma’am. “Yes, Lieutenant Brighton.”
Though her face was warm and attractive, Brighton’s tone balanced on a razors edge between annoyance and hostility.
Her fingers raced over the terminal pad. “Are you a transfer?” she asked.
“No, I’m a new enlistment.”
Her eyes flashed up at him, “You’re a freeborn?”
“Yes Ma’am—I mean—Yes, Lieutenant.”
“What the moonpuck are you doing here?”
The lofty idea of a political future felt a million miles away to Javen. And he knew better than to tell anyone the reason he’d enlisted. They’d probably figure it out sooner or later, but the longer it took the better. The very fact that Brighton was making a big deal about him being freeborn made him uneasy. Was it that uncommon for a freeborn to join the academy?
Javen sighed. “It’s a long story. I’d rather not get into it.”
Her attention again returned to the terminal, and she said softly, “Count to sixty.”
He frowned. “Why?”
“Just do as you’re told.”
He obeyed, and watched her face as he counted. Brighton’s eyes flicked back and forth across the screen as her fingers pattered furiously moved on the terminal pad. This cadet was the first that hadn’t cussed him out. The others had all taken shots at him, but then after verbally bashing him, they had warmed up a little and shared about the school, and of course about Nero and his orangutan. Brighton so far had remained as cold as the dark side of the moon.
She did share one thing in common with every other cadet he’d encountered at Ledmeer that day, and that was the fact that she was a Ward. Property of the government, and probably from birth. A tattoo on her neck said as much. Without the intimacy of a mother and father, Wards all shared a unique—almost loveless—personality. They were all so hardened, thought Javen.
At the count of fifty-seven, Brighton’s voice cut in on Javen’s thoughts, “Okay, tell me if I’m wrong. Your mother’s a senator, she’s on the war committee, and she’s up for re-election in two years. But the headlines for the past two months have centered on your father’s family who are all colonists, and this has cast criticism on your mother’s ability to perform on the war committee—not to mention it’s a threat to her re-election. Judging by your father’s psychological profile, he’s the one who convinced your mother to send you here to Ledmeer, and looking at your profile, you agreed out of a sense of duty to your family, and also out of fear of guilt if your mother were not re-elected. To sum it up in a clambomb, you’re here so your mom has a chance at winning next spring, and also to clear up any qualms about your family being colonist sympathizers. Now, tell me I’m not hot-damn good!”
Javen stared at her, stunned. Her rapid-fire declaration was frightening. He wasn’t sure what disturbed him more: the fact that she’d accessed his private information, or the fact that she’d psychologically undressed him and his family predicament in less than a minute. How was that possible?
“That’s private information,” said Javen “It should be on restricted access.”
She grinned. “I hacked it. But that other part . . . I’m good right? I nailed you?”
“You prepped that,” he said. “You couldn’t have read all that just now.”
“It’s called streaming. I don’t have to read a thing. The information goes straight to my brain—but the conclusions—those are mine, and I nailed you.” Her triumphant look softened. “Don’t worry, I can keep a secret.”
“Don’t bother, you didn’t get it right,” said Javen.
“Not even a day in, and you’re lying already. Makes me sad we’ve corrupted you so fast. Honest boy like you, high marks straight through school, no moral marks off. But that’s what we’re good at. Skills to survive. Can’t have a soldier transparent in the presence of the enemy.
Javen shook his head and stared speechless at the lieutenant. She used words like boxing gloves, and he felt as if she’d just pummeled any coherent thoughts right out of his head.
She knew so much about him. He wondered if other cadets could hack the system like her, or if this was something she was privy to, working at ICT—whatever that stood for.
Maybe she could hack other things too.
Javen tried to keep a friendly face despite feeling threatened by how much this cadet knew. “Can you tell me how I scored at the other four stations?” he asked.
“I can, but I ain’t.” Then she smiled for the first time. “You ready for Nero’s test?”
A voice called out from behind Javen, “Shit, that’s like asking a cockroach if he’s ready to get stepped on. No one’s ready for Nero’s test.”
Javen turned. A lanky cadet with acne covering his face sat in one of the chairs on the far wall.
The cadet grinned. “The name’s Roger. Nice to meet another freeborn. Are you good with a gun?”
“I can shoot alright,” said Javen, though he could do far better than that. He’d been third in his class in marksmanship.
“It’s like pissing. If you can’t keep it in the bowl, they’re gonna dunk your head in the toilet and give a flush. But if you shoot straight, hit the target, you’ll do alright. Lunar war is tough—you’ll hear that over and over at this school. You’re on the inside now. All that crap you’ve heard on the media—it ain’t half of the story. The colonists on Luna are in open revolt.”
“Then the negotiations are off?”
“Been off for three days.”
The news didn’t surprise Javen, he was already on the inside. His mother was part of the senate select committee and worked with the twelve negotiators directly. He knew things weren’t going well. Ever since the schism between Earth and its moon colonies, the possibility of another all-out war grew more real.
“Stupid colonists,” said Javen. “It’s not like they even have a chance.”
“Ya, they’re going to get what’s coming to them,” said Roger, “and it’ll be us that gives it to them.”
Brighton leaned forward onto the reception desk. “He’s not giving anyone anything until he passes Nero’s test.”
Javen shook his head. “Is there anyone who isn’t scared spitless of that guy?”
“Nope, we all fear and hate him,” said Roger. “Sergeant Nero’s in charge of two things: Low Performance ICT and killing the bad seeds. When he’s not teaching, he stalks the halls with his pet orangutan—ugliest beast I ever saw, and strong as a pilled-up pit bull too.”
Roger glanced at the lieutenant and lowered his voice. “The rumor around the academy is that he’s not allowed off the premises. Some kind of house arrest. I heard from a very reliable source that he’s under military investigation. Supposedly knifed his superior officer. ‘Course, I don’t know how much of that is true, but I know one thing for sure, the guy enjoys killing. Heck, he’s the scariest person I ever met, that’s why I’m here. Trying to test out of ICT 102 and get into Sergeant Guillen’s advanced class.”
“So you’re saying I better do good on this test or I’ll live to regret it?”
“Ha!” Roger laughed, “More than you know.”
Javen smiled, “What is ICT class anyway?
“Imagination and Creative Thinking. In-depth problem solving is all it is, but using the newest AI in the field with holograms and neurojacks. It’s the ticket to a high-level job verses front-line fodder.”
A screech sounded from the com system over head, and Javen winced at the high-pitched noise. Then an angry male voice boomed over a speaker: “Where’s that Worth boy? He should have been in here ten minutes ago!”
Javen’s felt a hot bolt of fear race down his neck. He looked frantically at Lieutenant Brighton. She leaned forward and pressed the intercom. “Sergeant Nero, cadet Worth has been here in the lobby for fifteen.”
“What?” replied the harsh voice. “Dammit! Send him in!”
Javen followed Lieutenant Brighton to a door at the side of the room. She pulled out a ring of keys and began fumbling through them.
He shook his head as he watched her, biting his tongue. He’d come on time, but Brighton had failed to tell Sergeant Nero. And now the feared instructor was pissed off. As the keys continued to jingle in Brighton’s hands, Javen turned to Roger. “Thought you had to take the test too?” he said.
“My group’s after yours. I’m always early if it’s Nero. Heard too many stories of what he’s done to cadets for things less than being tardy. Always be on his good side, that’s my philosophy.”
Beads of sweat sprouted on Javen’s brow and his hands grew instantly balmy. The lock finally turned with a click and the door opened.
Javen entered the long narrow room before him. There were three guys and a girl already seated. The three males glanced back, wearing amused expressions. He guessed that they, too, were like Roger, early, trying to stay on Nero’s good side.
Why hadn’t Brighton told Nero he was there!?
He took the closest chair behind the girl.
“Welcome, Javen,” said a voice from behind a large machine at the front of the room. It was the same voice he’d heard on the intercom, only friendlier. Sergeant Nero wasn’t as large as Javen had pictured, but that didn’t stop him from looking like the sociopath he’d envisioned. Red hair covered his head and jaw and ran down below his neck in a thick, knotty beard. A thin, hawkish nose overhung a wide, jagged smile.
“Sorry I was late, Sir! It will never happen again, Sir!”
“Not your fault, son,” said Nero in a tone that Javen could only call odd.
Nero squared his shoulders to the class and patted a dark metal tube on his left. “This machine is a neuroconductor. It feeds directly into each of your desks.”
Javen thought the machine looked like a dead metal spider, its coiled legs rising up and intersecting above Nero’s head.
“Do you see the helmet affixed to the side of your chair? Take it and put it on. It will cover your face from the nose up. At first you won’t see anything, but don’t worry, where we’re going, eyes are just useless pustules, blindly rubbing against the most powerful organ in your body.”
The girl in front of Javen turned and whispered, “Put this on your forehead.”
In one swift motion, she threaded a micro thin wire under his desk and placed something in his palm.
He glanced down at his hand. It was a small conductor.
He hesitated only a second. He was certain her request broke some kind of rule. But he didn’t know the rules, so how could they blame him for breaking them. Besides, there had been an urgency in her eyes that he couldn’t ignore.”
Discreetly, he put the girl’s conductor on his forehead then grabbed the strange looking helmet. It had several wires running in through the back. He pressed the helmet down over his head and felt a wet, foam-like substance slide over his ears.
The helmet formed to his cheeks and nose, cutting off all light from the test room.
He couldn’t see a thing.
“Helmets on? Good,” said Nero. Javen felt a stab of pain and cried out with the rest of the class. “That slight prick you felt in the back of your head will connect you to the room I have created in my mind. I will be taking you through a sequence of imagination exercises that will test your strengths and weaknesses; machismo and sympathy; creativity and stupidity. Once in the staging area, you are to follow my instruction without question.
“Oh, one other thing, don’t for any reason attempt to remove your helmet. If somehow you did have the strength to pull it off, it would rip a hole in the back of your head about the size of a hand grenade. More likely you’d only jostle the needle where it doesn’t belong and then I could plant you out in the school garden next to the carrots.”
No one laughed.
“Okay you sons of bitches, are you ready for some fun?!”
A living picture flashed on in Javen’s mind. It shocked him at first. He knew he was still sitting in the test room, but his senses told him otherwise. He saw Nero standing under a tall doorway rolling the tips of his fingers compulsively. The four other cadets stood beside him, looking around. The room was bare, with no other feature except the door. The girl glanced up at him, then turned to face the sergeant.
Nero’s eyes beamed at them from where he stood. He gestured with his hand and said, “Behind this door is where you will begin the test. The room we are in now is the staging arena. Think of it like your mother. Boring, dull and ugly. I’ve designed it out of my imagination just as I’ve done with what’s waiting for you in the arena beyond this door.
“In your first challenge, I’m going to draw from your memory bank. I think you’ll love what I have conjured up for you. Wickedly entertaining, I promise! Your memory is a collage of hundreds of regions. I’ve drawn up a special memory from your hypothalamus—the fear region.”
Nero’s tone sent shivers up Javen’s spine. He clenched his jaw, fighting his fear with anger. He despised the way the sergeant was talking to him and the class.
Javen followed the other cadets as they lined up at the door. He found himself second in line. Nero placed his hand upon the first boy’s head.
“Ah,” said Nero with a light chuckle, “You were a fat little boy once. That’ll do just fine.”
The boy ahead of him stepped forward and Nero touched his hair. “Mmmm, sharkie darkie, peanut butter puffy, dead little doggie. Oh, there it is!” exclaimed Nero with wheezing laugh, then pushed him forward. “Jerk off to this, Cadet Daniels!”
Javen stepped forward as the cadet in front of him disappeared through the door. He saw Nero reach up. He felt the strong hand touch upon his head. Cold. Repulsive.
“Oh, yes, yes,” said Nero. “Rich kid, dead kid. Goodie see red kid. Back to the past, Cadet Worth.”
Javen practically sprang through the door, anything to get Sergeant Nero’s fingers off his head. He was glad he wasn’t the last cadet in line. He didn’t like the idea of being left alone with that man.
Javen felt a cool, moist breeze as he passed through the door. He took a deep breath and the scent of wet wood and grass filled his senses.
He couldn’t see anything yet, only darkness surrounded him. Then, slowly, shapes began emerging as if out of a grim fog.
The first thing he saw were slender trees.
A pleasant warmth hung in the air as sunlight suddenly fell upon him. Tall aspens stood on either side of an old dirt road, their leaves fluttering white and green in the breeze.
A tug pulled in his mind. This place was hauntingly familiar.
He was drawn to the road. As he stepped onto the path, the memory of the place resurfaced. One direction led to the ranch mansion he’d grown up on, the other led to an old, rotting cabin, and then eventually to a meadow, where a mountain stream ran down into the valley. It was in the second direction he felt drawn to go. A sinking feeling came over Javen. Many years back, something tragic had happened in that direction. Something he was ashamed of.
Determined, he set off down the road. He had only gone a few a steps when he heard a crunching in the underbrush beside him. He stopped and scanned his surroundings. A girl stepped out.
“Mind if I join you?” she said, falling in beside him.
He realized it must be the girl who’d threaded him the conductor. In the bright sunlight, he looked at her as if for the first time. She had a small frame and stood about five feet tall. Under her blue eyes was a weak, shadowless jaw. Strands of her thin, blonde hair ran askew across her face, blown about in the breeze.
“Sure,” said Javen, walking on. “This is where I grew up.”
“It’s beautiful. I love it here.” She smiled, “Thanks for saving me.”
He felt a little unease stir in his chest. “What have I saved you from?”
“Him. Sergeant Nero.”
“Seems he isn’t liked by anyone,” said Javen, smirking. “What are you here for? Testing out of his class?”
“If only I could. This is my second year. I’m in ICT 102, but I’m here serving his detention. When he gives them, he makes you take these twisted tests.”
“What did you do?”
“He wanted to see me after class but I ditched him when the bell rang.”
Javen raised an eyebrow, amused. “If you hate this test so much, why didn’t you just stick it out?”
She looked away, “If you don’t know yet, you’ll know soon enough.”
“I’m new here,” said Javen. “I don’t know anything. Enlighten me.”
Her eyebrow arched, but she kept a thin smile. “Nero likes to mess with our minds if you haven’t picked that up already. At least here, he’s got a handful of us to jack with. But one-on-one, it’s hell. I have…bad memories. I did things. Things I regret now. Nero loves to replay my dirtiest sins and scrape his fingers over my deepest wounds. That’s who he is. A psychopath.
Javen glanced at her as they walked. “The academy lets him do this?”
The muscles in her face grew tight. “I don’t know. I’m not going to tell on him. Everyone who’s tried has ended up dead.”
Javen frowned but felt an underlying excitement. A soon as he finished this test, he was going to make a vid call back to his parents. He doubted Nero had ever messed with the son of a senator before. His mom was neither dull, boring, nor ugly, and Sergeant Nero was going to find her pretty foot up his ass.
Her hand suddenly grabbed his and she yanked his arm, pulling his face down into hers. Her lips came hard against his as her hand corralled his head, keeping him hemmed in to a prolonged kiss.
Finally she pulled back. “That’s for saving me,” she said with a wink.
He laughed. “Uh, anytime.”
“Bet the freeborn girls back home don’t kiss like that,” she added. “We Wards don’t mess around.”
The last sentence she spoke rattled Javen. He glancing at her neck, then saw it. Her tattoo was barely visible, hidden under her thin blond hair. He had just kissed a Ward?…or rather, the Ward had just kissed him. Not a proper thing back where he came from. Probably not proper at the academy either.
“I see what you’re thinking,” she said.
Javen felt his face flush a little. Was he that transparent! Lies flew to the tip of his tongue. Lies about how he didn’t care if she were a Ward or not, but she cut in before he spoke.
“You’re concerned about Nero finding me. You don’t have to worry, I made an AI program to replicate myself in that sick world he created. He’ll never notice I’m not there. I’m a damn fine programmer, honest to Jupiter I am.”
Javen felt a twinge of panic at the thought of Nero looking for her. The conductor she’d threaded him must have allowed her to switch out of her arena and into his. The level of trust he was placing on her gave him pause.
“My name’s Javen. What’s yours?”
Javen smiled. “That’s my grandmother’s name.”
“I like the name. It was assigned to me by a computer.”
Javen wasn’t sure how to react to that, so he kept silent and listened to the wind blowing through the trees. The path was just as Javen remembered it from his childhood.
“So,” said Alexis, “what’s a nice, clean-faced guy like you doing at the Academy?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. A part of me wants to go into government, like my parents. Serving a four year contract with the military puts you ahead of a lot of competition for high-level jobs, especially if I can make officer. But then, the other part of me doesn’t know if it’s really what I want to do. I regret enlisting. It was my parent’s idea. It’s only been a day, and I already know I’m going to hate it here.” Javen looked over at Alexis, “What’s a nice girl like you doing at the academy?”
She snorted. “Oh please, I told you I’ve got sin and wounds. I’m a hell of a mess! But, thanks! We do have something in common though, can you keep a secret?”
“I don’t want to be here either, Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to stand up and fight for what you believe in, But…” she peeked up at Javen, her eyes intense.
“I understand,” he said, “There’s a difference between choosing to enlist and being forced in.”
“Exactly,” said Alexis cheerfully. Then her voice changed, “No, that’s not it.”
Javen was curious. “What is it? You already know I don’t want to be here.”
Alexis took a deep breath. “Ok, here’s the truth of it. I’d rather be fighting for the colonists.”
Javen almost stumbled.
Alarm bells blared in his head. The word “treason” echoed loud and clear in every chamber of his mind. What she had said was a crime, and up until that very moment Javen wouldn’t have thought twice at seeing someone executed over it. It seemed impossible hearing those words from this girl. She wasn’t a criminal.
Javen laughed nervously, “You don’t mean that?”
“I do. I have my reasons too.”
“It’s one thing to wish you weren’t in the military, but the colonists—you’ve seen what they’re like from the news clips. They murdered Ambassador Kio and nine of the negotiators after the first ceasefire? How could you side with people like that?”
“I could if I knew that Ambassador Kio and the others weren’t murdered by who you think. They were betrayed. Someone from the Terran side wanted them dead. Ambassador Kio was Luna’s biggest advocate. If the colonists did anything wrong, it was failing to realize he was in danger.”
She jumped in front of him and began walking backwards down the path, her eyes intense on his. “Think about it. Two years ago all colonist signals were blocked to prevent the supposed flood of propaganda. That means the only people in communication with them now are the negotiators. That is, with nine new members selected by the War Council.”
Javen cut in, “How do you know Kio and the nine were backstabbed?”
“Because,” she said intensely, her face hard, “my brother, he was one of the negotiators—and he was murdered.”
Javen cocked his head to the side. “Your brother—but isn’t he a Ward also?”
Alexis face remained stony. “You don’t think a Ward can become anything?”
“That’s not what I’m saying,” but he stopped, unable to add anything else because that was exactly what he had been saying.
“The Terran government uses Wards all the time. They pick the top performers and use us in dangerous situations. Our marks are removed so we look like freeborns. There are a lot of things you don’t know, clearly. Your government is neck deep in secrets and lies.”
Javen swallowed down her words, as offensive as they were to him personally because of his family.
He simply nodded, and Alexis fell in beside him again as he walked down the path. He still felt drawn to move toward that old place where tragedy struck his family. A moment in time that haunted him to this day.
Alexis continued on, “As you know from the news clips, the negotiators all died in their beds from bullet wounds—but my brother… he managed to pencil out three names on his luggage, then scribbled the word, ‘betrayed.’ His luggage was mailed to me five days later. The writing was faint, but in the right light, it was plain as day.”
Javen didn’t know what to say or what to believe. He thought of his mother who dealt directly with the negotiators. She had never seemed suspicious of the matter.
“What about the senators who deal with the negotiators, are they being lied to?”
Alexis nodded. “Some are. Others I suspect know the truth. Now you see why I support the colonists.”
He shrugged. “It’s a lot to take in, but yeah, If everything you said is true, then of course I get where your coming from. It’s just a lot for me to accept all at once. I’d need to look into it for myself.”
Alexis kicked a rock from the trail. “I’ve never told anyone about it. I’ve been too scared. I don’t know why I blurted all that to you. Stupid emotions, I guess. You come and save me from Nero, I kiss you, then I throw caution out the window, like we’ve been some kind of best friends or something.”
“I’m not going to tell anyone,” said Javen. “I promise. It’s just between you and me.”
They continued on without talking until they reached a spacious break in the sparse woods. An enormous cottonwood tree stood in the middle of a meadow beside a small stream. Javen saw a boy underneath the cottonwood shouting up at the branches above. Javen spotted a second boy clinging to a bending limb half way up the tree.
His stomach twisted. He recognized the two.
It was he and his younger brother, Steven. Javen remembered the meadow and the day he dared his brother to climb the tree.
It was the day Steven died.
“I can’t do it! I’m too scared!” shouted Steven from the tree branch.
“You know I’m afraid of heights,” he heard the younger version of himself shout back, “You’re just being dumb! Come on down or we’re gonna be late!”
Steven was crying. “I’m scared! I can’t do it by myself.”
“Just put one foot down at a time and use the big branches.”
“Okay,” said Steven weakly.
Javen watched as Steven shakily stood up on the branch and grabbed a smaller limb above himself for support.
Javen’s heart dropped into his stomach and his breath caught for a split second.
He suddenly broke into a run. “Nooo!” he screamed.
The two boys looked over at him.
Javen felt something different than the simple old dread he had experienced when he was younger. It was more like terror. He knew what would happen. That terrible picture he could never erase from his mind—his brother’s broken, limp body lying at the foot of the tree.
“Hey! This is private property?” declared Javen’s shorter, scrawnier double.
“Stand back,” Javen shouted, and pushed aside his younger self. “I’m gonna try and help your brother.”
Javen looked up at Steven who was huddled against the tree. He felt a rush of courage and adrenaline despite his fear of heights. “Hold on, Steven, I’m coming up.”
He began to climb, starting with a big thick branch about chest high, and then to another, and another.
Strangely, Javen felt the rush of purpose and opportunity flow through his blood. If he could save his brother here, in his mind, would that somehow free him from the guilt he’d carried from this grim day? The mere thought of it brought tears to his eyes. He wondered what it would feel like to bring Steven to the ground safely. To see him alive on the ground and wrap his arms around him. To hear words from his little brother’s mouth that he never got to hear.
Was this a chance at redemption?
As cruel as Sergeant Nero seemed to be, this chance to save his brother filled him with hope. Was Nero’s cruel and demented personality only a facade? Could he actually be trying to help cadets overcome their past?
A branch broke off in Javen’s hand, and he threw his arms out, clinging to trunk.
The fear returned instantly. He didn’t dare look down.
Again, he focused his arm on reaching the next branch but as he did, the old dread snapped his hand back as soon as he leaned out a few inches.
Surveying the branches above, it seemed impossible for him to go further. Fear held his arms to the tree like a magnet. He forced himself to try again. He stretched for another branch above him.
His brother Steven peered down at him, only ten feet above.
Javen forced his feet to rely on the shaky limb beneath them and concentrated on the branch above.
Then he heard Alexis shouting.
“…the tree! Something’s coming down!”
Javen turned to look out at her. She was running across the meadow, pointing skyward.
Javen looked up, confused. He saw his brother staring down at him, but there was something else. He saw a flash of orange. Something was moving quickly down the tree towards Steven. Javen caught another glimpse and it shocked him.
It could only be one animal… Nero’s orangutan.
“Watch out, Steven!” shouted Javen. He began to climb frantically up the tree, his dread out-played by his desire to save his brother. He heard his brother cry out, breaking Javen’s concentration.
He glanced up. Steven was clinging with both hands to a smaller, bowing branch, his feet dangling just to the left of Javen.
Had Steven tried to move and slipped?
The answer to that question was written across his little brother’s face.
Blood dripped from Steven’s ear, a fiery red handmark printed on the skin across his cheek.
Any hope Javen had felt towards a secret good underlying Sergeant Nero’s test vanished like a ship into a black hole.
Aven clenched his teeth and reached for Steven’s foot, but it was just out of reach.
The orangutan brought its big, wiry arm down and grabbed onto the straining tree limb. Convulsing its hairy body, the orangutan began to shake the branch furiously. Steven screamed and suddenly he plummeted.
Javen lunged and felt the swish of air rush past his fingers and then Steven was gone. Cracking of branches sounded from below and then a sickening thud that cut Steven’s cry short.
Javen clung to the trunk, his body shaking. He didn’t look down. He already knew what he’d see if he did. Instead he looked up, his eyes falling on the orange-haired monster above him. Hot tears burned in his eyes.
The orangutan squatted on a branch, staring at him, lips pulled back as if mocking him with a smile. Then it looked away and began to carve something into the tree with its fingernail.
Javen suddenly remembered the sidearm he’d been issued. He looked down and found it waiting for him in its holster. He reached for it eagerly and drew it, but when he looked up to take aim, the orangutan was gone.
He forced himself to climb further up the tree and only stopped once he’d reached the perch the beast had stood on.
Etched in jagged scratches into the skin of the tree were six words. Stay away from the bitch - Nero.
The moment the words were read, Javen’s childhood world went dark.
He was blind again. Only darkness surrounded him. A moment ago he had been in the cottonwood tree. Now he had a vague sense of where he was.
He reached down probing with his fingers and felt a chair below him. He reached up to his head and touched hard plastic. The helmet. He was back in the test room.
Had Nero kicked him out?
The room was quiet, except for the sound of faint, uneasy breathing in front of him.
That could only be one person.
“Alexis,” he whispered.
No response. He heard her breathing grow louder, erratic.
“Alexis,” he called a little louder, but she didn’t seem to hear him.
Javen wondered if Nero had found her, or if her panicked breathing was the result of her losing connection with him and being sent back to her own twisted test.
He wanted to simply sit there and fail ICT. As soon as he got out of there, he’d make a phone call to his parents. His mother had the right connections. There was no way Nero’s behavior would be allowed, and Javen could retake the test after the fallout.
But then there was Alexis. He didn’t feel right about leaving her. It seemed clear that her trick to fool Nero had failed. The sergeant knew she’d joined Javen in his scenario, and Nero had kicked him out into the test room, but not Alexis.
He decided to try and find a way back in. What Nero would do if he reentered, he didn’t know.
Javen relaxed his muscles and took a long, deep breath. He cleared his mind, focusing on the pricking needle at the back of his skull. Something stirred behind his eyelids, summoned as if out of a dream. He began to hear voices fading in and out. Colors began forming in his mind and they slowly grew into shapes.
He felt his body begin to take form in his mind and he was no longer in the test room. Nero’s voice droned maniacally nearby. The blurred outline of people stood beside him. Slowly they came into focus.
He was back with the group of cadets, and they were huddled together in the staging room. Nero was in the middle of a speech.
“…If you thought the last arena was boring, this next one will give you nightmares. Stay low, leeches, and keep together. If one of those colonists tags you with a hot round, you’re going to feel it like fire. It’ll rip and burn, then kick off into different parts of your body—not pretty either. Ready for the action? It’s coming to you straight from my warm and fuzzy memory bank with love.
“Try not to die.”
Nero extended his left hand to the door and Javen followed behind one of the male cadets. Alexis hadn’t noticed him rejoin the group. Javen moved towards her. Nero saw him and pushed her through the doorway. Javen wasn’t going to stop. He made for the door but Nero brought his hand down, pressing hard on the breast of his uniform.
“Cadet Worth, you’re back. You had better behave yourself, or failing the test will be the least of your worries. I don’t care who your mother fucking mommy is.”
Javen stared straight forward.
Nero lifted his hand. “Be a good boy now, or you parents won’t have the pleasure of saying goodbye to your face, like they did with your brother. I’ll make sure yours is a closed casket funeral, you hear?”
It took all of Javen’s strength to keep his hand from reaching for his gun. The psychotic sergeant knew how to twist a knife in just the right places.
He forced himself through the door, refusing to give in to Nero’s word games. He felt the air change as he left the staging area. He began to hear faint sounds. A strong, unfamiliar stench floated through the air. The darkness began to clear in his mind, but not as easily as before. The sound became more distinct. A high whistle cut through the air. Gunfire. The arena began to take form. Javen found himself on a barren plain, a bright, oppressive sun beating down on him. His feet stood on a powdery, grey dust that covered the ground.
Dead bodies lay everywhere.
A rocket sailed out from behind an overturned vehicle, exploding into the side of a barricade.
Gunfire pelted a sandbag barrier just in front of him.
Crud, he was going to get shot!
He dropped and hit the dusty surface and frantically tried to gain his bearings. He needed more cover. He spotted a ditch to his right, and immediately rolled into it as the powdery ground all around him exploded with weapons fire.
Falling into the ditch, a sudden pain stabbed at his side. He glanced down and saw a standard assault rifle strapped to his chest, the barrel digging painfully into his ribs. He brought the strap over his head and tucked the stock under his shoulder.
The same pulling feeling that had led him down the aspen road was drawing him to the overturned vehicle that the rocket had blazed from. He began to crawl along the ditch.
Somewhere up ahead he heard screaming.
He stuck his head up over the side of the dirt barrier. One of the cadets from the test room was sitting slumped up against a stack of sandbags. His left arm ripped free from his body. To the right of the screaming cadet was a foxhole and an ugly, grinning face glaring at him from the butt-end of an assault rifle.
Javen ducked and heard a whistle as the bullet cut the air where his head had just been.
A quick, biting acid bit at the back of his throat but he fought it down. Real pain, Nero had said. He lay there a minute, watching the rise and fall of his chest. The maimed cadet’s uncontrolled screaming abruptly ended in a hail of gunfire and explosions.
Javen glanced over the side of the ditch. The cadet’s body was strewn across the ground in chunks.
Ducking back down, he pressed his back against the ditch.
This isn’t real, he told himself. This is Nero. He’s messing with us.
None of the words he told himself made him feel any better. As long as he was here, he had only one objective, and that was to get to Alexis. She was real. And she needed his help.
He continued down the trench towards the overturned vehicle. Bodies littered the narrow trough, one every few feet. Some of them were Terran soldiers, their youthful faces bloodied and sad to look upon. But he found far more colonists. Cruel, hard faces with dark eyes and lips seemingly curled in anger at the moment death had taken them.
The sight of such men disturbed Javen.
The ditch ended abruptly just twenty feet short from his destination. He saw the vehicle ahead of him. It was an armored moonrover. Five soldiers were hiding behind it. Alexis was there and she spotted him and yelled something to a man beside her wearing goggles and a white and grey camouflaged jumpsuit. He shouted out orders and began waving Javen to run. The five soldiers all popped up from behind the moonrover and laid down a heavy fire. Javen sucked in a lungful of air and jumped up, racing off at a sprint. He stumbled as he reached the cover of the vehicle and fell to his knees.
The man with the goggles bent over him and grabbed Javen’s shoulder. “You alright, kid?”
“Yeah,” shouted Javen, taking in the new figure.
“Good, we need you. Here’s the situation. There are four or five colonists keeping us pinned down. They’re bunkered in a crater about fifty yards south of us. Could be more hiding out, playing it cool, so be careful.”
The man with the goggles lifted Javen to his feet. “Watch your head, okay? They have a sniper.”
Javen nodded as the man returned to his position against the moonrover.
Two male cadets were leaning against the vehicle holding their guns tight. Alexis was squatting beside them.
“I’m glad you came back,” she shouted, and a weary smile on her lips.
“We’re at the first Lunar Skirmish, aren’t we?” said Javen, kneeling next to her. He picking up a handful of the grey powdery dust and ran it through his fingers.
“Yeah, that’s right. This is straight from Nero’s memory. He fought in the First Lunar battles. But he’s changed one thing—the enemy. Have you seen what they look like?”
Javen nodded. He recalled the faces in the ditch and the man who shot at him in the fox hole.
Alexis snarled, “Nero’s using his imagination to cover up who we’re really fighting.”
“And who’s that,” said Javen, allowing the doubt he felt to creep into his voice. “Nice, friendly folk? I just saw one of the other cadets with us turned into hamburger chunks.”
Alexis paused, her smile gone. “It’s kill or be killed. War is ugly no matter how you splice it, but the real people fighting out there should be farmers and terraformers, not the die-hard soldiers in Nero’s imagination. I’ll prove it to you.” Alexis stood and looked around, her eyes suddenly fixed on something. “Follow me.” She began to crawl behind a row of sandbags to the right of the moonrover.
Javen followed her. She stopped beside a body laying face down in the dust. It was wearing the uniform of a lunar soldier.
“I want to show you something I discovered the last time I took this test. Lift his head,” she said. “Do it real quick and look at his face.” Javen positioned himself at the top of the corpse. He dug his fingers into the man’s thick black hair, then glanced up at Alexis. Her eyes were intense.
“This is a real memory from Nero’s time on the front lines,” said Alexis.
Javen lifted the head up. In that instant, Javen saw the dirty face of a young boy who looked to be fourteen or fifteen years old. The eyes were dried open and partially covered in fine dust. The purple mouth was cracked and blistering.
The lips began moving.
They grew wider and thicker, until the mouth froze in a defiant sneer. Dark stubble replaced the delicate skin around the bloodless cheeks, and Javen was now looking into deep, furrowed eyes, the pupils waxed and hardened inside the sockets. Javen dropped the head and fell backwards.
“Nero changes them,” said Alexis. “He mixes reality with a little imagination to fool us. It’s the same with the negotiators’ reports. Mixing reality with lies, a change here a change there, a twisting of truth when they need it, and before long, the colonists are monsters to be hated and feared.
Javen nodded, still staring at the back of the soldier’s head.
They both crawled back to the moonrover under cover of the sandbags. The two other cadets were shooting alongside the officer with the goggles. But there was another man who’d joined them.
As he and Alexis took their places behind the vehicle, the unidentified man turned and called to the officer, “I got one rocket left, sir!”
The man had a red, stubbled face and an unmistakable smile that made Javen’s stomach churn. It was Sergeant Nero, only he looked a lifetime younger.
“You think you can time that shot, Nero?” called the officer.
“Of course I can,” he growled, Nero stepped out from behind the moonrover.
“Cover fire!” shouted the officer.
Javen sprung up, following everyone’s lead, but had no idea what he was doing. The deafening rattle of gun shots blazed all around him.
The rocket whistled from Nero’s launcher. A fire ball bucked into the sky and a split second later, the roar of the explosion pounded at Javen’s ears. A man engulfed in flames, rolled up over the crater’s edge. Nero dropped the launcher and fired his rifle until the flaming man lay still.
“Come on, kiddos,” shouted Nero, waving them forward. “Time to blow the heads off some colonist hags and their wee moon spawn. The farm perimeter’s just a mile ahead.”
“Hold,” said the officer. “Orders are to stay here until reinforcements come. And you know the rule about noncombatants.”
A wild intensity blazed in Nero’s eyes. “There’s nothing else living in this sector.”
“You’re a fool—you don’t know that,” snapped the officer, lifting his goggles to glare at Nero. “Besides, orders are orders.”
“Can’t kill nobody hiding like this,” growled Nero.
The officer spat and turned back to peer cautiously over the torn moonscape.
Javen saw Nero’s hand slip down the side of his uniform. He pulled a foot long blade from his belt and flung it.
The officer gasped twice and glared at Nero as he clutched the knife buried in his chest, then he collapsed against the rover.
As sick as the sight was, Javen couldn’t believe this was an actual memory from Nero’s mind. It all seemed to smooth, to bizarre. There was no way he was that impulsive and crazy. He’d have gotten himself locked up long before he ever made it to the moon skirmishes. To knife an officer over something so petty—Nero was just messing with him and the other cadets. He was only trying to make them fear him more. It was stupid, and Javen had had enough. If Nero thought he could manipulate all his cadets, he was wrong about one of them.
“We’re movin’ up, ain’t that right?” hissed Nero.
The two males who stood, hunkered against the moonrover, nodded timidly. Alexis’s face was pale, her eyes glazed over in shock.
“I’m not moving,” said Javen. He gripped his assault rifle tight.
Nero’s whiskered face hardened. “You want to repeat that, rich boy?”
“You heard me,” said Javen, battling Nero’s glare and fighting back his fear with rage. “That man you just killed was right, you’re a fool. And another thing,” Javen added, “you keep your dirty hands off Alexis.”
The red, twisting hairs about Nero’s mouth parted in a yellow-toothed grin.
In a single motion Nero sprang behind Alexis and wrapped his right arm around her neck. He tapped his pistol to her head. She gasped as he bent her head at a painful angle.
Javen took a step back. He saw the agony in Alexis’s eyes.
“That’s right, ease it on back. Good. Now drop the gun.”
Nero’s left eye peered out, cold and calculating, from behind Alexis.
Javen felt defiance well up in him, but alongside it was an equally rising fear. The knowledge that this was all taking place in everyone’s minds and not in reality didn’t change the fact that something very real was coming to pass. Would he still be able to make the vid call to his home? Would he have the chance once he was sent back to the test room? The helmet would still be secured to his head.
“Why do you do this,” asked Javen. “Why do you want us to hate you?”
“The gun!” screamed Nero, digging the gun into Alexis’s skull.
She winced, crying out as tears flowed down her face.
Javen lowered his assault rifle and tossed it on the ground.
Nero released Alexis, raised the pistol at Javen, and fired.
Pain ripped through Javen’s chest. He clutched the entry point and sank to his knees, gasping at the mind numbing agony. The bullet had gone in just under his right arm and out through his side.
He stared up at Nero. It was impossible to keep the terrible pain from showing in his eyes.
Nero aimed the gun at his head and fired.
Javen jumped in his seat, his breaths coming in long heaves.
He was back in the test room, and mercifully, the pain was gone.
For several minutes, he sat there, just breathing. The memory of the pain still tingled the skin beneath his shoulder, and mingling with that sensation was an anger that burned hot through his veins.
He wanted to kill that man. He’d never felt a desire like it before.
Javen slumped back into the chair, perspiration drenching his shirt.
The room was silent. He brought his hands up to the helmet and, very lightly, began to lift. The pain was instantaneous.
He let go and decided to wait and listen, focusing his attention on where Sergeant Nero should be. Minutes passed. Javen wasn’t sure he wanted to leave the test room and reenter whatever world Nero had created next.
He tried calling Alexis by name, and like before, she didn’t respond.
The thought of Nero cornering her in the arena only fueled the fire in Javen’s blood.
He had to go back for her.
Minutes passed before the tension eased from his body. Javen drifted back into the dark machine where Nero sat, a single disturbing thought returning again and again to his mind.
He was about to find out how far Nero was willing to go.
The staging room emerged before his eyes. It was empty, but the doorway before him stood open.
It appeared they had gone on to the next arena. The moment he stepped through, the fog was so heavy, it was as if he were completely blind.
No smells. No noise. Nothing. Then, nearly imperceptible, he heard a faint click.
The fog lifted only slightly. He began to hear very soft breaths coming from somewhere out in front of him. There was a dead ambiance all around him.
Walls grew out of the haze. A stilted cough echoed a moment later, its origin some distance ahead of Javen.
The walls took form, and he suddenly recognized the shape of the room.
The fog vanished
He was in the test room—it was the new arena. He saw the four other cadets sitting in front of him, still attached to their helmets. The room was dark. Moonlight filtered down through a series of windows, bathing everything it touched in bluish-white. The cadets sat motionless in their chairs. Javen looked up at Nero. The metal coils of the machine rose up about him like a hand, blocking the moonlight from most of his features. Nero’s head moved. His face ducking out from underneath the shadows.
The glint of Nero’s eyes beamed through a slotted metal sheet at the head of the machine.
Slowly, Nero leaned forward, then lifted himself off the mechanical seat, but as he rose, Javen felt his mind yanked away and the room went black, his vision descending into darkness.
What had happened?!
He was still seated, but where was he?
The silence felt familiar, and with a growing certainty, he realized he’d been wrenched from the arena and sent back to the stillness of the real test room.
Had Nero ejected him, or had it been own fear that expelled him?
He sucked in a deep lungful of air, determined to go back, when a sound stopped him cold.
It was the quick scraping sound of a desk being pushed aside in the front of the room.
Someone was there, awake.
Javen’s left hand went for his gun, and his thumb popped off the leather strap that secured it to the holster.
This wasn’t the arena, he reminded himself. What he did here was worlds apart from what he did in the virtual world of the mind. Here, everything was permanent. And the consequences didn’t go away when the helmet came off.
A faint tink sounded near where the scraping sound had come from.
Who else could it be but Nero? He had left the machine in the test room arena of the virtual world, was he now messing with Javen here in the real test room?
He waited, blind. The helmet making sight impossible.
In the silence, Javen quietly thumbed his pistol’s safety, switching it off.
He tried to reason with himself that he was taking things too far…that Nero was only going to mess with his mind, but wouldn’t physically touch him. Nero might have shot him in the head in the arena, but he wouldn’t pull the trigger in the classroom…would he?
Javen kept his hand pressed against his weapon. All the reasoning in the world felt feeble when weighed against the despotic sergeant he’d met in the virtual world. And beyond that, how could he explain away all the stories he’d heard—Roger’s stories, and all the cadets’ from the other testing stations.
Another faint sound came from the front of the room, only it came from the left side and sounded closer.
Javen tried to relax his muscles. He had to see somehow! If he could peek back into the imagined test room what would he see?
Fighting to keep his adrenaline in check, he took a deep breath. Slowly, he made his way back into the virtual world. Blurring shapes slowly sharpened into objects.
The moonlight fell upon the empty machine.
Javen looked frantically around. Darkness enveloped most of the room. He scanned all four walls. A chalky-grey figure, just visible, stood in the shadows. The arm hung loose. Something protruded from the hand but its outline faded into black.
Something pulled in the back of his mind, trying to force him back into the physical test room. He fought back, consciously relaxing his body despite the tension.
The shadowed body shifted, and the figure began to walk towards Javen and the cadets. There was no doubt in Javen’s mind who it was, the scraggy beard protruding from the chin like the unkept mane of lion.
Javen was losing the battle to stay in the arena. Objects became indistinct. Nero was close and moving swiftly now. His fading outline swung around to the left and pushed aside the last desk separating him from Javen.
The arena burned away and blackness enveloped him.
Javen stood blind, raised his gun and pivoted left.
CRACK-CRACK-CRACK-CRACK-CRACK, he fired five shots to his left, then turned, visualized where the seat of the machine lay, and unloaded three more rounds.
The explosive CRACK of gunshots faded into a deafening silence.
Javen gripped his gun, fingers clamped tight around the perforated metal grip. His body shook with every breath, yet he tried desperately to detect motion in the ringing silence.
Lieutenant Amanda Brighton’s breathless voice buzzed in over the intercom, “Cadet Worth! Put your gun back in your holster!”
Her voice echoed like a spirit calling to Javen from another world. A sane place far removed from the cruel imaginings of Nero he’d experienced only moments ago.
He hesitated to follow Brighton’s orders for a moment, then slowly, lowered his gun. When he heard no other sounds, he carefully placed the pistol in his holster.
A new thought crept into his mind, and it grew with each passing second.
What have I just done?
He heard his helmet click and felt a quick stab of pain at the back of his head.
Brighton’s voice sounded from a speaker, “You can remove your head gear.”
Javen yanked the helmet off and immediately turned to look at where he’d shot. Standing there was a rubbery, tan body in the shape of a man. Five holes marked up its chest. Javen turned to the machine at the front of the room. Another dummy sat in it, a pair of holes dotted the skin just below the neck.
He found the four cadets still seated in front of him. They were also dummies. Alexis appeared to be nothing more than a blond-haired mannequin.
Confusion and panic set in. Where was Alexis?
Had she been swapped with a mannequin during one of the arenas?
She had slipped him the conductor at the very beginning. He had felt the touch of her fingers as she placed it into his hand. He remembered the pleading look in her eyes.
Javen reached down and touched Alexis’s lifeless shoulder. It had the rough textured feel of a uniform. Javen brushed his fingers across her face. It felt soft and smooth to the touch. He applied pressure and her cheek dimpled like skin.
Javen pulled back his hand, the truth dawning on him. He stared blankly at the back of Alexis’s rubber head. The entire time…she had only been a hologram.
There had been no swap—Alexis wasn’t real. She’d never been real.
A chill ran up his spine. He’d been set up.
He remembered his conversation with her regarding the colonists. Could they charge him for treason? Was that their intention—to trap him?
He hadn’t given any sign that he would turn her in. Quite the opposite, he realized. Ever since he’d met her, he’d relentlessly defended her and tried to help her. And all of that had come after she’d told him about her allegiance to the colonists.
Javen began to feel sick. All the complex emotions he’d built around Alexis were manipulations. Only a program. He’d stood up for a virtual AI and had been shot for it.
And now… he turned and faced the Nero mannequin on his left.
What would ICT think about him shooting up his superior officer?
Expulsion from the military? A charge for attempted murder on top of treason for aiding a colonist sympathizer?
The glaring overhead lights flashed on.
The door to the test room swung open and Javen braced himself for a swarm of military police to rush inside. Instead, Lieutenant Brighton entered the room and quietly shut the door behind her.
She stared at him, remaining beside the door.
There was an odd but serious look on her face he couldn’t place. Her dark hair was no longer in a ponytail, but hung down her back. Without a word, she left her place beside the door and walked up to him, then handed him a slip of paper.
Javen looked down and read it. Next to ICT was the label, ADVANCED, followed by the words, RECOMMENDATION: OFFICER TRAINING.” A list of highlights lay below, and he noticed one of them held the number shots he’d fired, as well as naming Sergeant Nero as the one he’d hit.
Javen glanced up at Brighton. The look on her face was still illusive, her lips held rigid and thin in a straight line.
“Does this mean I’m not going to be court marshaled?”
Lieutenant Brighton peered over her shoulder toward the door, then back at Javen. A slight curl replaced the dead emotionless line at the corners of her lips.
“Oh no,” came her cool, even voice. “You failed harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. Everyone breaks a few protocols during their first ICT test, but you broke nearly all of them, including the majors. You took Alexis’s conductor in the test room, that was your first mistake. You didn’t respond appropriately when she told you she was hiding from Sergeant Nero. And then, when she said she supported the colonists, you proceeded to protect her throughout the remainder of the test.”
Brighton paused, her eyes almost glowing. “The ICT program changes and evolves with every choice you make. A combination of holograms, adaptive AI, and psychology, Cadet Worth. Those dummies you shot up are nothing more than what the boys use on the simulators in the Enhanced Combat classes. The mind scenarios however had ICT’s AI simulators. The test is different for everyone because each cadet has different reactions to any number of stimuli thrown at them.
“You’re not the first to shoot at Sergeant Nero, but you’re the first to do so while harboring feelings for Alexis, a colonist spy embedded in our military recruiting program. They won’t just court marshal you for that, they’ll hang you from the gallows and air it live on the Vids.”
Javen’s hands began to sweat. Why was she telling him all this so casually? Did she forget he was still armed?
Having accused him of all she had, Brighton didn’t seem concerned standing in his presence. He would have expected her to have a small take-down force with her at the very least.
“Are you going to turn me in all by yourself then?” he asked.
Her right eyebrow lifted slightly. “I shouldn’t even be in here. The test room door switches to lockdown mode if a cadet fails the test in the manner that you have. I hacked your results, of course, otherwise you’d have about a dozen armed men dragging you away right now.”
Questions flooded Javen’s mind. Brighton seemed to be hiding something? What reason would she have to hack his results? Was she testing him further? He glanced down at her waist and saw the sidearm she carried. Did she believe she was a faster draw then he was, or did she already know it took a person like Nero to drive him to pull his gun? She had his psych report… and probably a dozen other evaluations… his entire profile from the last ten years of school. If so, she knew exactly what he would and wouldn’t do.
Javen searched her face for an answer. “Why would you hack the test for me?”
“Because I have a secret.”
Again she smiled.
If she was waiting for him to guess it, she was going to be disappointed. Javen folded his arms, refusing to play her game.
“I am Alexis.”
Javen frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Alexis is real, and so is the basis of everything she said. I designed her to tell my story, manipulated the original programming on her character.”
Javen shook his head. “Is this another test?”
Brighton shook her head. “It is for me. I’m putting you in control now. Listen carefully, we don’t have much time. I run this test to recruit spies for Luna. As I’ve already told you, I’m a hacker, but I don’t trade only in programming. I’m good at hacking my emotions and body language. I know what facial expressions work and in what scenarios, and I’m damn good at manipulating people. In other words, I know how to act. That’s how I landed this job.”
“I still don’t trust you,” said Javen.
Brighton smirked and tilted her head to the left. “That’s sort of the nature of the beast. You don’t know me. You feel jerked around from the test, I understand. It’s supposed to root out those who might become sympathetic to the colonists—that’s not my design, I only added to it. My brother was killed. He was a negotiator. Everything Alexis told you about him is true.”
“And the battle arena,” questioned Javen. “What about the face down colonists?”
“That’s their programming. What Alexis showed you is a glitch in the system. That arena is true battle memory modified for the test. But they forgot to change the faces of the dead lying belly-down.” Her lips pinched into a little smile. “A glitch I have not brought to their attention.”
A single knock sounded on the wall, and suddenly Brighton stiffened. “Moonpuck, that’s the signal,” she breathed in a soft hiss. “I’m not supposed to be in here with you.”
She glanced frantically around, then grabbed his arm and pulled him to the side of the room. She tapped a wall panel and it slid open, then tugged for Javen to follow her inside, but he stood his ground.
“I’m not hiding in there with you.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Please,” she said firmly. “If Nero finds us in here…” she shook her head for emphasis.
“Nero’s real then?”
“I wish he wasn’t. And he’s the same bastard as he is in the test.” She tugged again on his arm. “Please, I need you to trust me.”
Javen glanced at the test room door. If this was another test, that was the door he needed to pass through. It might absolve him from what he’d done in the virtual world.
But then, what if Brighton was telling the truth? What if she was who she was claiming to be?
He looked at the lieutenant and in that glance he saw the same panicked look Alexis had given him when Nero had the gun to her head in the battle arena.
With one last glance at the test room door, he let Brighton pull him into the room.
The panel closed silently, sealing them inside.
The room was dark but he could see Brighton standing in front of him. Two small beams of light fell upon her face through a vent in the door.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“A storage room.”
“Who was that who knocked on the wall?”
“That was Roger.”
Aven frowned. “He’s a colonist too?”
“No, Roger’s not human.”
“He’s an OHR. Organic Human Robot. I hacked him too. He’s part of the test.”
“What are you hoping Nero’s going to do? See that your gone and leave, then we get out?”
“It might not be Nero. Roger will tap the wall twice when it’s safe to come out.”
A low grunt sounded just outside the wall panel. Javen felt the hair on his neck stand on end. He hadn’t heard the test room door open. Whoever had entered had done so very quietly.
A quiet sniffing noise sounded from the base of the panel.
The ugly memory of a hairy orange orangutan surfaced in his mind.
It could be no other creature. And it had found their scent.
A shadow fell across the vent. Suddenly Javen felt Brighton place all her weight against him and pull his face in her direction. Her lips crashed into his.
The door banged open and she jerked her body off of Javen’s.
“Sergeant Nero!” she cried.
Standing outside was Nero, and squatted below him was his ugly beast. Javen’s hand nearly went for his pistol..
“Miss Brighton?!” said Nero, his lips curling into a wicked smile. Then he let out a booming laugh and then his eyes turned to Javen. He stared at him like a skeptic searching for clues. The orangutan crawled onto Nero’s boot and wrapped itself around the man’s right leg. The beady black eyes looking curiously up at Javen, its cheese-colored teeth barred playfully.
Nero grunted, then said, “Miss Brighton, this isn’t like you. Every male cadet I know has been trying to get in your panties, but without a fuck of luck. Who the hell is this Romeo?
“Just because you haven’t caught me doesn’t mean I haven’t screwed half the guys at Leedmer.”
“Yeah right,” laughed Nero. “You’re a golden trophy. A sparkling unicorn. If someone ever mounted you, the bragging would be loud and endless in the barracks.” Nero held his hand out. “Where’s Romeo’s test results?”
Javen handed him the slip of paper.
Nero glanced down at the score card. A second later his head whipped up and his eyes held a cold, dead stare that bore into Javen. “This here card says you shot me seven times. Two in the chair, five at close range. You got a problem with me, Romeo?”
Everything around Javen slowed. He saw Nero’s right hand hanging down. A gun sat loose in a black holster, just below his fingers. Javen watched for the smallest hint of movement. His own hand felt like a weight, drawing him to his holster. Movement. Nero’s right hand passed over the holster, rose upward. Moved towards him, then squeezed his shoulder.
The world returned to normal and Javen saw a wide, whiskery smile on Nero’s face.
“Relax. If I was gonna kill you, I’d of played it off nice and cool, and then shot you in the hall tomorrow.” The smile didn’t fade. “You got yourself some talent, kid. And I’m not talking about the test. Coaxing my sinless Lieutenant Brighton into the closet. Can’t say I haven’t tried.” He winked at Javen. “Have fun you two.”
The door slammed shut. Javen heard the sound of the lobby doors swing open then close.
“Dirty pig,” said Brighton under her breath. Both of them were breathing hard.
Javen waited a moment, then said, “Ok,” said Javen, “I’m in.”
Brighton squinted. “Just like that?”
“I’m not saying I’m for the colonists, but I’m willing to listen. As long as I have doubts about what happened I’ll keep my mouth shut.”
The Lieutenant nodded. “Perfect. I’ve got reams of information for you. By the end of the week, you’ll be a colonist. I’d bet my life on it.”
“How many others have you found like me?”
“You mean Cadet’s swearing allegiance to the colonists?”
“You’re the first.”