Armored Battalion Repair Depot 58
rating: +8+x


[BEGIN ARCHIVED TRANSMISSION]

Bax Block sat atop the warm metallic roof of Repair Depot 58 and looked out at the expanse to the West. He was parked on an air conditioning exhaust vent, a sweating beer in one hand, other elbow braced on a knee, propping up his chin. The sun was falling, and he watched it go. He liked the easy heat of this time of day. Not blistering like it was just after noon, not chilly like in the early morning. Warm, and soft. It made his mind want to wander. It normally wanted to do this, but in the early evening, after his shift was up, he could afford to let it go for a while.

He took a sip. Cheap Imperial stuff. Yellow and not very flavorful, but more interesting than the metallic-tasting water from the moisture reclamators. It made him miss the beer from his hometown. The color of a sunset like this one, tasted like warm bread and crisp hops and love, and strong enough to put you straight to sleep if you didn't respect it.

His hometown didn't exist anymore, though, and neither did the old brewery. He steered his thoughts in a different direction.

Bax was tired. His arms, though sturdy and powerfully muscled, ached in that not-altogether-unpleasant way one gets after an amount of work that comes with pride as a consolation prize. His back and shoulders felt the same. The orders had been pouring in for the last two weeks or so, and flash jobs were becoming more common, putting strain not just on his body, but also his mind, and those of his coworkers.

He had taken to coming up here more often than usual, once his shift was over. The warmth helped unknot his moaning muscles and the quiet let his mind stop whirring. He didn't dislike his shopmates' company, far from it in fact, but after spending month after month living with the same small group of people he had learned that it was utterly sublime to set himself apart from them, for just a few short moments per day.

The desert wind, slow and warm like breath, pushed gently against his body, as though it wanted his attention. The sun fell further down. The first stars began to poke out of their lavender and indigo hiding places. Bax found it profoundly beautiful. The sight always stirred powerful feelings, joy and solemnity and awe all combined to form a kind of pressure somewhere in the meat of his chest. It almost felt like he was being lifted somewhere, or there was something incredible inside him that only needed to bypass his hilarious flesh to escape and change the world irrevocably for the better. It was-

“Bax, you gigantic mopey fuck.”

He closed his eyes and swore inwardly. His time was up for today. Zel had found him. He decided not to be upset about it.

Bax replied, his voice quiet and heavy, like idling machinery. “I'm not moping, or a fuck.”

The newcomer sat down next to him on the exhaust vent. It creaked. Bax sitting on it was a structural catastrophe waiting to happen, and the thin, weedy addition of this second body didn't help.

Bax reached out and put his left arm around the smaller man's shoulders, pulling him in for a crushing sideways hug. There was an amount of wheezing and variations of “Shitgoddammitaghfuck” before Bax released him and looked back out at the desert, taking another swig of his beer.

“What the hell was that for?”

“Affection doesn't need specifics.”

“No one else's affection comes with splintered ribs.”

Bax smiled.

“So this is where you disappear to. I had a feeling.”

The large man said nothing.

“What do you do up here?”

Bax frowned and looked down at Zel's face. “Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing.”

“You're a weird guy, Block.”

Bax took one of his pauses.

“I am?”

“Yes. Weird.”

“How?”

“No one else I know just… stops. I swear to God, sometimes when we're not working you could be mistaken for an oversized mannequin.”

“We can't all be blessed with as much energy as you.”

“You're as energetic as a corpse. Which I guess is a good thing; if you were any livelier you'd probably have been killed by a terrified pitchfork-wielding mob as a teenager.”

“I'm also very handsome. Always worked in my favor.”

“Oh absolutely. Every woman sees the world's most stoic grain silo and thinks, 'Boy, that sure does seem like prime lovemaking material.'”

Bax smiled again. “Are you alright, Zel?”

“I guess. Why?”

“You seem more… frantic, than usual.”

The thin man sighed, and smoothed back his longer brown hair. “Calabrand is in one of his moods. He snapped at Voldzet over some mistake in a medical report. I try to stay out of his way when he gets hot under the collar; I don't need any of his crap, ever, but especially not now. I've been running so many calibrations and integration lineups that I think I'm starting to go crosseyed and I don't need that puffed-up, geriatric fart getting in my face over a slipped servo or some other pedantic shit. So, tactical withdrawal.”

“To the roof.”

“Works well enough for you, doesn't it?”

“I guess.”

“It's hot up here.”

“It's warm. I like it.”

“I always knew you were a psychopath. Did you get those alignments done?”

“Yep.”

“All of them?”

“Yep.”

“Goddamn. How?”

“Skipped lunch.”

“Fuck me. If I ever start to show that kind of work ethic, just shoot me, for I may as well be as dead outside as I've become inside.”

“I'd rather just snap your neck. Has a more personal touch. We are friends, after all.”

“Freak.”

Bax leaned to the side. There was a crack and a little hiss, and he handed Zel the second beer he had been saving.

“Oh, you're a prince. I was just about to go down and get one. Cheers.”

They clink the necks of their bottles together, and watch the sun die for a few minutes.

Bax said, “How much longer do you think this is going to go on?”

Zel blinked. “What?”

“This. The war.”

“Uh. Well… I see two possibilities. Either Emperor Brightguard gets tired of gratifying his own ego, or he runs out of Krathians to kill. So, all in all, it makes you feel pretty bad for the Krathians.”

“Does it?”

“I think so.”

“The civilians, maybe. But the rebels have been a problem for years. It's not as if we could just let them keep attacking the border colonies.”

“Ha. This again. You still think the Krathians actually attacked the border colonies? I told you, I find that story to be highly unlikely.”

“It's in the official reports. Has been for a long time.”

“Well, you haven't seen the unofficial reports.”

“And neither have you, if you want to live long enough to get to puberty.”

“Asshole. I'm just saying that taking the public action reports at face value is dangerously naive.”

“Cynicism is bad for your health.”

“So is following blindly along with everything you hear. It's pretty easy to see that the land across the Everwind is pretty tasty and Brightguard wants to take a big juicy bite. It's just that there's all these pesky people in the way.”

“I think that's pretty far-fetched. Going on outright unlikely. I find it hard to believe that the Throne would wage a years-long war just to get access to resources and land that we don't need.”

“I wonder what it would be like to live in your adorable little world for just ten minutes. One of these days some woman is going to get her claws into that big fat heart of yours and you'll finally understand normal human things like 'doubt' and 'skepticism' and 'sadness'.”

There was silence for a short moment.

“My heart's not fat. It's big-boned. And you don't know that I haven't been heartbroken before.”

“I do know. Because no one with that kind of experience would be able to comfortably afford your particular brand of wide-eyed idealism. You're going to have to grow up sometime, Block.”

Bax doesn't reply.

“Why do you ask?”

The large man sighed. “The more this drags on, the more I think I'll be wearing a uniform when I'm gray.”

“Like Calabrand.”

“I guess. He's dedicated. Believes. The state's treated him well. And that's all great for him, but it's not what I want.”

“You work at it like you want it.”

“No point in doing it poorly. If I'm stuck here I might as well put the time in. Playing it your way will just get me in trouble, and I'm not clever enough to get out of it.”

It was quiet for a moment.

Zel said, “Maybe you should go talk to Voldzet.”

Bax raised an eyebrow. “Why?”

“He's pissed off, and Kaia's not there to settle him. With all this shit flying at us, we need him as calm as possible. I'm not good at un-rattling people. Go give him a hug or something.”

“Where's Kaia?”

“I think she went off with some of her girlfriends.”

“And you think I should substitute for her.”

“I think you have a knack for making people feel better, fatty. Somehow you were able to make it through indoctrination with most of your feelings intact. He could use some. And if you leave right now I get to finish your beer, so.”

Bax stood, the metal under him groaning in relief. “No. I'll just take my beer with me. Your plan is full of holes, Spinner.”

“Foiled again.”

The large man walks away, leaving the smaller man to enjoy the dying light alone. He stuffs his frame through the roof access hatch and down the short ladder to the upper storage corridor, then down a set of metal stairs that always seemed dangerously thin.

Now on the second floor, Bax realizes that he forgot to ask where Voldzet was, but doesn't feel like climbing back up. The doctor could only be in a few places, so he decides to try the upstairs recreation area first.

He takes the second door on the right. It opens to the recreation room. Wide, and full of exercise equipment, bookshelves, a few screens, Tapestry terminals, and a robust kitchenette dominated the leftmost corner. The biggest single room in the building that had nothing to do with work, and yet one of the least lived-in. People just found it more convenient to socialize downstairs where their workspaces were, for the most part. The paint was new, and everything was military clean.

Calabrand is seated on the couch, a tumbler of something dark in one hand, the other attending to a book in his lap. He is middle-aged, with close-cut graying hair and features that are sharp, but handsome in a severe, avian way. He is out of uniform, wearing soft pants and a thin sweater. His brown eyes lock onto Bax instantly, and his brow knits for just a moment before relaxing.

“Bax.”

Bax nods. “Sir.”

“Need something?”

“No. Just looking for Voldzet.”

“I left him in his office half an hour ago. Might still be there.”

“Oh. Okay.”

Bax began to shut the door, but Calabrand interrupted him. “Bax.”

He pushed it back open again. “Yes sir?”

“Sit with me for a moment. If I'm not keeping you from anything.”

Bax is fairly certain that because he had already indicated that he was looking for Voldzet that Calabrand knew he was keeping him from something, but didn't care. It was a command couched in a semblance of courtesy, which Bax found typical and exhausting.

The big engineer walked over to the couch and sat, keeping as much distance between himself the older man as possible, out of a combination of respect and mild distaste. It wasn't that he disliked the colonel, he just… didn't like him. Colonel Calabrand had made it clear since Bax had had arrived at Depot 58 that he had no intention of being friends or even particularly friendly with anyone there, and kept an irritatingly tight ship, presumably to save face with his superiors. A living Valtean officer and gentleman stereotype, with extensive connections and immunity from all the threats and inconveniences that plagued the enlisted men.

The colonel shut his book and took a sip of whatever he was drinking, probably something from his private store. Enlisted personnel weren't permitted liquor when in the field.

“You've been here two months so far, Sergeant Block. It's early yet for a formal placement review, but I like to check in occasionally. How have you adjusted? Any issues?”

Bax blinked. He hadn't memorized his lines for this particular interaction yet, and if performed badly it could spell trouble for him in the future. He opted for the standard approach.

“No sir. No complaints.”

“None? Whatsoever?”

“No sir.”

“I find that interesting. Every other member of this crew has grumbled or barked to at least some extent about the increased workload we find ourselves shouldering. Yet not a peep from you. In fact, I think this is the second time we've spoken at all since I've been here.”

“The job board is in black and white, sir.”

The colonel narrowed his eyes for a moment. “Yes, it is. Do you know how long I've had the privilege of serving before the Throne?”

“No sir. A very long time, I imagine.”

“Thirty-one years. Five longer than you've been alive, if your file is accurate. And in that time I've worked alongside many different kinds of men. You see, it is normal for soldiers to vent. Complaining is one of the things that soldiers do best. Yet rarely you find a quiet one, like yourself. I have found that the quiet ones are, for the most part, two kinds of people. The first is the very rare sort that was gifted with a soul of solid iron, who truly does not feel stress, or at least fails spectacularly to react to it in any visible way. The second and much more common kind appears to be the first, when in reality his heart is a microboiler with no relief valve, ready to explode at any moment with the slightest provocation.”

He stopped talking and aimed his pupils directly at Bax's. Bax tried to blink them off, but it didn't work.

“I'm not going to explode, sir.”

“No? What a relief. At this juncture in the war, we can hardly afford to have an entire machine shop out of commission because one disgruntled sergeant decided to parallel the battery banks or give his shopmates impromptu tattoos with an arc cutter while they slept. I've seen both. Your production report crosses my desk every week, just the same as the others'. And I've noticed something, do you know what?”

“No, sir.” Bax was pretty sure he knew.

“You put in, on average, about 25% more working hours than the next hardest-working person. Which is myself. Now, not only are you making me look bad,” a smile to indicate that this was absolutely not a threat but was in fact a perfectly normal joke, “but it concerns me no small amount. You aren't required to work beyond shift unless I must enact rush hours. It is my theory that you are throwing yourself into work because you are seeking stability in it. That if you stop working, you will be left with your throughts, and those thoughts have grown unkind to you. Am I near the mark?”

It was at this juncture that Bax was forced to do something he was notoriously bad at: think quickly. The colonel was dead wrong, but he didn't know by how much. This was strange. Bax's plan was having the opposite of its intended effect. He would have to shift gears. And he would have to lie, another area where he had no talent whatsoever. He kept Zel around for this kind of thing; he had a gift for fast talking and misdirection.

He looked away from the colonel's face and down at the floor, a gesture that he hoped was making him appear pensive and distraught.

“I suppose. Sometimes it's easier to just… keep working. Instead of talking. Or feeling.”

Stupid. Hysterically stupid. He really wished there had at least been a dress rehearsal for this.

Calabrand was silent for a moment, a thoughtful expression on his face, eyes drilling into Bax's cheekbone. Bax would just have to hope that the colonel was eager enough to be right that he'd eat up the melodrama and leave it alone.

“I see. Here's what we'll do. You're hereby ordered to stop working at end of shift. And you will get special clearance from me and me alone before being permitted to work during rush. Understood?”

Bax blinked again. “Are you instructing me to work less, sir?”

“Yes. Find a healthier way to decompress. Pick up a hobby. Or socialize; Spinner for example seems desperate enough for attention that I'm sure he would appreciate it. I will find you a week from now to measure your progress, and we will move from there. Was it passed down to you that there will be breakdowns tomorrow?”

“No, sir.”

“Four. And one priority extraction from the front, that will be attended to first thing in the morning. You were on your way to Voldzet; speak with him about it. I have no doubt that we are prepared, but it can't hurt to be sure. Have a conversation, perhaps. You may go.”

Bax picked up his beer, which was now warm, and stood, making for the door. He said, “Have a good evening, sir.” He couldn't stop the end of the statement from almost sounding like a question.

“Indeed. You as well, Block.”

Bax left, feeling both confused and relieved. He went toward the stairs that led downward into the shop.

He wouldn't complain about having to work less. He thanked Akhvalla that the colonel was so out-of-touch with the social state of his subordinates. He would have to continue to exploit that fact in the future, unfortunately.

He descended the stairs, down to the repair floor. Tool drawers, lockers, and long workbenches on the left. Armor hangar directly in front of him. Offices further to the left, through a door. He made for those.

The lights were dimmed, and the air smelled as it usually did; of metal, grease, and ozone. Not dirty, but thoroughly used. The fumes still hung, and some lights from the data processors were still on, compiling some program or integration. The place never really slept.

The office hallways was dark, with the exception of one door. Bax stopped in front of it. The crude placard read “Dr. Voldzet Vanxmier – Medical Examiner”. Bax knocked.

“What?”

Bax cleared his throat. “Um. It's Bax.”

A pause, then, “Oh. Sure. Come in, I guess.”

He pushed the door open.

Inside was an explosion of paper. Stacks and piles dominated the metal desk, the data terminal, the filing cabinet, the walls, and in some cases even the floor. There were anatomical diagrams, fitup schematics, spreadsheets, and other things, most of which Bax found resoundingly incomprehensible.

Voldzet was poring over what looked like a report of some kind. He picked up a pen and started writing.

He said without looking up, “I recently came into an entire dumptruck of work, so please, spit it out.”

Bax frowned. “Put the work down for a second.”

Voldzet froze, considering the benefits of exploding. He settled for snorting in frustration before setting down the pen. “What, Bax.”

Bax leveled his eyes at Voldzet's. “What's eating you?”

The doctor looked back at him. “Lots of things. I could make you a list. I've got all the materials right here, look at that. Or maybe a spreadsheet, itemizing all the shit I have to do.”

“I've never seen you… this overwhelmed.”

“I never had reason to be. I know my job. It is what it is, I do it well, and I always have done. But it's different under this Stonecutter fuck.”

“… Is it?”

“Like you'd know. You move the plates, weld, fabricate. Your boss is a goddamn clipboard on a wall. Grunt work. I am accountable to the Throne for its soldiers. I have to diagnose, implant and integrate. Surgeries nearly every fucking day, which have to be performed flawlessly. While providing reports which are ordinarily detailed and sufficient, but apparently not quite enough for the fair colonel.”

Bax frowned again, but didn't look down or away. He cracked his knuckles. “Okay. This grunt might not understand the intricacies of medical science, but I'm literate. Teach me how to write these reports the way that Stonecutter wants them and I'll help.”

Voldzet sighed. He stayed still for another moment, as though unsure what to do next. He then opened a desk drawer, pulling out a lighter and a pack of cigarettes. He lit one, and tossed the pack to Bax. The engineer blinked.

“I thought smokes fell out of the budget.”

“My sister has a way of freeing things up. And she's a consummate enabler.”

Bax took one and went to the desk, allowing Voldzet to light it for him. He took a deep drag. It wasn't one of the cheap, crunchy cigarettes that sometimes came in the ration packs they got for fieldwork. Genuine, flavorful tobacco from Reaper's Rest. Rare, expensive, and exquisite. He almost forgot the conversation completely as the beautiful poison flew through him.

“Oh. God. I can see why you haven't been sharing.”

Voldzet exhaled, and ashed into an empty glass. “Bax, teaching you how to generate these reports properly would accomplish nothing but greatly increase my workload and get me into trouble when you inevitably fuck it up. That said, I'm simultaneously astonished and not surprised at all that you'd offer such a thing.”

“Well. Just now the colonel forbade me from working past shift, so I have available time. I see no reason not to share the load if you're struggling.”

“What? Why?”

“He thinks I'm working too much.”

Voldzet huffed. “Amazing.” He closed his eyes. “I'm sorry I snapped at you. What you do is important and I know it. I'm just… frayed. I should have a fucking tech assisting me, but with the way things are going back at the Capital, that's not going to happen for a while. I'm just a little worn out, and Stonecutter coming in and warping my entire program to suit his whims and better impress his friends up the chain definitely isn't helping me. There isn't really anything that can be done about it, I just have to… adapt.”

“It sucks. For you more than most.”

“Maybe. How are you coming for the Combat Trials?”

Bax breathed deep of the delicious smoke before replying with a small amount of smugness, “That's not something I really have to prepare for.”

Voldzet shook his head and smiled. “Son of a bitch. I guess God doesn't give one man everything, huh? I got to be a doctor. So of course I couldn't be fucking gigantic as well; that would be a violation of some kind of rule that none of us are privy to. So you're not preparing anything? At all?”

“I never have in the past. I didn't really know what to do during my first one, and basic didn't teach me anything that I found very useful, so I just pretended I was back on the farm. We had to break bulls and grab squealing pigs all the time.”

“People aren't pigs. Well, the martial inspectors kind of are, but a different kind.”

“I guess. They still wrestle kind of the same, though. I keep wondering why they don't send someone with… I don't know. Size.”

“Bax. Unless the Brotherhood is crossbreeding giants somewhere, I don't think they're going to produce an examiner able to handle you any time soon. Meanwhile, the rest of us that don't have supernatural body proportions have to make do with things like this.” He opens another drawer and pulls out what looks like a syringe, with a blank metallic end rather than a plunger.

“What's that?”

Voldzet smiles. “They really are too loose with their rules. After this they'll definitely rewrite them to account for this little trick. A big part of being a repair depot medical examiner is anesthesia, as I'm sure you can imagine. With a little imagination and a heavily modified pneumatic nailgun, anesthesia can take on applications outside of the medicinal.”

Bax blinked. “You're going to shoot the inspector with a tranquilizer.”

“In so many words, yes. This is what they get for expecting a doctor to maintain front-line combat readiness on top of doing the job he was made for. Most of my other colleagues grapple with martial conditioning on top of everything else to be able to scrape a barely passing grade, but I find that inelegant. A little chemistry in the wrong place can do a lot of good. Or bad. And I intend on proving it.”

Bax whistles. “So… How did you pass before? If this is a new innovation.”

Voldzet laughs. “I've been on physical probation for the past year. Because as would be expected, I'm not much of a fighting man, and in a fighting man's army I'm somewhat of a standout. But after reviewing the regulations and seeing some of the things that people cook up in these evaluations, I think it'll go over swimmingly. Once.”

“Yeah. I can't see how they'd let you get away with that twice.”

“Who knows, maybe we'll get an inspector that respects strategies outside of raw physical force.”

“And maybe Brightguard will surrender tomorrow.”

This gets another laugh from Voldzet. Bax considers his job finished, but decides not to walk away. This could be useful later. He continues, “The whole concept never made much sense to me. Why have a doctor do the trials? Or an engineer? And if I can pass them without even breaking a sweat, why am I an engineer? Honestly, every cycle I convince myself that the wrong person's going to notice my numbers and I'm going to get sent to the Academy.”

Voldzet snorted. “You wouldn't make it through, you're not insane enough. I did a residency rotation through the Academy, and I can say with confidence that those guys get selected off a very… particular set of qualities. Foremost among them being a somewhat incomplete grasp of reality or social conventions.”

“You were an Academy doctor? That's… surprising.”

“Is it?”

“Sort of. You seem very… collected.”

“I managed to shrug most of the aftereffects. These days I barely even get nightmares anymore. Ha.”

“It was that bad?”

“More or less. Educational, at least.”

“God, I bet.”

A pause. Bax didn't think that asking more questions about the Academy would be smart, but didn't really know where else to go.

He put out his cigarette. “So. I'm going to make you a deal.”

“Oh?”

“You're gonna keep your shit together and your chin up, or I'm going to do my own rush hours right here. In your office. Learning how to do your busywork, taking up a bunch of space, and smoking all your cigarettes.”

“That's not a deal. That's an ultimatum.”

“… Still. Those are the terms. I don't know if you know it, but some people around here are delicate, and you breaking down makes them want to break down too. And on top of that, it just makes life harder than it has to be. I know it's tough, but we all have to swallow Stonecutter's shit. I'm not trying to preach at you, God knows I don't have the right, but it's how I see it.”

Voldzet's facial expression was difficult to read. He was looking directly at Bax, not down and away. It could have been confusion or determination, or resignation or shame.

He sighed. “I understand. The fact that you're having to drop a reprimand on me makes me feel like a complete waste, but I understand you. I'll try to… refocus.”

Bax smiled, and put a paw on Voldzet's shoulder for a moment. He goes to leave, but before he does, he says, “Breakdowns tomorrow, right? You ready?”

The doctor nodded. “I was briefed. I'll have everything on standby. From the report it's just a broken collarbone; it shouldn't be too agonizing.”

“Okay. I'll see you in the morning.”

“Yep.”

Bax closed the door.

He decided it would be both strange and stupid to keep standing in the dark hallway by himself, so he started walking. He ended up back on the repair floor, not sure what to do with himself. He wasn't particularly tired. Getting drunk would have been irresponsible with all the work he had to do in the morning. He didn't feel like getting caught out in the open where anyone else would try to talk to him, and Zel was probably still on the roof.

It would make sense to get some work done. He could prestage for the breakdowns. He had planned on doing it in the morning, because it would take all of three minutes, because he kept a respectably organized goddamn workshop. Which made the idea of doing it now completely redundant.

He slugged the last of his beer, put the bottle in the recycler, and pulled a new one out of the fridge. He elected to go outside, sit on a generator, and exist.


Bax awoke forty minutes before his alarm. He sprang out of bed with artificial zeal to prevent himself from getting stuck under the sheets, and put on his boots and coveralls before looking at himself in the mirror.

The face that looked back always looked to him like a particularly tired ham. A broad head, heavy jaw, close-cut nut-brown hair, and small blue eyes that had burned down years ago. He didn't blame people for assuming out-of-hand that he was an idiot. A huge body, meaty face, and a quiet, slow demeanor generally indicated a person that only became useful when the forklift broke down. And Bax definitely was useful when the loading equipment broke, but was also useful in other areas, preventing him from being a kind of advanced invalid.

He considered shaving, but didn't. He considered making his bed, but didn't do that either. He had time to burn before morning quarters. He could get breakfast, a luxury that he was rarely motivated enough to seek, but didn't particularly feel like eating. He decided to want a cup of coffee. That would do for a start. Then he could get ready for breakdowns.

He opened the door to his cabin. The hallway was dark and he didn't hear anyone. He set his alarm to wake up earlier than everyone else in any case, so it would be some time before the others were up to speed.

Bax entered the repair floor and went over to the corner by the fridge. Put the coffee together and listened to it burble for a while before getting a cup. This was normally when he would go outside and have a smoke with his coffee, but as far as he knew Voldzet was the only one with smokes anymore, until extra funding came through. He'd have to ask the colonel about it. Cigarettes formed a critical part of shop morale, along with beer, coffee, and cynicism. Without them, he was sure most Valtean military operations would crumble.

Hot coffee in hand, he went into the hangar and checked the screen on the wall above the data terminal desk. It reported that the soldiers due for breakdown would be arriving at 9. That gave him a few hours to stand around and do nothing, as his hangar was ready to work at all hours.

“Morning, Bax.”

He turned around. There was Zel, the top of his coveralls tied around his waist, looking tired.

He continued around a yawn, “Thanks for making coffee.”

“No problem. You're up early.”

“So are you.”

“I'm always up this early. You normally sleep through the morning meeting.”

“Was having trouble sleeping.”

“Yeah?”

Zel sighed, sipping his coffee and sitting down in front of the data bank. “Bad dreams. Something about… shapes, in fog. Staring at me. Couldn't get away from them, nowhere to go. And a storm overhead, on top of that. It was vivid. I'm still shaking it.”

“Sorry.”

Zel snorts. “It was you, you son of a bitch, I knew it.”

Bax started pulling tools off wall racks. “I am a devious master of nightmares.”

“You're a devious master of pork sandwiches.”

The two of them prep their equipment for a time. Zel pulls out loops of connecting cables and types at the terminal, doing things that Bax had little to no understanding of. Bax never had much of a mind for electronics. He had asked Zel to try to teach him a few times, but he had gotten lost fairly quickly. He had a hard time understanding how electricity flowed like water except when it didn't.

He was more at home with a wrench. With arc welders and lathes and casting fresh plates from molten steel. He started the air compressors, pulled down tools, and checked the armor racks.

Before long, a voice from the other side of the shop called, “Engineers! Muster up!”

The colonel, starting the morning meeting. Bax set down the last of the tools and made toward the benches up front, where he could see everyone else standing. Zel didn't follow immediately, still typing at the terminal.

Colonel Stonecutter stood by the door to the office hallway. Voldzet was already there, looking alert with a coffee cup in one hand. Kaiamora was leaning against a workbench, bags under her eyes and pale in the face. Bax guessed that the party from last night had come back for revenge.

Stonecutter looked at Bax and said, “Where's Spinner?”

Bax nodded to the armor hangar. “Typing.”

The colonel continued, “We have four breakdowns today. Three are due for rotation, but one is injured. She'll take priority, so she can get back on the truck and off to the hospital. Doctor, did you receive their files?”

Voldzet sipped his coffee nonchalantly and said, “Yes, they came in yesterday afternoon. Our broken bird has a comminuted clavicle fracture with a high probability of nonunion.”

Bax put a hand to his mouth and stage whispered, “What does any of that mean?

“Her collarbone's broken into a bunch of pieces and she probably won't get better without surgery.” He handed Bax a file. “Field scopes of the damage.”

Bax rifled through it, looking at the images.

“Judging by the pictures, the armor's been caved in by something big, and hard. Not a firebomb, or there would be scorching or other evidence of an explosion. Shaman probably threw a rock at her. Small one this time, thankfully, only about the size of a watermelon.”

“Repairable?”

“Not really. Be easier to just melt the plates down. She's running…” He squinted at the image briefly. “the Claide Frontliner Mk V, and we have a ton of those plates, so reassembly won't take long.”

“Good. Corporal Vanxmier, are you with us?”

Kaiamora's eyes snapped open. “Yes. Yessir, present and accounted for. Both.”

The colonel's eyes narrowed slightly. “Are you fit for today's operations, Corporal?”

She nodded, rubbing her eyes. “Yessir. One-hundred precent.”

“I hope so. Truck's due in…” he checked his pocketwatch, “Fifteen minutes. So look lively. Our record is stainless up to now and I don't want that to change. Let's get to work.”

He clapped his hands, the daily signal that he was done talking to them and it was time for them to start doing things. He turned around and opened the door to his office, exiting the repair floor.

Bax saw that Kaiamora's eyes had closed again. He bent down and threw her bodily over his shoulder like a sandbag.

She mumbled from somewhere near the middle of his back, “This is highly unprofessional, sergeant.”

He replied, “Yep. Thought you could use a lift, champ.”

“I don't have my land legs.”

“Nope. But it's time to get to work, sailor. You ready to lift those plates?”

“No. You lift the plates. I'll do the… tools.”

“I've got a pneumatic bolt driver with your name on it.”

“You didn't put my name on a pneumatic bolt driver.”

“I did. In crayon.”

He lifted her off his shoulder and planted her onto the floor. They were by the workbench. He picked up the driver and dropped it in her hands. She wasn't ready; its weight almost sent her clattering to the floor.

She hefted it and looked at the charge tank. On its side over the worn, dirty label was “SPROUT” written in angular, red letters.

She said flatly, “My name is not Sprout.”

“Nope. But you remind me of one. Little. Easily knocked over. Green. But determined, and full of life. Pushing up through the concrete.”

She blinked at him. “Bax, I swear to God.”

He blinked back, then leaned against the bench. “What?”

She smiled, her eyes on the label. “Nothing. Sometimes I can't decide whether you belong in an asylum or as a trophy on my mantel.” She clanked the driver down on the bench and stood close to him, looking up to his eyes.

He looked down to hers. “You don't have a mantel.”

Her smile didn't die. “Lift me up so I can kiss you, stupid.”

Bax clamped his hands on her ribs and lifted her off the ground. She pecked him on the cheek.

This wasn't a new thing. It had been orbiting somewhere in the distance for almost as long as he had been stationed at Depot 58. Bax suspected that she was toying with him, and waiting for him to do something about it. He further suspected that she thought she was torturing him, or somehow destabilizing him with temptation, and that she was making him boil inside.

But stone is hard to boil.

He put her down, gently.

She continued, “You think too much. You should let the pressure off every once in a while, talk out loud for once.”

He smiled. “Big head. Lots of room. High pressure capacity.”

She pulled a face. “Short sentences. Pick up heavy things. Fix armor.”

He nodded. “Yep.”

“I'm serious, Bax. There's a whole person in there. I mean, there's room enough for three. But we only ever see about a quarter of one.”

“I didn't talk until I was five. Still getting used to it.”

“Is that true?”

“Yep. Everyone thought there was something wrong with me.”

Zel said from the computer, “There is something wrong with you.”

Bax eyed him. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. It's fucking obvious. You're a mutant.”

“I don't have enough eyes. Or… limbs.”

“Not all mutants express such overt deformities. You could be particularly well-constructed. Good integration.”

Bax raised an eyebrow. “I was screened, Zel. I'm in the same military as you.”

“Mutation is a gradient, not a binary system. You could be one of the finest cases on or off record. Fine enough to fool the screening.”

“You don't have much faith in the Brotherhood, if that's the case.”

He snorted. “I don't have faith in a lot of things. It's alright, mutie. I love ya all the same.”

“He's not a mutant.”

Voldzet had entered the hangar, a white surgical apron over his customary brick-red physician's coat. He went to the wall opposite the computer desk, where there was a deep sink and a sterilizer. He began to wash his hands.

Zel scoffed. “What makes you so sure?”

Voldzet turned around briefly. “Doctor. Medical, doctor. I have all your files. And all the information in them. All the information, Zel. I wouldn't dream of divulging any of it, as my pact yet stands and I have some shred of professional integrity left, but it would be an enormous shame if I experienced a strange lapse of judgment as a result of you teasing Bax. Wouldn't it?”

Zel made a face and turned back to the screen. “Might as well adopt him if you're going to be so protective.”

“Be nice, Zel. Are we ready to roll?”

Zel: “Breakdown subroutines are running fine.”

Bax: “Valves and eyes are open.”

Kaiamora: “Engineering techs awake.”

The doctor snorted. “Well thank God for that. I'm calling them in. Let's get hot.”

He pulled down a corded transceiver from a black box. He said into it, “Raising loading door now.”

He hung up the transceiver and punched a button.

The rear wall of the hangar began to rise. A bar of near-blinding light from the desert outside widened, and let in heat, wind, and sand. The bar became a rectangle, and in that rectangle was a hulking humanoid form made of dull steel. Its helmet was engaged, creating a blunt cylindrical bunker between the mountainous shoulder plates. The construct stood nine feet tall.

In its oversized arms was another giant, held aloft like a sleeping child. It was much slimmer, smaller, and more streamlined in design, and its chest plate was caved in. The helmet was retracted, showing a woman wearing a pained grimace, slicked with sweat.

A voice, tinny and processed, came through the loading suit's concealed loudspeaker. The voice was normal and male, but seemed somehow small coming from such a titanic source. “Where do you want her?”

Voldzet replied, “This one, right here.” He indicated a recessed table closest to the door.

The colossus advanced, each footfall a small earthquake. Bax put hands on the larger tools to prevent them from rattling off the bench. Its hydraulic limbs gingerly placed the armored woman on the table, gently moving her limbs to fall into the indentations.

It stood straight, facing the doctor. An enormous steel fist rose and clanged into its breastplate in salute. “Sir. I'll be outside. Buzz me if you need anything.”

Voldzet nodded, and smiled. “Thank you, Corporal.”

The titan stepped back into the sun, and pulled down the hangar door, shutting out the dazzling light.

The doctor swept like a breeze to his patient. “Private Sandborn? Can you hear me?”

The woman grunted, “Yeah, Doc, I can hear you.”

“Other than the piercing pain in your collarbone, are we well?”

“Agh… Yessir, getting along beautifully.”

“Fantastic. I'm going to administer a sedative. You'll be out before you know it. Ready?”

“God yes. Sir. Hit me.”

“Here we go. Breathe deep.”

The doctor manipulated some dials beneath the table and brought up a mask. He planted it on her face. In a short moment, she was unconscious, her expression relaxing from pain to total oblivion.

The doctor looked to Bax. “You're up.”

Bax hefted the pneumatic driver and put it in Kaiamora's hands. She pressed it to the plates that surrounded the private's neck and pulled the trigger. The securing bolts flew from the housing and the engineer collected them swiftly. In little time she had them all, and yanked the collar assembly off, dropping it to the floor with a loud, jarring clank. Bax swept over and began hefting the fallen plates, dumping them into the scrap hopper by the smelter.

He watched her extract what bolts she could from the chest assembly, but a number of them were badly bent and contorted from the impact it had suffered. She said, “We're going to need the cutter.”

He nodded. “I'll take over.”

Sweating from carrying the heavy plates, Bax went to the tool rack and pulled down a fierce-looking implement the length of Kaiamora's arm from elbow to fingertip, with a trigger and grip like a gun. He checked the battery and the fuel canister level, then opened a valve and pressed a switch.

He handed the humming tool to Kaiamora, donned welding goggles and insulated gloves, and took the cutter back.

He held the trigger down. The small blade of the cutter quickly grew red, then orange, then yellow-white. He applied it with surgical precision to the stubborn, bent plates, and it glided through them with slow, yet fluid ease. He carved the armor like meat from a turkey, and quickly jerked away the sliced metal with his gloved hands. Once enough bolts, bad plates, wiring and insulating foam were cut and removed, the solder underneath was exposed.

He stepped back, and nodded to Kaiamora. She began unbolting the rest of the waist, arm, and chest plates, which fell to the ground for Bax to collect.

Zel had come over, looking to the doctor. “Let's get her up.”

The two men gently took the soldier by her shoulders, then pulled her up into a sitting position, with Zel supporting her back and Dr. Vanxmier supporting her neck and shoulders.

Zel inspected the back of her neck and said, “No corrosion. All connections look good. Bax?”

The huge man came over, his gloves and goggles removed. He planted a hand onto the woman's back, and cupped her head in one hand, holding her up at an angle, like an infant.

Zel retrieved a reel of connecting wire, the other end of which was plugged into the computer bank. He inserted the sharp, pronged end into an implanted metal recess just above the bottom of the soldier's neck, and went back over to the screens, looking over the numbers. The doctor joined him. Bax continued to hold the woman up, and Kaiamora set to cleaning up the rest of the fallen plates, spraying the cut ones with a water hose to cool them off before lifting them.

Voldzet said, “Her vitals look good. Heartbeat, respiration, electroencephalograph… all nominal. Wait… elevated white count. And temperature. Slight, but could be the beginnings of an infection.” He went over to the woman again.

Zel said, “Integration program is green all across, except for a gray zone in the right shoulder actuators. Not a problem.”

The doctor was looking at the plug site on her neck with a penlight, between Bax's hands. “Bit of inflammation around the primary interlink. Morons at the Academy probably didn't sterilize properly, or fucked up her dosages. Might have to be re-implanted.”

“Can she be extracted?”

“Yeah, just have to be gentle with it. I'm gonna give her a rejection inhibitor. Where are we?”

“Thirty-six percent.”

“Okay. I'm gonna get her shot, let me know when we're divorced.”

The doctor returned with a needle full of a silvery fluid and injected it into the soldier's neck, by the collarbone.

Zel said, “Deinterlace complete.”

The doctor nodded. “Okay. Pulling her out.”

He inspected the plug site one more time, then gingerly wrapped his hand around the apple-sized plug between the woman's shoulder blades. He slowly twisted it once, then with one hand on the base firmly but gently pulled out the primary interlink. It was a vicious-looking mess of electrical pins and connectors, dripping with viscous synthetic interstitial fluid. He set it down near where it connected with the armor's dorsal computer and immediately checked the dark, wet hole where it had been.

“Yep. Fluid's fucking cloudy, some pus as well. She's infected. Glad we caught it this early. Removing scan connector… Okay Bax, you can get back to it.”

He nodded, then set the woman down, back into the cushioned nest made from the plates beneath her. He saw that she was somewhat red in the face, and still sweating slightly despite the cool air. He had seen armor rot before. Because of the way the interlink worked, the soldiers were numb to most of their body's own signals, and often didn't get to checkup stations due to pride or negligence. The results could be fatal. They may have saved this woman's life.


The rest of the day was spent breaking down armor.

The first woman was extracted without complication, and put on the wagon to the hospital with an attached recommendation from Dr. Vanxmier that the hospital staff correct someone's potentially fatal error. The remaining three men, uninjured but due for their rotation away from the front, were also pulled out without event. They were typical examples of Academy product: overconfident, full of bravado, dosed with a cocktail of drugs that manipulated their physiology and personalities far beyond what they had been. Their mothers would scarcely recognize them if they saw them. It was small comfort that they likely never would again.

They got done faster than expected, mostly owing to Zel's quick computer work, and the fact that there was little to recycle this early in the week. They worked together to collect all the disassembled plates and components and sort them into their respective hoppers for recycling, which they decided they would attend to later.

As a group they elected the four breakdowns was enough. Bax was conscious of the fact that he was no longer permitted to work past shift. Ordinarily at this juncture he would start the recycling while the others drifted off to do whatever else, but in light of the restriction, he chose to indulge in the only hobby he had besides engineering.

He stared at the raw pork roast like it had said something rude to him. It lay there on the cutting board, wet and defrosted. He was going to do something to it. Take a hunk of death, like so much defunct, unattached metal, and apply order to it. Attach artifice, ingenuity, and thought, and transform it into a functioning, nutritive assembly.

Dinner.

Bax had always looked at cooking as a modulated form of engineering. The process of taking so many disparate, essentially useless components and working them into a useful, integrated whole. This evening, that whole would be spicy pork roast with sauteed vegetables and bread. They didn't have the ingredients for anything fancier in light of the funding cuts. Despite that, he was the only one in the building with much cooking experience, and he'd be lying to himself if he said he didn't like turning his skills into a bit of a spectacle. The only time he felt like he had something worth showing off.

He started operating on the pork, turning it into a device that he and everyone else could be proud of.

Everyone was there, except the colonel. He preferred to be alone even more than Bax did, probably due to some mental construct that came with being an officer. Couldn't associate with the frontline men.

Voldzet was sitting on the couch with his sister, smoking the last of his cigarette reserves, sharing with anyone who asked. Kaiamora had premier access, as she was the one who sourced them.

Zel was leaning against the countertop by the stove, sipping a beer.

“How's dinner coming?”

Bax shuffled the vegetables around in the sizzling pan. “Like clockwork.”

“I'm surprised we have enough fresh ingredients left to make an entire meal.”

“We don't. It's all frozen. The veggies might be a little limp. I pulled most of this stuff from the back of the freezer.”

Zel snorted. “I have faith in your abilities. And we deserve decent food after today. Good performances all around.”

“Yep. I think I broke a sweat.”

“Poor you.”

“It was nice seeing one of the old Ironbacks. I thought they'd decommissioned all of them.”

“That's like saying it was nice to see a wall. Or a salt shaker. Or dirt.”

“They're a work of art. Seawall's finest product.”

“Oh really? Their finest? Tell me Bax, what were their other production models?”

“I know where you're going with this, and the fact that none of the others picked up contracts has nothing to do with their quality.”

“Because all their other models are irrelevant. No one is in the market for a set of diving armor. Because no one's going underwater. Because no one wants to punch sharks when they could be punching Krathians. And the rest of them are just… prohibitively massive.”

“The Ironback's been in service for over thirty years. An impressive track record, unmatched by no other model I can recall.” He sipped his own beer and checked the broiler. Near to golden brown, thanks to the breading. Almost perfect.

Zel narrows his eyes. “Yes. You know why that is? There's no reason to innovate a mule. Other models see combat, and must be improved to adapt to a changing battlefield.”

“There were frontline Ironbacks.”

“For about nine seconds, before people realized that strength is great, but not if it turns you into an enormous immobile target. I believe they tried to outfit the Ironback with the standard… I think the Stratos Mk II booster drive system was popular at the time? Couldn't lift it. They had to modify the Stratos into a bastardized prototype called the Volcano Megadrive, which not only had the dumbest name in history but somehow managed to get the Ironback off the ground. Its fuel reserve would deplete after seven minutes of use, it added almost a ton of weight to the frame, and the pure inertia of something so enormous hovering off the ground made steering almost impossible. It never made it out of testing. Two pilots died. Thus the Ironback was forever relegated to heavy lifting.”

Bax nodded, looking at the pan. “You are strangely well-informed on an obscure piece of Valtean munitions history.”

“I like to read.”

“There's one thing you can't deny, however.”

“Yeah? What's that?”

“The Ironback has an amazing record in the ACC. Still.”

“Ugh, barely. It somehow has a losing record against the Sparrow and the Vanguard.”

“And has a positive record against almost everything else. It wins. And it wins good.”

“It's so boring, Bax. The only suit on the roster without boosters. All it does is walk forward and eat three tons of bullets to the face until it somehow gets a hand on the opponent or hits them with its grappling reel and tears them apart. Half the audience is asleep by the end of it, and that's assuming that enough people show up for there to be an audience once they hear that the Ironback is fighting.”

“It's only a spectacle to the diehard fans. And even though it's as exciting as a glacier excavating a valley, it wins. It has no tricks, no unpredictability, and no grace, but it has personality. Even if that personality is boring to everyone else.”

Zel narrowed his eyes further. He set his drink down and crossed his arms. “Bax, if I didn't know any better, I'd say you were projecting your psychological insecurities on a suit of mechanized combat armor. But that would be a little absurd, wouldn't it?”

Bax sniffed. “Maybe. I also like gardening, cooking, working on machines, and fishing. Who knows, those also probably reveal chinks in my steely facade.”

Zel was quiet for a moment. “'Steely facade'? Who the hell are you and where's Bax? You don't have to get defensive.”

Bax nodded, frowning. “Maybe not.”

“Toughen up, big man. How's your dad doing?”

The frown didn't dissipate. “That's a gear shift.”

“You don't have to answer.”

“It's okay. He's… getting along. Weaker than he's been, but the medication seems to be taking root. Still has his hair, he's lucid.”

Zel nods. “Who's looking at him?”

“The town doctor from home. Dad knows him from way back.”

“What's the prognosis?”

Bax sniffed again and shut off the burner. “It's… mixed. The doc says this kind of cellular degradation is indicative of a very small number of diseases. Unfortunately arcane flux is also known to do this. Apparently.”

Zel freezes, then looks down. “God. I'm sorry, Bax.”

“We don't know for sure yet. And in this great country of ours, there's never going to be a cure for arcane flux. There isn't even a way to test for it. Is there.”

“I've read that the Brotherhood is looking into it.”

“Woah. The Brotherhood, you say? I take it they've come up with goddamn nothing.”

Zel huffed. “No, they haven't. Yet.”

“Yet.” Bax smirked joylessly.

Zel shook his head. “I swear to God, Bax, three out of four conversations with you end up someplace either weird or depressing.”

“That's because I'm weird and depressing.”

The smaller man nodded, and smiled. “Yeah. It balances out my dashing and inspirational quite well, I think.”

“It does. Thank goodness for you, Zelinon Spinner. Where would I be, I wonder, without your grace.”

“Dead, probably.”

Dinner got served. In Bax's opinion, he had done good work. The pork was tender and juicy, and supported well by the vegetables. Spicy, and full-tasting. Everyone else ate and was happy. A healthy coat of grease and vitamins for dry, tired bones. Bax was proud.

The meal was over, and things were put away, but no one left. Drinks came out, and were passed around.

Voldzet sipped his and said, “The trials are in a week.”

Zel snorted. “Way to bring us all down, doc.”

“Some of us find them at least somewhat interesting, Mr. Spinner.”

“It's brutish, and ridiculous.”

“Oh yes. Brutish ridiculousness that we're all required to be a part of. And every person with red blood thinks they're at least a little fun. It isn't necessary to be an ass about absolutely everything, Zel.”

“Eat me, doc.”

“And what's your plan to pass this year?”

“Throw sand and go for the crotch. Like every year.”

“That's… that's not even animalistic, Zel. Animals at least have the decency to lock horns and bite each other's faces.”

“I'm small. And I exercise, but you can only do so much with a frame like mine. Fighting with no honor whatsoever isn't against the rules. It's not worth much as far as points, but I do it well enough to pass. Big bastards never see me coming anyway.”

The doctor smiled and shook his head. “Well. Not as if I can complain, really, I'm going to shoot my examiner with a sleep dart.”

Zel smirked. “Devious. I like it. You're showing some darkness there, doc.”

“I gave my oath to heal men, not hurt them. Unfortunately the training administration doesn't acknowledge that. Fortunately, the rules are fuzzy on whether tranquilizing a man against his will properly counts as hurting him, so my performance should satisfy all adequately.”

“You think they'll give you a pass for that?”

“It'll count as a defeat. They might update the regulations afterward, but it'll get me off probation.”

Zel looked to Kaiamora. “Plans, girlie?”

She sipped her beer, then smiled. “This girlie will be trying to cut her examiner in half with a sword.”

“Clean in half?”

“Like a side of beef.”

“I didn't know you could use a blade.”

“I've been training since I was a kid.”

Voldzet said, “Old Dad was and is very serious about young ladies knowing how to defend themselves. He had some of his veteran buddies start teaching her since she was seven. She's gotten pretty good in that time.”

“The older brother doesn't need to know how to use a sword?”

The doctor smiled. “The older brother wasn't interested, and chose to spend most of his time reading instead.”

Kaiamora: “Dad gave up on him pretty fast. Said he didn't have a 'martial spirit'. He was upset about it for a bit, but when Zet started talking medical, he came around. Really got supportive, said it was a noble calling.”

Voldzet: “Every bit as noble as attacking people with swords. That's just my opinion, though.”

“But to be fair, I'm extremely good at attacking people with swords now.”

“A valuable skill, to be sure.”

Kaiamora: “I take it that Bax is just going to pick up the examiner and hit him with the ground again? Or turn him into a bit of knotbread? Then eat him?”

Bax: “I think I might try punching him this time.”

Zel: “That would imply that the examiner would still be standing there fifteen minutes later when Bax's fist finally arrives at its destination.”

There was an expectant, but vacant, silence.

Bax replied at the end of it, “Are you implying that I'm slow?”

“Yes, Bax. People your size are not known for their agility.”

He nods. “Maybe you're right. Hard enough getting them to stand still so I can twist 'em up. A punch is a tall order.”

“Don't they usually… avoid you? Avidly?”

“At first, yeah. But I just keep moving toward them, and eventually they get bored, I think. Or curious. A few of them even started taunting me, calling me stupid or mentally… stupid. Guess they never looked at my file. So they get cocky and they start coming at me, thinking I'm too dumb to do anything about it.”

Voldzet nodded, leaning forward. “I think I remember that last year. I was curious about why he just went right up to you, smiling like a dope. That was the one with the shock stick, right?”

“Yeah. He got real upset when I took it away from him and threw it away.”

“And then you planted his neck in the ground like a damn daisy. With one hand.”

“He was way flimsier than I think he thought he was.”

“How… how did you manage to grab a shock stick with your bare hands?”

“I think maybe it was low on charge or something. It hurt like a bastard and most of my muscles locked up, but it passed when I threw it away.”

“Sure, yeah. That's possible.”

Zel pointed at the doctor and winked. “Wanna maybe run some of those supplementary genetic tests we discussed now?”

Voldzet snorted. “I'll require more cause. Some extra eyes, psychic powers, gills. The normal abnormal things. I see none.”

“Just wait. I will be vindicated yet.”

Bax snorted. “Hopefully some day soon. I'd hate for you to live in paranoia for long.”


“Is… that smart, Bax?”

Bax lowered the bottle he had just drained and saw Kaiamora looking at him with a complex expression on her face.

He threw the bottle into the recycler. “Is what?”

“Drinking beer at eight in the morning. Less than two hours before the trials.”

He was standing outside of the armor hangar, by the refrigerator. She had appeared in the far doorframe that led to the stairs.

Bax shook his head. “Loosens me up. A little.”

“Generally people expecting physical exertion limber up by stretching, sweetheart.”

He nodded. “You go your way, I'll go mine.”

She squinted at him. “Not this time. You think you're so tough? Let's spar.”

He blinked. “We're driving over in thirty minutes.”

“Yep.”

“And you want to exercise. Before your examination.”

“I've never failed and I never will. And you don't even have to try. Neither of us is risking anything. Let's scuffle. Better than stretching or beer.”

He sighed. “If it'll make you feel better.”

She showed him her teeth, then ran back upstairs. She flew back down them with a wooden practice sword in hand.

She went toward the door that led outside and he followed.

Outside, the desert had yet to fully awaken. The sun was new in the distance, and it was still relatively cool. Kaiamora stepped a short way out into the dust, with her sword over her shoulder.

She said, “This is a training blade, Bax. I left my sparring one at the field. It's blunt, but heavy. One good swing to the back of the head can make a man sleep, or worse. Are you okay with that?”

He nodded. “Sure. I just woke up, why would I go back to sleep?”

She smirked. “Sorry in advance.”

He took his stance. Knees slightly bent, feet apart, turned to one side. Arms wide, hands open.

She took hers – one arm back, blade held diagonally in front of her. Ready to block as well as deliver a decisive forward slash against an unprepared opponent.

She rushed, apparently deciding that Bax was unprepared. The blade came down toward his right wrist. He twisted his arm and sent his hand toward the blade.

She spun out of the way and crouched, whipping her rod at his left shin. It connected. A line of boiling red pain shot up Bax's leg and into his hip. He capitalized on it by leaning down and grabbing the weapon. He made to yank it out of her hands, but it slipped straight out of his grip – she'd greased it.

Kaiamora jumped back. “You're not going to be able to do that against a real sword, Bax. Figured I'd remind you.”

He wiped his hand on his pants and frowned. “Aw, Kaia, did you have to use the number six compound? We're down to our last few cans.”

The thin girl grinned again. “So sorry.”

Bax was then subjected to a punishing flurry of blows. Kaiamora spun like a cyclone. She was never where Bax thought she was going to be and he paid for it – he earned painful welts on his left flank, both upper arms, and both thighs. Each one hurt beautifully. He could barely anticipate where she was going to strike and was only fast enough to lean into the blows with a body part that could accept the damage. This went on for four minutes. He couldn't find a foothold.

But he saw that she was getting tired. Slower. Not by much, but some.

It turned out to be enough. She lurched to one side to avoid a swipe from his left hand, only to put herself firmly in the path of his right. He crashed his palm into her upper chest before she could slither away.

She was blown bodily backward, skidding for a few feet on her behind and tensing her abdominal muscles just soon enough to avoid cracking the back of her skull against the hard ground.

This was his chance. He lumbered forward.

Kaiamora wasn't as stunned as he would have preferred her to be. She rolled to one side and scrambled to one knee, pushing off the ground before Bax could pull his bulk out of the way.

The tip of the training blade punched directly into Bax's belly.

This would have left a lesser man clutching his stomach and struggling to breathe. Bax not only accepted the pain, but embraced it like a long-lost brother. Then he embraced Kaiamora.

He grabbed her right wrist before she could pull her thrust back and pulled her in. His other arm went around her back like a massive serpent. The sword ended up between them.

He grunted, “Let's hug it out.”

She croaked, “Is this where you kill them with kindness?”

“This is where I crush their ribcage like an empty oil can. Any last words before I squeeze your guts out of your mouth?”

She began to gasp, unable to speak.

He immediately let go, leaning forward and propping her up by the shoulders so she didn't fall. She panted, trying to catch her breath.

He said, “I'm sorry, I didn't mean to-”

She whipped the sword up and set it, gently, across his upper chest and neck.

Bax said, “Oh.”

She let the sword down and said with slight difficulty, “We'll say you win. You could have killed me, no problem.”

“If that was a real sword, I'd be mince.”

“Maybe. You didn't let me access any major blood vessels. Tough call, big boy.”

He shook himself off, and directed her back inside. At the shop sink, he poured them both glasses of water.

“Are you allowed to use a real sword for the trial?”

“Sure. But you know the rule. If I accidentally kill an examiner, it's a firing squad for me.”

“Better be careful.”

“I'll do to him what I just did to you. He'll be a little faster, and more difficult to cut because of the pads, but it should work as long as I keep my speed up.”

He frowned. “I didn't hurt you, did I?”

She gave a sudden bark of laughter. “You definitely hurt me. But I hurt you too, so we're even.”

They drank their water, and after a few minutes, Zel descended the stairs, looking tired.

He narrowed his eyes at the both of them and said, “What have you two been up to?”

Kaiamora looked back at the thin man and said, “Preparing. Physically.”

He nodded, still glaring suspiciously. “… Sure. I bet that's a lot of… fun, for the two of you. Do we have the roster yet?”

She replied, “No. They're going to post it at compound.”

Zel: “Playing it close to the chest this year. I hope I'm in the first round. Let's get this over with.”

A few hours later, the crew of Repair Depot 58 had arrived at the central compound.

It was a finely-organized array of buildings, the concrete-and-metal nexus around which the entire base orbited. Everything was arranged to the Valtean military standard: all facades painted rusty red-orange to match the desert earth, no windows to reflect light, and every main entrance facing directly West. Toward the enemy.

The eastern side of the camp was currently occupied by a group of large transport trucks, painted with the emblem of the Central Training Command. From the backs of the trucks had come temporary fencing, sandbags, and tents, which had come together to create the site of the Combat Trials. Eight circles, to represent the Eight Arms of Akhvalla, the embrace of which every Valtean fighter feels around their shoulders. In these circles, the personnel of Forward Repair Base 12 would engage in single combat against the visiting martial examiners, to prove that they were still worthy of fighting in the name of their king, and their God.

All non-essential men and women were gathered before the row of eight circles. Before the roster was posted and the Trials begun, the Marshal of Annealing, Third Marshal of the Molten Gyre himself, had deigned to visit the base, to recognize their exemplary performance over the previous evaluation period. He was surprisingly short, with black hair and badly weathered, deep-brown skin. His rodent-like facial features and balding pate were somewhat offset by his resplendent Marshal's uniform, blood-red and gold with a detonation of medals on his chest. Even with the gloves, shoulder armor, cape, and thick armored longcoat, there wasn't a drop of sweat on his face. Bax wiped his brow and wondered if Marshal's pauldrons concealed personal refrigerant compressors.

From the podium, the man's hard, edgeless voice rang out.

“Men and women of Forward Repair Base 12. You stand here, together, as a gleaming monument to the indomitable will of our nation. The Armored Battalions are the backbone of our glorious campaign, and you, my proud technicians and engineers, are their backbone in turn. We would not exist as we do today without your tireless effort. A great many noble warriors would have perished or succumbed to heathen magics on unholy soil, but no! Your work, which no normal person could hope to replicate, provides these soldiers skin of iron. Legs of lightning. Arms of fire. You forge our men and women into technological masterworks, unstoppable before the muttering filth of Krathia!”

There was applause. The crowd, comprised of men and women that were mostly exhausted from the work that this man's colleagues had heaped upon them, began to feel the energy nonetheless.

“And today, my men and I have the honor of entering the circle with you, to feel the brunt of your full might. Give it your all. Hold nothing back! Show me your strength and prove your ferocity under the gaze of Akhvalla!”

He had raised his hands, sending triumph through the mass, and they responded. He stepped down as the crowd milled and chatted excitedly.

Zel said, “Hypocritical shit. I could puke.”

The proctor stepped up, and the assembled depots were given their assignments. Zel was relieved to find that he was going first in their bracket, and trotted off to the sixth circle to get ready. The rest of the depot followed him, with the exception of the colonel, who as an officer of his rank was exempt from the examination and was likely rubbing elbows with the other elites.

The sixth circle's crowd had already gathered, and Zel stood inside it, across from the examiner. There was a medic looking him over and reading him questions off a clipboard. True to form, Zel had brought nothing. Not even his scruples.

Zel stood at slightly more than five and a half feet and weighed about 150 pounds after a solid meal. The examiner across from him was a full six feet and in his Trial padding likely weighed a hundred pounds more. The examiners were permitted to use weapons only by special request on behalf of the examinee, but were trained by the monks of the Temple of Breaklight to be some of the finest hand-to-hand combatants in the world. They were instructed to adjust their fighting style to get the most out of each examinee without dismantling them, until they judged that they'd had enough and levy a failing grade, which usually resulted in a swift beatdown as punishment for wasting their time. It wasn't required to actually beat the examiner. Doing so was generally considered beyond the capability of the average soldier – all that was asked was an adequate performance in the attempt.

The medic cleared Zel to fight and stepped out of the arena. The big bell by the sixth proctor's bench rang, starting the round.

The examiner, gray and bulky, advanced on Zel. The smaller man was not putting off his usual air of undeserved confidence. Bax thought he seemed… timid. The shoulders were hunched, one foot back, as though ready to run in an instant. He was wearing a wide-eyed expression that bordered on panic. Very uncharacteristic. Zel had a lot of faults, but cowardice wasn't one of them. In the year or so that Bax had known him, he'd come to think that the little man was incapable of feeling any kind of fear. Or humility. He had gathered that it was something to do with how and where Zel had grown up, but couldn't ever get the specifics and his curiosity didn't outweigh the labor of prying.

The gray fighter bore down on the smaller man like a thundercloud, and Zel made a show of hunkering down and bringing his arms up to block his face, which Bax found as hilarious as it was preposterous. That was the giveaway – now he saw the plan.

The examiner took a bold step forward to manhandle the subject of an undoubtedly disappointing first round. Some of the crowd were laughing and talking among themselves animatedly; at least this wasn't going to take long.

Zel stepped into the examiner's gait and with full force kicked him square in the fork of his legs.

The larger man had already committed to his lunge and failed to turn Zel's leg aside. He fell over, paralyzed by pain. Bax wasn't aware that their Trial pads neglected to defend that area.

Zel's false expression of fear was gone, replaced by one of barely-controlled ferocity. He wound back and delivered a savage kick to the back of the downed man's head – a dangerous decision. He continued kicking, driving the tip of his boot into the man's stomach, his chest, his back, anywhere he wanted. All the examiner could do was curl up and try not to vomit from the surge of agony spiraling upward from his loins.

The bell rang again. The proctor, a bespectacled older man, was wearing an expression of both irritation and frosty disapproval. Zel stopped kicking and unceremoniously exited the circle to stand near Bax and the Vanxmier siblings. Two other examiners and a red-coated medic put the beaten man on a stretcher and carried him away into a nearby tent.

The crowd was completely silent, and most were staring directly at them. This lasted for only a moment before the next name was called and the subsequent round began.

Voldzet said, “That was… impressive, Mr. Spinner. In a sense.”

Zel grunted.

The doctor continued, “I almost feel bad for the man. He's going to be feeling that for a while.”

Zel replied, “Yeah, well. We all do what we have to, don't we.”

Voldzet: “I'm not sure that qualified exactly as a have to do, per se. Judging by his expression I think the proctor is plotting to have you killed.”

Zel: “Didn't break any rules.”

Bax patted Zel on the head like a child.

“Easy there, sparkplug. Take a breath. You won. You won like a vicious fucker and everyone here but us hates you, but you won. That counts for something. I say we get drunk later. Celebrate your total lack of respect for honorable combat.”

Zel: “I was going to do that anyway. But sure, you can join me.”

Bax: “That's the spirit. Those are the spirits. Ha.”

Zel turned around. “Are you feeling alright, Bax?”

The huge man smiled and nodded. “I like the Trials. Puts me in a good mood.”

“I don't think I like this. It's different. And mildly frightening. I don't think I've ever actually seen your teeth before.”

“It's just for one day, champ. Relax.”

The Trials continued. They watched several rounds, all of which were very standard. People of different sizes engaging in the abrupt and explosive dance of combat. One thin man, who Bax recognized as a mechanic from another depot that he was friendly with, got put into a sleeper hold and was squeezed into unconsciousness within the first fifteen seconds. Another, a sizable woman with a neck tattoo and biceps that even Bax was jealous of, gave an exceptional show of speed and force, nearly defeating her examiner in a straightforward slugging match. She earned a broken nose and hearty cheers from the crowd for her effort. Her crew received her from the circle with laughter and a bottle of beer, which she slugged happily.

The proctor stood forward and read from the list, “Private Kaiamora Vanxmier, enter the circle.”

Kaiamora smiled and drew her blade from its scabbard, which she pushed into her brother's hands. He said, “Good luck. Try not to kill him.”

She bounced away, saying, “No promises!”

Kaiamora stood at five and a half feet and weighed 140 pounds. Her opponent was a tall, wiry man, probably six feet tall and about 190 by Bax's estimate. He also had a sword, which was surprising. Kaiamora evidently wanted a fair fight. It was going to be tough, however – the man had no visible body fat, an extensive reach, and a longer sword. Kaia was going to have to put her work in to have a hope of coming out on top.

The bell rang, and the two immediately crossed blades. There was no ceremony. They both instead put respect into their eyes and their blades, and slammed both into one another. The speed was incredible. For a moment at the beginning Bax lost track of what was happening, but both of them started to slow. The bout became savage. Both suffered cuts. Kaiamora first, but her superior speed and agility allowed her to target her attack on the straps of her opponent's armor. The look on his face when his chest and arm pads simply fell off was tastier than a five-course meal. Soon they were both bleeding, and they showed no signs of stopping.

Bax was entranced. These two people were turning one another into butcher shop storefronts. He could feel the heat of their pain and determination radiating from them like fire. As it wore on, and the dirt beneath them began to turn to dark mud, Bax began to wonder how they were still standing. They were ragged, panting. Kaiamora had been cut over one eye and was half-blinded. Her opponent had suffered a nasty chop to the left arm that had left the limb weak and flagging.

They didn't stop. Bax knew that if he was in the same situation he would have quit out long before, probably in tears. Kaiamora showed no such weakness. She kept her eye on the object of her violence. She was a different person. She seemed ready to die if it meant she could have this victory.

The blades whirled and clashed. Blood flew from the silvery spikes.

Voldzet said, his voice strained, “They have to stop. At this rate both of them are going to die.”

The doctor stepped forward to enter the ring. Bax whipped out a hand to stop him from ending his career, but he didn't need to. The proctor rang the bell, and the two swordfighters stopped slicing one another. They both swayed, their eyes drilling into one another. They bled.

Then they collapsed.

The crowd was a graveyard. No one moved or spoke. Medics swooped in with stretchers and carried them both away, and Voldzet ran around the circle, to commandeer responsibility for her medical care.

Bax and Zel looked at one another, and nodded, knowing precisely what had to happen in lieu of anything truly useful.

They both began to applaud.

The spell broke, and the crowd erupted into thunderous cheering and clapping, loud enough to be heard by any warrior, sleeping or unconscious or dead.

The matches resumed without much delay. Every Trial season had one bout that was remembered for years to come, and occasionally created opportunities for advancement for the participants. Bax was confident that Kaiamora would receive a meritorious promotion in exchange for her blood, but the event would not stop for her.

Then Voldzet's name was announced. There was a delay, and Bax wondered if Voldzet would be excused to minister to his sister.

He was mistaken. Voldzet came out from the medical tent behind the ring, wiping his hands with a rag and looking pale, but determined, and angry. The doctor had been almost entirely unflappable as long as Bax had known him, even in the face of Zel's persistent taunting, and he was unaccustomed to the sight. Something about it made him feel sorry for whoever was responsible.

The doctor stepped into the ring, an average-sized man with no discernible physique. Other than being vaguely handsome, he was only immediately notable for his deep red surgeon's coat, which drifted impressively in the desert wind. Across from him was his examiner, this time a large, heavy brute with no hair and fists like battering rams. He cracked his knuckles.

Voldzet was still, arms at his sides. Behind his eyes was rage, hammered down by focus and discipline.

The bell rang.

The examiner rushed forward aggressively, looking for a swift takedown.

The doctor reached into his coat pocket, pulled out the dart gun, aimed very briefly, and pulled the trigger. It made a pneumatic fft sound.

The dart struck the examiner directly in the neck, where his padding was thin. He shouted in pain.

Voldzet dodged to one side, stepping around the advancing soldier, who lumbered past him. He walked a short distance away so his meaty opponent couldn't get a hand on him, and observed.

The examiner yanked the dart out of his neck, looked at it, and scowled at the doctor. He then swayed, his eyes defocused, and he said, “Hnng, ennuggin… feb.” He seemed dissatisfied with his own statement, as he gestured interestingly at nothing in particular while opening and closing his mouth in an attempt to form a replacement. Then he fell down, snoring loudly into the dirt.

The doctor walked over, checked the man's pulse and breathing, then stood and left the ring without looking back, toward the medical tent.

The proctor pushed up his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, sighing. Two more medics loaded the peacefully sleeping examiner into a stretcher and carried him away. There was no applause.

Zel whistled. “And he has the nerve to criticize me. All I did was kick a guy in the procreation station. And then some more in other places. There's no way he could have known what dosage to use beforehand, he could have killed that guy.”

Bax nodded. “Looks like he got lucky.”

“And that is not going to win him any popularity points. Again, I kicked a guy. That's at least physical contact. He did chemistry at a guy. He'll be lucky if he doesn't get a stain.”

Bax snorted. “They're not going to stain him for this. Technically it wasn't even a crime.”

“No, but it was dishonorable as hell. And intelligent, and practical. All things the Church hates.”

“Still. No actual rule broken. He did his homework and everything. They'll probably just yell at him and add a paragraph to the regulations.”

“Hope so. Wouldn't want the Gaze to fall on him. They tend to break things and I don't want to clean up after them.”

“I think they have more important people to steal. Literally - I've heard they mostly go after politicians and people with money. What with them frequently showing evidence of spiritual corruption and so forth.”

“Who did you hear that from?”

“Uh. I think it was Kelio, from 56.”

“Kelio's a loud idiot, Bax. You should scrutinize your sources more thoroughly.”

“We were mostly focusing on scrutinizing our beer. Thoroughly. Being professionals, you see.”

Zel sighed.

There were more matches. One examiner got put under by a blood choke from an extremely fast, weedy, mean-looking girl half his size. Another bulky man dismantled his examiner with a furious assault, red in the face, veins popping, roaring and screaming throughout the entire process. Zel postulated that he had somehow acquired an Academy rage infusion. Bax doubted this, as the man was able to walk out of the ring without beating the examiner to death with his bare hands.

The proctor stepped forward and looked down at the list. “Sergeant Bax Block.”

Zel patted Bax on back. “Good luck.”

Bax smiled. “Thanks.”

He stepped forward, over the cordon and up onto the elevated dirt platform.

The Trials were nearly over, and most of the crowd had left. Those that remained began to buzz excitedly. Bax was the largest human being any of them had ever seen, and as a result his bout would be a spectacle regardless of whether he won or lost.

He stood at slightly over seven feet tall, and weighed over four hundred pounds. The pounds that weren't muscle were what he called his “shock absorbing tissue layer”, better known to the scientific community as “fat”.

The medic came out to ask him some questions.

The normal-sized man looked up and squinted against the sun. “Are you currently taking any medications? Or… growth supplements?”

Bax smiled down at him. “Nope.”

The medic blinked, and nodded. “Uh… huh. Any… outstanding injuries?”

“Nope.”

The medic nodded again. “Al… right then. You're clear. Good luck.”

Bax kept the smile up. “Thanks, buddy!”

The medic left, looking confused.

An examiner appeared from a tent by the proctor's podium. He was sizable, and unarmed, which Bax found refreshing. He made to enter the ring, but looked up and saw Bax occupying a significant portion of his field of view. He stopped, turned around, and went to the proctor. They started a conversation. Bax couldn't hear what was being said, but he saw the old official shake his head, whereupon the examiner seemed to become upset. They kept talking, but the proctor appeared to be unwilling to chance his stance, and the examiner scowled his way into the ring.

Bax's opponent came up to about his collarbone. He had heavy eyebrows and an aquiline nose, and he looked grumpy.

Bax decided to do what he normally did when he saw an upset stranger: be nice to them.

He moved forward, smiled, and held out his hand. “Hey. Good luck to you, pal.”

The examiner locked eyes with him and stayed where he was. “That's fucking hilarious, fatass. Let's get this over with.”

Bax frowned. “Impatient little guy, aren't you.”

The examiner dashed forward, declining to indulge him in further conversation. Bax reached forward and tried to grab him, but the padded fighter swiftly ducked to one side and delivered a swift right cross to his left kidney.

Bax tried to counter with his signature palm thrust to the chest, but the examiner wasn't interested, and moved around it with ease, giving Bax a kick to the side of the knee.

The engineer huffed. Those two hits hurt pretty badly. His only hope was that the examiner would tire from the exertion quick.

He threw a punch, which cost him a punch in the ribs. He tried to grab an arm, but got hit in the stomach, which made it hard to breathe. This went on for a few minutes. The examiner was slippery, too smart to allow Bax to touch him. He was collecting bruises at an alarming rate.

But then the smaller man made a mistake.

Bax had lunged forward, in a clumsy attempt to hug his opponent. The examiner chose to take advantage of his momentarily bent posture to leap onto his back.

Bax stood straight. The examiner was on tight. His legs were cinched around Bax's waist and his arms made for a chokehold. Bax wasn't fast enough to do anything about it. He only had moments – he could feel that this man knew how to apply a proper choke and his vision was going to go dark.

Bax jumped.

He pulled his legs up, and landed back-first into the ground, letting gravity do the work for him. There was a whampf as the examiner was crushed bodily by all of Bax's considerable weight.

The arms let him go. He stood up and turned around, brushing himself off.

The examiner's eyes were open, and he was breathing, which was a good sign. The eyes were unfocused and the breathing was closer to wheezing, but Bax felt good about it regardless.

He turned around, knelt, and picked the examiner up by his shoulders, propping him up on his feet. At first his legs didn't cooperate, but Bax held him up.

The engineer looked him in the eyes and asked, “Do you want to keep going?”

The martial officer simply fell back over onto his back, eyes open, his entire being focused on breathing and nothing else.

Applause rang out from the audience. Not exactly as uproarious as they’d done for Kaia, but he’d given at least a bit of a show, rather than a kick in the genitals or a dart to the neck.

And with that, the crew of Repair Depot 58 passed the Combat Trials. Some with flying colors - others by the force of sheer technicality alone. One less thing to worry about. One more day gone.

Bax stayed up on the platform for just a moment, looking up at the sun and letting the sounds of the crowd wash over him, wondering what could possibly come next.



[END TRANSMISSION]



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