ran with Jazar through the mountains above the Dieshan Military Academy. They
followed the rocky trail around a bend and came into view of the training fields
below. Other cadets were gathering on a quadrangle, an open area tiled with the
symbol of the J-Force, a Jag starfighter in flight.
and Jazar pounded down the trail to the fields and sprinted to the quadrangle.
Everyone fell into formation, four lines of eight, all young men and women new
to the Academy. Soz took her place in the third line, next to Jazar. Their
roommate Grell was a few places farther down. Grell winked and gave a covert
wave, then quickly turned forward before their instructors caught them breaking
they waited, thirty-two cadets, the entire incoming class at DMA, winnowed from
thousands of applicants. The training grounds spread around them, including
obstacle courses that went on for kilometers. No one spoke; anyone caught
talking got stuck cleaning spamoozala, the endless holo-junk mail that flooded
sky arched overhead and a hot wind prickled Soz’s skin. Two of their
instructors, Foxer and Stone, were standing at the front of the formation, waiting
apparently. Soz shifted her weight. Why the holdup?
she saw it: a man was walking down the front line, his hands clasped behind his
back, his khaki uniform crisp in the harsh sunlight. A giant man. The blood
drained from Soz’s face. It was Kurj.
paused often to speak with cadets. He towered over them, seven feet tall, a
massive figure with metallic skin, hair, and eyes. He had lowered his inner
eyelids, shielding his eyes with a gold barrier that appeared opaque from the
outside, but which Soz knew he could see through just fine.
he reached the third line, he stopped in front of Jazar. “Name?”
are you from, Cadet Orand?”
Space Station, sir.”
considered him. “How do you find living on a planet?”
ran down Jazar’s face. “I like it.”
Kurj inclined his head. “Carry on, Cadet.”
Yes, sir.” Relief flickered on Jazar’s face. His first meeting with the
Imperialate’s mighty warlord had been benign.
stepped over to Soz. She stood with her jaw clenched and her gaze directed
forward. He kept his eyes hidden behind his metallic inner lids.
Valdoria, sir.” She didn’t add the last name they shared. Skolia.
Sauscony Valdoria.” His face was unreadable. “You think you have what it takes
to be a Jagernaut?”
no doubt, sir.” She felt painfully strained with him, but at least it was
better than their usual conversations. This one was supposed to be strained,
whereas usually they were trying to behave like brother and sister. Half-brother.
have no doubt?” he asked. “That’s quite a boast.”
have reason, sir.” Damn good reason.
that so,” Kurj said. “What reason?”
did well on my entrance tests.” As in better than one in ten million applicants.
you now?” he asked.
sir.” He knew that.
crossed his massive arms. “In combat, do you think that it matters a flaming
piss how you did on some test? The Traders don’t give a whistle in hell how
fast you can do math. They want two things, Cadet: to kill you or to sell you.”
felt as if she were melting in the blaze of the too-hot sun. Or maybe it was
the force of his stare. When she realized he was waiting for a response, she
said, “Yes, sir.”
had gone completely still. Foxer and Stone, who were standing back a ways,
exchanged glances. It made Soz wonder if this differed from Kurj’s typical
behavior when viewing the first-year cadets.
think you’re ready to fight Traders?” Kurj asked.
didn’t bristle. “No, sir.”
you think you’re ready to be a Jagernaut.”
need to train.” Soz wondered what he was after.
right, Cadet Valdoria. Get cocky out in space and you die.”
Yes, sir.” Maybe he came down hard to toughen up his heir. It wasn’t necessary.
She wanted to prove herself.
finally went on to the next cadet. When he had moved a ways down the line, Soz
breathed more easily. She glanced at Jazar, and he mouthed the words saints almighty.
kidding. Soz wondered if Kurj had greeted her brother Althor this way, three
years ago when Althor had entered the Academy. She and Althor were the heir and
the spare, though in which order Kurj had yet to decide.
and Stone glanced at her, and she endeavored to act as if she didn’t notice
their attention. She had looked them up last night. Stone was a lieutenant
colonel in the Advance Services Corps, the branch of the Imperialate that
served as the scouts for planetary landings. DMA commissioned Jagernauts for
the J-Force, but it drew its faculty from all four branches of ISC, including
the AS Corps, the Pharaoh’s Army, and the Imperial Fleet.
was a Jag pilot. She had attended DMA years ago and taken her commission as a
Jagernaut Quaternary, the same rank Althor would have when he graduated this
year and that Soz would have in four years. Most Jagernauts retired as
Tertiaries—those who survived. Foxer had been promoted to Tertiary, then
Secondary. Very few Jagernauts reached Primary, roughly equivalent to a fleet admiral
or army general. Kurj had been a Primary before he became Imperator.
Kurj finished with the cadets, he stood with Stone and Foxer conferring about
saints only knew what. Sweat trickled down Soz’s neck and soaked into the
collar of her jumpsuit, which lacked climate controls or any other comforts
most people took for granted.
Kurj returned to the students. He went to the first line and spoke to Obsidian,
Soz’s other roommate. When Obsidian jogged toward one of the training courses,
Soz understood; they were to show their skills for the Imperator.
ran the oval track and jumped the gates, bars, and barrels. He tended to slow
down between the gates, but he made reasonably good time. When he finished, he
returned to his place in line. Kurj spoke to him, and Obsidian drew himself up
straighter, pride on his chiseled face. Whatever the Imperator had said was
apparently more encouraging than his words to Soz.
continued on, stopping often to have cadets demonstrate their abilities. When
he reached the third line, Soz stared ahead, but she could see him in her side
vision. He was headed toward either her or Jazar. Closer, now—and he passed
stopped in front of her. “So,” he said. “The cocky cadet.”
flaming sakes. She waited.
indicated an obstacle course about half a kilometer away. “Think you can run
that one? The Echo?”
peered across the fields. She hadn’t tried it, but she knew about the Echo,
having read everything she could find on these fields during her first night
here. The course required skills her class hadn’t yet tackled. To do it well,
she needed physical augmentation they didn’t receive until their third year at
DMA. She wasn’t sure she could even finish the course, but she didn’t want to
lose face in front of Kurj or her classmates.
can give it a good try, sir,” she said.
that what you’ll do in battle, Cadet Valdoria?” His voice had a harsh edge.
“Give it a ‘good try’?”
tried not to stiffen. “I’ll always do my best, sir.”
He motioned toward the course. “Show me.”
Yes, sir.” Soz took off at a jog.
His voice rumbled behind her.
turned, wondering if she had broken some rule. Kurj was watching her with a
the course in eight minutes,” he said.
What the hell? The Echo record was
over nine minutes, by a senior who had spent four years training on it. No way
could she come close, let alone beat it by more than a minute, especially given
her unfamiliarity with the gravity on this planet. Yes, she could run now
without mistiming her steps, but jogging and doing obstacle courses were two
started to speak, but Kurj held up his hand, stopping her. His posture, body
language, expression—nothing showed any sign of his relenting. “Well, Cadet?”
could she say? “I’ll do my best, sir.”
hope your best is good enough.” His voice brooked no excuses.
sir.” Soz waited a moment, but he said no more. So she set off for the Echo.
Eight minutes. Hell, maybe he wanted her to create a few new universes, too.
least she felt good, her muscles warm from her workout, her body healthy and
fit. When she reached the course, she started her wrist timer. From her
research, she knew that sensors embedded in the entrance path would evaluate
her stride, pulse, brain waves, and any other data they could get from her. So
she didn’t run down the path. Instead she went along a bar that bordered it,
moving fast to help keep her balance on the tightly curved surface. Although
the Echo could glean data from the bar, too, it wouldn’t be as accurate. The
less it knew about her, the less effective its obstacles.
vaulting horse blocked the end of the path. Soz jumped onto the ground a short
distance away and sprinted for it. She leapt into a vault, her palms hitting
the horse as she flipped over it like a gymnast. She misjudged the distance,
though, and tripped when she landed. She barely caught her balance, losing time
in the process. Irked with herself, she took off for the scaffolding ahead. The
structure resembled a giant version of the climbing gyms her father had built
when she was small. Thinking of him, she gritted her teeth and ran harder. She had to master this course and every
demand DMA threw at her. She had to make coming here worth the grief of her
estrangement from her family.
the scaffolding, Soz jumped up and grabbed a bar. It immediately bent, trying
to throw her off. As she scrambled up the framework, the bars sagged, vibrated,
and jerked. She managed to reach the top, but when she tried to cross the
scaffolding, it shook and shuddered until she lost her grip and slid down into
the lively structure. The hyperactive bars threw her this way and that like
kinetic echoes. The harder she tried to regain her grip, the more entangled she
She let her body go limp. The scaffolding quieted, but she fell through it,
hitting crossbars. She grabbed one, and it wrenched her arm as she jerked to a
stop. This time instead of climbing, she scrambled through the scaffolding,
trying to outrun the echo. The bars hummed like crazed tuning forks.
she reached the end of the cursed thing and jumped to the ground. She set off
running—and of course the path bucked under her like a maniac trying to flip
her off balance. It didn’t judge her stride well, probably because she had
evaded its sensors earlier, and she managed to stay upright.
ahead, a pool blocked the way. It reflected the pale sky like a mirror. If she
hadn’t looked up this course, she would have plowed into the water and covered
herself in the oil that coated its surface. Instead, she ran around its stone
rim. She saw herself in its surface, a sort of visual echo. Keeping her balance
on the narrow edge proved difficult, and her foot slipped into the water,
sending out an oily ripple. Although she started to fall, she was going fast
enough that she reached the other side before she lost control. She tucked and
rolled as she went down, but her arm hit the rim, and pain stabbed her elbow.
climbed wearily to her feet. She wanted to walk the rest of the way, but she
was excruciatingly aware of Kurj watching. So she forced herself to run. For
all she knew he was trying to prove she wasn’t a worthy heir, she who was the
daughter of a man he hated. His stepfather. Kurj had never had children of his
own, so his half-siblings would inherit his title.
had wanted to become a Jagernaut her entire life. Her father had wanted her to
stay home, safe. She hated that
coming here had put her at odds with him. In fearing for her life, he refused
to acknowledge how much she wanted this path, so different from what he
understood. Nor did he see that Kurj had
to train his heirs. Soz’s father understood only that Kurj loathed him for
taking the place of Kurj’s father, who had died years ago. Soz’s father
genuinely believed she was letting Kurj tear apart their family. Damned if she
would let Kurj add to that pain by humiliating her on the Echo.
she kept on, too proud to falter before her indomitable half-brother. She
entered the aural labyrinth, a maze of passages that echoed, confusing her
sense of direction. No matter. This was an old configuration, one posted for
cadets to study. Soz had memorized it. She ran hard, gasping in the thin air,
which had less oxygen than her home world. It took too long, but eventually she
staggered out of the labyrinth.
of her, the rebounders crashed with vehemence, a series of gates that snapped
open and slammed closed in complex patterns. She had an idea of the timing that
would get her through them, but her body was no longer responding well. Only
sheer orneriness kept her going. She was too stubborn to drop.
tried to dodge through the clanging gates, but they whacked her anyway. The
only reason they didn’t knock her over was because they hit from both sides.
She gritted her teeth and kept going. After an eternity, she reached the last
one, her chest heaving, her body aching. Twice her height and as thick as her
body, the portal thundered in motion. If she recalled the pattern correctly,
this one opened and closed five times, then paused a few seconds before
repeating. When the pause came, she stumbled through and out to the sand trap
collapsed onto the sand and hit stop
on her timer. Sweat was pouring down her face. She lay sprawled, gasping for
breath. After a moment, she squinted at her timer. Fourteen minutes and
forty-three seconds. Gods. That was appalling.
onto her back, she saw Stone above her, his face creased with concern. He
offered her a hand. Imagining how she must look, she winced and grasped his
hand. As she pulled herself up, she saw Kurj. He was standing a few meters
away, watching, always watching. Self-conscious, Soz dropped Stone’s hand and
saluted Kurj, her arms straight out, her fists clenched, her wrists crossed. He
nodded, his eyes hidden behind their gold shields.
glanced at Kurj for confirmation. When the Imperator nodded, Stone spoke
quietly to Soz. “You may return to the formation.”
sir.” Soz heard how tired she sounded.
took ten minutes to trudge back to the quadrangle. The other cadets were
staring at her. Well, how was she supposed to break the record on a course she
had never even done before? She glared at the first cadet she passed, and the
girl averted her eyes. When Soz reached Jazar, she glowered at him. To her
surprise, he smiled.
are you smirking about?” she grumbled. Stone and Kurj were coming back, but they
were too far away to hear. “I didn’t break the record.”
true,” he said. “But you completed the course.”
you left, Foxer told Imperator Skolia that no entering cadet in the last ten
years had finished the Echo on the first try.”
That hadn’t been in the specs.
Blasted Kurj. He set her an impossible task, knowing she would fail. It served
him right that she had finished.
and Kurj were crossing the quadrangle, headed toward a wing of the Academy
building. As Foxer called out orders, the cadets shifted their four lines into
two columns and marched after them. Soz’s legs ached, but she refused to limp.
entered a common room with tables where students could sit and socialize in
their minuscule free time. Its paneling was genuine wood interspersed with
holo-panels showing red-gold landscapes. Very attractive. Too bad the first-year
class never had time to enjoy the place.
was standing behind a table, speaking to students as they filed past him. Soz
had never realized he took such an interest in the incoming class. It made
sense, though. Jagernauts were his elite pilots, the officers who melded their
minds with their ships to become human weapons. He would want to meet them, see
who was who. As she drew nearer, she heard him asking cadets about their homes,
families, simple facts that transformed a stranger into a known quantity.
Soz reached his table, she stood stiffly, aware of the mess she presented, her
face sweaty, her hair loosened from her braid and curling wildly about her
face, her foot covered in oil, her clothes crusted with sand.
inner lids came up for some reason, and she could see his eyes, with their gold
irises and black pupils. “Still think you’re ready for the Academy, Valdoria?”
met his gaze defiantly. “Yes, sir.”
failed the mission I set you.”
him. “Yes, sir.”
then, should I let you stay at this Academy?”
was staring at Kurj with undisguised shock. It gave Soz a modicum of
satisfaction. She spoke evenly. “Because I’m the only novice in ten damn years
to complete the Echo on my first try.”
of his eyebrows quirked. “So you are.”
waited, wondering what the bloody binges he wanted.
is your father?” he asked.
They came down to the chase. “I don’t know, sir.”
spoke flatly. “He disowned me.”
That clearly caught him
by surprise. “Good gods, why?”
was painfully conscious of everyone listening. “For coming here.”
exhaled. Then, incredibly, he said, “Soz, I’m sorry.”
didn’t know what she had expected, but that wasn’t it. “So am I.” Her voice
almost cracked. Almost. Somehow she held it steady.
spoke with unexpected gentleness. “Dismissed.”
nodded, bewildered. The other cadets stared as she left the common room. She
hid her turmoil. Kurj’s sympathetic response confused her. Apparently the
daunting Imperator wasn’t the impassive machine he would have people believe.
had time for lunch, but she had no desire to go to the canteen with her
classmates. Bad enough she had stumbled through the Echo in front of everyone;
now she had admitted her exile as well. So she went to the dorm. In her room,
she dropped onto her bunk and lay on her back, too tired to do anything but
stare at the bed above her.
the holy hazoo was that all about?” a voice said.
turned her head to see Grell sitting on a bunk across the narrow room, her
newly cropped hair sticking up behind her ear, making her look like a
Soz smiled. “What is that?”
dunno,” Grell admitted. “Everyone says it back home. You’re changing the
subject. What happened out there with
appeared in the doorway. “Nothing?” He came inside and closed the door. “I’ve
never heard of him going after a cadet that way.”
wondered what her father would do if he knew two of her three roommates were
male. Probably have heart failure. He would never believe the truth, that
cadets rarely violated the ban against fraternization. A few did, but most
didn’t have time even to look cross-eyed at one another, let alone misbehave.
Jag squadrons fought in units of four ships, usually two men and two women.
They lived, fought, and survived together. They had to get used to it now, when
their lives didn’t depend on how well they dealt with the situation.
a long story,” Soz said.
leaned forward. “He acted like he knew you.”
mean he does?” Jazar looked alarmed.
wished she could hide somewhere. “Yes.”
didn’t want to go into it, so she said nothing.
weren’t letting her off that easy. “Why did he bring up your father?” Jazar
don’t like each other.”
watched her with concern. “Do you think Imperator Skolia means to force you out
of the Academy?”
Soz put her forearm over her eyes, wishing she could disappear. “He just
doesn’t want me to think I’ll have an easy time.”
would you think that?” Jazar asked.
come on,” Grell demanded. “Give.”
never met anyone who knew members of the Ruby Dynasty,” Grell said. “Don’t they
couldn’t help but laugh. She sat up, taking care with her bruised torso where
the rebounders had pummeled her body. “They exasperate me, drive me crazy, and
fill my life with light, but no, they don’t intimidate me.”
Grell and Jazar looked at her, waiting.
hell. “Imperator Skolia’s father knew my mother.”
Grell’s eyes lit with excitement. “How?”
Soz said, “They were married.”
took a while to absorb that. Then Jazar said, “Gods almighty.”
glared at him. “You start treating me like I’m some sort of something, I’ll
toss you into the Echo.”
sort of something’?” He laughed softly. “Soz, ever the poet.”
you have the same mother as the Imperator,” Grell said slowly. “That would be
the Ruby queen, Roca Skolia. Unless she has another life the public has never
heard about, that makes your father the King of Skyfall.”
groaned. “The planet is not Skyfall.
It’s called Lyshriol. Skyfall is the name some sleazy resort planners gave it.
And my father is not the king of an entire planet. He’s not even king of part
of a planet. He’s a singer.”
gods,” Grell said. “Holy hazooing gods. You’re
a member of the Ruby Dynasty.”
couldn’t help but laugh. “Hazooing?
Where do you get these words?”
can’t believe it.” Grell looked as if she didn’t know whether to be horrified
or thrilled. “My roommate is a Ruby heir.”
enough.” Jazar was watching Soz closely, and his smile had vanished. He spoke
quietly. “Your father disowned you for coming here?”
just shook her head. She couldn’t talk about it. “Don’t tell anyone who I am.
Swear. Both of you.”
one?” Grell asked. “Not even Obsidian?”
one,” Soz said. “I’ll tell him myself.”
right.” Grell sighed. “I swear.”
grinned, his handsome face lighting with the flash of his teeth. “Heya, Soz,
you’re a princess.”
gave him a formidable scowl, the one that made boys back home blanch and avoid
her. Either that, or they tried to kiss her, which had never made a lot of
sense to Soz. “I’ll princess you,” she growled.
didn’t look the least intimidated. He came over and sat next to her. “It
wouldn’t work. You have to be female.”
glowered at him. “Sit on your own bunk.”
can’t,” he said. “It’s above yours. If I went up there, how would we have this
wonderful conversation, with you grousing and glaring at us so mightily?”
Soz grabbed the regulation pancake that DMA claimed was a pillow and whacked
him over the head. Grell laughed and threw her own pillow across the room. Soon
pancakes were flying through the air. It lasted about a minute before the
clarion for afternoon classes sounded.
stood in the middle of the room laughing, her arms full of pillows, including
Obsidian’s, the only one of them who had been sensible enough to eat lunch.
“Time to get back to work.”
guess so,” Soz said. She enjoyed their company even when they were hitting her
with pancakes. They shared her dreams in a way no one at home understood except
Althor, and he was constrained by the complications in their lives. Besides, he
was, well, her brother. She loved him even at his most exasperating, but it
wasn’t the same. She had never had friends like this. It eased the ache inside,
her homesickness, and the knowledge of what she had given up to come here.
optimism sparked as she cleaned up and changed her clothes. All that had
suffered today had been her pride. She couldn’t let it hinder her, not if she
was going to survive here—or in the future, when she flew in a Jag squadron
against the Traders.
could do this. She could deal with Kurj and the Echo and DMA, and yes, even
with this division within her family.
could make it work.