(A Power Colors Short Tale)
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously
Copyright 2016 by Talee
First Edition: February 2016
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Thanks to all those who have supported my efforts by reading my books and especially those who provided reviews encouraging others to read my books. I write for you, and am happy that you find my works entertaining.
This book is dedicated to all who struggle to find their way in the world. Remember great things happen in everyone’s life, the key is to make the most of them when they come.
Xasl picked up his tool bag and shifted the backpack with his extra set of work clothes and boots to a more comfortable position on his shoulders. Another day at the day labor pickup point and once again no work. Today marked three weeks since his last full day’s work.
He had run out of credits two days ago and was really beginning to feel the pinch of hunger. Yesterday, he had been able to talk a small clothing shop owner into letting him repair a couple of display racks for enough credits to buy a small salad and a cup of caf. But if he didn’t find work soon, he might have to consider selling his tools just to eat.
Xasl felt the crisp breeze of fall and headed for the nearest shelter, he already knew they would turn him away. Single men were always the last to get a bed in most towns and he knew this town was no different. He remembered a couple of years ago being here with his wife and they got the last bed ahead of three single men.
That was just a couple days before a man they had met on the construction site convinced her to leave Xasl and move in with him. It was hard to blame her for saying yes. The man was a permanent employee and had been with the company for 3 years. Longer than Xasl had ever held a job. Like his father before him, Xasl was just one set of tools better off than the permanently homeless. Most years he had lodging more often than he didn’t, but still it was a hard life for a pretty young wife. Especially when there were times like this with just enough food to avoid starvation.
Of course he could beg and probably get enough credits to eat a meal or two per day. But he had been raised by a man who would not tolerate begging or stealing. Xasl could still hear him in his memory.
“We have skills. We will work for a living as long as I’m alive.”
Of course he had been dead for many years, but his father had instilled that sense of pride in his son very well. Xasl made it to the shelter and saw the reality of what he had known would be true. There was already a long line of people waiting for beds. This shelter only had 112 beds, and there had to be nearly 200 people in line. Some children with no parents, they would get picked first. Then there were a number of families, and they would get selected next. Then there were several couples. They would get picked because you could shelter two people with one bed that way. The logic was solid. Then the single women, presumably to protect them from the single men. And if there were any beds left, the single men were picked from oldest to youngest.
Xasl was no longer among the youngest men, but he was not old enough to be at the top of the list either. He turned around and headed for the park. There were a couple of places there with a little bit of shelter. Usually a man who did not beg or steal from the park visitors could stay there and not be run off by law enforcement.
Xasl went in, the first place he checked was a little bridge over a small fishing creek. But there was a man under each side already. He moved on to the spot next to the maintenance shed. An older man and woman were huddled there. He kept going and was pleased to see the spot between the two fallen trees was not occupied. He pushed his tool bag in first, then his backpack and he crawled in after that. Home for the night. He sighed and leaned back on his two bags and closed his eyes.
I really need to figure out how to get one of those long term gigs. There are several large buildings being built, surely one of them has room for someone with his own tools. They will be building clear through the winter. That would be some good work. There has to be a way to get around that union requirement.
Or maybe one of the factories needs a maintenance engineer. Who am I kidding, I have been to them all. Nobody is hiring right now. Maybe it is time to change cities again.
Xasl tried to remember which city he was in and could not remember. He had been wandering from city to city for so long they were all the same now. The light was beginning to fade and soon it would be completely dark. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the rumbling of his stomach as he slipped in and out of a light sleep. Three times he heard people come close enough to see that he was already in the spot and then curse and move on. It was a sign of how long he had been in this city that no one tried to steal the spot from him.
Every new city he had to show someone the working end of his hammer a few times before people started leaving him alone. Finally, it was completely dark and all the sounds of the city began to die down. Eventually, Xasl slipped into a restful sleep.
…Xasl awoke to the sound of the birds overhead. The sky was just beginning to lighten as he pulled his backpack and tool bag out from under the trees and headed across the park toward the business center.
He could feel the weakness of too many days with too little to eat and prayed that this would be the day he would find a full day’s work.
Xasl walked into the main retail center and scanned the area. There was the baker who ran him off yesterday. No sense trying that, and the lawyer who had him thrown in jail for loitering. That was a possibility, they do give you a meal in jail. Then he saw a muscular woman opening the door to an office he had not noticed before. She was new. He focused and walked toward her trying to straighten his clothes and look as competent as possible. As he approached, she turned toward him and smiled catching him off guard.
“Good morning, welcome. Please come in I have some hot caf and sweetbread to share if you have a few minutes to talk.”
“Uh, yes. I mean I could spare a few minutes. In fact, if you need some work done on the building or something, I could really use a day’s work. I work cheap, but my work is first rate.”
“I’m sure it is. My building is in good repair, but I might have some work you would be interested in. Come in and tell me what you are good at so I can see if we have something that will match your abilities.”
She smiled and guided him into a very nice office with lots of pictures of heros and people getting recognized by important politicians. There was even a picture of her receiving a medal of some sort from what looked like a high ranking military officer.
“Here, have a seat. You can set your bags over in the corner, I assure you they will be safe here. Do you like anything in your caf?”
“Uh, a little sweetener if you have it. Or straight up is fine too.”
“I have sweetener. Here you go.”
She came back and sat at the small table across from him pushing a hot cup of caf over to him along with a dish that had a variety of sweeteners in it. In the middle of the table was a plate stacked with sweetbreads of several varieties. And Xasl’s stomach rumbled as he looked at them.
“Go ahead, take one. I like these myself they are made of vegetables, but taste like they are packed with fruit.”
She pointed to one that looked like a small loaf of bread, with white frosting on top. Xasl examined the tray and picked the largest of the items there. It was a large round bread with nut chips and some sort of filling in the center.
He forced himself to eat slowly savoring every bite and allowing his stomach to adjust to having something so rich after having nothing for so long.
“So, I see you have a bag of tools. Do you work on travelers? Or build buildings?”
“Well, a little bit of both actually, whatever needs doing. I don’t have a comp so can’t do much with the newer travelers, but I can do the small things like changing the tracks, or fixing a dent.
Not much I can’t do with buildings though. I can do layout, framing, exterior, interior, even finish work.”
“Excellent! How about hand to hand combat. I assume you have had to defend yourself on the streets here.”
“I can hold my own. I’m not good enough to make a living at it though if that’s what you are asking.”
“No, but if you have a little talent, we can work with that. How about education? You speak as though you are reasonably well educated.”
“I made it through school with no issues. Even studied at a couple of vocationals when I had enough money to pay the fees.”
“Good! Very good. And how about family?”
“Family’s all dead. Except my wife, she left me for a better provider.”
“Okay. Well, just a couple more things. If you could have your dream job, what would that look like?”
Xasl thought about that question for a while running through all the jobs he had done in his life and those he had read about.
“I think I would like to be a comp spec working on one of those starships. They get to see lots of places and they earn a good enough salary to enjoy it.”
That brought a big smile to her face. And Xasl looked down at the table in embarrassment. Briefly noticing that he had finished the pastry. She brought him in here to make fun of him and he had not even had the foresight to save part of that pastry for tomorrow.
Xasl, took a final swallow of the caf and got up turning to gather his things.
“Wait. Why are you leaving? We haven’t even talked about the jobs I have available. Don’t you want a long term job?”
Xasl paused. What if she were not making fun of him? Could he really afford to turn his back on the possibility that she was really offering him a job?
He set his things back down. He could not afford to miss any opportunity for work.
“Good, good. Sit back down and have another sweetbread. I’ll get you another caf and then you can take a quick questionnaire on the comp and we’ll see what pops up. But I already know we have openings for comp specs, if that is really what you want to do. You would have to go to training for a few months and commit to a couple of years with us afterward, but it is a possibility if you want it and can learn the skills required.”
“Ma’am, please. I will let you poke fun at me in return for another sweetbread and some more caf because I’m hungry. But please don’t say things like that and get my hopes up.”
“I’m not teasing you, or making fun of you. I am dead serious about the comp spec positions, they are high on my priority list. But you have to have the ability to learn the skills, and you must be willing to commit to working for us for a couple years. Is that a problem?”
Xasl stat there for a moment staring at his sweetbread while his mind tried to come to grips with what she had said.
“So you are offering to train me, and give me a job for at least 2 years? What happens if I can’t learn the skills?”
“Well, we will try to find something else you can do that we need and match you up with another job. You still work for us for the entire commitment.”
“Okay, what’s the catch? I don’t get paid, is that it?”
“The pay is good. There is no catch. You fill out the questionnaire which will help us figure out if you have the aptitude to succeed as a comp spec or some other desirable skill. Then you pick your job, and we sign you up. Your salary will be competitive, and will be guaranteed by the high councilor for as long as you remain in the military in good standing.”
“That sounds pretty good. You said two questions earlier, what is the other one?”
“Do you have a criminal record?”
“I’ve been arrested for vagrancy twice. Is that a problem?”
“No other arrests or convictions?”
“No, vagrancy is not an issue for us. But if the check finds you have convictions for any violent crime, or serious criminal activity. You will be disqualified.”
Xasl breathed a sigh of relief. He was surprised to see how quickly he had felt the fear of failure.
“Okay, you can bring your caf and sweetbread over to the questioning booth if you like. Let’s get you through that process so we can get on to the exciting part, selecting your job.”
Xasl felt real excitement at her optimism and followed her over to a small cube with a comp screen and an ident plate.
“Just press your palm here and then answer the questions as they are asked. Be certain to answer truthfully, they will be scanning to detect any lies.”
He placed his palm on the ident plate and immediately the comp identified him and began a series of questions as the young woman stepped back and closed the door leaving him alone.
He didn’t even think about the fact that all his worldly possessions were still sitting outside. He had been in an interview booth before and knew the routine.
But this was different, the comp asked him a bunch of questions about his past and what experience he had, but then it went on to ask him a long series of questions about math, and science, and history, and even languages. Finally, it asked him a series of question about which he liked better working outdoors or indoors. Did he prefer to be told what needed to be done and how to do it, or be told what needed to be done and allowed to figure out how to do it?
The questions continued and continued, and Xasl lost track of time until he realized his caf had gone cold and his sweetbread was forming a dry crust. Finally, the questions came to an end and the comp told him to please exit the booth and wait in the main office.
Xasl got up and stepped out into the office. The young woman was guiding a young man into another booth, but took the time to smile and nod at him.
Xasl sat back down at the table he had been at earlier and noted that the stack of sweetbreads had shrunk considerably. He finished his second sweetbread and drank the last of the cold caf as the young woman gave the same instructions to the young man she had just taken into one of the cubes.
“So Xasl, you were in there quite a while. You must have done well. Grab another caf, I will be just a few seconds looking through your results.
He got up and walked over to the table where the caf dispenser was and filled his cup once more while his mind raced.
Well, even if I don’t get the job, I got some food in my belly and more caf than I’ve had in months.
“Excellent, you did very well, and your background check confirmed what you told me. Come on over to my desk here, let’s discuss your options and select your new job.”
“Really? I got the job?”
“Really. You qualified for a number of jobs. Some I have never seen come up before. So you apparently did very well with the questions.”
Xasl sat in the chair she indicated, his heart beating hard in anticipation of the change in his fortunes, he suddenly knew was real.
“Okay, so we have three different comp spec options that you qualified for, but before we get to those, I would like you to really consider a couple of options that are much higher on my priority list and will provide you will much more opportunity for advancement.
This one I is rare, and there is high signing bonus if you choose it and make it through training.
Weapon’s Master. You would be in charge of the comp unit that targets and fires the weapons of a destroyer or battle cruiser. Really high tech, and it has a 3X signing bonus, meaning you would get three additional months’ pay added to your credit account on your first pay date following completion of the training. Then you get that bonus again on the first pay period of the year for the next two years. It requires a three year commitment, but people in this specialty get promoted way ahead of everyone else.
Tell me that’s not exciting!”
Xasl could not believe his ears. They were going to guarantee him 3 years of work and pay him extra for taking the job and staying in it. Not only that, he would be trained to do it.
“That sounds great. What happens after 3 years?”
“Well, you can chose to leave the job, but if you want to stay, this is a job that is always in demand with us. I would expect they would offer you another enlistment of 4, 6 or 8 years, probably with the same or better signing bonus.”
Xasl, could not believe his ears. But there had to be a catch.
“So what’s the catch?”
“No catch. It’s a great specialty in high demand right now.”
“Okay, that sounds good. You said there were other options?”
“Yes, of course. We have small arms spec with a 2X signing bonus. Com Spec, ship to ship with a 1X bonus. Nav Spec with a 3X bonus, and of course the three Comp Spec fields with no bonus. “
“What’s the Nav Spec?”
“That’s a high pressure one. Pay’s good, but you can only do it for one tour and then you have to do something else for a year before returning to Nav Spec. It is the person who runs the Nav units on the starships. You also have to learn how to plot a course when the Nav units are out for emergencies. You barely met the score for this one, so it might be a real stretch for you. But you qualify, so it is definitely an option. Which one do you want to pursue?”
Xasl thought about it for a moment and decided that he should take the money while it was being offered, so one of the two positions with the 3X bonus. But which one? She said he might not be able to handle the Nav Spec and it came with the disadvantage of having to do something else for a year after spending 3 years doing it.
But, if he didn’t get on for a second contract with the military that was a skill that he knew was in high demand everywhere. The Weapons Master on the other hand, had a much smaller market, but there was definitely a market out there on the private yachts and the big commercial vacation ships. Actually any of the ships that were targeted by pirates.
And there was no year off between contracts.
“I think I want to do the Weapons Master position. I like the Nav Spec better, but don’t like that year off bit. I’ve been off for a month at a time before and nearly starved to death.”
“Excellent choice. Excellent. Remember me when you out rank me in a few years.
Okay, let me select that for you, and confirm my ident. Then you will have to confirm you made the choice of your own free will, and commit to the term of enlistment.”
She flew through screen after screen telling him what was contained on the screen and asking him if he understood, and by the time they got to the final screen where the comp unit asked him if he was making this commitment of his own free will, and he understood that the commitment would still be enforced even if he failed the training course.
Three years of work, guaranteed even if he failed to pass the training. How could a person beat that? He confirmed his willingness to commit, and pressed his palm to the screen to sign the commitment.
“Excellent. Welcome to the High Councilor’s service Private Xasl. Here, I have some meal tokens for you and a lodging voucher. You are in luck we have an opening for departure tomorrow to your basic training.
Collect your bags and I will call transportation to take you to your lodging. Hit the sleep station early, you will be departing at lunar rise.
Anything else you need?”
“No, ma’am. Thank you! Thank you very much!”
Minutes later, Xasl was sitting in a traveler headed for a low end bed and breakfast. He could not believe his luck. Even if the dream came to an end tomorrow, he would have a full belly and a good night’s rest. And, he and his clothes would be clean.
He arrived at the bed and breakfast just in time to catch the very end of the mid-day meal. Another stroke of luck. He ate until he could eat no more and then slipped a couple rolls into his pocket as he went up to his room to get cleaned up and prepared for the trip tomorrow.
…Xasl awoke to the sound of the drill sergeant yelling down the hall. It had been a rather challenging couple of months. Going from living on the streets and hunting for work, to doing make work and being yelled at when it was not perfect. Xasl had adapted quickly though as he always did, and his years of tough jobs and difficult bosses helped him adapt to the drill sergeant mentality of basic training. The hardest part had been adapting to leaving his things in the dormitory when they went out on drill, and surprisingly leaving food behind when a meal was finished.
But he was nearing graduation from basic training and would soon be moving on to technical training for his new job. Xasl climbed out of his sleep station and quickly got dressed and cleaned his area, taking extra care to ensure everything was in exactly the right place and positioned exactly right in that place. Then he went over his bed once more to make sure you could bounce a credit chit off it and there were no flaws in the corners or pillow.
As soon as he finished looking at his area, he moved over to the sleep station next to his and looked it over closely straightening a line on one of the corners and nodding his approval.
After that he moved to the sleep station across the walkway from him and did the same thing. They had learned early that the only way to survive was to help one another prepare for the sergeant and his critical eyes.
Both the other recruits looked over his sleep station and nodded their approval and they all three moved to the walkway and stood at attention waiting for the sergeant and his lackey to come through and decide who he would mess with today.
Minutes later the sergeant came into their hall with his pet recruit in tow. She was a pretty young girl, but not very smart and it was clear she did not realize it was just a matter of time until he flunked her out of the squad and sent her to repeat with another squad.
The sergeant was in a mood today. The first sleep station he came to he bounced a rock off the covers and claimed it was not tight enough then grabbed the covers and threw them across the room. He turned to his lackey and told her to mark down the demerit as he proceeded to examine the personal area of the recruit whose sleep station had already gotten him a demerit.
Seconds later he declared that the recruit’s personal area was a disaster and he was to receive another demerit and be assigned to relief station duty for the day. Next he criticized the recruit’s dress and kicked the recruit’s shoes scuffing them up.
“An absolute disaster. You have learned nothing in the last two months. Perhaps I should just set you back now and let you try again. How would you like that?”
“Sergeant, I would not like that at all, Sergeant.”
“No I bet you wouldn’t. I suppose I will give you one more chance, but if you present this kind of crap tomorrow, you will find yourself heading back to a first day squad to repeat the entire course. Am I clear?”
“Sergeant, yes Sergeant!”
The next recruit got very similar treatment, as did the one after that. Then suddenly half way down the row, the sergeant, started screaming at everyone for their lack of teamwork and poor attention to detail. Then he declared that they were going to go on a 5 parse run with full gear before returning to scrub this Plox pen with toothbrushes.
He turned on his heal and yelled as he left the room.
“Outside! Full Gear! Two minutes! Move! You slimy bastards!”
Xasl grabbed his backpack and weapons belts putting both on as he moved toward the door. It did not pay to be in the last third of the squad to get outside.
He heard some grumbling as he moved to the door and waited for the others to line up behind him.
Some of these recruits clearly do not understand that this is all a game to determine how well we will handle stress and unexpected changes or criticism. The key to survival here seems to be to identify the motivation and adapt to the new rules as quickly as possible.
I suppose it helps that I have gone hungry so many times that I’m willing to put up with an awful lot to make sure that meal keeps coming.
But of course the 5 parse run will replace the early meal today. Probably an attempt to rattle my cage.
“Last recruit in line, proceed squad leader.”
Xasl watched as the recruit that had been designated squad leader based on her name beginning earliest in the alphabet, opened the door. He followed her out staying in perfect step as they moved down a long hall and across to the ladder that would take them to the drill area three stories below their dormitory.
As it came his turn to get on the ladder he heard the quiet cadence call and picked it up for those behind him. You were not allowed to look at the person below you on the ladder, so the only way to avoid stepping on them or getting a big gap between was to move on cadence. Another of the meaningless rituals they had here.
He reached the bottom of the ladder and stepped aside moving smartly to his position in the squad formation as he saw the Sergeant exit the cafeteria door holding a cup of hot caf and watching them form up with a scowl.
“Move your asses! I don’t have all day to wait for you cream pies to go down a damn ladder.”
Xasl saw the recruit at the top of the ladder jump at the Sergeant’s response and stared in horror as she lost her footing and slammed down onto the shoulders of the man below her on the ladder. Fortunately he was a big man and was able to hold onto the ladder, but he stepped on the hand of the man below him and there was a curse from him. Seconds later, the sergeant was there grabbing people and throwing them off the ladder as he worked his way up to the two in question.
“You just went back to day one recruit. I may kick you out of the service if your idiotic move injured one of your squad mates. Now climb down here onto my back.”
The young woman climbed down onto the sergeant’s back as the big man adjusted his grip on the ladder and shifted his weight to help her, at one point taking a hand off the ladder to grab her shirt and hold her steady as she climbed down holding onto his shirt.
A soon as the sergeant reached the ground he started in again.
“Now get your ass down and start doing push-ups. I’ll tell you when you can stop.”
The young woman dropped to the ground and started immediately without saying a word, but Xasl could see the tears running down her cheeks as she did so.
The recruits resumed coming down the ladder in order and taking their positions in the squad. When the last one was down, the sergeant yelled again.
“This dumb ass could have killed more than one of you today with her loss of composure. Since she is part of your team and you did not help her get past that bit of idiocy you can all join her in push-ups.
Get to it now! Squad leader call cadence!”
“Down. Up. Down. Up. Down….”
Xasl could see out of the corner of his eye as the sergeant went over to the young woman who had slipped and put his boot in the middle of her back, clearly pressing down to make the push-ups harder.
Then he started ranting at her again.
“How dare you put my squad at risk! In a war zone, you just killed the entire squad. And I bet you don’t even care. Do you bitch?”
“Sergeant, I care. Sergeant.”
“Plox crap! You don’t care a bit. If you did you would not have jumped on recruit 27’s shoulders and nearly dragged him off the ladder. I bet if I weren’t here he would have kicked your ass for that. Wouldn’t you 27?”
“Sergeant, no Sergeant. Recruit 22 is a member of my squad Sergeant, and my life may depend on her. Sergeant, we would have helped her regain her footing Sergeant.”
“See there 22. Recruit 27 would sacrifice everything for you. But you only care about yourself. You jumped on his shoulders without any regard for the possibility he would go down with you. Someone who cared would never have lost her concentration in the first place. And if she did, she would have thrown herself to the side to make sure no one but herself got hurt.
But you are a selfish bitch aren’t you 22?”
“Sergeant, no Sergeant. I made a mistake Sergeant, it will not happen again Sergeant.”
“You damn right it won’t. Because you are not going to be in the squad any longer.”
And the sergeant stepped up onto the recruits back so that she was carrying his full weight. She struggled, but kept moving and Xasl’s respect for her went up considerably.
Would I be able to carry his weight that well? I had best work on building some bicep muscle.
The berating and push-ups continued for several more minutes until the young woman was struggling mightily to push herself off the ground. But she would not quit, and Xasl again adjusted his opinion of her.
Finally the sergeant stepped down off her back and called a stop to the push-ups.
“Recruit 22 you will run 5 paces behind the squad. You don’t get out of the run by being incompetent. But you will hold your weapon belt above your head during the run and yell cadence as you tell the world that you are an incompetent bitch.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
“Squad, drill formation. Forward, March! Double time, March!”
And they were off running with the sergeant running beside them.
“Sound off 22!”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
“We are squad 1 yes we are. The best squad near or far. I’m an incompetent bitch you know. But 27 saved my ass today. Sound off.”
“Bring it on down.”
“One Two Three Four, One Two… Three Four!”
The sergeant had the young woman continue repeating that cadence through the entire run around the base and back. When they stopped for a water break half way through the run, he made her continue to run in place shouting the cadence.
It was clear that the sergeant had intended this stop to be more punishment for the young woman because he had stopped them at the edge of the pond bordered on the other side by a hill covered with trees. Two messages were being sent. ‘Look at all the water’, and ‘You have a long uphill battle to graduate’. Xasl could not believe the cruelty of the punishment. The sergeant even had her facing the water as she ran in place.
Xasl went over and ran in place with her and shared some of his water ration with her so she would not get dehydrated. He looked at the sergeant expecting disapproval but was surprised to see the sergeant flash a look of approval before yelling again.
Xasl moved back to his place in the formation and they were off once more.
When they got back to the barracks, the sergeant again yelled at the young woman.
“22 move to the front of the squad, on the double.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant”
The young woman jogged to the front of the formation and faced the sergeant.
“Sergeant, recruit 22 reporting as ordered.”
“Turn to face the squad 22.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
“Squad. One of your number has shown a willingness to forgive recruit 22. I am going to ask you in a minute to declare by a show of hands if you are willing to forgive her as well. But first, you must know that you will have to share in her punishment if you choose to forgive her. I will not declare the punishment until you declare your choice. And to forgive her you must have a unanimous vote. Is that understood?”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
“Okay, by a show of hands, who wishes to forgive recruit 22 for her incompetence.”
Xasl raised his hand and heard the movement of arms around him. All those in front of him in the formation had their hands up.
“All opposed, same sign.”
Xasl pulled his hand down and saw all those in front of him do the same.
“Very well. The squad has spoken. 22 you may speak to the squad.”
“Sergeant, thank you sergeant. Squad, thank you for your unity. It is an honor to be a member of the squad. I swear you will not regret it.”
“Take your place 22.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
“Squad, the punishment for incompetence is 200 push-ups. Which you have already done. The reward for demonstrating unity is pride. Clean up and meet back here in 30 minutes for chow deployment.
Xasl could not believe his ears. They were not going to be punished and the sergeant actually indicated he was pleased with them. What a strange world.
“29 front and center.”
Xasl felt his heart stop at the sergeant’s summons. He turned on his heel and moved smartly over in front of the sergeant.
“Sergeant, recruit 29 reports as ordered.”
“29, you demonstrated courage and significant leadership skills today. I am promoting you to squad leader. Break the news to recruit 1. She will take your place in the formation.”
“Yes sergeant. Right away sergeant.”
Xasl turned and hustled to get to the back of the line that had formed to climb the ladder.
No good deed goes unpunished. I was doing so well at keeping my head down and avoiding attention, why did I have to go give 22 water? Squad leader is responsible for everyone. Damn!
Xasl reached the top of the ladder and moved to the front of the squad line to speak to recruit 1.
“Recruit 1. My apologies but the sergeant has informed me that I must assume the duties of squad leader. You are to move to my position in the formations going forward.”
“Oh thank god! …Sorry, I mean. Yes, squad leader. Thank you.”
Xasl nodded his acceptance of her response and stepped in front of the squad and led them back up to the barracks.
Once they were in the barracks he hustled to get into and out of the refresh unit dressing quickly and putting his sweaty clothing away properly. Then he went to help the people who had failed on the inspection at the beginning of the morning so that the barracks would be in inspection shape when the sergeant next entered.
As everyone else hustled over to line up at the door, he made one last pass through the entire dorm making minor adjustment and ensuring everything was ready. From now on he would be responsible for any problems and he wanted no more attention if he could avoid it.
He could hear some minor grumbling as he finished his walk through and joined the unit. One of the grumbling recruits was the sergeant’s pet and he made a point of looking her in the eyes.
“Cut the grumbling 31. I just fixed five errors in your display. When we return this evening we will go over the discrepancies so you don’t get demerits in the future.”
“Yes, squad leader, thank you squad leader.”
And the whole squad went silent waiting for him to lead them out and back for meal break.
He looked at the clock and waited until they had just enough time to get down the ladder and lined up. From now on they would not be accused of being over anxious for their meal breaks.
He opened the door and led the squad down the hall out to the ladder and down starting the quiet cadence as he got on the ladder. Once he reached the bottom of the ladder he stepped to one side and stood at attention ready to help if there was any issue. The duty of the squad leader was to ensure everyone made it down safely and got lined up at the right place at the right time.
He did not notice when the sergeant came out and started watching the progress, he was too focused on keeping everyone moving in synchronization. When the last recruit was down, he followed her over to the squad and fell in at the front of the squad.
Sergeant, squad 1 assembled and accounted for.”
“Squad 1. As you know, you have a new squad leader. As with your previous squad leader, he carries my authority when I am not present.
Am I understood?”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant!”
“Good. Squad Leader take your squad to the chow hall. We are behind squad 3 in today’s priority.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.
Squad about-face. Forward – March!”
Xasl marched the squad to the chow hall and queued the columns as their turn to get in line came. When the last column was in line, he fell in at the end of the line.
Last to eat, and first to leave. This is my life now. Damn. I knew better than to do anything to stick out, why did I do that?
A few minutes later he was seated at a table eating his meal quickly so that he could get back outside to form up the squad as they finished their meal.
“Squad leader, thank you for the water and the concern. I know you did that at your own peril, but you saved me from being set back and I will always be grateful.”
Xasl came out of his self-ridicule to look across the table at recruit 22. She was wiping a tear from her eye and looking at him with clear sincerity.
He wanted to say that it was a mistake, but seeing how much it had meant to her, he could not say such a thing.
“You would have done the same for me 22. We are bound together by our common goal of graduating and getting out of this hell.”
“She would not have done the same for you. Nor would any of us. It was inspiring. You showed us that we could care about one another and survive.”
“Yes, I agree. 22 was just the day’s target for the sergeant. You bucked his authority, I can’t believe you survived it. I think that’s why he made you squad leader. So he could yell at you every day to get even.”
“Regardless, I am grateful.”
“We need to all stand together. If we do, we will make it through. If we let him separate us, then any of us can be set back for anything. As you said 22 was just today’s target. Tomorrow, it might be you 15, or you 30. Stick together, help one another and remember who the enemy is.”
“We’ll see if you still feel that way after a couple days as squad leader. But I like the approach so far. Not like 1 who lorded it over us from day one.”
“Give her a break, you have seen how the sergeant treats the squad leader. She was under more pressure than any of us, and she survived it.”
“Yes squad leader.”
Xasl felt the intended taunt.
15 is going to be a problem. I need to build some strong support among the others so they help keep him in line or this could be a very rough month getting to graduation. Well, there can always be a blanket party if needed.
Xasl finished his meal and stood up to leave the table and head for the formation area.
“Remember, working together is our only hope. The better we function as a team, the safer we all are.”
With that he turned and left the table.
…Xasl awoke with a start. There was whispering and movement in the other isle. Something was wrong.
He jumped out of bed and moved quickly and quietly around to the other side of the wall and sure enough there were three recruits with a blanket moving toward one of the beds. They were going to give 1 a blanket party. Xasl moved quickly intercepting them and holding up his hand for them to stop.
“Get out of the way squad leader or we will visit you tomorrow night.”
“15, 6, 19. I know who you are, and this is not going to happen. 1 did what she was told to do as squad leader. None of you have any idea what the pressure is like. I am not going to let you do this.”
“I said get out of the way. 19 move him.”
19 was a pretty good sized man and he stepped toward Xasl.
“I wouldn’t do that. You all best be doing as the squad leader said.”
“Yes, and right quickly or there will be 3 blanket parties instead of 1.”
Xasl recognized the voices of 27 and 22 and could hear others gathering behind him. There was a clear change in attitude among the three who had planned to give the blanket party and 19 was the first to back off.
“Stand your ground, these idiots all know 1 deserves this party, and we are going to give it to her.”
“15, I’m not getting beat so you can look big in front of the new squad leader. I’m out.”
And 19 turned and headed back for his sleep station.
“Me neither, you are on your own.”
With that 6 turned and headed back for her sleep station leaving 15 all alone.
“This isn’t over squad leader.”
“It better be.”
15 flashed a disrespectful hand signal at him and turned to return to his sleep station.
Xasl finally turned around and was surprised to see a group of 8 recruits behind him.
“Thank you. The support is very much appreciated.”
“You would do the same for any of us. We have your back squad leader.”
And they quickly disappeared into the dark.
“Thank you 29, er squad leader. I was bracing myself for the beating. Figured it would come any night now that I am no longer the hated squad leader. Looks like you were a good choice for the position.”
Xasl was startled, he had thought 1 was still asleep since she had not moved during the incident.
“You would have done the same for me.”
“No, that’s the problem until tonight, I wouldn’t have. But I will remember this. If you ever need me, I’ll be there.”
“We just need to work together as a team and focus on the goal of graduation. There are no debts here, just a group of people trying to survive.”
“Well, thank you just the same.”
“You are welcome.”
The next day they had combat drills with weapons in the morning and hand to hand in the afternoon. With no reason to hold back any more, Xasl focused and concentrated on every shot in the morning session and scored the first perfect score he had posted. In previous sessions he had always watched the others and made sure he scored in the middle of the pack. But now he needed to lead by example, so when he posted the perfect score he felt satisfaction.
“I thought you had that in you 29, a weapons master should shoot better than anyone else in the squad. I expect that level of performance the rest of the way.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
They changed weapons three times and he focused shooting perfect scores each time. Xasl was surprised to see that the whole squad shot better. Apparently he had not been the only one trying not to stand out. With his score on the board, everyone could shoot better and not be singled out.
They finished the morning sessions and broke for a meal before heading over to the gym for hand to hand training.
Again, with no reason to hold back, Xasl quickly slipped into the focus he had learned to use when performing skilled labor jobs or defending his things against others on the street.
He felt the rhythm of the kata and the strength of the movements and body positioning.
Yes, this is simple, 1,2,6 spin 6, sweep, turn 7, slip, 4,2,1, spin 7, spin 3, sweep, slip, 5, turn 6. Very logical, one move flowing into the other.
He could almost see the opponent trying to counter and mount some form of offense at the same time. The art was not as physical as what he had leaned on the streets, but he knew it would be effective. Here though a takedown would make a lot of sense. And there a head butt would be effective, over here a groin punch would be wide open. This form of fighting was elegant and showy, but he could see how he would work to defeat someone fighting by the rules established here.
They finished the kata forms and then started working on new techniques and combinations. It was easy for Xasl to remain in focus and he found he really enjoyed the work and the symmetry of the movements. He noticed 15 and 19 talking and working on combinations that were not part of the instruction for the day. He moved over near enough to them to be heard without having the sound carry to the instructor.
“You two get back on track. If the instructor catches you goofing off you will be scrubbing toilets for the rest of the month.”
“Worry about yourself squad leader. We are working on effective techniques, not this artistic crap they are going over now. When I’m in the heat of battle, I want someone covering my back with solid technique not dance moves.”
“You will do as you are told, or I will assign you to guard duty every night this week to burn off all this extra energy you seem to have.”
“You do that, you better sleep lightly.”
Xasl saw that they shifted back to the techniques being taught, regardless of what 15 said.
“You try something with me, you will quickly learn that I’m not 1. And I have friends in the squad too. Don’t let me catch you goofing off again.”
He heard 15 snort, but he did not say anything else and Xasl worked his way back to his position at the front of the squad.
“Okay, break. We will do some sparring today. I think we will work a squad champion tournament. Winner gets a furlough day. Is the squad up for that?”
Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
Okay, this will be a battlefield rules tournament. That means the only limits are, no death blows, and no breaking of bones. Anything else is allowed. Each session will consist of two 3 minute rounds. If there is no tap and no knockout in the 6 minutes, the combat instructor and I will decide who won the session based on effective striking, control of the opponent, and positional dominance. Is that clear?”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.”
“First pairing, number 1 and number 22, front and center.”
The two ladies hustled to the ring and stepped in. The combat instructor was already there and immediately started the match.
22 was bigger and stronger but 1 clearly had a better understanding of the techniques that they had been taught. After about a minute of feeling each other out, 1 went to work and just before the end of the first round, she clamped on a standing rear naked choke from the jujitsu training and 22 went to sleep.
“22 is eliminated, 1 advances to the next round. Next up 19 and 27, front and center.”
Two big men entered the ring and the second match looked very different from the first. There was no feeling out period, these two men did not like one another and the match got very physical very quickly. They battered each other for 5 minutes with no clear advantage one way or the other. Then suddenly 27 executed a spinning back fist and landed it square on 19’s jaw and he hit the mat unconscious.
“19 is eliminated. 27 advances. Next up 5 and 30, front and center….”
Match after match the sergeant paired fairly evenly matched recruits one after another until only two remained in the first round.
“Last pairing of the first round. 15 and 29 front and center.”
Xasl smiled to himself as he recalled the techniques 15 has used in the past. Apparently they would be settling the question of who had more skills right here today. He entered the ring, and bowed to 15 before letting his focus settle in. When the combat instructor started the match, Xasl slipped into defensive mode knowing that 15 would advance and press expending a great deal of energy trying to establish that he was the better fighter.
Xasl, slipped and blocked and moved for a minute and half until 15 got frustrated and made a mistake leaving a big opening. Xasl brought his knee up hard and watched as 15 curled over in pain and backed off. He pressed the advantage and struck with six straight punches and then a turning round house kick that struck cleanly on 15’s jaw. He was unconscious before he hit the mat.
“15 is eliminated, 29 advances.”
In the second pass every match was a mismatch, as the sergeant paired speed and finesse against strength and brute force. Sometimes the strength and brute force would overcome the speed and finesse, and sometimes speed and technique won. But none of the matches went to the second round in the second pass. While in the first pass there had been six decisions.
At the end of the second pass, he was paired up with 1, and he made short work of her as she tried to move immediately into jujitsu figuring she had a better chance there. Unfortunately for her, he anticipated that and brought a knee up hard as she went for a two armed take down. She caught it full in the face with her momentum going directly opposite his. It was nearly two minutes before she had recovered enough to leave the ring.
And the matches went on. One after the other opponents fell, and his focus became more complete with each round. Finally it came down to the last pairing.
“For the furlough day. 27 and 29 front and center.”
This would be a real challenge. 27 had a considerable size advantage and Xasl had noticed how much faster he was when faced with a fast opponent. In every match so far, 27 had ended it with a sudden knock-out. That right hand of his was lethal as were his knees and his left foot.
The sergeant started this match and stayed in the ring to be able to stop the match more quickly in the event someone was injured. They bowed to each other and squared off.
The two men moved around the ring throwing cursory punches and kicks testing each other’s guard for a full minute. Then 27 made his first move coming in hard with an incredible display of technique throwing one after another with speed and force. It was all Xasl could do to block and slip for the next minute. Then the big man slowed down a little and Xasl countered slaming and blasting at the big man’s guard. Back and forth it went for 4 and ½ minutes. Then Xasl had an idea, he moved in throwing a series of kicks and spinning techniques but leaving himself open to a takedown. It was not a big opening, but he had seen the big man analyze and move on openings with other opponents and he was pretty confident he would go for the take down.
Sure enough 27 saw the opening and went for the two legged takedown. Xasl was waiting for the move though and brought up a kneed as hard as he could. Grunting as he felt the knee strike true into the big man’s face. 27 staggered backward but to his credit he did not go down. Xasl jumped on the opening though and threw technique landing more than he was missing with at this point. Finally he landed a turning round kick solidly to the big man’s jaw and he fell to the mat just before the call for time came.
27 had been by far the best opponent Xasl had faced, but he had made a mistake and Xasl was able to squeak out a win.
“29 wins and is awarded the furlough day. 27 is eliminated. It was a good day of work by everyone, there will be no drill this evening.
Squad leader form up your squad and take them back to the dorm for an evening of relaxation.”
“Sergeant, yes sergeant.
Squad 1 form up!”
Xasl helped 27 to his feet. He was impressed by how quickly the big man had recovered and was fully functional again. This was a man he would definitely like to have by his side in battle.
“You did well 27. You had the match won, and I baited you knowing it was my last chance to win.”
“I almost didn’t fall for it, but I was not as sure as you apparently were that I was ahead on points. You have definitely got some serious skills squad leader.”
“As do you 27. I hope we are assigned together when it counts. I would love to have you by my side if I have to fight for my life someday.”
“The feeling is mutual squad leader. Congratulations on your win, it was well and fairly earned.”
27 fell in and Xasl went to his position at the front of the squad and gave the order to move out.
That evening, Xasl heard the movement again on the other side of the wall and knew 15 was probably planning to get his final blanket party in. Tomorrow was testing and then graduation two days later.
Xasl got up and shook his head as he stretched out and walked around the wall to see who they were planning to attach tonight. As he stepped around the corner, he suddenly had a very bad feeling and dropped to the floor just in time to avoid being hit by a bed rail. He swung into action immediately and chopped a leg at the knee hearing a scream as he moved on to the other two people who were coming at him with weapons. 15 was there with a knife and it looked like 25 there with some sort of stick. Xasl ran toward them turning at the last second and threw a flying side kick to 25’s chest. He felt the contact and then turned and curled in midair hitting the ground and rolling right to his feet already executing a turning round kick. 15 ducked and rolled out of the way coming back to his feet with the knife still in his hand, but he did not see 1 flying toward him and she landed a side kick to the side of his head knocking him off his feet. In an instant she was on his back on the floor with a rear naked choke secured.
Xasl moved in and kicked the knife out of his hand then turned to face 25 who was getting back up still struggling to get air in his lungs once more.
“Stand down! Now!”
Xasl stopped mid stride at the sound of the sergeant’s voice, and was pleased to see 25 do the same.
The lights came on and everyone could see the sergeant with two security guards in tow.
“Arrest him, him and him.”
The sergeant indicated 15, 25 and 19 who was the one who’s knee Xasl had broken at the beginning.
“19 and 25 will need medical assistance. 15 will recover. 1 and 27 return to your sleep stations. I will take your statements in the morning. 29 with me.”
Xasl followed the sergeant out of the dorm and down the stairs to the main floor then across the compound to the command center. The whole way the sergeant was silent and Xasl grew more and more concerned as he went. As the squad leader, he was responsible for the incident. The only reason to take him to the command center would be to set him back and make him repeat some portion of basic training, or to kick him out of the service. He could only hope to be set back, he really had no other options any more. His tools might or might not be returned to him, but he could not afford to pay for the uniforms he had received on entry into the service so he would be buried under debt if he were sent home.
They reached the door of the command center and the sergeant knocked twice and waited for permission to enter.
Xasl followed him in and saw all the brass there. This had to be dismissal, no way they would have all these officers here for anything less. His heart fell and he thought back trying to figure out how he could have avoided the incident.
“Sergeant Wils reporting as ordered with Private Xasl.”
“At ease Sergeant. Private Xasl approach.”
Xasl stepped forward toward the man wearing the insignia of a Colonel and the uniform of a command officer.
“Sir, Private Xasl, reporting as ordered.”
“Attention to orders! Private Xasl, on the recommendation of Sergeant Wils, and based on the excellent performance reports we have had and reviewed over the last month, you are hereby promoted to the rank of Corporal.
You are further ordered to leave basic training today to enter training as a weapons master. We will be accelerating your course as you are needed to join my staff and we are departing on a classified mission in two months.
Congratulations Corporal and welcome to my command.”
As the officer spoke he removed the recruit insignia from Xasl’s collar and replaced it with corporal’s insignia.
“Sir, thank you sir!”
“You are most welcome. Return to your barracks and collect your things, the sergeant here will get you to the star port and provide you with your orders and the tickets and vouchers needed to get you to your training center on Aleron. I will collect you there in one month, so dedicate yourself to learning how to handle the weapons systems.
“Sir, yes sir.”
Xasl stepped back then executed an about face and marched back out of the command center his head spinning.
“Congratulations. You will be aboard the command ship on the first mission of the coming war. Here are your orders. I am very proud of you Corporal Xasl.”
“Sergeant, thank you sergeant.”
“You can drop that formal crap now, you are no longer a recruit. I am simply Sergeant Wils now and I work for a living, so do not address me as an officer.”
“Yes s… Okay. Did I hear correctly that you recommended me for promotion?”
“Yes, you heard correctly. You turned the squad around when I made you squad leader. You stopped the blanket parties, and you brought the whole unit together. That is leadership. Moreover, you out performed everyone else in the squad at every critical skill. Except for the three who were never going to make it anyway, you turned this unit into a model unit and made me look very good.
I’m proud to have known you Xasl, and I would be honored to fight by your side someday if fate allows it.”
“Thank you. I would like that very much, I think.”
Then they fell silent as they entered the dormitory and Xasl had to collect his things in the dark. But his brain was still busy trying to take in the change in his destiny.
Corporal Xasl. Imagine that. I wonder what is next.
P’Hilz Story Available now
The K’Jin Mission Available now
K’Jin Released Available now
Alla’s Path Coming Soon
Torl’s Journey Book 1 in the series
Rebuilding a Legacy Book 2 in the series
End of an Era Book 3 in the series
Seala’s Burden Book 4 in the series
Taarl and the Fools
Game Coming Soon
Master Mixer Sslasl
Sslasl and the Mastery
Aarn Becomes a Man
All Things Real A reference to the people and places in the Power Colors books.
Barth Reality A reference to the people and places in the Barth Novels
Like his father before him, Xasl struggled to make a living doing odd labor jobs moving from city to city as the seasons changed. His wife left him years past when a man with a more stable income offered to take her in. Xasl could not really blame her for leaving him, it was hard when there were no credits for food, and even the shelters sometimes turned him away leaving him to sleep in alleys where one had to keep an eye open all the time. Today marked three weeks since he had last found work enough to eat a real meal. He could not even remember which city he was in now. When he saw a muscular woman opening the door to an office he did not recognize, he pushed himself to his feet and made his way over to ask her if she had anything he could do to earn enough credits for a meal. When he arrived, she greeted him warmly and gave him a hot caf and a sweetbread. Then she spoke to him about a long term job with the military which apparently had a shortage of people with his particular skills. Weak and confused as he was, Xasl barely remembered to ask where the job was before he pressed his palm to the enlistment document and became Private Xasl. Tomorrow he would be shipped off to training, and the recruiter called a service that took him to a low end bed and breakfast where he could get cleaned up and rested up for the trip. Xasl could barely believe his luck, she had also given him a credit voucher for three meals. No matter what the future held, he would eat and rest well today.