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Chapter 2: Debut

Lithia entered the gymnasium, the vast white room stretched high above her and dwarfed the occupants. Many weapon racks were scattered around and a series of dark grey mats dotted the floor. The walls were bare with a small degree of flexibility if you pressed hard enough. The potential recruits gathered around the gymnasium in small groups, testing the equipment on display and indulging in tentative conversation. Lithia took up a position beside Becket who was observing the new recruits. They wore standard grey skirmish suits with darker sections around the major joints. Accenting each uniform was the colours from their previous divisions. There were four wearing gold trim from the infantry division, three wearing red from the armoured division and five wore blue from the Airborne division.

“No recruits from the Marines?” Lithia noted.

“Three potentials, all currently deployed on the mainland, they’ll be added to the next intake.” Lithia nodded absently as she scrutinised the assembled soldiers. Her face was fixed in a disapproving scowl as she watched a group of recruits swinging training blades.

“Four hundred and thirty-seven.” Lithia looked at Beckett with a raised eyebrow “The Brigade is short four hundred and thirty-seven Rangers. Keep it in mind before you reject anyone without introducing yourself.” With a curt glance, she took the outstretched tablet and moved into the centre of the room. Her footsteps loud and purposeful as she walked to the centre of the sparing mats.

“Line up!” The scattered bodies bolted to attention in a well-practised line. Lithia walked down the recruits looking each of them in the eyes before returning to the front of the group.

“You are here because you believe you can join the First Airborne Brigade, The Rangers. That decision lies with me alone. Many do not possess the skills to join the Rangers, fewer still have the mental fortitude to operate under our conditions. Some of you have fought and earned a recommendation, others have been selected for demonstrating skills I find desirable. Do not mistake this for an invitation, your presence here guarantees you nothing. You will be tested and retrained over the coming weeks and months, those with potential will stay, those that fail to adapt will be dismissed. The Rangers are the most disciplined and lethal unit in the Avarian Military. We are the eyes and ears of humanity, without us, the military would be blind. Earn a place here and you will be one of the few soldiers capable of surviving in the wastes. Discretion will be your watchword, silence your closest ally. When you strike, it will be swift and lethal. If you do your job well, you will not need to strike at all. Beckett, introduce our recruits to the training weapons.”

The recruits clustered around Becket as he handed out training blades, some of the larger recruits took heavy pole weapons and returned to the line.

“We operate in the wilds, the forests, the mountains and plains of the mainland. Your life will depend on your ability to remain hidden and strike silently. Nine times out of ten that will mean getting close and hitting something vital.”

Lithia dropped a metal circlet on the sparing mat, a green light flickered around the rim and a shimmering figure appeared in the air. The creature stood on two well-muscled legs, it’s back hunched with long powerful forearms. Its skin was pale and taut around its wide shoulders. The nose and mouth bulged in a stunted mussel and a ragged collection of furs, leather and crude pieces of metal were strapped over its body.

“If you’ve fought in the colonies you will be familiar with the primitive tribes of the wastes, they are fiercely territorial, hunt in packs and will gut you without a second thought. Until now they have fought on your terms, running your gauntlets, attacking your fortresses. Now you will be operating on their terms, they will know the land better than you and will outnumber you immeasurably. The savages use crude weaponry with surprising skill, if you’ve never seen one up close, that will soon change.” Lithia swiped at her tablet and the image in the air changed. A four-legged creature with a jet black coat hovered in the air. Muscles rippled around its shoulders and a thick neck tapered into a snarling head. Long canines protruded forward, ready to impale its victim as it pounced.

“The Borax are pack animals that infest the wooded areas here on the second line and on the mainland. They operate in packs and hunt anything smaller than a dropship.” Lithia flicked her tablet again, each time a new grotesque creature appeared. Lithia gave a short speech on each, finally coming back to the hunched humanoid.

“You will learn how to deal with each threat quickly and efficiently. When you can incapacitate each foe a dozen ways, you will have a chance to survive in the wastes. Today we train for humanoids.”

Lithia nodded to Beckett who began to pair off the recruits. “Your aim is to land a blow on your opponent, not to injure them, find an empty mat and begin.”

The group spread out across the gymnasium in pairs, some introduced themselves amicably, others scowled at their opponents. Lithia noted a huge man grinning manically at his opponent. The mismatch in height was farcical. She flicked through the records for the soldier’s names. Titus towered almost 7ft tall, his opponent, Cole came in at 5ft 6. Lithia turned to Becket who was suppressing a grin.

“Your doing?”

“Complete accident.”

“I suppose he’ll face worse in the field.”

Lithia observed the recruits as they began sparing. Most were out of practice and were struggling to remember fragments of basic training. One recruit caught Lithia’s eye, her short hair was swept back and dyed a synthetic green that Lithia couldn’t understand the need for. The recruit turned aside her opponents attacks and skillfully created an opening to strike. Lithia approached the pair and brought up the soldiers name. Terra Fates, She watched Terra’s opponent lunge twice. She batted the blows away with confidence, before thrusting her blade into her opponent’s chest. A blue spark jolted him back as the training weapon stuck. Lithia gave the pair a nod before walking on and Beckett moved in to instruct the outmatched opponent. Lithia continued strolling between the recruits, making notes on each as she passed.

A shout pierced the gymnasium. Lithia turned to see Cole flat on his back clutching his ribs. Titus loomed over him pressing his poleaxe into Cole’s chest, blue sparks flickered across the recruits skin, his limbs convulsed on the floor. Titus leant on his weapon, pressing harder into his downed opponent, a smirk spread across his broad face as Cole began to writhe beneath his weapon. Lithia surged across the room, snatching a practice sword mid-swing from a bemused recruit. She thrust the weapon into the centre of Titus’ chest, sending a scattering of blue sparks across his chest and throwing him back.

“Control yourself” Spat Lithia as she squared with the giant man. A look of surprise spread across the mans face at the challenge, quickly replaced by a scowl. Cole made it to his feet and was catching his breath, he rolled his shoulders as he straightened his back, producing a series of satisfying pops. With a deep breath, he gave a nod to Lithia and she stepped aside.

“Continue!”

Cole darted towards the big man, ducking below a sweep from Titus’ polearm. He swung his sword, aiming for the large man’s chest, Titus stepped forward slamming his knee into Cole’s chin and sending him flying across the mat. The small man collapsed on the floor sucking air in through his teeth, clutching the side of his face as a red glaze spread across his gums. Lithia spared a disapproving glance at Titus, but couldn’t deny it was an effective counter.

The pair returned to their positions and began again. Cole lunged towards Titus as the big man swung the side of his weapon into him, bundling him aside like a stumbling child. He thrust at Cole, catching him under the arm. Leveraging his immense weight, he lifted Cole off the ground and slammed him down on his side. Titus advanced and swung the huge weapon over his head and down onto the fallen soldier. Lithia darted between the two, lifting her weapon overhead and bracing with both hands. The Poleaxe crashed into Lithia’s sword, she angled the blade and re-directed the blow to one side. Titus’ weapon slammed into the ground embedding itself in the crash mat. Titus stood dumbfounded as Lithia glared up into his face.

“Five laps of the perimeter fence!” she shouted, “If you can’t show restraint then you’re no use to me here, get out of my sight!”

Lithia spun on the spot and moved to the fallen Cole who was nursing his bloodied teeth. Titus twitched after her but stopped at the smallest movement. A hush fell over the recruits as they watched the exchange. Becket stood close by with his arms crossed, staring into Titus’ as Lithia helped Cole to his feet. Titus’ eyes narrowed and he released a heavy breath, finally, he skulked towards the exit.

The clatter of practice weapons returned to the gymnasium as Lithia approached Becket. “Nothing’s broken but call a medic to make sure, when Titus has finished his laps bring him back.” Becket gave a nod and headed towards the exit.

Lithia approached the next set of recruits. A diminutive young girl with red hair was deftly avoiding the clumsy strikes of her opponent. She watched as the red head tumbled around the mat, performing cartwheels and leaps to keep out of her opponents reach. She was spending more time in the air than on her feet. Her opponents face flushed red and he began to stagger as his strikes flailed in the air. Finally, he tripped and the redhead paused to watch the man struggle to regain his balance.

“Strike!” shouted Lithia.

The girl caught sight of Lithia and froze, her opponent leapt with his weapon outstretched, striking her heart and releasing a spark that knocked the red head to the ground. The girl groaned as she lay on the floor rubbing her ribs. Lithia gave a nod to the man and continued taking notes. “Distraction will get you killed” She muttered before moving on.

When she had seen enough of everyone’s clumsy footwork, Lithia called the recruits together and brought Terra forwards to demonstrate a pattern of movements and counters. She paired the recruits with new partners and they began following the routine of attack and defence. Terra remained by Lithia, with Titus gone she had an odd number of recruits. She recalled looking over Terra’s record, a Pilot from the Armoured Divisions First Company. The Paladins were well known for their skill and fighting spirit. More than one hopeless battle had been won by a unit of Paladin suits. They were as distinguished as her own 1st company and she was surprised to see anyone transfer out, it would be interesting to see how she measured up.

Lithia turned to Terra. She was powerfully built, well muscled and athletic. Standing only a fraction shorter than Lithia. A collection of tattoos dotted her skin with various patterns and text passages, she released a sigh when she reached her green hair but shunted her thoughts aside, a person’s appearance had no bearing on their abilities no matter how outlandish she found it.

“Shall we see what you’re capable of?” Said Lithia.

“Thought you’d never ask.”

The pair ran through the training pattern, advance and retreat, attack and counter. They fell into a comfortable rhythm when a surprise jab parted Terra’s hair above her right eye. A flurry of attacks bombarded her guard. She stood resolute, blocking and deflecting fresh attacks and countering when she saw the opportunity. Each time they settled into a rhythm Lithia attacked with increased vigour, closing on her opponent, thrusting faster and from new angles. Blades clashed and sparked, the training routine completely abandoned. They weaved between the recruits, practice blades clashing in a blur of movement. Beads of sweat began to appear beneath her green hair, but she maintained her guard as they moved around the Gymnasium. Lithia left herself open for a brief moment and the tattooed warrior thrust forward, she closed the trap and with a twist of her sword, separated Terra from her weapon. The blade catered to the ground as the mass of muscle lowered her shoulder and barrelled forward to charge. Instinct seized Lithia and she spun on the points of her toes, her body supple and fluid, allowing the momentum of her opponent to flow around her. She came to a stop with a sweep of her legs and watched Terra stumble as her feet disappeared from under her, hitting the mat with a solid thud.

Terra Rolled onto her back and released a deep laugh, “Glory damn-it! I thought I had you then!” Lithia extended a hand to Terra and hefted her from the ground.

“You’re too accustomed to fighting in a machine. We need to work on your dexterity.”

“You’re right, don’t get many chances for acrobatics when you’re throwing around eight tonnes of kill suit.” She said with a wry grin. A door slammed shut and Lithia noticed the assembled recruits standing and watching with wide eye eyes. Lithia threw a scowl at the slacking recruits who resumed their drills with haste.

“If you don’t mind me asking sir, why have I never seen you in competition? I’ve placed in the top Fifty twice and I couldn’t touch you.”

Lithia shrugged, “I don’t find satisfaction in the spectacle, don’t see the purpose…” she said as her eyes drifted to Terra’s green hair, “but I could say that about many things.”

Becket approached Lithia with a panting, red-faced Titus.

“Terra, if you would show Titus the drill we’ve been working on, he’ll make an ample sparing partner for you.”

Lithia and Becket stood at the side of the gymnasium observing Terra swat away the lethargic strikes of Titus and relishing the string of jabs and slashes she layered on the wearied man.

Lithia and Becket spent the rest of the afternoon moving among the pairs, assisting and instructing. By the evening the group was weary and miserable.

“Line up!” she shouted and the room stopped moving for a second, minds that had been repeating the same actions for hours struggled to process the fresh input. The world outside slowly returned to the recruits and they lined up neatly, if not a little slower than in the morning.

“Stand at ease soldiers, you have completed your first day. None of you are so beyond hope that you will be leaving today.” Her gaze lingered on Titus who stared back from under his Thick brow. “We have laid out a basic set of movements and committed them to memory, soon they will become second nature. As stupid as it sounds we don’t want you thinking during a fight, not about everything, your body should react without thought. Today you learnt the foundations for close combat, we will continue the drill until I am satisfied you can parry in your sleep and then we will move on to the advanced sets.

“Set’s’ sir?” asked a weary looking Cole, who was still nursing a swollen jaw.

“Yes recruit, many, many sets. Rest up! You start tomorrow at dawn.”

The room emptied except for Lithia and Beckett.

“I’d like to bring in the instructors early, you’re going to have your hands full with the… less able, and there’s potential in a few that I want to accelerate.”

“Who’s caught your eye?” said Becket

“Terra can fight, but she needs to learn to move properly, and that small girl with the red hair.”

“Rhea,” said Becket

“She moves well but can’t focus. There’s no denying Titus is a powerhouse, if we can knock the rocks out of his head there’ll be something we can work with. Get two members of the first company in as soon as possible, assign one to Terra, I want her doing back-flips by next week.”

“It’s not nice to play favourites.”

Lithia scoffed at the remark, “When the others catch up we’ll bring in more, till then you better make sure they learn quickly.”

“Maybe if you didn’t have me babysit the naughty ones I could do my job properly.”

“I’ll walk the beast next time then, wouldn’t want you tiring yourself out.”

Beckett paused for a moment “You think Titus is a good fit? I’m not sure his head is in the right place for us.”

“It’s early, he’s got a temper no doubt, but if he can reign in that blood lust, I want him. Probably the son of some inner circle highborn, not used to hearing no.” Beckett nodded in agreement. “Get some sleep Becket, I want them pushed hard tomorrow.” he saluted and left the gymnasium.

Lithia retrieved her tablet and flicked open the personnel files. Two foot soldiers and a suit pilot from The Armoured Division. Titus was one of the footmen, the second seemed unremarkable, The suit pilot, Terra, was a piece of clay she looked forward to moulding. The four men and women from The Infantry Division were all excellent marksmen, their fitness scores were above average but she wanted to see them in action before she judged them. Cole was the only one that stood out today, mainly because he spent the most time on the floor. She flicked through the Airbourne recruits, the red-haired recruit, Rhea, 17 years old, her large eyes and small stature had marked her as the youngest recruit even without looking at her file. Her scores were more than acceptable, but there were reports she’d frozen when deploying into combat. Too young thought Lithia with a shake of her head.

Previous Chapter:
Chapter 1: The Promise of a Soldier

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