Barghest II – Chapter 7

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Capable or Incapable

 

Year 2146, Day 210, Hour 0700

TABI (Technological and Biological Interface) Device, noun. Also commonly referred to by the generic term, implants. TABI comprise a wide range of software and hardware components that can be integrated into the human body, surgically or by injection, to regulate, stabilize, or increase performance in physical or cognitive areas as well as provide increased interaction with technology outside the subject body. Common examples include communications implants, neural sensors for prosthesis, and microscopic visual enhancements for fine motor skills.

“SC2147-E056-00861: Preliminary academic and psychological tests continue trend of juvenile aptitude examinations. Medical interview and secondary exam commencing at,” the doctor glanced at his bracer, then back at his tablet, “0702. Interaction to be recorded.”

Clara shifted uncomfortably in her paper gown. The clinic on the base was colder than the one at the recruitment station, and the doctor far less personable than the medic that performed her initial exam and  had been. Medical examinations were routine before enlistment and required periodically for every soldier in the Coalition. After a week of testing and classroom evaluation, she had been excited and nervous to move on to the physical training. The doctor was leaving her feeling more nervous than excited.

He had yet to look at her when he sat down on a small, rolling stool and scrolled through the file on his tablet. “Do you have any implants, other than your SC issued contraceptive implant, legal or otherwise?”

“No.”

“Not even a comm?” His voice was disinterested.

“No. Just the exterior tech that-”

“Sexual Activity?”

“Uh, yes. I have been.”

“Number of partners? Any since your enlistment exam?”

“One, er, just one. And no.” Clara wondered when anyone would find the time or privacy to have sex during training. The schedule was intense, each day a minimum of ten hours of lessons, tests, meals – all supervised and conducted with the same group of twenty-four strangers that she shared a temporary bunk room and showers with. It led to the inevitable conclusion that the question wouldn’t have been asked unless a significant statistic of individuals – or couples, she supposed – had made it necessary. Apparently, not only was she shorter than most recruits, she was less imaginative as well.

“Any previous conditions that were not-” He paused in his scrolling and his mouth turned down. It was the first sign of emotion or interest she had seen from him. “You have several undesirable genetic markers.”

Clara stiffened. There were other people, like her father, that didn’t believe in utilizing the full extent of genetic therapy on their children, but it was rare. And not considered rational or responsible by most people. “Yes.”

He only grunted in response, and the rest of the exam was conducted in silence. There were other tests after that, a series of chilly rooms and waiting in line with other recruits. By the time she reached the TABI technician it was clear that most of the personnel at the medical center were aware she was a peppermint. Most did their best to remain professional and detached, but the soldier in line behind her made it a point to let Clara know what the Coalition thought of mintys. It was not flattering, but it was more creative than most of the insults she had heard.

“Maker, Clara,” the technician called out. He looked more bored that anything else. “This is a standard issue communications implant, upgraded for your specialty of-” He glanced as his tablet and his mouth quirked, “communications. Please cycle through the training tutorial as soon as the device syncs with your external tech. Note any unusual physical conditions and report them to Technical Services. These may include dizziness, ringing in the ears, uncontrollable urge to vomit, vertigo, dry mouth, and migraines. Do you have any questions?”

“No, I-” A sharp sting was the only warning she got and then the procedure was complete. Her neck felt hot right behind her ear where the TABI had been inserted. She reached up to feel it.

“Do not touch the affected area for at least one hour,” the tech said sharply. His voice lowered considerably, “And brace yourself, Minty. This day is going to get worse before it gets better.” His warning wasn’t made to frighten her, but he was serious. And too right.

“Hey.” The furtive whisper caught her attention as she was leaving the clinic. Clara looked up to see a familiar face.

“Brian,” her smile was one of relief as much as pleasure. They had been dating for three months when the time came to enlist,  and Clara had been more than happy to sign up at the recruitment center closest to where he lived – avoiding the people she had gone to school with. It was an added benefit that they were more likely to be stationed together, if they completed training at the same camp.

As soon as she joined him in the narrow alley between the clinic and the next building, his words came out in a rush. “Look, I don’t think we should see each other anymore. And,” he swallowed while she tried to readjust to what he was saying, “do you think you could, I don’t know, like pretend you don’t know me?”

“We arrived together,” she answered stupidly. She was still wondering what they hell he was talking about. If anything, Brian had always seemed more invested in their relationship than she was. She had often thought he was a bit clingy.

“Well, yeah, but I’ll just say I was being nice to you. You know, cause you’re a – anyway, nobody will think I’ve been sleeping with you, if we don’t ever talk or anything.”

“Because I’m a peppermint.”

“I know I said it doesn’t mean anything to me. And it doesn’t,” he added hastily. “You are just as good in bed as any normal girl. I couldn’t tell the difference.” His face was turning red, and he kept looking behind her, as if worried someone might see them together. Because he is worried, idiot, she thought numbly. “But it seems like it is a big deal in the Coalition. And you know I want to re-enlist after my two years. Go to officer academy. I know you don’t care about that, so you can do this for me right? Because it is important to me?”

“Sure. Yeah.” Clara didn’t know why she said that. She was torn between crying and bringing a hard right hook directly into his stupid face.

He immediately relaxed, relief pouring out of him. “Great. I knew you’d understand, Clara. You’re cool like that. And, if ever we’re stationed together, and we can be, you know, discreet, I wouldn’t mind if we…”

“I need to report to my drill Sergeant.”

She spun on one heel and was across the road and between another set of buildings before he was done thanking her and offering luck. Clara was on the other side of the camp, her new unit in sight, before she realized what she should have said.

I was just being nice, it wasn’t good.

My genes only mean something to you when other people know about them.

It is a big deal, because you are an asshole.

Pretend I don’t know you? After this, that is my fondest dream.

If we’re ever stationed together, I’ll be discreet about where I hide your corpse.

Anger and resentment were expanding in her chest, and she could feel hot tears pricking at the corners of her eyes as she fell into line. Clara, she thought bitterly, you are so stupid. They were issued packs and positions, and then it was time to run. She pushed herself too hard at the beginning. After competing for years in school, Clara knew when to find her stride and when to sprint, but a replay of Brian and his moronic request was eating at her. Three miles in and she leveled out, ahead of most of the unit, and began to breathe evenly. Five miles in and her mind was clear, despite the constant yelling of their sergeant.

“Pick it up, sissies! This isn’t a daycare! I am not here to make your boo-boos better! If it hurts, push through it! If you slow me down, I will make you regret the day you were born!” The man ran with the group, and had no trouble speeding up to demean the soldier at the front and then slow down to berate the rear and still maintain full volume.  Mile seven started to thin the pack. Everyone was required to take physical fitness classes and pass cardio and strength test during school, but the two-mile runs around a track were laughable preparation for the hilly, natural trails that surrounded the camp. Clara caught her foot on a root and fell. Her uniform protected her skin, but the impact made her knee throb. She was back up quickly, but her pace was slower for a time.  “Move your ass, you worthless piece of shit! I have never-” The sergeant’s voice faded as she rounded a hill. The camp stretched out below her, and she could count the number of soldiers ahead of her. Five, out of thirty-six. A branch snapped her in the face while she wasn’t paying attention, but sharp sting to her cheek made her focus. Ten miles was not a challenging run for her, but ten miles in rough terrain with a pack that seemed to weigh more with every step was. Clara needed all of her attention on her surroundings to make it to the end.

“-think you’re a smart one, you slimy little shit? You stop right there and give me fifty before you take one more step!”

Clara did her best to tune him out, instead listening to the air in her lungs and the pounding of her boots on the ground. She was third to the finish line. The sergeant was right behind her.

“You all think this is the end? Victory for the quick little bastards, eh? The Coalition doesn’t need weak pukes like you! They need strong bodies that can die for the SC! Can you die for the SC?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” Clara was a beat behind in her response, and he noticed.

“Well, what is the matter, private? Did it take too long for my question to get all the way down to your tiny little child ears? What the hell is wrong with you?”

“Sir, nothing, sir.”

He bent at the waist so they were eye level, and Clara forgot what she had been told the first day of training: do not look your sergeant in the eye unless he tells you to. Your sergeant is above you, and you are as low to him as an ant is to its god.

“Are you eyeballing me, you little shit?” He whispered, rather than the shout she had become used to on the run, and it sent a little spike of fear into her belly.

“Sir, no, sir,” she responded promptly.

“Private Eyeball is feeling pretty good about her performance, sissies. Private Eyball thinks she is ready to move right on out of training, don’t you Private?”

“Sir, no, sir.”

“Oh no, go ahead and show the rest of the platoon how it’s done.” He stomped over to a large box and reached in, pulling out a heavy, old-fashioned armor vest. He tossed it at her, and she stepped back involuntarily, the weight of it pulling her arms toward the ground. She barely kept from dropping it. “You shitheads will wear this armor like it is your goddamn job – because it is until I say it isn’t! You will run to the beach, you will swim out to the third buoy and back, and you will like it! When I see you here again, you will tell me you like your jobs!”

“Sir, yes, sir.” Clara was in unison with the platoon, but she was also worried. There was no way she could swim that far with an extra ten pounds strapped to her chest.

“What are you waiting for,” the sergeant yelled, “lead the way!” Clara dropped her pack as he tossed armor to the rest of the unit. The vest went on over her head, securing under her arm and distributing the weight across her back and front. Straps wrapped around each thigh to keep it in place. Clara didn’t wait for the order, but took off at a run. The lake was only a half-mile away, but she was already feeling tired when she arrived. She dove as soon as she was thigh deep, and immediately regretted the action. Clara did not have much body fat, and a week of military food had not improved the situation. She sank like a stone and had to use her feet to push off the bottom. When she came up, sputtering, a dark skinned soldier was skimming past just beneath the surface. His butterfly stroke was quick, strong, and would secure him first place back to the beach if he could keep it up. Two more soldiers passed her before she managed to settle into a controlled turtle stroke. It was slow, the slowest swim she knew, but it was also the least tiring. Even with that, at the second buoy she nearly drowned. Well over half of the platoon had already passed her, and another soldier came on her position quickly. She could have sworn he smiled as he barreled into her. His longer, stronger limbs took him over top of her, pushing her down into the water.

Clara panicked. The lake was cold, colder the deeper she sank, and the churning water over head was distorting her vision. For a moment, she could not tell up from down and the weight of her armor pulled. Pulled. So heavy. She kicked hard, reaching for the surface, but she couldn’t make headway. Her lungs were burning, her muscles screaming in exhaustion. A hand reached down into the water. Her joints protested at the sudden pressure, and then her face was above the water and she smacked into the buoy. She went under again before she managed to grab hold of the floating marker and cough up water. Clara gasped, sucking in air as she watched the lead swimmer moving away, gaining distance from the others. The last soldier was already swimming towards her, and Clara knew she needed to move.

A back stroke – although harder to maintain than usual – took her to the third buoy and allowed her easy breathing. She had to alternate after that to keep a spot in the bottom quarter of the group and not exhaust herself. Her run back to the sergeant was a slow jog; water sloshed out of her boots. Her hair had escaped a tight braid and stuck to her face and neck. She fell into line, standing straight with the others until the last soldier arrived.

“You are a bunch of sorry looking wet-rat mother-fuckers! I have a cat that can swim better than you! Is this how we are going to defeat the enemy? With you weak little pukes? Shoot me now so I don’t have to watch the Coalition fall with you on the front lines!” He dropped a box of MRE bars next to the container for the armor. “This is the worst bunch of sissies I have ever seen! When I am done with you, you will be soldiers – if I have to kill you and lay the flag over your dead bodies, do you understand me?”

“Sir, yes, sir!”

“Take off that armor and eat – you’re going to need it. You will regret making me work this hard to make you into meat shields! I do not appreciate your effort pukes! I do not-”

He continued to yell for the entire fifteen minutes that were allotted for them to each drink a liter of water and consume a regulation amount of calories. Clara could feel her muscles trembling. It was everything she could do to remain sitting upright while she ate. It was everything she could do to keep her jaw moving up and down and make her throat swallow.  The march to the obstacle course steadied her as her stomach worked on the hard rock of protein and simple sugars that the Coalition deemed necessary for complete nutrition.

They formed lines of four to begin the course. It was numbing. Her body, her mind. Clara couldn’t feel anything but the heavy beat of her heart and the booming bass of her sergeant’s voice. Directly in front of her was a steep incline, with ropes to assist in climbing it. She fell on her first attempt and skinned her palms. Then there was a horizontal ladder. Her arm muscles gave out twice and she had to start over, at the back of the group. Past the ladder was a series of varying height logs that had to be vaulted over. Then a low wire grid that had to be crawled under. A mud pit with a rope to swing over. Another wall. Large tubes on the ground for high-knees. A suspended rope that had to be traversed. The last obstacle was a climbing platform and zipline.

Clara restarted seven times before she made it all the way through. She was not last, but it was very close.

She fell into a line behind the rest of the platoon. As it advanced, the sergeant would ask the soldier at the front a question. If they answered correctly, they moved on to a open-sided tent where a meal had been set out. If they failed, they moved to the back of the line. “What is the purpose of the Sol Coalition?”

“Sir, to protect and defend, sir!”

“How many rounds does your service pistol hold?”

“What is your first priority upon arrival in enemy territory?”

“How long can you survive unprotected in space?”

“What is the formula for calculating ISG risk?”

Clara blinked at that question and leaned around to find out who was in front. The dark skinned soldier that had been first on the run and swim, the one she was sure had pulled her up when she was drowning, stood before the sergeant. He had probably finished in the top five on the obstacle course. Clara frowned, but snapped back into line before she was noticed. The soldier hesitated.

“I don’t have all day to waste on you shits!”

“Sir,” the soldier breathed deeply and carefully repeated an equation. Clara winced. It had been close, but not correct.

“The Coalition doesn’t want idiots, puke! Back of the line and try to find some brains while you are there!”

The rest of the questions were fairly easy, Clara thought, although a few soldiers had difficultly and were sent back. She could hear the quiet muttering behind her.

“Wrong again, Kerry?”

“Tubers have to pay extra for intelligence. Your folks must not have been able to work an extra shift in the quarry, huh?”

The soldier, Kerry, did not respond, but Clara felt a spark of anger returning. It was easier, somehow, to be indignant on his behalf than it had been for herself when Brian had degraded her. There were no mixed emotions or threat of tears when Kerry was insulted.

“How do you kill a Culler?”

“Sir, two shots to the head, sir!”

“Wrong! Goddamn it, private! Did you have your head up your ass all the way through school? How does it smell up there, private? Cause you fucking stink to me! Back of the line!”  Clara stepped to the front and saluted. Her arm felt like old rubber, bending under threat of a sudden break.

“Do you know how to kill a Culler, Private Eyeball?”

“Sir, a slag round to the chest, between the armor plating, is the most effective means to destroying the nervous system resulting in near instantaneous death. Sir.”

“Well, piss in my breakfast. Private Eyeball got it right! Listen to that you sissies, you can’t get this done but this short little shit that sinks like a stone can? You’re disgraceful! Move along, Maker!”

Clara stumbled forward, walking slowly to the tent. The soldier that had been behind her managed to get his question right, and he passed her on his way to the food. Kerry was up next, and Clara glanced back to see how he did.

“When anti-matter escapes the central confinement chamber, how many seconds until irreversible contamination?”

Kerry hesitated again, and Clara made a split decision. She held up her fingers and hoped he noticed.

“Sir, two, sir.”

The sergeant paused, and for a moment Clara thought he was going to send Kerry back, even though the answer was correct. “Move it,” he snapped. Kerry moved. They were given three hours, although it had taken Clara long enough with the obstacle course that she had more like two, to eat and rest before returning to training. Clara sat alone. She got a few nods from some of the soldiers, but most avoided her intentionally.  Even if those men and women hadn’t known or cared about her genetic status, the sergeant’s obvious dislike of her was enough reason to stay away. Add to that her poor performance on half of the day’s challenges and she understood their reluctance to make friends. She could also understand why they avoided Kerry. She watched him as she leaned against one pole of the tent, her aching legs stretched out. It was obvious that his genome had been modified with something not quite human. He was less than 180 centimeters tall, and his immense bulk made him appear even shorter. The dark color of his skin was already unusual, but wouldn’t have been remarkable if not for the flat, matte appearance it had. Upon intense inspection, it was mottled in places – like black on black spots. His jaw was overly wide and his ears prominent. She understood why the other soldiers avoided a Genetically Modified Human, but that didn’t make her less angry about it.

“Line up, pukes!” The bark of the sergeant had them all scrambling. Clara’s whole body protested the movement. She hurt in places she didn’t know she had. “This is capture-the-flag. You will be issued weapons,” he motioned to a table lined with paintball guns. “You and your partner will seek out the objective, take it, and bring it securely back to me here, by 0300.” She glanced up. The sun had set while they were eating and Clara guessed it was near ten p.m. She did not dare check her arm bracer to find out. “There is another platoon out there, trying to take your flag. If they succeed, I will make you sorry goo-for-nothing shits run today’s gauntlet again.” Everyone stood up straighter. “Your partner is your lifeline, the other half of you. If he or she is hit – you are hit. If you are hit, you are out. Those hit will do calisthenics while we wait for the flag.” He lifted his tablet and skimmed through it. “These are the most abysmal scores I have ever seen. You sissies are lucky that there are some real fuck-ups in this group, or you would all look worse than the shit on my boots. Top half – you will select your partners in the order in which you scored! Ramos!”

“Sir, I’ll take Jones, sir!”  Ramos and Jones stepped to the side.

“Britian!”

“Sir, Kloepp, sir!” Another two soldiers moved out of line to pick up their weapons.

“Kerry!” There was an audible inhale, as if the entire platoon was waiting to see who the tuber would pick. Clara wanted to hit something. Even if their bigotry hadn’t been disgusting, the attitude was plain stupid. Kerry had proven he was more than capable of completing any of the challenges.

“Sir, Maker, sir!”

A few soldiers sighed in relief, and Clara had had enough. “Thank god, I thought I’d get stuck with an idiot.”

“Do you have something to say, Private Eyeball?”

“Sir, no, sir.” She moved quickly to the table and picked up a weapon.

“Have you used one before?” Kerry asked quietly. The sergeant was still calling out names so Clara stepped away from the table, shaking her head. “Keep the muzzle down and out, and stay behind me. You can still run?”

It was a serious question, and Clara considered it that way. Her legs felt like jelly. Worse than, they felt like jelly that had hardened from age and then been liquefied in a microwave. “For a while.”

“Good. Stay behind me.”

When the sergeant told them to go, Kerry set off at an angle for the edge of the wooded hills where the flag was hidden. Clara didn’t question him, but followed. Gun out. Muzzle down. He boosted her up in a tree at one point so she could rest, and scouted for the other platoon. Within an hour he was leading singles and teams back past her position. He was too quick to get shot, and she had a birds eye view and decent aim once they got close enough. He led her through a stream, the cold water a relief in the humid, close air of the forest. She spotted the flag first, and then he took out the team that was about to close in on it. At his suggestion, she covered herself in mud and slunk, on her belly, up the hill while Kerry picked off anyone who approached. As soon as she had it in hand, it began to emit a loud beep. She ran. Kerry ranged around her, sometimes hitting, sometimes just scaring off other teams. Clara tripped twice. Once she smacked her face on a log, making her nose spurt blood. Once she barely dodged a paintball.  They arrived back at the starting point well before the sky began to lighten.  The sergeant didn’t look pleased, but he announced they had the win and called in the other teams. Their scores were posted on the wall of their new barracks.

As a reward, she and Kerry were given first pick of beds. They shared a look, and selected the top and bottom, respectively, of the bunk closest to the corridor. The shower was the best Clara had ever had. Despite lukewarm water, regulation soap that left her skin dry, a swollen nose and black eye, and the presence of thirty-five other men and women in the same locker room, Clara had never taken so much pleasure in leaning against a cold tile wall and letting her hair drip into her face.

The showers, toilets, and lockers were at one end of the building, separated by a wall that had two doorways into the bunk room.  Three lines of six bunk beds were sandwiched up against the half-wall that separated them from the corridor. On the other side was a mirrored setup for another platoon. When she lay down in bed, the sun had was still at least an hour from rising and they had four hours of sleep ahead of them before they had to get up. The other platoon was just dragging in the door. There were a few derogatory remarks and catcalls from her unit, proud that they had finished first – even though it had only been possible because of Kerry and Clara’s teamwork on the flag assignment. She was drifting off when a voice penetrated the haze of exhaustion around her.

“Clara? Clara is that you?” She didn’t sit up, too tired to bother, but turned her head to squint into the hallway. Brian stood there, with a few other equally muddy soldiers stopping around him to listen. He made an awkward attempt at a smile when she met his gaze. “Hey, I saw you did, uh, really well today. So-”

“So you’re cool with being seen talking to me now that I didn’t completely fuck up?” There were some snickers, from her unit and his, and his face turned red under the dirt.

“Look,” he sounded angry, and swallowed hard before he forced a smile. “I’m trying to apologize for what I said, what I asked you-”

“Don’t sweat it, Brian.” He visibly relaxed and she settled deeper into the thin mattress, closing her eyes. “If any of the women here want to know, I won’t tell them how your parents cheaped out when it came time to select the genes for a penis.” He sputtered, and she grinned into the semi-darkness. “If anyone finds out about your tiny, erhm, rigidity problem, it won’t be from me.”

The snickers broke into full-out laughter, on both sides of the corridor. Kerry slapped his hand on the side of the bed and made a sound of satisfaction.

“Nice, Maker,” someone called out in the darkness.

A woman said loudly, “Save us all from the uninspired and incapable fuck.”

There was more laughter, and Clara Maker fell asleep.

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