PS--if you've read Pandora, if you've read Changing Worlds, you'll recognize some of these characters. I love having a big universe to play in:)
Title: The Academy: Second Prologue: Introductions
“This isn’t up for discussion, Tiennan.”
“You can’t make me go.”
“As your legal guardian, I think you’ll find that I can,” Symone St. Clair informed her ward as she stuffed more of ze’s things into a packing compartment. “Besides, you can’t tell me you didn’t know this was going to happen.”
“When? When did you tell me you were going to ship me off to the hideous, restrictive, politico-military institution that is the Federation Academy?” Tiennan demanded, crossing hir arms over hir skinny chest. “I think I’d have remembered something so draconian.”
“Oh, really?” Symone said with raised eyebrows. “Because I’ve noticed over the years that your memory is entirely selective. Let’s recap, then. Last year, I told you that if you couldn’t make it through your final year of preparatory school without either blowing something up or causing a teacher to take out an order of restraint, you’d be blacklisted at all of Solaydor’s institutions of higher education. You managed both of those things in the first semester, and you have subsequently been barred from continuing your education on this planet.”
“I can do an independent study,” Tiennan argued. “I’ll learn more on my own anyway, you just need to fix my lab and I’ll be—”
“Ah, yes! On to the second point, which actually is your lab. You wanted a laboratory. You have a trust fund and the right to use it for your education, so I allowed you a lab with that purpose in mind. You’ve so far been responsible for two—not one, two—instances of biological contamination bad enough that our entire block has had to be quarantined, not to mention the time you blew it up. Your lab is dangerous, not just to you but to everyone in a kilometer radius, and I don’t have the expertise to know if what you’re doing is dangerous or not, so clearly, you need to be more closely monitored by someone who knows what they’re doing.” Symone stuffed another stack of tunics into the compartment and watched the machine methodically fold and package them until they were a tenth of their original size.
“I told you, I installed new panels in the ceiling and walls that will easily give way in the case of an explosion, minimizing the danger from shrapnel and percussive force.”
“Not to you,” Symone pointed out. “I swear to the stars, if I have to take you to the regen tanks to have yet another hand made for you, the authorities will put me in jail on suspicion of child abuse.”
“I’ll be more careful, I promise!”
“You’ve told me that fifty-seven times since you came to live with me, Tiennan,” Symone said tiredly, turning to look at hir. “And fifty-seven times, you’ve left me worried and disappointed and afraid.”
Tiennan shifted on hir feet, looking away. Bright blue hair shimmered as it fell in front of hir face, obscuring Symone’s view. “I’m sorry.”
“Maybe you are. But that’s not good enough. If you want to continue your education, you’re going to do it someplace where you can be properly supervised. You can’t stay on Solaydor, and let’s be honest, most universities won’t be able to handle your areas of interest. The Academy is the best of the lot, and I told you, I told you, that you’d be going there if you weren’t responsible enough to comport yourself with more maturity. You disregarded me, and so that’s it. You leave tomorrow.”
“I’m too young to be in the Academy, they don’t accept cadets until the age of seventeen!” Tiennan protested.
“They’re making an exception for you. Besides, you’ll be seventeen in three standard months, then you’ll be totally legal.”
“I don’t want to leave,” Tiennan said, and this time ze sounded honest. Symone looked over and saw hir staring back, too-large grey eyes anxious in hir thin, angular face. “They’re binaries, they won’t understand.”
“They will,” Symone said, coming over and wrapping her arm around Tiennan’s shoulders. “You know that the Federation doesn’t allow discrimination based on gender.”
“That assumes that they’re accepting of people with established genders,” Tiennan grumbled, but ze let hirself be drawn in a bit closer. “I don’t want to be tied down like that, I can’t.”
“And you won’t have to be. I promise.” Symone squeezed hir gently. “You’re going to be in a predominantly male dorm, but even there I’m sure you’ll find plenty of variety. In fact, you’re going to be in a quad with the son of one of my oldest friends. When I told him about you, he pulled some strings to get the two of you into the same quad, so at least you’ll know one person there.”
“I don’t know him, you know him,” Tiennan said sourly. “What’s his name?”
“The boy’s name is Cody Helms, and his fathers are Jonah and Garrett. Garrett is the one I know, he spent some time here a few decades ago. He’s from an old political family like me, but he decided to become a scientist instead of a socialite. Although he’s quite good at both.”
“What if his son doesn’t like me?” Tiennan asked, trying to act as though he didn’t care about the answer, but his posture was still unsure. “What if his son is just another brainless Academy jock, or what if he’s an idiot who hates chemistry, or what if—”
“Stop. Don’t give yourself a panic attack,” Symone said. “Cody is a lovely boy, not much older than you, actually. He’s very smart, otherwise he wouldn’t have made it into the Academy, and I think as long as you give him the chance to get to know you before you start insulting his intelligence, you two might become friends. Can you promise to give it a try? Please?”
Tiennan rolled his eyes. “Fine. But he’d better not give me any problems, otherwise I’ll turn his skin purple.”
Symone sighed. “I thought you got rid of that compound. I specifically remember telling you to get rid of it after you turned the entirety of last holiday’s dinner party purple just because you want to test out your diffusers, do you recall?”
Tiennan grinned. “Oh, right. That was fun.”
Symone turned resolutely back to the packing, and hoped that the Academy knew what it was letting itself in for.
Darrel couldn’t eat. It was his going-away party, he was surrounded by his family and the smell of his nana’s fresh-baked bread made his stomach rumble, but his throat seemed sealed shut. It was all he could do to choke down a few sips of water as he listened to them go on and on about the Academy. More specifically, about his father and the Academy.
“You’re signed up for the Athenian Society, aren’t you Darry?” his nana asked. “Your daddy was the president of the Athenian Society his senior year, it was a good place to meet people, make connections.”
“Never got why everything in the damn Academy had to be named after the Greeks,” his papa grunted as he sliced into the roast. “There are innumerable old war gods to name their societies after, and I think it’s pretty suspect that the only ones they used come from just one ancient civilization. What about the Babylonians? What about the Yoruba? Or the Aztecs? I think the Mixcoatl Society sounds much more diverse.”
“The Academy’s situated on a planet called Olympus, what can you expect?” Aunt Shawna asked rhetorically. “Pass the hash, Mama.”
“And the paraball team! You’ve got to try out for that, Darry,” Nana continued as she passed the heavy serving dish along. “Your daddy was so good at that, his team won the interplanetary championship three years in a row. He—”
“You’ve always enjoyed paraball, right habibi?” his mother interjected. “You played all through high school.”
“Yeah, mom. I like it.” Not as much as he liked some other sports, but paraball, a reimagined form of lacrosse played in a low-gravity, curving parabolic field, was the one that Darrel had always known he didn’t have a choice about. Not since his father had played it. If Captain Darrel Montgomery Parrish III had done it, before his heroic death in the Federation’s last great skirmish on the Fringe, then his namesake and only child had to do the same. His whole family took comfort in the fact that Darrel was, physically, almost the perfect likeness of his father: coffee-colored skin, green eyes, tall, broad and athletic. It didn’t matter that he’d rather study linguistics than tactics; his course had been charted from the moment his father’s ship exploded, with him and a skeleton crew still aboard providing cover for the fleeing escape pods. Vengeance had come for the people who’d killed him, but the only way his family could get satisfaction was if Darrel made them proud. So he would.
He had to.
“Why aren’t you eating?” his nana asked, finally getting a look at his plate. “You’re not going to find hash like mine in the cafeterias at the Academy, Darry. It was one of the things your father missed the most when he was gone. I sent him care packages every month, just so he could have a taste of home. Don’t worry, I’ll do the same for you.” She smiled proudly at him. “Skies above, you’re just…you’re so like him, Darry. So like my baby. Sometimes I can’t believe…” Her voice trailed off and she sniffed. Papa put his arm around her, the aunts leaned in close to commiserate, and Darrel felt like he could barely breathe.
“Excuse me,” he managed, standing up and leaving the dining room. He heard Aunt Shawna exclaim, then his mother’s voice, but Darrel didn’t want to hear it. He walked back to his room as fast as he could, got inside and locked the door behind him.
His room was barren. Everything had already been packed up in preparation for his move; even the posters were down now, since Nana and Papa wanted to remodel the house once he was gone. Darrel had never lived anywhere else, not anywhere he could remember, at least. He and his mother had lived on the military base on Station Seventeen when he was an infant, since it was a good mid-point close to the Fringe. After his father’s ship went down, they’d moved in with his father’s parents.
There was still a mirror up in the room, an old-fashioned one that protruded from the wall instead of a smart-material that made up part of the wall itself. Darrel pushed away from the door and walked over to it, looking at his reflection. Same square jaw, same short black hair, same pale eyes as his famous father, immortalized as a savior of the Federation military. It hadn’t been hard to get into the Academy; the whole world seemed to expect Darrel to go there, not just his family, because he was a legacy, the only child of a legend.
Darrel stared at himself and felt his hands clench. He hated, hated his own face. Maybe if he hadn’t looked so much like his father, that man he couldn’t even remember, who he didn’t even have a picture of himself with because the captain was deployed almost the whole time they’d been alive at the same time, maybe then he would’ve stood a better chance of living his own life. As it was, though, he was fucked. There was nothing for it. He’d have to at least give the military a try as a career; the first thirty or forty years, maybe. That was a respectable amount of time for a first career, and by then his father’s memory would have faded further in his family’s mind. Maybe after that, he could break free.
Someone tried his door. “Habibi?” It was his mother. Sent along by his nana to see what was wrong with him, why he wasn’t sitting at the table choking down all his father’s favorite dishes and listening to them plan out his entire youth. “Darrel, are you all right?”
Darrel took a deep breath and blew it out. He was fine. Soon he’d be at the Academy, which at least meant that he wouldn’t be here. He was leaving tomorrow; he could handle one more evening. He went over to the door and unlocked it, making sure his face was smooth. “I’m fine, mom. I just needed a minute to myself.”
“Oh,” his mother said softly, her gaze penetrating. Darrel had always wondered if, maybe, she knew a lot more than she was letting on about how he felt, and just never talked about it. “Okay. “Come on, I’m about to bring out the spiced cream puffs.”
Those were Darrel’s favorite. As far as he knew, his father had never even eaten them. He managed to smile for her. “Great.”
Two slender wooden mokdo clacked together loudly in the silence of the ship’s workout room. The space was tight but the practitioners were acutely aware of each other’s movements, stepping with confidence as they circled each other. They wore protective faceplates and gloves, but the rest of their bodies were clothed by simple white dobaks: wide-legged pants and thick, long-sleeved tops held closed with a black cloth belt. One of the practitioners, a dark-haired man a few inches taller than his opponent, held his sword in the ready position in front of his body, arms bent, the tip pointing straight at the other fighter. On his next step, he lunged forward, sword snapping up and angling for a cut across the ribs.
The second fighter swayed to the side, not enough to avoid the blow entirely but enough to give him room to parry and counter with a horizontal strike. It was parried right back, and they pressed against each other for a long moment, fighting for supremacy, before the second fighter thrust the other man away and leapt straight up, bringing his sword straight down at his opponent’s head.
The dark-haired man half-turned, folding himself into the space directly beneath his opponent, then let go of his sword with one hand to grab ahold of the foot that was falling at his head and jerk it sideways. His movement compromised, the other fighter crashed to the mat on his front, managing to roll onto his back and lift his sword but froze as soon as he felt the press of wood against his own throat.
The pressure vanished after a second and the other man took his faceplate off. “That was very good,” he said with a smile.
Grennson huffed and took off his own faceplate. “I thought this was a sword fight, not a brawl,” he said, his voice a husky growl instead of its normal light purr.
“It was a fight that included swords. And was that a complaint? Because you know that complainers give me pushups.”
The slender brown quills that lined Grennson’s head and spine flattened with apology and embarrassment. “I didn’t mean to complain, Jason,” he told his adoptive father, letting the human pull him to his feet. Grennson was a Perel, both stronger and faster than any unmodified human, but he’d been studying martial arts under his human parent since he was just a cub. He knew better than to underestimate the man, he just wanted to beat him at least once before his parents dropped him off at the Federation Academy. But Jason wasn’t the kind of person to just let someone win if they hadn’t honestly earned it, and so Grennson let go of his wounded pride and smiled back. “Perhaps after a year of studying apart, I will be able to show you some new tricks when we meet again.”
“I’ve no doubt,” Jason agreed quietly. Too quietly, even for him. Grennson tuned into his father’s emotions; all Perel were empaths, and Grennson was stronger than most males. He could feel Jason’s pride in him, the deep affection that lived steady in his center, and more than a hint of sadness as well.
“Why are you sad?” Grennson asked, patting his father’s shoulders. The touch increased their connection and now he felt the worry, too. It was strange, because Jason had been his solid supporter ever since he broached the idea of going to the Academy.
Perels had been attending human universities for the past eight years, thanks to Jason and his husband Ferran’s efforts. Ferran was the son of the most powerful matriarch on Perelan, and he’d broken fresh ground for their entire species by falling in love with and marrying a human, and then bringing that human home to learn how to be Perel. It had been a daunting and dangerous task, but Jason was an exceptional person, and not only survived but became genuinely accepted by the Perels.
Since then the couple had worked as diplomats, increasing Perelan’s contact with the outside universe, particularly the parts controlled by the human Federation, which Jason used to serve as a ship’s captain. They struck deals that allowed for interested and infertile male Perels, the only ones that were allowed off the planet, to study at approved human universities in exchange for human graduate students to come and live on Perelan. Five years ago, they had been allowed by Ferran’s mother, Matriarch Grenn, to adopt Grennson, who lived as a ward in her home ever since his birth family was killed. All wards in the House of Grenn shared the same name, but now his was completely unique: Grennson Kim Howards of the House of Grenn.
Grennson was the first Perel to ask to go to the Academy, the Federation’s military training ground. He wasn’t interested in joining the military, but he did want to know more about how it worked, and figured it would be a novel place to discover new things about humanity. Ferran had been a bit uncertain at first, but Jason talked him around and now they were only a day away from Olympus, the planet where the academy was located.
“I’m sad because I’ll miss you, that’s all,” Jason said finally.
Well, Grennson would miss his parents too, but there was more to it than that. “No, what else?” he persisted.
“Nosy cub,” Jason sighed. “It’s just that the thought of you being on your own for the first time makes me a bit nervous. It’s not because I don’t think you’ll do well, because I know you will. I just…” He shrugged. “I worry, regardless. It’s a parent’s prerogative, I think.”
“I’m sure I’ll be fine,” Grennson said, but the worry he felt inside his father didn’t dissipate. “I…I speak the best common language of any Perel aside from Ferran and Mistress Jlinn, I can physically defend myself against everyone except you, I have passed all of the necessary exams, and you yourself finalized the arrangements for my education with the admiral in command of the Academy. I will be well. And when you return to visit me I will have exciting stories to tell you, and when I eventually return to Perel our people will learn much from my experiences.”
“I know,” Jason agreed. “You don’t have to reassure me, son. I’m not having a rational reaction to your leaving, but I acknowledge that. I’ll be fine, too. Don’t worry.” He smiled and squeezed Grenn’s hand on his shoulder, then asked the time.
“Twenty-one thirty, standard. Twenty-nine eighteen, Perelan,” the computer recited dutifully.
“It’s getting late. Ferran’s probably given up on having dinner with us by now. Let’s go surprise him.” Jason set his sword and gloves on the mat next to his faceplate.
“Can we have kimchi?” Grennson asked, putting his things next to his father’s and standing close enough for their shoulders to touch.
“I think we can do that,” Jason agreed.
They were going to crash. They were going too fast not to crash, and Wyl might survive but Cody knew that he would be tossed around the rocky landscape like a broken doll and there wouldn’t be any coming back for him. And right now, he couldn’t even bring himself to care.
“Mind the mass reader!” Wyl said through their linked radios as they tore across the desert on Wyl’s latest hoverbike prototype. “It’s dusty out here and some of this stuff is gonna come at you too fast to see with your eyes at these speeds.”
Cody glanced at the mass reader, then over at the speedometer. Just edging up on eight hundred kilometers an hour. It was the fastest Cody had ever gone this close to the ground, and never with him controlling the bike before, or being the one driving it. But this bike was…something exquisite. The body was incredibly sleek and beautiful, painted in fading shades of purple into blue into white. The forward-facing energy shield deflected dangerous particles from the riders and made them way more aerodynamic. It was amazingly fast, with special turbo boosters to propel the bike up to eye-searing speeds for fifteen second bursts. Thanks to a Wyl-designed vertical propulsion system, Cody could kick the bike into flips as well, and the gyroscopes would stabilize it by the time it got close to the ground again.
Good thing he and Wyl were strapped in.
“We’re coming up on the canyon,” Wyl told him. “Head into the straightaway, then punch the special turbo.”
“I already used up the turbo fuel modules.”
“No, Cody,” Wyl said, and Cody could hear the grin in his voice. “The special turbo. Little green button to the right of the shifter. You have to tap it fast twice, otherwise the failsafe won’t let it go off.”
“What happens then?”
“Then, you keep us from ending up a smear on the side of the canyon.”
Wow, that sounded…perilous, but Cody just felt more excited. He could see the canyon coming up, but used the mass reader to make sure he hit the ravine dead center. Shades of red and orange and brown streaked by on either side, and once Cody felt he had a handle on what was up ahead, he triggered the special turbo.
The hoverbike leapt forward, sending them screaming down the canyon at over a thousand kilometers an hour. The chassis trembled between Cody’s thighs, metal humming with the friction of the air. It was all Cody could do to keep it pointed in the right direction, straight ahead, straight toward the—shit, toward the end of the canyon.
“Punch the ground!” Wyl yelled, and Cody fired the downward propulsions units just as the mass reader started to blare a warning. The bike catapulted into the sky, soaring upward until all that surrounded them was blue, Cody too dazed by beauty and adrenaline to even notice the ground. The bike spun in an arc, pulling gees that should have left Cody gasping and nauseous, but instead he welcomed the feeling of completely losing control of himself.
Then the bike started to fall, and the gyroscopes kicked in to stabilize them. Cody fired the propulsors again to slow their descent, and by the time they got back to within a meter of the ground they were going a now-pleasant three hundred kilometers an hour. Cody’s hands were trembling, and he brought the bike to a stop in the shadow of a spire of rock.
Wyl undid his harness, hopped off the back and came around to look at Cody. “You good?” he asked, concern showing in his eyes.
“I’m…yeah.” Cody grinned wide. “Fuck yes! I am fucking amazing, look what we did, can you fucking believe that?” Cody disconnected himself and stepped to the ground, wilting a little as his legs turned to jelly from prolonged tension, but Wyl helped hold him up. Cody beamed at him. “That! That was perfect! Oh, fuck, that was the best thing ever!”
“Glad you liked it,” Wyl said. “Since you’re taking the bike with you.”
“What?” Cody felt like his should be stopping; surely he wasn’t hearing Wyl right. “You don’t…how can I, this is too much, you can’t give me this.”
“I’m not. Not exactly, I mean, not just me,” Wyl explained, tucking his helmet under his arm. “It’s from me and Robbie and your grandparents and your dads. Robbie told me the Academy has a racing team if you’re interested, and you’re gonna be working on your small craft piloting and mechanics anyway, so we decided this would be the perfect thing for you. It’s not all street legal, obviously, and regulations very from planet to planet, but as long as you don’t use the special turbo I think you should be fine.”
“But the special turbo is the best part,” Cody said numbly. Wyl laughed.
“Well yeah, I know that and you know that, but I think if anyone else knew we’d get into some serious trouble, so keep it to yourself, okay? No special turbo unless you’re being chased by human traffickers or something.”
“Right,” Cody said. “Because they so abound in the Central System.”
“They abound everywhere, they’re just more cagey in the Central System,” Wyl said seriously. “So. Is this cool?”
“My dads are really good with this?” Cody demanded. “Because I’m not sure I believe you, you know how they can be.”
“It took some convincing, and maybe a romantic evening alone for the two of them so Gare could get his persuasion on, but yeah, they’re good with it.”
“Oh my god.” Cody threw his arms around Wyl’s neck and squeezed. They were about the same size, though Wyl was stronger, and he wrapped his own arms around Cody’s back and held him tight. “You guys are the best. Really, I don’t…fuck, this sucks, I want to thank you and I’m…”
“I get it. You’re welcome.” Wyl let go of Cody and stepped back. “Now, I think we’re about,” he checked the display on the bike, “one hundred or so kilometers from the capitol. How quickly do you think we can get there?”
“Hmm.” Cody looked around. “Well, that depends. Is this area rife with human traffickers?”
“Good question,” Wyl said approvingly. “And the answer is probably yes. Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there, being sneaky. There could be dozens creeping up on our position right now.”
“Then I guess we better use the special turbo to get back to safety,” Cody said.
“I like the way you think, kid.”
“With all due respect, sir, are you out of your mind?”
Admiral Sigurd Liang stared up at his chief of staff, not at all surprised at the accusation of insanity. Poor Jessup was having a hard time adjusting to a calmer life after serving in the marines for sixty-two years, and after being a Master Sergeant who was accustomed to controlling his officers as much as he did his underlings, dealing with Sigurd stressed him out. Admiral Liang was many things: charming, erudite, handsome and brilliant, but he was also fiercely independent. He was half convinced his superiors had stuck him in charge of the Academy just to get him out of active command, where he’d kept “adjusting” their plans. “Ah, Jessup. What have I done this time?”
Jessup paused, perhaps realizing just how close to the edge of insubordinate he was being. He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but…have you looked over the incoming freshmen quads?”
“All of them,” Sigurd replied. Four hundred and fifty-eight incoming plebes, from all over the universe. Including, for the first time, a Perel. It was a fascinating group, and Sigurd had looked over each and every one of their files. “We’re getting a marvelous variety this year, I expect we’ll leave the other academies in the dust.” Because there were other branches of the Academy; one school was insufficient to provide officers for the entire Federation navy. But the academy at Olympus was far and away regarded as the best.
“And you approved all of the living arrangements?”
“It would be a dereliction of my duty to have passed something like that by,” Sigurd said, his urbane tones sharpening a bit. “What exactly are you getting at, Chief?”
“Sir, I think you should take a closer look at this quad.” Jessup swept his tablet across Sigurd’s desk and a new page sprang up. Sigurd examined it for a moment, then smiled.
“Ah, yes. What about it, Chief?”
“Sir! A Solaydorian with a penchant for explosives, a legacy jock from Krall, an alien—from a species known for their insatiable sexual appetites—and a bumpkin natural from the Fringe? They’re going to kill each other before the first term is out, sir.”
Sigurd sighed. This was why Jessup never rose higher than Master Sergeant. He was brilliant at managing the things he could see, but had no gift for inductive planning. “Interesting. Did you bother to read the rest of their files, Chief?”
“Somewhat,” Jessup said uncomfortably.
“Somewhat, well. Perhaps you should look deeper, because when I look at this group, I see an intellectual savant looking for a challenge, a clever linguist with a chip on his shoulder who needs to be encouraged toward his strengths, an alien who was raised by the first human ever granted full rights on Perelan, and a natural with widespread abilities who could become a brilliant undercover operative, and who also happens to be the grandson of a retired general in the marines. I see a group of young people who, if given the right nudges, will become allies for each other, and will shore up each other’s weaknesses. I see a possibility, Chief, that goes beyond their four years allocated to us. Do you follow me?”
“I understand what you’re saying, sir, but…I just don’t quite see it,” Jessup confessed. “They seem too different.”
“If they’re not still together by the end of the first term, and solid as a rock by the end of the first year, I’ll give you two weeks extra vacation,” Sigurd said. “If they work out, you’ll teach the remedial field maneuvers class over the third term. Agreed?”
Jessup grinned. “Agreed, sir. Two weeks extra spent basking in the oceans of Griffin? It gives me something to look forward to.” He turned to go, then glanced back. “Pardon me, sir, but who is the natural’s grandfather?”
“Miles Caractacus,” Sigurd said, and took no small pleasure in watching his chief of staff’s eyes widen. “And you think his grandson isn’t tough enough to handle the rest of his quad? Chief, I’m going to enjoy watching you guide plebes over muddy obstacle courses this third term.”
Jessup swallowed but held his head high. “We’ll see, sir,” he said, then left the office.
“Indeed we will,” Sigurd murmured, looking at the four photos on his desk. He smiled. “Indeed we will.”