At the obstacle course, three dozen mud-brown soldiers waited in lines for their turn on the ten-leg [30-foot] ladder-climbing wall. Worn faces and narrowed eyes looked our way. It was 0823, and this crew had been at it since five-zero hours. Under the shelter, the piled gear packs were all sufficiently brown.
A woman fell from four legs [12 feet] up, tumbling in the soft mud beneath. I thought I recognized Valeria, the gunner, but the clay-colored coating made it hard to tell. As soon as she hit, a rough-looking Pashunderran man waved the next soldier on and grabbed the fallen woman by the shoulders. He dragged her out of the slop to get in her face.
“That’s Vonash, a Vice Commander,” Andis said, leaning close to me. The way he kept his voice down spoke of repercussions.
“The next time you fall, Soldier, the Mitties are going to break down your door. Understood?! They’re going to lash you to the bed and make you watch as the dogs tear your mother limb-from-limb. Do you get it?!”
I took a breath. It has been a while since I’d seen this much anger in a person. Not even Major General Fezziwegg—wounded and captured—had more closely resembled a reactor on the verge of going critical.
“Our resident pain-in-the-arse,” Andis added in a whisper.
I don’t doubt it, I thought, watching Vonash nudge the downed soldier with his knee.
When he turned my direction, I tried to hide my reaction. Vice Commander Vonash was a badly disfigured man. Thanks to an unknown—and clearly horrible—event, he’d lost his left eye and the left side of his scalp. What remained of his telltale red Pashunderran hair was an inch-long bank of weeds against the bare side—which could’ve been rolled over by tank tracks. The same incident, I assume, had also given him a sunken cheekbone and left his mouth pulled askew. Obviously, the chief trainer hadn’t let these things bother him. As he made his way over to the shelter—probably to accost me—I realized he was the first Pashunderran I’d ever heard use contractions in speech. Shortening words was a mostly Human convention, for whatever reason.
“Good morning,” Vonash said. He quickly followed it with, “Is it still morning?”
Andis and I both saluted, which Vonash returned with nothing short of irritation. Behind him, his two assistants continued putting the soldiers through the course.
While Andis had to salute Vonash, I didn’t. A Major and a Vice Commander were technically level on an advancement line I cared little about. I was not a career soldier. I opted for cordiality, to play nice. Defuse and assess.
“What brings you to my fair obstacle course, Major?”
I thought back to my instructions. “Major Rajorsky has been reassigned, so I am his replacement.”
“Hmm,” he said, glancing over my shoulder, probably at the cart I’d taken. “Raj was a tough man. He would’ve hoofed it out with the men this morning. In the rain.”
“Colonel Naranha thought I should be in the cart this morning.”
Vonash scowled. “Harry just wants to get in your pants, Major. You have trouble reading maps?”
The comments threw me off-guard so badly I had to circle back to the second part. An image of jolly, smiley-faced Naranha leered at me from Vonash’s fatigues.
He asked you a question in challenge, June. You must answer!
“No. I do not have trouble reading maps. Thank you for your concern.”
Vonash wrinkled his brow while, behind him, a soldier took a serious fall. He glanced at my escort. “Get out of here, Andis. Go collect flowers for Harry or something.”
Andis stepped back and the motion of his quick salute was a lick of wind. I heard his boots clomp on the metal of the cart.
Vonash fixated on my nameplate. He leaned close enough for me to smell the tang of huckleberries, the water on the curved ruins of his skin. “You cannot be that June Vereeth. Distant cousin?” he asked, mouth curling into a hint of smile. His teeth were a scattering of old tombstones.
Who the flick do you think you are?!
I tried to keep my breathing even. “I am who I am, Vonash. P-Seven-Five, Zycarsus, all of it. I’m here to train these soldiers. Accept it or not, I’ll have no cares.”
“What you are,” he hissed, “is not worth my time.”