The edge, p.36
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       The Edge, p.36

           Leslie Lee
 
"We also don't know how your Earth Central was contacted unless the Host found someone to share with rather than posses."

  Mak sighed and grimaced at the monitor. The conversation paused. Nothing more to be said.

  "We're going to die here," Jamaal said simply. The people surrounding the monitors looked desolate. Misery defined their postures.

  Mak straightened up. "I need Thurber."

  "You have a plan?" Jamaal asked.

  "I wouldn't call it that," he said grimly. "Is Th'han'dra down there as well? We'll need her on comm too."

  Pod pilot applicants washed out at an almost ninety per cent rate. That despite most applicants never even making it into the program. The retired pod pilots could tell who had a chance. And that was all accepted applicants had: A chance.

  The training was intense. Class every day along with the usual drills and marches. And Mak was always behind. He thought he was good at reading. But this was excruciating. He spent every spare moment studying things others would hardly spend any time on. Then there was the writing and the math. The threat of flunking out dogged him constantly. Tests, papers, manuals, it seemed non-stop. The classes were a never ending uphill battle which he rarely won.

  The training was tedious. Months spent learning to put the suit on right. Getting to know it, understand it, love it, as the instructors would say. You're gonna feel naked if you're not in this suit, they screamed. Torture lead the trainees to Pain. It was always their final destination. He lost count how many times he threw up out of sheer exhaustion. Gauntlets, fighting, "games", taught them how to endure breaks, strains, sprains. He hurt things he didn't even know he had. The instructors interrupted their sleep to throw a math quiz or an agility exam or an endurance run at them. But the worst were the boredom tests. Concentrating on nothing without dozing or losing focus even when the need for sleep dragged his eyeballs into the back of his skull. And the constant mantra first bellowed then whispered: Be Calm. Be Calm.

  The training humiliated them all but to him, humiliated him the worst. There were other trainees from the lower levels in the class. None survived. Back to the regular forces for them. The other cadets shunned him, laughed at him, fought with him. The fighting stopped after a while when he showed that even when he lost, the winners paid more than they wanted to. Because he was the one ending up on report, he learned to just avoid his classmates. Everybody was happier. Except the instructors who'd seek him out to torture him even more for hiding. Moving off-world to the orbiting training base created new levels of ignominy. The trainees got used to throwing up and swimming through vomit in zero G. Then finding out what it was like moving around in two or three G's for a day. How fast you could put on a helmet during a hull breech would determine whether eyes and ears bled or whether a body bag would be needed for a trip Earth side. The instructors thought nothing of pummeling a student for any and all infractions no matter how minor. And maybe because he was a worm, they took particular delight in making him do the worst jobs. The jobs didn't bother him but he didn't let on. In terms of dirt and crap and verbal abuse, it wasn't that bad. It was knowing he got the worst jobs almost all the time. He shined their boots. He cleaned up their vomit. He served them food until he thought he would crush his teeth into dust. Be Calm. Be Calm.

  The training was dangerous. Above everything else, the training was dangerous. Mak watched two of his class mates crash their pods into each other on their first flight that wasn't a simulator. Afterwards, the instructors had screamed at the rest of the class that destroying Unity property was not acceptable. Not the pod and not the pilot. RELAX, GODDAMMIT, they screamed. Despite hours in simulators, the real thing proved to be horribly more difficult. Real pod training was done far beyond Jupiter to minimize accidents. He'd watched one of his main tormentors start to dance, then panic, lose control and streak towards the surface of a moon. The instructors chased, grabbing him, barely, before he crashed into the surface at full speed. Nobody got kicked out of the program. People would simply not be there at the next roll call. His main tormentor wasn't there the next day. Trainees would freeze unable to move themselves out of harm's way. Or suddenly spin out of control, their corrections worsening until the G's blacked them out. D'ha'ren, Hellborne, Humans, the smattering of other races, nobody had an advantage. Die by doing nothing. Die by doing too much. Die by doing the wrong thing. Die by not doing the right thing fast enough. Calm. Be Calm.

  He graduated towards the middle of the class according to the instructors' rankings. He thought he deserved better. But his flying couldn't overcome the class work. The commander, who wasn't a pilot, gave him his wings without the handshake given to others. He didn't even pin them on, leaving Mak to fumble clumsily with them. There was tepid applause from the small audience. The class was eleven. It had started at two hundred and thirty-one. At the reception which he was forced to attend, he stood around in a corner alone watching the clock waiting for the time he could escape. The instructors decided on one last torment. Standing around him, one of them snatched the wings off Mak's uniform saying it wasn't on straight. He slapped it hard onto Mak's chest almost knocking him over. The other instructors derided his effort and took turns trying to straighten it out. They didn't demean any of the other graduates like that. He left the reception, brittle with rage.

  His mother didn't show up. No big surprise there, he told himself. He'd sent money to travel with and get a place to stay, along with the official invitation. For her, it'd be a long way to travel. The recruiter who never contacted him before had sent him a bag of donuts. They were waiting for him on his bed. He ate one of the donuts, alone, in the empty barracks. A blueberry filled one that left him covered in powdered sugar. The note scrawled on the bag just said it was from Andrews. The donuts were his favorite kind and these were from his favorite store. He didn't think anyone even knew he liked donuts, let alone where his favorite store was. A little mom and pop outfit not far from Pod Training on Earth. They didn't treat him like dirt when he came in to buy his favorite. They even seemed to approve of his strategy of buying two, comparing them, keeping one type, and buying a different kind the next time, until he settled on blueberry. They were soft, with a not overly sweet blue goo in the middle.

  While savoring each one, he examined the symbol of his graduation. A five pointed star with two sharp wings raised high, and the symbol of the Unity, a ring embedded in the center. He wondered how much he could get for the heavy little trinket as he licked the sugar from his fingers of the last wonderfully sweet donut. After his service was up, he would find out. He remembered the last thing the instructors had done. He sighed with realization. The bag the donuts had come in, he emptied completely and folded carefully then tucked it away next to a faded photo of his mother who looked hardly sad at all hugging a giggling little Mak who clung tightly to the arms surrounding him.

  "How many pods do we have?" he asked Th'han'dra, over the video console.

  She and Blue Box had moved down to Engineering to help out Jamaal and Thurber. The chaos behind the Blue Box pilots was intense.

  "Blue Box and Silver Shark are complete. We have other pilots. But only Blue Box and Silver Shark have pods available. The others are in Zombie territory."

  "I have an idea." They were still waiting on Thurber.

  "Whoa," said Ranger who lounged around in the back ground. "Think that's a good thing, Boss?

  "One a year won't strain me,"

  "Mak, I've got stuff to do," Thurber groused bustling into view.

  "We aren't going to make it. There's not enough life support. There's not enough protection. There's not enough of us. There's not enough time."

  Thurber slammed her fists into her thighs. "Then what, we're screwed? I'm not turning into no zombie."

  "We're leaving," he said.

  "That's what I'm trying to do, Mak."

  "The X is staying. The Bridge is leaving. I?."

  "What? Have you lost your mind?"

  "Get everybody to move six pods up here.
Listen to me! We attach some pods to the Bridge in the back. We move some pods in front of the Bridge. They blast a hole for the Bridge to leave the X. We leave a bomb to blow up everything on the X and all those other ships. We get the hell out of here ahead of the shock wave. We get picked up by the M'hin'rah."

  "The Bridge isn't big enough," Jamaal said.

  "Tough. We'll pack everybody in like morning rush hour if we have to. We're not leaving anyone behind and we're not giving any one else up." He realized he was shouting and people on the Bridge were staring at him.

  "Sorry," he said quietly.

  "What about the ships surrounding us?" Thurber asked.

  "We've got one turret and some missiles. We shoot them first."

  Ranger whistled and Th'han'dra drew her brows together. Then everybody turned to look at Thurber. At first, Mak thought she'd been taken, she was so still. Like a statue. He tried to breathe. But this was the only thing he could think of. If Thurber thought there was no chance, then they were screwed.

  "Maybe in a couple of months," she said slowly.

  "Can it be done?"

  "An extra push would be needed to get the Bridge out of the tunnel. The engines will cut out automatically."

  "It can be done, then?"

  "The end of the tunnel would have to be blown to

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