(the sequel to EXO)
coming June 2018
Donovan labored his way up a rocky embankment with a rifle over his back, wearing only shorts, a T-shirt, and boots against a cold so brutal that it seemed to freeze the moisture in his mouth and the sweat against his armored skin. His lungs and legs were screaming in protest and he wasn’t sure if he felt light-headed from the thin air up here or sheer accumulated fatigue. The other thirty-five members of SecPac Cadre 198 Alpha panted up the ridge along with him, managing, somehow, to keep their rough formation together as loose stones slid under their feet, tumbling down the slope and over the edge of the precipice.
Donovan spared a glance behind and instantly regretted it. A misplaced step here would result in a painful and humiliating trip back back down the cliff at speeds much higher than he’d experienced on the way up, and he’d likely take out a few teammates behind him as part of the descent. Only two more weeks of this, he told himself. I can survive two more weeks. Then he could look forward to six months back in Round Three, free from the torment of biannual Combat Readiness Preparation—CRP for short, or as trainees called it, “crap sessions.”
“Hurry, please.” Amrita, from Round Ten in Indo Tibet, was Donovan’s partner today. She was no stranger to high altitudes and blistering cold. Clambering just ahead of him, she latched armored fingers around a jutting stone and shoved her boot into a foothold, testing it with her full weight. The back of her sweat-drenched tank top was frozen as stiff as cardboard. Amrita was incredibly tough and hilariously polite. Many of the female soldiers-in-erze kept up with the men in terms of banter and ribaldry, but Amrita never tried. She could do push-ups for as long as anyone, but would say, in her slightly lilting voice, “Please pass me the E720 plain-tip cartridges,” as if she were asking for lemon wedges at tea.
Amrita looked back at him. “This part’s less steep. Follow my path. And hurry, please.” A hint of urgency had crept into her voice. “We’re at twenty-five minutes.”
They were expected to cover the prescribed four-mile distance in under thirty minutes. A perfectly reasonable expectation for young, fit exos—unless they were practically unclothed at five degrees below zero Fahrenheit and the last quarter of a mile involved scrambling up a frozen mountainside. To stay warm, they had to keep their exocels fully raised, but that slowed their pace and wore a person out fast. The key was to get your core temperature up quickly, bring your armor down partway, and make up time like hell on the flat sections, then armor up again when the cold and wind caught up to you as you crawled the steep segments.
Donovan watched Amrita’s foot placements, following her lead. She was nimbler at this part than he was, but though she urged him on, she did get ahead of him. That was forbidden.
Amrita reached the top of the embankment and Donovan hurried to clamber up beside her, squinting against the glare of the stark Mongolian sunlight, lungs and muscles burning even as his teeth chattered. Flat ground lay ahead of them at last; Donovan repositioned his rifle, gripping it in proper carry position as he pushed his numb legs into a run. Amrita might be quicker than him on the climb, but Donovan was faster in a straight sprint. He passed her, falling to a brisk but controlled pace directly in front of his partner and taking the brunt of the wind resistance as they headed into the final stretch. Less than thirty paces ahead of them ran the two South Americans from Round Twelve, Fernando and Matias, then Jet and his current partner, long-legged Kamogelo from Round Seventeen. At the very front of the group, two zhree Soldiers—the group’s pacers, led the way with their rapid, six-limbed scuttle. Donovan heard Amrita closing at his heels; he rebalanced his overworked exocel and lengthened his stride, pushing them both harder toward the finish point.
Thaddeus Lowell jogged down the line in the opposite direction, fresh-faced and shouting at the top of his lungs. As one of the three cadre counselors, Thad was enthusiastic in fulfilling his responsibility to encourage the younger exos. “Come on, move your fat asses, you lead-footed slackers! A little cold never hurt a stripe. Be glad you’re not doing your crap session at Round Fifteen!” That’s where Vic was now, with Cadre 198 Foxtrot in a desert in South-East Africa.
“Round Three represent!” Thad gave Donovan a high five as they passed each other. Donovan was too exhausted to reply, and his lips were too cold to form words anyway. He and Amrita passed the finish markers—two small piles of stones with yellow spray paint on them—and staggered into line next to Jet. Four seconds later, Leon and his partner, Maddison from Round One in Australasia, huffed up on their other side. It was too cold to drop armor, but the exos stood attentively at parade rest, noisily recovering their breath and trying not to shiver too much as they cooled. Within minutes, the rest of the cadre arrived in pairs and fell into line.
Except for one. The last to arrive, big, sandy-haired Dmitri from Round Seven, sprinted into place two seconds before the timer went off in Commander Li’s hand. Everyone down the line breathed a sigh of relief. It was the first time they’d all made it in under thirty minutes.
Commander Li, who was taking time out of his busy schedule to spend three days as a guest instructor at Camp Govi before returning east to Round Eleven, was quite a bit shorter than Commander Tate, but with his arms crossed, armor raised, and SecPac uniform immaculate, Donovan could tell that he was as towering a figure in Round Eleven as Tate was in Round Three. The commander stowed the stopwatch and surveyed the group of armored young men and women. His piercing eyes reached the end of the line and landed on Dmitri.
“Where is your partner?” he demanded. The portable translation machine Li carried picked up his words and transmitted them in English into the earbud in Donovan’s left ear. Every trainee wore the same device to communicate with international cadre mates and instructors, as well as zhree supervisors, the staff Nurse, and occasional visitors. Donovan shifted his eyes and surreptiously counted down the line; he knew his cadre mates were doing the same. Thirty-five. One missing. Dmitri’s partner today, Jong-Kyu from Round Eleven, was not there.
“He had to turn back, sir,” Dmitri explained in hurried Russian. “He caught sick last night and had trouble breathing within the first few minutes. One of the nurses-in-erze took—”
“What were your orders for this task?” Li asked in a tone that made everyone flinch.
“To . . . to run the course in under thirty minutes, sir,” Dmitri stammered.
“Wrong!” Li barked at him. “The orders were for the cadre to run the course in under thirty minutes. I do not see the entire cadre present, do you, trainee?”
“No, sir,” Dmitri said, visibly paling. Donovan cringed in sympathy for him. Dmitri had unwittingly broken the first rule of being a soldier-in-erze: always, always stay with your erze mate.
During CRP, partner assignments changed every three days. It was disorienting the first few times, but one became accustomed to it. Everything was done in two-person teams. Each pair of exos was expected to arrive at training activities together and to complete tasks jointly. All grades and punishments applied to both trainees. The rule held outside of training exercises as well. You didn’t leave the dining hall table until your assigned erze mate was done eating. If your partner needed to use the bathroom, you went too and stood outside the door.
It bordered on ludicrous, but there was a purpose. In cities around the world, SecPac officers patrolled in pairs, which scrambled at a moment’s notice into strike teams of four, six, eight, ten, or more to conduct missions or react to terrorist threats. SecPac training and terminology was the same across the world; with a few words of shorthand speech, two teams from one Round and two from another could fall into an instant understanding of roles and function as if they’d been trained together. Under such circumstances, it was vital that they trust each other immediately.
“You have all failed this exercise,” Commander Li declared. “And whose fault is that?”
“Mine, sir,” Dmitri admitted miserably.
“Wrong!” Li barked again. “Pok Jong-Kyu failed to inform his erze mates that he could not run the course without assistance. The rest of the cadre failed to notice the problem. The fault lies with all of you. The failure belongs to all of you. Drop! Armor down!”
All thirty-five teenage exos dropped immediately into plank position on the rocky ground, armor completely lowered. Donovan gasped. Pulling his exocel down was like plunging into an icy lake: the freezing wind struck his bare skin like a full-body slap. Within seconds, his arms were shaking. Next to him, he could hear Amrita’s teeth chattering violently.
“Soldiers-in-erze are always true to their oaths. They always obey orders. And they always stay with their erze mates.” Commander Li’s boots strode up and down the line through Donovan’s field of view. “Each of you tested as having the physical qualities, intelligence, and character required to be a soldier-in-erze. But that is not enough. Every year our erze master spends weeks traveling the world to conduct erze selections. He looks for something more: a willingness to consider the erze above the individual, to place others ahead of yourself.”
Donovan dug his bare fingers into the ground and bit the inside of his cheek, trying to distract himself with pain. The strain of not allowing his exocel to rise was unbearable, but if Commander Li saw any panotin on their backs, they’d be here even longer.
“You will run the course every day until you succeed. Together, or not at all. You will carry your erze mates on your backs if need be,” Commander Li declared. His boots came to a halt not far from Donovan’s head. The vast and harshly beautiful steppe stretched in every direction so that it seemed the exos were atop the world and alone in it, save for each other.
“The erze has existed since before we humans came to be, and now it connects all of us who carry these markings on our hands,” Commander Li said. “It will always be there for you, and as long as you live, you will serve and obey the erze.”