Gentle Reminders Serialisation Chapter 9
Legacy Universe: Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)
Gentle Reminders is being serialised right here on SFBook with a new chapter published each week.
Previously in Gentle Reminders:
The Jump Cannon crew have been drawn into battle against the Free Man Nation, but The Gentle Reminder is making new plans for their downfall. Maur continues to be hunted.
You can visit the Legacy Universe website for more information.
Seeon was roughly four weeks away from Pura at near-quantum. Beta Crew, and the few other members of Annie’s crew, attempted to busy themselves beyond their regular maintenance duties. The new features that the Jump Cannon had been fitted with meant that they had very little to do in terms of direct command.
Prior to the refit every member of the crew used to have a laundry list of tasks to complete on a daily basis. Most of them were vital just to keep them alive and moving through space. Now, with a mere skeleton staff, it felt as though Annie didn’t need them as she once had. The grass, sand or other material of choice that formed under foot, and the pleasing simulated sunlight kept them all placated, if incredibly bored.
Maur had taken some time away from Beta Crew in the first few days, occupying himself in the new sim suites that were rarely used. He would often become distracted though, wandering away from any core objective set by the sim itself and going out to explore the wider world generated for him by the ship computers. He crossed purple mountains on the first day, swam to the bottom of an abyss on the second and flew unassisted through an endless sky on the third. However calming these experiences would normally be, he couldn’t shift the feelings of fear and the still aching pains that he had collected in Cirramorr. A few details of his capture and torture would be remembered, perhaps triggered by a scene in one of the sims or just by an idle thought.
He tried to turn fear into hatred, compelling himself to think like a soldier and make the Nation his enemy. Maur faced one significant problem with that strategy however, he was not their opponent but their victim. They had taken him without significant resistance being returned. Whatever part of the combat training that should have kicked in during the whole incident never came to him, or at least as he could remember. For all he knew he had spilled out whatever information that they had wanted from him, even if he couldn’t work out what that information might be. Attacking outside of The Historian’s unit suggested otherwise, and while he had performed admirably, there was a constant feeling of guilt; he had gotten lucky, every member of Beta Crew could well have ended up dead in the streets.
It wasn’t until he woke on the fourth day that he consoled himself with a resolution. Up until then all the sims that he loaded had been for recreational or entertainment purposes, any learning being completely coincidental. Maur wanted to be better, a more able soldier, and he wanted to stay in that role even once the new crew members arrived. When the time came he would talk to Champion and say that he wanted to be transferred out of the maintenance team and made a permanent member of the combat staff. He never wanted to see Kerra and Charles, capable and experienced as they were, put in harm’s way again. He had caused the recent problems, but in the future he would be the solution.
He began with advanced rifle training, before moving through the mobility tests, then onto demolitions training. He started re-integrating himself, struggling to shirk off Kerra in the corridors any longer; she didn’t deserve to feel the brunt of his current depression. More training was undertaken as they neared Seeon, breaking only to sleep, eat and briefly socialise with Beta Crew. Maur would keep this up, he promised himself, for as long as it took. Wasting his flight time with fantasies was no longer an option, he had to be better than that.
Maur’s progress wasn’t without fault however, and he began to fail assessments as he moved into the more expert level training. The sim would recommend developing more experience before attempting to sit the tests once more, but the sharply escalating danger that he had been in since the Los Piratas attack and Josia 24’s betrayal of Champion ruled out the option of waiting for a few more field missions to pass. Annie and her crew had been robbed of their laid-back attitude in recent times. Maur knew deep down that it would not be a matter of years but more likely weeks before he would have to reprise the role of defender. He would have to use the resources around him. Charles had taken to spending a lot of time on the new sim platform in maintenance. Maur mulled over why, wondering if Charles was facing a similar crisis of confidence regarding his role on the ship. There was no doubt though, the man mountain was a soldier and had strategy to share. Maur headed into maintenance, sneaking a look at the EBAC-150s as he went through the hangar bay. His new focus on becoming a better soldier eased his fears, and enjoying a few of life’s pleasures seemed acceptable once again.
Charles was laid out on his back on an automated tray, much like those that had carried their quickly destroyed supplies on Pura. He was shifting around under a projection of an old four-wheeled vehicle. The tray took on a concave shape, scraping over the platform, Charles considerable weight being a little more than it could confidently carry. The vehicle itself, or at least its projection, looked like a comet in reverse, the cabin sitting at the back of a long bonnet. The wheels were chrome, and there was more of the material lining the window frames, circling the perimeter and forming the grill. It was a dark red in colour, and while not familiar with the particular model he could tell that it was pre-Collapse.
"Champion won’t hand over my sweet maintenance gig if all you practice on is ancient auto-mobiles." Maur said, catching Charles by surprise and trying to be jovial despite his sore muscles. He had been training particularly hard that morning, working out his nerves about the conversation he was hopefully about to have.
"Ha!" responded Charles, his voice clear and not in any way muffled by the technically non-solid projection. "You really think I want to be down here with you grease monkeys?"
It was odd that Charles used the plural given that beyond he and Maur there was nobody else in the maintenance bay. There wouldn’t be for several more months - any other maintenance staff aboard retrained for the role as much as he had been for combat. This was exactly what Maur was afraid of, Charles’ notoriously guarded nature, his tendency towards denial. He never spoke of previous operations, or of his past in general, and save for a few remembered details freed during drunken nights. More concerning was his apparent ability to act as if nothing was wrong, as if nobody had been lost, and just carry on with life. Maur wandered over, swinging his arms in front of him and puffing out, trying to build up a little courage before launching in with questions. He sat down on the platform, putting his crossed arms over the top of his knees. Charles would know he was there, but he sat in the silence for a while, just enjoying the calm company. Every member of Beta Crew, and the people aboard Annie in general, was family as far as he was concerned. Unfortunately that meant that peace was difficult to find, a rabble much more likely to break out than people taking the time to enjoy each other’s company.
"If you’re just going to sit there," said Charles, breaking the silence, "the least you could do is talk to me."
"Hmm? Yeah, sorry." Maur gave in, the comforting hum of the engines would have to be drowned out by conversation. "You having fun?" "Yes. Of course. Don’t you recognise the machine?" replied Charles. "I recognise the era, but not this particular vehicle. Something special?" asked Maur, knowing that it was.
"Now that you ask, it is actually." Charles seemed to perk up at the question. He paused as if pleased with himself.
"Well, my grandfather used to own one. He owned several pre-Collapse vehicles. Used to work on them in his spare time. To get away from my grandmother."
"He was a maintenance man, partly in the military, Earthbound Colonisation Force, like us all I suppose, before starting his own garage back home. People used to tell me he was one of the best, but he never quite got this one working. I had a sim made of it years ago, but Annie never had a platform in the bay before. Doesn’t feel right working on it anywhere other than a garage."
This was far more open than Charles had ever been with Maur. It crossed his mind that perhaps his efforts on Cirramorr had earned his way into the warrior’s mind. It seemed a little far-fetched though, he had probably just caught him in a good mood, ready for conversation. "I tried to remodel a vintage once, didn’t get very far," Maur replied, testing the water with some of his own disclosure. "I could never find the right parts. Don’t have the skill to fabricate them myself."
"Well," sighed Charles, "I have to confess. I’ve cheated a few times, had the sim give me parts that my grandfather didn’t have. Hasn’t got me far though, thing still won’t start."
The statement sounded final, as if that was the last they were going to say about the auto-mobile. If it was something Charles had been doing for years, something that he hadn’t made much progress with, it didn’t seem like the way into getting him to talk openly. You can’t bond over nothing, and Charles had really only answered his innocuous question. Maybe he was just in the same mood as he ever was. He was going to have to change tact.
"Charles. I’ve been training a lot recently." Maur stated. "Yes? Good to keep fit during long flights." Matter of fact reply, as expected.
"No, not normal training. Combat training. Shooting, tactics, manoeuvres."
"Why?" questioned Charles.
"Why do you think? I almost got you all killed. This bullshit with the Free Man Nation, although I still think that The Historian was feeding us a bunch of crap, then all the shooting, fucking up on the roof..." Maur was getting increasingly frustrated.
"You fucked up on the roof?"
"Yes I fucked up on the roof! I had to shoot out a cable and swing into a wall! I almost ended up with broken legs and dead friends." He had stood up, pacing around and waving his arms with Charles still tinkering away under the car.
A whirr sounded on the tray, along with a few scrapes, and Charles appeared from underneath. There was no oil on his face of course, playing with pretend cars didn’t have any of the dirty fun of working on real ones. Still, a learned habit most likely, he rubbed his hands together to clean them. Maur was silenced by his figure as it stood in front of him. It was easier to behave like a complete pussy when there wasn’t three-hundred pounds of human staring you down. A heavy hand came down on his shoulder.
"Maur. Stop. We got out alive. We all did. You can’t hope for much more in those situations." Charles said supportively. "None of us came away with any injuries. Pride was mostly kept intact."
Maur shrugged off the hand and stepped away once again. He felt a little pang of guilt, what came next was intended to pull at the heart strings even if his first outburst had been genuine. It would be worth it though, Charles would make him the best soldier he could be. Besides, he couldn’t deny that it felt good to unload.
"I just don’t think the training was enough. It was only the basic stuff. We need more, both me and Thom. I don’t want to let you down," Maur said, turning half way to face Charles.
"But you won’t be in combat ops after..."
"Charles, please, just tell me what you know. Make me half the soldier you are," interrupted Maur, hands coming up and pleading openly to his friend. He genuinely wanted to be the best he could, and the sims weren’t enough. This parade felt like trickery though. Charles looked at Maur dead in the eye, teeth grinding, as if trying to work him out. "Fine," came a sharp reply. "I’ll assume the mentor role if I must. Do not let this affect our friendship though Maur. Teachers rarely socialise with pupils, I do not want to stop drinking you under the table."
He had grinned as he approached the end of his statement. It comforted Maur, assuaged concerns that he was having to trick Charles into helping him. The two walked to the edge of the sim platform and sat on its edge as if it were a stoop back home. Charles bent over a little, putting himself on Maur’s level.
"So, what have you done so far?" he asked.
"I’ve run through basic again, intermediate assessments all completed with A-star ratings, but I’ve hit a wall with the expert stuff," listed Maur. "I’ve barely scraped passes in a couple, but were it for real I’d have been killed a hundred-times over already."
"You’ve not touched any of the master level training?" Charles questioned, a look of playful shock on his face.
"Are you fucking kidding me?" responded Maur. "I doubt I’d make it off the starting blocks!"
"And what do you think the problem is?"
"I just... I just don’t see things coming. In the mobility tests I keep falling off walls and ledges as soon as they move, I’m not used to that stuff, and in the rifle assessments I keep getting flanked or overpowered. I just can't work out what's going to come next."
"You’re not feeling the battle then," replied Charles, as if his statement made perfect sense.
Maur looked puzzled. The sim suites were good at making you feel as if you were really there, but there was always the disconnect that their inherent safety brought. Perhaps that’s what Charles meant, that he wasn’t aware of the danger. That he wasn’t performing under pressure. "You need to learn to spot tactics and threats ahead,” said Charles, negating Maur’s hypothesis for the most part. “You need to see these things before they come to you. Tell me, how hard do you concentrate on your rifle?"
"You mean how much do I concentrate on shooting?"
"Yes." Charles stated.
"Well, a lot, obviously." Maur wasn’t getting this. "I’m failing the assessments, I’m concentrating as hard as I can."
"Don’t. You need to make that second nature, and the same goes for adjusting during the mobility tests."
"Ultimately," Charles said, "firing your weapon correctly and making the right movement needs to be the default, not the extraordinary. You have scored well in the basic and intermediate assessments because you are technically capable, you need to do more. You must dominate those pathetic tests because doing so has become natural."
Charles stood, leaving Maur behind and heading over to the sim platform’s panel. After a couple of taps he had collapsed the projection of the vehicle and the tools that were strewn across the platform, and loaded up a terrain map that he recognised. It was one of the intermediate maps for rifle assessment. Maur raised himself up, following after and standing looking down over the valley. He recognised the cover layout and spotted out the same vantage points he had moved to in order to overcome the simulated mix-species forces and weaponry. He could see himself too, or at least a miniature version, stood limbering up at the start point. Maur had never thought to watch over his replays before.
"We’re going to watch how you perform, although I’ve seen this before," said Charles, moving over to the projections, stood opposite Maur.
"You’ve been watching my replays in here?" questioned Maur, surprised and a little hurt.
"Of course I have. You have spent the last two weeks in the suites. I was making sure you weren’t doing anything abnormal."
"Now look," Charles pointed to the miniature Maur as the exercise began, ignoring his stutter,"watch how you move."
Maur remembered the assessment, it had been his fourteenth attempt and he had completed it with top marks in under ten minutes. He watched as his replica moved from point to point, checking in all directions, rifle cocked and ready against his shoulder. Other than a few missed shots he couldn’t see fault, he had done exactly as the training manuals said. Careful, accurate and aware.
"Impressed?" asked Charles as the exercise ended, Maur’s miniature self leaning down on its knees.
"Well, aren’t you?" Maur knew the answer before he asked, even if he was giving himself a mental pat on the back.
"No. Watch this."
Charles headed back to the panel, and with a further few taps loaded another model into the map. It was himself, almost completely static at the start point. His rifle was held loosely at his side as he watched the hovering counter ahead of him descend toward zero. As soon as it had, the miniature leapt into action.
He was taking a completely different path than the one that was suggested. Instead of heading upward onto the ridge to the right of the start point, he instead moved straight towards the cover in front. By this point the first waves of enemies were starting to shift forward, appearing between cracks in the wooden huts, and behind the rocks that littered the field. Charles’ model was on his knees behind a large concrete block, one that had always looked out of place in Maur’s opinion. He peered over the edge, spotted, and then hurled himself over cover, darting towards the first shack on the left. There were a few rocks that lay underfoot, the model used them as a vault. Rather than head through a doorway, or even breach a wall, Charles had leapt straight through one, splintering wood everywhere. The muted sounds of the projection still jolted Maur, the crash almighty while he watched Charles blast away the startled opponents inside. He took the doorway, and dispensed with another four enemies that were shifting into position. With them down, his rifle flicked up and out, held at arms length, and as he ran out of the disintegrating shack the enemies in its opposite counterpart opened fire. Through the wood he was able to blast them away, laser rounds ripping through and bringing them to their knees.
Onwards, Charles ducked behind cover. At this point Maur’s model had just taken position up on the ridge, far behind Charles’. The massive man was moving with surprising grace as, again, he dived over the rock and ended three more virtual lives. Maur watched himself, so far behind, just taking out the first targets with caution and hesitation. Charles raced forward, his final wave moving into the valley. A large group this time, numbering twelve they made a rush for Maur’s position when he had got that far in the test. Charles, still holding the weapon out in front, drew his pistol from the holster, and while his seemingly random rifle fire took down a few at the lead of the pack his pistol merely scattered them. At this point, Maur had taken down his first set of enemies, those that were behind the initial cover that Charles had taken out after his surprise attack. Laughably behind, he resigned himself to watching Charles finish off the last of the enemies.
Charles was still outnumbered and had been forced to take shelter behind a nearby rock. He let out a few cracks of fire but the enemy had themselves become entrenched behind solid protection. For a moment Maur thought he saw Charles' face flicker with frustration, but in fact it was merely a quick grimace as he unhooked a grenade from his belt. The grenades! Maur hadn't even thought to use them, his distant range making their use redundant. Charles lobbed it over his cover and in behind his opponents. It exploded, and eliminated them all together except for a trickle of life in one. After strolling over calmly, Charles fired a single shot into the lone female combatants head. Charles' model dropped his weapon with apparent disdain. Statistics flashed up; Charles' completion time was three minutes and twenty-four seconds, rating C-star.
Despite the poor rating it was no doubt who was the more effective soldier. Simulation paused, Maur’s model was still dealing with the initial threats.
"That is what you need to become," Charles spook up, Maur’s heart still pounding in his chest. "You need to be the battle, not just a pawn inside it. We got lucky on Cirramorr, not every battlefield will offer those sorts of vantage points."
"We’ll start tomorrow. We have a week before landing on Seeon but this will be ongoing. Make sure you are committed,” Charles said, looking at Maur in a deadly serious manner. The projection blipped away and the two came closer.
"I’m ready." said Maur.
"Good! I hope your ready for dinner too. Thom’s managed to throw something together despite the trouble you caused in Cirramorr.” Charles was smiling again, the tension broke. “You did well there, even if I only let you go ahead with your impress plan to please Kerra. I didn’t want to show you up."
"Wait. Are you serious?"
"Absolutely, come on, lets go get a drink," responded Charles, damaging Maur’s ego even further. "Alcohol always helps on the battlefield. Keeps you relaxed!"
Maur and Charles headed out of the maintenance bay and toward the dining area. They walked together, equal, even though Maur had just seen definitive evidence that they were most certainly not.
* * * * *
"Seeon is the party capital of known space. The streets are lined with clubs, bars and specialist entertainment, and the best thing is that they never close. That’s right, following a bloody forty-year conflict the planet’s axis rotation has been completely halted, creating the perfect night-time playground that’s more than a little bit on the dark-side. Party-goers can enjoy booze, narcotics and incredible music all day, every day and even sample the native’s telepathic abilities at cabaret events that will truly leave your jaws on the floor. Possibly your clothing too! Book now to avoid disappointment!"
Tourist information regarding Seeon. Taken from a sim brochure for an Earth-based travel agent. The advertisement was banned after squads of higher education students barricaded themselves inside the sim suites of merchants and raided the stashes of complimentary hallucinogens that accompanied the campaign. There were one-hundred-and-twenty reported incidents of this ilk.
* * * * *
Come back next week for Chapter Ten of Gentle Reminders (Book One in The Rosewell Sequence)