Cadet - The aliens will be tough...the academy must be tougher.
Vega and her friends are back and ready to face anything together, or so they think. Life at the Axis military academy isn't what they expected. Brutal training tests their faith in themselves and each other. Every day is torture and every night is...more torture. The academy burns through recruits quickly until only the strongest remain.
Then the real training begins.
Everything at the military facility isn't what it appears to be and soon the friends are up to their retro rockets in trouble. Can Vega, Amalie, and Dax find a way to defeat the forces rising against the Axis before every life in settled space is in mortal danger?
Sometimes evil comes from within. 

 

Cadet by Pamela Stewart Book Chapter One

 

Vega

The six space stations hung like a warped jewel in our view screen. I'd never seen the Axis.

Correction.

I'd never seen the Axis from the outside. Sure, I'd viewed representations and 3-D renderings. I'd even gotten glimpses while I was in the barracks on the Mil-station. But I'd never really seen it in all its glory.

Judging by the stunned silence from Amelie, she'd never seen it from the outside either, or else she'd be giving me some VIFs—very important facts. I'd come up with the name for her rambling during the third week of our journey across the galaxy. It was either observe ironically or murder her in her sleep. I chose the former.

I set the shuttle's autopilot and drank in the sight.

Bigger than a planet.

Bigger than six planets, spanning the system. A massive structure with a central unit that served as the hub, the giant protrusion expanded in two directions. Thousands of satellites hung like moons around each station. Bright artificial lights flashed in a flood of hues from the thousands upon thousands of bars, homes, bases, and businesses.

The Axis was not elegant. Oblong stations interconnected by tubes and tunnels jutting out at wild angles, a morass of interconnected living spaces. Radiation absorption material protected its fragile human occupants from the red-tinted light of Sol. As haphazard as they were, the stations worked together, rotating in tandem to create artificial gravity for the occupants.

It was a fantastic creation of human intelligence and determination. My heart clenched slightly. Even if I’d come from U170, we’d all started here, the cradle of humanity. If our founders had not figured out how to cooperate, the human race would be nothing but stardust kicking around the nebula after the OE sun had burned out. But we’d done it. We were still here.

“Should we wake the boys?” Amelie asked in a small tentative voice as if the image might burst like a disturbed hologram if she spoke too loudly.

My eyes flicked up to the nav screen. “We have a bit before arrival, but they'll kill us if they miss this.”

I was pretty sure Dax had never gotten a real view of the Axis from space. And Ethan—I had no idea—everything I knew about Ethan had been a lie to gain the crew's confidence.

It'd been for a good reason, investigating our slimy ship’s captain, but that didn't mean I had to like it.

Or that I had to forgive him.

We'd barely spoken since leaving the Lazarus, and I was okay with leaving it that way.

Amelie rose from the copilot seat and headed to the makeshift sleeping area in the cargo bay. We had sectioned it off and separated it from the rest of the ship with blankets hung on a cord. The shuttle had two chambers. One was for piloting. The second area was for eating, hygiene, exercise, navigation, and pretty much everything else, a tiny space for four teens traveling halfway across the galaxy.

Over the first few days, we’d gotten into a pattern. Amelie and I would do the day shift, switching off as necessary. Dax and Ethan, who both preferred to stay awake during regular sleep hours, took nights.

We’d attempted to vary the schedule but realized it didn’t work—for anyone. Amelie and Dax still had weird energy between them. They could talk and be friendly in a group, but when they were alone, the conversation stumbled and died. I’d listened to them the first few nights, still crazy curious as to what was going on between them after their drunken night.

The answer?

Nothing.

Less than nothing, and it would appear that neither dared to bridge the gap.

Pity. They would have been great together. Odd. But great.

Ethan and I spoke when necessary. He’d tried chatting. Tried joking. Tried telling me parts of the long, sad story of his life as a panhandler in the Hub, but I’d shut him down at every turn.

I appreciated his help but could not stand his deceit. We were shipmates for now and nothing more.

The boys’ loud, angry groans made me smile. They didn’t like waking up after their regular twelve-hour break. This was their version of torture.

“Amelie! Cut it out.” Ethan. His voice wasn’t harsh but low and joking.

I heard another grunt. “I’m up!” This time it was Dax’s annoyed tone. He’d not slept well since we left.

“Hurry up, or you’ll miss it.” Amelie reappeared at my side and slid into the seat, arms crossed hard against her chest. “Next time, you wake the Cretans.”

The boys pushed forward in between the pilot and the copilot seat.

“What’s up, V? We had two more hours of sleep.” Dax choked.

I'd been right. A look of amazement spread across his face like a child on Sol day. Ethan had taken the seat behind mine so I couldn't gauge his response, but he was quiet. We all stared out the window in reverent silence.

“I can see the humbleball pitch from here. Look, Ethan!” Dax pressed forward, excitement making him uncharacteristically animated. His eyes darted over the center of the Hub. He pointed to a round, greenish orb in the center that was significantly larger than the other structures.

He was probably right. I'd never been to their interstellar humbleball pitch, but it was a legendary event in the colonies—the Big Green.

Amelie waved to a small group of satellites orbiting the Mil-station. “That’s where I’m from.”

All of the stations are easy to categorize. Even from a great distance, their industries showed in their atmosphere, traffic, and foliage. Hundreds of satellites barreled around each station at incredible speeds. How Amelie could pick out where she was from was a mystery to me.

But with a mind like hers, I wouldn't put it past her to be 100% accurate. She held a supercomputer’s worth of information in that too-beautiful head of hers.

The only place I had been was the Basic Training Barracks, and I'd explored a bit of the civilian town that supported the weapons and the industries. The military station had whole communities, homes, and places of business that expanded over the centuries, but it was a Spartan landscape.

Nothing like my homeworld of U170. Nope, that was all green and growing and wide. By Sol, I missed it.

“What about you, Ethan? See anything that reminds you of home?” Dax was always trying to keep him in the conversation—stupid, nice Dax.

Ethan didn't so much as sit up in his seat. After a long, long pause, he finally responded. “I’m assigned to the Mil-station. Over there.” His face compressed, closing in on itself.

Curiosity and pity pounded through me.

I knew he'd grown up in the Hub. I also knew, because of his tattoo, that he'd sold himself very young for food and sustenance. I blocked out those soft feelings. Just because he had a sad backstory didn't make him a good person.

“We’ll be in orbit within the hour,” I said. “Unless we want to be debriefed for the next hundred years, we need to make sure we're all on the same page. I know from personal experience.”

“I'm sure that Commander Wu’s messages have reached the Axis by now. We shouldn't have a problem.” Ethan’s positive attitude made a reappearance. He had faith in the system.

Ha. The same system had allowed our last captain to nearly kill us.

I’d had enough interactions with the brass to know that these situations didn’t always play out as hoped.

“I'm going to get ready,” Amelie said. “I sent a wav home. My parents might even come to the docking bay.” She stood, her eyes clouding over. With practiced hands, she smoothed back her hair into a ponytail, nervously strapped it up, then took it back down. She rubbed her palms on her pants legs, and started for the rear.

“They’ll be there if they get the message, Am,” I said.

If my parents lived on the Axis, they'd be there. Amelie and her parents had a different and more complex relationship than me and mine. She hadn’t gone into detail, but for a satellite girl to land in the general military said a lot about her. And her parents.

“Some of the stations are covered in radiation repelling material that makes them opaque like the interconnected tubes and tunnels. But others, like the Agri-station, need the rays of Sol to make the crops grow.” Amelie broke the silence with her normal unfettered geyser of information.

Her stream-of-consciousness facts were interesting...most of the time. The Academy would probably frown on Amelie's desire to educate everyone in a two-foot vicinity.

“Want me to take it? I've flown this route before. Threading the needle can be tricky.” Ethan’s voice sent a light thrill over my skin, like a gentle electrical current.

“No, I got it,” I said a bit too sharply.

I was tired. Dreams of the aliens had reappeared since our mutiny, and now there was the added fun of the Captain’s giant face affixed to the Old Earth squid body grabbing my parents and devouring them.

Yeah, sleep, and I were not friends of late, and it made me crabby.

“What is threading the needle anyway?” I aimed for nonchalant, trying not to sound stupid.

“It’s the time it takes to get between the prongs of the interconnected transportation tubes.” Amelie’s voice drifted from the back. “Navigating the rotation of the stations as well as the satellites takes a good amount of skill. Approaching ships don’t dare to try during peak docking hours.” She had all the answers as usual. After a few more sounds of jostling, she appeared again in new clothes.

My palms grew moist. I gripped the controls and took the ship off of autopilot. One of these computers had to have the timing sequence I would need. It couldn’t be that hard.

I felt heat from behind me and didn't have to turn to know Ethan was leaning forward, looking at my instruments. “If you come in at that speed, we’ll be flattened by the Agri-station before we even get close to docking.”

“I'm sure the computer navigation can assist. We don't need your help.”

I didn’t want him to pilot us in. He wasn't one of us. Not really. I didn't want him to forget it.

Ethan snorted and retreated. Dax smoothed his hair and avoided eye contact.

Amelie settled back into the co-pilot seat. She had donned her dress whites.

She had her hair pulled into its super-serious bun, all her curls tamed, making her look as posh and put together as the first day we met in the launch bay of the Lazarus. She also wore her magnifiers, which streamed information in long lines down the lenses.

“The computer can help with manual docking, but it suggested to wait until between 1700 and 1900 hours,” she said. “If you attempt to land before then, it will be hazardous to try to navigate between the stations.”

She paused, looking down at her lap, considering her next words.

Since she rarely did that, I braced for what she would say and chewed on the inside of my lip.

“Or we can let someone who has previously piloted the route take the controls.”

I wanted to stay in the pilot’s seat out of spite. How little faith they had in me even after everything that had happened. But I sucked in a breath.

She made sense. Just because I had issues with Ethan didn’t change the fact that he was a damn good pilot.

Hell, he’d flown a Class A Battle Cruiser out of an asteroid field unscathed. To him, this would be like driving a hover scooter. But I still gave Amelie a look that I hope said I-thought-you-were-on-my-side as I squeezed out of the pilot seat.

I waved my hand, indicating for Ethan to take it.

He chuckled and slid into the seat. Flipping the switch, he snatched the handgrips of the yoke. I hoped he wouldn’t notice the sweaty imprints.

With the ease and grace he'd had since day one, he swooped low and brought down our speed. His flying was impressive. He was impressive. When he focused, his blue eyes darkened to navy in the light of the panel, and he hummed under his breath.

I shook myself. Of course Ethan had ease and grace. He'd been trained at the Academy already. He was a spy and was going to report to the top brass as soon as we landed.

Hopefully, I would never see him again.

Dax’s eyes flitted from the viewfinder to Amelie and back to the viewer.

“You ready for this?” His tone calmed everyone. He leaned one elbow on the armrest.

“It's all I've ever wanted.” Amelie stiffened, and there was a tightness around her eyes.

Dax reached forward and squeezed her shoulder.

For some reason, he always sensed things about her way before I did.

“I should probably get ready too.” I rose and finally tore my eyes from the interplanetary spectacle. Sidestepping, I shifted the blankets to get to our makeshift living area.

The area looked and smelled like a moonya sty with cots covered in rumpled blankets, piles of clothing in heaps, a couple of magnifiers, empty bags of guzzle chips, and a holocard game projector.

A teenage disaster area.

I wasn't about to clean up after the boys, and the boys were not about to clean up for us, so we left it in shambles. There were no officers around to enforce the rules, so we allowed it to be.

It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to clean it up before we arrived at the base. By Sol, I had no idea what to expect once we got there. Last time I'd arrived at the Axis, I'd been fresh off my U170 farm. I'd never seen anything like the buildings, the mass of people, the endless steel, plastic, and industry. And I'd only seen the inside of the barracks in part of the Mil-station.

The Academy was going to be new territory. The graduates didn’t talk about it much.

There were legends about recruits being fed to rogue aliens or floated for not being fast enough on the draw, but I figured it was all propaganda. Probably.

I reached into my duffel and pulled out my over-sized dress uniform. Amelie had the right idea.

With the information we were bringing back, we would be meeting higher-ups. And definitely would be debriefed. We’d be in processing for a long time.

No second chances to make first impressions. At least, that was what my mom said.

I slid on the white suit. Of course, it was two inches too long in the legs and pooched out in all the wrong places. My sleeves and chest decoration area were bare, the mark of a green recruit. Eventually, I could get stars and moons to denote my rank, but currently, I was nothing. Less than nothing.

I pulled my hair into a military-approved ponytail and entered the head to wash my face and chew a tooth cleaning tablet. I swung the door open and reached into the cabinet. My hand was mid-reach when the alarms blared from the cockpit.

Dropping the tablet, I ran the few steps to the front. The shuttle jerked, heaving hard to the side. I stumbled and flew three feet forward. My head connected with the seats behind the pilot and copilot, and my ears buzzed. Flashes of light blinked behind my closed lids.

“Crap,” I grunted. “What’s happening?”

“They’re targeting us.” Amelie’s voice revealed more curiosity than concern.

I forced one eye open. The part of my head that had impacted with the seat throbbed mercilessly. Red light bathed the console. My breath caught, and I tried to figure out the location of the danger. Ethan’s hands moved over the controls like a musical instrument.

“Tell them it’s us!” I yelled over the increased sound of alarms.

“I did, V. They’re not responding.” Dax straightened, all ease drained from his stance, and he pushed a hand through his thick sandy hair. His seat rotated to the com station. He tapped code into the device, repeating the same pattern with our call sign.

Blips of light appeared on our nav screen, showing small ships approaching at a breakneck speed.

I frantically looked out the front screen and saw the fighters in the visual. They were Ax-Strykers, the fastest, most deadly ships in the fleet. Compact, with smooth lines and a titanium black exterior, they were the definition of a scary, sexy machine.

Their laser sights set on us.

“Do something!” I grabbed Ethan’s shoulder and dug in with my fingers. His flesh was hard and warm under his uniform, and I dropped my hand as if scalded. His eyes flashed down to where I’d touched him then back to me.

“What do you want me to do, Vega? Stand on the top of the shuttle and wave a white flag? They should know this shuttle came from the Lazarus. I don’t know why they’re targeting us.” His attention went back to flying, his body wound tight and his knuckles white on the controls.

My blood pushed hard in my veins, pounding behind my eardrums in time with the screaming alarm.

I almost retorted, but an idea hit me. “Dax, try a different message. We come in peace. Offer them guzzle bits for sale.”

“Stellar.” Dax slid a hand over the wav transmitter.

The coms unit bleated a high-pitched squeal. We all covered our ears.

“Blocked. All stations. Nothing is getting through.” He swallowed hard enough for me to see his Adam’s apple dip, but that was his only sign of stress.

I had to find a way to keep them from killing us. “Amelie, come with me.” I scrambled toward the back.

“What are you going to do?” Ethan asked.

“Something.” I pulled Amelie to the rear of the shuttle. “Ethan, stop the shuttle. I want to send a message.”

“But the channel is blocked, V,” Dax shouted.

“Just stop the shuttle.”

At the very back of the rectangular hold was the restroom cubicle, and next to that was the airlock. Two spacesuits hung by the door. I jumped into one of the dust-encrusted suits and had Amelie assist me with the tether lines.

“What are you doing? Why are you going out there? They’ll shoot you.” She spoke so fast that her words jumbled.

I clicked down the helmet and turned on life support, double-checking the levels.

“Just watch me and monitor my vitals. Pull me in when I signal you but not before. Got it?”

Amelie’s jaw tightened, but she nodded. I snatched one of the towels from the floor and used a marking device to emblazon an image on it in bold black ink—a circle with a Y in the center—and I stepped into the airlock.

The slurping sound of the door sent a pang through me. What if they couldn’t see me or my sign? I couldn’t think of that.

No time for doubt.

My suit pressurized, and the air whooshed out of the chamber as the sliding door opened. I sucked in a breath, as if that would help, in case my O2 didn’t work.

The shuttle slowed to a crawl, but the stars still moved in the distance.

Not stars but ships streaked by. With shaky hands, I gripped the edge of the frame double checking my connection cables.

Why didn’t I ever think things through?

Because you wouldn’t do them if you did.