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With Greater Awareness…
The dense jungle reminded Alice of that first day of training. They didn’t tell the ranger applicants much about the service, only to show up as the day began on Tamber. They were transported to a small, featureless peninsula where shuttles from the Sunspire, Triton, and Haven Shore were already present. There were some signs of construction, but no indication that any major undertaking was underway.
Orientation took place on the edge of a large, open field. There were over three hundred ranger trainees. Antigravity trucks and shuttles dropped them off for an hour before Commander Carl Anderson – or Doctor Anderson, as some people called him – addressed them all. He was all smiles, didn’t say much that Alice would take with her through the rest of her training, and he kept his welcome short.
“Here’s where we start,” he said at the end of his speech. Everyone’s vacsuits were minimized in size so the women wore one-piece exercise suits, and the men were reduced to shorts. All their vacsuit functions were deactivated, including any communications or computing devices. “Rangers can survive anywhere they can find air and water. They can get where they’re going on their own two feet, and this week you’re going to prove it to yourselves.” There were murmurs and complaints all around Alice, and she hoped no one would point out that she was an enhanced framework.
They didn’t have time before the next part of their challenge appeared in the field below. A cloaking shield dissipated to reveal an obstacle course that even Alice found daunting. There were wall climbs, monkey bars over pits, repelling walls, reverse forty-five degree scaling walls, a crawling tube maze with drop chutes, and at least half an hour worth of hellish challenges. Everything was surrounded by, or built over, mud that looked cold, even from a distance.
“We’ll prove this can be done without a vacsuit right now,” Commander Anderson said, pointing to a shack by the start. To Alice’s amazement, Oz, Minh-Chu, Ayan, and a few other commanders stepped out onto the starting line. Before Alice could come to believe what she was seeing, the group of seven ran for the course. They tackled it as a team, helping each other when they had to. Ayan was only a few centimetres taller than Alice, so that was whom she watched. She needed help with a couple of obstacles that were more easily conquered by the taller members of the course challengers, but got ahead of people in the tube maze, was the first to the bottom on the descending wall, and helped guide lines on the repelling challenge. Ayan was in better shape than Alice expected, but surprised everyone when she missed a step on the balance beam and fell into an electrically charged net.
The periodic shocks were enough to inflict incredible discomfort, but not so high that it immobilized her completely. Minh-Chu waited for her at the other side, and cheered her on as she got on all fours and climbed while getting jolted. Commander Worsch from the Sunspire almost fell on top of Ayan as he lost his balance on the beam. He was almost twice Ayan’s size, but was equally affected by the shocks. It took them several minutes to climb the net and continue the course.
At the end, all the senior officers who participated finished, and stood in front of the trainees exhausted but all smiles. Ayan seemed especially pleased with herself.
“Now it’s your turn,” Commander Anderson said. “Complete this with a pass and you’ll continue on to the next phase of training. Good luck.”
Alice breezed through most of the physical ranger training, and enjoyed the team-building more than anything, even though she soon discovered she had a lot to learn. It was the intelligence assessment, tactical study, and problem-solving part of the training that really challenged her. Alice could get through it, but the real problem was sitting still for hours in the middle of her day, interacting with all the mental training material. Whereas many recruits wanted to tap out and walk out during physical challenges, she found herself gripped by the temptation to wash out in the midst of processing intelligence data. She knew she could always return to the Warlord and help finish work on the ship, but it was a fleeting urge.
Passing the intelligence and problem-solving portions of her training was a point of pride. It also prepared her for the real world, giving her the tools to assess a situation before she rushed in, and the patience to review intelligence data so she knew what was going on.
As she moved between giant trees and foliage as low as her shoulder and as high as twice her height, Alice was grateful for that miserable week of jungle training. Even with the help of her mapping systems and constant feedback on where she ought to be going, she was constantly on the verge of becoming lost.
A fierce roar called her attention from her map to her immediate surroundings. She looked up in time to see a jungle cat lunging down from above. Its head was as wide as her shoulders, and it seemed furious, batting her into a thick bramble tangle.
Her vacsuit protected her, and she was more startled than injured. Alice drew her sidearm and struggled to turn towards her attacker. The thick undergrowth she was tangled with had her off-balance and partially restrained. For the strength augmentation of her suit to work, she needed her feet on the ground, and as she struggled to reorient herself, the big cat clawed her out of her bondage, flinging her into the middle of the small clearing.
Her sidearm was left behind, and she couldn’t help but be momentarily stunned as the cat leapt atop her, pinning her with a giant paw. Its massive jaws descended and it savagely tried to bite off her head, a pursuit that failed thanks to her light armour – but she was terrified nonetheless. So terrified that it took a few seconds of gnawing for her to remember that she had a stun field that was made for crowd suppression and self-defence. She activated it with a thought, and the massive jungle cat twitched, grunted, then fell limp atop her.
It took several moments for her to work her way free from beneath the beast, and she was careful not to injure it. “Okay, that stays out of the report,” she muttered as she found her sidearm and shoved it into her holster.
Small mewling sounds caught her attention, and it only took an instant for her to discover what the cat was defending, or trying to feed. A quick look around revealed that the foliage was flattened mostly around the hollow trunk of an old fallen tree. Claw marks on the nearest standing trunks revealed that she was looking at a type of cat that typically moved up into the lower branches and waited for prey to pass underneath. Her display listed several instances of pickers getting jumped by the cats; each was saved by their vacsuit. Alice scanned her attacker and nodded to herself. “You’ll be up and about in about nine minutes.”
Her map told her she had to head past the fallen log, and she couldn’t help but stop and peek inside before moving on. Three kittens about Alice’s size with similar grey and black fur paid her little attention, but the fourth seemed intrigued. It sat up on its forepaws and looked directly at her, its nose sniffing the air between them. Alice suppressed the urge to reach out and pet the fur ball. “This isn’t the kind of exploration I expected when I joined the rangers,” she told it.
The kitten looked towards its mother and bounced past Alice. The big matron cat huffed a little as her offspring nudged its way towards her underside. Alice took it as a sign that her command and control system might have the estimate wrong on how long the cat would take to get back on her feet. “Time to move on,” she said to herself, pressing deeper into the jungle.
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