I'm also including her character preamble, a blurb about Alice that will appear in the beginning of the book with many other blurbs that provide a basic overview of recent pertinent events with regards to each major and secondary character.
This can't be overstated: This chapter and the preamble blurb before it contain MASSIVE SPOILERS for anyone who has not read Broadcasts 0-9 and possibly the Expendable Few. You've been warned!
After undergoing a drastic transformation that removed all framework technology from her body along with all the advantages and vulnerabilities it brought, Alice Valent is preparing for the qualifier tests that will allow her to begin the intense curriculum offered through the Triton Fleet Academy. Her mind is sharper than ever now that the filter imposed on her by the framework is gone, but with cognative clarity comes a new emotional awareness. Alice also has to deal with being a more mature young adult while lacking the physical advantages in strength and speed the framework body she once had provided.
Alice Versus The Obstacle Course
The Ranger obstacle course was the most intimidating thing she’d ever seen when Alice started practicing. It took her only minutes to get permission from the Sergeant in charge to attempt to take it on. Without framework enhancements, stimulants, and no idea what she could do in her new body, she made her first attempt with trepidation. Countless bruises, sprains and one knock out from a long fall were her rewards.
It frightened her that she couldn’t finish the course at all on the first day. Instead of asking for help, she stubbornly kept her mouth shut, and tried again. On day two she made it all the way through, but she had no energy left, everything hurt, and the next morning was even worse when she woke up with aches and pains. Lacey had her on recovery medication before they were through their first hour of tutoring on the topic of Common Galactic Law.
The memories of finishing the course with little effort as a framework construct made the effort all the more frustrating as she tackled it again the next day. The course was different when she practiced it as a framework, it was much shorter, but familiar sections were still brutally difficult.
Sargent Piprayn Markase, or Pip as everyone called him, watched from the side lines as she did the most problematic sections of the course over and over until she was at the end of her two-hour session. So many parts of the course required everything of her; concentration, the willingness to push her body, take risks, to reconsider the method of passage from completely different angles. Alice came out of every two-hour session clear headed, but well beaten. No one but the Sargent was there, so she could have tried another round, but the sore muscles in her legs, arms, shoulders and back protested.
He didn’t offer advice, just made sure he was there to pick her up if she fell for the first week. The time she took on the course was solitary for that whole period, she knew when the Ranger trainees used it, in the early morning, so she crammed her other studies in around it.
On day seven she turned up in her thin vacsuit and deactivated the systems that would save her from all but the worst breaks and lethal falls then looked at the entrance to the course. “I’m going to beat my worst time as a framework today, you son of a bitch.” She told it.
“Hope you weren’t talking to me,” Pip said as he came out from under the platform. He had pieces of netting in his hand and a few tools at his feet.
“No, sorry,” Alice replied. “This thing just seems alive sometimes, and it hates me.”
“Anyone who has fallen into an electrified net in section five might think so. You’re doing well, by the way.”
“Not really,” Alice said. Her gaze was drawn back to the dark entrance, a blacked-out gauntlet with metal posts that moved around the hallway randomly. It forced the entrant to forget they had eyes, and find their way as quickly as they could with their hands outstretched.
“I remember seeing you take this course before you changed,” Pip said. “It seemed like cheating to me every time. You never really had to use your head, you just pushed through. Finishing the course means much more to you now, yes?”
“That’s the truth.” Alice stared at the entrance for a moment before asking; “any advice?”
Pip finished picking up his tools and nodded. “Stop taking the course the way it wants you to.”
“What does that mean?”
“Take it even slower this time, you’ll see,” Pip said.
She did exactly as he said, looking for ways around the more complicated sections of the course, the ones that threatened to slow her down the most, and found several alternative routes along the way. Every one of them required some thought, and often some extra effort for a few moments, like a tight squeeze or a short climb up a post, but most of the alternate routes rewarded her by cutting precious seconds off her time. Some obstacles she could not complete without falling and climbing through netting or triggering traps she knew were there but had to press through became possible as she noticed unconventional solutions.
Climbing over monkey bars and running along the side rails over top was safer, and cut her time down. Staying against one wall until she ran into an obstacle, then returning to the same wall once she was past it in blacked out sections of the course made her progress easier. Climbing most of the way up a steep incline then swinging around the top instead of over saved her energy and again, reduced the amount of time it took. In the whipping gauntlet, where dozens of arms that were hard enough to hurt but not so hard that her vacsuit would protect her, she found a tripping arm that was loose enough for her to pull off, so she could block most of the arms as they came at her from the walls and ceilings. There was even a hole on the outside of the course where she could return the arm to its actuator when she was finished.
There were hand and foot holds disguised as parts of the course everywhere, once she knew how to look for them, the course was less linear, and more a series of physical multiple choice questions. Alice approached Pip the third time she finished running the course that day. Those were also the first times she’d finished the course without having to drop out of a few sections after several attempts, skipping parts that seemed impossible. “It’s cheating,” she told him.
“No, you are problem solving. This course is made to shape soldiers’ bodies, true, but also their minds. Three-dimensional thinking, an understanding of efficient movement, and basic problem solving are all critical to any effective soldier. Besides, you are just as well exercised today as you were yesterday, when you took that course as though there was only one way through, didn’t even make it through some sections after throwing yourself at them as hard as you could. Completing the course at all on your own is an accomplishment for anyone, you must feel better today than you did yesterday, a little proud.”
“I guess so, I ran it three times before calling it quits,” Alice replied, towelling her face off. Stray curls made the act more complicated than it had to be, and she decided to straighten her red hair before trying the course again.
“Good,” Pip said. “We’re adding a new vertical tomorrow, a five-part segment, go rest up.”
“Just wondering, did Lacey have anything to do with you helping me out here?”
“No, but she did tell me what your day away from the course is like, and I’m not surprised that you try so hard when you’re here. Impressed, maybe, but not surprised. If I had to go through legal and regulation tutorials for six hours a day, I’d be throwing myself into that course every chance I got.”
Alice’s preparation regimen for the Triton Fleet Academy kept her busy for most of the day and into the night. Law, history, Triton Fleet regulations and common technology study sessions were only interrupted by testing sessions and her time on the obstacle course. She liked the challenge, but by the end of each day her brain and body were equally tired, so much so that she looked forward to the regimen that would be imposed on her once she got in to the Advanced Officer Training Program.
For days she thought she was the only one following the preparation routine, but she found out that there were eleven more people doing the same thing, only they didn’t even look in the obstacle course’s direction. From that moment on she couldn’t help but be curious about who the other students were, and how their scores compared. She wasn’t allowed to see that information, so she only worked on her studies harder. They were ghostly critics and competitors, who she pictured watching her succeed and fail through Crewcast even though she knew that wasn’t possible.
The vertical section of the course, which included sections of metal netting, rope netting, climbing areas with various types of handholds – including break-aways that were made to fail – and a forty nine degree inverted top, defeated her. Her exercise suit saved her from a broken neck on her second attempt. She finished the course without completing the two tower section and returned to her studies.
The next day she moved through the five segments of the course that she’d grown to know then stopped at the first tower of the vertical section. Alice knew why she didn’t complete it the previous day. Thinking about it kept her up all night. She attacked the vertical section the day before, afraid to stop mid obstacle and inspect her surroundings. With a slower approach, she started climbing the chain net that led to the first climbing tower, and she made her way up, testing her hand holds, working her way sideways when she wasn’t sure her reach was long enough. The first tower presented its own solution when she made it almost all the way to the other side and found a seam in the wall. That was the key hand hold for someone her height, and she finished getting to the top of the ten-metre tower easily. By the time she was crossing to the second tower, she was completely focused on carefully finding her way to the top. Her fingers hurt, and her shoulders ached, but she didn’t feel weak, so Alice decided to press on.
Alice was half way up a rope net when she realized that there was a short cut up the last few metres of the second tower. The surface she was climbing towards had three handholds on the far side, and one edge of the rope swing was loose, really loose. She made her way to that loose end and looked down. Those slim hand holds would get her several metres across one face of the tower, saving her long minutes. The risk was clear, if she missed she would fall twelve metres. The reward? She’d be within two metres of the top, close to more hand holds, and around the forty nine degree incline.
Pushing off from the wall in front of her, she began swinging towards the three hand holds on the far edge of the side wall of the tower. Alice was able to swing within half a metre of them. “No way,” she said to herself, mentally picturing herself making the leap, clearing the half metre, only to have the hand holds crumble in her fingers.
Instead of trusting the course, she swung again, lashing out with her foot to kick the top handhold. It was solid. She repeated the act with the one below it, and it burst as though it were made of dry clay. It would have been the easiest one to grab if she jumped. Her foot landed a blow on the third handhold, the lowest, and she found it was solid.
Alice took a practice swing, her palms were starting to sweat. She held her breath as she swung out as far as she could, then let go of rope as it reached its apex and almost went right past the handholds before she caught one with both hands. Her fingers ached at the shock and the pressure, her suit not helping at all. “Holy crap, I got it,” she whispered to herself hoarsely, securing her grip. A drop of sweat ran down her nose and dripped off the tip.
It took all her strength to pull herself up so she could reach the handhold above. With a curse at her height, or lack thereof, her fingers curled around the top handhold and she kept pulling. There was no way she could reach the top of the tower using those two handholds, so she secured her grip, resting a foot on the lower hold as she checked around the tower’s next corner.
A crack in the edging of the wall was the only way she could see herself getting up. Alice realized she’d have to hold there, get her foot up on the top handhold she was leaving behind, then push up the rest of the way, a three step move to the top.
It took her entire reach to get her hand to the crack and she wedged her hand into it. “Oh, God,” she said as she pulled and swung against the edge of the tower. She was almost there, high enough to reach out with her foot to the handhold she just left and make the rest of the distance to the tower top. Her hand protested as she swung her legs back towards her last handhold, staying on the wall with the grip of one hand in a crevasse. Her whole body almost swung free of the tower when her legs pendulum swung back and away from the corner of the wall, but Alice managed to hold on.
One more swing of her legs got her foot back to her last hand hold, so she could push the rest of the way up the tower. That trick had saved her a trip up a forty-five degree incline that would have tired her out just as much, and slowed her down even more. The first time she stood on top of that tower, she couldn’t help but grin at herself and take a moment to enjoy the view over the cliff side. The sandy beach, lush jungle bordering it, and ocean beyond was being lit by the first dawn that week. The ruddy red light shed by Kambis as it burned was overpowered by the yellow hues of dawn.
A week later she found an even better way to best that tower, and she had mastered that changing course. Pip made sure there were Rangers around during those last three days when she was practicing. In the two hours she had on the course, she could run it seven times before she had to quit for the day. The only parts she was wary of every time was the third segment – the floor and all the obstacles were constantly moving – and the vertical segment. That last segment taxed everyone’s endurance, regardless of how good they were at climbing.
On the seventh day Pip had most of the Ranger trainees there, at least six hundred fifty by her count, and a new group she hadn’t seen before. There was an army of them in white vacsuits with a yellow stripe down the sides. Alice ignored them, and ran her three practice runs through the course, then lapped around to the front, took a drink of her blended citrus juice and burst into a timed run. It would be her last attempt at the course as a civilian.
The course was once an elaborate torture device that reminded her that she was less than she once was, but fourteen days later she had mastered it. The course, her physical condition, and her method of approach were important, but the crucial thing was the mind behind the changing obstacle run. Pip was a master designer, and was responsible for all two hundred and ten metres of the course, but he only had one mind. He was her real opponent, and learning the course was a way of learning how he thought, where he would hide advantages, and what surprises he might set up for someone who isn’t as wary as they ought to be. The most common habit Pip had was his tendency to install obstacles that punished the unwary. He was a brilliant trickster who understood what kind of soldier his contraption was made to produce.
The course was well on its way to conditioning her physically, the progress she made was staggering but she also had to take recovery meds every night so she could do it the next day. Her flexibility and strength were on the increase, and by the time she did that timed run in front of over two thousand young people, she felt light, confident, and powerful.
Alice finished the course to the sound of applause, and didn’t feel like bowing or smiling at the people who gathered there. There were some black and yellow suited people in a small group standing separately from the rest. She knew who they were immediately – they were about to enter the regular Fleet Academy Officer’s program. Nine months of gruelling training awaited them, and she was about to begin the fast track version of the same thing, where she was expected to do the same thing in six months.
“Can I have a moment, Officer Trainee?” Pip asked, gesturing towards a spot on the speaking platform beside him.
“Yes, Sir,” she said as she joined him, towelling the sweat off of her face and neck.
“This is Alice Valent, you may not recognize her because she recently underwent serious medical treatment. All of her framework technology was removed using the latest technology, so she is as human as any of you. She has been running this course every day for two weeks while prepping for the Triton Fleet Officer Fast Track Program. The one you did not qualify for. Her qualification trials begin tomorrow, and I expect to hear good things.”
Alice looked at the two thousand assembled, stony-eyed, standing perfectly straight. Setting an example wasn’t her purpose that day, what she wanted to do was set a record, and she had. A glance at the command and control surface on the forearm of her exercise suit told her everything she wanted to know. Her timed run put her three minutes and fifty seconds faster than any other human on the new course. She was forty-two seconds behind the best nafalli time set by Iruuk Murlen.
“You will notice that she is much shorter than average, just over one point five metres, but she is in excellent shape. Seeing all of you people here did not distract her from her purpose, she did not show off, but took her practice runs before a timed trial. The course was not adjusted to suit any of her shortcomings, and it kicked her ass for the first week. She has never had a group or partner on this course, and makes the co-op section look like a walk in a meadow while she’s taking it solo. I encourage you all to try to solo the co-op section once in your off time sometime in the next month, just to see how good she is.”
“There’s a co-op section?” Alice asked in a whisper.
“Fourth segment,” Pip replied.
Alice could have hit him, there was nothing marking that long section of the course as a co-op segment, and it was the most puzzling area. She wasn’t able to finish the obvious path through without falling into shock netting. Instead, she learned to go around in not-so-obvious ways, climbing posts, crossing supports, and doing a horizontal ladder climb underneath the last obstacle for that segment on bars that were so far apart she had to catch two of the middle ones with her feet and use her momentum to finish, something she still hadn’t mastered.
Pip continued. “Valent is officer material. This is the kind of person who gets into an advanced program and will outrank you when you finish training. By the time you graduate she will have already seen things you cannot believe, have experience in command, and be able to kick your ass back into place without breaking a sweat. I do not expect you to surpass her example, but I will send you straight home if you stop trying. You just saw her set a record, and if it’s not beaten by the end of the month, I’m going to hold your class back until I’m satisfied that our new crewmembers are not soft. The good news is that you will not have to beat her record alone. You will have teams to practice this course with,” he said to the gathering. “You have six hours to complete it over three days, anyone who does not is rejected from their program. You will have to apply again next year. I’m going to make sure that you’re good enough to serve under Alice Valent by the time your finished here, or you won’t serve at all. Now, group one, head in slowly.” He pointed at the group of Officer Academy Trainees and five of their vacsuits blinked white several times before they headed down to the dark entrance of the obstacle course. “Your goal is to finish together, you will not finish this course solo the first time out, I guarantee it. Be careful, your suits will save you from most broken bones, but it won’t save you from the beating this course will give you if you do not pay attention.”
“Enjoy your last day as a civilian, Alice,” Pip said to her quietly, offering his hand. “I didn’t think you’d finish when I saw you here the first day, but you changed my mind on the second.”
“Too short?” Alice said, shaking his hand.
“No, I’ve never seen anyone take a beating that bad and come back unless it was a direct order. You must have a little masochist in you.”
“Just trying to measure up to my own expectations, Sargent,” Alice replied. She pulled the tie from her straightened red hair and shook her mane loose.
“Keep it up, you’re going to make one hell of an Officer,” Pip said.
“Thank you, Sargent Markase. I’ll be back for my physical qualifier,” Alice said. “Install a few surprises before then if you can.”
“Count on it.”