When Diana left the room she dodged to the right, ignoring a sneering comment from the other Cadet. She marched to her quarters without a word, keeping her head down so no one could see the hot pink flush of embarrassment in her cheeks. The next week was a brutal test, made worse when she started to hear the Major’s threat whispered by the Cadets around her. Jaxei spreading word of the meeting did not surprise her, but she did not expect the entire camp to figure it out. Anyone who didn’t already know soon found out during a drill just as the white sun had started to set.
The rest of her group had fallen to the floor after a frantic obstacle course followed by a machination completely new to them called the Scale Wall. The Cadets almost laughed when they first saw it. It was not straight up, but at an incline, and had more holds than usual. Diana was the first Cadet to reach the wall, and the moment she touched it the entire surface shook. Panels of the wall began to jut out, shake, a few even waved as if made of sand. A Cadet behind her jumped on the wall and was thrown off just as fast by a section of wall that hurled her back. Every other Cadet faced similar struggles. Diana had not made an attempt yet, watching the other Cadets and the wall, before starting her climb. She avoided any jettisoning panel until she reached the top and jumped over the side to where Captain Zalaen was waiting.
“Well done Harbor,” Zalaen commented, hands clasped behind her back, “Where’s the rest of your group.”
“Still trying to climb the wall, Captain.”
Zalaen eyed the wall’s edge, waiting for any other Cadets to join them. No one else arrived. The Captain signaled two Lieutenants nearby who fidgeted with a control panel. The wall shut down and flattened to its original state and the mechanical cranking that powered it stopped. Soon Cadets flooded over the walls, landing behind Diana and the increasingly impatient Captain. Jaxei and another Cadet growled at Diana as they landed, “You cheated!”
“Quiet Cadet!” Zalaen shouted before Diana could retaliate. The last Cadet landed and the Captain pulled Diana to the front. “Harbor, tell the rest of these mulling imbeciles how you managed to climb this wall.”
Diana took a peek at the audience before her, trying her best not to make eye-contact with her angier colleagues. “The panels functioned in a pattern. I watched to see when certain ones would push out and force you to let go. Then I avoided those ones.”
“How many attempts did you make?”
“Just one,” Diana replied.
“Because you took your time to watch first.”
“That’s correct, Captain.”
Captain Zalaen nodded to Diana then faced the rest of the Cadets who grumbled to their shoes. “Hear that! Looks like Cadet Harbor is the only one who figured out the point of this exercise unlike the rest of you pathetic excuses for recruits! You don’t rush head first into things. You don’t send the soldiers who will be serving under you into things you haven’t taken the time to even appreciate! I’ve never seen such a sorry performance on this drill!” Zalaen turned her head to Diana who stood tall, staring ahead without a word. “You all could stand to imitate Harbor so we’re going to try something new. Thus far Harbor is better than the lot of you at everything you’ve tried, so the first person who manages to best her at any task will get a night off chores for the evening that the Cadet will fulfill for them.”
“What?” Diana peeped. Zalaen made a cross glare at her while the rest of the group stared. Diana tightened her lips together and then just mumbled, “Yes ma’am.”
The next several days Diana isolated herself during eating periods and avoided contact with anyone outside of the mandatory drills, which constituted most of her day regardless. The only positive she could take from Zalaen’s proposition was the Captain had begun letting her out of her chores too, so long as she always finished first. That only made the other Cadet’s more resentful. During another obstacle drill, Diana felt someone try to push her off the Scale Wall, but she managed to hang on. At the peak of a dune run she felt a foot kick at her shin. Unfortunately for the person who did it, they ended up falling instead of her. She never spoke a word of the sabotage to the Captain though.
At the end of their first session as a group, Captain Zalaen led them to the edge of the training camp that looked out over the Wasteland. Dawkem waited for them there and gave them a booming greeting. “Cadets, this is your first run of the test that you will be required to pass to graduate into your specialty schools. You will be attempting this test many times in the hopes that you might actually retain something about it and pass that test so we don’t have to see you hear again. Anyone who fails gets to stay with me for another cycle. Or you go home without a cape.’
The wind shook behind the Major as she spoke, emphasizing the pale silence as the Cadets looked on. Dawkem took a shining black bar from Captain Zalaen, holding it high in the air. “This is the Soldier’s Baton. Soon you will be instructed to find one in the storm behind me. There is a Baton for each Cadet so every one of you should be able to find one. Before you leave, you will be given two things.” Dawkem handed the baton back, taking a tiny circular clock and a pair of goggles. “You will be given a pair of reinforced protective goggles, so none of you go blind while you’re searching out there. You will also be given this timer. Your objective is to find a Baton and return here before you run out of time. If you cannot find a Baton, then you return here before you run out of time anyway. If you return here after time is up, I don’t truly care if you’ve found ten Batons. It will count as a fail. So you cannot wander to your death, a protective barrier has been projected which you cannot pass. I wouldn’t recommend making us go out to fetch you though. Do you have any questions?”
The silence continued as Zalaen and the Lieutenants handed out the goggles and timers. Dawkem freed her hands, holding them up. “I will produce a sound when you may begin, and another when time is up. You’ll know it. Ready.” A flash of white light appeared in the Major’s fingers followed by a deafening crack.
The Cadets ran into the thick cloud and began to spread out, ignoring each other and focusing their eyes on the ground. Diana flew ahead of them, breaking through the wall as if it were solid. The strong wind nearly lifted her into the air, but she kept her feet in the sand. She put an arm over her forehead and forced herself forward, taking a look at the timer once she’d made it a comfortable distance into the storm. Two hours. She turned the timer itself over in her hand. It was an odd timer, a cylindrical shape with a panel that displayed the numbers, and a peculiar pattern on one end. She scoured the sand underneath her, trying to keep her feet buried hoping it might kick a baton to the surface but had no luck.
One hour passed. Diana could see other Cadets occasionally pass her but did her best to avoid them, fearing they’d try to sabotage her more. A few seemed to be crawling through the sand instead of walking, but Diana stayed on her feet. She neared a purple glowing wall that was solid to touch, the border of their test area. When she turned, she saw another Cadet laying in the sand, searching. At first glance she seemed to be searching for the Baton like everyone else, and Diana started to move away. She caught a closer glimpse though and realized, this Cadet wasn’t wearing her goggles. Diana pushed through the storm to her stranded colleague, getting on her knees and yelling over the winds, “Where are your goggles!”
“Someone knocked into me!” She yelled back, covering her eyes with one arm and digging through the sand with her hand. “It knocked my goggles off. I can’t find them!”
Diana nodded and searched the area around the girl, digging around until she hit something. Out of the sand she picked up a pair of cracked goggles. “I found them,” she turned them over in her hand to see how damaged they were. As far as she could tell, it would be almost impossible to see out of them. “Not sure how much good they’ll do but they should at least protect your eyes.”
Diana fixed the goggles to the girls head, giving her a minute to adjust. She groaned when she realized just how broken they were. “I can’t see a thing.”
“Just stick close to me. Come on, let’s keep looking.” The Cadet took her colleagues hand, and they continued to scour the sands. Another half hour passed, and Diana groaned, “This doesn’t make sense! We should’ve found something by now.”
Around them she could see many Cadets still searching fruitlessly. It seemed as if no one had found a single Baton. Diana kept a firm grip on her partner’s hand, now watching the others instead of searching. She checked her timer, noticing how fast the time had gone. Then she noticed the strange ends. “Here, give me your timer.”
“Why?” The other Cadet asked, looking past Diana as the break in her goggles spread a bit more. She managed to find the timer in her pocket and hand it over, waiting for the explanation.
“I want to try something.” Diana looked at both of the timers, then fixed the ends of them together, forming a long cylinder. The timer on one of them disappeared and was replaced with a colored red light. Diana held the timers to the ground, and the light slowly faded from red to a blue. “That’s the trick. Put two timers together and you get a metal detector.”
“Really?” The Cadet tried to see the device, twisting her neck to peer through the unbroken parts of her eyewear. “How do you figure these things out?”
“I just know there’s always a trick to it. And a solution.” The light changed again to a bright green and Diana dug the timer into the dirt, then move the sand with her hands until she pulled out the Soldier’s Baton. “Found it.”
“That’s great!” The Cadet replied, then felt Diana put something in her hands. She looked down to see the Baton.
“Take that back. Should get back before your goggles fail completely. I have the detector now so I should be able to just find another one.” Diana said, taking the device back out of the sand.
The girl stopped, eyeing the Baton, “Are you sure?”
“Yes, go.” Diana took the girls shoulders and turned her towards the Wasteland’s edge, “Walk straight and you should get there in time.” The Cadet nodded and carefully walked towards the edge, her shadow quickly fading in the storm.
Diana pointed the device to the ground again, eagerly searching for another Baton. She had little time left, but the light soon turned green yet again, and she dug out another of the Batons. She didn’t get to keep it though, feeling a spread of pain in her back. She fell to the ground, dropping the Baton and watching a hand pick it up. She didn’t have a chance to see who it belonged too, as the thief ran off, taking the Baton and the detector with them. Diana sputtered up sand from her fall, digging around in hopes of finding another but to no avail. Around her she could see everyone else had gone. Without the detector and with no sense of time, she tried to find her way out of the storm.
At the Wasteland’s edge, her partner had been the first to arrive. Then soon another Cadet, empty handed. Then another, and then the rest. Only two Cadets arrived with Batons, the one with the broken goggles, and Jaxei. Captain Zalaen informed the two to stand aside while the rest lined up. The timers rang at the end, and Zalaen looked down the line. “Where’s Harbor?”
No one spoke, watching the sand swirl in front of them. Zalaen raised her voice, “Where is Cadet Harbor!”
“Here ma’am,” behind the Captain Diana finally emerge, still hacking sand up and without a timer in hand. She threw off her goggles the minute she was able.
There was a snickering among the line of Cadets as Zalaen approached her, red faced. “Harbor, I hope you of all people have a good reason for being late getting out, with even less than I sent you in with!”
Diana turned pink and looked to the two standing apart from the others. One she recognized as the girl she helped, a kindly looking woman about her age with brown hair and eyes. The other was Jaxei, who watched her with a sickening grin. In that moment Diana felt like trying to explain would not improve anything, and prepared for whatever punishment Zalaen had in store. Until the woman next to Jaxei spoke up, “She was helping me, Captain.”
“Come again, Cadet Keaton?”
Keaton held up her Baton and goggles, “My goggles were broken. Diana helped me find them and then figured out how to find the Baton. She let me bring the one she found back, so that way my goggles wouldn’t break.”
“Is that so? Then how’d she figure it out?” Zalaen put a hand up to Diana, indicting she could not speak. The Captain waited for Keaton to answer.
“I could not see well but I think she put our two timers together. And then she could find metal hiding in the sand.”
“And where is it now?”
Keaton shrugged and looked at Diana who just stared at Jaxei. The rival seemed less thrilled than before when Captain Zalaen approached him. “Jaxei, how’d you find your Baton?”
“Same method, ma’am,” he lied.
“Show me,” Zalaen said. Even the storm seemed to grow quiet in the awkward moment. Finally Jaxei produced the device. The Captain looked over it for only a moment, “Neither of these are your timers. It would already beg the question how you managed to get two anyway, and you didn’t even both to attach yours.” Zalaen turned to the rest of the line and their boastful laughing dried up.
The Captain was ready to yell but Dawkem pulled her back. “When you leave this place, and you must lead a platoon, do the lot of you intend to leave them to die in a sandstorm just so you can come back in first place. What happens if you face a dragon. Do you leave the soldiers under your care to their mercy just so you can have the final blow? It might be fun to compete here, but we do not sabotage others. We do not hurt the chances of others. We try to be the best for ourselves. This was an exercise in teamwork, not a competition. And once again, Cadet Harbor is the only one who seems to know what she’s doing.” Dawkem turned to Keaton, “Cadet Keaton, I admire your honesty. You are dismissed from chore assignment for the evening. Harbor.” Diana perked up, having cleared the remaining grain from her lungs. “You are also dismissed. Jaxei, disciplinary. Now. The rest of you, Zalaen will be handling how you’ll be splitting up Keaton and Harbor’s chores.”
The Major continued her lecture but a while but Diana had already ran off. She couldn’t stand the glares of the other Cadets, no matter how vindicated she may feel. Once again, she found her way to the empty, quiet bunkroom, and collapsed on her bed. She looked to the doors on either side of the long hallway, then pulled a thin box out from between her mattress and box spring. Inside, a collection of paper books. She took out one with a gold dragon on the cover. Before she could open it though she heard a squeaky voice, “Thank you for helping me.”
“Ah,” Diana slammed the book shut and hid it behind her. She looked up to see the brunette girl from before and relaxed a bit, “It’s fine. You needed help.”
“No one else would’ve helped me. And you could’ve lost a lot by helping me. Even if Jaxei hadn’t done what he did, you still couldn’t have come in first that way.” Diana twisted her mouth to the side, shrugging and squirming. The Cadet smiled, “I’m Juniper Keaton, by the way. What are you reading?”
Diana blushed, “Just some boring, military books from my uh, dad.”
“There was a dragon on the cover though.”
Diana clacked her teeth together, “It’s a um, artistic choice?”
“It’s fine by me if you read about dragons,” Juniper laughed, “I won’t tell on you. I wouldn’t even if I didn’t already owe you one. Just because we fight dragons doesn’t mean we can’t learn about them.”
Diana blinked, and slowly revealed the book hiding behind her back. Juniper looked at the cover, reading the title, The Moon and Sun Dragons. The redness in her cheeks remained, “It’s really not that interesting.”
“I get it. You want me to leave you alone,” the Cadet took a step back and made a sloppy salute, “Thank you again, Diana.”