At precisely 0700 hours, Everard Locke was on the parade grounds behind the military depot. Arrayed before him were eight young men and women. Seven were trainees at varying stages of their obligatory four years. One was a full cadet. From memory, Everard called out their names.
“Yes, sir!” The answer came from a slender, vivacious girl with dark brunette hair and black eyes that showed her as originally from South Territory. She was the youngest of the group, just a month short of turning sixteen.
“Yes, sir!” This answer came from a wiry young man of eighteen, sandy blond with sun-bleached streaks along both sides of his head. He had come as a recommendation from both elders of the capital’s Lightning District.
“Sir!” Moor was the oldest of this group at twenty-two years old. He was a familiar face, being left over from the previous cohort where he had been one of the youngest and latest arrivals.
“Yes, sir!” The only full cadet among them, Sanna stood slightly apart from the rest of the group. She also stood out figuratively as the only one in cold-weather gear despite the intense heat of summer.
“Yes, sir!” Another visual stand-out in the group, Tarbengar had thick dark hair, sloping shoulders, and a shuffling gait like a bear. Such was the resemblance that none of the others had remarked on the presence of the four-month-old brown bear cub that leaned against Tarbengar’s leg.
“Morning, sir!” Rusza was his energetic, effervescent self as always.
“‘Yes’ will suffice,” Everard said. “Sora Waeber!”
“….Yes, sir.” The slow response time matched the young man’s dreamy expression. Sora Waeber came from Earth District less with a recommendation than with a plea for help. Charles Wingate had phrased it well: “He remembers almost nothing outside his lessons on the Divine will; he desperately needs someone to drive into him some practical application of what he knows.”
“Yes, sir!” The third woman in the group was, like Maccani Moor, a familiar face from the previous cohort. She had cast an eye toward the other two girls already, and not as prospective friends, from the looks of it.
Everard looked over the group once more. “I have taken on each of you for specialized training. You will stay with me for as long as your training lasts, or until I hand you off to someone more qualified for your specialty. As you might have guessed already, each of you is here for different reasons. Parts of your training will involve the group; other parts will be individualized. We start with a group run. Five times around the perimeter of the grounds. Moor, Warhite, you know the routine, so you will lead off this time. The rest of you will follow their pace.” He jerked his head to direct Mica to leave his side and run with the group. When they had started, Everard ran behind them to observe their form.
Almost immediately, Everard had to call out, “Tate, fall back into formation. No chatter.” He watched the boy drop back into his place in the single line of runners. Lillias Allen, the runner ahead of Rusza, was keeping the pace well.
“Locke, move up. No lagging.” He watched his son struggling with this easy pace and tightened his lips. “Cooper, this isn’t a race. Maintain adequate following distance.” They reached the first turn, and the leaders raised the pace slightly. “Tate, no chatter. Don’t make me repeat myself. Taivas, move up three places.” He noted how the girl from North Territory ran smoothly and easily as she moved up the outside to take her place in line between Allen and Tate. “Tarbengar, move up one place. Can your cub keep up?”
“Yes, sir.” The West Territory boy loped forward to take the place between Taivas and Tate. His bear cub companion loped at his heels, forcing even more space between Rusza and the girls.
At the end of the first lap, Everard called out, “Change leaders.”
Maccani Moor moved up on the inside to overtake Gretta Warhite. The pace quickened to just short of a sprint. The effects were soon visible. “Allen, breathe through your mouth in rhythm with your strides,” Everard called out. “Inhale for two, exhale for two. Cooper, mind your distance; this isn’t a race. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Rusza yelled, “Sir, the bear just passed Taivas.”
“The bear isn’t here for training. Ignore the bear,” Everard retorted. He gauged the runners again. Then he moved up on the outside to run alongside Mica. “Elbows in,” he said. “Breathe in rhythm. Don’t try to place your feet; just let them fall. Lean back a little. You should remember this,” he added.
Mica gave a short nod, unable to speak.
At the second turn of the second lap, the leaders changed again and the pace slowed to its original speed. Everard fell back to the end of the line again. “Tate, fall back. Control your energy. Leaders, hold this pace for the third lap.”
At the end of the fourth lap, Everard decided to change plans. “Fifth lap, choose your own pace, as long as you finish the lap.” He watched as Anion Cooper, thus freed, sprinted forward to overtake the leaders. Rusza kept pace with Cooper, while Mica slowed to a limping jog. Lillias Allen slowed as well, while Elfric Tarbengar held to the original pace with his bear cub companion. Sanna Taivas increased her pace to catch up with the leaders, and then matched them. Sora Waeber followed heedlessly behind Tarbengar’s broad back.
Rusza finished first, having consistently outpaced Anion Cooper, but at the end he didn’t stop. “Problem, sir!” he yelled.
Everard saw the boy still accelerating and shouted, “Doc!” But Dr. Rao was at the wrong end of the parade grounds to get near Rusza. “Taivas,” Everard shouted, “bring him down.”
The cadet turned back along the path. She whipped past Elfric and Sora, Lillias, Mica and Everard at a full sprint. Cold air washed over them. She had pulled off her gloves and was bearing down on a point that Rusza would soon cross. The temperature in the parade grounds continued to drop. The humid air turned to fog at Sanna’s heels. None of the group was near enough to see exactly what happened, but they all heard the impact. Then, after a few seconds, a long and ragged indrawn breath resounded through the fog. Rusza groaned and said, “Thanks…” and groaned again.
Dr. Rao spoke from that direction. “Both of you, just concentrate on your energy. Rusza Tate, don’t move.”
The morning sun broke through the fog, which began to dwindle. Soon all could see the trio at the other side of the parade grounds. Everard called out, “The rest of you, finish your lap and stay at the far end of the grounds.” He jogged to the trio. “Doc?”
Dr. Rao glanced at him. “We’re all right so far.” She held her hands outstretched, not toward Rusza but toward Sanna.
“Don’t,” Sanna warned, “don’t touch.” Fog rose from her skin wherever the air touched her.
“I won’t touch you,” Dr. Rao reassured her. “I’m only monitoring right now. You need to deplete, Sanna. Countering with heat isn’t enough.”
“Doc, may I move yet?” Rusza asked from where he lay sprawled on his back.
“I don’t want you to move until I can check your levels, but I need to focus on Sanna right now.”
“I can help. I won’t move, but here, see if this helps.” The fog thickened as heat waves started radiating from Rusza. “I see what you meant by ‘Nothing burns me,’ Sanna Taivas. I’m the same, but with cold. I never feel cold. So I’m guessing we can both deplete energies and balance each other out.”
“It could work,” said Dr. Rao. “Father, if you would take some more distance…”
Everard backed away until he stood outside the fog. He listened as the doctor said, “From what I can tell at this distance, Rusza, you’re safe to stand up, but don’t walk around or fidget or make any superfluous motions. Each of you should be able to sense the other’s thermal energy, since you share that sympathy. Gauge your output accordingly. Sanna, you can do more. It’s still at a safe level. Don’t be afraid. Rusza, how is it?”
“Feels nice,” he said with a grin in his voice. “I can take more than this, lots more.”
“You hear that, Sanna? Don’t worry about harming me. Sympathies can’t hurt me. That’s how human sympathy sympathy works: my sympathy stops yours as soon as yours touches me. That’s good. Trust me; trust Rusza too, he’s strong enough.”
Eventually the atmosphere stabilized and the fog subsided enough to reveal the two young soldiers and Dr. Rao standing midway between them. Rusza’s skin glowed ruddy with the heat he generated, while Sanna was chalk-white with anxiety.
“Sanna, let’s take advantage of the opportunity and have you deplete enough to take off your jacket,” suggested Dr. Rao. “Once we get your sympathy that far under control, I’ll give you an adjustment massage, and you won’t need to worry about it for a while.”
Sanna was clearly hesitant.
“Don’t worry,” Rusza said cheerfully, “I’ve got you.”
Sanna squared her shoulders. She lifted one hand to the snaps that fastened the uniform jacket at her left shoulder. Slowly, she unsnapped all four snaps. Then, after a deep breath, she shrugged out of the jacket and let it drop to the ground.
“Wow,” Rusza said.
Everard saw where the boy’s gaze was focused and said warningly, “Rusza…”
“Just stop right there. Focus on what you need to do.”
Sanna had not missed a nuance of this exchange. Her anxiety had quickly turned to embarrassment that verged on annoyance. She folded her arms across her full bosom. Frost whitened the black long-sleeved t-shirt she wore under her jacket.
Rusza said in awe, “I get hot just looking at you.”
“Rusza…” said Everard.
“I didn’t mean… yes, that sounded really wrong, but I just meant, it’s so hot out already, and you’ve been running all this time in all those heavy clothes! Do you never break a sweat?”
“Not often,” Sanna replied. “I am now, though.” She rubbed the back of her hand against her forehead.
Dr. Rao said, “That’s an encouraging sign. Let’s try this.” She closed the distance and touched her fingertips to the back of Sanna’s neck.
Sanna shivered. Then she smiled. “That tickles. I had forgotten how ticklish the back of my neck is.”
“I’m not surprised,” Dr. Rao said, “considering how long it has been since you let anyone touch you. Humans need human contact, you know.” She began to rub Sanna’s shoulders vigorously.
Sanna exhaled. “I know. It just brings back… I never like to risk it,” she amended.
“You need to change the way you deal with your sympathy,” Everard declared as he approached again. “No more depending on your equipment to keep your sympathy in check. I want a report twice daily as to your levels, more often when you’re unstable. You’ll meet with Dr. Rao every evening before curfew to have a checkup. We are here to help you with this,” he reminded Sanna, “and we know how to help you with it. Understood?”
“Yes, sir. And thank you, Dr. Rao. Thank you, Rusza Tate.”
“My pleasure, Sanna Taivas!” Rusza replied.
“As for you, Rusza,” said Everard, “what happened?”
“That guy never slows down,” Rusza answered, “and the faster he moved, the more mechanical energy I was getting from him, until I couldn’t pull it back anymore. That was a great tackle, I have to say.” He grinned at Sanna.
“I only wish I could have seen it. It sounded impressive,” Everard noted. “You learned quite a lot from Suvi Guslin. Poor man,” he added.
“Doc never minded being overshadowed by his wife,” Sanna said. “He was proud of her and her accomplishments. She was proud of him too. It was Nilma who had him teach me.”
Everard nodded, but his next words were for Rusza. “From now on, when we do physical training, you will start half an hour earlier than the rest. While the rest are doing their exercises, you will do a separate course of exercises designed for mechanical energy sympathy.”
“I have to be by myself?”
Rusza’s forlorn face made no impression on Everard. “It might help you maintain your focus. Today I had to tell you twice not to let Trainee Allen distract you. If you had been paying attention to your levels instead of to girls, all of this might not have happened. Doc, I leave Private Taivas in your care. Rusza, with me.” Everard led the boy back to the starting point, where the rest of the group still waited in obedience.
“Sir,” said Lillias Allen as soon as he was near enough, “will Private Taivas be all right?”
“She will,” Everard answered.
“She was so anxious around us,” the girl continued, “and there’s the armband, so I just wondered…”
“Dr. Rao is one of the best, if not the best adjuster in Haazak. She is confident that everything is under control, which means everything is under control.”