The students were all fidgety by the time they had assembled on the rooftop observatory. Everard clapped his hands once, sharply, to attract their attention. “This first simulation will be a skirmish. The airbag at the end of the field represents a source of Decay. Captain Yeardley’s squad will act as the Outsiders defending it. Captain Haigh and his squad will lead different Leeward squads through the simulation. Their goals are to suppress the defense without coming into contact with the source, and to destroy the source, which in this case means deflating the airbag. Captain Yeardley and his squad will attempt to prevent this from happening; they will also attempt to throw as many of the attackers as possible into the airbag. Is everyone clear on these points?”
“Yes, sir.” All the students had replied. More than that, they were all focused for once, even Waeber.
“For the first round, you will watch only. You each have an observer supervisor; ask questions, because that is why they are here. They will transmit their observations to the ground troops, so listen to them carefully. Next round, you will begin doing the same.”
A shrill whistle from below drew Everard to the observation railing. In his earpiece, he heard Emmett Brook barking instructions in a harsh, clipped voice to the participating Leeward squad. “They’re beginning,” Everard warned his students. “Get your targets in focus.”
The supervisors started speaking in undertones, pointing out to the students which ground troops they would be responsible for observing. Everard started strolling along the line, listening and watching aimlessly. He nodded to Shy Calder at the east end of the line. Shy was watching Elfric Tarbengar, who had been paired with Corporal Tezelin of Company G and seemed not to know what to think about the man.
Dr. Rao had positioned herself between Sanna Taivas and Rusza Tate, but behind them to avoid being noticed. Dr. Zuma stood beside her on the Taivas side, but she was glancing up and down the line with vigilance. Everard stopped beside her. Silently he made eye contact with each woman in turn. Dr. Rao pointed to Rusza and held up three fingers, and then pointed at Sanna and raised four fingers. Dr. Zuma focused on Sanna for several moments before indicating the number six. Everard nodded and walked on.
Anion Cooper on his crutches was just past Rusza. He had his other eye squinted tight as he peered through his monocular lens at the field below. His supervising observer, Sergeant Rantala, was already addressing the ground soldiers under his observation, giving them detailed data about how the defenders were arranged and about wind speed and direction. Cooper asked, “Why do they need to know that?”
“In a live skirmish,” Sergeant Rantala said, “the possibility exists that the Decay will release mists. You need to take that into account…”
Everard walked on. Beyond Cooper, Gretta Warhite was leaning over the railing until her supervisor said, “Don’t fall!” and pulled on her arm. “You must never forget your footing. Sometimes you might be posted on a mountain ledge or up a large tree, and if you get so caught up in trying to see better, you’ll wind up injured and unable to help anyone.”
At the same time, Moor was saying, “Not really. I’ve gotten to observe in the field once already, so it isn’t exactly new to me. What should I look out for in this situation?” His supervisor was a veteran observer from East Territory, in Leeward for R&R.
Everard paused at the west end of the line to check with Ietta Knox. She was watching Lily Allen with blatant amusement. The South Territory girl was almost bouncing on her toes as the ground troops below launched their offensive. “This isn’t a sporting event,” her supervisor reminded her. “Pay close attention.”
The first round lasted twenty minutes. While Emmett debriefed the ground troops below, Everard had his students turn to face him. “What did you notice?”
Sanna Taivas raised her hand. “Sir. It looked almost chaotic on the offense side.”
Everard nearly smiled. “That’s exactly what Drill Sergeant Brook is criticizing them for right now. In scenarios like this, against a determined defense, it’s more difficult to hold to an original strategy. Reacting to a defense as strong as this one forces you to adapt. What else?”
“Sir.” Rusza spoke and raised his hand at the same time. “Everybody who got isolated got caught, except for the one who got rescued just in time by his squad.”
“That’s a good observation. The first rule out in the field is, Never go alone. One soldier alone is vulnerable, and Captain Yeardley’s squad made a point of proving that to this group. Everyone who goes out on patrol is assigned a partner, but one of the most common rookie errors is the tendency to become overexcited and lose track of your partner in a skirmish. What else?”
Maccani Moor raised his hand. “Sir. The observers didn’t attempt to direct the offense squad at all.”
“Correct. There is usually one observer assigned to the company commander— in this case, that would be Captain Haigh— and that one observer focuses exclusively on the flow of combat. We don’t have one for this simulation, mainly because Captain Haigh is so familiar with Captain Yeardley’s methods. What kinds of direction did the observers give?”
Anion Cooper raised his hand and swayed backward. His supervisor steadied him with a strong grip. “Sir. Wind speed and direction. He said it was because of possible mist from the Decay.”
“That is one important form of direction. What else?”
Gretta Warhite raised her hand. “Sir. Imminent contact with the defense.”
“Yes. In the southern jungles, it often becomes harder to spot ambushes from the ground. The same is true in the grasslands of the east. A good observer watches for unexpected contact and raises the alert. Tarbengar?”
“Sir… Corporal Tezelin didn’t give any directions.”
“Corporal, tell him why.”
The animal sympathist obeyed. “Yes, sir. Some observers are scouts, like me. Our job is to locate the source and watch it instead of the fight.”
“Which is why he had nothing to do during this simulation. The scenario is one in which the source has been identified. Had this squad been able to get close enough to attempt their second goal, Corporal Tezelin would have been the one to guide them to the core— or, in this case, the valve where they would have let the air out of the airbag. By the way, it has been four years since the last time a local squad succeeded in achieving the second goal against Captain Yeardley’s squad.”
“Sir, does each observer have a set role like Corporal Tezelin?”
“A group of observers like we are today will always divide up the theater of combat so that everyone has a set responsibility. A squad with only a couple of observers will function differently, of course.” Everard heard Emmett’s voice through his earpiece, preparing the next squad for their round. “Take your places,” he warned, “for the second round. This time, if you notice something in your area of observation, tell your supervisor and he or she will convey it to the ground troops. Pay attention to how they say things as well as to what they say.” He looked to Jock, who nodded his readiness. Jock was taking notes of the students’ performances during the simulations.
The second round began. This squad appeared to be more experienced than the last. Everard could hear Emmett making little comments of approval over his earpiece. Then he noticed that Dr. Rao and Rusza’s supervisor Sergeant Major Fala were both glancing at him. He strolled over to join the doctor behind Rusza.
“You’ve got a stray,” Rusza was saying. “Private Hannis is trying to go solo. Yep, Aug is bearing down on him now. Pull him out before he gets caught. That opens up a gap in the defense, by the way. Corporal Farre was near as nothing to Aug’s blind spot. He could have tackled him.”
“If he had,” remarked Sanna’s supervisor abruptly, “he would have taken on more than he could cope with.”
“Probably,” said Rusza, clearly caught up in the moment, “but in a real skirmish, wouldn’t it have been worth a shot? One decoying by looking vulnerable, and the other moving in from the side?”
“That’s a little beyond the skills of this squad,” Sergeant Major Fala answered. “It has been done successfully, though.” Fala glanced back at Everard again, unnoticed by Rusza.
“Because, if I understand this right,” the boy continued, “the only way to destroy the source is to do it while the defense is under pressure and distracted. They’ll keep fighting as long as they have something to defend… right?”
“What makes you say that?” Fala asked.
“Just stuff I’ve heard, listening to Dad and Uncle Everard talk at home,” Rusza said absently. “It gets inside your head and your soul, the Decay, and it uses you as food and as a… a planter.” He leaned forward. “No, the other way! Nope, that one’s down. Is it really so hard to work as partners in the field? They look like they aren’t paying attention to each other at all down there.”
“It takes practice,” remarked Sanna’s supervisor. “And a sense of your own peril.”
“We weren’t introduced,” Rusza said. “I’m Rusza Tate. What’s your name?”
“Private Second Class Manou Breton-Padbury,” replied the other, “and I know who you are already, Rusza Tate. I’m in Captain Haigh’s squad. My combat partner is Lieutenant Donisthorpe, down there.” She pointed to a figure far below. “We’ve worked together for five years now. That’s about when you reach the point where you have a good feel for each other’s movements and methods. But go back to what you were saying.”
“I was saying…?”
“About luring the defense.”
“Ah, that. It just sounds to me like the Decay will provoke the defenders keep defending it unless it’s destroyed, so trying to take them all out first would be the harder way to do it.”
Everard had to smile. “Next round,” he said, “I want you to tell that to the Leeward squad leader.”
Breton-Padbury glanced at him. “Sir…”
“I understand, Private, but this is Rusza’s own idea. I want to see what he can do with it.” Everard heard Emmett calling the second round to a halt. “The current squad should now have their earpieces switched off. Rusza, set your earpiece to channel 21. That’s the offense company’s command channel. Only Captain Haigh, Lieutenant Donisthorpe, and the next squad’s leader should be on that channel.”
Rusza removed his earpiece, changed the settings, and put it back in. “What do I say?”
“The correct formula is, Trainee Tate to offense command, permission to speak.” Everard watched Rusza nervously repeat his words. Then, with a little jump, the boy said, “Um, thanks. Who’s the squad commander for round three?” He waited a moment. “Lieutenant Visnia, Un— Father Locke says I’m supposed to tell you something that I’ve noticed from watching the first two rounds.” Rusza’s manner went from nervous to eager as he explained his ideas. Everard reached up to change channels on his own earpiece.
After Rusza finished talking, there was a moment of silence on the channel. Then a woman’s voice said, “That sounds interesting, Trainee Tate. Captain Haigh, do you recommend that we test Trainee Tate’s ideas for our round?”
Edmund Haigh’s voice was bland as he said, “Go ahead.”
Everard’s wide mouth twitched at one corner. He added his own remark: “I assure you that this is entirely Tate’s idea.”
“Curious, sir,” was all Edmund said in reply.
“We’ll sign off this channel now,” Everard said. He gestured for Rusza to do so.
“Sir,” Edmund replied.
Changing back to Emmett’s channel, Everard heard the drill sergeant finishing his critique of the second round. “They’re nearly ready to start round three,” he announced. “Let’s see if you are right, Rusza. Watch closely.” He backed away, having caught Dr. Zuma’s gaze. When he stood beside her, removed from the line of students, he murmured, “How is she?”
“Better. That boy has distracted her from the significance of the captures. Now she’s focusing on the activity itself, and not on the memories it awakened. But I’m concerned about the simulations to follow.”
Everard nodded thoughtfully. He returned to his stroll up and down the line. The students were growing accustomed to voicing their observations to the ground troops, although Waeber often forgot to say anything in his absorption and Allen was still inclined to tell things to her supervisor rather than directly to the soldiers below. Tarbengar and Corporal Tezelin stood silently together at the other end of the line, watchful and less awkward together than at first. Taivas began giving her soldiers advice on northern-style incapacitation techniques. When Everard went to the railing next to her and looked down, he noticed at once that the soldiers she was observing were in the thick of hand-to-hand, and he heard Rusza saying, “You’ve got a good decoy operating right now. Use the distraction as cover. Corporal Tezelin, where’s the valve? The ‘core,’ I mean?”
“Round the back, low to the ground at the south-southeast,” said Tezelin promptly.
“Did you hear that?” Rusza said. “South-southeast. Look out, you’ve got three pulling away from the skirmish and heading your way. You’ve been spotted. Pull back. Moor, yours are closer around that side. Can they pull free?”
Maccani Moor didn’t hesitate a moment. “Not yet. Get some distance, like you’re retreating. Did you notice, Tate? They won’t pursue past a certain point.”
“Radius of influence,” said Everard. “Within that radius, the Decay exerts its strongest control.”
“How can we use it?” Rusza mused. “There has to be a way.”
Sanna Taivas said, “They don’t operate in pairs.”
Rusza exclaimed aloud in his excitement. “That’s it! Spread them out. Use your numbers and the radius of influence to separate the defenders. Attack on multiple fronts, but stay with your partners.”
Dr. Rao leaned close to speak in Everard’s free ear. “We’re going to have to apologize to Lieutenant Visnia after this one.”
“It’s a good thing she’s such a mellow personality.”
“I know that too. Why do you think I had him try out his ideas on this round?”
Dr. Rao gave a short laugh.
The third squad did not succeed in meeting the second goal either. Everard listened to the critique with considerable interest.
“Your squad was more disorganized than it should have been,” Emmett started out by saying to the group. “It was like watching a three-headed dog chasing after its tail.”
Everard strolled away from the students and spoke. “Sorry about that, Emmett. That’s our fault up here. Some of the soldiers in Lieutenant Visnia’s squad were receiving different commands from the rest.” He named the soldiers who had been receiving advice from Taivas, Tate, and Moor. “We won’t do it for the rest of the rounds.”
“I want to talk to that Tate boy after supper,” Emmett warned him.
“I expected you to say that.”
Emmett continued, “You lot, you who were getting your instructions from the observation platform, you actually got the closest to your goal. Explain what you were trying to do.”
Because the students were looking to him, Everard told them, “Tate, Taivas, and Moor: you just got your soldiers yelled at by their drill instructor. Why do you think that happened?”
The three students he named looked at one another ruefully. Sanna Taivas answered first. “Because we started giving them directions as to how to fight, and that’s the job of their commanding officer.”
“Correct.” Everard looked Rusza in the eye. “Drill Sergeant Brook wants a word with you after supper.”
“And I’m in trouble again,” the boy groaned.
“We’ll see about that.”
Two more Leeward squads ran the simulation after that. Everard listened closely, but he heard little from the three who had gotten carried away during the third round. Dr. Rao had to set a hand on Rusza’s head because he was fidgeting and forgetting to mind his mechanical energy. Then, once the last squad from Leeward had gone through the simulation and the following critique, Everard said, “Now you get to see something really interesting. Turn your microphones off; you won’t have the opportunity to make any remarks during this last round. You are about to see Captain Haigh’s squad go head-to-head with Captain Yeardley’s squad.”
Rusza whistled. Then he grinned. “This is going to be good.”
Everard moved to the railing between Private Breton-Padbury and Rusza. For the first time, he donned his own monocular lens and focused it on the field below. He located Aug Yeardley and saw that he was rubbing his palms together and pacing, as he often did when especially looking forward to action. His squad had spread out along the radius of influence. Then Everard located Edmund Haigh and saw that he had taken off his gloves. Telltale sparks leaped between his fingers. He had a young man at his side, a young man whom Everard did not recall seeing before but whose name he knew: Wishart Turstin. This young man was also generating sparks from his fingers as Edmund spoke to him.
No perceptible signal went up, but suddenly the offense squad charged the line of the defense. Edmund veered around the edge, aiming for one of the younger defenders. He was a human stun gun. He incapacitated three defenders before Aug caught up with him and intervened.
“Sir,” said Sanna Taivas.
“Captain Yeardley is fighting with one hand in his pocket. Is that a uniquely southern fighting style?”
“Not uniquely southern,” Everard replied, “but unique to those who have learned how to fight E-M sympathists. You know that only an energy sympathist can effectively counter another energy sympathist. Electromagnetic energy is a special case. Energy sympathists who do not possess a specifically E-M sympathy can be as badly injured by it as those who don’t have any energy sympathy. If you were to go up against Captain Haigh, for example, you would need to adapt your fighting style to take into account what is called the ‘single point of contact rule.’ Grappling with two points of contact risks the electricity running through your heart, so the single point of contact rule protects you. Edmund uses it too, as a precaution against hurting either his subordinates or his enemies. To stun people, he uses one hand, two knuckles. This creates a localized shock, and he’s careful where he places the shock. Like you, he was born with a single, especially strong energy sympathy and has spent his entire life so far refining his control over it.”
“Whoa!” Rusza exclaimed. “What was that?”
“That” had been a dazzling display of light that burst upon the observers’ eyes from between the two captains. Everard blinked as he replied, “That was what Captain Haigh refers to as ‘chaff.’ He doesn’t have radiant energy sympathy, so to distract or startle his opponent he generates a screen of electrical sparks bright enough to dazzle. I just said he has spent his life refining his control over his sympathy. You could learn something about what is possible for E-M sympathy from him.”
“They’re fighting hard,” Sanna observed.
“We may be members of the same company, but we give one another no quarter in these exercises,” said Private Breton-Padbury. “For the offense squad, it’s a matter of learning to deal with a strong defense. For the defense squad, it’s a matter of learning how to face a strong offense with minimal support. Sometimes the outlying villages are attacked by Outsider extremists. You should talk to Herrie. She can tell you what it’s like to be caught alone, the only defender of a frontier homestead. I think she was twelve or thirteen the first time it happened to her, with her five younger siblings in the house and her parents away at market.”
“Harry? She?” said Rusza.
“Herriette is her real given name, but most of us just call her Herrie.”
By that point, the two captains had fought each other into a wary standoff. The defenders whom Edmund had stunned had been carried away, but his own backup, Turstin, had been caught and incapacitated as well. The lull in the fight allowed both sides to regroup on either side of the radius of influence. Then Aug yelled something, and two of his remaining squad members raced around the far side of the giant airbag. Something like a great sigh rose from the direction they were running toward.
“That’s the end,” said Everard. “One of them got to the valve.”
“Defense is harder than offense,” mused Rusza.
“In this simulation, at least. They have simplified it greatly for the sake of time, but rarely will you ever deal with a real skirmish that happens out in the open without cover, as this one was. More commonly, you’ll find the Decay establishing itself in dark corners and sheltered places where it’s hard to get at. Now,” he said, “we’ll go down to the training field. You three,” and he indicated Sanna, Rusza, and Maccani with his eyes, “need to bend your necks to Lieutenant Visnia, for one thing.”
Cherry Visnia was in conversation with two of her squad members when Everard and his entourage arrived. She removed her helmet to show prematurely gray-streaked black hair, slightly sweat-dampened. “Which one, sir?” she asked Everard.
“This is Rusza Tate, the author of the incident.” Everard gestured for Rusza to step forward. “And these are Sanna Taivas and Maccani Moor, his accomplices.”
Sanna was first to lower her head. “I’m sorry for interfering with your command.”
The two young men took their cue from her, almost in unison.
“Apologies accepted, children,” said Lieutenant Visnia. “I learned a great deal from it, and I hope you did as well. You have a sharp eye, Tate. Are you being trained for command?”
Rusza looked at Everard, who replied in his place. “Not until now. This simulation caused a happy accident. Until this afternoon, no one had any idea he had such an ability.”
“Rusza!” Aug came loping across the field. “You brat! Why are you giving tips to my enemies?” Edmund came close behind him but said nothing as Aug threw an arm around his cousin and shook him with playful vigor.
From the other direction, Emmett Brook strode toward them, calling out, “Tate! I want to talk to you!” in his usual sharp bark.
Rusza turned his eyes anxiously toward Everard again. “I thought you said after supper…” just before the drill sergeant grabbed him by the elbow and hustled him away.
“Emmett’s so impatient,” Edmund said.
Everard nodded his agreement silently. “How do you rate this year’s first simulation?”
“Better than average, but I think that’s partly due to him.” Edmund looked at Rusza across the distance. “How many types of energy can he use? I can sense E-M from him.”
“Four,” said Dr. Rao from behind Everard. “Thermal, radiant, E-M, and mechanical. We’re waiting on a specialist to arrive to help him control the last one.”
“Four?” Aug exclaimed. “I only knew about three. That kid is just bursting with surprises. So, Private Taivas, what did you think of the last round?” He drew her aside to listen to her remarks.
Rusza hurried back to them. “It is after supper,” he said to Everard, “but he wanted to make sure I knew.” He sounded relieved.
“Not in trouble?” Maccani asked.
“He didn’t say I was.”
Suddenly Everard noticed that Wishart Turstin had approached. Turstin planted himself in front of Rusza. “Wishart Turstin,” he introduced himself. “From Hacche Mead, South Territory.” His forward-thrust hand sparked with electricity.
Rusza accepted the hand. “Rusza Tate, Metal District of the capital. Pleased to meet you.”
“Turstin,” said Edmund in a warning tone.
Turstin ignored his superior officer. Steam began to rise from his hand and forearm as he gripped Rusza’s hand.
Rusza grinned. “I’ve got that one too. And this.” He began to glow with retained sunlight.
Their mutual grip tightened and tightened.
Just as abruptly as Turstin had appeared, Sanna returned. “You know better, Rusza Tate.”
“I’d let go if he would,” said Rusza, still smiling.
Wishart Turstin snapped, “Don’t interfere, woman.”
Sanna breathed a soft growl of exasperation and put her right hand in her pocket. Her right leg swept up in a crescent kick that knocked the grip asunder by force. The swing of her foot was in Turstin’s direction, and he leaned back to dodge it. He never saw her left hand until Sanna palmed his face with it and threw him to the ground. With a crackle, the ground around him froze and a thick film of frost appeared on his uniform. “Cool your head.”
Rusza broke out laughing. “She got you!”
Sanna spun and knocked his feet from under him with a leg sweep. “Don’t gloat over your enemy’s fall.”
“But rather fear, knowing that you only stand because of the mercy of the Only One,” Everard said, finishing the proverb for her. “Or, in this case, of Sanna Taivas.” He bent over Rusza and shook his head. “You’re very bright with strategies in every other area but this.” Then he strolled over to gaze down at Wishart Turstin, who was still recovering from hitting the ground so hard. “We haven’t met, Private Turstin, but I know who you are.”
Turstin, coughing, rolled onto his side. “And who are you?”
At this, Edmund reached down and swatted the young man over the back of the head. “This is Father Everard Locke, Turstin, so guard your tongue.”
Turstin struggled to his feet, shedding flakes of frost as he stood. He glared at Sanna. “Interfering woman.”
Edmund slapped him over the back of the head again. “You have no room to complain. She has only one energy to draw from, but she just put you down properly.”
“And that’s the difference between raw ability and polished skill,” Aug chimed in, “like we’ve been telling you.”
What Turstin’s retort would have been, no one found out. His glare, in sweeping the faces around him, had stopped and turned to an equally fierce look of triumph. “Who are you?”
“Lilias Allen,” said the trainee.
Turstin reached out and snagged her hand. “Go out with me, Lilias Allen.”
She tried and failed to pull her hand free. “Who do you think you are?”
“I’m who you’re going to marry,” Turstin replied.
“It hurts,” Lily protested.
Rusza and Sanna moved at the same time. Rusza pulled Lily back by the shoulders just as Sanna launched a high whip kick that dropped Turstin unconscious to the ground.
“Are you okay?” Rusza asked Lily.
She nodded, but she was clearly shaken. Dr. Rao took her by the shoulders and walked her away, speaking softly to her.
Rusza went to crouch down by Turstin. He looked up at Sanna. “You’ve been going easy on me.”
She gave him a peculiar look. “When are you going to do this for yourself? You are more able to fight someone like him than most of us.” Then she turned her back and walked away without another word.
Rusza shifted his attention to Everard. “What did I say? Why is she upset with me?”
“For once,” Everard admitted, “I have no idea what she’s thinking. Lieutenant Visnia, would you have this young man carried to the spa for treatment? When he is conscious and the medics are satisfied with his condition, have him confined until further notice.”
Everard pivoted to gaze after Sanna in concern, but by that time she had been caught between two of the women of Aug’s squad. “That’s Lydbury and Wake, right?”
“Those two will love her forever for this. Turstin has been nothing but rude to them, but I wouldn’t let them retaliate when it was just rudeness. Listen to them!”
Everard listened. He could discern no specific words, but the two women’s tones held laughter and excitement. “Has it been that bad?”
“Unfortunately,” Aug confirmed. “I felt more satisfaction than I should have done, seeing her throw him on the ground like he’s a rag doll, but he has been a trial.”
“We need to sit down together and discuss what might be done about him,” Everard said. “Clearly the first option hasn’t worked.”
“And about the other matter, sir,” Edmund said.
“You really are insistent, Edmund. Since that is also on the table, let’s do this: for lunch tomorrow, leave two hours open and meet me by the main gate. Bring swim shorts and a towel.”
“Sounds like fun,” Aug laughed. “We’ll be there, sir. But for now, we should get to the obstacle course and make sure it’s all prepared.”