I heard the buzz of the spinfusor too late, right before it exploded into my back. My armor locked up, my jets cut out, and I tumbled hard into the ice and skidded almost twenty meters. The impact rattled my teeth despite the protection of my armor's shield aura. If it wasn't for the enhanced grip my armor gave me, I'd have lost the mockshooter when I hit. I was a goner.
The spill didn't hurt nearly as much as being caught napping. The fact that Lachris fired the killing shot didn't do Dark for my pride.
"Thanks for the flags, Eagle-lover!" Lachris landed next to me, her jets spraying blue fire on the icepack. The two guys nearby, Biragas and a nimrod called Ragwon, zoomed off and let her scoop up my flags without a fight.
At that moment, I decided I hated guys. They all thought with their glands when it came to a girl like Lachris. Blood seeped onto my tongue from where I bit my cheek when I hit the ice, and it tasted bitter. I spat to clear my mouth and fought back tears.
It wasn't fair!
Lachris was after me 'cause I'd smiled at a Blood Eagle guy we'd passed on the way out here. He smiled at me; I smiled back. That was it--no big deal.
I should have wiped that smug grin off his face with a blaster shot. It'd have saved me this misery. Probably.
"C'mon, Kenzie!" cracked the Sergeant's voice over the command circuit. "What in stars is wrong with you? Thought you'd seen real combat!"
What else could I say? That this was a training exercise and the other people in my cadre ganged up on me when we were supposed to be fighting solo? That'd sound like I couldn't handle it like a warrior, so I swallowed the lump in my throat. No way I'd give Lachris the satisfaction of seeing me cry. Time to suck it up and go for some payback.
My armor unlocked. I struggled up and hit my jets.
My mockshooter had returned to its default setting as a blaster. I dialed it to spinfusor and felt the weight and balance reconfigure. The holodisplay blinked, and I now saw a spinfusor in my hands. Our command circuit was set for holo-training, so we could shoot at each other and see the simulated effects. Explosions like the one I'd just eaten were generated on our visors and wired into our armor systems. When one of us took enough "damage" to "die," the armor froze up and cut the jets. Depending on where you were, you could still get hurt. Safety overrides were supposed to unlock everything if your life was really at risk, but they weren't a hundred percent effective.
My HUD told me Lachris was on the way to score. With my flags!
All of a sudden I'd had it. Maybe it was all about being an orphan and trying to find a place for myself after the Grievers killed my family. I hadn't come so far just to be kicked around like an old shoe.
I needed to show Lachris--and everybody else--that I wasn't a loser. I had ten times the combat experience of anyone here. I had to remember that and let my training show.
I blasted after her and told my CC to stick a waypoint on her. The rules of Hunter were everyone for herself, but since we'd started, Lachris and the two guys she'd captured with her heavy breathing had been gunning for me really hard.
The eight of us dueled around a bowl-shaped valley in the glacier. The base squatted right in the center, and the Nexus floated on top of that. I was just over the ridge on the far side from the Nexus, so it took me a couple of good bounces to get up to where I could put eyes on Lachris. Ragwon tried to stop me, but he was clumsy. I spun in the middle of the second bounce and popped his butt with a couple of disks when he landed. He coughed up a flag, but I ignored it. I wanted Lachris.
Biragas swooped up a little too late, confident he'd zap me again. I switched to the chaingun and cut my jets to drop under his line of fire. By the time he recovered, I was right underneath his sweet spot. He locked up nicely and took a header into a snow pack. Two flags popped up near my landing point, and I decided to snag them. The flags were just digital fluff we "took" by running through them. I hesitated over him just long enough for the training network to register a transfer of ammo from him to me. My numbers climbed to over twenty rounds for the spinfusor, and my chaingun ammo registered better than full, too.
I'd need it. My only chance was to grab as many flags as I could and not go in for a score until I had a ton. My HUD told me Lachris still hadn't scored yet. I figured she was showing off, since she already had a decent lead on everybody.
I jetted down past the Nexus, skipped across the base's sloped roof, and laid into another guy with the chaingun as he chased a girl named Renzi. By the time he realized where my hits were coming from, it was too late. I body-checked him through a portal into a corridor and finished him with a few blaster rounds just for the insult. It wasn't very nice, but I was really mad.
Then I jumped Renzi, figuring the last guy had softened her up. He had. She dropped fast, and I was on my way to a decent number of flags. By this time, though, Lachris's boys were chasing me again. I started working hard to avoid being double- and triple-teamed. The effort made me sweat like a snowporker and breathe like a leaky heat pump. Lachris just dinked around like a queen, not even bothering to score. She did pick off a couple of the girls who tried to even the odds against me, and grabbed their flags. I figured she had at least eight by now. I had four.
"What's the matter, Lachris?" I finally gasped over the CC's broadband. "Afraid to fight me?"
"Never against an Eagle lover like you, Kenzie!" she shot back with a derisive laugh.
"Fine!" I jinked around a corner to shake Biragas's chaingun bead. My armor was down to twenty five percent. One good disk hit would pop me. "Set a waypoint! Bring your flags!"
A second later, a waypoint appeared on my HUD compass. Eight hundred meters away from the base. Great. We had less than three minutes before the exercise was over. The four flags I had now weren't enough to catch Lachris. I had six points; she had twenty. The way scoring worked, one more flag would put me ahead...if I scored with all five. Getting back would be a chore even if I beat her.
I dropped my last two grenades behind me to throw off any pursuit, and lit out for the waypoint on the bounce. Looked like the boys had backed off. I wasn't sure what the Sergeant was thinking, but it didn't matter. I had one crack at this girl. I had to make it count.
She met me at the top of a hill overlooking the valley. From here I could see a frozen river and a bridge in the distance. Below us the base was a small gray pyramid. The wind blew hard and cold, and I realized how tired I was, how absolutely wiped out from all the dodging. That wasn't all. I'd used my jets a lot more than I should have on the way up there, trying to rest up, and my suit's energy levels were low. Some of my hair had come loose and a few dark strands blew across my eyes. Lachris looked as pretty and fresh as a summer day, every inch the hero, while I looked ready to flop over and drown in my own sweat.
Not starkissin' fair, but I didn't care anymore.
She had her chaingun out, and as I approached, its barrels started to spin. I threw myself to the side and let loose with my spinfusor. The blue disk streaked well over her head. She didn't even flinch.
I did the only thing I could think of with such low energy reserves: I flipped onto my back and slid downhill so I'd be a smaller target for the chaingun. Virtual flechettes flashed on the snow around me, a few registering hits as finger-sized sparks on my armor. My health readout sunk into the red, and I held my breath, but my armor didn't lock. I had to aim the spinfusor between my legs, but that seemed to help, 'cause I caught Lachris right in the chest, blowing her out of sight. Quick as I could, I flipped myself onto my belly, hitting my now-recovered jets to scoot upslope in a hurry, almost like a flying crawl. By the time Lachris jetted back up overhead, I had my chaingun out and spinning. I figured she'd come back fast, so I started shooting before I saw her. That bought me an extra second, so while I hosed her with flechettes, her weapon was still spinning up. I wasn't two meters from her when her armor locked up. The curdled expression on her face was priceless. I whooped as she thumped down in a sudden scatter of flags.
"Laugh all you want, Kenzie!" she yelled. "I win anyway!"
My timer showed thirty seconds. I didn't hesitate. I hit the icepack, grabbed my one flag, and lit out.
One thing about Narhaven was that it had a lot of mountains with lots of long, steep slopes. Consequently, I grew up with skiing in my blood even before I learned how to armor ski. Once I grew big enough to wear my first training armor, Dak and my father had me zipping downhill like a sable-horned banshee. Armor skiing was this trick where you pulsed the calf jets really fast. The gravitic stabilizer was fooled into keeping you upright, and the jet stutter reduced friction so that you zipped along a lot faster than if you were just jetting. It's not easy; you have to have an eye for terrain, good reflexes, and great balance.
I rocketed down the slope, keeping my knees together like I'd been taught. My boots sprayed up ice chips and bits of rock as they sliced over the hardpack; the wind sang in my ears. I pivoted my hips back and forth and tried like Dark to avoid hitting any spoogy softpack drifts. Skiing was no good if you sank into six meters of powder. Fortunately, Ymir was more ice than snow, but it was scary. I'd never gone so fast, and the world blurred white around me. Just as I reached the lip of the last drop, I opened my jets up all the way and leaped for all I was worth. By the Wolf, it was exhilarating! I flew at the Nexus like a bullet. I had to thread the needle just right. At the speed I was going, a miss would splatter me all over the stahlplast wall like a ripe tomato.
Four seconds...three...too high! I twisted out flat and fired my jets hard. The next thing I knew, there was a jolt and a horrible scraping down my back, and I shot through the green light of the Nexus. My armor locked up as I came out the other side going way too fast, way too high, zeroing right in at a big old rock wedged into the far side of the bowl. For about one second, I congratulated myself for not pancaking, but the next instant I realized I was one dead newblood. Suddenly, my armor unlocked, and I heard the sergeant yelling across the commlink. "Kenziiiiie! Pull out, you idiot! Pull out!"
He didn't need to tell me twice! I straightened up and blasted my jets hard, barely missing the boulder. That was the hard part. After that, landing was easy.
My HUD showed the final score. I couldn't believe it. Lachris had twenty, but I had twenty-one!
I just knelt on the ice and shivered, adrenaline spent. I couldn't even stand, I was so shaky. The sergeant checked in over the CC, and gave me a few minutes to pull it together before he called me back in.
"Kenzie, that was one of the craziest, stupidest stunts I've ever seen," he announced after we'd assembled in two neat ranks by the turbogravs. A big grin stretched across his face. "If you'd pulled that at the Firetruce, you'd be immortal!"
My jaw dropped as he continued, "All I can say is, Fury better watch her hunchin' tail! Give me a claw of hotshots like you, and I'll make this one short war!"
I couldn't hold my own smile in. Lachris flushed and looked away. I hoped Dakota was watching, wherever he was, and I hoped he was proud.
It was getting dark, so we packed it in. The sky had turned a deep purple as we flew back toward our billets at Skyrholm. I was tired to the bone, but the glow of victory stuck with me. The other cadets were friendlier, and even Lachris said something nice. She sounded like she had a beetle in her mouth, but it was a start.
We were almost home when Biragas said, "Hey, check this on the CC!"
"It's a couple of butchers fighting it out!" Renzi sounded disgusted. "Scroffin' beasts!"
I patched my optiks into the command circuit and pegged the camera channel Biragas had marked. Some of the Eagle prisoners were fighting outside their barracks. It wasn't fair, two against one. Two more lay on the ice, one with his head at a bad angle.
Bad as in fatal.
Sickened, I got ready to flip away, but then the camera zoomed in and I got a closer look at their faces.
"Isn't that your boyfriend, Kenzie?" Lachris asked with a snide tone.
"What are you talking about?"
"Take a closer look, hmm?"
By the Wolf, it was him! The same guy! He looked real banged up, one eye swollen shut and cuts all over his face. One sleeve was torn, and I could see bare flesh. One of his two opponents looked kind of skinny, but the other was huge, and the two were really working a team job. The guy didn't have a chance, and judging from the way he stayed near the body, the downed prisoner meant something to him.
"Looks like your boyfriend's in trouble," Lachris purred. "Too bad."
"He's not my boyfriend!" I shot back, but I wondered: Why weren't the guards stopping this? One guy grabbed the Eagle's arm and the next second, the Eagle dropped him with a weird curving elbow strike. Unfortunately, the move left the Eagle open to a brutal kick from the giant. He caught it with the shoulder instead of his head, but it knocked him sprawling, and the giant moved in for the kill.
"He's not my boyfriend. He's not my boyfriend," I mumbled. Why should I care what happened? We were at war with these people! The Eagle tried to roll to his feet, but the giant slammed into him and grappled hard. One of the guys on the ground got up and wiped his mouth. Then he started throwing punches while the big guy held the Eagle's arms.
The guards still weren't doing anything. This wasn't starkissing fair. It wasn't even remotely honorable. Dak wouldn't have tolerated it, and neither would I.
The CC showed our t-gravs flying right over the prisoner's camp. I flipped back to regular vision, unsnapped my harness, and leaped out. Below me the camp blazed like a white beacon fenced with stars.
Lachris immediately shrieked, "Kenzie's going to save her boyfriend!"
"Kenzie!" roared the Sergeant. "What in Dark are you doing?"
By the tail of the Great Wolf, I wished I knew. I switched off my CC and fell through the night like a stone.