Noisy is the one who speaks in lies. Liar is the one who holds his tongue.
“Get settled everyone!” Professor Vandle’s familiar commanding voice resounded throughout the large multi-rowed lecture room quieting all conversation at once. Hales was the last to find her seat, as it became clear that more than a couple students were never arriving.
“Our class has shrunk somewhat since summer break.” He sounded neither angry nor surprised by that fact. Hales figured that it must be common for students to leave the Garghent Elite Military Cadet High School for the Savant upon awakening their Aspect.
“As you may or may not know Jonatan Velm died in a car crash recently…” Hales wanted to risk a glance at Yillo who sat a few seats beside her but she fought the urge. “No matter the kind of power you possess, we are still mortal and tragedy can strike at any moment. You could catch sickness and die, you could get robbed and killed in your sleep, struck by lightning. You get the idea. It is important to remember your own mortality as we begin your final year of school.”
“Antho Harsk as well won’t be joining us this year, and is technically a deserter, though I deem him a good kid with his heart in the right place. I won’t pursue him and if any of you are still in touch with him I assure you there will be no pressure to say anything, so long as he remains on our side of the law.” Professor Vandle assumed all his students already knew the fate of their missing classmates yet the formality was required. He straightened some papers on his lectern and cleared his throat.
“According to Emilo and Benhan, Garriot had complications with his Goblin Aspect and I quote ‘disappeared from reality’. There is no sign of him whatsoever. It is not unheard of that such a thing is possible, we are dealing with forces beyond our comprehension, let this be a lesson for all of you to exercise caution when training. Admittedly his case was rather unique. I for one have never seen an Aspect which has its own personality and interests.”
Talayia leaned into Hales and whispered, “Does Professor Vandle seem different today?”
Hales gave it a moment’s thought. “More talkative, maybe he misses us?”
“Maybe…” Talayia leaned back but didn’t sound convinced. Hales thought about Garriot and Jonatan who were in the same clique as Emilo and Benhan. In one crazy night they were halved, Hales almost felt bad for them. The fact that they were all sadistic bullies made her a little less inclined to empathize. Regardless, they were her classmates and within the year they would be in a military uniform all fighting whichever enemy beckons first.
“Lo, Aulus and Winnow have had their contracts rescinded and their service traded to an organization of special forces called Aceldama.” A student Hales recognized as Xander raised his hand and asked the obvious question. “What is Aceldama?”
“They are an elite operative unit, consisting of soldiers and Specters alike, from all over the world who act as humanity’s first line of defense. They orbit high in the atmosphere and drop to any location where outstanding turmoil threatens people, usually one that is not associated with any politics. For example, I imagine they are recruiting now to help deal with the Brother Continents… issue. It is a great honor to receive a letter of recruitment and an even greater sacrifice to accept.” More hands raised but Vandle dismissed them.
“We will be covering problems of global concern and plenty more this year as you prepare for the military. I will be honest with you all, this year is going to pass by excruciatingly fast. There is volumes to learn and much more to train for.” Hales paid further attention to her Professor. There was something different, not looks wise though. The veteran turned teacher was still tall with aquiline features and close cropped hair. It was his tone and demeanor that changed. Vandle lectured on, segueing into the day’s lesson; current affairs and the dynamics of Garghent’s government and sociopolitical affairs.
“Garghent’s rule is split into two factions. First is the merchant faction. It is run by a small hierarchy of aristocrats who deal with trade, infrastructure, business, education, foreign relations and law-making during times of peace. The second is the military faction run by the director and generals who governs the police, city defenses, law making during times of war and of course war itself. Special schools like ours are run by the co-support of both factions. There are many sub-factions and joint organizations and like the city itself, a spider web. Only this is one of politics and plots. And like a spider web there is a center. The collective center, and considered Graghent’s ruler, is Gemma. Traditionally Garghent’s primary leader is called the Janiform, due to the dual role of governing the city as an equal citizen and maintaining balance in the wealthy as an aristocrat, playing leader of both merchant and military factions alike. Therefore he is called Janiform Gemma. The Janiform is determined by monetary investment. The wealthiest citizen of Garghent buys the position upon the vacancy of the role. The previous Janiform was Amenais who made many changes to how large corporations are run as well as expanding and renovating large sections of the city. Generally he was well liked and did more good than harm, only retiring half a decade ago. Now if we take a look…”
Professor Vandle continued for hours, nonstop in his lessons. The oversized chalkboard on the stadium behind him filling with endless notes, equations, markings and sketches. They had ground to cover, he claimed, and not enough time to cover it all.
Hales finally pinned the shift she sensed in the Professor; urgency.
Something really did lurk quietly in the shadows, just beyond the horizon, ready to tear the land asunder.
School days lasted twice as long, to the point where Hales and her classmates spent more time in class. Home became a word used to denote the place of sleep. Lessons proceeded one after the other without breaks and training was sparsed randomly throughout the day without so much as a word of warning. The school year was starting to bear striking similarity to their camp on the mountain, endless hours of training and learning without pause. Classes could range from anything like mathematics, geography, politics and history to weapons handling, strategy theory, logistics, survival skills and Hales’ favorite, Aspect chemistry which was a fancy way of saying ‘playing with your power’.
It took a week to get settled in the new routine of school plus military training. Hales knew that kind of efficiency was paramount for her class to have. A whole year of military preparation so they could go straight into deployments and assignments… or war. Her class was revered within the school, the only group to have been trained by a Master Specter, who delivered on his promise for every student to awaken their Aspect. Although now they were six short of the original twenty-five. Still, the class offered a huge boon to the power of Garghent’s standing military, never before seen on such a scale. Historically speaking no single group had ever contained quite so many Savants, at least not officially and not in Garghent.
There were a dozen other cadet schools sprawled throughout the city, all offering more young soldiers to fight for Garhgent, with only a few new Specters within each respective class. Hales’ class was the elite among them. Their workload certainly reflected the expectations. Education won wars in the long run, Vandle had said time and time again. Simply training people to point and shoot did little for rebuilding and sure it could conquer enemy armies but actual victory over the ‘other side’ required a delicate balance of politics, intelligence, influence and respect… or fear if one failed to garner any of the former. Either way, knowledge is power and power comes from within, at least in the case of the Aspect.
An emphasis was placed on leadership development as the top scorers would receive recommendations to be promoted to captain rank and given their own squad upon their graduation and formal introduction into the ranks of Garghent’s fighting force. A long ways away, yet terribly soon… around the corner soon.
These days Hales had little free time, the state of her home deteriorating without her care and cleaning. Her siblings rampaging the house unsupervised. Hales called Deo almost every night and the long conversations and discussions would commence, lasting through the morning until Hales crashed, exhaustion finally overcoming insomnia. Topics typically revolved around what Hales was learning in school. It proved useful for Hales to converse about her studies, and Deo usually had his own opinions or understandings of whatever they talked about. His knowledge base was extreme and Hales thought that he could easily be the top of his class in her school.
“I just don’t get it, it’s like you’re learning side by side all things we are being taught!” Hales exclaimed, frustrated that he could answer so many questions while adding further points to consider. This particular conversation was about the Great Tidal Wall.
“It should be common knowledge, Hales. There’s a long trench in between both continents with massive geysers that constantly spit water upwards while the ocean continues to waterfall down the trench, thus creating the Great Tidal Wall.” Deo responding over the phone.
“That ‘wall’ is in between the two closest points of the Brother and Sister continents.” Hales stated the question as a fact.
“Yes, because the other side, east from our point of view, is an ocean that spans three thousand kilometers more than the west Aises Ocean.”
“I guess I just don’t understand why it’s so hard for ships to travel from one continent to the other.” Hales mulled over a dozen different problems at the same time, the grueling amount of studying she had to catch up on made her head whirl.
“Anomalies, supplies, storms, lack of islands to restock up on. There are some boats that can make the trip but they are few and far between. In the main, the Aises is too dangerous for anything shy of emergency.”
Hales didn’t respond immediately. Deo spoke again first. “Are you taking notes on what I’m saying?”
“Yeah, you explained it better than our professor.”
“No, Vandle usually does a good job explaining things. This other guy is a university professor and his lectures might actually be the secret weapon Garghent is looking for…”
Deo continued his explanation. “We maintain communication through satellite, though there is little that we can do for eachother.”
“Little but not nothing, right?” Hales pressed.
“Orbital jumps are the most practical and safest. They fly a rocket into the outer reaches of the atmosphere and let the planet rotate to their desired position before launching back down in pods. It has proven easier for humans to ascend into space than it has to traverse our world’s ocean.”
“Finally something that makes more sense to me. Space is right down my alley.”
“Oh really? Hadn’t noticed.” Hales knew that Deo could sense her scowl through the phone.
“You know anything about the group called Aceldama?” Hales asked.
“They are one of the few combat groups approved to use orbits freely.”
“Right, the whole space agreement treatise.” Space was considered to be a priority only area. To receive priority a group had to have the approval of at least five city-states before the sanctions required to use the orbits could be approved, at least without any repercussions. Technically any city-state with a rocket ship could enter the space, it’s just that they would be promptly destroyed if they did. The reasoning behind all the regulations was to prevent specific cities from dominating the orbits and space, which could cause a monopoly on inter-continental travel, control over satellite communications and the biggest reason of all, global spy networks.
No, any organization with their eyes set on the stars had to be independent of all sides with neutral relations.
“Do you think there will be a war?” Hales asked Deo one night, the question burning inside her for the last couple months.
“There are wars constantly. Mostly they are disputes over trivial bureaucracies like farmland claims, trade tariffs, resource exploitation and political favors. The current situation of our continent, and probably this applies for the Brother continent as well, is there exists a delicate balance of powers. No ruler is bold or stupid enough to outright invade and conquer another city-state as all the other city-states would form alliances and crush the warmonger. Battles are fought through assassinations, displays of strength and weaponry, political intrigue, shrewd business practice, exploiting the power of the Aspect… On top of all of this is the number of Specters and peace-keeping organizations that could swiftly put an end to any major leader.”
“So basically a giant playground cesspit for the oligarchs?” Hales concluded.
“Pretty much.” The shrug in Deo’s phone voice audible.
A thought occurred in Hales after the usual end of conversation silence. “If there is no real concern for war why does my class exist? Why the need for so many Savants and all the pressure for training.”
“I’m not really certain. A full scale war is out of the question, I think. More likely it’s part of an arms race prerogative. Constantly seeking stronger warriors with more terrifying powers is just part of the game. A metropolis that doesn’t grow and evolve will quickly lose business and influence in the world.”
“Hmm, I’m not convinced.” Hales could just feel the air in the city shift, like a thin invisible curtain was weighing everyone’s shoulders down. She didn’t know how to explain the feeling to anyone without sounding like someone eager for blood.
Maybe it was all in her head.
Hales had voiced her concern with Abajem one day during a lunch break. The short, bug-eyed girl merely grinned, saying they were training to be soldiers so war was expected. Abajem never seemed to stress or be concerned over anything. Something more, that left Hales disconcerted, was her lack of change.
Abajem killed someone in the tournament and nothing about her mood or personality altered. No haunted looks, no sullen attitudes or grave emotions. All the things she stereotyped a person who killed would have. Hales knew she was in her head far too much, but Abajem’s blank, unblinking eyes never hid anything deeper behind them.
Yillo on the other hand, who had killed a classmate, did change. He was more angry than before, but with a lot better focus and direction. His bloodlust could still be felt during training. He had drawn blood and decided the taste suited him.
Her class was demented, there was no denying that.
Everyone had something wrong in the head.
You had to just to join the damned school.
The first quarter examination results were announced one hot summer day. The top ranked student with the highest scores in twelve out of sixteen subjects was announced as Hales.
She, perhaps by that logic, was most demented of them all.