“Truly a testament to the actions of a modern hero, repairs are underway to reverse the damage of the crash down three weeks ago. If not for the intervention of the brave pilot who singlehandedly held back the locust until the corps could arrive, this very well could have been a memorial service.”
“I don’t think anyone would argue with that,” the co-anchor affirmed. “The corps still has not revealed the identity of the famed pilot. Rumor has it, this is because he or she is a cadet”
“Not even a graduate,” the anchor acknowledged, stressing the point.
“As you can imagine, countless families are eager to know just who to thank for their lives, and now they can have a name to give their gratitude.”
“That’s right. The corps recently disclosed the call sign of the young pilot. Apparently, he is called, ‘Raven.’”
“‘Raven,’ Huh? If you’re listening, Raven. Thank you.”
“What is a ‘raven?’” asked a Chinese cadet in a green uniform, one of many seated in the dropship’s passenger cabin.
“It’s a kind of dark bird, like a crow,” answered a cadet in tan with a mild English accent. “It’s also a color really close to black.”
“I’m glad they were able to start reconstruction,” said the passenger next to him, another cadet in tan. “Even if it is the union. There are some things no one deserves to suffer.”
“How come the corps did not have a presence there?” asked another clad in green. “I thought the Union tracked crash downs?”
“I heard it was supposed to hit farther to the north, but it fragmented and split on reentry.”
“That explains a lot if it was spread out,” stated another cadet in green. “I fail to believe a cadet could hold back a whole crashdown.”
“There’s the local militia,” a blue uniformed cadet hopefully suggested.
“Against locusts?” they asked skeptically. “We wouldn’t need the corps if militaries were any use.”
“Maybe where you come from, but this is the NAU we’re talking about. We don’t just roll over and die because things get hopeless.”
“Even if you had the equipment, that is still thirty or forty locusts,” a cadet in a brown uniform with a thick Russian accent acknowledged. “Armies have been overrun by less.”
“The accounts are exaggerated,” a green flippantly interjected. “The NAU probably wants to spread hero worship propaganda.”
“Not everyone is so blatant with their propaganda as they are in China,” the brown mocked. “When American news lies it is with slander and omission. I do not believe they would make up a story that draws attention to their own military failure.”
“The corps consolidating their forces, I can believe,” a tan admitted. “The Union not having any troops on standby so close to an imminent crashdown with such a huge event going on is inexcusable. A kid cleaning house before uniforms show up is just plain insult to injury. I doubt we would have heard anything if they weren’t so damn proud of it.”
“I’d expect news crucifying whoever thought it was a good idea to let that convention continue.”
Admissions of agreement rolled across the cabin.
“Could have been a lot worse,” someone offered, to another consensus agreement.
“It was the first crashdown to hit a population center and no one was eaten. Sure, a lot of people died, but it would have gone very differently if even one locust got a hold of–” the tan was interrupted by a sharp elbow in the rib, courtesy the passenger next to him who motioned toward the handful of cadets in blue uniforms. They were sparse compared to the others and scattered among empty seats.
Cruz looked away from the screen when he noticed the attention he and his fellows held. “Don’t worry about us. We lived.”
“Who do you think Raven is?” one of the greens asked across the aisle in a more conscious tone.
“He’s a cadet like us. Do you think he’s going to Echo?” the tan answered.
“If the rumors are true. Would the corps would let someone like that go anywhere else?”
“The grading curve will be harsher if he does. Won’t be easy comparing to someone who takes on forty locusts, much less wins.”
“Relax, boys. It’s just a rumor. If it were me, I’d want a break after all that action. He’ll probably start with next year’s class.”
Cruz sighed and contemplated his seat. It was uncomfortable and unwelcoming, like it was intended for someone else. Above all, it was lonely with all the empty seats at his side. He didn’t know the other cadets in blue, not personally. They were from schools all across the North American Union, a territory that included most of the Americas and parts of Africa. No more familiar to him than anyone else on this drop ship from every corner of the globe. The tan uniforms from the Eurasian Federation, the greens from the East Asian Confederacy, and the browns from Russia.
Russia was one of the few world powers to drop the pretenses and outright annex countries after the crashdowns started. They kept the name and sovereignty while everyone else did a political dance with everyone under their umbrella.
There was one cadet more out of place than Cruz, tucked into the corner who didn’t socialize with her peers. She had the allure of a loaded gun, sleek yet dangerous with an icy and unfeeling gaze as if unpacking every possible way to kill whoever they passed over. Or so Cruz imagined was going on behind those cold eyes. The black of her uniform was unfamiliar. No one could name the country’s colors and the cadets nearby were uneasy about it, especially the cadets from the East Asian Confederacy since she seemed to share nationality with a few of them.
Speculation would get him nowhere and only serve to make him more nervous, so Cruz returned his attention to the monitor and appreciated the good news.
Soon a voice over the intercom informed the passengers they were nearing their destination, prompting everyone to pile around the windows for a look.
Rising from the glittering, blue ocean was a horizon spanning cliff, dark tan with earth too young for the sun to have bleached. Unimaginably tall and growing in perspective as the dropship drew in close to the docking station built where the steeply inclined face met water.
The disembarking cadets were encouraged to walk off the jetlag from the seven-hour flight before immediately boarding an industrial lift to the top of the cliff. Some cargo and forklifts had to go up first anyways, so the offer was taken up.
Cruz was going to head straight for the elevator when he stopped to watch three green uniforms confront the black uniform at the edge of the dock.
“Where are you from?” one of the greens asked aggressively.
She was silent a moment as if sizing the group up. “I graduated from a private military academy in Tokyo, Japan.”
“Japan is part of the EAC. I sit next to a Japanese who wears Confederacy green, what makes you special?”
“I am here as a citizen of Japan. Not a member of the East Asian Confederacy.” She saw fit to end it there and left before things escalated. Unfortunately, the aggressors wouldn’t have it.
The nearest green sneered at her defiance and physically stopped her. “We are not done–”
The girl in the black uniform judo flipped him over her shoulder and pinned him. When his associate grabbed her, she flipped him and put him in the water. The first guy got up, fists raised, but the third held him back and managed to talk him down, excusing themselves to fish their friend out of the drink.
She sighed, whether from exhaustion, the tedium, or mental preparation for what is to come, she didn’t indicate. When she noticed Cruz standing there, she watched him as if he would pick up where her green clothed associates left off.
“They should have known that might happen,” he said apathetically before continuing toward the elevators. He passed a pair of disappointed cadets hoping to see some knuckle dusting and told them to “pick their own fight.”
The top of the cliff greeted them with a disorienting perpetually downward sloping expanse of darkened sand and salt. Sheer drop offs broke up the moon-like surface every few dozen klicks or so into levels of concentric rings funneling into some point beyond the horizon. The vastness was soul consuming, like staring into an abyss without the comfort of an edge to peer over.
Trucks were waiting to taxi the cadets to a base built at the top of the nearest drop off. This was Echo, a space age facility hugging the edge of oblivion like a port city. The sun’s glare was not easy to acclimate toward, but the fresh off the dropship cadets could make out the primary building groups. The dorms, the academy, the training field, and the hangars. The hangars were spread out and hosted dust trails where more experienced cadets performed drills in heavy equipment. There were dedicated landing pads and industrial lifts on the far side of the facility to facilitate descent, along with long range guns pointed into the expanse.
No sooner had the cadets unloaded then they were called to attention. There was a bit of a scramble between the various national disciplines to fall into formation, but the moment the call was repeated, everyone froze.
The cadets standing at the entrance were as diverse as the new recruits, but each of them wore the same bright crimson uniform. They had patches denoting their group of origin, but they were merely a decoration next to the badges proving their authority and the patch displaying to everyone they belonged to a squadron. Two corps officers stood among them, easily identifiable by their age and the much darker red they wore despite the heat.
The cadet at the center stepped forward. “Welcome to Echo Base. I am your cadet chief, Dominic Hagans. I don’t care what political pretense led you to stand here today, you are not here because you are the best, you are not here because your country expects it, you are here because you are going to spend the rest of your lives killing locusts. Graduate, and that will be a very long time. The corps is the first line of defense. If you crack under pressure, if you freeze in the face of terror, if you cannot handle the responsibility of delaying human extinction which assuredly rests on all of our shoulders, I suggest you get back on those trucks.”
For the long pause that followed, not a single cadet flinched.
“Excellent. Your instructors will do everything in their power to prove you wrong. Dismissed.”