He should have been more careful. Everyone knew the war was going badly, grinding up soldiers at a rate that meant he probably wasn't coming home. At least not as a passenger on one of the few ships he saw berthed around the dingy spaceport. Maybe in a bodybag.
Shuffling forward a few steps as the line moved, one more unlucky Federation citizen turned draftee getting processed by the military "recruiters" ahead. There were a couple of them, each sitting at an off-white plastic desk. Other soldiers were standing in key areas to guide people through the barriers and maintain order. Black assault rifles casually slung over shoulders. Imposing.
This troop staging zone now turned human cattle corral used to be busier, he remembered. Thinking of when he was younger and would occasionally accompany his father on errands near the docks. Needing to weave between the crowd of people. The station had been doing well, operating as a busy trading and maintenance hub between Asteroid belt miners and the Mars conglomerates. There had still been more volunteers than conscripts at that point. Not that some few people didn't still join the Legion when they came of age, but it wasn't the hallmark of pride and good retirement benefits it used to be. At this point, the willing had already been recruited during the many mass enrollment waves that followed the first attacks. Suicidal idiots. Then the draft forcibly happened. And now the last remaining holdouts were those that had intentionally avoided the previous two options.
He glanced up, having arrived in front of a desk near the middle of the collection of tables. Across sat one of the recruiters, staring at him with a waiting expression. He was wearing a creased uniform, dark blue in color, with silver highlights accenting the collar. Universally recognizable within the Federation as Legion issued clothing. At least the Legion let them die looking stylish.
"Elias Cooper, sir." He said.
"Not an officer bud, skip the sir." The man scoffed, typing on his holopad screen. "State your age for the record. I'm required to inform that the minimum recruitment age is currently 15, but don't try lying to dodge, our system checks with the station AI."
"I'm 19. Sorry, just thought a little respect couldn't hurt." More like he thought he should be polite to the guy that might be handling where he was assigned. Maybe he would be given a non-dangerous post? Unlikely, given the latest news going around, but he could hope.
"Yeah, figured. But unless you see someone with a colored patch, like the guy over there, it don't matter much." The soldier pointed to one of the people sitting behind the desk on his right that had a red rectangle bordering two stripes attached to their shoulder, before continuing.
"Our ship in orbit outside the station at the moment is the dreadnought Clayton. It's where you'll stay for the duration of your training. Frankly, can't say that'll be as long as it should be, but pay attention and maybe you'll get a chance to kill a few of the enemy bastards before you go off and die. Sign here."
The recruiter flipped his screen around, the projection responding to his hand motions, and pointed to the bottom of a contract form that had obviously been autofilled with the rest of Elias's information from the station's database. Trying to ignore the ominous nature of the man's words, and knowing that his choice had already been taken from him long before this moment, Elias put down his signature. He added a little heart to the end with a flourish. Even without options he might as well say fuck the system in any small way he could.
The recruiter nodded when he was done, clearly not caring at all, and reached over to grab and hand Elias a light gray uniform kit stacked with a pair of black boots that looked used on top. Must be the trainee attire. After that came a thin silver ring snapped onto his left arm. It immediately pinched tight then slightly released the tension, beginning to mold itself to the middle of his forearm. The end result was an inch wide band all the way around. The nerves around that area began tingling. Building, the sensation traveled up through his shoulder and into the rest of his body. It culminated with a piercing throb pressing against his skull like a bad migraine. The process was quick and uncomfortable, only lasting a few seconds, before he heard a robotic voice in his head.
[System Initializing... loading. Progress to completion 0%]
Weird, but he'd get used to it. Or go crazy from having another voice in his brain. Sanity was overrated anyway.
"This is your gear for now. The bracelet you probably already know about, but it's the standard issue body enhancer. MK-1124 I think, or whatever they're giving us these days. It's not going to have much effect right away, but you should start noticing the difference over the next week. Get changed, then report over there to claim your seat. Any questions?" He gestured first to the tent behind him, then the docking entrance in use beyond that. He could see a few people currently heading down through the ramp tube connection. The tube was mechanically linking together the rotating station to a rough looking troop transport ship attached outside between the stars. Through the large port window embedded in the floor, he could see a Legion insignia plastered on it's side. A stylized sword crossing over an assault rifle, both overlaying a silver circle that seemed to resemble his new armband. Classic.
Elias could tell the guy was preparing to move on to the next person, so he shook his head no, going past and into the tent. It was a communal changing area. Others were already inside, stripping down to put on their grey uniforms. Another of the soldiers was also there, lazily leaning against the deposit bins for their old clothes. A token effort to make sure that nobody tried to slip out the side through the tent flaps, escaping back into the station. Or he was a opportunistic perv that wanted to see Elias's balls. Probably not. But just in case, he made sure to fully bare his pasty white ass at the man while bending over to take his pants off. Ain't nobody getting excited by that, but at least the guy would get a show. The man grimaced, pointedly averting his eyes. It's what the fuckers deserved for drafting him.
As he changed, he wondered if someone had already claimed his old job. Must have. It was one of the last things his father had done for him, driven by enough parental desperation to skirt the rules and accomplished with some old-fashioned bribery. Not long after, he'd been conscripted for the war effort and kicked the bucket somewhere near Saturn. He was grateful, but it had been disgusting work. One of the drudges maintaining the sewage system around the station. A necessary position, sufficiently essential that it was pretty much the only reason he hadn't already been forced to enlist. At least it had given him a few more years away from the war than most others he knew. Might've lasted longer if he hadn't been stupid and picked that fight. Once arrested, getting drafted was inevitable. Though the Legion would have found an excuse to take him sooner or later anyway. If nothing else, he had been able to say goodbye to his tearful mother staying behind on the station before he left. Small blessings.
Elias finished slipping on his clothes, before stepping out of the tent and heading the short distance over to his transportation to the Clayton. He entered, pulling himself down. Nondescript basic seats lined the walls, interspersed with handles, both for zero-G and for pulling yourself against the rotational gravity while docked at a station. They were mostly full, but he spotted an empty spot between two people. One of them was an exceedingly tan, muscle bound ginger haired man that stretched the limits of the grey uniform's capability to constrain him. On the other side was a young woman that looked close to his age. She had a soft button nose, a splattering of freckles, and similar red hair to the giant fellow, although hers was considerably longer and flowing across her shoulders in soft curls. As he approached, she glanced his way with intelligent hazel eyes. Definitely cute, if a bit gaunt. That hungry look was nothing unusual nowadays though.
"Mind if I sit here?" He asked like the gentleman he wasn't. First impressions were important.
"Not like there are many other options." She stated.
"True. Just thought you two might know each other. Identical hair and all. Didn't want to get in the way." He pulled himself into the chair.
"He's my younger brother. To be honest, he doesn't do well on flights, so keeping my distance in case he throws up or something."
"Ah, I'm sure it'll be fine. Wait, did you say younger? You seem around my age. How is he younger?"
"I'm 15." The man spoke up.
"Sorry, what the hell?" Elias did a double take. "No offense, but you resemble a very brown rhino gene-spliced with a bodybuilder. Not ugly... just way too big to be 15."
"He works, or worked I guess, on the farms. Amazing what a little bit of artificial sunlight and activity does." The girl laughed. "Even with the food shortages, it meant he always had enough to eat. You're not the first person to have that reaction."
"Well, glad he's enlisted with this group, he'll scare them off before we actually have to fight anyone." Elias returned her grin.
Man-boy-rhino just sat there with a bashful smile.
"That would be nice. So, what's your name? I'm Malory, my brother is George."
"Elias Cooper. Sewage worker extraordinaire soon to be Legion badass."
"A bit early to say all that, but can't fault your optimism." Malory smirked.
Airlock doors closing. Please buckle your straps and prepare for disengage from Iznicina Station. The automated voice buzzed through the transport.
"Sounds like we're leaving. You okay there big guy? You're a little green." Elias said.
He was not okay.
Elias awkwardly stood in the corner of his new bunkroom, shared with three others he didn't yet know, apart from a quick introduction. Scooping water from the wall dispenser with his hands, futilely trying to brush the remnants of George's breakfast off his uniform. He sighed ruefully, giving the stains up as a lost cause. Hopefully there was a good laundry service. By the side eyes he was getting from his roommates as they moved around the cramped space and claimed beds, they weren't thrilled with the lingering smell that was emanating from him. Definitely needed a real cleaning.
At least they would all be leaving the stale air soon and heading to their first real training session. Not long after they had disembarked from the transport, they had been rounded up for a quick orientation. It was completed by a stern senior officer that gave off the impression of being under a lot of stress. Unsurprising. Nobody had an easy time anymore. Most of the information covered was to be expected. A brief welcome to the Legion, some information on how to navigate the halls and get to crew facilities like the mess and the bunkroom he was now situated in.
There were only two interesting parts. One involved a tutorial to enable the localized gravity feature on his silver armband; something he had heard was possible but never experienced. Even now he hadn't fully adjusted to the difference in moving versus the station he grew up in. And the most exciting bit, or for some, nerve wracking; was that they would already be training on their first day. It was rushed, as if the Legion knew there was no time to waste. Which reminded him that the wonderful welcome party had also explained one more feature of his special new equipment.
[Current time: 9:43]
His mind passenger could read his thoughts and be a clock... pretty damn useless. And definitely not a horrifying invasion of privacy. He could only cross his fingers that it didn't go all Skynet, like that super old film. One of the true masterpieces of cinema.
After the meeting, they'd been given the chance to familiarize themselves with their rooms but also been told to go two levels down to training facility G at ten hundred hours military time. From the minutes on his brain watch it was probably the moment to head out. Being late right away would not be a wise choice. He imagined there were toilets he could be forced to scrub. Or worse. He looked around, noticing the others were already exiting through the sliding door. Possibly just to get away from his lingering stink.
The dreadnought was incredibly massive. There was a main hallway on multiple levels, each stretching out what must have been a solid mile. They were lit overhead by a string of pale industrial lights that seemed to extend unbroken throughout. On approach to the Clayton, in-between trying to stop George from puking on him again, he had been able to get a full view of the ship as it floated in the inky blackness.
It had vast proportions that boggled his mind. The most noticeable trait was how the metal body was singularly T-shaped. A heavily plated hull covered the front, pockmarked with small craters. That armor continued, sloping along to protect the sides in a formidable bulwark. At the rear two huge cylindrical anti-matter engines extended out, dominating the back of the ship. Together, they provided the thrust necessary to reach the fraction of sub-light speed required for intersolar travel. They were currently offline. Instead, smaller ancillary thrusters on the exterior occasionally firing to keep the ship in stationary orbit near Iznicina station. Also visible along the frame were various attachments, most unidentifiable to Elias. Some were presumably weapon systems that bristled out like a phalanx of spears ready for a quick reaction, to things that probably represented communications, sensors or other important components. The only thing he knew for sure from holovids he'd seen was that the main killers were kept hatched inside the ship until deployment while in action. Once unleashed, they would bring pure wrath into the world. Truly, it was a mountain of old given the gift of flight by a God of war.
Despite growing up on Iznicina, a large structure that had hosted an extensive population, he acknowledged that there was no comparison, at least not in majesty. If the Federation had more, perhaps the conflict might not have been so one sided as to lead to the current untenable situation.
He clumsily hurried downwards, getting used to the altered gravity from his band. Still trailing behind the group from his room, deep into the belly of the behemoth. The trek involved going past many maintenance hatches, control rooms, crew lodging, and a multitude of other areas before arriving at the right location. The doorway was easily noticeable, ten feet wide and taller than that, marked with a letter G etched into the wall above it. People were already pushing inside. He followed.
Within the recruits were forming into the semblance of a formation. A full legionnaire directed them. Elias lined up near the back, spotting his two new acquaintances from the trip over on the other side, but it didn't seem as if they had noticed him. He debated calling out, but decided against it. It's not as if they would break out of line just to have a chat. Near the front of the expansive room stood a slightly raised dais. Located upon it was a woman with distinctly Asian features and shortly cropped black hair staring out at the recruits. Her hands clasped behind her back, posture straight. A sword hung from her left side, no sheath, but no apparent sharp edge either. He thought he recognized what it was. A deadly tool for a dangerous woman.
Once the last people filed in, the male soldier joined her at the front of the room, standing slightly behind and to the side. The room swiftly quieted, needing no prompting. Taking the opportunity, she cleared her throat and began to address the crowd. "Greetings, new recruits. I am First Lieutenant Zhang. Behind me is Staff Sergeant Greene. We will be your primary trainers for the upcoming weeks. Let me be explicitly clear from the beginning. You are now a member of the Legion military. It's a position of honor, but also responsibility. Part of that involves obeying direct commands. We are your superior officers. Our word is law. You will listen and follow every order we give, or you will be punished at our discretion."
Giving that a moment to sink in, she continued. "I'd like to give a brief explanation of what we expect and what your future will hold. Legion soldiers function in a variety of capacities. Some of you will learn maintenance and operations for the Clayton, a few others may even be given administrative or supportive duties. Our primary purpose, however, is to fight. That objective is what we will be teaching you here over the next few weeks. All of you will, must, learn quickly. Anything less is not an option.
"Now, for those wondering, why does a dreadnought need human fighters? The answer is simple. Mutually assured destruction. The primary weapons employed on ships of this size are enough to obliterate most defenses. Even those of the Empire. Against the kinds of opponents we compete with, there would be no winners. As such, the situations they can be used are limited. During engagements with other heavy hitters, the Clayton, as well as our enemies, launch insertion pods. These contain groups of soldiers. The pods shoot out at an extreme velocity, aiming to latch on the opposing ship and bore through the hull. Assuming success, once inside the mission is the capture or disable of critical systems. Without that the battle would turn into a slugfest between ships. By the end, both would be slag."
She began to pace back and forth, glaring across the group. "That is unacceptable. We do not have the resources to waste ships. We never did, and the situation only gets worse by the day. So with completion of your training, and upon appointment as a full Legionnaire, you are to be one of the brave souls crossing the void of space. You will enter the enemy warship. And you will conquer it or die trying. To achieve this, you have been given a nearly priceless gift. The silver band you are wearing. Your personal body enhancer."
Sergeant Greene raised his arm, displaying the tech everyone in the room wore. Shining light glinting off. A little piece of transcendent power, representing within it a chance to overcome the limits of humanity. But nothing worthwhile was ever easy. Zhang went on. "It will slowly begin to increase the natural abilities of your body. The process is complicated, with integration taking considerable time. Time, unfortunately, is one of the many things we have in short supply. To replace this lack, our training programs have been adapted and improved, much like you eventually will be. They take full advantage of the unique benefits your situation provides. By the end, you will hit harder, move faster, and process information at an accelerated pace. There are other benefits, but those are the ones that may directly keep you alive and allow you to endure the coming storm we need you to take on."
Her face lowered, becoming somber. The proud shoulders seemed to sag, unintentionally showing a hidden weight. "To be frank, even that still might not be enough. We are losing. Badly. Our enemy is strong, their leaders cruel, possessing a backing of galactic-scale wealth and capability for slaughter that we have never been able to match. And we are no longer what we once were. Think on the planets we've lost, the people that have been enslaved. Those of us still free forced to hole up like rats on our hidden stations and derelict ships. I recognize many of you stationers were too young to get drafted before now, or have tried to avoid the war. Understandably so. But sticking your head in the fucking sand will not protect our brothers and sisters. There are only so many humans left. You must struggle and suffer."
An oppressive air seemed to stifle the room as her voice echoed with a hint of sadness. "In the end, that might be the only thing keeping us all from complete annihilation."