The tension hung as the new recruits took in Zhang's words. They glanced at the others huddled around them. There was rejection on a few faces, unaccepting of the truth that their lives had irrevocably changed. Dragged from hidden stations slowly withering away to a grand stage where they must feed the machine of war. For humanity, death lurked behind every star in space. Anger was also a common sentiment viewable in the eyes of many. Simmering undercurrents of rage at the transgressions being perpetrated against their race. Mostly though, there was a newfound fear hidden behind the gazes. Elias could sense what they were feeling, because he was processing the same chain of thought.
Everyone, from the inner planets to far-flung stations, had felt the effects of the conflict. No matter the circumstances, it infiltrated every facet of your life. Humanity had spread into space but remained as interconnected and reliant as ever. You were either a soldier or had family and friends that had gone to war, never returning home. They'd heard the news when the first planet fell and more that followed. Newly single parents sobbing in dark corners at night when they thought their kids were asleep. It was evident in how the station's population had been significantly lowered over the past decade. Dreams of visiting an inner planet as a child snatched away by reality. But for those like them, young, many of whom had never left Iznicina, isolated out in space, the war had always been at a slight sense of remove.
Sure, you expected to fight at some point, but the feeling was different when hearing it bluntly put into terms that humanity was on the brink. Especially by the group they had expected to protect them, and were now part of. It was unsettling. More than a little horrifying. Enough to send icy shivers of dread down the spine.
Collectively the realization hit that they were the next line of defense being forced to march into the maw of oblivion. Perhaps one of the last. If a highly trained commanding officer of the Legion was saying their society was step away from being doomed, the monsters they were facing would eat them alive. More than a few choice curse words were uttered.
Even the methods they were using to fight sounded horrendous. They had to launch in what sounded like the equivalent of metal canoes against goliath sized ships that easily matched up against the Clayton. It would be like raindrops splattering uselessly against a window. Most of their capsules would likely get taken down before even accomplishing their goal of depositing soldiers. And once inside they had to fight through an entire ship of murdering Empire forces. Might as well just give up now.
Elias scowled. There was no doubt at this point. He had been taken from a job dealing with actual shit into one with shit of the metaphorical variety. Except it had culminated into a tsunami of crap that was going to get him killed. Probably in an incredibly gruesome manner. Fuck.
The man behind the Lieutenant, Staff Sergeant Greene, drew attention back to the dais and the two people standing upon it, halting the burgeoning mutters.
"Quiet in the ranks!"
He shifted forward past Zhang, nodding at her respectfully. "We have explained these things, not to make you afraid, but to show the reality of the situation. As of this moment, you are all untested. Weak civilians that would normally be swept away in the tides of war without protection, seen only as resources to be exploited by our enemies. Or worse, as valueless obstacles to be removed. However, today, you have also been given a chance. A chance to protect, to be something exceeding everything you currently are. To be a member of the Legion. And though we might be riding the knife's edge, slim as the opportunity to successfully resist the forces arrayed against us might be, the potential endowed upon you will allow to stand tall and unyielding to be the shield for others in the future, if you take ownership of it.
"Even under these unfortunate circumstances, we expect you to be those people. Bring the spirit, and in return, the Legion will do all we can to make you what you need to be. Lieutenant Zhang, Sir, if you would like to do the honors of the customary demonstration."
He stepped back with the slightest hint of a smile on one side of his mouth. Lieutenant Zhang brightened. She had clearly been looking forward to this moment. A finger extended, sweeping over the crowd until it landed on the largest person present. George looked uncomfortable at suddenly being the center of attention.
"I would like you to prepare to take a hit." She said. "It will not be one with the intent to injure, as this could be considered a friendly sparring match. The first of many you all will face. You may even attempt to strike back. Not that you'll have much luck."
Elias compared the size disparity between the two individuals. Zhang was petite, muscles evident underneath her skin, but nothing that overtly indicated she could take on someone of George's immense size. He didn't think it would be that simple though, or they wouldn't be going through all this effort and putting on a show for the assembled crowd.
Sergeant Greene held up three fingers, beginning to lower them in a countdown. 3... 2... 1... As the last finger dropped, Zhang sprung like a venomous snake. Gone from the front of the room between one heartbeat and the next. Within a moment she appeared behind George. She had weaved through the crowd with incredible swiftness, leaving everyone undisturbed in her wake despite being closely packed together.
Her left leg tensed, launching her off the ground as her body simultaneously coiled in midair, trailing her other leg behind in a tightly controlled sweep. Her right shin struck, biting at the back of one of his knees before he even had a chance to react to her presence. His weight caused the now out of position leg joint to fail and he began to topple. With exquisite grace, she seemed to wind around his collapsing form. As he hit the ground hard, her blade suddenly appeared in her hand, pressed against his throat like fangs ready to inject a fatal poison. He cried out in shock.
Elias hadn't even see her draw her weapon. Everyone else was similarly stunned. She withdrew, resheathing her blunt sword. With one hand, she effortlessly reached out and pulled George to his feet, checking that he was stable on his leg before nonchalantly moving back through to the front of the room. He spotted Malory shooting an upset look in her direction but also seeming relieved that her brother had not been permanently harmed.
Greene began again. "As you can see, that is a brief glimpse of what you will be able to do once your body enhancer has managed to fully integrate. To facilitate that process, we will train you from the ground up. Building you into something greater. I will primarily be in charge of your conditioning, while Zhang, our resident deadly viper, will teach you how to fight both alone and as a team, unlocking the full capacity of your brain, allowing you to outhink your opponents no matter the battlefield. Even if you never reach the same level of skill as her, you will be stronger and more capable than you ever were before. As we all saw, even for a big man there is room to grow."
Elias cracked a smile. Maybe things weren't completely screwed for him after all.
After the bout, Greene sprung into action. He shouted at them to begin their training, sending the crowd from the room. They were lined up in formation and forced to start running laps around the lower level of the ship. The Sergeant jogged with them, going up and down the lines as needed to keep them moving. He was as much of a beast as the Lieutenant. The first couple rounds through the halls were fine, but the drill began to drag on and on. Soon Elias refused to believe his own initial estimate of the corridors only being a mile long. As he ran, the floor continually beat into his booted feet. Lack of breath trapping him in a miserable illusion. An endless wasteland trek that would never finish. He groaned, regretting the brief bit of optimism from him earlier. It had been sorely squashed. Why did life conspire to immediately make him suffer the moment he felt things might have a glimmer of hope? His lungs screamed for oxygen, forcibly wheezing out each breath from his heaving chest.
Conditioning was one thing, but Greene did not seem to understand that they were not trained Legion soldiers yet. The Sergeant might be capable, but this was the kind of thing normal people were supposed to build up to. Many of those even more out of shape than Elias had already fallen out of line, puke staining their uniforms or the ground. A moment of silence for the poor cleaning bot that would need to scrape that up. Greene was quick to swing by and berate them, sometimes dragging along those he felt weren't trying hard enough. At least Elias was no longer the only one covered in bodily fluids. Not that there was much victory in that. He had to believe there must be a purpose to the torture. The alternative was that Greene was just a sadist that enjoyed inflicting pain on new recruits. At this point that would make the most sense.
Eventually, the running lines did stop, long past when the trainees had any more to give. They arrived back near the training facilities where the smug bastard stood waiting, having finished first. "The bastard" - a fitting name for the trainer from hell. Elias bet he could make that stick among the recruits. Greene allowed them to sink against the wall, knees up, and drink some fresh water from the dispensers. It was only a brief respite, as they were cut off before the more desperate could consume enough liquid to get sick. The rest helped them to recover slightly from the extreme exertion, but before long they were shown another room. It was a fully outfitted gym, complete with lifting machines, racks of weights, and barbells laying on mats. None of the standard wall mirrors that you would find in a traditional gym were inside. Considering the war footing, likely written off as an unncessary expense. The impression was a very spartan, but effective, workout area. They were broken into groups and rotated through a drawn-out series of exercises. Most put in the bare minimum of effort, having exhausted their reserves during the tortuous cardio session. The bastard made sure to inform them all of their pathetic inadequacy. As much as he hated to admit it, Elias thought that was a fair assesment.
After the sad display exemplifying the obvious lack of body strength present in most, they were finally released to limp down to the showers. It was a large communal room, like most things on the ship designed for the rank and file. Rows of showerheads and large drains ready to spray down Legion soldiers that could potentially be covered in all manner of gunk. Blood, guts, the tears of their enemies? The options were endless. They were given a short allotment of time to clean up to conserve water, standard practice on any space vessel. Once done, they changed into fresh uniforms that were made available from a series of wall chutes. The already gross ones received earlier in the day were sent to the laundry room through a similar area marked for deposits. Efficient system, especially since it meant they didn't need to receive closet space in their rooms.
From there, they were sent to the mess and given plates from a rack of dishes. An allotment of food was doled out from bored cafeteria workers. It was presumably healthy and definitely filling, but with a bland taste that barely pierced through Elias's weariness induced brain fog. It had been a long day. As he slowly chowed down, he noticed someone nearby. The burly man was eating a couple tables adjacent, almost as disinterested in the food as Elias. He was convinced that he recognized him from Iznicina, but dismissed it as something for his future self to worry about. By night, he somehow ended up sprawled out in bed in his Legion issue underwear. Tired enough that he barely remembered getting to his room. As the lights in the room automatically faded, lowered by the ship, his mind drifted away to sleep. In a corner of his remaining consciousness, he heard the robotic voice again spark in his head.
[Integration processing... Progress to completion 1.2%]