Read an Excerpt
United Ranger Corps Training Camp
The alarm jolted Kitai awake.
He sat up, gasping for breath. He had been dreaming, but he didn’t remember the dream. He had a vague notion that it had something to do with his sister, but he couldn’t be sure.
It probably had to do with her. Most of his nightmares did.
Kitai flopped back down onto his bed and lay there despite the howling of his alarm. Long moments passed as it continued to shout at him. Finally he reached over and slapped it, hard. The alarm’s cry finally ceased, allowing him a few more moments in bed. Another person might have been tempted to roll over and return to sleep, but that wasn’t Kitai Raige. All he had needed was the jolt to wakefulness; after that, he was good to go.
Kitai finally sat up, rubbing at his face. He managed to bring himself to glance outside and begin to get a feel for what the day was going to be like. This was his day, after all, and he needed to have some idea of what the weather was going to be like. Of course, bright skies or pouring rain, it made no difference. Today was the day, and if he was going to have to do his stuff in soggy ground, well, that was the way it was going to be.
It didn’t mean he was looking forward to it, though, and when he looked outside and saw that the day promised to be decent, he gave a silent “thank you” to the powers that be. He couldn’t be absolutely sure since it was still dark outside, but from what he could see, it looked promising enough.
For just a moment he allowed himself to drift back to his dream. His recollections were vague at best, but he was reasonably sure that he’d been dreaming that awful day from five years ago when he had hidden from danger while his beloved sister was torn to shreds.
The notion that he had done so—that he had relived the deep guilt that still festered within him—was one of the hardest things for him to handle. Yet he dreamed of it with a frequency that was almost sickening. He did his best to brush away all recollection of it, yet that never seemed to work for very long.
Part of him occasionally toyed with the notion of going to see a psychiatrist, but every time he thought seriously about it, he ultimately rejected the idea. It would not go over well with his father. Members of the Raige family simply had no truck with people whose job it was to muck around with the human mind.
“You are who you are,” his father had said when Kitai had very subtly (he thought) brought up the topic of psychiatrists in the first place, “and you live with the hand that you were dealt.” That had been pretty much that.
The thirteen-year-old Kitai rolled out of bed and stretched. Waking was not something he did the way other people did. There was a procedure. First came a series of isometric stretching exercises. Then he dropped to the ground and did a hundred push-ups, which were followed by a hundred jumping jacks counted off in brisk fashion. He then crossed his room to the chin- ning bar he had installed back when he was eleven and did as many pull-ups as he could manage: twenty this morning.
Not bad. Not great, but not bad. Perhaps he was simply saving himself for his time out on the field this morning.
Yes, that made a vast amount of sense. He knew what he was facing this morning and how important it was going to be. His father was going to be home this evening, eagerly expecting the news they all wanted to hear. It was Kitai’s job to make sure the news would be good news.
“Kitai!” It was the voice of his mother, Faia, calling to him from downstairs. “You up yet?”
“Yeah. Why are you?”
“Made you breakfast. Thought you could use some this morning.”
He was surprised that she was taking the time. Her hours at the turbine factory were long, and mornings were the only time she ever had to catch up on her sleep. She usually wasn’t even awake before Kitai was out the door; that she had rousted herself this morning was sweet of her.
“Okay, be down in a few minutes.” It was only after that that he realized he might want to say something along the lines of “Thank you.” But he decided that it would come out as weak and indecisive, and so he simply nodded to remind himself to offer thanks after he went downstairs.
He took an actual shower this morning. Water had been in short supply recently, and although they weren’t at drought levels yet, people were being conscientious about water usage these days. If nothing else, there was a bit more of a general aroma from people. It wasn’t that big a deal. Once you decided to ignore the smells of other people’s bodies, you more or less made yourself used to it. However, with all the running around he was going to be doing, getting off to a fresh start wouldn’t be such a bad idea.
As he showered, he took the opportunity to check out his body. Tall and slender he was, catching up to his father in height. His skin was dark, his head was triangular, and his hair was cut down to standard Ranger length, which was one step above a buzz cut. He flexed his biceps as the shower water poured over him. The muscles were solid, compact. He did a few aerobic movements in the shower, then ran through a self-defense sequence before he was satisfied.
Minutes later he had toweled himself off and dressed in his two-tone gray and white Ranger cadet uniform. It lacked the decorations that were common to the full Ranger uniform, which of course made sense. How could one work toward being a full Ranger if one already had the accoutrements?
He trotted downstairs to find that Faia had made him two eggs, scrambled, plus a scattering of local fruits. His mother smiled when she saw him come downstairs. She was still wearing her nightgown with a robe draped over it. For all Kitai knew, she was going to go back to bed after he was off and grab another hour’s sleep.
“Thought you might like this for a change,” she said with a smile. “It’s a step up from protein bars, I figure.” That was true enough. Typically he grabbed a single bar for breakfast and launched himself into his day’s activities. This was unusual.
“Thanks,” he said. “For getting up and making it, I mean. Uh . . . thanks.”
“You can stop thanking me, Kitai. It’s all fine.”
He nodded and started plowing into the eggs. They were pretty damned good. He could taste the flavor of cheese intermixed with the eggs; she’d obviously put some in. “Good,” he said as he chowed down. “Really good.”
“Excellent.” His mother sat across from him, her fingers interlaced. She was smiling at him, but there was something about that smile that seemed to be . . . missing. That was it. It was missing . . . something.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
“Wrong. Something’s wrong.” He hadn’t slowed his eating. Bits of egg were falling out the edges of his mouth.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“Something is,” he insisted. He lay down the utensil and looked at her with concern. “What’s going on?”
She hesitated and then shrugged. “I just want you to do your best today. I know it’s important and all that. So just . . . you know . . . your best. That’s all you should be worried about.”
“I’m not worried,” Kitai said.
“Honey, I’m your mom.” She reached out and placed a hand atop his. “You can admit—”
“There’s nothing to admit. I’m going to do this. I’m going to go out there today on the course and finish on top on every subject, and by the time I see you this evening, I’m going to be a Ranger. That’s all.” He hesitated and looked at her warily. “You don’t have a problem with that, do you?”
“What? No! No, of course not.” She laughed slightly. “Why would you think that?”
Because you’re afraid I’ll become just like Dad.
“No reason,” he said. “No reason at all.”
“Well, that’s good. I wouldn’t want you to do anything other than your best.”
“That’s no problem,” Kitai said confidently. “And I’ll make you proud.”
Her hand was still on his. She squeezed it tightly and said with a smile, “You already make me proud.”
They were meant to be comforting words. Instead, for no reason that he could come up with, they made him nervous.