The Cadet – Short Story

“Are we there yet?”

 

Sha had once seen the question posed in an old advertisement, swept to the back of the Database as though it were an old piece of trash. The question didn’t quite reflect her situation; in the ad, a young, bright, homemaking mother is seen turning back and reassuring her children, with a smile on her poppy red lips, that the road ahead wasn’t that much further. This blissful retro fantasy wasn’t her reality. Instead, fifteen-year-old Sha sat alone, atop a cold metal shipment box in the cargo hold, listening as the hum of the ship occupied otherwise dead air.

 

The girl felt like she hadn’t seen her parents in ages, but it had only been a day: they had enrolled her into the latest Cadet wave at the Academy to help clear up their busy schedules. Sha wasn’t built to be a politician like her older brother, Talon, and her parents’ reputation amongst their peers had been mussed quite a few times by Sha’s own extracurricular ambitions. After a particularly bad fist fight with the son of an esteemed Thelonian Duke, which cost the boy at least three of the twelve frontal fangs his species was so well known for, Sha’s parents decided that there was no other choice. Their wild little girl, who they simply could not fix, had to be sent away for her own good. They patted her head, smiled the way they always did for holopics on the news, and told her that she’d find a bright future in the military. Her ambition, her father reassured her, would find better use on the battlefield.

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Sha pressed her forehead to the cold glass, looking out at the bright lights of hyperspace. It felt a lot like looking into the sun. Sha knew that the rapid, blinding light might ruin her eyes, but couldn’t find the energy to look away. As the lights, clouds and bursts of the tunnel swept past her, she thought about the sectors that she was passing through. When they deployed her, would she end up in one of the systems that she was gliding past at that moment? What were these people like, the citizens of systems that she’d never even heard of?

 

Sha shut her eyes. She had strayed away from her unit about an hour earlier, and no one had noticed yet. Maybe the leadership on board was lax, or perhaps even forgiving to the new recruits, but not one person she’d said hello to had even cared enough to check on her. As a soldier, Sha had no parents, no siblings, and (evidently) no friends. She had finished crying over it long before boarding, so the pain of loss was now just a dry, stinging feeling that would make its presence known whenever she found herself completely alone.

 

Two days earlier, her best friend helped her pack. It was the last time she had ever seen Lenia, and it was the shortest day of Sha’s life. Sha had become friends with the young aristocrat when her parents were still negotiating their way to the top of the Intergalactic People’s Council; when life was easier. Lenia wasn’t just a debutante, but also a courageous leader and an idealist. She was just waiting to explode onto the political stage, and into the hearts of galactic citizens everywhere, if her parents continued to negotiate her future well enough.

 

The girl with the galaxy in her eyes, they’d called her, regarding Lenia’s large black eyes filled with multicolored specks, reflecting the stars above her head. Long, silky, stark white hair completely contrasted those eyes, and her soft blue skin made her stand out above most of the girls that occupied the political space. Lenia was kind, graceful, compassionate, beautiful, and probably the single person who shed a tear over Sha’s departure. “They can’t do this to you, Sha! He started the whole thing!” Lenia began to cry when they shut Sha’s cold metal suit case, grasping at her friend’s new Academy jacket, “I’m going to stop them. I’m going to bring this to the Council, Sha, don’t you worry. You’ll be home before you know it.”

 

Sha knew that every fiber of Lenia’s being meant what she said as the other girl’s slender fingers balled into small, icy blue fists. Sha also knew that Lenia would not be able to achieve that, and, worn down by the responsibilities of being groomed to lead an entire planet, would eventually give up. It wasn’t something Sha blamed her friend for. Lenia wouldn’t find ears or antennae sympathetic enough to send Sha back home.

 

They spent the rest of their time laying out on the roof of the house, staring at the unending expanse of space, talking about things that stopped mattering the moment Sha stepped foot onto the ship that would carry her to the Galactic Capital. All that Sha was able to leave with Lenia were the memories that they’d shared, and her assignment number — NR-0079 — so that Lenia could get into contact with her. Sha bit back the pain in her throat. Would Lenia even try to contact her? When would Lenia grow tired of that and stop?

 

Sha’s practicality existed to the point of pessimism, but if there was anything she had hope for, this was it. From the moment Lenia walked out of her parents’ front door, all Sha had wished for was something from Lenia to tell her that all of this was okay. One day, Lenia would have so much power that she could just ask for Sha to join her personal guard. One day, hopefully, Lenia would pull through and help bring Sha home.

 

Pulling away from the window, Sha ran a hand through her freshly-trimmed hair, a short asymmetrical cut that completely contrasted the wild, thick, long hair that was ever so often tied into messy ponytails or tightly braided for political events. The cut had made her feel lighter, but empty. Sha’s fingers ran over the short spikes of the buzz underneath her cut, shutting her eyes.

 

“I guess this is it. This is how it’s going to be.” Another quote from a grainy, technicolor film of the past. Another memory that she grasped onto, even if she had no idea what that sort of life was like when it existed as the norm. If it weren’t for a sudden, wild jolt of movement that sent Sha flying across the cargo hold, she might have started crying.

 

titan“Strap in, recruits. Just a little turbulence,” the lazy mumble of their bored Captain barely made it through the speakers, and by the time it did, Sha was already buried underneath a pile of flight suits that had burst open when their container smashed against the wall next to her. She groaned. Shouldn’t have turned the gravity on. Shoving the suits off of her, Sha pulled herself to her feet, her legs still wobbling from the impact. She had probably been standing there, dumbfounded, for at least two minutes before the speaker rang out, this time with a frantic Commander at the mic.

 

“NR-0079 — get the fuck out of the cargo hold and return to your designated seating immediately, Cadet!” She could hear the Commander seething, but a sense of desperation shuddered in his voice. This was his job on the line. Staring at the activated cameras in the cargo hold, she raised her hands and shrugged, before heading out. Maybe she’d get kicked out for bad behavior, but she didn’t want to push her luck. Sha had no idea where they were, and an escape would be the most idiotic thing she could possibly do.

 

Once she was locked into her seat, the flight seemed like a blur. Only a few of the other students had made friends, and she’d noticed that there was an easy distinction between those recruits and the ones like her: they chose to be here.

 

Jumping out of hyperspace felt like nothing she’d experienced before. She had traveled with her parents, of course, and ships with hyperspace capabilities were the norm among their peers, but this was so very final. This was the first time that Sha emerged from hyperspace as someone who wasn’t the reckless daughter of disappointed politicians. She was NR-0079 now, and with the knowledge that her parents would prefer to see her tucked away within the ranks that never faced the audience of the galaxy, she knew that her life had begun anew. Sha, the girl whose long, wild hair could always be seen moments before a dish broke, was now a soldier with little more to differentiate herself from other cadets outside of her own terrible attitude.

 

Her registration went by in a blur of numbers, signed papers, protocol guidelines and a tour of the training grounds that she could barely remember. Grasping at her small suitcase, Sha made her way to her bunk, a small room within the training grounds hidden deep in the capital city. Sha hardly remembered how this city looked, but she knew that she’d be accustomed to it soon. In fact, she thought, she would soon grow accustomed to most of the galaxy. This would have been a comforting thought, but as Sha looked around at the recruits — some obviously as nervous and overwhelmed as her — she knew that she wasn’t going to see the galaxy in ways that archived advertisements from Old Earth had made humans aspire to. There was no sightseeing in war.

 

Sha slumped into her bunk, struggling with the lump in her throat. In less than a week, everything about her life had changed, and she hadn’t even reached the hard part yet. She was crying in her bunk, her back turned, and likely doing a wonderful job with her fellow cadets as far as first impressions went. So, when one of them tapped her on the shoulder, she practically jumped out of her bunk.

 

“Woah there!” Tall, blonde and completely human, the girl above her grinned, holding out a small standard issue communication device. “You forgot your comm when we were registering. Walked right past it on the line! Make sure you keep an eye on this in the future, okay?”

 

Sha, still overcoming the mixture of shock and stark loneliness that she’d been feeling, gingerly reached out and took the comm. “Thanks,” she said, cautiously eyeing her bunk mate. The blonde inclined her head toward their other two bunk mates.

 

“We’re heading to the mess hall to get in line for lunch early. First meal! You coming?”

 

Hesitant moments felt like years of awkward pressure to Sha. “I’ll — I’ll be right behind you.”

 

“I’m Etta,” the blonde said, swiftly ignoring Sha’s uneasiness. “I’ll grab some snacks for you just in case. Just find us and come sit. Maybe when you get there, you can give us your name too, yeah?” Etta smiled calmly at Sha’s speechlessness, before waving a hand and leaving. She sat in silence for a few moments. What just happened?

 

It wasn’t until the door slid shut that Sha noticed a small, blinking icon at the top of her comm. It was likely the mess hall signal, but Sha still fiddled with the comm, figuring out its basic functions quickly enough. Her hands and body were shaking, she noticed, and she let herself lay down on the thin mattress of her bunk, pressing the comm’s playback button.

 

“Sha? I hope I’m doing this right…”

 

Lenia!

 

She shot up so fas that her forehead practically slammed into one of the bars that held the bunk above hers. “Agh!” one hand shot to grasp at her forehead, but her free hand remained tightly grasped around the comm, letting the message play.

 

“I don’t know where you are, or when you might see this message… I’m not sure was the process is like, but I hope that you’re okay. I — you’re going to be okay there, Sha, and you won’t be there for long. And, when you’re home again soon, you can show me all of the things you’ve learned. This isn’t helping, is it? Gosh–”

 

You have no idea how much this is helping.

 

“Please be strong, Sha. Please keep your head up, and make lots of friends, and do what you do best. I have never met anyone as brave as you, and knowing that is the only thing that’s making this hurt less–”

 

Sha realized that she was crying again. Lenia’s holographic image flickered at the edges, the galaxy in her eyes reflecting against the light of her own communicator. Every shaky warm smile made the reality of Sha’s enrollment that much more real. This was happening.

 

But she wasn’t afraid anymore.

 

“I never liked the military, you know that… but knowing that you’re going to be up there, protecting me, makes everything feel okay. I’ve seen you take down bullies for people you don’t even know. Maybe you were made to be a protector, Sha. Maybe this is just the first step.”

 

Lenia paused. She was crying, too, her hands clasped together in front of her, as if she were quietly begging the universe to make this message more comforting for her friend.

 

“We’re going to be together again, I promise you. But until then, please don’t lose yourself. I miss you, Sha. You’re my hero.”

 

Lenia gave Sha a single, bright, hopeful smile, and even though Sha was sobbing, everything felt okay. Suddenly, the stinging pain of abandonment didn’t hurt as much. The rejection wasn’t as bad. She was just a number to many people, but to Lenia, she was Sha. If Lenia could accept Sha, then maybe everyone else would, too.

 

Sha raised her head to look at the door, remembering Etta’s offer, and for the first time since she’d stepped off of her home planet, Sha felt the strength return to her body. She stood up, straightened out, and headed for the door. She wasn’t going to walk out into the hall and instantly become a war hero, but for now, at least, she had enough fire in her to face this head-on. Sha tucked the communicator into her pocket, with the first saved message from Lenia recorded to its archives, and made for the mess hall.

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The Sea Witches: Chapter One — An Easy Kill

art: Mermaid by Olivier Ponsonnet

 

“Stop! Stop! Please!

Few things were more liberating to Tia than the sight of a Royal screaming in pain. The assassin waited for a few, fleeting moments to watch the flailing mermaid beneath her struggling against her grip, clawing desperately at Tia’s hand as it tightened around her victim’s neck. Long, flowing, full locks of red hair jerked this way and that, before innocent blue eyes looked at her for one last time — and rolled back into their sockets.

It was done. Tia had just murdered the Princess of the Eastern Sea, and the pay from the Princess’ vengeful younger sister would cover every need that Tia’s own sisters could possibly have. For a time, at least; the hunt never truly ended.

Clean-up wasn’t exceptionally hard. She had cornered the Princess during an evening swim, attacked, and finished the job in less than two minutes without any bloodshed. It wasn’t a personal record, but Tia preferred to do things quickly and efficiently. She pulled a short blade from a harness tied at her waist, which was secured to the larger spear harness on her back, then proceeded to hack away at the Princess’ hair. It wasn’t a client request, but rather a ritual for Tia’s clan, to take every inch of hair that the victim had. Even in death, their victims would feel the pain of the Sea Witches.

It had been over a century since they had banded together to form the most elite group of bounty hunters that had ever occupied the sea. They were powerful, feared, and highly sought after when revenge or any other form of royal distaste warranted a murder. It was almost ironic that the ancestors of those royals were the very reason that the Sea Witches existed; in an archaic ritual of abandonment, mermaids who were born without hair — their freakishness determined by poreless, smooth scalps and eyes as black as midnight from corner to corner — were exiled almost immediately. But even beyond the pitch black, inhuman eyes, hair was a sign of status in her kingdom; of normality. A mermaid with long, beautiful hair was highly revered, given positions of power, and treated as a goddess among her people. From birth, girls throughout the sea kingdoms were taught how to manage their social presence and lithe bodies, but most importantly, their gorgeous hair.

She looked down at her victim as she wrapped the former Princess’ corpse up for delivery, her lips tightening into a frown. “Good riddance, royal scum,” she muttered, her eyes drifting up to the loose, crimson locks of hair that floated above them.

Tia was deemed deformed from the moment she entered the world. Elders had warned her hopeful parents that she’d never grow hair, and ordered her to be exiled immediately. Her parents held a high position of political power, and before she was a toddler, these same parents had decided it was best to leave their first-born daughter alone, crying within the dark depths of the sea, hundreds of miles away from her birthplace. Her mother — with silky, stark black hair, and emerald eyes that Tia could still remember as they watched her float alone in the dark — would try again to produce a normal, beautiful child of the sea.

That didn’t matter to Tia, now. The Sea Witches had found her, taken her in, and shown her that she was not alone. While many of them were born like her, there were several that had simply decided to get rid of their hair; some did so as an act of solidarity, but others — many of the older women — were mothers to monsters like her, and fled with their infants before an exile could be placed.

Her own mother, plagued with a firstborn monster, would suffer the consequences of Tia’s birth. Producing a hairless girl meant punishment: a shameful, one-woman parade through the city, to show her regret for the crime she had committed. She had carried a monster inside of her for so long, and that monster would cost every ounce of her dignity. Her mother would likely endure the King stripping away all of her titles, reducing her to little more than an infant production factory until she birthed a real child.

Tia, like all Sea Witches, had abandoned her birth name and chosen one modeled after a warrior goddess of sea lore. Tiadumeaux, The Harpy of the Southern Isles, was known best for her fabled revenge on an entire island when a rival lover murdered her human husband. Tiadumeaux exiled herself shortly after for her crimes, traveling the sea alone and searching for injustices against all merfolk. She destroyed entire colonies, brought down undersea castles in shows of electric magic, and avenged all who were wronged by those in power. Tiadumeaux was a protector, hell-bent on bringing justice to those who would wrong her people. Tia was obsessed with her legend, and promised to serve the Sea Witches as Tiadumeaux had served the sea. Tia did not think of herself as the heavy hand of justice, but if she could deliver it to those who might otherwise hunt her sisters, then she knew she was doing something right.

Hauling the body over her shoulder, Tia began the long swim back to her client, slinking through the darker depths of the sea in order to remain hidden.

***

“Tia!” The chime of a familiar youngling’s voice filled the waters around her as Tia approached her sisters’ camp site. Prisma had only been with them for a year or so, but the child’s enthusiasm and sweet demeanor could already break Tia away from her often troubling, rigid thoughts.

“Prisma,” she said warmly, opening her arms — for once, not battered and bruised, thanks to the easy kill — only to lose her balance as the eager young girl darted right in to them. Prisma’s tail was still short and stubby, far too short to charge into battle, but there was something about Prisma that made Tia worry for her future. Despite the open abandonment from her parents and people, Prisma’s wide eyes continued to glow with resilience (like big, black jewels, Tia thought), unsullied by past loss or betrayal. Tia, Prisma, and the Sea Witches were family now; that’s all Prisma needed.

“Are you okay? Where did you get to go this time? Did you bring anything back?” Prisma raised her eyes to meet Tia’s, grinning widely. Instead of focusing on Tia’s kill, Prisma was always eager to learn more about the sea. Tia hid her concern; the Sea Witches were warriors, but Prisma seemed to have no interest in the thrill of the hunt. “Of course I did. Here,” Tia reached in to her belt, pulling out a beautiful necklace adorned with gems that couldn’t be found anywhere near their current region. It had been the Princess’, and Tia had claimed it without her younger sister noticing. Now, it was Prisma’s, and Prisma was thrilled.

“Oh my goodness, how beautiful! Do I look like a princess, Tia?”

Tia watched as Prisma spun as gracefully as her little fin could move her, Tia’s rigid form slowly beginning to relax. Tia smiled. “No,” she told Prisma, “You look like a Queen.”

“But you are far greater than a simple Queen could ever hope to be, Prisma.” The familiar, low hum of the Elder Batilda’s voice filled the space around them, and Tia turned to look back as the centuries-old wisewitch approached them. “We do not aspire to be royalty here, you know. That is far beneath us,” Batilda said offering a smile, “but you do look beautiful, young one. Now, go — I must speak with your sister.”

Prisma looked down at her necklace, giving Tia a lopsided smile. Then, she bowed out and darted off to the common square, where their sisters were crafting new weapons. If anything, Prisma had an eye for beauty, and could appreciate the intricate carvings in their weapons. These carvings weren’t for show – they were war stories, a history of the defeat and bloodshed that led the Sea Witches to becoming the feared group of assassins that they were. There was still time for Prisma to find her calling in their clan, but for now, the youngling’s unbeatable spirit contributed to their own resilience.

***

At the moment, Batilda resided deep within a sea cave nearby, with razor-sharp diamonds and rock formations giving the long, narrow entranceway a great deal of protection from ambush. They moved every few weeks, traveling to different quarters of the sea to hunt down bounties, and the Elders took precedence when it came to sleeping quarters. For the most part, Tia and her sisters would sleep under the moonlight’s reflection, taking on shifts as lookout.

Tia settled on a large rock, watching closely as the Elder stood, pensive, over a radiant light that seemed to sprout from the earth’s core, directly through a group of diamonds. This light, which seemed to sprout up every time the Elders settled in to their new quarters, told them of what the Fates had in store for the clan. Tia had never seen the Fates, but she had seen their actions, heard their tales, and quietly agreed to follow that direction. Her initial skepticism as a child had waned over the years, but Tia had never experienced any personal miracles. For the most part, she assumed this was the Elders’ way of adding magic to their usually dark situation – the hope that came from the prediction of the Fates kept their clan going, optimistically, no matter the setbacks or the outcome.

“Batilda, you seem troubled.”

“I am,” said the old woman. Her back was turned to Tia, yet Tia could practically feel the deep lines on Batilda’s face, forming in to a deep grimace. “We’ve been assigned a new kill, but one that the Fates aren’t certain of. I am not sure that we can take this — but we must. You must.”

Tia paused. “I must?” She couldn’t hide her grin. Had the Fates seen her line of successful kills? More importantly, were her Elders finally interested in letting her advance as an assassin by training, personally, with one of them?

She wasn’t lost in her own pride for very long. The ear-shattering sound of the diamonds exploding around the light, into small, floating shards, snapped her into an upright position. The diamonds circled around the beam of light, then began to form into the visage of a man. “Who is that?” she asked.

“King Archaeus, ruler of our seas. He is the latest in a long line of our oppressors, and has turned on his own people. His ancestors began our exile so long ago… now, he hunts down our sisters at birth.”

“In their homes?! But the parents –”

“Are not even given time to see their child. What’s more, the King is no longer exiling our sisters — he is killing them. Our blood, our children, our girls. We have been hired to assassinate this blood-hungry King by another who seeks to change everything with his crown.”

“Everything,” Tia echoed, her heart pounding as horrific images of infants just like her danced in the light before her eyes. Children ripped from their parents’ arms, maimed as their heads and tails were cut from their torsos. Her fists shook with anger, and she stood, fire in the form of a sea harpy. “I will kill him with my own hands. I will cut his head off in chunks, and I will serve his tail to our people when I return.”

“Peace, child. Your anger will be your undoing.” The Elder held her hand up, and as quickly as the diamonds had dispersed, they returned back into their solid formation. No cracks, no sign of tampering. Tia had never understood her Elder’s ways with magic, but she had also decided not to question it from early on.  “You are fated to take his life. The Fates have foretold your rise for some time now, Tia. You will avenge us. You, alone.”

“Wait — what? Batilda, you can’t just tell me these things. How have you known this for so long and denied me the–”

“The right to kill him, child? You have no right to kill any creature. But you do have a responsibility, and your test will come soon. You must be ready.”

“I am ready.”

“We shall see. Rest, then. I will come to you in the morning.”

***

Prisma was fast asleep by the time Tia had emerged. Unfortunately, Tia did not find sleep so easily; Archaeus’ new, relentless slaughter of young mermaids plagued her mind, bringing up old memories of her abandonment – flashes of her parents looking at her as though she was already a corpse, her mother’s cries of despair ringing in her head. If only her mother had come with her…

Tia’s gills shifted sharply, as she looked upwards at the wavy, weary image of the moon through the sea’s lens. “I’ll take the next shift,” she called to another Sea Witch, years younger than her and still without armor. They often stole their armor from kills or palace guards, fashioning them with spikes and covering them in black ink. Sea Witches were stealth embodied, their armor pulled and chopped to a custom fit for each warrior, but this teenager wore the bulky armor of a peer. Her sister nodded, and when the time came, Tia left the sleeping Prisma to prowl their campsite.

King Archaeus. Tia had never seen him before, but she had heard of his cruelty, many branding him as more of a warlord than a true ruler. She had heard the stories of his servants’ many deaths within the palace walls, and even more tell of his anger toward his people for reasons that simply did not make sense. His images, his perfect images, were only met by a few, and the people he ruled over were little more than bodies to shove in the way if an invader or usurper came for him. Archaeus’ army was made of thousands, throwaway soldiers from all walks of life, of all species, and of all demeanors. It seemed as though the King’s shield was entirely composed of corpses. Tia wondered what his might look like when she was done with him.

She turned to the darkness of the ocean beyond, eyes narrowed. Hours away and miles ahead was her fate. Sleep may have been the wise decision, but it would not find her that night, and dawn was not coming soon.

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