“Johnny!” Brant snapped his fingers and pointed. Johnny had flicked the ear of the cute girl sitting beside him.
“Run,” Brant said.
Johnny rose from the seated class of ten-year-old students and trotted onto the track. Brant’s students strained their necks to watch Johnny make faces. The preteen tumbled and “accidentally” tripped as he sauntered around the gym. Time to nip this in the bud.
“Celeste,” Brant said, “would you work with the kids on somersaults, please?”
“Why, certainly.” She pointed at one of the kids. “Quan.”
Instructor Celeste Yawisaki and Brant taught the Footworks Fundamentals class together. While Brant was on mission with the Maverick crew, Celeste had run the show almost solo. Yes, she had a temp assistant, but it basically had been her alone. After Brant had returned, he’d relearned how to walk, run, and jump with his new robotic feet. Celeste had been Brant’s cornerstone in the classroom yet again. They made a good duo.
Brant took off after Johnny. Brant’s blond ponytail flowed behind him as he passed the bleachers on his right. Johnny yelped and sped up, but Brant was already on his tail.
“I know you can run faster than that!”
Panicked, Johnny tripped over his gangly preteen legs at the left turn. Without missing a step, Brant caught the boy before he face-planted and shoved him forward.
“Stretch your feet! Lift your knees!”
Johnny stretched his legs to full stride using the technique Brant had taught him so many times in class. Two doors flew by on Brant’s right, the entrances to the two medium-sized gyms. Brant and Jonny raced past at speeds possible only for humans with adapted reflexes.
The half-mile track turned left again. Doors buzzed past Brant one after the other. Meditation room, meditation room, meditation room, supply room. Meditation room, meditation room, meditation room, instructors' lounge.
Another left turn. The jungle gym whizzed by in a blur of green coated piping. The main double doors shot by. And then the final left turn. Bleachers again loomed on Brant’s right. He’d encircled the entire gym.
As they approached Brant’s students, Johnny veered towards his classmates, but Brant cut him off.
“I’m not tired. Keep going!”
The duo raced around the entire gymnasium two more times. Johnny’s legs slowed. He panted as though weights dragged down each ankle. Brant swooped to catch his student, but then the friction in his own ankles heated up unnaturally. Brant’s mechanical feet buckled under him and—before his class and the whole gym—he went tumbling across the plastiform track. The den of yelling students and instructors went silent. Yeah, everyone had seen that.
If Brant couldn’t play it off, he’d have to play it up. He leapt up and threw his arms wide.
“Ta-da!” The whole gym broke out in laughter and applause. Brant took a bow. “Thank you. Thank you. I’ll be here all week.”
Brant sauntered over to Johnny, who lay spread-eagled on the ground, gasping for air.
“You gonna interrupt my class again?”
Johnny gulped down air, his chest heaving. “No, sir.”
Yeah right. The boy would be cutting up again in a week. Brant returned to his class, and Celeste smiled.
“Nice recovery,” she said.
“I don’t plan on making that a habit.”
Brant stomped both his feet, driving them into the mat, punishing them for their failure. He pointed at one of his students.
“Rosa, your turn.” Her eyes went wide.
“No,” Brant laughed. “Not to run. To practice your somersault.”
Rosa smiled, relieved, and jogged to the front of the class.
The rest of the afternoon whizzed by. Brant handed off his last class of the day to their meditation instructor, Aubrey. He walked, head high and sure-footed, to the instructors' lounge at the back of the gym. The door swished open, and Brant entered a room filled with instructors and soldiers on leave.
The instructors whispered together about unruly students and the latest drama between them. The soldiers bragged about their missions loudly enough that anyone could hear. Occasionally they would glance at an instructor at the table nearby with a condescending air. Brant found his roommate, DeVaun, at one of the tables and collapsed into the chair next to him.
“That good, huh?” DeVaun asked.
Brant’s head lolled to the side, and he peeled one eye open. DeVaun, back from his latest op, lounged in a chair, his dark arm resting on the table. DeVaun’s muscular chest filled out his camo shirt, and his black braids fell past his shoulders.
“Today was an easy day,” Brant said.
“Maybe instructors have it harder than I thought.”
Another soldier snorted. “Adapted graduates only become instructors if they’re scared of battle.”
Brant leapt from the table, his chair flying. He hit battle stance, and his plasma pistol flew out before the other soldier had grabbed his gun. Silence halted every conversation in the room.
“You wanna?” But then Brant’s reflection glared back at him from the metal wall behind the soldier.
His face looked just like his abusive father, Ed. The pill, a tiny device inserted inside Brant’s right jaw, injected calming drugs into his bloodstream. He swallowed, grabbed his chair from the floor, and slumped into it.
“No,” DeVaun said. “Don’t forget it.” To the soldier, “Brant here served his time, lost a brother and some original parts, too. Show some respect.”
The soldier stepped back, and his sneer vanished. “You have replacements?”
“Don’t wanna talk about it,” Brant said.
The soldier sized Brant up and down. Gag. Why did it matter which part of Brant’s body was robotic? Brant felt like he was living out a nightmare—the one where everyone in the room was dressed in suits and he was naked.
“Your feet,” the soldier said. “It’s your feet, isn’t it?”
“Give the man a prize.” Brant pushed up from the table to leave.
“Hey, where you going?” DeVaun asked.
“The pool. Part of the rehab for my stupid…” Brant stomped his feet into the floor to complete his sentence.
“You still rehabbing?”
“Not officially, but it helps.”
DeVaun studied Brant’s boots, and again Brant felt exposed.
“Do they still hurt?” DeVaun said.
“Not exactly, but they—” Brant wrinkled his brow. “It’s hard to explain. I’ll see you tonight, OK?”
Brant tried to keep his face casual, but as he approached the locker chamber, the reflection in the stainless steel showed a clear grimace. His mechanical feet shouldn’t humiliate him. The slower reflexes shouldn’t embarrass him.
Yet they did.
Brant pressed his palm into the locker ID pad. A whirring noise hummed behind the wall, and his locker slid into the niche in front of him. He took out his wool jacket and hat, then locked it.
Brant cut through the pool’s water. One hand speared ahead of him, then pushed the water behind him as the other rose over his head. That hand sliced in, and the other came back over. Brant spit out the salty water. There was no chlorine in IAS pools, only salt.
Breathe. Kick, kick, kick.
The temperature was perfect today. Too cold and the plexicast in Brant’s ankles and feet ached. Too warm and he sweated for the rest of the day. Today the water hugged his body and massaged his legs. Brant slapped the edge of the pool, dived under, turned, and pushed off the wall. He dolphin-kicked to the surface.
The plexicast bones halfway down his calves decompressed while he swam. After a full day on his feet, teaching kicks, rolls, and running technique, the impact pressed into where his real bone melded with fake.
Here in the pool, his feet were his own again. Weight training, running, and dueling had once thrilled Brant. Now they wore on his body and divided it, natural from artificial.
Adapted graduates only become instructors if they’re scared of battle.
Brant grimaced as he touched the other end of the pool, dived, turned, pushed off, and dolphin-kicked.
Brant had gone on mission. He’d sacrificed his feet in battle to save a student, Alex. But Alex had become more than a student, hadn’t he? More of a little brother, actually. Brant rolled onto his back and backstroked, following the line painted along the ceiling above the lap pool. But now Brant couldn’t be sent out on operations. Not that he wanted to leave the classroom…
I just wish I could prove that I’ve still got it.
Brant’s hand slapped the epoxycrete edge of the pool. He let his feet sink, grabbed the pool’s side, hoisted himself up, and perched his rear on the edge. At least Brant could still do what he loved. At least he could still teach.
Brant shook his head, flinging water from his ponytail. He stood up, stretched his arms above his head, then peeked over his shoulder at the women in the hot pool. Not recent graduates like Brant. No, these soldiers were around twenty-five, and they’d noticed him. A few smirked, one let her gaze linger, and another rolled her eyes. Oh well, he couldn’t please everyone. Especially not Amalie.
A pang tightened in Brant’s stomach and ruined a perfectly good flirtatious moment. He growled as he swiped his towel from the back of a chair. For years, his father Ed had pushed Brant to focus on his classes to the exclusion of all else, especially a certain auburn-haired girl in his class.
Brant rubbed his face dry, almost raw. So being an idiot son, Brant had tried to make Ed proud. Tried and failed. Brant took out his ponytail band, threw the towel over his head, and removed every drop of moisture.
Now he had finally bucked Ed out of his life but was too late. Amalie had moved on already. At least that’s what it looked—
“Instructor Mallet, just the man I wanted to see.”
“Ah!” Brant jumped.
He whirled around and covered his front with the towel. Not a yard from him stood Councilor KaeHan Lee, the Head of Recruiting.
“Have you considered teaching Tactical Approach?” Brant asked.
KaeHan cocked his head with a smile. “I did back in the day. How’d you guess?”
“Bet you did. Whatcha need?” Brant smoothed down his fine hair and twisted it back into a low ponytail.
“I was wondering if you could meet me before class tomorrow?”
“Sure.” Brant slung the towel over his shoulder. “Just put it on my calendar.”
“I was hoping you could remember without adding it to the school database.”
Why on New Terra would KaeHan want that? Oh. So it wasn’t recorded that Brant and KaeHan were meeting. That also explained why he’d found Brant to deliver the message in person.
But that all led to the next question. Why would KaeHan want to keep this meeting a secret?
“KaeHan,” a familiar voice said, “there you are. I’ve been looking everywhere—”
Brant spun, his towel behind his neck and his hands holding both ends, a perfect pose for showing off. Her almond-shaped eyes grazed over his chest, and Amalie’s lips parted. Yeah, she liked what she saw.
And she wasn’t the only one. Amalie might be bundled up for the winter, but her jacket still hugged her sweet curves. And that messy brunette bun with a stylus stuck through it? It wouldn’t take much to pull that stylus out and watch the hair cascade down. Brant opened his mouth to ask, Where ya been?
Amalie snapped her head to KaeHan. “I’ll be in our usual meditation room.”
And she ran, ran, out of the pool gym. Brant’s mouth hung open.
“What just happened?” he asked KaeHan.
But KaeHan wore his enigmatic smile. If something was going on, no way Brant was getting it from him.
“I had a meeting scheduled with her today,” KaeHan said to Brant, “and she was obviously searching for me.” KaeHan smiled with that mischievous twinkle in his dark eyes. “So tomorrow, then? Meditation room five.”
“What about your office?” Brant asked.
“Too cluttered, and I’m too lazy to clean it.” With that, KaeHan turned on his heels and left, whistling as he did.
Brant could not read that man. A meeting kept off the digital school calendar and away from KaeHan’s office? Was Brant being sent on a secret op? What about his classroom? And on top of that, Amalie hadn’t even said hi.
Brant walked to the men’s locker room in a daze. He dropped his wet swimsuit on the bench next to his uniform pile and headed to the showers.
That done, Brant cut a path between the twelve-lane lap pool on his right and the massive “play” pool to his left. He always called it the kids’ pool, even though adults enjoyed it, too. Brant didn’t glance over his left shoulder at the hot tub again. Instead he walked straight to the lifts lining the far wall.
He bounced on the balls of his feet, waiting for one to become available. Finally the numbers above the second lift lowered to B3, the third and bottom basement level. The door swished open, and Brant entered. The splashing and shouting of the kids cut off as it closed. Where to next? That’s right, time to check his lesson plans for tomorrow.
“Level twenty-one,” Brant said, the level for the database center and the councilors’ offices.
The air whooshed past the outside of the walls as the lift rose. Most couldn’t hear a sound that soft, but Brant’s adapted hearing caught it. The slight groan of the metal as it slid to a stop, the barest squeak of the door frame catching on its railing, the muffled voices of the councilors in their offices behind closed doors. Brant heard it all. That’s why he’d been accepted to IAS, Institute of Adapted Soldiers, because of his adapted hearing and reflexes.
Brant’s feet knew where to go, so he let his mind replay Amalie’s longing stare. Followed by her sharp retreat. Was he missing something?
“Instructor Mallet,” a voice called from an open office door.
Brant halted and spun. “Head councilor.”
Brant stepped inside and gave a firm handshake to Richard Jefferson, Head Councilor of IAS. Everyone at IAS, even councilors, wore the school uniform but not Richard Jefferson. Always in a business suit, Jefferson was prepared for any public appearance to represent IAS to the world. Jefferson stepped out of his office and began strolling down the hall, so Brant fell in beside him.
“Just call me Jefferson,” he said. “You must be doing something right, Brant. This last evaluation, your kids tested strong on fundamentals.”
“Oh, thank you, sir,” Brant said. Always good to know he didn’t suck. Some days teaching was rough. “Celeste has been a huge help to me.”
“You’re kind to say so, but the kids never tested impressively under her. She’ll be moved to a classroom soon, probably middle math.”
Jefferson didn’t say it rudely, but still it rubbed Brant the wrong way, like brushing a horse from tail to mane.
“Instructor Yawisaki is just as—”
“I’m sorry about the debacle of your last mission, by the way,” Jefferson said as if he hadn’t heard Brant. “KaeHan made those arrangements while I was away.”
“Debacle?” Brant halted. “The mission was a success.”
Jefferson paused and hooked his thumbs inside his jacket pockets. “Of course it was. Of course it was. You delivered the shields to Taluk as promised. It’s just,” Jefferson leaned in, “Sann killed? Alex exposed to battle?”
This suck-up-to-the-boss conversation had taken a strange turn. Jefferson spoke with a kindhearted tone, but the words sliced through Brant.
“The Caravan was trying to kill us and—”
“Whoa there.” Jefferson held up his hands. “Brant, you don’t make accusations like that without proof. I know Knox believes The Caravan has it out for him, but don’t publicly announce that. The largest shipping company in the galaxy can swing a lot of political weight around.”
“We were over-manned and out-gunned every place we hit.”
“I understand, but,” Jefferson’s eyes softened, a father trying to explain a complex problem to his naive son, “is it possible that Knox just didn’t plan well enough?”
“Ah, well, good then.” Jefferson took a few steps to the bathroom and opened the door. Before it closed behind him, he looked over his shoulder. “Glad you’re back with us at IAS.”
Brant stared at the closed bathroom door for a solid minute. What had just happened? Councilor Benjamin Wright walked up and flicked his eyes back and forth from Brant to the bathroom.
“Umm, is there something wrong with…?” he nodded towards the door.
Brant snapped out of it. “Oh no, it’s fine.”
Benjamin Wright wore the same beige uniform as everyone else at IAS, but his had to be altered a little. More room in the belly, slouch in the shoulders, and the pants always looked bunched.
But the Councilor of Technology and Security didn’t need to keep up with a bunch of energetic students or run down an enemy in war. So who cared? Brant didn’t. Benjamin was a good guy, if a little shy.
“OK,” Benjamin said but then looked back at Brant. “Are you OK?”
“Jefferson just told me… well, it wasn’t bad, but—”
“Then I’m sure everything will be OK.”
“In my experience, everything isn’t OK just because I want it—”
“Good day.” Benjamin practically rushed into the bathroom.
Brant shrugged. If Jefferson had done something like that, it would have bothered Brant. It might have meant something deep and political. But when Benjamin cut off conversations awkwardly? That was pretty standard.
Brant turned back to the data center’s door. Between KaeHan’s secret meeting, Amalie’s retreat, and Jefferson’s insults, Brant’s brain was shooting off in every direction. Well, lesson plans wouldn’t make themselves, and students wouldn’t teach themselves.
So with a growling stomach and in a fog, Brant did his best. Then he rewarded himself with dinner and called it a night.
What a day.