– Monday, September 12, AD 2129 –
“Ngh…” Austin grunted and rolled over, slamming his hand down on top of the nearby alarm clock. He groaned and slightly opened one eye to catch a glimpse of the time.
…Four o’clock? In the morning? Who the hell set this thing so early… He scowled, but felt too groggy to react further. Instead he rolled over again, facing the wall and clamping his eyes shut. The tiny bed and stiff pillow didn’t make for good sleep, but Austin firmly believed that any sleep was better than no sleep. As he began drifting off again, however, a thought crossed his mind: …isn’t something important happening today…?
“Wagh—!” Austin jolted awake, startled out of slumber by a loud noise in his ear. He reflexively squinted; the room’s lights were on now. Who the hell—? he began to think, but froze when he looked over and saw Colonel Saito standing over him, his hands on his hips.
“Sleeping in, are we?” Saito growled, “awfully audacious of you. Care to explain yourself?”
Austin glanced at the clock next to his bed — it now read six o’clock. Shit, I must’ve dozed off—
“Eyes up, soldier!”
“Wha-what?!” Austin spluttered, “sol-soldier?!”
“Hmph. You’re right. You aren’t a soldier yet,” Saito spat, “even the lowly rank of Private is still out of your grasp. You could barely fight my grandma like you are now, you pathetic runt! On the floor and give me fifty!”
“Fifty?!” Austin stared at Saito, dumbfounded. “Fif-fifty what? Push-ups?!”
“Oi, less back-talk! Get out of the damned bed and get to work!” Saito grabbed Austin by his shoulder and shoved him to the floor. “I said fifty! Now give me fifty, or I’ll give you an ass-whippin’ the likes of which you’ve never seen before! And don’t think me knowing your uncle will make me go any softer on you!”
“Ah—ah—right.” Austin reflexively nodded, still too half-asleep to try and argue with the Colonel. As he planted his hands on the floor, lowered himself into the first push-up, and felt his arms straining already, he began to dread the upcoming day. This was only the beginning, after all.
The beginning of boot camp.
* * *
5 Hours Later
“C’mon! Hurry it up! I don’t think I’ve seen a more pathetic performance in my entire life, Travis! Even the twins’ve got you beat, and they’re practically half your size! Get your ass in gear!”
“Hngh… yes… sir…” Austin groaned, barely able to keep upright with his sore legs. He stumbled past Colonel Saito at a truly pitiful pace, only just now finishing his third lap around the track while the next slowest — Twy — was well over halfway through her fourth.
“Nine minutes! That’s nine minutes, Travis! My mum could run faster than you, and she’s got one foot in the grave!”
“Nrgh…” Austin grumbled something unintelligible in response; his mind was spinning as he attempted to focus on continually placing one foot in front of the other. He wanted to be angry with Saito for his belligerent mocking, but he couldn’t help but direct some of that anger at himself. He knew that he was far from physically fit… but to be running the pace of a twelve-minute mile?
“C’mon bro, you can do this. Don’t worry.”
“Huh…?” With what felt like monumental effort, Austin pulled his head up and glanced to the side, where his uncle was now jogging alongside him.
“You’re not gonna let the Colonel get the best of you, are you?” Luke elbowed his nephew playfully.
“Kinda… already… have…” Austin panted out as he glanced back at the starting line. Spike and Sky were standing next to the Colonel, having already finished their mile.
“Don’t let it get to you,” Luke replied, his own breathing and speech completely unaffected by their slow pace. “It’s the first day, of course you’re gonna suck. Just don’t give up, and you’ll get better!”
“Can’t… give up…” Austin shot Luke a tired glare. “…SERRCom… won’t… let me…”
“…Well, yeah…” Luke glanced away uneasily before returning his attention forward. “But it’s an attitude thing, too. You gotta stay with it, mentally, or there’s no way you’ll be able to keep up with it, physically.”
“Easier… said… than… done…”
“It always is. But if you don’t say it, you won’t know it needs to be done.”
“But… so much… effort…”
“Bah, complaining about effort again? Look, buddy, everything needs effort. You won’t get anywhere if you don’t put any effort into it. Would you really be fine with just sittin’ on your ass all day long?”
“Sounds like a great way to get left in the dust by everyone around you.”
Austin glanced conspicuously toward the finish line, which Twy had just crossed. “…Already… have…”
“I didn’t mean literally.” Luke slapped Austin across the back, causing him to stumble before eventually recovering his gait.
“Neither… did I…”
“…Well, you can think of this whole situation as a fresh start, then. Maybe this time you can keep up.”
Austin gave his uncle a sidelong glance. “…How… do you… justify this… to yourself…?”
Luke sighed loftily, and then hardened his expression. “…You aren’t gonna stop goin’ on about this until you get an answer that satisfies you, are you?”
“Doubt… I ever… will…”
“…There’s a lot of evil in this galaxy, you know.”
“Ha. Right… ‘evil’…”
“I’m serious. You have to have heard of the Drakkars, right? And the Riaxen? As a civilian, you may not realize just how dangerous they actually are, but I’ve seen it first hand. If not for the CSA or the Syraus, Earth would be overrun faster than you could say ‘alien invasion,’ and we can’t rely on them forever. As a nation, as a race… we Earthians need to find ways to fend for ourselves and decrease our dependence on our allies.”
“And that’s… enough… to justify… ripping me… out of my own life?”
“We need Chaotics. But, until recently, we thought it was straight-up impossible for Earthians to be Chaotics. And even now, there’s only a grand total of eight Earthian Chaotics, including you and your friends. We need all the help we can get.”
“What… difference… could we… make…?”
“…I can understand the skepticism. But if only you’d seen what the Eximius Vir can do… I’ve seen Mote take out entire battalions, all on his own. I’m not exaggerating, either. Hundreds of Drakkars down, in a single battle. And that’s just him! Mark can be thrown at a planet from orbit and walk it off, Danielle can transform into a fucking Frigate if she wants to, and Kate — man, Kate has probably single-handedly advanced SERRCom’s technology by a century, maybe more! Even if you and your friends can only do a fraction of any of that, you’d be incredibly useful to not just SERRCom, but all of Earth!”
“…So… we have to… give up our lives… for the… ‘greater good’…?”
“That’s what the General believes.”
Luke sighed again as he and Austin approached the finish line. “…Look… we’ll talk about this later, okay?”
Austin simply grunted in response, his attention focused forward.
Seconds later, he finally completed his mile.
* * *
1 Hour Later
“Alright, listen up! The real thing starts now!”
This morning didn’t count…? Austin thought warily, but didn’t dare speak it aloud. He glanced around at his surroundings; Colonel Saito and Luke had brought Austin and his friends to a forested area nearby the base. In front of them were many pieces of wooden or metal equipment, all consisting of rails at varying heights and widths. After thinking that one of the pieces of equipment looked much like monkey bars, Austin realized what he was looking at, and felt his muscles preemptively grow sore. Or are they still sore from this morning…
“I’m sure you lot have realized what this is by now.” Saito turned toward everyone present.
“…An obstacle course?” Sky questioned.
“Why yes, how astute of you,” Saito drawled.
“Fuck…” Austin swore under his breath.
“This morning was just an evaluation,” the Colonel continued, “to allow me to see just how much like trash you are. Some of you performed… rather well, if I’m honest. Others, however…” He glanced conspicuously toward Austin, who looked away uneasily. “…But the real training starts now. You will each run this course from start to finish — timed, of course. And just like this morning, this area is covered in CENT fields. Any of you runts remember what that means?”
“’CENT’ stands for ‘Chaos Energy Negation Technology,’” Twy promptly replied. “It means that all Chaos Energy in the immediate area has been effectively negated, and since Chaotics need Chaos Energy for their powers to work—”
“Oi, oi! I didn’t ask for a textbook!” Saito cut her off harshly. “When someone asks you ‘what does that mean,’ you give them an answer that’s short ‘n sweet! In a combat situation, time is of the essence, so the fewer words, the better!”
“Er, right…” Twy pursed her lips and glanced away.
“But at the end of the day, she’s right,” Saito continued as he turned his attention to everyone else. “CENT fields mean you can’t use your powers. We don’t accept handicaps here! You’ll have to get by with raw physical ability alone.”
“Is there a target time?” Spike asked.
“There is.” Saito smirked knowingly. “But you won’t know what it is until you’ve beat it.”
A groan escaped from Austin’s throat. Saito immediately pointed at him.
“One minute penalty,” he declared.
“Aw, what—?” Austin began, but was cut off.
“Another minute.” Saito crossed his arms. “I can do this all day, Travis. Don’t tempt me.”
Austin pursed his lips in irritation, but didn’t speak another word. As he turned away, he momentarily caught Twy’s eye; she offered him a reassuring smile, but he simply snorted and turned away impatiently.
“Now that that’s out of the way…” The Colonel raised his arm into the air. “Get ready to show me what you’re worth! Three! Two! One!” He dropped his arm. “GO!”
“Ungh…” Austin groaned as he forced himself into a jog, falling into line just behind Twy. He looked forward, watching Spike with contempt as he effortlessly cleared the first hurdle and then leaped up to grab some monkey bars. Shortly after him was Sky, and after her, Twy.
“Fuck…” Austin muttered to himself as he stumbled across the hurdle in his way. He approached the monkey bars in a limp jog and looked up at them apprehensively.
“What’re you waiting for, Travis?!” Saito shouted after him, “stop standing around like some poor damsel in distress and get your ass in gear!”
Austin clamped his eyes shut in mild irritation before snapping them open. Alright, Austin, you can do this… Reaching up, he grabbed the first bar with both hands and managed to pull his body into the air. Tentatively, he reached forward to grab the next bar, at which point he let go of the first — and promptly winced as the pain of strain shot through his one arm currently holding him up. He reflexively grabbed the bar with both hands, hanging above a gravel pit below as he clenched his eyes shut and tried to focus on not letting go.
“Austin! Come on, you can do it!”
“Huh…?” He opened one eye to find Twy waving at him from the far end of the bars.
“Oi, Chao!” Saito barked, “this isn’t a team exercise! Get going!”
“That’s ‘sorry, sir!’”
“…Sorry, sir!” Twy responded. She offered Austin one final glance before turning her back and running off toward the next obstacle.
Austin stared after her for a moment. …Yeah. I can do this. If she believes I can, then I totally can! Determined, he shoved the pain in his fingers to the back of his mind and released the bar with one hand, reaching toward the next—
—and promptly falling as his grip finally gave way.
“Ow—!” He winced and grit his teeth as he barely caught himself on the gravel below. Sharp pain shot through his left knee; he didn’t even need to check the torn pant leg to know that he had skinned it, and he was largely distracted by clenching his hands anyways as he attempted to work out the strain from holding up his entire body weight with his fingers alone. Shit, I’m barely 170 pounds, and I can’t even hold myself up—!
“Travis! Don’t make me tell you again to get off your ass!”
“…Yes, sir…” Austin managed to groan out. He swallowed forcefully and trotted up the pit ramp to level ground, wincing each time his knee rubbed against his pants.
The next set of equipment he encountered looked like a series of chest-high hurdles, all connected at each end by a long railing. Unsure of what to do, he looked forward, where Twy had just cleared the final rung by climbing over it. That simple, huh…? He took a deep breath and grabbed the first rung with both hands. With a jump, he lifted himself into the air, holding up his weight with his arms as he leaned forward and tried to lift his leg up and over. A second later he was straddling the rung, but as he began to lift his left leg, his knee rubbed against his pants again and caused him to wince. His focus shattered, he began leaning uncontrollably to his right. He quickly realized what was happening, but lost complete control of the lean, causing him to reflexively flail around with his arms as his head rapidly approached the next rung.
“Ow! Fuck—!” he exclaimed through gritted teeth, managing to shield his head with his arms. But he still slipped off of the metal rung and collapsed to the ground in a painful heap, his body hurting all over. He sprawled out across the ground and stared up at the cloudless sky, taking a moment to catch his breath before sitting up and inspecting his body.
Nothing’s broken… I think… He grunted in pain as he forced himself back to his feet. He took a deep breath and lightly massaged his lower back before turning to the right and feeling his heart drop. There were another fifteen rungs, as far as he could tell — and beyond that were a large number of wooden, metal, or netted contraptions, all built to be climbed over or around or under. And here he was, still stuck on the second.
“…Fuck…” he muttered under his breath as he prepared to climb over the next rung. “…My life is the worst…”
1 Hour Later
“Hah… hah… I… made it…”
Austin collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. He rolled over and glared at the sky through squinted eyes; his face was covered in sweat, and attempting to open his eyes any further would simply drown them in the liquid manifestation of his exhaustion.
“Well well well, Travis.” Saito approached and stared down at Austin, his hands on his hips. “…You managed to take over an hour to complete the course. That may well be the absolute worst performance I have ever seen. Congratulations.”
“…Thanks…?” Austin croaked.
“Wrong response.” Saito kicked his leg. “Get up. You’re doing it again.”
“Yup. You missed your target time. Badly. Even after I adjusted it to account for your abysmal showing this morning. So you’re gonna do the course again, until either you meet your target time, or the sun sets.” He glanced up; the bright sun was still high in the sky, its summer light beating down mercilessly on everyone and everything around. “…And as far as I can tell, sunset is quite a ways off.”
“Nnngh…” Austin groaned as he clenched his eyes shut and struggled back to his feet. “This… is ridiculous…”
Saito chuckled and slapped Austin on the back, directing him to the start of the course. “Yup. Welcome to boot camp.”
* * *
7 Hours Later
“Hey, Austin! Finally finished, huh?”
Austin cast a half-lidded glance toward Spike as he trudged over to the cafeteria table, a tray of food in hand. He dropped it unceremoniously on the tabletop and lifted his leaden legs over the bench to take a seat.
“Did you beat your target time?” Twy asked, her tone hopeful. When Austin shot her an impatient glare, she smiled uneasily. “…Better luck next time?”
“Nnnngh…” Austin groaned in response and began spooning food into his mouth.
“Wow.” Sky whistled. “I knew you were out of shape, but seeing it today… even Twy beat her time!”
“On the third try,” Twy quickly interjected.
“Yeah, but you still beat it,” Sky insisted.
“Thanks for the encouragement,” Austin deadpanned.
“Ah, you’ll make it eventually,” Spike declared. “The Colonel was bein’ intentionally hard on you; that’s how boot camp works. Don’t worry about it. Chances are, tomorrow’ll be a li’l bit easier.”
“Mm, I’m not so sure,” Mark spoke up. “Mote’s in charge tomorrow. Don’t expect him to go easy on you.”
“Huh—?” Austin froze for a moment, his attention focused on Mark. He then glanced to his side, where Danielle was sitting with her chin in her hands and her elbows on the table. “…When did you guys get here?”
“We’ve been here the whole time,” Mark replied.
Spike snorted as he attempted to suppress a chuckle. “…The Colonel was really hard on you, huh?”
“Ha ha, laugh it up,” Austin drawled.
“…What’s this about Mote being in charge?” Twy turned to Mark.
“Exactly how it sounds,” Mark responded. “The Colonel wanted to gauge your raw ability today. Now Mote’s going to gauge your Chaotic ability tomorrow.”
“Oooh.” Sky rubbed her hands together eagerly. “This’ll be fun!”
“Knowing Mote, I wouldn’t count on it…”
Twy glanced between Mark and Danielle. “How long have you known Mote? And each other?”
“Since the beginning, I guess.” Danielle shrugged. “We grew up together. I don’t think there’s been a time when we weren’t together.”
“So… are you friends, or what…?”
“Heh…” Mark chuckled. “Yeah, I suppose we are. You’d never hear that from Mote or Kate, though.”
“I get the impression I wouldn’t like Mote,” Sky commented.
“I can guarantee you won’t,” Austin replied crossly.
“Yeah…” Mark sighed loftily. “He’s… …he doesn’t really have any interest in making friends beyond those he already has. He means well, though.”
“He knocked us all out and arrested us,” Austin countered.
“…He’s also a stickler for rules and regulations,” Mark admitted. “If the General or the Colonel tells him to do something… then he’ll do it.”
“Doesn’t sound like a very stand-up guy to me.”
“You’re presupposing that he’d follow immoral or unethical orders, and I’m sure he wouldn’t. Besides, General Lead and Colonel Saito would never issue orders like that without good reason in the first place.”
“Without good reason…” Austin scoffed. “You mean like they’re doin’ now with us?”
Mark furrowed his brow in frustration. He sighed again, but before he could speak, Twy interjected to redirect the conversation.
“So you’ve known each other since you were kids, right?” She forced a smile. “So have we! So we have something in common.”
“We’re all Chaotics, too!” Danielle added cheerfully, “so that’s two things!”
“When’d y’all learn you were Chaotics?” Austin questioned.
“Oh, the usual time for most Chaotics,” Danielle responded lightly. “You know, seven or eight years old, I think? You guys are kinda weird there, getting your powers so late.”
“Seven or eight?” Sky cocked her head in confusion. “But you guys weren’t in the news until you joined SERRCom a few years ago. Why didn’t we hear anything about you before then?”
Danielle stared blankly at Sky for several moments. She then snapped her attention to Mark, a panicked look on her face, as Mark held a hand to his forehead.
“…It’s a story for another day,” Mark eventually declared.
“When’d you join SERRCom?” Austin pressed.
“…Four years ago,” Mark replied, “when we were eighteen.”
“Oh? Why the pause?”
“Austin,” Twy cut in, “it’s pretty clear they don’t want to talk about this…”
“Why?” Austin passed Twy a glance before turning back to Mark. “It’s directly related to SERRCom, and it’s immediately relevant to us.”
“You’re being pretty rude about it.”
“No, it’s… fine.” Mark sighed again as he rubbed his temples. “…I can understand why he’d be suspicious.” He glanced over at his squadmate. “Danielle isn’t exactly great at keeping facts straight.”
“Hey, my memory’s really good! Better than yours!” she countered.
“When you want it to be.” Mark smirked. “Sure, you can remember your last twenty forms and exact timetables and planetary coordinates down to the millimeter, but you can barely remember your own birthday!”
“…Meh, close enough.”
“Aren’t you a shape-shifter?” Spike questioned, “don’t you need a good memory? How else do you remember how to transform into different stuff?”
“I don’t actually need to memorize anything,” Danielle replied. “Transtechnics usually have good memories, yeah, but we don’t have to memorize every detail of the things we transform into. I mean, I haven’t talked to many others, but at least in my case I can just kinda think of something and bam! Successful transformation.”
“Even fictional stuff?”
“Yeah. It’s pretty great!”
“Have you ever transformed into a dragon?” Austin asked, his eyes wide open with interest.
“…No,” she pouted. “…The Colonel never lets me. ‘Dragons aren’t as useful as guns,’ he says.”
“I mean… they aren’t,” Mark commented.
“Hmph. One day, when I’m saving you, I’ll be a dragon. And it’ll be SO COOL! I swear it’ll happen.”
“I’m sure it will.” Mark patted her head. “I’m sure it will.”
“So… what are the limits on your transformations?” Twy questioned.
“Eh…” Danielle cocked her head in thought. “I can’t really transform into anything bigger than a Frigate, or maybe a Destroyer. And nothing smaller than an insect. Otherwise… pretty much anything goes.”
“Where’s all the extra mass come from? Or where does it go?”
Danielle shrugged. “You’d have to ask Sarah or Kate about all that science-y stuff. I don’t really understand it.”
“Does it have anything to do with why you haven’t eaten anything?” Sky asked.
“Oh, yeah.” Danielle patted her stomach in self-satisfaction, unintentionally drawing everyone’s attention to her toned abs. “I don’t need to eat. Or sleep! I can just transform into a slightly different version of myself that ‘just ate’ or ‘just slept.’”
“…Are you fucking serious?” Austin deadpanned.
“Yeah! It’s really great, isn’t it?!”
“…Are those muscles fake, then?” Spike questioned.
“Huh? Oh, right.” Danielle glanced down at herself. She had a lithe build, but between her arms and her exposed midriff it was clear that she had an impressive musculature. “Well, they’re real, but if you’re asking if I ‘earned’ them, then no. I mean, c’mon! If you could shape-shift, then you’d give yourself your ideal body, right? Not like it takes any effort.”
Austin reflexively glanced down at her modest chest. Then why’re your boobs so small? he thought to himself, but knew better than to ask aloud. A second later, pain shot through his shin, as if someone had kicked it; when he looked over, he caught Twy giving him an irritated glare. He smiled sheepishly in response.
“Actually, that reminds me.” Spike turned to Austin. “You’re a Simulator Psycho… …thing… …you can copy powers, right?”
“That’s what I’ve been told…”
“Then what’s stoppin’ you from copyin’ Danielle’s shape-shiftin’ and givin’ yourself a body that’s actually fit?”
“…Holy shit.” Austin stared at his friend in amazement. “…How the hell didn’t I think of that?!”
“Well you won’t be able to right now,” Mark commented. “The active CENT fields should stop you. You’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”
“Even then…” Danielle frowned uneasily. “…The Colonel told me not to let you do that…”
“Bah, of course he did…” Austin scowled.
“Ah, there you are!”
Everyone seated at the table turned toward the entrance to the cafeteria, where Luke currently stood. He paused for a moment, seemingly to catch his breath, and then approached.
“Is something wrong…?” Mark questioned as he stood up in apprehension.
“You could say that.” Luke scowled as he tossed a tablet onto the table. “Austin’s impostor just sent out another message.”
Austin glared at the tablet. “Another one?”
“Yep…” Luke reached over and tapped the tablet. “See for yourself.”
The video started with a static-ridden feed, seemingly from a security camera. Alarm lights flashed constantly, though the shown hallway was empty. Then, a couple seconds later, Austin and Twy rushed past. Their conversation couldn’t be heard — the video didn’t have any accompanying audio — but once they reached the end of the hallway and opened the doors, they immediately shut them and backed away.
“Is this from the attack a few days ago?” Twy looked up at Luke. “Why aren’t you in the video…?”
He nodded toward the tablet. “Just watch.”
The video continued as a robot charged into the hallway, its appearance significantly altered from what Austin remembered. As it took aim, the video showed Austin jumping forward and assuming a defensive stance; a moment later, his left arm exploded off at the shoulder in a fantastic display of light and blood.
“Holy— what the fuck!” Austin exclaimed, instinctively looking away. “Fuck, man, a gore warning would’ve been nice!”
“Yeah, that was…” Twy grimaced. “…I really would’ve rather never seen that again.”
“Shhh, just watch,” Luke insisted. Austin made to argue, but before he could, the video cut and his impostor appeared.
“Unbelievable…” He shook his head wearily. “Can you believe what just happened? SERRCom’s captives attempt to flee, and how do they respond? With deadly force! Incredible! Not a single question asked, just, bam! Tear your arm off. Which is incredibly traumatic, I might add.” He then held up his left arm, revealing a metallic prosthetic.
“Wait a fuckin’ minute…” Austin’s eyes narrowed. “Is this motherfucker doin’ what I think he’s doin’?”
The man in the video clenched his left fist, demonstrating the robotic nature of his prosthetic. He then turned back to the camera, speaking, “now, I’m sure many of you may be of the opinion that I deserved this. I did effectively declare war on SERRCom, after all. But I would still like you to think about this particular incident. I was attempting to rescue one of the individuals SERRCom so callously arrested without warrant. They hardly deserve to be kept captive, after all. And then, instead of negotiating, or responding with appropriate force, SERRCom just shoots my arm off — while, I should note, an innocent person was standing right behind me! What if that robot had missed? And why did it aim for my arm, of all things? There are only two answers to this: SERRCom is incompetent, or they’re sadists, and neither answer is appropriate for an organization touting themselves as the protectors of Earth.” He clasped his hands in front of him. “Even if you don’t agree with my actions, you surely shouldn’t agree with SERRCom’s. Just allow this incident to sink in. Think it over, and decide for yourselves. Is SERRCom really what Earth wants?” He smiled at the camera. “…Is it really what Earth needs?”
And then the video stopped.
Austin scowled. “…This motherfucker…”
“Is that…” Sky glanced between Austin and Twy uneasily. “…Is that what actually happened? Is that how Austin lost his arm…?”
“Yes, but… no,” Twy answered slowly. “…During the actual attack, Luke was there with us, but… he was edited out of the video. The robot looked a lot different, too. And the real Austin was with me the entire time, I’m sure of that.”
“If he’s using doctored video, then why don’t we just discredit him by releasing the original?” Mark looked to Luke.
“That’s what I suggested.” Luke shrugged. “But the way it was explained to me is that no one would have any reason to believe that our videos are more true than the impostor’s. Editing a video like this isn’t exactly hard these days. We can claim that his is doctored, sure, but since he got his version out first… people will be more inclined to believe him over us, even if only subconsciously.”
“This is ridiculous…” Austin held his head in frustration. “…Who the hell is this guy? Why is he pretending to be me? What the hell does he plan to get out of it?”
“He was pretty clear with his last video,” Mark pointed out.
“That doesn’t explain why he’s impersonating Austin,” Twy countered. “If his goal is really to dethrone SERRCom, then surely there are more effective people he could have chosen to impersonate?”
“It’s a mystery, for sure…” Luke scratched his head and reclaimed the tablet. “All this weird stuff happenin’ at once… I wonder if him showin’ up has anything to do with y’all getting your powers?”
“Why not have Austin do some kind of live broadcast thing?” Sky suggested, “there are a bunch of ways to verify that a live broadcast is untampered with, aren’t there? Wouldn’t that discredit the impostor?”
“It’s possible…” Luke glanced toward Austin uneasily. “…But I have a feeling the higher-ups aren’t willing to put Austin in front of a live camera.”
“Why?” Austin snorted derisively. “They afraid I’m gonna say somethin’ about this conscription bullshit?”
“You have to admit, you’ve given them pretty good reason to think that…”
“Oh yeah, how dare I complain about bein’ illegally conscripted. The nerve!”
Luke furrowed his brow in frustration. He then looked around the table, taking note as everyone present stared at him expectantly. “…I take it you all agree with Austin?”
“You don’t?” Mark questioned, his tone carrying a hint of accusation.
“Hey now, I didn’t say that,” Luke countered. “…But I’ve already told you all this, there’s nothing I can do. And… I can see where the General’s reasoning is coming from. I don’t entirely disagree with his decision.”
“So if you were the General…” Twy leaned forward to hold her forehead in her hand. “…You’d do the same? You’d conscript us?”
“…From a purely pragmatic standpoint, it’s the best decision.”
“It’s an illegal decision,” Austin insisted.
“Look, I’m not arguing that. I’m not sayin’ that I think you actually should be conscripted—”
“Isn’t that what you literally just said?”
“Damn it,” Luke growled, “don’t get mad at me over something I had no control over. You have no idea how bad you would’ve had it if Saito and I hadn’t stepped up to argue the point with the General. The current situation is as good as it’s gonna get.”
“Hardly an excuse…”
“Yeah,” Sky added, “what could be worse than being arrested against our will and forced into military service?”
Luke gave her a pointed stare for a moment. He glanced over at Spike, and then stated, “SERRCom has anti-fraternization regs.”
“…You wouldn’t.” Spike narrowed his eyes as Sky scooted closer to his side.
“And we aren’t,” Luke replied. “But originally, the General wanted to split the four of you up and send you to the far corners of the Earth. It was all I could do to get him to let y’all stay together. I even convinced him to overlook your relationship, so long as you keep the PDA in check.”
“…Thanks… I guess…?” Sky responded uneasily.
“Everyone is well aware that y’all didn’t choose to be here,” Luke continued, looking each of the four in the eyes, “and no one wants to make y’all feel unwelcome. But at the end of the day, for better or for worse, most people believe that conscripting y’all was the right move. Especially now, with this nonsense about Austin’s impostor. Y’all can fight it if you want, I won’t stop you. But you won’t get far; if anything, you’ll only hurt yourselves.”
“Sounds like a thinly veiled threat,” Austin retorted.
Luke sighed in irritation. “You know I didn’t mean it that way.”
“Do I? I don’t think I’ve spoken with the Uncle Luke I know a single time this past week. The hell happened to bein’ chill and takin’ it easy and stayin’ the hell away from SERRCom?”
Luke pursed his lips and hung his head. He then looked up and said, “it’s getting late. Y’all should be gettin’ to bed.”
“Not even gonna answer me, huh?”
“No, he’s right,” Twy cut in, startling Austin. “It’s late. Nothing productive will come from continuing this conversation.”
“Tomorrow’s not going to be easy, either,” Mark interjected, “remember, Mote’s in charge. He won’t go easy on you.”
“…Yeah. Right…” Austin exhaled irately and grabbed his food tray. As everyone else stood up and began to leave, he carried his tray over to the dirty dishes area and unceremoniously dropped it on top of the handful of trays that were already stacked. He yawned, stretched, and made for the exit, where his uncle was waiting.
“…I’m sorry,” Luke muttered quietly.
Austin narrowed his eyes and then passed him by, offering naught but a snort in response.