Out of the thirty-five men and women who tried their hand at getting a spirit bound to them, only four of them, counting Stawski, had managed to pass. Everybody else had either hurt themseves or almost hurt somebody else. This was about par for the course, Irenka had read. Few were cut out for playing host to a spirit, and rumble worms were among the most docile and easy to control.
Irenka only missed a week of training. The saliva and surgery of the Dove ensured that Osanna was only bedridden a month, and back to light exercise for the first week back. The overall effect, Irenka was startled to find, was minimal. It just meant she had front-ended all the paperwork and textbook learning of her training. By the time she was catching up on the physical portion of testing Irenka was being schooled in the history of the army from a soldier's perspective. That and military philosophy. And a crash course on calculus to better determine how to place a sniper's bullet or a mortar or indirect grenade and launcher fire.
On one level it was a lot like being in school, not again, but for the first time, ever. She was not a good fit for a school environment. The utter blandness of her surroundings was hardly a problem when she was busy getting her head handed to her by physical training, and then finding her niche in the art of soldiering, and then the, er, Osanna incident. But now that everything was slowing down and she now spent most of her time reading masive textbooks and testing on them, she felt her mind start to shut down in protest of lack of visual stimulation.
She supposed she could throw her weight around a little bit and spend an afternoon or so painting a mural... but no, that would be flaunting. She shouldn't flaunt. Not this late in the game. And besides, Stolarz wouldn't let her.
Not that it wasn't tempting to flaunt the hell out of being a princess.
So she read the texts and took the tests, all while Osanna finished the physical portion of her training. Waiting to meet again in the middle.
* * *
There were seven in the courtyard. One was patrolling, shotgun clenched in its clumsy hands. The others were hunched behind cover--a cheap, bullet-pocked statue jutting from the center, low walls of stacked sandbags set with flat tops of cheap wood, concrete pillars just large enough for them to duck behind.
"So, what's the puzzle?"
"Puzzle?" Irenka said. She was sketching a map of the combat zone in the dust. The final test in basic was a live-fire exercise, one five-man fire team against a squad of automatons, number unspecified in the briefing. Other than Irenka and Osanna, there was Warner, Shizuka, and...
"Yeah, there's gotta be some trick to it," Pvt. Horowitz said. "Like, if we go here, and do this, then we win!" He gestured vaguely. "Besides, they're just wind-up toys, it's not like we have to outsmart 'em."
"Why the hell would our live fire test be a puzzle?" Osanna said. She was stationed closest to the edge of the two-story house they were using for cover, keeping an eye out for any machines who ventured out too far for comfort. "Do they expect us to fight people who set up puzzles that we can figure out with five minutes of poking the dirt?"
"Well, this is a test," Horowitz said. "They gotta grade us somehow."
"Listen," Irenka said, holding up her hand, "you're not totally off. Here..." She pointed at the map. "It's all about applying what we've learned, right? So here's what we do. We need to get them out of cover if we want to shoot them, while not losing cover ourselves. We have to think about it like we're in a war, so we can't just throw all our grenades and call it a day. Think like we have to make our gear last all day." She drew a line in the dirt. "I'll circle around and get to the roof of the house on the west."
"--Wait, wait," Shizuka said, "so plan A is our machine gunner fucks off?"
Irenka pat her gun's receiver. Plugged into the top was the dual drum magazine. "These are faster to load than belts. I can operate on my own a little while, at least. They're going to be focusing on me, and I'll be on the roof--so Horowitz and Osanna can go here..." She indicated the southern house. "And Shizuka and Warner can go here. Overlapping fields of fire, and nobody will be shooting at anyone alive. Nowhere to hide." She flashed a smile. "Easy!"
"Fingers crossed," Warner said.
"You can climb with that?" Osanna said.
"Sure thing," Irenka said.
"No, I'm actually asking you. There aren't any back doors on these buildings. Did you see any footholds? Is there anything on that building that can actually support all hundred pounds of you when you're climbing up? Why was your plan A assuming that there's a ladder?"
"I... well, it's... it can't be that hard..." Irenka said.
Osanna sighed. "Look." She stomped over to the map and pointed at it. "Better idea. You and me, here..." She pointed at the southwest corner, peering around the house. "Cover, and we cover the whole courtyard. We get Shizuka and Horowitz here..." She pointed at the northwest. "And Warner here..." She indicated the south house. "Goes upstairs, hucks a grenade. Then we advance to their own cover, Warner moves to another window and takes his shots. And that's how we do it."
Irenka looked around. "W-well. That's one plan. What do you all think?"
"I think we're missin' something," Horowitz said.
"I'm with Nowakowski," Shizuka said.
"The princess's is safer!" Warner said. "That and it doesn't have me throwing an explosive device out a window. Maybe it's just me, but that doesn't sound too safe."
"So, it's a tie," Irenka said.
Osanna sighed. "You know, I'll defer to you, princess. Just remember this--no matter what happens, we do not shoot at each other. The enemy is going to be shooting at our own goddamned heads, we don't need to help them out."
"Right! Right. Whatever happens, never fire straight at each other. Uh--Warner, you keep south, Shizuka, Horowitz, you keep north. Fire at an angle from where the other guys are shooting. Got it?"
General agreement between the five of them. "Alright. And that makes us west," Irenka said.
Irenka and Osanna paired off first, darting from behind one building to the next on Osanna's go. The machines were more milling about than actively patrolling, though with all of them facing different directions it made actually passing them something of a chore. It was close to six minutes of waiting by the corner before they actually made their move.
Behind the western house there was nothing suitable for a foothold. Osanna smirked. Irenka sighed. Osanna indicated the corner: that's where we fire from. She took the lead, raising her carbine, and no sooner did the barrel come in sight did something on the other side fire. Osanna backed up, cursing under her breath, and a hidden automaton stepped from the corner, pumping its shotgun. Which was its mistake; Osanna trained her gun on its head and fired. It locked up, teetered, and fell forward.
"It can't decide if it's smart or dumb, huh?" Irenka said, her ears faintly ringing.
"Shut the hell up and move." She pointed at the other corner of the house. "And watch yourself!"
Irenka was already prepped for assault firing--sling looped around the handle and her shoulder, left hand clenching the bipod like an angle foregrip, buttstock under her arm. Finger on the upper trigger she crept around the corner. No hidden machine here, but--
A fat glob rushed by her head, hot droplets of paint splashing on her cheek. She ducked back into cover. "Son of a bitch!" she said. She looked around, didn't see Osanna...
Cracks of gunfire--Osanna's carbine, in fact. More gunfire, wet spluts as misses impacted with the houses. From cover Irenka had a good view of the southern house; from the front the houses looked like modern art installations, assorted shades of paint blasted across their forefronts. She waited a few moments until the splats of paint stopped--then, heart in her chest, she rushed out of the corner, gun pointed out and into the courtyard.
Osanna had already taken out one of the machines, but the rest were still up. One of them was still aiming in her direction, but it was reloading, standing out of cover. Her finger slid down to the second trigger and she loosed a second-long burst. Four neat holes appeared in its chest armor and it locked up and plunged. With as ferocious a scream as she could manage she rushed for a chest-high concrete block, squeezing quick bursts of bullets at every robot straight ahead of her and thus between her and the empty space between houses where Shizuka and Horowitz were definitely not.
She slid into place behind the block. She hadn't taken out any more machines, but the gunfire had tapered off, and they were going behind cover. That was good. She flipped open the bipod and planted it on the block. When one of the robots tried to pop out of cover she gave it a warning shot or two. Single fire now, had to make the rest of the mag last. It was already much lighter than before and she couldn't afford having to reload when all attention was on her.
Where the hell were the others? Unless...
The front door of the southern house was open.
"Frag out!" Warner shouted from the southern house, and a grenade flew from a second-story window. Guess he liked Nowakowski's plan better than he thought. The grenade skipped off a barricade and behind three of the machines, which had hardly begun trundling out of cover before it went off. Scratch three robots.
Osanna popped from the corner, beating feet to cover, and Irenka obliged by emptying her gun at the remaining automatons. She hit empty and ducked behind cover, dumping the empty mag and yanking a spare from her back. Warner obliged her by taking pop shots at the machines. Reloading was practically leisurely, then, slamming a fresh mag into place and working the action. She peered over the block, and one of the machines opened fire at her. Her helmet flew from her head, carried by a wash of paint, and she wondered if that counted or not. There would have been a klaxon if she'd been taken out, she presumed, and so ducked back behind the wall.
Osanna's carbine cracked and the automaton that had nearly taken Irenka out got a third eyehole on the side of its head. Irenka moved from her cover to another wall ahead of her, closing the distance with the remaining automatons. They were falling back, trying to put more defensive terrain between themselves and their attackers from the west and south. One of them vaulted behind the bullet-pocked statue, at which point a rifle's muzzle flash lit up a window in the north house and stopped it in its tracks. Two to go...
Two to go with inadequate cover. Irenka set her bipod on the cover, took aim, and squeezed the lower trigger. One fell immediately, the other after she'd flung half her mag in its direction.
She ducked back behind cover and waited. For a few pitilessly long moments there was no sound but the absence of gunfire, a ringing in her ears, and then the all-clear sounded. "Cease fire, all soldiers in the clear!" Irenka flipped on her safety and slung the gun over her shoulder, cradling its buttstock. Her heart was pounding and, alas, her face flush with pride. One day science would discover a cure for her tendency to blush like a ripe tomato. She marched to the center of the courtyard, by the two machines she'd taken down, and stood, waiting.
Osanna was right behind her, carbine over her shoulder, looking pleased. Horowitz was next, striding out of the northern house, followed by an ashamed Shizuki, whose chest was blasted with powdery blue paint. Warner was the last, hiking from the southern house.
Not long after, Stolarz and her aides had stepped down from the observaton towers ringing the walled-in test range. Stolarz clapped. "Congratulations," she said, "with only one lamentable casualty you have taken the town from the finest training dummies money can buy. This concludes your final exam. Any comments, privates?"
"This paint shit hurts, sergeant," Shizuki said.
"Don't have to tell me twice," Stolarz said. "Any comments on something that isn't the blindingly obvious? No? Fantastic. Return your arms to the armory, hit the showers. The rest of the evening is yours as you please. I would like to note that Icemelt has a selection of bars which is second to none and they just received a fresh shipment of libations this very morning."
"--wait, really?" Horowitz said.
"Yes, really, sergeant," Stolarz said.
"De nada. On that note, I leave you be. Dismissed!" Stolarz turned on her heel and walked off, whistling the Reunification anthem.
"Hell yeah!" Horowitz said. "I'm gonna get fuckin' toasty tonight!"
"You're buyin' me a drink, right?" Shizuki said. "Because I ain't kiddin', this paint shit hurts."
Irenka took a seat on one of the concrete blocks. "Wow," she said, softly.
Osanna sat next to her. "So we survived basic training. And neither of us killed the other."
"We did. We did, didn't we?"
"You know, if you wanted," Osanna said, glancing aside, "you could wash your hands of all this now that you're done. You've learned the basics, you can just head back to being a princess."
"I could." Suddenly there was nothing in the world she wanted to do more than flop into her bed back home and sleep for a week. It was a pang of homesickness so powerful it was almost a palpitation.
"And just think," Osanna said, "you'd be leaving me here to do... whatever it is they make assistant machine gunners do when they're not helping machine gunners shoot people. Which is, apparently, shooting people without the machine gunner attached. Which makes you just a reason I carry a smaller gun and heavier ammo into battle." She slapped the ammo boxes and spare feed cover on her back. "So maybe I should get rid of you before you make me regret any other life decisions."
Irenka smiled. "It's... you know? How about we just, you know, have us a night on the town? Relax, get to know each other. We've barely just patched up, if you think about it. We spent most of the last two months not seeing each other."
"Ah, right. Plenty of time to remind me why I hated you."
"I can buy as much wine as you can drink, remember that."
"Wine? I have more important things to drink. The question is, princess, have you ever drunken anything in your life more alcoholic than water?"
Osanna pat her on the back. "Right. So tonight I'm going to be educating you in the finer points of drinking."
"...should I be afraid?"
"Oh, Star Maiden, yes."