“Captain,” Jax spat the word. “That’s ridiculous.” And judging by the mutterings from the rest of the mercs that was the prevailing opinion. “He doesn’t have any training. He’s weak, he’d just get in the way.”
“You yourself said we needed some new blood,” the captain countered.
“Yes, but real fighters, not inexperienced puppies.”
“Then a real fighter is what we will make him.” The captain was determined to have his way, and other objections were quickly shot down. Soon the whole thing was decided without anyone asking me about it. But I knew if I refused I knew they would make sure to sell me off to the worst place they could find, some hellhole where I probably wouldn’t last a month. So I stayed quiet as my fate was settled. I was left to sit in a corner and forgotten about as the business with the slavers was concluded.
Soon their business was done and the captain led the mercenaries from the room. Ajax kept an eye on me as we moved through the station passages, but the others paid little attention to me. We came out into a large hangar bay where two Cutlasses, a Caterpillar, and a Redeemer sat waiting.
“Grimes, you take the new kid.” Captain Brannigan said. “The puppy, as Jax called him.”
“Right,” answered a short, thickly built man. “C’mon, pup.” I cringed at the name, but followed him into the bay of one of the Cutlasses. We were followed in by half a dozen others, all strapping themselves into the chairs that had been added to turn the craft into a sort of drop ship. One of the mercs went forward to the pilot seat and soon the ship lurched from the pad and headed out.
The mercs talked and joked on the trip out, commenting more than once how playing guard at the slave market was easy money if a bit boring. It was a long trip. We went through at least two jump points and maybe a third while I dozed off. But finally I could feel the telltale vibrations of hitting atmo, hear the sound of rushing wind slowly growing to a low roar, and feel the odd sensation of the artificial gravity being replaced by the real.
When the rear ramp lowered we were in another hangar with doors looking out of the side of a windswept canyon. Dust like a rust colored mist swirled around the doors as they ground shut. I stepped off the ship and found myself in a large but mostly empty hangar. The other ships were nowhere to be seen, and the place had obviously been built to hold much more than a single Cutlass.
“Someone sweep up all this damn dust!” Grimes shouted as he walked off through the doors leading to the rest of the underground facility. Of course that someone was me. So I found a broom and mop and spent the next hour cleaning the floor of the hangar. Then Grimes reappeared and ordered me to scrub up the ship, so I did that. I spent much of the trip here about what was going to happen to me, and on retrospect washing and cleaning and other grunt chores seemed the obvious conclusion.
The next few days became a cycle of dull drudgery. Cleaning the interior of the Cutlass, cleaning the hallways and the rooms, carrying cargo, whatever was needed of me. From the start there seemed no real way to escape. At best guess the outpost had been built as a layover for smuggling runs. It was remote and secure, had a hangar that could accommodate large cargo ships, and had lots of storage space in the lower levels. I didn’t even have any idea what system I was in, let alone where I could escape to. The Cutlass was locked down, and on the occasions I went to the surface all I could see was windswept, dusty rocks and desert.
I had been there a week when Grimes came to me and surprised me by saying it was time he saw if I would “be of any use.” He took me to a storage room they had converted into a shooting range and put a pistol in my hand. Immediately I thought of trying to shoot my way out, but it wasn’t even a real working pistol, practically a toy that they used for shooting practice.
Holographic targets popped up at various distances, and I shot them as fast as I could. I was incredibly nervous, the thought constantly in the back of my mind that if I didn’t do well enough they would just fall back on selling me to a titanium mine. But Grimes seemed satisfied, and next handed me a mock rifle. The targets got smaller and farther away, but I did my best to keep calm and steady, slowly and surely shooting each one as it materialized.
“Not bad,” he said when I was through. “You said you done some huntin’?”
“Yes, with my uncle.”
Grimes nodded. “Let me try you on somethin’ a bit more interestin’.” He took the rifle from me and led me to an elevator that took us up to the surface, stopping along the way at a small armory to grab a scoped rifle. The elevator doors opened in a rock face at the top of the canyon, a winding path leading down the sheer face. We climbed the path a ways until we were at the very rim of the canyon. “Right, now we’ll see what you can really do.” He handed me the rifle, and pointed across the canyon. “Far wall is a little under a kilometer away. There’s a red rock jutting out from the wall just there,” he pointed, looking through a spotter scope. I looked through the scope and found the one I thought he meant. “Now see if you can hit it.”
I lay prone, flipping down the bipod legs on the rifle and gazing through the scope. I didn’t know how he expected me to do this. I didn’t recognize the rifle; it was obviously a ballistic weapon but other than that I could only guess about it. Add in the strong wind with no wind gauge, and no ballistic calculation equipment, it was ridiculous. But the only thing I could do was guess and do my best.
The target was about a kilometer away. I didn’t know the muzzle velocity of the rifle, but it was a good bet it would be somewhere in the neighborhood of a kilometer per second. So the bullet would be in the air for a second, and the gravity felt about earth norm. So should be about a five meter drop. The wind I was less sure about, but it was coming strong from the right. As for all the other factors like drag, air density, coriolis and magnus effect I had no way of even guessing. But the shot was already so far into guesswork those smaller factors didn’t really matter. I made my best guess and fired.
A second later, a chip of rock on the side of the rock shattered into bits. “Very nice,” Grimes said. “But let’s see if it was just luck. Do it again.” I chambered another round and aimed slightly to the left of the previous shot to try to hit the rock more center. I was about to fire when a gunshot sounded behind me.
I jumped, and looked around to see Grimes with his pistol drawn, casually pointing it into the distance. “Well, don’t let me interrupt you, pup. Fire.” My heart was racing and I was breathing hard as I turned back to the gun. Another shot sounded, making me flinch. I tried to calm myself down, but it wasn’t working. I couldn’t bring my breathing under control, and my heart was pounding. I fired, but the shot went wide and low.
“That’s what I thought,” Grimes said. “You’d be useless in a battle situation if you can’t stay calm under fire. Try again.” I did, and missed again. And again. I tried to stay calm, but every shot Grimes let off set my heart pounding again. They were erratic. None would come for a time, and I’d just start to think he was done shooting when another BANG would sound to get my adrenaline pumping again.
When Grimes called it quits I still hadn’t hit my target. But we were back on top of the ridge again the next day. I hit the target at the beginning, but as soon as Grimes started letting off rounds I couldn’t keep focused.
“Pup, come here,” Grimes said after a while. I was really not liking that name, but it seemed to have stuck. We had been joined on the ridge by another one of the Vipers, this one with a long face and short, brown hair.
“Brought you the chems you wanted,” the man said.
“Pup, this is Camron,” Grimes said. “He’s a bit of a chemist and I asked him to make you somethin’ special.” He held a small autoinjector in his hand. Inside the syringe was a small amount of silvery liquid.
“What is it?” I asked.
“Something to help you keep calm.” He reached out and jabbed my shoulder with the injector before I could react. There was a bit of a sting, then what felt almost like a coldness started to spread. In the dry sun, it felt kind of refreshing. “Now give it a moment and try again.”
I lay back down at the rifle and focused back on my target. The cooling liquid spread all throughout my body, and it did feel relaxing. It seemed so simple. The target wasn’t that far away, all I had to do was point and shoot. I felt I could almost see the path that the bullet would take, watch it curve as it was buffeted by wind, pulled by gravity, and pushed one way or the other by all the little effects. I knew where I had to aim.
Just as I was about to pull the trigger, Grimes fired. The round impacted right next to my head, setting my ears ringing and kicking up dust and dirt over me. But I knew Grimes wasn’t going to shoot me. He wanted to keep me alive. It was just background noise. It didn’t matter at all. I squeezed. Even though it was only a second it felt like minutes passed as I felt I could watch the expanding cloud of gas propel the bullet spinning out of the barrel, see the shockwave build up on the nose of the bullet, feel the tiny effects acting on the bullet as it soared to its target and hit square in the center.
“That’s how it’s done,” Grimes said with a tone of triumph that made me smile.