Chapter 1

 

The last defense

 

THERE WAS the time she lost her partner.

Vorani tried to lift the heaviest of the blocks trapping Kaden’s legs. She braced her shoulder against the flat side of what had been a support column for the building and concentrated on her armor power levels. Her armor was a classic offense model, with more weapons than plating, giving her speed and firepower but not much physical strength.

Kaden tilted his chin up as the overhead structure creaked and groaned. “Vor, I want you to leave me.”

Vorani rolled her eyes at the request. “We’re in this together, remember?”

“You agreed to work with me, not die with me.” Kaden’s eyes were clear despite the pain he must have been feeling. “Please, you have to go.”

“I can’t leave you.” The building shook around them. The fighting was still going on outside, and due to the explosions and the impacts from the heavy artillery, the surrounding buildings were becoming more unstable.

Theirs had been a mission to sabotage one of the enemy cells hidden close to the border. Vorani had kept watch while Kaden took off his armor so he could slip through the narrow ventilation shaft to infiltrate the base. The enemy had attacked while they were still inside, and Kaden had not managed to crawl free before the place had collapsed around them.

“Don’t die for me.” Kaden lifted his hand to reach for Vorani. Vorani wondered if he was in love with her; as work partners they’d never spoken about it, but in her heart, she knew, in the way a woman always knows, that he harbored some feeling for her—even if all she felt for him was friendship.

“I’m not dying for you,” she gritted out. “I’m making you live.”

Just then a scream rang out and Vorani looked over her shoulder. Luckily for them the building had been empty, but this was a civilian-occupied area. They could both hear it, the scream of distress of someone young and scared—and very much alive.

“Go,” Kaden told her. “It’s what we trained for.”

“To protect people,” Vorani said as she clutched Kaden’s hand. “Not to watch each other die.”

“Give me my armor and leave,” Kaden told her desperately.

Vorani looked at Kaden’s armor, one of the famous, hard to become compatible with, black armors, one of five in existence and the only one in the field. She pulled the leg and chest pieces toward Kaden and gave them to him, wondering which of them was being stupid. “You can’t put it on with your—” lower legs trapped under the rubble.

“We are all that stands for the freedom of the people,” Kaden told her, reminding her of her oath, the one they took when they first accepted the armors. “Go do your duty, Vor. I’ll be waiting.”

Vorani stood up, wiping a tear from her face, and turned toward the sound. She could see the sunlight streaming through the gaps in the concrete and thought it ironic that Kaden was trapped not five feet from freedom. “I’ll come back for you.” She wasn’t sure if he heard it over the sound of screaming. Then she clenched her wrists where the controls for her armor were sited and mentally commanded power to her feet so she could run toward those who needed saving.

As she dived through an opening in the building, she turned around for one last look. The whole structure groaned, and even as she watched, the middle caved in, leaving behind a cloud of dust.

 

 

“…AND THAT was how I lost my partner and realized my true duty was to the people who need my protection.” Vorani finished her story as her enthralled audience, fifty new recruits, looked up at her, eyes shining, mouths open, waiting for her next words. She turned to her left and nodded to the stage manager to let him know the next item should be lined up. Her speech was almost over. “And remember this, you are all here voluntarily, some to take up the armor that will give you the power to protect the innocent, others to support the armored units. It will not be without sacrifice. Now, my own loss is not something I wish to—”

He could take it no more. Vorani was a good speaker, and her story probably had a moral to it, but she was using the tragedy for her own benefit to win over the audience and gain herself some sympathy. And he was in a hurry.

He pushed past the stage manager, and the man squawked in protest. “Excuse me, coming through, move.” He could see the moment Vorani’s face went from serene acceptance to outright horror as he strode onto the stage, his armored boots hitting the wooden panels with a muted thud.

“Hey,” he said to the audience, giving a small wave to emphasize his point. The audience broke into a loud, excited whisper. Kaden knew his armor drew attention: unlike Vorani’s muted dark blue, his was a matte black; some called it a different shade of gray, but to him it was a very dark black, so black it didn’t reflect any light—like a void. It stood out in the drab, khaki surroundings of the stage, like a negative beacon. “Former partner here… my name is Kaden, and as you can see, I’m not dead. We just decided not to work together after that incident.”

Vorani looked as if she was about to explode, and Kaden decided to act quickly. “Now, excuse me—I need to borrow Senior Expert Maxis for a little while. I promise I’ll return her to you to continue this fairy tale.”

“Kaden,” Vorani hissed, but unfortunately she was still wearing her mic and her voice carried across the open hall. She collected herself and looked at the audience with a grimace that could pass for a smile in the low light. “Students, this is Senior Expert Kaden Pace who has come to—” She broke off and looked at him, searching for something to say. “Perhaps you’d like to share some of your wisdom with the new entrants? They’d love to hear a few words of encouragement from you.”

Kaden looked down from the stage and smirked. As usual, the main building had been expanded outward with hastily erected tent material to accommodate the sudden influx of people. “Go home. You’re here because you think wearing an armor is going to make you a hero. Well, it doesn’t. You’re here because we lost fifty-seven armored warriors this year”—four of them wearing original armor, something the new recruits needn’t be told until they were actually assigned their gear—“which means there’s always more space for cannon fodder. Half of you will quit anyway before your five years of training is up, and the rest of you will be—”

“Kaden.” Vorani didn’t even bother to try and keep up the pretense; she was anything but subtle as she gripped him by the upper arm and pushed him off the stage. She slammed an open palm on his back to vent her frustration, and the force of her blow made him stagger for a second. He had to take several quick steps forward to keep his balance. “What the fuck”—she tore the mic off her chest and placed it on the small table in the corner—“was that? What were you doing spouting all that nonsense, scaring off the kids?”

“Someone needed to tell them.”

“Well, it didn’t need to be you.”

“Why not? They need to know. Or you could tell them a couple more facts, instead of brainwashing them with made-up stories.”

“What would I be telling them?”

“That the building I was in was brought down by our Army… that they didn’t wait for us to clear out before they fired on us. The enemy cell we went into was a part of the resistance. There were more sympathizers in it than Harians.”

“We don’t know for sure who fired on that building. Anyway, you took too much time getting the info,” Vorani said earnestly. “You knew we were on the clock.”

“Maybe you need to tell the truth.” Kaden looked away for a second. He wasn’t there to fight or review facts about what had gone wrong with their last mission. He’d done that already, numerous times, both in his head and on paper. “I was good enough to tell you what to do before.”

Then Kaden realized just how wrong that sounded. He and Vorani had had fun before; they’d joined the training about the same time, both chosen to be original armored warriors, had been friends then lovers for a very brief time and finally partners, a duo who supported each other on the field—but now they were total strangers trying to be civil. Kaden had never called the shots in their partnership. It had always been Vorani.

Perhaps their relationship was more than that. Kaden was a war orphan, foisted from orphanage to orphanage until he had reached the right age to be recruited by the Army. By then he had been far more interested in trying to find his brother, whom he had been separated from, than fighting for his country. Whatever righteous anger he had felt at the thought of his parents’ death at the hands of Harian remote drones had fizzled down to nothing in the wake of long food lines and cold showers. In fact, the reason he’d decided to stay in the Army had been the free food.

He had never thought to rise up the ranks in the Army—that was for people with ambition and goals and family influences. Kaden had resigned himself to a life of boot polishing and spoon counting when Vorani had burst into his life. She had both her parents and a plethora of siblings and a house to live in. Because of her patriotism, she joined as soon as she reached the right age. He had run into her at camp on the very first day; Vorani had been annoyed that she’d been set back almost a year and was complaining loudly about it. The recruitment for young cadets was done once a year; born in October, Vorani had to wait almost six months before her enrollment.

It seemed strange that a daughter from a middle-class family, in clothes that actually fit her, would take to the poor boy in mismatched shoes, but it had started out as a rather solid friendship. It had been Vorani’s dream to become an armored warrior, and not just any armored warrior, but one who wore an original. To Kaden, the armored warriors were the elite of the elite in the Army, the people who got to wear the almost-mythical body plating that supposedly protected them from everything. True, they were the ones fighting in the front lines, but their gear seemingly made them invincible; they were allowed special privileges because of their invaluable contribution to the war. Unlike Vorani, he had no desire to go out and kill Harians, but he also wasn’t completely brain-dead. From what he’d seen and heard, he understood that only a select few could wear the armor, and from that, the original suits were even more distinctive.

Original armor picked the wearer, not the other way around. Back then, Kaden hadn’t understood all the talk about genetics and compatibility, only that he was never going to be lucky enough to be chosen.

But Vorani had pressured him to get tested, and somewhere along the way, as he’d gone through arrays of fitting rooms, rattling around in the different metal parts, he’d fallen in love with the process. When Vorani had been found to be compatible with an original armor, Kaden had wanted to belong to the same group. Not to mention there had been a rumor the Army was going to send anyone who was not ready to join the armored unit back to the orphanages for another three years. Vorani had stood by him as he’d gone through fitting after fitting. Ultimately, Kaden had made up his mind to build up his body strength so he could at least wear a more modern pile of metal, when he’d finally clicked.

Each rejection had been painful, some more than others. Every time he’d tried on a suit, piece by piece, he’d wondered if it would be the one. But as the final headgear assembled over him, he would be disappointed. Sometimes there would be a dead silence as he stood there in the dark, the visor’s night vision function failing to operate. Sometimes it was wrenching pain inside his head as if a hand had reached in and twisted his brain for a couple of seconds. Once, it had been a blinding headache and nonstop vomiting for two hours.

He’d been ready to give up on it when the black armor had “clicked.” For some, the click was an actual sound in the back of their head, like two parts snapping together. For Kaden it had been a smooth transition from one person to two—he imagined it was similar to a sword sliding into a scabbard created just for it. From then on, he always had an extra presence in the back of his mind.

All he was, in a way, was due to Vorani, who’d stood by him and spurred him on. Though he’d stated that he’d once given her instructions, that was a lie. Even in bed, she’d been the one to dictate how he should act. That, more than their sexual incompatibility, and along with her insistence of keeping it secret, had been what caused their parting. Vorani had realized that sleeping with Kaden was hurting their friendship, and she called it off. Thinking back, she’d called the shots for a majority of their relationship. Kaden waited for her to point out just how hollow his earlier words were.

Vorani, luckily, didn’t even bother to answer, just gave him one of her patented looks that spoke of her disappointment. “What do you want, Kaden?”

“Why am I not back on active duty?” It hurt him to ask, but he needed to know. As was the policy of the armored warriors, it was not just Medical that had to clear an injured warrior back to duty, but that person’s direct superior as well. In his case, it was Vorani, who had been promoted while he’d been “lounging around” in a hospital bed.

“Because I don’t think you are ready,” Vorani told him sharply before turning around as if to walk back to the stage.

“Wait.” Kaden reached for her but stopped just short of touching her. “Is this because I refused to be your partner anymore?” He had to ask.

Vorani’s sharp bark of laughter was like a slap across the face. “You really do think highly of yourself, don’t you?”

“What else am I to think?” Kaden stepped back with a scowl, arms across his chest. “I cleared the obstacle course in full armor, and the shrink test, and when I went to the office to see if I had an assignment, they told me I hadn’t been cleared.”

“I’ll tell you why you haven’t been cleared,” Vorani told Kaden, and he knew he’d pushed her a little too far. “You refused to take a physical in camp.”

“Why should I?” Kaden said, puzzled. He ignored the cold feeling of dread in his middle to stare back at her defiantly. “It’s not one of the requirements. I’ve been cleared by Dr. Lane and that counts as a medical. There’s no need for me to repeat it.”

Dr. Melanie Lane had been his doctor at the Warrior Hospital, and since it was technically a part of the Armored Warrior Division, a medical examination in the hospital was the same as one in camp. Even the same doctors performed it at both locations.

Vorani nodded at that. “I spoke to Melanie and she told me some bullshit about patient privacy and stuff.” She scowled and looked away. “The last I heard, your medical records were still in transit.”

“You called Melanie?” The cold in his middle grew.

“She was your doctor while you were recovering,” Vorani pointed out reasonably. “She was the only person who saw you for six months while you were in the hospital.”

Kaden was lucky that the other doctor who assisted in his surgery had been transferred to another combat zone and most nurses at the hospital had rotated out by the time he’d been discharged.

“I tried to visit, but Melanie was quite insistent I stay put. You’d think she was hiding something.”

There had been a time when Kaden refused visitors, not letting anyone even call him because he hadn’t wanted them to see him in his pathetic state. He’d been recovering from having a building fall on him; he’d had little time to deal with well-wishers, bringing him baskets of fruit. However, Vorani’s statement hit a little too close to home, and he tried to distract her. “Did you think I was fucking her?”

“That would have been the least of my problems.” Vorani didn’t even flinch at his underhanded attempt to distract her from the main point. “And what made you think I would care? Besides, I would have found that more believable if Dr. Lane had a dick.”

“It’s still an invasion of privacy.”

“I didn’t call her to talk about you. I wanted to know the hospital’s power capacity. To make sure the storage units for the fertility clinic were operational.”

“Oh.”

“It would have been better if you’d simply agreed to have a child.”

Kaden felt as if that had come out of nowhere. He knew very little about the history of the mobile weapon he wore, but every Army recruit was given a crash course about it. From what Kaden remembered of those lectures, years later, it had been an invention by the eccentric Dr. Orche, who had meant the armors to be a gift to be passed down through family lines. Perhaps the Orches—Laure and Langvil, father and son—had designed everything with the intention of it being used by a specific group of people. Some speculated that since Langvil joined the research a good fourteen years after his father, perhaps he had had little control over the very first models. It had been Langvil’s notes that had helped develop the second generation of armors. The new armor didn’t have the same weakness, but it was too late for those who were compatible with the prototypes.

Being compatible with any original armor was genetic, and the government was “encouraging” original armor-attuned warriors to reproduce, even going so far as to collect their sperm and egg samples and provide them with surrogate mothers, where needed. He had his sperm stored as was mandatory for all Army recruits, but the last thing Kaden wanted was to have a child. He was on the verge of doing something stupid, but none of it involved a future generation. 

“Well, these days I’m having all the fun without the strings,” Kaden said as lightly as possible.

“Your sex life is not my concern, although I hear you’ve been going to the alleyway outside more often than before. Submit your blood work just in case. I hear those hookers have all types of STDs.”

“Then why not just clear me for—”

“I am still your superior,” she said sharply. “You were my partner before you became my responsibility, and my intuition tells me something is wrong.”

“Well, your intuition has been wrong before.” Kaden could see the conversation taking a turn he didn’t want, and he decided to retreat while he could. “Look, I know you have to go back to the audience.” He gestured toward the stage, where the sound of restless voices could be heard. “I’ll leave you to it. Sorry for having disturbed you.”

Vorani looked as if she was about to cave in, but at the last moment her eyes fired up. “You know what, Kaden, wait a little,” she said as she gestured over her head toward someone in the background. “Pali, carry on. What’s the next item?”

Pali, as tall and dark as her armor was silver, stepped forward at the sound of the question. “The second-year cadets have arranged a demonstration.”

“Get it started,” Vorani instructed her subordinate. “I’m stepping out for a bit.” Then she grabbed Kaden by the upper arm, blocking the laser-flare ports in his armor, and dragged him out the back of the tent, where the welcome event was being held.

“I know you’re busy and probably should go on—” Kaden had been counting on it, in fact. He had planned on ambushing Vorani on stage because she was busy and would approve his request without thinking too hard. Why hadn’t he kept his mouth shut instead of spewing forth his bitterness, not just for the students to hear but also for the rest of the senior armored warriors who had been attending the ceremony?

“I think this is the first time we’ve had a face-to-face conversation since the last battle,” she said seriously, and Kaden’s heart sank. Her eyes were earnest, and the way she looked at him as if he was the most important thing in the world made his knees weak. He looked around hurriedly to see if there was a chance of them being interrupted, but it was Welcome Day, the most important day, when all those youngsters who had joined the glorious Joscalian Army to protect the country from the evil Harians were welcomed to their camp. For security reasons, all the camps around the country celebrated Welcome Day on slightly different dates but with the same enthusiasm. Realistically, it was the first day when twelve- to fifteen-year-olds were separated from their parents and introduced to the harsh reality of what it meant to join the Army, and everyone had places to be and things to do. No one slowed down or even looked at the two of them.

Kaden couldn’t think of any reason to call somebody over to them. “If that is all you’re going to say, I’ll be going, then.” As much as he wanted to stand and argue with Vorani, he was treading on dangerous ground and knew it was best to withdraw before she discovered just what Dr. Lane had been kind enough to cover up for him.

“What’s all this about?” Vorani looked at him levelly—no anger, no sadness, but calm and collected and ready to sort things out.

“Nothing, really,” Kaden said, backing out. “I wanted to ask to be released for field duty, that’s all.”

“Why didn’t you ask me that while I was in my office?”

Because, frankly, it would have led to a conversation just like this.

“We never speak one-on-one anymore,” Vorani continued, undaunted by his inability to say anything.

“Really.” Kaden looked around for an escape route. “We talk almost every day at dinner.”

“In public, with everyone a foot away from us, and you ask me if I like the soup.” Vorani managed to pack a lot of contempt into her voice. “Kaden, you broke up our partnership over the phone.”

“I was in hospital then….” He trailed off weakly, knowing his excuse was a very poor one.

“You refused visitors.”

“Are we going to go over that again?”

“No, we’re not,” Vorani said with a tired smile. “I suppose I’m no longer your partner and therefore not supposed to look after you.”

“Then okay me for fieldwork.”

“I’m not going to do that until you tell me what is wrong.”

Kaden tried one last time to provoke Vorani. “Is this your way of getting revenge for me dissolving our partnership?”

She simply shook her head and looked at him. “Why are you in the armor, Kaden?”

Kaden felt cold sweat break out on his forehead and spread over his entire body, even on parts that he deliberately refused to think of. “What?” he managed to force out through his constricting throat.

“You don’t take your armor off. I’ve never seen you without it since you came out of hospital. Maybe I should call you in to meet one of the counselors.”

“I take it off,” Kaden protested. “I have needs, you know, and this thing doesn’t have convenient openings.” He managed to make a vague vulgar gesture he knew Vorani, a twenty-year veteran on the force, would understand easily.

Vorani rolled her eyes in response. “No need to be crude, Kaden. I’m glad you don’t shit in your armor.”

“There’s no crime in wearing it,” Kaden said, feeling the need to emphasize it.

“There’s a word for people like you.”

“Ex-partner?”

“For people who don’t take off their armor after a traumatic event,” Vorani continued without pause. “There’re two types of people, those who don’t go near their gear because they think they’ll be asked to fight. And the type who think it’s the best protection against—”

“I’m not like that.” Kaden cut her off before she could complete her sentence.

Vorani looked at his face for a second and nodded. “I can see that.”

Kaden turned away, letting his shoulders relax. “I’m going to go back to my barracks,” he said without any inflection. He’d tried and he’d failed.

“I’ll think about what you said,” she said softly.

“Think on it.” Kaden didn’t turn around, presenting Vorani with his back. “Do you want me around the new recruits?”