Spiritum – Chapter Eight

8.

The gym on the U.S.N Rimor’s crew deck was packed, as was usual for the time between completing an assignment and returning home. The majority of its space and equipment was occupied by the vessel’s marines who in particular had little to do during the period. They were still on Selson, the wait having been made longer than usual by some problems on the maintenance deck that needed to be resolved before they could take off. Llannaeia headed for the gym almost as soon as she’d returned from the Selson Academy for the Arcane. That was her favourite method of unwinding after a hard day’s work, and she needed it more than ever. It had been a draining day. Her encounter with Iona had knocked the wind out of her. All she could think about on the way back was the look on her sister’s face, and the way she said her name. It was like a cruel joke. She’d intended the day she left home to be last she would ever see of her sister only to run into her in the middle of some random forest on Valarayan’s smallest moon. What were the chances of that? She needed to take her mind off things.

She stared into the eyes of Sergeant Runnell as she heaved the barbell into the air. Her skin glistened and her muscles burned like there were fires raging inside them. She allowed herself a moment’s relief before lowering the bar back to her chest. She could almost feel the muscles tearing like paper. She went for another rep but it was no use, her arms refusing to go any further. With a nod, the Sergeant wrapped his hands around the bar and helped guide it to the rack. Llannaeia rested her head on the bench and stared at the gun-metal ceiling. She’d pushed herself hard, all in the hope of taking her mind off her sister. A hard session in the Rimor’s gym was usually all that was required to take away whatever troubled her though this time it had done little to alleviate her burdens. Despite her best efforts, Iona continued to swamp ever inch of her.

Llannaeia moved to a nearby bench, sitting down beside Private Thelton as Sergeant Runnell took her place beneath the barbell. “Here you go, Captain”. The Private offered her a half-empty water bottle.

“Go spot for Guhn”, Llannaeia gasped, accepting the bottle and taking a big gulp.

The Private did as he was told, guiding the bar into the Sergeant’s waiting hands. He made it seem like the weights at the ends were made from foam as he lowered it to his bulging chest and then raised it into the air without breaking a sweat. Sergeant Guhn Runnell was stronger than both Llannaeia and Jace combined, using her max as merely his warmup.

Out of the squad she commanded, Llannaeia was closest to Runnell and Thelton. They’d been together since before she was given her own squad, before she was even assigned to the Rimor. They joined up at about the same time and went through basic together, separated when she was assigned to the Kaelerdon, then reunited when she was transferred to the Rimor. Llannaeia most often spent her downtime in their company, though she was always careful to keep them at arms length. She wasn’t even sure if she would regard them as friends. Despite knowing her for a few years now, they knew little about her past or life outside the military and she had little interest in knowing theirs. She knew they were wary of her and talked about her with the others when they thought she couldn’t hear them, but that was the same for most people she knew.

“What do you guys think about that thing with the Imperium”? Jace asked, catching Llannaeia’s eye.

What thing with the Imperium? Llananeia thought. She’d never been one for keeping up with current events.

“Fucking waste of time if you ask me”, Guhn replied as he finished another rep. “We should just leave the bastards to rot”. Llannaeia started to realize what the private was referring to. She’d heard about some FFA people being captured across the border. She didn’t envy them, nor did she feel any sympathy for them.

“They’re saying we could be going to war”. By the sound of it, that was a frightening thought for the private. She wouldn’t admit it openly, but Llannaeia could hardly wait for the day to come.

“Bullshit”. Guhn returned the bar to the rack. “No way we’d go to war for those fuckheads”. He got up and began adding weights to the bar. Jace helped, albeit with difficulty.

“They’ve got the Assembly behind them”, said the Private as he heaved a large plate onto the bar.

“Even they’re not that stupid”. Guhn finished adding his weight and laid back down. “We’d be fucked in a war with the Imperium. No way the Assembly would risk it all for those stupid fucks”. He seemed confident but Llannaeia wasn’t so sure. The Assembly weren’t always known for making the best decisions for its people. They were Confederacy’s parliamentary body, composed of representatives from every inhabited planet across every sovereignty. The Executive Council may have been the leaders of the Confederacy, but the Assembly held the real power, and, in recent years, they’d gained a reputation for ineptitude and shadiness.

Jace looked to Llannaeia. “What do you think, Captain”?

She took a sip from the bottle. “It’s gonna happen sooner or later. If not over this then something else”.

The private smirked, nervously. “I hope not. I’m not ready for that shit”. Llannaeia agreed. She’d never thought much of Jace’s combat ability, nor was she sure what had attracted him to the military in the first place. Nothing about the job or life seemed to suit him.

“You’re gonna have to be”, Guhn said between reps. “You didn’t seem to have any problems today”.

“Those guys were nothing compared to Imperial soldiers. How are we supposed to stand up against something like that”?

He was starting to get on Llannaeia’s nerves. “We do what we’re trained to do. We might not make it but at least we’ll take as many of those bastards with us as we can”.

“No offence, Captain, but that doesn’t really fill me with much confidence”.

Guhn sat up, having finished another set and still only breathing slightly faster than normal. “It’s what you signed up for, Private. If you’re not prepared for that reality then you’re in the wrong fucking place”.

Jace went quiet. He knew too well he was in the wrong place. Llannaeia could see it written all over him. “Anyway, if you ask me there won’t ever be a war, not a real one at least”, the Sergeant continued, adding another plate. “The government’s scared so shitless of the Imperium they’d do anything to make sure there never was one. Every time it looks like it’s gonna happen we just give them something to make them back off for a while. You just wait; we’ll be giving up those FFA fucks any day now”. Throughout their history together, it seemed appeasement was the only strategy the Confederacy had for dealing with the Imperium.

The Sergeant lay back down beneath the bar. “And I’ll tell you another thing; just because there isn’t gonna be a war doesn’t mean the Imperium won’t take us over eventually. Sooner or later those spineless fucking cowards are gonna start giving up territory just to keep them off our backs. First, it’ll be the Free States, then it’ll be us. The rest of the Confederacy can’t stand us. When it happens we’ll be first to go. You mark my words”.

That only seemed to worry Jace further. “You don’t think it would come to that, do you? Captain”?

Llannaeia hadn’t considered the possibility but, when she thought about it, it seemed quite plausible. “I can see it happening. Who knows? Maybe’s a year or two from now we’ll all be wearing fucking togas. If we’re still alive that is”.

“I don’t know how I could live if we became part of the Imperium”.

“You’d be just fine, Private”, growled Guhn. “The Captain too. It’s my people and the other races who will suffer. You Haelqen will be just fine”. Perhaps Jace would be, but not her. Llannaeia would have died long before she surrendered to Imperial rule. She’d make sure of that.

The conversation helped distract her from her sister, but only for so long. Their chance encounter soon occupied Llannaeia’s mind once more. Seeing her brought back feelings she’d fought long and hard to repress. Even after learning that their targets had gone to ground in the forests near the academy on Selson, Llannaeia didn’t think for a second she would run into her little sister there. It was only afterward she realized it was the most likely place in the whole galaxy to encounter her. She felt so stupid.

“Are you alright, Captain”?

Llannaeia looked up to see Jace staring at her. She sighed. “I’m fine”.

“You’ve seemed different ever since you got back”.

“I said I’m fine”. Anger started bubbling beneath the surface. It had never taken much to set her off. “I’m just tired”. Sensing Jace was only going to ask more questions, Llananeia got up and took a final gulp from the bottle before tossing it away. The last thing she wanted was to risk getting into a conversation about Iona. “I’m done”, she said before heading for the exit.

“Hey Captain”? Jace called after her.

Llannaeia stopped but didn’t turn. He was really pissing her off now. “What is it, Private”?

“A bunch of us are heading out for a night in Auremeb when we get back for shore leave”. He seemed quite nervous now. “I was just wondering if you might be interested in coming along”.

Llannaeia turned and looked to him. “And what would we be doing on this night out”?

“You know; drinking, having a good time”.

“Not interested”, she replied, her words as sharp as her combat knife

Oh… OK. I just thought I’d ask”. Clearly it wasn’t the answer he was hoping for.

“Well now you have your answer”. She left them without another word. The offer seemed innocent enough, but Llannaeia was sure she knew the Private’s true intentions. She’d always suspected Jace of harbouring feelings for her, at least physical. No doubt he was hoping for an opportunity to get into her pants. Suffice to say she had no interest in him, nor any interest in acting like a drunken fucking idiot or being bumped into and groped by a bunch of other drunken fucking idiots in some shithole club.

The thoughts of Iona persisted. By the time Llannaeia reached the exit, they’d almost overwhelmed her. The jealousy, the lack of attention, all the bullshit she’d put up with her whole life. It was enough to make her want to scream. She should have been writing her report on what transpired in the forest (minus some key details, of course), but she had no hope of focusing on anything with her sister occupying every thought. Lifting weights had done nothing to clear her mind. She needed something else. She then looked to the punch bags at the opposite end of the gym.

As soon as she had the gloves on, Llannaeia unleashed a flurry of blows on the bag. That was another favourite of hers. Nothing remedied her stress quite like beating the shit out of something. Her heart raced and sweat streamed down her face as she rained jabs, crosses, hooks, and uppercuts, sending the bag swinging in all directions as if caught in a hurricane. Her gym clothes were soon drenched and her arms ached, but she continued regardless. She imagined it was Iona she was laying into, getting revenge for all the years of pain she’d been forced to endure, because of her.

Finally, enough was enough. Her lungs and arms cried out, but she allowed herself only a little rest before she resumed her assault. Relentless, she subjected the bag to a barrage of punches, kicks, elbow strikes, and even headbutts. She was fast, agile, ducking and weaving, never staying in one spot for more than a second. Her time in the military had moulded her into a competent fighter in more ways than just with a rifle. Many hours had been spent in front of bags, honing her technique. But even that wasn’t enough. Like the weights, pummelling the defenceless bag tired her out but did nothing to alleviate the stress festering inside. She needed something more, something that could actually hit back.

With the touch of a button, the automata sprung to life, arms, legs, and head unfolding from its body before standing upright. Built for taking copious punishment, the robot’s body was covered with thick white padding, its human-sized head lacking a face save for a pair of yellow sensors in place of eyes. Once online, it followed Llannaeia to the training area and took up position in one corner of the ring while she took her place in the opposite. They stared each other down for a few moments before the machine’s sensors turned red, and then it went for her. Llannaeia met her “partner” in the middle of the ring and wasted no time laying into it, ducking and blocking attacks before following up with her own. The robot kept up its offence despite the blows landing, forcing her to be quick on her feet and keep her guard up. Its padded hands were still more than capable of causing considerable pain if its attacks found their mark. It followed her around the ring, throwing punches but hitting only air. Even at the highest difficulty, it had no hope of hitting her. Of course, she could get tired where a machine would not. The bio-amps helped with that. They implanted all of them out of basic training. Nothing too crazy, just a few chips to sharpen their perceptions and help them push themselves a little harder. Anything more was banned in the Confederacy. You could do some crazy shit with bio-amps and augments, but there were some harrowing stories floating around of the side effects one risked if they decided to “aug-up”. She wouldn’t allow the machine the upper hand. Ducking under a right hook, Llannaeia took it to the canvas, mounting it in much the same way a lion would its prey before delivering a killing bite. Holding it down with one hand, Llannaeia rained punches on its head with the other, the entire time imagining it was her sister’s face she was beating into a pulp. She could almost see her looking up with such scared, pathetic eyes. She always was pathetic. If it weren’t for those powers of hers, she’d be nothing. She always cared more about those fucking powers than her big sister, stupid little cunt.

She knew the whole gym had stopped what they were doing to watch her, whispering and sniggering about how over the top and vicious she was being. It didn’t bother her anymore. She was long used to being the focus of gossip and rumours. The crazy, damaged psycho girl; “Mad” Captain Aventius. They may whisper it behind her back, but none had the balls to say it to her face, and that was good enough. Pussies; fuck them all.

The automata had stopped trying to defend itself, just lying there and accepting the ongoing punishment. To the unfamiliar, it might have seemed like the machine was broken, but in truth, it was quite the opposite. It was designed to simulate what would happen if a human opponent were to endure a beating the likes of which she’d just administered, motionless on the ground as if unconscious, or, more likely, dead. Even with her gloves on, Llannaeia’s knuckles ached. Her arms burned more than ever. She felt like she could collapse in the middle of the ring, seemingly having lost half her body weight in sweat. She’d finally had enough.

Llannaiea left the machine where it lay. It would get itself back to its station. She practically staggered from the training area, avoiding the bemused gazes of her fellow marines. While she was used to hearing them talk behind her back, meeting their eyes was something that never got easier. She was drenched, and reeking, but rather than use the gym’s showers, she dragged herself all the way back to her personal quarters, passed what seemed like an army of surprised crewmates. Even the robots couldn’t help but remark on her state. She never showered with the rest of the crew. It was no trouble to socialize with them while on duty but that was something she could never bring herself to do. They might know what she was hiding, but she couldn’t show them. She just couldn’t.

Once she was in the safety of her quarters, Llannaeia stripped out of her gym clothes and stepped into the shower, careful not to let her eyes go wandering to the bathroom mirror as she passed it. The water rained on her like the blows she leveled on the bag and automata, and she was relieved to find her thoughts no longer dominated by her sister. It was like she’d been washed away, swirling around her feet before disappearing down the drain. Apparently, her little display in the gym had had the desired effect.

Llannaeia left the shower and headed for the main area of her quarters. Again, she tried to avoid the mirror but this time she couldn’t help but sneak a peek. The steam reduced her reflection to only a formless pink mass. She could have walked away, but she just had to take herself in. With the wipe of a hand over the glass there she was: naked, exposed, and scarred. Everywhere from her chest to her stomach, legs, arms, breasts, and back. They decorated her like a picture of agony. Everywhere she looked, there were scars, not a single part of her unadorned, partially healed and faded but no less unsightly. They said they could make it so it was as if they were never there but she turned them down. She was never quite sure why. She now regretted the decision but never had the heart to inquire about the procedures. They were like a constant reminder of why she was the way she was, and an almost ingenious stroke of irony. She joined the military to escape her past, but it would be the military that ensured she would never be able to, for it was painted all over her body.

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