A.K. 3729

January 2

A large and blocky Kelpie-class Multi Purpose Transport Airship touched down on the large concrete tarmac of Goulson Air Force base, its steamjets quieting from a deafening roar to a low rumble and reducing the massive engine wash. It came down hard despite the efforts of the crew to reduce the impact of its massive bulk. The engines that made its flight possible could only do so much to ease its landing. After a few moments of letting the dust settle a large ramp dropped in the front, clanging loudly against the tarmac.

Out of the belly of the airshiprolled several cargo crawlers, laden with ammunition, fuel, and other supplies. After they steamed away a second group emerged on foot, significantly more uncertain. Unlike the crawler crews, they were wearing a variety of civilian clothes and carrying very little. The crowd was a testament to the size and ethnic diversity of the Tyrren Republic. Most of them were bronzed skinned ethnic Tyrrens, but there were also short, brown haired Arri northerners, tall black haired Verzi southerners, and even a few red and blonde haired Altuuri immigrants from the western part of the country.

Michael Kairan hung back a few yards from the rest of the recruits, keeping his distance from the crowd of strangers. He had no desire to mingle with a collection of people he did not know and had little in common with, especially considering that at only five foot two he was easily the smallest recruit there. Some of the other volunteers were at least a foot and a half taller.

Two weeks earlier he had turned eighteen, and decided to forgo the pursuit of higher education in favor of volunteering for the Errynt Clan Rangers, the paramilitary group responsible for providing the Tyrren Army's frontier patrol, light infantry, and scouts. He had chosen not to attend a university because academics bored Michael. Mostly it was too easy, and what wasn't easy was uninteresting. His district's senator, looking to improve the representation of Arri in the officer corps, had helped more than a little. He was handing out Tyrren Military Academy recommendations to pretty much anyone who applied, though of course the TMA still reserved the right to reject any applicant who did not meet their rather high standards, though they had proven surprisingly low, and Michael had not had much of a problem meeting them. He had opted for the Rangers after qualifying because the line infantry was of questionable quality, which made qualifying for the Rangers rather important. He had no intention of ending up in the Army as an officer, even less so as an enlisted man.

"Hey, meatballs, pick up the pace or else we're going to run you over!" an airman called from behind them. Michael twisted his neck around to see a large flatbed cargo crawler sitting in the cargo hold. "You guys aren't the only shit we've got to unload, and definitely not the most important." The cluster of recruits accelerated their descent, and Michael noticed that quite a few of the recruits seemed to have taken the airman's threat seriously.

They stepped onto the tarmac and were immediately herded into a half dozen cramped buses by several severe looking men in black combat uniforms. Michael found him self on a bus with few people of note. He noticed a man he had seen earlier on the airship: a member of the Steam workers Union, as his clothes proudly announced. He had at least a foot on Michael, and was as muscular as might be expected of someone who worked with heavy machinery constantly. With his bronze skin and black hair typical of ethnic Tyrrens he could have been the icon of any Tyrren supremacist group. Knowing the Steam workers Union he might be.

He gave Michael a look that fell somewhere between incredulous and disgusted. He leaned forward and looked down toward the Ranger sitting at the front of the bus, near the exit.

"Hey, when's this going to get started?"

Michael gave them man a disdainful glance. The Ranger leaned forward.

"What's your name, steampunk?" he asked, using the derogatory nickname for steam workers.

"What did you just say?" the steam worker growled.

"I asked for your name, Kasa," the Ranger replied. "You have got a name, right?"

"Zack Iessan," he hissed. "Never ca-" He was cut off as the Ranger kept talking.

"We've got a term for people like you. Low Card. Waste of space that you're stuck with for a round until you can drop it for something better." He made a cutting motion with his hand. "And keep your mouth shut. I don't want to listen to some recruit whining now- I'm going to get enough of that later."

Iessan remained mercifully quiet for the remainder of the trip, and none of the other recruits dared to speak either for fear of incurring the Ranger's wrath. A short time later the bus rolled to a halt.

"On your feet and out the door, meatballs!" the Ranger yelled. "Move it! We haven't got all day!" He moved forward towards the exit, forcing the recruits off the bus. They spilled onto another paved surface, this one a road encircling a large open field and lined with simple wooden buildings. In the distance, a few taller building stood above the rest of the base, and a tall hill loomed above everything.

"Line up, meatballs," the Ranger said, he and several others herding the recruits into ragged ranks facing inward towards the field. The Rangers formed them up as best as they could manage, then moved off to the side except for one who walked out in front of the recruits.

He was not large, Michael noted, but he was not small either. He was smaller than many of the recruits he was standing in front of, but he was taller than Michael or any of the other northerners among them. He would have been the image of the average citizen of the Tyrren Republic, right down to the brown skin and black hair, if not for the scars crisscrossing his face that suggested he had been wounded several times.

"Welcome to Camp Valtor, meatballs," he said in a loud voice. "I am Lance Sergeant David Tosaro, and I'll be your tour guide through hell." He started pacing back and forth in front of the recruits.

"I have been given the unpleasant task of trying to shape you… people into Errynt Rangers worthy of the name and badge. And I think that most of you have no idea what that means, so I'm going to tell you. The Errynt Ranger Division is the oldest unit, paramilitary or otherwise, in the whole of the Tyrren Republic, going back five hundred years to when an Arri clan leader was enough of a nuisance to invaders that they let him keep his army and position. We are the best light infantry in the world, and we will always be the best light infantry in the world. The Errynt Rangers are responsible for patrolling the northern border and keeping out the barbarians knocking at the gates. If you aren't up to the task you'll be out of here in no time. We don't want low cards on patrol, screwing up and getting their mates killed." Tosaro paused for a moment, and then stopped pacing and turned to face the recruits.

"You pathetic rats are worse than the usual sorry gang of rejects we get. In the unlikely event that you do as well as a normal cadre, half of you will be gone by the end of the year, and a few of you might even be dead. Still want in? Because it isn't too late to quit and join the Army. Just talk to any of the training NCOs." He pointed to the Rangers that had been on the bus. "We'll be happy to be rid of you.

"Some of you were convicted of crimes and chose a term of military service to a criminal record. If you can keep a reasonable disciplinary record there won't be a problem, but we know who you are, and let me warn you: you're not under federal or provincial law here, you're under Extraterritorial Errynt Clan law. We do whatever we deem necessary to curtail crime in the ranks.

"Still here?" he waited a moment. "When a superior asks you a question, you answer. Try it again." The recruits gave a ragged chorus of "yeses " and a few "yes sirs," and "yes, sarges" making Tosaro look even more irritated than before.

"That was pathetic, meatballs. Quick lesson. I'm a Lance Sergeant, not an officer, so I'm not 'sir', and I am not 'sarge' because neither the Army nor the Rangers have a rank of 'sarge'. Try it again. 'Yes, Lance Sergeant,' loudly." The recruits shouted it again, achieving more coordination.

"Good enough, for now." Tosaro said. He gestured over his shoulder. "Behind me is Hill 400, or Sariel, as we like to call it." That name set off a bit off a warning in Michael's head. Anything named after the Arri pagan god of punishment was likely to be unpleasant. "It is one of the steepest hills in the world and it's a four kilometer hike to the top. And you are running up that hill every morning for the next ten months, starting now. Get moving!"

XX

Commander Andrew Errynt disliked dealing with new recruits, even from a distance. It wasn't that he had some particular animosity for them, just that it was dull task on par with logistics paperwork. He had spent the better part of a decade in the Rangers, most of it on the northern border, and combat had a way of making everything else seem boring. Unfortunately, Ranger tradition and protocol dictated that a senior division officer should observe some part of the training process, and General Alyrson had delegated that task to him. Andrew intended to take as distant a role as possible in the process, given that he had no training qualifications at all.

"What are you expecting of this group?" he asked, turning from the cadre of sweat drenched, gasping recruits to Lance Sergeant Tosaro. The noncommissioned officer looked mildly disgusted by the recruits.

"Not much. One of the only cadres where I've been able to spot multiple low cards and snowflakes as soon as they showed up." He pointed at big man wearing a steam workers union shirt. "That dumbass is named Zack Iessan. If he doesn't clean up his act and get serious he's not going to last a month." He pointed to another burly kid down the line. "Named Saltser. Worse than the steampunk-doesn't have his shit together and probably never will."

"It is rather unusual for a fresh recruit too be prepared." Andrew twisted slightly to see his older twin, Elizabeth Errynt, approaching. Tosaro quickly saluted her.

"Alyrson has you working this detail too?" Andrew interjected. Elizabeth shook her head.

"These recruits are worse than usual, Commander Errynt," Tosaro said as she return the salute. "I'd be surprised if more than a quarter pulled through Ranger school." He pointed to another recruit, a small northerner. "See the short kid with the grey shema wrapped around his neck?"

"What's wrong with him?"

"He's not a team player. When you've been training kids like these as long as I have you can spot these things pretty quickly," Tosaro explained. "Frankly, this is a garbage cadre. I haven't spotted a single one that I'd rate as more than above average."

"Think of them as diamonds in the rough, sergeant," Andrew said.

"More like dirt clods, sir, but I'll be damned if the ones that finish aren't as good as they need to be." Behind Tosaro, Elizabeth made a motion for Andrew to finish up.

"Well, best of luck to you, sergeant. I have a feeling I'm about to get chewed out for something." He returned Tosaro's saluted and then turned to follow after Elizabeth, who seemed to be headed across the training field towards the distant HQ.

"You wanted something, my dear?" he said when they were out of earshot of the recruit company. She fixed him with a scorching glare. "Sorry, Liza, won't do it again." Elizabeth was more rigidly military than her twin, which probably explained why General Alyrson liked her and hated Andrew's guts.

"If this is about another overdue logistics report…" he started again. Liza shook her head.

"I know you'll be astonished to hear this, but Alyrson has decided to call upon your formidable mind in order to develop new doctrine to keep pace with modern weapons." Andrew put on a mock incredulous face.

"Old Ink and Forms wants my input? I really need to see this."

XX

"What is the point of a medical examination after the recruits have already arrived?" Michael was sitting in a sterile room at Camp Valtor's hospital. He was still a little out of breath from the run up and down Sariel, though he had done better than some.

"It mystifies everyone," the medical officer said. "I suppose the theory is that the medical biomages can fix most problems that wouldn't immediately disqualify you from service, and they don't want to lose potential recruits over fixable health problems." He produced a needle. "Roll up your sleeve; I need to take a blood sample." Michael complied and felt a slight pinch as the needle entered his arm.

"It also lets us check for some more unusual stuff, like thaumagenetic problems," the medic explained. "There's probably nothing, but you always want to make sure." He paused for a moment and then gestured at the shema wrapped around Michael's neck. "They're probably going to confiscate that later, just so you know. Only qualified Rangers are allowed to wear them- they're kind of like the Grenadiers' red berets- and you'll be in it deep if you get caught wearing it after today." Michael shrugged. He had no particular attachment to the head-scarf. It was just a piece of cloth to keep out the sun or the cold, depending on the weather.

"Okay, we're done here for now. Head out and down the hall for a few more examinations. After that they're going to shuffle you off for a few more tests and get you issues your uniform and the rest of your kit. Tomorrow they'll send you back here to get your test results and undergo whatever operations are necessary. Good luck."

XX

Michael re-entered the hospital again the next morning, drenched in sweat from the run up and down Sariel, similar to before except for his clothing. His civilian clothing had been confiscated and replaced with the black uniform that served as the Ranger's training uniform as well as its urban battle dress.

"Nice to see you again, Recruit Kairan," the medic said as Michael entered the examination room he had been in the day before. "There's good news for you, and bad news. Which is which depends on your point of view." He chuckled, and then stopped and hurried on when he noticed Michael give him an irritated look. "First bit is that you've got no current health problems, which means you don't get to spend any time in the hospital and thus have to work instead of lying in a hospital bed for a few days. The second bit is about the Thaumagenetic scan: it did reveal that you have a major dormant defect: Asproism, though you might know it as Archangel's Disease."

"I've not heard of that."

"It's an aether-activated thaumagenetic condition that is more or less randomly occurring, with similar symptoms to Albinism, although it also increases the body's tolerance for aether by quite a bit. Your hair will turn white, and it wreaks havoc on your vision. It's one of a family of similar conditions related to high AC count, and it's supposed to be the origin of stories about magic albinos. Right now it's dormant, and could remain so even after your aetheric cells wake up. If not… the Medical Corps can cross that bridge when we come to it." Michael raised an eyebrow. "If it does crop up, you'll probably need full ocular replacement." The medic shrugged. "You can't worry about that now, though. Your problems are just getting started."