"To all 5,680,476 of you cadets here before us, we of Galactic Solutions Incorporated couldn't be prouder," General Hssai Yakina proclaimed at the graduation ceremony signifying the end of our year of training and the beginning of our careers as private contractor soldiers. I stood there, sweat dripping down my back and neck, my tail wanting to fidget in my nervousness. Of course my mom wasn't there, she couldn't leave Earth unless I came there to get her. My aunt and cousin also couldn't make it either, but because they couldn't afford to travel half a galaxy away just for one day here at the base.
I was still proud, though. I had passed with flying colors within the top fifty of this wave of new recruits, and was even complimented by a superior officer or two in my final examination mock-battles.
"You came to us as fresh and young minds," the General continued. "And with our help you've become strong willed men and women with adamantine resolve to face danger. Tonight, many of you will earn your citizenship in the Cosmic Republic, and to you noble warriors, we are even prouder to have such brave soldiers in our midst. The road ahead is not easy, as you all well know, and some of you may not be as lucky as others in the future missions. We can only hope so much goes right, but fret not; we are all brothers and sisters at arms, and we shall all look out for one another with each campaign and mission. To you, the class of year 4280 of the Seventh Era in the Universal Timeline, tonight marks the beginning of a life of courage and strength for the next three or more years. All ranked officers as well as myself expect great things from you all, and I know you will not disappoint us," and with a click of his hoofed feet, he saluted all of us with his clawed paw, to which we all saluted back in synchronized pattern just as rehearsed. "Class dismissed! At ease!" he roared as we finally cheered in our graduation.
"Shiva!" Gaja called to me in his heavy Russian accent as we all went here and there to meet our families or talk with one another. The two of us had been friends since the beginning of our training, both Earth-Cynos on our fathers' sides. "So, any plans for tonight to celebrate?"
"Well, to be honest," I scratched my buzzed russet hair. "I was going to call my family on Cyna and give my mom a call on Earth. Why, what did you have planned?" I grinned with a nudge to my comrade's ribs.
"There's a reception for us, remember?" he laughed. "You're telling me you don't want to hobnob with all the top brass? I hear some of them have brought their daughters as formalities. Who knows, you could hook up with a nice merc-brat girl and get some 'special treatment,' eh?"
"Trust me," I chuckled. "Dating a superior officer's daughter NEVER ends well. I've heard too many horror stories from our seniors about a guy or two getting their citizenship revoked or even being shot dead for breaking the heart of a colonel's daughter. I'll pass. Besides, tomorrow we get assigned to our sectors at 1000 first thing."
"Hm…Well, if you say so. I'm still going to try and enjoy myself tonight. I'll save you some blue wine if I can," he winked at me after giving me a friendly hug.
"I hope we're still together after being assigned our sectors," I sighed with a smile. "I'd hate to have to only see you via sub-ether channels from across the universe for the next several years…"
"Hey!" he thumped my forehead. "Whatever happens will happen, just remember that we'll get to see each other in our downtime. It's not like we'll never see one another again just because we're at different posts, right?"
"True…." I nodded. "Well, you take care tonight, don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"Now that's expecting too much from me and you know it!" he stuck his tongue out at me. "Tell your family I said hi, okay?"
"Right," I grinned. "See ya."
And with a wave, my foxhole-brother went off to do his thing for the evening.
I headed outside the graduation center, into the cool night sky. We were still in the Milky Way Galaxy, but virtually on the opposite side of where Earth was. I called my aunt first, since it was probably still the afternoon there on Cyna, using my portable sub-ether communicator.
(Hello? Tersta Residence,) Aunt Anva turned her screen on. (Oh! Shiva! How are you? I take it you've just graduated right?) she asked after brushing her long auburn locks behind her lynx-like ears.
"Yeah, Aunty," I beamed. "We get assigned to our sectors first thing tomorrow morning."
(That's good to hear, sweetheart. We're so glad you're making it on your own like this. Your father would be proud.)
"Yeah, he would be…" I gave a nostalgic sigh.
(Well? Is there a party for you new recruits? You should be out there enjoying yourself. The real work starts after you've been assigned to your posts, right?)
"Yeah, but I wanted to call you and Mom first. Besides, parties like this aren't my thing," I smirked.
(Well, you gotta have fun now and then. Being a by-the-numbers and professional person is fine and all, Shiva, but even your general probably likes to relax now and then too.)
"Maybe," I shrugged, suppressing a chuckle at the stray thought of our mighty and beast-like general drinking from a beer-bong and hooting in drunken bliss. "Well, anyways, I might join up with Gaja just to make sure he doesn't do anything stupid."
(Oh! How is Gaja? I haven't heard about him in a few months,) Aunt Anva blinked.
"He's fine. He was ranked 87th in our graduating class while I was ranked 35th."
(Glad to hear it,) my aunt smiled. (Well, I won't waste anymore of your minutes, so go ahead and call your mom, I bet she's just as excited to hear from you too,) she gave a wink. (Keep in touch when you can. Bye, Shiva!)
"Bye, Aunty," I smiled as we both cut our connections. I then speed-dialed to the communicator I bought for Mom after checking my watch's second time-zone for Earth time in the East Coast. It was about ten or so in the morning there, so Mom would definitely be up now. The signal was a bit fuzzy, obviously since she was further from me than my aunt was on Cyna.
(James?) Mom answered, her face covered by static. (James, is that you?)
"Yeah," I beamed back. "Did I wake you?"
(Oh no, of course not,) she giggled. (You know me, early to bed early to rise. Did you graduate just now?)
"Yeah. Ranked 35th in the class and everything."
(Good to hear, sweetheart,) Mom sighed. (So, when will you be assigned to your…um…post or regiment?)
"Tomorrow morning. I'll keep in contact with you whenever I can, of course."
(I know you will. Just…) she paused. (Just be careful. Don't try to be a hero or anything. I know this was the easiest way to get your citizenship and an income at the same time, and I know you want to see all there is out there, but…still, just don't take chances if you're on the battlefield. Alright?) she asked with trepidation.
"I won't," I responded with honesty. "It's gonna be a rough three years, but I know I'll make it through it all alive and in one piece."
(Thank you, dear. Well, is there a graduation party for you recruits?)
"Yeah, Aunty and Gaja talked me into going I suppose," I laughed. "I'll be on my best behavior."
(I wouldn't expect anything less, James. Well, call me when you get the chance, honey. I'll be waiting.)
"Sure thing, Mom. I love you," I smiled, fighting back the tears.
(I love you too. Take care,) and then she hung up. Pocketing my communicator, I headed back inside and went to the grand hall where the reception was being held. My Cyno ears picked up all the buzzing of people talking and laughing. A haughty laugh caught my attention as I saw Gaja already downing a cup of azure wine.
"A-ha! So you decided to come after all!" he chuckled as I made my way to him. "So, what convinced you?"
"I'm making sure you don't make an ass of yourself…more than usual," I grinned back.
"Tch! You really don't trust me, do you? And after all we've been through this past year," my basic-training brother snorted.
"There's a difference," I shook my head with a sigh. "Between trusting you as a friend and trusting you to not do something rash."
"Hey! I'm not the type to jump head-first into the unknown," Gaja laughed with a slight rosy tint to his bony cheeks.
"Not in combat, but social situations are a different matter," I gave a sarcastic glare as I took a glass of punch instead of the alcohol.
"You're being absurd- Oh!" my friend blinked as he looked over me at something.
Correction, someone, as I soon found out by looking there too.
"Nice tail on her…." I could hear my Russian friend lick his lips at a Cyno-girl in an expensive-looking rainbow dress just a little ways away from us.
"She's in a dress," I sighed.
"She's probably a merc-brat. Or worse, an investor or customer's daughter."
"Only one way to find out," was all I heard from my delusional friend as he snaked his way around me before I could grab him.
"Please don't make an ass out of yourself…" I mumbled under my breath as I tried to pretend I wasn't looking at them. The girl smiled as Gaja talked at first, but soon her expressions gave way to a visage of annoyance as she gave him a cold shoulder and headed my way.
Crap! I quickly busied myself with the punch-drinking as I tried to look inconspicuous. I figured if I ignored the two of them then I wouldn't get involved.
"Hey, play along," a soothing yet miffed voice whispered to me. Before I could say anything and looked to its owner, our lips met in a (forced) gesture of false affection.
Time froze for me.
I had never kissed a girl before, much less one as cute as this girl was. By Earth standards, she looked part Asian, doll-like even, her deep auburn hair having a lovely glow to it. After the electricity faded from her parting from me, I was finally settled back into reality by the sound of a Cyno death-growl from Gaja.
"Y-You fucker-!" his eye twitched while his tail hairs stiffened in rage
"What?" the girl humphed back at my friend after taking a quick glance at my uniform's name badge and then hugging me. "Shiva here is a good friend of mine from way back, right?" she winked back at me.
"Um…Well…" I gulped in fright of being used as a shield from my friend. "Actually- urf!" I coughed as my ribs were elbowed hard.
"Is that true…?" was all my tipsy buddy could muster as he stared in ire.
"Uh…Y-Yeah…Uh…Uh…Tulli here is the daughter of my mother's…um…I mean my father's…high school sweetheart…So…we're family friends."
"Yeah….?" I looked back at this odd young lady as she smiled back at me. Even if it was fake, it was a cute smile.
"Ugh…Just my luck. Well, you two have fun, and Shiva," Gaja looked me dead in the eye with his piercing gaze. "Remember to use a condom," he then smiled gleefully. Yep, he was plastered now. With him trotting elsewhere I was left alone with the girl.
"Tulli?" she gave a perturbed stare to me as she let go of my taller form.
"Look, I just thought of the first Cyno name I could think of," I sighed. "And I pray he doesn't remember this…" I moped.
"Pray he does! You did him a FAVOR," she poked my chest a pestering manner. "He would have been court-martialed if my brother saw him acting drunk towards me."
"And that is my cue to leave," I scooted away, only to wince as someone grasped my striped tail tightly. "Ow! What?!" I fumed back to see the girl was still hanging around me.
"Did I say you could leave?" she humphed again.
"You're not diminishing my feelings of uneasiness towards you," I tried to get my tail back and rid myself of this uptight royal pain.
"Bite me," she spat back. "Look, I need a cock-blocker for the evening, and you're cute enough for the job, got it?"
"And if I refuse?" I narrowed my eyes.
"My brother," she crept up to me, our faces a few centimeters apart despite her smaller height. "Is a big-time CEO of an information technologies company your private contractor company buys from. Do as I say, and I'll give you five-thousand shares of the stocks with no charge. Refuse, and I'll play him like a damn fiddle by telling him that you fondled me."
Good LORD she was frightening!
"Fine! Just let go of my tail," I grumbled as she at least heeded my request. "So I have to just pretend to be your boyfriend, huh?" I sighed.
"Yes," she nodded with a smile. Still fake, but a genuinely cute smile nonetheless. "By the way, the name's Krista Azura," she curtseyed before me.
"James Tersta," I bowed back politely.
"James?" my false-date blinked back after eyeing my name badge again.
"I'm an Earth-Cyno, my middle name 'Shiva' is my Cyno name that I go by," I shrugged.
"Oh. Gotcha. I'm half Kanpeki, so I know about the double-name thing," she smiled back. "My first name is actually Yusei, Krista is my middle name," Krista nodded, her long red bangs bouncing, but then she blinked with a confused look once more. "Wait, isn't Shiva a name reserved only for the Cyno noble families?"
"But you're not a native Cyno, right?"
"Then…How do you-"
"-Have a name reserved for nobility?" I smiled back.
Krista nodded with a raised eyebrow.
"My father was a lesser known member of the three families…well, more like the black sheep of the nobility, so on a technicality I can be a namesake to our ancestor. If I'm ever accepted by the families, I'll be Shiva V, and the first Shiva to be a soldier in over three centuries."
"Wow," she blinked. "That would be interesting. That explains your blue stripes and red eyes. By the way," she smiled once more as she took a drink of the punch next to us, her un-striped tail swishing about. "I always get varied answers, but, I want to know something about you mercs."
"Why join the military?" she asked before sipping. "Isn't it safer to just earn your emancipation through a normal job like office work or labor?" she asked after licking her reddened lips of her drink.
"A couple of reasons," I shrugged as I took another drink. "Being a merc gives you instant citizenship to the Republic when you finish basic training. It takes a bare minimum of three years at a normal job before you can apply for citizenship."
"You could always pay for it on the dot."
"Which is a luxury most of us don't have," I retorted. "Besides, being a merc has the perks of job security, and barring on-the-job dangers, keeps you healthy."
"And what about the fact that you're killing for money?" Krista's lavender eyes narrowed.
"THAT…" I sighed. "Isn't the whole thing. We're being contracted by the governments of the Republic to aid in legal campaigns as well as provide security for tight situations."
"Why not just hire the Ministry of War for the campaigns?" she asked plainly.
Boy, she was clueless.
"Because," I sighed. "The Ministry of War is under the Republic payroll and would thus put us out of jobs and burden the taxpayers, and also because with as powerful as their soldiers are, they can only be used for what our forces would deem suicidal."
"Yeah," I nodded. "The R'Yai are ruthless and unmatched in combat, hence why they're the Republic's trump card in massive wars us private contractors can't handle. If you ever feel brave, try watching video footage of what they did in the Pelopon War fifty years ago with just 300 troops," I shivered, my tail hairs stiffening for a moment at remembering the video they made us watch in basic training. "They exist to kill, plain and simple. We mercs are trained to protect, rescue, guard, and fight."
"…And kill," the brat added before taking another sip.
"Do you REALLY want me to act all lovey-dovey with you tonight as your escort? Because you're making it hard for me to even PRETEND to enjoy your company," I growled.
"Hey, the deal is that you act like I'm you're girlfriend and I'll give you some good stocks to do whatever you want with," Krista gave a sly smirk.
"You're also black-mailing me with false charges," I grumbled. "And if you want me to do so, at least TRY to make it easy for me to pretend I like you."
"Well, if you INSIST," the redhead humphed. "In any case, shall we go mingle, dear?" she immediately switched her arrogant persona into that of a kind and polite lady, offering her hand.
"Of course," I willed a caring smile back. At least I would be getting some stocks for a little nest-egg. That little thought was enough to get me through the evening, meeting some of my staff sergeants and a few veterans. We neared a large crowd (Krista did the leading it seemed) from which I could already see two great golden horns from the center and a deep voice emanating from within.
"What are you-?" I felt my eyes bulge and my heart stammer in fright.
"What?" my faux-date grinned smugly. "When else will you get the chance to talk casually with your boss?"
"I was hoping that wouldn't happen so soon…or maybe at all…" I tried to keep my breathing paced and calm. Despite my reluctance and even trying to stop walking all together, we had managed to push through the crowd and into the circle that surrounded High General Hssai Yakina.
There before us was a man larger than life not just physically, but with his very aura. An Earthling could easily mistake him for Satan himself with his crimson body, goat-like hind legs, claws, fangs, horns, and the very fact that he stands tall and muscular like a true demon. Even without his scarred left eye, it would seem impossible not to feel frightened of the very man who ran Galactic Solutions Inc. as its supreme commander. The only thing 'out of place' about him was seeing him in such proper attire as a dress uniform, even if it was specially tailored to his goliath body.
I kept a calm smile while my insides churned in fright, listening to him speak so casually with his booming voice.
"-But it worked out after all," he chuckled (which resonated in the surrounding air). The crowd was filled with men and women in business suits, as well as a few top brass from other mercenary companies wearing different uniforms (probably there as liaisons between our rival companies). I kept silent as the general looked about and answered others' questions, then felt my heart sink as he made eye-contact with me.
"Ah, here's one of our new recruits now," he smiled with his mouth of prehistoric teeth and patted my shoulder, snatching me from Krista's grasp and posing with me as pictures were taken. I smiled the best I could while in the presence of the very man who held my employment in his massive paws. "So then…" he faced me and peered down at my smaller form. "Ah! I recognize your name," he bellowed happily. "Shiva Tersta, correct? Ranked 35th out of your whole class; quite an accomplishment wouldn't you say?" the general smiled back with his demonic face.
"Y-Yeah…" I nodded uneasily with a nervous smile.
"I remember reading your profile the other night for your regiment assigning," he nodded. Wait, he assigns everyone himself?? I thought the computers did that!
"You…you remember my name out of all of them…?" I asked while feeling so humbled.
"Of course!" he laughed loudly. "After all, it's not often that we get a trooper fresh out of basic training with the right stats to go straight to Special Forces."
I felt the world around me go silent and abyssal.
He…He didn't say 'special forces', did he?
That…That couldn't be right…
Before I could think further, I was snapped out of my daze as he patted my back and posed with me for more pictures, apparently shaking my hand in some. Great, I probably looked like a mannequin in the shoots. My body felt clammy and drained at his words, someone pulling me from the circle as I caught a glimpse of the general waving to me. When I realized where I was now, I saw Krista staring at me suspiciously.
"You okay?" she quirked her eyebrow. "You two were talking and then you suddenly turned into a zombie. What'd he say?"
I could just barely mumble a response in my shock.
"Huh?" I saw my faux-date's short Cyno ears wiggle and flap slightly as she neared me to listen better.
"S-Special…Forces…" I managed to choke out.
"What about them?" the redhead merely stared back in interest.
"He…He said I'm being assigned to them…first thing…" I could feel the color leave my face as my head spun.
"WOW, congrats," she smacked my back in congratulation. "You get to be with the cream of the crop."
"That's not a privilege, it's a death-sentence!" I fumed back. "Special Forces do the hardest and most dangerous missions of all divisions! Not only that, but the top ranked soldiers in the unit are rumored to be ruthless!" I could feel my head grow fuzzy as I leaned against a nearby table full of drinks and finger-food.
"What? It's not like you have to be with the Ministry of War's soldiers…" she purred in a teasing manner.
"I'm through with this," I groaned as I started to leave, flinching as my tail was caught in someone's grasp yet again. "I know it's you, Krista," I growled without looking back. "Look, tonight's had enough surprises. I'm through being your escort for the evening. I don't even care about the stocks. Just let me go to my room and write my goddamned will."
"Escort? Stocks?" I heard a male voice snarl from behind. I quickly glanced back to find a male Cyno in a business suit with combed blonde hair frowning at me as he held my tail, Krista right next to him. A quick glance at his face, eyes, and stripes showed me that this must have been her brother...Why me?
"Um…Well…Uh…" I gulped as he held onto my tail even tighter now. I may have been stronger than him as a soldier, but resisting would only put me in deeper trouble.
"Palda…" Krista began to sniffle. "It's not what you think…" she somehow managed to sob in a realistic manner. "I just wanted him to keep other brutish mercs away from me…" she added while tearing copious amounts of saline.
"Look what you're doing now!" the brother glared back at me. He was maybe a centimeter or three shorter than me, so it seemed odd to look from a downward position at him while he prepared to do who-knows-what in anger. "You've made my sweet little sister cry! I ought to report you to the General and-"
"Brother!" the trembling girl slammed her fist against his arm in a fashion that also was false. In this case, it seemed she was repressing her strength and trying to act like a dainty maiden. "Shiva didn't do this because of the stocks…I only offered that as a reward for him being a gentleman for the evening and keeping his lecherous comrades away…He's treated me with the utmost respect and dignity…And…And…"
What the hell was with this sob-story??
"Krista…" Palda released me as he hugged his little sister, his back turned to me as the brat gave me a wink and fanged grin. "I'm sorry…I shouldn't have brought you to this function…" he cooed to her in an almost paternal manner as he released her (she assumed 'crying sister mode' before he even saw her face). "Fine then. As long as you're alright and he didn't do or say anything to you, I won't report him."
What a relief…
"And as for you," the brother glared back at me. "I'm thankful for what you did, but I hope you had no intentions of doing anything with my sister."
"B-Believe me, sir," I stammered with a nervous but relieved smile. "I had no thoughts of-"
"Wait a second…" the CEO let go of his sister and slithered up to me, eyeing my face and hands. "Your stripes…and your eyes…You're a noble, aren't you?"
"Um…not officially," I gulped. "I'm Kala Tersta's son from his marriage to an Earthling…The families haven't-"
"OH!" his expressions brightened instantly. "So you're not accepted yet? I see, well, do you at least keep in touch with the nobility?"
"S-Sorta…Every so often I-"
"Perfect!" His smile was even louder than his verbal elation. "I have a bit of a selfish request, but maybe you could do something for me?"
"I…Maybe…" I felt my skin grown clammy once more.
"Well, I know it's a bit old-fashioned in some parts of the Republic, but," he patted my shoulder. "I've wanted Krista to be able to attend a certain university on our mother's homeworld of Cyna. The problem is that since we're not native-born Cyno, and half-bloods at that, the university won't let her register. But…If she were to marry into nobility or potential nobility, she would be able to gain citizenship and attend the college."
"So…You want me to hook her up with a nobleman for a pre-arranged marriage?" I raised my eyebrow at his request.
"Actually," he gave a bow requesting a bit of forgiveness. "I was hoping that we could kill two birds with one stone. If you were engaged to the next-of-kin of a powerful CEO like myself, what do you think is the likelihood of the nobility accepting you and your fiancé as members of the family?" he offered with an ambitious smirk.
"WHAT?!" Krista and I both gawked at his scheme.
"Think about it, you have nothing to lose, Krista," the brother smiled happily to his appalled sister.
"N-Now hold on a second!" I panicked. "I only just got out of basic training and they're already sending me to Special Forces! My likelihood of living into just my thirties is less than if I was sent to a normal infantry division. Do you honestly want to have your sister get married to someone who will be away all the time and could very well leave her as a widow?"
"He's right!" the second victim in this affair joined in my rejection of the idea. "And why don't I have a say in this, Palda!?"
"Need I remind you, Krista," he gave a passive stare at his sibling. "That I'm the one footing the bill for your expenses as both your brother and legal guardian? Did you forget Mother and Father's final wishes? You're not officially allowed to be emancipated from my care until you're either 24 or if you get married."
"B-But…But…!" I could see her pale face grow even paler at her brother's words. Not that I wasn't horrified by this either, she was just the one with more to lose in this deal than me.
"No buts," he wagged is finger at her. I guess he wasn't as much of a push-over as we both thought. "Well?" he turned to me with an eager grin. "Will you accept my proposal to be my brother-in-law?"
Okay, that was weird even if there were no wrong intentions meant in the message.
"I'll split Krista and your inheritance evenly if you accept, even if I die before you're married. AND," he added to sweeten the deal. "I'll give you a fifty-million unit dowry with thirty-thousand stocks in my company as a down-payment. No strings attached." Both Azura siblings gazed eagerly at me for an answer; one in ire and fear, the other in ambition and optimism.
"Well, to be honest…" I gulped as I made my decision.
To be continued…