“Are you off of your plot?” Tristaine shouted, trying to be heard over the roar of the engines.
The wind was whipping against his therma-reduc flight suit, threatening to pull him out of the open door. They flew high above the clouds, on the edge of the stars themselves. Alarms were screaming and red flashing lights bathed the interior of the ship. Tristaine’s visor was down and fitted in each nostril was a small tube, allowing him to breathe in the upper thermosphere. If not for Solovot determination to overcome all elements they surely would have been incinerated being this far on the fringes of the Qolean atmosphere.
“The air on the surface is just as unforgiving as the thin air in the atmosphere.” Cloud Leader Speakman said, giving his final instructions. “No matter what you do—do not—I repeat, do not remove your visor. Not even for a minute. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir!” Each cadet replied with fear that sounded enough like enthusiasm to get them by.
“You need to jump, now!” roared Cloud Leader Speakman, as he continued the emergency evac of the Training Class Raider.
Today was supposed to be a very typical drill. Each squadron was to fly to a remote location, find a hidden relic and return safely to base. Nothing special—just learn to fly well in a Raider on the edge of the exosphere, collect a trinket that was planted by the military and return.
But the typical drill had turned into a not-so-typical emergency—their ship was going down fast. Tristaine wasn’t sure even Speakman knew what happened. Had they been shot? If so, by who? This planet, Qolea, was a completely safe zone. There were no enemies for galaxies—and even then, none with any kind of firepower. The surveyors had run proper investigations on an ongoing basis to determine the safety of the fleet, flying to and scanning each star system for signs of life. Qolea had been declared too primitive to pose any threat to the Solovot Empire. Some of their brighter minds had done some impressive work and twisted the gift of Solovot technology into weapons of war, but they wouldn’t dare turn those weapons against the High Father. It was more likely that a hole blew into the hull—pressure building up because of an engineering problem. The squad only knew that they had been seated nicely, backs against the wall, sharing jokes and antidotes when it happened. Protocol called for immediate evac of the ship, so no one had even checked on the pilot. The ship had been in steady decline, so Cloud Leader Speakman assumed the worst.
Every day since Tristaine Glass joined up, he wondered why he hadn’t made a better decision. He could have done anything with his life. His parents had good standing with the High Father. No one knew them by name, but they were still respected. By default, all male citizens having made no efforts toward career pursuits by twenty-two years of age were given the great honor of Election into the Solovot Empire Army. Avoiding Election would’ve been a simple matter of applying himself to something else—sign on with any of the hundreds of organizations in Utopia—anything else. But all the privilege in the world couldn’t buy him the motivation needed to pretend to care about something that he didn’t. He tried to find something worthwhile to put his efforts into, but every aspect of service he’d looked into felt so empty. It all seemed meaningless.
So, here he was, high above the surface, geared up and ready to dive from a speeding Raider, hoping against hope that his therma-reduc suit would hold up.
“Move,” shouted Speakman.
When they yet hesitated, he shouted it again, this time as loud as he could.
Without a sound Tristaine dove from the raider headfirst, arms tucked by his sides, gaining several g’s as he sped toward the ever nearing surface. He could feel the heat against his skin. The suit did its job, but it was still evident that he had just penetrated the Qolean atmosphere. He looked around and saw his fellow newborns soaring nearby.
Breaking through the clouds, he could see the landscape below. Remembering his training, he counted slowly to thirty then spread his arms wide. The fabric between his elbow and ribs pulled tight and he found himself flying through the air. It was a feeling unlike anything he’d ever experienced. The weightlessness, the freedom—the panic as he felt the suit tear under the weight of the wind. He was tumbling now, his limbs flailing as the air tore at him. This was it.
He jerked his head around in a panic and took note of his fellow soldiers. None of them were anywhere near him. It became increasingly difficult to see as he rolled from side to side. He fought to find balance. Every muscle in his body ached as they worked together in unison. The effort was taking every ounce of strength he had, but he finally started to level out.
“C.L., C.L.,” Tristaine shouted into his radcom. “Do you read me, C.L.? This is Glass. Repeat, do you read me?”
“Loud and clear Glass.” Came the reply. “I’ve got a fix on your twenty. You’re going to have to try to slow your descent. We’ve got time, but we’ll need all of it.”
Tristaine pushed through the panic—buried it deep inside. Even though he was watching helplessly as the rough terrain grew larger before his eyes, he was determined that he would survive this. Careful to keep his right elbow separated from his ribs—allowing his right wing to catch wind—he tried to hold the rip on his left wing shut. He began spiraling again. He gritted his teeth, completely focusing on regaining control. Eventually, he found balance. His speed decreased and he was able to breathe, slightly. But with his stomach toward the ground, he was unable to see where the cloud leader was. He craned his neck to try to glimpse his commanding officer, but couldn’t spot him.
“Looking good, Glass,” Speakman said. “Almost to you. I’m going to come in just above you. When I give the word, you’ll need to flip to your back and bear hug me—tight—with all you’ve got.”
A few seconds of silence passed. They felt like hours to Tristaine. The ground was all he saw now.
“Ready?” Speakman asked over the radcom.
Tristaine didn’t know how much less ready he could be. They had not yet reached this level of training yet. The Solovot Empire expected perfection from their people and from their machines, yet no one had prepared them for how to handle a mechanical breakdown.
“Flip!” Speakman yelled.
There was no time to hesitate, so Tristaine responded immediately. In one fluid motion he was on his back and reaching out for Speakman. The two collided and Tristaine wrapped himself around the body of his superior officer, holding on for dear life.
“I’ll need you to shimmy down to my waist, cadet,” said the cloud leader.
Tristaine did as he was told, and once he was secure around Speakman’s waist, the cloud leader spread his own arms and took flight.
“These suits are not designed for two, you understand?” Speakmen said as they continued to fall at an alarming rate of speed. “This is going to be rough, but we will survive.”
The fabric between Speakman’s elbows and ribs was straining as it tried to stay intact while slowing the descent of two bodies. Tristaine swore he could hear it crying out in protest. The ground was fast approaching.
“Time to start praying,” Speakman said.
Those words were not what Tristaine Glass had hoped to hear. Prayer—that was the last thing on his mind. He was confident that no one was listening and certain that no one was going to respond. Especially not the god of Solovot. Even now, in the moments that could possibly be his last, Tristaine searched himself and found no belief. He was convinced the god of Solovot didn’t exist.
As they neared the rocky surface below, the display inside Tristaine’s visor shimmered into focus. Several numbers appeared around the perimeter of his vision. Additionally, he began to see evidence of what had happened in the sky. Smoke rose from craters below and fire spread through the trees. He was beginning to be able to make out shapes running through the high grass—they did not look friendly. What happened to the raider wasn’t a malfunction, it was an attack.
“You seeing what I’m seeing, Glass?”
“I’m not sure I understand what we’re seeing,” Tristaine responded. “Are we under attack?”
The answer was going to have to wait.
“Brace yourself for impact,” Speakman said.
Time stood still and silent. Even though he knew it was just in his mind, Tristaine felt like the time between Speakman’s words and the time they hit the ground stretched on for minutes. It seemed to keep extending, the unforgiving ground right there and yet never arriving, until Tristaine could bear it no longer. Finally, the two men made impact. The shock absorbers in their flight suits were designed to make impact a trivial thing. You’ll feel like you just fell onto your bed—the words the suit instructor had told the cadets. Tristaine slammed hard, then skipped across the surface before going into a head over heels tumble. As he slid to a stop he was still alive—evidence that the shock absorbers had done their job—but he didn’t feel like he’d fallen into bed. He felt like he’d just collided with a planet.
His vision was blurry and he was having trouble focusing on any particular thought, but he was alive. As badly as he wanted to stay on the ground, he remembered what he’d seen just before impact. There were enemies nearby, which meant he needed to move. Tristaine stood and looked around. Spinning in a slow circle, he counted no less than five soldiers down. Many of them were bleeding profusely.
Things were fuzzy at best. His ability to hear hadn’t quite returned yet and the ringing in his ears grew louder. He could feel himself being pulled along. Tristaine looked to his right and saw Cloud Leader Speakman holding him by his elbow. The newborn soldier couldn’t hear his leader, but it was evident on his face that he was screaming for them to keep moving.
Little by little, sound began to return.
“We need to keep moving,” Speakman shouted. “If we stop, we die.”
Gunshots landed all around them. The heat of fire was definitely there, although the therma-reduc suits did a great job of concealing it. The ground rumbled below them and Glass looked in every direction to find its source. Suddenly, the ground broke beneath them and the earth threatened to swallow them up. It was a tear in the world, opening wider by the second. A small bridge remained across the deep chasm and Speakman did his best to guide them toward it.
“Head down!” Speakman ordered, pointing toward the sky.
A great flying beast was headed their way and it didn’t look forgiving. It was as big as the raider they’d jumped from just minutes before. On its massive head—twice the length of a man—was one large eyeball. From its mouth flowed a steady stream of liquid. Tristaine followed the drainage from its source. Like acid, it melted the stoney ground beneath it. Its large wings flapped and sent waves of energy strong enough to uproot trees.
Tristaine didn’t need to be warned twice. He knew that they needed to find shelter quickly. It pained him to watch as all of his comrades perished around him, but he wouldn’t likely be any good to them in his current condition anyway. It was only the steady grip of Speakman that was keeping him on his feet.
Speakman pointed ahead to a cave carved into the face of a mountain. The two made, with all haste, toward it. Tristaine peeked over his shoulder and was relieved to find that the great flyer wasn’t pursuing them.
When they arrived at the mouth of the cave, Tristaine collapsed. He was looking forward to the reprieve from running, but dreaded the moment where he had the chance to inspect himself for injury. Strangely enough, as he looked himself over he didn’t see anything broken. He didn’t feel much pain at all, if any really. Other than the general disorientation from the impact he seemed to be fine. He reached up to remove his visor.
“Stop!” Speakman snapped. “That remains on until we are safely back at base. There’s no telling what conditions the air holds out here. Chemical warfare, biological catastrophe, virus outbreak, we have no idea what’s going on yet, so we must be prepared for anything and everything. Rule number one: keep your wretched visor on. Is that understood?”
Tristaine nodded. His breathing was labored but his heart seemed to be settling down. He looked outside and noticed that the sun was beginning to set.
“Are we going to die out here?”
He hadn’t meant to ask the question. It just came spilling out of him.
“Not on my watch, soldier. But I’m going to need you to listen closely to every order and follow it to the T, you read me?”
Tristaine nodded again. At Speakman’s command, Tristaine gathered sticks and began to make a fire. They would need to eat, and they would need to stay warm. Out here, fire meant life. Once the fire was self sustaining, he unholstered his sidearm, which he had been assigned especially for this trip. As his hand touched the grip he could feel it powering up. Solovot’s had always refused to use anything but standard bullets, believing lasers and plasma firearms to be unreliable. But they embraced the security feature which allowed each gun to be uniquely imprinted to its assigned soldier.
Cadet Glass, Tristaine—Identified. Weapon initiating—Weapon systems online.
There was a familiar rumble in his hand that Tristaine appreciated. In primary training he had been given the opportunity to fire rounds from dozens of firearms—all types of weaponry, but he had never been a fan of lasers or plasmas. They didn’t kick enough when fired. He loved the feel of a bullet leaving the chamber, traveling down the shaft and exiting the barrel. It was exhilarating. He slowly lifted his weapon and aimed down the sights, careful to keep his finger out of the trigger house—safety above all else.
After being sure and confident in his weapon, he exited the cave—slowly. He looked in every direction, including up. He was not going to be caught unawares by that flying creature this time. He hadn’t gone far before his visor identified some nearby vegetation as edible. He holstered his sidearm and collected as much of the substance as he could hold and brought it back to the cave. As he neared, he saw the faint glow of the campfire.
“C.L.?” Tristaine called as he entered. He heard a grunt from a bit deeper in the cave. He put down the vegetation and called out again. There was no response—something wasn’t right. He drew his pistol.
Weapon systems online. Unsure of what he was going to find, he quickly slid the switch on his weapon to silent mode. Additionally, he touched the side of his visor and the head lamp fired up. He found his way slowly through the tunnel system. It was pretty straight forward except one split. He took his chance and went right. The tunnel was huge—several times his height and width. He stopped when he heard a sound. He could tell the noise was coming from just around the corner. It was a series of smacking and cracking, like an animal eating.
He edged toward the corner slowly, trying to remain silent as he moved. He steadied himself, back against the wet cave wall. He took a deep breath, then swung around, weapon aimed and ready. This time his finger was in the trigger house. In front of him stood the great flying beast. Its one eyeball looked up from its dinner and focused directly on Tristaine. It threw back its head and roared—the force of it nearly knocking Tristaine off his feet. Before he knew it he had unloaded an entire magazine into the creature’s eyeball. Acid spewed from its lips—dripping off of its massive, sharp teeth. It thrashed around, beating its wings wildly. It threatened to cause a cave-in as it slammed against the walls and ceiling.
Tristaine fumbled with his belt, frantically looking for another magazine. Having found one, he ducked back behind the wall to reload. He brought himself back around, but found that the beast had stopped moving almost entirely. Aiming his weapon at the creature’s head he slowly approached, one foot cautiously placed after another. The flyer was laboring heavily, trying to breathe. Acid pooled around its mouth on the dirt cave floor. Not interested in taking chances, the soldier shot two quick bursts into the thing’s brain, putting a quick end to it.
Tristaine, still careful, inched his way past the creature’s head. There was something there, near its mouth. When he saw Cloud Leader Speakman’s shredded remains he nearly hyperventilated. He reached up to remove his visor, remembering the warning—but not caring.
A.R.C. Visor, locked.
He grabbed the helmet with both hands and pulled hard, but nothing happened. Tristaine decided to give up on the helmet for now. He knelt down to check on his superior, but the effort was futile. There was no chance of his survival. Tristaine had no further choice. He had to find out if anyone else had survived the crash. He needed companionship—alone, this wilderness was a death sentence. He grabbed extra ammo from Speakman’s belt pouch, left the gun—since it was imprinted to Speakman—and tore off down the path back toward the front of the cave.
It was nearly pitch darkness when he had reached the cave’s mouth. The stars added very little light, but it was just enough for him to maneuver through the dense grass. In the distance he could see fire and smoke. He ran in that direction, hoping to find someone alive—friend or foe. After what felt like hours he arrived a small clearing. On the other side, he saw the Training Class Raider they had flown in on. It was damaged beyond repair. In the glow of the flames, Tristaine saw his squadron, all of them seemed to be accounted for. They were yelling and shoving each other. Everyone was in a panic.
“Aye!” Tristaine shouted. “What’s the fuss?”
“Speakman’s dead!” one cried out.
“I saw it happen,” another said.
“You weren’t there,” replied the first. “You need medical. You’re delusional.”
“I saw it happen too,” roared another, pushing the soldier away. “He splattered when we landed. Bought it outright. He didn’t stand a chance—he was just going too fast.”
“That wasn’t him, you crazy fool! I saw him gunned down by whatever those giant aliens were. Looked like wretched robots—all of them.”
Tristaine fought to keep his head on track. What was going on here? He had just seen that creature feasting on Speakman’s remains, yet Jacsen saw him miss the landing and Gi’send saw him get killed by aliens. The men started fighting again. Tristaine made his way to the center of them and broke it up.
“Wait, wait,” he screamed. “Everybody just wait! Something’s not right here.”
They settled down enough to give him their attention. Tristain pointed at Jacsen.
“You said you watched him buy it on the jump, but Gi’send was with him when an alien took him out.”
“Made a nasty sound when he hit. Blood was everywhere, mate.”
Gi’send stepped up, her pale skin contrasted almost metaphorically to Jacsen’s dark complexion. Like two sides of the same coin. It was as even their bodies were at odds from the start.
“No way is that possible. I watched the laser blasts from those robot aliens cook him alive,” she shuddered as she recalled it. “Cooked the skin right off the bone.”
Tristaine stepped between them.
“Well, I just saw him get eaten by a giant flying lizard beast. Something’s off here—very off.”
He turned slowly, looking at his fellow cadets. He had their full attention now. Tristaine could tell from the looks on their faces that none of them were lying. They all truly believed they’d just experienced their own interaction with Speakman.
“I don’t know if the air is toxic and making us hallucinate or if we all drank bad water—or something, but we need to stop fighting and come together to figure this out or none of us will leave here in one piece.”
As he finished his speech, the squadron could hear a slow, steady hand clap coming from within the Raider.
“Very good, very good,” said a voice.
The flames created a silhouette as a man stepped down from the hatch and into the grass.
His dark hair and close beard gave him away at once—it was Cloud Leader Speakman. He pressed a button on his visor and immediately a computerized voice rang out through the open air.
A.R.C. visor unlocked.
There was hysteria as the soldiers tried to make sense of the situation.
“Remove your visors,” Speakman said calmly. Each soldier did as they were told. “The air here is perfectly breathable. The visors you wear are called A.R.C. visors—Augmented Reality Competition Visors. Get used to them, they will be at the core of every piece of training we do from now on.”
He walked slowly among them, inspecting each as he went by.
“You just passed the first of many tests you will experience over the coming days. All of you watched me die. Some of you acted nobly.”
He nodded toward Tristaine.
“Some of you, not so much.”
He nodded at Gi’send. She looked away, obviously ashamed. It appeared there was more to her story than simply seeing alien robots fry Speakman with lasers.
“The visor works simply—you see what the computer system wants you to see. All of you were accompanied by one of our fine breakers. The computer wanted you to believe your breaker was me, so that is what you saw. None of you were in any actual danger. The aliens were not real. The dragon was not real. Glass, even the tear in your suit was not real.”
Tristaine looked down. With his visor off he noted that there was no tear.
“Perception is reality,” Speakman continued. “You believed your suit was destroyed and your actions reflected that. As you struggled to repair the hole, you sent yourself spiraling into chaos. Look around you.”
The cadets did as they were told. The Raider was in perfect condition, showing no signs of battle or struggle.
“Glass,” the cloud leader continued, “shoot Jacsen in the chest.”
“I didn’t ask you. That’s an order, cadet.”
Before Jacsen could respond, Tristaine raised his weapon and fired. Immediately, Jacsen disappeared and reappeared near the front of the Raider.
“Specially designed teleportation pistols. Very expensive. You are holding some of the only TPs in production. You will be assigned a team. These cadets will be your team from here on out. Six versus six—winning team will be ranked. Highest rank within the winning team will be very pleased with the reward.”
After letting the information sink in for a moment, Speakman added one final thing.
“You are being judged at all times, and your performance will factor into your area of service for the Solovot military.”
He paused, searching their faces. His gaze settled on VanDour, the largest of the cadets.
“You wanna spend your life on some fuel tanker, sputtering through space, spending your mornings cleaning toilets and your afternoons staring at a defense grid panel that more than likely is never going to ping a single threat?”
“No way, sir,” VanDour growled.
Speakman returned his attention to Gi’send. It appeared as if he was going to be picking on her for a while for whatever she did during the simulation.
“How do you think that slender frame of yours would hold up on drill duty pulling back to back twelvers alongside the disgruntled natives? That how you want to serve the High Father?”
“No, sir,” she said.
He nodded slowly, then turned to address them all.
“For better or worse, you lot belong to me, and whichever team wins the training games will be my people. And my people don’t clean toilets, and we don’t tend drills!”
Speakman assigned teams. Tristaine was placed with Jacsen and Gi’send as well as Murphries, Tispson—the only other female in their squad besides Gi’send—and Bunk.
They organized by team, taking a few minutes to get used to the new arrangement. Speakman disappeared onto the raider. A moment later a few small crates of supplies came sliding down the ramp. The ramp started to raise, and the raider began to power up. The crates fell off into the grass. The ship began to rise, and just before the ramp closed Speakman barked some final orders.
“Get some rest. Games start tomorrow at first light.”
Thank you for reading chapter one of Tristaine Glass: The Elect. Stay tuned for following chapters coming very soon. To be notified immediately when a new chapter becomes available, sign up for our mailing list. We don’t email a lot so don’t worry about spam! If you have comments, please feel free to share them below. We want to know what you think. After all, we are writing for you!