Kira Warden stopped outside the entrance to the Training Center and took a deep breath of the cool morning air. Then she took another one, all the better to mutter “How do I get into these situations?” at the closed door looming a few feet in front of her.
“I think you volunteered,” said a familiar voice from behind her.
She smiled and leaned backwards until she fit just perfectly under Linc Everett’s chin. She’d always been bothered by her lack of height, but lately it hadn’t seemed nearly so inconvenient. Especially so when Linc put his arms around her, the way he did now. “I didn’t volunteer,” she pointed out reasonably. “I suggested. You’re the one who volunteered.”
“I could hardly let you go into a potentially dangerous situation all by yourself, now could I?” Linc dropped a kiss onto the top of her head, which made her feel better. She was glad he’d volunteered. It meant he could pilot the transport to the exercise area instead of someone she didn’t know -- she wouldn’t have to explain, again, about how she’d made the mistake of mentioning her observations about the gaps in cadet training routines where Commander Ertrex and Major Drew could hear her.
“How dangerous can it be?” Kira asked, considering the challenge beyond the door and wishing that her voice didn’t betray her trepidation. “People have been doing this sort of thing for thousands of years.”
“Isn’t that what she said about swimming?” a deep voice rumbled from beyond Linc, and Kira hastily disentangled herself from her friend’s embrace, feeling her face grow hot. Two figures even taller than Linc were approaching from the Vallusian side of the station, and it was too much to hope that they hadn’t seen as much as they’d heard.
“Hello, Tek, hello, Dalltrex,” Linc was unabashed. “Come to help?”
“That depends. Have you finished with your mating rituals for the day?” Dalltrex asked brightly, earning an elbow in the ribs from his bondmate. The two Vallusian squad leaders had taken Kira into their bond, and frequently told her that they considered it a duty to oversee her social life, but Vallusians didn’t have the same kind of families as Earth humans and certainly didn’t have the same kind of courtships. Kira thought herself lucky that the pair were fascinated instead of disgusted, even if it did mean that she and Linc came in for a good bit of teasing.
“We are here to observe and report back,” Tek said, with mock solemnity. He drew himself up into a formal stance and announced, “Commander Ertrex has ordered us to determine if this experiment is one which would benefit Vallusian cadets as well. We too spend our childhoods on ‘predictable surfaces’.”
“Lovely predictable surfaces,” Dalltrex added, not nearly so reverently. “Safe predictable surfaces. Dry predictable surfaces.”
“That’s not fair,” Kira protested indignantly. “You liked swimming once we figured out how to make you float.”
“I like the ‘not drowning’ part of swimming,” Dalltrex corrected her. “As a means of locomotion it lacks efficiency.”
“Unless you happen to be over your head in water.” Linc scowled thoughtfully. “Although I suppose if you were wearing a full exploration suit you could just sort of walk on the bottom of the water.”
“But that’s another unpredictable surface.” Kira wasn’t going to let herself get sidetracked into a discussion of swimming or not swimming, not when she was committed to at least trying to prove her theories about predictable surfaces. “And it’s muddy, besides.”
Tek shuddered. “Please tell me there won’t be any mud today. It took me four hours to get my exploration suit properly clean the last time there was mud.”
It would have taken less if you’d listened to me,, Kira thought, but she couldn’t help but giggle at the memory of her tall friend’s expression when he’d learned (the hard way) that the smoothest part of a soggy surface was where the mud was deepest. “There’s mud, but you can stay out of it if you’re willing to help at the sand pit,” she offered sweetly, just for the joy of watching her Vallusian friend mentally debating which substance would make a worse mess of his uniform.
“What kind of help?” he asked suspiciously.
“Just picking people up and dusting them off if they fall down,” Kira said, studying Tek and Dalltrex thoughtfully. “Hm. Maybe I better introduce you first, so they won’t be scared of you. You’re awfully tall.”
“Next to that lot,” Linc jerked a thumb at the closed door, “we’re all tall. Even you, Small Stuff.”
“I just hope I’m tall enough to be taken seriously,” Kira fretted. “What do I know about ten-year-olds?”
Linc turned her to face him, so she couldn’t help but see his smile. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Just remember what it was like when you first left the nursery planet -- you thought everyone was a grownup and you listened to them whether they were assigned as your parents or not.”
“I left the nursery planet when I was two,” Kira protested. “By the time I was ten I’d already been on four different planets with my mother, and lots of unpredictable surfaces.” She nodded at the Training Center door. “The junior cadets in there have had lots of gym classes, but it’s not the same thing at all as exploring a real planet.” Kira wasn’t sure she knew how to explain properly, she just knew that she never wanted to be the only person who had real experience with being on a strange planet ever again after the last two times she’d been on training exercises. “They need to be able to climb hills, and cross streams, and walk on sand, and all of those things.”
“True,” Linc said. “I think my senior exercise would have gone a lot smoother if we hadn’t been busy trying to stay on our feet.”
“Perhaps,” Tek said. “But what we need to prove is the advantage of training junior cadets and not waiting until they have grown into their adult forms. It is not enough to say that the children have less distance to fall down.”
“All I know is that they’ve got to learn it sooner or later and for me it was easier sooner, but I’m not sure I’m the right person to teach anyone else anything.” Kira sighed. “I’m an E-comm. I’m supposed to be translating things from one language to another, or helping people understand each other. I know about customs and phonemes and grammar and words. I don’t know anything about teaching people, and especially not junior cadets. But here I am anyway, just because I didn’t know when to stop talking.”
Tek and Dalltrex exchanged a glance, but it was Tek who bent down to rest his six fingered hands on Kira’s shoulders. “You are right. You are good with words. But you are also good at teaching things. There are things you have taught us, even in the time we have known you. And you did not get chosen for this task only because you are the one who mentioned the problem. You were chosen for your experience, because you will know what to look for in the cadets you are leading. This will be something new for you, but Dalltrex and I were talking and we think you should treat this as if it is your first command and do what we did when we were first given our squads.”
“And what is that?” Kira asked.
“Pretend to know what you are doing.”
Kira studied her three friends’ faces, wondering if they were joking. But they were all completely serious for once, waiting for her to make the next move. She nodded and turned to face the door. There were twenty children in there, all waiting with the parents they’d been assigned to when they reached the station, and all twenty families had volunteered to be part of the experiment. It was up to her to make a success of it. “Right,” she said and squared her shoulders. “Right. Follow me.”
“Well, it wasn’t a complete disaster,” Kira said, shifting to find a more comfortable position on Dalltrex’s back. “Was it?”
“No,” the Vallusian squad leader said cheerfully. “Most of us are coming back intact.”
“Most of us.” Kira echoed ruefully, shifting again to keep her bandaged ankle from banging against Dalltrex’s side. She looked back over her shoulder to the straggling column of junior cadets being chivvied along by Linc and Tek. It bore little resemblance to the neat squadron that had marched to the transport that morning, but at least none of the children were still bleeding. A quick stop at the Med Center to make certain the first aid had been done correctly and she could send them all back to the family quarters with a reasonably clean conscience. She hadn’t managed to prevent things from growing awry, but at least she would be able to make amends.
“I think we might have escaped anything worse than bruises if it hadn’t been for the engineering projects,” Dalltrex mused. “And Harriet.”
“I told you trying to build a dam across the stream would get messy,” Kira groaned. “And I still don’t know how Harriet managed to start that landslide. Or how she set that tree on fire.”
“The dam was very educational,” Dalltrex defended his contribution to the day’s activities. “It just needed to be...” his voice trailed off as they turned the corner and the Med Center came into view.
Kira gasped. Arrayed by the entrance were not only the children’s parents, but also Commander Ertrex, Major Drew, and a good half of the senior officers of the station. She tugged at Dalltrex’s sleeve. “Quick, put me down,” she hissed, and then called back to Linc and Tek. “Stop. Stop. We need to...” But it was too late. The first few children had reached the corner, and seeing their parents forgot all about discipline and ran forward to be hugged, which of course set off the rest. In moments they were all in among the adults, their high voices sounding like a flock of Mindirians chattering over dinner at the Mindiri embassy.
“I’m doomed,” Kira moaned at Dalltrex, who hadn’t put her down and instead was carrying her right over to Major Drew and Commander Ertrex. He set her down then, but she had to rest all her weight on one foot, and she was glad he kept hold of her left arm so she could balance as she saluted the senior officers.
“Cadet Warden,” the Major began, but Commander Ertrex overrode him.
“Valued Aide,” he said, looking down his long nose at Kira with a frown, “you have been damaged. I thought that the point of this exercise was that you would not be damaged when accompanying cadets on explorations.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Kira said. “But it’s only a sprained ankle.”
“It’s probably a sprained ankle,” Linc corrected her as he and Tek joined them. “My brother will be able to tell for sure. Sir.” He saluted awkwardly, still unable to straighten his fingers properly. “We can probably give you a more accurate report once the Med specialists have had a chance to check everyone over.”
Kira wished she could hide her face in her hands. Linc wasn’t helping, but she could hardly blame him for wanting to get inside the Med Center after he’d had to navigate all the way back with his hands hurting from that unexpected patch of thorns. “I’m really not in a position to evaluate the exercise yet,” she told the two senior officers, hoping to buy some time. “I haven’t had a chance to talk it over with the juniors.”
“We’ll need some kind of preliminary assessment,” the Major said.
“Couldn’t it wait till after we’ve had something to eat, sir?” Tek interjected. “The nutrition tablets we took with us were meant for humans, not Vallusians.” His stomach rumbled softly in the vicinity of Kira’s shoulder.
“Why don’t we ask one of the juniors?” Commander Ertrex beckoned the nearest family over and Kira resisted the desire to closer her eyes and pretend unconsciousness. It was just her luck that it would be the Reeds. And Harriet. “How are you?” the Commander asked the girl.
Harriet stood at attention to answer, but she cocked her small head to one side as she chose her words. “Wet. Mostly wet. And cold. And I’ve got mud in my boots. And sand in my teeth.” She wriggled a bit and grimaced thoughtfully. “And other places too, probably, because I’m kind of itchy. And my nose feels like it might start bleeding again if I sneeze.” The evidence of the previous nosebleed was quite visible on her uniform, in spite of Kira’s attempt to clean it up.
Some of the other juniors had drifted over to see what was happening, curiosity being stronger than their fear of either Major Drew or the famed Vallusian explorer. Commander Ertrex included them in his gaze and asked, “And the rest of you? Are you cold and wet and damaged as well?”
“I’ve got scrapes on both elbows,” one of the boys said, displaying his arms.
“And I’ve got sand in my ears,” said one of the girls.
The clamor rose as each of the junior cadets tried to display their bruises and scrapes. Kira wished she could sink into the ground. It didn’t look like a single child had come through the day unscathed. “I think a Med specialist should have been included, sir,” she admitted, when the recitations paused.
“Quite definitely.” Major Drew turned to the children. “Well, I think your parents should take you on inside and have you patched up, and then tonight I would like you to write about what happened.
“Yes, sir,” the children chorused.
“And you, Cadet Warden, will take their reports and create a report for our Training Staff. Mr. Everett and your Vallusian colleagues can help.”
“And I would like a copy as well,” Commander Ertrex said. “Preferably in Vallusian.”
“Yes, sir,” Kira said. It wouldn’t be a very long report, she suspected. Not with results like this. Oh, well, at least she would be able to go back to her proper work.
But the children were whispering among themselves, and before Major Drew could turn away Harriet stepped forward to catch his arm. “Please, sir, we’ve got a question.”
“It’s just that, we know that Cadet Warden thought of taking us out there, and having us run around in the mud and get all messy and build things and stuff like that and maybe we should have brought some real food with us and more grownups or something and we know that she’s really an E-comm and she has lots of stuff to do on the station so she doesn’ really know how to train people and then she hurt her ankle trying to get William off the ledge he climbed onto, but... but...” the young cadet had to stop to take a breath.
“But what, Cadet Reed?” Major Drew asked.
Harriet flashed a smile and reached over to grab Kira’s hand, as the other juniors crowded forward to surround her on all sides. “But can Kira come out and play with us again tomorrow? Please?”
“Please?” The question echoed all around, and Kira felt a little stunned.
“What?” she asked Harriet and the other children incredulously.. “You’re cold, you’re wet, you’re hurt, and you were all complaining about being hungry the whole way back here, and you want to do it again? Tomorrow?”
“Uh-huh,” Harriet looked up at Kira with wide eyes. “It’s the realest thing I’ve ever done. And you’re the realest person who ever was for wanting us to do it. Please, Kira? I mean, please, Cadet Warden? We’ll be good.”
Kira thought of all the translations that would be waiting for her, and all the work she still needed to do on the Vallusian side of the station, and then measured that work against the hero worship on the small faces all around her and the approval on the faces of her friends and senior officers and found herself, for once, completely lost for words.