"I still think you should take the Training and Doctrines General's offer of your own room," Kishiria Zabi said to her younger brother.
"Kishiria is right," Degin Zabi rumbled to the teenager who sat across from him in the limousine. "You'll have more work than the other cadets. You should accept the room."
Eighteen-year-old Garma shook his head irritably. He wasn't feeling comfortable in his own skin at that moment, and the nagging from his sister and father was like a scratchy tag in a new shirt. "I don't know why you two are so fixated on me not having a roommate," he groused. "All the other cadets will have them and I don't see why I should be any different."
Kishiria sniffed a little. "It never bothered me."
"I'm not you."
There was silence in the car. Garma shifted inside his grey tunic, which was new and stiff. His uniform trousers weren't so reminiscent of a suit of armour. They itched like a hairshirt instead. His shiny black shoes were fairly comfortable but he knew that they'd get scuffed within an hour of arriving at the Academy. Dozel had warned him about that, in a quiet moment as the big man went over Garma's uniforms, searching for loose threads.
Garma looked up at his father. Degin was aging badly, his skeleton giving in to the osteoporosis that affected many spacenoids who had spent too much time in low-gee, usually when building colonies. Degin had been a major stockholder in the Munzo Corporation that built Side 3, but he'd always been hands-on, overseeing construction. Garma could tell that the greyness and weariness on his father's face had nothing to do with that today, and everything to do with his youngest child leaving the nest. The old man was sinking into the high collar of his uniform as if he were melting. Degin would adjust to Garma's absence, and the sooner the better. Garma had to grow up, in Garma's own opinion.
No, his thoughts were more occupied with his sister. Kishiria had only just graduated herself and exercised her royal prerogative to rise almost immediately to the rank of colonel. She sat in her green uniform, her long red hair in a single braid down her back. Garma was refusing all the privileges she herself had grabbed eagerly and she was angry at him for it. Garma suspected he'd hit a nerve with his actions, but wasn't going to back down.
"I just hope you're sure of what you're doing," Kishiria said to him.
Her grey eyes were frosty. "I turned the situation to my liking."
Garma shook his head. "I'm just going to take things as they come, like everybody else."
"You aren't like everybody else," Kishiria reminded him. "You've got the letters HRH in front of your name and believe me, that changes everything."
Garma focused his eyes on his lap. He knew Kishiria was right. Being royal made as much of a difference as being fantastically rich, and the Zabis were both. He'd managed to work with it in the past few years, but this was a new situation with people he didn't know, or more importantly, who didn't know him. He felt doubt starting to nibble at his confidence again, as it had on and off all week. Garma had so far managed to ignore that feeling, as he had the "what the hell am I doing?" sensation that had risen in him most strongly as he was being fitted for his cadet's uniform.
It had been easier a week ago, when his car had been cruising down Avenue Zeon-Deykun instead of turning down a ramp marked ZeFA, .2 km.
I wanted this, Garma reminded himself. I wanted this and I fought to have it. Dad opposed me all the way. Still does. Giren and Kish think I'm being a fool. Only Dozel believes in what I'm doing.
The image of his huge older brother came to his mind and he smiled a little. Do it for Dozel. Make him proud. No—do it for me.
The limo pulled up to the gate. The sentry saluted, not challenging the royal livery on the car. As it wound its way down the avenue towards the parade grounds, it joined in a long line of other vehicles that were carrying more cadets and their parents. Garma glanced over the driver's head to the rearview mirror. A blue bus was behind them, and he could make out that it carried other cadets, presumably those whose own families couldn't bring them. Garma glanced again at the faces of his sister and father. Much though his feelings towards them at the moment were ambivalent, he was very, very glad they were there.
The tree-lined avenue ended at the parade grounds, a rectangle of grass the size of a football field, surrounded on three sides by boxy academic buildings with bleachers on the fourth. The car came to a halt and the driver got out to open the door for his passengers. They exited the car and were immediately greeted by a tall man whose iron-grey hair was carved into a stiff brush-cut. He was wearing the uniform of a Zeon brigadier general and flanked by his sergeant major and other officers. They saluted Degin as Garma and Kishira looked on. Garma had grown up surrounded with officers like these, and for the first time he realized that he and his sister were now their subordinates. Kishiria's mouth was tight; princess though she was, here she was a lesser officer to these men and women and she hated that. Knowing Kishria, she'd receive another undue promotion soon anyway.
"General Vanderwyck, may I present to you my youngest son, Prince Garma."
"Please just call me Cadet Zabi," Garma said.
Vanderwyck shot him a glare that made Garma's blood freeze. "I don't remember asking you to say a word! From here on out, you speak only when spoken too, understood?"
Garma swallowed deeply. "Yes, sir."
"Say goodbye to your father and sister. Take your bags and go to the waiting area with the other new arrivals." He pointed to a bank of metal bleachers about two hundred meters away. It was filling up with young men and women in grey uniforms. Garma extended his arms to his father. Degin handed his cane to the limousine driver and embraced his son. Garma hugged his father tightly, suddenly reflecting on how much he took this for granted. He felt his eyes starting to burn, so he kissed his father on the cheek and released him in order to hug his sister. "I'll make you proud," He whispered to her.
"I'll be watching." Garma let her go and turned to his luggage. Vanderwyck's sergeant major suddenly stepped forward and said, "Only your bags. Leave the guitar. You can't have it here, not until we say you can."
Garma's eyes fell, his gaze naturally landing on the instrument. He'd known that a keyboard would be cumbersome and out of the question, but in movies soldiers always had guitars and he'd assumed one would be all right. It wasn't even one of his better instruments. To be denied it fell on him like a denial of food and drink. He hesitated for a moment, then reached down and handed the case to the chauffeur.
"What are you waiting for, Zabi?" Vanderwyck suddenly roared. "Take your bags and get on those bleachers!"
Garma mentally welcomed himself to his new life, grabbed his bags, and started moving. The turf beneath his shoes was soft and his feet sank into it, making walking even harder. Between that and the distance, the heaviness of his bags began to drag at his hands and shoulders, the handles cutting into his fingers.
"Put your bags down in alphabetical order, in the area designated for your MOS," a senior cadet was calling into a megaphone. Cadets were rushing around frantically to comply, but Garma found MOBILE SUIT CORPS quickly and having the last name "Zabi" made his position in line even easier.
He went over to the bleachers and found a spot four benches up beside a blond youth in wire-framed glasses. He sat down on the cool metal and stared straight ahead, watching the cadets from the bus place their bags. He felt more alone than he ever had in his life.
In contrast, Char Aznable, formerly Édouard Maas of Lyon, France, né Casval Deykun, was used to that feeling of isolation. It was a constant companion if not an old friend. Like Garma, he was pondering the mission ahead of him and his sister's disapproval of it. Sayla's anger had been nothing like Kishiria's cold and distant fury. Sayla had raged at him, pounded on his chest with her fists and sobbed until Uncle Jinba dragged her off and backhanded her across the face. Char hadn't protested. She had to be made to understand.
"That's for disrespecting your father's memory!" Jinba shouted at her. "You should be supporting Casval right now. He's going to avenge your father's murder, put the Contolists back in power, and then we can all go home. What's wrong with you? You should be following him there when you're his age."
"Jamais," Sayla moaned softly. Never. "It won't bring Papa back. It'll just keep ruining our lives!" Jinba shoved her from the room and shut the door. He turned to Edouard and said, "Ignore her. I'm afraid she will be the weak link in our plan."
"She's very gentle, Uncle. You might be right. Take care of her, though. When things are more settled on Side 3, she might come around to our way of thinking."
"Perhaps. Still, know that I'm very pleased with your decision, Casval. This is the only way, but the path will not be pleasant or easy."
Char assured Jinba that he was ready. The next day, armed with false papers identifying him as Char Aznable, aged 18, he got on a plane bound for Von Braun and from there to Side 3. His story was that he was a longtime Zeon resident who had been visiting relatives on Earth for the summer. Friends and allies of Jinba Ral had greased him into the system. Char Aznable was admitted to the Academy and he spent no more than a week in a hotel. He didn't have time to inspect Zum City to see how it matched up with his childhood memories, as that week was spent being fitted for his uniforms and getting the baggage he'd need for his initial entry.
Char wasn't having any of the doubts or second thoughts plaguing Garma Zabi. These years at the Academy were just going to be preparation for the mission of eliminating the royal family and bringing his father's legacy back to Side 3. He didn't particularly like the idea of being in the Zeon military, but it would be the quickest and easiest way to reach that goal.
Validation of his mission came in a way that nearly shook Char's confirmed atheism. A boy sat down on the bleachers next to him. Char took in the dark hair, the sharp features and the overall well-maintained look and realized he'd just been joined on the bench by Garma Zabi himself.
Char had known Garma as well as his sister Kishiria when he'd lived on Side 3 before his father's death. He remembered Kishiria as a bossy teenager who had doted on his sister Artesia on the few occasions she'd been asked to babysit. His recollections of Garma were fuzzy, and he hoped with all his heart that Garma's were as well. He remembered only playing with the other boy a couple of times, and that Garma had been quiet and low in energy. Eleven years later, he got an impression of intelligence and tense nerves.
Char started asking himself how he could best use this gift of fortune. He took a surreptitious second look at Garma, noticing that he wasn't the only one doing so. Garma looked pale, with a tightness to his jaw that suggested he was carefully reining in his fear.
That was his way in. Char murmured to him softly, trying not to move his lips, "Don't worry. It's all a mindgame."
Garma nodded. He appreciated this other cadet saying that to him; he knew he had to look at best like a fish out of water. He thought about whispering to him what to expect next, but wasn't sure if it would be a kindness. "Yeah, they're going to torture us for about 24 hours," he could picture himself saying to him. "It is just a mindgame, but it's going to be a damned miserable one."
Char waited for a response from Prince Garma, but received none. Bratty kid probably thought he wasn't good enough to speak to.
The last bus arrived and departed, the last cadets to be brought by their families said goodbye to them. At last the bleachers were crammed full of cadets, waiting uncomfortably for something to happen. Nothing did. Not for several hours, except for cadets being called out for falling asleep and having to stand, and being shouted at for talking.
Neither Char nor Garma had a watch, but the pattern of artificial sunlight hinted that it had been about four hours before soldiers in the grey-green uniforms of drill cadre came to the bleachers and yelled, "ON YOUR FEET!"
Approximately one thousand cadets rose to their feet.
"LET'S DO THAT AGAIN! TAKE—SEATS!"
One thousand rear ends dropped awkwardly onto the crowded benches.
"ON YOUR FEET!" They stood again.
They sat again. They stood again. This game went on for several minutes although in Garma's opinion they weren't much more in unison in their movements.
"FIND YOUR BAGS!" Now the challenge was to rush down from the bleachers without trampling each other to reach their luggage. The other cadets were visibly disoriented by the cadre members who rushed around them, waving arms and screaming insults. Garma found them easy to ignore and had no problem re-locating his bags. He noticed the blond youth didn't either, being at the opposite end of the alphabet.
"SECURE YOUR GEAR!" Around them, everyone hauled their duffles onto their backs and grabbed the other one by the handles. This was not fast enough , so they had to drop their gear and secure it again two more times before being run towards their dorms with orders to put on their combat uniforms and reform in the courtyard. The cadets from the Mobile Suit Corps line moved at a fast trudge in the direction in which they were pointed. No one had said they had to stay in a line, so Garma took advantage of the fact that he was moving more quickly than the others to catch up with the blond. There was no reason to do so other than that the other young man was familiar, if only marginally so.
They ended up being the third and fourth into the building, and were steered by an older cadet up the stairs and into the same room.
"We lucked out. They didn't shake us down first," Garma panted to the other man as he reached into his duffle and pulled out a combat uniform. He dropped down onto a bare bunk to yank off his shoes and strip to his briefs before yanking on his socks, appropriate t-shirt, pants, and jacket.
As he started lacing up his matte-black boots he said, "You better learn to dress a lot faster than that."
The other man was still sliding his belt through the belt loops. "I'm going as fast as I can."
Garma shrugged. "Doesn't matter if we're slow or fast. They're gonna smoke us anyway." He stood and started a stretching routine as his roommate finished dressing. "Since it looks like we'll be living together in here, what's your name?" The blond man fastened the last button on his jacket and extended his hand to Garma. "Charles Edward Aznable. Call me Char."
"Garma James Zabi. Call me 'Your Highness'."
Char raised an eyebrow. "Are you serious?"
"Nah, I'm messing with you. Call me Garma."
"WHAT'S KEEPING YOU, SHITBIRDS? YOU THINK THIS IS SOME LUXURY HOTEL?" a voice roared from the hall.
"Well, that's our cue," Garma said, reaching for his patrol cap. "C'mon. This is going to be a blast."
They ran out to the courtyard along with other cadets. They rushed around each other with no idea what to do until Garma yelled, "Just pick four squad leaders! I'll be the first! Here!" He grabbed Char's sleeve and made him stand to the left of him. "Now, line up six more guys. Everybody behind each other! Quckly!"
It didn't work. Some cadets started yelling right back at Garma, which was shocking to Char because he had assumed they'd automatically defer to the prince. To his further surprise, Garma didn't fight back or act outraged. Instead, he threw his hands up in the air and barked, "Fine! You're going to enjoy the outcome, so thanks in advance."
As if on cue, two drill cadre stepped out of their office. "What the hell is going on here?" one of them, a younger, shaven-headed man demanded. "Are we running a playground here? When you're out in this platoon area, unless you're on personal time, we expect you to be formed up!" He glared once at Garma and Char and roughly ordered the other cadets to form up on them. "Now that we've made this less of a cluster, half-right, face!"
The cadets made a half-turn to the right.
The cadre spoke the words that would from then on spark instead dread in every cadet's heart: "Front leaning rest position, MOVE!" They dropped into pushup position. Char felt someone pressed up against his feet and he was glad he'd followed Garma into the front two positions. "And DOWN! Up! DOWN! Up!" Garma lost track of pushups at thirty-four, when he decided that keeping track would not be good for his sanity. "ON YOUR BACKS! Flutter kicks!" In boots, these were much, much worse than the pushups had been. Garma had always had weak abdominal muscles, and his feet hit the concrete at twenty.
Later this would become one horrible blur in Char's memory. Avenging my father's death had better be worth this bullshit, he thought, in pain and sweaty. At that moment he saw the cadre crouch beside Garma Zabi and mutter, "I'm betting you're sorry you ever signed up, ain't you?"
"Not yet, sir," Garma said. He wasn't breathless, but he was struggling to get his feet six inches above the marching surface.
"We're going to make you be. You think you're special because your dad's the sovereign?"
"I know I am, sir, just don't treat me like it."
There was a collective gasp around Garma. Had he just said what they thought he'd said? Even the cadre was taken aback. "All right. We won't. You get fire guard every night this week starting tomorrow. And your buddy here, too." He stood and walked away. "On your hands and feet! We're gonna bear crawl now!"
When they were finally done, forty-five minutes later, the tired and beaten down cadets were marched to chow. Char found he didn't have much of an appetite. Watching Garma, he didn't think the other cadet did either. They collected their food, which turned out to be bland but innocuous and wholesome, ate in silence, then returned to their room with orders to have their wall lockers to standard and their room inspection-ready by 0600.
As Char ironed uniforms and Garma rolled underwear and socks, the Zabi boy said, "I'm sorry I got you into this mess, man."
"I don't remember you talking me into applying to the Academy."
"No, I mean the fire guard thing. You're my roommate, you were beside me in formation, so you're my battle buddy now. My brother Dozel says—you're going to hear me say a lot of things with those words prefacing them, by the way—my brother Dozel says that when your battle gets in trouble, you get punished too. So you get to lose sleep all week long because of me."
Char hung a tunic on a hanger. Knowing that Garma couldn't begin to grasp the irony in the statement he said, "I'll get my revenge on you later."
Their room was just two beds, two desks, and two wall lockers. Setting it up to perfectly meet the standard took them until 0200. They showered briefly, changed into the PTs they were required to sleep in, and climbed into their beds. "My brother Dozel says to sleep on top of your covers," Garma yawned. "I will. Starting tomorrow night."
"Mm," Char agreed. "What's involved in doing fireguard?" "Not much. For two hours we sit at a desk, write letters, do some barracks maintenance. They'll probably give us the ass shift every night; 0100 to 0300 so we won't get a full night."
"Sounds like fun." Char rolled onto his side, feeling deep in his body that although he was bone-exhausted that his brain had too much to process to sleep. Nonetheless, he closed his eyes to rest them. Within a few minutes, he heard a muffled sound that he identified as Garma Zabi sobbing into his pillow. Char lay there, listening to it. How many nights have I cried because of Degin Zabi? Only fair his son should be crying now too, he thought to himself.
This led him to consider what action he should take. If the goal was to get close to the Zabis, should he go over to the other bed and comfort Garma, or at the very least acknowledge his tears? Or should he give the prince his space and dignity and act as if he didn't hear him?
He decided that sitting up slightly and asking, "You okay man?" would be enough.
"I will be," came the weary-sounding response. "I knew this first week would be tough. I got enough warnings from my sibs." Char saw him sit up to wipe at his cheeks. "Living it's another story, though." He sat up in bed, wrapping his arms around his knees.
"Yeah. I guess you're pretty used to having your own way, and things being all cushy for you."
"Pretty much, but at least I know that. I just miss my dad already. And my music. They wouldn't let me keep my guitar. If anything's gonna make me crazy, it's that."
"Why'd you come here, anyway?"
Garma was quiet for a while before answering. "Because everybody sees me as a happy little piece of fluff and I want to show that I'm not." He turned on the bed to face Char. "Y'see, my mom died in childbirth."
"People still do that?" Char blurted out. "I thought that only happened in the Middle Ages."
Garma snorted. "Obviously they do because my mom did. A blood vessel in her uterus broke and she bled to death before they could do a hysterectomy in time."
"God. Man, I'm sorry."
"Anyway, my dad's been really overprotective of me ever since because I do have some health problems I inherited from her. If he had my way, I'd be a day student a US3 or University of Zum City becoming heaven knows what after I graduated, as long as it wasn't something really useful."
"What if you can't hack it?"
"Oh, I'll go the distance. Have no doubt about that. Unless something lands me in the hospital and then gets me kicked out, yeah. I'm graduating. I couldn't live with the humiliation if I didn't."
Char was reminded of a line from a movie that had made an impression on him: Pride. My favourite sin. If he recalled correctly, the character speaking the line had been the Devil.
"What about after graduation? No offense but you don't seem the military type."
"I'm trying not to think about that yet. I could go Reserve I suppose, but I think I'll probably end up in the Mobile Suit Corps full-time."
"You know anything about them, or did it just seem like a cool MOS?"
Garma smirked at him. "Know anything about them? Char, I was a test pilot for the Zaku prototype."
Char gaped. "Okay. Forget I asked."
"I know. I'm just a ball of surprises."
"No shit. I have to hand it to you though, Garma, you sure have set yourself up for a challenge. If nothing else, I have to respect you for that."
"Thanks, but that goes for every student here." Garma lay back down. "I'll be all right. See you in the morning."
Char lay down as well. He'd expected Garma to be spoiled and haughty, not this open about himself or with any kind of skill set. He lay gazing towards the door of their room. He still felt he would be able to get into his enemies' defenses via Garma's friendship, but he suddenly realized that a mere application of charm was not going to be enough. When he'd said he respected Garma, Char realized to his bemusement that he'd meant it.
The inspection the next morning was the punchline of a bad joke. Drill Cadre Pevensey, the younger, shaven-headed man who'd smoked them the previous afternoon, strode purposely into their room as Char and Garma stood at attention in combat uniforms, nodded once, and moved on. Others apparently hadn't been so careful. The two cadets could hear shouting and a bed being knocked over several doors down, followed by an armful of uniforms on hangars hitting the hallway floor a few minutes later. Char reminded himself to thank Garma for insisting they do things the way Dozel had taught him.
He didn't have a chance to say anything for a while though as they were marched outside to be smoked again, then sent to breakfast and their first class. Academics wouldn't start for another two months, in September. This was the first of several classes on military etiquette. After Cadre Pevensey was through, they were allowed to stand and stretch before Cadre MacNair, a man in his mid-30s who reminded Garma somewhat of his brother Giren, began a lecture on the rules and military laws that would be regulating their lives from now on. After that was a break for lunch, then outside to the classroom for weapons draw.
Char had never handled any firearm other than a hunting rifle on his uncle's estate and the ZM-72 semi-automatic rifle now in his hands didn't resemble that at all. He glanced over at Garma, who was peering into the magazine well. He wiped it with his fingertip and seemed displeased with the results.
"This thing is filthy," he muttered.
"I'm sure they'll teach us how to clean it."
"Oh, I know how to clean it, I've seen Dozel do it. He's got his own, modified for his big ol' hamhock hands. I've got a cleaning kit on me; I'll give you a tutorial when we're on fire guard."
"Ah hell, that thing."
"Sorry about it again, battle."
"Don't worry about it. Again."
"Okay, circle the wagons," Cadre Pevensey said. The cadets gathered in a circle on the floor around his desk, rifles by their sides or across their knees. "All right, here's what's going to be happening these next nine weeks. What we're going to be doing is that time-honoured tradition known as "Beast Barracks". It's been called that since a good century ago on Earth. We never saw any reason to change it; we're in barracks and it's gonna be beastly. Matter of fact, it's gonna suck." He looked a bit wry. "But we're gonna have fun. Priorities this week are gonna be unarmed combat and basic rifle marksmanship, known since time began and God was a kid as BRM. Okay, first drill we're all going to do is learn to break this thing down."
The class continued except for one 15-minute smoking because two cadets were horseplaying with parts of their weapons and needed discipline. Afterwards they re-assembled their weapons and went to supper. Finally they were allowed to return to their rooms to shower and get into their PTs to shine boots and prepare for the next day.
Char and Garma were the first fire guard shift. They got back into uniform and reported in to the desk at the intersection of the two wings of the barracks. They helped a cadre do head count and then sat down at the desk for the next two hours.
"Well this is pleasant," Char said.
"This is the good shift. This and the last one. I'm surprised we got it so yeah, enjoy. I brought the cleaning kit. Okay, first you take this part of the rod and you separate the upper and lower receivers..."
Char watched Garma go through the routine of cleaning the weapon, breaking down the bolt assembly and carefully going over each piece with a cleaning cloth or wire brush. The prince was, to his eyes, trying to absent himself from their surroundings by focusing on each piece of the rifle. Even so, at the end of the shift Char still heard Garma sobbing into his pillow before he slept.
"Our first PT session will be 1-1-1's," announced Cadre Dos Santos from the high wooden PT stand. The cadets were in staggered lines, inside the track, shivering in the lower pre-dawn temperatures. Garma was suffering particularly, trying to relax his muscles so that they wouldn't twitch so badly in the chill. He glanced over enviously at Char, who seemed to be having no such problems. "You will do as many situps as you can in one minute. You will do as many pushups as you can in one minute. Finally, you will run one mile as quickly as you can. This will determine if you spend the recess in between Beast Barracks and the beginning of the semester at home with your families or here with us cadre." Her smile became sharklike. "Getting in shape so that you WILL be ready to pass your entry PT test when you begin the semester."
Garma almost whimpered. The fear of not passing the test immediately overwhelmed him, even though he knew that failure was not likely. He glanced over at Char, who looked more bored than anything else. One thing about this early stage of Academy life that made things both easier and harder was not having to think. Garma may have been tense, but there was no way out of having to line up and wait for his turn at the exercises and the run. Garma waited in line, holding the PT chart that the cadre would mark with his results and stretching. Char had ended up two lines away, so he didn't have his battle buddy's support as he waited.
Garma's turn came. He lay down on the grass with his knees flexed, the cadet who'd had a turn ahead of him holding his feet. On the word "go" he was able to do 38 situps, a passing mark. He moved on to the pushup line and scored 25 pushups. He sighed. Both grades passed, but neither was stellar. Dozel would be disappointed. As he headed towards the starting line of the track, Char met up with him again.
"What'd you get?" the blond cadet asked him.
Garma showed him wordlessly.
"That's all right. Gets you out of here."
"Yeah, and it's the ones we'll do at the end of every semester that count, but..." he trailed off, not wanting to go into a perfectionism-driven rant.
Char did better on the situps and pushups but trailed him by two minutes on the mile. These were passing numbers, although Garma knew he'd cut it close on the pushups.
"I'm so stupid," Garma said to Char as they both got dressed later in their room.
"This is news?"
Garma smiled a little. "I know my capabilities. I went to that PT test knowing in my head that I could pass it, no problem, and still being scared as hell that I wouldn't."
Char looked up from tying his boot. "Did it make you work harder?"
Garma considered. "Not sure. Maybe."
"That's not being scared. That's having pre-game nerves, like a professional athlete. I always got queasy before a gymnastics meet. It's not that I was worried about a bad performance, it was just pre-game nerves."
Garma nodded. "Huh. You're right. I've never done athletics, besides equestrian, and there I'm so busy worrying about my horse that I never thought about my own performance."
"Yeah. It might not go away, so learn to use it. You get nervous in front of an audience?"
"I'm a musician so I better not, and I miss my guitar!"
"Right, I forgot."
Garma pulled the combination sweeper/wet mop out of the designated closet and plugged it in. "I'm dying. So many melodies forming in my head and nothing to do but hum them to myself." Before turning on the switch and making noise he asked, "So what do you do?"
Char pulled out some cleaning cloths and started applying it to anything that could attract dust. "What do you mean?"
"Creatively. You must have some creative outlet."
Char frowned. "Never thought of that."
"Any instruments, painting, writing?" Garma turned on the floor cleaner and started rotating it in a corner.
Char waited until he was done.
"Athletics really. I'm not artistic in any way."
"Oh. Well, what do you like to read? What's your favourite book?"
Char pretended to be concentrating on the sink in their bathroom. In reality he was trying to decide if he should give the answer he wanted to. Finally he decided to do it.
"Contolism by Zeon Deykun."
"Wow, that thing? That's a book that played a huge role in my family. My dad and my brother Giren were great friends with Zeon Deykun. Can't say I like his work, myself, but no argument that it's made our culture what it is today."
"Indeed," Char said dryly, more annoyed than he imagined he would be at having his father's work insulted, however vaguely. The conversation trailed off. Garma started patrolling for anything out of place; dust bunnies, stray hangars, a cake of soap.
"What about your family? Who are they and where are they from?"
Char turned on him. "What's with all the fucking questions?"
Garma's eyes went cold. "Look. We're going to be practically handcuffed together for the next nine weeks. If either one of us decides to play it cold and aloof, neither one of us is going to survive. That's one of the points of the exercise here. We learn to work and live together or we don't make it. Maybe I'm getting too intrusive."
"Well, I'm sorry. A lot of times I over-compensate for being Prince Garma. People expect me to be cold and snooty and to make them do things for me and I'm always on the spot to prove them wrong. Being interested in other people is part of that."
Char decided to smile. "Okay. I'm kinda sensitive a lot of times because I'm an orphan."
Garma shrugged. "Like I told you the night we arrived, I'm half one."
"GET OUT OF YOUR ROOMS FOR INSPECTION!" a voice bellowed from the hall.
"And it's been lovely, but now we must part," Garma concluded, and they stepped out into the hall.
Sorry it's taken so long to write to you. Beast Barracks is almost as bad as Dozel said. Almost. I think he exaggerated a little bit to scare me. I've never been smoked for more than an hour and a half.
Garma paused over his paper after writing that, wondering if it would send his father into a protective tizzy. He decided it'd put a welcome fear into him. Besides, he didn't want to start the letter again, not at three o'clock in the morning as the cadre on duty snoozed in his office.
It's Sunday night. I'm waiting for the good stuff to start, the real combat-oriented training. Yesterday we got all our equipment issued to us. Today all we did was clean barracks. Actually that's not true; I got to Mass. A lot of people suddenly get religion here because if you go to religious services, you get out of a lot of cleaning, even if you don't get to sleep in all the way till six a.m. I've never been at church and had it been like that, Dad. They let me play keyboard for the hymns. I missed you badly and I cried and cried.
For the second time, he thought about if he wanted to have said that. It was completely true; he'd cried like a bitch whenever his hands weren't on the portable keyboard itself. Being allowed to play an instrument had been like being allowed up for air. He'd ached to play just a fragment of the music that had been pouring itself into his head for the past few days. The sound of marching feet gave him a backbeat that for him was impossible to resist for writing songs.
Ah, it would let his father know he was loved. Garma left it. He glanced over at Char, who was studying a manual on hand-to-hand combat in normal suits. That training was coming up soon.
Anyway, I'm doing all right. It's hard, but I expected that. Like I said, it's still not as bad as Dozel made it sound. People are still weirded out by my being here, including my battle buddy. I hope things get better, but if not I'll still survive. Could you send me about three bars of the soap I get from Bodyworks? I can receive packages of toiletries and that'd be a luxury I'm permitted. Write back soon, Dad. Love, Garma
Garma folded the letter up and put it in its envelope. He looked over at Char and found that his battle buddy's eyes were closed.
His eyes snapped open. "Oh shit, was I asleep?"
"Yeah." "Thanks for waking me up."
"No problem. I don't want Dos Santos to take us down to the laundry room and smoke us for two hours because you passed out."
Char lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes. "Guess this is getting to me. Four nights to go, right?"
"I think so. Like I said, sorry about it."
Char smiled tightly. "And like I said, I'll take revenge on you later." He rubbed at his eyes. "Have some water and talk to me."
"Anything. You said you were athletic. You mentioned being a gymnast, didn't you?"
"Oh yeah, I did." Char thought back to the false biography he'd memorized in the weeks before he came out to Side 3. Much of it was true in order to keep him from becoming confused. He was about to find out if long hours of drilling on the details with Sayla would pay off. "I spent a lot of my growing up years on Earth."
"I could tell. You have an accent."
Shit. This isn't going to be an easy one to con. "I'm an orphan; my folks died in a construction accident when they were building Orange Colony."
"Don't worry about it. I was about six and I got over it years ago. I've been raised by relatives here and on Earth."
"Where'd you go to high school?"
"Earth. I bet you had private tutors."
"When I was a little kid, yeah. For high school I went to Mater Dei in Zum City." Garma raised a fist in the air. "Go Monarchs."
"I'm a gymnast, as I said before. I do still rings and pommel horse, which is why I was able to knock out 50 pushups in one minute. Matter of fact," Char grimaced and rubbed and one of his shoulders, "I get worried that PT is going to make me fall out of shape."
"You ever win competitions?"
"No, I'm too introverted to compete." In fact, Édouard Maas had a shelf of trophies back in Lyon. But Édouard Maas was a person unrelated to Char Aznable, Char reminded himself quickly.
"We all have to compete in a sport here at the Academy though, so maybe I will here."
"From what I've seen, I'd buy some more shelves if I were you," Garma told him.
"What about you? What'd you pick?"
"Fencing," Garma said. "The Academy doesn't have a stable so I couldn't do equestrian."
"Swords and horses?" Char snorted. "What's with that? Those are some pretty 19th century hobbies."
"Bite me," Garma snarled. "I'm kind of a romantic and they're expensive sports, but I could afford them, I'm good at them, so kiss my ass."
He'd hit some kind of nerve. Char stored that knowledge away for later. Just then, two more cadets showed up to relieve them, so they signed out and returned to their room. As they changed back into their PTs, Garma looked closely at Char's arms and back. He'd noticed the other cadet was muscular, but he hadn't paid attention to how cut and defined he was and how developed his upper body was. Garma sighed a little bit, envious. He was good at running, biking, staying on a horse; anything that required strength in his legs. Those sports meant that he was also skinny although Giren preferred the term "wiry". Overall, Char Aznable was a lot better looking than he was. As time went on, cadets were going to start hitting on him left right and centre. For some reason, that idea bothered Garma, but he was too tired to think much else about it. He was asleep before Char turned off the bathroom light.