Seven: Quarters

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"Wait," Lucas grinned, "you got how many demotions?"

My face burned as I plopped down in my cot with a sigh. Lucas grinned and took a seat in the bunk opposite mine. I leaned back in the bed and groaned.

"Let's just say I won't have clearance to the bridge for a while."

After another thorough verbal thrashing and an amount of demotions I don't care to mention, I'd been ordered to return to my quarters for lights out.

Sleeping quarters on the Firmament were tight despite it being such a large ship. Rooms of two double bunks were standard unless you were ranked as a commanding officer or higher. Dan, Lucas and I had been assigned together because we'd joined around the same time. In fact, it was how I'd first gotten to know them.

The bunk beside me let out a creak of complaint as Dan leaned over the rail on the bed above his brother. Why Dan had taken the top bunk and not the lighter Lucas forever evaded me.

"Could be worse," Dan shrugged. His glasses nearly slid off his nose with the motion, but he pushed them back up with one finger.

"She didn't take away your mission privileges. You still get to continue as if everything was normal."

"That's true," I responded, grinning, "even Mallet couldn't deny I'm an asset to the Alliance."

"That" Lucas chuckled, "or she knew if she benched you you would never stop whining."

Someone above me let out a wheezing, cackling laugh and a face swung down next to me, making me jump a little.

"Daewi," I warned, raising a finger, "we talked about that."

Daewi Park, my bunkmate. Short, Korean and a veritable genius.

Also, probably certifiably insane.

"Aw," he pouted, head dangling over the bunk, "did I scare the big bad elite pilot?"

A grin spread across his hanging face.

"Oh wait, you're not an elite pilot anymore, are you? Do I outrank you now?"

Lucas reached over and pushed Daewi's stout face out of mine.

"Not even close, Private Park," Lucas grinned.

Daewi had joined a few months after me and had supposedly been bunked with us because his assigned bed had broken. He'd never moved back, so I suspected the bed had been broken on purpose by someone who didn't want him in their room.

I'd considered breaking his bunk here many, many times.

"You guys hear about the Exodus sighting?" Daewi grinned. "They even got some shaky footage from some light mech or other. I'd hate to be that guy. He ran like a-"

Dan reached over and shook the bed, knocking Daewi's head off the wall. Daewi winced and pulled his head back onto his bunk, cradling his forehead for a moment.

Dan glowered over his glasses.

"Choose your words carefuly, Park," he warned, "you'd do well to remember that all of us still rank higher than you."

Daewi shrank back, seemingly placated. Despite all the years I'd known him, I still forgot Dan Stonewood could be scary sometimes.

"Well, how about the Xiezhi sighting?" Daewi offered.

"Zy-what?" I frowned, trying to wrap my head around the pronunciation. "Zy-zee?"

Lucas perked up, ignoring my confusion. "Xiezhi? Where? When?"

Lucas got along with Daewi better than Dan or I, only because the two were complete mech geeks. Dan knew more about building mechs, yes, but he'd never cared about the rare ones.

Daewi leaned off his bunk, unknowingly sticking his feet in my face. I pushed away a dangling foot with a sneer, but Daewi continued, undeterred.

"They say a Korean Xiezhi was spotted on a battlefield in Germany, helping them defend a small town from invading American forces."

"That's the farthest Xeizhi sighting from the Korean border ever!" Lucas gasped.

Daewi grinned like a child.

"No video footage survived, all we have to work off are some photographs and scans."

With those words Dan pulled himself to the edge of the bunk and looked down. Now he was interested. Reverse-engineering mechs was his specialty.

"How good were the Xiezhi photos?" he asked.

Daewi beamed brighter, happy to have an audience.

"Close and high-quality, my friend."

Dan was over the moon.

"I need to see those scans tomorrow," he chattered. "Are the photos of anything useful?"

Daewi leaned in closer.

"Rumor has it," he whispered, "that it's a partial picture of the dash drive, the source of the Xiezhi's impossible speed boosts."

"Get enough photos of that," Lucas grinned, "and we can set about rebuilding Xiezhi mechs of our own. That could boost the ranks of the peacekeeping effort and end the war sooner!"

Dan slapped the bunk.

"Imagine, Jackson," he smiled, "marching up to the Transamerican Combat Corporation's main base in a Korean mech. With that dash drive we could end the war without even trying!"

I grinned back. Piloting a Korean dash mech at such crazy speeds sounded good to me.

"Make it happen, science man," I shot back.

The lights flickered once, then twice. The shipwide signal for lights out.

I rolled over, pulling the thin covers over my head.

"G'night Stonewoods," I called.

"Goodnight ex-officer, sir," Daewi shot back.

"Shut up, Private," Dan grumbled.

"G'night, Jax," Lucas responded. "May you damage fewer mechs tomorrow."

Then it was silent, and I was alone with my thoughts. Memories, both recent and distant, bounced around my brain.

Who was the Exodus pilot?

Why had they tried to kill me, and, by extent, why had they stopped?

Were we close to ending the Iron War, or were we about to make it worse that we had ever feared?

Too many questions and not enough time. I had a vague feeling of being on a precipice, like I was on the edge of something far more vast than I thought and that one tiny step would send me plummeting over the edge.

Something was about to happen, and it has been building slowly for a long time. I didn't know what it was, but I knew that I would soon find out.

As I lay among friends, half asleep in my bunk, I vowed that I would keep them safe, no matter what. I hadn't been able to protect my father, and that wasn't my fault, but now I had the chance to do something he would have been proud of.

My coin sat on the bunk's frame beside my head, an ever-present representation of my good fortune. I'd gotten this far on luck and a bit of skill, but I knew in my heart that I would need more soon enough.

Mallet was right.
It was time I took charge.

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