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Forward: The following is a first draft, uploaded for the purpose of ruthless critiquing. Names and events are subject to change. Be ruthless in your reviews of this story.

Due to the pacing of the formatting, the following is to be read in indented mode. In the upper right corner of this page, press the Indent Button.

Since this is an online version of the novel, music is linked when appropriate.

Thank you, and enjoy,
-David Z., Spaztique


Ellen's arranged for us to get some extra time at the arcade at the mobile boardwalk. We're going to play nothing but cooperative games to ensure we act as a team. Part of me is excited for a night of free games, and another part of me is excited because I get to spend an evening with four girls.

It's been three days since that incident at the range, and no information has come back about the new Voidholes, as they're now being called, but more are starting to pop up across Europe, Africa, West Asia, and the East Atlantic Desert. The only pattern the military scientists are noticing is that they're all focused around The Great Fault, and current theories suggest the Voidspawn are using it as a giant tunneling network. Yet, Lilith thinks this doesn't make sense, because every Voidspawn that's landed in The Great Fault has died when those massive claws thrashed them apart: anything that lands inside is killed indiscriminately. Carradine even says the Voidspawn shouldn't be able to strategize like that: their primitive collection of nerves that we can scarcely call a brain is only wired to seek out organic matter and attack it, no matter far away it is; not to eat it, because it doesn't have a digestive track, but just to kill it.
Everyone's excited for the news, and if it means we'll have an easier time killing these things (maybe even stop The Great Fault from growing), I'll be excited, too.

The men's barracks is completely silent as I get dressed in the dim, empty rows of bunks. All I have are beige shirts, beige button-ups, beige cargo pants. That's what everyone has. I wanted the women to wear skirts, but no: they have the same pants as I do. If I can die at any moment, a simple request I have is seeing the titillating legs and possibly thighs of the women around me.
I have another reason to hold a grudge against the Voidspawn: they have taken women in skirts from me. For that matter, that have taken my chance of ever seeing a woman in panties from me. If I'm not mistaken, their design is practically no different from the men's ugly briefs.
At least the Voidspawn haven't taken away the artificial pre-invasion look of Earth from the Mobile Boardwalk.
Since it's no longer class hours, I can wear my button-up shirt unbuttoned to at least have some sense of style. I'm a bit worried about how I look, because I don't want to take any chances with looking too unattractive to the other girls. Then again, it's just an exercise to learn to cooperate, and Serena's quote about heroes not caring about fear has been sticking with me.
It's funny: I somehow handled fighting aliens the size of mountains with ease, but I'm still scared of what women think about me.

I open the door to the hall, and Ariel is sitting on the cheap foam couch outside of the men's barracks, reading something on her notepad. Her green eyes dart up to me and she says, “Hey Trent. How's it going?”
I'm frozen. No girl from class has ever waited outside of the men's barracks, and I'm the only one in there, so she's obviously here for me. I say, “Fine, but... em... what are you doing out here?”
“I heard you were going to play some games at the Mobile Boardwalk with First Response and I was wondering if I could come with,” she says in one breath.
“Who told you?,” I ask.
“Junior Galt told me,” she says, “and I was wondering if I could join you.”
“Why didn't you ask her?,” I ask.
“It didn't occur to me until later this shift,” she says, looking down the hall, “and everyone else is already gone.” She looks back at me and gives me a nervous smile. I'm leaning in the direction of the access tunnel to the mobile boardwalk because I'm probably going to run late.
I tell her, “It's a group exercise teamwork buildy thingy for First Response. I'm not sure if they'd let you join.”
“Have me as an extra opponent,” she says, leaning into me, “I'll even pay for my own games. Besides, I need to get out of the life raft every once in a while.”
She's not going to say no. Ariel is known for two things: a positive outlook and never giving up. She's coming with, whether First Response wants her or not. I have no problem with it. I like Ariel: she's probably one of my earliest friends in the Mech Core besides Ereba, but I spent more time with Ereba. Though, that turned into a stillborn romance only because I think she cared more about fighting the war than about me.
Come to think of it, maybe having a shot at Ariel isn't so bad: unlike Ereba, she cares more about people than about winning the war.
I tell her, “I guess there's no harm in you coming with to check.”
She lets off a high-pitched squeal of delight and does one of the little hops that sends her dark brown hair bouncing up and down, telling me, “Thank you.”
Love is a numbers game: the more women you have, the higher the odds of winning.

The whole way there, Ariel has hundreds of questions about First Response: what's it like in the new mech (it's the same, but new controls), what would we do if we got attacked by a hundred Voidspawn warriors (probably the same-old same-old), have I been talking to my other squadmates that much (it's only been three days), and so on, and so on. Maybe that's why Ariel is coming with: she probably wanted to be on First Response.
We grab our mandatory rocket launchers and pass through the access tunnel, and I ask, “Did you want to be on First Response?”
“It would be cool,” she says, “but I'm fine with my normal mech. As long as I get to fight, I'm good.”
Exactly. She wanted to be on First Response. A few days ago, I wouldn't have blamed her, but I'm starting to settle into my new mech. Maybe Serena's right: explosives do make everything better.

Temperatures at a constant 78 degrees Fahrenheit with light humidity, artificial sunlight that doesn't burn your eyes, cool breezes against virtual water, and the highest quality food humanity has to offer: it's no wonder the Mobile Boardwalks are the center of morale for the human military. Unless the Voidspawn come within fifty kilometers of us, it will remain open for all of the games, food, and entertainment we want. Otherwise, guests get to climb into the artillery cannons mounted on the roof and blast away the incoming aliens.
The only downside: they see no reason to sell pre-invasion-style clothes. Still no skirts, still no tanktops or loose clothes for the ladies. Everyone but Lilith is already there, waiting on the bench out front of the arcade, still wearing those beige uniforms. Serena and Ellen wave. Katya gives us a nasty leer.
Ellen says, “Good to see you, Junior Kestral, Junior Dove.”
Katya asks me, “Trent, why are you bringing her with you?”
I say, “It wasn't my idea. Ellen, you told her, right?”
Ellen nods and says, “Yes. I told her since she was interested in First Response. Although not an official member, she's more than welcome to aid us.”
Katya says, “First Response is supposed to be a tight-nit group with no room for informality. Each member has a specific function, and if that function is broken, the group falls apart. Understood, everyone?”
Ellen nods, smiles, and says, “Understood... and if you have a problem with us including Junior Dove, you can take that up with the rest of the class.”
Serena laughs and says, “Somebody just got Ellen'd.”
Katya asks, “What is that supposed to mean?”
Katya may not be aware of this yet, but Ellen essentially controls the class. Since she knows everyone, she also has the ability to champion students in trouble and get rid of troublemakers. It's a wonder why she didn't try getting rid of me, since Ereba was one of her closest friends, if not the closest, but she is a positive person. She just has a lot of influence.
Ellen says, “Let's just say there's a reason we're getting into this place for free.”
Katya frowns. Everyone else smiles.
A lot of influence.

In the arcade, we're gazing at all of the different competitive arenas, classic cabinets, and private rooms for card and drinking games. We're over sixteen, so we can have the light drinks, but only one every three hours: not enough to get us drunk, but enough to get a buzz that would let us get silly while we're here, but operate the mechs by the time we got back to the launch pad. I don't drink, though: I value sobriety above all other things. Besides, no amount of alcohol in the world can replace the buzz I get off of the female form.
As we browse, we spot a crowd gathering around a short ultra-light-blonde girl at the cannon range. On top of the leaderboard, amongst the wide rainbow of class colors, in bright beige letters, it reads, “Junior Lilith Green, Phoenix 1, Class C3.” Her highest score is at least triple more than what everyone at the range has.
Everyone in our group giggles when they realize what's going on: everyone but Katya, who just lets out a deep sigh.
Katya yells, “You were supposed to wait for us by the entrance!”
Lilith is still concentrating on firing her cannon at the fake cartoon voidspawn holograms. I don't think she's even paying attention to Katya.
Katya yells, “Lilith Green, I'm talking to you.”
“I'm almost done,” Lilith says as if everything was normal, “I almost beat my last score.”
Katya asks us, “Who's idea was it to rescue her?”
Ellen says, “A genius, because look at her score: she's beating everyone here.”
I want to play the cannon game myself. It's been a month since I've done it and it's one of my favorites. I say, “I think we ought to at least join her.”
Ellen reaches into her pocket and says, “Grab your ID card and scan yourself in, then. All games for us tonight are on the house.”
As I look for a seat, Katya says, “We get this kind of practice everyday at the range. What about team games like the obstacle range or whatever?”
“Morale's another part of being in a team,” Serena tells her, hopping onto one of the cannon seats and scanning her student ID card, “And you call yourself the expert.”
“Excuse me,” Katya shouts as I run to the seat to Serena's right, “I've got a better combat record than all of you combined. Allow me to prove it.” I sit down, and Katya sits in the seat to my right. She says, “The moment Junior Green dies or her timer runs out, we're starting. Got it?”
We all nod.

The cannon game has a series of virtual targets that all come running at you: drones are worth ten points, warriors are worth fifty, Big Mamas are worth 250, Voidgiants are worth 1000. If they reach your cannon, you die. Each game is five minutes long. Ereba was the star student of the class, and from math skills alone, I was able to double her score at 26840.
Lilith has thirty seconds left and a whopping 65810 points. None of the Voidspawn are getting close to her, and none of the other scores are, either.
It is possible to shoot somebody else's targets. You can play cooperatively, but most players just love to kill steal. The more players, the more enemies will appear.
Twenty seconds. I don't think Lilith has blinked once during her game or any of the previous games. She's at 65960, 66010, 66260, 66410.
Everyone else is staring at Lilith with their finger on the start button.
Ten seconds. She's broken 68550, 68600, 68650.
Serena leans in and whispers, “Want to cooperate on stealing newbie's targets?”
Five seconds.
I shake my head no, even if her behavior is uncalled for.
“Let me know if you want to,” she says.
A tone sounds from Lilith's cannon at a score of 70150. We jam the start button as Lilith rescans her ID card, and now an army of virtual Voidspawn are encroaching upon us. Every time I pull the trigger, the cannon shakes back, and the clusters of enemies I aim for go up in a mushroom cloud. Instead of the horrible croaking noises, these cartoon Voidspawn make goofy chipmunk and dolphin sounds: the idea is to take the edge off of fighting the Voidspawn, and I think it kind of works.
All of our scores are evenly tied up, except for Lilith, who got a late start: she's ahead of us by a thousand points.
Now she's ahead by two thousand.
Ariel is behind us, watching the action, and she shouts, “Nice, Junior Green.”
“No fair,” shouts Katya, “She got who-knows-how-long to practice before we even got here.”
Serena laughs and shouts, “Who said fighting the Voidspawn was ever fair?”
A minute has passed. The scores are Lilith with 8540, Ellen with 5500, Serena with 5750, me with 5850, and Katya with 6100. Knowing I have a higher score than the class maniac makes me smile, and I'm slowly approaching Katya.
Around this point, I notice Katya jerking her cannon to the left, aiming at Lilith's spare targets, then jerking it back to hers. She occasionally glances over to Lilith, and then aims wherever her cannon is aiming. She's obviously trying to steal her kills.
Two minutes have passed. The scores are Lilith with 14730, Ellen with 11090, Serena with 12850, me with 14010, and Katya with 14520.
I nudge Serena and whisper, “Care to help me stop the newbie from stealing Lilith's targets?”
“Hell yeah,” she says under the cannon fire and the electronic recoil of our guns.
I glance out the side of my periphery and watch where Katya aims, but I'm careful not to let her notice me, because in order to watch Lilith, she has to turn to face my direction. I just look over with my eyes every so often and casually fire where her cannon is pointing. The targets die, and then Katya's shots explode soon after. Eventually, she yells, “Whoever's stealing my kills, quit it.”
Serena and I stifle a laugh. If you can't take it, Katya, don't dish it out.
The third minute has passed. The scores are Lilith with 22490, Ellen with 15450, Serena with 18490, me with 19550, and Katya with 18580.
I'm smiling all the more at seeing the score.
Then my smile ceases when Ariel shouts, “Guys, watch it!” I find one of the void drones is nearly at my cannon. I whip the cannon over to shoot it, seconds before it can reach me. I hear Serena shout, “Whoa Nelly!,” when a warrior nearly touches her. I hear the cartoon munching sound from my right as Katya's already been taken out of the game: she must've spent more time searching for ways to get us back than actually fighting, and this was the result.
What scares me is Serena and I almost ended up like her, but we pulled back at the last second.
Katya slams her cannon forward with the thud and shouts, “Bullshit!”
Serena says, “That's what you get when you focus all of your time on kill stealing, Miss 'We Need To Work As A Team'.”
“I wasn't kill stealing,” she says.
I ask Lilith, “Lilith, did you notice any of your targets exploding before your shots connected?”
Lilith says, “A few times. I think it's a glitch in the game where your shot gets in too early and your points go to the other players.” Serena and I stifle another laugh.
The final score for that game is Lilith with 35850, Ellen with 26540, Serena with 28590, me with 28950, and Katya's pathetic 19530. During the rest of the game, she just sits and watches the rest of us, sulking. For somebody who wants us to work as a team, she's not exactly a very good team player.
We play a couple more games, and Serena and I agree to leave Katya to her own devices. Consistently, Lilith gets the highest score, Serena and I are neck-in-neck for second and third, Katya starts strong but ends up falling behind, and Ellen gets the lowest score unless Katya dies from kill-stealing.
In our post-game discussion, Ariel noticed only me, Serena, and Katya had any close calls with the Voidspawn, and it turned out Ellen and Lilith were only defending themselves. The difference between Lilith and Ellen was that Ellen targeted single enemies while Lilith had my strategy: she targeted groups of enemies.
Ellen asks Katya, “So, Junior Brasova, what's your strategy?”
“Win by any means necessary,” she says. We can obviously see how well that worked out for her.

As we pass the cabinets for the classic arcade games, I notice Ereba's and my top scores are still there: nobody's beaten them yet. I wonder if any of the other girls have noticed Ereba and I have essentially conquered this Mobile Boardwalk.
Then, at the rocket range, there's another all-time high score among the names Junior Ereba Sirius and Junior Trent Kestral: Junior Ariel Dove.
I look at the other game cabinets and all-time high scores for the main attractions, and I see Ariel's name on all of the other games.
I check the cabinets of the games we haven't played: she didn't play them, either.
I'm probably just overthinking things again, but either Ariel has an obsession with First Response, or it's just part of her “I always want to get better” personality. She loves the idea of non-stop improvement and learning from the best to do the best she can. To think she's looking up to me is a bit flattering, and if I wanted to, I could use it an excuse to get closer to her.
After all, I like Ariel. I really, really like Ariel.
Hell, if Ariel had snuck into the men's barracks and asked me to sneak into the men's showers together, I'd enjoy every inch of her body for as much time as I could get away with.

At the Obstacle Range, Class B1's First Response is getting some practice in with the other kids just coming to play, and Ellen manages to get nice with them while we play the arcade games so we can duel them.
“We're a new First Response team,” she says as we gather back up, “so we need to get in-synch with eachother.”
This girl's black hair is shorter than mine and she has a mean lean in her stance. She says, “You're the class who lost the Oner, right? Junior Sirius, right?”
Ellen nods.
“I feel for ya',” she says, “Hell, if I meet the son of a bitch that refused to run back and save her, I'd whoop his ass right now!”
I pray Ellen doesn't say anything.
She says, “Her identity has been kept secret, but if I see her, I'll let you know.”
“Or him,” Buzzcut says, “Network report's been keepin' hush hush about who got her killed, but some of the girls on Phoenix 1's been saying it's a man.” She points at me and says, “How do I know Dick here didn't do it?”
“Because if Trent did,” Ellen says, “He wouldn't be on First Response.” She cocks her head to the side and says, “So, how about you train us?”
Buzzcut assembles her crew and they start talking strategy. I'm glad Ellen mainly uses her influence to do cool things like get us into the arcade for free or talk more experienced teams into letting us duel them. It would terrify me to see what would happen if anyone got her truly angry.

It's been a while since I've done the Obstacle Range. I remember the rules: each team must find ways to hit the obscured targets using the foam blocks they've been given to make good vantage points. Due to the number of teams who want to play, it's always best two out of three.
I haven't done it since my freshman year, where I first met Ereba. It was during this exercise when I had to help lift her up on top of one of the blocks and, holding her soft hands, pushing up those cushy thighs, I really began noticing just how pleasant the female body is to the touch. Now, I have another excuse to truly get close to my teammates.
Katya is in charge of firing the foam missile launcher, and while she has the credentials, her uppitiness about the whole situation worries me, as if she's the best one here, even though Lilith and I are clearly better shots. Instead, she puts us on architectural duty, finding the best possible angle of attack when the game starts. Ellen and Serena have building and climbing support duty. This means Lilith and I are mostly just handing up materials.
This also means I won't get to touch anyone, either.
The game starts, and Katya is bossing everyone around. One target appears on the ceiling, and it only needs three five-meter blue blocks to hit, but Katya insists on using four. I want to speak up, but I can't: I don't want to upset her more than I already have. Lilith only does what she's been told to do.
We lose Round 1 by 740 points, and I never got to touch anyone.
Ellen asks Katya to hand me the rocket launcher for Round 2, but this means I have to climb up all those foam blocks, plus everyone else is going to be lifting me up instead of the other way around. Instead, I ask Lilith to take the launcher since she's probably a better shot and the lightest one amongst us, but Ellen urges me, “You take the launcher. You need more experience.”
The round starts. The first target appears on the far wall, obscured by a hill-like object. We need to fire on an angle that not only goes high enough, but so the trajectory will bring it right past the hill to the target. Lilith points out the build instructions, and they're essentially close to what I'd do, but with different structural supports. The tallest block is twenty feet off the padded ground, and I'm afraid of climbing that high. All of the girls are in position to carry me up, but I don't want to climb: I'm simply not the climbing type. And what if I miss? Then I will have climbed for nothing. And plus, there's the matter of coming back down: if I go that far, I basically have no choice but to trust I can win this, and I simply can't do it.
I ask, “Can't Lilith take the launcher?”
Katya yells, “Just get up there, you idiot!”
Lilith says, “I'll gladly take the rocket launcher if he doesn't want it.”
Ellen says, “It's his responsibility. Junior Kestrel has to learn to let go. It's like Junior Blackswan said: heroes feel fear and act bravely anyway.”
By the time I convince them to let Lilith up there, Lilith only lands enough shots to where we end up 200 points behind.

The Class B1's First Response Team tells us better luck next time, with Buzzcut finishing, “Y'all need to work on your teamwork a little more.”
Ellen smiles and nods and says, “Yeah, but thanks a lot.”
When Ellen and Buzzcut exchange their goodbyes, Katya leers over at me and says, “Thanks for stalling, moron.”
“I'm not a climber,” I tell her.
She sighs and says, “Whatever.”
When Ellen returns, she says, “Sorry to say this, but there's no right side here. On one hand, every team member of First Response should be able to compensate for eachother.” I nod. She continues, “But on the other hand, if somebody is called to do a task, they should do it no questions asked.” Katya nods. Ellen alternates between looking at me and Katya as she says, “But you both know what your biggest problem is, you two?”
We ask, “What?”
“You two can't seem to let go.” She looks at me and says, “Junior Kestrel, you're scared of things going beyond your control because you're afraid of the unexpected.” I nod because she's right. She looks at Katya and says, “Junior Brasova, you want things to remain in your control because you don't trust the competence of those around you.”
“If I was surrounded by competent people,” she says, “I wouldn't be here.”
“Well well,” Ellen says, putting a hand on her hip, “I happen to know the perfect exercise to get you both out of your shells.” She points to the private rooms and shouts, “TO THE PRIVATE ROOMS!” We all cower at her shouting.

I don't drink. I've always valued sobriety. I'm not one for getting buzzed, especially knowing I have a one-in-twenty chance of dying on any day.
It's a dark purple room with low lights and hot purple couches on all sides surrounding a table. The speakers are blaring blues and rock, specifically La Grange by ZZ Top: my kind of music. It's small, so the six of us will be squished together once everyone's seated. Ellen walks in with a pack of light drinks and asks Lilith to explain alcohol. She says, “The primary function of alcohol is to deplete the chemicals in the brain responsible for interpreting bad decisions. Most drunken behavior is the result of the brain no longer differentiating good decisions from bad ones.”
Ellen passes out the pink bottles of the light drinks: pink lemonade flavored malt beverages, 3.5% alcohol by volume. She says, “And when you're as high strung as you two are, a little alcohol will let you slip into that world where you can stop caring and just let go.”
I grab my bottle and pop off the top and smell it: it has that weird stingy smell typical of the few alcoholic drinks I ever do smell. I've only drunk one before with Ereba, but I barely sipped anything, and I didn't like it.
Ellen finishes passing out the bottles, finishing with Serena, who takes a sip of hers early, and says, “And by the end of tonight, I expect two things: both of your bottles are empty and you both do something you can proudly say you did while buzzed. Got it?”
I nod. Katya sighs and nods, too. I want to be part of this team, and if this is what I have to do, this is what I'll do.
“Now,” Ellen says, reaching into one of her pockets, “Normally, this game is reserved for the adult soldiers, but I have connections on the inside...” She pulls out a deck of cards and a silver bottle of the heavy stuff: it looks like some kind of flavored vodka. Everyone but Lilith gasps. My hands tremble, and I worry about shaking up the light drink.
Katya yells, “Where the hell did you get that?”
“Not important,” she says, “We are going to play Kings Cup!"
I hope this alcohol does what it says it does, making you not care about bad decisions, because I think this was a really, really bad decision.

Ellen explains the rules. They're house rules, but I never played the actual game before, let alone any drinking game. The cards are placed around the giant bottle of vodka, the King's Cup (it's normally a cup, but we're using a bottle), and each card has a task. This particular deck is designed for King's Cup and has a wider variety of challenges than a typical playing card deck. Once you do the task, you place the card on top of what would normally be a cup, but since it's a bottle, there's a bad balance, and anyone who knocks over the cards must drink from the King's Cup. The game is over when we run out of cards or the King's Cup is finished. If we run out of our own drink, we have to drink that heavy vodka stuff.
I'm still scared. Anything can happen, and I don't like that.
By the time she's done explaining the rules, the speakers have switched to the New Wave-y Some Like It Hot by Power Station.
“Who goes first?,” Ellen asks. She raises her hand and yells, “Not it!”
“Not it!,” I yell.
Serena and Katya follow. Lilith is going first.
Ariel shouts, “Not it!”
“Sorry, Junior Dove,” Ellen says, “But we need a designated escort back to Phoenix I.”
“But is she even old enough to drink?,” asks Ariel, pointing at the petite and confused Lilith.
Lilith says, “I'm nearly eighteen. Isn't sixteen the legal light drink drinking age?”
We nod. Ariel just slumps back in her cushy couch seat. If I'm not mistaken, Lillith is actually the oldest of all of us.
The order should be Lilith, Serena, Ellen, me, then Katya.
I take a deep breath as Lilith picks a card. This is it. It's starting.
She pulls a Jack. Guys drink. I'm the only guy. Everyone laughs.
Shit.
“Okay,” I say out loud, looking at the bottle.
“Come on, Trent,” Ellen says, “You can do it!” Serena shouts, “Drink it!”
I put it up to my mouth and take a sip. It's fizzy and a bit rotten, really: like cheap knock-off lemonade. I'm otherwise fine, though. I'm more shocked by the taste than anything.
Lilith reads the challenge at the bottom of the card. This one's challenge is “Never Have I Ever”: you call out anything you've never done, and if the other players did it, they must drink. As she explains the rules, the rotten lemon taste still burns at the back of my throat. The one who drinks the most in this challenge must have an extra drink. Ariel is keeping count.
Lilith says, “Never have I ever failed any class assignments.”
Everyone but Katya drinks. I take another sip. I shake my head a little: I never realized how much I loved being sober.
Serena says, “Never have I ever not kissed someone!”
I'm safe. I've kissed Katya before.
Everyone but Lilith, Katya, and I drink. Serena laughs and says, “Seriously, Lilith?”
Lilith says, “I kissed my mom before.”
I crack a smile. Serena laughs and shouts, “Intimately! With tongue and stuff?”
She asks, “You mean like licking her?” We laugh some more. Serena urges her to take a drink. Now I wonder what Lilith will looked like buzzed.
Serena looks at me and asks, “What about you Trent? Kisses on the cheek don't count.”
Damnit, Serena. You set me up.
I take a sip. Katya sighs and sips, too. Serena gives us both a devilish grin.
Ellen says, “Never have I ever broken contact with a Voidspawn.”
Lilith and Katya drink. It's now my turn.
“Never have I ever gotten into a fist-fight with a fellow pilot,” I say.
Katya drinks. Serena drinks. This doesn't surprise me.
Katya says, “Never have I ever lost a loved one in combat.”
Something tells me Katya is setting me up. Serena gives me a glare and a smile, as if to say, “Go on, Trent.”
Ellen and I take a drink. Katya gives me a confused look.
Ariel says, “Trent and Katya tied. They have to take another drink.” I take a deep breath and take another sip. She follows.
My drink looks like it's at 60% capacity, but I just drank out of the skinny neck portion. I take deep breaths to make sure my head doesn't go funny. As I breathe, I can taste that alcohol scent in my nose. I'm getting a tad woozy, and for some reason, I think I'm getting more paranoid drinking this stuff. My hands are shaking worse: this can't be good.

Serena draws a 10. We have to go around the circle naming something in a category, and whoever runs short or repeats must drink. Serena asks us to list fruits. Katya runs short and has to drink. I'm starting to have fun. I'm not sure if I'm buzzed yet or not: I feel woozy, but I'm otherwise fine.
Ellen draws an Ace. This would normally mean we'd start drinking at the same time the person to our left drinks and not stop until we finish, but Serena is to Lilith's left, and she wants to see her buzzed as badly as I do. Instead, Ellen takes a tiny sip and it runs around the circle like a wave. I can sense Serena's disappointment.
It's my turn: I draw a ten, and the instructions allow me to choose between asking somebody to remove an article of clothing at the expense of taking another sip, or playing the categories game. Dammit, why must you tempt me like this?! It's bad enough this alcohol is probably kicking in or whatever, and now, when I'm least likely to make good decisions, I have to choose between seeing one of these girls without their button-up shirt and not drinking?
But now I remember: Ellen wants me to take more risks.
I smile.
I take a big sip. I slam the bottle down on the table like a man. Everyone else giggles; everyone but Katya. I look at Ellen and say, “Off with the shirt.” Serena is rolling around in her seat, laughing and trying to catch her breath. Ellen smiles and says, “How bold of you, Junior Kestrel.” She slowly undoes the shirt button by button while giving me a flirty smile, and all I can do is stare as she lets the ladies upstairs hang out a little more loosely, unrestrained by that tight shirt. She slides it off at the same speed she was unbuttoning, revealing those smooth arms of hers in that short-sleeve beige undershirt. I'm praying there's another card like that in the deck.
Katya slaps me on the back and says, “You perv.”
“I am a man,” I shout. Yep. That alcohol is kicking in.
Katya draws a King: she has to drink the heavy stuff from the King's Cup. I smile and giggle with everyone else. She begrudgingly grabs the bottle and knocks off the cards stacked on top: she probably didn't notice them. Ellen says, “You better take an extra sip.”
The moment that bottle hits her lips, she spits it out all over the table, and we flinch from the spray and laugh harder. We all urge her to chug it anyway: she drew the card, so it's her job.
This is awesome: my first drinking game is an absolute blast.

The game goes on, and I survive long enough to avoid drinking every other round, but when I do, I embrace it. I feel fine: just a bit more loosey goosey. Maybe this is what Ellen was talking about: I feel free. If only I could make good decisions like this just as easily in combat. If only I could think this quickly.
Right: Lilith explained it. Alcohol gets rid the ability to differentiate the good decisions from the bad.
But Ellen did explain many of the decisions we think are bad aren't really bad decisions at all.

Eventually, I draw an Ace with the challenge, “Each player must ask you a question, and each time you refuse to answer, you must take a drink.”
Lilith asks me if I'm excited to be part of First Response. “I am,” I say: especially now.
Serena asks me, “Did you just join the mech core to be surrounded by girls?”
I lie and tell her, “No. Mechs are simply more powerful than rocket launchers: especially mechs with rocket launchers. End of story.”
Ellen asks, “Are you hoping to draw another ten?”
I smile and say, “Yes.”
Katya frowns at me. She asks, “How many times did you take the Battleship Fleet entrance exam?”
I blurt, “Once.”
Wait a minute.
“... every semester.”
Good save.
Katya is still irked at me.
As long as I don't keep drinking, I'll be fine.
I place the card on top of the bottle. Everything comes toppling over. Everyone but Lilith and I laugh.
This is going to suck.
I pick up the bottle, breathe deep, and get ready for the vodka: it's apple-flavored, but very bittersweet. The smell is much stronger than the light drinks. I'm actually pretty proud I didn't spit it up.
Ellen was right. I just have to let go.
Katya's anger is barely crossing my mind, and then it's gone in a flash.

We're halfway through the deck, my bottle's at 25% capacity, and the King's cup is nearly empty. The game's about wrapped up. Lilith finished her bottle and is now drinking from the King's cup as a replacement, but she is still the same as she was at the beginning of the game. Either she can really hold her alcohol, or she's really that serious. This feeling of freeness is something I wish I could carry into combat, where everything feels like it could get me killed or get someone else killed.
If Carradine were here, she'd tell me the old tribes would first bring their men to the watering holes to get plastered before going on their hunt to kill something (or was it the other way around?), and then they'd get to be with the women. I've already killed something and I'm as plastered as a seventeen-year-old can legally be.
Ariel has been taking notes on the other members of First Response based on the answers we've been giving. Lilith really doesn't seem to have any interests outside of the Mech Core: this is her life and she's never questioned anything outside of it. Serena is in it for the destruction and the thrill, but she is really principle-oriented. Ellen loves operating in groups of any size, and she loves the fact she's getting to help lead us. If I was a little more brave, I could be a great fighter, and so far, I've made leaps and bounds in these last few days. Katya needs to be more level-headed, but she otherwise just wants to do the right thing.

Ellen ends up drawing the six with the Captain challenge. She can now make up rules and challenges at will until someone draws another six or someone just downright consumes the entire King's cup. Start Me Up by The Rolling Stones starts its opening chords, as if on cue.
She says, “So, Trent, Katya, I got a challenge for you both.”
“It better not involve more drinking,” I tell her, smiling, “Because I don't want to know where I'll be going if I keep this up.”
“If either of you refuse, you're both finishing your drinks. Got it?”
“Got it,” I tell her. Katya nods.
“Trent,” Ellen asks, “You've never kissed a girl before, have you?”
… What?
Ariel raises her hand and says, “If you need a volunteer, use me for this challenge!”
Ellen looks back and says, “Settle down. I've got this.” She leans over and stares me down with those big green eyes and says, “You've never kissed a girl before, have you?”
“I've kissed one on the cheek," I tell her.
“Intimately,” she says, leaning in.
I shake my head no.
“You're shy around girls,” she asks, “aren't you?”
“A little,” I say. I don't flinch: a pleasant side-effect of the light drink.
She wraps one of her arms around me and scoots closer. One of her boobs is on my arm. My face is squeezing up. The alcohol makes me perfectly still: normally, I'd be shaking. She says, “You want to take more risks, huh?”
I nod.
She looks over at Katya, who is leaning away from us, and says, “And you: you're a bit high-strung, don't you think?”
“Yeah,” she says, “But being high-strung has kept me alive.”
“And you've never kissed anyone,” Ellen asks, “have you?”
Katya frowns and says, “This better not be going where I think this is going.”
Ellen nods and says, “It is. I want you two to kiss, or you're both finishing the rest of your drinks.”
… WHAT?!
Katya screams, “WHAT?!”
“Yes!,” Serena shouts, “Go for it, Trent! Tonight, you become a man!”
Katya yells, “Do we really have to play this stupid game anymore?”
Lilith slurs, “Don't worry about it. It's just a game.” I nod in agreement.
“I'll report this,” Katya yells, “You'll get a strike for this!”
Ellen looks over and says, “Who will you report this to if everyone's on my side?”
“It's just a team-building exercise,” I say, “Besides, if I can let loose, so can you.”
I lean in, hoping she'd at least humor me. Katya shoves me back and shouts, “Screw you!” I heard that injury can take you back to sobriety, and for a moment, I begin to wonder if she's always been this cold, or if spurning her for the Mech Core caused this.
Ellen says, “That's worth a penalty drink! Drink up!” Katya drinks her bottle begrudgingly as Ellen continues leaning on me, rubbing that boob up against me. Ellen says, “How about this? You stay there, and I'll kiss Trent.” Katya puts the bottle down and gives us a double-take.
I look over at Ellen, who's staring at me with those droopy half-drunk eyes, and she says, “So, what do you say, Trent?”
Serena is pumping her fist and chanting, “Kiss her! Kiss her! Kiss her!”
Ellen puckers her lips and lowers her eyelids. Katya is giving me a “kiss her and I'll murder you both” look.
Serena's chanting continues.
“Kiss her! Kiss her! Kiss her!”

I'm getting my first kiss tonight.

I lean in, pucker my lips, and then Ellen leaps onto my lap and grabs my face. Our lips meet: hers are very soft. I close my eyes as Serena cheers: it's customary, I suppose, so I do it anyway. The tip of her tongue hits mine, and I tap it back, and the whole thing feels like we have a thousand volts flowing from eachother's mouths, and I feel all that energy rushing through my body. Ellen is on top of me as she kisses me: her body is pretty heavy, but it's soft and squishy, and I don't mind the weight: it's comfortable and warm.
I have never felt this alive before.
I could be up in space, where the casualty rate is 0.1% with generous rounding. Down here, one in twenty of us will die daily. I'm good at math: I could have been up there. Why did I make the foolish decision to stay down here?
As my heart races from the energy I get from sliding my tongue across the tongue of the curvy blonde mounting me, sharing that same alcoholic pink lemonade flavor, I remember: love is a numbers game.
I open my eyes and we stop. I laugh and scream, “Wow!”
Ellen asks, “You liked that, didn't you?”
I nod, smiling.
Behind Ellen, I notice Katya guzzling the King's cup and slamming down the empty bottle. She yells, “We're done. Get the hell off of my-" She stumbles over her words, pauses, and yells, "Get the hell off of Trent.”
Ellen gets off of me and says, “Just as I had predicted.” She turns and says, “I can gladly say Trent's made a giant leap, but you still have a lot to learn.”
Serena smiles at her and says, “Somebody's jealous!”
“Shut up,” Katya yells back, “I'll only tolerate him as long as he's my co-pilot, but otherwise, I want nothing to do with that stupid pervert! This game is over! We're going back!”
Ariel says, “Y-Yeah. I think we've been going a little too far. I think it's time to call it the end of the shift.”
Ellen gets up, smiling, and says, “Fine. I think we made enough progress tonight.”

Before we leave, Ellen urges me to finish off the rest of my drink. I oblige: I one-shot the rest of it in one gulp.
Tonight, I am fearless.

The girls all walk back to the women's barracks, and Ariel asks to walk with me back to the entrance of the men's barracks, where she will make her lonely trek back to the rest of the girls.
I ask her, “Did you have fun?”
She nods and gives a sheepish, “Yeah...” That obviously means no.
I tell her, “If Katya keeps that behavior up, she's not going to be on First Response for very long. If you play your cards right, you could replace her one day.”
Another sheepish, “Yeah...”
“Well,” I ask, “What's wrong?”
As she says, “Nothing,” I suddenly remember what Ariel said back when we were playing King's Cup: she wanted to volunteer to kiss me. She was beyond enthusiastic about it, too. Out the corner of my eye, I should have noticed the look of disappointment on her face.
“It's not nothing,” I say, stopping in the C1 hall, “I can't say it out loud, but if I had known this earlier, I'd sneak back into the Mobile Boardwalk with you, and... well... you get the idea. I'm sorry.”
She asks, “Huh?”
I look around: the halls are empty, and the security guards don't usually pay attention until after curfew.
I whisper in her ear, “You wanted to kiss me, didn't you?”

She whispers back, “Is that okay with you? Because I really like you, Trent.”
I am breathless at the mere mention of her saying she likes me.

Kissing within the Mobile Colony is worth a week in detainment, and three means a Strike: utterly not worth the risk. The opportunity has passed for tonight.
Instead, I hug her soft body and tell her, “I really like you, too.”
I don't want to hold the hug any longer in fear of being caught, but she holds on as I try to let go. She asks, “Do you see Junior Galt as anything more than a friend?”
I tell her, “She's my teammate. What she did earlier was just part of an exercise... but, could you please let go? If we get caught, it could mean detainment.”
“Sorry,” she says, backing away.
We stare at eachother in the dim, empty halls, lit by the scorching sun outside that's lasted for what should have been a week.
“Well,” I say, “This complicates things...”
“Yeah,” she says, staring at the floor, clutching her forearm, “but I've heard some students have relationships with eachother in secret. You know.” She whispers, “Boy-girl relationships.”

The alcohol is wearing off, but the lesson is still with me. Sometimes the big risk isn't as big as you think it is, and perhaps the reward is really worth it.
I tell her, “We'll think of something.”
She smiles and says, “Yeah.” Her mouths not too big, so it's one of those cute little smiles.

We reach the men's barracks, wish eachother good night, and I run off to dream of the coming adventures as a part of First Response.
And the fact Ariel just confessed her love for me...
And now, a breather chapter with a side of foreshadowing!
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:iconteaandbgamer:
TeaandBGamer Jan 12, 2014  Hobbyist Artist
Welp, the first paragraph was all serious and made me think they're may be something living in the great fault, I dunno. Then all the other paragraphs.. cemented the fact Trent is a perv.
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:iconlunatic-overlord:
Well... that was his first kiss.

And about Skype, I had SO MUCH TROUBLE with it, I don't think I'll be making an account for a LONG TIME! Did you have trouble when you tried to make an account?
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:iconspaztique:
Spaztique Jan 4, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Actually, you can make an account from the skype program itself. All you need is a nickname, an email, and a password, and voila.
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:iconlunatic-overlord:
It screwed with me and I barely even know what I used for a nickname.
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:iconkaze-hiku:
I loved the insane control freak nature of Katya in this chapter! Also, Trent is making all sorts of changes to his mentality (both good and bad), which really helps the story move along, IMHO. Finally, for a deconstruction of the harem genre, you do a really good job of justifying the reasons that the girls fall for Trent (taking more risks, only guy on this First Response team, etc.). Even with this overdone genre, the story is still grabbing my attention due to the well-planned scenarios (and the King's Cup, heh heh).

A few questions:
1. The arcade seems like a great place for soldiers and trainees to practice without getting killed. Do the machines allow for changeable variables (difficulty setting or such), and have the soldiers ever practiced on the machines with some handicap (intoxicated, off-balance, fellow simulated pilots on the playing field who must be protected)?
2. From Trent's POV, it's a bit difficult to tell how some people are reacting to the alcohol during the King's Cup. Is Lilith one of those people who retain some good judgment skills despite intoxication? Also, I wonder how Ariel would react to alcohol....
3. How many love interests should we see Trent acquiring (over the course of the story)?
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:iconspaztique:
Spaztique Jan 4, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
1. Some of the modern games have changeable variables. The classic/old ones do not. Handicaps are basically done via house/squad rules (no simulated pilots, though).
2. Trent's partially in his own little world, but given how serious the war is, this is about as goofy as they can get. Lilith is too reserved to begin with, so alcohol does very little to her. Ariel would probably climb all over Trent and go into a fit of depression if he pushed her away; I've seen that happen before with somebody else I knew when they got drunk and tried to hit on their crush.
3. This question will only lead to heartbreak.
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:iconskod12:
Nice breather chapter, cool to see what happens when they're not blasting Eldritch Shrimp.

Even though it's only the 4th chapter, I can't help but feel that the shit will hit the fan soon.
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:iconbarbakki:
barbakki Dec 28, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
don't throw shit at my fan
that cost me 40 bucks
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:iconbarbakki:
barbakki Dec 28, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
yay another chapter
is there a romantic subplot in this
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:iconspaztique:
Spaztique Dec 28, 2013  Hobbyist Digital Artist
Of course. Got to set up that false sense of security.
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