I once thought S1526 the most beautiful designation bestowed upon any one of the student body. She was of the oldest class in existence, that rank so battle-wearied that only a few members yet remained alive.
I remember her now, standing in the moonlit courtyard, the long, blackened fingers of one hand jerking and creeping delicately, like the legs of a frightened spider, across her naked shoulder. It was newly manufactured, a sybrium-hybrid metal replacement for the one she had lost just before returning from Austria. By itself, it was a hideous chunk of armor and cybernetic wiring; on her, the new shoulder was evidence of the tearing passions of the God-at-war, a perfect ruin pursing against smooth flesh.
Behind the corner of a building, I steadied myself. This was a difficult time for her, readjusting to the silence of the Northern Keepaway after a year spent on the front of the 8th Continental War.
She was already turning her head in my direction.
“Friendly,” I said to break the silence, not wanting to trigger any defensive reflexes she might have.
“Designation?” She sounded flat and matter-of-fact, not at all her usual self.
I told her.
Her face lit suddenly, and she allowed me to approach.
Close by, she was even taller than I had remembered. She towered over me, skin and frame grotesquely repaired in the old ad-hoc manner. She smiled, showing long and sharp teeth, and reached for me.
I hugged her back. Her fingers pressed into my back like pins, and her shoulder plate was rough against my cheek.
She gave me a critical look-over. Perhaps she was searching for scars, because no training at the Academy was complete without at least one near-mortal injury they just barely brought you back over.
“I got my arm sliced open several times,” I said, “right down into the main artery.” I removed my jacket and started rolling back my sleeve, before I stopped, considering.
“Let me see.”
There was silence as she examined my arm.
“Automatic healing seems to be improving,” she said, a little too lightly, before letting me go. “No bones broken?”
I told her about the sybrium treatment. My skeleton was now made of the same stuff as her battle armor, stronger than bone and far less dense.
She whistled, shrill and strange through her teeth, and experimentally lifted me.
“You’re rather light,” she said, bouncing me a bit, “even for your age. So light that you must not be hurt much even if you fall.”
I wished she would stop treating me like a little brother. “I know how to roll into a fall.”
She hugged me again, hard enough to hurt a little, but I didn’t mind. She didn’t say anything else, though, which was strange. We stood together like that for a long time.
“It’s almost over,” I whispered into her ear. “I’ll come of age. My entire class will. We’ll be the new front and you and the others will be our generals.”
She shivered, and I held her harder, but she wouldn’t stop shaking.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” I continued, trying to remember how she related that torch-passing milestone to me, the night I cried because she was going to be away. She had called it “15-and-4”, that is, 15 year-olds for the front, and a general class four years older.
“I can’t do it,” she whispered back.
“You’re not scared?” She was well-known for her recklessness, which had earned her so many admirable war-scars.
She took a ragged breath. “I’m scared for you.”
“You’ve never seen me fight,” I said. With cover, I could drop a man from half a mile away. I could drop an entire line of them, even if they were running over rough ground at night.
She released her hold, and gently lifted my face. “You were made for peace, not war.”
That made no sense. I told her so.
She shrugged and said nothing, just looked at me as though she would eat me up with her lantern-ray teeth. Her eyes glittered with tears.
I will always remember that time under the blasted oak tree in the moonlight, just the two of us.
And I will always remember the morning she left us, her leave suddenly ended, eyes tiger-hard again, the chosen one of the God-at-war.
The 8th Continental war ended a few days after she reached the front.
She never returned home.
15-and-4 never passed.