Prelude The blood was spreading again, her blood. Rosa looked down at the growing red blot on her blouse, she tried to press it with her left arm. There was no arm. Relentlessly her life seeped out. Still she could see clearly, more red entered her vision. It was a turban. With a sharp breath Rosa awoke. Above her the ceiling of her chambers, her recovery room, her cell. She closed her eyes again and laid back, feeling her limbs, resisting the urge to touch all her limbs, to ensure their existence. She sat up. The room was dark, still she could see clearly. Next to her was the sleeping form of Amikha, who had been so much to her since her rescue. A friend, a tutor, a lover. Rosa was glad she didn´t wake him, as his own demons made sleep hard to come by. She was fiddling with her left shoulder, checking it´s presence. As she noticed it she stopped and left the bed. Her step was light and silent, her balance perfect, her mind clear. Being fully awake and aware immediately was still new to her. The bathroom mirror showed her face, the only part of her she always recognized as being original. The mirror laid bare her mechanical shoulder, contracting her muscles Rosa imagined the whirring sound of servos, which was not there. Entering the shower, she enjoyed the sensation of water and movement on her body. Unasked pictures of the attack appeared, her working at the refugee shelter, the men entering with fire in pursuit. The grenade… She snapped out of her flashback, the cold water cooled her down. As she left the bathroom Amikha was still sleeping, it made her smile, only alongside her he could relax enough to sleep in. Stealthily she dressed in her training uniform and left her chambers. The corridor greeted her as green alley today, with some birds singing in imitation of an outside. It was well enough for her. Her comlog reminded her of the three appointments today, one check-up, one training session, one test. First breakfast though. --------------------- Entering the small mess hall, she met several Ghilim and a Janissary, saluting was still unfamiliar for her. Yet everyone encouraged instead of scolded her when she did it wrong. Not very hungry she settled for fruits and tea. Taking a seat on an empty table Rosa first drew in the scent of the tea before she started. Suddenly a plate with roasted meat smashed down on the opposite half of the table. Rosa was startled, even though, in hindsight, she had seen him coming. Bashur Gürum was a broad, elderly man and till now she never had seen the Janissary talk. “You need some meat for your muscles, child.” Rosa was so taken by surprise that her only response was a weak “What?” He pushed a plate full of meat towards her. “Your muscles need the proteins, you are still rebuilding strength.” There was no patronage in his voice, only honest concern. “I, I would never kill a creature of Allah to satisfy my hunger.” He smiled. “Neither would I. All lab grown, pure protein, iron and fat. All the things you need.” He heartily took to his own plate. Rosa hesitated, then checked the mess hall logs for the daily diet. He was right, still she did not want to eat it. “Don´t worry child, I´ll eat it.” He pulled the plate back. “But you have to watch your diet. I don´t want you to collapse in the field.” She smiled weakly. “Thanks, I will.” “You are nervous.” It was a pure statement, yet she eagerly admitted. “I, I never wanted to be a soldier.” “Yet here you are. Don´t worry child. You have what it takes.” She held his look, he appeared honest. “How, how do you know that?” “I saw what happened, you took that blast to save a child. That was no accident, it was courage. I followed your recovery child, after all I carried you out of that mess. You will do good.” “That was you? You got me out of there?” He gave her a nod. Suddenly she felt relieved. “Thank you. I never knew who did.” He waved her away. “Armahur did the work, he stitched you back together. I just kicked in some faces in our way.” “Still you rescued me and I am thankful.” “Thank Allah, he guided our hand that day.” Both were quiet for a moment. “Listen I will be on your first mission, I made sure of that. Whatever happens we get you home.” He stood up with a smile. “Will you help me look out for the others out there as well?” Rosa hesitated for a moment. “Yes, yes I will!” “See you in the briefing then.” He gave her a nod and left. Pondering the strange morning, she finished her meal in silence. ----------- “Come in.” The door slid open and Rosa entered the small medbay on level 2. A tall woman, almost two heads larger than Rosa turned to her, her uniform clearly marked her as a doctor. “You are my 10. Rosa Shaharazar?” “Yes, if you are Dr. Zenirah.” “Yes, Mercella Zenirah, you can call me Mercella. Come sit down.” Rosa sat on the pointed out chair. Mercella took the one on the opposite side of the table and pushed a button on the desk. Rosa could hear the small hissing sound as the chairs diagnostic system started to assess her condition. “So, Rosa, I can call you Rosa, can I?” “Yes, that´s fine with me doctor, ah, Mercella.” “Nice. I prefer a personal touch to these meetings, also chances are good that I will have to put you back together soon anyway.” Rosa swallowed hard. “Oh, sorry, that was insensitive of me. You never have been in the field. I apologize.” Rosa nodded her thanks. “All your readings are fine so far. Nothing to worry about. I heard you adapted very well to the treatments.” “Yes, I did.” “We all were worried about you, you being injected with the base agent for the Sunur programme was never intended. Normally there is an arduous screening process to make sure the recipient can handle the changes. The decision to administer it on site was a desperate one, but it saved your life. Just...” “Just that you can not simply stop midway and we have to bring the treatment to full circle, otherwise we face the likelihood of complete system failure. Yes, I now the speech. I heard it over a dozen times by now.” Mercella smiled. “Of course you have. I am used to deal with soldiers and you are not yet one. Again apologies.” “It´s fine. I mean I guess I am a soldier now, so why should you treat me any different?” “Because it is the person who matters to us, not the application.” Rosa sighed. “Yeah. I know. I am sorry.” “Don´t be. This course was thrust upon you, it was not your choice, but there are many here who want and will help you through it.” Rosa acknowledged the affirmation. -------------- “Fire!” Her hesitation lasted only the fraction of a second before Rosa pulled the trigger. The gun did not buckle in her firm grip and three bullets hit her target. She ducked immediately beneath the table in front of her. “Enemy on the second level on 11.” The call came from the huge Al Fasid to her right. She looked up, a man was on the balustrade, she got up and ran towards the wall. The man fired in her direction, her heart missed a step, then she darted to cover behind a pillar. The man fired to her right, she saw the Al Fasid getting hit, as he stood before the hostage. “Get up there!” She felt fear and anger rise, then quickly leaped on the pillar, her hands easily stuck to the plastic and a few seconds later she was on the balcony. The man turned to her, she pulled up her gun and fired the shotgun. At this range she couldn´t miss. He went down, she took a quick look around. “Upper level clear!” “Ground clear!” “Good. End of simulation.” The lights went on and all attackers and civilians appeared translucent as the holograms they were. “Assemble.” Rosa jumped over the railing, held on to the pillar and basically walked to the ground. Her nimbleness still amazed her, she did not feel any fatigue, even though the simulation had run for 20 minutes of intense firefight. The small team of five soldiers assembled in the middle of the room. Besides her there were Gunnar the Al Fasid, two Ghilim and a Tuareg. Their instructor today was a Mukthar, Lt Khadiv, he looked unimpressed. “Reshnar. Assessment.” “We got boxed in. As a result we almost could not protect the civilians. My vantage point was too easily compromised. Hamar and Bushta were taken by surprise, as we neglected the back entry. As a result, Shaharazar had to come free me up, leaving only Rhasim as our front trooper. We managed from there, but got lucky not to lost hostages. All in all mediocre.” “Thank you Reshnar. That´s why I love asking Tuaregs, they don´t bullshit you. They call things by name. Rhasim, you have something to say? Spit it out.” The large man clearly was agitated. He turned to Rosa, she did not like that. “We almost lost a hostage, because the new girl hesitates too much, Sir. She is damned durable, but shies away from bullets. Sir.” “You want me to jump into bullets?” She asked with shock. “Yes, I do. Because I do it too, we can take more of them then the others.” She riled away somewhat. “That is quite enough Rhasim. Get back in line. Avoiding bullets is generally the best idea, we all agree on that. When in doubt take your head down, still better one of us takes it than a civilian. What now Rhasim?” “Nothing, sir.” “Good, enough for today, get cleaned up and rest up. Tomorrow we do something more challenging. Dismissed.” They all saluted and the Mukhtar left. Rosa and the Ghilim were clearly relieved, Gunnar was still angry, the Tuareg did not seem to care. “Hey girlie.” The tone of the Al Fasid made her spine cringe. She took a heart and faced him. “What?” Don´t hesitate, out there you get people killed. I give a crap what you were before, now you are a Namurr. Act like it!” “And for you that means eating bullets.” She was surprised by her own forcefulness. Instead of answering he drew his pistol and shot her point blank. She felt her reflexes kick in, but was so surprised that she did not move. The bullet hit her squarely in the chest, without thinking she fell into a backwards roll and came to her feet in a low stance. Instantly she darted forwards between the legs of the armoured man, slashing at cables with her blade. Lightning crackled over his bulk as she emerged on the other side. Rosa was as astonished as the Ghilim in disbelief she stared first at her hand - when did she draw the blade? – then she touched her chest, which was fine, no blood, just a little soreness. “Ha, see. That´s what I am talking about.” Gunnar laughed in his disabled suit. “Are you insane? You could have killed her!” Murat barked angrily. Thevos was at her side and checked for injuries. “No, I couldn´t. Namurr are too tough for that. One hit will never take her out.” “Still, you are sick. I will tell the Lt.” “Please don´t.” Again Rosa was surprised by her own voice. “I am fine and, and he has a point. I do not trust my skills enough. But I must, otherwise I will endanger you all.” Thevos looked approving, not of the events but of her resolve. And resolve she felt, resolve to do better. “Gunnar. Do not ever do this again, not to me nor to anyone else.” Her tone was sharp, all four looked at the Al Fasid, who did not smile anymore. “Happily not, if you don´t fuck it up.” All four squinted at him. “Okay, promise. No more shooting comrades.” Rosa turned away, for some reason she felt good and terrible at the same time. __________ Entering the training course, after a short meal and cleanup, Rosa was greeted by a familiar face. “Armahur!” Her voice was full of joy and before he could say anything she hugged him firmly. “Good to see you too.” He gently loosened her embrace and adjusted his turban. “As I see you are doing well, even though that hardly is the proper salute for your training officer.” “Ohh, Rosa Shaharazar reporting as ordered.” She threw a salute. “Sir.” She could feel his smile beneath the turban. “Better. Be at ease. How are you adjusting?” She shrugged. “Fine, I guess. Don´t know. All the orders and ranks stuff still has me confused and. And the idea of shooting someone still scares me.” He gave her a knowing look. “I would be worried if it did not. The path Allah has chosen for you is still new for you.” “Well, technically you have chosen this path for me, by injecting me with the Sunur treatment.” “Allah guides all my deeds, so the choice was his. If it would have been mine, I would have chosen to do so as well, otherwise you would have been lost to us.” She sighed, then smiled weakly. “It is, what it is now, no? So let´s do this. What are we doing training officer Alabad?” “Hmm, well said. Activate your comlog intense biomonitor system, then we start with this wall.” He pointed at the sheer wall of the room, which was basically featureless, only at the top there was a small ledge, a cable canal, well out of reach. “Get up there.” “Yes, sir.” Rosa said with a smile and ran at the wall, jumping the first few feet, her arms and shins easily stuck to the surface and she crawled all the way up to the ledge. Once there she planted her right shin onto it and folded herself into the small space beneath the ledge and the ceiling. All the way she never felt any vertigo or instability, it was like walking on the ground. She smiled down at him. “Good, come down.” She crawled down the wall, face forward, and soon stood before him again. “Evasion test.” Rosa gave him a nod and walked to the middle of the room. She faced the wall to her left, which was riddled with chutes, all of them connected to large container of steel balls. Without warning one of the shot a ball at her at high speed, with surprising ease she sidestepped it. Another one followed, then a third, a fourth. Then two at once and finally four at once somewhat spaced apart were shot at her. She dodged all of them easily. Rosa smiled at him, she felt really good. “Good. Now let us make it a little bit more difficult.” Her head snapped back to the wall, where three balls in rapid succession were shot at her, she ducked beneath the first, rolled out of the way of the second and jumped over the third. As she hit the ground a fourth one hit her in the shoulder. She cried out, more of surprise than pain and rolled backwards. More balls followed, the patterns became more dense, the balls came in quicker succession. She dodged, jumped, rolled, ducked out of the way, but here and there she was hit. After some hits she started to feel pain. It slowed her down, another hit followed. Her concentration slipped, another hit and another one. Then she just threw up her arms to protect herself. “Enough. Relax.” The balls stopped. With a cry of exhaustion, she collapsed on the floor. Tears escaped her eyes. She felt sore and it hurt in several places. He stood next to her. “How do you feel?” Rosa could not look at him. “Useless, hurt, defeated.” Every word came with a sob. “Come, stand up.” He grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her to her feet. Despite the pain, she did not waiver one bit. “Dry your tears. Here have a look at the rankings.” She did as told, it showed the time till first hit, time till collapse and the number of balls evaded. She was ranked as number three. “See, this was your first time and already you bested many of the units finest. Here number one is a Namurr as well, only that she had years to adapt to her new condition. Number two is our nimblest Khawarji, so be proud.” Her pain faded alongside her tears. A weak smile arose. “This test is designed to fail, you cannot beat it, only endure it. You did good.” She hugged him again. “Thank you.” She started crying again. “That much for protocol.” He hugged her too, before loosening her embrace again. Rosa opened her mouth but was cut short by a siren. All lights went red for a moment and a voice resounded through the entire station. `Attention all personnel. This station has been set on crimson alert. All personnel report to your superiors and prepare for deployment. Assignments will follow individually. May Allah guide our hand through this crisis.´ Rosa saw how Armahur repeated the last phrase. It took her some seconds to retrieve the info what crimson alert meant. She swallowed. “Go get cleaned up and prepare yourself. Soon you will be in the field. I will inform you, when the briefing will be.” She nodded, then saluted and left for her chambers. All the pain was gone, though some fear remained. __________ The corridors appeared as such, no soothing forests on high alert. Her chambers were empty Amikha most likely preparing himself. She undressed and donned one of the field uniforms from her locker, trepidation fueling her haste. As she was barely finished a summons appeared on her comlog, she was to come to the commanders´ office. Dumbfounded she read it again. Why would the commander want to see her personally? Her trepidation intensified. Nothing to be done about it. She zipped up her uniform and left. Most people she met on the corridors appeared calm, but her heightened senses helped her see their stress, anxiety and sometimes eagerness. Two guards stood before the commanders´ office, one of them was Amikha. Rosa willed herself to a formal salute and announced herself as summoned. He returned it formally and opened the door for her. Approval and pride shone in his eyes, she was thankful for the support. The office was small, one door to the right hinted at more, but in here there was a desk, three chairs and a holo-wall to her right. It showed images all over the place. Behind the desk sat a middle aged man with dark hair and remarkable bland features. He did not look up when she entered. Stopping two steps from the desk, she saluted. “Rosa Shaharazar, reporting as ordered.” “Sir.” She cursed inwardly. For a moment he did not react, but still studied the readout in front of him, then he swiped it away and looked at her. His eyes were of a dark brown and she felt inspected. His look was one of questioning awareness, she felt as if he´d see through any falsehood immediately. She tensed. “At ease Shaharazar. Take a seat.” Relieved she did as told. “Thank you, sir.” “You probably wonder why you are here.” It took Rosa a moment to realise that this was a question. “Eh, yes. Yes, I do, sir.” “I just have been reassigned to the Human´s Edge due to the developing situation here. Most personnel on this station I know by heart, having served alongside them already. You are an anomaly.” She remained quiet. “Are you angry about your situation?” “What? Sir.” “Are you angry, about your situation?” “I don´t know if I understand the question, sir?” “You are here because none of your savings or earnings would be enough to compensate for the cost of the Sunur treatments. You never agreed to the treatments in the first place, so you are in debt for something you never wanted. Are you angry about this?” Rosa took a moment to answer and closed her eyes. “No.” She looked at his questioning gaze. “You could not ask me this, if it weren´t for the treatments. So the question would be moot. Being angry would be being ungrateful.” An imperceptible nod was his only reaction. “That is a logical answer, but feelings are not logical. Moving on. You accepted a term of service in the Sword of Allah to compensate for the cost, which also put you into range of adequately equipped medical facilities to supervise your development. You never intended to be a soldier, yet now you are forced to commit to the fact, that you will have to shoot, and maybe kill, other humans. Are you angry about this?” She took even longer to answer this time. He waited patiently. “I, I think not. Sad, I think I am sad about that. I..” She stopped talking and stuttered for a moment. “Permission to speak freely, sir.” “Granted.” “I resent the fact that we have to fight at all, they are just people like us. You found me at a shelter, because I want to help people, not harm them. My life was supposed to be one of peace, not of war.” Rosa closed her eyes to capture her tears. Still she sobbed a little bit, he did not stop her, but waited for her to gather herself. When she looked up again he was standing at the holo-wall. “Come here.” She got up and stood beside him, the wall highlighted a screen a burning building was there, around it a throng of people. “That was the home of a small family of settlers. It burns because some Submondo smugglers used the backyard as stash. Some Tunguskan mobsters got wind of it and set it on fire.” Another screen lit up and showed an image of three bleeding men in handcuffs. “These are the mobsters, I had them apprehended this morning” The building lit up again, she saw a figure crouching out of the fire, it was a Naffatun, he was burned all over, but beneath him she saw a blanket. Before he was sprayed with coolant she saw a child in there. “We got everybody out in time, we were lucky.” Rosa wanted to speak, but couldn´t. “The Sphere is full of people, who hurt other people. We are here to stop as many of them as we can. That is why you are here. That is what I ask of you. To give us some of your youth to protect others.” He returned to his chair. Rosa remained for a while, again he gave her all the time she needed. When she returned to the desk he looked up and studied her face. “Good. That is all I need to know. Be ready Specialist Shaharazar, I will soon call upon you.” For the first time her salute did not feel forced. For the first time Rosa felt ready.