The tall and dour non-com wore Imperial dress greens and carried his communications panel like a field marshall's baton. He slapped it absently against his thigh and raked the group before him with a gaze of dry contempt.
It was exactly as intimidating as his brothers had described.
You will run in pairs," the non-com instructed. He did not seem to raise his voice, but somehow it was pitched to carry to the ends of the lines. "The timing of the five kilometer run begins immediately upon completion of the last phase of the obstacle course. Remember it."
As if he could possibly forget. After his middle brother had washed out, missed the -- admittedly high -- cut on both the academic and physical portions of the Service academy's officer candidacy program, his father and his older, more sucessful brother had spent a grueling two years preparing him for his own attempt. But the hard part was over. He was sure he'd done well -- not merely "pretty good" -- on the difficult exams. This, despite the withering wit of the proctors, the sleep deprivation, the inedible food, the constant series of interruptions and distractions during the interviews and tests. The hardest part was over now. He'd done well, and every detail of the academic tests had played out in just the way his brothers had described. The foreknowledge was an edge, and burned bright and hot within him. Nothing could throw him. He was focused, at the very top of his game, even under the most withering, the most intimidating, the most surprising loads his testers could throw at him.
"And even at your absolute nadir, you can't be the worst cadet ever admitted," his brother had told him. "Believe me. If he could do it, --"
"Kostolitz, Koudelka," the non-com called, passing in front of him. Nearby, a slightly pudgy-looking youngster with an uncharacteristically shaggy blonde mane unfolded from a cross-legged position to reveal a height near his own. Kostolitz stretched, as he saw his competitor doing, and felt his outward placidity broken by a frown. His father had said he could pace himself against his competition. But it looked like his eldest brother was right: that couldn't be relied on. The two of them paired off, shoulder to shoulder, and he looked with a barely concealed disdain at the rosy apple-cheeked, slender-necked --
"You're a girl!" he blurted, as realization struck.
"And you're NOT!" She mocked his tone, and stuck out a pink tongue. She laced her fingers over her head and stretched backward. The figure under her sweatsuit now clicked in his mind as the rounded shape of a tall, slender female. Then she stode up to the starting line, toed the mark, gripped her heels, and pressed her face to her knees --giving him the chance to gape at her rear. The empty space beside him held the aroma of her sweat -- a nose-tinglingly different sweat. Why had it taken a missing Adam's apple to notice? He'd be running against a totally female girl.
The empty space beside her, in the sandy box of the starter's mark, caught the non-com's attention. The man looked about sternly, and Kostolitz hurried forward himself. The girl glanced sideways at him, shot him another grin --she had marvelous teeth -- then tensed into a sprinter's crouch. Kostolitz fumbled himself into position...
"Ah, SHIT!" The non-com said, his hand touching a comlink receiver nearly hidden in his left ear. He slapped his panel against his leg harder than ever. "Idiot can't even pull his broken-ass bones out of the path--" He scowled at the pair of runners twisting their necks at him. "You two: 'Rest'." He scornfully elaborated the military definition. "That means, keep that right foot exactly where it is right now. Otherwise, stand or kneel or whatever you think you'd like. I will be back, and you will make ready to go on my command. Understood?" He collected two nods, and left them, jogging into the maze of obstacles downrange.
The girl -- Koudelka, she'd been named -- stood again and relaxed into a practiced-looking parade rest; feet shoulder-width apart and hands folded neatly in the small of her back. Again Kostolitz found himself following her example. The thought, as it occured to him, was dismaying. Would he follow her the entire length of the course? "This isn't fair for me, you know," he complained.
"What, my testing? It hasn't got a thing to do with you. None of your business at all."
"We're paired off to pace each other. Am I supposed to turn in a girl's time?"
The toothy grin she'd displayed earlier faded to a thin-lipped curve of her mouth that could only technically be called a smile. "Oh, don't feel you have to keep up..."
"But even men are injuring themselves out there! I mean, look at the first hurdle, that wall. It takes real--"
"I swear, Kostolitz," she swivled to face him, "If you use the expression 'upper-body strength', I will dislocate your left shoulder. If you say the word 'balls' -- " Her teeth were back in her grin. Even. Sharp. Strong. Kostolitz wondered why he'd ever thought them attractive. " -- I might equalize your qualifications."
His prep-school training had included pretty rigorous hand-to-hand combat training. He'd earned pretty good scores in those classes, too. But memories of his father's scathing comments about the worth of a "pretty good score" combined with the steely blue fire blazing in the eyes meeting his own, and he retreated.
"Ah. Yes. And, well, if we fought, neither of us could be admitted this year. I retract any insult, milady, with apologies."
There was something about her lips that switched on and off the threat of those teeth. Less thin now, and of a reddish color that sent his back brain babbling about roses and peaches and new wine: her lips quirked. And her left cheek dimpled, and her tongue flashed pinkly out at him again. "Accepted. Any insults I've offered you, though, stand. I want you angry. Take your best shot, and I'll pace against you."
Kostolitz needed his back brain back from consideration of lips and tongue and all so he could figure out how insulted to be. The back brain was not cooperating. In fact, it was tangenting off in distracting contemplation of the nearly invisible freckles dusting the cheek over the dimple. But as near as he could figure out with only his forebrain, the girl seemed to have, sort of, complimented his ability. She merely asserted she could keep up. He felt his own lips curling in what he hoped was an appealing fashion. "Fair enough. I suppose I should warn you I was first in my class in the low crawl."
"Now Kostolitz, don't tempt me to make remarks about your gender."
Now his forebrain was replaying every scrap of their previous conversation in infinite loop, wonder what she had really meant and (belatedly, uselessly) suggesting things he should have said. Backbrain, meanwhile, had slid down to the base of his spine and created discomfort nearby as it contemplated other areas of female anatomy that might be freckled, or fairly compared to peaches or orchids or...
Forebrain actually came up with a viable suggestion. Names. He fumbled his mouth around it. "Call me Ivan," he suggested. There. Now, the crucial question: "And you are...?"
The girl burst into giggles. "Ivan!? I should have bet. You are exactly, such an Ivan." She hiccoughed between giggles. "My sister, Martya, she swears there couldn't be two -- and I always tell her it's a type. Heeee!" She looked back at him and seemed surprised at what she saw. "Oh, it's not a bad type... I'm rather fond of the type, actually." Kostolitz's heart bloomed within him. "Especially the prototype." Her eyes went wistful, and Kostolitz felt the swelling in his chest tighten against reality. Ribs weren't as flexible as hearts. "But running against an Ivan, now, that's perfect." His heart thrashed wildly against his imprisioning ribs --forebrain yammered uselessly, backbrain growled like a starving stomach, tongue went dry, and some of his heretofore lesser-used stuff clamored for immediate attention. Some remaining portion of his brain geared to external reality began to consider the obstacle course as a less painful challenge than this conversation.
"And you are?" he repeated.
"Oh, sorry. Olivia Koudelka, at your service." She swept her left toe behind the correctly-planted right foot, lifted a bent-wristed right hand, tugged the hem of her sweatshirt out a centimeter, and mocked a curtsey.
Kostolitz supposed he should, like a Vor lordling, click his heels and kiss the proffered hand. He might have tried but couldn't quite pivot correctly on his own planted foot. As it was, he took her hand in his and shook it warmly. He held it until she pulled it back.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Olivia."
"Charmed, I'm sure. So, Kostolitz, how do you think you did on the writtens?"
Ack. For five whole seconds he'd thought they were getting along, then she threw his last name back at him. "Well... Olivia," he retaliated. "I did well. How 'bout you?"
"Better." She flashed teeth at him again. "Better than last year, I mean. Not better than you. Not necessarily."
"This is your second attempt?"
"Fourth, actually. They've found three excuses to exclude me so far, but I figure I can keep passing qual's til they get tired."
"Excuses?" Damn, Kostolitz wished his forebrain would get focused on the current conversation. Instead, it was now looping thru the arithmetic, deciding how much older than he Olivia was, and dredging up every old proverb his mother had ever offered him about the dangers of older women. Attractive dangers...
"The first year I was actually three days shy of the age cutoff... that might actually have been valid if they hadn't granted some 15 petitions for exception in the previous four years. Haven't granted one since, though." Kostolitz's forebrain began re-calculations. "Last year, they decided my contraceptive implant constituted the same sort of artificial aid as a leg brace or stim-med. Can you believe that? Waited to tell me when I got right up to this line. 'Course I couldn't just reach down and drop it, now, could I?" Kostolitz's backbrain visualized the attempt ... "I negotiated a ten percent handicap with the proctors, beat the cut by twenty --and still got disallowed on 'review'." The sneer in her voice grated. "So this year --I swear they've got spies --they scheduled my physical qual's the first day of the first monthly I've had in five years." She showed Kostolitz her teeth again. The mean, sharp ones. "I can't wait to hear what they think up to screw me this year."
That choice of topic and vocabulary hardly matched the smooth curtsey. Was she a lady-like lady or not? "I guess I don't want to know what happened in year two..."
She grimaced. "Actually, you've already guessed..." Kostolitz wondered what that meant. "But I'm back every year, better and better, with reinforcements. There's SEVEN of us in this year's trials -- including two little Vorettes." She grinned, then again folded her head to her knees, stretching. "Maybe more of us than they have excuses, this year..." he heard her mutter.
"But--" There were only so many slots. And his brother had washed out with good scores. Okay, 'pretty good.' The new notion that a girl might get his slot -- backbrain abruptly reclassified this stranger from opportunity to threat. "Four tries --you could have nearly finished at a District Tech College by now."
"University," she grunted. "Graduate this summer."
That really burned. If she could afford that she didn't need his slot. "Then why--?"
She arose back to parade rest, facing downrange, and addressed the horizon. "Because Barrayar deserves me, whether the old men know it or not. They deserve the very best, and I won't let them waste me."
"You just said you were in the last quintile last year! After three tries! How is that 'best'?"
"And you, Ivan? You wouldn't rather be the last one selected than the best of those left behind?"
"I'll never be last. I've worked too hard, trained, studied, pushed..." His brother's tales echoed in memory. "At my worst I'm better than some. There was this mutant called Vorkosigan--"
"If he could do it, you can?"
She dropped back into her sprinter's crouch. Kostolitz looked, and saw their non-com approaching with long rapid strides. He drew a deep breath and crouched, ready, alongside her.
"Hey, Ivan?" she murmurred.
He didn't look. Forget pacing, backbrain snarled. Leave the frail in his dust from the first hurdle. (Forebrain dimly remembered she'd said she'd wanted him angry...)
The proctor arrived. "Trying to jump the gun?" he accused. Kostolitz tensed. "Well, then, you don't need a 'ready' command. On my mark ..." he paused, waiting, teasing.
The girl murmurred even more quietly. "Vorkosigan tells me the same thing. But I know who taught him. "
He looked sideways at her. She ignored him, focused only the obstacles ahead.
"GO!" the proctor ordered.
Kostolitz lost a full second trying to think about her last remark, and didn't catch up to her again until the low crawl.
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(jgs..--' ((_(_.-'` ((_(.'
FIC (not art) © 1999 by Jeff Melcher (Pouncer@aol.com)
Current version by Michael Bernardi, email@example.com
All comments or queries about this Web page to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Last updated: November 15th 2002