Chapter 30

The Tuesday sun crested fiercely, bathing the Orleans Installation in bright, powerful daylight as the Securemarket™ Trainees began streaming from their dormitories.

They gathered on a large field of well-mowed grass, marked as a standard athletic field. The store managers were already lined up at the front of the field, and at their center was Sir Orin Erdrick. Rather than a Knight’s Suit, he was dressed in a warm-up suit with a representation of his rose stitched on the front. The store managers were dressed in similarly athletic clothing, though all were wearing their weapons.

The 15th and Neimuth employees clumped near the front of the field, murmuring to each other. Most were dressed in light athletic clothing to match the warm weather, except for the Shadow Mutant manager of the late-night shift, who was dressed in full-body clothing and seemed to be very uncomfortable.

Once most of the employees had arrived, Sir Erdrick raised his voice loudly enough to address the entire group of employees. “Welcome to morning exercises!” he shouted. “You’ll be getting very familiar with this process, as you will begin all of your retreat weekdays this way! It is not fun to rise this early, but it is good for you! Spread out, please, and set your weapons and shell on the ground near you.”

The employees moved to comply, giving themselves ample room and setting their weapons and insulated shells on the dewy ground. Those who had weapons containing real metal or unguarded electronics set their weapons down a bit more gingerly than others. Some had had the foresight to bring a bag or small tarp, which they set their weapons upon.

“We will begin with a series of stretches and exercises that we will do together every day,” Sir Erdrick said. “Once we’re done here, you’ll move on to cycle exercises. Those of you who’ve already reviewed your schedule will already know what I’m talking about, but let me reiterate. Everybody here will be doing the same morning exercises, but at different times and in randomly-assigned groups. Your shell will let you know where you’re to go after here. These exercises will keep you moving, limber and energetic. Now, follow me!”

Two hours later, the employees had all been released from their exercises and were wandering the halls, heading to their next destination. Steve and Zap, who had been assigned the same group, staggered through the hallway. Steve’s face was flushed and she was somewhat short of breath, but Zap had fared much worse: his face was pale and he could barely speak for catching his breath.

“They don’t make ya exercise at Ethertech, huh,” Steve asked.

Zap tried to gasp a response, but failed. Steve patted his back.

“This’ll be tough,” Steve said to the winded wizardry student, “but it’ll whip you into shape. Hope you’ve got enough energy to cast spells later.”

“Me too,” Zap managed.

Alan jogged up to the pair. “Hey,” he said with a smile. Alan’s face was flushed with activity, but he barely seemed to be out of breath. He was wearing an NWU tracksuit and had a shotgun strapped to his back.

“Hey Alan,” Steve said back. “You’re looking pretty good.”

“Yeah,” Alan said. “They work me way harder than that at Mei Kara Do practice. And they’re going to work the both of you way harder than that later on. Get used to it.”

“Great,” Zap gasped.

“Say,” Steve said, knitting her brow, “when’d you start carrying a shotgun?”

“It’s covered under my rifle cert,” Alan said disapprovingly, shifting the shotgun’s strap. “And the higher-ups want me carrying something big and intimidating at the store. So I’m training with it from now on. Yay.”

“Huh,” Steve said. “Well, you’ll get used to it.”

“I find it inelegant,” Alan said. “Anyway, where’re you kids headed?”

“The range,” Steve said. “I’ve got Marksmanship training next.”

“Customer,” Zap gasped, then, “Service.”

Alan nodded. “I’m headed to the range too,” he said. “So I’ll be going with you, Steve. Think you can make it, Zap?”

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll be fine. Just not used to … exercise.”

“I can’t imagine not getting regular exercise,” Alan said. “It just feels nice, you know?”

“It’s an easy habit to drop,” admitted Steve. “I don’t get much exercise these days.”

“Well, maybe this’ll be just the thing to kick the two of you back into the habit!” Alan said, grinning.

“Maybe,” Zap said, sounding dubious.

“C’mon,” Steve said. “We should get to the range. I’m sure Asthma McWheezypants will make it to the seminar room one building over just fine.”

“Your compassion,” Zap said, “is inspiring.”

“Good luck, Zap,” Alan said. “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”

Zap leaned against the wall, watching Steve and Alan walk away for a few minutes before setting on his own way.

That evening, an exhausted and sleepy Zap Bradshaw stumbled into his room, nearly running into his roommate, who was kneeling on the floor in prayer.

“Oh—sorry,” Zap stammered, tiptoeing around Arden. Arden gave a brief nod and continued with his prayer.

“Yea, though the snow fall around me
and I am beset by beasts and monsters
I know that You have given them to me
as adversity that shall help me to grow
and better serve You.”

Zap quietly gathered his pajamas and slipped around Arden again, heading to the bathroom. He arrived and retrieved his toiletries, beginning his bedtime preparations. As he did so, he listened to Arden’s Etherist prayer.

“May you fortify my spirit
that I may strengthen my body
and raise my gun and sword
and speak words of power
to defend that which I stake as mine
and come to the aid of those I love.”

Zap washed his face without hurrying, letting the hot water gather in his hands and splashing it over his face. He then turned, his eyes still closed, and pressed his face into the hand towel there. He very slowly drew the towel down his face, letting his eyes open as they were uncovered. He took a deep breath in, then let it out and hung the towel over its rack. He retrieved his toothbrush and toothpaste.

“I praise you for the strength of spirit you lend me.
I praise you for your holy gift of magic.
I praise you for adversity.
May you watch over me as I watch over mine
and may you challenge me and keep me
until the day I return to you.

Zap was still brushing his teeth as Arden finished his prayer and raised to his feet. As Zap finished, he could hear Arden getting into bed. He rinsed his mouth quickly and said, “Sorry about that, Arden.”

“No problem, Zap,” Arden said from bed. “You religious?”

“A little,” Zap said. “My family is Jewish. I’m a little lax, I guess, but I try to observe Passover in its entirety at least.”

“We all have our own relationship with God,” Arden said.

Steve arrived in her room to find Violet sitting on her bed in a full lotus position, her eyes closed and her hands perched on each knee. Steve halted, then closed the door to her room very slowly and carefully.

“Don’t worry about making noise,” Violet said, not opening her eyes. “I can sit zazen on the Rail when I have to.”

“Oh,” Steve said. “Okay.”

Steve proceeded in getting ready for bed, still endeavoring to be as quiet as she could be. She finished her evening toilette and changed into the t-shirt and boxers she typically wore to bed. When she emerged from the bathroom, she saw that Violet’s eyes were now open and she wore a small smile, though she was still sitting in the lotus.

“Hey,” she said to Steve.

“Hey, sorry about that.”

“It’s fine,” Violet replied. “I forgot to warn you about this. I try to sit zazen any day that I work hard.”

“You’re Buddhist?” Steve asked.

“Zen Buddhist, yes,” Violet said. “Are you religious, Steve?”

“No,” Steve replied. “Not really. My folks sort of brought me up Catholic, but they weren’t very good Catholics and I’m a worse one. I don’t really buy a whole lot of the dogma; I just believe in God.”

“Makes sense,” Violet said.

“Meditation always seemed neat, though,” Steve said as she climbed up to her bunk. “Introspection over worship. I’d think that God is more interested in helping us figure ourselves out than in worshiping him.”

“Perhaps you should meditate with me,” Violet replied from the lower bunk. “It’s very good for you, no matter what your religion is.”

Steve paused. “Seriously?”

“Absolutely,” Violet replied.

“I don’t really know how to do it, though,” Steve said.

“Nobody is perfect at it,” Violet said, “but it becomes easier with practice. It’s very simple. You want to try right now?”

“Sure!” Steve said.

“How much room do you have under the ceiling there?”

“A fair bit,” Steve said. “I can’t stand up, but I can sit up straight.”

“Good,” Violet replied. “Sit in a position with your spine straight, but that’s comfortable to you. Crossing your legs is good…”