Episode 13: The Test – Part One

The Multiverse Chronicles

SEASON ONE: EPISODE THIRTEEN

“The Test – Part One”

* * *

The Multiverse Chronicles: Trials of Blood and Steel - Silent Morning

* * *

Trish chewed on a granola bar from the mess hall as she crossed the campground. The early morning sky was dark. Cool air whispered through her hair and across her cheeks, helping her wake. The stable tent stood as a dark silhouette on the distant hill, mostly silent except for the few wolves prowling nearby in search of a wild snack.

At 0430, Trish had plenty of time to make the journey up the hill, which was fine by her. The chilly air raised gooseflesh on her skin, but lately, the still mornings were the only downtime that could calm her nerves.

At least, the only downtime she’d found.

This was her seventh day at the camp in Francia. Thus far, her training had consisted of textbooks, tests, practicing basic commands with her pterosaur—which, she noted, still remained nameless—and meeting with Colonel Pearson.

She inhaled the brisk air and let it out slowly, counting down from ten to relax her thoughts as she stared at the starry sky. The meetings were the worst thing about being here. The colonel would trail his finger along a clipboard of notes, tap his chin thoughtfully, and then meet her gaze with his piercing blue eyes.

Ivers, you seem to be making good progress, but—”Always that annoying “but” “—you need to work on your skills. Have you been meditating with your drake? Surely you have not forgotten.”

Trish flexed her shoulders.

Maybe Colonel Pearson had never suggested that she actually meditate with her pterosaur, but he usually gave her some unimportant task that she needed to complete. Like checking the feed levels of the other pterosaurs, or cleaning the cages while the riders were out, or reading—

So much incessant reading.

The colonel absolutely loved giving her homework assignments.

***

“Ah-ha!” Pearson had exclaimed a couple days ago, upon skimming through a tiny red booklet that should have been titled A Thousand Ways to Torture Private Ivers. “Now here is a test that will measure your skills! Read chapters seven through nine of The Honour of Tactical Flying, and then report back for your next assignment.”

He grinned, tossed his clipboard on a stack of papers, and then dismissed her to her chores.

On the bright side, she would have more stamina than the other riders by the time she proved herself. She had to do all the regular drills of the other riders, and she got extra exercise running tent-to-tent, trying to locate the miscellaneous items she needed to please him.

Problem was, the camp only had one copy of each of the primary textbooks, which meant she had to go to Corporal Smith, the quartermaster, to retrieve each book. The corporal was a real stickler about having the books returned before 2000 unless Sergeant Cornwell, the taskmaster, had checked them out for himself—at which point the books might as well have been lost in the Prussian’s fabled Deep.

She arrived at Corporal Smith’s tent, stepped over the sabertooth cub who slept at the foot of the door, and then stood at attention in front of the quartermaster’s desk.

Of all the offices in camp, Corporal Smith’s office was by far the tidiest. Every paper was neatly tucked in its proper manila folder, and each folder was labeled and placed in a metal divider with further library codes etched into their spines. Bookshelves lined the walls of the canvas tent with books tucked alphabetically by author. There were several notable gaps between the books, likely from where Sergeant Cornwell had not returned them.

This time the lower shelves were empty. A few books were stacked haphazardly on the top shelf. The telltale teeth marks on their spines suggested that the sabertooth had thought them a chew toy, and Smith had disagreed.

“Can I help you?” he asked, eyeing her cautiously.

Trish saluted the corporal. “Yes, sir. Colonel Pearson wanted me to read The Honour of Tactical Flying, fifth edition.”

“Author?”

“Sir James Cuvier, sir.”

The quartermaster selected a stack of papers from its proper folder, skimmed through the names on his list, and then winced. “Sorry, Private. I am afraid Sergeant Cornwell has that book.”

He gave her a pitying look.

Trish sighed. At this rate, she would never get everything done. “Thank you, sir.”

A trek across the camp later, she entered the taskmaster’s tent. Sergeant Cornwell sat at his desk, a plate of crepes in his hand. He grinned and leaned forward in his chair when he saw Trish.

“Ah, Private Ivers! What can I do for you?”

She told him which book she needed as she eyed the quartermaster’s hoard of books. They towered behind his desk like an ancient relic, teetering on the brink of collapse.

“Ah… yes. Just give me a minute to find it. I think it’s over here…” Sergeant Cornwell sat his plate on a pile of papers and hopped from his chair. He knelt beside the tower of books and scanned his finger along their dusty edges. “I’m sure I had it somewhere.”

Trish scowled. She had better things to do than wait forever for the taskmaster—whose actual job was still unclear to her—to decipher which stack held her missing tome. She could be practicing beast mastery on the wild hawks that flew overhead, or finishing the tasks Pearson had assigned her that were actually related to pterosaurs…

Five minutes later, Sergeant Cornwell produced a large, clothbound textbook from the other side of his tent. “I thought I might give it a look, but I guess Pearson wants to read it first.”

Trish accepted the hefty book and thanked Sergeant Cornwell with a salute. He smirked, gave her a half-hearted salute and returned to his crepes.

Afterwards, Trish sought a shady oak under which she could do her reading. Of course, by the time she finished skimming through the textbook’s first nine chapters, she finally discovered why Pearson wanted her to read the fifth edition.

Apparently, chapter nine of this particular edition had two additional paragraphs regarding flight assessments that were not in the first.

* * *

Trish twisted her lips at the memory and approached the hill with the stable.

Perhaps the colonel’s meetings were not so terrible.

The textbooks were far worse. The Honour of Tactical Flying had sounded like the military’s attempt at poetry:

As the pterosaur dips its starboard wing

toward the Pole Star and dives,

beware the change in wind velocity,

and match your companions’

fingertip formation.

She had memorized that sentence, if only because she could imagine Charles, the camp’s storyteller, reading the text aloud with startling enthusiasm. In fact, she was certain he had read that passage, though she had been too busy to stop and listen at the time.

She left the path to cross through the wet, dewy grass. A few clouds obscured the sky, but the majority of the stars were still free for viewing. She sighed. Given enough time, the colonel would probably burden her with an astronomy book for navigation.

As she neared the top of the hill, the canvas stable came into full view. Another rider headed the same direction. But the rider stopped upon seeing Trish, made a terrific show of having forgotten something in her tent, and then spun on her heel before marching stiffly in the other direction.

Trish’s shoulders slumped and her chest tightened with a dull, aching pain. No matter who she talked to, none of the other riders acknowledged her existence except to avoid her.

She flinched.

That was the worst part of training.

Captain William Owston “the Thirdbecause he got in a complete huff if she forgot “the third” at the end of his pretentious, over-glorified name—had all the other riders convinced that she was a master at murdering pterosaurs and that her rogue pterosaur was some kind of monster.

Trish curled her lips in disgust. Her pterosaur was no monster. Free-spirited—well, Trish would not deny that accusation—but that was no reason to kill the pterosaur. The beast just needed more attention than the others. She was no more free-spirited than Trish.

Trish let out a slow breath. She had stopped several feet from the tent’s opening.

Her pterosaur was the only reason she stayed.

If she quit, the pterosaur would be put down. She could not allow that to happen. Not when her pterosaur was the only soul in camp that truly sympathized with her.

Otherwise she would be alone. Two pterosaurs dead because of her.

And if she failed a second time, where would she go?

Who—in their right minds—would hire someone who had been dishonorably discharged?

She would be stuck working underbelly taverns for the rest of her life.

She made a face.

She’d rather try her luck with pirates.

Trish steeled herself with another deep breath. She wouldn’t be working for taverns or pirates. She would master her studies and save the pterosaur.

At least, she would if she ever got a chance to fly.

She slipped under the open flap of the large tent. Sean looked up from pouring feed into a sack. He smiled and waved. Of all the people here, the red-haired assistant was her only friend. Lady Akeyo was considerate, but she was too much of a boss woman. And when it came to Trish’s tent-mate…

Well, she was a rider, and she avoided Trish like she was a plague.

Trish smiled. “Hey.”

“Good morning,” Sean replied. He hoisted a bag of feed over his scrawny shoulder. It was a wonder he didn’t topple.

“I said ‘hey,’ not good morning,” Trish joked weakly.

Sean grunted a laugh as he tottered toward the cages to feed the critters. “Same thing, right?”

Trish shook her head. He could make anything—except dragons and Owston—sound optimistic.

She headed past the other cages and crates to the large cage in the back of the tent. Her pterosaur was already awake and pacing.

How’s my drake? she sent.

The pterosaur bumped her head on the bars of the cage, then turned her reptilian eye toward Trish. In return, she sent loss… exile and entrapment. Sort of like when a sixteen-year-old Trish got locked in her room after sneaking into the night to watch a passing band of merchants and their entertainers.

I know how you feel, girl, she thought back. She lifted the latch, ducked her head under the bars, and entered. One of these days we’ll fly with the rest of the fleet. Then we’ll show everyone how magnificent we are.

The pterosaur puffed out her smooth, pale chest, complete with the taste of dew on her tongue and the cool air lifting her into the chilly clouds, the hot sun on her back…

Trish let out a sharp breath.

The beast didn’t really understand words, but using beast mastery, Trish could understand and convey the emotions behind their messages.

And that last one…

She patted her pterosaur’s neck. That’ll be us, girl. You’re right.

Trying not to think too hard about what she was missing, she sought the cleaning brushes from the rear of the cage. The pterosaur somehow managed to work bits of dirt and hay into the thin ridges between her pale green scales.

 “Have you thought of name for her yet?” Sean asked. Trish jumped. He stood just outside the cage, watching her. “The two of you seem close.”

“I suppose. A name? No.” She glanced at the pterosaur, who wriggled her hind quarters to denote that Trish had missed a spot. Trish shook her head as she worked the brush along the pterosaur’s hide. Contentment flooded the pterosaur’s thoughts. “I want the name to be fitting. But she hasn’t been out of her cage long enough for me to get a feel for her name.”

“Makes sense,” Sean said apologetically.

“That is very thoughtful of you,” Lady Akeyo said lightly. Trish jumped again. She hadn’t noticed the beast master enter the stable. 0500 sharp, as always. The pterosaur tilted her beak as if to chide her for being so unobservant of her surroundings.

“It is good to see that you value her as more than a vehicle,” Lady Akeyo continued. “This is often what sets the good riders apart from the others.” She knelt beside a wolf that walked up to her with greetings.

Trish snorted. “If you ask the other riders, they will probably say I’m the worst.”

A faint smirk played on Akeyo’s lips. “You have a dark past with drakes, dear, and plenty to make up in regards to your earlier failure in humility. But from what I have seen, I suspect you will excel far beyond most of the riders who shun you.”

Trish blinked, surprised. “You really believe that?”

This time she thought her pterosaur rolled her eyes.

“Well, I cannot say for certain, seeing as how you have never flown a day in your life,” Akeyo said with a completely straight face, “but with the bond between you and your drake, you could soar above them all. That is, if you keep her trust, and you trust her in return.” She stroked the wolf’s head before standing again. “Now if you will excuse me, I must check my schedule.” She paused. “Remember to check your drake’s harness before you start today’s drill. It was loose yesterday.”

“Yes, my lady.” Trish returned to brushing her pterosaur and knocking off the engrained dirt. How she managed to get dirty in this cage was a mystery. As for the harness, Trish had to tack her pterosaur everyday as part of her training, even though she never carried a rider.

You never know when you may need her,” Pearson had explained when Trish asked why. She had already passed her proficiency exam with the tack two days ago. She was afraid the only thing practicing did was to make her sloppy. But, as ordered, she always tacked the pterosaur once her chores were complete.

Trish finished the grooming, then swabbed a damp rag over the thick membrane of skin of the pterosaur’s wings. Once she finished drying the pterosaur, she sought out the tack.

The pterosaur withdrew her head and bulked as soon as Trish attempted to slip the bridle over her beak.

I know you don’t like it, Trish thought, but if I’m ever going to get you out off of a lead, you need to cooperate.

The pterosaur narrowed her eyes and returned that sentiment with a feeling similar to what Trish felt when her mother told her she had to a wear a stiff, lacy corset to her first ball.

Trish scowled. I know, I know. But at least the harness has a purpose.

The pterosaur responded with the immediate feeling that maybe she should try bareback.

Uh-uh. Horses, sure. But I’m not going a thousand feet into the air without a harness.

The pterosaur blew air through her nostrils and grudgingly allowed Trish to proceed. After checking to make sure the harness was just tight enough for riding—and that the pterosaur wasn’t trying to trick her by holding her breath—Trish rubbed her pterosaur’s neck. “One of these days, girl, we’ll fly,” she murmured.

“Ivers?” Colonel Pearson’s voice caught Trish off guard. She spun around and raised her hand in salute. The pterosaur nudged her back with her beak—another reminder that she should have been paying more attention.

Well, you could have warned me, Trish thought back.

Pearson smiled, oblivious to their conversation. “You want to fly? I hope you’ve done your homework, Private, because that day is today.”

* * *

Not so long ago…

A young pterosaur flew over vast ocean waters to a volcanic island with dense, tropical trees. As she had been born and raised in a hatchery in the jungles of the mainland, this experience was exciting and new. But she felt more at-home here, listening to the lapping waves of the ocean while moist sea air flowed across her outstretched wings.

Things had been different at the hatchery. She was not allowed to fly free, instead limited to a chain-link dome that surrounded a small portion of the jungle. Just days ago had she found a hole in the dome. Overtaken with curiosity about what lay on the other side of her insignificant little world, she fled.

True, when she left her old home she was overwhelmed with the fear of becoming lost, but that fear was overcome by a greater fear, a dreadful feeling that tumbled in the bottom of her gut—that if she went back, she would miss out on something wonderful. It was this fear that made her fly over the tangled jungles, over the rocky shores, and now the open sea to discover what might lie on the island ahead.

As she approached, she spotted a number of other flying creatures, including pterosaurs.  Her first reaction was to avoid them. The pterosaurs at the hatchery were hardly good company—a little dumb and too obedient to humans—but as the distance between them closed, she noticed something interesting.

These pterosaurs were tiny.

The largest one among them was half her size, and she was not even an adult. Curious, she dove toward the flock to get a better look.

The miniature pterosaurs scattered. Perplexed, the hatchery-bred pterosaur leveled off and followed her new acquaintances. They soared toward the island, where they perched along the side of a dormant volcano. Then they turned to the large outsider and cried out in foreign shrieks she couldn’t understand.

She perched herself on rocky side of the mountain and cocked her head, eyeing the smaller beings. Such strange, smaller creatures—

They dropped from their perches and attacked her, flapping wings and snapping their beaks.

These smaller creatures were savages!

She squawked and flew. Better to make her escape now, before too late. The smaller pterosaurs chased her halfway around the island before her lead between them grew too great, and they returned to their rocky slope.

How easily she could outrun them!

Not only were these creatures tiny, they were insufferably slow.

She soon made her way to the other side of island, where she found a small human camp nestled on the shore. Strange—she had never seen humans outside the hatchery. What were they doing here?

She descended on the camp. It consisted of five thatch huts and a large, cylinder-shaped hut constructed of metal, which floated just offshore. She landed just outside the huts, where two unkempt humans gawked at her. Unlike the humans that tended to her at the hatchery, these two had patches of mangy facial hair and scraggly, torn clothes.

“What do we have here?” One of the men said, his accent heavy and unfamiliar. She cocked her head and examined him, trying to understand him better. He had dark brown hair and pale green eyes. “This looks like one of the Britannian’s drakes.”

“Sure does.” The other man grinned. His hair was not quite the color of straw, and his skin was weathered from his time in the sun. “Make a fine entry in the races.”

The next thing she knew, the young pterosaur was chained to the floating hut, no memory of how she got there.

 To be continued…

* * *

The adventure continues in the next episode,  where Trish must successfully complete her flight examination or lose her pterosaur for good…

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