ARC I: PROLOGUE
PILOT SCHOOL [LOCATION CLASSIFIED]
October 9th, 460 Freeport
She shut her eyes.
Word scrolled on the bottom left of her vision:
Battle of Verdun - France - Earth - Core Systems
Lebel Rifle: Bolt action, 8 round tube magazine. Attachments: bayonet.
The smell was the first thing that she noticed; it was nothing like any battle she'd ever been in.
The next thing was the noise. She'd been in firefights without aural dampeners before, but the guns sounded different. Wrong.
She opened her eyes and looked around at her surroundings: some sort of trench, cut into the earth; nothing but barbed wire and grey skies as far as the eye could see. She looked down and found herself wearing some sort of fancy suit, as far as she could tell. Two others were in the trench with her- both nodded, and the three of them immediately began checking their weapons.
Joker's lights flashed red, and he groaned as he began thumbing rounds into his rifle. "What the fuck are we wearing? This shit doesn't even have webbing!" He swore under his breath as he began checking his pouches, and stopped to open one, showing it to the others. "Look. Loose ammo. Kill me now."
Lee Riley, on her left, shrugged. "Hey. At least we get a gun for this one." She snorted as she shouldered her rifle and mimed working the bolt a few times. "Besides. Look at these suckers," she said, holding up one of the cartridges. "Gotta be half-decent."
"Sure, but tube-loading with only eight rounds?" Jane held up her shovel and waggled it around. "Gotta say, I've never fought with a shovel before, but I get the feeling we're going to be learning real q-"
She was cut off as a whistle sounded and distant explosions sounded. "Down! Down," she shouted, as the trio dived into the muddy trench. Moments later, explosions began to go off all around them- and they suddenly ceased as a roar went up. The group snapped back up and peered over the trench wall as a horde- and it was a horde- of soldiers began running towards the trench, rifles raised.
"Light'em up," Joker said.
The trio began firing with practiced precision, every round of 8mm Lebel finding its mark- more often than not in the head of an enemy soldier. They fired quickly and reloaded faster, wordlessly prioritizing the soldiers who weren't bogged down in the mazes of barbed wire and mud. Within a minute or two, however, the soldiers crossed the area beyond the trench and began to flood in. Jane simply wheeled around, wielding her rifle's bayonet like a pike, and managed to kill a few soldiers before someone behind her managed a solid hit. She dropped her rifle, ducked underneath an incoming blow and unslung her shovel, jamming it point-first into a soldier's face. Another rushed her with a knife, and with a sickening squelch she yanked the shovel free and swung it into the oncoming man's leg, dodged an incoming punch, grabbed a knife from a leg holster on the man she downed and jammed it into his throat. Then, a gunshot, and her vision went dark.
White words on a black background.
Tally: 36 kills / 1 death / 5 assists
Stand by for eject.
She opened her eyes, panting and sweating as the sim-stim high wore off, to find herself surrounded by darkness. Jane winced as there was a hissing noise and light flooded back into her sim pod as the doors opened. Somebody stood over the pod's doors, their helmet glowing brightly as it stared at her.
"Jane Shepard." The voice was male. Rough.
"Pilot," Shepard managed to croak.
"Not bad for your final exam," the man said, nodding. "Your friends will be out in a moment."
She licked her parched lips. "Pass?"
The man patted the side of the sim pod. "You're goddamn right. Welcome to Pilot School."
Jane tried to shout with joy, and instead let out a quiet hiss and blacked out.
She came to, and found herself in an infirmary, wearing a hospital gown and laying in bed. A medic standing next to the bed nodded at her as she opened her eyes. "Ah, you're awake. Last one from your creche- stims knocked you out pretty good. New uniform's in the crate at your feet." He slapped a patch on her arm, and got up to leave. "Refresh should kick in soon- get changed, leave your gown in the crate, head out the door-" he pointed at the lone exit- "and you'll know what to do. Best of luck.
She watched the man exit, and looked around to find six beds, all empty. Groaning, she managed to get out of bed, rubbing gingerly at the patch on her arm as her muscles screamed at her to stay in the bed. She fought through it, knelt down at the foot of the bed and opened the crate to find a simple uniform: all-green, a t-shirt and padded pants. She held up the shirt, and grinned as she read the words on the front:
She threw off her hospital gown, stuffed it into the crate, and slipped into the uniform. She slammed the crate shut and walked as fast as she could- running was out of the question- out of the infirmary and into a featureless hallway that lead straight to another door. She opened it and found herself looking into an empty hangar, where a crowd of other cadets were milling about, chattering excitedly. She found Joker and Lee and made her way over to them; Joker flashed his lights at her. "Over here!"
Jane ambled over and high fived Joker and Lee. "Hey, cadet."
Lee grinned. "Hey, cadet."
Joker shook his head. "Nah. It's weird if I do it. Took you long enough to show up. Have a good nap?"
"Fuck off, Joker. You don't get tired- you don't get to talk."
Lee grinned. "Hey, princess, meatbag here got up way before you did- so did everyone else."
"Just because the sim-stims fuck me up doesn't mean you gotta rub it in."
"Oh, sure, that's wh- oh, shit. Is that..."
A set of doors opposite the one Jane had entered from swung open as the helmeted man from before walked in, taking in the crowd. The cadets stopped, snapped to attention and saluted.
"Oh, calm the fuck down, cadets," the man said as he stopped a few feet in front of the crowd. "Take a seat, stand, whatever. Get comfy. But also shut up."
Jane happily sunk to the floor of the hangar, thankful for the padded pants.
The man squatted down and removed his helmet to reveal a visage with more scar and burns than face. "Alright. First things first-"
-"holy shit, you're Zaeed," somebody in the crowd shouted.
"Fucking hell, I just said to shut up." He clipped the helmet to his waist and stared at the crowd. "Who fucking said that?" There was a moment of silence before somebody stepped forward; the woman saluted, visibly uncomfortable. "Name, please."
"Uh, Lance Corp-"
"- you're a Cadet, dipshit-"
"-uh, oh, sorry sir, Cadet Pilot Ashley Williams. Sir."
"Alright. Look, I'm not gonna chew you out. This is Pilot School. You're here to learn. I'm not gonna treat you like shit like they do in boot. That's camp. This is school. I do expect you to listen. That means when I tell you to shut up, you shut the fuck up. Got it?"
"Yes, sir. Got it. Sir."
"Great. Stop saluting, go back to where you were before." Zaeed watched as Ashley rejoined the crowd sheepishly, and waited until she was seated. "Alright. I'm Zaeed Massani, yes. My job is to teach you kids how to be a Pilot, capital P. All of you passed the induction program with flying colours, and before you get too cocky, keep in mind that if you hadn't passed with flying colours, you wouldn't be here. Clear?"
The crowd murmured in assent and nodded.
"Good. So. Let's lay out some ground rules. You will listen to what I say. You will follow my orders. If you have a problem with an order, say so. You will treat your fellow cadets with the utmost respect. In fact, you will treat everyone of your colleagues, whether they are your superior or your inferior, with the utmost respect. You will uphold the reputation of the Pilot name. You will put in your best work, every day, from this point on. In return, I promise you that you WILL be a Pilot. If you follow those rules, I will make you- all of you- Pilots. In the history of this program, nobody has washed out. I do not intend to stop that tradition."
Zaeed stood up, and turned his back on the crowd. There was a silence, and suddenly Zaeed put his helmet back on and began to speak, his voice distorted by the helmet's filter.
"I am a Pilot. I am one with my Titan. I will uphold the mission. I will protect my Titan. For the Alliance, with my Titan by my side, I serve, unto and beyond death." He turned around as one of the walls of the hangar swung open and a Titan stomped into the room, and knelt beside Zaeed.
"I am JE-Two-Kilo-One-Seven-Four, JESSIE," intoned an accented female voice. "I am a Titan. I am one with my Pilot. I will uphold the mission. I will protect my pilot. For the Alliance, with my Pilot by my side, I serve, unto and beyond death."
Zaeed nodded to the Titan; it opened its hatch and in a single fluid motion, scooped Zaeed inside. The hatch hissed shut, and the Titan stood up, and began to walk towards the opening in the hangar walls. "Follow me, cadets," Zaeed said over the loudspeaker. "Before you do anything, before I teach you anything- you can't be a Pilot without a Titan."
The cadets followed behind Zaeed and Jessie to find a long row of Titans, each one hooked into a service bay with charging cables snaking out of their backs. Jessie's top hatch popped open, and Zaeed swung onto the top of Jessie's head and waved at the Titans. "Oi! Cut the chatter!" The Titans all looked up at once, optics scanning the cadets trailing behind Jessie. One of them waved.
"Cadets! May I introduce you to your Olympians. You've all been matched to one already- you can thank our researchers for that. Think of this as an occasion, cadets- you're meeting your lifelong, and post-life partners, each one matched out of the trillions upon trillions of AI in the Alliance. Just. For. You." Zaeed wheeled around, still sitting on Jessie's head, to face the cadets. "'Aint that sweet."
"Please don't be perturbed by the ramblings of this old meatbag. He's old and gets grumpy sometimes," Jessie said with audible dryness. "Be nice to the cadets, Pilot Zaeed."
"They don't pay me to be nice."
"Actually, part of your contract stipulates-"
"-oh, shut up. Alright, Cadets! I've got you organized by creche, so listen up! Creche one- Leng, Rizzi, Vega, you're in bays two, seventeen, nine. Creche two..." Zaeed continued to rattle off names and bay numbers, finally arriving at Jane's. "Creche twenty- Joker, Riley, Shepard, bays one, twenty-four, seven. Go meet your Olympian, chat for a few minutes. Briefing in five. Move it."
Shepard grinned at Lee and high-fived Joker, then took off at a brisk walk towards bay seven. The Titan there gave a thumbs up to her as she approached, knelt down, and popped open its hatch. She hopped inside, and a voice with a distinct Gridiron accent piped into the cockpit. "Ah, hello there! I'm KN-Six-Delta-One-Six-Eight-Seven-Two, though perhaps you'd prefer Kenneth. Not Ken, please. That's not a name I like."
"Jane Shepard. Nice to meet you, Kenneth. I'm looking forward to being a Pilot, and to working with you."
"Same here, miss. I hope to be a mighty fine Titan, but we've got work to do before we're there. So says Pilot Massani, anyway."
Jane patted the inside of the cockpit. "Well, KN, I think we'll do just fine."
Kenneth chuckled. "Oh, I sure hope so. Pilot Massani says we're to chat, eh? Well, what's there to chat about? I'm seven years old in meat time, and my hobbies are comics and guns."
"I'm pretty sure guns, in and of themselves, aren't hobbies."
"Speaking as a machine, let me tell you, Cadet Shepard: guns are a hobby," Kenneth responded proudly. "Although I'm not yet cleared to carry one, I'm looking forward to the day we get to stomp on out and blow stuff up." KN let out a noise that sounded vaguely like a cough. "Ah, with your permission. Of course."
Jane leaned back in the seat and grinned. "You know what? I think we're going to get along just fine. Also, you mentioned you like, uh, comics?"
"Yes, Cadet Shepard. I am particularly fond of Fist of Anger and Paycheck. I'm partial to Excision, too."
"Wait a minute. Your two favourite comics are about...fighting...and pirates. I haven't heard of the last one?"
"Written in Binary, I'm afraid. It's being translated into Frontier, but, uh, there's a lot of work to be done, what with Binary being a, uh, tad more complicated than organic."
"What's it about?"
KN made a mechanical huff. "Well more than that. It's complicated."
"Hey, I'm not judging or anything. Hell, if anyt-" Jane was cut off as Jessie rapped the floor lightly with her hands; the noise still echoed through the entire hangar.
"Oi!" Zaeed was standing on top of Jessie's head, arms crossed. "I hope you're all getting along. Actually, you'd better be getting along, or working on it. Listen up! It's 1800, on the dot right now. It's been a long day- you lot've been in the sims for what, three days straight? I know the docs give you that Refresh stuff, but there's no substitute for a proper meal and whatnot. So! Here's the deal, Cadets- from now on, you live in this hangar. If you're not training or on leave- and let me reassure you, there will be very, very little leave granted until you're actual Pilots- you'll be in here. You eat here. You sleep here. Meals will be brought in shortly- a real one, cooked and everything. The meat's not even vat-grown- don't get used to it. Bedding is also on its way, but to be frank I recommend sleeping in your Olympian, because there's going to be a lot of that in your future. Might as well get used to it now. Clean stations and toilets are on the door marked with the little shower thing. 0400 tomorrow, techs'll be coming in to oversee your neural links and prepping you for augments. Olympians, same: we'll be starting your daily core-implant backups tomorrow. After that, we start training hard and, with few exceptions, we don't stop until you are all Pilots. Clear?"