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[Exalted - Side Thread] Fat Camp

Rubio OOC

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Timeframe: Following the events of Into the Sargasso

Location: Marshal Training Facility G3 ("The Grinder"), Celestial Mountain

Month 1
Groaning with the strain, Zed dropped prone and started to belt out more push-ups. His arms protested with every movement and his gut seemed to be tightening more than was physically possible. The sweat stung in his eyes as it flowed down his face and dripped off of his chin.
"I almost think you're looking a little less doughy today, Doughboy," the man said from somewhere above him. "You're sagging less."
Zed sucked in his breath and hissed a curse as quietly as he could.
'Razor' Tanarit may have been a mortal, but he was easily the harshest taskmaster (of an admittedly short list) that Zed had ever labored under. The notion of taking orders from a human had seemed absurd at first, and with the arrogance of youth, Zed had tried to turn a sparring match into a contest of superiority. The resulting broken bone (that he had been obliged to work through) was more than sufficient to dissuade Zed from trying anything like that again. The fact that Tanarit had been practicing and teaching Marshal CQC for close to forty years and the fact that he would outlive his instructor by several centuries was scant comfort to the wheezing dragon-blood.
"I take it back, you're sagging again. Suck in that gut."
"I'll give you sag-"
The Stick of Compassion cracked across Zed's shoulders and sent him sprawling onto his stomach. "You say something Doughboy?"
"Sir... no, sir!" he responded, getting his hands back underneath himself and continuing the set.
Fat camp sucked.
"For this exercise," came the computerized voice over the intercom, "You will be required to carry the package through the fire zone to the opposite side of the course."
Zed looked from one side of the training arena to the other. Matte-black material held together by femotech fields formed an impromptu battlefield of shallow valleys, short ridges, and protrusions behind which he could take cover. Computer-guided stun blasters swiveled to and fro on turrets mounted on the walls and on columns in the obstacle course.
He looked down. The small case tucked under his arm only weighed about a kilo, so it wouldn't slow him down much. Seems pretty straightforward
"To simulate rapidly-changing combat situations, the available cover will periodically shift. You must maintain situational awareness at all times and maximize your ability to avoid incoming fire."
Heh. That's okay, I'm pretty good at not getting shot in the face.
"Be advised that every one-hundredth shots will be a live blaster round."
Wait, what?
"Exercise to commence in ten seconds."
"Hey, hold up," Zed called out at the one-way glass near the top of the arena.
"Live fire? Like, lethal rounds? Are you serious?"
"Exercise to commence in five seconds," the computer said helpfully.
"Wait, hold on," he yelled, appealing to the test proctors that (hopefully) were sitting behind the glass. "You gotta stop this there's-"
"Exercise start."
With an undignfied squeal, the young dragon-blood went hurtling forward as the essence field that contained the platform supporting him dissolved and allowed the malleable arena material to fall way in a mass of smaller cubes.
The deafening sound of blasters tracking back and forth and filling the air with blue bolts of superheated gas crashed into his ears as he tried to pick himself up. Although surprised, old instincts kept him from rising to his full height and presenting a larger target. Shaking his head he began to scurry forward, keeping his head low. A final roll brought him behind a wall and out of the immediate line of fire.
The situation looked grim. The wall he was huddled behind was the only piece of cover available for five meters in any direction and the weight of fire passing through the area seemed to intensify as he looked. A bolt hit the wall and exploded near his head, prompting a panicked yelp and sending him sliding away from the edge.
Almost in response, his cover began to sink into the ground.
Oh, come on, he thought as he frantically looked around.
But as the Fortunes took, the Fortunes also gave. A large pillar emerged from the ground ahead and he wasted no time scuttling forward, dodging fire and managing not to make any more cowardly noises when another bolt singed the tip of his nose.
The battlefield was in the process of a larger shift as the topography around him twisted and re-arranged itself. He watched as the fire died down at various parts of the course and intensified in others. Thoughts of his next move occupied his mind until a section of the floor to his right opened up and a new turret emerged.
Oh, Come On, he whined internally as it began to track him.
Twisting and turning more than an onlooker would guess his portly frame capable of, he let the essence of Dana'ad limber his muscles and loosen his joints. He didn't flow out of the way so much as seem to ooze to the side and out of the turret's immediate line of fire. Suddenly, things weren't so bad. It felt good to let his abilities stretch. This might turn out to be more fun than he thought.
"Use of essence is prohibited in this exercise," the omnipresent computer said reproachfully, "Ten-point penalty."
He stood there, blinking. It was a second before his brain was able to process what had just been said.
"Oh, come ON," he complained to no one in particular.
An errant blast hit him in the ass and sent him tumbling to the ground.
Fat camp really sucked.
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Month 2
Being able to audit the graduate-level economics course had been a nonissue in Zed's mind. Not only did it give him credit toward several different Marshal certifications, but it allowed him to get away from the damned Grinder for a few hours, even if the classroom was still on the Mountain.
Over the past month, he had come to loathe the Grinder and was strongly considering finding religion so that he could more effectively curse his instructors. Up at 0630 (and they told him that he got to sleep in), training for ten hours with only a few short breaks to eat (or just as commonly heave), and a few more hours of required coursework left him with remarkably little time to just... sit. So when he'd finally mustered out of CQC level 2, he'd fairly jumped at the opportunity to engage in a more... sedate line of training. There was also the fact that it was a requirement for getting certifications in Counterespionage, Forgery and Counterfeit Operations, and Narcotics and Sapient Trafficking. So everyone won.
Especially Zed's libido. The girl sitting next to him was a pretty thing. The pouty lips, heaving bosom, and lovely green eyes would have been more than enough to make him drool, but her turquoise skin, whether from altered genetics or god-blooded ancestry, gave her an exotic allure that thrilled him to his bones (huh huh. more like boner). She spent several minutes glancing up at the professor, then back down to her book, a growing look of frustration covering her face.
Zed, ol' buddy. Yeah, Other Zed? You thinking what I'm thinking? I should hope so.
"Hey, I think you jumped ahead," Zed whispered to her.
The girl's head whipped up. The expression in her eyes began with surprise and a little bit of fear (what the hell, I'm trying to be helpful) but shortly gave way to wariness. He could see the slight but definite tightening of the eyes that was a telltale sign of someone really getting a good look at him for the first time (yeah, feast 'em on fuggo).
"Oh, uh, thanks," she said in a musical lilt that sent his heart aflutter.
"Yeah," he responded, trying to keep his a flush from his features. "Yeah, he's currently going over futures predictions and funding cycles. Back two sections. Upper-right."
She blinked, then looked back at her text. Flipping the pages back, she found the passage that the professor was referencing. Nodding slowly, she turned her gaze back to Zed. Her expression briefly softened and she nodded with a slight smile of thanks.
He grinned his dopey grin and let his eyes linger on her neckline as she turned back to listen to the professor. Idly, he imagined what that light blue skin must look like beneath her clothing.
Abruptly, he realized that people near him were looking at him expectantly. So was the professor.
"I'm sorry, what? Could you repeat the question?"
"I asked if you thought you were being subtle, ogling one of my students like that?"
All eyes were suddenly on him and that special sensation that he recognized from far too many barfights-in-the-making doused his lust with a cold mass of panic.
"I, uh-"
"Asshole," the gorgeous girl hissed, grabbing her belongings and moving to a different seat.
The expressions of the other nearby students was filled with varying levels of mockery, reproach, and outrage. Somewhere in the back of his mind, the tiny shred of him that was taking his training seriously was furiously calculating the odds of having to make a quick escape.
"Out," the professor intoned. "And don't come back."
With a brief look at the students seated nearby, he quickly grabbed his backpack and left the lecture hall with the few scraps much dignity as he could muster. It wasn't until he'd gotten halfway down the hall that he realized that he'd left his shoes on the floor by his desk.
The bald, midnight-black figure in the crimson uniform of a Marshal Administrator steepled its fingers and regarded Zed with an even expression.
"So. Expelled from the class?"
The short, barefoot dragon-blood stood ramrod-straight, wishing that his gut didn't still stick out so much.
"Er. Yes. Sir."
The Coordinator- a material intelligence that was made up of millienia of training methodologies, experience, and confident authority- dismissed the holographic display from its desk with a wave of an ebony-skinned hand. The sun-gold circuitry in its palm briefly glowed with essence as a different display took its place.
"Unfortunate, but not catastrophically so. You will have the opportunity to audit another course in a semester."
"Yes, Sir," Zed responded, slightly heartened.
"With a different instructor."
"Uh. Yes, Sir," he responded, slightly deflated. Still, it could have been worse. As the overseer of training at the Grinder, it would have been well within the Material Intelligence's rights to enact disciplinary measures against a trainee who had squandered Marshall resources in such a fashion.
"Until then, I am assigning you back to advanced CQC. Level 2-AA, this rotation. You will be in Blazing Chain's cadre."
Zed's eyes bugged out at the mention of Blazing Chain, the Hesieshan Horror, a legendarily-strict Fire aspect in charge of training Marshals in the use of essence in close quarters. The saying went that although there was a nonzero fatality rate, the law of averages worked to make better essence-using warriors.
"S-sir?" His voice carried a note of panic.
"Do not worry. I will backdate the appropriate forms and authorize your enrollment. You will be able to make up the missed lessons from your personal time allowance."
"Buh- Sir!" Panic had turned to pleading.
"That will be all, Zed. Best get moving. You are late for today's drills."
Dumbfounded whimpering was all Zed could muster in response.
"Ah, Chain must have his datapad on hand. He has already logged your first disciplinary demerit for tardiness."
Holding back a sob, he turned and dashed to the gymnasium.
Fat camp really, really sucked.
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Month 3
A series of monitors in front of him displayed people of varying cultures and classes from a variety of angles. Traders in embroidered robes and business suits. Diplomats with sashes and ribbons. Uniformed security and hired bodyguards. Attaches, aides, escorts, and assistants.
"Okay," the woman beside him said, pausing the video playback.
Zed blinked. "...Okay?"
Chie, the intelligence analyst conducting the exam, pointed at a screen that showed an imposing man in a military-style dress uniform. Her level gaze gave nothing away. Although he'd initially thought she was pretty cute in a mousy, glasses-girl kind of way, her sour demeanor had quickly turned him off and Zed found himself in the unusual position of being in the company of a somewhat attractive woman and wanting to be somewhere, anywhere else.
"Uhh... okay. Right." Zed focused on the man, resisting the urge to look down at the notes he'd taken. "That's uh... Mnemon Sorist. Head of security for all Mnemon Syndicate holdings on the world of Toh-Neh-Moy. Terrestrial Exalt. Earth aspect. Sixty-eight years old. Known ties to multiple private security companies in other systems. Estates on Aden III and Frios, technically outside of Imperial protection."
"He hates the conversation he's having with that couple he's talking to," Zed said, reading the body language of the man on the screen, "But he's deliberately made time to talk to them. And being cordial. To be social for... for reasons."
Chie grunted in a way that was not immediately disapproving.
"You don't say much, do you?"
Expectedly, she didn't dignify him with a response.
Letting his breath out, he narrowed his eyes, studying the exchange. Sorist was talking to a portly, middle-aged man and a tall, statuesque woman. They were in elegant formal wear with blue embroidery. A pin of their trading corporation was mounted prominently on their shoulders.
"Torish and Madya Alkaleese. They are... uh," he was forced to consult his notes, "Both departmental heads of Nightsky Trading, Incorporated. Regional trading and shipping company on Toh-Neh-Moy. Transport and Investments, respectively."
He looked over to Chie, looking for some indication that he was on the right track. She may as well have been a mannequin for all that her expression gave away.
"Uh... okay. There are... no current ties between Mnemon Syndicate and NT. Actually kind of surprising that the NT reps got invited to this little shindig. On a global scale, they're small potatoes. Someone would have had to pull strings for it."
He was rewarded with a nod.
A transcript of the conversation was displayed on a monitor beside the security footage. Sorist was talking business with Madya, and Zed admired the man's ability to maintain eye contact in the face of a formal evening gown with a plunging neckline and generous endowments. He then asked Torish about their family and how their children were growing. For his part, Torish was either very good at faking a smile or rather inebriated and uncaring. Likely the latter, as his stance and movements were not stiff or forced like so many diplomats that were around them.
"He's talking business... and... and then shifting to personal matters. There... there might be some tension there."
Chie grunted, finally allowing a note of approval to enter her voice. "We are still investigating the possibility that one or more of the Alkaleese children are illegitimate offspring of Mnemon Sorist."
The body language suddenly dawned on him.
"No. He's still in love with Torish. Sorist was the one that pulled the strings to get the NT reps invited. He wanted to see an old boyfriend."
Chie's surprised expression was the single most rewarding experience he'd had that week.
Blood had a certain consistency and feel that water didn't. His left hand, where it wasn't blistered and callused, was dripping red blood from numerous abrasions. Ironically, it actually made it easier to slide the spear forward. Didn't make it hurt any less, however.
The spear was a simple affair made of wax-wood with a simple aluminum tip. The plate mounted on the post in front of him, by contrast, was made of hardened steel. The notion of piercing it with such a primitive weapon was laughable.
With a groan, Zed shook his injured hand out and tried to tense it to get some measure of the pain under control.
"Trainee," came the booming voice of Blazing Chain, "The plate has not been broken. You've made four-thousand eighty-nine strokes. Most trainees get it before two. Stop wasting time and get back to it."
"Yes, sifu," Zed shouted quickly.
His left hand wrapped painfully around the blood-slick shaft of the spear and he resumed pushing it forward with his right.
Four-thousand ninety, ninety-one, ninety-two...
Gritting his teeth, he sucked in his breath and thought of the blood on the weapon. Water. He was leaking blood. He was leaking water. He was leaking essence.
Ninety-six, nintey-seven...
Essence. There. The essence he was trying to access was right in front of him. Inhaling, he pictured the mandala that the old monk from Aden III had taught him and let the blood of Dana'ad accelerate in his veins. The world narrowed and the blood of dragons lent supernatural speed and sharpness to his hands.
One-hundred-two, one-hundred-three...
He willed it forward. The water in his blood, sanctified with the essence of the Dragons, extended the field of his will to encompass the weapon in his hands.
With a flare of essence and a snap of elemental force, the soft metal of the spear's tip punctured the plate, opening up a hairline crack down its middle.
Unfortunately, it also cracked the wax-wood shaft with the force of its impact. The tip snapped off of the shaft and clattered to the ground. For a moment, he could only gape at the spectacle.
"Trainee, did you break another spear!?"
The wrath in Blazing Chain's voice snapped his attention back to the present and galvanized him in a way that no amount of encouragement could. Given speed by his terror, Zed willed his essence forward to his hand, which uncurled from a fist into a stiff-fingered spear. Shouting in desperation, he drove his bare hand into the steel plate.
The impact fractured the bones in his hand but the essence of the Dragons carried through with the force that his body could not deliver. The blood covering his hand became an extension of the liquid essence that was his birthright, and the Dragons lent him their Claws.
Blazing Chain approached just as the steel plate hit the ground with two dull thuds.
For a moment, neither of them said anything. Then the elder fire aspect's lip curled up into a sneer.
"'Bout fucking time. Take your lazy ass to the infirmary and get that hand splinted, then get back out here on the double. No lollygagging on my time, Zed."
Hissing in pain, he nodded his head and moved off in the direction of the medical pavilion, pausing only to look back at the steel plate that he had shattered with the claws of a Dragon.
Fat camp sucked, but it was getting results.
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Month 4
"So, wait, I'm not in Blazing Chain's cadre this rotation?"
The Coordinator steepled its fingers and regarded him without a hint of reproach. "Correct. You will begin an apprenticeship with another one of our trainers."
"Just how many trainers does this place have, anyway?"
The pithy quip came before he could quite catch it. It was starting to dawn on him more and more just how immature and insecure it made him seem when he responded flippantly to everything. Nonetheless, old habits died hard.
"Sagacious Wanderer has been with the Marshals for close to eight-hundred years. You should be well-tutored and, should you heed her lessons well, will become a great asset to the organization as a whole."
Zed expelled his breath. Eight-hundred years? She was probably a haggard old crone who would make him do laundry to learn humility or something.
The Coordinator made a few easy gestures at the holo-displays before it and a monitor popped up in the space above its desk, angled to be able to address both the material intelligence and Zed at once.
The face that filled the screen didn't have quite as many wrinkles as he'd expected, looking to be a woman somewhere in her fifties, but there was no mistaking the grey hair or the weight of experience in her eyes. They didn't look tired so much as fed up.
All this seemed secondary, however, to the softly-glowing golden eclipse mounted on her forehead like the central jewel of a diadem made from starlight.
"Coordinator. Is this him?" Her voice was thin but firm. It carried an obvious expectation of authority, and Zed wasn't about to deny it.
"It is, indeed. Copper Palm Zed, this is Sagacious Wand-"
"Yes, yes," she said catankerously. Although it was the same tone of voice that an impatient grandmother would use to scold disobedient children, it seemed to Zed as though the Coordinator had just been served with a legal judgement. "I'm sure he knows my name. I'm in the middle of something important. Young man. Meet me in the data-shuttle terminus at nine bells tomorrow morning."
Without preamble, she shut down the connection, blanking the holo-screen. The Coordinator blinked several times at nothingness before returning its even gaze to Zed.
Did... did something just irritate the Coordinator?
"Well, Zed, it appears you have your orders. I suggest you get your rest while you can."
Nodding and saluting, Zed turned and headed back to the barracks he'd been quartered in for his stay at the Grinder. For some reason, the notion of facing down the burning relentless training of Blazing Chain seemed less intimidating than the ill-defined "apprenticeship" of a Solar Exalt who looked at him as though he were a particularly unappetizing meal.
Yep. Fat camp looked to be introducing him to a new type of suck.
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Month 4, Week 1

When he'd first seen Sagacious Wanderer, he imagined that she was a crotchety old crone who'd been Exalted by the Unconquered Sun in her twilight years. Somehow. He was wholly unprepared to meet her in person.
He looked up at 0900 to see someone pushing through the door to the data tram terminal. It was a woman in white and gold travelling robes with light brown ankle boots. She had the silvery-grey hair of a mortal woman in her sixties, the weathered, slightly wrinkled features of a grandmother in her fifties, and the toned, athletic physique of a holovid actress in her thirties.
She sauntered up to the booth where he was lounging, seeming to get taller with every step. As she came to a stop before him, the tap of her boots seemed to resound through the empty terminal.
"Close your mouth and get your things, kid."
Belatedly, he realized he was staring in slack-jawed amazement at the long-legged, well-endowed embodiment of-
"And be advised that if the term 'butterface' passes your lips, I will kill you."
He blinked.
"You're drooling. Hurry up. We haven't got all day."
He shook his head, wiped his chin and gathered up his satchel. He'd been told to pack for travelling, but with few possessions, there wasn't much to bring.
"I said hurry up. We're already behind schedule. And keep staring at my chest at your own peril, kid."
Shaking his head, he tried desperately to pull his eyes away from the gorgeously-rounded Double-Ds that Wanderer sported. When he finally succeeded, he was rewarded with the crack of her orichalcum walking cane against his skull.
"Lesson one: pissing me off leads to pain. Letting your hormones control your actions pisses me off. Damn kids."
Rubbing his head, he split his attention three ways between gathering his belongings, inwardly whimpering in pain, and wondering where the hell the cane had come from. As quickly as he could, he'd assembled his meager pack together and looked around. Sagacious Wanderer was already halfway to the exit.
"Wait! Uh! Wait up!"
"If you can't keep up with an eight-hundred-year-old biddy like me, this is going to be a very short training session."
"Wait," he said, sprinting to keep up, "If we're here in the tram terminal, why are you heading for the ground exit?"
"Oh, I like the tobacco they stock at the convenience store here. Wanted to load up."
She pushed open the doors and, rather than lead to the hallway that was a data connection to a hub of the Grand Celestial Mountain, it lead to an incongruously vast desert that stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions.
"Welcome to the Desert of Bitter Truths, kid. Here, you'll learn more about the essence of Dana'ad."
He stopped at the threshold.
"The essence of water."
"Got a hearing problem, kid?"
"In the desert."
"Learning disability, too? Great."
For the first time since he'd met Sagacious Wanderer, his confusion was supplanted by a relatively unfamiliar emotion: Frustrated anger.
"There. Is. No. Water. In. The. Des-"
Too late, he saw the orichalcum cane rise. His hands were half-a-second too slow to provide an adequate defense and the golden metal impacted against his skull yet again.
"Get moving, kid."
By the time that the stars in his vision cleared, Sagacious Wanderer was already cresting the first dune.
Fat camp had found a way to redefine the word "suck".
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  • 2 weeks later...
Month 4, Week 1
No, seriously, how is there a sun indoors?
Zed thought it was sort of funny the kinds of things that were going through his head at the edge of death. White sands stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. The Unforgiving Sun glared down at them as they trudged through the desert that the Grand Celestial Mountain had produced at Sagacious Wanderer's command.
"What you keep messing up is thinking of water as a purely liquid concept."
He glared balefully at her from beneath an improvised turban. Why the hell didn't she even seem to be sweating? Damn it all, he felt like the only moisture left in his body was blood and there were burns covering his exposed skin after two days. Meanwhile, Wanderer didn't seem to be getting anything more than a light tan.
"In between your bouts of cursing my existence, praying for my death, praying for your own death, and staring at my ass, you've been wondering what the hell I'm thinking, bringing you to a place where the concept of water is nothing more than a hopeful dream."
He was forced to admit that she was fairly spot-in in her assessment of what he'd been doing as they trekked- apparently without aim- in the artificial yet all-to-real-seeming desert.
"The answer is twofold. First, I don't like you that much so I feel no need whatsoever to take it easy on you."
If there is a kind and beneficent guiding force to the universe, you will drop dead this instant.
"Secondly, I'm intentionally draining you of your internal reserves so that you have to learn to call on your environment."
No luck. Unfortunate, but unsurprising.
"Sss.." Zed was forced to slurp on a rag of his turban to moisten his mouth enough to speak. "So... how do... I do.. that?" His hoarse, ragged whisper didn't carry the bitter spite that he felt was all that was keeping him going. Best not to waste it on anything but staying upright.
"I'll tell you when we camp tonight."
He had never been a fan of moving much more than he needed to in the first place. To hear this hateful old witch dangle the promise of stopping suddenly made him internally sing praises to the Emperor, the Unconquered Sun, his Elemental Dragon Forebearers and the out-of-work computer technician that had taught him to read when he was four.
"Wh... whn... izzat?"
"When you pass out."
The absurdity of her statement hit him like a physical blow and he stumbled, fell, and obliged her.
For a short, brief while, he was too exhausted to experience just how much Fat camp sucked.
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