Birth of an Ironclad
Part 2: Servant to the Empire
Iâ€™ve displeased Shogar and for that heâ€™s encased me in a volcano.
That was the only explanation for the pain that crackled along his every nerve. Even the Gods disapproved of his quest to leave his own caste and become a soldier. All I wanted was to serve, and to protect my people. He wept, and the tears were a river of fire against his cheeks.
Every part of his body hurt. I am burning over and over again, forever. A sudden cacophony of sound made the fire within him flare, and he screamed. Then the heat of the sun burst against his arm, and he cried out again.
Within the fire there was suddenly ice. Ice ghosting along his veins, calming the crackling fires. A slow glacier running down his throat, into his belly, down his legs. The absence of fire was sudden, and ghastly. It hurt nearly as much as the perpetual burning.
The cacophony of noise around him slowly became clearer. â€œâ€¦idiots! Of course it was necessary! Were any of your needles making a dent? No. Were any of your shots getting through to him? No!â€
â€œHonored Scientist, we cannot permit â€“â€œ
â€œSo instead youâ€™d rather torture the boy needlessly?â€ It was a familiar voice, but far harsher than heâ€™d ever heard it.
â€œScientist Gho, you have made your point. We thank you, Doctor, for your concern. Our top priority, however, must be the young man in that bed. We will all work together in pursuit of his recovery, yes?â€
That was a nasal voice. One Drogen had never heard. Meanwhile, the memory of fire faded. Instead, his body was a hollow ache. He opened his eyes, but could see no more than blurry figures surrounding his bed. He blinked, trying to get his inner eyelids to open, but they remained stubbornly shut. Like any infant, he couldnâ€™t even open his eyes fully.
â€œDrogen!â€ That was Gho.
â€œScientist Gho,â€ he said. Or tried to say. What came out instead was a croak.
â€œYouâ€™ve beenâ€¦ hurt,â€ Gho said. â€œI injected you with some pain killers. Youâ€™re going to feel strange.â€
â€œRelax, soldier,â€ said a new and vaguely familiar voice. â€œYouâ€™ve earned yourself a rest.â€
Iâ€™m not a soldier, he tried to say. But again, no noise came out. His throat felt strange and slippery.
â€œDrogen, donâ€™t talk yet. Your vocal chords were damaged in the accident. Let them recover.â€ The blur that was Scientist Gho limped towards him and sank into a chair beside his bed.
â€œAre we all in hell?â€ he tried to ask. This time he made some noise.
The other voice he recognized barked with laughter. â€œNo, we are not, my boy. Unless you count the Imperial Military Hospital some kind of hell. Which it well might be!â€
â€œThatâ€™s hardly funny, Qyr,â€ the nasal voice cut in.
â€œOh, have a heart, Vhen. The boy nearly died.â€ Qyr answered. Qyr. Drogen gasped. Admiral Qyr? And Admiral Vhen?
â€œAll the more reason to take things seriously,â€ Vhen answered.
â€œDrogen,â€ Gho began, his voice low and quiet, â€œI donâ€™t know how much you remember. You were in an accident in the lab. You were the last one there, cleaning up, and something happened with the smelting equipment.â€ He paused for a long moment. â€œThere was an explosion. You were absolutely covered in the liquid alloy.â€
No wonder all heâ€™d felt was fire. That burning liquid must have destroyed his body. And now he didnâ€™t feel anything. He had a sudden vision of himself, burnt and crippled, in his fatherâ€™s house. Wrapped in a blanket and sitting in his grandfatherâ€™s old chair, while his father moved about the place making him soups bland enough he could eat them.Â His heart clenched at the thought. And to think heâ€™d dreamt of being a hero.
â€œBut youâ€™re alive, my boy,â€ Gho was saying. â€œYouâ€™re alive and you will recover.â€
He blinked again, and forced his inner lids open. Gho was leaning in towards him, his old face looking more charcoal gray than ebony. Strange, Drogen had never seen worry lines on his face before.
â€œHow well?â€ he asked. â€œHow much will I recover?â€ His voice was coming more easily. It sounded like one of the grinders in the lab, but it was audible at least.
â€œAh, well, thatâ€™s the exciting part, soldier!â€ Admiral Qyr said.
â€œIâ€™m not a soldier,â€ he said.
Someone sniffed. He was pretty sure it was the nasally one, Vhen. â€œMaybe you should listen to him, Qyr.â€
Drogen managed to focus his eyes on the other two men in the room. Qyr was broad shouldered and smiling just slightly. He looked older, but not gray like Gho. He was a stocky man with medals on his uniform. He was the Hero of the People, and had been since his ships defended Dorvala IV from invasion. Vhen, on the other hand, looked old. He was taller than Qyr, and more slender. In fact, he might be as tall as Drogen himself. But far more slight. He also looked like heâ€™d bitten into something sour.
â€œYou are a soldier, son, and youâ€™ve just won your first battle!â€ Qyr declared.
Drogen looked at Gho, who gave him a strained smile. â€œThe Admirals were here to get my report on your progress, Drogen,â€ he said. â€œYour test scores for the military were quite good. Good enough to get you into the Space Corp. Butâ€¦â€
â€œSome of our more narrow-minded members were against breaking caste to take you,â€ Qyr said, shooting Vhen a look. â€œBut thereâ€™s no way they can refuse you now.â€
He stared at them. â€œTruly? I qualified for the Corp?â€
â€œYes, you certainly did!â€ Qyr grinned even more broadly. â€œWe just had to make sure you had a track record for dependability and dedication to duty. I think you proved that quite thoroughly, risking yourself to protect the lab!â€
â€œBut-â€œ he hadnâ€™t been protecting the lab. Heâ€™d just been cleaning up.
â€œSay nothing more about it, son,â€ Qyr sat at the foot of his bed. â€œModesty is becoming, but thereâ€™s no need to protest. Thereâ€™s every indication that youâ€™re going to recover fully, and be even better than before! Weâ€™ll be dropping you straight into training as soon as youâ€™re up and about.â€
â€œMarine training?â€ He blinked again. From useless failure to marine in less than five minutes! â€œI get to start marine training! Scientist Gho! Iâ€™m to be a soldier after all!â€
But Ghoâ€™s face didnâ€™t reflect his own excitement. Gho just nodded, but his eyes were sad. â€œAnd youâ€™ll be a fine one.â€
â€œIâ€™m a fool,â€ Drogen said. â€œIâ€™m sorry. Iâ€™ve been glad to serve you Scientist Gho, I didnâ€™t mean to imply I wasnâ€™t. â€œ
Gho smiled at that. â€œOf course not! Iâ€™m not some fool like Rhega to get my hair in a twist over something silly. You neednâ€™t apologize, my boy.â€
He relaxed. â€œSo Iâ€™ll be back to normal, and in the marines.â€ He grinned. How proud his father would be!
At that Vhen, who had been quietly disapproving in the background, laughed. â€œNormal? Oh, youâ€™ll never be normal, boy! Just look at you!â€
â€œVhen!â€ Qyr said.
â€œYouâ€™re neither of you telling him anything useful,â€ Vhen pushed past Qyr and came to stand at the foot of the bed. â€œDrogen Lar, you are an experiment. You are a machine. Look at yourself, look at your hand. Look!â€ he growled, leaning forward and fixing his gaze on Drogenâ€™s. â€œI am no friend to you, but I will not lie. Look at yourself.â€
Slowly, Drogen lowered his eyes from Vhenâ€™s. He raised his hand, expecting to see burnt flesh. Ashy with damage or red and raw. He expected to be horrified. But he could handle that. He could handle scars. He could handle wounds. He could even handle being horrific to the eye. So long as he could respect himself, he could handle anything.
But he didnâ€™t expect what he saw. His hand was perfect. Whole. No sign of burning or any damage at all. Except, it was silver. He blinked, thinking somehow his inner lid had come down again. But no. He flexed his fingers. Silver. Light reflected off the movement as if off metal.
â€œThe alloy,â€ he whispered.