Monday, February 10, 2014

Koreshi Chronicles - Chapter VII: Apprentice

18 Winter 1927

In a caravan, space was always at a premium. Crew slept in close quarters, worked in close quarters, and ate in close quarters, because any attempt to get some legroom meant less space taken up by cargo. And when your livelihood depended on being able to buy as many cheap goods as possible, transport them somewhere else, and sell them at a profit, empty space was money left on the table.

Still, there were always exceptions.

Benelice ran a tight ship. Frequent breaks, whether for maintenance or recreation, were not on the schedule. And as they passed along the vacant smugglers’ road north of Lake Baïkal, they didn’t expect to have any trade stops either. Some of the crew took rotation as outriders, but outriding was work, not rest. If the crew wanted to relax, there were precious few places to do it other than their own quarters and the cramped mess hall.

So, seeing that they were going to be spending nearly a week without a rest stop, Benelice had made the decision to allow one of her longrunner’s cargo bays to be partially converted into a rec hall – a small one, but a rec hall nonetheless – so that her crew would not go stir crazy.

Lyta had avoided the rec hall for most of the afternoon in favor of tethering herself to the top of the longrunner and watching the scenery go past, kilometer after kilometer of gently waving grasses. The mountains were still ahead of them, the peaks looking more like her native Badlands than the thick greenery of the Tobian Plains. The undulation of the grass was hypnotic, and Lyta nearly fell asleep, as she had done so often on the monotonous caravan routes that had taken her from one job to another for almost six cycles. The scenery was different, but the routine was the same as it had always had been.

She woke from her doze as the sun dipped below the horizon and the air turned colder. Her legs were cramped, and she massaged them with chilled hands. There would be nothing more to see tonight, not without her night-vision goggles. Sighing, she unhooked the tethers and dropped back into the longrunner.

The makeshift rec hall was nearly deserted. Most of the crew were either at dinner or in their bunks; they had not yet been on the road long enough that they felt the need to avail themselves of the ‘luxuries’ Benelice had provided. When she entered, she found herself alone except for their guide’s young apprentice, sitting in a corner with a thick book across her lap. She looked up briefly as Lyta entered, then immersed herself back in her reading.

Lyta settled to the ground and spent a few minutes stretching, enjoying the quiet of the space, the gentle vibration of the floor beneath her, the thrum of the engines. Her week at the OIPA had spoiled her: hours a day of training, usually in the company of like-minded staff members. It had been a long time since she’d indulged in any sort of group training – nearly a decade – and she hadn’t realized how much she’d missed it. And just when she was falling into a routine, she had left for the road again to train by herself, as she always had, in the cramped cabins of longrunners or the tiny villages where they stopped to trade. It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was familiar.

When she felt her body was limber, she began moving her equipment into position. Fennec had helped her jury-rig some basic obstacles: a trapeze and rings that could attach to hooks in the ceiling, a collapsible shelf about waist height, a telescoping pole that reached from the floor to the ceiling. She found a few lightweight but sturdy crates and placed those around the space as well. The whole thing went up in about ten minutes and could be torn down in half that time. And, more importantly, it gave her something to work with other than a bare room.

She began jumping over, around, and through her makeshift obstacle course. There wasn’t enough space to do anything truly fancy, not the sort of thing she’d been doing at the OIPA, but working in close quarters was its own interesting challenge, and Lyta decided to take advantage of the circumstances to work on her precision and her ability to stop just short of a massive collision.

She realized after a few minutes that the guide’s apprentice was no longer reading but was watching her intently. For a while, Lyta kept practicing, doing her best to ignore the staring eyes from the corner. Eventually she gave up and walked over.

“What are you doing?” The girl was small, even for 16 cycles, though she had a clever look about her.

“It’s a kind of gymnastics,” Lyta said. “They’re calling it ‘kuritra.’ I’m teaching it at the OIPA.” It still felt strange to say out loud, but Lyta figured if it was going to be her official job for the next season, she might as well get used to it. She still wasn’t sure if she would be able to teach it. So far, she had been practicing with the other staff, who were all in peak physical form and had cycles of experience behind them. It was fun – far more fun than she’d initially thought it would be – but the idea of teaching a class of students still felt uncomfortably foreign.

The apprentice showed no signs that she had noticed Lyta’s ambivalence. Her eyes sparkled. “Can I try?” she asked.

Lyta regarded her a moment. She was small enough that she wouldn’t have to deal with the problems someone larger would face in the confined space of the longrunner hold, but two people training in the rec hall would still be cramped. “You ever done gymnastics before?” Lyta asked.

The girl shook her head.

Lyta hesitated. The last person she’d tried to train, really train, had been Kitesh, back with the Bathani Ratir. Of course, Kitesh had been much younger and much less demanding than an older student, and had stopped training after only a season or two.

Still, if she was going to teach at the OIPA, the guide’s apprentice might make a decent test case. And if it went horribly wrong, well, they’d only be spending a few weeks together on the caravan and then likely never see each other again. Lyta shrugged. “Sure,” she said. “I can show you some stuff.”

The apprentice carefully noted her place in her book, put it away, and stood up. “Your name’s Ryss, right?”

Lyta nodded. “Yeah. And you’re… Miranda?”

“That’s right.”

Lyta pushed away a few crates to give herself some more space in the middle of the room. She thought about how to go about teaching a raw beginner. The answer was so obvious it only took her a few seconds to come to it. “Okay, the first things you need to know are break falls and shoulder rolls, because if you don’t know how to land, you’re gonna hurt yourself.” She moved into position at the edge of the room. “So, you need to position yourself like this, and the idea is to roll over your shoulder like your whole body is a wheel.” Lyta demonstrated, and she could feel Miranda’s taking in the movement, not the impartial eyes of her brothers as she infiltrated a building but the intense stare of a student who would be trying, in just a moment, to emulate her. She pulled up at the end of her movement, more than halfway across the room. “Okay, your turn.”

Miranda set herself up the way Lyta had shown her and copied her move, veering a little to the left, but still quite passable for a beginner. As Lyta watched her, the small flaws in her posture leapt out as though they had been highlighted in neon ink on a trideo playback. Lyta nodded. “That’s pretty good,” she said. “Try again, and this time pick a spot on the far wall that you can use as an anchor. Try to roll toward that.”

Miranda nodded, took up her position again, and rolled. This time, she did not veer, and popped up a pace in front of Lyta with a grin. If all her students were going to be so easy, Lyta thought, maybe teaching wouldn’t be so hard after all.

“Good,” Lyta said. “Really good. You sure you haven’t done this before?”

Miranda shook her head, still grinning. “Nah. But it’s fun.”

Lyta pointed back towards the far wall. “Okay, again. This time, over the other shoulder.”

Miranda practically skipped back to the starting position.

For a few minutes, they practiced rolling from a crouch, from standing, and finally from an elevated position. The girl was definitely a natural, Lyta reflected. She had been younger when she’d first started training on the B’Ti, but not much younger, and she’d already had years of gymnastics behind her. She half wished she had the apprentice guide’s natural ability. Part of her, deep down, realized that she was jealous. If Miranda had been closer to her age, if they had been training together back in Baja before the war, Lyta suspected she would have had a formidable adversary at most of the regional competitions.

Lyta shook her head and pushed the thoughts aside. Miranda wasn’t a rival, and they were not back at Baja. It was stupid to be jealous of a girl eight cycles younger than she was, particularly when she herself was doing the teaching.

Lyta pushed back the crates and began demonstrating some of the basic jumps and vaults, passing from crate to shelf and back. When Miranda seemed to be getting comfortable with them, Lyta let her work on her own and went back to her own training. It was hard, working with two people in such close quarters. It reminded her of the times she had trained with Grenden on the B’ti’atta, the two of them weaving in and around each other as their forms complemented each other but never touched. She had never really trained with more than the two of them, but she’d heard stories that in some tribes of Bathani, they had five or even six B’ti’masti on the jungle gym at once. Lyta could only imagine the concentration it must take them to avoid hitting each other.

Lyta kept herself to comparatively simple maneuvers so she could watch Miranda from time to time. The girl was clearly enjoying herself, her face alternating between deep concentration and a wide smile as she focused on and then completed one move after another. Lyta wished she had a full gym, or a full city. She half-wished she could take Miranda to the Oxford Institute of Science and show her what it really meant to run.

“How do you do that thing in the corner?” The voice cut into her reflections and Lyta stopped herself, dangling from a ring on the ceiling, and let herself drop to the ground.

“What thing in the corner?” she asked.

“The thing where you jump from one side to the other so that you’re high enough to reach the roof.” Miranda was sitting on top of the shelf, one leg tucked under her, the other dangling freely off the side.

Lyta scratched the back of her neck. “That’s… a bit more complicated.” It had taken her nearly half a season to feel comfortable using the inside corner of a wall as a means of climbing, and several weeks more to figure out how to do it quickly, jumping back and forth instead of pressing against the walls and using the tension to propel herself upward.

Miranda’s eyes sparkled. “I bet I could do it.”

Lyta paused, weighing the options. She wondered if Miranda would quit if she were faced with something too hard for her. Still, she supposed it couldn’t hurt to try. At worst, she would be back to training on her own again. “Okay…” she said. “But don’t worry if you can’t. It’s kind of hard.”

She set Miranda up next to her as she demonstrated the move, bouncing from one side of the corner to the other. When she was high enough, she jumped away grasped the ring on the ceiling, dangled a moment, and then let herself fall. “The important thing is to keep moving,” Lyta said, trying to put into words what her body did naturally. “You use the momentum from the first jump to thrust yourself higher.”

The first time she tried, Miranda managed to get one foot on the wall, another on the other edge of the corner, skidded, and slid down to the floor. The second time, she overcompensated and ran towards the corner with such speed that the impact tossed her backward and Lyta was forced to catch her before she smashed her head on the corner of one of the crates. She cringed. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Within five minutes, though, Miranda was consistently getting three steps onto the wall, sometimes even four. Lyta watched in fascination and wondered whether she would have mastered the trick so fast if she’d had someone to show her how to do it, or if Miranda was just some sort of prodigy, even more than Lyta had been.

On her last pass, Lyta boosted the girl the last few feet so she could reach the ceiling ring. Miranda whooped, dropped, and rolled over her shoulder, popped up and spread her arms wide. “Ha!” she shouted.

Lyta smiled, torn between pleasure and jealousy at her new student’s progress. Maybe it was best not to push her luck on the first day. She clapped Miranda on the back. “Good stuff,” she said. “You thirsty?”

Miranda looked for a moment like she was about to object, about to insist that they keep going, keep working, keep trying new things. Lyta knew the feeling intimately. But then the girl sighed. “Yeah, kinda.”

Lyta took a swig from her water bottle and passed it over. Miranda hesitated. “I’m not sick,” Lyta assured her. “And I don’t have cooties.”

Miranda looked sheepish, grabbed the bottle, and took a long swallow. Lyta hopped up onto a crate, and Miranda followed suit. “So, what are you reading?” Lyta asked, trying to get herself out of her own head.

“Physics of Oscillatory Motion.”

Lyta stared. “Physics of… what?”

“Oscillatory motion,” repeated Miranda. “Like, pendulums and springs.”

Lyta blinked a few times. She would never last in the Humanist Alliance if this was the sort of thing they had school-kids reading. She barely understood the title. “What does that have to do with training to be a guide?”

Miranda laughed. “Nothing. I finished the training book on flora and fauna ages ago. This is just for fun.”

Lyta shook her head incredulously. “You think physics is fun?”

Miranda nodded with enthusiasm. “Sure! It explains… well, maybe not everything, but lots of stuff. How things work. How can you not be interested in that?”

Lyta stared at the guide’s apprentice for a long moment. She’d met other Humanists; they didn’t generally read physics textbooks for fun. Certainly her fellow trainers at the gym, while in excellent physical shape and full of interesting conversation, had never mentioned anything of the sort. Was there anything this girl found too hard? “Right,” Lyta said unconvincingly. “I should introduce you to Grizz.”

Miranda grinned. “Sure! Does he do kuritra too?”

The ridiculousness of the question cut through Lyta’s sour mood, and she laughed despite herself. “No,” she said. “He definitely doesn’t.”

Miranda’s face fell, but only for a moment. “But you’ll keep teaching me, right? Maybe next time you can show me how to do the back flip you were doing when you came down off the trapeze?”

Lyta put a hand to her temple. Just trying to follow the girl’s interests was fatiguing her. It wasn’t fair, she thought to herself, to be so good at… well, at everything. Still, their first session had been fun, and it cut the monotony of training by herself. “Yeah, sure,” she said. “Same time tomorrow?”

Miranda smiled. “Same time tomorrow,” she agreed.

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