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“Watch the stance!”
Sam grunted when another sharp blow hit her right in the stomach, sending her to the ground. Her hands fisted in the dirt as she coughed and her eyes stung.
“I said, watch the stance!”
She struggled for breath as her instructor Cameron Mitchell came stomping onto the field, enraged and yelling curses in the process.
Her opponent, recruit Tim Hanson, shrugged. “Sorry, sir, I’m trying to go easy on her.”
“Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it?” Mitchell stepped between them. “You shouldn’t have to go easy on people. Nobody’s gonna go easy on her in the field. Up! Get up!” He pulled Sam to her feet. “What exactly went wrong?”
Sam hated the tears streaming down her face from exhaustion. Her hands fisted as she tried to inhale despite the protest in her lungs.
“I’ll tell you what went wrong, recruit. You allowed your opponent an opening because of your stance. If this was in the field and Hanson was using a knife, you’d be dead.” He shoved her back into the middle of the makeshift ring. “This time watch your defense. And you.” Mitchell jabbed a finger at Hanson. “Stop going easy on her.”
Sam glared at her close combat instructor, and wiped the back of her hand across her cheeks. After taking another deep breath, she went into position and faced Hanson. Every muscle in her body ached.
She’d been scheduled for combat training for weeks and with every day that passed, she made more mistakes. Stupid mistakes.
Mitchell was the youngest colonel in the camp. As one of the best fighters, he was tasked with overseeing the daily training sessions. He seemed a decent guy, except he kept yelling at her.
Sam winced and trembled, as he stepped up behind her and pushed her legs further apart. Maybe better manners wouldn’t hurt, either.
Her gaze fixated on her opponent. Feet apart, stance grounded. So far, so good. The instant Hanson attacked her, she jumped aside. Her fist struck out, but she failed to land a blow.
“Damn it, Carter!” So he was getting frustrated. Really? He wasn’t even the one getting beaten up.
Sam fumed. Hanson’s next blow struck her right in the face and she went tumbling to the ground. The world spun, her ears ringing. She clenched her hands as Mitchell stomped towards her again. “On your feet recruit! What do you think you’re doing? You think this is a vacation? Are you too stupid to listen to what I’m saying?”
Sam jumped up and glared at him. When the instructor reached out to grab her arm, she blocked his move with one hand, and slammed her fist into his face without caring for stance or technique. All he ever did was yell at her. She had enough.
Then she turned to Hanson and delivered a blow right to his stomach. There, that took care of his stupid smirk. She lifted her knee and hit him right between the legs. Satisfaction coursed through her as Hanson went to the ground, groaning in pain and holding his groin. Well, at least he was down. Screw the stance.
Mitchell took a step towards her. She shoved him away.
“Just shut up. I’m done here.” She turned around and walked off the training ground.
“Carter! Who do you think you are? Get your ass back here at once. We’re not done here. I promise you, when I’m finished with you—”
“We’re done!” Sam wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. The corner of her lower lip began to swell up from one of the blows. She winced, when she touched the injury with her finger and a sharp pain shot through her cheek. Damn. If there was one thing that she would never do, it was cry in front of these people.
She stormed around the corner of the food tent, and collided with the hard muscular planes of a man’s chest. Her head snapped up. O’Neill. Damn. This day couldn’t get any worse.
“Carter.” His eyebrows rose as he studied her. “You okay?”
“Peachy. Just leave me…” She lifted her hands and walked around him. If only she didn’t have to see anybody for the rest of the day.
Jack looked after her, and shook his head. He turned to continue on his way when Mitchell stormed around the corner, much like Carter had before.
“Carter, you get your ass back here now, or don’t come back at all!”
Jack’s face darkened as he watched the young woman disappear in the tent she shared with Janet and Vala. He put his hand firmly on Mitchell’s chest before the training instructor could storm after her.
“Hey, Mitchell. What the hell’s going on here?”
“She’s impossible.” Mitchell glared at him. “She’s the worst student I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t listen to instruction; she is stubborn, completely unskilled—“
Jack suppressed a smirk when he saw the bruise on the instructor’s face. “She seems to have gotten you good.”
“And she’s disrespectful,” Mitchell snapped. “One day in the field, and she’ll be dead. With her skillset, she’s not fit for any of the teams. She’s an accident waiting to happen.”
“I see.” Jack’s initial amusement faded. He’d figured it would come down to this. During the past few weeks, he’d received repeated reports about Carter talking back, or refusing to follow orders. She was smart. Maybe too smart for her own good.
Up to now, he’d refrained from getting involved in the situation. This kind of behavior wasn’t unusual for strong-minded recruits. He couldn’t let the latest incident slip though, especially with what he’d just witnessed.
He hit Mitchell’s shoulder in a friendly way. “Get back to the training grounds. I’ll handle the situation and straighten her out.”
Mitchell gave a sarcastic chuckle. “If you think you can turn her around. It’s been three weeks. Three fucking weeks, and she can’t defend herself from the mildest blows.”
Jack looked after the man as he stormed off. Then his eyes fixated on the tent Carter had disappeared into, and he set into motion. He wouldn’t have this kind of drama in his camp, and most importantly, he would not have recruits beating up or talking disrespectfully to their instructors.
Without announcing his presence, he entered the tent.
Carter sat on the floor next to the thin mat that served as her bed. She wiped her cheek with a wet cloth, apparently trying to wash the dirt off.
“I’m not going back.”
She didn’t even bother turning around. The snippiness in her tone tipped him over the edge. Okay, that was enough. She needed a lesson in obedience.
“Yes, you will.”
Her head jerked around and her eyes widened. Then she lifted her chin defiantly. He narrowed his eyes. Talking to her in her current state would be useless. Maybe it was time for more unconventional training methods. “You know what, you need to cool off, recruit.”
He grabbed her arm and pulled her to her feet, dragging her with him from the tent. She stumbled after him.
“Let me go, sir. What are you doing?” She fought against his grip but he didn’t let up. “Jack! Let go!” She stumbled and fell. He pulled her roughly back to her feet.
He pulled her through the bushes down a narrow path until they reached the edge of a steep rocky cliff. It wasn’t high, just about three meters down to the small, clear lake, framed by rocks and cliffs on all sides. A thin river cascaded down the rocks into the lake in a small waterfall at the other side.
He grabbed the young woman by her shirt and swung her over the edge, down into the cold water of the lake.
Then he leaned on his upper thigh and bent over the edge to look down at her. She resurfaced with heavy coughs. Good, so she could swim. Perfect. “You okay?”
“Yeah.” She was still coughing. Her hands rubbed over her face. Apparently, she was too dumbfounded to remember her anger.
With a smirk, Jack sat down on a rock and plucked one of the long leaves of grass to twirl it between his fingers.
He concentrated on rolling the leaf up.
Jack cleared his throat and leaned back. At this rate, he’d be here a while.
Wow, surprise. She’d gotten the message sooner than he thought. “I’m listening.” He didn’t move an inch.
“How do I get back out of here?”
“With the rope ladder that’s lying up here.”
Another long moment of silence. “Are you going to throw it down to me?”
Sighing, he got up and leaned over the edge to look down at her. “Once I’m certain you remember your rank, and how to properly address superior officers and instructors.”
Carter closed her eyes and shook her head. “Listen, I’m sorry about what happened before, but Mitchell was…”
“That’s Colonel Mitchell to you, recruit.” He put a deliberately sharp tone into his voice, and she flinched. “And at this point I don’t care what happened. Recruits under my command do not tell their instructors to screw themselves. Nor do they beat them up. Is that clear?”
“Well, sir.” For her own benefit, he decided to overlook the sarcastic emphasis she put on his rank. “He doesn’t give me a chance to fight. When I was alone and had to defend myself, I got by. There was nobody standing next to me yelling at me about all the things I did wrong. I know I’m not the best fighter, but I can be better. A lot better, sir, if he stopped criticizing every move I make.”
Jack frowned. He knew that Mitchell could be a little too stiff sometimes. A few of the things she said were probably true, but was no excuse for the way she’d handled the situation.
“So you decided to disrespect and attack him?”
“He wanted me to fight, so I gave him what he wanted.” Was that smugness in her tone?
His jaw clenched. “Carter.”
The warning in his voice must have alarmed her, because she paled and lowered her eyes. “Sorry, sir.”
“That’s not how we do things here. If you can’t adapt to a command structure, I suggest you say so now. I damn sure don’t wanna be stuck in the field with someone who suddenly decides she doesn’t like my orders anymore and beats me up over it. Say the word and you’re out. There’ll be no second chances, though.”
Something flashed across her face. Self-doubt? Anger? Desperation? He wasn’t sure, but then she lowered her head with a sigh. “I’ll adapt.” Barely audible.
Jack raised his eyebrows. “Excuse me? I didn’t quite get that.”
“I’ll adapt, sir.” She locked her gaze with his. “I’m sorry I disrespected Colonel Mitchell. It won’t happen again.”
“Damn right, it won’t. I have no patience for disrespect.”
He scrutinized her. Was she gonna be able to change her behavior like that? She’d been a troublemaker during the past couple of weeks, but he’d also seen how determined she could be once she set her mind to something. He had no doubt she’d be a real asset provided she straightened out. “Will you throw down the ladder, sir?”
“Not yet.” Jack lifted his eyes to the far end of the lake. “You’ll swim to the other end and back. Thirty laps overall. Clear your head and cool down. Once you’re done with that, you can come out. I’ll be back in thirty minutes to check on your progress.”
He walked back from the edge to sit down on a rock out of sight. Since he didn’t know just how good a swimmer she was, he wouldn’t leave her alone yet. Besides, he wanted to see if she’d follow orders even if she thought superiors weren’t present.
She’d repeatedly displayed insubordinate behavior. How deep did her inability to follow orders go? Was she only disobeying orders for what she considered a good reason, or was she generally unwilling to bend to command structure? Would she respect his authority even if he wasn’t present?
He plucked another grass stalk and started chewing on it, waiting. So far she hadn’t made any move to follow his order. Then she started cursing. Jack scrunched his brows. Damn. She might have made a good recruit, but without the willingness to follow orders—
Water started splashing. In surprise, Jack lifted his head and peaked over the edge. She’d started swimming. He smirked and lay back against the rock again.
She did the crawl all the way to the far end of the lake, then back. She wasn’t a bad swimmer, but there was room for improvement. He checked his watch. One complete lap in two minutes and six seconds. Not too shabby for a recruit.
When half an hour had passed, he jumped up and leaned over to look down as she approached again. “Hey, Carter!”
She stopped. Panting, she brushed the water out of her face.
“Done with your thirty laps?” He knew she wasn’t. Would she lie about it, though?
“No sir. Fourteen laps.”
Loyalty certainly wouldn’t be a problem with her. His face gentled. Honesty was something he valued above all else. He kicked the end of the rope ladder down with his foot.
“Come on up already.”
She gripped the end of the ladder, her breathing still shallow and fast. “I’m not done yet, sir.”
“I know that.” He straightened and looked up into the clear blue sky. “I wasn’t expecting you to finish the thirty laps. It’s enough for today.”
“Yes, sir.” She pulled herself out of the water and climbed up the ladder. She could barely stand without trembling, yet she uttered no word of complaint. Jack studied her for a moment. Maybe he’d driven her a bit too far.
“Dry off, and have Janet look at your cheek and lip.” He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Tomorrow morning you’ll report to combat class as scheduled. I expect you to apologize to Colonel Mitchell for the insubordination today.”
“Yes, sir.” She gave a shaky nod.
“Thank you, sir.”
The next morning, Jack strolled towards the training grounds with a file under his arm and a coffee in hand. He nodded at the two men who’d been on watch duty that night and were now cheerfully trudging up to the food tent to get breakfast.
Once he reached the wooden bench at the far side of the training field, he sat down and put the file and coffee next to him. He was gonna observe Carter’s lesson today. That way he’d be able to see for himself what the problem was.
She showed up to the lesson as ordered. When she arrived, she walked up to Mitchell and exchanged a few words with him. Mitchell straightened and gave her one of his best glares.
“Damn right you’ll be sorry, recruit. You think you’re better than everyone else? That you don’t have to follow orders?”
Jack flinched. The man sure wasn’t gonna make it easy on her, but she apparently needed the tough treatment for a while.
“No, sir!” Her eyes looked straight ahead and she didn’t move a muscle as Mitchell stalked around her.
“You still think it’s a good idea to beat up a superior officer, Carter?”
Damn, but she could follow orders if she wanted to. Jack smirked and took a sip of his coffee. Her determination sure was impressive.
“You expect me to go easy on you, recruit?”
“Damn straight I won’t. Fifty laps around the training grounds! Go! And when you’re done with that I wanna see your push-ups! Move! Move! Move!”
Oy. Jack rubbed his palm across his face. He hadn’t expected the instructor to be that strict. Carter started running. Pretty fast runner, too. Her body was in excellent shape—maybe a bit too thin, though. Janet had informed him she’d been losing weight during the first weeks of her training. He’d have her food rations doubled for a while. She should be building muscle, not losing it.
He sipped his coffee and watched her complete her exercise. Fifty laps around the court and then thirty pushups. Then her combat training began.
Carter hadn’t exaggerated in her description of the problem. Mitchell was giving her little leeway for mistakes.
She failed to dodge a blow from Hanson that she should have easily foreseen Panting, she went to the ground. Jack winced. Yeah, that had been a stupid mistake. And she knew that, judging by the expression on her face. Still, Mitchell yelled at her. Back up, fella. Let her figure it out for herself. She knows the freakin’ basic stances.
Carter got back to her feet. She certainly didn’t lack perseverance. Mitchell came up behind her, and verbally corrected her stance again. The change in Carter’s behavior was visible. Her focus shifted from her opponent to the way she was standing, her entire body radiating hesitation.
Hanson attacked and she managed a sloppy defense only to hit the ground again five seconds later.
“Oh, fer crying out loud.” Jack got up. He’d seen Carter defend herself against him in the barn. Even untrained, she’d been more agile and creative than this. Today, she was a living example of how rules sometimes stood in the way of excellence.
Mitchell was young—not as young as the recruits, but he made the youngest colonel at camp. He’d been transferred to their camp six months ago after his exemplary performance in another cell. An outstanding fighter, with weapons and without.
He hadn’t spent a lot of time in the field, though. Therefore, he had to make up for what he lacked in experience with reliance on regulations and protocol. In some cases waving a rulebook around simply wasn’t the ideal approach. Carter was a nice example of that. She knew the rules and stances, she just had to develop an intuition for applying them.
“Alright, kids.” He started walking towards the combatants. Watching Carter let herself get beaten down in a fight she could have easily won was just sad. “Can anybody tell me what’s going wrong here?”
“I’m sorry.” Mitchell turned and shrugged. “I’m trying my best.”
“So am I, sir.” Carter panted.
“That’s the problem now, isn’t it?” He looked from one to the other. “Everybody here is trying a bit too hard. Except you, Hanson. You’re going easy on her, which really isn’t the point of this exercise either.”
“Sorry, sir.” The recruit’s face turned red, his fingers fumbling, no doubt embarrassed at his performance.
“Mitchell, step back. Give her space.” Jack walked over to Carter and scrutinized her stance. “Carter, lighten up. When the hell did you become so tense?”
He gave her a little push between the shoulder blades and she stumbled forward. He rolled his eyes. Yeah, way too tense. “Concentrate less on how you’re standing and more on what’s going on around you. You don’t have time to think about stance in the field. And you—“ He looked at Hanson, gaze working the young recruit over. There really wasn’t anything wrong with him at the moment. “Take a break.”
“Yes, sir.” The man released a deep breath and turned to leave the field. Jack looked over the training ground, then waved another man over.
“Simmons. Join us for a moment, please.
A middle aged man trudged over to them, wiping his forehead of sweat from the training fight he’d just been involved in with a friend. “Sir?”
“I want you to fight Carter. Beat her up if she can’t defend herself.”
Carter gasped behind him. Jack turned to face her. “If you can’t defend yourself, you’ll suffer the consequences.”
He stepped up to her, prompting her to ease up on her rigid stance and glance up at his face. “I’d hate to have Doc Fraiser yelling at me for letting a ranked member beat you unconscious, so you better give it your best.”
She swallowed visibly.
“Jack.” Mitchell stepped forward, but a stern look from him shut him up.
“Ready?” Jack stepped back until he’d reached the fence surrounding the training area. “Go.” He sat down next to Mitchell on the bench.
“Jack.” Mitchell leaned in. “He’s too advanced. He’s gonna to beat her until she’s unconscious.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that.” Jack smirked and picked up his coffee again. “Don’t worry, I’m gonna step in if I see she can’t handle it. I’ve seen her move, and I’ve seen how she fights. And that was before she had three weeks of close combat training. You need to give her a little bit of leeway to learn for herself.”
“She couldn’t even beat Hanson, and he’s her level.” Mitchell scoffed. “I’m telling you, if Fraiser rips your head off for this, I want nothing to do with it.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Yesterday, she got you and Hanson pretty good. I have a feeling you’ll have to address her primal emotions. Yesterday, anger. If today it’ll be fear, great. That’s gonna be closer to reality in the field anyway.”
Mitchell shook his head, his gaze not leaving his. “You’re really sure of yourself there, aren’t you?”
“She’s a natural. She has the instincts of a warrior. Don’t know where she developed them, and she herself sure doesn’t realize it. She knows the stances. The thing you gotta teach her is to trust in her abilities. In the field, her instinct is the only thing she can rely on.” He looked at the ring, where Carter and Simmons circled each other. “She can handle this.”
Jack observed the two warriors. He smiled when Carter landed the first blow after effectively blocking one. You go, girl.
“I’ll be damned.” Mitchell straightened. Carter was focused, her stance open and grounded. Now she seemed to have developed an awareness for her opponent’s intentions. The wonders of adrenaline. Jack chuckled, his eyes not leaving the fight.
Carter stepped back in an attempt at evading an attack she wasn’t familiar with yet. Smart move. Jack’s interest grew. Intuitively assessing which attacks she could risk blocking, and which ones she was better evading all together. He flinched when she slipped in the mud and landed on the ground. She realized her mistake, he could see that in the way she winced and hit the ground with her fist. No use driving the point home.
Simmons’s next punch hit her right in the stomach, and she heaved in breath. She went to the ground again, but instead of giving up, used her legs to bring Simmons down with her.
“I can’t believe this is the same woman. Damn, she’s actually good.” Mitchell looked at Jack, his eyes wide in astonishment.
“Had a feeling. She just needs a little incentive, and for you to back off.” Jack chuckled. “I think she might actually win this one. Care for a little bet?”
“Nah, I think you might be right.” Mitchell grinned. “We better break them up. Simmons’s gonna be pissed if she actually wins.”
“Sure he will. But he’ll deal with it. It’s not like he hasn’t been beaten in a friendly fight before.”
“Yes, but never by a woman.”
Jack’s straightened and looked at him, his jaw clenching. “She’s a soldier. Whether she’s a man or a woman is irrelevant.” He narrowed his eyes. “Is there a problem with that?”
“Not at all. I’m just saying, a few of the soldiers and especially some of the recruits don’t see it the same way.”
“They don’t have a problem with Doc Fraiser.”
Mitchell shook his head. “Janet Fraiser’s not a soldier.”
“Vala Maldoran is.”
“That’s different, and you know that. Some of the guys think a human woman has no place in the field.” Mitchell lifted his hands and shook his head. “Hey, don’t look at me like that. I’m not saying I share their opinion.”
“You can tell them whoever’s got a problem with treating Carter like any other male soldier is free to bring the issue up with me. I don’t like any of my men—or women—being discriminated against. We can’t afford to fight two battles—one against the Aschen, and one against each other. Have I made myself clear?”
“Good.” Jack turned his eyes back to the fight.
Even though Carter was delivering some sharp blows, she also had to take them. He could see the fight would still go on for a while, until they were either both badly beaten, or one of them gave up from exhaustion.
“Come on, break them up. I think I’ve made my point.”
Mitchell walked into the center of the battle area. “Attention!” The two soldiers immediately stopped fighting and straightened up.
Jack grabbed his empty cup and the file, then got up from the bench. He’d leave the rest to Mitchell. Surely the instructor would handle Carter the right way now.