The moment we were all clothed to our guards’ satisfaction, we were actually ordered rather than herded into the next room. It was a nice change, but the apprehensive tingle that had taken root in my spine the moment I walked out of that Aptitude test was still there, and it didn’t seem to be going anywhere. Then again, it was probably an appropriate response to the massive room we ended up in.
There were simulation pods everywhere, they were lining the room in neat rows and some of them were obviously taken, indicated by their dull, green glow.
There were no guards in the room, and the door behind us clicked shut. One of the boys tried the door at the opposite end, but it was as locked at the one behind us. We looked around at each other and then some brainiac decided to lean on a pod. A pulse of blue light shot out from his hand and the whole thing clicked open. Stumbling backwards, he stared at the thing in bewilderment.
“Well, go on then!” One of his friends shoved him. “I’ll race you!” He proceeded to run up to another pod and activate it.
The rest of us followed suit slowly, everyone bracing themselves for what was about to happen. We all knew that simulations were used in training, but it was day one, nearly the end of day one at that. I couldn’t be the only one that was tired.
My pod clicked open smoothly, the lid swinging upwards in a smooth, liquid motion. I sucked in a deep breath, wishing that I could smell something other than the biting scent of whatever they had hosed us down with.
I swung myself into the gel-lined bed and tried not to wince as needles slammed home and the lid came down over me. The drugs worked too fast for me to stew in claustrophobia-land for long.
Did I mention I didn’t like heights? I was standing with everyone else at the edge of a giant hole. This wasn’t like the chasm. For one it didn’t feel like a simulation, there was something about this setting that just felt more real than the Aptitude testing, as if I stepped off the edge of that thing I would probably die a horrible and gruesome death. Who knew what sort of protocol they had to keep you alive. Maybe they would just make the descent slow down enough to cause massive internal damage and broken bones rather than instant death? It was exactly the sort of thing that the Militia was supposed to do, just to scare everyone straight.
For another – I leaned over the edge a little, staring down into the eternal darkness of the, well, the pit. I couldn’t see the bottom and by all rights I should have been sucked into space. The thing was huge and if this was a planet we were supposed to be standing on, then just one slip and I could say hello to the other side.
“We call this Despair.” Morgan appeared and walked right up to the edge. “Anyone want to have a guess at why?”
“Should be called ‘overcompensation.’” One of the guys muttered. I thought I knew the voice. It belonged to a guy called Nate. He had always been in some other class. We had only ever passed in the hall at school but he was one of those guys. The ones that everyone knows, just because. He had long, light hair and a lean build. If there was anyone that looked the part for this job, it was him. He would probably be the first to become a Comet. Now that I had a good look at him, he was also the guy that had leant against the sim pod.
“What was that?” Morgan asked, not even bothering with the scan-the-crowd routine. When no-one took claim of the remark, he continued. “Mr Pyrox, I believe you have just perfectly defined the entirety of smart-ass remarks.”
One of the girls gave a strangled giggle and I didn’t have to look behind me to know that Nate or “Mr Pyrox” was already turning purple. “Anyone?” Morgan asked again, turning around, completely undaunted by the immense drop he was hovering over. My vision was blurring faintly at the edges just being this close to the pit, I wouldn’t want to turn my back on it for a second. The slight breeze didn’t help. It was trying to knock me closer to the drop and whistled over the thing.
We were all silent. It was the kind of silence reserved solely for a group of people that were too damn scared of being the first one picked by their new and scary leader. I don’t think that silence had changed since the human race had decided to band together in tribes.
“We all must overcome Despair.” Morgan went on.
“How?” Sala asked, drawing attention to the two of us.
“Do we have a volunteer?” Morgan asked.
“Yep, Gwen has volunteered.” She said, nudging me with her shoulder.
Morgan’s eyes locked onto mine and I’m fairly sure I gulped. I stepped forward and the crowd parted around me like I was infected or something. “What do I do?” I asked, eyeing the pit somewhat tentatively. If I had to walk off the edge of that thing, I think I might just scream.
The start of a smile played at the corner of his lips. “You don’t have to walk off the edge.” He said, following my line of sight.
Why didn’t I feel better? “So…?”
He pointed behind me to a metal ladder that just appeared out of nowhere. The rungs looked like some form of rope and hung loosely between the two metal poles that just kept going up… and up.
The ladder didn’t move, but the further up I looked, it started to sway in the wind. Oh, no. Oh no, oh no, oh no no no no. I don’t have to climb that do I? Oh, please no.
I glanced back at This questioningly, but he just raised his eyebrows expectantly and gave me a little “shoo” gesture with his hands. Heaving in a deep breath, I made my way over to the ladder and placed my hand on the rung just over my head. Exhaling, I started to climb, trying to ignore the rough rope and the frightening give with each step. Don’t look down, don’t look down, dear God don’t look down. This went against everything that I knew, everything my gut was screaming at me. I’m going to fall. I’m going to lose my grip and go splat on the ground and my lifeless remains will be too mangled to even identify.
After an eternity of climbing, the ladder began to sway. That was when the shaking set in. Try as I might, I couldn’t stop the tremors running up my arms and down my spine. I froze against the ladder, holding on with everything I had and closed my eyes, pressing my head into my hands. My head was all scrambled and my gut was somewhere on the ground or in the pit, still falling.
People are watching, you idiot. Move! The thought came out of nowhere and jolted me. If my muscles hadn’t been locked in place I would have fallen to my death, but it did get me moving again. I spared a glance down and wished I hadn’t, there was a blanket of green barely recognisable as trees. How high had I climbed? Taking in a few deep breaths, I tried looking up instead. There was a speck swaying in the breeze with the same rhythm as the ladder. A platform hanging out in the middle of the air.
Now that I had a goal, it was easier to keep moving. My breath still came in heavy pants and I couldn’t feel my hands for how hard I gripping the rungs.
The top of the ladder drew closer and closer, and so did the platform. It wasn’t as simple as just crawling up onto the platform, oh no. There just had to be near-invisible, not to mention suspiciously flimsy-looking, wire rungs leading across. I nearly lost my hold on the ladder again.
There was no getting around it for this part. If I didn’t look down I would miss a rung and get very, very cosy with the ground. Now I had nothing against the ground, in fact I would rather be standing right on its solid mass right now – or maybe even kissing it repeatedly – , but I didn’t want to be soaked into grass and rock. Grass green so did not go with dried neon-blue blood.
It was impossible, but I had made it to the platform and in one piece no less. Everyone looked so tiny down below, and I still could not believe that I had made it up. Standing on the platform was terrifying. The wind was howling up here, buffeting me towards the edge of the metal slab. I looked over the edge just to see whether there was anything else I could do now, you know to get down?
Peeking over the edge was a mistake, and I drew back quickly. There was nothing to grab onto in utter terror so I closed my eyes again and tried desperately not to scream like a little girl. The others were specks on the ground. I could see enough of them to know that they were all staring at me and waiting for… something. What? I tried to push past the fear and think rationally, it wasn’t working for me. What the hell was I supposed to do now?
Risking another peek over the edge, the answer came to me. Oh no. it was my catch phrase of the day. He didn’t want me to just walk off the edge of the pit. No that would be way too easy. He wanted me to walk off the edge of the platform. The flare of blue light This sent up told me so. In dancing, fiery letters. JUMP.
Air caught in my throat. I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. The rational part of my brain was trying to convince me that it was all a test. I had gotten up here hadn’t I? All I had to do was trust that I wouldn’t die a horrible and gruesome death. The rest of me was more sensible and was, quite appropriately, screaming.
Deep breaths, I kept drawing in deep breaths and before I could over-think it, I ran forward. My heart stopped when my foot met air and I went sailing. My world was just one big fall. Eyes closed and blood rushing through my veins I prepared to feel the bones in my legs crush into pulp.
The end was a long time in coming. I felt the little jolt, but I didn’t really register that I hadn’t mushed into a gelatinous pile until I heard the cheers. My eyes snapped open and I found myself floating over the pit, the air rushing up around me a consistent roar.
I was just over head level of everyone else. Funny thing about the “pit,” it was really a giant air-jet, I wasn’t sure if there was a natural reason for this or if it was just coding in the simulations, but I wasn’t inclined to argue with the results. Time to get down. I started trying to move for the edge and managed an awkward sort of flailing motion with my arms that started getting me there bit by bit. Finally, finally I managed to flop back down on solid land. I bet I was grey as the rocks I landed on.
“Well done.” Morgan helped me to my feet. “You overcame Despair. Who’s next?”
The lingering cheers faded altogether and everyone tried to make themselves look small. Hysteria bubbled up in my chest and threatened to make me look like more of an idiot than anybody already thought I was.
I staggered over to the ladder and leant against it, watching with interest as they all tried to get others to go first. They all knew that it was perfectly safe, but who in their right mind would want to catapult themselves off a tiny platform onto a black speck?
The sad thing was that I wanted to jump again. It was probably the hysteria talking.
Eventually they all jumped, screaming, crying or otherwise. We all conquered Despair.
“Great.” Morgan drawled after the last of us had landed safely. “We missed lunch.” He looked at us all for a couple of seconds as if he expected us to scream our eternal and undying pain at the prospect of missing out on whatever the kitchen special of the day was. When no such wail of torment arose he sighed and shook his head, muttering something that sounded suspiciously like “ungrateful newbies”. “Alright, come on then.”
The scenery rippled and bled into the hated white room. This walked over to the door on the other side and disappeared the moment he touched the handle. I found myself in the lead, my wits had returned to me somewhere between the fourth and fifth jumps and now I was all too happy to get out of this place. A wave of vertigo swept over me as I make contact with the door and the next thing I knew, I was sitting up sputtering and coughing. Needles ripped out of my arms and I fell out of the pod, landing with a thud onto the cold floor. More coughing and then a black-clad hand yanked me upright. The masked face leered down at me. “Out of the frying pan….” It chuckled.
This was already waiting for us over by the door, which was now unlocked, presumably. Once all of us had been reawakened and assisted into a somewhat upright position, This gestured to all of us to follow. I had a feeling this would become second nature within a matter of days.
He led us through a maze of dark corridors. Only minimal strip-lighting lit the way. I couldn’t help myself. “What’s with the lights?” I asked.
He didn’t even glance over his shoulder. “Energy saving.” He shrugged, managing to make the move appear distinct even as he semi-jogged. “We have large energy requirements and we need to be prepared for anything. Lowering the lights in corridors is just a little step towards conserving energy.” The answer was rattled off as if he was giving a much-practised lecture.
“Right.” I muttered. Staring at the dim lighting, I shook my head. The strips of gentle blue light couldn’t have been taking up much off the energy grid at all. If he was telling the truth – which, really, he might not be – I had to wonder what sort of equipment they were using around here. The labs on the Liandron had some seriously huge equipment and they didn’t have this sort of problem, or if they did, they didn’t try to solve it by pitching the corridors into a storm-cloud grey.
We came to an abrupt halt just before the corridor dead-ended on a double door. They were old, heavy wood and it must have cost a fortune to fit them into the frame. Wood was nearly never seen any more, what with the lack of forests out in space.
“Oooh, I heard about these. Daddy was talking about doors that were installed into the Demetrius when it was being built….” Megan rambled on. Personally I was too absorbed in the patterns carved into the wood to care what she was babbling about.
Birds, swallows I guess, wove their way up the sides of the doors. Flames danced along their wings and seemed to flicker along the edges of the door, eating it up from the frame inwards. They swung open and I blinked, shaking my head to clear it. The flames had seemed to come alive for a second, blazing colour, heat and something else. Something that no person in their right minds would ever be able to define. It was just a late after-effect of the mind-bending drugs right? Right?
I was standing there, open mouthed and staring for a full thirty seconds before I managed to actually see what was in the next room. It was massive and looked like it was fully prepared for us. Everything we could reasonably need was just lying there. Across one wall were beds, each with their own chest lying on the floor in front of them. They were bolted to the ground too, all twenty-five of them.
The opposite wall had the makings of a dining hall. Tables and chairs were stacked up and ready to be unloaded for meals and three solid steel island benches – also bolted into the ground – were already laden with gently steaming dishes.
What looked like a third of the room was partitioned off, two signs dangled down from the ceiling, one promising a bathroom and the other one promising medical treatment. Food, water, beds and medicine, I had a feeling I would be here for a while.
Morgan snorted and shook his head. “I don’t believe it, lucky bastards.” He turned back to the rest of us. “Well, go on, you get lunch after all. Once you’ve eaten, put the tables back exactly where they are, pick out a bed and use the little silver things to carve your name onto the chest. Your stuff will be dumped in there later.”
He turned back the way we came and wandered off. I took a tentative step into the room and headed for the nearest table. It was a light metal contraption that skidded on the floor when I set it down. Others were setting themselves up in their little groups and chatting away, the guy that had spoken out earlier – Nate – was already at the food, opening up dishes and setting the lids askew. Warm smells wafted through the room reminding me just how hungry I was. Breakfast had been years ago and everything that had happened since seemed like something in a dream. A really twisted, borderline-violent dream.
Sala dragged over a couple of chairs and then tugged me over towards the food. She was practically drooling just looking at the buffet laid out in front of us.
There were round steel plates stacked up next to bundles of cutlery and we swiped them all up, loading out plates with synthesised meats and pastries, as much as we could fit onto the little circle. Drinks were on a separate little island and Sala managed an extraordinary feat of balancing skill, dumping a sweating soda into my pile of goods.
“That was really brave of you.” She said on our way back to our little corner of the room.
“Yeah, cherry cola, it took everything I had not to recoil in utter horror.” I replied, managing to take a seat without spilling anything. I placed that among my top achievements of the day.
She actually rolled her eyes at me. “Suck it up and drink your cola.” Sala dug into her plate and became so completely absorbed in inhaling every molecule of her lunch that I almost forgot to eat mine. It was like one of those rare spectacles that people pay small fortunes to go and see, simply hypnotic.
Sala caught me staring. “I meant the jump you know.”
“Uh, what?” I asked, having completely forgotten that I had this thing called a brain and that it was capable of connecting dots and making these things called thoughts.
“It was brave to jump.” She said, looking vaguely uncomfortable at having to spell it out. “I don’t think I would have been able to do it if you hadn’t.”
I stared at her for a few seconds, probably making her think that I was completely slow. “You were the one that volunteered me.” I pointed out. “I’m still not sure if I can forgive you.”
“I never expected you to actually do anything.” Sala gave me a wicked grin. “But I think you have an admirer.”
“You’re changing the subject.” I told her.
“Only sort of.” Her dark hair caught the light as she leaned forward. “Nathaniel Pyrox” She jerked her head back in his direction. He was leaning over a table, laughing with three of the other boys. “You have to admit he’s hot.”
“No, I don’t.” Now I was the uncomfortable one. I had known Sala all of about three hours and now she was giving me dating advice? Was this normal? I only had my “science” friends to refer to and they hadn’t really been around me for any other reason than they felt they should. After all, my family was well known in the realms of science, I was obviously going to follow in their footsteps.
She rolled her eyes again. “I’m going to have to break you in after all.” She muttered.