The nurse handed me off to a bored-looking guard who huffed at me as I dragged my feet. As much as I had expected to be placed on the Demetrius for the next couple of years of my life, maybe even the rest of it, my family had always assumed otherwise. It didn’t matter that my eyes glazed over whenever they started up a debated argument over the technicalities of particle physics or whatever topic had been brandished all over the science channel that week, they expected me to go into the science field. Even a nurse (no offense to the woman who had so painlessly unhooked me from all those needles) would be better than a bull-headed military grunt.
Sucking it up, I pushed open the door at the end of the hallway and found myself in a tiny antechamber. A decorative coffee table sat in the middle of the room. It was trying very hard to look like old, worn wood but it wasn’t fooling anyone. Three figures bounced to their feet, cushions bouncing lightly back into their original positions on the decorative floral couches. My mother, a middle-aged woman with a few stress-streaks of grey running through her pastel-blue shock of hair stared at me expectantly. My father, looking about five years older than the last time I had seen him, gave me a weary, anxious look and went back to staring down at his hands. The last person in the room, my sister, examined her nails in a way that managed to make all the light in the room pick that moment to suddenly flock to her side and watch her go about the banal task of picking dirt out of her cuticles.
At least there was someone else in the room who didn’t particularly want to be there. Kathrynne had graduated three years ago and had just finished her training with the esteemed bioengineering squad on the Liandron. She was supposed to be moving into her own place and getting a life, which she would probably go about doing the second she was out of here.
After a few long seconds of awkward and dragging silence, I cleared my throat and clicked the little black button on the not-wood table. A holo-image popped into being and was startled into speech.
The flickering image turned to look at all of us before finally settling on me. “Ah! Yes, the Andromeda girl!” Oh, no, please – is there a torture option? Whatever power was out there help me, he was my science teacher and one of the most boring and clueless people to exist in this galaxy. Possibly even the universe.
Mr. Lanchest squinted through his big, gawky lenses that he absolutely refused to throw away. He could get corrective surgery for a fraction of the price he must pay to get those things replaced. He was brandishing a notepad (an honest-to-God, paper-and-pencil notepad) like a weapon and pacing slowly as he tried to read what was in front of him. An eternity passed before he finally found what it was he was supposed to read. Giving us all a display of clearing his throat, Lanchest got into it. “Welcome, everyone to the graduation ceremony of the one and only Gwendolyn Andromeda.
“Her record throughout her schooling shows an exemplary proficiency for the physical arts and as such we have placed her under the further tutelage of… of…” He looked up at my family. I couldn’t see his face, but I could imagine it. The same crestfallen look that he got every time I failed to answer a seemingly simple question correctly. It was like I had kicked his puppy – not that he had a puppy. I don’t even know why that saying was still in use, it’s not like any live animals were actually brought along with us when we all decided to leave Earth, well except for the ones in the zoo, but after so long most of them were dead or so genetically altered that they really didn’t count.
“Of the fine mentors and teachers aboard the Demetrius.” I finished for him.
The silence was a thick wall between me and my family. Kathrynne smirked and flipped her hair, my father looked down at his feet with an intensity that should have set his shoes on fire and my mother stood there, stunned. Eventually Mr Lanchest let out a tentative cough and kept reading, the miniature notebook trembling visibly in his miniature hands. “Her training will ultimately decide her future career prospects and will require full-time residence aboard the Demetrius, where food, lodging and equipment will be provided. Visiting days will be the last Friday of every month from the hours of ten to…” About there was where I lost focus.
This wasn’t a graduation ceremony so much as an information seminar, and to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t all that interested. The next two years of my life belonged solely to the Militia. They would tell me when to eat, sleep and think and I would go along with it so long as I could cut out of family meeting days early.
Long minutes ticked away and then silence fell again. No-one moved and no-one spoke. The table gave a meek little beep as a compartment opened up. The small drawer held a glossy gold patch with a large ‘M’ in thick, black print stamped on it. I knew what I was supposed to do with it, and since no-one was talking to me, or even really looking at me, I steeled myself. The patch was supposed to go on my left shoulder where everyone could see it. Shaking off my light jacket, I placed the patch to skin and held in a small squeak of pain as the patch stabbed into my skin with small needles. Inky liquid seeped a little from under the patch as it started the painful process of fusing with my skin. The ink was followed by a small rivulet of bright-blue blood.
When it was over, I dared a peek at the shoulder, wondering if it looked as awful as it felt. The golden circle was ringed in muck, but it gleamed happily from my shoulder. The patch rippled and moved with my skin, only pulling slightly when I tried to rub at it.
I glanced up at my mother, who still hadn’t said anything. She was still staring at the patch. “Mum.” I said, reaching a hand out to her. She was a little high-maintenance, but she was still my mother and I wanted her to support me in this. It was going to be a much longer journey if she didn’t.
“I’ll see you in four weeks.” She said stiffly, leaving the room. My father followed and Kathrynne stretched, looking around as if she had only just realised where she was and didn’t particularly care.
“Well.” She said. “Have a nice life I guess. See you around. Maybe.”
It was a long wait in the hangar bay.
Each Aptitude test only took a couple of minutes, but the ceremonies and goodbyes usually took a whole lot longer and nobody was going anywhere until the tests were done. Seventy-two people were graduating from school right along with me and I had been in the first ten tested. Alphabetical order, it was both a blessing and a curse. I was the first one to be sent through to Hangar Bay five. The Demetrius-bound passenger ship took up half the deck and was a sleek, glossy black. A golden emblem was painted along the side, the same one that now sat on my shoulder. The ship didn’t look all that threatening, at least not until I remembered where it was going to be taking me and how much firepower probably sat in that thing’s cargo hold. It suddenly became a whole lot more sinister.
As the hours went by, other graduates started trickling in. I didn’t know most of them, but they were mostly smug-looking boys. I had always been expected to follow my sister into science, so no-one had really taken any notice of me in gym. Or track or swimming or anything else that required physical power instead of mental calculations. They left me alone, most of them probably didn’t even notice I was there – that was how it usually worked – and the others just had better things to do. Part of me was glad for the alone time, the rest of me was just plain bored.
A full hour and a half passed before another girl turned up. She stumbled into the room wide-eyed and looking almost panicked. Her silver skin had gone a sickly shade of grey, contrasting with the flushed, panicked purple of her cheeks. For a second I had no idea who she was, and then my mind dressed up the messy pony tail and the crumpled silk cocktail dress. Megan Silver, I had never expected her to end up here. She was that one girl that was always surrounded by her own personal horde of mindless fanatics. Her skills included picking out the perfect dress-accessory combo and gossiping for a whole three hours about the latest range of lip-gloss.
Her eyes roamed around the room and settled on me. The look of relief on her face at finding another girl was followed by the hurried, shuffling half-run of a panicked woman in heels so high they defied the laws of physics. I could feel a headache forming.
“Thank. God.” She gushed, settling herself next to me. “Aren’t there any other girls here?” She asked, looking around. “I can’t believe I was put here, I told them that I would much rather go to the Kia with the rest of my friends, but of course they said the Aptitude tests were absolute and that was that.”
She paused to take a breath and I gave her a tight-lipped smile. “Do you know what’s going to happen next?”
If anyone knew what was going to happen once all the tests were done and we were herded onto the ship, it was her. Her father was a high-ranking Associate and had connections everywhere. All my father could tell me was that Science initiates were given a standardised test and then sent to their area of specialty for further training. Eventually they were placed with a mentor for their two years. After that, they could do whatever they want – provided they could secure funding, of course. The rest of the ships were a mystery. I had been on trips to the Kia, but that was it. The Kia was the centre of the arts and everyone visited there at least once in their lives. My father had taken us all to see a play. I don’t remember much about it, I was too absorbed in the other sights. That and I was nine at the time, classic story-lines didn’t really mean much to me.
She stared at me blankly for a couple of seconds, like one of her brain-sucked flunkies had decided to form an opinion – which, of course, was completely unheard of. I guess she hadn’t expected me to talk. “No, Daddy just told me about what would happen when I got into Kia like I was supposed to. He’s going to have words with the board after he finds out about this!” Megan lapsed into silence and I kept my mouth shut. Speaking now would just provoke a longer conversation, and I really didn’t want that.
Another girl walked into the room. She looked as scared as Megan had. She did the same room-casing and locked onto Megan. They practically ran to each other and stayed glued together in a distant corner of the room. Watching them, I went over everything I knew about new initiates to each specialty area. If someone flunked out, they were put back into Aptitude testing or assigned a dump-job. Something easy and low-grade. The main deterrent to one of those jobs was the insult of not being able to withstand the initiation phase, but there were some that just didn’t care and did a little as possible so they could just take the easy road. Money wasn’t a problem. The more you had, the more you could get, but no-one starved. The worst that happened was a life without television. Poverty didn’t help anyone, not when we were all drifting through space in the same boat. Think about it, if you were stuck in a confined space with three other people and two of them couldn’t afford a shower, would you sit there and take the rancid stench of congealed sweat or would you give the guys a damn bath?
I lost track of time, waiting for the testing to be over. The room filled with nervous chatter, but it echoed hollowly. There were all of nine other people in the room. The last person to walk in was another girl. She had that trademarked frightened look that everyone came in with, but she wasn’t staring around the room as if the walls were about to crush her to death. The boys actually took a moment to look at her, size her up. They then promptly ignored her, figuring she wasn’t a threat – just another girl – which I thought was a big mistake. Something about her short cropped hair and the piercing, intelligent glimmer in her eyes said that she had some backbone. I couldn’t recall her name. She didn’t look like the reach-out and connect type, but with limited options, I guess I would have to do as a support base, or at least an ally. She made her way over to me slowly and confidently.
“Hi.” I said, taking the initiative. “I’m Gwen.”
She sat down next to me. “Sala.” She said back, sighing and settling into a more relaxed position. “You the Science chick?” She asked, giving me one of those up-and-down glances that were somehow considering and dismissive at the same time.
“Obviously not.” I rolled my eyes and went back to staring at the ceiling. I almost had it completely memorised by now. God, I was bored.
“Huh.” She fell silent too.
“Family normally follows family.”
“You?” I asked, not bothering to look at her.
“Brother’s training to be a Comet.” She replied, using the common nickname for an officer in the Militia.
We fell into silence.
Another fifteen minutes passed before the lights flickered dramatically and a large holographic figure appeared over the ship. It was the Militia Associate, Morgan This. He was one of the rare figures that made a career from two different lifestyles. This had started as a Comet and moved up the ranks until he was asked to represent the military in the government. He was a very busy man and everything we were meant to aspire to.
“Good afternoon, initiates. You have been assessed as likely candidates for one of the many career opportunities the Militia can provide.” This’ holographic form turned slowly, assessing all of us. “I will not lie to you. This next week is going to be hell. Thus the name “Hell Week.” You will be put in with the senior initiates and forced to do physical feats you never thought possible.” Another pause, this one for effect. It was working. Everyone in the room was staring at him with the raptured attention of toddlers being told something of grave importance from their parents. “Don’t be heroes.” He warned. “If you need help, ask. Your training begins the moment you set foot on the Demetrius. Prepare yourselves.” He winked out, drowning the hangar bay in stunned silence. Slowly, nervous chatter started up again. Everyone was staring at the ship and the people closest to it were beginning to edge towards it slowly, as if pulled in by giant magnets.
I stood, as drawn to the ship as everyone else, even if I didn’t want to be. Sala edged her way to the front of the crowd, staring upwards expectantly. The door opened up slowly, a set of metal steps poured out of the new opening and a glaringly red carpet was rolled out after it. Oh, lovely, that makes me feel all warm and fluffy. I was fairly sure whoever had set this up was filming this just to watch our reactions over and over again. Maybe it was Mr Lanchest; I always suspected he had a dark past.
This was it. Make or break. The boldest of the crowd were already filing onto the ship while the rest stared uncertainly into the darkness of the inner cabin. They were probably thinking something along the lines of what was going through my head. We could still leave. All we would have to do was edge to the back of the crowd and walk out the door. Someone would meet us and sort out whatever happened next. It had happened before. Life wouldn’t be all that exciting, but it would be liveable. I mean what sane person went happily into promised pain and suffering?
Me, apparently. All the fear, anxiety and questions I had were there and gone in a stunned instant. Whatever pain was promised in the next week would be better than what was in store if I turned and walked out the hangar door.
Just like that I was walking up the steps, a weight lifted off my shoulders. School was over and now I was going to a place where all I had to worry about was getting through one day at a time. No more science, no more arts or people looking at me like I was supposed to start reciting pi to a thousand-and-one places.
The ramp gave under me a little, settling into its brackets with a crackling groan that set my heart thundering. The walls were padded up to waist height, with pull-down seats and belts hanging limply, just waiting for use. There was a table in the middle of it all – sleek, glossy and just big enough for a last-minute briefing. This thing was designed to be used for any sort of mission you could think of. Planetary surveillance, pick-up, drop-off. There were even hooks and clamps to grip on to the hulls of other ships. Not that they have ever had to be used, it wasn’t like we had run into any hostile aliens looking to capture or kill us before. The only reason it would be used is if some idiot managed to get stuck in a small nook near the hull and had to be rescued – which, unfortunately, had happened before. Idiot.
I made my way to the back of the cabin, skirting the table and taking in the dim strip-lighting and dotted windows. A few small metal chests were mounted on the walls above the padding, and I tried one when I sat down. It was locked, which might have been for the best. It was probably equipment or weapons.
A small trickle of anxiety wormed its way back into the pit of my stomach, so I looked around at everyone else. Nine. There were nine others in the same boat, waiting to go to the same place I was. It should have been reassuring, but somehow it was just daunting. Ten, it was such a round number. It didn’t seem real.
I was one of ten initiates. Only ten. Something wasn’t right.
“Guess one of the guys punked out, huh?” Sala commented, strapping herself into the seat next to me. I had definitely made an ally. A chill travelled down my spine. There had been eleven of us just a minute ago.
Guys. I looked around. Yes, the other two girls were there. It wasn’t Megan that had chickened out. Huh. I wouldn’t have pegged that.
The ship started up with a whir, ramp folding back into the door with a small click and a more absolute darkness fell in the cabin. The strip lighting kicked into full gear just as we started moving, changing colours in a slow, pulsing dance. It almost looked like a party. Almost. I wasn’t convinced by the whole red carpet treatment. Now if they started serving cocktails….
The trip must have taken five minutes, but it felt like an eternity. Everyone was talking, chatting away to fill the eerie silence. No-one passed out cocktails, so the lights quickly turned from cool to creepy.
The moment the door opened we were all out of our seats and headed for it. There was no hesitation this time. We had all left that behind us on the Neptis. One by one we spilled out into the new hangar bay. It could have been the exact one that we had just left, if it weren’t for the red “seven” that decorated the cream wall.
Morgan This was waiting for us in person this time, staring at each of us in turn. He nodded silently when he finished taking us in, as if the loss of a member was expected. “Welcome.” He said. “Your belongings are being examined and cleaned. The ones that you will be allowed will be transported to your dorm, the rest will be sent to your families for safekeeping. I told you I wouldn’t lie; prepare yourselves for completely new wardrobes and equipment. Items from home are only distractions.”
A couple of the boys started muttering unhappily to themselves, outshone by Megan’s sputtering of indignation, but it died down quickly when they caught the look being sent their way. Morgan continued. “This is your last chance to back out.” That level stare went around the room again as he paced before us. “You can get back on that ship and go home, right now.”
There was silence, none of us moved.
“Alright then.” He said, coming to a stop and tilting his head. “Door number one.”
The hangar door opened and my heart started up its incessant pounding again. There were no lights behind it, but I could see enough to know that it wasn’t what I was expecting. Instead of an open waiting chamber for flights, there was a narrow corridor, arcing around to the right. The boys started moving towards it and I followed suit, feeling uncomfortably like cattle being herded down a chute. From what I had heard, that never ended well.
We shuffled down the many twists and turns of the corridor, stopping when we came up against a locked door. The moment we were all within a certain area, a wall slammed down behind us, plunging us all into pitch-darkness. One of the girls screamed and an elbow clipped me in the gut. I narrowly avoided hurling my breakfast over whoever had hit me.
A hissing noise started up and I thought I could feel the soft sting of pressurised liquid prickling my face. A metallic taste coated my tongue and I tried oh so very hard not to swallow. A purple haze coated everything and I could start to make out shapes. Arms, legs, heads – the world in purple-lit silhouettes. It was like being back on the ship and I wasn’t all too sure that was a good thing.
A rush of cool air hit us and the purple lighting was drowned out in a new rush of blue light. The door had opened into a small chamber. The floor was solid metal with drainage holes in sunken points throughout the room and hoses attached to the walls. The roof had some pinpoint holes that were caught by the lighting and round cylinders lay in intervals fused to the floor.
“Take up a position next to a laundry chute and strip.” The voice sounded like Morgan This, but I couldn’t be sure. I was the first to move. Not because I wanted to prove myself, but because I had taken another elbow to the gut and was starting to get a little claustrophobic. I took the one closest to the back of the room, and stared at the chute apprehensively. I wasn’t shy, it wasn’t the first time I had been asked to strip in front of everyone. We all went to school on the Neptis, it was done that way so that everyone got the same education regardless of where they were born or who their family was. Part of school life was sport and there was no such thing as privacy when it came to the locker rooms. At least two of the girls in the room had already seen me in my full glory, but stripping in front of a whole bunch of guys? That was a little out of my comfort zone, I mean there were limits.
The girls followed me, Sala elbowing her way to my side and the others sticking as close to her as they could. I had a screen of sorts through them. Somehow it didn’t make stripping in a roomful of boys any easier.
My clothes went into the cylinder and the floor opened up underneath them. I had a funny feeling that I probably wouldn’t be seeing them again; it might have had something to do with the lick of bright orange I saw before the floor resumed its rightful place.
People in black, skin-tight body suits, complete with masks, marched into the room and took up positions next to the hoses. I didn’t have time to so much as shake my head in denial before I was hit with the high-pressure stream of water-and-God-only-knows-what-else. It certainly didn’t smell like pure water.
The stream hit me like a swinging, scalding log. It was all I could do to stay in one spot and not go flying into the back wall. My gut started throbbing, it had already been hit twice and this wasn’t helping any. “Turn.” My own personal black-clad hell ordered me. His – her? – voice was obviously filtered through some form of mechanical device. It was unrecognisable as human. I’m sure that was intentional. Please let it be intentional.
My death glare must have been filtered through the water, dim lighting and the tinted plastic covering my hose-wielding hellion’s face. I turned anyway, wincing as the spray hit me in more tender areas of my body. I hoped he was enjoying the show, I was determined to make it a one-time-only gig.
The water stopped and bright, blazing lights came on, searing into my eyeballs. Everyone looked around dazedly and there were more than a few people looking at the ground. I guess the boys hadn’t really bet on this when they walked so boldly onto the ship.
Another door opened and we were escorted through it by our new friends. Piles of clothing lay in wait in a brightly-lit room. There were two piles of everything, shirts, pants, belts, boots, socks, even underwear. The men pointed out the piles, one for girls, and the other for boys and told us to pick one of everything, dress up and line up by the far door.
The girls descended upon the underwear like locusts and I got in there too. I got another one of my gut feelings, this one was telling me that waiting around was just going to get me left behind and that was one place I didn’t want to be, not here. Especially with the looks some of the other guys were giving me.