I forget about how my alarm was set two hours earlier than normal, and for a while, the constant ringing is just a distant sound in my dreams, slowly blending into reality as I open my eyes. I hoist myself up on the bed, and wearily pick up the alarm on the table beside me. I sigh with the overriding temptation to slide back into my sheets and burrow myself in comforting darkness. The window in my room glows orange and purple, with a sun peaking above the bottom frame. It is five-thirty AM.
I sneak into the bathroom, trying to stay quiet as I turn the shower on.
I wouldn’t normally shower before an Athletics session, but we were all given a prior notice that most first-day activities would be less gruelling than normal, in order to give us the chance to get ourselves comfortable.
The time limit in the shower is seven minutes, as shown above, next to the shower controls. After undressing, I allow the water to fall on my skin, praying that it’s not too early for the water to be hot enough. The last time I showered with cold water was when the Division Council forgot to set the heating times in the morning. Though not exactly specified when water is heated, it normally tends to be before everybody wakes up.
Steam plasters the shower glass as I try my best to scrub clean before the remaining time runs out. Once you get to 0:00, the water just turns off. No other warning, no signal. If you’re halfway through hair conditioning, tough luck.
Halfway through eating my grain cereal alone at the dining table, I begin thinking about the war and where all the trainee soldiers are right now. I can imagine Hugo being shown around the H.D, settling into the soldier’s training grounds and dorms. It’s quite bittersweet, really; he’s getting a taste of high-quality living for a while. But any living could be taken away from him pretty soon. I just feel it in my heart that he’ll be fine. Even if our city is standing on its last legs, that doesn’t mean we’ll all burn under the opposition’s fire, no matter how far or close we are to them.
“Welcome to the Athletics Career Trials.” Our coach bellows in the main gymnasium of the Central Division’s Senior Seminary (CDSS). We stand aligned in all-white training kit, borrowed for the meantime as we trial out this potential career. A few lucky boys dot the crowd of students, but there are of course mainly girls in attendance today.
“An Athletics career is one of pure adrenaline and competition. You’ll spend days training for tournaments and games, possibly competing against players in the Higher Division. You’ll spend days teaching younger seminary students how to run well, win tennis games, excel in archery or possibly even blade fighting. This all depends on which part of Athletics you decide to focus on over the years.”
I’m already getting quite tired of all these speeches. I know that two weeks from now I’ll be sitting through a Law introduction, and subsequently with Arts – a subject which I want nothing to do with.
I notice Vera standing to my right, in the midst of our small impatient crowd, huddled closely as we listen to the coach’s speech. She stands with arms crossed and a poised posture. She looks more eager to begin training than most people in the gym. Seeing her closer, I can see that her skin is paler than mine, her hair longer and straighter, but her eyes are different; dark, slim, wide, and striking. There are not many citizens that hold her facial features; you can find a few dotted in the L.D., the Second Division and maybe only a handful in the Fourth. The Fourth Division is predominantly ‘white’ – a category that I wouldn’t even class myself to fit in fully. Though my mother has the conventional tone and features of that group, my father’s skin is much more golden, his hair is thicker and darker. I think one of the most fascinating things about this city is the diversity of the population. People look so different; skin colours contrast, hair textures differ, physical features vary greatly.
We move onto light aerobics for half an hour before being split into different games.
I’m not sure whether it’s much of a coincidence that after all the analysis I was making of Vera, I become paired against her in the first game of the day –blade fighting.
It was scarcely played in the Intermediates due to its high skill requirements and lack of common interest. I only every played a few times, also finding it hard to get invested.
Blade fighting consists of two people against one another, aiming to win by being the first one to hit the opponent’s upper-left chest five times. We are told that the heart is the most precious part of our bodies, and if anything is worth puncturing, that’s it.
The blades’ tips and edges are lined with rubber, so any hit won’t draw blood but bruises at the most if played well. The players wear no head armour as any hit above the neck is a foul, as well as any below the waist, but the chest is well-protected with a padded vest. The aim is to try and block and manoeuvre as many swings as you can. Aim for the heart, and protect your own. It’s that straightforward. But easier said than done, right?
Vera and I stand opposite each other, long silver blades in our hands, while a few spectators gather including an umpire. A tennis game is going on at the other side of the gym, as well as boxing somewhere else. The crowd split up and chose which game they thought would be the most entertaining to watch.
I can’t help but already feel inadequate, judging the look in Vera’s eyes and knowing that I will be beaten. Her stance suggests victory, and that’s something I’m not ready for.
When we begin to play, it seems like all of her blocks and attacks were planned out and my flimsy performance was pre-determined. Like she was calculating my every move before I even made any. She glides her blade in the air at a frightening speed and I grunt with every hit that I try to avoid. I manage to hit her two times, but her fifth hit comes strong enough to knock me to the ground. I stare at the ceiling whilst the umpire calls her name out as the winner of round one.
“I don’t want a round two,” I sigh, standing up.
“There are five rounds to the game.” Vera pipes up, with a soft, light voice.
“I don’t want to play anymore.”
“Oh, I get it,” she laughs, nodding. “You don’t like not winning, do you?”
“Nobody likes not winning.” I mutter, straightening myself up. My hair has fallen out of its bun, so I attempt fixing it.
“Most people don’t like to lose, but most people can deal with it.”
“And you’re telling me I can’t?”
The crowd around us stays silent as we continue throwing words.
“Yes, I am.”
“OK,” I respond with slight malice. “Maybe you’re right.” I lift my blade back from the floor. “Let’s go again.”
Vera smiles, getting back into her stance to fight. I mirror her position, standing closer and taller. My face becomes solid, frozen lips not even flinching to smile back. I’m not letting myself lose this time.
The umpire announces the resumption of our game.
“Round one: Vera Mozaki - 1. Eden Perronis – 0. Prepare yourselves for Round Two.”
This time, we really fight. We’re neck and neck, but she eventually beats me again. However, it’s only by one point, and our duel lasted much longer. By round five, Vera is crowned the victor and the next participant takes my place. I guess I can deal with not winning, in this case; I’ve learnt that losing against Vera Nozuki might as well be winning, as nobody else could match up to her agility and skill, but by the end I was too intensely involved in the game to do anything worse than anybody besides her.
“You’ve got a lot of fight in you, Eden,” Vera chimes once we leave the tournament to watch a set of tennis. “Just make sure you use it wisely.”
I spend the rest of training with Vera, and we decide to find a quiet corner of the canteen to eat lunch in. The food in the Athletics section is fuelled with more carbs and energy to keep us going. I’ve also heard of recharges being more powerful in this line of work; whether it’s true or not, I cannot be sure of.
Vera’s character fluctuates quite significantly; at times, she’s too sweet, too soft, and too considerate. Then you might say something that triggers a change in her body language. She can smile at you, only to turn around and grimace at another. Either soft, or harsh. That’s what she is.
I think back to the altercation she had with Clementine at the E.O.I ball, wondering what could have caused it. All I can be sure of is that any aggravating cause has to have been on Clementine’s part.
“She feels like she needs to bring me down to size.” She answers me once I bring the topic into conversation. “You know, because she’s from the H.D. and I’m not. She has this odd speculation that I’ve been trying to get a spot up there through Eric. We attend these lessons in the L.D., and she feels like we’re up to something more. I don’t even think it’s an issue with power, or me trying to slide my way up there. It’s all possession. Everything needs to go through her first. If it has anything to do with Eric, anyway. She’s just jealous.”
“Jealous of what?”
Vera snorts. “She’s insecure, because she’s not exactly the brightest person around. Eric and I, and even you are amongst the brighter ones. She needs to feel like she belongs somewhere significant, such as attending these lessons. But she has no real interest. So the only thing she can do is fabricate all these weird assumptions to do with Eric or me. She likes to pretend she’s involved, or that she even remotely cares.”
“That’s pitiful.” I respond. “May I ask what lessons you speak of?”
“Eric told me you might want to know. Look, just come down to the Lower Division next Friday, four o’ clock. No earlier, no later. If you’re lost, ask a passer-by where the Warehouse is. Ignore any passing remark they may make.”
I snort. “What kind of remarks?”
“Osscarte doesn’t exactly have a clean reputation, and everybody instantly associates the Warehouse with him. If you’re going there, you’re going to meet him, and people aren’t too fond of that.”
“I don’t get what the big deal is. You don’t do anything illegal, do you?”
“The world ‘illegal’ may be the wrong choice of words in this case,” she laughs. “But in all honesty, I don’t know where this lies. The Higher Authority don’t like him, but they don’t take him as much of a threat; more of a nuisance.”
I frown in curiously. “I hope this isn’t some weird cult.”
“Call it what you want. But we call it Philosophy.”