The hard metal bench on which I rest to undo my boots makes my bruises seem even sorer. It was combat training today, and Captain Strauss put me up against Biff. Like I stood a chance. But I fought hard and long and didn’t stop until I passed out. Like I’ve always been taught.
The others snigger at me. They, of course, saw the whole thing. Elliott whispers to Minerva and she smirks, staring at me. I stare back until she squirms away.
I’m not weak, just because I’m weaker. My body is smaller, sleeker; I’m made to dodge punches, not to throw them. My arms are strong, stronger than most, but not stronger than the strongest man I know. It’s science. How can I be bigger than him, stronger, when I am built for smaller things?
My mind is as sharp as any. I’ve passed every test they’ve thrown at me. I’m smart, quick witted, able.
So why don’t they like me?
I just have to ignore them. We’re not allowed to have feelings in this line of work. Too costly. And yet I can’t stop watching Minnie. We’ve trained together since the age of eight, but it’s like I’m only just noticing her now. I’ve heard people talk about crushes before, but I think this is my first. I see her and I feel something strange stirring in my stomach. Something like adrenaline, but more subdued, more constant. My heart crashes against my chest, the way it does when we do parachute training, but this feeling is more welcome.
I’m not the only one looking. She’s used to making sure people are always looking. When we were kids, she figured out how to make her lips a different colour. She stole red food colouring from the kitchen, and mixed it with our prescribed aloe vera lip balm. Now, her lips are always red, like she’s been eating too many strawberries. But it looks good. So does her hair swept high, waves of blonde arching up and then dipping down past her shoulders. She’s done up the top button of her jumpsuit. Some girls have copied her, but not to the same effect. Her jumpsuit is tight on her, snug on the curves of her body. Deliberately. She’s technically not breaking the dress code, but I can tell Captain Strauss doesn’t like the way she presents herself. We’re soldiers, not models, she often points out. And I agree with her. But it doesn’t mean I don’t like to look.
There’s something admirable about the way she acts. It’s her own personal rebellion, I think. She didn’t ask to be here. Most people didn’t.
But I did.
I should sleep. It’s pain endurance class tomorrow. I need to be ready. But I can still hear the others chatting, laughing at something Zach said. Him and Ronan aren’t so bad; Zach’s the clown of the team, and Ronan’s quiet, smart, keeps to himself mostly. Marcia’s OK too. A little on the dopey side, and slower than the others. But yet she fits in better than I do.
If it wasn’t for Elliott, I’d be OK.
He’s got it in for me. Because he was the one who trained so hard to get in. He had a later start than I did. As a child, his bones were riddled with rickets and allergies prevented him doing a lot of things he longed to. While he was treated, he was in a wheelchair, wired up to respiratory support. And each day he’d watch me go off to training, jealous fire in his eyes as I packed my training kit. One time, I came home with a badge pinned to my chest. It read ‘Top of the Class’ in red bubble writing. That day I’d been the first in the hundred metre race, completing it in 13.45 seconds. It seemed impressive at the time, and my parents were so proud. But later on, after Mum turned out the lights in our room, I heard Elliott crying in the dark. And I wish I’d gone to him then, but I didn’t.
Something must have changed that day, because Elliott started getting better. Almost as though through sheer determination. And when he was well enough to train like all the other kids our age, he threw himself into it, like a lion on a piece of meat. He used to get up early before school and run for an hour, then swim for an hour, then practise weights. All before eight o’clock. Then he’d go to class smelling of chlorine and sweat, and study until lunch, at which point he’d grab a snack and go running again. Rain or shine, he’d be out on that school field, curls plastered to his face. Other kids would laugh at him, wearing his protective mask to help him breathe. They’d say he looked stupid. They accused him of smelling bad in class, when he’d sit there with his armpits and back drenched in sweat. But he didn’t care one bit. Succeeding in the Trial was all that mattered to him.
And Elliott is smart. So much smarter than my parents, than me, our teachers. Smart in a way that can’t be taught; witty, sarcastic, manipulative. He’s good with strategy, calculations, and he understands science. He has a way with words, a certain charm, a tongue like a knife. What he lacks in speed and stamina, he makes up for in smarts. And then just before our eighth birthday, he was first in line for samples of the new X drug to try, which got him up to speed with the others our age.
And suddenly, it was looking like he might be ready for the Trial.
After school, we had training sessions, right up until the age of eight. We were taught how to prepare for the Trial and the vigorous training programme at boot camp. But I always felt a sense of ease in the challenges put before us. I relaxed into them, letting my body do the thinking. I loved the burn in my muscles as I ran, the raw feeling in my throat when I was out of breath, the feel of fresh bruises blossoming on my arms during hand to hand combat. We were sent puzzles to do at home. Riddles, advanced reading, equations. Where my other classmates saw chore, I saw leisure, competition, challenge. Something to sink my teeth into. Elliott became obsessed by it. He barely spoke to anyone, all his time and efforts spent on training. And so when the Trial came, he was more than ready.
Everyone has to participate in the Trial at the age of eight. It determines who is able to be part of the military. Those fit enough are made to do twenty-two years of National Service. And that’s what happened to Elliott and I. But unlike most, it was our ambition. Serving our nation was, and still is, our driving force, even from a young age.
I wanted to be here as much as he did. I just didn’t have to try so hard.
I ignore Minnie’s giggles as I get into my bunk and try to sleep, knowing that Elliott is the reason no one will give me the time of day. And that’s the reason that I resent him.
We’re used to pain and taking a hit here, but it’s not often we’re woken with a punch to the stomach. I lurch upwards, gasping out, but my fists are already balled, ready. I blink through the sleep in my eyes, seeing my brother looming over me. He grins.
“Fancy some midnight combat training?” he asks sweetly.
I’m on my feet in an instant, slipping my feet into my boots and tying them as fast as I can. It takes me a moment to realise that the others have formed a sort of circle around our dormitory. Like a fighting ring. Is that what this is?
“Don’t you ever sleep?” I ask wearily.
Elliott ignores me “What do you say sis? You up for a fight? Or are you chicken?” I fold my arms tiredly, bored of his stupid game. To my surprise, it makes Minnie smirk. Elliott is glaring at me.
“Come on, Karissa,” he murmurs “Show me what you’ve got.”
The others look at me expectantly. I draw my shoulders back as I step forwards in acceptance. I have nothing to lose here. And despite Elliott’s improvements, this is a fight I should probably win. I’ve always avoided fighting him in combat classes, mostly because I feel I owe him something; for the head start I had in life. I don’t want to ruin his credibility, show him up. But for once, I’m glad I’m facing him. I’m tired of his attitude. I’m sick of him trying to subdue me, push me down, make me feel unwanted. We stare at each other, sizing one another up, searching for weaknesses. I’m going to beat you down.
“This will be fun,” Elliott says quietly in amusement. But I’m ready for the punch he throws a second later. A predictable move. His eyes gave away exactly what he was going to do. I make to copy his motion and he grabs my wrist, but he isn’t expecting the knee to his groin manoeuvre that doubles him over. I have the upper hand. Still reluctant to hurt him much, I allow him a second to get back to his feet. It’s foolish of me. I narrowly dodge an elbow thrust to my abdomen and hurtle back to my bunk in an attempt to get away. I have no time to compose myself as Elliott runs at me. So I run too. I’m small enough that I can dodge around him, making towards the bunk that Minnie and Marcia share. I need some time to ready myself. I leap up onto the ladder on Minnie’s bed, and, as Elliott sprints towards me, I swing my legs from the ladder, watching my feet slam into Elliott’s chest. He falls to the floor, and I hear Minnie cackle. That gives me a new surge of energy. I jump down from the ladder and stand over him, ready to kick his smug face, but he grabs my ankle and I flail for a moment before crashing to the ground next to him, a shoot of pain rushing through my spine.
Elliott grins as he and I wrestle. He seems to think we were bonding or something. Like two children just playing. But we’re not. I struggle with him, finally gaining dominance when I pin his arms to his side with my knees. He struggles beneath me, but my hold on him is strong. I glared down at him, but he merely smiles, and I see the boy he was when we were young. Carefree, smiling, loving. Weak. He’s changed so much.
“Finish it,” he said “Go on. Smash my face in. You know you want to.”
“Do you really want me to?” I ask. I’m trying to sound threatening, but I want to hear his answer.
“They want you to,” he hisses. I look over at my teammates. They’re watching in awe, waiting for me. They want an ending to this fight. They want to know what I’m capable of. I raise my fist, ready to slam it into his face.
I know that voice. I follow it to the dormitory door. Captain Strauss is staring at me. I quickly stand and salute.
She looks down at Elliott on the floor, then back to me, looking slightly disturbed. Isn’t this what you want, Captain? Someone willing to fight?
“Come with me,” she says quietly. I look back at my teammates. They’re all staring at me. I make to follow Captain Strauss, but Elliott stands and grabs my arm.
“You missed your chance,” he whispered “Next time, I’ll win. And I won’t hesitate to crush you. We have to be ruthless, Karissa. We’re battle born, after all.”
I shake him off “Did this teach you nothing?” I lean close to his ear “You can’t beat me. You’ll never…ever, be good enough.”
Elliott’s face contorts in shock, but I’m not sticking around to watch him crumble. Captain Strauss is waiting for me.
I don’t know what she could possibly want. I wonder if I’m being punished for my tussle with Elliott. Not likely. It’s something she’d usually encourage. So why the fuss, in the middle of the night?
Her office is the only part of the building with a good view. The large open window overlooks our training grounds. Team 7 have just returned from their night expedition, and they’re gathered out in the courtyard. Like all the teams, they’re in the process of picking Team Captains and Seconds, but to me, it seems Team 7 already have their leader. I know her. Her name is Adelaide. She’s got the highest IQ score in the whole of the 12 teams under Captain Strauss’ command. She’s small and slight, like me, but fast and strong.
“What do you see?” Captain Strauss asks me. I watch Adelaide out the window, wondering what the Captain wants me to so say.
“A Team Captain,” I say after a while.
“And what does a Team Captain do?”
“They captain?” I say wearily. I’m not in the mood for her guessing games. I try not to wince as she clips me around the back of the head.
“Don’t make me change my mind about you. I want you to tell me the qualities of a good Team Captain.”
I watch as Adelaide begins to march her team back inside, and analyse her. “Strength. Team building. Charisma. Skill.”
“Good. What else?”
“Bravery. Honesty. Ruthlessness. But…they need to be loved too.”
“They need to be respected, not loved,” Captain Strauss argues. She sits down at her desk, her beady black eyes watching me “Do you think I’m well loved, Karissa? Do you think my job makes people affectionate towards me?”
I don’t know how to respond. No one likes Captain Strauss. She’s all the things I mentioned and more. She can be cruel, bossy, hateful. But there’s one thing she certainly is.
“Respected.” I try out the word on my lips. Captain Strauss nods, almost sadly.
“It can come at a cost. But sometimes, respect is the one thing you’re missing that could make you a good leader.” She leans forwards, her arms folded on her desk “What you lack, Soldier, is respect. Your brother has held you back for some time, and I believe that if that were to change, you would make the perfect leader for your team.”
“Absolutely. You have something that your brother lacks completely. You have raw talent. He’s smart, and so are you, but he will never match your physical skills. And when you build on that talent, the results are so much better than those who work hard, but never really had that special something to start with. It’s sad, but it’s true. I was like your brother. And it’s not to say that he will be unsuccessful. But I have faith in you. I think as Team Captain, you could build a winning team. You could easily win the promotion to Advanced Training when the time comes for you to go to battle.”
“But that doesn’t matter. Like you said. I’m not respected. Not the way Elliott is. I’d never get elected as Team Captain.”
“You think Elliott would win the vote?”
“Or Minnie. Either could do it. Minnie has the charisma and team-building skills. Elliott has the ruthlessness. People admire him for that.”
“But the combination of the two is the ideal.”
“What are you saying?”
Captain Strauss smiles; a rare sight. “I’m saying that you need to prepare, Karissa. Over the next week, there are going to be changes. Tonight, you proved to the rest of your team that you have something admirable, something they can rally behind. Keep it up. Keep them interested. And wait.”
For what? I want to ask. But I’ve learnt its best not to question Captain Strauss. If she wants to say something, she’ll say it. I take it as my cue to leave, and shut the door behind me on my way out.
Back in the dormitory, all is quiet. But there’s someone sat on my bunk. Minnie’s legs are crossed, her hands behind her as she leans against them. She’s smiling that red lipped smile. Chest stuck out. Eyebrow arched. I almost stumble.
She’s trying to impress me.
“Hey,” she purrs “That was a cool stunt you pulled.”
I pause in front of my bed, looking down at her. She smirks.
“I never knew you had it in you. I was wrong about you.”
“And what impression did you have previously?”
Minnie leans forwards, elbow on her knee “I thought you were weak. But you’ve got something…good. You’re strong.” Her lips pout a little. I think she might be flirting with me. My stomach twists into a knot.
“Maybe I shouldn’t be wasting my time on your brother,” she whispers, looking up at me from under dark eyelashes. I swallow down a lump in my throat. If you have any self-reverence, you won’t let her worm her way in so fast.
“You’re on my bed. In my way,” I say flatly. Minnie blinks, her mask slipping for a moment and revealing her shock. I raise my eyebrow.
“Beat it,” I tell her. She hesitates for a second. She doesn’t like being told what to do. I hear sniggering from one of the bunks. Zach and Ronan are laughing at her.
“Shut up,” Minnie hisses into the dark as she stands up and flounces back to her own bunk. She looks back at me, her face bearing something that looks like offence. I slide into bed without a backwards glance, facing the wall so no one can see my smile.
Maybe part of the key to others respecting you is respecting yourself.
Voting day has arrived. All twelve teams under Captain Strauss’ command have been gathered in the cafeteria, sat at our assigned tables. Ever since the other night, the others think I’m some sort of hero. I can feel Elliott’s glare hot on my face as Minnie slides into the seat next to me. Ronan and Zach are opposite, and Elliott’s lumped on the end of the bench with Marcia. Captain Strauss is stood at her podium at the front of the hall, on which is her control panel. It controls all of our wristwatches, as well as the counting of the electronic voting system. She calls for our attention, and the hall falls silent. She catches my eye looking smug, as though to say see what respect can do?
“As you know, today is the day to choose your Team Captains. In the event of a tie within a team, I will choose the Captain, and the person who tied for first place will become the Second. However, if the vote is unanimous, the Captain will be able to select their own Second. It goes without saying really, but I ask you to choose carefully.”
I look at table seven, where Adelaide sits tall, her teammates looking at her in admiration. I feel my shoulders sag. I know I won’t win this. It’ll take more than one admirable incident to make me Team Captain.
But Captain Strauss isn’t finished.
“However. It has come to my attention that several teams among us are rule-breaking. I am aware that several members have been breaking curfew, stealing from kitchens, and keeping unauthorised weaponry on their presence. This is unacceptable. For this reason, the following teams will have the privilege to vote revoked. I will be choosing their captains. Team three. Team four.” Captain Strauss pauses. Her eyes drift to my table “Team nine.”
Elliott stands, slamming his hand against the table “You can’t do that!”
Captain Strauss purses her lips, and presses a button on her control panel. Elliott cries out as his wristwatch electrifies, sending a bolt of energy and pain through his body.
“I can do that, Soldier Grey. And in fact, you are one of the reasons that your team are having their vote revoked. If you would like me to list the offences you have committed to humiliate you further, please speak up again.”
Elliott slumps back into his seat. Zach slams his elbow into Elliott’s stomach in annoyance, folding his big arms over his chest. The whole team is glaring at him, but my eyes are on Captain Strauss. She’s going to pick me.
While the others cast their votes, we’re sent down to training early. But the trainer hasn’t arrived, so I watch the others confront Elliott.
“You dumb ass!” Minerva hisses “Breaking curfew? You’re lucky she didn’t punish you more…”
“And now we don’t even get to vote?” Zach huffs.
“Well, at least we know you won’t get picked,” Minerva hisses at Elliott. I watch him register the insult. Hurt flickers across his face, before it hardens to stone.
“She said I was one of the reasons,” he says quietly “Stealing from the kitchens. Does that sound familiar, Minnie?”
Glaring eyes turn to her and she blushes, her dark eyebrows knitting together as she glares back defensively.
“There’s nothing we can do now,” Marcia reasons.
“That’s right, Marcia. The decision has been made.”
We all turn to see Captain Strauss stood at the door to the gym. We salute her obediently and she nods, smiling.
“It’s good to see that you’ve not run completely amok,” she says. She nods to me “Soldier Karissa Grey. I choose you as Team Captain.”
I hear some muttering behind me, but a sharp look from the Captain silences whoever it is. She looks back to me.
“I expect you at a meeting at five o’clock to further discuss your duties and your choice of Second-”
“I have already selected my Second,” I say confidently “I choose Elliott.”
Captain Strauss struggles to hide her surprise “Very well. An odd choice, I would have thought, but very well.”
I would disagree, Captain. They see keep your friends close and your enemies closer. I salute dutifully. “I hope to do you proud, Captain.”
She nods to me, taking a second to survey the shocked faces of my teammates “I don’t doubt that you will. I wish you luck.”