The Arpenholl Space Academy was equipped with an enormous stadium located just outside the station- the Arpenholl Arena. This was where the trainees took their final tests. Each and every Saturday, a new batch of trainees were sent from their bunks and shuttled into the Arena- and today was Saturday.
Four shuttles took off from the Academy's main building, and inside one of them was Spiff's group: he, Mort, Rolf, Fargle, and Awol, who was supervising- more like babysitting, as he'd put it. The dynamic between the four kids was much the same as the previous night: Fargle was silently slouching in a corner, Mort and Rolf were chatting it up - Mort was the only one in the room who had any idea what Rolf was saying, but they seemed to be talking about exotic fruit - and Spiff was doing his best to ignore them all as he stared out the window.
As the shuttle left the main building's docking bay and entered space, Spiff saw stars. Endless stars, as far as anyone could ever see. They were thousands of miles away, Spiff knew, but all the same, he made a vow that he would someday see every single one.
The trip from the main building to the Arena was short, much to the relief of Spiff and especially Awol. As soon as the docking station drew near, Awol stood up, and began barking his prepared orders. The trainees immediately ceased what they were doing and listened.
"Alright, you four. I've seen videos of all of you performing- and I've seen you in person, little punk. And as much as I hate my job, I have to say; you guys all have the goods. I'm… looking forward… to seeing how you do today.
"Once we reach the station, I'll be leaving you and heading to the Training Tower. I'm one of the judges, see. This place is pretty small, so just, you know, follow the arrows and you'll find your platform."
Almost as soon as the Staff Sergeant finished speaking, the shuttle docked at the station. Immediately, Awol exited and walked off, clearly quite hastily, to the Training Tower, where the judges of the VR training watched. He obviously had no desire to be with the boys for… any stretch of time, really.
"Pfft. What a big loser," scoffed Mort. "Okay, I see the arrows pointing that way."
The group wandered away from the docking bay in whatever direction the arrows took them.
Awol's route was much simpler than the boys': after rounding a single corner, he almost immediately found himself in front of the express elevator to the Training Tower. One quick elevator trip later, and he was inside.
The five other judges turned to look at him. The judging staff of the Final Test had been unchanged for many years. The most recent addition was Awol, who was appointed a decade ago. Thus, the whole group looked, by now, like a group of grumpy old grandparents. There was a tiny, wrinkly old man, who never said anything but was the only one who ever really smiled; a stern-looking woman, in her sixties, with her hair color still clinging to its original dark brown; A tall alien male, with typical green skin, bug eyes, and antennae; A man with a scar across his face and only one arm; and another woman, who had oddly colored eyes (bright yellow) and a small number of wrinkles.
"Hello, Awol," said the wrinkly man. He didn't like Awol very much - none of them did, since he was still 'the new guy' – but he was the only one who ever bothered to be polite. "Is that kid of yours going to be taking the Final Test today?" Word had already gotten around about Spiff, and thankfully the response was generally one more of amusement than anger.
"Yes he is," Awol grunted as he sat down. "I've placed him Blue Lightning, with a team of older boys.
"Really?" asked the man with the scar. "Any… particular reason you chose that group?"
Awol leaned back in his chair. "Why, no," he responded, "that's just the way it worked out. No particular reason at all.
But, in fact, there was: Of the Final Test's four teams, Blue Lightning was widely considered to be the "cursed team". This "curse" meant that, no matter how skilled the individual members were, any group of kids that were assigned Blue Lightning would end up failing. Considering how skilled he knew Spiff to be, Awol wanted all the help he could get to throw him out.
Back down in the entrance hallways, the kids had followed the series of arrows through blank hallways over to large double doors, which parted the minute they got close. They opened into a fairly small room, that was empty with the sole exception of the far wall, which had two rows of four hooks each: the top row held low-level Neutralizers, and the bottom row held transparent, square-shaped goggles.
"Aw yeah!" exclaimed Spiff, as he ran forward to admire their sleek look. As he slipped his goggles on, he noticed that they made him see a little clearer.
"Hey," he asked, "are these the things that let us see the VR?"
"See?" answered Mort. "I think your definition of VR is a… little different from Arpenholl's, chump." He snickered.
"What do you mean?" Spiff asked. At that moment, Rolf opened his mouth to speak- but was blocked by Mort's hand. "Now, now, Rolf," the tall boy said. "He's gonna figure it out himself."
As soon as everyone had their goggles on, the floor suddenly began to rise. Spiff momentarily panicked, but it didn't take long to figure out what was going on: the floor was an elevator, taking them to a higher floor. He got a little giddy.
After a very short trip, the elevator ceased moving, and opened out onto an enormous stadium. It looked to be almost a mile wide in every direction and the ceiling was incredibly high. Perplexingly, the stadium was absolutely featureless. As Spiff looked around, he saw nothing but the dull, gray floor, and the only thing on it was he, his companions, and the other three teams of trainees that had arrived that day. Where were the training obstacles?
"Wauw!" cried Rolf, as he pointed to the ceiling. All four turned up to look.
Looming above the stadium was the audience. The spectator seats surrounded the entire Arena, and there must have been over 100,000 seats, if not many more- and every single on of the seats was filled. Every new training day at Arpenholl brought huge hordes of spectators. Some of them were parents or relatives of the trainees, and others were the judges of the Arena and the Directors of the Institute. The majority of the viewers, however, were average citizens who wanted to see a show. And a show they were certainly about to get.
Spiff and his bunkmates stood rooted to their spots. The only part of them that felt like it was able to move was their necks, as they scanned the giant crowd in awe. Before this moment, they had all trained in solitude, alone with an instructor- and all four were stunned at the legion of viewers they suddenly had.
"Hey! Those are my parents!" cried Mort, waving at a middle-aged couple in the crowd. Rolf, too, yelled something long and confusing in German to a large family, and Fargle have a slight smile as he silently waved to a single woman sitting in the bleachers.
Spiff scanned the crowd intently, but he couldn't see anyone he recognized. "And who's here for YOU, Hero Boy?" mocked Mort; Rolf lightly punched him in the back. "Shaht Ahp!"
The loudspeaker buzzed, silencing the horde of spectators. The enthusiastic voice of a young woman echoed: "Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome, one and all, to the Arpenholl Space Academy's Final Test! We've got a big crowd today, so let's hope our trainees bring us their A game!"
Oh, I will, thought Spiff. He wasn't about to spend his days cooped up in a training facility. He was Spaceman Spiff, and he was gonna make sure that the whole audience knew it.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" cried the announcer. "May I present to you, our trainees!"
"In the blue uniform, with young Mort, Rolf, Fargle, and Spiff, it's… Blue Lightning!" the crown politely cheered. The announcer went on to introduce the other three teams: There were the Green Blizzard, a team of a tall human boy a short, chubby human girl, and two alien kids of indeterminable gender- one of whom resembled a lizard, and the other a dog; The Yellow Rain, a team of four nervous-looking little girls, each a different species, and probably even younger than Fargle; The Red Twister, a team of tough-looking human teenagers, two male and two female; and Spiff's team, the Blue Lightning- with their symbol, a small, jagged streak running down the front of the shirt. Spiff liked the look of the symbol quite a bit.
After she finished the teams' introductions, the announcer's voice perked up. "Alright, trainees! Are! You! Ready?!"
Without a second thought, Spiff screamed as loud as he could, "YEAH!" Most of the other trainees – save for the Yellow Rain and Fargle – shouted, too, but Spiff's was by far the loudest and most boisterous.
Awol, watching from the Training Tower, groaned. He really loathed that boy and his showboating.
"Well well, sounds like some of use are a little excited!' said the announcer, amused. "All right then, folks! Let's raise 'em up!"
"Raise us-?!" asked Spiff, who was cut short by the team's elevator rising even higher.
Mort laughed. "Man, what kind of Spaceman hopeful are you? You've never even watched a single Final Test before?" He laughed again. Rolf and Fargle looked at Spiff with pity, but said nothing. He was mighty confused.
Mighty confused, that is, until the elevators began to finish their ascent, as they neared what seemed to be the ceiling. To Spiff's surprise, the audience suddenly raised alongside the elevator, quickly rising far above the "ceiling", out of sight. As the elevator entered a long tunnel, Spiff wondered: what could possibly-
Above the "ceiling" was an entire world. No exaggeration. Spiff looked far and wide, and he couldn't see anything that indicated that he was indoors. The orange sky stretched far off into the horizon, and below him were valleys, rivers, forests, mountains, deserts… and creatures. Lots and lots and lots of very alien creatures.
So… this is what Virtual Reality meant. A reality, that wasn't real. The gigantic Arpenholl Arena housed an entire tiny little planet, so well-disguised that you couldn't even see or hear the audience that was watching- nor, impressively, the three other teams that were somewhere in the stadium.
"Zounds…" Spiff muttered in wonder.
"Okay, guys," Mort muttered commandingly. "Just remember I'm in charge, and we'll do just fine."
Without any warning, the announcer suddenly began counting down. Whoever she was, and however long she had been doing the job, she made no attempt to hide that she was incredibly excited to watch the show. As she listed each new number, her voice seemed to raise an entire octave.
"Five! Four! THREE! TWO!..."
Spiff got into a fighting stance and readied his Neutralizer. His heart was pounding, and he was sweating, and though he put on a serious face, he'd never felt more excited in his life.