Petra walked the corridors of the building, two International Fleet (IF) soldiers flanking her on either side. It had been four days since her father walked her to the SUV and she had said goodbye to her family, unsure of when she would see them again. Part of her had wanted to turn around and run back to her mother, refuse to leave and let her parents raise their five year old daughter the way they were supposed to. Instead, she took a deep breath and walked forward, almost excited to go up to Battle School.
But according to the men, Battle School was still a little while away. She had to go through Ground School for a few days, to go through further evaluation. But it was more than just doctors poking the kids accepted to the program. It was getting their launch group onto the same level, academically, and teaching them about the on-goings of Battle School. It was her last day in Ground School and she had been pulled out of class to visit the medical ward to go through her last round of tests. She knew the layout well enough that the touch on her shoulder by one of the soldiers was unnecessary. She knew that they had arrived at the medical ward.
She walked in and jumped on to the table with only some slight difficulty. It wasn't nearly as bad as when she first came here; she only struggled because she was short and ignored the step stool at the base of the table. The teachers had started all the kids in the gym, to prepare them for the zero-G environment the best they could while they were landside. It worked muscles that many kids didn't even know they had and after the first few sessions, left many kids lying in their bunks, groaning in pain.
The two IF soldiers stood at attention by the door, watching Petra sit on the table, who stared right back at them. Whenever they were separated from the main group of students, the kids were paired up with two IF soldiers. The soldiers always changed so a friendship could not be built. According to the IF, they were precious cargo- kids who one day would save the world from the bugger invasion. Petra wasn't exactly sure what she thought about the bugger invasion. Only that she half hoped that it wouldn't happen during her lifetime. She was fine with studying in space until she was in her twenties, and then to work on spaceships for the rest of her life. Or whatever they had planned.
A doctor walked in, looking at his clipboard- not even making sure he was in the right room or who sat on the table in from of him. It didn't really surprise her at all. There weren't too many kids at Ground School at a time and never sent more than one to the medical ward at a time. "Your DNA test came back… female." The doctor said, still not looking. Petra flushed with anger and embarrassment as the man continued. "Major Anderson was convinced of some foul play on the test." He said, looking through the papers on the clipboard.
"Just because I wear my hair short does not categorize me as male." She said through almost grit teeth. "It only confirms the fact that you are idiots for not believing me. You would think I know whether I'm male or female. You saw my test scores. I'm not stupid." She spat at the man. Petra knew that the various test results attached to the clipboard were the tests that she took to get admitted to the program and the results from the monitor she wore on the back of her neck for years. Every word she spoke, every piece of music she heard, every movie about man-eating robots that she watched (mainly because of her father), the IF heard and saw as well. They analyzed everything, along with written tests, and placed her into the Battle School program. Those tests told them, she knew, that she was anything but stupid.
Despite her verbal lashing, the soldiers and the doctor stood silent, as if it never occurred. Even though there were no visual signs of annoyance from the three men, it made her feel a little bit of satisfaction. After a minute of the silence, the doctor walked over to the counter, put on a pair of rubber gloves. After looking around the room briefly, he crossed to a second counter and grabbed a needle before coming to her side. He rolled up her sleeve and gave her an injection without a glance at her face or hesitation. "Flu shot." He said gruffly as she watched the clear liquid enter her skin. She did not flinch or cry, although her hands gripped the table a little when he had stuck the needle into her skin. She wasn't sure that she trusted the doctor's word that it was a flu shot, but he did tell her the details of every other shot she got when she asked. So it might really be just what he said. A flu shot. When he was done, he took the needle out of her skin and put it in the trashcan. He walked over to the counter and looked at his watch. The doctor finally made eye contact with the child in front of him before continuing. "You are not allowed to eat for the next 20 hours. Your launch is scheduled for 0900. Good luck in Battle School." The doctor said; his face and voice emotionless. Without another glance towards Petra, the doctor turned on his heel and left.
With that, Petra was left alone once more with the two soldiers, who had saluted the doctor before he exited the room. They said nothing and did nothing so she jumped off the table and headed back to her classroom. Even though they were not right by her side this time, she could hear their footsteps behind her as she reached up and turned the handle of the door. She opened it and walked into the classroom, watching as everyone turned to see her enter. It wasn't her fault, she knew, it was just anyone's reaction to see who entered the door when it was opened.
She felt all 38 eyes on her as she walked back to her seat at the front of the room. She silently cursed her surname, Arkanian, as the kids were assigned to sit at desks in alphabetical order. It wasn't the students' idea; the teacher said it was all military. Speaking of which, the only person who didn't look at her was the teacher, who decided to scold the class for getting distracted. All 20 kids in the class were boys… except for Petra. She was the only girl and was told by nearly every official or teacher she saw, that she would be less than the minority. There weren't too many girls in Battle School, only about a handful and it didn't surprise Petra that much. Her mother was a child person- she loved having the neighborhood kids over, and from what Petra saw of the other girls, they were weak, shy and hesitant. While she vaguely understood the shy factor, the other two traits that excluded most girls from Battle School were foreign to her. But that didn't mean that she wasn't insulted and embarrassed that they had to genetically test her for her gender.
She sat down at her desk and started working on the assignment on the screen to catch her up with the rest of the class. It was a mix of an English and history assignment. They were analyzing what would have happened to Greece had Caesar not been killed. Her small fingers flew over the keyboard, typing in Middle English, per the teacher's request. As she worked on the assignment in front of her, she glanced around the room for ideas even though she knew nothing in the room would help her. The room was less than plain and did not even come close to looking like a classroom for kids their age. There were no shooting stars or turtles or underwater creatures on the walls, nothing playful hanging from the ceiling and no toys on the ground. It was painted cream colored with a tile ceiling. Hanging from one tile was a pencil that one of the kids had thrown up, as if to prove they knew how to calculate the trajectory of the pencil.
Petra knew the idiot just threw it at the ceiling.
Since it was their last lesson and none of them could eat until they got to Battle School, they worked well past the normal hour. It was really just to keep the kids amused, busy and out of the staff areas of Ground School. The time passed in silence as the kids finished their extra work begrudgingly. They honestly didn't mind it, but no student enjoys doing busy work. Finally when time was up, the teacher finished the lesson with a lecture. As soon as the teacher started to finish up, all the kids shut down their desks and stood up, ready to go. The teacher called their attention and told them to sit down, annoyed at the disobedience. The kids chattered mindlessly for a few seconds before the teacher lost their patience and barked at them, "Attention!" Petra looked up at the teacher, bored. She was not talking, merely going over multiplication tables in her head. In the time it took the teacher to lose their patience, Petra made it to 15. The teacher stood rather uptight at the front of the room, looking down at the children. "If you don't get your act together and start behaving, you will all get iced within your first few minutes of Battle School."
A boy raised his hand and spoke. "What does it mean to get iced?"
The teacher glared at the boy for speaking out of turn, but said nothing. "Sent back home. Sent landside. It's not something to be proud of." The teacher said with their voice barely above a growl. "In your lockers are your uniforms, you should wear them tomorrow. If you're late to the shuttle, we won't wait for you. And use the toilet before you leave, we don't want any accidents up there in zero-G. If you piss your pants, you get to clean it up." The teacher warned them. There was some slight laughter but a combination between the glare of the teacher and the dismissal bell silenced them.
The kids walked back to the barracks in small clusters, except for Petra who walked by herself. Since she was the only girl in a room full of boys, she was immediately isolated from the rest of the group. And the teachers didn't even have to help them along with the process. They all entered the room and were pulled to their beds. It was a kid sized room, with ten sets of bunk beds. Petra got no special treatment for being a girl and slept with the boys- when they got up to space, boys and girls would be treated equal… or well, more so than they were in Ground School. And anyway- there weren't enough girls to always give them separate barracks.
She didn't mind too much, if at all. At the moment they all looked the same on the outside and she had nothing to hide from the boys. Sure, at first seeing their privates all the time caught her off guard (as most boys slept naked), but by now she was nearly used to the sight. And it wasn't like the boys were ashamed of it either- they went around naked proudly, as if that was what made them the best, not their intellectual talents.
Petra climbed up onto her bunk, the lower bunk by the door, and opened up her desk. There were many things to do on it but most of them were moronic and effortless to win. For the emotional kids, there was a diary application where one could "write out thoughts and feelings that are unable to be expressed aloud" or however the teachers described it to them. It made no sense to her. None of them were being taken to Battle School because they had feelings they couldn't describe. She opened up a card game and started to play to kill time until lights out when she heard voices that were clearly meant for her.
"Hey Petra!" It was one of the boys she knew as Faxon stood in the aisle and was looking at her. She tried to ignore the boy but he was too loud and annoying to completely tune out.
She looked up and sent a sneer in his direction. "What do you want Faxon? I'm not wiping your ass if that's what you're going to ask. However, if you want someone to change your diaper, I'm sure one of the teachers would love to do that for you."
Boys around Faxon laughed at him but didn't applaud her or smile at her. She just gave, never getting credit for anything she did. But she could see the anger in the other boy rise, and she knew whatever he was going to say was just an empty insult because she spoke back first. But he should have known- she had a reputation of having a sharp tongue. "Why don't you just go home? You know, before they waste so much money by sending you up into space. That way we can have more boys up there that will actually do something with the Battle School education?" Of course the ignorant pig would play the gender card. "Just quit while you're ahead. This isn't going to end well for you if you go. You'll get your ass kicked daily." Faxon's words got laughter, just as hers, but this time it was more because Faxon was picking on the one who always gets picked on. It was like a sick little sport.
She placed her desk on her bed and stood up, bringing out jeers and laughter from the other boys. "We'll see what happens when we get up in space, Faxon. Here, you're all talk. But we all know the teacher was talking to you when he talked about people pissing their pants in the shuttle." The laughter broke out again and the lights shut off. Only a few dim lights placed along the ceiling. It was lights out- bed time. "Sleep tight, Faxon. Don't forget to let the buggers bite." She said through grit teeth.
Faxon turned and walked away, singing as he went. "Mother Petra, she talking, she talking!" Other voices in the darkness joined in. "Shit talking, shit talking!" There was another round of laughter, and then silence. She glared at the dark barracks before climbing under the covers herself. She would prove herself to the rest of her launch group and the teachers. She would show them that just because she was female didn't mean she was weak or inferior.
Now, dreams usually told one of their subconscious. They could be analyzed to tell someone what was wrong with them and what they were thinking of even unconsciously. They were deep and meaningful and could make a better person if they were understood properly. They could show a memory from the past to help the person realize a goal in life or help fix some morals that were previously lost in their memory. Petra's dreams were strange, Picasso-like and confusing.
So, naturally, she chose to ignore them.
The next morning, she woke up with the lights still dimmed. She had no idea why she was awake so early, but the small pain in her stomach told her it was either the 20 hour fast or the nerves about the launch that was to take place later that morning. She didn't have to wait long for the lights to turn on properly and the others started to sleepily wake up. She grabbed her towel and slipped out of her bed, walking down the hall to the showers. She entered a stall, turned on the water and let it carry her worries about the day and life ahead down the drain.
When she was done she wrapped her towel around herself and walked back to the barracks, without a word. She changed in silence, her back to everyone else. While she didn't care she was bunking with a bunch of boys, she didn't have to stare at the reason they were boys while she changed. She quickly changed into her uniform, hating it immediately. It was a plain light blue one-piece that hung on her body, a feeling she wasn't used to. She wanted the feeling of tightness, something that hugged her shape a bit better. After a few minutes, a teacher came by to tell the slower kids to hurry up, as they were leaving soon. Apparently the kids were allowed to sleep in a little later because they did not have to eat breakfast this morning.
A few minutes later they were all walking in silence to a car that would take them to the spaceport. Some of the launches were televised, to show the public the brave students headed off to Battle School. But they were not one of those launches, so when they got to the spaceport, they were driven right out to the tarmac where the shuttle was waiting. No fancy accommodations, just military precision and efficiency. They got out and looked, almost awe-struck at the craft that was to take them into orbit before a teacher came and shouted for them to follow.
As the group of kids followed the man into the shuttle in silence, Petra's mind went into overdrive, looking at everything and getting as much information out of it as she could. It wasn't much, just the basic details of everything- what looked like the pilot's cabin, the bathroom and storage rooms. But soon as they entered the passenger area of the shuttle she focused immediately on only one thing in peculiar. Every surface was carpeted as if it were the floor. She was confused, but only for a moment before she remembered that, after all, they were headed to space. Gravity wouldn't apply to them in space, not until they got to Battle School where they had their own, artificial gravity.
They walked in and sat down in the bucket seats as the teacher walked to the front of the passenger area, looking at them all, almost proudly. "Today as you all go to Battle School, remember everything you've learned here. Remember that earth's future depends on you doing well and that failure is never an option." The teacher's words seemed to echo in their ears, and the pressure finally settled on their shoulders. Petra could almost swear she felt the physical weight of it. She tried to think herself out of it- the bugger invasion wouldn't even happen until she was long dead.
There was a silence and the only sound that could be heard were engines starting to roar to life. They stared at the teacher before they spoke in a commanding voice, "But now it is my time to leave and let you in the hands of Captain Brennen." The teacher walked out of the cabin and closed the door as they waited in silence for a Captain Brennen to come in and talk to them. Instead screens appeared in the headrest in front of them that started playing some propaganda movie. It was as if they hadn't seen every propaganda movie a million times over.
Petra ignored it and instead buckled herself into the seat. The strap had been designed so it held them firmly in place at the shoulder, waist and crotch. By the time she found all the straps, the propaganda had stopped playing and directions on how to strap themselves had come on the screen. She waited as the others buckled themselves and before long, the rockets outside roared to life and they took off. There were no windows, but she envisioned the small shuttle rocketing out into orbit. Despite everything that she knew about shuttles, about how long they've been in use, about how high their reliability rate was… she couldn't help but hope that this launch wasn't the first to fail since the first days of the shuttle.
But they were pressed into the back of their seats until a final moment that everything went dead silent. The thrusters were turned off and they drifted for a moment before there was a small hiss and a man floated into the compartment. He hooked his feet into some handholds above them and stood, staring at them as if they were crazy. "You all look positively stupid sitting on the ceiling." The man flipped around, hooking his feet to handholds and look at them from different points on the walls and ceiling before settling before them on the ground. The reorientation was too much for someone, as she heard a gagging sound come from behind her. The idea of not eating before the launch made sense, puking in no-G would be ugly.
"Welcome to space, kiddos. I'm Captain Brennen. We'll be docking in a little bit… Battle School isn't too far out of Earth's orbit. However, since Battle School is on Eastern Standard Time, we will have to work hard to get you guys in the right place, mentally." Petra nodded slightly. Battle School was on American time. Florida time, because back in the first years of space travel, that was where everything was located. With most of the launch being from countries in the Middle East, the time shift would be difficult. Not impossible, but more annoying than anything. "We're going to dock, go to the gym, work out and then visit the barracks. There you will take a nap. We'll wake you up after a while to get food and then to go back to the gym. We will manage to get you on Battle School time soon enough." Brennen gave them all an oddly cheery smile.
She thought out the plan that the teachers had decided they would execute to get their bodies onto Battle School time. They wanted them to get exhausted at the gym, sleep a little and then work out more to sleep through the Battle School night. It seemed like a good plan, exhausting, but good. She looked up to see Brennen still talking, this time it sounded a bit more military, a bit more formal. It was just the speech to scare the little kids going up to big bad Battle School. The only part that she actually took notice of was when he said that their launch colors were Red, Brown, Green. She rolled her eyes. It sounded like they looked into a toilet and picked out colors.
When the speech was over, Brennen flipped back up and disappeared once more, the kids broke out in excited chatter. Petra stayed silent with her thoughts until the sound of more rockets quieted the group. They were landing and even though they couldn't see it, they wanted to hear and feel it. And honestly, it didn't sound or feel special at all- it just happened. Brennen came out of nowhere and told them to unbuckle themselves and follow him out to the gym. The boys followed excitedly, as the gym back at Ground School was fun for them, it was a place of play, not work. Petra followed along, knowing at the moment they entered the gym.
She was just as strong as anyone, but the boys were stronger than her. They just were, and it didn't matter much, as she bested them in other areas. But the boys liked to brag about how much they could dead-lift. The hallways were empty and very clean as Brennen led them through the Battle School for the first time. They didn't have to try too hard to walk down the hall; the gravity was lighter out here than it was in the shuttle and on Earth. It was a little fun and a bit more interesting than Petra would have thought. Eventually, the group slid down a pole and landed in a room that was clearly a gym. She felt a little heavier here than in the hallway.
A man came out and started talking about how they were to act in the gym and how they used certain equipment. It was all introductory stuff that no one wanted to hear or say, but had to anyway. Something that made her grin inwardly was the lack of weights lying around the gym floor, like there was back at Ground School. Another boy noticed this and raised his hand, asking about it. The trainer smiled knowingly. "This is to help you get in shape for the Battle Room. There is no need for weights. If you start using the ones set aside for teachers, you will be added to a list and be that much closer to getting iced."
The rest of the speech went on in silence and then the trainer let them go at the gym. Their heart rate needed to be at a certain number and Petra soon tuned into how hard she needed to work to get it there. It wasn't too difficult a process, but the gym in Battle School lost the appeal that the Ground School gym had. There, they could wrestle and use weights… basically whatever they wanted, as long as they didn't hurt themselves. Here, they had rules they had to follow, which made the whole thing a bit more tedious. But this time, Petra excelled as they had to work on cardio for the Battle Room, it was not a matter of how much muscle you had (well, not completely), but instead how agile and toned.
They stayed for just about two hours, running on treadmills, doing pull ups, pushups, cycling, whatever came to mind and whatever caught their interest. The trainer watched them, telling them when their heart rate was too low, or when they were pushing themselves too hard. Petra didn't know how the man knew their heart rates, as they weren't attached to any equipment, but the tablet thing he carried seem to get the information and display it to the trainer. By the end of it, they were all exhausted, even Petra who went longer than any of the boys, pushing herself harder.
Brennen slid down the pole and looked at the exhausted launch group that stood before him. Petra did a quick evaluation of the man. Sure, she didn't know much about him, but the way he held himself and the way he spoke to the launchies gave her the impression he was new at this. He was too relaxed for a Captain of the International Fleet. The petty soldiers from Ground School were better than this guy. As she watched, he started joking with a few of the boys closest to him. She mentally scoffed. He had no idea what he was doing, how he was supposed to act. He was supposed to act as a teacher, not a friend. She wasn't here to make friends, she was here to excel and be the best soldier she could be.
Either way, Brennen finally straightened up. "Alright, everyone. Follow me please." He said with that stupid grin on his face. Brennen took off at a run and the group struggled slightly to keep up. After a two hour work out, they didn't have too much energy to jog after an adult who took strides longer than theirs. Once they reached the right room, Brennen allowed them to walk inside and choose bunks. While others argued where they wanted to sleep, Petra knew what she wanted, so she chose one in the middle, where she could clearly see the doorway and the back of the room.
When the lights turned off, Petra laid down on her bunk, letting her muscles throb in pain. Brennen's voice ruined the silence. "I'll be back in a few hours. Sleep well." With that, the door closed and they were encased in darkness. She closed her eyes and breathed deeply, getting herself to relax properly for once. She reflected briefly on her extremely short time in Battle School. She didn't get iced for not following the rules, she kept up with her launch group and even excelled where others failed. She thought of her father, who saw her off to the car that took her to Ground School. Her heart yearned to be in his arms once more, but she knew she was here for a purpose. And she was going to show them all that they didn't make a mistake by choosing her. While others worried about whether they would make a name for themselves in Battle School, Petra was sure by the time she finished her education, everyone on Earth would know the name Petra Arkanian.