Petra didn't think that she slept that well. There were images of her mother and her friends continually swimming through her dreams, a whimper occasionally escaping her mouth. When she woke up from the sound of her own voice, she also heard others crying out softly for their parents… siblings… she might have even heard a cry for a dog as she was sure that "Buddy" was not the name of a human. When she woke up for the final time though, it was anything but pleasant.
Her dream was interesting enough that she didn't want to wake up at the time. She had been captaining a space shuttle and was flying through space, taking orders from her commander though a headset. They had been planning an attack on a squadron coming from sector 584-2-391and were coming up on the sun. They were going to use a planet's gravity to accelerate them around the bright star and finally attack the buggers on the other side. But something suddenly went wrong with her steering. She was losing control fast and was screaming into her headset for her commander to get a technician patched to her or something as she accelerated into the sun.
Her commander's voice crackled over the headset she wore. "Attention soldiers!" The phrase was repeated until the voice started to sound increasingly more familiar. It didn't take long until she knew who her commander was. She opened her eyes to hear Brennen walking up and down the aisle, eyes staring at the metal wall that was against her bed. "Wake up! It's time to go back to the gym, then we'll get some dinner."
Other groans were heard from all around her- apparently the boys didn't like the prospect of going back to the gym… or maybe just waking up was hard for them. She sat up and rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands and jumped off the bed as Brennen started to lead the group out of their bunk. Unsurprisingly, when they entered the gym and got started, they moved slower and awkwardly as they attempted to get their heart rates up to the appropriate levels. They were all tired from leaving earth, spending hours in the gym and then the normal grumpiness that came with waking a child from their nap.
It didn't surprise her when the trainer and Brennen kept making coming over to individuals, tapping on their shoulder and telling them to work harder or they'd be iced. Petra wasn't even surprised when they tapped on her shoulder once or twice. She was probably at enough risk for being iced just by being a girl, so she pushed herself a little harder to run that extra mile on the treadmill she was on.
"Once you get into an army, you'll have multiple traning sessions a day." Brennen's voice echoed through the gym at one point. "If you can't do this, then you'll have no hope of making it in Battle School or the IF. I thought they trained your pathetic asses at Ground School. How can you think you're cut out for the Battle Room if you can't keep up your heart rate, Hornsby? And what about you, Bhatia? You're a failure! Keep moving or get out!" His voice was strong as he snapped at a list of boys and a scowl was plastered on his face. Petra wondered if he was doing this for show, an act that all the launch leaders had to do to 'strengthen' the kids or if he was just a jerk that was forced into a position no one wanted, like she thought before.
The rest of the workout passed in very near silence, everyone working alone and vigorously, not wanting to be told off by the trainer or Brennen. When they all trudged off to the cafeteria for dinner, no one really looked at their teacher despite the friendly smile and persona that had come back to him. He stopped them when they reached the mess hall doors. "Now, you all have to palm yourself into the cafeteria. They'll give you the right amount of food designed to optimize your performance in the Battle Room."
One by one, each child put their hand onto the transparent looking slip of thin plastic on the wall. Petra put her hand up and watched as the film turned a soft shade of green before returning to the normal transparency. She took her hand away and walked in, surveying the room briefly before joining her fellow launchies in the lunch line. It was a decent sized room with a scoreboard that took up most of a wall.
It was the scoreboard, actually, that attracted her eye the most. It was clearly a listing of individual students and their place in some sort of competition. She watched as two pictures on the left side of the board started to blink- a lion and a spider. Maybe the two teams were playing the game now? Wait, no… not teams, Petra thought as the lunch lady put a spoonful of peas onto her plate, they were armies just like the ones they were told they were going to join in Ground School. And the people featured up on the scoreboard? They were soldiers. As she turned around to the table where the rest of her launch group sat, eating their meal and laughing at whatever was going through their little heads, she realized they were not soldiers… not even close.
They were kids, mere children. She didn't know when that change would occur and as she heard the jokes her 'peers' told, she wondered if it would ever come to them. Except that she would become a soldier. More than that- she'd become a commander. Her launch group would follow her one day, whether they knew it now or not.
Granted, that was assuming that she could even become a soldier.
She soon found out that all the launch groups were combined in their classes, all the students as bright and clever as her for the first time in her life. Some were even smarter and brighter than her, constantly making her feel incompetent in class.
There was one boy in particular that caught her eye. He was a brilliant boy- it didn't take a Battle School student to realize that. He always liked to analyze the teacher's question instead of simply answering it, causing a few students to groan when the teacher made them all think deeper about the question he previously asked. He always, intentionally or not, complicated things for the rest of the class.
She soon found out that his name was Dink Meeker and after talking to him for a while, she decided that he was a decent enough person... even if he liked to over think simple problems. This was quite evident after their second meeting after a geometry class. She had knocked her book off of her desk after class and as she bent down to grab it, someone's foot knocked it halfway across the room. Giggles and hushed laughter spread through the room like wildfire as she got up and forced her way across the current of students heading towards the door.
Once the crowd thinned enough, she broke free to see Dink holding her text book with a small smirk on his face. "Are you looking for this?" He asked her, offering out the book.
Petra reached forward, a little hesitant and took the book from his grasp, expecting him to pull some stunt that meant he would have the book in the end. But he didn't. He kept smiling even after she held the book tight to her chest, wondering what came next. "Thanks." She said quietly.
"Personally, I don't think you need it." He said walking past her. He sent a charming smile back to her and she found herself following the boy out the classroom, wanting him to say more. "Knowledge isn't only from textbooks; it's from experiences and from implemented knowledge of other subjects."
She had the momentary urge to roll her eyes at Dink's words. Anyone who had any smarts about them knew that textbooks were only the tip of the iceberg. She even had a right to argue that if you didn't learn anything outside of books, you'd be even worse off than not learning from books at all. "If you're trying to be all wise and knowledgeable, you're failing horribly." She said, her tone of voice aiming to kill.
His arrogant smirk flickered for a moment- it was as if she had hit a nerve. Dink did seem like the person who thought relatively highly of himself, even if he didn't like to attract attention to himself. "We're all smarter than the teachers. We don't have to play to their game… whatever they're preparing us for."
"Dink, don't lecture me about the Bugger War. I haven't known you that long and I don't care as much as you about the politics." She said with a sigh. "I'm here to become a good solider for whatever reason I need to be." Petra had really no idea what coming to the Battle School meant for her future other than a really good education and a career in the military. She was going to be the best damned solider ever to go through the school- for whatever reason the IF needed her.
Sure, she'd draw the line about what she'd fight for if she could… but she generally didn't care. It just had to be for her benefit.
The boy stopped walking- she didn't realize they had reached his bunk, meaning that hers wouldn't be too far ahead of them. "Isn't that the thing, though?" He asked her. "You're assuming that they have a reason to use you."
Petra stared at Dink for a moment, genuinely curious about what he was talking about when he heard her name being called from down the hall. Brennen was at the door of their bunk, shouting at her. "Petra Arkanian! Get your ass to the barracks! We are not going to be late for our first session in the battle room because you like to chit chat!"
She looked over towards Dink and the small glint in his eye, muttering "We'll talk later" before jogging off towards her barracks. Despite Brennen's tongue lashing, when she walked into the room she saw that most of the boys were still changing. Petra sighed slightly; there was no need for him to go off on her like that. Just because she was a girl didn't mean she took forever getting ready. She opened her locker and pulled out the space suit like uniform.
This was the second time that she had held the flash suit; the first was on her first day when they finally learned to open their lockers. She had never seen something like it before, which didn't really surprise her as Battle School was full of things she had never seen. As she pulled on the flash suit, she clipped the Dao into its holder and her memory flashed back to when they had first learned about it.
"This is your Dao, it's usually attached to your flash suit so you don't lose it, and you'll put it on your suit when you get back to the barracks." The last part of Brennen's words was clearly an order so the group responded a mumbled "yes sir". He went on lecturing them about the functions of the buttons along the gun and what each what did. Petra was only half paying attention as he droned on.
Afterwards, a few of the boys were in the hallway, pretending to shoot each other with their guns, despite them not working anywhere but in the battle room.
"Bam! Bam! Bam! I've got you!"
"No you didn't, your flash gun didn't go off."
"It's a flash pistol, you dumbass."
Petra rolled her eyes. "It's called a Dao. And they don't work in the halls- only in the battle room. Don't you boys listen?"
"Mother Petra, she talking she talking!"
"Shit talking! Shit talking!"
She hated that mantra.
Petra sighed and got in line behind the rest of her launch group. It was the natural order of things after the first few days. They had voted for their chief officer, a boy named Berk, and he was always first in line. Then the rest of the boys would line up behind him and no matter where Petra stood, she was always elbowed to the end of the line. So at this point, she just assumed her place as the last person as the line started to move.
She had a love/hate relationship with her position in the back of the line. While the others looked down on her, and judged her, she got to observe them and spot their weaknesses. For example: Berk, while very social and as intelligent as the rest of them, struggled to come up with ideas on the spot.
Faxon ended up being more bark than bite which, when she figured it out, made her smirk whenever he started the mantra of "Mother Petra". Because of this little hint of knowledge, none of his words harmed her anymore. She didn't care enough about him to let them hurt her. Soon enough, the rest of their launch group would realize that he could barely navigate a simulated spacecraft though an asteroid ring, and he'd lose whatever social "power" he had over a part of their launch group.
Before she knew it, they were in a part of the Battle School none of them had ventured before. They had gone up a few ladders where the gravity got weaker and the number of students decreased. They were at the point that Petra was putting almost no energy into her steps yet she was bounding farther than ever. Soon though, they came to a hallway with a dead end and Brennen stopped them. A few kids peered around each other, trying to see what was behind their teacher. Petra got a glance and to her, it just seemed like a solid wall- they must have had taken a wrong turn somewhere. It was Battle School, after all. There were so many twists and turns, she barely knew the halls that surrounded the launchy barracks.
"You are about to enter the Battle Room. This is a main component of Battle School and if you can't get your bearings in there, you might as well tell me after this session so I can send you home. If you fake your way through this, you're going to be iced the minute you enter an army and things get real." Whenever Brennen used the word 'iced' the group always got silent and it wasn't hard to understand why. Not only were careers on the line in Battle School, but reputations as well. No one could return to Earth after being iced and walk around with their head held high.
There was another boy who used to be in their Languages class. He was a decent kid, fairly smart for a Battle School student and got along with mostly everyone. Then he disappeared. By listening to conversations at the lunch tables, Petra found out that he hadn't been turning in his work for most of his classes. Apparently back home, he got by because the teachers knew he was smart and he could charm most of his teachers to letting him pass without much work. If you tried that in Battle School, you got iced.
And once you got iced, you didn't come back.
So when Brennen mentioned being iced, they took it seriously. Luckily for them, he didn't wait long to continue talking. "When you get in there, I want you to reach the far wall and wait there. I'll be right in to start you on the basics of the Battle Room. Who can think of something we'll cover today?"
There was a tense silence. No one really knew what the Battle Room was like. Sure, they heard stories, but how believable were they? There was one tale she heard from the talks after lights out, that things were shot out of the walls at them while they ran around, trying to distract them and make them unable to carry out their objective.
"I guess you'll see then." Brennen palmed a touchpad much too high for any of them to reach on their own and the wall behind him turned transparent. Without a word, he turned and walked away down the hall and out of sight, leaving them on their own.
The line started to lose its shape as the group of kids crowded around the opening to the Battle Room and looked in. It was a brightly lit space with nothing inside it. It seemed to be nearly three stories high with what looked like handholds all over the walls. There didn't seem to be a space without them- even the corners had holds until the walls converged.
"Someone go in." A boy said in a quiet voice. Petra looked into the room with her head cocked to the side slightly. No one wanted to be the first one. Berk was pushed forward, but stopped himself before he actually passed through the doorway. She sighed- boys.
She rocked on the back of her heels for a second before sprinting forward, closing her eyes as she neared the barrier. She wasn't sure what she expected from the transparent wall, but she wasn't sure she wanted to see it for herself. Except the moment she passed through, her feet didn't continue to hit the ground. In fact, they left the floor completely. They flew up behind her and over her head. While she didn't open her mouth, in her head she was screaming as she flew across the Battle Room.
Every time her body was upside down, she'd see her launch group in the doorway, either laughing or cheering at her attempt of getting to the opposite wall. But she couldn't focus on them anymore- she was nearing the far wall and she needed to figure out how to stop herself. She moved her head back and her feet forward, slowing down the speed at which she fell head over heels. Soon enough she oriented herself as if she were back in the hallway and managed to grab a handhold on the far wall.
She could see the others slowly coming into the room, unsure how to propel themselves to where she was without spiraling in about forty different directions. A few took off and ended up spinning just as radically as, or worse than, she did. Another group seemed to be trying to swim their way across. A small handful just kept to the handholds, pulling themselves across the long room to get to the far wall.
After a few minutes, they were all lined up on the far wall, watching Brennen come in from the entranceway, floating effortlessly as if he were being pulled to them. Suddenly, he stopped in midair. She noticed a small black box in his hand- that must be what gave him such grace in the room.
"So." His voice was stony again. He was in teacher mode. Commander mode. In the hall, they were students, in this room they were soldiers. This was why they were in Battle School… this was what they were all dreaming about in their classes. "Did anyone realize that there was no gravity in here?"
There were murmured agreements throughout the group.
"Let me repeat myself. Did anyone realize that there was no gravity in here?"
Brennen nodded and looked at all of them, his eyes lingering on Petra for only a moment longer than the others. "We're going to do the basics today. Moving and shooting. Maybe we can do them at the same time, if you guys can act as if you've already been potty trained." His voice was calm and steady now. "How do you think we can move in this situation? Remember what you know about gravity." He asked them.
A voice came from the other end of the line from a voice she didn't recognize right away. "You have to be pushed or pulled. You can't use your own momentum."
"Close. But here we are going to be forced to use our own momentum, our own energy. How can we do that?"
Berk spoke up a few spots away from Petra. "Use other things to push off against. Like the wall." She watched Brennen's fingers graze the box in his hand and he drifted towards the wall. He grabbed on a handhold and heads stuck out from the line to get a better look at him. He pulled up his legs so that his feet were pressed against the wall. Petra turned her head sideways and it became clearer that he was just squatting on the wall, using the handholds to keep himself oriented a certain way.
Then he pushed off.
He flew across the Battle Room with near precision accuracy and control. He grabbed onto a handhold on the opposite wall and looked at them. "Now you try."
Petra began to orient herself the way she remembered Brennen being oriented, but kept a tight hold on the handholds. Her first trip across the Battle Room made her a little nauseous. She wasn't so inclined to try something that might bring back that feeling- puking in null-G didn't seem like a smart idea. Especially not in a flash suit.
A few people around her pushed off from the wall, a few having a slight rotation, others having an extreme rotation. One or two people didn't push off hard enough and were lazily drifting across the room at what seemed like the slowest pace possible. She tried to quickly replay Brennen's flight in her head before she pushed away from the wall.
She was bee-lining to the opposite wall. She moved her hand to grab out for a distant handhold and she started to slowly rotate. She quickly retracted her hand a little too quickly and started tilting in the opposite direction. Almost with a sigh of defeat, she kept the slight tilt until she reached the opposite wall, grabbing a handhold and orienting herself to align herself up with her peers that made it to the opposite wall.
It took a few minutes for the ones who didn't push off hard enough to get to the wall, but once they did, Brennen floated out in front of them once more. "Good start. Now, do it again. Until everyone can do it perfectly. Let's move!"
It went like that for a while. Flying and reaching the opposite wall, turning around and pushing off in the same style. After a few tries, Petra started to do it mindlessly, letting her thoughts wander as she adjusted her angle so she would avoid others who were flying across the room too.
It seemed like forever, but then Brennen got them to shooting. He gathered them on a wall and threw out some white balls, explaining that they would glow red for about two minutes before returning to their normal color. He took his Dao out of its holster and showed them the function of each button. As opposed to the lecture they got back in the classroom, he took a child and shot the kid with each setting, demonstrating in real time what would happen. After the demonstration was over and they all understood what would happen, he would press something on the box and the kid would return to his normal state.
The one that was the most important was the trigger. It froze the other person and would be the one button that they would really even care about past this moment in the Battle Room. She took her own Dao off of her suit and held it in her hands and pointed it at the ground. She slowly pulled it back and felt the moment that it went over the edge and produced a beam of light. She let her finger relax along that edge, ready to pull.
"The Battle Room keeps track of your shots. I want you guys to be going from wall to wall here. No one should ever be standing completely still. Let's see how you guys do. Ready? Move."
A voice came up from somewhere in their line. "Sir, there are more of us then there are targets."
Brennen's brows furrowed in confusion at the boy's question. "What does it matter? Fight for them! Now move!" He snapped.
Petra took off, and with her finger already on the trigger ready to shoot, shot two of the target balls before she even got to the other side. There were a few times she missed, that her elbow wasn't fully extended and she forgot momentarily it was a gun, not a sword. That was the hardest part- training her brain to aim and keep still long enough to let the guns' light hit her target and immobilize it.
After for what seemed like hours, Brennen told them to stop and sent them back to their barracks. Petra put her Dao back onto her suit and launched herself towards the exit. There were lights at the bottom of the perfect square of an exit that told her she had to turn herself to make sure she was oriented the right way for when she entered the hall. She moved her body and soon began a slow rotation to turn herself the correct way.
Petra's feet touched the ground and it took her a moment to remember how to walk. She was so used to, already, launching herself from wall to wall, adjusting for the lack of gravity and pushing off of any object that could be used to achieve their goal. It already seemed like second nature and she knew that she would love her time in that room. She also knew that now they were working as individual soldiers and eventually would have to work as one army unit. But for now it was survival of the fittest. And she would be the fittest.
She followed the few boys in front of her at a distance, her muscles aching as they went to get into the shower and back to their barracks. They passed a clock and the time read 2115. They had about 45 minutes to get ready for lights out and that wasn't too awful… even if with their luck, Brennen would lecture them as they dressed for bed.
There weren't many girls in Battle School, but they had to grow up here, so there were separate bathrooms. So as she undressed, she was alone in the empty bathroom. She put the flash suit in a cleaner so it would be done when she was finished in the shower.
As the hot water ran over her, she thought about her performance in the Battle Room. She had to improve. The flash suit was bulky and uncomfortable to move in at first, making maneuvers hard to carry out. Her Dao... well, she would learn to love it. She liked the idea of the gun, but it'd get some getting used to- just like everything else here.
When she was finished, she grabbed her suit and walked shamelessly back to the barracks. At this stage in her life, the only thing that gave away her gender was the bathroom that she exited and her face. Even though the latter was a hit or miss type of thing. Most of the boys were back when she entered, so she walked right past them and took out a uniform to sleep in. Most of the boys slept in their underwear, or less, but she still liked to have some self respect.
A glance at the clock told her it was almost lights out- it was 21:50. She lay down on her bed and closed her eyes, letting her muscles unwind when a voice barked out. "Scores are out- stand at attention, soldiers!" It was Brennen. Every muscle in her body protested as she slipped off her bed and stood with her hands pinned to her side. "First place with 50 hits: Tyler Bradburn. Second place with 47 hits: Petra Arkanian. Third place with 42 hits: Wang Teng..." Brennen walked down the aisle of kids. If he was by one of the people he named, he put a hand on their shoulder in passing.
He almost made it to her bunk when he finished the list, going up to 10. Then he turned on his heel and left, just as abruptly as he entered. Petra gave a sigh of relief as the lights went out, leaving them in the darkness of the unpredictable Battle School.