Burst

Higher Learning

Another day in the life of Lyk'ra: awake to the sounds of newborn Yrl'ah, do my tasks, prepare for my entry at the Academy, meet my friends, and pray with Mama before going to sleep. Papa joined the Imperial Army shortly before Yrl'ah was born. Several years ago he began attending classes taught by Queen Veranke herself. Every night he would return home deathly quiet, forever claiming that one day he would be sent to a distant blue planet named Earth. Often times his dark green skin paled and his red eyes lost their usual liveliness. It worried us all greatly.

The eve of Papa's departure he promised to see me off to the Academy. His promise rings false since my orientation is in a few days. Warriors volunteer, but once they do, no word is given informing their families of their whereabouts and health. So is the way of the Council.

"Lyk'ra sa Gila! This is no time to be recording your thoughts!" shouts Mama. "It is time to study. That can wait."

"Yes, Mama," I sigh, extending my arm to hide my scroll in its proper place. She leads me to our supper table where my lessons are piled high. Yrl'ah plays at our feet.

Mama begins, "We have precious little time left to prepare you. So far you have mastered the basic skills of transformation. Now you must master animals and mathematics."

I immerse myself in the scrolls. Time passes quickly. Before long it is time for supper. We eat in silence, staring at Papa's empty chair. Yrl'ah is too young to understand, but one day either she or I will join the Army's ranks. We finish, and after laying Yrl'ah in her cradle, I follow Mama to our small alter. Praying is how we spend the remainder of our evenings.

"Good night, Lyk'ra. He loves you," whispers Mama, gently kissing my forehead.

"He loves you too," I whisper back. She exits the area, entering her space where normally Papa would occupy. Drowsiness takes over.

My last few days at home are spent studying and practicing. Today is my orientation. Though I am 16 years of age, certainly old enough to join the Army, nervousness creeps over me. How will Mama cope if I am employed? Such thoughts seem cumbersome, but there they are. My only comfort is remembering that He loves me. He will protect our family and those who are fighting for Tarnax.

"Lyk'ra, it is time to dress," calls Mama.

Slowly I place the scroll in my chest. Mama leads me to out small closet and mirror. First she braids my long black hair and decorates my face with paint. Next she removes my nightdress and replaces it with new clothing. Strips of red fabric cross my otherwise bare midriff and spine. A long skirt is connected to the top piece by the fabric strips. Altogether I look stunning.

"Daughter, you are beautiful," Mama murmurs in my ear. She spins me in a circle.

"We must leave now," I inform Mama. I lift Yrl'ah carefully, trying not to rumple the material, and walk out the door in the direction of the Academy. It looms in the distance. When the turrets of the main castle seem larger than they did when we departed a high-pitched giggle startles me. I turn around and notice my closest friend Zkrl. "You startled me, Zkrl," I tell her.

"But Lyk'ra, today will be full of surprises," protests Zkrl. She wears the same basic style as my dress, but hers has glimmering jewels. Zkrl's family is wealthier than ours and her father works with the Priest of the Sciences. Just a glance displays her status. "Hello, Yrl'ah," she coos. "Is Lyk'ra treating you right?"

My baby sister laughs and reaches for the lines on Zkrl's chin. They are tinged black with paint. "She is just fine," I answer for her. "Is it a possibility that Ifg'ai will attend our classes?"

"Are you considering proposing your love for him?" teases Zkrl.

"Of course not. Do not be ridiculous. He is a close friend, nothing more. I am sure he is anxious to see us as well." We pause to let our parents catch up, then travel together to the central plaza. Since we are tardy, many citizens fill the square. Most emit high peals of laughter or shouts of anticipation. Every child of my generation is here, prepared to make their families proud.

Ifg'ai spots us and slowly weaves his way through the crowd. "Good morning," he greets us politely. Unlike the other boys, he wears an old battle suit I know used to belong to his father. It will be of use to him when he goes off to war.

"How are you, Ifg'ai?" A smile creeps over my face as I grasp him in a tight hug. It has been weeks since I last enjoyed his company, Yrl'ah and studying occupying me.

"We are barely making ends meet, but we continue to survive," responds the young warrior.

Before anybody can reply, Queen Veranke and several guards step onto a balcony connected to one of the turrets. "Hello, and welcome to the Skrull Academy of Tarnax. It is a pleasure to meet you all. My hope is that by the time you graduate you will be ready to serve the Skrull Empire. These next few years will be the most important of your lives. I do not wish to bore you, so say your final farewells and begin the next step of your education. That is all."

The queen hurries back inside and we follow her orders. "Goodbye, Yrl'ah. Behave for Mama," I whisper. I force a smile on my face and wipe away her tears. She can tell I will not be coming home with her. Next I turn my attention to my mother. "Mama, I will miss you so," I say, struggling to hold back tears.

"As will I," she murmurs, stroking my hair. "My little Lyk'ra. You have grown up so fast. You must leave now. Go, daughter, join your friends."

Reluctantly I place Yrl'ah in Mama's arms. "Come, Zkrl and Ifg'ai. The Academy is waiting." I clutch my friend's hands and join the masses of young Skrulls making their way inside the castle. We separate when Ifg'ai leaves for the male dormitory. Zkrl and I claim a room with a view of expansive forests and the town. The main room has three sections, each with a bed, closet, chest, and nightstand. Paintings hang on the otherwise bare walls. A door separates a small bathroom.

"Pardon me, but I am in need of a room, and it appears you have available space. Do you mind allowing my presence?" a timid voice asks.

Zkrl spins around. "I know I do not mind. What say you, Lyk'ra?"

"I do not mind either. We are in need of a roommate. May you introduce yourself?"

The young female hesitantly steps inside the door. "My name is Ytt'ri Ithrium of Throe. My father's brother is Kl'rt, codenamed the Super-Skrull."

Upon further examination, I discover that the newcomer wears an old yet spotless dress with pale green ribbons. Her black hair is curled on top of her head. Bright gold eyes are accented by deep red paint. She is dreadfully thin. "Your father's brother is the Super-Skrull?" I question.

"Aye, he is. He will be attending the briefing tonight. And, I should add, I know not the topic."

Extending her arm and placing her slender fingers on Ytt'ri's shoulder, Zkrl states, "We care not about the briefing, only about our future friendship. Ytt'ri, claim your space. My name is Zkrl, and this is Lyk'ra."

"Pleasure to meet you," grins Ytt'ri.

She gladly accepts our invitation. We spend the rest of the day customizing our room and exploring the grounds. Exotic animals entertain us and offer berries and nuts. Other young Skrulls join us, playing games while our minds are free of stress. Laughter still floats through the air when we find the meeting hall. Immediately upon Queen Veranke's arrival, though, everyone falls silent. Her aura is commanding. Her royal status certainly assists her in enforcing the strict rules.

"Welcome one and all. I hope you acquainted yourselves with the grounds. Tomorrow is the day class begins. Learn much, and you may meet the Academy's expectations. Before I continue, notices will be sent to those who qualify. Special programs are forming to aid in the fulfillment of a prophecy. Any urgent inquiries can be given to General Kl'rt, but otherwise wait until the appointed dates. Now, those meeting with the Priest of the Sciences and the Priestess of the Mind at first light should listen…"

"What prophecy is she referencing?" questions Ytt'ri, not paying attention to the speech.

I answer, "It could be any number of options. Maybe the one that earned her a year on Skrullos as punishment."

"Perhaps. Do not forget about the past prophecy stating the Kree will return and provoke us," adds Zkrl.

"Only time will tell," I whisper, standing. The briefing over, I rush ahead of the girls in search of Ifg'ai. Finally hunting him down, I chase after him. "Ifg'ai, do you have a moment?"

He slows. "For you, two."

"Do you have knowledge on any of the queen's words?"

"The prophecy is unknown, but I understand the special programs she mentioned. My father says highly trained warriors, not all from the Imperial Army, are being deployed to Earth to fulfill an ancient prophecy. This project requires a great number of able soldiers to complete. If any of your immediate relations have ever been an active fighter, they will force you to participate. So is the way of the Council."

There it is again. The Council. Everything, even if indirectly, leads back to the distinguished group of elderly Skrulls handpicked by the one gracing the throne. "Many thanks, Ifg'ai. You've been very helpful." I hug him before returning to my chambers. Zkrl lies on her bed chatting with Ytt'ri, who sits on the floor. Both are clothed in nightgowns.

"Where were you?" both ask at in unison.

"Conversing with Ifg'ai," I answer, sitting on my mattress and removing my sandals. "I learned some valuable information about Queen Veranke's words."

"Tell us!" they demand.

Undressing myself, I wait until my body is covered before responding. "Students at the Academy who are related to warriors are going to be chosen for a special mission. The Council demands it. If his words are true, then I will be summoned as well."

Ytt'ri says, "Not only will I be trained, I will be expected to live up to my uncle's reputation."

Zkrl glances sympathetically at us both before speaking. "My family has always worked in the Sciences. D'Roge might even be distantly related to me. If you two and Ifg'ai leave, how will I know your well-being? What if you were to perish?"

"Do not worry, we will have training. When the war is complete, we will return. Maybe not unharmed, but alive nonetheless." A guard stomps down the hallway ordering us to stifle the lights and prepare for sleep. We snuff the oil lamps and slip beneath the covers. Sleep comes quickly.

At the break of dawn I slowly awaken. Thin beams of sunlight slip through the heavy curtains. Zkrl snores away, her small green nose twitching. I remember the first time I stayed at her home overnight. She rivaled the sound of a cannon. Over time I have grown used to it. When she turns she buries her face in the pillow, stifling the noise. My other friend is curled in a ball. Hearing my small cough over Zkrl, Ytt'ri turns her head towards me and smiles. I return it. She resumes staring at particles of dust swirling in the sunshine. I pull the blanket over my head, daydreaming about my classes. What might I gain? Surely our evolution from unique birds to the powerful shape-shifting Skrull. Most likely wars and royalty. Possibly transformation. Any number of things.

Finally, Zkrl suffocates herself and lifts her head. We give morning greetings, then take turns with our bathes. Then we dress in the uniforms provided: short skirts in a dark green slightly darker than our skin, green blouses with the rusty tint of our blood, and ribbons to tie back our hair. For Ytt'ri and I this is an improvement, but Zkrl is degraded. We finish and leave for breakfast. Most of the seats are full, forcing us to separate. I make small talk with the other boys at my table. We introduce ourselves and discuss our extremely different lifestyles. Out of the four boys only De'Qince la Evlaa makes an impression. As the first bell of the day rings we promise to contact one another again.

My first class is religion. The room is decorated with scrolls depicting famous philosophers. Drawings of different gods scatter the walls. Empty desks all face the teacher's. "Excuse me?" At the sound of my voice a previously unnoticeable woman emerges from behind a door.

Her eyes are a bright red, her hair a deep black. Robes typically found in a covenant replace the standard uniform. "My first student of the year," says she. "Take a seat."

I sit near the front. As the others separate their conversations they enter the room. When all the desks are full, the teacher instructs us to stand. We sit in numerical order, meaning I am near the center.

"My name is Mistress Fle. It is my duty over the next few months to expose you to the religions of Tarnax. Beginning with the nearby villages, we will progress around the planet, coming in a full circle. Does anybody hail from Enzit?"

Only two others and I raise their hands.

"Alright. Stand and introduce yourselves."

Before I can open my mouth, a lean boy answers, "Xri ci Ronon. My father is the butcher."

Then the girl who resembles him speaks. "Ala ci Ronon."

Hmm. The ci Ronon twins. Maybe we can become friends. Mama never allowed me near the butchers; she thought they would encourage bad habits. Here, there are no mothers or fathers in command. "Lyk'ra sa Gila," I say before sitting. "My mother is an esteemed midwife."

"Excellent. Now, to begin today's lesson…" She teaches us basic customs.

I already understand most of her words. Mama is extremely religious. Every night she sets aside a few moments for praying. At the end of the allotted time, we gather the scrolls and quills she gave us.

"Remember, for those of you who believe, He loves you!" Mistress Fle calls out as we rush out of the room.

Over the course of the day, my mind is filled with new knowledge. Leaving my final class, scrolls piled high in my arms, I bump into Ala. She angrily pushes me aside. "Ala, I will not pretend to understand what your parents taught you, but your actions indicate you hold a grudge."

"Your father is the source. Old war crimes. That is all I am permitted to say."

Interesting. I puzzle over her words as I climb the staircase towards my room. The beds are made and the bathroom restocked. A hand-woven basket rests on my bed. A fancier one must belong to Zkrl and poor Ytt'ri has nothing. I discover that the basket contains clothing, a pin given to me the eve of Papa's departure, a picture drawn by Yrl'ah, my favorite stories, and a message from Mama. It reads:

Dear Lyk'ra,

I understand it has only been a day, but I already miss you. The house is silent without Yrl'ah's cries of joy when you play with her. Be sure to study well and put forth much effort. Whatever you wish to do, stay strong. Make sure Zkrl and any new friends you make behave. The next two years will be informational. Do not waste it. Go, my little warrior, and make your mother proud.

He loves you!

Mama

Suppressing a grin, I place the scrolls aside and put the clothes in my closet. With some adhesive I keep Yrl'ah's drawing above my bed. I place the pin on my nightstand. The stories belong in my chest. Since we have several hours remaining before dinner, I head for the entryway. Sitting next to a flickering fire is De'Qince. His gaze switches from the dancing flames to my face when he hears my footsteps.

"Greetings, Lyk'ra. Would you care to join me?"

"I would be delighted." I loop my arm through his. We stroll through the garden formally, but when we reach the outskirts, we shift so only our hands touch. A little while later he grows weary of the silence.

"Where do you come from?" he questions.

Taken aback by his abrupt query, I wait a few seconds before answering. "Enzit, the village just beyond these boundaries. And you?"

"Sawka. It is near the ocean. We deal with fish. Perhaps you have visited?"

"Aye, it is truly a wonderful place. My mother brought me along after birthing my sister."

He quiets and we walk in silence, strolling through the trees. Then he speaks again. "Your mother is a midwife, but what is your father?"

Instantly the smile on my face disappears. An audible sigh escapes my lips. "He…is on Earth. I do not know if he is alive and well. It has been over a year with no contact. Every night I pray to no avail."

The night was cold with a brisk wind. Yrl'ah had finally finished crying and slept soundly in her crib. I lay underneath my blankets reading by candlelight. Mama and Papa sat at the table, discussing Papa's training. Though they were whispering, I could still hear them. They mentioned King Dorrek, D'Roge, Princess Veranke, and whether Yrl'ah or I would be his heir. Their conversation carried on late into the night. When I awoke the following morning Papa was feeding Yrl'ah. Since it was the Holy Day, and therefore no work, I dressed in hunter's garb. I ate some remnants of the meal from the night before and left with Papa. In the woods he helped improve my skills with knives and spears. We were successful, returning home with many animals.

At sundown someone rapped on the door. Upon opening it, a warrior Skrull informed us that Papa was needed. At first he refused, knowing that being deployed to Earth is a death sentence, but the officer was persistent. With tears in his eyes Papa clutched Yrl'ah to his chest. Then he embraced Mama and kissed her. Finally he grasped me tightly. The visiting Skrull yanked him out the door, and we have not heard of him since.

De'Qince is emotionless, at least by demeanor. To take my mind off this depressing topic, he asks, "What is your favorite memory with him?"

I pause for a moment. Then I smile. "When I was very young, we came across a salamma, a half-breed, in the woods. It was part warto and part felefa. We captured and kept it. I was delighted."

Once again De'Qince takes a moment to think. "Lyk'ra, wait here for a moment."

I obey and lean against a tree trunk. Hordes of creatures fly overhead migrating someplace warm for the winter. They chirp out lovely sounds. A dera bolts past. All of a sudden, a strange animal trots out of the bushes. Transparent skin exposes veins and muscles. Fluffy pale yellow fur hardly covers the internal body parts. A long, plump snout twists in the air. "Oh, De'Qince, you shouldn't have," I giggle. "You are an exact replica."

He snorts, galloping around me. Then he turns his head to the sun sinking into the horizon.

"You are correct. We should leave now." I transform into an animal and bolt to the castle.