I’m bounced out of the simulation so hard I’m momentarily stunned. We’re using one of the academy simulation rooms, a large chamber that looks like a padded cell with gray surfaces that tilt and move so we can role-play and take practice performance tests.
Solomon points at me with a two-finger gesture. “You are so dead, Perse.”
“Dammit!” I pull off my headset and throw it at him, but for a big guy he has incredible reflexes and dodges with a laugh. “Where in the Sixteen Courts of Hell did those Gatoi soldiers come from? I’m supposed to repair the train, not get my brains hacked out.”
“Just adding a little extra color.”
“The color of my brains is not going to be in the final exam. Why are you such a jerk to me when you play antagonist?”
He grins, all teeth and taunt. “How do you know a direct attack won’t be part of the test? If you don’t survive, you can’t fix the train. If you don’t fix the train, you don’t pass and you don’t graduate. I’m doing you a favor and watching your precious ass, just like I always have.”
My heartbeat has slowed enough that I can laugh bitterly as I snag my headset off the floor. “Fine. You have a point. Shall we do it again? Only this time without the berserking Gatoi and their fucking axes.”
“You’d rather face the Phene with their scary-ass four arms and their creepy Riders?”
“The power grid exam is to gauge my diagnostic and repair speed. Not survival.”
“I’m just a squarehead, Perse. After graduation I’m going to get sent straight to the front lines. You need to know how to survive.”
“Yeah. Yeah. I get it.” Frustration thickens my voice. I flash to a horrible vision of failing and having nowhere to go. Nowhere but home.
“Hey, Perse. It’s okay. You’ve got this.”
He settles a heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezes. When we’re standing side by side the top of my head only reaches his epaulets. Were he not the person I trust most in the academy I’d find his size and confidence intimidating. He comes from circumstances so opposite to mine that he understands needing to get away from a home that will kill you either in body or in spirit if you don’t escape.
I clench a hand as I battle not to burst into tears. I’m not a calm person; I just fake it. “Shut up. Let’s go.”
Before we can tug on our headsets for another round a ping chimes through the air, followed by an expanding halo of orange light, which I perceive just beyond my right eye. It’s the academy signal for an urgent incoming message.
A banner of coruscating words throbs in front of my eyes.
Stone Barracks cohort report to the Eyrie in 30 minutes
I groan, my pulse accelerating like I’m back in the simulation. “This can’t be good.”
He elbows me. “You worry too much. We’re so close to graduation it’s probably just an hour of Mandatory Fun. Maybe we’ll get to pretend we’re contestants on Idol Faire, performing the classics.” He claps out a backbeat. “‘It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.’”
I flip him a rude hand gesture as I blink at the exit. The seal slides open to reveal the equipment hall with its shelves and bins. We turn our headsets, gloves, boots, and coveralls over to the clerk, another academy student. Every cadet at the Central Defense Cadet Academy works extra hours beyond their duty rota. It’s how citizens pay for an education. Her black hair is pinned up in a bun, not cut short like mine, and she’s neatly dressed in the brown fatigues that are our daily uniform. She offers the shy smile of a first year not sure if she can be friendly with fifth years. Solomon and I both smile back so brightly that she looks a little dizzied.
“Aren’t you captain of the championship rugby team?” she asks with a worshipful gaze at Solomon.
“So I am. Cadet Solomon, at your service.” He reads her name tag. “Do you play, Cadet Phan?”
Stricken to silence by his question, she shakes her head. Her flustered smile would be funnier if I wasn’t sure some disaster is about to explode in our faces.
I tug on Solomon’s beefy elbow, which my wholehearted yanking doesn’t budge by a millimeter. “By my estimate it’s going to take us twenty-two minutes to get there.”
“See you again,” he says with a sly wink that makes Cadet Phan blush.
As the equipment hall door slides closed behind us we head out at a jog across a grid of playing fields, taking the straightest course toward the Sun and Moon twin pagodas and the sky-tower that stand in the center of the academy’s giant campus. We’re well matched; he’s faster and stronger, but I’ve got endurance.
“She’s a baby first year, Solomon. Don’t even think about it.”
“Who said I was thinking about it? I was just being polite and giving her some social capital. She’s probably already pinging members of her cohort.”
“‘Large, not-so-bright future marine can speak words of two syllables!’”
“‘The dashing future marine was accompanied by a future engineer who was entirely unable to speak because she was contemplating the glorious career that awaits her. Someday when he’s leading a phalanx of grunts on a rock-grabbing mission in a border system, her engineering unit will be assigned to dig latrines for him.”
Even though we’re running I have good enough aim—speed, trajectory, and angle—to punch him on the upper arm, not that I stagger him. He’s a massive packed bundle of muscle honed to its highest peak of performance.
“Weak ass, Perse.”
“Fuck you, Solomon.”
He starts a little dab of a victory dance while still running, stumbles, and barely avoids falling flat on his face. We both start laughing, then hush as we pass a corridor of classrooms in session. We jog down a walkway shaded by solar panels. The run has drained off almost all of my anxiety by the time we enter the central compound. Second-year cadets on gate duty salute us as we dash past.
We race around the edge of Heaven Lake, where bottom-feeding plow-headed Cephalaspis cruise below surface-breathing lungfish and miniature long-snouted ichthyosaurs. By the time we pound up forty-five flights of stairs to the observation deck of the sky-tower my legs and lungs are burning. It’s a climb we cadets do three times a week. The view is worth it.
The Eyrie is the top observation deck of the sky-tower, walled with transparent ceramic for a 360-degree panorama of the campus and its encircling forest. Thirty klicks to the north, and easily visible on a clear day, rises a sky-tower that’s a clone of this one. It’s part of an industrial park built for the war effort; twice a year we cadets get run through a seven-day training exercise on its avenues and blocks while the workers get their holidays.
Our Eyrie has an open floor plan, with classroom lattices in one quadrant, couches and comfortable chairs in another, and a cafeteria in a third. The fourth quadrant is a staging ground for various activities involving a sky pier that sticks out from the observation deck. Solomon, still breathing thunderously from the climb, gives me a thumbs-up because there’s no rappelling or light-glider equipment being made ready for training off the sky pier. I whisper a prayer of thanks to the Celestial Immortals for this small mercy.
That doesn’t mean we’re out of danger. Our instructors have something evil planned. The question is what.
While they wait, the other Stone Barracks cadets are lounging in the couches and chairs. Our rack-mates, Minh, Ikenna, and Ay, wave us over to where they’re sprawled on a big couch, sipping at lime soda and artichoke tea.
A huge virtual screen displays Chaonia’s number-one entertainment and news stream, Channel Idol. It’s a rare treat for us. Cadets are allowed no communications or news except monthly letters from home for those who have family who bother to write. The show on-screen is a retrospective of last year’s Idol Faire, the biggest competition in the Republic of Chaonia, the one everybody watches. A segment on fourth-place finisher Bako, who crafted sculptures in free fall, dissolves into the smiling image of the third-place finisher, Ji-na, who was voted “the Face” of the season for her incandescent smile. Several of the cadets whoop enthusiastically as the screen replays one of her ethereal ribbon dances.
Behind us a bell rings. The doors close. Anyone who isn’t here is out of luck. But I count all of Stone Barracks cohort as present. We all made it in time. Good for us.
My nemesis, Cadet Jade Kim, wears the coveted tiger emblem of cohort captain, an elected position in the final year. Naturally a horde of suck-ups surrounds the gloriously perfect cohort captain, although Kim’s melting stare—as good as a kiss—is directed at a tall, elegant cadet standing nearby. Surely glamour girl Pon is too smart to succumb to that swaggering conceit.