A couple dozen cadet recruits for the Martian special forces line up, rigid and silent, facing their new instructor who paces in front of them. Titanium-clad boots tap the bio-concrete that forms the floor of the combat training dome, and every sound echoes.
“My name is Daniel Zaveri, but you will call me sir. You are here today because you were selected by myself to join the elite Space Cadet program. You will be trained intensely and held to the highest standards. You are the future of our planet’s security, and pioneers in humanity’s coming expansion throughout the galaxy. Holland!”
“Are you yawning?”
Chance Holland clenches his jaw and tries to yawn through his nose.
“I know some of you are here because you just want to fly spaceships.” Zaveri fixes his gaze on a handsome young man, who Holland has been watching from the corner of his eye. “You will eventually do so, Green, but that is not your purpose. You must develop discipline, not just physical strength and piloting skill. We want to cultivate sharp minds, quick decision-making under stress, independent thinking while also working as a flawless team.”
The instructor continues, going on about the prestige of his program and the Olympus Military Academy at large. He lists heroes he trained, men the cadets would be expected to measure up to, men who fought and sometimes died for their freedom when malicious forces threatened their homes. One of them is Victor Holland, Chance’s uncle who started as a cop, joined the military, and then famously died in action alongside Captain Henry Jayce. Chance sighs when the instructor isn’t looking. He is no hero, and this is not the place for him despite his unfortunate family connections.
Zaveri’s mildly vain speech finally ends, and he dismisses the cadets to free time for the remainder of the day. They scatter in various directions, most toward food and games, but a few of the more studious head for the dormitory to finish unpacking before the rigorous schedule begins wearing them down.
Chance remains where he is, unsure which group he belongs to. He likes to think he’s studious, but since he doesn’t even want to be at the academy, he considers becoming a slacker. Perhaps they’ll kick him out, and then his dad will have to accept that his youngest son will never be anything but a soft worthless dreamer.
The tall, handsome boy is waving at him. The one the instructor referred to as Green.
“Me?” Chance asks, as if he doesn’t already know.
“Yah, you.” The boy extends his hand as he approaches and quirks his mouth into a crooked smile. His teeth flash bright against his dark skin. His lips are beautiful. “I’m Franklin Green.”
“Chance Holland.” It’s a reluctant introduction, unwilling to be heard.
“You look a bit lost. Come with me, I’ll show you round the buildings.”
They set off at a brisk walk, heading for the cafeteria and game room first.
“Didn’t you just get here?” Chance asks.
“I’ve been here a few days already, and I’ve visited before. My dad is one of the teachers. You’ll love him, he teaches strategy without making anyone feel stupid. Where are you from?”
“I was born in Old Aklin, but we moved to the Marineris Metropolis when I was a kid.”
“Ah, good old Marineris, I grew up there. Here’s the cafeteria.” Franklin waves his hand at the wide-open doorway to a natural cavern, where the rock walls have been sealed to hold in the air. A din of hungry young men echoes from within.
“It’s always open, so let’s come back when it isn’t so noisy. You don’t look too keen on going in there.”
Chance nods. He expected the pretty teacher’s kid to be a bit more of an airhead, not such a decent and considerate person. He makes a mental note to work on his prejudices.
They tour the rest of the academy, getting a look at the flight simulators, the classrooms, the gym, and finally ending up in the dormitory.
A couple boys sit in corduroy armchairs near a crackling holographic fireplace in the common area, reading their homework tablets. Franklin nods at them. “The smart ones. They’ll be our commanding officers someday. So, what number is your room?”
Chance takes out his ID card and looks for the sleeping-quarters designation. “Uh, C-42.”
“Perfect, you’re just a few rooms over from me.”
They pass through a narrow opening into a corridor cut into the stone. Doorless rooms, open to the main hall, line it on both sides. They’re just large enough for two pairs of bunk beds each, and lit with soft yellow light through textured glass tiles in the floor.
Franklin counts even numbers off the labels above the rooms to their left. “38…40…here we are, 42. I’m right over there in 47.”
They step into Chance’s room, and the entryway is low enough that Franklin has to duck. None of the others assigned to the room have arrived yet; it feels empty and so unlike a home. Chance slings his small pack, containing every material thing he owns in the universe, under his bunk. They both sit on the firm mattress.
“So what’s your story?” Franklin asks. “I’m assuming a relation to the great and wonderful Victor Holland.” His voice carries just enough sarcasm to make Chance smile.
“Well, he’s my uncle, and part of the reason I’m here.”
“I got that vibe of reluctance from you the moment we were dismissed.”
“I’m not the right person for this sort of thing. I’m more like my mom.”
“Yeah, what does she do?”
Chance shrugs. “Whatever you do when you’re a corpse. I guess. She died when I was really young.”
“Oh man. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it. I was barely a year old.” He feels a sudden weight on his shoulders, an overwhelming desire to be alone. “Hey Franklin, thanks so much for showing me around, but I think I want to fall asleep now.”
“Sure, sure no problem. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Franklin leaves and Chance stretches out on the bed. Why did he agree to this? Just because he wanted to make his dad happy? Maybe that’s all the reason he needs. Maybe that really is his greatest purpose in life.
He has almost fallen asleep when his three roommates come swaggering in, cracking jokes and laughing. He rolls over and clamps his pillow around his ears and waits for them to fall asleep.
In the morning the cadets awaken to a soft but forceful two-tone chime, and white light from the floors. They tumble out of bed, wild-haired and drowsy, and line up in the hallway.
Chance feels a poke in his ribs as he tries to see through the shifting mass of boys.
“They’re handing out uniforms,” Franklin says. “We’ll get them in the common area and change in the showers.”
The line moves quickly and soon they have their dark red jumpsuits. In the showers, comprised of a dry section and an open shower area with a drain in the floor, naked and half-dressed boys make crude jokes as they shower and slip into the uniforms.
Chance peers inside the garment and reaches in to feel the built-in underwear. He’s very selective about undergarments but it seems good enough.
“All one piece, and fitted to your body to minimize distractions when you’re active. Soldiers have died while adjusting their underwear, you know.”
“Makes sense, I guess.”
Chance undresses slowly, hoping that maybe the others will hurry on and leave him, but the room only grows more crowded.
“Dude, just strip and get used to it,” Franklin says as he deftly sheds his garments. “People notice you more when you’re shy.”
Trying to avoid looking at the handsome boy’s muscular torso—and other parts—Chance finishes stripping and grabs a towel from the stack, which he immediately wraps around himself.
“You’ve got nothing to be ashamed of.”
“I’m a bit soft.”
“That’ll change pretty quickly. And you’re already damn good-looking. Gonna be really popular with the ladies once you bulk up!”
Chance catches a wink from Franklin as he hurries for the showerhead in the corner with his face burning.
Breakfast is a bit less embarrassing. The biscuits are dry and the gravy thin, but there’s sausage involved and it feels satisfying. Then instructor Zaveri walks in as they stack their used dishes, unmistakable with the clink of his boots.
“Good morning cadets. I have an exciting day in store for you. Who would like to jump off a cliff?”
Chance Holland licks his dry lips and wishes he passed away peacefully in his sleep the night before. The arid landscape stretches for many visible kilometers from the high point behind the academy, where he stands in his pressure suit with the others. He is trying to keep away from the other cadets as they jostle each other in the limited space, all trying to get a look at the drop of maybe a hundred meters. It seems inevitable that one or more of them will be nudged right off the cliff.
“Attention!” Zaveri bellows through their earpieces, and the cadets scramble to form neat rows, their backs to the cliff. “This is your first test. There is a narrow ledge six meters below. You will jump to it and make your way around the mountain to a tunnel that will lead you back to an airlock into the academy. Any questions?”
Chance’s heart pounds and the cadets fidget and glance at each other. It seems impossible to stay upright after landing, and a narrow ledge doesn’t sound like it will be wide enough to go into a roll, or otherwise absorb the impact.
“One question, sir,” a smaller boy asks. “What happens if we fall off the ledge?”
“Don’t fall, cadet. Any other questions?”
Silence. Chance sees sweat drip down the face of the boy who asked.
“Good. None of you will speak again until we are all back inside the academy.” He walks to the edge and gestures over it. “Holt, you jump first.”
Chance hangs back, quite sure he’ll never be able to jump. Someone pokes his shoulder and he turns to face Franklin, who takes his gloved hand and presses a folded piece of paper into it.
A muscular young man with a confident expression walks to the edge and looks down. The confidence fades and he gives Zaveri a glance, only to receive a stony glare in return. Then he clenches his fists and steps over the edge, disappearing without a sound.
Franklin steps up next. Chance looks at the paper in his hand. A scribbled message reads there’s a force field that will keep you on the ledge.
He shoves the note into a pocket in his pressure suit and looks at Zaveri, who gives no indication he has noticed. Franklin jumps, and then one by one the braver cadets follow, until five are left. The instructor looks at them, and Chance steps forward, dragging his feet against his will, mouth dry and hands shaking.
He now stands beside the instructor, staring over the cliff, and the ledge below seems too far away and impossibly small. Franklin waves; the others have gone but he stayed behind. In that moment the teacher’s boy looks more beautiful than ever.
But Chance can’t make himself jump. His legs feel stiff, no matter how hard he tries to move. His palms are tingling and sticky with sweat. All he can see is his body, falling, bouncing off the side of the cliff, slamming into the ground.
The knowledge of the force field should help, he thinks. His mind still insists that there is no way he can stay on the ledge.
“Are you going to jump, Holland, or do you need a push?”
Even if he forgot the prohibition against speaking, Chance wouldn’t have been able to answer. All he wants is to be home. This is it—the end of his glorious career. The nephew of a war hero would be known as the boy who refused to jump. What a pathetic legacy. He won’t be able to face his dad.
Then, as if animated by that thought, his legs start working and he jumps. A moment later he crashes into the ledge and tumbles against the force field. It pushes back against him with a sensation like a million needles. For a moment all he can see is empty space and the ground so far below, and then Franklin pulls him up and ushers him along the ledge.
It’s over but the panic still grows, and Chance’s entire body hurts. When they get inside the tunnel he collapses on his knees, feeling his heart throbbing and the air rushing in and out of his lungs.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
He tries to answer but the words won’t stick together. Fleeting thoughts lunge from deep in his mind, only to disorient him and then disappear. Sweat drips from his forehead onto the visor of his helmet. He bites down on his lower lip, trying to focus on a loose pebble on the smooth floor of the tunnel. And then in a moment the pebble is gone, replaced by his mind with nothingness. This is where you’ll die, a stabbing thought says. It vanishes and leaves him confused. Won’t death hurt more than this? His lungs strain for air, he doesn’t know why; voices echo but the meaning of the words slips through his grasp.
Faceless terror snakes through the core of his body, so fierce he thinks he might be burning alive. He sees himself leaping from the cliff, falling all the way, his mother dead and broken. A father’s glare, and vast blackness that clings to him like oil.
At last it ends, and Chance sits with his arms around his knees. A few of the other boys are staring at him. They shake their heads and continue deeper into the tunnel, but Franklin remains by his side. The capacity for linear thoughts returns first, as Chance trembles and tries to hold himself together, and he tells himself that he isn’t dying, at least not yet.
Zaveri walks into the tunnel and raises an eyebrow at them. Chance jumps to his feet and brushes off his uniform, and Franklin gives him a worried look.
“Good job, boys. I’m sure you all know by now that there is a force field to keep you from falling off the ledge. In the real world, there may not be a safety net. You may one day find yourself in a situation where the survival of your friends, or the outcome of the mission, rests on your ability to jump on command into a situation that looks like certain death. The three cadets who refused to jump will be sent home.”
Chance’s only thought as they file through the airlock is that he should have refused to jump. In fact, he probably would have refused if Franklin hadn’t given him that note.
He will never make it as a hero.
Nobody mentions what happened for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. The cadets have a couple introductory classes and a rigorous physical training session. Then they’re given some homework for the day, so during the couple free hours before supper Franklin and Chance return to the dormitory. They sit together on a bed in silence for a while, reading about the history of the Martian armed forces.
Franklin finishes first and flops back with his hands behind his head. In a moment he laughs, and Chance puts down his tablet.
“I’ve been thinking,” Franklin says. “It’s funny how they have Olympus Academy for boys, and Phoebe Academy for girls. They’re basically the same. Only reason we’re separated is because they’re afraid the boys and girls would fall in love and fail to become heroic soldiers.”
“Why is that funny?”
“Hmm. For one, they go to such great lengths to teach us to focus. They create distractions and expect us to overcome them. But somehow girls are too much of a distraction to overcome.”
“True, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Plus when you actually go into service you’re mixing with people of all genders. Ah well. It’s no loss for me.” Franklin sits up and gives him an intense look. “You almost done with that reading?”
Chance looks at his tablet. “I can’t focus.”
“Is it me? I can shut up. Sometimes you have to tell me that shutting up is the right thing to do ‘cause I like talking too much.”
“No. It’s mostly anxiety. I broke down today and that’s just the first test. There’s no way I can succeed here.”
Franklin leans closer and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Yeah, what was that, anyway?”
“I guess it’s a panic attack. It’s about the worst feeling ever.” Chance stares at the floor, feeling again the shame of it.
“It looks brutal. You’re doing good to get up after that and keep going.”
“I’m not sure how long I can do that.”
“How about you finish your reading, and then we can spend the rest of our free time in the game room? Help take your mind off it all.”
Chance nods and picks up his tablet. Franklin lies back again and hums a strange tune, an unfamiliar melody that tugs on deep and unsettling emotions.