Koot saw a taxi begin to level out as it approached the Academy shuttle grounds and hovered by the grand entrance sign which read:
“The Planetary Union of Life-form Salvation and Emancipation - Academy of Earth”
Such a mouthful. Could they not simply write PULSE, like they do everywhere else?
She surveyed the grounds around her as the vehicle began its landing sequence. The Earth Academy was a gargantuan facility. Nearly twenty-thousand-square kilometers, it was one of the highlights of Earth’s ever-changing landscape. Academies like this were the lifeblood of PULSE. Girls would arrive at the impressionable age of ten to be sculpted into devastatingly effective Soldiers over the next eight years. It was a fiercely competitive and punishing learning experience, the standards set by PULSE so high that many would inevitably fall short, dropping out long before they could complete the course. But, it was worth it.
The brutally steep curve the girls had to ascend was a necessity in crafting a Soldier able enough, both physically and mentally, to endure the grandiose feats required of them. They would one day be responsible for leading the charge on new worlds, burdened with the sanctimonious task of changing women’s destiny and fighting for their freedom. It was a life that would always be full of danger, high stakes and, more importantly, the unknown. Every new encounter would be a learning experience, and they needed to forge the tools to cope with that struggle. They were the single most important part of the galaxy-spanning movement, and they had to be the best.
There were dozens of girls waiting around, her pupils, readying themselves for the challenges awaiting them.
“See, we’re on time,” she heard Stella boast, as she stepped out of the taxi and nudged Faye between the ribs.
Faye winced before placing her palm on Stella’s cheek and thrusting her back.
“Only just,” was her retort. “Chief Brenda nearly cost us. Again.”
“Oh, give it a rest,” Stella smugly replied. “And seriously, Brenda is nice, I don’t know what you hate so much about her, she…”
Faye cut Stella off abruptly. “I don’t hate her. I just think she’s a little… scatterbrained.”
“Maybe,” Stella added, as the vehicle doors slid open. “But she gets results.”
“Brenda Baxter is a vital part of our work here on Earth." Koot made sure to sound calm but also direct as she interrupted their conversation. “And you are correct, she does get results. Believe me, you do not want to get on her bad side.”
Koot couldn’t help but smile at the sight of two of her favorite students. As Overseer, she was the woman responsible for every girl at the Academy and every Soldier Earth produced. She brushed her thick black fringe out of her eyes before adding, “But do not think I have overlooked your late-coming.”
“We are NOT late,” Faye protested.
“But we agreed you would arrive early, did we not?” Koot probed. “Meaning you are indeed later than the time we decided upon?”
“Will this count against us?” asked Stella.
Koot laughed out loud. “No, Stella. Survival is a pass. Everything else, unfortunately, is meaningless. Now, if you will excuse me, I have to make the final preparations.” She took a few steps towards the shuttle before glancing back. “I just want the two of you to know that I am extremely proud of how far you have come. Good luck.”
She turned and continued away from the two Humans, resisting the urge to look back a second time. And she so desperately wanted to look back. Koot tried her best to be the most professional Overseer she could. She was amicable and, she thought, a lot of fun at times, but she preferred not to show favoritism towards any students.
With both Stella and Faye, this proved particularly difficult. Saffron was her longtime friend. She had known the now silver- and blonde-haired old woman for nearly seventy-five years, since she was just an infant, not long after PULSE had liberated the Earth. Which was why it pained her so much to even entertain the thought of Stella perishing during the Trials.
For eighteen years, she had watched these girls grow into the type of Human she was proud to represent. They were strong, smart, ambitious, and willing to learn from her and her peers. She regarded them as excellent students, amongst the best she had ever trained. But none of that guaranteed a thing on a day like this.
Koot approached the shuttle pilot, who sat with her feet up on the dashboard, reclined so far back in her seat she could look vertically upwards at Koot. The olive-skinned Human adjusted the purple bandanna that wrapped her short black hair.
“Cheer up, boss lady,” the pilot said half-heartedly, not bothering to alter her position.
Koot took in a deep breath before letting out a defeated sigh. “I do not know if I can do this anymore, Letti.”
Letti must have been used to seeing her sluggish demeanor whenever the students weren’t around, especially on these days, but nonetheless lowered her feet and swiveled the chair around to face her.
“You know you don’t have to be here, boss,” Letti said, as she rose from her seat and placed a hand on Koot’s shoulder. “Why put yourself through this every time?”
“Because in the seventy-two years since Earth’s intervention I have never missed a Trial Day. These girls deserve that someone remember and acknowledge their efforts today,” Koot replied, before adding, “Whether they succeed or fail.”
Trial Day made Koot more and more miserable, year on year. The most painful part of it all was the brave face she had to put on for each of the girls. To shake their hand, look them in the eye, and tell them she believed they could make it. Being forced to lie time and time again. It wasn’t that she didn’t believe in the girls. No, it wasn’t the quality of the Trialist, but rather the inevitability of the task before them.
The Trial was too hard. Not impossible. But simply unfair, for Humans.
Every year, the class of girls would be shuttled away to the planet Raxis. Located in the nearby Dobera nebula, just outside of Earth’s system, Raxis was a death trap. One side of the planet always faced the enormous gas giant of the adjacent Palteron cluster. The heat from the sun was so intense that nearby planetary surfaces were completely scorched during the day, making them uninhabitable.
Even at this distance, Raxis’ surface temperature could reach as high as sixty degrees. This half of the planet was inhabited by alarming numbers of thick-skinned and predatory animals, adapted to cannibalize each other given the lack of other sustainable food sources available. They were also extremely difficult to kill given they had evolved to survive in such treacherous conditions.
The other half of Raxis was arguably more dangerous. With barely any sunlight, the temperatures mostly ranged below zero, interspersed by pockets of heat located underground near yet-to-erupt volcanoes. A rocky-skinned Praxan would find it difficult to survive a world like this, let alone a Human.
The candidates would also only be given a small set of tools with which to survive. Each girl had a pack, comprised of a bow, a dagger, a rope, and some arrows. Just four items. Most Trials she had seen, including her own, had at least seven.
The Humans were being punished, Koot was sure of that much. She would lay awake in her bed for hours each night, wondering what she could do to remedy the situation. But she had been round and round in this circle for decades now.
She would complain to the Overseer’s Board of Directors. “The Human Trials are too difficult. There is enormous potential being wasted by culling inexperienced girls at an early stage.”
The responses, however, were always the same.
“Earth is underdeveloped; it needs to be fast tracked. A difficult Trial breeds stronger warriors in the long run.”
“Trial difficulty is being raised across all of PULSE, particularly for younger worlds.”
“Earth is no more at a disadvantage than any other of the twenty thousand worlds we have liberated in the seven hundred years since PULSE’s inception.”
That last one always stung Koot the most. Everin Dandix, the head of Trial Review and Assessment, usually muttered it. She was a miserable old lady, and a Sakonterran to make things worse. Sakons were stubborn hardheaded warmongers. They had rough coarse skin and gravelly voices that were a bludgeon to the ear. Koot had never cared for their type.
She’d journeyed to Sakonterra once, in her youth. It was mostly desert, punctuated by small cramped cities that stretched far underground. Their people were violent, selfish, and, above all, dismissive of many other cultures. Despite being a founding race in PULSE, they were not well-liked. And Koot had a profound disdain for this woman, in particular.
Koot felt Dandix was punishing Earth. The old woman had taken part in the Intervention of the Human world herself, just as Koot had. Alongside Everin’s two daughters, Ulteen and Wenver. Both were killed in a terrible and regretful incident.
The Intervention of Earth was not a particularly difficult one for PULSE. It was over in less than a week, the military resistance of Humans proving no match for the tactical efficiency and overwhelming ferocity of the PULSE fleet, armed to the teeth and trained for planetary invasions. Casualties were a mere six percent, well within the lowest band of recorded Intervention loss. But three percent of that loss occurred during a single attack. Earth had been all but defeated when a deep cover Russian military submarine was able to launch a nuclear attack on the Fleet’s HQ.
Everyone was killed, down to the last woman, including Ulteen and Wenver. As if that wasn’t reason enough for Dandix to despise Earth, the Fleet General had escaped death, having not been at HQ where the rest of her senior officers were. And that General had been Koot. And now, not unexpectedly, Everin had a deep hatred for Koot, whom she blamed for her daughters’ deaths. The punishment was twofold, condemning the women of Earth for a sneak attack perpetrated by a small group of operatives, while attempting to perpetually embarrass Koot by Overseeing a failure.
And it had been a disaster from the very beginning. Each year fewer girls would join the Academy. Their parents or guardians preventing them from embarking on what they deemed to be a pre-signed death certificate, instead encouraging most to join professions with lower entry requirements like Politics, Trade, or even the PED. A class at the Academy would accept every girl aged ten and up if they were a planetary inhabitant.
This year the class contained only forty-two girls, an all-time-low. The first year Koot had been charged there were almost six thousand applicants, but that number had fluctuated on a downward trend ever since. Forty-two girls from over a million born every year. It was a trend that would see the Academy closed within the next decade. The closure of an Academy usually marked the beginning of a rough period for any species, as the PULSE governing body would usually take extreme measures to bring it up to the standard of the other members. Earth was teetering on the brink.
But Koot knew the Earthlings were capable of so much more. It hadn’t all been disastrous. Three hundred and eighty-six women had graduated from the Earth Academy. Koot remembered each one of them, so proud was she of their accomplishments. Most of them went on to have successful military careers within PULSE, proving, in Koot’s mind, that the Humans were capable of greatness.
One Human had even risen to the rank of Centurion in one of PULSE’s most powerful fleets, earning her the nickname ‘Thunderbolt,’ because of her lightning-fast rise through the ranks and how she would strike enemies down from a distance on the battlefield.
Koot was staring out over the girls in the courtyard, allowing her a moment to soak in the sight of the brave young potential Soldiers.
Her species, Aphrodons, were empathetic in nature. And it wasn’t just a general recognition or identification of another’s feelings. She could share the emotional state of another being, simply by being near or focusing intently on them. A skilled Aphrodon could sense all the emotions one was suppressing and read them like an open book.
It was an ability she tended not to broadcast frequently, as having your personal feelings probed by an outsider was usually met with disdain, and treated as a hugely invasive experience. But, after centuries of practice, Koot was equipped with the personal skills to match her sensory ability, and found she was often able to relate in a beneficial and explorative way.
Rather than making the girls anymore nervous or distracted than they were already by speaking with them, she preferred to gauge them by their emotional state. Even with her level of skill, so many girls fretting in close quarters was almost a stifling for Koot, her senses picking up on the wild oscillation of emotional somersaults they were now experiencing.
Apprehension, elation, hysteria, serenity, focus, fear, doubt, panic. It was like each spoke of the emotional spectrum wheel was beating her across the head as it rotated. She narrowed her own focus, blocking out the sporadic bursts of feelings emanating from the congregation. She directed her attention to Stella. Confidence. A certainty so secure it threatened to displace all others, emanating from her young apprentice. She smiled to herself, happy that Stella was as prepared as she could have hoped to be. She’s going to make it.
She switched her attentions to Faye. Again, confidence, this time more fleeting, interlaced with deep-seated knots of a feeling Koot could never quite describe. It felt like panic at first, but Koot had come to know the cause more profoundly over time. It usually happened when Faye was running through scenarios in her head, discarding the risky, implausible, and unsuitable, while analyzing the chances for success. She had a brilliantly methodical and calculating mind, one she kept sharply honed through mental exercise and analytical preparation, ready to tackle the majority of scenarios in a potential encounter.
Koot was still confident that both girls could pass the test. She and her staff had coached them to work as a pair. No, more than just a pair, more like two sides of the same coin. Both girls being strong students guaranteed nothing in this Trial. Alone, the chances for most students of their caliber were slim to none at best. They had identified the duo’s skills, as well as their preparedness to collaborate, early in their development, and decided to train them as a pair.
Stella was overconfident and impulsive, too ready to act without prior preparation. Faye was unfocused and indecisive, preferring to dwell in the analytical stage and produce the perfect plan too late to be put into action. Teaching them to work as a team complimented their strengths and weaknesses, improving their chances for survival.
But Koot was no fool. There were risks to every strategy, and this coupling provided its own shortcomings. They had taught the girls to bet on one another, creating a whole new vulnerability of its own. If they were separated for any period, or placed in situations that forced them to work individually, it put them at a disadvantage. Solo situational thought had become a secondary and unfamiliar concern rather than a natively triggered reaction.
It was a risk the teaching body had agreed to take. Over the years, their methods had changed to accommodate the monumental task the girls faced. The purpose of the Academy was to train Soldiers good enough to fight for PULSE. But circumstance had instead forced Koot to train students simply able to pass the Trial.
Her staff had worked tirelessly to devise a strategy for each candidate that provided them the best chance of surviving the ordeal. And this was the plan they had conceived for the two girls. Stella and Faye would live or die by this choice. Koot knew this. But she had to believe that they had done everything in their power for them. Their own doubts would be reflected in their students, and a Pulse Soldier who doubted their own ability was on a road to certain failure.
Letti leaned over, again placing a sympathetic hand on her shoulder. “It’s time,” she murmured. “I’ll fire up the jets."
Koot balled her hand into a fist and thrust her arm out sideways, sending her knuckle into the alert pad. The shuttle let out a resounding horn, causing a majority of the girls to jump and look towards her. Amidst a variety of shocked, frightened, and defiant faces, Stella and Faye looked up expectantly. Their time had come.