Galactic Division Heroes

Chapter One

“Kat, are you sure about this?” I rolled my eyes. Seb’s constant badgering was beginning to wear me down. If he didn’t want to come, why didn’t he just stay at home?

“For the 50th time, Seb, yes. I’m sure about this. It’s not much further. Can you just calm down a little bit? You look suspicious.”

“It’s three in the morning, and we’re wearing black clothing. With hoods. There’s no way for us to look anything other than suspicious.” He had a point. That, though, just made him more irritating.

“She wants to do it, let’s just do it.” Ant didn’t have much patience for contemplation. Sometimes, that could be a real pain. On this occasion, though, it was most welcome.

We walked for a while in silence. I shivered, and not purely from the nighttime chill. I was nervous, my stomach churning harder with each step. If the boys were experiencing any nerves, they were keeping them well hidden. This was nothing to them, really. It wasn’t as personal as it was for me. I looked around the familiar streets as we pounded block after block. Familiar sights, even in the blackness of night. Buildings and monuments I’d been around my whole life. It would be weird to never see them again.

“So, you worried?” Seb asked me. I didn’t know if he was talking about what we were about to do, or what the next day would bring. The answer was no. To both. Worried wasn’t really the right word. Anxious, maybe.

“Nah.”

“You sure?” He shot me a doubtful look.

“She’s fine,” Ant said dismissively. “Conscription ain’t nothing.”

“He says that now,” Seb said, shooting me a conspiratorial grin. “It was a different story then.”

“What are you talking about?” Ant eyed him suspiciously.

“You were nervous as hell! Damn near pissed your pants…”

Ant shook his head in agitation, thrusting his hands in his pockets. Seb grinned at me again.

“So, you all packed?” Seb, worrying about me.

“There’s nothing to pack. It’s not an excursion. I can’t take luggage.”

“Uh huh,” he said.

“Don’t you remember?”

“Nah. Long time ago, wasn’t it.”

“It was only three years ago, Seb,” I said.

“Exactly. A lifetime.”

“Stop mothering her,” Ant demanded. He skipped across to me and roughly rubbed my fuzzy hair. I gritted my teeth, biting back any protest. He knew I hated when he did it. That was why he delighted in it so. I ran my own hand through my hair. It had gotten past the rough stage, and was almost fluffy. It was a couple of centimeters long, the months since I last shaved it having flown by. There was a time, not too many years ago, when I’d had long, flowing hair. I’d cultivated it over years, and friends were jealous of it. When the boys had first suggested I shave it all off with them, Id refused point blank. It had been my pride and joy. I’d dropped the dresses. I’d dropped music. I’d as good as dropped school. Still, though, I’d clung on to that hair. Only for a few more months, though. Then, I gave in. Resigned myself to becoming one of the boys. The first time I’d looked in the mirror, it had been a shock. However, though it had almost sent me into a fit of despair, within days, I’d gotten used to it. Ant had been right, it really did make me feel like one of the gang. This, back before half the gang left…

We carried on in silence for a while. A couple of vehicles zoomed past us, heightening my anxiety. They showed no interest in us, though, and we didn’t happen across any pedestrians. Town was pretty quiet at that time of night. We were in the older part of town now. The buildings were stone rather than carbon fibre. The lighting genuine piping rather than glowstrip. I liked it far more than the more modern areas. Every building looked a little different.

“Come on, how much further is it?” Ant bellowed impatiently, breaking the silence. Before I could stop myself, I shushed him. He smirked at me. “It’s all right,” he shouted, even more loudly, “there’s no-one around to hear us!”

Seb slammed his fist hard into Ant’s shoulder, drawing a howl of pain, which quickly descended into laughter.

“All right,” Ant said, still chuckling. “I’ll keep it down!” he whispered. He was the older of the two, who weren’t brothers, but might as well have been. The extra few months he had on Seb didn’t equal advanced maturity, though. It was quite the opposite.

“It is just up here, isn’t it?” Seb whispered to me a few moments later. I nodded with a smile. “And you’re sure you’re up for this?” If I hadn’t been so worried about waking people up, drawing attention to us, I might have screamed. Instead, I shot him a death glare, and he got the message.

As we drew close to our destination, my chest began to tighten. Seb’s breathing quickened, and even Ant bore a serious expression. They’d done plenty of jobs like this one, so quite why they were so nervous, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps they just always were, and I’d never noticed before. They didn’t care much for authority, but they did have a healthy fear of it. None of us wanted to get arrested.

Once we came in sight of the window, our entry point, I stopped walking. The boys followed my cue.

“Everyone know what they’re doing? Seb asked.

“It’s not exactly a master plan,” Ant pointed out. “We get in, and we get out.”

“And you’re sure the cabinet won’t be locked?”

“He never locks it,” I replied. “He loves that thing with all his heart, but he doesn’t keep it secure.”

“Moron,” Ant snorted.

“It’s never occurred to him that someone might take it,” I said defensively.

“Exactly. Moron.”

Rolling my eyes at him, I led them over to the window, my legs feeling heavier with each step. Despite my protests, the truth was, I WASN’T sure about what we were doing. I knew I had to do it, but that didn’t make me feel any better about portraying the old man’s trust. I’d worked for him for five years, over a quarter of my life.

Ant produced a tool from the inside of his coat, and started working on the window.

“You know there’s a good chance you’re not going anywhere, right?” I nodded. “There’s a 75% chance you’ll have to go back to work the day after tomorrow.”

“Yes, Seb. I know how numbers work.”

“Well… what’s that gonna be like? Having to work with the old man after doing this?” He searched my face with an expression of genuine concern.

“It’s not really like I have a choice,” I sighed. “There’s that 25%. Without me, I’m not sure she can survive.”

“I’m sure she’d be fine,” he replied quietly.

“And there we go,” Ant called out a little too loudly. He swung one leg over through the open window. “Well?” he said, looking at us expectantly. “Coming in?”

Taking a deep breath, I stepped towards the window. Seb held his arm in front of me.

“Wh-

“Keep watch,” he said.

“Seb…”

“Someone should keep watch. Besides, if there’s any recording equipment in there, you’re the only one of us the old man can identify, right?” I couldn’t argue with him. I was a little relieved that I didn’t have to go in, to so actively take part in the heinous act, but I felt bad. The boys were doing this for me, and they were the ones taking the biggest risk.

“Fine,” I said finally. I watched Ant disappear into the even darker darkness inside the building. After a few seconds, Seb’s face reappeared at the window.

“There’s about a hundred cabinets in here. Which one is it?”

“At the end of the counter,” I told him. “On the wall next to the door to the back office.” Once again, he disappeared from view, and I glanced around nervously, scanning down the street in both directions, in case someone should happen along. I felt a pang of regret. Mr Beaton had been so good to me over the years. He gave me an after-school job when I was just fourteen, when no-one else was willing to take a risk on a girl my age. Then, even more amazingly, he continued to put up with me as my personality grew. He let me continue working on the shop floor even after I dropped the nice clothes, and dressed more and more like a street punk.

Suddenly, I heard an odd noise from behind me. I turned just in time to see a set of bars slide down over the open window.

“What?” I stepped towards the bars, and tried to force them back up. They wouldn’t budge. “Hey!” I shouted through them. “What did you guys do?” There was no response for several seconds, and I began to think they’d run off somewhere. Then Seb appeared, looking at the bars with concern.

“What happened?” he said.

“I was gonna ask you the same thing,” I replied.

“Well you must have set them off,” he said accusingly.

“ME? I was nowhere near them. You must have set off some sort of security.”

“There’s no sign of anything like that.”

“Actually, yeah, there is,” Ant called from deeper inside. “I can see a little flashing light under one of the cabinets. Must be a silent alarm.” He sounded ridiculously calm.

“Oh no!” I said. “You’re trapped in there!” I frantically tried to force the bars back up above the window, but there was nu budging them. “Help me,” I said to an unmoving Seb. After a few moments, I realised he was staring at me. “What are you doing?”

“Just looking,” he said. “Maybe for the last time.”

“We need to get you out.”

“We’ll find another way out,” he said. “Don’t worry about us. You can’t afford to hang around here, though. Probably won’t be too long before security agents show up.”

“I can’t just leave you in there!”

“We’ll be fine. Promise. Kat…”

“What?”

“I’ll miss you. You know, if…”

“Yeah,” I said nodding. “I know.” I gazed up at him, my panic turning to sadness. He had tried to convince me several times that I wouldn’t be going anywhere. That my name wouldn’t be pulled out during the Conscription. I’d never bought into it, though. And in that moment, with his sad eyes looking down at me, I knew he didn’t really buy it either. We both had to be prepared to say farewell. “Bye.” Seb nodded. “You’ll make sure she gets my share, won’t you?” Again, he nodded. And I knew he meant it. Then I turned, and started to run.

I only made it a few yards before I realised I was being stupid. If I was spotted running away from the scene of a crime, it would be obvious that I was guilty. And really, I hadn’t actually done anything wrong. Well, sure, I’d been an accessory. In fact, I’d planned the whole thing. Conceived the idea over a matter of months. Checked out the best way to sneak in. Made sure the cabinet holding Mr Beaton’s prize model was never locked. Checked out its real value, and what sort of collectors would be interested in buying it. But, thanks to Seb, I’d never stepped foot in the shop. He may have quit school several years early, but Seb wasn’t stupid.

I slowed my pace to a brisk walk, heading for the first walkway that would take me off that street. I felt terrible, leaving them behind so readily. They were resourceful, and I felt pretty confident that they’d find a way out before security got there. There was no way to be sure, though. And if they did get caught, there was a strong possibility I’d never even find out. I reached the walkway that I knew so well, and stepped into the unlit alley. Trying to calm my breathing, I went from a trot to a saunter. I was off the street. That meant I was probably safe. Just as my confidence as growing, though, I heard a noise behind me. I looked back, but couldn’t make out anything in the darkness. Not wanting to take the chance of someone suddenly appearing through the gloom, I turned and started running again, towards the dim light at the other end of the alleyway.

After what seemed like an age, I reached the opening, the cold air causing my breath to catch in my lungs. Without slowing, I burst out onto the next street, and turned ninety degrees, moving North-Eastwards in the general direction of home. I chanced a look back over my shoulder. Focusing on the opening of the alleyway disappearing behind me, I squinted, trying to see if there was any movement. Satisfied there was no-one there, I looked back towards the road ahead of me, preparing to slow back to a brisk walk again. Instead, I stopped dead. There was a distinctive silver vehicle just a few meters in front of me, pulling to a stop. The sign across the top read ‘KM Security’.

 

Chapter Two

I watched the main lights of the vehicle rotate until they were shining right at me, and I shielded my eyes from the sudden glare. Scared to make any sudden movements, an irrational fear of being shot clouding my mind, I glanced around me, trying to map out an escape route.

I couldn’t go back down the alley that I’d come from; There would surely be more security agents down there. That really only left running up or down the street. The vehicle was between me and the way home. I could run in the other direction, but I’d then need to double back at some point. If I really was worried about being shot, though, running would be stupid. They wouldn’t gun down a passive civilian. A suspect fleeing the scene of a crime, though, was a far more likely target. Besides which, there was no way I’d get away. I could sprint pretty fast, but I’d never outrun a security cruiser.

I stood in surrender, stopping short of raising my hands in the air. They couldn’t prove anything. I was perfectly innocent, for all they knew. There didn’t seem to be any sign of movement in the car. I tried to make out figures within, but the bright light radiating towards my face made it impossible to see clearly. After what seemed like an age, the front passenger side door opened, and a figure emerged. She shut the door, but leaned down to the window, apparently talking to someone inside. The cool breeze carried words across the air, but they were mumblings. I was too far to actually make any of them out. Finally, the figure began walking towards me. I tried to act casual, putting on a frown of concern. I was caught off-guard, though, when the figure stepped in front of the light, giving me my first good look at her. She was a girl. I don’t just mean she was female, either. I mean she didn’t look a day older than me.

“Hey, Miss,” she said, coming to a stop a good couple of meters in front of me. Thankfully, the light behind her began to dim, and I was able to stop squinting.

“Hi,” I said, trying to keep the fear from my voice. It helped that she looked like she could easily have been in one of my classes at school. Before I’d stopped turning up entirely. “Everything OK?”

“You seemed to be in an awful hurry. Would there be any reason for that?”

She might have looked young, but her tone was authoritative, and completely in control. Any confidence I had completely drained away.

“Actually, yeah,” I said, hastily forming a plan of sorts.

“Oh?” she said, a surprised frown creasing her otherwise perfect skin. “And what would that be?”

“There were a couple of men, on the other street,” I said, jabbing a thumb over my shoulder. “I don’t know what they were up to, but it was definitely something.” I felt bad selling out Seb and Ant to try to save my own skin, but they were either going to get caught or they weren’t. “They were lurking around, acting suspicious. They looked pretty startled when I walked past them.”

“Really?” she asked. She looked pretty sceptical, but I tried not to let that put me off. I nodded. “Can you describe them to me?” she said, pulling a pad from her pocket. My heart skipped. She was actually buying it.

My immediate instinct was to reply in the negative, but I quickly dismissed that. Claiming I had no information would just convince her I was guilty of something.

“Yeah, sure. So, they were both pretty athletic. You know, muscular,” I said of the super skinny Seb and Ant. “One of them was average height, but the other was super tall.” The boys were roughly the same height as me. I was reasonably tall for a girl at 5’11”, which made them both pretty average. “I didn’t really see their faces, though.” She looked up at my face, one eyebrow arched. “They both had pretty long hair. Greasy, matted over their faces.” She studied me for a moment, sizing me up. I tried hard to control my breathing, and return her gaze. “Two big, greasy guys. It kinda freaked me out. I walked away, as quickly as I could, but then I heard a loud clanging noise. So I ran.”

“What kind of clothes were they wearing?”

“I’m sorry, I really don’t know. Dark, black, I guess. It was hard to see, there wasn’t much light. And I didn’t want to look at them, you know? I didn’t want to draw their attention.” I folded my arms and shivered, then fought the urge to immediately bite my lip. Was that last touch too much?

“OK, bud,” she said, her face softening a little. “An alarm was triggered, we’re just checking it out. I’ll be back in a minute.”

She turned and walked back over to the security vehicle, and I let out a long, slow breath. So far so good, as far as I could tell. She seemed to be buying it, though she hadn’t let me go yet. I looked around, taking in my surroundings again, though being careful to avoid any sudden movements. I didn’t want to give the impression I was about to start running. Not when I seemed to be getting through it OK. She spoke to the person inside the car again, and still I couldn’t make out what was being said. I chanced a little shuffle forward, but it didn’t make a bit of difference. Standing still out in the dead of night was causing me to start shivering. After a good few minutes of conversation between them, I started to get impatient. Why couldn’t they just let me go? It was clear they weren’t going to do anything with me. They’d have done it already. It was like they were toying me, trying to scare me. I hated security agents.

Eventually, the girl started walking back over. She didn’t have a happy look on her face, and she was marching purposefully. My legs suddenly became weak. Had they picked up Seb and Ant? Had they sold me out?

“Some of my fellow officers have checked out an alarm that got tripped in one of the buildings in the next street. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?” she asked briskly. I shrugged helplessly. “Someone set off a security shutter on one of the windows?” She phrased it like a question, but I just looked back at her blankly. She stared intensely into my eyes. “There was no-one inside, no sign of anything being disturbed. There’s nothing to charge anyone with, we’re just trying to ascertain what happened, so everyone can just get on with their day.” She seemed to be giving me an out. Indicating that no crime could be proven to have been committed. That if I ‘fessed up, she’d just let me go with a warning or something. It was tempting, if only to finally get out of the cold. It could easily be a trap, though. A way to trick me into confessing. She said they hadn’t found anyone inside. Again, that might not be true, but I thought it probably was. Seb and Ant were pretty slippery. They’d been sneaking in and out of places they shouldn’t for half their lives.

“Sorry, I really don’t know anything about it.”

“How old are you?” she asked, narrowing her eyes. It was the first personal question she’d asked me. It was an odd one to lead with, too. I’d been stopped by security officers in the past. Hassled for hanging around on the streets, never picked up for something specific. They’d always asked me for ID, though. My address, the details of my parent or guardian.

“Nineteen.”

A grim smile appeared on her face, and she nodded almost imperceptibly.

“You know what I think?” she said. I shrugged, not knowing what the right answer would have been. “I think you set the security shutter off. You wandered around the neighbourhood, deep in thought. Saw a building with security system, figured you’d make a scene, get yourself picked up.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t understand what she was getting at.

“You’re not the first to try it. We don’t usually get much going on here,” she said quietly, motioning to the buildings around us. “It’s usually pretty quiet in this part of town.” She took a couple of steps towards me, her face within touching distance of mine. “It’s not such a bad thing, you know?” I just looked at her blankly, completely lost. “Service can be a good thing. Especially for someone like you.” She looked me up and down. “What, you drop out of school, when? Fifteen? Fourteen? You spend your time hanging out on the streets, make yourself look tough so no-one steps to you? Service can be character building.” She took a step back, waiting for a reaction from me.

“I didn’t do anything,” I said defensively, feeling a little hurt by the personal attack on my look.

“Even if we took you in, you’d be released in the morning,” she said, almost apologetically. “Getting arrested isn’t going to get you out of the Conscription. If your name is on the register, it won’t get taken off. If your name is gonna get drawn, it’ll get drawn. It’s a great opportunity, though. To fight for our very race? To help save the lives of the people you care about? So many people see it as a death sentence, but it’s not that. If nobody served, THEN it would be a death sentence. For all of us.” She searched my face for some sign that I might be buying into it. That I agreed with what she was saying. I was too stunned to react, though. I hadn’t expected a lecture on the virtues of joining the Galactic Division. And why did she care so much? Division soldiers would laugh in the face of a local security officer.

“Hey, Liberty?” The sudden booming voice coming from the security vehicle caught both our attentions. “We taking her in or what?” Liberty held a hand up at him, and he shook his head, stepping back into the car.

“Look, don’t worry about it. Whatever happens, it’ll be fine. You’ll either get to stay here, carry on living the life you’ve chosen. Or, you’ll get selected to be something more. Something better.” She offered me a tight smile, and began walking back to the security vehicle. After a few steps, she turned back to face me. “Good luck tomorrow,” she called over to me. “You registered at Central?” I hesitated a second, then nodded. “Then maybe I’ll see you there, bud.” She shot me a slightly wider smile, then walked the rest of the way to her vehicle, climbing in.

I stood completely still as they began to move off. I didn’t dare move, for fear they might suddenly change their mind. As they disappeared into the darkness, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had been an odd altercation, but I’d survived it.

I hurried back towards home. I was freezing by that point, and hoped that moving quickly might go some way to thawing me out. As I walked, I took in the last of the familiar sights. I kept playing the encounter over in my head. It had never occurred to me a any point that getting myself arrested would get me out of the Conscription. Did other people really believe that would work? If what she’d said was true, though, I really could have broken into my workplace by myself. Sauntered through the door, taken my time. Presented my ID to the security officers that turned up, safe in the knowledge that they’d have to release me the very next morning. A great idea, with one flaw, of course. If I then wasn’t Conscripted, then surely I’d face incarceration when I arrived hoe from the ceremony.

It was with great relief that I arrived home. I rued the time I’d lost talking to the girl, though. I’d have been home late enough as it was, but because of all that, I’d only get a few hours sleep at the most. That was a depressing thought. It was going to be a long day, and I’d have liked to have been a bit better rested. Oh well. I could just sleep on the transport up to the training ship. That was usually a pretty long journey, as I understood it.

I let myself in quietly, and took my shoes off. I was hungry, and considered getting a quick something to eat. Sleep, I decided, was far more important. I tiptoed down the hall towards my room, when a figured suddenly appeared out of the darkness, making me near jump out of my skin.

“Katerine Rafalsdottir! Where have you been young lady?!”

 

Chapter Three

“I’m still waiting for an answer?” Of course she was. I wasn’t sure if she’d woken up, and realised I wasn’t here, or if she’d been waiting for me all day. “Well?”

“I was out,” I said. “Obviously.”

“Out where?”

“Out. Around. Enjoying my last day of freedom.”

“We’ve been over this Katarine,” she said dismissively. “That’s just nonsense talk. I want to know where you’ve been, and who you’ve been with.

She was in denial. Specifically, about the Conscription, but in all honesty, she’d been in denial for as long as I could remember. Ever since Dad had died.

“You know who I’ve been with,” I replied. “You know I don’t have any other friends, so I don’t really understand why you keep asking.”

“Well I can but hope,” she muttered. “I spoke to Mister Brava. You didn’t go to work today.”

“I had the day off!” I yelled in exasperation. “I told you I was having the day off about a hundred times.”

“And I told you a hundred times that I’d spoken to Mister Brava and cancelled it. You can’t keep taking time off, young lady. You’ll lose your job. And then where will you be?”

I felt rage building within me. As much as I was used to her pretending bad things didn’t happen, it was upsetting that she didn’t seem to care enough to even be worried that I might leave for ever the next day.

“In space, Mum. Remember? That’s where I’ll be. I’m getting Conscripted tomorrow, whether you can comprehend that or not. This time tomorrow, I’ll be up in a ship full of soldiers. Do you honestly think I would want to spend my last day working?”

She rolled her eyes, then began shaking her head vigorously. As if pretending the wide world didn’t exist would cause it to vanish.

“If you keep taking time off, you’ll lose your job. You need that job, Katarine.”

What she meant was that WE needed it. We couldn’t afford to live on what little money she was now making doing less and less hours at the centre. She never had told me how much Dad’s insurance money had been, but I found it hard to believe there could have been any left. Tired and angry, I stepped around her to make my way up to bed. Quick as a flash despite her advancing years, she jumped in front of me.

“Oh no,” she said. “We are not finished. You will talk to me young lady.”

“I was nineteen. Legally an adult. If I’d wanted to, I could have moved out some time ago. I could probably have afforded to as well, if I’d been happy enough to live with Seb and Ant. That would have driven me crazy, though. I could never have left her anyway, not by choice. She needed me, whether she could admit it to herself or not. Having my name pulled out the next day would be the only way I’d ever get away from her. It wasn’t really what I wanted, but it might just be good for both of us.

When my father had died, she had become a shell of a woman. She’d carried on with life. She’d acted, in fact, like nothing had really happened. I never saw her cry, and she never spoke about missing him. She wasn’t the same person, though. It was clear that it had affected her deeply. Her spirit just kind of went. Disappeared. It was as though she couldn’t bear to truly care about anything ever again. Including me. Yeah, she was yelling at me for staying out late at night, and always badgered me about hanging out with delinquents. But that was because, deep down, she knew she wouldn’t be able to cope if I went away. If anything happened to me, or if I decided to leave, it would finish her off.

“Mum, look,” I said, softly, patiently. “There is a twenty-five percent chance that I will have to leave tomorrow. I realise that means I’m far more likely to stay, but I can’t live my life like that. I have to prepare for the worst.” My actions that night had been the epitome of that attitude. “You may not like them, but Seb and Ant are my friends. If there was a chance I was never going to see them again, I had to take the opportunity to say goodbye.” As soon as I paused to draw breath, she opened her mouth to speak. “I realise your worried about me losing my job,” I said quickly, cutting off her attempt to interrupt, “but Mister Brava said it was fine. If I’m not conscripted, I promise, I will take no more time off for the rest of the year. Not even one day. Does that sound fair?”

She looked at me, her brain ticking over. She wanted to argue with that. It was her nature. But she realised she couldn’t.

“Agreed,” she said, “if you actually stick to it!”

That was fair. I wasn’t very honest with my Mum in general. It was her own fault, in my defence. She had so many rules, so many things she didn’t like me doing, places she didn’t want me going. If I told her half of the things I got up to, she’d be horrified. She’d have the security agents out looking for me every night.

“Can we talk about it tomorrow, Mum? Please? Regardless of whether my name gets drawn tomorrow, it’s gonna be a really long day. I’d like to get some sleep.” Pursing her lips, she considered it for a good minute. She was wide awake, and her blood was boiling. She wanted to have it out immediately.

“OK. But we WILL talk about it. I won’t forget this, Katarine.”

She knew she couldn’t win. No matter how much she wanted to change me, or rather, get the old me back, I wasn’t her little girl anymore. I hadn’t been for a very long time.

Before she changed her mind, I quickly made my way to my room, and locked the door behind me. I threw myself into bed, desperate to get some sleep. It wasn’t as easy as that, though. I was as annoyed as I was tired, and the more I thought about it, the more angry I got. I’d been out, risking my well-being, to make sure that she would be looked after in my absence. I might be going away forever the very next day, but she wanted to make it all about her. She didn’t care about my feelings. Not once had she asked me if I was scared, or nervous, or worried. At least Seb and Ant had addressed it. In their own way. They were the only real family I had. They’d also risked their well-being for me. They would get their share out of it, of course. And it was the kind of thing they had tried to talk me into many times. I’d broken the law with them, many times. I’d always stopped short of burglary, though. Somehow, that was a level of crime above what I was willing to do. Or rather, it had been. I began thinking about Mister Brava, and how devastated he would be that his beloved sculpture had been taken. Seb was right. If I had to go in to work and face him after what I’d done, it would be a nightmare. We had agreed that we’d find a way to get it back into his possession if I wasn’t conscripted, but I wasn’t convinced that Ant would stick to that. He’d risked getting caught, and to then have nothing to show for it wouldn’t be good for his ego. Plus, stupidly, I’d let him make the connection with the potential buyers for the piece. I’d distanced myself from the selling of the item for obvious reasons, and of the two of them, I cared far more if something happened to Seb. But it did mean that Ant could turn around and sell it any time he wanted. And he could choose not to get my share to Mum after all. Seb had promised he wouldn’t let that happen, but without me around to guilt him, he’d just fall back under Ant’s influence again, like he’d been when I first met them.

I listened for a while to Mum banging about, making a meal of going to bed, so that I’d know she was still angry. As if I needed any kind of reminder. Eventually, she settled down, and I tried to turn my brain off. It would be weird, leaving here. Leaving my home. Leaving my planet. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I felt about it, but I was definitely feeling more nervous than I had been up ‘til that point. It was starting to feel more real. It hadn’t been until my 18th birthday that I’d thought about it with any degree of seriousness. The months since had gone far too quickly. I knew others, on their eighteenth birthdays, made a list. They wrote down a whole bunch of things they wanted to do before the Conscription. Things they’d always wanted to see, experiences they’d always imagined having. Making sure that if they were taken away from their homes and their families, that it would be without regret.

I hadn’t made a list. Honestly, there’d been nothing that I’d ever wanted to do. Life had just happened to me. It wasn’t that I’d never had dreams. I remembered quite well some of the things I’d dreamed of doing when I was a little girl. Learning to ride. Trips to the beach. Designing my own dress for prom. None of those things mattered to me anymore, though. I’d left those hopes behind half a decade ago. Since then, I’d been living day to day. Left school because I wanted to. Got a job because I’d had to. Spent the time I wasn’t working trying to have as much fun as I dared, without letting things get too far out of control. I’d been lucky to meet Seb and Ant. They were hoodlums, but underneath, they were decent people. Well, sort of. If I’d fallen in with a worse crowd, though, it could all have ended so badly. I probably wouldn’t have survived to even face the Conscription.

Did I want my name to get drawn out? Not really. It would be something different. A spark of excitement in an otherwise dreary existence. None of that mattered, though. Somehow, I knew. I felt it deep in my soul. My name was going to be drawn in the Conscription lottery. I was going to be a soldier. How did I feel about that? I really didn’t know.

 

Chapter Four

I appraised myself in the mirror. The bathroom mirror, of course. There had been no mirror in my bedroom for years, a casualty of one of my many reorganisation efforts. I hated spending time in my room. It was boring. It was less desirable, though, than hanging about the rest of the house with my Mother. As a result, any time I spent too much time in there, I tried to find new ways to rearrange the furniture. The room wasn’t very big, mind, and there wasn’t much that could be done with what little mismatched furniture I had in there. Not that it mattered much anymore.

A similar problem faced me as I studied my own reflection. I didn’t have much to work with. I didn’t really own any make-up, save for some horribly garish stuff I tried a year or so back, whilst going through some phase or another. I could do even less with my hair. It was still too short to hold any kind of style. It didn’t even feel spiky when I ran my hands through it, either. It was just… fluffy.

I sighed. Why did I even care? I never made any effort with my appearance, yet here I was, dressed in my ‘best’ clothes, the smart trousers and blouse my Mum had bought me for when we went to visit her friends, obsessing over my looks in the mirror. With the people I knew, it didn’t matter to me what I looked like, cos they accepted me for who I was. Even Mister Brava. Now, just because I was going to be in a room surrounded by thousands of other teenagers, I was suddenly self-conscious. Whatever I tried to do with myself, they were all going to be much better turned out than I was, so what was the point? Within a few weeks aboard the training ship I imagined we’d all be sweaty and smelly anyway. Once we got out onto the battlefield, it wouldn’t matter how we’d once dressed.

I stomped back in my bedroom, unbuttoning the blouse. If this was going to be the last day on this planet, my planet, then I would damn well dress like how I pleased. Then, I heard Mum coming down the hall, and I started popping the buttons back in again. I didn’t want another scene. Not today.

“Katarine? Ahh, you’re nearly ready?” She wore a beaming smile, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she’d just entered my room without so much as a knock. “I’ll walk you to the bus. The next one is due in a couple of minutes, so you’ll need to hurry.” As I had suspected, there was no sign of any worry on her face. No sense of unease in her demeanour. Taking a few moments to quell my rage, I took a look around my room. I guessed I’d probably miss it. I didn’t feel at all sentimental for it, but then you don’t realise what you have until it’s gone. When I got to the front hall, Mum was hovering about impatiently.

“Quick, quick,” she said, ushering me out. We marched down the road at the fastest speed she could manage, my own mother more preoccupied with making sure I caught the earlier bus than giving me a proper send off.

“Have you got your paperwork?” she asked me once she was finally sure we would get there on time.

“Yes, definitely,” I said, patting my pocket.

“Now are you remembering that we’re going over to Vivien’s for tea when you get back?” I clenched my fists, but merely nodded. “I want you to come straight back. Don’t go hanging around with those boys. I don’t want to be late, and I certainly don’t want you ruining those clothes. We can’t afford to replace them, you know.” I was only too aware of this fact.

We reached the bus stop, and she began bouncing up and down on the balls of her feet, looking down the road for the bus, as if that would compel it to arrive sooner. I tried to catch her eye, in hopes that I would get some kind of meaningful goodbye, some sign that she was at all concerned about me. What I got was nothing. It was like she was just putting me on the bus for a normal day at work.

“Mum?” She either didn’t hear me, or purposely blocked me out. “Mum?”

“I can’t see it,” she said. “Are you sure we have the right time.”

“Mum!” Louder, more insistent. She looked back at me, narrowing her eyes. I swallowed down the lump in my throat. She looked at me expectantly, but I struggled to get any words out. Just as she appeared to have give up, returning her attention to the road, I forced it out. “I’ll miss you.” I don’t know why those were the words that escaped. I wasn’t sure if it was a true statement. All I’d really meant to do was say goodbye. Just to know that I’d said it That I’d tried.

“What?” she asked me, genuine confusion on her face. I wanted to scream.

“I’ll miss you,” I said again, going for broke. “You know, if I have to go…” She started to wave me off, and anger flashed through me. “What if I don’t come back?” I snapped. “Will you care?” She stared at me, wide eyed. Then she screwed her face up in anger.

“What do you mean?” She asked. “What do you mean? Will I care? What kind of question is that to ask? Your own mother?”

I took a step back, genuinely shocked. I expected the apathy. I’d also hoped that she would display some sort of emotion. Some level of sadness that I might not be coming back. But anger? The sound of a vehicle drew her attention, and she turned to watch the bus pulling up. A large group of kids appeared around us as if from nowhere, pushing their way past us to get to the bus. I tried to take a step towards her, but we were both getting jostled, pushed further apart. I noticed other parents stood back on the street, waving their children off. Both mothers and fathers, many with moist eyes. I waited until most of the passengers had boarded, then skirted around the back of the queue to get to her.

“You’d better get on quickly. You don’t want him to go without you.”

“Bye, Mom,” I said, forcing back tears. I started to lift my arms to hug her, but she stepped back away from me.

“Quickly, quickly.” She shooed me on to the bus, leaving me in no doubt that a proper farewell wasn’t on offer.

Wiping away a tear, I reluctantly turned around and boarded. It was an unusually long bus, no doubt on loan from one of the larger cities, yet it was already full. Finding an area to stand where I could securely hold on, I tried to peer through the window, desperately hoping to catch an upset look on Mum’s face. As the bus moved off, though, I couldn’t see her through the crowd of parents frantically waving, and the sea of arms from the kids in the seats by the windows. Within seconds, we were gone, making our way slowly towards the central assembly centre, where we would be told our fates.

After a few minutes feeling sorry for myself, I paid attention to my fellow passengers for the first time. As suspected, they were all smartly dressed, well kept, for the most part, anyway. I felt out of place. I didn’t tend to hang around with people of my own age, aside from Seb and Ant. Even they were several years older than I was. I listened to the chatter around me. A lot of the kids were riding with friends. Some were laughing and joking, whilst others were already nervously discussing what would happen if their names were picked. My stomach churned. It was really happening. The event that I’d always know was coming, but that seemed a lifetime away had finally arrived.

I’m not sure exactly when it was that I resigned myself to my fate. Certainly, as a little girl, the idea of the Conscription terrified me. I’m not sure exactly how old I was when I first learnt of it, but I do remember going to my father in tears, telling him I didn’t want to go off to war. He’d offered me a sympathetic smile. He’d explained to me that the Conscription was a long way off, and that the war would probably be over before I reached the age of nineteen. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was a war that had been raging on for hundreds of years. I’d accepted what he’d said, and largely forgotten about it, until I began at senior school, around the age of twelve. A lot of the kids in my classes had older siblings who were approaching the age, and it was then that I paid a bit more attention to the news about the war.

I looked into the history of it, what little I could find. There was nothing to explain how it had started, and very little information about what it actually consisted of, and who was winning. The main area of conflict was many sectors of space away from where our planet was located, and the fighting had never encroached anywhere near to us. As a result, aside from offering up a quarter of the population of nineteen year olds every year, the whole thing was mostly ignored. It was only the teenagers approaching their Conscription, and the parents of those children that ever cared about it. Until they came through the process unscathed, and then got on with their lives. Then only the parents of the unfortunate ones whose names were drawn that continued to be impacted by it. And then, even they had little choice but to try and just forget.

We stopped at the next town, and more nervous teenagers boarded the bus. I watched their parents waving us off with envy. Ultimately, I was the lucky one, of course. It would have been so much harder to be one of those kids. One whose parents loved them dearly, and who they would miss terribly. That must be truly heartbreaking.

Chapter Five

When we finally arrived at Centre, the bus was so full I couldn’t even see the windows, much less look out. We remained jammed inside for an age, and when the doors did finally open, it took just as long for us all to file out. As I stepped out into the daylight, I was dazzled not by the sun, but by the shear quantity of people queueing up at the doors to the grand old building. I had been inside just once, many years ago. They sometimes used it for what they called ‘exclusive’ shows. My father had taken me to see a show once, his having known one of the stars during his youth. Ordinarily, my father wouldn’t have been able to afford tickets to such a show, and we never returned.

We were ushered to join one of the queues, and we fell into a column, four or five wide. Everyone around me seemed to know someone. The fact that I didn’t made me feel even more out of place. After we hadn’t moved at all for ten minutes, I started to get irritated. A few minutes later, we seemed to have started moving at a much more reasonable pace. Despite how far back I was in the queue once it started, it only took about a half hour to get inside.

Once in, though, the queue continued. Every couple of minutes, one of the ushers would walk through our section, yelling at us to have our paperwork ready. I had gotten mine straight out on the first time of being told, and had been clutching it ever since. By the time I made the decision to put it back into my pocket, I realised I was only a few kids back from a registration desk. I looked up at the double doors ahead, trying to get a glimpse inside every time another teenager made their way through. My stomach was doing somersaults. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be this nervous, and I didn’t like it. I was used to being afraid of nothing, which suited me. Travelling up to a giant spaceship, living and training amongst thousands of strangers. It scared me. For the first time in a long time I felt like a little girl again. When my father had died, I’d been forced to grow up. I’d eventually had to drop out of school to get a job. Even though my mother had constantly branded me as irresponsible, I’d had a heavy burden on my shoulders for years. There had been many times I’d felt it was unfair, but it was far preferable to this feeling.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped up to the registration desk. The man behind it processed me in less than a minute, and without looking at me once. He fastened a metallic band around my left wrist, and pointed a bored finger towards the doors.

I’d thought the scene inside would take my breath away, and I was right. Though the arena was only around two thirds full, there seemed to be thousands of kids inside. It actually looked much bigger inside than I’d remembered whereas I’d have thought it would be the other way around. I had never seen so many people in one place. I was pointed towards the next empty seat, and I went and sat down. A lot of the kids around me were standing, which was probably a good idea. We would be sat for hours, listening to the names being called out one by one. Stretching out would have been a wise idea. My legs were like jelly, though. Looking along my row, then, the next few down, there seemed to be about four common reactions to the situation. There were the terrified kids. Fair enough. They face being torn away from their homes and families, forced into a career they never chose. There were the ones who looked steely eyed and determined. Whether they had resolved to do what was necessary to defend their race, or just to not burst into tears in front of thousands of people, I couldn’t say. There were many that actually looked excited. Keen to be there, pumped up for the experience. I found that odd, but not as odd as the last type. They were standing around in groups, for the most part, laughing and joking. Showing no signs of fear, upset, or anger. It was just like another day waiting for school assembly to start, it seemed like. How could anyone enter this situation with no real emotion whatsoever? Sure, for some, it was probably mere bravado. Still, though. Weird.

Once people had finished filing in, and the doors had slammed shut, a few adults made their way onto the stage at the front. There were a couple who looked to be in their late thirties to early forties. The rest, though, were grey hared and decrepit. All in dress uniform, though there was no way they’d seen any action for decades. The group stood deep in conversation in the middle of the stage, until finally one of them stepped up to a podium. She had brown hair with streaks of grey. She held herself with an air of authority, and despite her small, delicate looking frame, she had an aura that demanded attention. When she spoke, her voice wasn’t a raspy drone as I had expected, but a strong, booming voice.

“Welcome. Welcome to you all. Once a year, the nineteen year olds of our planet, and other planets just like it, collect together in great halls like this, to make a very important decision. Who will defend our people? Who will fight to ensure the continued safety of the human race.”

She called it a decision, but that didn’t seem like the right word to me. No-one was deciding our fates but fate itself.

“It will be a long day, I appreciate that, and I know you’re all keen to get started. In a few minutes, I will start drawing the names. First, though, I want to tell you a little bit about my Galactic Division experience.”

I didn’t listen. I couldn’t. It was all propaganda nonsense designed to instill in us a sense of pride and duty. Basically, it was an attempt to stop us from rioting when our names got called. There had been trouble in the past, from what I’d heard, but it had never gotten out of control. There was no escape from the Conscription once you entered this room. The doors were locked, and there was only one way out during the process. Through the doors behind the stage, which lead out to a lot which was usually used for the parking of staff vehicles. Today, though, it would be a very different form of transport that would be parked out there. I had seen the odd small transport flying through the skies over the years, but we didn’t live anywhere close to the planet’s main spaceports.

Once she had finally finished with her story, which had taken far longer than the promised couple of minutes, the air inside the arena grew tense. The time had come. They rolled a machine onto the stage, parking it next to the officer. They fiddled with it for a couple of minutes, pointing things out to her, presumably reminding the old girl how it worked. Eventually she shooed them away, and turned back to regard us all.

“Here we go,” she announced. “When I press this button, the slips bearing the names of every potential conscriptee in this arena will be fed around the inner workings, and dispensed completely at random one by one.” With a flourish, she pressed a button, then shot an excited grin across at the other officers standing at the back corner of the stage. I couldn’t hear the machine from where I was sat. In fact, considering how many teenagers were grouped together inside the building, I hadn’t known silence like it. The officer pulled a white slip from the machine, flicked some kind of hand device over it, then drew it up to her face.

“2,341, Jakobs, Marin.”

It had begun.

Everyone’s gazes shot frantically around the arena, trying to pick out the poor sap whose name had been drawn first. How would Marin Jakobs react? Would he cry? Try to run? As it turned out, he would do none of these things. He would just carefully pick his way down the stairs, studying the floor in front of him as he went. I had worried there would be laughs or jeers when names were called out, but there was very little sound. Just the intense scrutiny of thousands of your peers.

“0,079, Afrey, Rich.”

Again, we all strained our necks, trying to get a look at the chosen one. Rich Afrey followed Marin Jakobs’ lead, and made his way down with dignity. The officer calling the names was waiting for the person called to be spotted making his way down before pulling the next name. That was fine for now, whilst everyone was still curious to see who had been picked. It would make the whole thing a pretty slow affair, though.

“2,391, Marie, Annalise.”

I slumped down in my seat. It was going to take absolutely hours. Probably the most stressful experience of my life, and I was going to be stuck in a cramped seat in a stuffy arena listening to name after name being called out. This would be the absolute longest day of my life.

“4,230, Rafalsdottir, Katerine.”

OK. Maybe not then…

Chapter Six

The fourth name. Fourth! What were the chances?! Statistically speaking, I guessed they were as good as the chance of being drawn out at any position, though I’d never been very good with math. The longer it had gone on, the less names there would have been to pick from. That would make it more likely the longer it went on, right?

I had taken several steps before I even realised I was moving, and had made the end of the row before I started consciously making decisions. I hadn’t known how I would feel if my name was called, and I still didn’t really. Not knowing how to react, I continued the example set by Marin Jakobs, and made my way calmly to the stage. Once there, I was led around towards the back, and my wrist band was scanned. Then they basically shoved me out of the door.

My brain expected it to be dark outside, the experience had seemed to have taken so long, but in reality I’d been inside just around an hour. The bright sunshine caught me off-guard, and I felt a hand grip my arm, yanking me off to my right somewhere. Once I’d adjusted to the brightness, I saw that I was being taken to one of a half dozen transport ships sat on the ground. I clanked up the ramp, amazed by how small it looked from the outside. Once in, though, I realised that was deceptive. There were a lot of seats inside, all empty except for three. I went to take a seat away from the others, wanting a bit of space to myself, when a man by the ramp shouted at me to ‘close up’. It took a few seconds too many for me to work out what he meant, and he grabbed my arm, leading me to the row of seats containing Marin Jakobs, Rich Afrey, and Annalise Marie.

“Hey,” Marin said in greeting, almost cheerfully. I glared back at him in disbelief.

“Hey,” Rich shot back, very little power behind his voice. Annalise scowled.

“I’m Marin.”

“Yeah, we know,” Annalise said irritably. Everyone knows.” Marin shot her a puzzled look. “You were the first one picked. Thousands of people watched you walking down to the front, thanking the stars it wasn’t them. I near missed them calling my name, gawking at you with the rest of them.”

Marin frowned. I looked around as the next person took a seat next to me. She looked terrified.

“Hi,” Marin called over to her. She just stared back. I hoped he wasn’t going to greet everyone. It would make a very long wait even less bearable. “This is weird, isn’t it,” he continued, as another kid clanged up the ramp. “Did you think your name would get called?” he asked Rich. Rich shook his head. “I don’t know if I did or not. I kinda thought it might, but I wasn’t sure.”

“Well thats amazing,” Annalise said. “Really? You thought it could have gone either way, did you?” Her tone of annoyance drew the attention of the latest arrival, a round little boy with jet black hair, who looked to the rest of us in bewilderment.

“Did you think you’d get picked?” Marin asked her, seemingly oblivious to her demeanour.

“Are you joking?” she replied. “Are you actually joking?”

“I think he’s probably in shock,” the jet black hair kid said, sitting down. “Excuse me,” he called in the direction of the guy by the door, who ignored him. “Excuse me? I think this boy needs to be looked at?”

Letting out a sigh, I contemplated getting up and moving to the other side of the ship. Quiet time with my own thoughts. That would have been the ideal environment. Not listening to this nonsense. Just as I began to rise from my seat, though, the next boy to enter the ship was ushered vigorously to the next seat in our row. If I tried to move, I’d probably be in for an argument with the security guy. The last think I wanted to do was draw attention to myself.

“Excuse me,” the jet black haired boy tried again.

“I’m not in shock,” Marin piped up.

“I think you might be.”

“No, he’s just a dick,” Annalise said.

“I’m not a dick.”

“Are you in shock?” she asked him. He shook his head slowly. “There you go, then.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” Rich piped up.

“Yeah,” Marin said emphatically.

“Look,” Annalise said. “Either you’re in shock, or you’re just a dick. And if you’re a dick, I suggest you pretend you’re in shock.”

Two more kids had joined us, and were both looking horrified at what they had walked into. The security guy was shaking his head, completely miserable. I wondered who he’d upset in order to get this job. The ship went quiet for a while as draftees joined us one by one. Most of them looked pale and nervous, and a few were quietly sniffling to themselves. A couple looked more angry than anything else.

“How long do you think we’ll be sitting here?” Marin asked, and I let out a sigh. I couldn’t decide what was more annoying – his inane babble, or Annalise’s aggressive shouting.

“Is the ship full yet?” Annalise asked him. “Maybe we’ll be leaving when it is? Do you think?”

“Shut up,” Marin replied, finally finding some anger.

“You shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“You shut up.”

“Why don’t you both shut up,” one of the angry looking kids shouted. “It’s bad enough they’re gonna send us to our deaths, but now I have to listen to you two idiots carrying on!” He slammed the arms of his seat in frustration. The security guy twitched at this, and glared at the kid. The kid didn’t notice, though. He was too busy burning a hole through the floor with his stare.

The ship descended into grim silence. As more people filled the room, though, a low murmur began, as some started chatting amongst themselves. I was glad I wasn’t sat next to someone who wanted to talk. Annalise had a mouth on her, but she didn’t seem in the mood for conversation. The girl on the other side of me still looked petrified, and she actually might have been in shock. I looked around for a reflective surface, to see what I looked like to everyone else. I felt pretty calm, but it was all a bit overwhelming. Being conscripted hadn’t been one of my life’s goals, though it didn’t seem like the worst thing that could happen to me. A fresh start, a bit of direction in my life. It was funny. I hated being told what to do, yet the idea of someone directing my life for me felt like something of a relief.

The ship was three quarters full, and it was getting quite loud. Marin and Rich were deep in conversation, I noticed, though were whispering incredibly quietly. Right up to each other’s faces, for fear, presumably, of another rollicking from Annalise. I glanced sidelong at her. Was she just stressed about being taken away from her family? Or was she genuinely a mean, angry person? I’d have to deal with all sorts in the Division. Seb and Ant were really laid back, funny guys. Ant was a bit of an idiot sometimes, but they were very easy to spend time with I’d gotten lucky falling in with them. I might not get nearly so lucky when we arrived… well, wherever it was we were actually going. I felt a tingle inside. Flying off into the unknown. It was the biggest thing to have ever happened to me. Since my father’s death, of course. We’d never really travelled very far. I’d lived 95% of my life within the same five or six blocks. Now I was going up into space. Looking around, I noticed for the first time there weren’t any windows. My heart sank. It would be a long journey, and getting to look out at the stars, through the black, had been one of the few things I’d thought would be really cool about the journey. Why couldn’t they have given us some windows?

The ship was almost completely full, and I was suddenly aware of how many people were sat around me. Soon, the door would be closed, and there’d be no getting out. Trapped in a small room with hundreds of kids, some of them very annoying, for several hours. I began to feel claustrophobic. I wanted some fresh air, but I couldn’t be any further away from the door. My head swimming, I tried to get up, but my legs had gone soft and floppy. Whether it was fear, or low blood-sugar, I couldn’t have said. Either way, I was starting to feel faint. Closing my eyes, I tried to pull myself together. It was fine. It wasn’t a small room, and we’d all be strapped in, so no-one would be getting any closer to me. Opening my eyes, I felt a little better. Then the door started closing. Taking deep breaths, I closed them again. I imagined I was out on the huge, empty stone lot that we sometimes threw an old wheel around on. Seb and Ant would come into possession of all sorts of weird and wonderful toys. Sports equipment, electronics. Nothing ever lasted very long before they got bored with it. But that wheel. They’d had it for as long as I’d known them, yet we’d play with it regularly. They’d made up about a dozen different games with it. They were a few years older than me, but were still little kids at heart. I’d miss them.

Some sort of announcement broke me from my trance. The ship began rumbling beneath me, and instinctively I gripped the armrests. There were panicked faces all around, likely no-one having ever experienced space travel before. A large proportion of the room’s inhabitants looked towards the door, as if there might be some chance of getting off. The rumble got louder, and the ship was suddenly shaking. I was pushed down lightly in my chair as we began to lift off of the ground. I jerked to the side slightly as we rotated. The force keeping me pushed down in my chair changed subtly, until all my weight was concentrated on my back rather than my butt. The pressure grew for a while, and then we suddenly hit turbulence. Rocking from side to side, I almost clashed heads with Annalise, our restraints just about holding us far enough away from each other. I felt a bit queasy, and just as I was beginning to think I might be sick, everything went still. The passengers exchanged puzzled looks for a few moments. The pressure eased away, and I didn’t feel my weight pushing me back any more. In fact, I couldn’t feel my weight at all. We’d left the planet’s gravitational pull behind. We were in space.

 

Chapter Seven

The journey took an age. I was used to getting to anywhere worth getting to in little more than a half hour. The novelty of being in space, and the sensation of weightlessness wore off quickly. We were, after all, strapped in place, with no view onto the galaxy surrounding us. Shifted uncomfortably in my seat, I silently cursed the safety harness. I got that they couldn’t have us floating around the ship, a large group of emotional teenagers flying free. The harnesses, though, could easily afford to be a bit looser during this part of the journey.

Annalise, thankfully, had fallen asleep soon after take-off. She really was like a grumpy toddler. Marin and Rich had become fast friends, having been deep in conversation since we’d left the planet. They were still, though, speaking in whispers, so I had no idea if either of them actually had anything interesting to say.

There was quite a lot of conversation going on around me. I marvelled at how quickly complete strangers could become friends. When I as younger, still at school, I’d had a pretty big circle of friends. We’d hung around as a group, gone to each other’s parties. Once I’d dropped out, though, it was a different story. They stopped talking to me. Actually, in fairness, I’d probably stopped talking to them. I hadn’t wanted to speak to anyone, for an unhealthy amount of time.

Then, once I started going out and about, I drifted from acquaintance to acquaintance, never liking nor trusting anyone enough to term them a ‘friend’. It was just me and the old man in the shop, no-one even close to my age to strike up a camaraderie with. It wasn’t ‘til I met Seb and Ant that I could count anyone as closer than ‘some guy I know’. Even then, it had just been the two of them. And for the most part, they talked and I listened, certainly in the early days. I barely spoke to my mother either, so all in all, I’d gotten used to being fairly quiet.

As boredom set in, I found myself listening in to other people’s conversations.

“-and she says I won’t be able to do it. Because I’ve never so much a hurt a bug. That’s true, but a bug never threatened the existence of my species. That makes a difference,” a petite brunette across from me was saying to the boy next to her. It was no wonder she’d never started a fight with a bug – she was so slight that the bug would probably have had a decent shot at winning.

“Well I’ve been in a couple of fights, here or there. I’ve usually won. I don’t know that I want to kill anyone, though.” The boy looked quite sturdy. It didn’t look like muscle, but it was difficult to be sure. I looked around at the kids I could see, and none of them looked particularly muscular or athletic. The Division would have a job on their hands if they wanted to turn us into soldiers. They probably should have held the lottery earlier, like at the age of 14. Let those that were chosen have the chance to build up some muscle, really prepare for what lay ahead of them. The problem with that, I guess, is it would also give them a chance to run away.

“They’re killing us,” the girl replied. “Every minute of the day, a human gets killed. Every minute. Do you want that to be you? Or your family?”

“Well, no-“

“It will be, one day. Unless we fight. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to kill anyone either. But I will if I have to. It’s only right.”

“Well it’s not really right that I have to do it at all,” he said, crossing his arms. “If none of my friends have to do it, why do I have to?”

“Why does anyone have to?” she replied, raising her voice. “Clearly someone does. How do you think it should be decided?”

The boy thought for a minute, his face reddening. Not having heard the earlier stages of their conversation, I didn’t know if it had all been amiable up to that point, or if they’d been squabbling the whole time.

“They should take the fittest and strongest. And people who want to go. Criminals! They should take criminals. They might as well die for something.”

“What?” she asked indignantly. “Criminals? You really think that’s fair, someone has to steal to feed their family, so they’re marched off to die as a punishment. Besides, you really think they’re gonna follow orders?”

“As much as any of the rest of us will,” he shrugged.

“If they were just taking the strongest, kids wouldn’t choose to be strong. They’d all be in the sweets cupboard as soon as they hit their teens.” She looked pointedly at his belly. “People shouldn’t be punished for caring about their bodies.”

“I shouldn’t be punished for no reason!” he cried out, then buried his head in his hands, turning away from her. She looked around her in bewilderment, raising her hands in the air as if asking ‘what did I do?’

I shut my ears off for a while. I didn’t want to hear any more. I was starting to feel grave misgivings about the whole thing. The idea of travelling away from everyone, taking on a whole new role in life had seemed exciting. Now, though, I was feeling a coldness running through me. I don’t know what was the more off-putting – the growing reality of the fact I’d be expected to kill people, or the dawning realisation that I’d have to do it alongside people who didn’t necessarily like each other. How could you trade insults with someone one day, and then the next day trust them to watch your back, keep you alive? It was terrifying. I’d trusted Seb and Ant as much as I’d ever trusted anyone. If we’d been dropped into the middle of a gunfight, though, did I really think they would have put their lives on the line for me? Seb, maybe. Ant, almost certainly not. So what chance did I have with strangers?

I tried to sleep. There were quite a few passengers who were doing so successfully, but I couldn’t. Not even close. It wasn’t due to lack of tiredness. It was still relatively early in the day, but I hadn’t had much sleep during the night. I just couldn’t shut down enough to drift off. It was too noisy. The seat wasn’t comfortable enough. And I felt very subconscious about falling asleep surrounded by people.

After what seemed like an age, an announcement was made. We were on our final approach. We were less than a half hour away from our new home. As the sleepers roused into consciousness, a buzz began to build around the room. This was it. Whatever nervousness I felt about what was to come, regardless of the fatigue I felt, adrenaline surged through me. I was about to board a spaceship. I was already on one, sure. But this was different. This was a huge spaceship, bigger than any building I’d ever even seen back home, let alone been in. I tried to imagine what it might be like, but I couldn’t. A huge vessel with corridors, and rooms, and enough space for thousands of kids to live and train. How did they even build something like that?

Forces were working against my body again, as the ship began to hum and vibrate, manoeuvring into the giant training vessel. How I wished there were some windows, both so I could see what it looked like from the outside, and so I could watch how the small ship entered the large ship without all the oxygen escaping as it entered. My full weight was pulling me down into my seat as the ship bumped down onto something solid. We had landed. Along with everyone else, I struggled at my harness, impatient to get out of my seat and make my way off the transport.

It was several painstaking minutes before the safety locks on the straps were deactivated. Several announcements went by, urging us to leave the ship calmly, and follow instructions as we made our way onto the training ship. Once I managed to get the harness off, I pushed up from my seat, keen to be one of the first. My legs, though, were like rubber. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one falling back into my seat, those few hours enough to make the force of gravity seem alien. I clambered to my feet again, and squeezed forward as far as I could before the sheer mass of bodies prevented me from getting any closer to the door. Finally, it began to raise up, and the ramp eased down. We had arrived.

 

Chapter Eight

Stepping out onto the ship was pretty underwhelming. We were just in a large grey hanger. A group of people, dressed in red outfits, were ramming bundles into everyone’s hands as we walked past them. A few more were waving us into rows. It took a few minutes until I reached the front of my line. Yet another red-suited person was at the end, scanning our wristbands. He was then pointing people through a door. I slowly meandered through, following on the heels of the boy in front. More queueing on the other side, and more doors.

This time, though, kids were coming back out through the doors after a few minutes, dressed in new outfits. A blue jumpsuit, with white vest underneath. I looked down at my bundle, to find I had exactly the same thing inside the plastic. I got to the front of a queue, and then walked through the door. It was a personal cubicle, with toilet, steam shower, and room to change in. It was only then that I noticed I was wearing my ‘good’ outfit. I hadn’t had a chance to change back out of it before I’d left the house. Folding it nicely, I wrapped it in the bag that my Galactic Division-issue uniform had come in. It was all I had left of my old life, though it was probably my least favourite outfit.

We’d been on the ship less than an hour, and yet had been given more orders than I’d had in a lifetime. A large room awaited us, with a screen on the wall at one end. Thankfully, we were given a snack and a drink, which I pretty much inhaled on the spot. The room filled up around me, and I closed my eyes, breathing slowly. Whatever was going to happen, it was taking a long time. After several more minutes, the screen flickered to life, and a speaker switched on. On-screen was a Galactic Division insignia.

“Welcome aboard the Anastasia,” a dispassionate voice said, a little too loudly for the size of the room. “You have joined thousands of recruits on board this Galactic Division training vessel, and over the next few weeks you will learn all about the Galactic Division, and your new role within it.”

“In a few moments, you will leave this room through the set of red doors under the screen, as indicated.” Arrows appeared on screen, flashing red, pointing to a space below the screen.

“Throughout the ship, you will find interactive screens that look like this one.” An image of a screen appeared, with a boy dressed in his blue jumpsuit. He held his wrist to it, and tapped at the screen with his other hand. “Your wrist-link is your key to the information stored via these C-Terminals. When you connect it to a screen, you will have access to all shipboard information that relates to your role. As you can see, it shows where your personal quarters are, what times your personal quarters will be accessible to you, and when you are due at your next activity.”

“All through the ship, the floors and corridors will be number coded. When you use the map on the C-Terminals, every room will have be marked with a combination denoting the floor, corridor, and room number. Upon leaving this room, you will be handed a Sleep-Pack, and will then be free to connect to a C-Terminal in order to locate your personal quarters.” I was getting bored. It was too much information to take in when all I wanted to do was explore the ship. About half the inhabitants in the room were whispering to each other by this point, and I stopped listening to the announcement completely. I couldn’t help but it say “Welcome aboard the Anastasia, and the Galactic Division,” however, because the volume increased even louder for that part. The doors opened, and we pushed and shoved to be amongst the first to the relative freedom of the body of the ship.

We were handed another bundle as we left the room. Before I could examine it in search of more food, a woman, yet again in a red uniform, shouted at us to move on. I spied a couple of the terminals, noticing queues forming by them already. I jumped into the nearest line, and examined my package. There didn’t appear to be any food inside. I thought about opening it, but there was barely any room in the corridor as it was. With streams of kids squeezing past to get further up the hallway, and my clothes bundled in plastic in my other hand, I’d risk dropping whatever was inside, potentially never seeing it again.

The woman in red, joined by a man in red who had appeared seemingly from nowhere, were shouting at us to disperse through the ship, and find other terminals so we weren’t blocking the way. It didn’t stop others from joining the queue behind me, and the more they shouted, the more determined I became to stay where I was. I wanted to find out where I was going, and what I was supposed to be doing. Then, I’d know just how much exploring I’d be able to do. Finally, my turn came. Conscious of the queue behind me, I flicked through the screens as quickly as I could, picking up the vital information. My quarters were there, the nearest dining hall was there, and my first scheduled ‘exercise’, as it was termed, wasn’t for about 12 hours. There were scheduled times for eating and sleeping, and thankfully the eating time was pretty soon. I could have a look around, find my bed, and then get something to eat. I disengage my WristLink from the C-Terminal, impressed that I’d remembered the technical terms for both, and fought my way through the packed corridor.

The crowds thinned out as I made my way deeper into the ship. There were plenty of the C-terminals scattered about, which was good to know. It was pretty drab in the corridors, though. No colour, just everything grey. I’d expected it all to look a lot more hi-tech. I thought I’d be wowed by state-of-the-art equipment, and scientific devices that appeared to do magic. But there was nothing. I tried to go through some doors, see inside some of the rooms, but everything was locked. I tried my WristLink, but that didn’t win me access. I made my way up a few floors, tried a few more doors. Nothing. With a sigh I decided I might as well make my way to my quarters, check out my bed. I guessed I’d probably be sharing with other people. The instructional video hadn’t really gone into specifics. It was a huge ship, though, so maybe we did get private rooms.

I made my way to my floor, and then followed the wall markings towards the section of the ship that my quarters were located in. It was a bit confusing at first, but once I worked out how the numbering worked, it was fine. There were plenty of people milling around, some looking a bit lost, others with more purpose. I wasn’t unfit, but all the walking around, combined with the fatigue of a long stressful day, suddenly caused me to feel worn out. Stopping to take a breather, I looked at the package I’d been carrying around the ship. The packaging was see-through, much like the bag that our uniforms had been in. Whatever was inside wasn’t blue, but it did feel soft. Spare underwear? I rolled my eyes. Bed… thing. What had they called it? That’s what it was, my own bedding. Did everything on the ship come sealed in a bag?

I tried to work out what time it would be back home. The Conscription had started before midday. I’d been drawn straight away, but it must have been an hour before we left the planet. I had no idea how many hours we’d been travelling. If I had to guess, I’d say around five hours. Another hour on board the training ship so far. Mum would be eating dinner, probably. What would Seb and Ant be doing? Arranging to sell the model. The model! A pain lanced through my heart. Mister Beaton would be shutting up shop about now. If he’d even opened. He’d be devastated. Would he suspect me? Discovering the model had been stolen on the same day I had left the planet forever? It was definitely suspicious. He’d know, though, that it wouldn’t be something I could bring with me. He also knew, of course, that I hung around with some shady people. The idea that he would forever remember me as a thief almost brought me to tears. The security officer. She’d seen me. On the night the model had disappeared, she knew I’d been running away from the scene of the crime. When Mister Beaton had reported it this morning, she’d tell him she’d seen someone suspicious. Described me, what I was wearing. The old man would look at her, sadness in his eyes, and tell her who it was.

I took some deep breaths, and pushed the thought out of my mind. After a couple of minutes, the fatigue sweats had passed, and I got moving again. I spotted the dining hall on my way to my quarters, but purposely didn’t look inside. I’d be tempted to start eating straight away, but I wanted to put the sleeping bag thing down first, find out if I’d be sharing my room. Maybe get a look at who my roommates would be, if anyone. I arrived at the door with the right number, and took a deep breath.

Chapter Nine

I stepped in through the door to be met with a flurry of activity. Seemingly it had taken me a lot longer to find my way than it should have. Two girls were dancing about beside the door, making it tricky to squeeze past. A group of other girls were chatting and laughing in a group. Not a private quarters at all, then. I followed the numbering scheme, and located my bunk, the middle of three in a stack. I was taken aback, though, to find someone already sitting on my bed. I stared at her awkwardly, and she narrowed her eyes, looking back with a bemused expression.

“Can I help you?” She was a pretty girl with strawberry blond hair, tall and slim. There was no annoyance in her voice, and the longer I stared at her mutely, the more of a smile appeared on her face.

“I’m… I think this is my bed,” I said.

“Well, you’ll have to wait your turn,” she replied. Again, there was no malice.

“Well, I don’t….” I thought back to what it had said on the terminal. I’d memorised it. I was sure I had. I was pretty good at that kind of thing. I did contemplate going back out and checking, but then I’d only have to come in again and have the same conversation a second time. “I’m sorry, but I really do think this is my bed.”

“We share,” someone said behind me with a chuckle.

“We… share?” I turned around.

“Yeah, we share. It’s not your turn yet. Check your schedule.”

I turned back to the girl on my bed, or maybe our bed, for confirmation.

“Yeah, they arrange the schedules so that we take it in turns with the bed. Hence the sack,” she told me, waving a corner of the SleepBag at me. “It’s OK, I don‘t drool or anything. It’ll still be dry in here when you get back.”

I looked at my SleepBag, letting it sink in. I figured I’d have to share a room with people, which had in itself been a bit off-putting. But sharing the bed? I could see that the sleeping bag was designed so that the user wouldn’t have to touch any of the bed frame around them, but that was little comfort. Besides which, where was I supposed to put the thing when I wasn’t using it?

“In your personal drawer,” the girl said, as if reading my mind.

“Personal drawer?”

Rolling her eyes, she swung her legs down off the bed, and dropped down.

“I take it you didn’t see your drawer code on the C-terminal?” I shook my head. “These are the drawers for this stack.” She waved her hand around in front of a column of nine very slim draws built into the wall beside the bunks. “These middle three correspond to the middle bunk. This middle one, of the middle three, is mine. Now you’re lucky, because I happen to know the top one is in use. It hasn’t been closed properly since I arrived. Every night, I have to jam it closed so I can open my own. Whoever is sharing the bed with us either had a very elaborate outfit when they arrived, or they wear a super large.” She arched an eyebrow at me. “Anyway, by process of elimination, that makes this third one yours. You gonna stuff your one full too?” I held up my two packages. “OK, good, that should be fine.” I couldn’t tell if she was mean, or funny.

I placed my clothes and my SleepBag into the drawer as she climbed back up to her, or rather our, bed. As I was walking towards the door she yelled after me.

“Enjoy your dinner. I’ll be gone by the time you get back. Promise.” The group of girls giggled at this.

I marched to the dining hall, belly rumbling. It was pretty busy. Looking around, I attempted to make sense of how it worked. There were tables with people eating, and several machines lined along one of the walls. Kids were queueing up at the machines, walking away with trays topped with packages. Relieved that it was no more complicated than that, I picked a line and joined it.

About six or seven people back, I leaned out from behind the column to try to see how the machine worked. I didn’t want to be the one that didn’t know what they were doing, slowing down the process for everyone else. I couldn’t see much, though. There was a screen, but the writing was too small at that distance. It wasn’t until there was only one person in front of me that I could get a good look at it. It was pretty simple. She touched one of the sets of words on the screen, and a package dropped down onto a tray at the bottom. I didn’t recognise any of the writing, and it was impossible to tell what any of the food was. On my turn, not recognising the language on the screen, I chose the same option as the previous girl.

Sitting down at the nearest empty seat, I tore into the package. Some type of steaming grain. Strips of protein, and strips of some kind of vegetable. The protein was slimy, and upon further investigation, I worked out it was coated in some kind of sauce. It was pretty sour, and not the kind of thing I would usually choose to eat. I cut it up, along with the vegetables, and mixed the small pieces into the pile of grain. It was much more palatable like that. In a little pot was some kind of jelly-like substance. Sweet and tangy, again it wasn’t really to my taste, but definitely edible. I’d assumed the white liquid was milk, but that wasn’t what it tasted like. In fact, there was very little flavour to it at all. It was a dinner I’d been able to endure, rather than enjoy. I was still hungry, too. I considered going up for a second package, but figured it probably wouldn’t do to be getting in trouble on the first night. There were red-suited personnel in the room. They didn’t seem to be paying much attention, and it was doubtful they’d notice that I was on my second meal. It wasn’t worth the risk, though.

For the first time, I had a look at the people around me. We were all on the same dinner shift, but I didn’t know if that meant they had all arrived on the Anastasia that day, at the same time as I had. Some seemed nervous, others bored. We were all wearing the same uniforms, and there was no way to differentiate the newcomers from the ones who had already been on board for a few weeks. It was weird, seeing a room full of almost exclusively teenagers. I’d spent little time with kids my own age in the past few years, and I wasn’t sure I knew how to relate to them. Seb and Ant weren’t far away, but they were a very specific type of people. I wasn’t sure I’d meet many like them on board the Anastasia. But who knew. That was the beauty of the Conscription – it didn’t discriminate. Nineteen year-olds from all walks of life were here. I guess as fairness went, that was as good as it got. It was going to be interesting, though. How could such utterly different people possibly become a cohesive fighting force?

Chapter Ten

I made my way slowly back to quarters. Every millimetre of my body was feeling heavy, and I craved sleep. Arriving back at my room, I hoped the strawberry blond had been true to her word, and would be long gone. I didn’t even want to feel any of her residual warmth. It would take a while to get used to ‘sharing’ my bed. Entering the room with trepidation, I once again found myself in a full room. This time, though, it was a lot less lively. There was a crowd of girls standing around one of the lower bunks, forcing me to stand on tiptoes to try to see what they were doing. As I got closer, I heard sobbing.

“I don’t think she’s gonna calm down,” a voice said.

“She’s going to have to. I’ve had a long day. I really need to sleep.”

“We’ve all had a long day,” a big girl, stood to the side of them, said. “You ain’t nothing special.” She said it not in annoyance, but matter-of-factly. She had brown, curly hair, falling around her soldiers.

“I – just – want – to – go – home,” the girl sat on the bed said between sobs.

“You just need some sleep,” one of the other girls said. “It’s not gonna be so bad here. It’s like camp.”

“You’ll be fine. We’re all in it together. Come on, it might even be fun,” said another. She was a brunette, as tall a girl as I had ever seen, with long, graceful legs. She pushed up from her crouched position with a grunt, and stepped back, finally leaving me a view of the crying girl. She was petite, but with a big, round head, that seemed altogether too big for her shoulders. Her face was red, her eyes redder. It had been a hard day for her.

“You think?” she asked, unconvinced.

“Yeah, it’ll be fine,” the girl who really needed her sleep said impatiently. She turned away from the crying girl, shaking her head, long brown locks flicking around her shoulders. She spotted me standing in the doorway, and regarded me with curiosity. She had light brown skin, deep brown eyes, and might have been the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in person.

“Welcome to the fun-house,” she said to me, rolling her eyes.

Everyone else turned to look at me, leaving me feeling exposed and awkward. The crying girl let out a squeak, staring at me with a look of horror on her face. Before I could react, she started wailing.

“Oh my stars!” she said. “They’re gonna make us shave our hair!”

It took me a moment to realise what she was talking about. Everyone looked up at my head, and the big girl off to the side snorted in amusement.

“No, no, it’s OK, don’t worry about that sweetie,” she told her. “This chick chose to do that.”

“Why would you do that?” the crying girl asked, giving me a puzzled look. I felt a flash of heat come to my face, but quickly quelled it. There was no point in being offended. We were a group of complete strangers who were going to have to get on indefinitely. Arguments were to be avoided at all costs.

“Oh, well, it’s, uh, the height of fashion on my planet,” I said.

“Oh yeah, where are you from?” the big girl off to the side asked.

“Erran.”

“Then no,” she said with a laugh, “no it isn’t.”

“Oh. Yeah, right.” Of course, we were probably all from Erran. “You’re all new here today?” Everyone nodded.

“I’m Persia,” the big girl said to me. “This sad little thing is Lavan.” Lavan offered me a grim smile from the bed. Persia turned to look around at the others. “I’m sorry, I don’t remember what all your names are.”

“I didn’t give it,” the beautiful girl said. “Introductions tomorrow. I really need to sleep.”

“I’m Gem,” the tall girl said, to no-one in particular.

“Tomorrow!” the beautiful girl insisted.

Shrugging, I walked over to my bunk, and pulled my SleepBag out of its drawer. As I went to step on the bottom bunk to reach up to my own, I noticed there was a girl already fast asleep down there. Looking around, there were several girls already sleeping, despite the lights being on, and the girl still sobbing. I located the notches that were supposed to be used to climb up, and ascended. I unrolled my bag. It looked pretty thin, and the board it laid upon pretty hard.

“It doesn’t look very comfortable, does it,” Gem said to me, crouching down at the bottom bunk of the next stack along. “I’m just hoping I can fit my whole body in there.” She was definitely tall, although there would be taller boys aboard, so they must have been designed to accommodate all.

“Bad luck getting one on the bottom,” I said. The bottom bunks weren’t quite on the ground, but they were only about half a metre up.

“Yeah, not easy on the knees, getting down here. I’ll maybe see if I can swap tomorrow, once these two are awake,” she motioned to the two sleeping girls in her stack. Perched up on my bed, I considered for a moment. Being in the middle stack, there was a strong chance I’d forget myself some nights, and step on the girl below. Of course, being on the bottom meant there was a good chance I’d get stood on myself. All in all, though, the bottom seemed the better option to me.

“Middle bunk OK?” I asked her. She looked confused for a second, then looked at my bed.

“You’d swap?”

“Sure.”

“Thank you! If you want to swap back, though, I totally understand.”

I shrugged, peeled my bag back up, and picked my way down. Gem didn’t need to worry about stepping on the girl below, or negotiating the notches. She grabbed the side of the middle bunk with both hands, and pulled herself up, easily swing a leg on to the bed in one fluid motion. Suddenly, the room went dark.

“Hey!” a voice cried out.

“It’s past sleeping time,” a shout came back. I couldn’t have been sure, but it sounded like the girl who really needed sleep. After a few seconds, the room lit up again. “Hey!” With the light on, I could see it was indeed the tired girl who had wanted darkness.

“Just give us a few minutes to get ourselves ready, won’t you,” someone shouted across.

“There’s still a couple of girls left to come, I think,” Persia pointed out.

“Well that’s their problem,” tired retorted. “Two minutes, then the light goes off. Have you got any idea how long I’ve been awake?”

“Yes!” came a chorus, and several girls burst into giggles. I might have found it amusing too, if I wasn’t so exhausted myself. I laid my bag out on my new bed quickly, before darkness consumed the room once more. I wondered what would happen if I needed to use the toilet during the night. Would the light be on out in the corridors? Oh, of course it would! Our bedtime was someone else’s lunch hour. Life on board the Anastasia was going to take a bit of getting used to.

Getting into bed, I already regretted giving away my middle bunk. As ridiculous as it was, I felt low down. We were floating through space somewhere, where there was no real concept of up and down. But the ship’s artificial gravity pulling down on me, the height of the ceiling, and the subconscious effect of knowing I was near the floor made it feel like I was laying down in my grave.

“OK, that’s time,” the tired girl called out.

“It’s been, like, twenty seconds,” someone replied.

I looked across at the sobbing girl, Lavan. Someone was over there still trying to comfort her. She didn’t look to be in quite as much of a state as she had earlier, but she still wasn’t coping well. It was a wonder there weren’t more girls crying. Maybe some of the ones who had gone to bed before I’d come into the room had cried themselves to sleep. Or perhaps the other kids who weren’t coping well were just doing a better job of hiding it. I didn’t feel sad at all. I wondered if my mother did. Was she at home, shedding tears for me? I doubted it, but part of me hoped she was. I’d never know, but if I could convince myself she really did still care after all, I’d feel a bit happier.

“One minute!”

The girl with Lavan patter her on the shoulder, then scurried across to her own bunk. Lavan didn’t move for several seconds, but then she slowly climbed into her SleepBag, and curled up in a ball. What happened to people who couldn’t cut it, I wondered. There must be a decent percentage who just weren’t up to being soldiers.

The lights went out, and I tried to shut my brain off. There were some whispers, and then someone burst out laughing.

“Please!” the tired girl urged.

“Sorry,” came a shout back.

“The Galactic Division urges you to sleep,” some else called out. “You can look forward to many hours of fulfilling sleep with the Galactic Division.” More giggling.

“Shhhh!”

“Shhhhhhh!”

More giggling. I should have been irritated, but fatigue must have been getting to me because I started chuckling myself.

“I swear, the next person to make a noise, I’m gonna introduce you to your first taste of combat training. The hard way. You hear me?”

There were a couple of snorts, but then silence descended. I listened out, expecting someone to make more noise, to purposely wind the tired girl up. The longer I waited, the more nervous excitement I felt, until it got to a point where I almost burst out laughing. I stifled it, and turned it into a quiet cough. That was the end of the day’s excitement. I didn’t know what to expect in the morning, but whatever it was, I needed to be ready. I curled up into my usual sleeping position. The SleepBag was a bit of a marvel. It looked thin, but it was more comfortable than it looked. And as hard as the board beneath me had looked, it did have some give in it. It felt, almost, like my cheap mattress back home. Not home anymore, though. Just that place where I used to live.

Chapter Eleven

I woke up, and dozed in and out for a while. I was sleeping with my head at the wrong end to see the room’s only clock, and I wondered if I should be asleep, at breakfast, or already at my first exercise on board the Anastasia. No-one else seemed to be stirring around me, though, and I figured some one would come and get me if I was late? One of the people in red uniforms?

After a while of staring up at the underneath of the middle bunk, I felt a buzzing in my wrist. It was a weird sensation, and it freaked me out. Grasping at my wrist, I felt the smooth hardness of the WristLink. It was gently vibrating. As alarm calls went, it could have been worse, I guess. However, it was certainly weird. The girls around me all began to stir. A couple screamed, several swore.

“What’s going on?” a voice cried. “Are we under attack already?” Laughter echoed through the room. “What? What is that?”

“It’s just time to get up, dummy!” Persia’s voice.

I did not feel like moving. It was comfortable in the bed, and I didn’t feel like I’d had nearly enough sleep. I considered just staying, to see what would happen. Even if I didn’t get in trouble for not being where I should be, though, the next person would be in soon enough wanting the use of my bed. That was going to be a real pain. It meant I couldn’t nip and and have a quick nap during my breaks. Assuming we got any. I hadn’t looked any further ahead than this morning on my schedule. That would be on my list of jobs for the morning.

I pushed myself up into a sitting position, and looked out at the other girls. Most had taken their overalls off to sleep, wearing only the white shirts and shorts. It hadn’t occurred to me to do that.

“What time’s breakfast?” someone called out.

“another half an hour or so, I think,” came a reply.

“Well what do we do until then? There’s literally nothing in this room?”

“Go get clean, silly. In the personal cubicle.”

“It’s only been a few hours, how dirty can I be?”

A chorus of ‘ews’ rang out. It hadn’t occurred to me to check for the nearest personal cubicles on the terminal the previous day, so I waited until a group of girls were leaving, and I followed them. I waited in a short line, and then got in and got clean. There were hair clippers in there, and I thought about taking all the fluff off. I didn’t want to freak any more new girls out, though, giving them cause to think we were all supposed to get our heads shaved. I’d wait a few days. I was a little doubtful of the clothes cleaner as I stuffed my outfit in it, but it came out after a few minutes smelling fresh and clean.

I went back to the room, and most of the girls were just standing around, nothing to do, but with very little conversation going on. That suited me. I wasn’t yet fully awake. I was ravenous, though. We stood around in awkward silence for several minutes. It didn’t bother me, but it was obviously making some of the others uncomfortable.

“Hey, Lavan, how are you feeling this morning?” Someone asked. Lavan shrugged. “Sleeping didn’t help?”

“I didn’t get much sleep,” she mumbled.

Persia waltzed in, glaring at us all standing about.

“What’s all this about? She asked.

“We’re just waiting,” someone told her.

“Why?”

“Because it’s not time yet,” someone else replied.

“It’s close enough,” Persia said, glancing at the clock. “It’s not like they’re gonna send us away.” With that, she turned back around, and left the room. The rest of the girls started following her, and after a few seconds I did too.

Our group made its way through the corridors, until we reached a set of double doors. There was a dull murmur of conversation emanating from the room, along with the sounds of trays clattering, and machines whirring. There were several queues leading to machines against one wall. Persia joined the shortest, and several girls lined up behind her. The rest of us joined the now-shorter queues to either side. When it came to my turn, I still didn’t recognise the language on the screen, so once again chose the same option as the person in front, lest they understood the wording, and knew the best choice.

As I walked away with my tray, someone grabbed my arm. My instinct was to yank it away, but I didn’t want to throw my breakfast, whatever it was, across the dining hall.

“Hey!” It was Gem. “Come one,” she said, leading me off towards the tables. A few of the girls from our room were sat down, and Gem lead me over to them before I could protest. Persia and the rest joined us over the course of the next couple of minutes. “I wonder what this is,” Gem said to me excitedly. I looked down at my own bundle. Yanking it open, the first thing I saw was a pile of grain in a bowl. It was dry and hard looking. There was a second bowl, the same size as the first, but it contained an off-white liquid. I tried a bit on my spoon. It was rich and creamy. Sour to the taste, but not necessarily in a bad way. I ate some grain with some of the substance still on the spoon. They went together well. Next was a disk-shaped, brittle object. I nibbled at the edge. Dry. Very dry. I tried to smear what was left of the off-white substance on it, and forced it down.

“Have any of you girls fired a gun before?” someone asked.

“I have,” Persia said. “My dad was a member of a gun club. They had a range that they went to, and would sometimes go for weekends, out in the middle of nowhere, to shoot target trolleys.”

“What’s a target trolley?”

“It’s pretty difficult to get a hunting license. My dad tried, but you have to have a job that involves… I don’t know, something to do with farming or animals. I don’t know the exact rules. So the trolley just drives around an assigned area, like a wild animal, and you shoot it.”

“That’s weird,” Lavan said.

“It’s sport,” Persia said, shooting her a glare. “Anyway, he took me a couple of times. I wasn’t much good at it, really just cos I wasn’t really trying. But I know how to load a couple of different rifles, how to aim them.”

“I hate guns.”

“Yeah, well I think you’re gonna have to get over that one real quick,” Persia said.

“What do you think we’re gonna be doing in the exercise this morning?” Gem asked me.

“I have no idea,” I said. “Hopefully something easy.”

As the group broke into more individual conversations in twos and threes, the noise level rose. Gem asked me another question, but I couldn’t hear it above the rising din, so I just shrugged. I looked around for somewhere else to sit. There were a couple of empty seats nearby. One was on a table of all boys. They were sat in silence, calmly eating away. I yearned to go over and join them, but I was worried about offending my roommates. I wasn’t that concerned about becoming close to them, but I didn’t want to have to endure frosty relationships either.

“Well that was gross,” the beautiful girl, who I had learnt was named Indira, said, pushing her tray away. “I hope the other options are better.”

“Which option did you pick?” someone said.

“I don’t know. The first one, whatever it meant.”

“What was it?”

“Most of it’s still there, take a look,” Indira said. We all looked.

“I had the same,” Lavan said.

“So did I,” Persia said. “But I didn’t pick the first option. I chose the last.”

“Did anyone pick the middle option?” Gem asked. A couple of girls raised their hands. “What did you get?” She leaned over to try to see their trays.

“It was the same,” one of them said. “The middle option was exactly the same.”

“Oh, great,” Indira replied, a contemptuous look on her face. “so there is no option.”

“Maybe that’s just at breakfast?” Lavan said. “Maybe there’ll be choices for the other meals?”

“Doubtful.”

“I didn’t think it was half bad,” Persia said. “I’ve definitely eaten worse.” She clawed at her hair, pulling both sides away from the middle. “I think you have the right idea, er..?” Persia looked over at me.

“Sorry, what? Oh. Kat. I’m Kat.” It was the first time I’d spoken my name since arriving on board.

“Kat. Right. I think you have the right idea. With the hair? This is getting all tangled already. I had a bag, but they didn’t let me take it into the Conscription hall. You’d think they’d have a rake, or a brush, or something we could use.”

“They have clippers in the personal cubicle,” I said. “They might have had a comb or something as well. I didn’t notice.”

“You’re not really gonna cut off all your hair, are you?” Lavan asked.

“I hope it doesn’t come to that,” Persia replied. “But I need to do something.”

After a few more minutes, Persia pushed herself up and away from the table. Almost in unison, half of the rest of our group followed suit. She glanced sidelong at them, bemused, and then shrugged.

“I guess it’s time to see what the Division are going to do with us,” she said. “Good luck everyone.” She made her way to the door, with most of the group in tow.

“Are you coming?” Gem asked me.

“Oh, uh, I might be a few more minutes.”

“I can wait?” she said.

“No! I mean, it’s OK. I don’t want to make you late. I’m just gonna finish this, and then check the terminal, see where I need to go.”

Gem nodded, but looked a little bit hurt. I felt bad, but I was suffocating. I needed a minute before I marched off into who knew what. I watched them leave, and then let out a long, slow breath. Not touching the rest of my food, I gazed around the room, looking for any familiar faces from Erran. No-one jumped out at me, but then, I hadn’t seen anyone who would have been at the Conscription for several years. I waited long enough to be sure I wouldn’t run into any of the others out in the hallway, then pushed up from the table. It was time to see what the day would bring.

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