[1429.270.1500] Firster Academy

That splinter hurt! It had penetrated my work glove and impaled the base of my thumb. Bobby had shoved me hard; my knee hit a rock and the rough target stand drove one of its billions of splinters deep into my hand.

Millennia of human development across known space hadn't weeded out dumb boys who bully girls.

Firster Academy wasn't supposed to be like this. Pre-Orientation week at the best military prep school on the planet was not going as I had expected. The instructors treated us like adults, even though first year students were thirteen. Firsters become adults at age fourteen, just like the desert clans. Not having instructors treat us like little kids was nice, but I had come in two full years early. And I had found the bullies.

We were supposed to be picking up brass and pulling targets on Close Quarters Battle Range Two (CQBR2). It was supposed to be a time to build friendships while enjoying the crisp fall air. When I was a kid, Daddy let me play on the obstacle course. Last year, after I deployed every "Daddy's little girl and only child" trick in the field manual, he brought me to the range and taught me to shoot.

I guess Stupid Head Bobby Graelen and his flunkies felt brave because CQBR2 was isolated. There was nothing but mountain forest and animal trails on the other side of the berms. It took all four of them to pick on a girl half their size. They were so tough. Daddy said to be brave. I bit my lip to keep from crying. Daddy said not to show your fears, or your tears, except to your closest friends. If I had any friends here the boys wouldn't have pushed me down.

I will not cry!

"Go away," I said. My eyes were wet. I didn't want to look up at Bobby. I didn't want to stand. Blood seeped out of my hand. Pretty soon it would gush, I'm sure of it.

Stupid Head Bobby was Cadet Ninety-Three, and he broke the rule about not saying your name in the first quarter. We were supposed to go by our cadre numbers, which was based on our placement exams. Cadet Captain One aced the academics and ran the obstacle course at record-breaking speed. Bobby had to take off his boots to do double-digit math. Lots of cadets came from famous families, and Firster Academy isn't cheap for those who have to pay. Military families don't pay full price, but we have our own issues.

Asking my parents for help would mean one of two things. Daddy would challenge me to be strong. To conquer my fear. Mom would just rip Bobby's head off and nail it over my cabin door, as a trophy. I was at Firster Academy to become strong. To conquer my fears. To figure out how to do my own head off-ripping.

"The desert is nothing but dirt. Same color as your skin. And your hair." Bobby put his hands on his hips. "Look, men, a Desert Rat. Down on the ground where it belongs."

If only you knew, Coaster boy, what my desert-born, Path-following mother would do to you right about now.

"Go away," I said again. That splinter was huge, I've got to get it out.

"What's the matter Desert Rat, too used to cleaning floors? Forgot how to stand?" Stupid Head Bobby said. Bobby's dad was a famous musician. I used to like his music, up until five minutes ago. The "Iffney Hoods" were big on Birach. It was loud, and that made it fun. That had made it fun, I needed to find new music.

The boys quit laughing. Boots crunched dirt and rock behind me, and then a uniformed knee plopped right beside mine. I looked up, and got captured by her raging blue eyes.

She had a fresh pink scar on the end of one bony eyebrow. Her dirty uniform matched her tanned-and-sweaty face. My nose said she could use a shower. Odd, she had a Raider haircut. My bob cut is cadet standard for girls. A Raider cut was nothing on the top and even less on the sides.

"Let me help," she said. Her ruck slid off her back, and then her rough hands gently splayed my fingers.

"It's in deep."

"This could take a bit. What's your name?" the girl said. Our eyes locked, and then she smiled.

"We're not supposed to..." Pain coursed up my arm.

The girl lifted the bloody splinter up and grinned. "All done."

"You tricked me!" The pain was gone. "Thanks!"

"Aw, isn't that sweet," Bobby said. Talk about an unwelcome party crasher. He stepped forward. The new girl rolled her eyes, stood, and then faced him.

"I'm Bobby Graelen, and yeah, my dad's vids could buy this whole place. I might just do that, so I can keep you trash out. Look, men! A Desert Rat and a Trail Rat!"

Four to one is not a good combat ratio. If there's going to be a thing, I needed to stand with her. I stood, it was four to one and a half. She helped me, it was only fair. My knee hurt.

The new girl flexed her fingers; into a fist, and then back out. The guys were bigger than her. She either didn't notice or didn't care.

"That's Miss Desert Rat, and Miss Trail Rat, to you. Twerp," Miss Trail Rat said.

Bobby stepped forward. The other guys quit laughing. Bobby looked back at them, and then at Trail Rat. He scowled. "I'll deal with you two later."

"Looking forward to it. Twerp," Trail Rat said as Bobby fled.

"You just scared him off! Wow. Here, let me help." Her ruck was right there, so I grabbed the straps and pulled. The thing didn't budge. Did she have rocks in there, or what?

"Yeah, he's a bully," Trail Rat said. Her nostrils flared, and then she shouldered her ruck with one arm. "I gotta find an empty rack. Know of any?"

"My cabin has one! Want to join us? We're really friendly."

Trail Rat raised her scarred eyebrow and scrunched her lips. "If they are so friendly, why didn't they help you with the twerp?"

"Oh...well...the other girls are older. They're all friends. I'm sure they'll like you," I said quietly. "I started Academy early; I'm not even allowed to wear makeup yet."

"You do look a bit young, but I don't use makeup, either. One time Mom and I got our nails done. I chew mine, so that didn't last long." She shrugged. "Where's this cabin of ours? I need a hot shower and a long time in a soft bed."

"This way." I pointed to the gap in the back berm. It was the only way out. Bobby and his goons had blocked me from running away. We started walking to the cabin, but I stopped. Something bothered me; I was missing something important.

Whatever it was eluded me. For now. I focused on my new friend as I caught up to her. "What's your number?"

"Huh? My home comm?"

"No, silly! Your cadre number, it's on your class register. My number is Five, my parents were so proud!"

She scrunched up her face, and then dug into a thigh pocket as we walked. She pulled out several crumpled sheets of paper. "You mean these?"

Good grief! Didn't she know how important the schedule was to her future? Which classes she had, and which teachers? The teachers were surely the key to any future success.

"Here, let me see." Everything was jumbled together. "Numbers are important; they show what you scored on the entry exams and how academically prepared you are. Bobby's in the nineties, he's a stupid head."

Oh no.

My face burned. How do you back up a conversation? Maybe if I fold them nicely, she won't ask. I flattened each page against my chest. Then I pressed them together, trying to buy time. Maybe she wouldn't ask.

"Whut?" Trail Rat said. "I know that look."

Busted.

"I'm sorry about the low number comment. Really." I held out her perfectly folded and flattened registration paperwork.

"That bad, huh?" Trail put the papers back into her thigh pocket. "What's my number?"

"One Twenty-Three. I didn't think they...I mean..." Talking was getting difficult.

"You didn't think they let people in who scored that low?" Trail said. Her voice dropped. "Yeah, I barely qualified. Dad took me on a hike to get me ready. I hadn't prepared well. We just got in."

"Is that why you have a Raider haircut? The haircut is supposed to be easy to maintain. My dad..." Could I say? No. Can't. Against the rules. "Sorry, we're not supposed to say who we are in the first quarter. I'm not anyone special, but Daddy encourages me to follow the rules."

A giggle forced its way out of my mouth. "Most of the time."

"Uh, look." Trail said. She stopped, we were at the cabin. Three steps up, and a door, and then she would meet everyone else. "How about we not use numbers. Or at least not mine, yours is great."

"Okay. What do you want to be called?"

She looked at the dirt on her hands and trousers. "Well, Trail Rat sounds cool, if you ignore where it came from."

"Agreed!" Five was already stenciled on all my uniform labels, over my bunk, and on my books. Mom had shown me how to embroider, and I had Five sewn into my ruck. Nothing to do but go for it; Trail Rat had saved me from the dark forces of boys and splinter impalement. I stuck out my wounded hand. "Good to meet you, Trail Rat. I'm Desert Rat from here on out."

"The Rat Pack!" Trail said. She grinned. "Okay, let's go inside. I need a shower most seriously."

The closer I got to her, the more I agreed. Three steps up and I pulled the rough hewn plank door open.

The heavy board floor was worn smooth by frequent sanding and staining. Three sets of double bunks were as sturdily made as the thick log walls. Past the bunks, tall dressers served as headboards. Each cadet bunk pair split their space in the dressers. The right wall was three meters high and the ceiling sloped up to the left with metal sheeting on the roof. There was another cabin area on the other side of the left wall. Beams crossed the open space above, from side to side, and the door and shutters were thick and latchable. An autumn breeze blew through the open windows. Afternoon light showed the four other girls, designated the 'Nail Polish Gang,' sitting around the common area table. As always, they were doing their nails and giggling.

"Hey everyone, this is Trail Rat," I smiled.

The Nail Polish Gang glanced at us and then immediately went back to their nails. More giggles.

"Hey," Trail Rat said dully.

Might as well get moving. "Your rack is top left, mine is top right. Supper is in an hour so I have time to show you the shower building."

"No inside stuff? We have to walk to it? Weird," Trail Rat said. She shrugged and then climbed up onto her rack. The bunks were sturdy, but hers shifted under the combined weight of her and her ruck. "As long as it works."

I don't often have a new friend to figure out. I have very few friends, with Erk the Dork being my closest. He's sensible, for a guy. We studied together and he made it in last year. In peril of his mortal soul, afterward, he wrote things I needed to know for the test. I burned that letter. Right after transcribing a double encrypted copy.

How do you figure a person out? Algebra is easier. I climbed up to my bunk and watched Trail Rat unpack. Standard uniforms, check. Standard under uniform stuff, check. Nothing frilly. Trail didn't look like the frilly sort, but you never know. Entrenching tool. Meal bags. Single unit camp stove. Rolled up shelter half. Fuel tabs. Wow, she wasn't kidding about just coming off the trail. Everything looked like it needed as much of a wash as she did.

Where were her books? Her extra course materials? No wonder she scored so low.

Trail was occupied and I risked a quick glance. His image was there, right over my shoulder. Wavy black hair. Bashful smile. I found the advert in one of Dad's magazines. The boy was showing off his team's rifle. The gun looked okay, but he looked like someone you could talk to. Someone who wouldn't laugh every time you struggled with a people question or couldn't do a push-up.

A quick check on Trail. She was staring right at him! I did a subtle scoot over; she needed to find her own picture. My face burned. "It's an advertisement for a rifle."

"It's her boyfriend," Dorm Chief paused in mid-nail-polish. She looked up at Trail. "She talks to him before going to sleep."

"Do not!" I looked at Trail. "He's the team captain for the Saorsa Sangrean Games team. I sent off asking for an autograph, but I'm sure he's busy."

Trail's face went weird, and then blank. She grabbed her towel and soap. "C'mon, let's go."

Brush had overgrown the path during the summer. Broad purple leaves and black branches made the hike difficult. Someone needed to trim the wildlife. Still, Trail pushed limbs back for me as we walked.

"Clue me in on what we're allowed to say. It feels kinda weird," Trail said. She held a large leaf up as I walked under it.

"We can talk about families, but we're not supposed to name names or give positions if they are nobles or celebrities. Like, I can tell you my dad is a teacher and Mom is a trader. What do your parents do? If you want to say."

Trail didn't say anything for a full minute. "My dad's a teacher, too. Mom helps at a hospital. Is that okay?"

"Perfect. You can talk about lots of stuff, it's just easier to not say too much. At least for the first quarter. Like, my parents always vacation in the desert, at this one particular village. I don't know why, but we go there every year and they restate their vows." There's an intergalactic finger-down-the-throat motion for something that makes you gag. Trail snorted at my impression. "They get pretty yucky, too. I mean, it's romantic and all, but seriously yucky. Daddy said if I do well, then next time he'll tell me the whole story."

Trail chuckled. "Sounds like my parents. They don't go anywhere special but they do get kissy-faced. A lot. Kinda embarrassing."

We tromped along, and then up the stone steps into the girl's side of the facilities. Sinks on the left and stalls on the far wall. Showers through an opening on the right. There were double curtains for the showers. I sat on the plank bench while Trail stepped forward and pulled the first curtain closed behind her.

"So, what is this place like?" Trail said as the shower came on.

"The teachers are former military. Well, most of them. Sometimes a diplomat or government leader will teach a class, but everyone who teaches here is a Firster."

Trail held the curtain tight and stuck her face out. "What are they?"

"More of a 'who are they?', I think. A Firster is someone who believes The Creator gives people supernatural gifts, and that there should be no one between the Firster and The Creator."

"That doesn't sound weird," Trail said.

"It does if you think about it. There's someone in charge that's not really in charge? And they supposedly hear from The Creator? What sort of government system is that?"

Trail shrugged and then closed the curtain. Steam rolled over the curtain until the water stopped. I could hear towel motions and then Trail looked at me with a dreamy smile on her face.

"Here, right thigh pocket." Trail covered her front with the towel and threw her trousers at me. "Tell me what classes we have together and which ones I can get your help with."

The filthy things flew at me. I caught one leg, and the other fell into a puddle on the floor. Trail hadn't bothered to button up her thigh pockets, and the papers I worked so hard to make perfect fell onto the damp floor. I hadn't meant to get the papers all wet. I looked up to apologize, we had to get these things dried out fast.

I didn't know that Trail had turned away, but not fully closed the curtain.

All I saw was the long, fresh scar across her back.




The Domici War novels are easy reading level science-fiction Coming of Age stories with a Christian Warrior ethos.

The characters struggle with their imperfections and the challenges of an unknowable future.

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