It was true: they hadn’t seen the outside world in five years. Rick, like the rest of them, was a poor little rich boy whose parents had sent him to the most highly rated military academy in the solar system. A poor little rich boy from a family so large, his parents didn’t know what to do with him. He hadn’t seen them for five years, either.
As one of seven brothers, he’d long had the feeling he was superfluous to his parents’ needs. A drain on resources. He felt even more so here at Aurelius, one of the better-known military academies on Mars. It wasn’t even as though his brothers had been through the same as him: none of them had gone to Aurelius, they’d all gone to Charlemagne – the premier college on Earth.
“But you’re special,” his mother had said to the tearful thirteen-year-old. “You want to be a colonist, don’t you? You want to see beyond the Solar System. None of the others do. Being a colonist is the greatest adventure anyone could have! You’ll be a real hero, pushing back the boundaries of colonised space, travelling close to the speed of light to discover whole new solar systems!”
But did he want to be a colonist? Did anyone really want to be a colonist past the age of twelve? It was a fine pipe dream for children brought up on exciting science fiction movies and games, but the Federation had advertised lavishly for years after the perfection of the near-light ships, and only a trickle of men and women signed up to stretch the boundaries of human existence. The government was offering massive incentives to families sending their children to the stars now, and even then it was a fairly unpopular thing to do.
His parents had always encouraged his childhood pipe dreams, which had been little more than his puerile attempt to stand out from his siblings, but right now, Rick wasn’t so sure he wanted to be a colonist. This military school was supposed to help him make his mind up, though – everyone knew being a colonist was an extremely tough thing to be, but this school was supposed to provide the lessons to make them see that they could do it if they were good enough and worked hard and maintained discipline.
“It’ll be a tremendous honour for the family if you’re a colonist – you want that, don’t you?” his mother had said to him. “Imagine how incredible it would be to see alien landscapes, to lay your eyes on places that no one has ever laid eyes on!”
And even if he didn’t want to be a colonist, she’d said, the fact that he’d been to this school meant that he’d have a huge advantage over others in the job market. That’s what her parents had said, anyway. But Rick wasn’t sure what he wanted to do any more. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be so far away from other people. What if something dangerous happened, and there was no army to protect them?
“Come on!” Tom said, snapping his mind back to reality.
“You’re sure we’re not being watched?”
“Positive – I’m all right, aren’t I? I’ve been sneaking around for half-an-hour or more.”
Tom had never wanted to be a colonist – it was just that his wealthy parents didn’t like him. Worse than Rick’s situation, Tom was the illegitimate son of two prominent politicians on separate sides of the Martian Senate. Tom wasn’t just unwanted: he was an embarrassment to his parents. He’d taken a keen sense of self-reliance from that, though, which was why he sometimes got in trouble.
“Girls’ wing’s that way,” Tom said, “but the entrance is down on floor two, so we should go this way.” He pointed down the large spiral staircase made of polished-wood and covered by a rich red carpet – was one of the many remnants of the building’s past as an enormous Martian mansion house for a multi-trillionaire eccentric.
“There’s a back entrance on floor nine – might be safer,” Rick said. But the whole place seemed so different in the darkness – Rick had been there for five years, knew the whole place like the back of his hand except the Girls’ end, and he was finding it difficult to orientate himself even though they were just round the corner from their own dorm corridor.
“The NCOs’ dorms are on floor eight – I’m not going through there, whether the staff have gone or not,” Tom said. “Come on, floor two.”
He followed Tom. Tom had always been one to take risks – whenever they played dares after lights-out, it was always Tom that went furthest, did the most daring thing and left the game un-playable for any who wanted to compete. He’d been inside some of the Non-Commissioned Officers’ dorms – Rick had only twice dared even go on the same floor.
But now was different – Tom had said he’d been wandering around for half an hour without seeing a trace of the teachers. As they all knew, you could get halfway across school in half an hour – every now and then they had dare time trials, to see how far each person could go in a set time, or the variation: to see how long it took to get to certain places. Tom was always best at that sort of thing. He took risks.
So he had to have strayed quite far without seeing anyone.
They dashed down the stairs – there was no cover on the stairwell, nowhere to hide. It finished on floor three, they had go through a few corridors and round some twisted hallways before finding the stairs to floor two.
Then, suddenly, they heard a noise.
Both of them froze to the spot, backs to the wall, hoping against hope that it was just one of those old-house creaks you get just from it being an old house. Rick shivered. Was it from the cold? He wasn’t particularly cold – though the air was slightly chilly from the air conditioning.
The main thing was this: they’d been there at the school for five years, and it was getting on for graduation time. Unlike other schools, the graduation ceremony was for all five year-groups at once – they all started at Aurelius at the same time, they all finished at the same time. The Aurelius Academy education was a sought-after thing – nowhere else were boys and girls of different ages were offered the chance to benefit from the mix of experience and youth, scientifically proven to provide a better all-round education.
But unlike other schools, there was no progression: Rick’s year group had started at the bottom and would end at the bottom of the heap of seniority. And he’d suffered too much at that level to risk it all now he was so close to graduation.
What if this night of apparent indiscipline was a final test before graduation? Those boys and girls who played along as usual would pass, those who apparently took advantage of the lack of supervision to run riot would fail.
Was this someone coming to catch them?