When Kali arrived in the headmaster’s office, she was certain she had stepped into a dream.
The office didn’t look any different than it did the last time she’d been there. It was still a large but windowless room, with walls covered in bookshelves containing elegant leather-bound tomes, and a wide, clean, desk containing only a sleek tablet computer and astralnet eyepiece. However, a girl in a plain blue flight suit, with a dark braid thrown over her shoulder, was standing by the headmaster’s desk, next to a gentleman in a military dress uniform. Kali blinked several times to clear her vision, and even touched her face to see if she was wearing her astralnet eyepiece, but the scene before her remained stubbornly clear.
If Kali hadn’t been in the headmaster’s office, she might have pointed an accusing finger at the girl and shouted, “what are you doing here?” but as it was, she could only gape like a moron. She girl in the flight uniform turned to Kali, looked her up and down, and then winked.
Kali couldn’t stop the indignant sound, which escaped from her throat.
The headmaster- a balding man with kindly, crinkled eyes- looked up from his desk at Kali.
“There’s no need to look so frightened, Miss Chaudry. You aren’t in trouble- quite the contrary. I’m quite happy with your test scores. All three of you made top 10% of students, nationwide.” The headmaster stood, then, and offered Alex his hand. “And a special congratulations to you, Mr. Goldberg, for making the top 5%.”
“Of course, each of you will be recognized at tomorrow’s honors banquet, but that’s not why we’re here. I’ll let my friend, Commander Schumann, explain.” The headmaster gestured to the man in uniform.
Commander Schumann stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Good Morning, students. We’ve called you here because your test scores were not only impressive, but over the course of you schooling, you’ve shown an aptitude for certain subjects that indicate you would do well in the military pilot training program- Flightcorps.”
Kali rubbed her eyes again, and checked her ears for good measure.
“If you wish to join Flightcorps, junior cadet traiting will start this summer. You’ll have to pass a series of grueling mental and physical trials in order to become a senior cadet.” He stopped and nodded toward the dark-haired girl. “Cadet Sansloy, here, is our top-ranked student cadet. She, along with some of her fellow seniors, will be in charge of junior cadet training, this year.”
Ingrid stepped forward, her heels clicking smartly on the linoleum floor.
“I won’t lie to you- Junior cadet training is hell,” Ingrid announced without preamble. “A lot of cadets never finish. If you want to pilot a starship, you have to be the best. I’m going to be tough on each of you, so you’d better think long and hard before accepting your place in Flightcorps. If you can’t cut it, you might as well make room for a cadet who can.”
She took a stack of pamphlets from her back pocket, and handed one to Alex and Maria before turning away, ignoring Kali’s presence.
“Wait-“ Kali heard herself say. Before she could stop herself, she’d reached out and snatched the last pamphlet from Ingrid’s hands.
Ingrid turned back and gave Kali a withering glance, and at that moment, Kali felt as though she’d been doused in cold water. The pamphlet in her hands was real.
“This isn’t a game, you know.” Ingrid said to Kali. “It’s not just something fun to do on a Friday night. If you want to pilot a real starship, you have to earn that right with your blood, sweat, and tears.”
Kali hesitated for a moment, staring at the image of the black fighter ship- similar to the one she piloted on astralnet- on the cover of the pamphlet.
Then she looked up at Ingrid, shivering slightly, but wide awake.
“I intend to earn it.”