Bear’s Updated Rules:
1- Bear will give you special star points right away when you accomplish a goal.
2- If you come across a problem, don’t call it impossible until you try to solve it.
3- If the problem is really tough, think about it for at least 5 minutes, by the clock.
4- You get double star points for solving a really tough problem.
Kali smiled to herself as she reviewed her weekly goals. She had accumulated 40 star points in the last week, most of which she’d earned after passing her diving test.
In order to make sure a mech pilot could survive a water landing or get to safety if the mech malfunctioned underwater, all cadets were required to learn to swim. After a near herculean effort, Kali had succeeded in floating, swimming laps, and diving in rough, near-freezing water.
The ability to survive in water should have been enough to motivate Kali to practice swimming, but for some reason, sparkly virtual stars awarded by a cartoon bear had been a much better motivator.
Sometimes, Kali hated her own brain.
“Hey, Kali.” Glen said, interrupting Kali’s thoughts. Kali switched off her eyepiece and smiled up at her friend as he put his tray on the table across from her.
“You seemed deep in thought. You aren’t worried about the finals, are you?”
“I am, a little,” Kali admitted. “You haven’t heard anything about what might be on it, have you?”
Glen shook his head and ran a hand through his closely shorn hair. “I haven’t heard a whisper, except from Sunny.”
Kali laughed. “Don’t believe anything she says; you know it’s all made-up. She told me last week that for my final exam, I’d have to beat Ingrid in hand-to-hand combat.”
“That’s nothing. She told Luke that he’d have to field-dress a bear. But I’m not worried about the exams- I’m more worried about what happens afterward.”
Kali’s mouth opened- just by habit- to ask Glen what he meant, but Kali already knew. In her mind, she could hear her last conversation with Ingrid. After the exam, all of the cadets would be beholden to real-life consequences.
“I know what we should do after the exams,” Sunny said, sitting down with her own tray by Glen. “We should steal the Jeeps, drive to Blackmine Village, and get drunk.”
Glen rolled his eyes. “That’s not what I meant. I mean- what about our assignments? I really want to go be a rescue pilot. I’ve been taking extra paramedic courses and everything, but I’ve been reading the news sites, and listening to rumors…”
“Don’t listen to rumors,” Jenna said, sitting next to Kali. “But I’ve heard them too- that we might go to war, soon.”
“We’ve been at war for a while,” Sunny said. “We’ve just been in a lull. I don’t care if I go into combat. I’m not afraid.”
“I’m not afraid, either,” Glen said, “but I don’t want to fight anyone. The Jovians don’t look like people- they don’t even communicate like us- but they think. They’re sentient- not ‘space jellyfish’ like everyone calls them.”
“If it weren’t for our fight with the ‘space jellyfish,’ the mech force wouldn’t even exist,” Kali said. “Like it or not, the war is the reason we’re all here.”
The group fell into silence for a few moments, and then an alarm sounded.
“Attention cadets- please report to the airfield. This is not a drill- I repeat- this is not a drill.”
A few minutes later, Kali stood in a row with all of the other student cadets, facing the hangar in their usual formation. The airfield was strangely quiet. There were no Senior cadets or officers on the field, no mech on the runways, and no maintenance workers on the field. There was just the whistle of the wind, and the clank clank of the pulley on the flagpole.
Kali looked up at the flag- a blue circle on a sea of black stars, with words around the edge that read Earth Defence Force.
When had they changed the banner from Flightcorps?
Just then, Kali’s eyepiece activated, and all around her, the other cadet’s eyepieces activated, as well. She could see Ingrid looking back at her through the eyepiece, seated in a cockpit, seeming to struggle with the controls.
“This isn’t a drill, Cadets,” Ingrid said. “We’re under attack by the Jovians. The Senior cadets and Officers are all engaged. Take cover in the bunkers, and do not leave until you’re given the all clear. You aren’t to leave, no matter what. THIS IS AN ORDER CADETS…”
The message crackled, then, and Ingrid’s image broke up into digital noise.
“Take cover… order… move.”
And then there was silence.
Kali’s blood seemed to freeze in her veins. Not Ingrid, she thought desperately. Ingrid is too tough to die.
“You heard her,” said Glen’s shaking voice. “We have to get to the bunker. Let’s go.”
“Wait-” Sunny cried out. “Look!”
Sunny pointed into the sky, and everyone watched as 4 black fighters, followed by 3 more, passed overhead, leaving trails of heavy smoke across the blue sky.
“They aren’t attacking,” Jenna said, sounding relieved.
“They-” Kali’s voice cracked, and she swallowed and spoke again. “They’re heading for the village.”