“I said get your arse down cadet!” the Sergeant barked as she kicked Kate’s pelvis, driving it into the frigid ground. Kate grunted in pain, biting her bottom lip so that the Sergeant wouldn’t hear the whimper.
“Every inch that your arse is above the ground is an extra inch of target for your enemy. Don’t let them shoot you in the arse!” bellowed the Sergeant, walking away from the leopard-crawling Kate to harass another cadet. Kate dragged herself forward, alternating arms and legs as she forged ahead through the cold slush of the training ground. Her hips and shoulders ached, and the cold was causing the small of her back to cramp up. She drove her face into the icy mud to mask her tears.
A fortnight ago she was in school with her friends, laughing during recess, and reading about dragons. And then it happened.
Her teacher entered the classroom with a man in a black suit. The teacher pointed to Kate, and the man approached her, bent down on one knee, and spoke to her in a calm and kind voice.
“Kate, my name is Nicholas. Ms Hamilton here let me know that you did very well at the athletics carnival last week. Is that right?”
“Yes!” beamed the young girl. “I came first in running and long jump!” Kate was proud of herself. Until now she had been average. Other children in her class had already been taken out of their school and sent to the ‘special’ schools. There was one boy that was able to read books to the class. He was the first to go. Then there was a girl who was really good at sums. One by one, Kate’s friends were finding something special about themselves. But not Kate. All she wanted was for the teacher to notice her and say something nice about her. She knew she could run fast, so at the sports carnival she ran as fast as she could. She didn’t just want to win, she had to win.
“Well then, I think we’d like to see just how fast you can run then. Would you like to join me?” the kind man asked, extending his hand.
“Sure!” Kate squealed slightly in excitement. She knew that it was her turn to leave the kids school and go to big school. It was all the kids talked about; when they would leave baby school and go to grown-up school.
The man led Kate out into the playground, where he had set up two brightly coloured cones about thirty metres apart.
“Kate, I’d like for you to show me how fast you can run between those cones,” he asked, his voice sounding like honey to Kate’s young ears. Eager to impress, she ran as hard as she could, her legs pounding the ground as she dashed breathlessly from one end to the other. The man watched, saying nothing until she reached to other cone.
“Again, please,” the man asked sweetly. Kate looked at him for a moment, but then she remembered that she wanted to go to grown-up school. So she turned around and dashed back to her starting cone.
“Again, please.” Kate started to feel her heart beating faster in her chest. She had pushed herself as hard as she thought she could, but she turned and ran between the cones a third time.
“Again please. As fast as you can,” the man continued. Kate didn’t hesitate. She was so close that she could taste it. She didn’t want to lose this chance. She darted between the cones, her feet heavy, her breath shallow and rapid.
Kate’s little lungs were now burning, and sweat drained into her eyes, stinging them. But each time, she turned and ran back to the other cone. Her world shrank as oxygen was transferred from her brain to her muscles. All she could see were the red and blue cones; they became her entire existence. She could no longer hear her heart pounding in her ears; she could only hear one thing.
Kate knew that she had to run fast or else the man wouldn’t take her to grown up school. She was never really good at reading, and she couldn’t do sums. This might be her last chance. Tears and sweat poured across her cheeks, but the man didn’t stop.
Kate tried running, but tripped over her own feet. She struggled to stand up. Part of her hoped that the man didn’t see her fall, or that he would take her anyway. But she couldn’t stand. Her legs failed, and she curled up on the ground, trying to keep herself from crying.
“Kate, I want you to know that you did really well,” Ms Hamilton’s voice filtered in from the ether. Kate hadn’t seen her approach; she had only focussed on the cones at each end of the playground. “I’m going to miss you.”
Kate’s world erupted in front of her. She couldn’t believe her ears. “That’s right, Kate. I’ve already spoken to Ms Hamilton, and I’d like for you to come to my school.”
Kate was overjoyed. She was almost eight now, and she knew that this would be her chance to prove that she could be a grown up as well. She wasn’t sure if Ms Hamilton had said something nice to the man, but she was so happy to have been picked that she didn’t even say goodbye to Ms Hamilton or the other kids in her class. She simply got in the man’s car and they drove off.
Big school wasn’t anything like kid’s school. Everyone slept in the same room, and there were kids almost twice as old as Kate sleeping in the same room. At kid’s school she was one of the biggest kids, but here she was the smallest. And there were so many of them! There was no way that she would be able to learn everyone’s name. She settled into her bunk and tried to introduce herself to the nearest student. He was a little bigger than Kate, but it looked like he had only just started at this school as well.
“Um, hi. I’m Kate,” she said, not really knowing what to say.
“I’m David” the boy answered, nervously. “It looks like we’re roommates…”
“Looks like…” Kate said. “Did you just start here?”
“Yes, I got here yesterday. The big kids are never here, but there are a few new kids here,” David explained. “Come on, let me introduce you to them.”
David grabbed Kate by the wrist, leading her around the dorm as he introduced the kids that he knew. Almost all of them had only started in the last week, and most of them were the same age as Kate. She was thrilled to be meeting to many new people.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” a deep voice called from the far end of the dorm. Kate was shocked; she didn’t think that there was anyone else in the long room. “By the end of the year only half of you will still be here.”
Kate and David walked, hand-in-hand, towards the voice. They couldn’t see anyone immediately, but as they approached the last bunk in the hall, they saw a girl, maybe fourteen, lying on a bunk. She had no hair, one eye was bandaged, and her left leg was missing from the knee down. Kate recoiled in fear, grasping David’s shirt in both hands.
“W-what happened to you?” David asked, almost involuntarily.
“Training. Someone didn’t get enough distance on a grenade. They won’t make that mistake again,” she said with a wry smile.
“Did… did they fail school?” Kate asked. She still didn’t understand the rules of big school.
The injured girl laughed hysterically, her manic chortle echoing through the hall. “Failed? I guess you can say that. But there are easier ways to fail than to blow yourself up!” she said before continuing to laugh. “You greenies crack me up.”
Kate and David retreated cautiously, returning to their bunks. “W-what kind of school is this?” Kate asked in a daze. She had thought that maybe they would teach her how to play sports.
David never had a chance to answer. A grown-up woman, dressed in white and grey camouflage and wearing a broad-brimmed hat entered the room and stood in the middle of the new kid’s bunks.
“Greenies! Front and centre! If you don’t know what a greenie is, then you are one!” she barked, her voice louder than anything Kate had heard before. “Line up here, now! You have 10 fucking seconds!”
Kate and the other kids were shocked into action. They lined up in front of the shouting woman, all cowering behind the bigger kids in the group.
“That was pathetic! From now on, if I say to do something, you do it that fucking instant? Do you understand me?”
Kate nodded reflexively. She tried to speak but she was too afraid to let the words come out. The other kids replied in kind.
“I said do you understand me? When I ask a question I expect and answer!” the woman yelled. Some of the kids managed hoarse whispers in the affirmative.
“Yes!” Kate looked around to find out who had answered, but was met with stares from the other kids. Her body had answered the woman without checking with her brain first.
“Well lookit here. We actually have someone with a pair in this group. There might be hope for you after all.”
The woman walked around the group of kids, pulling and pushing them into two straight lines.
“This is called ‘falling in’. When I tell you to fall in, you line up like this. Understood?”
“Yes…” the kids replied, weakly.
The woman rolled her eyes before yelling again, “I said understood?”
“Yes!” this time, the reply was in unison, and much louder. The children were starting to understand the rules.
“My name is Sergeant Richardson. You will call me Sergeant. I have five years left on my Clock and by that time I’m going to make at least one of you shit stains a soldier. But, until that time, I am your mother, your teacher, your boss. You will do everything I say until either you fail or I die. Is that understood?”
“Yes!” there was less hesitation now.
“You are all Greenies. Officially you are Cadets but until you earn that title, you are Greenies. You will wake up first, eat last, and sleep last. You will train every moment of every day until you drop out. Are there any questions?”
“Good to hear. Welcome to the Bionic-Enhanced Agent training facility. If you pass, you will become the most important members of our society. Fail, and you will be reassigned. Fail badly, and you’ll die.”
The Sergeant looked up and down the lines of the quivering children. None of them had chosen this life. It was thrust upon them the moment they excelled at sports, or fine motor activities, or just pure determination. But now they were all bound together in this new school, eager to impress and fearful of failure. Kate swore to herself that she wouldn’t fail. She would fight, day and night, to make sure that she proved that she was worthy of this school. She didn’t know what Bionic-Enhanced meant, but she wanted it more than anything on the planet.