“IB Final – Part One”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright September 16th, 2017
This story is dedicated to my family, my friends, and my most generous subscribers, whom I have listed below. Without their help, support, and contributions, this production would not be possible.
Eddie gulped down his water.
“So when do they have you scheduled?”
Kazen answered through a mouthful of potato.
“Ten o’ clock.”
“That’s not bad. Gonna study until then?”
“To the last minute. The note said we don’t have class today. I’m going to park it in the IB.”
The time for each cadet’s test had been delivered during the night, dropped through the door’s mail slot on a slip of heavy-stock paper. They found them when they got up for reveille. The morning run had been cancelled, leaving them with plenty of time to speculate about the answer to the only question on anybody’s mind.
Who was going first?
The sleuthing continued over breakfast, with every first-year cadet cramming their words in between mouthfuls of food. It was odd. The upperclassmen would normally come after them for talking with their mouths full; today they weren’t. Kazen wondered whether or not in some small, nearly-forgotten corner of their minds they remembered what it was like to be a first year on the morning of the IB final.
He glanced at the clock. Seven twenty-five. Breakfast would be over any minute. They sat staring anxiously at their trays, all except Taylor, who expertly flicked her supplement into her mouth with her thumb and washed it down like it was any other day.
Mal sat a few chairs down from the group, by herself, leaning onto her hands over her empty tray, eyes forward and fixed in a thousand-yard stare. The four of them had run out the clock before taps last night refining their strategy. Thanks to Mal they would all have an advantage, but he’d known her a long time and he knew the look on her face. She was going out of her mind with stress and he knew why.
They didn’t have to see. They’d all started with nothing. She’d given them an edge. For them it was free. For them it was a gift: all of the benefits with none of the costs. She was the only one who had to watch it. She was the only one who saw.
And she saw herself fail.
He wanted to do something to support her. He wanted to thank her for helping them, but if there was one thing he knew about Mallory, it was that she had her own process when it came to stress. If anyone tried to swoop in and “fix” the way she was feeling, she would probably put them through a wall.
The upperclassmen stood up. The meal was over. Eddie wiped his mouth with his napkin and threw it down.
“So, did we figure out who’s going first?”
The two of them looked up and down the table. Everybody shrugged.
Everyone but Taylor.
She stood up and lined up to bus her tray. With no drama of any kind in her voice, she answered.
“It’s me. I go first.”
They all stared at her as the line began to move towards the door.
There was nothing to do but sit and wait. Sit and wait your turn. They’d all returned to the IB to study and wait.
Eddie hated waiting.
He’d told Kazen he was going to study. He’d even gone back with him to their room and sat staring at his books until nine-thirty when his friend had left for the EC, but the moment the door shut he knew there was no way he’d be able to concentrate sitting in the dorm by himself. He caught up with Kazen in the hall.
They walked together. Neither of them said anything until they parted ways in front of the entrance to the course, and then he’d only wished him luck. Since then he’d been staked out on a bench across from the arena, watching the cadets roll in.
It was a trick.
He’d realized it after only a few minutes, right around the time the next cadet after Kazen had arrived. Barely five minutes had passed. From Mal’s story, there was no way that Kazen had completed the test in that amount of time. After that it had occurred to him that there were more than a thousand first-year cadets at the academy, and only so many hours in the day. Put ‘em together and at least one of two things had to be true: either there was more than one cadet in the venue, all taking the exam simultaneously, or they weren’t taking the test in the EC.
Eddie had his money on the second. It would be a simple matter for the military to cordon off some disused section of the NPA to use for field exercises. The five minute gap between each cadet was just enough to brief them on the test and translocate them out.
If he was right, there was good news and bad news. First, they were probably on the money with Mallory’s map. That was the good news. The bad news was that there was no way to guarantee they were all being sent to the same place. In fact, the only thing they knew for sure was where Mallory would end up.
He’d high-tailed it over to the medical dispensary the moment he’d figured it out. After a little begging and pleading he’d returned with a package of anti-nausea pills.
Now he waited. Mal hadn’t said when she was being tested, but she hadn’t come back to the IB so he assumed it was early. He just hoped he hadn’t missed her during his sprint to the infirmary.
As it turned out, he hadn’t. He saw her coming up the path and ran over. There were a couple of fourth-year cadets on guard outside the EC and he didn’t want to take the chance they’d see the handoff.
He didn’t waste time with a lot of small talk. He could tell just by looking at her that she was completely in her head and he knew better than to try to pull her out. He just pressed the pills into her palm and explained his theory as quickly as he could. She listened and took them with a nod. He gave her a hug and wished her luck.
She walked on.
He hadn’t pointed out that the translocation meant that the rest of them could end up anywhere. Maybe she would realize it; maybe not, but it didn’t matter either way. Kaz and Taylor were already on the course. There was no point in adding to her troubles.
He went to lunch a half-an-hour later. The dining hall was disturbingly bare. Most of the examinees weren’t back yet. Either the test was incredibly long or they were keeping the people who were finished somewhere else.
He sat, thinking.
He could end up anywhere.
That was when it hit him. One test per cadet. He thumped the heel of his palm against his brow. He was such an idiot. No wonder they let Mal do the prognostication. At their level, a cadet would only be able to see their own future, and there was no harm in sharing because each cadet’s test would inevitably be different than everyone else’s.
The IB final. Tantalus’s only individual test. He leaned back in his chair and exhaled.
They weren’t kidding.
He went back to the EC and stared at the front door. All his friends were in there now.
He wondered how Taylor was doing.
Inch by inch.
Taylor crawled on her belly through the mud, coated in black grime from head to toe. It was flowing from a broad pipe up ahead.
So much for Farmbase Darryl.
She didn’t mind the smell. She barely noticed it. Four weeks in a packed dormitory reeking of body odour had seen to that. A trench full of industrial runoff was a practically bed of roses.
The mud was all she had for camouflage. The officer in the front room of the EC hadn’t given her any equipment. She knew she wouldn’t be allowed to bring anything, but they’d translocated her with nothing but her pants, a belt, a shirt, boots, and her double-F.
Mallory’s predictions certainly hadn’t worked out the way they’d planned. You’d think she’d have mentioned having had to scavenge for clothes and basic equipment.
Anyway, there was no point in complaining. Maybe the spell had only shown her the end of her test. You only had so much control over the time frame shown by the spell, and they were all new to the magic. Whatever the cause, it was a stark lesson in remembering that visions of the future could be counted on to be incomplete, and the magus’s recollection even more so.
That or this was a different test.
Inch by inch.
It wasn’t as though she had nothing to go on. The prognostication might not have been as useful as she’d hoped, but it still offered valuable information. Taylor slowly turned her head and snuck a peek up at the low stone bridge that spanned the ditch.
They hadn’t moved.
The most valuable point at the moment was the knowledge that the four Arro warriors standing over her were fourth-year cadets in disguise, and not invaders from another world.
Still, their weapons looked real enough.
She turned her attention back to the task at hand. The objective was still miles ahead. She’d seen it from the road just before the patrol had arrived and she’d been forced to take cover in the trench. It was a military balloon like Mallory had said, but it was nowhere near any farm base. Best guess, she was close to some abandoned factory complex. There was no way to know which.
It didn’t matter. For now she had to get to that pipe. She had no idea where it went, but once she got inside she could follow it a couple hundred yards away from the patrol and then use her double-F to fabricate a hole to get out.
She would have to move fast after that. The officer who’d briefed her said she had twelve hours to reach the objective, and she’d spent the last two of them in a ditch.
She moved like a snail. A single sound or sudden movement and she’d be finished. The patrol was barely ten feet away, six feet up.
The pipe was under their feet.
Inch by inch.
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