“Land of Opportunity”
Written by Aaron McQueen
Illustrated by Rachel Mrotek
Copyright July 1st, 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.
The morning bell tolled deep and loud. Mallory rolled over in bed, bleary eyed and searching for a clock. They didn’t have one. She groaned.
“What time is it?”
Taylor was already putting on her uniform.
“Five o’ clock. You’d better hurry and get dressed. They’ll want us out in the corridor in ten minutes.”
Taylor looked down at her.
“Of course in uniform.”
Mallory sat up and rubbed her eyes. Ordinarily she didn’t have trouble getting up in the morning, but yesterday had been particularly strenuous. Her legs felt like lead weights. She yawned.
“Don’t we get a shower or something?”
Taylor glanced at the door.
“Normally yes, but I didn’t see any shower rooms on our way in, so probably not.”
Mallory wrestled herself out of bed and stood up. Her legs strained painfully and she winced.
Taylor steadied her.
“It’ll get easier. Come on, get ready.”
She crawled into her uniform. It was dark green and buttoned up the side of the breast with flat stamped-steel buttons. A pair of wide leather belts went around the waist of the straight green pants, set at every inch with thick loops of leather for securing the tools of magic. The ensemble was topped off with a green flat-ish cap with a black visor.
Taylor helped her get it on.
She was just pulling on her boots when they heard the shouts in the hall.
She looked up at Taylor.
“Go. I’ll catch up.”
“Make sure you stand at attention when you come out, and don’t speak.”
The caterwauling in the corridor grew louder as the upperclassmen stormed through the halls, throwing open doors and dragging cadets out of their beds, hauling them to their feet only to command them back to the ground for push-ups and crunches. She pulled her boots on and hurried into the hall, posting up stiffly at attention beside Taylor.
An upperclassman swept by, a young woman. She stopped and scrutinized them closely. Mallory tensed as her gaze swept up and down. Finally her eyes came to rest on hers.
“What’s your name, cadet?”
Taylor shut her eyes and winced.
The upperclassman roared.
“Sir, Mallory Gr—”
“Get on the floor, cadet!”
Mallory hesitated. Did she want her to lie down? Sit? Face down? Face up?
“Sir, how shou—”
She took a guess and threw herself to the ground on her belly.
“Thirty push-ups. Begin!”
Mallory complied. She’d done push-ups in school during phys-ed, and she was in reasonable shape, but she’d never been an athlete. She’d always preferred classwork. The upperclassman stood over her and counted out the push-ups. Her arms were burning when she finished. She started to get up.
Taylor coughed. Mallory froze.
The upperclassman paused, glaring.
“Stand up, cadet.”
Mallory did. The upperclassmen stared at them, probably considering a punishment to reward Taylor’s discreet warning. After a few tense moments she turned back to Mallory.
“Braid your hair or you’ll regret it,” she said, and moved on.
It was going to be a long day.
Kazen puffed. Eddie was lagging behind him.
“What do you mean by that?”
Eddie struggled to answer.
“I thought this was supposed to be a magic school. Why is there so much running?”
Kazen was forced to agree. He wasn’t built for this. His legs were burning. He could barely lift his feet off the ground, and according to the instructor, this was one of the easier tracks. The upperclassmen called it the farm course. It was an oval track of gently ascending and descending hills, ditches, and low obstacles designed to simulate the agricultural country of the NPA farm bases. They’d been running it for almost an hour.
Taylor ran up alongside, hurdled a low stone wall, and carried on without breaking stride. She’d now lapped them twice.
Eddie thumped into the wall and leaned over it on his stomach. Kazen staggered to a halt beside him.
“It’s not just a magic school. It’s a military academy. Fighting a war is more than just slinging spells.”
“Now they tell us.”
Kazen chuckled, a laugh that quickly devolved into an exhausted cough. The instructor’s voice rocketed over the course.
“Grimsby! Cobblestone! Keep moving or you will repeat all five miles of this exercise!”
They both jumped and struggled over the wall, staggering forward. Eddie panted.
“How does he do that?”
Kazen looked toward the edge of the course. The sergeant-major was standing on a crate, observing them through a pair of field glasses.
“Shout so loud. It’s got to be magic, right?”
Kazen shook his head heavily.
“I think he just shouts.”
They dragged their boots through the grass, exhausted. They hadn’t even had breakfast yet. This was just morning calisthenics. The other first-year cadets were spread out around the course in loose packs. Only a few had been maintaining a jog the whole time. Kazen looked around the course.
Eddie thumbed over his shoulder.
“Back there somewhere. All that running yesterday really took it out of her. She’s having trouble keeping up.”
“Want to drop back?”
He laughed again, heaving for breath.
They slowed their pace until Mallory caught up. Kazen looked her over. Eddie was right. She wasn’t looking so good. Her feet slid through the grass at barely a walking pace. Her uniform was stained. She’d fallen more than once. Her hair was ragged with sweat and dirt.
But she did manage a smile.
“Hey guys? Waiting on me?”
“Just a social call. How’re you holding up?”
“Kill me now.”
“I know how you feel.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t believe you. My legs feel like they’re about to fall off.”
Eddie heaved in a breath.
She looked at him and stuck out her tongue.
“Yeah, but you’re out of shape.”
“Look who’s talking!”
“My shape is fine.”
“Well, I did once see you in the showe—”
“Finish that sentence and you will die.”
He laughed. They all did. Kazen couldn’t help but be grateful that they had all passed the test. The whole ordeal was hard by itself. It would have been impossible alone.
A whistle blew. The exercise was over. They all staggered into formation on the edge of the course.
“Would anyone like boiled onions?!”
“Cadet! That is not the proper way to address the table! The proper way to address the table is to say ‘Sirs, the hot vegetable for the meal is boiled onions! Does anyone not care for boiled onions?!”
Eddie smiled. The target of this particular browbeating was Adrian Grath. It was obscenely satisfying to watch, and the best part was that he had unwittingly signed himself up for the punishment.
The upperclassmen had stopped them at the door to the mess and asked who among them wanted to be in charge of the meal. Predictably, Grath had volunteered; now he stood at the foot of the table, announcing the meal and the foods that would be served in meticulously regimented detail. The rest of them sat quietly at attention. They were all starving, but the spectacle was completely worth it.
The mess hall was huge, with seating for the entire student body along five enormous tables. The fifth-year cadets entered the hall first, followed by the fourth, then the third, and so on. The first years entered last. The process was absurdly complicated. Outside, each year divided itself evenly into five long columns, organized by rank. As they entered, each column marched directly to the corresponding table and filled it, alternating the placement of each cadet on the left or the right so as to evenly distribute each year in order of seniority and rank on both sides of the table. This ensured that each table would have a perfectly even mix of upper and lower class cadets.
Failure to properly file in was not tolerated.
The first year cadets were placed in charge of fetching food and drink from the kitchen. These “fetch cadets” or “FCs” were selected in pairs and stood beside the table, one held the food and the second served it. A single unlucky soul was selected at random to stand at the foot of the table and act as the “menu cadet” or “MC.” They were charged with announcing each dish and asking if any of the cadets did not care to have any. They would then relay the number of servings the table required to the FCs, who would carry the order to the kitchen.
All that wouldn’t have been so bad, except that the MC was expected to already know the menu, which was apparently posted on the wall just inside the door, and you didn’t get much chance to examine it either. You had to memorize it as you marched past it to your table. Further, the FCs were expected not just to bring the correct number of servings to the table, but to recall which cadets had asked not to have any of that item. The upperclassmen did not react well to mistakes.
So far serving breakfast had taken nearly twenty minutes. Eddie looked down at his food with a frown. It smelled delicious, but it was slowly getting cold and he had yet to taste a single bite. A few cadets had made the mistake of digging in right away. They were still doing push-ups in the aisle.
Finally the order to eat was given and the cadets dove into a meal of roast potatoes, green beans, boiled onions, and carrots. There were shakers of salt and pepper on the table, but the only butter was at the end in front of the fifth-year’s, along with pitchers of fruit juice and coffee. Everyone else had water.
He turned to Taylor.
“How come we don’t get any butter?”
She kept eating, answering between bites.
“The military obeys special rules when it comes to food. We get more because we’ll be putting our lives on the line, but they donate most of their luxury rations to the public. It helps build good will.”
Mallory looked down at her plate.
“It is a lot of food, actually.”
“Eat fast. We probably don’t have much time.”
They all dug in. Eddie took a bite and frowned. He pointed up the table.
“How come they get it?”
“They’re fifth years.”
She looked at him sternly.
“So they’re going to war at the end of the year. Don’t you think they deserve a good meal?”
Kazen was wolfing down his beans.
“She’s got a point.”
Eddie grimaced. One advantage of living in a family of smugglers and bootleggers: you always had plenty of treats on the table.
He grabbed his fork and stabbed a little block of what looked like chocolate on the corner of his plate. He held it up and sniffed. It smelled like pork fat.
Taylor answered impatiently.
“High-density Supplement. It’s for protein and vitamins. Will you eat already?”
He popped it into his mouth. It tasted like cardboard.
Food for thought.
No butter. No coffee. No fruit juice or sweets. His dad would have a field day supplying this place.
He’d never taken an active role in the family enterprise, but life immersed in the business of smuggling and bootlegging had certainly given him an eye for profit margins, and his instincts were telling him that this place was full to bursting with opportunities for a little off-the-books advancement. You just had to know the right people. He looked up the table.
Speaking of which.
There was something odd about the uniforms of the older cadets. About half of them wore long green mantles that went from their shoulders to their thighs. The other half were covered in extra pockets and exterior pouches from head to toe.
“Hey, Taylor?” he said.
She kept eating, looking up at him impatiently. She was almost finished.
He pointed up the table.
“What’s up with their uniforms?”
She turned and looked.
“All of them. Aren’t uniforms all supposed to be the same?”
She finished the last few bites of her food.
“They’re magi and initiators.”
“It takes two magicians to cast a spell, so they sort cadets into pairs: magi and initiators. Initiators are selected for their talent in fabrication magic and aptitude for technical detail. Magi are selected based on power. Every magus is assigned an initiator and vice versa. They train, eat, bunk, and fight together.”
Kazen leaned forward. He’d taken Taylor’s advice and was almost done eating as well.
“Will they sort us like that?”
Taylor nodded, chugging down the last of her water.
“Probably in the first couple of weeks. Right around the time they move us out of the IB.”
Eddie rubbed his head.
“I don’t understand how you remember all this stuff.”
She raised an eyebrow and smiled back with the corner of her mouth.
“Some of us studied in school.”
“Hey, I studied too!”
“Girls,” Mallory answered.
Eddie glared at her. Taylor chuckled. Eddie sputtered.
“And other things!”
She raised an eyebrow.
Mallory laughed and finished her water.
“Don’t mind him. He can’t help himself.”
“Hey! I’m trying to learn here!”
Taylor looked up the table.
“Well, you’re about to get another free lesson.”
The fifth-year cadets all suddenly stood up. The one at the head of the table shouted across the hall.
“The meal is now over. Dispose of your trays and muster to your next assignment!”
Eddie cursed and started wolfing down his food. Taylor whispered harshly from across the table.
“It’s too late. Stand up!”
He grumbled and stood up just as the fifth-year cadets swooped down the aisle, depositing their trays in a row of tall racks by the door. Everyone filed out after them. Eddie stared at his food longingly as Taylor frowned.
“I told you to eat.”
He looked over at her.
“I was distracted by your beauty.”
She gave him a flat look.
“And your intellect!”
“Well, maybe next time you’ll take my advice.”
“And focus on eating?”
She put her tray in the rack.
“Focus on whatever you want.”
He raised an eyebrow. She smiled back sweetly.
“Just pick something you might actually get.”
His face fell.
She clapped him gently on the shoulder. An upperclassman shouted.
“Quiet in line!”
Eddie trudged out after his friends. It certainly wasn’t the best impression he’d ever made on a girl.
Life could be so unfair.
She was right though. There wouldn’t be room around here for his usual funny business. He would have to work harder.
No butter. No coffee. No fruit juice or sweets. Some opportunities were just too good to pass up.
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