I know where I’m taking The Academy now. It’s going to take a while, so settle in for the long haul, darlins.
Title: The Academy
Part Five: Showing An Interest
Time stretched, when you were in the Academy. Time became a fluid thing, a personal attribute that you could save and reallocate, parse out and parcel away for when you needed it. Time was a resource to be carefully allotted, and every moment had to be filled.
At least, that was what the instructors thought.
It turned out that there were a lot of expectations laid on a cadet for what they should be able to accomplish in any given term. Academy cadets were supposed to be the best of the best, the foundation of the Federation’s future military command, diplomatic service and leaders in science. That meant that you had to perform to the absolute best of your abilities at all times, or risk getting marks on your record that would indicate you were less than some of your fellow cadets, which would tell in your career once you graduated and were sent out to serve. You had to strive for the best grades, you had to have the best projects, and any of the rest of the time you weren’t spending sleeping (which, more than five hours a night was considered lazy) you had to fill with extracurriculars.
Darrel, of course, was on the paraball team. Cody didn’t even know what paraball was before he got to the Academy, and figuring out just now that it was the paramount sport in the central system was kind of embarrassing. Garrett had never really cared about sports and his dad had been a Drifter before moving out to Pandora, so neither of them thought that it was something Cody needed to know about. Which, holy shit, it was. Everyone here knew about paraball: they had lists of teams and players and statistics and got into loud arguments over who was better and why, and Cody just listened with open ears and tried to make sense of it.
Ten was no help. “It’s a stupid game,” was all ze said. “Idiots who like to waste time running around trying to shunt a ball into a moving target. It’s like a commentary on the binary nature of reproduction in modern society, and if you start playing it I will turn your hair magenta. For the next four years.”
“I’m not going to play it,” Cody replied—which, true enough, there was no way he’d ever live through a game, not the way these people went after each other. “I just want to know how it works.”
“Talk to Darrel, he’s the meat head.”
Cody would have talked to Darrel, except it was like his quad mate was never around anymore, and when he was he holed up with Grennson in their room and only came out to eat and argue with Ten. Valero was more of a presence in their quad now, usually just to walk with Darrel to class or back from practice late at night, but she was always there, smiling and laughing and dismissing Cody with the kind of “oh, cute little thing” mentality that he’d gotten from time to time on Paradise.
Logically, Cody knew it wasn’t a bad thing that he was being ignored. Being ignored was a skill he was going to have to cultivate in his professional life, from what Phil had said, but that didn’t mean Cody had to put up with it in his own living quarters. So the next evening Valero was over, before Darrel had a chance to slink away, Cody joined them at the kitchen table. “Hi,” he said to Darrel.
Valero looked annoyed that Cody had interrupted her diatribe about some professor, but he didn’t bother to engage with her. “Listen, I was wondering when your first game was going to be.”
“My first paraball game?”
“Aww, do you want to be his cheerleader?” Valero cooed. “That’s sweet.”
Cody continued to ignore her. “I don’t know much about paraball, but I’d like to learn more, since it’s so popular here. So yeah, I’d like to come to a game.”
“We won’t actually start having games until next term,” Darrel said, brushing Valero’s hand off his arm when she tried to redirect his attention. “It’s a kind of complicated game, so it takes a lot of time for a team to get good at it. But if you want to come and watch a practice, the field is behind Zeus Tower. There are stands for spectators.”
“I’d like that. What time do you practice?”
“From eighteen to twenty hours on weekdays, six to ten hours on the weekends.”
Cody whistled. “That’s a lot. No wonder we never see you here anymore.”
Darrel made a face. “I know, it’s kind of taking over everything else. It’ll get better once the team is used to each other, though.”
“Speaking of the team,” Valero interrupted, “how is Kyle doing as team captain?”
“He’s fine, I guess.”
“Because he was worried he wouldn’t be able to squeeze it in, what with the honor society and the sharp-shooting trials and his senior project. But Bree told him he shouldn’t worry about it, and I completely agree. He’s amazing at managing his time.”
Aaand Cody was definitely being dismissed from that conversation. He would have tried to interject, but then Grennson came home and Cody had the pleasure of seeing Darrel ignore Valero completely in favor of the Perel.
“The fricatives are killing me,” Darrel said as soon as Grennson walked in the door. “You’ve got to help me before I embarrass myself in front of Ferran.”
“What are you trying to say?” Grennson asked, coming over to their table. “Hello, Cody.”
“Hi,” Cody replied.
“Hello, Valero,” Grennson added politely before turning back to Darrel.
“I’m trying to talk about something that happened last week, but combining the fricatives needed for the past imperfect and the guttural rr makes me sound like I’m choking.”
“Every human sounds that way when they first begin to learn,” Grennson commiserated. “We will practice it.”
“We have to hurry, then, because your father is calling in an hour.” Darrel got up from his chair and didn’t give Valero a second glance.
“I will cook for us tomorrow,” Grennson told Cody. “Tell Ten so ze doesn’t think we’re experimenting without hir.”
“I will,” Cody assured Grennson. “Thanks.”
“It’s my pleasure. Good night,” he said to Valero, and then the two of them were back in their room, leaving Valero very put out.
“What the hell is a fricative?” she demanded.
“I think it’s a kind of omelet,” Cody said casually. “Bye, now.”
A few minutes later Cody came back to his room with two cups of Ten’s favorite drink, something ze lovingly called Primordial Soup. Apparently it had everything the body needed to function in it: protein, the right kinds of fats, metabolic stabilizers and huge amounts of caffeine. Cody drank it when there was nothing else available, and Ten only consumed anything else if ze was forced to.
Ten took hir cup, looked at Cody and smirked. “You don’t like her either.”
Cody rolled his eyes. “What gave me away?”
“You’ve gone from actually being kind of stupid and starry-eyed around her to pretending to be stupid just to make her frustrated. Did she really believe that fricatives are egg-based?”
“I don’t know, she left right after Darrel and Grennson disappeared.”
“That was her slamming the door. Interesting. She really complies with the stereotypical formula of epic bitch.”
“You’d know,” Cody said, then laughed when Ten threw a pillow at him. “I’m kidding! Seriosuly, you’re way more epic than she is.”
“That’s more like it,” Ten said with a sniff, then deflated a little bit. “Are you actually going to go watch that idiot practice?”
“I might as well. I don’t have anything else to do with my evenings yet, and I am interested.”
“You should find something else to do.”
“Once the races actually start up, I will, but until then it’s just me on my bike and I’ve got a pretty good idea of what it can do. If I tinker with the engine any more my Uncle Wyl will kill me,” Cody said.
“Oh right. You’re on the racing team.”
“It’s not really a team,” Cody mused. “More like a group of gearheads and speed freaks who all get together every now and then and show off for each other. We’ll be racing against each other once the meets start, so it’s not really the friendliest place.”
“Hmph.” Ten looked back at hir tablet. “And of course my schedule is completely full, I’ve got a dozen different experiments going in the lab all the time, frankly I should probably be sleeping there but I know you’d pine if I stayed away all night.”
“I would definitely pine,” Cody agreed, looking at the way Ten was sitting, the slump in hir shoulders and the tight twist of hir mouth. Cody knew he wasn’t the most insightful person in the universe, but he occasionally had his moments. “Actually, do you have some time free on Saturday morning? I know, I know, experiments,” he added fast, “but I’m running a new course and there’s this part that’s so curvy I’m considering adding ballast to my bike, and I’d get a better feel of what I need to do if I had a passenger to run it with a few times.”
Ten arched a perfect eyebrow. “Are you seriously asking me to ride around on a hoverbike with you? In the wind, outside, with my hair?”
“Well, you’d have to wear a helmet.”
“Impossible,” Ten replied. “I don’t do helmet hair.” But ze did look intrigued.
“If you come with me,” Cody coaxed, “I’ll break out my special fuel. It’s a proprietary mix, I’m not allowed to use it for races, but nobody else here has it. The effects are insane.”
“You have a proprietary fuel mix?” Ten scoffed. “You? You can barely balance basic chemical equations!”
“I didn’t say I made it,” Cody said. “It’s my uncle’s, and it’s in short supply. In fact, I might run out after this next Saturday…”
“I’ll come and ride your bike with you if you give me some of the fuel to analyze,” Ten said instantly. “I bet I could make you more. In fact, I bet I could make it better.”
“That would be great,” Cody replied with a smile. “Thank you.”
Ten looked a little suspicious, like something had just happened to hir that ze didn’t completely understand or agree with, but ze nodded imperiously and went back to hir tablet.
Cody flopped back and stared up at the ceiling, feeling proud of himself. Maybe he really was getting the hang of how to handle his quad mates at last.
Cody ended up with company for his paraball practice-watching the next day. Not Ten, of course, who dramatically announced that ze wouldn’t be caught dead ogling a bunch of sweaty, dirt-caked meat heads. Grennson was better company anyway, almost as ignorant as Cody when it came to the sport, although Darrel had at least tried to explain it to him.
They took the lift up to the lowest level of the spectator stands, where they’d be just a few meters from the top of the curving field, and sat down to watch. There were a couple other observers, but none of them did more than nod. It was surprisingly relaxed.
“I’m afraid I cannot recount the rules perfectly,” Grennson said as they watched players toss balls back and forth. Each person carried a stick with a net at the end, and the ball was about the size of two closed fists. The field was circular, with two square goals at ground level on opposing ends. The goals rose up to about head high, and were roughly as wide as a person’s shoulders. “I am still a bit confused by it all.”
“Whatever you can tell me is more than I knew before,” Cody said.
“All right. Well,” Grennson looked down at the field. “The game is played in two halves. There are eight players per team: two solely for defense, two for offense and four to play the midfield. The ball can only move by passing—once you have it, you must either throw to score or throw to pass. If you don’t have the ball you can block, or defend the carrier, or get into better position to receive. It’s a contact sport, but you’re not supposed to knock a carrier down. No one guards the goals, although they do a good job of guarding themselves because they are a moving target once the field starts rotating.”
“Do you think they’ll do that today?”
“Darrel said they would,” Grennson confirmed. “I hope they do, I am looking forward to seeing it played properly.”
“Proper” paraball happened on a parabolic field. The edges lifted up, the middle sunk down and the field began to slowly spin, the goals rotating with it. In professional games, an element of lowered gravity was added to the mix, to increase the chance for wild leaps and acrobatic saves that made the sport fun to watch. At the Academy, they had the resources to play with lowered gravity and practiced that way when they worked through mock games.
“It was kind of you to come,” Grennson said after a moment. They could see Darrel down on the field, sprinting with a look of grim determination as he scooped up a rolling ball.
“I’m genuinely interested,” Cody replied. “We didn’t have anything like this back on Pandora.”
“Nor on Perelan. But that isn’t why you are kind.” Grennson blinked his big amber eyes at Cody. “You are kind because you showed an interest about it to Darrel, and because you are here now at his practice. This is not his favorite thing to do, but he is determined to be good at it, and it is kind of you to support him.”
Cody shrugged. “I want to get to know him. I’d be hopeless at learning Perel, so this seemed like the next best way.”
“He is a very good student of my language,” Grennson agreed with a smile. “He—oh, look, it’s moving!”
Apparently the lazy part of practice was over, because now the field was changing, curling in on itself until it was a shallow bowl. The players weren’t dividing into teams, so it wouldn’t be like a real game yet, but at least the special effects were coming in now. After a moment, the field began to rotate. At first the players lurched, or most of them did, but then they found their footing. One of the girls leapt into the air, twice as high as her actual height, laughing as the lowered gravity took effect.
“Take a shot, then run defense for the next in line!” the coach yelled. The teams roughly divided up and players grabbed up the ball from wherever they happened to be, took the best shot they could at the moving goal and then turned to try to block the next shot coming in.
Most of them went wide, either too high or too low. A few balls made it into the stands, but passing out of the differentiated gravity field stole most of their energy, and they weren’t very fast once they were over the edge. Grennson and Cody watched as Darrel took his shot from a far right angle. The defender lunged for the ball but missed, and it ended up hitting the edge of the goal but not quite going in.
“So close!” Cody yelled. The goals moved by at a constant pace, each one backed with a static field so that if a ball did get into it, it was immediately caught and held. Cody and Grennson watched them roll by, defenders running and leaping to make catches while attackers shot from increasingly bizarre angles. A few defenders threw in some flips, which made their coach shout but everyone in the stands cheer.
One of the goals was coming close again. Cody watched the attacker gauge the distance, the angle…this guy was built, too, he had to be a senior. The defender looked tiny and frail in front of him, and when he shot the defender clearly decided discretion was better than valor and just got out of the way. The ball sailed hard and fast right over the top of the goal and—
“Down!” Grennson grabbed Cody’s shoulders and pulled him to the side as the ball thudded into the stand right above their heads. It was much faster than the others that had made it out of the field, thrown with enough force that it still had plenty of power to damage as it came at them.
“Are you guys okay?” The player who had thrown the ball had jumped over the edge and joined them in the stands. “I didn’t expect it to release quite so hard.” He smiled apologetically at them. Silky brown hair, pearly teeth, golden skin…and very, very fit. He helped straighten both of them up before picking up the ball.
“We are fine,” Grennson said for both of them.
“That’s a relief. You might want to consider sitting a little further away,” the young man added, tossing the ball up and down in his net. “You wouldn’t want to get hurt.” He winked at them and jumped back down onto the field, where Darrel was looking on with a concerned expression.
“No,” Cody said, feeling strangely naked. “We wouldn’t want that.”