Retsina flipped her long, black hair behind her. She looked around at the empty, quiet bunker she lived in. Once it was filled with the joyous shouts of girls, but now only deafening silence reigned, echoing off the stone walls. Girls here on Matia 3 were expected to raise large families, but ten years ago, one woman had changed all that. Sloran, Retsina's role model, had entered StarCor and trained as a Space Cadet, shocking the entire world.
Today was Retsina's last chance to become a Space Cadet. Trainees were allowed four tries at the test, and she had failed the last three, coming in the top three places all three times. But that wasn't good enough. Only one could pass the test at a time, and it had been a boy every year.
But today, oh, today she was going to show them all. She had trained an hour longer than any of them every day, and started an hour earlier. A grin sprouted on her too-narrow face. One of the reasons she had chosen to go into StarCor was because she wasn't pretty enough to be married off and improve her family's landhold. To do that, you had to be exceptionally beautiful, and she was only middling, a short, small girl with coarse, somewhat shaggy black hair and black eyes.
Footsteps rang off the walls, and Retsina knew that Sloran was back from patrolling in her hovercar. The older girl entered the bunker with an air of fatigue. "It's Testing Day, isn't it?" she asked Retsina.
The young girl nodded. "The last one of the year."
Sloran smiled in that distant, icy way she had. The years were taking their toll on the young woman. She was, what, twenty-three Matia standard years old? Most died by forty-five.
"I know I haven't been the best of roommates, but I just wanted to wish you good luck." With that, she drew Retsina into an embrace.
Retsina pulled away, backing slowly out the door with her head bowed; the proper status for a woman of Matia.
"Hey!" Sloran's voice rang out. "If you truly want to be a Space Cadet, walk like one!"
Retsina straightened her shoulders, smiled into Sloran's eyes, and ran out the door.
* * *
"Mark three . . . two . . . one!" The trainees ran around the course set for them. Grisnom, the head trainer, watched their progress with a smile. He had produced a fine crop of Cadets this year, even with that "pesky" girl thrown in. To be honest, he liked her, and considered her a hard-working, intelligent young lady. It was a pity only one from the Elite class was allowed to graduate a year.
The finishing tone sounded, and he looked up to see who had won. The girl! The weakling Retsina had won the race. This was her worst area, discounting wrestling. This put her in the lead, with Alsen, a boy her age, right behind her.
He walked over to congratulate her. "Well done, Retshine al Tuesel," he said, using her respectful full name.
"Thank you, sir," she managed in between sharp intakes of air. She looked around her. Alsen was glaring at her for beating him, for there was only one more activity, and only those two would be competing. She paled, and seemed to withdraw for a second. Then she stood up. "I am ready whenever my worthy opponent deems fit," she said respectfully, with a bit of challenge thrown in. Grisnom nodded and led the way.
* * *
Retsina paled as she saw the last test. This was the one that had caused her to remain in training for two years. A long, wide, rocky cavern that held a pool of water was the setting. The challenge was to swim the entire length of the cavern, about two kilometers, and scale the cliff face with no safety equipment, fresh out of the pool. The first one to the top graduated, the other went home in shame, or re-applied to the council to allow another two-year training period.
Retsina dropped to her knees to allow her long hair to be twisted into a hairstyle that would not fall out. Alsen was doing the same, for none of the trainees cut their hair until they graduated. Retsina could almost taste the nervousness in the air as she stood at the side of the water. "Mark three . . . two . . . one!"
The starting tone sounded as she dove into the water, to start swimming automatically. The stroke required was extremely difficult, but it was the fastest. It involved twisting every four stokes to grab the knee, where a propulsion button would be, swim under the water, breathe, mid-dive under, and repeat the process. They were not given propulsion systems, but had to swim the entire length by themselves.
Alsen finished up first, starting to pull himself up the rock face, when Retsina pulled the move she had been planning for three months now. She lined her small feet up on a ledge under the water, and pushed, making herself shoot out of the water. She grabbed an overhanging rock, and pulled herself upwards, her feet seeking dry purchase. Alsen looked up the few feet that were between them, blond head thrown back.
She spared him one glance as she continued upwards. When the simulated earthshake vibrated the cliff face, she was already at a ledge that other students had proved "safe," and waited it out. In the course of two minutes, it was over, and Alsen had been thrown into the water. He did not give up, however, but started climbing again, hand over hand, even faster than before. Retsina, however, was almost at the top.
With a mighty heave, she threw herself on the ground, having reached the top two yards ahead of Alsen. Looking ahead, she saw Sloran's specially tailored boots.
"I knew you could do it!" the Cadet exclaimed, pulling Retsina close, not minding that she was sopping wet.
Retsina looked over at a glaring Alsen, his gray eyes piercing hers. Prodded by the training master, he offered his hand.
"Good job," he said, and she could see his grudging appreciation of her shine in his eyes, even though his face didn't betray one bit.
* * *
That evening, she sat perfectly still for the ritual haircut, and placed her insignia on her jacket. Tomorrow morning, with her extremely short hair, "unfitting" for a lady, she would climb into a hovercar of her own and cruise the skies, just she and the computer. And space, that vast expanse, never ceased its beckoning, and she knew, someday, that she would sail between the stars on the sea of black. She had proved it to the trainees, Sloran, her family, and the entire world of Matia 3. But most important, she had proved it to herself.