Echo. Seven. They’re running their morning laps. Helen and her like to run towards the back of the pack. The boys always rush to the front and try to lap them. It’s not until they get close that the two girls will really start trying. The boys haven’t lapped them yet.
Frank and Paul were halfway to their goal today. They were in rooms two and three.
Paul she didn’t care for at all. He hadn’t said more then ten words to her in two years. He was serious about his studies. Every day at the end of class he would run back to his room and not be seen again until dinner.
Echo liked this morning run too. It was better than everything that would come next. All the information. All the drilling. It was lessons for four or five hours and then it was practical mechanics, learning about the ship and traveling. It was all very intense, she didn’t know what she would do without Helen. Today Helen was turned all the way up.
“The electrons in non polar covalent bonds are…”
“Shared equally,” Echo answered, gasping.
“Great, and what is the charge on the ions formed by the alkaline earth metals?”
“No, +2. That was an easy one Echo. All alkaline metals are in group 2a of the periodic table, meaning they have two electrons. This is what I am telling you, it all goes back to the periodic tables. You’re reviewing the material every night before bed right?”
“Of course,” she answered, dying. She wasn’t.
She hadn’t been for a while. She was worn out. She didn’t want to disappoint her friends or anyone else, but this all seemed so boring to her.
She wanted to go to New Plymouth, or Washington, Jerusalem, or Shanghai, any of Earth’s mega cities would be fine.
“You better be Echo,” Helen said. “The Nanny has a big announcement today.”
“I can’t tell you really, but you are going to love it! It is so exciting. Oh jeez we better hurry up.”
The two boys were gaining on them. Frank had a wild sloppy grin on his face. It made Echo want to burst out with laughter. Paul, on the other hand, looked mean and determined.
A small tone pulsed through the large room, indicating the group was now on their final lap.
A large ding indicated each person’s completion of the morning run.
Bent over, Frank and Paul congratulated themselves on being first. Paul had won this time, beating Frank by just a second. His winning picture flashed on a their large window, which would also display images during the lessons.
Things had changed between the Nanny and Echo. The relationship had never been that warm, but for those few years she had been all Echo had known. She had grown attached to the weird, dominating woman. She had made a “mother” out of her, but two years of lesson and training had eliminated that. Her Nanny was a vast source of information and power, and most of the time she had very little patience for Echo, especially when she was making mistakes, which was often.
They were all seated around the table, same as their first meeting.
“Well done Paul. This is your first win in the morning race,” the Nanny said. “It was the slowest win of the week of course, but still a win is a win, so congratulations.”
The group applauded him for a moment and the Nanny continued.
“Today is a very special day Echo in your training. For the last two years we have been gathering information. Gathering data is a very important component of making good decisions, but it is not the only skill a person needs to survive.
“We must also be able to apply our knowledge, and that is what I am going to introduce you to today. For millennia our forebears back on Earth used to engage in games of strength and intellect.”
A scene exploded on the projection above them all. It was of the Roman Coliseum. Gladiators were displayed in combat with great lions and tigers, and each other.
“These games were often savage,” the nanny continued. “They were also primitively heroic too. Ironically, in their brutality they became a civilizing tool for the government. A focal point for the innate rage of the beasts, these contests allowed many men to sublimate their own carnal urges to the game and thus the space for peace and civilization was established.
“These great games of contest morphed and changed.” The Roman scene gave way to scenes from different Olympics through history, and then it showed modern sports, soccer and football, basketball and baseball. Then it rested on a chess board.
There were two days of chess at the end of every week. They were all quite proficient players. No one could ever beat the nanny. “Chess is another example of this ancient, primeval need for battle and competition. With all this in mind Echo, I come to tell you about the next step in your training. We will call this portion of your training, A.C.T., or academic challenge training.””
Echo didn’t like the sound of this for some reason.
“In the A.C.T. portion of your training you will be pitted against any one of your ten classmates in a series of challenges which will both engage you mentally and physically. These challenges can ran range from trivia contests to more elaborate trials like construction of complex machines or dangerous combat gauntlets.”
“Combat gauntlets?” Echo asked, horrified by the idea.
The projection flashed a scene of two teenagers circling each other in a ring. They had strong lean limbs. They moved quickly, keeping their hands covering their faces. In a flash one of them swung out with a kick, catching his opponent perfectly on the chin. The opponent crumpled to the ground.
“Worry not Echo,” the Nanny instructed. “Combat challenges will not become a part of you A.C.T training for three years, until that time all challenges will be non-combat, I refer to the Section 233S of the ACT handbook for more elaboration, but most importantly pay attention Echo; do not think yourself free from challenge before then. Remember as Captain of this ship you must set the example for your subordinates. You must be a leader.
“We will not throw you to the wolves without proper training. You will have access to whatever information you find necessary in your studies. You also may get help from any member of the team that offers it. Minus of course those competitive souls who may be among the crew and any cohorts they can bring to their cause.
“This is an important point Echo. You must understand. In the A.C.T. challenge the normal procedures of this mission will be abandoned. Your subordinates may work against you in the process.”
“I’ll never do that,” Helen said, grabbing her hand.
“This brings us to our next important point,” the Nanny said. “Your first contest. The first challenge in your A.C.T section is a trivia challenge, first person to answer a hundred questions right wins, and your first challenger will be Paul Finis!” There was applause from everyone in the room, except from Paul and Echo. Even Helen clapped wrapped up in the excitement.
“All right everyone,” the Nanny said, “let’s quiet down now and return to our lessons. Echo if you have any questions on the A.C.T. system I direct you to the B.R.A.I.N as usual, where you can search a digital copy of the A.C.T. handbook as well.”
The broad ranging aggregate of information networks, or B.R.A.I.N, was the computer system which ran everything in the ship. It was essential to Echo when it came to doing the Nanny’s complicated homework assignments. It also had become a bit of a problem as of late.
It had began in researching lyrics from the songs she had heard as a kid. This lead down a delightful rabbit hole of distractions. The Nanny was not at all pleased by these developments. She had threatened to limit what Echo had access to if her efforts began to slip. “Remember Echo,” she warned, “we know everything you search. There are records.”
The strangeness of her situation constantly swirled around her. Filtered information. Unreal digital bites. A massive history which she only was getting glimpses of.
She couldn’t concentrate on the lesson the rest of the day. It was algebra. Echo hated all the math subjects. It was all so dry and concrete. Helen was great at math, and she took extensive notes all class. They would have to go over it later.
When she was bored in moments like this, when the Nanny was dragging on with the lesson, she liked to imagine Earth in her mind. She would draw the whole thing in there, filling in and identifying the major features. They had learned all the continents and oceans last year. She would think about where she would want her home to be. She would think about her dream Mom being there, tucking her in each night and reading her stories.
“Echo,” the Nanny called, interrupting the daydream. “I can sense you’re not with us today. Are you consumed by the news of the ACT challenge or has my algebra lesson bored you?”
“No Nanny,” she answered, “I will try harder. Sorry.”
“No Echo,” the Nanny said. Her large square faced was framed with hard edges. Her hair hang in its rigid plastic way. “I must insist. You are obviously bored, should we switch the subject matter? To something more of your interest?”
“Like what?” Echo asked. Instantly regretting it.
“Oh Echo, that is just hilarious. Your preference right? This is all for you. Let’s see you like music. Let’s talk about music? You enjoy rock music right?”
Her head dropped in shame. “Yes, nanny, but it’s fine I’d prefer to continue with the algebra lesson.”
“Don’t be difficult now Echo. I could use a little break myself. Let’s take a look at some of the legends of the Rock and Roll shall we class? Let’s start with one of Echo’s early favorites. Robert Johnson.
“Born on the 8th of May 1911 in Mississippi. His family had been run off their land by an angry white mob. Cursed land we might note at this point. American colonists tragically had built their new cities on the remains of the ancient ancestors of the place, perhaps this explains the macabre history of it all.
“He landed in Arkansas, attended school and was studious. He played a Jew’s harp at this early age. This and his harmonica playing got noted by musicians Son House and Willie Brown, but what was also noted was his horrible guitar playing.
“One of these musicians, Ike Zinnerman, was rumored to go to cemeteries in the dead of the night to learn his instrument. It is rumored that perhaps Johnson had done a similar thing, because one day he arrives in Robinsonville a thrilling guitar strummer. BRAIN, play Robert Johnson.”
The moody notes of the guitar filled the classroom. The Nanny continued speaking over it. “Consider this class, people like Robert Johnson invented an art form. A new art form which captured the minds of the whole world in the century to come. An art form, which would create vast amounts of wealth, which horrifically would be hijacked by the same principalities which had enslaved Mr. Johnson ancestors a century before.
“What’s worse, class, is that despite having done this miraculous thing. Mr. Johnson would not even be able to enjoy the fruits of his labors. More proof of some strange curse, he would be dead at 27. The theories are varied on how this happened, but horrifically the story does not stop here.”
“Please Nanny,” Echo interrupted.
“This started the curse of the 27. Some of the most talented musicians and artists of all time. All ripped from this earth in their 27 year. All dead under suspicious circumstances. Jesse Belvin of hits “Earth Angel” and “Goodnight My Love”, Brian Jones co-founder of the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Pigpen McKernan, Killer Miller, D. Boon, Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and the list goes on and on.
“Now what can we conclude from all this? We should see the cost of greatness. We should see the mortal peril of explosive imaginations. What if there is a more mundane answer? Can someone tell me what the word mundane means?”
Margaret’s hand was the first one up. “Mundane refers to the world.”
“That right Margaret,” the Nanny said. “Very good. The more reasonable answer, the one science came to prove definitively in the twenty-first century was that creativity and mental illness went hand in hand. This changed the framework of our entertainment. No longer could we all just sit by and watch insane people destroy themselves.
“Unfortunately, we must acknowledge too that the quality of the art took a hit at first. It was centuries until a relative stability could be established that the great experiment of artistic creation could begin to be expressed again.
“Post humanity, and under controlled training and supervision, we have just begun to establish a musical culture, and it’s future looks promising. I encourage you all to look into the work of the New Plymouth orchestra, maybe you can listen to it as you work tonight?
“Okay? I want you all to take the rest of the day and write a three thousand word essay reflecting on some of the things we just discussed. I’ll also have a series of algebra problem for you to finish too. I believe that will be all today.”
There were no groans or moans. Echo wanted to groan. There was so much work. It never seemed to end. That’s all they did was learn, study, and assignments. Echo burned with anger at the nanny. She had mocked her in front of the crew with the curse of the 27 business. It was insulting.
The torture with Helen that night was worse than usual. She bickered at Echo the whole time working on their essays. Helen was a stickler for details. Sometimes Echo couldn’t tell if her friend cared more about her, or making the nanny happy.
They started researching the trivia portion of the A.C.T. competition.
Echo didn’t like what she was discovering. It sounded tough. They would exchange question until a person reached one hundred points. Each correct question was worth one point. Simple, but there was one hang up, the steals. There was a large red buzzer in front of each competitor, which the person could press if they knew the answer before the other person, if they got it right, not only did they gain the point, but a point was also subtracted from their opponents score, setting them up for a frustrating loop.
Helen had shown her a video of a kid named, Beta at his first A.C.T. challenge. He had broken down crying on his tenth attempt at number 1. His opponent had been ruthless, smashing the buzzer each time with a gleeful wale. His opponent never let up beating him in the end 100-0, by the end the little brown haired Beta was lying on the ground crying.
“We won’t let that happen to you,” Helen assured her.
It didn’t help that Frank and Paul were doing their nightly sprints up and down the hall, why the girls watched all this. Neither of the boys had said a word to her. She was assuming this was a bad sign.
She knew Margaret would be against her. She had made that clear after class. “Good luck, you’ll need it,” she taunted.
This meant the Lana girls were probably against her too.
This was all fine with Echo. She didn’t want all the attention. Helen was bad enough. She made an excuse of a head ache and went to bed early. Helen had conceded, only after she promised to watch some videos Helen was sending her, and to meet her before classes the next day to work on their plan for the challenge. Echo had agreed out of exhaustion and slumped off to her room.
She had gotten in the bad habit, according to the Nanny of course, of falling asleep with the wall screen on. The background noise soothed her. She was watching the documentary Helen had sent her. It was on the history of cinema. It was describing the mechanics of film. She liked the classic films of the projector era. Charlie Chaplin, physical comedy. It made her giggle. She thought about herself moving like him, being silly.
Then there he was in her doorway. She hadn’t even hear it open.
“Echo,” Frank said, “can I come in?”
“Oh, hi Frank,” she said, sitting up in the bed. “Sure you can come in I was just watching something Helen sent over.”
“Thanks.” He looked embarrassed and shy. Echo had never seen him like this. He had always been very out going and loud during the day.
“These old movies are the greatest. Have you seen any Buster Keaton stuff yet? His movie “One Week” is hilarious.”
“Gosh, you got to. Brain play movie, “One Week.”
A loud piano number burst filled the room, and her wall light up. It slipped into a ragtime, then there was a church bell, and then a newlywed couple.
“Frank I’m not in the mood to watch a whole movie. I was about to go to sleep, so,”
“That’s okay, sorry. I wasn’t trying to bother you. I just wanted to come wish you luck with your A.C.T. training. If there’s anything I can do to help you–”
“What about Paul? Wouldn’t he be mad?”
“Paul’s my friend, but you’re the Captain. Besides Paul doesn’t have to know I am secretly rooting for you.”
“Yeah, Paul get’s so serious about this sort of thing. It would just kill him to lose to you. You’re special Echo, I want you to win. Anyway, sorry. I’ll let you get back to your rest. Goodnight, Echo.”
She watched him leave. She didn’t know how to feel about him.
She watched the newlywed couple hilariously try build their house. Buster’s antics made her giggle. It was all so silly. She feel asleep easily.