She didn’t know when her first challenge would come. That was part of it. The Nanny had been dropping hints for weeks now though. “You better getter your rest Echo,” she taunted for days. “Tomorrow could be the big day.”
The calm voice had woken her up by surprise. “Good morning ship Sumer. Today’s regularly scheduled lesson are being postponed, so the first A.C.T. can begin.” There were all sorts of shouts and noise makers and then the calm voice cut back in. “The Global Union requires the crew’s formation in thirty minutes. Good luck Echo and Paul.”
She became a blur. Instinctually, she grabbed her A.C.T. approved uniform. Monochromatic, a dark blue, she liked how it looked. Made from a thick material, with a zipper at the side, it fit her perfectly.
She was also given a leather band for her hair, from Helen. She said it was good luck. Inlaid with gold and bronze, there were two figures on it, a curvy woman and her son. They held hands walking and the little boy had a short sword dangling from his right hand.
As if her thought conjured her, Helen had burst in her room, already dressed and raging to go. She drilled her the entire time. “I’m sure there’s going to be questions on the Mars colony. That is very important to them. So, who was the Captain of the settler vessel which first landed there.”
“That’s easy,” Echo responded. “Vladimir Salinkov.”
“All right, what was the nickname of the first rover which discovered, Euphrates Springs?”
“There not going to ask something like that, but I think I remember the Nanny called it “Tumbles”, because it was involved in the first U.G.V. retrieval mission the crew contended with.”
“That’s right, good Echo.”
She hated it, but she liked her friend’s compliment. She was answering her questions better than she usually did.
A loud voice interrupted them. She was ordered to go to the classroom. They discovered a long red carpet running in the middle of the walkway. Helen and Echo walked the carpet, wordlessly.
The Nanny and the rest of her class were assembled in the center of the room. The large table was no longer present, and unique lighting gave the whole room an empty, cave-like feeling.
“Good morning Echo,” The Nanny said. “Welcome to the first A.C.T.”
Echo wanted to say something confident, but then her throat seized up and went dry. She could hear a loud murmur coming from a new hallway which had opened to their right, but it was too dark to see anything. It sounded like music. A muffled music, which she could not quite understand. The Nanny lined them up into two rows. Echo and Paul capped the end of each line.
They entered a large room with stadium seating. There were so many people there. Adults and children. She wanted to meet all of them. Know them, but then she was in her seat, and the Nanny took the large chair in front of them and began the task of emceeing.
There were nine chairs set behind her and Paul.
She could feel Helen’s intensity punching through the back of her skull. All the faces on her, and the new environment made it impossible to concentrate on what the Nanny was saying. Her voice was loud and filled the large dome of the auditorium.
“Welcome everybody to the first competition in Echo’s A.C.T. Echo and her challenger Paul Finnis will be competing today. This will be a spectacle of cerebral combat. We will pit the grey matter of these two individual’s against each other!” There was a robust round of applause form the crowd.
“The game is simple. Each question will be worth a point, slap the buzzer in front of you when you have the answer. The first to a hundred points will be declared the winner!” There were loud cheers from the crowd. Echo could feel their screams through the soles of her shoes.
“With no further delay, the first question Echo!” There was another loud round of applause.
“What chromosome is Wilson disease associated with?”
Paul hand moved in a flash slapping the round red buzzer in front of him.
“We have our first attempt at a steal from Paul.” There was a groan from the crowd. “Your answer please?”
“The 13th chromosome,”
“That is correct,” the Nanny boomed. “That is a point for Paul, and the lead. Tough Start for Echo. The second question for Paul is…”
On and on they went. Question after question. The crowd never lost their enthusiasm. Echo’s was hard to find.
She couldn’t help but get lost looking at all the people. They all looked so different, so unique. All the faces young and old, light to dark skin, men and women. She just wanted to know who they were. She wondered if her Mother was out in the crowd. This thought gave her courage.
The battle went on for hours. The answers came more clearly to her, as she relaxed. Paul was faster on the buzzer than her though. She had known the answer to bunch of questions, but he kept beating her to it.
Finally, she realized she had to decide to slap the button whether she knew the answer or not, because Paul was already twenty points point ahead. “Next question, Paul,” the Nanny said. “What is the Treaty which brought the hot conflict of WW3 to a close in 2112?”
It took Echo an extra second to realize she had slapped the button. Thick shots of adrenalin rushed through her body. She could feel the crowd anticipating her answer. It was something about WW3, a history question. She hated history, it was too abstract and boring. The word “treaty” rolled in her mind and it came to her.
“Treaty of San Diego.” Echo’s answer was barely a whisper, and she winced after saying it.
“That is correct!” The Nanny called, the crowd burst into thunderous applause. Echo couldn’t help but smile. The approval felt so good. “Echo get’s a much needed point and her first steal. Paul twenty points, Echo eleven point. The next question is Echo’s…”
Echo went on a run. She got the next ten question right. She could hear grunts coming from Paul, every time she slapped the buzzer before him, and then when he finally did get the buzzer first again, he missed his question, allowing her to close the gap.
They went back and forth for some time. So many of the answer Echo felt she got lucky on. They both sat hunched at the ready. Then was Paul was only ahead by five points. These games were the closest to happy that she would ever see the Nanny. Her broad, excited grin would haunt Echo for the rest of her life.
On the went until suddenly they were closing in on one hundred. “Next question, Paul Finnis only five away from victory. Echo was ten away. Paul, who in 1791, with his friend James Madison, organized the first Democratic-Repub–”
Echo hand flashed before her mind even registered the answer. “Echo, for the point,” the Nanny called, “what is your the answer?”
“Thomas Jefferson,” she said. She didn’t even know where this answer came from. It just popped out. She registered the delightful squeal of Helen behind her, indicating that she got the question right.
“That is correct,’ the Nanny boomed, her vibrating off the walls of the auditorium. This brought a return roar from the crowd. “That makes the score 91-95. The next question. Echo, who, in the year 2052, was the first to theorize the first refutation of the Hubble–”
Again her hand moved before her mind knew the answer. Her pulse throbbed in her ears. She knew she had read this in the introductory Physics material. The answer was there, but it wasn’t coming.
“The answer is Edward Watanabe.”
“That is correct! Making the score, Echo 92-Paul 95. A stunning twenty points deficit comeback from Echo. One for the record books. Next question, Paul, what is the name given to the effect which first established a force arising from a quantized fie–”
She didn’t know the answer. She was going to lose. Her hand shot out, smacking the bottom again, despite this.
“Echo for steal and point!” The Nanny called. There was a roar from the room.
She felt the thinnest layer of sweat developing on her forehead. She hated this. She thought she was going to vomit. She forgot the question. The word “quantized” was on repeat in her head. It was broken by a deep sigh from Helen. Echo could easily identify it as frustration. This was a question Helen thought Echo could definitely get.
“Echo your answer, please.” The Nanny said.
She could hear the squeak of someone’s shoes behind her. “The answer is the Casimir effect?”
There was a long dramatic pause.
“That is correct Echo!” The Nanny yelled. There were more screams from the crowd. A huge, toothy smile exploded on Echo’s face. She couldn’t believe all these answers were coming to her. I might just have a chance, she thought.
“This is amazing,” the Nanny said. “93-95, Echo just two behind, and seven away from the win.” There was another boom from the crowd. Then the started chanting, “Echo, Echo, Echo!”
“Please everybody,” the Nanny said, “quiet down for the next question. We must respect our competitors.”
Echo looked over at Paul. The sight was sobering. He was staring down into the ground. His hands were clenched up in his lap. His eyes were watery. Echo wanted to call this whole thing off. It was stupid. She didn’t want to hurt anyone.
“Echo, next question, what historic court case in 1967 in the United States invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage?”
She didn’t know. Her mind went racing through what she knew about American history. The answer wasn’t coming to her. She looked to Paul. He didn’t seem to know either. He was wiping a tear from his ruddy check, when out of nowhere his hand flashed out.
“Oh,” the Nanny called. “Paul for the point, what is your answer.”
“The answer,” Paul said, “ is Loving v. Alabama.”
She thought she was going to die. She couldn’t take the defeat. She wasn’t sure why. She wasn’t even sure if she liked this game, but the thought of losing in front of all these people suddenly seemed like the worst fate imaginable. In this dead heavy quiet, a hope was still burning though. Something seemed off in his answer.
“That is incorrect!” The Nanny yelled. There was a groan from the crowd.
The roar of the crowd left Echo stupid. She lost the next question in the daze and then another and he was back to his two point lead. She focus again, and then they exchanged a couple points and somehow they ended up tied at game point. She couldn’t believe how close it was.
Paul was a trembling mess. It was just like he was running those morning laps, trying to keep up with Frank, and lap them.
The Nanny was swimming in excitement as well. “Echo, next question, tied game point, a quote, tell me its author, ‘It is the greatest good to the greatest number or people which is the measure–”
She hit the button. It was from Ethics. Her mind couldn’t quite grasp it.
She looked over at Paul he was staring at her. His reaction was hard to register. There was something like concern on his face, but something else too. Was it vindictiveness? Cold heartedness? She couldn’t explain it.
She scanned the crowd, finally able to register individual faces. Some were blank. Passive. Others were smiling whispering to themselves. She had always felt the Nanny looked so strange, and now with all these other adult faces for comparison her suspicions were confirmed. These faces, were softer rounder, normal. Their portions weren’t all jacked up, with the big head and shoulders, and the tiny waist of the Nanny.
Through the plethora of people four stood out. They all had on matching uniforms. She had never seen anyone dressed like this, but then a history session hit her mind and she realized these were military uniforms.
They sat in the front row. Three men and one woman. The woman had black hair which ran over her shoulder, smooth like a calm river. She was scowling at Echo. Next to her was a man with screaming red hair that snaked in all directions into the air. His uniform was disheveled. His tie hanged loose and big, knotted at his mid-waist. He couldn’t seem to sit still either, and kept jerking this way and that in his chair.
Next to him was another man. He sat calm, stoic. The wild man next to him never bumped him in his jerky movements either, like he had some invisible bubble around him. His big hands rested on his legs, the fingers on the right hand never stopping their thumping.
The last uniformed man was smiling at her. He had a bright white toothy grin. He was smiling at her with a look of anticipation and support. His bearded face seemed to be about to explode with delight. She could sense him urging her on. The word, Santa Clause, popped into her mind, and she had no idea why. She noticed the slight movement of his mouth, as if he was about to word the answer to her. Just this nudge brought it out from deep in her memory, and it worked.
“The answer Nanny, is Jeremy Bentham.”
“That is correct! The Winner of the first A.C.T. of the magnanimous ship Sumer, is Captain Echo!”
There was an eruption of cheers and applause. A downpour of confetti and glitter covered the whole auditorium. Her classmates surrounded her, congratulated her. The Nanny shook her hand and told her well done.
Paul didn’t shake her hand, instead he just stood off to the side bursting in tears and trying to wipe them away with the back of his hand. Frank did congratulate her, but just for a second, then Paul and him disappeared down the long hallway.