Chapter Four: The Duel
Styled similarly to the uniforms of the Navy's officers, school uniforms at the Lyceum were expected to be worn by students whenever classes were in session. Because of the cold weather, however, most wore at least one or two layers over their uniforms; Felix had to wear three when he left for class that first Monday morning.
While mostly routine and repetitive, classes at the Lyceum proved to also be very interesting. During history, Felix learnt about the Ancient Greeks, and how they inspired the foundations of modern civilization. Arithmetic and literature taught advanced calculus and Shakespeare respectively, while lessons in philosophy mainly focused on ethics.
But the class that Felix most looked forward to at the academy was gym, and it was no wonder why. Before this year, activities in gym consisted of only physical drills and exercises for fitness. However, because the Praefect thought it necessary that every student could play their part in defending the school in case of a native attack, gym was now dedicated to learning how to operate the different kinds of weaponry available at the colony. And this included basic training in using the Eaglets' signature boot thruster and Plasma Pistol combination.
The Praefect himself oversaw these sessions, and though a reasonable instructor, he was also both strict and demanding. On their very first day, he made very clear what he expected from his students, and proved to be a man who would not tolerate ignorance when handling weaponry. Punishments for incompetency included laps around the gymnasium, pushups, and squats; each of which became a daily occurrence for Felix and the rest of the first years.
It was a challenging schedule, one that Felix knew would take him some time to get used to. Thankfully, it helped that he did not receive tedious assignments to finish every single night. Homework, when given, was meant to help students review and highlight important points instead of quizzing them on every single detail of a topic. This meant that students were given ample amounts of free time after classes, and that was time that Felix used wisely to prepare himself for the Trials.
A daylong affair for participants, the Trials were always held on the last Friday of the first month, comprising of three different parts. The first was a test of skill, where students would display their combined precision and coordination with both the Plasma Pistol and thrusters, all within the confines of a controlled environment, of course.
Next was a test of knowledge, which was simply a written examination that determined whether a student had the knowledge it took to survive in the frozen wastelands of Gaia Nova. Felix guessed that this was to make sure that prospective Eaglets wouldn't simply freeze to death or starve when out on patrol.
And finally, there was the third test, which was a game of capture the flag that would be held at the Arena in the gymnasium.
Split into teams of six, students at the Trials would have to learn to work together as they battled other teams, all while fully equipped with an Eaglet's standard loadout. It was the most challenging of all the tests, and was the one Felix knew he would have to practice the hardest for. Fireteam leaders would be watching from the Arena's observation deck during this trial, and so this would be where their first impressions of each candidate would come from.
With this in mind, Felix practiced fervently for the Trials alongside Oliver and Rachel. Every day after classes, the trio would stay behind in the gymnasium to hone the skills that they had been taught during gym class. All three have improved greatly since in that time, and Felix in particular, found that he had become very adept with the Plasma Pistol and boot thrusters.
"That's it! You're getting the hang of it."
Powering down the practice pistols that he had just been using to shoot at Oliver, Felix walked over to his friend and gave him a pat on the back.
"Am I?" Oliver asked, panting and exasperated. "I can't tell anymore."
"Compared to when we first started, your feet knows its way around their thrusters a lot better." Rachel nodded with a smile.
"And we still have one more week left!" Felix said. "You'll be perfect by then."
Practice pistols, of course, were what students used in the gymnasium instead of the lethal Plasma Pistols. They had been designed to be nearly identical to the Eaglets' primary weapon, both being lightweight and able to fire rapidly. The only difference was that the synthesizers on practice pistols produced crystallized pellets that were meant to incapacitate, rather than actual Plasma.
However, that didn't mean that practice pistols were completely harmless either, and students were still required to wear protective equipment during practice.
"Free at last," Oliver said with an overdramatic gasp for air when he peeled off the bodysuit he had been wearing. "That has to be the most uncomfortable thing I've ever worn."
"It's better than the school uniforms." Rachel shrugged. "At least these are meant to do something. The uniforms we have to wear during classes are just uncomfortable for no reason."
Looking to Rachel, Felix smiled. She had begun talking more often ever since they began to train together, and he was happy to see his friend begin to open up again.
"I've never had a problem with uniforms," Felix piped up. "We always wore one at school back home."
"Well, that's because you're a Capital boy." Oliver smirked, teasing Felix. "We didn't all have the privilege of growing up in penthouses, dressed in suits and uniforms all day."
Felix rolled his eyes. "My point was that we'd all have to wear a similar kind of bodysuit when we join a Fireteam, so we might as well just get used to them now."
The three friends continued to chat idly as they moved to sit at a corner of the gymnasium. They had been practicing for hours, and it was time for a well-deserved break.
"Speaking of Fireteams," Oliver said once they were seated. "Which one do you guys want to join?"
Felix was silent as he drank from a hydro flask, allowing Rachel to answer the question instead.
"It's not going to be easy for even one Fireteam to pick any of us," she said after a moment of thought. "So I guess I feel like I'd be happy with whatever I can get."
"That's how I feel too." Oliver nodded. "Honestly, I'm not worried about how I'll do at the Trials, but I get so anxious thinking about whether I'll be able to impress any of the Fireteam leaders at all."
Putting away his hydro flask, Felix raised an eyebrow at his friends.
"Really? Wow, you two give yourselves too little credit." He chuckled. "I think we'll do great. I mean, we've been practicing a lot."
"Yeah, and so have they." Rachel glanced at the small crowd of other students in the gymnasium.
Though most had been discouraged from trying for a Fireteam this year, there were still a handful that were going to the Trials. Unsurprisingly, most of them were made up of first years, who were all apparently far more eager to pick a fight with the natives than the older students were.
"We'll be fine," Felix insisted, shaking his head. "And if I had my pick, I'd join Fireteam Andromeda."
His friends followed his gaze as Felix turned to the plaques that hung over the gymnasium's entrance. Inscribed onto each plaque was everything one had to know about a Fireteam, including the names and positions of each member. Fireteams Lyra and Cygnus, for example, were led by the fourth year students Anastasia Maeve and Gavin Sterling respectively. The fifth year Castor Atlas led Fireteam Aquila, while Fireteam Orion was formerly led by the late Lauren Valentine, who had only been in her third year when she passed.
But of course, as everyone knew, the fifth and best of all Fireteams was Fireteam Andromeda, and that was led by none other than Mason Remoff himself.
"They say that Mason's standards are impossible to meet," Rachel noted after a pause.
"And people have talked a lot about him," Oliver added. "From what I hear, he's not the nicest guy in school."
Felix dismissed his friends with a wave of his hand. Of course, everyone would have something to say about Mason Remoff; he was the most famous student at the Lyceum after all. A war hero who fought with the Grey Ranks during the last years of the war, Mason proved invaluable during the decisive final battle of Gaia Nova, and was directly responsible for the fall of the last native citadel. His popularity was only boosted even more when, last year, he became the first, and most likely last, freshman to become the leader of a Fireteam after enrolling in the Lyceum.
"Who cares if he's a nice guy or not?" Felix finally said. "Fireteam Andromeda is the best Fireteam in school. If you think it's tough to get into the other Fireteams, of course Mason's expectations would be impossibly high."
"And for that exact reason, you'd never get in."
Turning to face the approaching figure, Felix nearly groaned when he saw who it was. Ruby Goff had antagonized him in one way or the other every time they ran into each other in the past weeks, and already, her slander had proved effective enough to isolate him from the rest of his peers at the academy.
"What do you want now, Ruby?" he asked.
Her face seemed to be fixed into a permanent sneer whenever Felix saw her, and this time was no different. Flanked by two friends, Ruby approached Felix and stopped just before him.
"Nothing." She folded her arms. "I just couldn't help overhearing you say that you wanted to join Fireteam Andromeda, that's all."
"So what if he does?" Rachel asked.
"Well let's just say that your friend here isn't normally able to do anything unless his parents pay for his way in," Ruby said, causing her two cronies to sneer at him. "Of course, the only issue now is that his parents aren't exactly here to help him."
"Lies, lies, and more lies," Felix said, rolling his eyes. Strangely, after all these weeks of being tormented by Ruby, it was almost starting to get normal for him. As if she was something he could just ignore. "Don't you have anything better to do than to bother me, Ruby?"
"As a matter of fact, I don't," Ruby said, rubbing her chin. "And something else just crossed my mind."
"And that is?"
"So let's just say that, hypothetically, you pass the Trials and get into a Fireteam." Ruby's eyes were fixed on Felix. "How can we be sure that you won't betray us?"
"What are you talking about?" Felix frowned.
"You heard me." Ruby looked to her two friends with a smirk. "I mean, I'm just starting to wonder if you're working with the natives too. You know, just like your brother was."
Felix blinked. Of course, he knew that Ruby was already saying stuff like this about him to everyone, and he also knew that this was what people were talking about behind his back. But this was the first time that it had ever been said to his face in his entire time at the academy, and Felix wasn't so sure of how was supposed to react.
"I'm not my brother," he finally managed to say after several seconds, unable to hide the irritation in his voice.
"Well, we'll never know," Ruby said with a shake of her head. "Because there's no way that you're getting into Fireteam Andromeda. Not as long as I'm going to the Trials too."
"And why is that?" Felix asked curiously, causing his rival to curl an eyebrow at him.
"Haven't you heard? Mason announced that there will only be one spot open on his Fireteam this year. And there's absolutely no way that I'm gonna lose that spot to someone like you."
Rolling his eyes again, Felix turned away from Ruby and back to his friends. If the spot that he so desired on Fireteam Andromeda was being contested by Ruby, that was just one more reason for him to practice harder. He didn't care about what she had to say, nor did he feel threatened by her. Felix had his mind set, and knew that he'd do whatever he needed to in order to reach his goals.
"I'm sure you'll get in, Felix," Oliver, never the confrontational type, piped up with a small voice. "We've all been working really hard."
Felix smiled at his roommate. But before he could say anything else, Felix was interrupted by a scoff from Ruby.
"And you'd be the last person to know that," Ruby said, mocking the smaller boy. "You'll be lucky if the Fireteam leaders don't burst out laughing when they see your results at the Trials."
"Hey, you can't say that to him," Rachel spoke up. "He's gotten better in these past two weeks, more than you know."
"Is that so?" A dangerous smile appeared on Ruby's face as she eyed Oliver. "Well my friends and I can't wait to see it. We'll make sure to keep a lookout for you during the Trials."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Felix asked, jumping up to his feet. He didn't mind that Ruby bothered him daily, but threatening his friends was where he drew the line.
"Oh, don't worry about your friend," Ruby scoffed. "Practice pistols can't hurt anyone, though I do hear that accidents have happened before."
Felix took a step forward. "Is that a threat?" His fists were curled up into balls, and his anger was visible. But Ruby continued to hold his gaze, unwavering.
"All I'm saying is it would be a pity if multiple people just happen to fire at the same opponent at the same time," she said simply, smirking at Felix. "Especially if they've already been downed. That would probably hurt a lot, wouldn't it?"
Glancing down at her hip, Felix saw for the first time that her practice pistols were still hanging from her belt, and realized that his were still with him too as his hands hovered over his own waist. This was exactly what Ruby wanted, Felix realized. She had been goading him on this entire time, and it worked so well that he just didn't care about the consequences anymore.
Lurching forward, Felix shoved Ruby hard and sent her crashing backwards. Her two friends, one a tall, built boy and the other a pale girl with a wiry frame, started toward him, but Felix swiftly drew the practice pistols at his belt. Aiming the weapon down at them, Ruby's cronies were halted in their tracks as it became clear to them just how mad Felix was.
"Oh I see," Ruby said, jumping up to her feet without missing a beat. "So you want to fight me?"
"Felix— " Oliver began to say, as if to stop him, but Felix ignored his friend.
"Yeah I do," he replied fiercely. "And maybe after this you'll finally learn to leave me and my friends alone!"
Both students, still outfitted with their boot thrusters and practice pistols, were equally prepared for a duel. But while Felix had drawn his pistols, Ruby had not, and he knew that he possessed the advantage here.
Firing at her before she had the chance to draw her weapons, Felix expected a quick victory, but clearly underestimated his opponent when Ruby dodged his attacks easily. Gracefully sidestepping and leaping over each crystallized bolt fired from his practice pistols, Ruby was able to draw her own weapons comfortably and began firing back.
Chaos broke out in the gymnasium as the two exchanged fire. Students scrambled for safety, fleeing the gymnasium as the two rivals tumbled around the large room, engaged in a furious duel. While Felix was confident in his abilities with the practice pistols, he was also forced to use his own thrusters to avoid Ruby's attacks, which made his attacks less precise. It also didn't help that Ruby turned out to be prodigiously talented in using her thrusters, making her an extremely difficult target to hit.
Before long, Ruby had managed to graze him a couple of times with several glancing strikes to the shoulders and legs. It was mostly insignificant, and Felix was still confident that he'd land the one big shot that would end this engagement. Still, he was fully aware of the fact that he'd lost the upper hand at this point, and as the fight wore on, Felix began to grow desperate. It just seemed like Ruby's aim was just too sharp and her footwork too swift.
And when that significant shot never came, Felix realized that he was in big trouble. After being continuously peppered by glancing blows, he could feel his mobility slowly fading away as a sore stiffness crept up on his legs. Before he knew it, Felix had been slowed down considerably, and this allowed Ruby to inflict more punishment on the now more or less sitting target.
"Look out!" Rachel yelled a useless warning as Ruby stuck a perfect somersault and fired directly at an immobile Felix.
Shutting his eyes and holding his breath, Felix realized that neither could brace him enough for the impact of the crystallized bolt exploding against his chest. Letting out a cry of pain, the boy was sent flying in the air before crashing down hard on the gymnasium floor several feet way.
"Now remind me," Ruby said, approaching Felix menacingly. "How did I say accidents could happen earlier? Did it have something to do with hitting an opponent after they've been downed?"
Felix groaned and curled up into a ball as Ruby stood over him, twirling her pistols. He didn't know what his rival planned to do now that she had defeated him, nor was he thinking about it. All that occupied his mind right now was the pain in his chest, and a dizzying sensation of weightlessness.
For the last few seconds that he remained conscious, Felix thought that he heard the gymnasium doors burst open. He thought he heard the Praefect's admonishing voice fill the room, and he thought he could see the concerned faces of his friends looking down at him. But after that, the pitch black that tugged at the corners of his vision overtook him, and Felix fell unconscious.