A cool bead of sweat lingered idly on the tip of the young girl's spine, her dark auburn curls pulled back to hang loosely over her shoulder. The heat her hair added to her overall temperature was enough to make her wish she was bald. Rust colored dust swirled and spiraled at her ankles. The heat of the sun beat down on her in waves of tension, her breath feeling heavier and heavier. Only a few feet away the cracked orange rock dropped off jaggedly to a seemingly never-ending fall. The sky was a stabbing blue, stark in contrast to the orange. The white clouds seemed to float in with small swirls of pink, as if offering peace between the two.

The canyon was Dara's least favorite Sim.

She clutched the pistol tighter in her palm, pushing the distracting thoughts of hatred for her environment from her mind. Whenever it was time for a test, the Academy would hook students up to a handful of tabs and put them in a Sim. There were extremes, like burning buildings and snow capped mountains, there were parks, beaches, forests, homes, and deserts. The worst of all though, Dara thought, was the canyon. Hot, dusty, distracting and practically suffocating. The ideal location to test a student's focus. And today's test wasn't just a standard progress check: it was hopefully the final test.
For graduation tests, students were paired with a student of equal strength and skill. Dara just happened to be paired with her oldest friend, Gregor Hatsdenoff. It was difficult to think of Gregor as her enemy, but there he was before her, eyes set on 'killing' her, and hers set the same on him.

Their light footsteps circled each other, as if in a dance. Gregor's cool, icy eyes were contempt-filled and scorning. Dara hardly felt the need to dapple in the business of playing around. The more efficiently she could prove her ability to kill even the closest of target, the better. Even if it was Gregor. His black hair swept over his eyes like a solid veil, shimmering in the glinting sunlight. Wind rushed up the back of her exposed calves, but the need to readjust her white sweats was quickly dismissed. One moment of distraction was all Gregor needed, Dara knew that better than anyone. He was comparable to a viper, lurking, blank, expressionless, but always ready to strike given the slightest of opportunities. It was a cold passion that danced behind his shallow eyes.

"Today's the day, isn't it?" Gregor asked, his voice spelling out the very definition of confidence. The scouts who judged the graduation tests could hear every word inside the Sim. It was the oldest of strategies, Dara thought, to talk with all the authority one could muster in hopes of impressing the scouts. Talk with respect, but in a tone that demanded respect. Two could play at that game.

"The day we both graduate?" Dara said brazenly, her voice booming before being carried away by the wind. The same breeze hooked under tufts of her reddish brown hair, whipping it back and forth over her eyes. She quickly huffed upward, trying to blow the hair from her eyes. The barrel of Gregor's pistol was pointed directly at her heart. A bang resounded in the empty canyon as Gregor fired the first shot. The moment Dara had seen the barrel, she side stepped the fired bullet. She found herself offended that Gregor's gun had been loaded with bullets.

Bullets were crude and old-fashioned, designed presently only to inflict maximum amounts of pain. The newest standard firearms were loaded only with bitlets; small, needle shaped projectiles laced with a poison that ran once they detected the iron of blood. They were virtually harmless, but took action instantly. The victim would fall asleep and simply never wake again. A spar among friends seemed the appropriate place to use bitlets over bullets.

"I was hoping today was the day I graduated, but I suppose it would be alright if you made it, too," Gregor smirked. Dara merely stared at him, dark eyes hardly amused.

"Bullets? Really?" she scoffed. "Were you assuming Ii would win or are you just sadistic?"

Gregor shrugged, not another word leaving his now pursed lips. His eyes were focused, his snake-like aura returned. A gust of wind rolled back up over the side of the canyon. Dara held her position, trying not to breathe in the musty fumes of the sand. Gregor quickly covered his mouth with his pistol bearing hand. He choked on the dust, eyes closing. Dara almost squealed with joy.

She raised her pistol immediately, firing a bitlet at Gregor's leg. He stood up for a moment before his eyes rolled up toward the sky and he crumpled to the sand. With a smirk, Dara approached her friend, waiting for the Sim to end. They would be pulled back to reality when Gregor 'died'. So long as he clung to an inch of life, the Sim would continue. She was almost tempted to give him another dose of the bitlet poisoning to hurry the process. Next to his crumpled body lay a considerably large crack in the crusted surface of the plateau. A needle was lodged into the flat with a burgundy and white stripe along its side.

A bitlet.

By the time Dara had fathomed what had truly happened, it was too late. The crack of the fired shot rang in her ears almost as loud as the cracking of the bones in her chest. The pain she felt made her loose a scream into the clearing. The sheer force of the bullet rocked her backward, her spine and skull crashing against the rock hard flat. Only one question rang through her head as she lay in agony, the Sim dissolving. How had she missed?

Pain lifted from her bones, air rushing into her previously crushed lungs. The bright colors of the canyon briefly blurred together in a painful array before seeping down the walls of the compact, white-walled room. Small pulses of color and wind beat through the still room softly as Dara struggled to catch her breath. Her vision came back into focus slowly to hone in on a hand hovering directly above her face. Gregor was smiling, tabs still hanging from his arms and legs in a symmetrical pattern.

The vision of the silvery bitlet lodged into the rock beside Gregor's leg still bit at her thoughts. How had it happened? How had she missed? On the most important test of her life – the final test, she had missed. And Gregor had won. And she would spend another year at the Academy, unable to graduate because she had missed.

Dara glared at Gregor's offered hand, rolling to her side to stand and walk to the edge of the compact room. Aftershock of the bullet wound to her heart still stung at her chest. She pounded her statistics into the touchpad in front of her, eyes focused solely on its dark, fingerprinted screen. Small taps resounded from Gregor's side of the room, the entering of his stats in a far less violent manner. Dara had never 'died'; never once in all of her attendance at the Academy. It seemed unrealistic that the test she had prepared for the most was the first one in which she was 'killed'.

Dara glanced up at the scouts' booth behind the glass. They all seemed to be attending to their own business, they were finished observing. Dara glanced over at Gregor, who seemed to punch in the last of his stats. He turned toward her, leaning against the wall with a puzzled expression on his face, though Dara could still clearly see the thrill of victory in his eyes. It made her sick.

"What happened?" she asked pointedly into the tense silence. She moved to hang the plastic pistol replica on its designated hook.

"I thought the bullet would be enough to throw you off, but it wasn't. I'm just lucky that dust threw off your aim," Gregor sighed, pulling his tabs off individually.

"How did I miss?" Dara questioned, pulling her tabs off as well, each one leaving a sting and a patch of sensitive skin beneath it.

"I had sincerely hoped that I could take two shots, one to catch you off guard, and one to kill. But the first shot clearly didn't do me any good. I really thought I was going to fail..." Gregor said, a smile inching onto his face. He was proud that he'd revailed, and though she wanted to be upset at him, his excitement was infectious to say the least. "You know, I thought you were going to kill me so easily. I honestly didn't do anything to win, it was just the dust."

The thought that he'd expected so much from her both flattered and stung at Dara. She had been thrown off by a simple bullet. It hadn't even hit her; not on the outside at least. It had certainly struck inside. Dara reached over and shoved her friend as roughly as she could muster as they exited the room through the back door.

"Well, now I'll never graduate. Good job. And, as a side not, don't ever use a bullet again. No matter how brilliant your plan is, it isn't worth how much that hurt," Dara chuckled, only a slight hint of pain still residing in her chest. The moment that her chest caved in… the moment that her heart stopped beating; they played repeatedly throughout her body and in her mind. The phenomenon of dying in itself was far more painful than she had ever imagined.

Dara had always imagined death as a simple release. Numbness would seep into her body, her mind would fade into submission, her senses would dull, and warmth would spread over her until she finally drifted away entirely. Instead, it was as if a cold filled her body. Her senses dragged in a confusing and sharply painful way; her mind was lagging trying to keep up with her retreating body. Then, everything stopped, and she had died. There was nothing beautiful about it. Nothing at all.

"I'm sure they saw something in you that was exactly what they're looking for," Gregor smiled, patting Dara on the shoulder. Her mind woke again from its morbid thoughts of abrupt death to arrive back at reality. She returned his smile politely, only giving it half effort. Of course they didn't see what they wanted. They wanted someone who won. She would likely be stuck at the Academy as long as Henre had.

Since Dara had arrived, Henre had been kind and welcoming. His smile was something she could look for everyday in the crowds. He was twenty five this year, though, and well past the time to graduate. Dara was sixteen when she entered the Academy, and she had planned to be seventeen when she exited. It was all up in the air after a failed Sim, though.

Dara thought of her mother. Wreila, the shining light of Cutlass Academy. She was still idolized by the students there as one of the best to ever graduate. She gave her services to the military since she was sixteen, and at the age of twenty seven, she was allowed to retire, her accomplishments far outweighing those older than her. She fell for a sensitive man whose weakness was "far outweighed by his personality". Dara couldn't help blaming her weak father for her frailty. He had been sent to the Communications Academy, the Academy for the leftovers of the placement tests. If a child wasn't strong, poised, or sturdy, the Militia could only hope that they were intelligent. Usually, though, they weren't.

More than anything in the world, Dara simply wanted to be like her mother. At the age of ten sent directly to the Cutlass Academy where she would shine like a star, and after a year immediately be sent to the highest of ranks in the Militia. After a failed test, the best she could hope for was a pleasant review about plans in the future for her and another year at the Academy. Gregor knew it as well as she did. Results were immediate. Dara wouldn't be surprised if the results of her test were already at her dorm when she returned.

"I wish I hadn't gotten you," Dara murmured, remembering her surprise when she peered down suddenly into the barrel of Gregor's pistol.

"I wish I was telling you about how my plan had worked on someone else," Gregor shrugged. With a sigh, Dara knew she had to accept that Gregor was sincerely sorry that he'd had to ruin her future to progress his own. It was nothing personal; he had simply had to do what was necessary to achieve his goal, which was no different than her own.

For the first time, Dara noted the silence on the Academy campus. Not a single student spoke, and in fact, each and everyone was staring at Gregor and herself as if, by speaking, they were committing some sort of crime. Dara turned slowly to Gregor, words caught behind her lips. He seemed to have just noticed the same thing she had. Her eyes flickered slowly to the projector screen perched above the Sim building. Scrolling across the bottom of the large screen were words in a deep amber color; the color used only for emergencies.

'Brazilian bombing against the Republic. Telgith Academy bombed. Militia families killed. Body count 5049 and counting. Cutlass Academy buildings obliterated.'

Gregor grunted in reaction to the news. The bombing of an Academy was unheard of. Only a year ago, the Republic had declared war on Brazil in order to stop them from reaching the southern points of Republic territory. In retaliation, the country that used to be South America ceaselessly bombed the Militia base to the point that a whole new division called 'Terror Watch' had been created to prevent the bombings. The bombing of an Academy, though… a structure of learning, occupied only by children and their families, was an all new low.

More words scrolled across the bottom, signifying that a moment of silence would begin in a few moments. Dara looked to Gregor, who dipped his head low in mourning. An ache deeper and more desperate pain than that of dying resounded in Dara's heart as she thought of the students, just like herself, who had died simply because the Brazilians wanted to send a message. What sort of message was one hoping to send by killing the innocent?

Wordlessly, Dara dipped her head as well, turning on her heels back toward the dorm buildings, a few cool tears threatening to break free. After a few dragging steps, her flat shoes skidding against the rough pavement, Dara ran. Her burgundy sweatpants, a large "SHELETIS" scripted over their side, flapped against her thighs, her legs tingled with physical activity. Why did it bother her? She hadn't died, no one she knew had died, but she felt as though someone had. If was her safety, she thought coldly. Her safety and all the protection of being on the glorified campus of an Academy had died with a decisive bombing.

Her heels skidded to a halt before her dorm building doorstep. The elevator clicked as it reached the bottom, and Dara resentfully climbed on board. Usually, the elevators were loaded corner to corner with students, but this time, Dara was alone, only her reflection glancing back at her from the mirrored panels of the cubed carrier.

A note was attached to Dara's dorm room door; her results.

She idly tugged the paper off, walking into the dorm room. Flipping the lights on, Dara opened the letter slowly, her heart beating softly, but picking up pace. It felt like an ending, though it was only an extension. A silhouette was sprawled fluidly over across the room, contrasting starkly against the white of her furniture. Her eyes flicked up to see her mother, clad in a silky black evening dress, her amber locks in pin tight curls, resting against her cheeks. She was perched on the bleach-white sofa, a bright grin on her warm face. It wasn't until Dara finished the letter that she understood why the unexpected visit.

"Congratulations!" her mother cried, leaping from the sofa to embrace Dara tightly. Disbelief shone brightly in Dara's eyes. She found herself unable to breathe, checking the letter and over again. It had been months since she'd seen her mother face to face, and the sudden visit was baffling to her. She strained her neck to peer over her mother's shoulder to scan over the letter one last time to confirm what it was telling her. The last words of the letter ran over and over through her rattled mind.

'Militia Student 008734028143089, Dara Relia Cress, Y01-A17-ACSS. Congratulations, Dara Cress. You have graduated from Sheletis Sharpshooting Academy. You have been accepted into Division AA346 of Militia Quad 8416G98C0'