Chapter 5:

Graduation Competition

[NO LONGER UPDATING] Ceres's Chaos: A Tragic Space Opera

"What an easy stint, I made more than a thousand L-Credits today! How much did you make today, Erik? Good job making that first riot at Zone 5 a draw!"

Two young male young adults were sleeping in a double bunk bed, one of which who was Ceres leaning over the top and talking to the bunk below. The other young adults looked almost similar in build and size to Ceres, apart from being closer to light brown in skin colour and his eyes being emerald green.

They were in a white walled room with 58 other teenagers and young adults, all jumping around their various bunk beds or playing cards and holographic board games on a virtual surface by using their multi-terminal to project onto the floor.

Everyone had the same military buzzcut except for the girls, standardizing all their hairstyles, looking almost like clones.

"About the same, we really kept those riots going huh? Almost didn’t make it back for the Director's curfew."

"Nah, we would have made it back on time easy even if we left at 9:45. The riot zone is barely 2 kilometers away from us, a simple jog would have been enough." Ceres laughed.

"Please, I hate sweating more than I need to, it’s inefficient!" Erik grumbled.

Just then, two large men wearing full body combat armour with a stun baton stuffed onto their toolbelt entered the room.

The kids immediately scrambled to keep their cards and multis away, standing at attention below their bunk beds.

Ceres slid down the ladder from the top bunk and immediately stood in a rigid position with his arms straightened behind his back, his legs slightly apart. This was the military orphanage of Zone 17!

A young women dressed in a brown camouflage shirt and khaki pants folded just above her black combat boots strode into the room, flanked by her two bodyguards.

Her blonde ponytail flicked as she scanned the room sharply with pointed eyes, as though she’s trying to spot spies lurking in the corners of the room.

"At ease, trainees. I am not doing any checks today, just wanted to give a quick announcement."

She was also known as the “Director” to the kids, but to Ceres, she was also known as Ann Lesion, the first person who welcomed him into his new home.

He had been dropped here without reason at a young age and Ann Lesion refuses to explain why or where he had come from.

All Ceres knew was that as long as he stuck with the military orphanage for now, he had a good chance of living a decent life.

Having a roof over his head and earning decent money from the riots was enough to satisfy him for now.

It was all for his ultimate goal of getting off the planet, in any way possible.

"If you're 20 this year, step forward."

Erik, Ceres and close to thirty others stepped forward, a few faces showing great anticipation and excitement for what was coming next. Ceres stifled the rising shout that seemed to grow from his body, listening attentively.

One of the ways off the planet was finally here! The answers to his burning questions seemed well within reach, and very much achievable!

"This year, you will all be participating in the local yearly graduation competition between all the schools in the city. Naturally, you should already be familiar with the system, seeding and rules. Each of you already know which department and specialization you're already gunning for. Please stay out of trouble till then, there's only nine months left. I'm merely here to confirm that fact and to remind you to not cause any issues publicly, and train hard!"

"Obviously, most of you will not make it into the system-wide graduation competition, as only the top three or specially seeded participants will make it in. Only the best of the best will have the chance to prove their worth in front of the noble Dest Legion! Push yourself to the limit over the next 9 months and don't let me down!"

A loud murmur erupted amongst all the children, as the name of the hiring Legion was not mentioned prior.

Every year it was going to be a different Legion that was taking in the participants and training them for the system-wide competition.

A sense of determination and ambition were on the faces of the 20-year-old kids who stepped forward, while eyes of jealously and envy from the younger kids pierced them.

The system-wide competition would pit them against the best from other planets in the same star system as the planet Athen! They would literally become planet representatives!

21 years old was the cut-off point, beyond which the orphans formally became adults, mostly joining an apprenticeship or going to university or signing on to the imperial military. Joining the most prestigious regional legion right off the bat was bound to be good for anyone!

"Don't be too hasty, younger trainees. The success rate for joining the Dest Legion is very low, so just keep strong! No one will be ashamed of you if you do not make it.” Ann Lesion tried to calm the obviously excited orphans.

That statement flew over many heads, all of whom had great ambition and desires. Some were even lost in their own inner delusions of being a glorious imperial soldier, leading the charge in various space battles, Ceres being one of them.

For Ceres, doing well in the competition was one of the possible steps in his plan to do better for himself and leave the planet – if he could get into the Dest Legion, that would be like a free ride out!

As Ceres snapped back to reality, he noticed that Ann Lesion had already left the room to do the same announcement to the other dormitory rooms, while the two bodyguards set the morning alarm next to the clock and locked the door after leaving.

No trainee will be able to leave the room till the morning alarm, which was only less than 5 hours away. It was a tiny quirk of the military orphanage, which aimed to simulate military life as close as possible without straining out the young adults.

Both Ceres and Erik grinned at each other, having known that this day would come. They had been colluding for the riots since a year ago, working hard at their various repair skills and knowledge of exosuits, hardened by the frantic pacing of the battles they witnessed.

In fact, in order to ensure the battles ended in a draw, they had been repairing in sync, watching the battle sequence of the riots in order to understand how fast the ‘opposing’ side was repairing!

They were not equal of each other in terms of repair, with Ceres being slightly better, but both knew they had a lot of work to do in terms of using the exosuit.

Modern day combat in the Galactic Era was all about using the exosuit!

Sure, warships and other mechanized vehicles boasted technologies that could wipe an entire planet, but ground forces and infantry were still used in daily fights.

Who wanted to conquer a planet that had been glassed to hell?

Resources were precious treasures in the age of galactic scale consumption, and ground forces were critical to securing them!

The best gauge for a potential military candidate was how well they could pilot the exosuit, which was a starting point that subsequently lead to proficiency with every other form of mechanized equipment with a nerval jack.

“Well how hard could using an exosuit actually be? We’ve seen them loads of time in the riots!” Ceres stayed confident despite never having piloted an exosuit before. They didn’t have their nerval jacks installed yet as they were still considered underage.

The nerval jack could only be installed with a low amount of risk when humans reached close to the age of 21, not before.

The installation would only be a few months before the actual competition, and Ceres was already excited at the prospect of having his own nerval jack and being able to use most of the technology that had always been out of his reach.

“You got to be kidding me, I think I’ll pass out on my first interfacing.” Erik shuddered at imagining the feeling of a creepy metallic spine drilling violently into his neck, despite having repaired many such exosuits over the last year.

Erik was innately skittish with regards to anything surgical or needle-like poking into his body.

The two boys continued chatting as the rest of the room also continued in loud conversations, the seniors who were about to graduate discussing the competition while the juniors one year below them were all also excited and joined the discussion, unable to wait for next year when their turn would come.

“What’s the competition this year going to be like?” Ceres asked, while Erik scratched his chin pondering.

They sat down on the floor, the tables occupied by other teenagers who had more than five years till they graduated, uncaring about anything other than the visceral board game they had in front of them, depicting humans fighting against alien stone monstrosities called the slovesa.

“Hmm, there’s definitely a theoretical section as well as a group combat stage for sure in the qualifiers. Only the solo combat stages are at the main stage. But even if we fall in the qualifiers, our score will still be recorded, and will be used for jobs in the city in the future.”

The graduation competition was also like an exam. It wasn’t necessary to win the entire thing to graduate. Anyone could choose to forfeit at any time, and they will still have a respectable job as a miner or an office worker.

One didn’t need to be good enough for the military in order to punch some numbers or oversee a few agricultural drones.

Not winning the competition would also still let one have the chance to join the military, though obviously not in a high position compared to actually winning.

They might end up as cannon fodder or sentry guards posted out into desolate asteroid fields for months on end. Not the fantasy Ceres had in mind.

“How dare the proud recruits of this orphanage bow to failure!” A low booming voice from across the room echoed, turning Ceres’s and Erik’s heads. A large human colossus of 2.1 meters dwarfed the two of them as it approached, with both Ceres and Erik only being 1.7 meters tall.

It sat down between them, draping its huge arms around both their shoulders, the arms bulging with veins that reeked of steroids and daily trips to the gym.

“We shall fight in the hills and in the streets: Recruits of Zone 17 Military Orphanage shall never surrender!” The human colossus bellowed with a wide grin accentuating his bald head, while Ceres groaned.

Erik struggled to keep his body straight under the massive arm, his spine looking like it was about to snap.

“Braton, could you please stop crushing Erik?” Ceres asked, to which the human colossus was startled.

“Oh sorry Erik, my bad.” Braton apologized. It was quite a sight to see a full-grown bodybuilder apologize to someone smaller, but they had all grown up together since their childhood in the orphanage.

As to how Braton got that big and fanatical about training, Ceres chalked it down to different ‘perspectives’ on what was the goal of life.

“Anyway, like what I was saying, I finally got a training contract at the Gladius!” Braton smugly proclaimed to absolutely nobody asking.

“The martial arts fighter club there accepted me after I dunked one of their members, so I’ll try to get you guys in as well! You’ll have to dunk one of their members too, though I already took one of the easy ones out. It’s really easy too, you just walk up and squeeze them in a hug, they’ll pass out in no time!”

“That seems like something only you could do Braton, we’re not even gunning for the same category of the competition!” Ceres sighed, unable to be surprised anymore at Braton’s words.

How would Ceres even attempt that? Walk up to a random dude and squeeze the life out of him?

The competition wasn’t so short sighted to only focus on sheer strength – there were other categories that the military needed too! Graduates who excelled at shooting guns, or at repairing exosuit and machinery were all welcomed.

In the age of intergalactic warfare, a bodybuilder wasn’t necessarily a good choice, especially when a hail of gunfire could shred him. Braton, however, disagreed with this ‘perspective’ on life.

And he wasn’t wrong, assuming he had enough money to genetically engineer himself to be that strong against gunfire.

There were known cases of genetically enhanced ‘super soldiers’ that were extremely resistant to all forms of small arms fire.

“Damn Ceres, you’re right, I’m in the melee category.” Braton realized his folly, getting up to leave. “Well, if you ever get to the Gladius, we can hang out there too! I’ll even show you my favourite training spot!”

Walking back to his bunk, his bunkmate who slept on the lower bunk shuddered as the shoddily made bunk creaked loudly under the weight of Braton climbing up, straining.

As the bunk wobbled, his bunkmate looked ready to roll out in an instant. “Who put this fucker on the top bunk, man?” The bunkmate sighed as he recalled Braton’s insistence to stick to the assigned beds despite his offer to swap, stating that it was a military rule.

“Hmm, the Gladius… We don’t have enough money between the two of us to get in anyway even if we managed to land a contract. Their VR pods must be way better than ours. If only we could find a way in…” Erik contemplated how he would get in.

The Gladius was one of the best training centers in Zone 17, acting as a sort of gym for working adults as well as competition athletes and fighters.

There naturally were way better training centers in the inner zones, but Ceres knew just how unlikely it was for him to be able to get in there.

“We’ll just make do with the orphanage’s ones. I’m not really sure on how hard I want to win the competition yet.” Ceres would love to join the Dest Legion and earn a free ride out, but he knew he could get off world as well even if he did not win the competition.

Ceres didn’t see this competition as a life-or-death thing, but he still had a competitive spirit despite knowing that he was at a severe disadvantage compared to participants from other parts of the city.

The inner zone schools were way more advanced in terms of budget and facilities compared to the military orphanage, which was a publicly funded ‘school’.

In summary, the orphans were trained and expected to be frontline grunts rather than military elite officers!

The lights in the room finally automatically turned off, signalling the end of the day as teenagers ran across the room, stowing away their multi and boardgames.

Ceres hopped onto the ladder of his bunk, climbing to the top, while Erik laid on the bottom bed. They had been sleeping in the same bunk for close to twelve years now, being best friends.

“Hey Erik, do you want to win this competition?” Ceres still had delusions of being involved in spectacular space battles but wasn’t sure if that was what he wanted.

All he knew was that he wanted to get off the planet, but as for what to do after the fact, he was still completely lost!

The military did not seem like such a bad place – it was his entire life ever since he came here. However, if he wanted to join the military, there was no point aiming low.

“Well, it’s the only real thing that has happened to us since we joined the orphanage, so might as well give it our best shot! Don’t worry too much about it and just try your best. Good night, Ceres.”

“Good night, Erik”

“GOOD NIGHT, CERES AND ERIK.” Braton bellowed in a booming voice from the other side of the room, causing a few plastic cups and spoons to be thrown at him with voices asking him to shut up.

A few stray ‘shots’ hit others, causing those hit to fling back any items they could get on their hands, starting a mini fire-fight.

Before the fight could dissolve into something worse, two large floodlights came in from the door that slid wide open, stemming from the two guard’s rifles. “NO SHOUTING AFTER LIGHTS OUT!” One of the guards hollered before getting knocked on the back of his helmet by the other guard, who shushed him urgently! “Shut up idiot what the fuck man? You’re the one shouting now! If Lieutenant Ann comes here...”

The guards continued arguing in hushed voices as they left the room, the door sliding shut behind them. Ceres frowned as he forced himself to sleep.

He didn’t feel any strong impetus to do anything to be honest, just simply coasting through life now. If he did fairly normal in the competition, he could get a normal job and save money to leave eventually. After all, the lifespan of an average human was about 114 years now, he had plenty of time!

He wasn’t like any of the main characters who he read about in fiction novels, who had a devastating childhood such as their village blowing up or being left for dead on an asteroid. What should he do with his life?

“Well, I’ll leave it for the future me!”

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