Aren’t You All Aglow In Your Thousand Yard Stare
Janice Rand was being seized by restlessness. The crossing and uncrossing of legs, the tapping of fingers on the chrome table that sat next to her chair and the constant rotations of her ankles did absolutely nothing to make her wait time move any faster. She glanced at the time board situated over the receptionist’s desk; a full hour had past since she and the other cadets had entered this room, and she couldn’t understand, for the life of her, what was taking so long. The paperwork, the oath required by all cadets taking the program, had already been collected. It had been early in the morning, upon rising, when Rand was presented with a sealed plain white envelope by a messenger. She was instructed to open the envelope promptly, read over its contents, sign her name on the bottom, place the contents back in the envelope, reseal it, and then hand them over to the messenger who stood in her quarters by the doors, waiting quietly and with watchful eyes. This had been last month, so what was the hold up?
Rand looked around the waiting room and noted the behavior of the other cadets; some were rolling their eyes, some were constantly folding and unfolding their arms and legs, while others tapped their feet and clicked their tongues. There were a few smart cadets, however, who had either brought a padd to read or a music deck to listen to. Unfortunately, Rand wasn’t one of the smart ones as she cursed herself for not bringing one of her old hardcovers to read.
The waiting room was clinically white and circular, and the furnishings were simple and sparse. The chairs were padded, somehow resembling a benign purgatory where cadets were sent to await a sentence of some kind.
And wait, they did.
Each cadet at one point glanced over at the digital board, letting out a deep breath of frustration, shaking their heads in utter annoyance. Rand chuckled to herself; she could certainly feel their pain, that was for damn sure.
“This is absurd,” she thought.
Rand got up from her seat and walked over to the Receptionist, who was sitting behind her desk doing work on the desktop computer.
The Receptionist, a young brunette wearing a bun pulled back so tightly it made Rand grimace at the sheer sight of it, looked up from her work.
“I’m sorry to bother you, but can you tell me what’s taking so long? It’s been about an hour and no one’s some to orient us yet. We’ve all signed the Oath of Secrecy. What gives?”
The Receptionist was polite, but in an almost robotic manner. She answered Rand in a voice that was both clipped and bird-like, reminiscent of the telephone operators from Mid-Twentienth Century Earth.
“We do apologize for the wait, but the program coordinators are setting up as we speak, so it shouldn’t be that much longer.”
“Yeah, but they had a whole month for set up. I’ve never heard of this last minute stuff at the Academy.”
The Receptionist regarded her rather coolly, and Rand wondered if she’d put her foot in her mouth. Not that she gave a shit. This waiting was irritating and unprofessional and they needed to hear it! Her eyes strayed over to the emblem on the Receptionist’s uniform on the left side just over her breast. It wasn’t the usual symbol of an ancient compass inclined over the points of navigation. It was of an upwardly pointed weapon that tapered down into an oval plate.
Rand felt her head jerk back ever so slightly, trying very hard not to look to stunned.
“Again, we do realize that the wait’s been long, but if you’ll sit down the coordinators will be here shortly to orient you and the other cadets.”
Rand had been tempted to say something, but the chilly expression on the Receptionist’s face, along with that switchblade planted on her chest, prompted Rand to give her a curt little nod and a barely contained smirk before returning glumly to her seat for yet another possible long wait.
“This is utter bullshit,” she said under her breath.
Rand had hoped she had been loud enough for Little Miss Efficient to hear her, but looking over at the Receptionist, her eyes transfixed onto the computer screen, was proof that she had failed in that objective.
Sitting back down, Rand turned her attention to the small table where issues of the terminally dull Academy Magazine lay haphazardly piled onto each other. Corn fed cadets smiling goofily in stiff, awkward poses in sad attempts at looking formidable plastered every glossy cover. Rand rolled her eyes as she picked up a periodical, desperately wishing that she had brought something of her own to read. She turned to the interactive bulletin board on the other side of the Receptionist’s desk where she saw two other cadets on either side tapping their fingers onto its screen, hoping to keep themselves engaged through this interminable wait.
Rand glumly hoisted herself up from her chair and walked over to the bulletin board. Maybe there’d be something interesting, but she highly doubted it.
“Exactly what is this Crossing the Rubicon anyway? What are we being tested on? How long we can stand boredom before we go completely bonkers? Are we being timed for sleep inducement or something?” she thought.
At the corner of her eye, Rand could see a young man with his head inclined back, his mouth open and body slack on the chair. She chuckled, shaking her head.
“Yeah, it’s sleep inducement,” she said to herself.
She raised her hand to the icon on the bulletin board winking in front of her.
Rand stopped in mid-gesture and turned to the sound, which was coming from behind the wall on the far side of the room. But, only after three times it stopped.
She shrugged and returned her attention to the interactive bulletin board, placing the tip of her finger on the grey screen and tapping it, activating it to life. Icons and various fonts flickered and glowed, aligning themselves in orderly geometric configurations.
Rand turned to a short, freckled faced, chubby auburn haired young man. He spoke in a voice that feigned both distress and boredom as he looked at the screen.
“We’ll see. Hopefully.”
The sound returned, coming from the back wall, like before. And, again, Rand turned towards the direction of the sound, forgetting about the bulletin board.
“What, are they doing repairs or something?”
“I hope not. Between the wait and that noise I’d chew my nails down to the cuticle, for Christ’s Sake!”
“You’ve got a point there, kiddo.”
The sound was dense and unwavering. This knocking went on in a drone-like manner, slow and plodding, continuous, thick and blunt. As the sound went on, the thick of it began to hollow out and echo, ringing like a hammer against a steel beam. Other cadets started turning to the noise as well; some got up from their seats while others stayed seated, leaning their bodies and craning their necks towards the direction from where the sound emanated.
The hammering abruptly stopped.
There was a minute of silence…
It was like a headlong fall down a great flight of stairs.
The tumbling began at the far end of the wall, but then it spread out like a grid, its branches rolling behind the surrounding walls of the waiting room, and then up in the ceiling.
There was an uneven rhythm to the commotion. It would go fast, stop, then slow. It would bounce, then skid like a pebble on a body of water.
Rand noticed that the other cadets were out of their seats now, their faces expressing alarm as they were clearly glued to the racket that engulfed them.
She turned to where the Receptionist sat, but the desk was empty.
There was a resonant slam in the overhead, followed by vehement scrapings crawling their way upward from the walls to the ceiling.
“What the hell…”
Compact oval slots opened up, letting loose grey pipes that revolved and undulated around each cadet, like tentacles. To Rand, standing face to face to one of these things, looked like the long slender barrel of an Italian pistol.
A spiral of thin, silvery webbing glued itself onto Rand, its slick, feathery substance tightening and hardening as she struggled violently against its grip. She screamed, stumbling to the floor as she clawed and kicked at the netting. Her ears were assaulted by the screams, exclamations, and cursing of the other cadets.
Rand felt the brutal pull of the netting as it dragged her across the floor of the waiting room. Through this web, she could see officers garbed in black pulling and yanking at the nets containing squirming cadets while others wielded long , black staffs that jabbed into their captives, causing their bodies to flop heavily like fish being dumped onto a deck.
Rand drew in her breath sharply, as she watched the chaos with a mixture of fear and rage. Then, a pair of feet planted themselves firmly in front of her. Rand looked up to see the Receptionist standing overt her, gripping a staff strategically with both hands, the lit end of it glowing like a poker as it hovered over Rand’s face.
Rand screamed, fighting through the net as it continued to tighten around her. The Receptionist thrust the staff downward until Rand felt the heat press against her neck, bringing searing currents that coursed through her body until her limbs tingled, the heat morphing into a numbing iciness that slackened her body, face and eyes until she lost consciousness.