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Combat class is over and I am breathing hard, while an unbelievable rush of adrenaline and elation is still surging through me.

Claudia, meanwhile, hisses, “You are dead now, bitch.” She then turns her back on me and quickly races upstairs past the other Candidates going up.

Okay, that was—I have no words for what just happened.

As I start to walk to the doors, Oalla passes me and nods. “Nice job today, Candidate. Your sparring is good.”

And behind her, Erita gives me a faint crooked smile. She then passes a handheld gadget over my token and says, “Credit.”

I get out of the Training Hall, and honestly, I don’t even know if there’s a floor under my feet, or how I’m putting one foot ahead of the other—that’s how incredible I feel. For the first time after a gym class I am moving with a powerful buzz of energy as opposed to being utterly defeated in body and spirit.

I got a credit in Combat. No. Effing. Way.

The buzz carries me upstairs, but as it wears off slightly, the side of my face starts to make itself felt. I wipe the sweat off my forehead and touch the side of my cheek where Claudia managed to get in one blow and yeah, that’s going to bruise, if it hadn’t already. I bet I’ll look like Gordie now, with my matching shiner.

Last class for the day is Culture. I meet up with Dawn and Laronda and we grab the seats in the second row.

“Wow, look at your face,” Laronda says, examining me. “How did that happen?”

“Combat. Claudia,” I answer with choppy words, but I am smiling.

“What? Did she hit you? What a b—”

“Not as much as I hit her,” I admit, grinning now.

What? Way to go, girlfriend!” Laronda claps, and looks at Dawn.

Dawn raises one brow and calmly nods her approval.

“It appears, an ice rink opened up somewhere in hell, because I can spar,” I announce. “And I got a credit for the day’s class!”

Laronda punches me on the arm and then does a seat dance by wiggling in her desk chair.

I let out a minor squeal and punch back, then lean over and punch Dawn who cringes away mockingly to retain her dignity. Soon we get so loud that some of the other Candidates start glancing our way.

We are interrupted by the arrival of the Instructor.

Nefir Mekei brings a sudden damper to settle over the good mood. Because today’s lecture is about the importance of family ties in Atlantis. I don’t remember much of what he says, because suddenly I’m thinking of my parents back home, and so it seems does everyone else. We sit and remember the families and relatives left behind. Grim reality washes over us. In less than nineteen months, they are all going to be dead. . . .

Everything in the world that we know will be no longer.

“On Atlantis, parents and children have strong traditional ties,” Nefir tells us, pacing before the desk. “We honor and respect the older generations, gladly defer to their wisdom and experience. But in turn, the power of society lies with the young.”

“Is this why you only take teenagers for Qualification?” someone asks. “How come the strict age restrictions of twelve through nineteen?”

“Yes, a good question.” Nefir turns to the speaker, an older girl. “We can only make room for the young who will have time to adjust and contribute to the society. And there are other reasons that you will come to understand later.”

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