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It was what they called the commoners in ancient Rome. The lower class.
In the year 2255 the word had generally slipped out of usage on Earth. The lower class no longer existed. Not in terms of monetary wealth. Everyone was equal.
Plebeians still existed on the campus of Starfleet Academy in San Francisco. Plebes were considered the lowest of the low. They were the first-year cadets who had yet to prove themselves. These incoming students could shine like a supernova or fade like a white dwarf.
There was nothing common about Cadet James T. Kirk as he stood in the center of the pack of first-year cadets. They may have been more than five hundred kilometers from the Academy campus, but that much was clear. If not to Kirk, then to everyone around him.
Eyes shifted in Kirk's direction. Whispers carried his name across the arid Mojave Desert. Jim Kirk was used to being noticed back home in Iowa. Local law enforcement kept pretty good tabs on him, along with the fathers of one or two of his ex-girlfriends. Being the town screwup came with its fair amount of sideways glances and whispered conversations. He'd been through it before. But that didn't explain why he was getting the same treatment from a bunch of strangers.
Kirk returned the stares in defiance, sizing up the competition. Dozens of first years took positions along the starting line around him. These would be his friends and, more than likely, enemies over the next four years at Starfleet Academy.
Three years, Kirk corrected himself. He'd promised Captain Pike that he would graduate in three years. Bragged about it, actually. It wasn't the first rash promise he'd made in his life. Probably wouldn't be the last.
Starfleet Academy accepted the best and the brightest members of the United Federation of Planets to prepare them for life among the stars. Most of the students around him were human, but there were representatives from a number of alien races from Andorians to Zaranites. It was easy to be anonymous in a sea of students that came in all sizes, shapes, and colors in the spectrum.
Yet there was another reason he was so surprised that many of his classmates seemed to be focused on him. The green guy beside him, for instance, couldn't take his eyes off Kirk.
"Problem?" Kirk asked. The guy shrugged and moved off, but Kirk wasn't done with him. "Something on my face?"
It was a joke, but Kirk was starting to think he had a zit the size of Jupiter or something equally disfiguring going on. He couldn't possibly be the most interesting person around. Why was he getting such attention?
"They're looking for your halo," a voice behind him said.
Kirk turned to see a girl raising her arms up to the bright sky, stretching her muscles before the race. She was human, with long, dark hair; copper-toned skin; and piercing green eyes.
"What?" he asked.
Her muscular legs strained against the fabric of her uniform pants as she stretched her left leg in front of her right. The traditional skirts worn by the female cadets had been exchanged for the more appropriate uniform pants for the terrain. "You know, halos? Angels wear them? Sons of angels, too, I hear." She switched position, placing her right leg in front. "How does it feel to be famous already?"
"Feels like crap," Kirk said.
"Cheeky. I like that." She gave a curt nod of her head and a brief smile. "Monica Lynne."
"Jim Kirk," he said out of reflex. She clearly knew who he was. He guessed everyone did. It shouldn't have been a surprise.
Jim's dad, George Kirk, had died saving his wife, newborn son, and eight hundred members of the crew of the USS Kelvin. Captain Pike had needlessly reminded Kirk of that fact as a way of convincing him to enlist at Starfleet Academy. Word must have spread.
Kirk joined Lynne in her stretching routine. He hadn't been taking this race seriously, but it didn't hurt to be prepared for whatever they were about to endure. It also gave him a reason to move a little closer to her.
The desert sun beat down on his back as he bent beside Lynne. This was one of the biggest tests he'd have to endure in his first year at Starfleet Academy—but for unorthodox reasons. The cadets weren't getting graded; no professors were present. The Starfleet Academy Desert Survival Course wasn't even listed as part of the curriculum. In spite of all that, Kirk had already been warned that there was only one test at Starfleet Academy that was more important to his career. He wouldn't take that until senior year.
The winner of the survival course would be known to all as the leader of the pack of first-year cadets. Ahead of his peers before the first class was called into session. Upperclassmen would treat that plebe with a respect not afforded the other first-year students. Word would get back to the professors, who would know to keep an eye out for that one. The survival course had only one winner. Everyone else came in last.
Normally, Kirk wouldn't have cared. He didn't need a silly race to prove anything. But this was Kirk's first chance to make a name for himself separate from his father's. The father he had never even met.
Life didn't provide opportunities like that too often.
Several meters ahead of Kirk, Cadet Nyota Uhura finished her stretching routine and stepped up to the starting line. People were already jostling for position, wanting to be the first off the line. She pushed back, unwilling to give up her spot.
Other cadets had wasted time disembarking the shuttles asking pointless questions about why their communicators were being taken away. Why they couldn't bring any tricorders with them to survey the landscape or phasers to protect themselves from whatever dangers might be out there.
Uhura had quietly handed everything over and hurried to the starting line to claim her space. She needed nothing but her body and her wits to get her through the course.
The people standing at the front with her would be her main competition while she was at the Academy. Most of the people she'd met on her first trip to the Academy were already lost in the crowd. Not surprising. The kind of guys who would get in a random bar fight while in uniform were not the cadets she wanted to associate with. That was one of the reasons she was glad she continually passed up the not-so-subtle flirtations from Jim Kirk.
She'd already seen Kirk in the pack not that far behind her. He hadn't caught her noticing him, which was good. The last thing she needed was for him to think she was interested. She wasn't.
Neither was he, it seemed. Kirk was already chatting up someone else.
Good. She didn't have time for unwelcome attention. She was at the Academy for one purpose. If only someone would explain that to the Andorian beside her.
The two antennae peeking out from the white hair on his pale blue head turned in her direction. He was stretching his legs in a manner that he probably thought looked enticing.
Thanas had introduced himself to her on the shuttle ride from the Academy to the desert and hadn't left her alone since. "You should stick with me in the race. We'd make a good team."
Considering he knew practically nothing about her, it wasn't hard to see through the thinly veiled come on. "This isn't a team competition."
"Nothing wrong with coming in second."
She held a hand over her eyes, blocking out the sun while she took in the terrain in a blatant attempt to ignore him. "Then I'm glad you won't mind."
She wasn't even sure where the finish line was. The cadets had been pointed in a westerly direction and told to run toward the setting sun until they reached the end. Except no end was visible to the naked eye. Just miles and miles of empty desert.
Correction. Not empty. It was filled with natural, and probably unnatural, obstacles. If they'd wanted a flat-out race, they could have used the track at the Academy or set them loose on the streets of San Francisco. The desert had been chosen for a reason. They wanted a race on unfamiliar ground.
Most of the cadets lived in modern cities with all the amenities: moving sidewalks, turbo lifts, and even transporters to get them around. Oh, they were all fit. They trained in gyms and on sports fields. Under controlled conditions.
Only a few of them were probably used to racing on this kind of terrain. That was one thing Uhura had going for her. Growing up in her native Africa, Uhura had some experience with this type of climate. She might not be able to compete with a cadet that had grown up on the desert planet of Vulcan, but she could hold her own.
Thanas gave up on his useless warm-up exercises when he realized she'd stopped paying him any attention. He was posing more than stretching, anyway. Some of the girls around them were watching. They could have him. Uhura was only interested in beating him.
Him and everyone else.
A group of upperclassmen had gathered on a rock formation to the side of the starting line, standing a dozen feet above the heads of the cadets. A visual representation that they thought they were above the plebes. The expressions on their faces ranged from smug superiority to mounting concern. Probably remembering back to their performance on the same race.
Uhura wondered if she'd be standing on that rock in a few years. Would she make it through to graduation? Would she make it through this race?
Her face set with determination. Of course she would. But she couldn't imagine coming back here to be a spectator for the intimidation of first-year cadets. That was a part of the Academy experience she had no interest in embracing.
One of the upperclassmen, who had been on Uhura's shuttle, sprang up to the topmost point of the large boulder his cohorts had collected on. His cocky stance left no doubt in Uhura's mind that he was the cadet who won the race in his freshman year. It was probably his duty to get the race started.
A smile came to her lips as she reconsidered coming back in her senior year. She would if she were the winner.
Thanas leaned forward beside her. "Here we go."
She mirrored his stance, preparing to leap off the starting line the moment the race began.
The upperclassman raised his communicator to his mouth. His voice was projected to speakers that surrounded the cadets. "Good morning, plebes. What stands before you is the Starfleet Academy Desert Survival Course."
Behind Uhura, the rest of the cadets fell into a ready stance.
"Your mission is to be the first to get to the end," he continued. "That's it. There are no rules. No other objectives. And no second place. You'll get no prize for winning. No grade. No commendation. Nothing but the knowledge that you are the best of the best among your peers."
The sun glinted off the phaser he raised. "The race will start on my mark."
A bolt of phaser fire shot into the air.
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