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I was worried that I was about to be told that my mother’s spacefighter had been shot down, so that when I found out that I was being evacuated to Mars, I was pretty calm.
And, despite everything that happened to me and my friends afterward, I’d do it all again. Because until you have been pursued by terrifying aliens, been taught math by a laser-shooting robot goldfish, and tried to save the galaxy, I don’t think you can say you’ve really lived.
If the same thing happens to you, here’s my advice: always carry duct tape.
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When the polar ice advanced as far as Nottingham, my school was closed and I was evacuated to Mars.
Miss Clatworthy called me into her office to tell me about it. I’d had in the back of my mind she might be going to say the aliens had finally shot down my mother’s spacefighter, so on the whole I took the actual news fairly well. And that’s even though I knew Mars wasn’t really ready for normal people to live on yet. They’d been terraforming it for years and years, but even after everything they’d squirted or sprayed or puffed at it and all the money they’d spent on toasting it gently like a gigantic scone, still you could only sort of breathe the air and sort of not get sunburned to death. So you can see that the fact that someone had decided I would be safer there than, say, Surrey, was not a sign that the war with the aliens was going fantastically well.
Still, after eight months of Muckling Abbot School for Girls, I thought I could probably cope. It was one of those huge old posh schools that are practically castles, and must have been pretty drafty even before the Morrors came along in their invisible ships and said, “Oh, we’re going to settle on your planet! We only need the poles, which are more suitable for our needs! Don’t worry, you will hardly know we’re here! And as a sweetener, we will reverse global warming!” (Because that was a bad thing back then, apparently.) And of course it turned out “the poles” meant rather more of Earth than we were entirely happy about, and that they could reverse global warming rather more thoroughly than we liked.
“Of course,” Miss Clatworthy said, “it’s an Emergency Earth Coalition project and an Emergency Earth Coalition school up there. So it’s rather taken for granted you will enroll as a cadet in the Exo- Defense Force.”
Well, that was a bit sooner than I expected, but I’d gotten the general idea of my future a long time ago, and whether I liked it or not, it was always going to involve shooting things.
“Of course,” I agreed.
Now that I knew what was really going on, I thought I might as well relax, and I could even enjoy the fact that the office was warmer than most of the school. We were on the coast and about fifty miles south of the worst of the ice, but that wasn’t saying much, what with the snow scouring across the playing fields in July and icicles the size of your leg dangling off everything, and there never being enough power to keep anywhere properly warm. But there have to be some perks to being the headmistress, I suppose, and Miss Clatworthy had a tiny coal fire going. I inched toward it and hoped she’d keep talking for a while.
She did. “And they’ll have those new robots teaching you, I daresay! No more boring old fuddy-duddy human teachers!” she said, all tight-lipped and fake jolly, even though she obviously didn’t think it was a good thing.
I nodded. I was quite looking forward to seeing the robots. We only had a couple of robots for cleaning at Muckling Abbot, and they were really old and didn’t even talk.
Miss Clatworthy sighed. “It’s all such a different world from when I was your age! But I’m sure you’ll be a credit to Muckling Abbot, and you’ll be following in dear Captain Dare’s footsteps. Your mother is such an inspiration to us all, Alice.”
“Of course,” I said again. There was actually a framed poster of my mother on the wall. This wasn’t as odd as it sounds. That particular photo of Mum, tossing back her hair in front of the British flag on the fin of her spacefighter, was very popular. She’d just blown up a lot of Morror ships at the Battle of Kara and that picture ended up all over the newspapers. That was when she started to become famous. Miss Clatworthy’s poster was one of those ones with FOR EARTH! FOR ENGLAND! printed on them.
I didn’t like looking at it very much.
“There’s a letter for you—I think it must be from her,” said Miss Clatworthy rather wistfully, as if she wished a small nugget of Mum’s war-hero glory would fall out of the envelope and make everything a little bit better.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You must be so proud of her.”
“Yes,” I said. And I was. But Miss Clatworthy looked at me in a vaguely discontented way. Teachers often thought being Stephanie Dare’s daughter meant I ought to march around the school setting a splendid example of morale and patriotism, and sometimes took me aside to tell me so. The other girls tended to think it meant I was in constant need of being taken down a peg or two, and sometimes took me aside to tell me that.
This time Miss Clatworthy had other things on her mind, though. “And when you’re old enough,” she said, “I’m sure you’ll give those fiendish creatures what for! Those cowardly, invisible brutes! Teach them to come and freeze over our planet as if they own the place!”
That was when I noticed it wasn’t just because of the cold that she was trembling and that her eyes were watery and pink. I felt sort of awful. She really must love the school, I thought. She was always telling us in assembly how we were supposed to, but it hadn’t occurred to me that anyone actually could.
Later I wished I’d thought of saying something plucky and full of School Spirit, like “Oh, Miss Clatworthy, it’ll take more than a few invisible aliens to shut down Muckling Abbot School for Girls forever! We’ll soon be back—and more ladylike than ever!” But I’m not very good at that sort of thing, and at the time all I could think was that I wanted to say sorry. I mean, not just “I’m sorry you’re sad,” but sorry as if it was partly my fault. I don’t know why, unless it was because of being twelve and not being able to remember what it was like not to have fiendish creatures freezing our planet over as if they owned the place. Sometimes I did feel like that, when adults got upset and homesick for how things were before. It made me feel as if the aliens and kids my age were all part of the same thing. We all happened at around the same time.
Obviously I was scared of the Morrors, because you can’t see them and they can kill you, and obviously I really wished they would go away. But I don’t think it ever bothered me so much that they exist, the way it bothers adults. When we studied history, I could imagine Romans, or Vikings, or Victorians— but I can’t imagine fifteen years ago and everyone running around being almost normal, but no Emergency Earth Coalition and no one even knowing what Morrors were and hardly anyone being in the army at all.
I couldn’t say any of that, so I just said, “Yes, I’ll try to kill lots of aliens, Miss Clatworthy.” And that didn’t seem to cheer her up much.
Now, you’ll have noticed that Miss Clatworthy wasn’t making this announcement to the whole school. I certainly had. “It’s just me going, then,” I said. “Just me from Muckling Abbot.”
“There are only a few hundred places open for now. Maybe they’ll send more later,” said Miss Clatworthy. “The rest of us will just head south to wherever will take us. There are some evacuee programs on the south coast ... and the Channel Islands ... and closer to the Equator for those who’ve got the connections and money, I suppose. So you are a very lucky girl, Alice,” she finished. “And it might be wise if you don’t brag about this to the other girls.”
That annoyed me. “I wasn’t going to brag,” I said, feeling less sorry for her. Honestly, didn’t she realize I had enough trouble with people like Juliet Maitland and Annabel Stoker lurking around the school whispering, “Alice Dare thinks she’s so special just because of her mum,” and Finty Carmichael reminding me all the time that before my mum’s exploits became so fashionable, she was just a bank teller and my dad was a plumber and really I was a charity case.
That was one of the reasons I did not like Muckling Abbot. The others were these:
1) Even with a desperate battle for the survival of humanity going on, we were still all supposed to be highly ladylike and virtuous and proper, which meant that you should not run in any circumstances except after a ball or away from an alien, and that you should prefer to die rather than wear a hair band of an incorrect color, and that you should act at all times as if you had completely failed to notice that certain aspects of our situation maybe kind of sucked.
2) Horrifying sludge-green uniforms in which we were all slowly dying of hypothermia while the teachers could wear as many sweaters and coats as they liked.
3) We were all divided up into houses with stupid names like Windsor and Plantagenet and expected to have House Spirit on top of School Spirit and get really upset if our house didn’t win trophies for punctuality or tennis. Which I thought amounted to an incredibly obvious trick being played on us, as it does not benefit you personally if your head of house is allowed temporary custody of a small silver cup with a picture of a Tudor rose on it. But no one else seemed to agree.
4) Lots of singing.
Finty Carmichael was perfectly right that back in the good old days which none of us could remember, I wouldn’t have ended up at a posh school like Muckling Abbot. But I had to go somewhere; Gran’s health wasn’t great, so she couldn’t look after me very well anymore, and after the Battle of Kara, there was this Emergency Earth Coalition program about the education and care of the dependents of front-line fighters (especially the dependents of people who got made into posters, though obviously they didn’t say that). So the government was already in the habit of sending me places, even before this Mars thing.
“Good luck then, Alice,” said Miss Clatworthy at last.
“Good luck to you too, Miss Clatworthy,” I said, and wondered if I ought to salute, since I was going to be in the army now.
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