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MAY/JUN "Fire on High"

Nathan Baker

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It was, for lack of a better word, Hell.

At least that's what everyone else said about it. But for one Cadet, the fires on that plain of [...]ation were probably far worse.

The halfway marker was coming up and Cadet Deven Zell's entire body felt like it was on fire. The skin-coating of UV protection was only a small consolation considering the task at hand. As the Trill popped his second electrolyte capsule, it began to sink in that this run would be the worst of his life.

Danula II could conjure up stories of dehydration, second-degree sunburns and more than a few sprained ankles. It's a brutal planet; a desert world with almost no life to speak of. Temperatures that would sore all day and barely any relief at night. The ground would scorch any bare feet that touched it.

All of that was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to the brutal Academy Marathon. The annual competition between cadets isn't just a race; it's a test of conditioning, strength, will and courage.

Anyone with the capacity to run the 42.195 Kilometers was instantly regarded as a hero for his or her class. Most didn't make it half-way... and the others who didn't weren't any better off.

Step after step needed more and more effort. Deven's ankles and calves shuddered with every footfall. Every instinct in his body urged him to stop, fall over, make an excuse, or just plain die. Of course, it would take more than that to get him to give in.

It was Deven's second attempt for the marathon. He was already regarded as something of a hero when he finished the race the year before... and almost never does a Cadet go back for seconds on the Danula II's barren wasteland.

"I don't have to win," the man thought to himself. "I just have to finish... again."

Most people remembered the legendary running of the Freshman Cadet Jean Luc Picard. Not only did he finish the grueling competition, he won it. Deven looked at that feat and respected it... but his ego told him he could do better.

He didn't have to win, just finish. That was victory enough. Because it wasn't the competition against the other cadets that fueled his spirit, Deven just loved to run. Ever since he was a kid, the now 2nd class Cadet would trudge along the shorelines of his home planet. Running was a tenant of life in his mind. It was a fire that burned deep inside that had no way of being quenched.

For Deven, Danula II just provided another personal challenge. Plus, he found it to be fun. (Though he'd probably never admit for for fear of ridicule.)

Anyone who had run the marathons would say that only a madman would subject himself to another round against the harsh heat and pressure-cooker conditions that the athletes go up against during that run.

Deven thought about that sentiment as he began the long ascent up the final hill towards the finish line. "I guess that's it then. I'm mad."

A flash of light pierced over the mountain that was ahead of him. He knew that this was the worst part of the run. Any other person, the cadet figured, would've stopped a long time ago. An emergency beam-out was all it would take and the whole ordeal would be over. It was like the Devil was taunting him with every exhaled pant and each painful step.

"No! Not this time!" Deven screamed in agony as he began the ascent. Everything started getting blurry. Without hesitation, Deven popped his final pill to push himself towards finality.

Cadets weren't given water to quench themselves during the run, since it wouldn't do much good anyway. Instead, each runner was given three electrolyte capsules to keep their bodily functions going during the trudge along the oven that was the marathon course.

Since separating himself from the pack 9 kilometers ago, the toll being exacted on Deven's body was excruciating. All the muscles ached and tensed with every step. The Trill's breathing became nothing more than a dry heave of super-heated air. But with every breath, Deven chanted the mantra he'd come up with that kept him going.

"This isn't hell... this isn't hell... This. Is. Not. Hell."

Over and over again he chanted, like a metronome that only knew one thing: to keep moving.

What seemed like forever finally culminated in a cross of the finish line. Deven collapsed onto the sand and several medics descended on him to begin feeding fluids intravenously. Though he only finished fifth, Deven wasn't upset.

"I'll be back next year," he told a reporter a few hours later. "That wasn't hell... it was just a good run."

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