“Welcome to Scratch Academy.”
As with every year before, the dining hall of Scratch Academy had been reorganized into a makeshift auditorium. Every table was pushed to the edge of the room, and every chair was lined up in neat, ordered rows, facing the front where the headmaster and namesake of the school – Doctor Scratch himself – stood. He waited with the utmost patience as the new crop of students began to settle down and come to attention.
Scratch had founded his Academy fifty years ago. It was the top Academy in the world; highly selective, the portraits of its notable alumni lined the halls. To go to Scratch Academy was to be assured a promising future, to have your name known world-wide. This was in part due to the man himself, who was famous not only for his political prowess, but for his ability to handpick those with the potential to go far. He found at least one in every incoming class, and by the way he carefully scanned the face of each new student, it was clear that he was already beginning his selection.
He coughed once, twice; a signal his speech was about to begin. Nobody said a word. He smiled, then began to speak in a calm, soothing voice, thick with dignity and wisdom. “It is always wonderful to see a new batch of fresh young faces entering my Academy,” he said. “I trust that your stay here will be quite pleasant, as I try to see to it that I, and by extension my staff members, are the most excellent hosts we can be...”
With this, he turned on his heel and began to slowly pace in front of the cafeteria, watching with notable satisfaction as every set of eyes followed his movements. “Of course, before we can truly look forward to the bright future of your studies, I believe it is imperative to look back on the past, to pinpoint why your continued education is necessary to the continued existence of our civilization.” A small groan ran throughout the student body, though it was quickly stifled as the students remembered who was speaking to them. “Yes, yes,” Scratch continued. “I realize this is old news, but I promise that there will be a little... surprise.”
A few whispers passed throughout the audience, the weight of his presence temporarily overwhelmed by the temptation of the unknown. He waited for silence before he continued.
“Now, let’s begin with a look back at our shared history. As I’m sure you know, it was nearly four hundred years ago when humankind first made contact with extraterrestrials. And, as I’m sure you also know, they were not the most hospitable species. Trolls.”
A pause, to let this sink in. An almost tangible shudder ran through the audience by mention of the word alone. There was hardly need for clarification, but he granted it nonetheless. “Natural enemies, of course. A warlike species, intent on taking over our planet, still only in the adolescence of space exploration. Their technology was superior, but our will was stronger, and after learning from our first few losses, we began to push back.”
He stopped walking now, stopping in the center of his makeshift stage, staring dead ahead. “Yes, I emphasize that learning was our salvation. We learned new technologies, learned new strategies, learned their weaknesses. Without such a capability, our planet and our race would surely be lost by now. In order to maintain the ingenuity of our predecessors, of course, Academies such as the one you sit in now were established. Places for our young to learn and train in the art of the war they will be set to inherit.”
The students hung on his every word. It wasn’t new information, of course, but there was a certain weight to it now, knowing that this conflict would soon be the central focus of their lives. The Doctor allowed a small smile to cross his face once again, and he resumed his pacing from before, allowing them a chance to breathe. “But of course, in your time here, you will learn more than the art of war. You will be enlightened in the ways of human culture, in literature, history, science, and mathematics. Your horizons will be expanded beyond war, so that when the time comes for you to focus, you do so a wiser person.
“Now, do not take this to mean that your education will not prepare you for the times ahead. We are, first and foremost, a military academy. As such, you will learn how to defend yourself and how to use a gun. You will learn to respond to proper rank and how to take orders. And most importantly, at your time at Scratch Academy, you will be taught to know who the enemy is.”
Doctor Scratch stopped dead center again, but rather than adding another point to his speech, he signaled towards an open door. On cue, two armed guards walked out, escorting what at first glance appeared to be a sickly girl. However, as she was lead to the center of the stage, next to the headmaster, it became all too clear what she was.
“This is the enemy.”
The girl was not human. Her skin was an unearthly gray, her eyes a glaring yellow. Her dark, wiry hair formed an ugly nest around her head, and two of her fangs jutted out past her bottom lip. She may have looked human at first glance, with her small stature, fragile features and even the way she seemed to tremble with fear between the guards, but there was no denying the obvious.
This was a troll.
Doctor Scratch began to pace in circles around her, slow and deliberate. “I realize that not all of you have seen a troll in person before; our military has done its job to keep them off of our planet. But as you may have heard, a group of them recently landed in this very city, intent on overthrowing our government. An ingenious plan, really. A small group, so that they might go unnoticed as they confronted the head of our civilization face to face.” He stopped, towering over the troll. She looked up at him, eyes like headlights. “But of course, we stopped them. And now they are our captives.” He continued walking.
“Now, I realize that this troll here is not the image that many of you have formed of our nemesis. There are a few clever posters going around, painting them as a uniform race of grotesque monsters. But they are much like us, with varying appearances and abilities. They would not be such worthy adversaries otherwise.” He stopped again beside the troll girl, though he turned faced the student body.
“But I want all of you to remember one thing. No matter what a troll looks like – if it looks young, or helpless, or weak – it is still dangerous. It is still the enemy. This one alone could kill everybody in this room, if we allowed it free. There is really only one thing to do with them, and all of you would do well to remember it.”
In one motion, much swifter than any man his age should have been capable of, Doctor Scratch pulled out an old-fashioned pistol. He placed it to the troll’s temple, and her eyes widened in alarm. She struggled against the guards holding her and began to speak in a decidedly alien language, comprised of incomprehensible clicking and growling. There was a kind of desperation behind it, understandable even without words, but there was nothing she could do. Her hands were shackled behind her, and the two guards on either side of her were more than enough to overpower her.
She gave a pleading look to the students, but they remained seated and silent. Nobody stood to help her, but of course they wouldn’t. She was a troll, and Doctor Scratch was right. There was only one thing you did with trolls.
He pulled the trigger.
The body hit the ground with a dull, sickening thud, and the tile floor was splattered with bits of green blood. One girl in the front row let out a small shriek, and quickly covered her mouth to stifle it; most everybody else looked on with mixed amounts of shock, horror, and fascination. Doctor Scratch bent over for a moment to be sure that the troll was truly dead, after which he made a motion to the two guards to carry the body out.
He continued to talk after that – explain how classes would work, when meals would be held, general expectations, but hardly anybody could pay attention. Not after that. The rapt attention that had been granted to the headmaster had dissolved into frantic, excited whispering. Who could focus on the details of an academic year when an alien had just been killed before their eyes?
And sitting among them, nestled in the crowd between his three best friends in the world, was John Egbert, who was trying very hard to ignore a growing, uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach.