This is Version 2 of an unedited draft. While the main story won’t change, you may find some awkward phrasing, typos, and some fine details will be missing. I’ll publish a new chapter every week. Enjoy!
Warning: To avoid having issues with book retailers when I publish, I will be deleting Chapters One through Eighteen the week before I post the last chapter, which is Chapter Twenty. You have been warned! Read fast!
Sweat poured down Quinn’s body like a Cygnus Secundus afternoon thunderstorm and every muscle in her body trembled. She wouldn’t break—she’d never break. But holding this y’ga stance—standing on her right leg, bent forward with her left leg raised behind her, and her arms out to the side was agonizing. As it should be—there was a reason the Sisters of Cygnus called these punishment poses.
“Release,” Sister Lashtar snapped.
Quinn gratefully lowered her left leg to the floor, pulling her arms into her sides, and stood upright.
“Recover. Ten minutes.”
Slowly, Quinn lowered herself to the floor, folding her legs below her body and lowering her forehead to the mat. Ah. Eventually, she got up the energy to turn flat on her back. She breathed, slowly and evenly, concentrating entirely on her breathing. The fading remains of resin-laden incense was sharp in her sinuses, but soothing all the same, as was the silence.
“Penitents are released to drink and eat. In silence.” Sister Lashtar’s voice was as cold as a Cygnus Gliese winter night—she didn’t remember a lot about Gliese, but she remembered those frigid, stary nights. Cygnus Secundus was warmer, but far wetter—a clear night was rare. “Quinn, my office after the meal.” A faint sigh followed. Poor Sister Lashtar, stuck with all the tough cases, like Quinn. Lashtar lead the Sisters for more than one reason, but her tough love approach was a cornerstone.
Quinn heard the rustle of clothing and the pad of bare feet. She knew the others were gathering bev-tainers and y’ga mats, more than ready to leave the Sister’s meditation room, but if she moved, she’d have to think, and she didn’t want to do that yet.
Something hit the bottom of her foot. When Quinn ignored it, the tapping continued, getting harder and switching feet randomly. Quinn sighed and opened her eyes.
“Finally,” Nat hissed, brown eyes scowling at her. She held out a hand. “Come on. We need water and calories.” She glanced at the door, obviously hoping Sister Lashtar didn’t hear her.
Quinn took Nat’s hand and let the taller, older girl pull her up. Head swimming, she focused on a single spot on the wall and clung to Nat. Finally, she let go, and gratefully accepted the bev-tainer Brin handed her. Drinking slowly, she followed the two young women out of the meditation room, down the hall and into the dining hall. They lined up at the kitchen window, muttering, “Thank you, Sister,” as they took trays with stew, bread, and water to the front of the huge room. As usual, the smell of baking bread permeated the huge dining hall and the clatter of hand-thrown clay pottery seemed loud in the silence of the Sisters of Cygnus’s orphanage. Quinn put her tray on the small table and turned to face the leadership table.
Sister Navarr stood and intoned, “May the Mother bless the food we are here to share. May the Mother bless our efforts to praise her. May the Mother bless us.”
“May the Mother bless us,” echoed back from every corner of the high-ceilinged room, Quinn joining in. She was blessed to be here, but sometimes boredom drove gratefulness and common sense right out of her head. Then she’d find something she wasn’t supposed to see, and her anger wiped out every thought, including gratitude, like a lightning strike shattering a tree.
Sitting at the small punishment table at the front of the dining hall full of her fellow orphans, Quinn concentrated on eating her simple stew slowly. Why bother looking up? She’d only see the rest of the girls pointing and laughing at them, a practice the Sisters ignored, hoping peer pressure discouraged further bad behavior.
Too bad for the Sisters that it didn’t work. Quinn smirked. She could care less what the “good girls” thought. She ate, trying not to think about what she’d found. But it was hard to concentrate on a negative. Still, she did so, until she finished eating. She stared down at her bowl, watching the head table out of the corner of her eye.
Finally, the leaders stood, bringing everyone to their feet, and they waited while Sister Navarr announced the work assignments. The leaders left, then the long table with the teenagers caring for babies and toddlers, another teen shepherding the young children, then the pre-teen table and finally, the few remaining teenagers without child care jobs tonight. Most of them headed to the kitchen to pick up hot boxes containing their midnight meal—something to warm them during night watch. Quinn wished she was headed out with them. A boring night watch over the Sister’s compound would be far preferable. For that matter, a terrifying night watch defending their fields and flocks against the huge, dinosaur-like wildlife would be better.
Quinn reluctantly followed the leaders out of the dining hall, Nat shooting a half sympathetic, half accusatory look at her as they split, Nat and Brin going to clean the kitchen. Quinn trudged up the stairs to Sister Lashtar’s office and knocked quietly.
She sighed and entered the dragon’s lair, standing in front of Sister Lashtar’s desk, looking straight ahead.
“Well, here you are. Again.” Lashtar’s voice was dismissively disappointed. “Despite defining your limits, you insist on exceeding them, prying into things you have no right to know. Why?”
Why? Isn’t it obvious? Or is this a trick?
“I asked a question, Penitent Quinn.”
Well, she had little to lose. Why not give her the real answer? “Yes, Sister. After Ferra’s betrayal for credits, how can you ask any of us to trust you?”
A sharp inhale followed by silence. Quinn risked a glance. Sister Lashtar’s eyes were closed, mouth clamped shut. Uh oh.
Sister Lashtar exhaled ever so slowly and took in another deep breath. Her eyes opened, the icy blue pinning Quinn’s. “Penitent Quinn, we have outlined the processes and procedures we have put in place to ensure no one person has control of the Sisters. Full Sisters are given full access to everything. You are not a Sister. I sincerely doubt you will ever be a Sister of Cygnus.”
Quinn gasped. Not be a Sister? What else would she be? She’d lived with the Sisters her entire life. She closed her eyes.
“Look at me.”
Quinn did so, examining Lashtar’s expression. Quinn found nothing on her pale, freckled, hollow-cheeked face.
Lashtar said, “I didn’t say that to hurt you, Quinn. But the women who become full Sisters aren’t prone to constantly breaking the rules, questioning every word. Nat and Brin tried to talk you out of this, didn’t they?” It wasn’t really a question.
“Yes,” Quinn admitted.
“I thought so. Nat is a natural leader, as are you. But she’s a leader by the book. You are not. The Sisters who thrive here need rules and consistent leadership according to those rules. Survivors of violence, disaster, and poverty require safety to heal and grow. Fairly enforced rules provide that safety. If you stay, you and Nat will clash constantly. You will stress everyone in leadership. You will be more stressed than anyone, because you’ll never really fit in here, Quinn.” Lashtar said the last in a surprisingly sympathetic, gentle voice.
“And besides that, your talents aren’t well suited to the Sisters. We’re an agriculturally-based subsistence lifestyle. We teach net skills, y’ga, and other security skills so those who choose to move on can support themselves in the wider universe. We have more than enough net expertise here already. You’ll be bored. And a bored Quinn is a dangerous Quinn.”
Quinn clenched her fists at her sides and clamped her lips together. She wasn’t sure if she would laugh, scream or cry, so she didn’t say anything at all.
“Again, Quinn, I’m not saying this to hurt you. I’m telling you this because you already know it’s true, you just aren’t willing to admit it.” Lashtar tapped a work-roughened finger sharply on the desk, once. “Or maybe you aren’t ready to admit it. Either way, the restrictions of the Sisters chafe you, like a too-tight set of boots. Even though you’re physically younger than Nat and Brin, you’ve outgrown this place.” She swept an arm, clearly indicating the entire compound of orphanage and farm, not just Lashtar’s office.
Quinn swallowed hard and bit her lip. Where would she go?
“At fourteen, you’re younger than I’d like to send folding across the universe, but the net academy Katryn attended has a partial scholarship available.” Lashtar snorted. “And this is where your rule-breaking will come in handy. The scholarship’s upper age limit is thirteen standard years. You’re not a big girl, and I don’t think you’ll ever be big, not with your obvious heritage. You can easily lose a couple of years.” Lashtar’s mouth twisted. “And you are much more mature than your physical age.”
That was all true. It was hard to stay a little girl when you’d experienced war and you did the job of an adult. She’d been Sister Ani’s net security deputy for over a year. But she still looked like a little girl. Quinn had more in common with her predecessor, Katryn Phazeer of Lightwave Fold Transport, than her net talents. They were both tiny, with hair so black it was almost blue, big, slightly tilted brown eyes, and a pointed chin. She looked like Katryn’s little sister or an anime action figure.
Quinn bit her lip, trying to hold back her growing excitement. Katryn was almost legendary—raised as an orphan by the Sisters of Cygnus, she’d left for school, got a great job on a core-system world, fought Galactica Corporation, found the love of her life, Tyron, while running from Galactica’s wrath, and ended up with a net security position on Lightwave, since Tyron was Chief of Security. Most of the girls here prayed for an adventure and rescue like Katryn’s. While Quinn desperately wanted the schooling and job, she could do without the battle against a giant corp or being tied down to some man. Or barely making a living on a small fold transport, folding passenger shuttles across the universe without a schedule or guaranteed income.
Lashtar continued, drawing Quinn out of her spiraling thoughts. “The age requirement seemed suspicious, but the academy assures us they are trying to reach disadvantaged girls before they are trapped into a life of servitude and poverty. Katryn attended the same academy at the same age and Adzari doesn’t appear to have changed at all. Katryn did very well and had no problems.”
Lashtar shrugged. “Well, until she went out on her own and decided to go up against Galactica Corporation. So, part of your punishment detail is this: you will investigate the academy, make sure it still is what it says it is, and you will create documents supporting your new age.” Lashtar snorted again. “Not that you will have any trouble with that since none of you have real documentation by core standards.”
Quinn took her first real breath since arriving in Lashtar’s office. Off-world? To a net academy? It was a dream come true. A slightly scary dream, but so exciting! She’d get away from all these ridiculous restrictions, the religious trappings, the steamy, sodden jungle of Cygnus Secundus, battling the wildlife for every meal. And she’d be on the net all day, every day. No more weeding, shepherding, building fences, clearing jungle, none of that. Learn more and more about the net, and how to infiltrate it and secure it, and—
“Quinn!” Lashtar snapped.
“Don’t skimp on this research. Don’t assume you’re better than a school full of net experts. Your life is at stake and you should know by now there are worse things than death.” Lashtar pointed a finger at Quinn. “Even though there are no indications Adzari Academy has changed, Katryn attended a long time ago. And there’s no way for us to come to the rescue if everything goes wrong.”
She narrowed her eyes. “We’ll be sending you with a list of codes and phrases. You will check-in. If you don’t, we’ll be asking Lightwave and others we know to check on you, but there’s no guarantee anyone will have the time or the ability. You will be alone and unafraid out there on a world halfway across the known universe in Canis Major. Do the work.” Lashtar’s expression was an odd combination of worry, pride, and sorrow.
“Yes, Sister, I will.” Quinn would do the research all right—she’d heard too many horror stories of slavery from the Sisters not to—but she wasn’t going to squander this opportunity either. Even if this school wasn’t the right one, there had to be another one out there. Net talents like hers were rare and she knew it. Plenty of beings wanted someone with her talent and would pay to see it grow.
Sister Lashtar was right—Quinn didn’t belong here.
“Yes, Sister Lashtar?” She kept herself from bouncing around the room with joy, but it was hard.
“The research is part of your punishment.” She smiled a slow, rather evil smile, her pale brows arching. “You are still obligated to all the others, including kitchen duty.” The smile grew. “You’re late. Go!”
Quinn spun and sprinted out of Lashtar’s office. Even though the nasty job of cleaning the kitchen’s grease traps waited for her, she was too excited to walk. Off-world! To a net academy! All day, learning net skills.
She couldn’t wait.
Brin squeezed her tight. Too tight. “Can’t breathe.” Brin’s arms loosened but didn’t let go.
“We’ll miss you.” She set Quinn away from her at arms-length, hands on her shoulders, and shook her a little. “You’d better write.”
Quinn smiled. “Of course I’ll write. I’m going to a net academy. I’ll have way better connections to communications than we do here. Getting it here, to Cygnus Secundus, that will be the problem.”
Nat pulled her away from Brin and into a slightly gentler hug. “I’ll miss you, Quinn.” She let go. “I won’t miss the trouble you cause, but I’ll miss you.” Her smile trembled.
“I’ll miss you too.” She looked around the group of girls and women. “I’ll miss all of you. Stay safe.”
Sister Ani walked her to the shuttle’s short stairs. “Safe folds. You’re always welcome to come back.”
Quinn laughed. “Thanks, Sister. I’ll be fine. How could I be anything but fine? You trained me.” She forced a chuckle. Now that her foot was on the first step, climbing up seemed to take far more effort than it should. She blinked back sudden tears and bowed. “Thank you for your teaching and patience.” With effort, she smiled. “I’ll succeed and make you proud.”
Ani nodded deeply in return, her black curls bobbing. “I am proud, Quinn. Whether you succeed or not, I’m proud of you. Don’t you be too proud to come back if you need to. This is your home and you truly are more than welcome to return. May the Mother bless you and keep you from harm.”
Quinn sniffled, but couldn’t say anything or she’d burst into tears. Ani gripped her shoulder, nodded with clamped lips, then turned Quinn’s body to the stairs and urged her up. She climbed, turned back and waved at the hatch, unable to see through her tears, and forced herself inside.
“Come, Gentle Quinn, all will be fine.” The co-pilot, a Grusian named Keyser, led her to a seat and strapped her in. “It’s always hard leaving home.” Keyser turned away, strapping into her chair. “Ready for launch.”
The pilot, another Grusian named Hout, looked over his shoulder, “Small surge, then normal gravity. Sit back and enjoy the ride, Gentle Quinn. It will be approximately seven hours and ten minutes before we arrive at Fold Transport Frederick.” He flicked something in the holo in front of him. “Initiating thrust, now.”
Quinn’s body pressed into the seat and she gasped, but the pressure let off before she even finished the breath.
“Do you want to watch?” Co-pilot Keyser asked. Her dark blue skin, bald head, and big eyes marked her as alien, but Grusians were essentially human, DNA-wise. Or humans were Grusian—nobody knew why human-type bipedals were so common across the universe. “Once we’ve reached space, you can move around the cabin, use the galley and the sani-mod—but be ready to strap in if necessary.” Keyser chuckled. “I doubt it will be necessary, there’s not much traffic here.”
She nodded. “Yes, I’d love to watch our flight.” Quinn wiped the tears away with her hands. She didn’t want to miss any of this.
“Once we reach our folder, we’ll show you to your cabin and around the rest of the transport. You’re our only passenger so far, but we’ll fold space to at least three constellations, perhaps more, for cargo drop off and pickup.” She shrugged. “Maybe another passenger or two. We’ll make your fold to Canis Major and Omicron in six to ten days.”
Keyser pushed a screen over to her and Quinn accepted it into her e-torc’s public holo. A navigation display, showing their shuttle’s orbit in relation to the planet and a view of Secundus, receding rapidly. Before long, Secundus was just a marble of blue and green. Quinn sighed and swept the visual of the planet away, concentrating on the shuttle’s flight path to the fold transport.
All the Sisters said she was welcome to come back, but Sister Lashtar was right—Secundus and the Sisters of Cygnus held nothing for her. She’d look forward and move forward, be bold. With great risks came great rewards and Quinn was determined to earn her share of rewards. With the net skills she’d develop at Adzari Academy, she could find a job anywhere in the universe, and she wanted to see all of it!
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Quinn of Cygnus Copyright © 2020 by AM Scott. All Rights Reserved.