This is an unedited draft. While the main story won’t change, you may find some awkward phrasing, typos, and some fine details will be missing.
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!
See Chapter One here.
“Safe folds, Quinn Cygnus,” Co-pilot Keyser bowed deeply. “We’ve enjoyed having you onboard. Thank you again for your help securing our net. You have travel credit with us.”
Quinn returned her bow, just as deeply. “Thank you for making my first fold transport so easy. I enjoyed working with you and hope to do so again. Safe folds.” She turned away and hopped down the stairs, enjoying the slightly lighter than standard gravity. Quinn followed the arrow in her holo to the arrivals lounge. Thank the Mother she’d spent a lot of time studying tourist guides to Canis Major and Omicron or she’d be sprinting back to the shuttle right now.
Even though she’d immersed herself in a tourist simulation, nothing could have prepared her for the reality of a major spaceport in a big city. Quinn didn’t want to blink—she might miss something. Shuttles of all sizes and types waited on the port, and the port itself was surrounded by tall buildings, with huge holo displays showing advertisements for a dizzying array of products. She had no idea what most of them were or did. And under all the new sights, smells and sounds was the terrifying realization that she was completely on her own.
Quinn stumbled and looked around a little wildly. She should probably pay attention to where she was going rather than trying to see everything all at once. But it was hard to focus with everything going on around her—and the fear. Forcing herself onward, Quinn strode to the large, low plain beige building marked “Arrivals” in Trade and entered. A long line of clear booths waited, green circles with “open” on some of the doors, beings of many species occupying the ones with a red square. She entered the first green one she came to, tugging her small luggage float into the tiny room behind here.
“State your name and business on Omicron and put your hand on the DNA sensor,” a female voice said. “You will be scanned.”
She put her hand out, wincing at the bite of the sampler. “Quinn Cygnus, Academy Adzari student.”
“Do you have anything to declare?”
“No.” And she didn’t. Clothes and her e-torc were all she owned.
“Proceed.” The door clicked and slid open. “Welcome to Omicron, enjoy your stay.”
“Thank you.” Quinn left the small room, entering a huge, high-ceiling space filled with hundreds of beings all hurrying somewhere, the chatter and hum deafening and the clashing scents slightly stomach-turning. She backed to the wall, waiting until she got a little more accustomed to the noise and bustle. Then she reengaged the navigation program. She had to go straight ahead, then take a slight left to the local pickup zone. A reminder pinged, and she messaged the Academy she’d cleared customs. A reply came almost immediately. “Pickup in five minutes. Look for Adzari lift van. Driver is Gentle Vincenz Coll. Human. Ask for his identification.” A pic of Gentle Coll followed. A heavy-browed, olive-toned round face, with small, deep-set dark brown eyes, topped with short dark brown hair, sat on top of a thick neck. A rather thuggish face, but no one looked good in identifications pics.
Quinn sent back an acknowledgment and took a deep breath. Blowing out, she stepped into the noisy, slightly chaotic crowd and wove her way among the beings. Most were human, but there were a substantial number of other species. The ones that stood out the most to her were the RRs. Short, bright orange cylinders with big goggles shading their eyes and high, squeaky voices, they seemed to travel in packs.
“Out of the way, station scum,” a large, dark brown fur-covered being rumbled, mowing down a couple of the RRs.
“Hey, leave them alone!” Quinn said, helping one of the RRs back to their feet. Or whatever it was that propelled them below those cylindrical bodies. “Go around.”
“Mind your own business, human,” the hulk of fur bellowed, pushing her aside too.
Quinn stumbled but kept her feet. What a rude being.
The RR she’d helped bowed to her and skittered off to rejoin its pack, meeping and beeping madly. Quinn smiled and got back on her path to the pickup zone. Finally, she left the massive transit room and stepped out to a bewildering plethora of roadways and walking paths. She followed the green arrow in her holo, grateful to have a guide—this place was huge and confusing. At least it wasn’t raining. She glanced up—rain wouldn’t matter; tinted, translucent panels covered every walkway, probably to alleviate the impact of the very bright blue-white sun.
Vehicles of every kind waited and drove or flew past, and beings of many species traveled the walking paths, some towing huge trains of luggage. Or maybe trade goods. The air still smelled of dozens of perfumes and strange scents, with a dry, dusty undertone that reminded her of the deserts of Cygnus Gliese just a little. Even with the shades above the walkways, the blue-white light was very bright, but her holo darkened it enough she didn’t have to squint. The shadows seemed very dark, and everything had a slight bluish cast, but her holo gradually adjusted for that as well. She glanced past the roadways. What seemed to be vehicle parking structures and office buildings blocked any view of the city beyond. Eventually, Quinn reached her pickup point.
Only a few moments later, a lift van with dark plas windows pulled up and a tall, bulky human with dark brown skin and hair, dressed in all black stepped out. “Quinn Cygnus? I’m Vincenz Coll,” he rumbled. He flicked something to her from his holo.
Quinn pulled it up in her public space. Identification as Vincenz Coll, employed by Academy Adzari, and an Omicron registration for the lift van too. It could undoubtedly be fake, but the name and face matched the ones the Academy sent her. “Yes, thank you, Gentle Coll.”
“Just Coll. Is that all the luggage you’ve got?” He pointed at her small case.
Before she could answer, he was tugging it away to the van. Quinn hurriedly released the tow tag from her holo and followed him into the van.
He put her luggage in a bin. “Strap in.” He pointed to the seats behind the driver’s enclosed area at the front. “It’s an hour or so to the Academy, depending on traffic. There’s guides to the city waiting, they can answer all your questions. Once we’re out of the city, we’ll be crossing a protected forest area. Use that time to look at the Academy introduction so you know what to do when we arrive.” Coll swung into the driver’s seat and closed the door, leaving her alone in the big van.
Okay then. Quinn sniffed. Guess she’d do what he suggested. She pulled up the guides and picked one that allowed her to select specific sites, rather than a general narration as they traveled. She’d studied the tourist guides, so she knew all the basics, but specific, detailed information about some of the sites might be interesting. She also needed to watch where they went, so if she had to get back to the spaceport, she’d know how without relying on her e-torc.
They joined the stream of vehicles leaving the spaceport, traveling crowded roadways packed with every kind of vehicle from single-seat lift bikes to massive bulk transports, all of them within a meter or two of the next. Since Coll didn’t have his hands on the controls, the traffic here must be all net controlled, something Quinn knew about but had never seen. Every time a new vehicle appeared next to theirs, Quinn jumped, sure they would collide. But they never did and gradually she relaxed. About the time she did, the bulk transporters mostly swung away to other roadways, and the huge buildings became smaller, so she could see the city clearly.
The spaceport was on a huge, flat plain below the city, which enveloped a small mountain in front of her. The buildings alongside the vehicle way became smaller and shorter, finally becoming what must be houses for one or two wealthy families, surrounded by flowers or gardens. As the city ascended the hill, the buildings became bigger and taller, the buildings crowning the mountain lancing up in crooked, angular spires of translucent plas and cerimetal, like demented, shiny metal and glass stalagmites or hoodoos. They seemed to defy physics, but maybe the lighter gravity allowed that? According to the guide, they were lit with bright colors at night. Quinn couldn’t really imagine what that would look like, but she was sure she’d get to see it someday.
The lift van seemed to head straight into the center of the city, but as Quinn watched, they turned left, merging on to a major roadway that encircled the city. She stared, mesmerized by the huge structures holding millions of beings. Suddenly, they turned left again, and the city was behind her. The buildings became smaller and smaller, gradually turning into houses for the wealthy again, with lots of security surrounding them.
Then, the dwellings stopped and dense, dark growth began. Quinn brought up the entry from the guide. Tetzlaff Forest, the only remaining native growth within five hundred kilometers of Omi city. Contact with the indigenous flora and fauna was risky and potentially dangerous—humans were allergic to much of it. Dangerously so for some humans. Access to Tetzlaff was restricted and controlled. Researchers were required to wear isolation suits; most opted for soft armor because some of the wildlife was vicious and apt to attack upon sight or smell. Stunners didn’t work on most of the fauna either. The road twisted and turned, going around critical habitat, so the travel time was much longer than the straight-line distance would imply.
Sister Lashtar’s warnings in mind, Quinn brought up a map. Tetzlaff Forest lay between the Academy and the spaceport, extending for many klicks in all directions. If something went wrong, and she needed to escape, she’d need a vehicle and/or armor. That was a complication she hadn’t considered when she did her research—she’d been reassured by the relative proximity of the school to the city. Quinn’s fingers itched to immerse themselves in code, allowing the fear to fade away, but her training wouldn’t let her do anything that stupid. She had to discover everything she could about her surroundings so she could escape if necessary.
After staring into the tangled growth for ten minutes, Quinn quickly decided it wasn’t a good use of her time. If she had to travel this on foot without armor, she was dead. The driver said there was an Academy introduction document she had to review, so she should do that. Quinn scrolled through the public offerings on the lift van’s net and found it immediately—it was marked as important—and she pulled it into her e-torc.
A vid started and Quinn groaned. She hated sitting through these ridiculous things. A simple document was so much faster and easier. As an aerial view of the Academy appeared with orchestral music, Quinn searched for a way around the vid but found nothing obvious. Hmm. This was a net school. Was she really supposed to sit through this, or hack her way around? She smiled. Why not start now? Discovering what she was up against now was smart. And a lot less boring.
As the vid continued to play—a campus tour—Quinn tried the obvious net tricks first, looking for root access and backdoors. Unsurprisingly, everything was well secured. Quinn wrinkled her nose. Maybe come at the vehicle’s net from outside, rather than in the Academy’s file system? She brought up a new window, trying various tools. Again, she got nowhere.
The vid flashed, a bunch of bright-colored blanks screens, accompanied by a hooting, blaring noise, bringing Quinn’s attention back to it. A human female’s face appeared, dressed in a plain black top with a severe decorative jacket over it, also black. The woman’s hair was the color of black coffee, her skin tan with olive undertones, her eyes also dark brown, surrounded by lush lashes. Her lips were a dark red, and her teeth blindingly white, rather like Omicron’s sun. She could be thirty standard years old—or body-modded to look that way. “Now that you’ve made your predictable attempts to break into Adzari Academy’s net, please pay attention to the rest of this presentation. We expect a certain level of respect from our students. That includes respecting the instructors and staff, and the rules and regulations of the Academy. The first rule is: you are not allowed access to any net except the student net.” The woman’s eyebrows pinched together slightly. “Any attempt to access the instructor or household net will result in termination of the student’s enrollment and immediate expulsion. There are no exceptions to this rule, no second chances. You will be dismissed from school. I hope this is very clear.”
The woman’s lips turned up, but it wasn’t a smile. “I am Academy President Rias Bel. As a student, you will not see me often.” The non-smile twisted. “If you do, neither of us will be happy. So, follow the rules. Obey your instructors. Behave with dignity and pride. Study hard. If you do these things, you will be successful here and in the future.” Bel’s non-smile showed again. “Academic classes, other than introductory sessions, are taught on a rotation basis, so students can enter a class at any time, learn those lessons, then continue the class and complete the rest. Net skills are almost exclusively learned in a lab. You are set a problem and expected to find a way to complete it. Both cooperation and competition are encouraged here. The very top students will be given the best positions, so study hard. I now turn you over to Adzari Academy’s House Managers, House Mistress Vormer for the girls, and House Master Jonstew for the boys. You will meet your instructors as you begin your classes.”
Quinn shivered. Whatever she was, Rias Bel wasn’t a pushover and she meant business. Quinn’s next net access attempt had to be successful—and it probably would not occur soon. She had a lot to learn. More importantly, though: who are these people? These were not the same names or faces she’d researched.
A human male and female appeared on the vid, sitting side by side, but not close like a couple. They had the same complexion as Rias Bel and Coll, dark brown hair, tan olive skin, and brown eyes. They also both looked older, maybe fifty standards with stern visages, rather prominent noses, and also dressed all in black, but plain white shirts.
The man spoke first. “Greetings students, I am House Master Jonstew. You will address me as Master Jonstew. This is House Mistress Vormer, you will address her as Mistress Vormer. We are here to ensure the safety of all students. If you have a problem with another student, you must come to one of us, me for the boys, Mistress Vormer for the girls. Do not go to an upper-class student.” Jonstew scowled. “In the past, the upper classes were allowed to govern the lower classes. This led to abuse. We will not tolerate such. The upper-class members know this, but sometimes have trouble remembering. You will be assigned a room with one to three other students, which you must keep clean. The bathrooms are shared and all students share the responsibility to keep them clean. The dining hall has posted times for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and there are healthy snacks available at all times. Students take turns cleaning the dishes and dining hall.” He turned to the woman. “Mistress Vormer?”
She nodded regally to him. “Thank you, Master Jonstew.” Facing the vid, she continued the lecture. “Good manners are a must here. In the past, net students have been allowed rudeness because of their talents. This is unacceptable. All beings must exhibit a basic level of consideration for others. Proper address will be used at all times, as will the words ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Timeliness is required as well. We keep strict hours for classes, recreation, and sleep. These times will be enforced.” Vormer’s lip curled for a second. “Proper hygiene will also be enforced. There is plenty of water on Omicron, so daily bathing is required, along with bathing after strenuous physical activity. Students will be clean and your uniforms will be clean and neat. You will be issued uniforms and those are all you will wear. Accommodations may be made for non-restrictive religious garments. Your rooms will be kept neat and tidy. Inspections will occur daily and randomly. Physical activity of some kind is required. Team sports are encouraged, but solo pursuits are acceptable. Strong minds require strong bodies. If you do not participate in a physical activity, one will be assigned. Master Jonstew?”
Jonstew sneered into the vid. “Upon arrival, your possessions, including your e-torcs, will be placed into storage and secured. You will be issued everything you need for success here. Do not attempt to hide any private net gear. It will be found. Punishment will be severe.” A smile flickered.
Quinn shivered. This man enjoyed punishment. What kind of punishment? What had she gotten into? Good thing she’d already memorized the code words and phrases Sisters Lashtar and Ani insisted on. And net addresses for them, Lightwave, and the Grus folder. Both Jonstew and Vormer spoke about past allowances and rules—was the academy’s leadership new? Quinn was relieved she hadn’t missed something critical, but the relief was overwhelmed by the fear that whoever these people were, they weren’t going to provide the safe, comfortable environment she’d researched.
“You will also receive several inoculations against local diseases. There is just enough overlap with our basic Old Earth DNA that humans are very vulnerable to both viruses and bacteria here. Please inform us of any allergies you have when you check in with the Academy Medicos.”
She didn’t have any allergies. Well, except for a bunch of Secundus native plants, but all humans did. Should she fake one? Probably not. She wouldn’t be able to research what to fake without giving it away, because the only net available was the Academy’s on the lift van. A shiver ran down her back. Quinn would have no way to know what they were really injecting into her body. Unfortunately, she knew they spoke truly about the diseases—she’d found that out during her research.
“You will be allowed to send messages to your home.” Jonstew’s lips lifted in a parody of a smile. “It’s mandatory, actually. We want your parents or guardians to know you are thriving. We are sure you will thrive here. We’ll make sure of it.” He sniffed. “Mistress Vormer?”
She repeated Jonstew’s non-smile. “The lift van will drop you off at our Administrative Center. We will assign a student to escort you through the onboarding process. They will also mentor you for the first week. Again, if there is a personality clash or the mentor oversteps, come to one of us immediately for reassignment. We will not allow any physical or mental abuse from other students.”
Vormer didn’t say anything about staff abuse, though. The shiver down her spine became an electric current. Well, guess the Sisters prepared her for just about everything, didn’t they? Quinn would keep her head down, be obedient, just a little dumb, and very, very naïve. The Sisters just became a more remote, cloistered, and strict society than they’d ever been, even under Ferra’s control. She’d learn what she could, survive, and when she got the chance, she’d escape. But until then, she’d have to act far more obedient than she’d ever been in real life.
She snorted softly. She’d wanted a challenge—she got one. Quinn desperately hoped it was worth it.
Quinn of Cygnus Copyright © 2020 by AM Scott. All Rights Reserved.