Chapter Four — Quinn of Cygnus

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. I’ll also be adding additional background for people who haven’t read the Folding Space Series.  I’ll publish a new chapter every week. Enjoy!

See Chapter One here.

Chapter Four

 

“Student Quinn? Student Quinn—”

Quinn jumped up and out of her chair, almost colliding the person who’d called her name, but he’d stepped back just in time.

“Are you all right?” The boy’s face showed concern with an undertone of fear.

Quinn swallowed hard. “Sssorry about that. A little jumpy.”

A smile flickered. “That’s okay, I understand.” He huffed. “We’re all a little jumpy these days.” The boy grimaced. “Do you need help?”

He seemed genuinely concerned, but Quinn wasn’t sure she could trust anyone. The boy was only a few centimeters taller than she was, with short hair the color of toasted bread, eyes a shade darker, and cinnamon-brown skin.

Quinn shook her head. “No. I’m just…a little overwhelmed. This is all new to me.”

“How new? I mean, I know you just arrived today, but what part is new?”

“All of it.” Quinn spread her hands out. “I’m not used to big cities or any cities. Or fancy uniforms. Or net at that level.” She tossed her chin to the classrooms.

He snorted. “You’re new. Those are Third Years. If you knew that stuff, you wouldn’t be here. Speaking of things you don’t know, did you enable the tagging function in your e-torc?”

She looked at him, chagrinned. “I forgot. Thanks.” Quinn scrolled through the settings, found the right one, and toggled it on.

“No problem,” First-Year Student Tiber Rios said. “I’m not much further ahead of you. Got here thirty-two days ago. The recent change of ownership has been a bit…chaotic.” He glanced around, clearly wary.

So the bad editing of the welcome vids was a good clue. The takeover wasn’t that long ago. “I can tell. I’m sorry you had to experience all that…chaos.”

Tiber widened his eyes and put on a very fake smile. “Oh, it was fine. So much better now. All good. Perfect.”

“Of course. So, why are you out here?”

“I’m moving to my next class. I’ve only got a few seconds left. Look for me at dinner. I’ll introduce you to my roommate and a few of the guys, okay?”

“Sure. Thanks.”

He jogged away, a hand raised above his shoulder.

“Oh, look, the new girl’s got a boyfriend already.”

Quinn turned slowly to face the group of girls she’d attracted. Mean girls, she was sure. They seemed to be a fact of life, perhaps of biology, because they were always some. The Sisters didn’t let them get far at home, but from the stories some of the older girls told, that wasn’t the case in most schools. Lucky her, to attract their attention on her very first day. She didn’t say anything to them, knowing they’d pounce on anything.

One of the three girls towering over her wagged a finger in her face. “New girl, it’s rude not to greet your betters. Rudeness isn’t tolerated here at Adzari.” She was tall, with the same dark brown hair and olive-toned skin the administrative staff had, and she was beautiful. Long, flowing hair, big, heavily lashed eyes, a small pert nose, and a wide generous mouth gave her the face of a siren. Her body was the same—she’d clearly matured early and was proud of it, wearing a sweater a size too small.

The auburn-haired girl standing next to her snatched Third Year Student Gianna Ricci’s hand out of the air and pushed it down. As she whispered in Gianna’s ear, her nasty smile flattened. Gianna pulled her hand away and sneered at the redhead, but she didn’t say anything else to Quinn. All three of them turned and sauntered away.

Maybe showing up right after the takeover wasn’t such a bad thing. The mean girls were just as worried about the new rules—and rulers—as the rest of them. Quinn decided one close call was good enough and retreated to the second floor. Listening to the classes there, her lack of knowledge was thoroughly confirmed—she officially knew nothing. She was totally and completely unprepared for this school, even without the threat of the new owners. Quinn glanced at the time and decided to check out the athletic facilities. Maybe there was something there she could be good at without giving away her background in self-defense.

On her way to the athletic training facilities, she noticed small areas of trees or flower gardens were scattered across the campus. Depending on vids, those might be good hiding places for things—or herself. On one of the big fields, students played some sort of team ball game.  They threw the odd-shaped ball from person to person but didn’t run with it except away from what must be the goal. The referees kept stopping play, but Quinn couldn’t figure out why—the rules seemed byzantine.

Quinn kept walking and found the swimming center. Entering, the sharp scent of chemicals made her nose wrinkle. Following the signs, she made her way to the viewing stands. There was only one person in the pool, a dark-skinned man swimming laps. It was a huge pool and had a separate, smaller pool, evidently for diving, and an even smaller pool that bubbled next to that. She would like to learn to swim, more so she wouldn’t drown than a desire to exercise that way. Perhaps there were beginner swimming lessons?

She left the aquatic center, and turned back towards the dormitories, detouring to enter the gymnasium. Inside, her virtual campus guide offered directions to the locker rooms, the large ball court, smaller ball courts, weight room, aerobic machines, gymnastics, martial arts, and an extreme challenge room. The last option was intriguing, so she followed the guide upstairs. On the third floor, she found clear plas walls keeping any passerby from intruding on the athletes, but allowing a clear view. There was a martial arts and boxing room, the gymnastics room, and finally, the extreme challenge. Lucky for her curiosity, someone was using the extreme challenge equipment.

Quinn watched the woman, tallish and thin, but with muscles like the fiercest Sisters, throw herself from obstacle to obstacle. She climbed tall walls, swung from ring to ring, ran along a rolling log while avoiding big, padded arms swinging at her, and a dozen more challenges. Now that—that looked like fun. She might even be good at it. Quinn pulled up the person’s tag: Fitness Instructor Katherine Switz.

Well, Instructor Switz had finished her run, so maybe she could ask? She opened the door and the woman’s head turned her way. A scowl formed. “No Academy uniforms in the fitness rooms, Student! You should know this!”

“I’m sorry, Instructor Switz. I haven’t read all the rules yet.”

Switz marched to her. “Do so. Quickly.” Her accent made her a little difficult to understand, but that was crystal clear.

“Yes, Instructor Switz, I will. I just wanted to ask if I could learn to do this?”

Switz stopped abruptly. “You want to learn this? There is no fame or fortune here.” She motioned to the course behind her.

Quinn shrugged. “I don’t care about that. I have to pick a sport, and this looks challenging and fun.”

A lopsided smile started to form on Switz’s face. “I see. Well, then, perhaps. You are…ah, Student Quinn Cygnus, arrived today. Interesting.” She sniffed and mopped her forehead with a towel. “Well, then, Student Quinn, we will see what the results of your fitness tests say. Do you have a background in fitness?”

“Not anything like this.” Quinn shook her head slowly. “This is amazing.”

Switz examined Quinn from her head to her toes. “You are in decent physical condition, especially for a net worker. But this,” she motioned to the apparatus, “takes strength, flexibility, reflexes, speed, balance, and a good sense of timing and depth perception. It also takes fortitude; the ability to keep going even when it’s painful. The ability to push your limits. You have to want it very badly to be successful.” Switz examined her again. “You are very petite. You might be good at gymnastics too. There’s a class starting now. You should go watch. I will see you in two days. Then we’ll discover if you can be taught.” Switz turned away, returning to the apparatus.

Quinn watched her for a few more moments, then walked down the corridor to watch the gymnastics class. Girls and one boy in tight athletic wear worked on skills at various stations. There were parts of these kinds of events in the hardest y’ga routines, so she might be good at it. But, the reason for performing these motions was entirely different and had different timing. In a crisis, Quinn didn’t want to sit back and wonder if she’d picked the right reaction. No, the extreme fitness challenge looked like a much better idea. There was nothing there that would trip her up, make her second guess when she needed to act, and no skill level to hide.

She wandered the rest of the facility, but nothing else really interested her except the martial arts studio. And she didn’t dare train there or her only advantage, surprise, would be gone. Well, now that she’d looked at everything, Quinn could find a quiet corner and read some of the student manual and the rules and regulations while she waited for dinner. She walked back down the stairs, thinking about the boy she’d met.

Quinn hoped Tiber Rios’s invitation was for real, not a cruel joke. She didn’t get that impression from him, but she’d been wrong before. Look at everything that happened at the Sisters of Cygnus while they were still on Gliese. She was totally clueless about evil “Mother” Ferra, Nat’s willingness to attempt a hijacking to save her friends, the men on Lightwave’s crew being nice rather than evil, Chef Loreli, all of it. Sure, most of the Sisters were blind to Ferra’s machinations; who would have thought the stalwart defender of the faith and orphaned children would try to sell them out for mere credits?  Still, Quinn’s judgment was worse than most of the Sisters. She had to get better, fast, or she might not make it out of here.

Needing the wide-open, Quinn blew through the doors and ran for one of the small gardens she’d spotted earlier. Surrounded by tall trees, it looked like there might be someplace to sit inside. She found the narrow walkway into the group of trees, and abruptly stopped, her troubles forgotten.

The garden was beautiful. Flower beds sported colorful flowers, the colors not matching, but harmonious, the plant heights increasing further back in the beds so each type could be admired while pollinating insects buzzed about them. Several sweet, flowery scents wafted to her. Birds hopped in the trees and some little animal scurried away. In the center, a small pool with a fountain, the edge of the pool the perfect height to sit on. Quinn walked to the fountain and around it, enjoying the slight spray in the bright sun. She reached a shiny plaque: In Memory of Allana Adzari, Co-Founder of Adzari Net Academy.

How sad. Quinn shrugged. Or maybe it wasn’t. Gentle Allana may have lived a long and wonderful life. She probably wouldn’t be happy with what was happening to her Academy now, or maybe she wouldn’t care. No matter what, Quinn was grateful to find this quiet refuge. It probably had vids like the rest of the Academy, but at least it was out of sight.

Quinn set an alarm for ten minutes before dinner and pulled up the Student Guide. She had to learn everything about her new environment—her survival depended on it.

#

Her head spinning, Quinn entered the dining hall and got in line with all the other students. Unfortunately, she’d timed it all wrong and was surrounded by third-year students. Fortunately, they studiously ignored her.

Without asking, a tray with a plate of some sort of pasta and red sauce was dropped in front of her. So much for the “wide variety of eating options” the vid talked about. But she wasn’t used to variety, so it didn’t matter. It smelled decent and rather like some of the herbs the Sisters grew. She picked up a few other items that looked edible and a layered dessert that seemed downright delectable. Filling a glass with water, she picked up her tray and searched for Student Tiber Rios.

A hard shove sent her stumbling forward. She managed to keep her feet and save her tray from falling, but her water splashed all over her food.

“Move out of the way, first-year,” a low voice snarled.

Quinn didn’t look back, she kept walking as if nothing happened. She checked the student tagging function in her holo and selected “find”—Tiber was at the far end of the room. Keeping her head high, she skirted the tables, not getting close enough for anyone to trip her, and watched her rear holo carefully. No one else approached her. She stopped next to Tiber.

“Hey guys, I mean, fellow students, this is Student Quinn, the new girl,” Tiber told his small group of friends. He smiled up at her. “You’re welcome to join us.”

“Thanks.” Quinn put her tray down and sat next to Tiber.

The boy across from her had long bright red hair, tied at the back of his neck, and pale, freckled skin. “Hi. I’m Bran. Nice save with the tray. You’re fast on your feet.”

She smiled. “Thanks. Guess I’ll get plenty of hydration with my food.”

The boy next to him, with black coffee skin and ebony curly hair, snorted. “I’m Ekon. You’ll need plenty of water to choke it down and it won’t change the taste, that’s for sure.” Despite that, he shoveled the food in. But he seemed to be twice the width of Bran and Tiber, so he probably needed the energy, no matter how bad it tasted.

Tiber said, “I’m sure you read we’re not allowed to talk with our mouths full, right?”

“Yes, thanks.” Quinn spooned up the pasta and sauce. Watery tomato, gluey pasta, and some sort of ground meat or meat substitute. Well, she’d had worse on Cygnus Gliese. None of the food was particularly good, but it was filling. She ate what she needed and left the rest. Expecting disappointment, she took a bite of the layered cake. “Oh!”

The guys chuckled. They’d already finished. “Yeah, that stuff is good,” Ekon said. “But they’ll only give you one piece.”

“Most of us can’t eat more than one,” Tiber replied.

“But they serve it every. Single. Day,” Bran moaned. “Tira is good, but so is variety.”

“You’re not complaining, are you, Student Bran?” a voice sneered above Quinn’s head.

Bran jolted and jumped to his feet. “Of course not, Master Jonstew. Just missing home.”

Jonstew sneered. “What exactly do you miss, Student Bran? Starvation, destructive weather, solar flares? Do tell.”

“Just my family, Master Jonstew.” Bran dropped his head.

Jonstew snorted. “Well, don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” He walked away.

Quinn figured her eyes must be the size of moonflowers. What a horrible man. All three boys gave her narrow-eyed looks of warning and she nodded. “Can I ask where you’re from?”

Bran’s mouth twisted. “I’m from Dschubba. Our sun is going supernova.” He shrugged. “It hasn’t gone yet, but the solar flares are intense, and everyone who can is leaving. My family applied for this scholarship—one less person to find transport credits for. But I miss them.”

“I’m sorry, that’s horrible.”

Bran shrugged. “I hope they can all find a way off-world soon, but if not, I hope they can hold out until I can get a job and send them the credits. Where are you from?”

“Well, I’m from Cygnus. I was from Cygnus Gliese, but Galactica Mining Corp kicked everyone off the planet, so now I’m from Secundus.”

“Oh, the giant tunnel worms!” Tiber said, his eyes wide. “Did you see one?”

Quinn snorted. “I saw bones, like everyone else. A real tunnel worm has yet to be found.”

“She’s part of a religious cult, a weirdo, just like you three,” Gianna sneered, peering down on them.

“The Sisters of Cygnus aren’t a cult, Student Gianna,” Quinn said evenly. “They are reclusive, and women only, but women are allowed to come and go as they please. And they take in lots of girls who would otherwise be homeless.”

Gianna sniffed. “A cultist’s spawn, that’s all you are.”

Quinn shrugged. “What you call me doesn’t matter. I know who I am.”

The boys were wide-eyed, giving her little headshakes.

“Oh, it matters. When no one will partner with you for projects, it will matter a lot.” Gianna sauntered away, her followers on her heels, giggling.

Quinn scowled at her. “There’s always one.”

“One what, Student Quinn?” Jonstew’s nasty voice said behind her.

“One student who’s too beautiful to be a net worker, Master Jonstew.”

Quinn felt the breeze generated by his turn. The boys gave her big grins and subtle head nods, but all three sobered quickly.

Ekon glanced around the area. “Be careful. She’s one of them.”

Quinn gave him a puzzled look.

“Later.” Tiber waved a hand. “Do you have your schedule already?”

“Yes, it’s mostly testing the next two days.”

“Those aren’t fun, but necessary.” Bran shuddered. “You don’t want to get into the wrong class. Failure is not an option.”

Quinn nodded slowly. She could understand that caution. When in doubt, play dumb—better to be bored in class than be overwhelmed.

“Well, Student Quinn, it was a pleasure having dinner with you, but we,” Tiber motioned to the three boys, “need to do our homework. Also, you’re aware boys and girls aren’t allowed in each other’s dorms, other than the lounges on the ground floor?”

“Yes. Thanks for asking me to join you, Student Tiber. And yes, I read about that restriction.”

“Good. So, if you partner with a boy for a project, you’ll need to use a public area for work outside of class time.” Tiber raised both brows.

Oh, good warning. “Understood, thank you.” In other words, partnering with another girl was better, because they could work after official curfew hours, until lights-out. Quinn grimaced. She’d better get to the dorm and see if she could meet some of the other first-year students.

“Most of the girls have been here for months, too, so you might have to partner with one of us,” Bran said.

“Thank you for the invitation,” Quinn told him.

“You’re welcome. See you soon, Student Quinn.”

“See you soon,” she replied. They split outside the dining hall doors, her for the girl’s dorm, them to the boys. A curfew at twenty-hundred and light-out at twenty-two hundred seemed awfully early to her, but those were the rules. She could stay outside for another hour, but she had to meet some of her year mates, or she’d be fighting off a giant Secundus lizard without a rifle. Right now, she’d feel a lot better if she had a rifle. Or just a stunner.

Quinn entered the dorm and trod slowly up the stairs, her footsteps echoing. She should practice walking quietly—she had a feeling that skill would be important in the future. But right now, everyone was aware of the “new girl” so she didn’t want to raise suspicions. She passed the third-year floor and breathed a sigh of relief.

Turning the corner on her way to the second-year floor, Quinn learned her relief was too early. Gianna and her friends appeared in front of her, others thundered up behind her, hemming her in. She bit her lip. Nothing to do but survive this—even if she went on the offensive, she couldn’t prevail against ten or more girls.

Her e-torc was yanked off her neck and they all stared at each other. “Clear!” a voice said from behind her. Gianna punched her in the stomach, hard.

“Oh!” Quinn doubled over, gasping for air, not faking it at all.

“New girl, this is your only warning,” Gianna said. “I run this dorm. You do what I say when I say it, or there will be a terrible accident. It would be so easy to send you flying down the stairs right now. Or, I could simply push you out your dorm window—oh, so sad, little Quinn couldn’t handle the pressure. Is this understood?”

“Yes,” Quinn gasped.

Hands grabbed her hair and pulled her up. “That’s yes, Third-Year Student Gianna, cult scum.”

“Yes, Third-Year Student Gianna,” Quinn said, feeling hair ripping from her skull.

Gianna dropped her and she collapsed to the stair. Girls left, some of them kicking or hitting her on the way, all of them careful to only hit uniform-covered body parts that would bruise, rather than break. Quinn cowered and survived. Finally, her e-torc dropped in front of her. “Don’t lose it again, Student,” a different girl’s voice sneered.

Quinn waited until the footsteps and laughter faded, then she used the handrailing to pull herself up. She’d be a mass of bruises, but nothing seemed broken. Slowly, she climbed to the first-year floor and entered the hall. Closed and locked doors greeted her. Obviously, the rest of her fellow first-years were told to ignore her.

She entered her room, finding that as expected, anyone could enter. All her clothes were strewn about, the bed was torn apart and the frame turned over, and one of the sheets torn right down the middle. She sighed and started picking up the mess. Some of the clothes had mud and possibly other things smeared into them, so those she piled to the side. Quinn moved deliberately, trying to stretch a little as she cleaned up, hopefully minimizing the muscle damage. Some of those hits had been terribly hard. She made her bed as well as she could, placing one of the sheet halves in her pillowcase, using the other to “make” the bed. A half-sheet was better than no sheet. She’d be in trouble for damaging school property, but that was the way things went.

Picking up her soiled clothes, she found the autocleaner closest to her and set it on the highest setting. She’d be cutting it close, but the cycle should finish before lights-out. But only if the other girls would leave her things alone. Quinn started a stretching routine, keeping her movements a little awkward and slow, carefully not using more advanced y’ga stretches. Hopefully, this would help. She’d set her alarm for extra-early tomorrow, just in case she needed the medico station. Although, by the time she made it down three floors of stairs, she might have loosened everything enough to walk.

Finishing her stretches, she pulled up the rules and regulations. If everyone was against her, she had to know the rules perfectly, so she could use them to her advantage. Since Gianna and her girl-gang were third-year students, they might not know the new rules or be inclined to study them. They’d have more leeway with the instructors, Quinn was sure, but using the rules against them the only real advantage she had. Right now, this was more important than net work—it was her life.

#

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Quinn of Cygnus Copyright © 2020 by AM Scott. All Rights Reserved.

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