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!
My apologies for the late posting–I had it scheduled, but something went wrong. As David D. said on my Facebook page, the clock must have needed maintenance!
See Chapter One here.
Quinn woke to her alarm—a harsh clanging from her e-torc—and swept it away. Ow. Moving that quickly was a mistake. She put her arm down and took stock of her body. The outside of both arms were bruised and achy. So were her legs and buttocks. A few other, lesser bruises too, but nothing critical. She could sleep another half hour, but she was awake now, so she’d be better off getting up and using the bathroom before the other girls showed up.
Rising slowly, she ran through a series of gentle stretches and a warmup then took clean clothes with her to the sani-mod. Quinn entered cautiously but there was no one else inside. She picked the very last stall and put her clothes where she could see them, just in case someone decided to try and take them. Fortunately, she was finished and dressed before anyone else entered. Returning to her room, she studied the rules until ten minutes before breakfast. Exiting her room, she found all the other first-year students were also leaving. None of them would meet her eyes. Despite that, Quinn greeted every single one of them by name, determined to show them she had no hard feelings and that she wouldn’t be cowed so easily. They all walked to the dining hall together, lining up for food in a group. So, lesson learned, first-years went through the line first, letting the upper classes sleep in. Would third-years eat first or last for lunch?
She got her food—some sort of egg pie with root vegetables—and looked for Tiber, Ekon, or Bran. She found them at the same table at the back of the room and walked over, unsure if she’d be welcome. As she neared, they gave her tight-lipped glances and small shakes of her head. Message received. Quinn sat at a table by herself and ate quickly. Even though she could feel the hostile gazes, she refused to cower or scurry away. She knew displaying weakness made bullies bolder and more persistent. But Quinn also knew that sometimes, bullies got worse no matter what. If she was going down, she’d go down swinging.
Finished with her food, she pulled up her schedule and walked to the testing center, which was on the first floor of the lab building. Quinn didn’t try to enter the room, not knowing if that would violate some protocol or not. She found a small area outside the rooms with hard chairs and sat, studying the rules.
Many of the rules were unfortunately contradictory. That was undoubtedly on purpose, so the instructors could twist them whatever way they chose.
Quinn chuckled to herself. Weirdly, she had to thank “Mother” Ferra and the evil Inquisitors for the idea. Ferra, as the former leader of the Sisters of Cygnus, knew the rules inside and out and twisted them to make dissent almost impossible. The Inquisitors, the vicious exploratory miners supporting themselves by pillaging the surrounding communities, had no real rules, except the strong survive by force and caring about anyone else was a weakness. Those final weeks before they escaped Cygnus Gliese were terrifying. At the time, she was too young to understand fully, but later, the Sisters made sure they all knew exactly what happened and how people could manipulate and abuse others, both subtly and obviously. Ferra’s machinations were a study in expert-level abuse of power.
If Quinn had come to Adzari Academy straight from her previous, comparatively sheltered life with the Sisters on Gliese, she’d be completely overwhelmed and bewildered. But now Quinn knew, in a place where the rules were everything, knowing them inside and out was her best defense. Knowing she was utterly alone, she had to maximize her defenses. Offense would have to come later when she discovered Gianna’s weak points.
She also had to remember Gianna wasn’t her only enemy. Some of the instructors, and certainly the house master, possibly the house mistress, might be enemies, or at least not fair advocates. Quinn was sure they were all expert manipulators. And they made the rules, and wouldn’t hesitate to change them if necessary. They’d have all this down to a science, Quinn was sure.
Would she be better off just leaving? Feeling so abandoned and alone made it hard to think, but she had to fight past that feeling. She didn’t know if everyone was against her; she only knew Gianna didn’t like her. She might be blowing all of this out of proportion. Being dumped with the Sisters as a baby predisposed her to assume she’d been discarded, but she knew the Sisters cared and her friends there cared. She might make friends here too. Maybe it would just take time.
She studied the rules and regulations until five minutes before the testing period, then tried the door. It opened, so she walked in, hoping that was the right thing to do. The rule book wasn’t clear on testing protocols—or anything else.
In the room, two rows of desks, all separated by clear plas dividers waited, empty. A man sat in a chair behind a desk at the front of the room. The man appeared rather old, with wrinkles and thinning, gray hair. His skin was pale, with some light brown splotches, and his hand shook slightly.
“First-year student Quinn Cygnus?” the man asked.
Quinn nodded and hurried to enable the tagging function again. “Yes, Instructor Hawke.”
“Early. Good. You’re in testing cubicle one.” He pointed, his tremor noticeable. “I can’t answer any questions. I’m only here to fix problems with the testing system. If it’s not working correctly, please let me know. Give me your e-torc before you enter the cubicle. Once you start, you’ll be given a break every hour for ten minutes. Work as quickly as you can, but don’t guess; wrong answers will count against you. This test will last all morning, possibly longer. If it goes longer, lunch will be brought to you. You cannot leave this room until you are finished. There is a sani-mod in the corner. Is this all clear?”
Quinn gave him a half-bow. “Yes, Instructor Hawke, thank you.” She pulled her e-torc off her neck and placed it on the desk, within his reach. If he was going to do something to it, good or bad, she wouldn’t make him work harder than he needed to. The tremor worried her. Most of these kinds of things were easily fixed even on Cygnus Secundus; there must be a reason he was suffering through such a thing. She had no reason to make his suffering worse.
“Time will start when you hit the start button inside the cubicle. Use the facilities now if you need to.”
“Thank you, Instructor Hawke.” Quinn did as he suggested, then entered the testing cubicle, closing the door behind her. It snapped shut with an ominous click. She sat, pleasantly surprised by the supportive comfort of the chair. In front of her, a curved one-eighty view screen, a keyboard, and a stylus. Interesting. Good to know they allowed manual input as well as virtual. Or maybe it was required, in case they were at a facility where virtual input wasn’t allowed?
Well, it didn’t matter now. It was time to start. Quinn adjusted her seat and desk so her feet were flat on the floor and the input devices at elbow height, then she reached out and hit the start button. A vid began, “Welcome to the Testing Center” and a long list of rules.
Quinn took a deep breath and concentrated. She planned to do well, but not great. Whether the testing protocol would allow that remained to be seen, but she’d try.
A chime sounded and the screen went dark. Quinn blinked, then shook herself. That was intense. She had no idea how she performed or even what the scale was. The door to the testing cubicle unlocked and she suddenly realized her bladder was painfully full and tummy was rumbling. She walked quickly to the sani-mod and took care of business, then returned to the front of the room, halting in front of the Instructor Hawke.
“Well, Student Quinn, it looks like we’ll be eating lunch together. Pull that chair over there up here and have a seat if you’d like.” He pointed to a chair stuck in the corner.
Quinn pulled the chair over, but asked, “Do you mind if I stretch and walk around a little until lunch arrives?”
He smiled. “Not at all. Please do. Sitting for so long can be difficult, especially for someone as young as you are. Fourteen standards, right?
Quinn opened her mouth to agree, then remembered. “No, Instructor Hawke, I’m only twelve standards.” She grinned. “Almost thirteen! But I was abandoned as a baby, so no one knows for sure.” She shrugged. That was true and had the advantage that she wasn’t telling a complete lie, just a partial one. Hopefully, if the Instructor’s questions were part of the testing protocol, he wouldn’t pick up on the prevarication, or if he did, her answer covered it. Quinn started walking, swinging her arms gently, trying to warm her stiff, bruised muscles gently.
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter. We got you here before you could be trapped into a terrible life on your dirt-poor planet.” His tone was flat, like he didn’t believe what he was saying.
“I am very grateful for the opportunity to learn, Instructor Hawke.” Quinn meant that but hoped it didn’t mean staking her life.
A person dressed in all white entered and put two containers on the Instructor’s desk. He said, “Thank you very much, Jons. We appreciate it.”
“Yes, thank you, Gentle,” Quinn said. The man nodded and walked out without a word.
“Please, Student Quinn, have a seat. Eat. Testing will begin again in no more than thirty minutes.”
Quinn did as he suggested. Opening the container, she found it contained a much better-looking meal than dinner. There was pasta and sauce, but with some sort of breaded protein patty; a salad, a vegetable, and a roll, along with more Tira.
“Well, this looks…hearty.” Instructor Hawke sighed. “I can’t talk about the testing process, but do you have other questions?”
Quinn debated but decided to ask. “I understand the Academy recently changed ownership. Are the new owners from this system or elsewhere?”
Instructor Hawke frowned but answered. “I believe they are headquartered in Vela, specifically Valenti. Don’t worry, they are very well qualified to run an educational academy. They own and operate many in a variety of disciplines. This is their first net school, I understand.”
His answer, both more than she asked and with a lot of real information, was heartening. What wasn’t heartening was the system involved. Everyone knew Familia ran Valenti and most of Vela. Oh! Suddenly, the common “look” of the administrative staff made sense. Dark hair, olive skin, brown eyes, long oval faces—these were hallmarks of Familia. Instructor Hawke must be part of the previous staff.
“Are you from here, Instructor Hawke?”
A smile flickered. “Yes. My family has been here since Omicron was colonized. Or invaded, according to the environmentalists.” He shrugged. “They have a point. Tetzlaff Forest is the only remaining native vegetation and plant life on this continent. There are a few native islands left elsewhere on the planet, but that’s it. Omicron’s soil is perfect for Old Earth vegetation and contains all the minerals and micronutrients needed for humans. Old Earth plants thrive under the blue-white sun. No one starves on Omicron unless they’re too old or decrepit to work the soil.” His ironic expression seemed to imply he was in that category, which might explain why he was still here.
“I see. Life on Cygnus Secundus is sort of similar. If you can get rid of the native vegetation, Old Earth plants grow very well and there are plenty of animals humans can eat, although humans are poisonous to the native animals in large quantities. The original colonists found that out the hard way. But beating back the native vegetation is a constant battle. It’s a hard life.”
“Thus, why you are here.”
Quinn nodded. “Partially. There’s not a lot of call for net experts on Secundus either. The Sisters wanted to make sure I had options.”
“I see.” He frowned.
Maybe she shouldn’t have said that? Quinn bit her lip. But it was easy enough to find out. Secundus was a subsistence-level, fringe-of-the-universe planet, despite the riches of adventure-planet Deneb practically next door. There just wasn’t a lot on Secundus. But she should change the subject.
“What else do you teach?”
“Ah, I teach history. So, you will see me again.” He nodded genially.
“I’ll enjoy learning more about the universe, that’s for sure.”
Another grimace. Had they changed what he was allowed to teach? “Well, Student Quinn, I see you have finished your food. You may have what remains of mine, or restart your testing.”
“Thank you, Instructor Hawke, but I don’t want to overeat and be sleepy. I’ll just start again and hope I’m done soon.” And that was no lie. She’d found out her so-called net expertise was pretty slim and her knowledge of events important to the universe at large—by the standards of this academy—was very small. She hadn’t even heard of half the historical and political events they asked about so she definitely didn’t know the answers to any question about them. She supposed some of the events might be fakes, to see if she was guessing after being warned not to, but they couldn’t all be phony. Those after-lunch history classes might not be so boring after all. If nothing else, Instructor Hawke seemed to be a nice man, especially in comparison to the House Master and Mistress.
Three rest periods later, Quinn was thrilled to see the “Test Complete” banner on the screen. Thanks be to the Mother! She let herself out of the test cubicle and walked to Instructor Hawke. “Thank you, Instructor Hawke, for your patience and your company at lunch.” Quinn bowed. “I appreciate it.”
He smiled at her. “You are welcome. Here is your e-torc. You are excused from any classes you were scheduled to attend now.” He grimaced. “However, House Mistress Vormer wants a word. Evidently, there is some issue at the girl’s dorm. Good luck. I’ll see you in class.”
Heart sinking, Quinn took her e-torc, noted the summons, and left the testing center. Fortunately, it was right in the middle of a class period, so there weren’t any other students around. She passed a few workers on her way back to the dorm, and greeted them on her way, a little dismayed their names weren’t displayed on her holo. The workers nodded in return but said nothing. Was that natural inclination or instruction from the new owners? None of the staff looked happy.
Quinn made her way to Mistress Vormer’s office and stood at the open door, waiting for her acknowledgment.
After a good five minutes, Vormer looked up and motioned for her to enter. Quinn walked in and stood in front of the desk.
“Student Quinn, did I not say you would be partially responsible for one of the bathrooms on your floor?”
“Yes, House Mistress Vormer, you did.”
“Then why does that bathroom look like this?” She pushed a vid over to Quinn’s holo.
The vid showed towels and toilet tissue strewn everywhere, puddles of water on the floor, and something smeared on the walls. Quinn swallowed hard. “I don’t know why, Mistress Vormer. When I left this morning it was clean. Who did this?”
Vormer scowled at her. “It does not matter who did it, Student Quinn. The schedule shows that you were responsible for cleaning this bathroom today. You should have stayed to make sure it was clean before going to breakfast. You will clean it now and you will keep it clean for the next seven days. If it is spotless every day, then the regular rotation will start again. Is this clear, Student Quinn?”
“Yes, Mistress Vormer.”
“Thank you, Mistress Vormer.” Quinn turned and walked away. She wanted to sulk, whine, and curse, but she wouldn’t give that awful woman or those horrible girls the satisfaction. Stopping in the kitchen, Quinn shoveled down some protein bars, fruit, and juice, then ran up the stairs to make sure she made it to the top floor before class got out.
As she ran upward, she realized—the school had vids in the girl’s bathrooms! Eww. Who could see those and what did they do with the vid? From the angle, that lens must be right over the entry door. Hopefully, they didn’t have vid of the individual stalls. Quinn shuddered violently. While she cleaned, she’d be checking very carefully, and figure out a way to block the vid lenses casually.
For the next seven days, she’d also be eating breakfast from the kitchen downstairs, because she’d need to leave last. She only hoped she could grab something and not be late to class because she wasn’t sure which option would be worse. She’d also have to go to bed late, or someone could destroy the place before she went to bed, and raise a fuss in the morning. Hmm. What if she took vid when she was done cleaning and posted it someplace public?
Quinn snorted at her ridiculousness. She was surrounded by net experts. They could alter the vid and the timestamp without her knowing. Quinn would record what she did on her e-torc, but she wouldn’t bother posting it anywhere.
One way or another, if the upper-class girls were determined to make her into a target, she’d be one. All she could do was minimize the impact and the amount of work she had to do. Walking into the filthy bathroom, a wave of homesickness washed over her like an afternoon deluge in the jungles of Secundus. Cleaning the bathroom, even the mess they’d made, was nothing in comparison to mucking out stalls or doing a dozen other nasty chores at the Sister’s compound. But none of the Sisters would have tolerated this kind of nasty, cruel behavior.
She got the cleaning supplies and went to work.
That morning, Quinn slept in until forty-five minutes before breakfast. She left all her things in her room, went to the sani-mod, grabbed cleaning supplies, and stood just inside the door but out of the way. She greeted every girl that came and left by name, with a cheery “Good morning! Lovely day, isn’t it?” followed with a fierce look. Most of the girls looked ashamed or guilty. Quinn knew it wasn’t fully their fault; the upper-class girls made them do it. One or two of her classmates tried to leave a mess, but Quinn stopped them in their tracks.
“Oh, Student Suzette, I’m sure you didn’t realize you accidentally smeared feces all over the toilet, did you.” Quinn stepped into Suzette, pushing her back into the toilet enclosure by stepping on her toes. “Since it was clearly an accident, here, I’ve brought you cleaning supplies to help you.” She shoved them into Suzette’s stomach hard, pushing her on to the toilet, right into her own mess. “Oops. So sorry. Here you go.”
“Gosh, Student Quinn, thank you so much,” Suzette said through gritted teeth. “I’ll be sure to repay you adequately.”
“I’m sure you will try, Student Suzette, but there’s no need.” Quinn bared her teeth and snapped them together.
Suzette shrank back. Quinn heard snickers beyond the toilet cubicle. When she slammed the door on Suzette, no one remained in the bathroom and it wasn’t destroyed. Quinn got to work sanitizing it to the stated specifications. When Suzette slammed out of the bathroom, her toilet stall sparkled as well. Quinn grinned. Hopefully, this would put an end to her own class ganging up on her, but probably not. She knew many of the girls had no choice: make Quinn’s life miserable, or someone would make all their lives miserable.
Quinn did her cleanup, dressed, and ran down the stairs, grabbing two power bars and some milk. She’d eat them on the way to class and hope it was enough to tide her over until lunch. She was looking forward to this class and hoped the instructor was one of those leftover from the old academy. Entering the auditorium-style classroom on the first floor, her heart sank. No such luck. Instructor Stefano had the “Familia look” that was too familiar by now.
A notice popped up in her holo. She was assigned to a seat right at the front and center of the room. Lucky her. Pasting a smile on her face, she entered and stood by her seat. She noted Tiber, Ekon, and Bran were also in this class, seated at the back.
“Have a seat, Student Quinn,” the boy next to her sneered.
“Oh, thank you so much for the invitation, but you know I can’t do that until the Instructor says so.”
The boy glared. Someone behind her shoved her between her shoulder blades. She took one step forward but stopped herself on the desk.
“Student Marco, that was rude and potentially dangerous. Report to me after class.” Instructor Stefano snapped. “Students, have a seat.”
“Now that we have our final student, welcome to the Introduction to the Adzari Academy Student Net,” Instructor Stefano intoned. He glared around the room. “Do not attempt to access any other net, here on the grounds of Adzari or anywhere on Omicron. Your attempt will be discovered, and you will not like the consequences. Is this clear?”
“Yes, Instructor,” Quinn and everyone else replied.
“You will use only the net storage you are assigned. If you need more, request it from any instructor. You are forbidden to access other student’s net storage areas. There are shared file systems for joint work. You will not use the skills you learn here to get around, counter, or change any Academy policies, procedures, rules, regulations, or security measures. This includes intruding on, harassing, or harming other students. Is this also clear?”
“Yes, Instructor,” Quinn and the class agreed. The stipulation against attacking other students via the net was obviously not followed, or whoever trashed her room would have been caught.
The lecture on rules and regulations continued for another twenty minutes. Quinn kept herself upright and engaged by attempting to guess what the Instructor was going to say next. Some of the other students didn’t—Quinn learned Instructor Stefano was fond of slamming his open palm on the desk of drowsy students, jolting them awake.
“All right, now that the official rules are over, let me tell you what I expect.” He glared at each of them. “I expect you to act like decent beings. To the instructors, the staff, and all the other students. You will not use your skills to attack anyone on the Academy or the planet in any way, shape, or form. You will use your skills for good, not evil. You will be helpful and kind. Is that clear?” Another glaring survey.
Quinn nodded but knew the instructor was either willfully blind or purposefully misleading them. She’d have to wait and see which was true.
“And if you decide to be otherwise, remember that everything you do on the net can be seen by the instructors and academic staff. Attempts to hide such things are futile.” He sniffed derisively. “For example, I know that Student Quinn’s dorm room was broken into yesterday and her room disturbed. I know who did it. The attempt to hide such a thing by a third-year student was truly pitiful. I’ve recommended, based on this poor attempt, that this student be held back a year.”
Quinn listened with growing horror. Instructor Stefano must want her dead. Gianna would not take that well, even if the staff ignored his recommendation, which they probably would. They had to be aware of Gianna’s predations and might even be encouraging them. Not only that, but there were vid lenses in her room? She got dressed in there! She shuddered.
Instructor Stefano glared around the classroom, his glare turning to puzzlement, then realization. “Ah, no. Your rooms are not under vid surveillance. The hallways, however, are.” He returned to glaring. “Any attempt to take advantage of the lack of vid surveillance in your room will be one, punished, and two, rewarded by the installation of surveillance. Is this clear?”
Quinn nodded a little frantically, seeing everyone else around her doing the same.
“Let us get to the real intent of this class: an introduction to the local net. Many of you have been using it already, in some cases, extensively. None the less, pay attention. I’m going to show you some things you haven’t discovered, and some tricks and tools to make your daily lives easier.” A twist of his lips. “Don’t fall asleep.”
Quinn pulled up a note-taker, determined to push away her personal problems, at least for now. She’d do everything she could to learn, hopefully, more than the Academy realized. It might be her salvation.
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Quinn of Cygnus Copyright © 2020 by AM Scott. All Rights Reserved.