Chapter Six — 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!

My apologies for last week’s error. I had the post scheduled, but something went wrong. As Dave D. said on my FB page, the clocks must have needed maintenance!

See Chapter One here.

Chapter Six

 

Quinn leaned wearily against the sani-mod wall. Although her first-year classmates hadn’t made further coordinated efforts to sabotage her, they studiously avoided any contact with her. So did all the other students. Tiber wasn’t even apologetic anymore. No one talked to her—she was a pariah. Between the worry and the work, she wasn’t getting much sleep. The only bright spot in her life was training for the extreme challenge. During that, she could work her body so hard she no longer had room to worry or even think. Instructor Switz’s all-business approach was a welcome relief from the subtle and not so subtle barbs from some of the other instructors. Over the last month, Quinn had become stronger and faster than she’d ever been. And Switz ordered the kitchen to provide her special nutrition, so her food was better too. Quinn sighed. She’d be happy to share if anyone was brave enough to be her friend. But no one crossed Gianna.

Every time it was Quinn’s turn to clean, she made it very clear she wouldn’t tolerate vandalism. Her classmates finished their morning routines and turned to stare at her. Quinn gripped the mop tight, ready for an attack. She wouldn’t survive if they all seriously ganged up on her, but she’d make as many of them pay as she possibly could. All the showers turned on, and one of the girls, Lise, jumped up and slapped something over the vid lens above the door. Lise tried to step into her personal space. Quinn blocked her with the mop handle.

Lise scowled and held up both hands. “Just talk, okay?”

Quinn nodded. But she kept the mop handle between them.

Lise came in close and whispered in her ear. “Look, none of us, except maybe Suzette, want to do any of this. But Gianna runs this dorm. Our failure to make your life miserable is making all of us miserable. We can’t take her down—she’s the daughter of some important person in…the organization that runs this place. So, let’s work together to make it look like we’re beating you down, okay?”

“As long as it’s not real.”

“You’ll still have to do the work, but we will all help, I promise. We’ll just be careful about it. Tomorrow, get ready and leave early. We’ll mess up the place again, just towels and water. You’ll get in trouble and have to clean tomorrow, but we’ll clean the rest of your punishment time. Then, on the last day, we’ll do it again.”

“We can’t do the same thing again or the staff will catch on. We’ll have to do something else next time.”

“You’re right. We’ve got at least seven, maybe fourteen days to figure it out. We’ll make sure you get some sleep and decent food too. Okay?”

“Okay. But if you are doing this to set me up, you won’t like the results.”

“Understood.” She jumped up and pulled the cover off the vid. “You’re so pathetic, little girl.” She shoved Quinn lightly, but Quinn stumbled back like it was an all-out effort. Lise winked at her and swept out, followed by the rest of the girls, all sneering at her.

Quinn leaned against the wall, emotionally exhausted if not physically. She hoped this was a genuine offer because she couldn’t take much more. She started cleaning. Maybe she should just give up and go home. She could contact the Grus and get a ride. They’d been happy with her work, she might even find more work from their friends. But how long could that last?

But she probably couldn’t leave. All messages were routed through the central messaging system. The academy might not let her message go through. Besides, what would she do on Secundus? Lashtar was right—she didn’t fit in there any more than she did here. The academy might be a hostile environment, but she was learning real skills.

What Quinn didn’t understand is why Gianna was targeting her. Gianna was finishing her final year and she probably had a guaranteed position, because of her connections, if not her skills. So why pick on poor little Quinn? Just because she was the newest? It didn’t make any sense at all.

Quinn started mopping again, aware of time ticking away. Could she ask? Should she ask? The students wouldn’t know, but an instructor might. Maybe Switz or Hawke? Would either of them be sympathetic enough?

No matter who she might ask, she’d have to find a non-obvious question, a way to lead the conversation that way gradually. She couldn’t afford to raise suspicions.

She finished cleaning, cleaned herself, and ran down the stairs. In the kitchen, a warm box waited for her with a note “for Quinn” on the top. Could she trust it? They might make her sick or poison her. Well, at least she’d get out of the work. Or die, then it would all be over. Quinn shrugged. What did she have to lose? Quinn opened the box. An egg sandwich. She pulled it apart, but it looked and smelled normal. Good even. She gobbled it, grateful to have real, hot food, but aware she was cutting the time close. She left the box in the autocleaner and ran to class.

Getting to her seat just before Instructor Stefano entered, she breathed a sigh of relief. That relief was short-lived. Stefano entered, glaring at her. What did she do to him? Quinn couldn’t take much more of this. The next two hours passed like eight. Every question was aimed at her and Stefano’s biting wit was on full display. She’d cry, but she refused to give him the satisfaction. Even the students who hated her the most seemed sympathetic.

“Student Quinn, stay. The rest of you are dismissed.”

The other students ran out the door, jamming it up in their hurry to leave the tower of anger and impatience the normally even-tempered Instructor Stefano had become.

Quinn stood by her desk, straight and tall. She wouldn’t let this man intimidate her.

“My office, Student Quinn.”

Uh oh. She followed him out the back door of the classroom, almost jogging to keep up with his long strides. She’d never been back here—it was off-limits to students unless escorted by an instructor. Stefano marched down the narrow hall, passing many closed doors, all with nameplates of classrooms, then instructors. He opened one door, motioned her inside, and slammed it shut behind her. Quinn stayed by the door, in case she needed to make a quick escape. She’d never gotten any truly creepy feelings about Stefano, but some people were better at hiding than others.

Leaving her standing there, he walked behind his desk and sat. “Student Quinn, I do not understand what you are doing here. You seem to be incapable of answering the simplest questions or studying enough to answer those questions. You are wasting my time.”

Quinn stared straight ahead, unwilling to let this man see her pain. Catching glimpses of him sweeping through screens and doing something on his desk as he ranted at her, she tipped her head down slightly to see better.

“Ah. Prerecorded vid in place.” Stefano’s voice was calm. “Have a seat, Quinn. Sorry about that, had to make it clear to the administration that I was falling in line with their plans.”

Quinn sat, but considered him warily. It could be a trap.

“Yes, this could be a trap. But at this point, what do you have left to lose?” He quirked his lips and brows.

“Nothing.”

“Except you do. Your life and your freedom.” His face and voice were grim. “You must be wondering why everyone is targeting you, right?”

“Yes, Instructor Stefano, I am.”

“Unfortunately for you, you arrived at exactly the wrong time. As I’m sure you have guessed, a Familia organization bought this school about two months ago. Since your arrival, you have attracted the attention of two powerful individuals. One is Gianna. She’s not just a student here, but the daughter of a very high-ranking individual in Familia who spoils her. She’s a terrible person. You’re much better at everything net related than she’ll ever be, and you’re pretty in a way she will never be, because you’re kind, and that gives you inner beauty. Also, you don’t back down. All of that makes you a perfect target for her.” He snorted.

Stefano shook his head. “You have a much bigger problem, though. You’ve attracted the attention of Familia’s Head Enforcer, Enzo. He has a lot of power. In disputes between Familia, he’s the one who punishes the loser. In many cases, that means death, for a lot of people, and the destruction of businesses and organizations. He’s told the staff they must test you, push your limits, so he can see what you’re made of beyond your extreme fitness challenge performances.”

Shock jolted through Quinn. People were watching her train?

Stefano scowled. “I hate to tell you this, but your determination is your downfall. You’ll do much better if you whine and cry and carry on. Enzo hates crying women. If he sees you like that, he’ll leave you alone. And if Enzo isn’t interested in you, then Gianna might not hate you quite as much either.” He shrugged. “Or so I hope. Either way, at this point you have little to lose by trying the whining and crying route because your fortitude is backfiring. Quinn, you must break down. Whine, cry, sob. Do it all and often, then they might leave you alone.” He shook his head, glowering. “Maybe. It’s your only chance to survive.”

Quinn bit her lip. “If I do, it might become real.”

“I’m so, so sorry. You’re smart and you’re good at net work—really good. I know this situation is horrible, and under normal circumstances, I would never advise you to take this course, but it’s the only solution I can see for now.” He sighed. “And to make everything worse, this is the only time I can do this, Quinn. If I try to talk to you in private again, I’ll probably end up dead.”

Stefano closed his eyes and dropped his head, rubbing his eyes for a moment. Then he looked up, straight into her eyes. “If you get the chance to leave this school, such as a trip to town, do it. Don’t hesitate. Run, far away, and don’t come back. Don’t return to Cygnus either. You need to hide, somewhere Familia can’t find you easily. Do whatever you have to do to survive. I’ll make sure you get extra lessons, so you can get ahead, and if I ever hear that you are going on a trip outside the Academy grounds, I’ll do my best to get a clean e-torc and a credit chip to you, but I can’t promise it will happen.”

He swallowed hard and stood. “Now, leave. Break into tears and run. If you run to the end of the hallway, you’ll end up outside, near the dorms. You’re already late for your next class, so just run to your dorm room. Tell them I said you were terrible at this, you have no talent, no drive, no ability. Cry and whine when you get in trouble. Understood?”

Quinn dropped her head and sniffled. “I don’t want to, but I will.” She looked up at him again. “Thank you. May the Mother bless you.”

“Take care, Quinn. Safe folds.” He swallowed hard and blinked rapidly, then turned away, doing something on his holo.

She squeezed her eyes shut, thought about how she felt today during class, and let herself feel the fear and despair. A sob broke loose, surprisingly loud. Quinn fell into her emotions and bawled. She stumbled to the door and opened it, and ran down the hall, one hand on the wall because she was crying so hard she couldn’t see. By the Mother, she hated everything about this place.

Scrubbing the tears away enough to see, she ran back to the dorm and up the stairs, slamming into her room and plopping down on the bed. Quinn cried, wailed and sobbed until she was dehydrated.

Her door hit the wall with a bang. “Student Quinn Cygnus, you have class,” House Mistress Vormer snapped. “Why are you here? What is this unseemly display?”

Quinn ignored her and kept blubbering.

A hand clamped on her shoulder and rolled her over, then shook her. “I asked you a question, Student Quinn.”

She blinked up at Vormer. “Why?” she wailed. “Why bother? They all say I’m terrible, I’ll never succeed, they all hate me, so why?”

Vormer dropped her and stepped back. “Why? Because you have a duty and a debt. You are here, you are a student, you will go to class, study and do your chores, or you will not like the results.”

“What debt? I’m here on scholarship and the Sisters paid for half of my school.” Quinn wiped her eyes and blew her nose.

Vormer snorted. “Your scholarship is repaid by service. You owe three years of work for every year here. The tiny amount your precious Sisters paid is nothing, it doesn’t even cover the cost of your food.”

“What?!” Quinn stared up at Vormer with real horror. “That’s not true. I read every word of the paperwork. It was a scholarship, not an indentured servant contract!”

“That was under the old owners. The updated terms are right here, in your files, Student Quinn,” Vormer sneered, sweeping a link to her e-torc. “It’s stated very clearly. If you didn’t bother to read these, that’s not my problem.”

“I read everything! This wasn’t here!”

“It certainly was. Student Quinn, calling me a liar will not end well for you.” The narrow-eyed glare promised retribution.

Quinn stared up at the harridan. Suddenly recalling Stefano’s advice, she dropped her head and started wailing again.

“Student Quinn, stop this nonsense immediately. You will control yourself, clean up, and go to class. Now.”

Quinn kept crying and wailing. She wasn’t faking it—indenture was one step up from slavery. In most cases, it was slavery, because somehow, the terms of the contract were never completed. How would she ever get out of this? Especially with Familia.

“Totally unsuitable.” Vormer turned on her heel and spoke over her shoulder. “You are confined to quarters. A meal will be brought to you. You will keep both bathrooms and the public areas on this floor sparkling for the next seven days.” At the door, she turned back. “After that, you will conduct yourself properly, or the next punishment will be worse. Do you understand?”

Quinn just cried harder. Now, she wasn’t faking it. All alone, no hope of rescue, enemies everywhere, nothing but a cleaning drudge, and the possibility of worse? Why not cry? There was nothing else left to do.

#

Quinn stood in the girl’s bathroom with her mop. Suzette sneered at her and shoved her, hard. Making it look like part of her stumble, Quinn wacked her ankle with the mop handle with a loud crack. Suzette wailed.

“Sorry,” Quinn muttered from her half-collapsed position against the wall. “It was an accident.”

One of the other girls helped Suzette limp out and the others glared on their way out.

When they were gone, Quinn started cleaning. Most of it wasn’t too bad, but it took a long time. Probably because she just didn’t care. Why go fast? She was stuck here all day, doing nothing but cleaning. Her access to everything else was cut off. The only thing that came over her e-torc was school-wide announcements and messages directly to her—assignments she couldn’t complete because she wasn’t allowed access to the student net.

She finished that sani-mod and started on the next. When she got back to her room, her only meal of the day waited—a plain plas package with a single emergency ration. She wasn’t hungry, but Quinn swallowed a glass of water and ate it slowly. She’d learned if she didn’t eat it all, the rest disappeared. After she finished, she drank another glass of water, hoping to stop the renewed rumbling of her partially-satisfied stomach. Then she started cleaning the hallway. She wanted to sleep, but she wasn’t allowed to. Even at night, she only got an hour or two at a time, alarms ringing at unpredictable times. After six days of cleaning, the entire place sparkled. And her head swam if she stood up too quickly.

Polishing the baseboards with a cloth, she stopped when a pair of feet appeared. Looking up, she saw the face of Fitness Instructor Switz. “What, by all that is holy, are you doing?”

“Cleaning, Instructor Switz.”

“Why?”

“Because that is my assigned task.”

“Stand up!”

Quinn climbed slowly to her feet, putting a hand on the wall when black dots spun around her.

“What in—Vormer! What are you doing to this child!” Switz yelled into her holo.

It must be in privacy mode because Quinn couldn’t hear Vormer’s reply.

“She’s about to pass out, you idiot,” Switz snarled. “She was muscle and bone six days ago, now she’s just bone. She was an extreme athlete. She’s cannibalizing her muscles to stay alive. You could survive such a thing just fine, but she cannot. She was a growing child and you’ve just set that growth back, significantly. Stupid woman.” She swept the holo away, glaring. “Come, Student Quinn, let’s get you to the medico.” Switz wrapped an arm around her and half-carried her down the stairs. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

Quinn wasn’t sure if Switz meant her or Vormer. She didn’t care. Finally, they reached a medico station, the sharp smell of disinfectant rousing her. Switz settled her on the med float. Appendages appeared and attached themselves, including a clamp around her arm, followed by a needle and fluid. Switz waited until the diagnosis appeared, read it, and stomped away.

Quinn read the diagnoses on the holo above her. Electrolyte imbalance, sudden weight loss, muscle tone atrophy, possible sleep deprivation, poor physical condition overall. Without treatment, death by starvation was possible. Assess for eating disorders.

Quinn tried to laugh, but couldn’t. Was not allowed to eat considered an eating disorder? Unintelligible, strident voices penetrated the medico walls, growing from two women to a third and a couple of men. She didn’t feel sorry for Vormer, not one little bit. Vormer deserved verbal abuse and more for her stupidity.

The medico chimed. Electrolytes and glucose would be administered slowly in a warm solution, to avoid shock. The patient was counseled to sleep, but medication wasn’t recommended due to possible unintended side effects. Quinn closed her eyes against the pain of sudden hope. Not willing to consider a foolish notion, she concentrated on her breathing and prayed to the Mother for oblivion.

A chime sounded and Quinn woke. Blinking, she tried to wipe the sleep away from her eyes, but she couldn’t move her arm. She looked down her body, seeing her right arm was clamped to the bed, an IV flowing into it. Oh. Now she remembered. She was in the medico—she’d gotten up to use the sani-mod a couple of times, then dropped right back into sleep. She looked at her left arm; it was free. Quinn swiped at the holo above her for her patient status. Electrolytes and fluids back in balance, feeding protocols prescribed, bed rest for another day, then a slow return to activity.

The question was, would the Academy actually allow her to slowly recover? She probably shouldn’t have taken Stefano’s suggestion to such an extreme. Quinn snorted. Like she’d had a choice. But she’d learned a valuable lesson: she was vulnerable in a way she hadn’t previously considered. And reasonable reactions sometimes created unreasonable reactions.

“Ah, Student Quinn, you are awake.” Despite her medico-green clothing, the woman who entered had the Familia look and Quinn’s heart sank. “Excellent. Since you were deprived of adequate nutrition and rest for a relatively short time, I think your recovery will be relatively short as well and you’ll be back to normal activity soon. I’ve put together a schedule for you, based on your previous student schedule.” The woman’s heavy dark brows formed a deep V. “I have reviewed your records and many vids of your experiences. Changes are being put in place to avoid further issues between students. This kind of harassment is not appropriate. Additional staff training has been mandated as well.”

She held up a hand. “I understand you may not think this will be in your best interest since others are bound to blame you for their poor behavior. I have recommended you be enrolled in a different school, but I hear this isn’t possible. So, I have made it clear the medico community here at Adzari will be monitoring you often and at random times. I believe some of the administration will also be monitoring you. While I would normally tell a student to ignore bullies unless physical harm results, in your case, you will notify me immediately of any and all issues. Is this understood?”

“Yes, Medico…” Quinn winced, knowing she couldn’t name the woman.

“Medico Lucia. You’ll get your e-torc back shortly.” Lucia did something and the needle on her arms was withdrawn, a sealant sprayed on, and the clamp withdrawn. “Your clothes are there, on the chair,” Lucia pointed toward Quinn’s feet. “Let’s get you up, slowly, and then you can get dressed.” Lucia helped her sit up and get out of the bed, waiting until Quinn was steady.

The room didn’t spin, nor did black spots appear, but she did feel weak. “Medico Lucia, how long have I been here?”

She chuckled. “About forty-eight hours. Most of those, you were asleep. Trust me, you needed it. Follow my prescriptions, Quinn, including the full amount of sleep, and you’ll be back to extreme athletic pursuits soon. Then Switz will get off my back.” The last was muttered.

“Thank you, Medico Lucia.”

“You’re welcome, Student Quinn. By the way, Student Gianna will no longer be a problem. Her family found they needed her at home. Hopefully, she’ll be doing something better suited to her talents.” Lucia’s nose wrinkled. “Most of her instructors tell me she won’t be missed. Student Suzette has been moved to a different school since her inclinations seem to run more to business than net. I’m sure she’ll do well there. Take advantage of this time, Student Quinn. Try to forge some connections here so you’re not alone when the next bully pops up because you know one will. Oh, and try to avoid the third-years, boys and girls.” Lucia scowled. “Gianna was quite popular.”

Great. Like she could do that easily. But maybe with Gianna gone, some of the first-year students would be friendly. “Thank you, Medico Lucia, for your care.”

“You are welcome. Don’t waste it.” The door shut on Medico Lucia’s frowning face.

Quinn got to her feet and left the small medico facility. If she remembered correctly, the rest of the academy wasn’t too far away. She set off down the path at a slow walk but had to rest at the next bench. A float bike zipped by her, then turned back. “Student Quinn, what are you doing?”

“Going back to the dorms, Instructor Stefano.” She stood, unwilling to give the man who, unwittingly or not, engineered her downfall any kind of advantage.

“I am certain you are not supposed to be walking any great distances yet, Student Quinn.”

She sighed. “Well, I have to get back to the dorms somehow, don’t I?”

“You should have called for a ride.”

“I don’t have my e-torc.”

His head dropped to his chest. “Of course.” He huffed and raised his head. “Because it’s on my desk for reprogramming. Your health will now be monitored continuously.” His mouth twisted and he shrugged. “Get on.” Stefano pushed his thumb over his shoulder. “I’ll give you a lift and bring your e-torc to you after that.”

“Is that allowed?”

“I don’t care, Student Quinn, because I’m not letting you collapse and relapse. Get on.” He spoke staring straight ahead.

Quinn sighed and climbed on the lift bike. She had no choice but to put her arms around the instructor, so she did, lightly.

He started forward gently and gradually gained speed, but not much. Riding along the paths, it was only a minute or two before they reached the dorms.

“Thank you, Instructor Stefano, for the ride.”

“You are welcome, Student Quinn. I’ll send your e-torc over shortly.” He zipped away without a glance. He didn’t like being near her but wouldn’t leave her to stumble along either. Maybe this is what having an older brother was like? Stefano was probably as close to it as she’d ever come.

Taking a deep breath, Quinn entered the dorm. No one in sight. She started up the stairs, resting at each landing, and made her way down the hallway to her room. Entering her room, she was relieved to see nothing had been touched or moved. Good. She didn’t feel like cleaning, that was for sure. She didn’t really feel like staying here, either, but right now, she had no choice. She laid back on the bed and stared at the ceiling.

A knock sounded. “Come in.”

Lise stuck her head in. “Can I come in?”

“I said so, didn’t I?”

She shrugged. “Yes but…” Lise flicked her fingers. “It doesn’t matter. Here’s your e-torc.” She held it out to Quinn. “Instructor Stefano asked me to give it to you.”

“Thanks.” Quinn took it and slid it around her neck. She didn’t feel the relief she’d normally feel. No, she felt trapped.

“Quinn?” Lise asked plaintively.

“Yes?”

“Can we start over? Now that Suzette and Gianna are gone, I’d like to see if we can be friends. We all would.”

Quinn forced a smile. “Sure, we can try.”

“Oh, good. Why don’t you come to dinner with us tonight?” Lise’s relief seemed real.

“Okay.” She nodded. “Thanks.”

“Of course. I’ll come get you.” Lise shut the door quietly.

Quinn pulled up her e-torc interface. A medico alert waited, so she brought that up first. Oh, her recovery schedule. This didn’t look too bad, except asking for special meals at the dining facility was bound to bring unwelcome attention. Nothing to be done about that, was there? Something seemed different about her interface. She swept through the screens and files. Well, it was faster for one. And…interesting. A privacy mode? She never had that before. Quinn bit her lip and pulled it up. A message waited, but it didn’t have a “From” field filled in.

Well, what did she have to lose? Quinn selected it. The message flashed and said, “Identity confirmed. Standby.” Dread warred with hope. Finally, the message came up. “Quinn, this is a message for your eyes only. Only access this messaging system while you are out walking or jogging the farther reaches of the campus. Or the Adzari garden, never in your room or any academy building. Next time you access this system, you will be asked for a passphrase, a six-digit personal identification number and to hold up both hands for printing.”

Quinn shrugged. Why not try?  If it was a trick, they wouldn’t spring anything on her for just accessing it; after all, it was on her academy-supplied e-torc, recently inspected by Instructor Stefano.

“Once you have completed this task, the system will let us know. If someone other than you uses your e-torc, this message and system will disappear. We’ll find a way to get it to you again. Hang on. Help is coming.”

Quinn took a breath, hope lightening her thoughts, but it crashed quickly. It was a trick, that was all, just a mean trick. She swept it away and decided a nap before dinner was a better idea than trying to make it down and back up the stairs again for a minuscule chance of help. She locked her door and slept.

#

Lise set a tray down in front of Quinn. “Yours looks better than ours.”

“Thanks. Trust me, you don’t want to do what I did just for better food.”

“No, I suppose not,” Selena said. “Besides, I’m not an athlete. If I ate that, it would go straight to my hips.” She giggled softly, drawing the attention of the boys at the next table. Not that she needed to giggle—she was beautiful. Warm tan skin, long, thick, dark brown hair, big milk chocolate eyes, and lush lips, curved in a secretive smile, Selena was a boy’s favorite dream. “I have enough trouble with the fitness instructors.” She frowned at her salad.

“You have good reflexes, Student Selena, you should try tennis or handball,” Zara said. Tall and thin, with espresso-dark skin and eyes, Zara was elegant and ran like the wind.

Selena shuddered. “Balls whizzing at my face? No, thank you.”

“When you put some effort into it, you can dance,” Issa said. Isabella was Familia; she claimed it proudly. She had been a competitive dancer until an ankle injury prevented her from serious training.

“That’s my only saving grace,” Selena said. “I shake my hips and they all lose their minds.” She laughed and wrinkled her nose.

“They’re sexy hips,” Tai said. “I wish I had hips or any shape at all.” Tai’s heritage looked similar to Quinn’s: black hair, tilted dark brown eyes, and umber skin. Tai was a little taller than Quinn, but not by much.

“Me too,” Quinn told her.

“You two are tiny,” Mariah said. She was tall and broad, light-skinned with pale blue eyes. A powerlifter, she’d been ranked at the constellation level, but decided she hated it when she hit puberty. Her parents weren’t happy with her decision and shipped her off here, but she loved net work, so it had worked out well from her perspective.

“They might grow still.” Amaya shrugged. “They’re still young.” At sixteen, she was the oldest first-year student. Cinnamon-brown skin, dark chocolate eyes, heavy, dark brown hair, and eyebrows, with a rather beaky nose, Amaya wasn’t conventionally pretty, but she seemed nicer than most of the girls. Maybe because she knew what it was like to be shunned. She said her family sent her here over religious differences.

“I doubt it,” Tai replied. “I look like my aunts. Student Quinn looks a lot like some of the other families on Hiro, so I doubt she’ll grow either.”

“Shh. Don’t say that,” Issa hissed.

“Why not?” Lise asked. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Issa shook her head almost violently. “No, it isn’t. So, Student Selena, why not dance for your fitness?” she asked in a much louder tone.

“Because they all lose their minds!” She flung her hands up. “Dance is supposed to be fun. They make it work.” Selena pouted.

Quinn and the rest laughed. Switz and the other fitness instructors did have a way of sucking joy out of their workouts. It seemed odd to Quinn—they were in a net school, not in some university where they could compete at a constellation level. But everything was odd here and it was getting stranger by the day. When she went looking for the documents Mistress Vormer told her about, committing her to repay her schooling with service, she found nothing. Quinn was sure they’d spring it on all of them right before graduation.

Don’t think about that right now, Quinn! She pasted a happy smile back on her face.

“Students should be eating, not chatting,” Vormer sneered. “Especially you, Quinn. You must recover quickly.”

“Yes, Mistress Vormer,” Quinn said meekly, the others chiming in. Quinn ate, trying to enjoy the unusually good food, but it was hard with Vormer glaring at her. Vormer blamed Quinn for the mess she’d created with her starvation work plan. Quinn wanted to glare back, but her life was miserable enough. She didn’t need to make it worse.

“After dinner, Selena, you will accompany Quinn while she does her prescribed walking. You need to exceed your step count requirement.” Vormer stomped away.

“Cow,” Selena muttered. Lise punched her arm and Selena rolled her eyes. “She needs the exercise more than I do.” She huffed, exasperated, at their attempts to shush her. “It will be my pleasure to accompany you, Student Quinn.”

“Thanks, Student Selena. I’ll be happy to have company.” She kept shoveling food in her mouth until she couldn’t eat another bite. “Ugh. Too full. You guys have the rest.”

“Are you sure? You’re supposed to eat all of it,” Amaya said.

“I really can’t. I’m stuffed.”

After casting a few glances around, the girls made short work of the rest.

“Oh, that is good,” Selena moaned. “Good thing there isn’t more.”

Quinn smiled. They might be forced to include her, but at least she could sweeten the deal a little. “Are you ready to get the mandatory walk done?”

“Sure. May as well get it over,” Selena said.

“We’ll see you back at the dorm,” Lise said.

“Sure.” Quinn got up and Selena joined her, walking out of the dining hall and down the path away from the dorms.

“How far are you supposed to go?” Selena asked.

“Just a kilometer today, two tomorrow, three the next. Then I can add in some jogging.” Quinn grimaced.

“Ugh. That sounds horrible.”

“It’s depressing. I could sprint a kilometer and easily run ten before all this.”

“I don’t understand why this hit you so hard and so fast,” Selena said. “I know you’re thin and small, but still…”

Quinn grimaced. “They said it’s because I was under so much stress and training at a very high level. Most people would be just fine after five days of almost no food, but not me. Aren’t I lucky?”

Selena shrugged. “Actually, you are. You could be dead. It’s a good thing Instructor Switz came looking for you because all of us were too scared to say anything.” She sighed. “I’m really sorry about that. We were scared, but that’s not a good excuse for letting someone almost die.”

Quinn sighed. “I get it. I really do. I think we’re all scared. If I wasn’t so scared, I would have confronted someone or asked for help. Instead, I convinced myself I was worthless. I know I’m not, but after weeks of being told that…”

“And I get that. I am truly sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it.” Quinn scanned the area. “Hey, the Adzari garden is right there. Want to come with me for my mandated rest period?”

“Ugh. I have two more kilometers to walk than you do. How about you go rest, I’ll walk and come back and pick you up? You have plenty of study materials to catch up on, right?”

“Yes. Great idea. See you in a bit.”

“Half an hour or so,” Selena said, sauntering off.

Quinn snorted. At the pace Selena was walking, it would be more like an hour. One of the second-year boys jogged up to her, then fell in next to her. A giggle floated back. Quinn chuckled. Maybe even longer.

Quinn walked into the Azari garden, looking around. It was beautiful, but it would be very easy to hide multiple vids in here. On the other hand, this is one of the places the message said was safe. Quinn sat on a bench and brought up some of her net homework. Working through it, she finished it quickly. She brought up the next homework assignment, but also brought up the message.

If there were vids here, and someone inside the school sent her the message, then they should have enough vid of her sitting here, working, to loop it and fool the casual observer.

“Set a passphrase, a six-digit personal identification number, and hold up both hands for printing.”

Quinn said, “Passphrase: Ferra is a sand flea.”

“Passphrase saved. Six digits?”

“170142.”

“PIN saved. Hold up both hands, and stare straight ahead, please.”

Quinn did so.

“Security complete. You will be notified over the normal messaging system. The sender will be Administrator Swan and all security items will be required to decrypt the message. System entering dormant mode.”

Everything disappeared except for her homework. Huh. Well, she’d have to wait and see what happened, if anything. Quinn started her next homework assignment, determined to learn as much as she could no matter what happened.

#

Quinn laughed with Selena. Poor Mariah was so easy to tease. Unlike Selena, who would keep a joke going long after it ceased to be funny, Quinn couldn’t stand to see anyone unhappy for long. “We’re just kidding, Mariah,” Quinn told her, sweeping the real net program she’d written into the shared student space.

“Ohh, you two!” Mariah glared. “Why did I save your ungrateful hide?” She looked shocked for a moment and clapped both hands over her mouth.

Quinn stared at her, astounded. Mariah was the one who told Switz Quinn was in trouble?

Selena laughed long and hard, with her entire body, and then got up and danced around the room. “Fooled you! Hah. You’ll always save my sexy self, Student Mariah. You just can’t help yourself, because I’m that awesome.”

Quinn laughed with Selena, her laughter sounding far more forced than Selena’s. Thank the Mother for Selena, because her quick reactions had saved them from unwanted attention several times.

Mariah glared at her. “Yeah, yeah. This better be perfect, Student Selena.” She turned back and started working to incorporate their parts of the program into her framework. “I know I don’t have to worry about Student Quinn, but you…”

Quinn let her laughter die and went back to working on the documentation for the program. Documentation was the worst. So boring. But she knew it was important because part of their lessons was attempting to use the net programs the other groups designed. Sometimes, that was practically impossible because the instructions were so bad. A clever interface couldn’t make up for everything.

They’d been warned that in future lessons, they would need to incorporate all the small group efforts into a larger whole, which meant finding and correcting the mistakes of others. None of them wanted to make that difficult, because their class rank depended not only on their individual efforts but on their willingness to be team players and their leadership skills.

Quinn concentrated on her task because she knew her face gave away her thoughts too easily. If she let herself think about Mariah’s statement, she might cry. She’d always wondered who tipped Switz off; Switz herself told Quinn she’d been left a written message saying Quinn’s life was in danger and she had no idea who wrote or delivered it. Mariah made sense because she used the same part of the fitness facilities Quinn and Switz did, but Quinn had always thought Mariah barely tolerated her, let alone liked her enough to risk disobeying Vollmer.

But, Mariah’s sense of right and wrong was very black and white. She followed the rules until she thought they were wrong, then she fought them long past any hope of winning or even stalemate. She’d been threatened with expulsion several times, but it didn’t seem to bother her much. Probably because her parents still loved and supported her, despite Mariah crushing their hopes and dreams of making her a Universe-wide sports star. Mariah had brothers who were already stars, and she planned to support the family business with her net skills. She didn’t need to graduate for that; she was good enough right now.

Quinn dropped some hints, but it seemed most of the other first-year students hadn’t been threatened with the changed school contract. Whether that was because President Rias Bel was going to spring it on them later, just before graduation, or because some of them had powerful parents, Quinn didn’t know. She did know that Lise, Zara, Tai, and most of the first-year boys were in the same boat she was; poor and dependent on scholarships, mostly directly from Adzari Academy.

She didn’t trust any of the students fully. Any one of them could be reporting on her to the administration, willingly or not. The altered scholarship contract had appeared in the special messaging system, then disappeared after she read it. She hadn’t seen any other messages come through, and she still didn’t know if the people running the system were really trying to help her or if it was all a sick game on the part of the Academy.

Quinn finished off the documentation. “Done.”

“Good,” Mariah said. “And great job on the program, too. Student Selena, you’re a pain but when you actually work, you do a good job. I’ve integrated all of it, and it’s running smoothly. If you two want to test it, I’ll review the documentation.”

“Of course, Student Mariah.”

“Sure,” Selena said. “Then it’s dinner time! Finally.”

Quinn laughed. Trust Selena to concentrate on the important things.

#

“Come on, Quinn, you have to have some fun,” Selena said.

“Student Selena, that’s Student Quinn to you,” Vormer’s unpleasant voice said.

“Oh, of course, House Mistress Vormer. It won’t happen again,” Selena blinked up at her innocently.

Quinn kept her face straight with some effort, but she managed it. Selena said, “it won’t happen again,” time after time, but the Administration’s efforts to change her were useless. Last time she’d been punished, restricted to her dorm room, her father, a popular politician here on Omicron, showed up for a visit and took her away for three days. When Selena came back, her family brought a big party along with them: food, drinks, and a dance band, setting up everything in a big tent on one of the sports fields. They also brought local media along to vid Selena’s father making a big donation to the Academy’s scholarship fund—President Rias Bel’s jaw was so tight, Quinn thought she might break teeth.

No one knew how Selena was getting word to her family, but Quinn suspected code words similar to hers. Every week Quinn sent a message back to the Sisters, including the code words telling them not to send anyone else. She had no idea if her messages were getting through—she’d only gotten one back from the Sisters shortly after she got here. Quinn wouldn’t even bother sending more, but the Administration insisted.

“Well, Student Quinn?” Selena asked archly. “What else are you going to do? Sit in your room and study? So boring. Come on, it’s not like we’re going dive hopping in the spaceport; we’re going to my family’s compound on North Island. It’s very safe and secure.” Selena tilted her head and tapped her lips. “I know! What if I let you talk to the security guys on the compound! You can ask them all kinds of questions and stuff. But!” She held up a finger. “You have to make time for me and enjoy yourself. You only get an hour a day with security.”

Quinn bit her lip. “Two.”

“One and a half.” Selena raised a single brow.

“Deal.”

“You’re so ridiculous. This shouldn’t even be a discussion!” Selena threw up her hands. “Who else turns down a chance to relax someplace beautiful?”

Someone who won’t be allowed to leave the Academy? The question was, how badly would it impact Selena’s family?

“But…”

Selena scowled. “But?”

“Only if the Administration allows it. If they don’t, please don’t fight it. Please?” Quinn widened her eyes pleadingly.

Selena narrowed her eyes in return. “Agreed. I understand. My father has fought the Administration enough lately.”

And she was sure Selena understood more than Quinn knew.

#

Unfortunately, Quinn was right. At the shuttle pad, Selena hugged her. “Get out of your room, girl, even if I’m not here to drag you out.” She stood back and took Quinn by the shoulders. “Take care. Best of luck.” Her expression was mournful and Quinn knew Selena wasn’t coming back. Selena hugged her tight again, then let her go.

“You too, Selena.” Quinn forced a smile. “May the Mother bless us both.”

Selena walked to her father, sliding an arm around his waist, and he pulled her in close, his arm around her shoulder.

What would it be like to have someone care that much about you? Someone willing to fight Familia for you? Selena and her father waved at her from the hatch, then the Quinn had to leave the area. The shuttle took off, taking her best friend with it.

Well, at least she had other friends here. Selena was the most fun, but the rest of them still had each other. And she knew Selena was safe—that was worth the pain of losing her.

#

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

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