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.
Quinn woke to a chiming sound. Without an e-torc, she had no idea what time it was or when she was expected to be ready. After a remote delivered her dinner last night, she’d inspected her entire room, but found no way to control the large viewing screen or anything else in the room. After discovering the door was locked, she’d spent a very boring evening fruitlessly searching for control panels and singing kid’s songs to herself. With nothing to do, she’d finally given up and gone to bed. Despite the extremely comfortable bed, she hadn’t slept well.
For one, the topical painkillers applied to her tattoo and tracker insertion point wore off, so her only comfortable sleeping position was on her right side. And that wasn’t particularly comfortable either. Quinn pleaded for pain relief pills in the sani-mod but got nothing. Either no one was watching, no one cared, or she was missing something.
The most obvious thing she was missing was an e-torc. Quinn desperately hoped she’d get one today, as Medico Natali claimed.
The chime kept ringing, so Quinn said, “Acknowledged.” That didn’t help. “Understood.” Nope. “I’m getting up already!” She sighed and rolled out of bed, gasping at the pain and grabbing her lower belly, making the pain worse. She wiped away the tears. “Ow.”
The stupid chime just kept going. Was it the door? Quinn took the few steps over and opened it. A woman stood there. She had the too-familiar Familia look—dark brown hair and eyes, olive-toned skin, and a slightly beaky nose. Medium height and girth—much bigger than Quinn but who wasn’t?—she was dressed in a dark gray shipsuit similar to the ones in Quinn’s sani-mod and seemed to be young, but not a child. She wore subtle makeup.
“Why aren’t you dressed? It’s time for your orientation, Trainee Quinn,” the woman snapped.
“Because I have no idea what time it is or what I’m supposed to be doing!” Quinn whined. “Nobody’s told me anything!”
“It’s on your schedule.”
“What schedule? I don’t have a schedule!”
The woman’s gaze finally narrowed in on Quinn’s neck. “Oh.” She sighed. “An e-torc was supposed to be delivered last night with your dinner.”
“Well, it wasn’t.” Quinn stomped her foot like a little kid.
“I see that. Go shower and dress. Wear one of the shipsuits and black shoes like these,” she pointed at her feet. “I’ll send a remote with breakfast and I’ll return when I find your assigned e-torc.”
“Thank you,” Quinn said, truly grateful. The woman turned to go. “Hey, what’s your name?”
“I’m Net Technician Paola. You can call me Tech Paola.”
“Thank you, Tech Paola.”
Paola nodded and closed the door between them. Quinn didn’t bother to check; she was sure it was locked. Instead, she did as she was told: showering and dressing. But rather than the black shoes, she wore black boots. She wasn’t armed and had little hope of protecting herself against anyone larger than she was—which was almost everyone—but the boots gave her a small edge.
She finger-combed her hair to the best of her ability and brushed her teeth. At least the shower and toothbrushes weren’t net-enabled. Although, she suspected the shower controls could be adjusted with an e-torc. She hoped so, because being blasted by every nozzle in the shower at full strength was a bit much, especially on her stomach and the insertion site on her back.
Quinn slumped in the chair, trying to wait patiently. It was the only thing she could do—moving hurt too much.
The door chime sounded and Quinn forced herself off the chair. Tech Paola was there, holding out an e-torc.
“Thank you!” Quinn said, placing it around her neck. She immediately spun through the menus, looking for her room controls.
“Come now, Trainee Quinn. We’re late.”
Paola turned back. “What?”
“I need some pain meds.”
“I can take you to the medico.”
“They said they’d prescribe me some.”
“Ah, then into the sani-mod you go.” Paola shooed her that way. “When you enter, your e-torc will automatically bring the controls up. Look for the medico menu and select ‘my medications.’ It will dispense inside the cabinet above the sink.”
Quinn hurried into the sani-mod, watching her e-torc. Sure enough, the controls appeared and she selected the ones specified. When she opened the cabinet above the sink, a slot opened, and a pill waited. She pulled it out and took it. Her e-torc sent her an alert and she selected it. Another medication? She looked at the slot. A small tube this time. The instructions said, “Apply topically every eight hours.” Quinn shimmied out of the top of her shipsuit, letting it drop, and pulled the cap off the tube. It was a spray, so she sprayed the tattoo and the insertion point for the tracker. Ah, relief.
A gasp sounded loud in the sani-mod. Quinn looked up to see Paola’s eyes wide, staring at the ugly tattoo, her hand covering her mouth. Quinn pulled her shipsuit up and fastened it. When she looked at Paola again, the technician’s expression was neutral.
Quinn scowled. “I didn’t ask for this and nobody asked me. They just did it.”
“I see. Well, Trainee Quinn, let’s go. We’re behind schedule.” Paola turned and marched away, Quinn scrambling to keep up with her. Paola stopped just outside the door. “Your e-torc should bring up your compartment menus when you near the hatch. But if it doesn’t, you’re looking for ‘My Compartment Controls.’ Is that clear?”
“Yes, Tech Paola.” This was a ship, so it made sense they’d call the rooms compartments.
“Please review all emergency procedures by tomorrow morning. If there’s an emergency, stay in your compartment or workspace. If you’re in the dining hall, fitness facility, or a lounge, follow the instructions on your e-torc. All personnel compartments are vacuum-rated. If a compartment is holed, that means the shields have been breached and it’s unlikely any of us will survive.” Paola flipped a hand. “That’s extremely unlikely. The Chief Justice’s ship has never been attacked. Nobody wants to offend the Justice. That’s a quick trip to a big black hole.”
They came to the lift tube Quinn used yesterday. There were a lot more people around this time. Most wore plain shipsuits in subdued colors, but some wore bright patterns or jewel tones. Quite a few wore mostly black, but the shipsuits also had barely noticeable vertical white stripes, and the top gaped open. Bright white shirts showed beneath, with an odd, thin strip of material hanging from their necks down the center of the shirt in many different colors and patterns. Everyone stepped aside for the black-suited people, so Quinn assumed they were Enforcers.
“Come, we are rising to level seven. You’re on four. Most of us are housed on level six, but you’re a special case, I guess.” Paola stepped into the lift tube and Quinn followed, hoping she timed it so she didn’t run into anyone. She wasn’t used to these things.
She followed Paola off the lift tube and into another corridor. This one looked much like the rest, with wood-like plas flooring and neutral walls, art hanging on the walls. The paintings in this passageway were modern, much of it abstract, but it still looked genuine, not like mass-produced prints. Although, Quinn didn’t know enough about art to know if that was true.
They passed doors—no, wait, they were on a ship, so they’d be hatches—all unlabeled. “There’s a map on your e-torc. We don’t put visible markers on hatches, just in case attackers board us.” Paola shrugged. “But of course, no one would dare.” Finally, they stopped at a hatch just before another lift tube, the corridor continuing beyond it. This ship was huge!
The door—hatch—slid open and they walked in. The room—no, compartment—contained four workstations; all but one occupied. Each workstation had a very comfortable-looking chair, three, four, or more screens in front of each chair, a side table with bev-tainer holders, and a set of cabinets below the seat. Each workstation had an oval canopy above it, the screens mounted on a pole coming out of the canopy; it was rather like a chair sat inside a giant egg with a hole in one side.
Paola turned to her. “This is the net trainee’s room. The empty workstation is yours. On the left is a sani-mod; on the right, a small galley with drinks and snacks. You’ll see you have two bev-tainers and a keep-warm mug in your storage area. You are responsible for cleaning those. While there is a cleaning staff, everyone is responsible for keeping this compartment tidy. If you leave a mess, expect to be assigned to cleaning the dining room for a week or more.”
At Quinn’s skeptical look, Paola snorted. “This room is under surveillance and your fellow trainees aren’t good enough to subvert the vid. Whoever makes the mess will clean. We expect you to focus on your assigned training. You are all assigned to different subjects. If you have questions, ask your mentor—that’s me—not your fellow trainees. We do encourage you to have meals together and other recreational activities. Hazing is not acceptable. We all have one goal on this ship—help the Chief Justice to perform her mission. Anyone attacking others, physically, mentally or otherwise, is not contributing to the mission and will find themselves assigned to other, less pleasant duties, off this ship. Don’t do that. Report any attempts to me immediately.”
Paola turned to Quinn and stepped close. “And I do mean immediately. My comm is always open to you, Quinn.” She stepped back again. “Trainees, this is Quinn Cygnus, a new trainee. Introduce yourselves on your next break.” She lowered her voice. “Take a seat. Your training will start with properly configuring your workspace, then you’ll be tested on various subjects. Do your best, but don’t randomly guess. Informed guesses are allowed, encouraged even. We need people who are willing to extrapolate when an unknown situation occurs. Once your testing is complete, which will be a full day or more, you’ll be assigned to an area. You’ll work with me and other mentors, but you will be doing very basic work. If you’re good and patient, you’ll be assigned more interesting jobs. Do your job. Don’t snoop. Capisce?”
“Yes, Tech Paola.”
“Good. Get started. If you need me, call.” She turned and walked out of the compartment.
Quinn scanned the other trainees but they were all immersed in their jobs. Or pretended to be immersed. She walked to the empty seat and sat down. Immediately, three screens lowered from the top of the egg and lit up with a “Welcome, Trainee Quinn,” banner. A button with “Ready to get started?” appeared, and she shrugged and selected yes. It would be nice to have some breakfast, but she guessed that could wait. Hopefully, this introduction would tell her what was available and where.
Two hours later, Quinn swept the screens off, and they slid up and away. Her stomach rumbled unhappily, so she pulled her bev-tainers out of the cabinet below her seat and took them to the small snack area. There was a sink, so she washed them all thoroughly, filled one with water, another with a fruit drink and the keep-warm with coffee. When she turned back, she was surrounded.
She stepped back so her back was against the cupboards, dropped her containers on the counter, and faced them.
All the trainees smiled, took a half-step back, and the one right in front of her held up both hands, palms out. He had the typical Familia coloring, but the wrong face shape, with a round face and wide nose. “Don’t worry, we’re just introducing ourselves. We’re not going to attack you. None of us want any trouble. Just tell us who you are and we’ll reply.”
Quinn nodded but remained wary. “I’m Quinn, I’m from Cygnus Secundus. I was at Adzari Net School, but they brought me here after just a year.” She wanted to make sure her fellow trainees underestimated her skills.
“I’m Giovanni, call me Gio, I’m from Valenti, but my family isn’t important in Familia. I got here after I finished Valenti Net School on scholarship.”
The second boy said, “I’m Mario and the same deal.” Mario had the Familia coloring, but like Gio, the face shape was wrong. His was more of a heart shape than a long oval and his nose was short and upturned.
“Hey.” The only girl in the compartment waved once. “I’m Aurora. I was at Adzari too, but I graduated last year. Had a family emergency but that’s,” she swallowed hard, “over now. So here I am.” Aurora didn’t look like Familia. Her skin was deep espresso, her eyes almost black, her hair curly, shorn short on the sides, and waving in a five-centimeter long strip on top. She was striking but not classically beautiful.
“I’m Fabriano and I’m from Sirius. Net school there, got picked up for a job here.”
Quinn didn’t believe him for a second and from the side-eye from the others, they didn’t either. He had the classic Familia look and an unconscious arrogance that said rich kid. She’d seen enough of it at Adzari to know the mannerisms. All her fellow trainees were older than she was by at least three years, but Fabriano was probably ten years older than Quinn.
Gio said, “Since you’re new, we’ll give you the quick version. We take a ten-minute break every hour, and an hour for lunch, kind of like school, but if you need to use the sani-mod, just go. Nobody’s watching that close. They don’t care what hours you work but how much you work. You know, can you get your work done and done right, or do you need more training or are you a goof-off?” He held up a warning hand. “Don’t be a goof-off, you won’t like the results.” He shivered slightly. “Don’t forget where you are. Ever.” He smiled, and it was like a supernova, bright, and blinding. “But you won’t, I can tell.”
“Don’t expect to do anything exciting, even after you finish training,” Mario added. “You’ll be doing basic-level stuff for a long time. After a while, someone will mentor you in their specialty. Paola is our mentor’s supervisor, so you must be a special case.”
Quinn grimaced. “Yeah, special. Lucky me.”
All four snorted or laughed ironically, but said nothing.
Aurora said, “Are you a net gamer? We play most evenings.”
Quinn grinned. “You bet! Which games?”
“It depends on everyone’s mood and what’s been released recently, but there is a nominal schedule. Search for the Net Tech Gaming Schedule, you’ll find it all laid out. You can bounce between the groups and games or stick with one.” Aurora shrugged. “Whatever works for you. Be aware, it’s not limited to just net techs.” She raised her brows. “Anyone can join. Some of the first-person shooter games are very popular with the Enforcers.”
An obvious warning. “Cool, thanks. I’ll look.” They were way over ten minutes. Quinn picked up her bev-tainers.
“Hey, don’t forget snacks,” Fabriano said. “You’re skinny. I’ll bring you some.”
She forced a small smile. “Thanks.” She returned to her workstation and settled in.
“You’re welcome.” Fabriano shoved a stack of five different packages and some sort of fruit between her bev-tainers on the little side table.
Her stomach growled and Fabriano grinned. “Thanks again,” Quinn told him.
He nodded and returned to his workstation.
Quinn chose a protein bar of some sort, ripped the veg plas open, and shoved it in her mouth while she continued watching the orientation. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
“You want me to do what?” Quinn kept herself from screaming, but it was close.
“Tech Paola.” She tapped a toe.
“You forgot my title, Trainee. Don’t forget it again.” Paola glared.
“Yes, Tech Paola. Sorry, Tech Paola.”
“You aren’t, but you should be, and you will be in the future.” Paola turned and left.
“What’s the big deal, Quinn?” Fabriano asked. “Too good for inventory?”
“No.” She stamped her foot. “But I just finished checking every built-in console to make sure they were automatically updating firewalls and anti-virus. I could have done inventory then!”
“You had to document all that, right?” Gio asked. “So why not use the same tracker and just reorder the columns?”
“Because she wants the model numbers too and the identity trackers have to be scanned. Argh!” Quinn threw up her hands.
“Hey, at least it gets you out of here,” Aurora said. “I’d love to be doing something other than checking firewall logs—again.”
“Maybe you can trade?” Fabriano said slyly.
Quinn and Aurora snorted. “Right.” Neither of them was dumb enough to do that. Refusing an order got you some nasty tasks. Trading was considered a refusal.
Quinn filled her bev-tainer and grabbed the net tech cart. She’d learned it was slow and a little wonky, but it was better than carrying everything. Sure, she should be able to scan everything with her e-torc, but in reality, her trainee-level e-torc got over-tasked quickly and slowed to a crawl, especially when interfacing with any other net program. Quinn leashed the cart to her e-torc and walked out the hatch, waving at her friends.
Aurora was right, though. Walking busy work was better than sitting busy work. She’d had plenty of both over the last month. Either way, she’d almost kill to get down on a planet’s surface, feel the wind and the sun. Or even rain. Both were preferable to the perfectly controlled atmosphere of Indomito. She knew it wouldn’t happen though. No one would ever let her off the ship.
Quinn looked at her list. She started with the closest consoles, those in the lounge level, open to everyone on board. Hardly anyone ever used them. Why would they? Everyone had an e-torc. But the e-torc net could go down, or a local net could be temporarily overwhelmed, so the physical consoles stayed. She started on Alpha side, working toward Beta. This huge ship was built in a square, with the four sides labeled Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta, and each level was numbered, so you could generally find your way around, even without any labels on the hatches.
By the time she got halfway through Bravo, she was wishing she’d taken Gio’s suggestion. Maybe Paola wouldn’t notice the missing model numbers? Right. Sure she wouldn’t. Quinn sighed and moved to the next console, halting abruptly. A woman sat at the console. She was using it, even though she wore an e-torc. Quinn blinked, unsure what to do, then realized she was being silly. She’d simply go to the next console and leave this one for later.
“Did you need something?” The woman asked her. She seemed very old, with a wrinkled face and gray hair. But her eyes were lively.
“No, Mistress. I’ll come back later. I have plenty to do.”
“Nonsense. You’re here. I will get a cup of tea.” She stood with some difficulty.
Quinn, worried the woman might fall, asked, “Can I get you that cup of tea instead? You can stay right here.”
“That’s all right. I can do it and leave everything open for you.”
“No, no, I insist. I’ll get the tea. How do you take it?”
“Lemon, please. Get yourself a cup too.”
“Yes, Mistress.” Quinn hurried to the auto-bev, selecting quickly. She couldn’t spend too much time here or Paola would be on her like a sand flea on a desert rat. She trotted back and put down the cup in the slot on the console.
“Did you get a cup?” she asked.
“Mistress, I can’t stay. I have a job to do.” She smiled. “I’ll come back and get this console later.”
“No, no. I insist. Pull up a chair and join me. I’ll let your supervisor know you’re with me. What’s your name, child?”
“Quinn, Mistress. I’m a net technician trainee.”
“You seem a little young to be working. Who’s your supervisor?”
“Net Technician Paola, Mistress.”
The woman very obviously looked up Paola. “She doesn’t have any real authority. How did you come to be on this folder?”
“Enforcer Trevi brought me from Adzari Net Academy, but I don’t think it was her decision either.”
“No?” The woman’s head tilted. “What makes you say that?”
“I don’t think she was very happy about the trip, Mistress, but I might be wrong.” Quinn shrugged, putting a clueless look on her face. Making an enemy of Trevi might be very bad.
“I see.” The woman nodded. “Well, I am Kathe, that’s an ‘e’ on the end, not a ‘y’ or an ‘I’ and I am pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Quinn smiled. “Pleased to meet you, Mistress Kathe. I apologize for not knowing who you are. My e-torc isn’t authorized for facial recognition or tagging.”
“Really? How odd. And none of this ‘Mistress’ nonsense. I’m just Kathe.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed to be that informal.”
“I just said you were. Don’t contradict me, Quinn.”
“Give me just a moment…” Kathe held up a finger. “Ah, yes. Tech Paola, I require Quinn’s company for the rest of the day. I’m sure you have others who can do whatever ridiculous task you have her doing right now. Traipsing about the ship looking at things? What kind of net do you run? Don’t answer that. And don’t bother the girl for this, I told her, she didn’t ask.” Her finger swept to the side, clearly sweeping the connection to Tech Paola off and then came back, pointing at Quinn. “You tell me if you get in trouble for this. I won’t have it.”
“I’m sure it will be fine, Mi—Kathe. Tech Paola is smart.”
“Good. Now, tell me about yourself. From birth to now.”
“I’m not that exciting.”
“Neither is my usual life. Talk. Wait.” She turned the seat around. “Let’s sit over there on those nice soft chairs. This thing isn’t comfortable.” Kathe rose, slowly.
Quinn bit her lip. “Can I assist you?”
“No, I’m fine, just slow.” Once she started to walk, Kathe wasn’t slow for long. Quinn grabbed her teacup and followed. They settled in soft chairs set at a slight angle toward each other, so they mostly faced the main walkway, but could also see each other easily. “Now, tell me all about yourself.”
“Okay.” Quinn shrugged and told Kathe her life story. She left out some details of the attacks on Cygnus Gliese, but she hadn’t known those until later, and who transported them to Cygnus Secundus. Lightwave didn’t need attention from Familia. She simply said lots of folders responded to the crisis and she was on one of them. Which was true. Quinn really didn’t remember most of it. She remembered hiding in the Sister’s compound from the armed attackers, escaping on a shuttle, and being on a huge fold transport in very crowded conditions for what seemed like a very long time. Then living in crowded, muddy conditions for an even longer time while they built the Secundus compound. Kathe didn’t seem to care about the lack of details, and much of it was public record, thanks to the tunnel worms.
“Did you go into the tunnels?” Kathe asked.
“No, I was too young.” Quinn shrugged. “I didn’t know a lot of this until later.”
“You’re still very young.” Kathe frowned at her. “Stay that way.” She tilted her head, her eyebrows raised in the middle. “But not as young as you look. You’re smart.” Kathe sniffed. “Don’t tell anyone. You’re safer being young and dumb.”
Quinn bit her lip and her heart rate sped up.
“I’m not telling anyone either. I like you.” Kathe nodded her head slowly. “When I need a companion, you’re it. I’ll send appropriate clothing and shoes.” Kathe sneered slightly at Quinn’s boots. “Those are practical but not fashionable. Now, what do they have you doing?”
“I’m doing inventory, Kathe.” Was being a companion good or bad? Or both?
“Inventory? Aren’t all these terminals on the net?”
“Yes, Mistress Kathe. Sorry. Kathe. But sometimes things happen, I guess. I don’t ask questions.”
“Discouraging questions about work is a poor supervisory technique.” Kathe grimaced. “I knew our net leadership wasn’t great, but this is ridiculous. Hmph.” She shook off her frown. “Other than net work, what do you do?”
“Well, I play a lot of net games.”
“I train for extreme athlete competitions.”
Kathe scanned her up and down. “It’s hard to tell under that ugly shipsuit, but you do seem to be in excellent physical condition. I’m not familiar with this particular competition.”
“They’re not terribly popular. It’s easier to show you than tell you. I have a vid of my instructor if you’d like to see it?”
“Excellent. Let’s go back to the terminal.”
“Um, Kathe, I don’t want to overstep, but why do you use the terminals when you have an e-torc?”
“E-torcs make me dizzy and I can’t see them. They’re too small.” Kathe shuddered in revulsion. “I leave mine on voice only.”
“I can adjust it for you and show you how to adjust it further.” Quinn did lots of adaptations back on Secundus. The Sisters cared for lots of kids with brain and eye injuries, either from abuse or the dangerous environment. Or both.
“I’ve had people try to explain but I just don’t understand it.” Kathe scowled.
“It’s not the easiest thing to adjust sometimes, but I’ve done it a lot. If you’ll give me temporary access to your settings, we can work on it together.”
Kathe tilted her head, inquiringly. “Well, then, let’s see what you can do. Tell me how I give you access.”
Quinn walked her through the process but Kathe didn’t give her temporary access. No, she made it permanent. Quinn took a deep breath. This had to be a test. “Kathe, you should select the time-limited option. We’ll be done in less than an hour.”
“No. I don’t want to do this again and I’m sure we’ll have further adjustments. Now, let’s get started.”
“Okay.” Quinn brought up her e-torc’s settings and took control of Kathe’s. “Close your eyes for a minute while I put some initial settings in, please.”
Kathe did as she requested and Quinn went through the laborious process. If she only had a decent e-torc.
“Why is this taking so long?”
“My e-torc is slow. There’s a lot of security and not enough memory.” Maybe she shouldn’t have said that?
“Well, this is unacceptable. Authorized for Quinn Cygnus, by my authority.” Kathe took her e-torc off and handed it to Quinn. “Make your initial adjustments, then I’ll test it.”
Quinn removed her e-torc and placed Kathe’s around her neck. She closed her eyes at the sweep of screens. “Wow, something is really set wrong on this thing.” Quinn put her hand up and made very slow, very small movements. She reset all the visual settings to standard, then made some initial adaptations for normal aging and the protocols they used for brain injuries. Using those, screens didn’t shrink and sweep away to the side when no longer needed, they simply disappeared. There were a few other adaptations as well. Quinn handed the e-torc back to Kathe. “Try this.”
Kathe put it back on and raised a hand. She seemed uncharacteristically tentative.
Quinn held back a smile. Funny how quickly she’d placed Kathe in a certain category. She had to watch those kinds of assumptions. She hadn’t forgotten Enforcer Trevi’s warning—Quinn was on a ship of killers. Kathe might be old and a little slow, but she might still be an enforcer. There had to be a reason she was on this ship. Maybe being elderly was a good cover story? She could get very close to a potential target without being suspected.
“Ah, I see. This is much better. Thank you.”
“Of course. Yours was set very oddly. If you go into the setting menu, you can adjust the brightness, size, and speed on your own. Or if you need more changes, I’m happy to do them.”
Kathe glared at Quinn’s e-torc, still on her lap. “Not with that thing. I’ll fix that too. Hmph.” She smiled slightly at Quinn. “Now, let’s see that vid. I want to see one of you, too, Quinn.”
“Certainly, Mis—Kathe. Whatever you want.” Quinn brought up the vid of Instructor Switz’s last competition and swept it over to Kathe. She was happy to sit here and talk, rather than traipse about the ship doing inventory. She could learn a lot from this woman.
But what was Kathe learning about her?
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Quinn of Cygnus Copyright © 2020 by AM Scott. All Rights Reserved.