Quinn of Cygnus: Lift Off–Chapter Ten

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!

Warning: To avoid having issues with book retailers when I publish, I will be deleting Chapters One through Eighteen the week before I post the last chapter, which is Chapter Twenty. You have been warned! Read fast!

See Chapter One here.

Chapter Ten

Quinn watched the shuttle fly away from Indomito, desperately wishing she was on it. But if wishes were shuttles, she’d be long gone. Laying back on her favorite lounger on the observation deck, she brought up the shuttle schedule. There was little available other than the shuttle designation and destination, which meant an Enforcer on board. Possibly even Justice Fatima or Head Enforcer Enzo—either one she’d happily wish a quick trip into a black hole or a mysterious collision with a comet.

She’d wish that on any or all of the Enforcers. They were vicious, nasty people who treated everyone else like dirt. Unfortunately, they were also clever and quick; the stupid and weak didn’t last long. Quinn bit her lip and brought up her hidden, secondary window. Designed to hide what she was looking at from those watching her on the net, she used it only when she was alone in a public place.

Watching her watchers, she’d discovered those observing her via the net, like Tech Paola, didn’t usually bother watching real-time when she was in public. Those tracking her in person, usually via security vid, didn’t watch her while she was in her work compartment or living compartment. Both were fooled by her apparent age and meek compliance with rules, regulations, and demands, both reasonable and unreasonable.

“Can I get you something to drink or eat, Trainee Quinn?” a man’s voice asked, making Quinn jump. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you.”

Quinn put a hand over her heart and swept away her holo entirely. “That’s okay, Angelo.” She smiled at the grey-haired man with the heavily wrinkled, tired face. “I should be more aware of my surroundings. But no, I’m fine.” She shrugged. “I’m just enjoying the view.”

“Very well. Please let me know if you need anything at all. I’ll come by later if I don’t hear from you. I know you forget to eat sometimes.” Angelo leveled an admonishing look at her.

“Oh, please do. You know I just don’t think about it. Thank you.”

“Of course, Trainee Quinn,” he bowed slightly. “It’s our pleasure to serve you.” He put a little emphasis on the pronoun, bowed again, and walked away.

Quinn sighed. She didn’t understand why people, especially “important” people couldn’t be nice. The servers, the cooks, the cleaners, all of the “working” class worked so hard; they deserved to be treated with dignity. But no. She saw Enzo shove one of them so hard he fell and broke his arm. Then they docked poor Robertos’s pay, because he couldn’t do his job until he healed, which meant his family back on Velorum was on starvation rations for a while. But Familia didn’t care—Roberto should have gotten out of Enzo’s way.

By the Mother, she hated every one of them. Quinn snorted at her blasphemy—the Mother expected love for all beings. But Quinn wasn’t too sure Enforcers counted as sentient beings—they were more like soulless machines. Maybe artificial intelligences entirely focused on their own survival and well-being, and the rest of the universe could fold into a black hole.

Looking around, Quinn cautiously brought up her holo again, setting an alert for anyone passing within three meters of her. It wouldn’t catch everyone—Enforcers and security were often incognito on the net and active surveillance would be noticed—but it was better than nothing. Then she used her hidden window to listen to Indomito’s traffic control communications. Slowly, she was figuring out Indomito’s shuttle missions and who came to visit via shuttle. She already knew getting on a visitor’s shuttle was practically impossible. Those airlocks were guarded by security remotes, real people, and vid backup in a special section of the shuttle docking level.

Most of Indomito’s fifty-plus shuttles were docked on a dedicated level of the fold transport, except four used by Indomito’s captain and his staff.  The single, “public” entrance to Indomito’s shuttle-docking level was guarded by a remote, a person, and vid. There were several emergency accesses to the shuttle docks, but those hatches could only be opened by activating explosive bolts and the alarms were routed on a dedicated net and watched by security vid.

But, watching the common dock entrance guard post, Quinn noticed security there was slightly lax. The remotes weren’t the best ones, often weren’t fully charged and the security team in charge of the remotes expected the in-person guard to do the work, while the guards relied on the system too much. It seemed Familia’s security was convinced it was too hard for most people to steal a shuttle and get away. Or they had everyone so downtrodden they wouldn’t try. To some extent, the carelessness was understandable—even if someone succeeded in stealing a shuttle, Indomito’s weapons could pulverize them with a single blast.

Regardless, Quinn had found several ways to escape on a shuttle. Finding a pilot to blackmail or threaten was the easiest option. Not that it was actually easy—she’d need a bigger threat than Familia already had. However, Quinn’s next big assignment was helping Security with some personnel file security, so she’d use that opportunity to snoop a little. Maybe she’d be able to look inside the files before she secured them or hide a backdoor.

After hearing nothing new on Indomito’s comms, she turned them off, yawned, and stretched a bit, then focused back on the space beyond Indomito. There weren’t any people near her, so Quinn brought up her latest vid of Tech Paola’s workstation. She couldn’t contain her proud smirk at her cleverness.

She’d been detailed to inventory and test a compartment full of miscellaneous vid equipment. It was mostly junk, but there wa a bin of self-contained vid systems in a variety of shapes and sizes, including tiny, pin-sized ones, probably used for spying. Stealing a few of those pin vids was risky, but she took a few of the older ones, marking them as “broken/recycled” on the inventory. Paola had been pleased—they’d been missing this particular bin for some time and the loss rate was less than expected. Quinn was fairly certain Paola didn’t realize the tiny spy pins were in the bin; Quinn hid them in the middle of the inventory under their model name, like she hadn’t realized what they were used for.

Once she’d charged the pin vids, Quinn perched one on each of her fellow trainee’s workstations. A few weeks later, she’d been called into Tech Paola’s work compartment for an assignment and she’d taken the opportunity to put one there, too. She’d tripped on her own feet, catching herself on Tech Paola’s chair and pushing the pin vid deep into a rather dusty seam.

Quinn carried a pin vid everywhere she went, ready to deploy at any time. Since the spy vids relied on internal memory, not the net, she could only leave them someplace she’d be likely to return to within a few days, but leaving a vid was far less perilous than a tech finding an unknown signal on the net or finding a transmission during a routine bug sweep.

Downloading the vids was dangerous too, but she’d set up a script on her e-torc that did it automatically whenever she got within two meters of one. Running in the background, at first glance it looked like a data backup protocol. She’d learned that little trick from her spy vid on Fabriano’s workstation—he’d hidden his underground gambling ring very well.

The vid on Tech Paola’s workstation was obscured slightly by dust, but it was still pure gold. Quinn had gathered some important passphrases and codes, including some getting her into Security’s vid net watching the “public” areas on Indomito. The vids on the Enforcer’s level and Justice Fatima’s level were on a separately secured net, but if Quinn had to go up against Enforcers directly, she was space dust.

Fortunately, accessing Indomito’s public vid net let her confirm piloting assignments, security at the shuttles, and the prison. She’d found the prison cells entirely by chance, but since then, she’d uncovered everything she possibly could. After all, Quinn might find herself in one of those cells someday.

The block of cells, just twelve of them, was rarely used. Indomito’s staff was thoroughly cowed, and most had loved ones on a Familia planet or right here on Indomito, perfect for ensuring trouble didn’t last long. Quinn had heard those not-so-subtle threats herself from Paola: “I wonder how many lovely little girls the Sisters of Cygnus have right now? Maybe they’d be smarter than you are?” Quinn had burst into tears and bowed her head, gritting her teeth all the while, knowing that even if she did everything perfectly, if Familia thought it was worth it, they’d go to Secundus no matter how well she obeyed. The only thing saving the Sisters’ orphans was their remote location and small numbers.

Indomito’s cells were mostly filled with beings from elsewhere. Someone would be flown to Indomito from a planet or station, transferred to a cell to wait for a day or more, “interviewed” by an Enforcer, then flown somewhere else, often a different folder. Most of the time, the interrogations were short, with the prisoner drugged and telling the Enforcer everything they wanted to know, usually awful things, accompanied by a lot of crying. One interrogation she’d stopped watching; Enzo and another Enforcer had tortured the person, taunting the poor man with the knowledge they already knew everything he was confessing, that his painful death was a lesson for others, nothing more.

Despite that horrible experience, Quinn watched those most of the interrogations, for several reasons. One, someone should witness for those who were innocent, or at least not horrendous. Someday she might get the chance to let a family member know what happened to their loved one. Two, she could test the security subtly, creating things that looked like glitches, such as a loss of vid or sound, and see how security responded. Three, sometimes, the prisoners let valuable information slip. She’d built up quite a library of security data on Familia stations and worlds and gotten some valuable blackmail intelligence. She’d be thrilled to use it against these awful people.

Despite the good information and intentions, watching the interrogations took a toll on her soul. Quinn found herself cowering around the Enforcers. They responded well to her new attitude; Quinn just had to remind herself it wasn’t real. But to some extent, it was. Despite her terror, she persevered. She was absolutely determined to escape. She would not live her life at the pleasure of these horrible people.

“Gentles, please prepare for fold to Valenti in five minutes. Secure yourself and all loose items,” Indomito’s chief purser announced.

Huh. This wasn’t a previously scheduled fold. Quinn shrugged and looked around her lounger, ensuring she hadn’t left anything lying around. Angelo caught her eye; he was jogging to her, bev-tainer in hand. She scrambled up to meet him. “Angelo, you didn’t have to hurry. I would be happy to have it after fold.”

“No, you should have this now,” he said with a panting smile. “You need your strength.” He handed the container to her. “Thank you for allowing me to serve you.” He bowed and jogged away.

“Thank you!” she called to his retreating form, hating the servant’s required thank-you phrase. Quinn returned to her seat and sipped. Delicious. The staff cook, a middle-aged woman named Maria, was constantly creating treats for her. Quinn knew it was partially Enzo’s edict that she “grow up”—the shakes, cookies, and cakes included medico-approved ingredients—but when Quinn was detailed to work on the kitchen’s net, she introduced herself to the kitchen staff and did her best to make their net more effective and efficient. Between that and her treating them like human beings rather than faceless remotes, Quinn hoped it kept them from poisoning her someday, but that was probably asking too much. Besides, if required, an enforcer would poison her food, not the kitchen staff.

Quinn got rid of her hidden window and sipped her drink, snapping it into the holder just before fold. She drew the security net across herself and relaxed.

“Fold to Valenti in five, four, three, two, fold. All stations, we’ve arrived safely in Valenti.”

As usual, Quinn felt nothing during or after fold. But she was always careful to sit or lay down, because after one fold, she’d felt strange, like her whole body got slapped, and she was pretty sure she’d blacked-out. It was so odd, but it hadn’t happened again.

A message came in from Tech Paola: “Report to shuttle bay Delta Twelve in thirty minutes. Be prepared to spend three days on Valenti Station.”

Well, today was getting more and more interesting. She’d never been on a station work trip. Her fellow trainees went often, but not Quinn. This must be a big deal. Or it was a test. She sighed. No matter how much she wanted to or how easy it might look at the moment, she couldn’t try to escape during this trip. Any opportunity was sure to be a setup. They’d be watching her closely and she had to lull them into complacency. She had to be a meek, obedient little girl.

Quinn jogged to her compartment and packed a small bag with uniforms and toiletries. Aurora sent her a message to pack some casual clothes too, just in case they were allowed a night off on the station. She smiled sadly. It wasn’t likely, but it didn’t hurt to shove an extra pair of leggings and a sweater in her bag. In twenty-five minutes, Quinn was waiting at the shuttle-level security station entrance.

In twenty-eight minutes, a group of ten net techs, her fellow trainees, and Tech Paola had gathered. “All accounted for, Tech Paola,” a man she didn’t know announced.

“Excellent. Let’s go.” Paola led the way through Security. Quinn hung in the back with her fellow trainees and walked through, noting this guard was paying attention, as was the remote. She half-expected to be stopped, but they let her go. It was almost certainly a test but it was still useful to her. This was her first real opportunity to see the shuttles and bays in person.

Behind the security station, an open area led to six more hatches. Taking one on the right, they walked down a short corridor, through another hatch, and turned right again into another corridor, passing shuttle bays six through eleven. The airlocks at bay twelve were open, and they filed into a luxuriously-appointed shuttle. Three rows of five cushy seats waited for them, and Quinn saw Tech Paola and two of the others enter a hatch off to the side of the shuttle’s main seating area. The rest settled in; Aurora, Gio, Marco, and Fabriano took the last row of seats, Aurora patting the one next to her for Quinn. Her smiled seemed strained.

At the front, the co-pilot stood. “Gentles, please strap in for pushback and launch. After our initial thrust into orbit, you’ll be able to move about the cabin. Feel free to help yourself to food and drink,” she pointed to the galley, “and the sani-mod is there. Note the location of the emergency suits and escape pods, they’re all clearly marked.” She pointed at several brightly-marked compartments around the cabin. “Our travel time is approximately four hours and fifty-two minutes.”

Quinn fastened her harness, noting her closest emergency suit was behind her. When she turned back, she saw Aurora had a death grip on the buttery-soft armrest cover. “Not a fan of flying?”

Aurora shivered. “Not a fan of space flight. Air flight is fine.”

“Aurora had an unfortunate accident in a shuttle when she was little,” Fabriano said in a mockingly sympathetic tone. “She was the only survivor, but she was in a bod-pod for a long time.”

Quinn couldn’t believe Fab had survived the gambling ring incident. His family must be really high up in Familia.

“Idiota,” Gio snarled.

Fabriano snapped something back, but Quinn didn’t care. She put a hand over Aurora’s, who turned her hand and held on. Her grip was just short of painful, but that didn’t matter. “It will be okay—I’ve got you.”

Aurora didn’t look convinced but hung on tight. Quinn kept talking until they were thirty minutes into the flight. Marco brought them tea and water and Gio brought snacks. Quinn was sure it was for Aurora, not her, but that was all right. Aurora needed help.

After the tea and snacks, Aurora fell asleep.

Marco whispered, “The medicos know. They probably gave her something.”

Quinn smiled her thanks. For the rest of the flight, the three of them shushed anyone speaking too loudly, and woke her just before they’d docked with Valenti Station.

“Listen up,” Tech Paola said. “Some station maintenance personnel have organized a ‘Valenti Below’, similar to the protection rackets on other stations.” She sneered. “Obviously, Justice Fatima doesn’t think much of this idea. The initiators of this scheme have been arrested and they’re undergoing questioning right now. Our job is to look for hidden or shadow nets that allow station personnel to circumvent Valenti Station’s laws regarding data storage and use. Station personnel have already found hardware deep in the air handling equipment commanding a shadow net. They’ve removed it. However, we believe there are additional comm nodes throughout the station and we believe they also setup backup nodes that tunnel through the existing net. You’ve been split into teams already, check your specific assignments in your official messages. The sooner we get our tasks accomplished, the faster we can do other things, and there may be other rewards as well. Capisce?”

Quinn nodded along with the rest but had nothing in her official messages except an assignment to Team Three under Technician Matteo. Aurora nudged her. “What team are you on?”

“Three.”

“Weird, me too.”

“Make that me three,” Gio said.

“You’re all on my team,” a man said behind her. “Lucky me, all the new kids.” Tech Matteo was medium height and build, with the Familia look. “You,” he pointed at Quinn, “will come in handy for this task.”

Quinn looked at him skeptically.

“The rest of you? Well, we’ll see. Come, follow me.” Matteo didn’t join the line of people leaving the shuttle, no, he turned to the cargo bay and entered. Inside, a pallet held several cases of equipment. Matteo unfasted the first case and pulled a small box out. “This is very basic equipment, but sometimes, the basics work well. We know what frequencies the illegal net used, so we’re looking for hidden equipment using those frequencies.” He looked up with his lip curled.

“The problem is the legal equipment uses the same frequency. However, the legal equipment isn’t hidden. So, we’ll be climbing through maintenance areas and crawling along access shafts and all kinds of potentially dirty and not fun places.” Matteo laughed. “And by we, I mean you.” He pointed a finger it the four of them.

“But before we do anything else, we’ll be flying surveillance remotes through every public corridor on the station to map where we find the strongest signals for the suspect frequencies. Then, we’ll go to those areas in person. I’m sending a special program to your e-torcs. Install it, and you’ll use that net ware to narrow down the suspect signals further. Then, we’ll enter those areas, probably mostly maintenance areas, and see if there’s legal equipment there. We’ll check the legal equipment against the station’s registered database and go looking for illegal equipment using these.” Matteo held a small box on his hand.

“I’ve found some illegal net nodes in plain sight with fake inventory tags, and some hidden in things like air ducts, water pipes, sewer pipes—hah! I see you have figured out why you’re here.” Matteo grinned. “I hope you brought extra clothes. Leave your packs here, but be sure you take some water and snacks with you. It’s going to be a long day.”

Quinn sighed. Remote flying sounded fun, but the rest? Not so much.

#

She walked her twenty-seventh kilometer, down a dingy passageway in the bowels of the station. Turned out flying remotes wasn’t any fun at all for them. This wasn’t Matteo’s first station search. He had a pre-programmed swarm of practically invisible remotes; after unpacking they flew away. An hour later, the four trainees were off surveying corridors of interest, a security remote trundling behind each of them. Fortunately, not one of the super-creepy human-like remotes. Quinn was sure the remote was there not only to guard the trainees but to watch them.

But that was okay. Quinn had learned a lot today. Like how easy it was to enter a maintenance access hatch. She’d always thought they’d be secured better, but they mostly relied on being hidden; the locking mechanism was a code comprised of the hatch’s location by station level and area. Most of the locks weren’t on the net, so you could simply pry one open and muffle the alarm mechanically. It might be an inexpensive solution, but it seemed shortsighted.

Inside those maintenance access areas, she’d found some excellent hiding places and some that initially looked like excellent hiding places, but weren’t. She’d also shimmied through some return air ducts, peered into cabling ports, climbed up and down a lot of maintenance access ladders between station levels, and found out a lot about how stations worked. Or how Valenti Station worked, anyway.

Despite her weariness, Quinn smiled. As part of checking if a net node was legal or illegal, they’d been given administrator access to the comm nodes. She was sure the station would change all the passphrases and access codes later, but while she was crawling through those access ways, she’d managed to set up a few backdoors on the legal net nodes. It was slightly risky—if a node needed replacement and someone examined the net ware on it rather than sending it off for recycling or rebuild, they could find her access. Figuring out who made the backdoor wouldn’t be hard, they’d just have to look at who was in that area at the time of the access’s creation and they’d find Quinn. But if she ever got the chance to run on Valenti Station, it would be worth the risk. She could infiltrate almost every Valenti Security system from just one of these nodes.

The detector showed a spike and Quinn slowed, looking for the access hatch. Most of them were small and down near the decking. She grinned. Fabriano must be having a terrible time—he was tall and little heavy. She found the hatch and opened it, crawling inside. The area wasn’t big enough to let the security remote follow her, but it was tall enough for her to stand in, so she did.

Boxes and hatches festooned the compartment walls and tubes of various sizes ran through the cramped space. Many of the tubes had access ports on them as well. Using Matteo’s program, Quinn scanned and finally found the net node. Bringing up her node admin access, she found this one was legal and set her now-perfected script running to create a backdoor. Then she took the detector box and swept it over every square centimeter of the maintenance area, including all the pipes and each access port. She finally found the illegal net node in a small hollow between a sewer pipe and the compartment’s wall, and with a little effort, managed to pop it loose. Crawling back out, she put the illegal node into a bin on the security remote and grabbed her water.

Tech Matteo called her just as she was drinking. “Good job, Trainee Quinn. Come back up to the shuttle and grab your gear. We’ve got rooms on the station, then we’re going to dinner. Tech Paola is very happy with our progress, so it will be a nice dinner.”

“Thank you, Tech Matteo, I’ll be there soon.” She sighed, put the bottle back in the security remote, and started trudging. She was in shape, but she didn’t usually walk quite this much—her feet ached. But as she went, she found more legal net nodes and created backdoor accesses on each one. If she was ever going to escape Indomito, it was likely to be here. But not this time.

She took a lift tube as far as it went—level Twenty-Five—and then walked deeper into the interior of the station to reach the next tube. Making the final turn, Quinn saw half the lights in the corridor were out and she stopped, then backed up. But it was too late.

Some sort of mesh material was thrown over the security remote, resulting in blue bolts zapping as it tried to defend itself. Four masked people surrounded her. Quinn backed slowly to the wall, ready to lash out. But at least one carried a stunner, so if they wanted her badly enough, she was done.

“Buonsera for us, boys,” one of them snarked, walking closer.

“It’s a job, not a game,” the one on her far-right hissed. “Bella, you want out? Away from here?”

“Away from you? Yes!” Quinn said in a high, squeaky tone.

Snorts and chuckles sounded. “No, bella, away from those Enforcers. We could use a net expert.”

Quinn shook her head violently. “I’m not an expert, I’m just a trainee. I’m not going to do you any good at all.”

“Shame. Well, we’ve got a use for you anyway. Stun—” He dropped to the floor, along with the rest. Armored security people and remotes surrounded her.

“Are you okay, Trainee Quinn?”

“Yes, sir, I’m fine. You got here just in time to save me from a stunner headache.” She smiled, putting a little hero worship in her face.

“Good. Let’s go.”

He escorted her back to the shuttle. Quinn didn’t dare make any more backdoors on the way, but she knew there would be more opportunities tomorrow. After all, she’d passed the test—and she was sure it was a test. Security was too quick to respond, with too many people. And who would be stupid enough to blatantly proposition someone with an official security remote in a public station corridor? No, anyone really challenging Familia on their own station would be far more cautious. Guess her silly little girl act was working.

They took a float tube to level Thirty, a short walk through a food court making her tummy rumble, and another tube to Forty. Then across a huge shopping area lined with fancy stores and restaurants, the plaza sprinkled with luxury goods kiosks and seating areas, and finally into a secured corridor leading back to their guarded shuttle bay. Once she passed the airlock security, her escort left.

“Quinn, glad to see you got here safely,” Matteo said. “Change and we’ll join the rest at dinner.”

“Sure, Tech Matteo. Thank you.” Quinn grabbed her bag and jogged into the sani-mod, threw on some clothes, and pushed the memories of the confrontation into a box in her head. Later tonight, when she was alone, she could process them. For now, she had to act like a normal, if slightly scared, girl. At least she’d have a good excuse to leave the party early.

Finished, she repacked her bag and joined Matteo, who motioned her out the airlock. Two security remotes joined them as they walked down the eerily quiet corridor.

“Quinn!” a woman’s voice called from behind her.

She turned and peered around the remotes. “Ka—Enforcer Kathe. Nice to see you.” She waited for Kathe to catch up but she was moving slower than usual. “Tech Matteo, perhaps you should go without me? I’m sure Enforcer Kathe’s security will be more than sufficient.”

“I’ll wait,” he said, a mixture of trepidation and curiosity on his face.

Quinn shrugged one shoulder. She hadn’t seen Kathe for…more than eight days. A surprisingly long time. When Kathe neared, Quinn grew concerned. Kathe looked tired, and she was strolling, rather than walking. Actually, it was more like tottering. “Enforcer Kathe, can I get you a float chair?”

“Nonsense, I’ve just been sitting too long in the shuttle.” Kathe waved her concerns away.

But her security personnel, two humans, seemed to agree with Quinn because a float chair came up behind them. She smiled at the two, then turned her attention back to Kathe. “Kathe, this is Net Technician Matteo, my supervisor today.”

Kathe frowned at him. “I see. Well, go on with whatever you were doing. I’m taking Quinn to dinner with me.”

“Very well, Enforcer. I’ll leave one of the security remotes with you and Trainee Quinn.” He bowed and scurried off.

“He’s a nice man, he was just escorting me to the net worker’s dinner,” Quinn said.

Kathe chuckled. “Eh, it never hurts to put a little fear into any man near you. Now, come along. There’s a new place I want to try.”

Quinn fell into place beside Kathe. They ambled along, but Kathe wasn’t speeding up like she normally did; no, she was slowing. “Enforcer Kathe, are you sure you don’t want a float chair?”

She stopped and sighed, her shoulders dropping as she stared at the floor. A deep breath in and Kathe straightened and turned to Quinn. “I guess I have no choice.”

Quinn smiled sadly and shrugged. The float chair slid up beside Kathe and she plopped rather heavily on to it. Quinn was ready to catch her, but Kathe seemed secure.

“Well, let’s see what this thing can do,” Kathe said with a grin.

Quinn laughed, but she could see Kathe was struggling with the idea of using a float chair. There was something else, too. Pain, perhaps? She was holding herself rather stiffly. Kathe zoomed off and Quinn broke into a jog to keep up, keeping the pain of her aching feet off her face. Her feet would recover, but Quinn wasn’t so sure Kathe would.

At the restaurant, one of the fancy ones she’d passed on level Forty, they were seated in a private room, the security remote left outside, the security people at either door. Both guards turned down Kathe’s offer of a meal. Quinn rather wished she could have because the food was weird. The taste wasn’t bad, exactly, but each course was strangely textured, in purees, foams, dried crisps, ices, and puddings.

“Well, that was interesting,” Kathe said, waving away the dessert tray.

Quinn smiled tightly, not wanting to say anything to insult the chef, but she wasn’t a fan.

Kathe also waited for the server to leave, then chuckled. “Not my favorite. I know Enzo wants to take you out to dinner tomorrow night. I’ll be sure to tell him to take you somewhere else.”

Quinn’s heart sank and she bit her lip to keep from screaming “No!” Then she remembered who she was with and smoothed her face back into pleasant acceptance.

Kathe pretended not to notice. “Ah well, you have to try new things, or you get old.” She chuckled again. “Actually, you get old anyway. But even if your body fails, you can’t let your mind get old.” Kathe pointed at Quinn. “Remember that. Don’t let your mind or spirit get old, no matter what.” She dropped the hand, but not before Quinn saw it was shaking. “I asked you here tonight because I wanted to talk to you off Indomito.”

Kathe did something to her holo and Quinn shivered. “You sense that. Interesting. It’s a combination of high and low frequencies which usually makes microphones collect nothing but squeals and static.” She did something else to her holo and a privacy shield popped into place around them. “Do you have any anti-spy stuff to add, Quinn?”

She pressed her lips together for a second, then realized that gave her away to someone like Kathe. “Sure.” Quinn set her anti-spy protocol running.

“Good. While this wasn’t the meal I was hoping for, I did want to talk to you.” She grimaced and sighed. “I’m dying.”

“What?!”

Kathe shrugged again. “I’m old. I’ve had a very long life, probably too long for the peace of mind of a lot of people, and it’s coming to an end. I’ve done all the treatments I can.” She snort-laughed. “I never once thought I’d end up dying in a bed. Not with the life I’ve lived. Maybe karma does exist. I’ve caused enough suffering, so I get to suffer through the end.” She stared off into space for a moment. “Anyway, I wanted you to know. I didn’t want you to be surprised, or wonder, or any of the rest of it.” Another grimace. “I’ll be leaving you some credits. Don’t refuse them. Credits allow you to make some decisions on your own or at least make the life you can’t change make more pleasant.” Abruptly, Kathe swept all the security off and moved her float chair away from the table. “This chair is pretty comfortable. I think I’ll keep it. Come on, Quinn, let’s go get you some gelato.”

Quinn watched her float away until the security person behind her asked, “Trainee Quinn?” She shook herself out of her stupor, got up, and followed Kathe’s chair through the restaurant, jammed with beings in strange, but surely expensive clothing and adornments. Mutters followed them, but Quinn ignored them all. Her only powerful supporter on Indomito was dying, leaving her behind.

Well, she’d been working on escape support, but now she needed a real plan. Because when Kathe was gone, her life was likely to change forever. And not in a good way. If Enzo was taking her to public places, her life as a net tech trainee was over.

#

“Fab, shut up,” Gio said. “We’re all tired of the whining. If you don’t like the work, leave.” His body strung tight, he threw a wrapper in the recycling and returned to his workstation.

“I can’t leave any more than you can,” Fabriano muttered. Amazingly, he didn’t complain about Gio’s use of the nickname he hated. Something must be bothering him, but Quinn couldn’t find much reason to care. He wasn’t a nice person.

“Then get in shape,” Mario said with a disdainful sniff. “But I agree with Gio. We’ve been back for three days. Find something new to complain about.”

Quinn followed Mario, returning to her workstation and another mindless chore. But Fabriano’s last complaint made her wonder—what did Familia have on Fabriano? It could be any number of things. Or it could be a lie to suck them into complacency. Either way, she wasn’t making friends with Fabriano. Or the rest of them. They were nice enough to play games with or share a meal, but Quinn couldn’t share any of her troubles with them—they all had their own. None of them would hesitate to betray her if it would ease their burdens. And it would. She’d give almost anything to be one of them, a regular worker rather than Enzo’s special obsession. Well, enough dreaming—she had work to do.

“Hey, it’s dinner time, let’s go,” Aurora said.

Really? Where did the time go? Quinn pushed her screens away and stood, stretching high. All the sitting was killing her. “Hey, do these workstations have standing or walking configurations?”

Aurora shook her head. “No idea. Should be in the settings if they do. Why?”

“I got used to all that walking on the station.”

She groaned. “You’re kidding, right? I’m happy to sit.”

They waited in the worker cafeteria line. There wasn’t a ton of choices, but the food was good and mostly healthy. Quinn was careful to thank each worker—their jobs were hard, boring and never-ending. They didn’t get the same amenities the “skilled” workers did, like plenty of rec room space or a workout area. Their dormitories were more crowded too, and while they ate in the same cafeteria, it was at different, less convenient times. Occasionally, she invited one of them to join her for games in a  rec room, but they always turned her down. Probably didn’t want the attention such a move would bring and she couldn’t blame them for that.

Food in hand, they found room at a table with other trainees and sat. “Old Earth vid night tonight. Superhero vids!” one of them announced. Cheers and groans rang out.

“Quinn, you have to come, you’ll love these,” Aurora told her.

She shrugged. “Sure, I’m not doing anything else.” If the flat vids were too boring, she could review some of her stolen vid while the movie played—it was safe enough when everyone else was engaged in a show. Quinn ate, sort of listening to the others chat about the vid and games. None of them talked about work—there were too many secrets to keep. She finished and put her tray in the autocleaner with everyone else.

“Come on, let’s go,” Aurora grabbed her hand.

“You’re really excited about this. You know you can watch these things anytime, right?”

Aurora frowned at her. “But that’s no fun. You need a big screen, snacks, people cheering, and yelling—that’s what makes movies fun.”

“Movies?”

“That’s the Old Earth name for the flat vids.”

“Huh.” Quinn considered Aurora. “So, you’re a historian?”

“No, just a big fan of Old Earth movies. Some of them are weird, some I don’t understand at all, some are just ridiculous, and they’re all terrible, visually, but the ideas are fun. Especially superheroes and the action thrillers. I could some of that in my life.”

“Couldn’t we all?” Quinn forced a chuckle.

They found seats and Aurora went for snacks and drinks. Once the vids started, Quinn found herself watching a couple of them intently. They had some pretty good storylines and a few great ideas for escape and evading notice. One particular flat vid showed the improbable adventures of a secret agent for some Old Earth government ruling a tiny island area. Such an odd idea, splitting up people by geography on a world, rather than by entire worlds or species, or in the case of Familia, type of business, but Quinn guessed if humans were all you knew and you didn’t have spaceflight, it kind of made sense. Whoever the agent worked for, his daring getaways and cool toys sparked her imagination, and the idea of hiding in plain sight under a fake name was intriguing.

Later that night in bed, she realized the concept of a secret persona was an excellent idea. By day, she could be meek, sweet little Quinn. At night, she could transform into…hmm, what would be a good superhero name for a net expert? Net Breaker Girl? No, she had to be a woman for this role, not a girl. The Secret Slider? The Sneaky Worm? The Trojan Horse? Quinn snorted. Those were ridiculous. She was making this too hard.

Her secret name was Q. That way, if she slipped and said it out loud, she could say it was her nickname at the Sisters. No, as a kid. No sense in spreading knowledge of the Sisters in general.

She snuggled in, smiling. Quinn to Familia, Q in secret. She might not build physical gadgets like the other Q they saw on vid tonight, but she built them on the net and she was smart. It was the perfect name.

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

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