Notes: And our first day, part two! Wherein nothing goes quite according to plan. Oh boys…
PS-check out the Christmas Blog Hop post if you haven't already, it's the one right below this. Possible presents, darlins:)
Title: The Academy
Part Two: Smoke and Mirrors
Cody had gotten better at managing the flow of information that the neural implant brought through his brain, but it was still dizzying while in motion. He’d started his walk to Hephaestus Tower with the route clearly mapped out in his mind, but the way the mental pathway overlaid the actual walk made him so nauseous after a few minutes that he had to stop and lean against a wall. His head hurt, but Cody gritted his teeth and managed to shut the directions down after a few moments.
“Do you require assistance?”
“Shit!” Cody opened his eyes and flailed for a moment. There was no one there, though; the walkway he was on was momentarily empty, probably because so many people were converging on the fourth class quads. “Who is this?”
“This is Hermes, the Academy’s virtual concierge and messaging system.” The words seemed to pop into existence in Cody’s ears.
“Oh.” Right, the AI. Cody had been told about it, but he hadn’t expected it to talk to him. The Hermes system was overarching database for the entire Academy, linking everything from each student’s personal schedule to planetary weather patterns that might affect classes. It was both highly individualized and blandly homogenized depending on the moment’s need. “I’m fine, thank you.”
“Your biometrics indicated distress. I can have a medical team to your location in two-point-four standard minutes.”
“It’s all right, I just got a little disoriented,” Cody assured the AI. “Do you monitor everyone like this?”
“Only those unfortunate enough to collapse against my walls, Cadet Helms.”
“Right.” Well, that was the last collapsing Cody would be doing for a while. It was one thing to be coddled by his dads; when even an AI thought you needed help, you might as well resign yourself to a life wrapped in a cocoon. “I’m fine now.”
“Confirmed. Do be more careful at how you access information, Cadet. It would be unwise to provoke your brain in this way consistently.” Cody rolled his eyes. “Your cheek is not appreciated. Continue straight down this path for another five hundred meters, then turn right. Hephaestus Tower is noticeable thanks to its perfusion of ventilation ducts.”
Holy shit, this thing could tell when he rolled his eyes? Cody pushed away from the wall so he wasn’t touching it any longer. The faint ringing in his ears went away immediately. “Thanks,” he muttered, then continued along the path.
Hephaestus Tower was shorter than all its neighbors, with a reinforced exterior and, as the AI had said, plenty of ventilation. Older cadets were going in and out of it, but Cody was stopped at the door by a husky man with orange and green striped skin. “No fourth class cadets allowed inside,” he said.
“I’ve got a meeting with my sponsor,” Cody told the man, trying his best not to stare at his coloration. Could it possibly be natural? Didn’t the Academy have rules about how a cadet was supposed to dress?
“And who’s that?”
“It’s me,” a woman called out, walking quickly up to the door. “Good grief, Marcys, stripes? Really? How is sitting out here in that getup forwarding your cromatophore research?”
“You only say that because you can see them!” Marcys replied, lowering his voice and staring fixedly at her. “This isn’t about coloration, this is about coupling light wavelengths and modern human biophysiology to open up a whole new type of disguise. You can only see it because you lack the morphing effects of Regen in your ocular cones. To everyone else I look totally normal, I’ve gotten no reaction all day until you. I’d call a .001 failure rate acceptable.”
“Well, please refrain from writing secret color messages on your ass and pretending you’re sunbathing, because I don’t need to see that,” she said, then turned to Cody. “You must be Cody Helms. I’m Philomela, but you can call me Phil.” Phil was tall and strong, with a square jaw and beautiful dark almond eyes. Her hair was brown and pulled back in a bun, and the hand she shook with was liberally scarred across the knuckles.
“Nice to meet you,” Cody replied.
“You too. Here, come on in.” She guided Cody through the front door and teeming lobby and down a side hall, where a long row of metal doors extended almost as far as he could see. “The tower’s labs. This one’s mine.” It was the tenth door on the right, which opened at a touch of her hand. “I’m here ninety percent of the time, so if you ever need to find me, check here first. I tend not to hook into Hermes if I can help it, so don’t expect a lot of messages.”
“That’s no problem,” Cody assured her, glancing around the lab. It was a lot of automated fabrication machinery; a few things he recognized from Wyl’s workshop, but most of it was completely new to him.
Phil smiled. “Hermes can be kind of intrusive, but it means well. Pull up a chair.”
The closest thing resembling a chair was a low robot with a flat top. Cody sat down, and Phil sat across from him. “First off, it’s great to meet you. Tamara was my sponsor here, and she talked a lot about you and your dads. Especially Garrett.”
“Garrett helped get her into the program,” Cody said. “How is she? She hasn’t been home in years, and the last message I got from her was months ago.”
“Tamara’s on assignment, which means her communication ability will be erratic at best.” Phil smiled again, but it wasn’t a happy sort of smile, more resigned. “And now’s the part where I ask you if you really know what you’re getting into, coming to the Academy. The Federation military thrives on continuity and regulation, and naturals are like bits of sand in that machinery. We can’t be part of the regular military because we impact its smooth functioning and effectiveness. Naturals require special consideration, and normally the Federation has very little time for those who don’t go down the well-worn path.”
“I know,” Cody said. Tamara had talked to him about this. “I know I can’t be a soldier.”
“Not just a soldier, Cody. You can’t be a military medic, you can’t be a military pilot, you can’t be anything that requires you to be part of a unit. The only place for a natural within the Federation’s military sphere is in covert operations. Working alone, or with a small team, but never more than that. We’re not here to become shining standard bearers of the Federation, we’re here to be part of the shadowy network that supports it. Do you understand what I’m getting at?”
“I think so.” And it was strange, because Cody had known that this was what he was getting into, he’d known that this was going to be his path, but for almost all his life he’d been a part of something larger, openly valued and praised. The colony on Pandora was designed to be welcoming and inclusive for all naturals, and everyone who lived there understood that. His family was amazing, and had never made him feel like anything lesser or different; even when his dad was freaking out, Cody knew it was out of love, not out of lowered expectations. And now here he was, exactly where he wanted so badly to be…but not quite. The differences he’d always treated as minor suddenly seemed enormous.
“The only reason that naturals are accepted into the Academy is because we are an ideal choice for subterfuge. We’re weaker than normal people, we’re more fragile, we live short, hard lives. These aren’t my personal opinions,” Phil added, holding up a hand when she saw the objection growing on Cody’s face. “I’m just repeating what I hear constantly. Naturals are always underestimated because of all the things we don’t have. It makes people thing we’re stupid, useless, ignorant. Their perceptions of us are something we can use to our advantage in the field, and it’s vitally important that we do. You see why?”
“But it’s not really true,” Cody said. “People here don’t believe that, do they?”
Phil sighed. “Oh, boy. No, of course it isn’t really true, but the vast majority of people don’t know that. Most people have never met a natural, they only know what they get shown, and the popular depiction of us in the media is exactly like I said. We’re the throwaways. We’re the pathetic figures on the sidelines, waiting for rescue or dying horribly or being irrepressibly tragic. We’re not strong, smart and capable citizens with something to offer society. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“I’m not…are you saying that I shouldn’t tell people what I am?” Not that Cody had been planning on introducing himself that way, but still, not at all?
“Yes, and not just because it would affect your social standing here. Very few students know about the Academy’s special program for naturals, and those who do are actively involved in the program, or in research that directly affects us. That’s how Marcys knows me; I was a test subject for his chromatophore research project. He’s meant to keep quiet about it, and wouldn’t have mentioned anything concerning it in front of you if he didn’t already know that you had to be a natural, for me to be picked as your sponsor. To almost everyone else, I’m just another engineer, and that’s good. The fewer people who know, the fewer the ways it could come back to bite me once I go out into the field myself.
“So yes, I advise discretion. Don’t tell anyone what you are unless it’s absolutely unavoidable, a case of life or death. Convince your quad that you’re just like everyone else, just like they are. Don’t do anything that could give you away. That means no sports, Cody, no opportunities for you to be injured, and just enough work with your neural implant not to give you away. Fortunately their use is circumscribed in cadets, so that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“I want to go out for bike racing,” Cody said, because if they were going to fight about it he was going to get it out of the way right now.
“I don’t think…”
“My bike is already here. I’ve already listed it as an extracurricular, I’m already signed up for tryouts. It would be strange for me to back out now.” There was no way in hell Cody was backing out. Sports: fine, whatever, he’d never played a lot of them. But that bike was a gift from Wyl, it was amazing, it made him feel free, and he wasn’t going to give it up.
Phil didn’t look happy, but she nodded. “Fine. But nothing else, all right?”
Cody nodded. “Nothing else.”
“Keep all your appointments with medical. Your class load is pretty full, every plebe’s is, but your training as an operative starts immediately as well. You and I have a meeting scheduled every Friday evening. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, so try not to stand me up, okay?”
“How many of us are here?” Cody asked. “Other naturals.”
“Honestly? I don’t know,” Phil admitted. “The only person who knows for sure is the chief medical officer and Admiral Liang. We’re kept apart even from each other, for security reasons.”
“That doesn’t seem right.”
Phil shrugged. “If you wanted a support group, you should have stayed on Pandora. The Academy is only for those who can function and perform on their own.”
“I didn’t say I couldn’t do it,” Cody snapped, responding to the implied criticism in her voice.
“Good,” she said. “Then it’s all going to be fine. Look, I’m not trying to make you angry, I’m just trying to be honest with you,” Phil added. “All right?”
“Fine.” It wasn’t, but she didn’t need to know that.
“I’ll code my lab to open for you. Our first meeting is this Friday at six. Message me if you have any questions. Otherwise I’ll see you then.”
“Fine,” Cody repeated. He stood up and left before Phil could say anything else.
The walk back to Hebe Tower was brisk and angry. It wasn’t that Cody didn’t know what was going on; he’d had a long talk with Miles, his grandfather, about it before he left. He knew he was going to be going into covert operations, he knew it was the best use of his particular birth defect that the Federation could offer. He knew that if he wanted safe, he could have stayed on Pandora and lived close to his dads and had as normal a life as possible. But that wasn’t what Cody had wanted, and so he’d applied to the Academy. He’d gotten in before they knew he was a natural, too; it wasn’t exactly a standard question on the entrance form. And now he was here, and now what had been something to keep to himself was now morphing into something more secretive. Something that would be perceived as shameful, something that would change him in the eyes of his peers. Phil had been pretty fucking frank about that.
Not her fault, Cody reminded himself, but he was still upset. The excitement and thrill was starting to wear off now, and all he wanted was to get back to his quad and call his dads. He’d promised, after all. They were probably waiting for it.
Cody wasn’t expecting to see green smoke wafting out the first floor windows of Hebe Tower. A closer look make his walk become a run, as he realized that those windows were the ones attached to his quad. It took some pushing, but he managed to get inside and make it back to his rooms, where a massive shouting match was already underway.
“You shouldn’t have touched it!” Ten was yelling at a young man with dark skin, broad shoulders and about five inches on hir. “Heat and caustic chemicals in a delicate balance! How much more obvious could it be? Did you need a big bloody sign that said “Don’t touch!”?”
“You shouldn’t leave unauthorized chemical equipment on the common spaces in our quad!” the young man yelled back, completely undaunted. “You shouldn’t be doing experiments outside of a lab, and you definitely shouldn’t be doing them with caustic chemicals!”
“What are you, my mother?”
“What are you, a fucking sociopath?”
A third person stood by the far wall in the room, watching the scene with wide eyes. It took Cody a moment to realize that it was the Perel cadet. He had milky white skin and long, sharp quills that ran from the crest of his head down to the small of his back, which his modified gray cadet uniform left open. He turned his huge amber eyes toward Cody, and Cody gravitated over to stand beside him. “Hi.”
“Hello,” the Perel said quietly. “Are you our fourth member?”
“Yes. I’m Cody Helms.”
“Grennson Kim Howards,” the Perel replied, holding his hand out to shake. He did it perfectly naturally, and Cody shook without somehow focusing on the fact that he was shaking hands with an alien, oh my god. “I’m to be Darrel’s roommate.”
“Right, sure. I’m Ten’s.”
“Um, Tiennan’s. Hirs.”
Grennson’s quills perked up. “I thought the quads were assigned by sex.”
“Yeah, they are, but there’s a difference between sex and gender, and…you know what, ze’ll explain it to you. Once ze stops yelling.”
“Once they both stop, perhaps.”
“Clean your shit up!” Darrel shouted, still going strong.
“You’re the one that made the mess, you clean it up!”
All four of them looked at the door, and all four of them snapped to parade rest, although Ten’s posture was somehow still sullen. When the Master Sergeant called you out, you responded.
He surveyed the room with a frown. “What’s this all about?”
“Sir, this cadet—”
“Sir, this idiot—”
Master Sergeant Jessup held up a hand. “Actually, you know what? Never mind. Is the smoke poisonous?”
“Only in very high concentrations,” Ten said with a dismissive sniff.
“Which probably only exist in our room,” Darrel added.
“Both of you, enough! You’re coming with me to explain this in private, and I expect the truth from you, gentlemen.” He glanced over at Cody and Grennson. “Do either of you have anything to add?”
“I just got here, sir,” Cody said. The remnants of the smoke tickled his lungs, and he did his best to hold back the coughs lurking under the surface of his skin. No one else was coughing though; it would seem strange if he did.
“Then you two can stay here and keep airing things out while I talk to the geniuses over here.” The master sergeant shook his head. “This’ll be the easiest vacation I ever earned. Fall in, cadets.” He left, and Darrel and Ten followed behind him, backs straight with mortification and anger. Multitudes of curious people walked past their door before Grennson finally shut it.
“Perhaps we should—”
But Cody couldn’t hold back the coughs any longer. He doubled over, his lungs aching and itching, and coughed for a full minute before he finally got his breath back.
Grennson looked down at him, his expression concerned. “Are you well?”
Oh fuck, weren’t these guys empathic? Did Grennson know what Cody was, could he feel it somehow? Had Cody given away his identity already? Phil would be so pissed. “I’m sorry, I need a minute,” Cody managed, then stumbled over to his room and shut the door. The air was a little clearer in here, but his eyes were still watering and his throat ached. He couldn’t go back out, not yet. Not until he had control of himself. Which meant Grennson probably thought he was rude, if nothing else.
“Great first day,” Cody muttered, heading for the bathroom to get a glass of water. “Just great.”