Notes: Oh my god, this is long. LONG. Over four thousand words, and everyone gets a say. I hope you guys like it, I’m setting up a bunch of stuff in my head.
Title: The Academy
Part Twelve: Picking and Choosing
Ten had always been a goal-oriented person. Admittedly, hir goals had never quite been what hir guardian had hoped for: for example, instead of getting straight As as a child, ze tried to find the most expedient way to chemically desiccate a corpse. Ten had gone through a taxidermist phase when ze was eight, mostly preserving rewels and round-eyed newts, but it turned out that no one ze knew was interested in getting Ten’s carefully-posed bodies as presents, so ze stopped soon after. Ze had never killed the animals hirself, but there were only so many affronted looks an eight year old could take before it just became easier to not give people presents at all.
The point was, Ten liked to accomplish things. When ze set a goal for hirself, it was never with the thought that ze might not complete it. Now Ten had a major goal, figuring out a cure for naturalism, and a minor goal, getting a stupid buddy to bring to Grennson’s stupid club. At least the Admiral had made it a for-credit endeavor, otherwise Ten would never have wasted hir time on something so pointless. But now that ze had a reason to do it, the best way ze could think of to combine hir goals was to find someone in the pre-med department, convince them to be hir friend, and bring them along to the club so Ten would have something productive to do while everyone else was learning about culture. God.
Ten had morning classes in biochemistry which were mostly boring for hir at this point, but which ze knew the pre-med people had to take in order to get anywhere in medicine. This, then, would be hir hunting ground. Ze sat at hir table in the back, tuned out the lecturer and focused on the students around hir. Surely someone here had to be a good candidate.
Let’s see…that one was still wetting the bed, judging by the faint pattern of stains—had she never heard of autocleaners? Probably too embarrassed not to wash them by hand. Clearly not a good judge of temporal economy, no go. That one looked to be failing, if the frown lines on his forehead were any indication. He was far too young, especially with Regen, to be sporting frown lines unless he had reason to be unhappy with himself far too often. That one was using dust on the sly, that one seemed nice enough but had a terrible sense of fashion—Ten already had to put up with that from Cody, ze wasn’t about to introduce another source of eye strain into hir life. That one was clearly a wallflower, and a religious one too, if the woven band around his head meant anything at all, so—
But wait. Ten racked hir brain for a moment, remembering back to the beginning of the semester when the lecturer, much more touchy-feely back then, had asked everyone what they were planning on doing with their lives. Ten had spouted off something about “whatever I want” and tried to ignore the rest, but ze distinctly remembered this one’s answer, because he’d been so hard to hear. He’d had to say it three times before the lecturer deemed it loud enough, and his answer had been, “Evolutionary genetics.”
This, then, was the perfect person to befriend. Anyone studying genetics would have access to chemicals and compounds Ten just couldn’t get on hir own, and was also probably smart enough that Ten could stand to be around him without wanting to pull hir hair out. What was the kid’s name, though? Something with a B, Ben, Blake, Bart…Bartholomew, that was it! Bartholomew Leviticus Josiah Applegate, one of those horribly long Friend names. That was it, he was part of the Friends of the Universe sect of weirdos. They didn’t proselytize, that sort of thing was highly discouraged by the Federation, but they had been carrying forward their mash-up of ancient religions since the first Earth Exodus in, oh, what was it…2483? Something like that, whatever, Ten wasn’t a historian.
Now Ten just had to wait for the stupid lecture to be over. Ze played with gene combinations on hir tablet, pushing different mutations onto the tiny organisms loaded into the program and watching them respond by thriving or dying. Mostly dying. Ten frowned. Clearly ze had a lot to learn about genes.
The chime finally sounded, and Ten jumped up and ran over to Bartholomew before he could run away. “Hi,” ze said, sitting on his desk and looking at him.
“Um…hi?” Bartholomew looked confused. He was a heavyset young man, not much taller than Ten but probably twice hir weight, and his dark skin should have made him immune to tells like blushing, but Ten knew that he was by the sudden change in his pattern of sweating. Sweat…hmm, he was kind of sweaty. Whatever, Ten couldn’t afford to be choosy.
“I have a proposition for you.”
“Um.” That, that was definitely a blush. “Um, thank you, I’m very flattered, but I’m not interested in casual sex.”
“What?” Ten sputtered. “Oh hell no, I’m not asking for…what, sex? Really? That’s all that sprang to your mind, are you an idiot?”
“Good, because I have to tolerate enough idiots in my life as it is, I don’t want to waste time on any more of them. Sex. Honestly. No.”
“Okay. Then…what are you talking about?”
“It’s a learning proposition. An exchange,” Ten clarified. “I want to learn more about genetics from you, and in exchange I’ll help you with your biochemistry work.”
“Ah, I’m actually scoring near the top of the class in biochemistry already.”
Ten scowled for a moment, then brightened. “I’ll also get you into a club that will wipe out your cultural exchange requirement. All you have to do is hang out with a group of us in my quad for an hour or two every Saturday and let people ask you questions about your culture.”
“Really?” Bartholomew actually looked excited at that prospect. “You would really want to know?”
“Well, I wouldn’t, I’m in it for the genetics information, but the other people would. They’re very polite, it’s a failing.”
“I can see why you would think so,” Bartholomew said diplomatically. “Aren’t you in a quad with the Perel?”
“Yes. It was his idea.”
“Oh, wow. Um. Okay. It’s a deal.” Bartholomew looked up at Ten hopefully. “What kind of information about genetics do you need?”
Ten smiled, teeth sharp and bright. “Oh, only everything.
Grennson had been surprised to learn that there was, actually, a small population of humans with genetically-inherited skills at empathy and telepathy. It was a rare ability that for a time was deliberately bred into a certain percentage of the population by older, more totalitarian governments, and now resided in a select few communities who tended to isolate themselves on distant planets for the sake of harmony. Grennson had been introduced to a girl like this in his Human Psychology class, and while she had been friendly, they had never had a reason to come together before. Now, however, with his mind turned to finding someone who would be an interesting addition to their club, he thought about her again. And she heard him.
“Hello!” She sat down next to him at the beginning of class, a smile wide on her face. She was unremarkable for a human, with none of the dyes or bright colors or specific additions to her uniform that would mark her as part of any particular community. She was short, with brownish-blonde hair cut in a bob around her head, light tan skin, and brown eyes. Very average, the sort of person you wouldn’t look at twice if you didn’t know better. “I understand you want to talk to me.”
“You are very good,” Grennson congratulated her. “I didn’t think I was projecting my intent so broadly.”
“Oh, you weren’t,” she assured him. “I just usually know when a person is thinking about me. It doesn’t happen all that often.”
“Even though people know you’re a psychic?”
“Very few people know that,” she said. “It’s not really safe. I think you were told because they hoped it would make you feel more welcome if you knew you had an ability in common with someone else.”
“But I’m not a psychic,” Grennson pointed out. “Just an empath. Feelings aren’t as specific as thoughts.”
“But they’re a far better gauge of a person’s course of action, at times,” she replied. “People think all kinds of ridiculous things, but they very rarely act on all of them.”
“Your skill is that specific?”
“Not really. I get pictures more than anything else. I’ve learned to close my mind off to most people’s thoughts, otherwise I might go mad.”
“I understand that,” Grennson said wholeheartedly. She laughed and held out a hand.
“I’m Pamela Wu-Barclay, but you can call me Pam. And I’d love to come to your club.”
She seemed genuinely happy at the prospect. In fact, that was all he could sense from her, happiness. It felt almost strange, after all the strife and pain of the past few days with his quad mates. Grennson shook her hand, and said, “I am Grennson Kim Howards, and I would love for you to come.”
“Lovely! Well, that’s all worked out, then.” The lecturer called the class to order, and as they settled in to listen, Grennson felt accomplished. That had gone much more smoothly than he’d imagined.
Darrel wished, for the tenth time that week, that he didn’t have to do this. He didn’t want to find someone to bring back to the quad to take part in Grennson’s club; he got depressed every time he remembered it. His last pick for a friend—although pick wasn’t really the right word, she’d kind of done the picking—had been a total disaster. Valero and he still had classes together, but she wouldn’t even meet his eyes. She wasn’t mean to him, she was just…disengaged. She didn’t talk to anyone that he saw, and once class was done she was the first one out the door. Obviously a change had been wrought in her, a hard one, and Darrel felt bad about it.
And, fuck, there was no way he could bring that up to anyone in the quad. Grennson would be compassionate, but Darrel knew he thought Valero had gotten what she’d deserved. Cody had no reason to like her, not after she’d led to his secret getting out, and Ten was probably ready to disembowel the next person who even considered mentioning Valero’s name. So, Valero was a bust. And there was no chance he could invite another Legacy, either.
Darrel didn’t have an answer, so he pushed the problem to the back of his mind and went on with his days. Classes, paraball practice, studying Perel with Grennson. If Grennson could tell that Darrel was conflicted, he didn’t bring it up. Darrel appreciated that.
The answer to his problem fell on him out of the sky. Literally: at the last practice of the week, with the anti-gravity in place to give them a more genuine experience before their first game next week, Darrel had the ball and was trying to line up his shot for the goal. He jumped into the air, letting the anti-grav help him twist into a better position, and just as he was getting ready to release—
Wham! The blow came from behind and above, powering Darrel back down to the ground and squashing him into the field.
“Mohr!” he heard the coach call out. “What was that?”
“Legal tackle, Coach!” the person—girl—called back. “He was in the air, it’s allowed.”
“It’s only legal when you avoid the head, Mohr! You do a tackle like that in a real game and the ref will have you on the sidelines so fast that it’s your head spinning. Get off of him.”
The weight lifted, and Darrel rolled over onto his back to look at his opposition, who frowned down at him like he’d done the illegal move, not her.
“You all right, Parrish?” the coach asked, jogging over from the sideline. The other players had backed off a bit.
“Fine, Coach,” Darrel replied. There was a sharp twinge in his neck, but he could already feel it going away. Regen was an amazing thing.
“Good. Five minute break, everyone, while we again go over what constituted a legal tackle!” he yelled. “Mohr, help him to the sideline to get some water.”
Mohr frowned but gave Darrel a hand up and walked with him over to the side of the field. “I was a legal tackle,” she muttered. “I avoided your head completely.”
“Kind of fucked up my neck and shoulder, though.” Darrel held up his hands when she glared at him. “I’m just saying.”
“If you can’t take hard play, you shouldn’t be on the field,” she said hotly.
“Oh.” That quelled the fire in her a bit, and she settled down enough to say, “I’m Xenia.”
“Yeah, I know.” She rolled her eyes when Darrel looked questioning. “You think I don’t know every single Legacy that’s on this team? You guys always get first dibs, even if you don’t have the skill for it. I got into the Academy on a sports scholarship, being good at this is what’s gonna keep me here. I have to know who the weak points are.”
Someone who didn’t fawn over Legacies. Darrel could see Xenia getting along stupidly well with Ten. “Am I a weak point, then?”
Xenia shrugged. “Not really. You’re pretty good, but you don’t play with any heart. You aren’t hungry for it.”
“And you are?”
“I’ll do anything to keep from being sent back to the mines,” she said dryly. “You done taking a breather? Because Coach will yell if we’re late.”
“Do you have anything to do Saturday afternoon?” Darrel blurted. Xenia looked close to shutting him down, and he hastened to explain. “My roommate is a Perel, and he was allowed to start a culture club, for credit. We all have to bring someone along who has something to contribute, and if you know a lot about sports, well, you’d be the only one, really. He’s trying to learn as much as he can about humans, and it’ll look good on your transcript.”
“Yeah?” She actually looked interested, which was encouraging. “And I don’t have to write any papers or anything?”
“Not that I know of.”
“And I get to meet your quad mates? Because you guys are kinda legendary at this point.”
“Oh, I fucking know,” Darrel muttered, and Xenia chuckled.
“Fine. Get me the details later. Right now I’ve gotta pretend this team has real players on it and not a bunch of babies.”
“I’ll show you a baby,” Darrel said, but he felt lighter as he headed back out onto the field.
Cody’s problem wasn’t that he had too few people to pick from to bring to the club, but that there were way too many. It was funny, he didn’t realize just how many acquaintances he had until he actually thought about it. When he did, the numbers were overwhelming.
He knew almost everyone’s names in all of his classes. That was something Garrett had taught him: remember a person’s name and they’ll be flattered and open up to you. Even though the memorization didn’t come naturally, Cody had followed his advice, and it was really true. Every time he said hello to another cadet in the halls, they tended to smile at him like he’d given them a gift. It was easy to get lost in the crowd when you were one cadet out of thousands and thousands, and so it had to seem a little special.
The girls were especially nice. Samantha in his physics class, Tyrelle in Introduction to Tactics, Yelena in Chemistry…Cody never sat by himself, and he had more offers to study together than he knew what to do with. Cody recognized flirting, he wasn’t completely sheltered, and he wasn’t at all turned off to the idea of spending a few hours alone with one of his pretty classmates, but he just didn’t seem to have the time for it. He was doing fine in all of his classes except for Chemistry, and he had Ten to help him with that, so he usually declined. Most of his free time was spent with Phil learning the tools of the spy trade, and that wasn’t exactly the sort of thing he could bring into casual conversation, either.
Cody wasn’t a virgin. His first time had been with Lacey, back on Pandora. It had been…well, hilarious was really the only way to describe it. They’d known each other since they were six, and while Cody was at an age where he could get hard just watching someone walk away, he wasn’t particularly attracted to Lacey. She wasn’t really into him either, but she’d offered and he’d accepted and once they’d figured out what worked for them, it was nice. Really nice. Really, really nice, especially afterward, when she’d crawled on top of him and rested her head on his chest, her soft breasts pressed against his stomach, and she’d stroked his arms while he’d played with her long, pale hair. Lacey was a comfort, was comfortable, and Cody loved her. But they were friends first, and he was going away, and Lacey had been okay with that.
Now that he was here Cody didn’t really have time for a relationship, and he wasn’t wired to be happy to fuck people he didn’t care about. As for friends, yeah, he had a lot of them, but no one really stood out in his mind as the sort of person he wanted to introduce to the rest of his quad. They were all too much like him: friendly, inoffensive, middle of the road. Cody felt compelled to try and find someone different, someone who would really stand out from the crowd.
Ten was the first to pick someone out, and once ze’d dedicated to a cause, ze threw hirself at it full force. Everyone had already met Bartholomew, Ten had brought him home the first day, then forced the guy to speak genetics at hir for hours on end. He was friendly enough, and Cody knew that what Ten was doing was ostensibly for Cody’s benefit, even if Bartholomew didn’t realize that, but he kind of missed spending time alone with his roommate.
On the last day of classes that week, Cody went out to the garage instead of back to his quad. He wanted to look in on his bike. All the chemical components were very stable, but Wyl said it wasn’t good to let them sit idle for too long, and Cody was dying to go for a ride. He was pretty much healed up, and he’d invited Ten to come along, but ze’d turned him down.
“Tomorrow,” Ten had said distractedly as ze mixed reagents in tiny test tubes. “After the stupid club. And save the good fuel for me.”
Which meant Cody would be riding by himself today, but that was fine. He liked solo rides. He’d missed out on a race earlier this week, but the side benefit of that was that the course was pretty abandoned now. It was a five kilometer circle, with obstacles you could program in for added difficulty. Cody logged into the course’s control program, pulled up one of its advanced options and selected everything he could. There would be a few sharp turns in there, but he could handle it.
He got into his protective gear, made sure the bike was fully charged and healthy, and then rode her out to the beginning of the track. Cody strapped himself in, activated the frontal shield and waited for the course to finish arranging itself.
Thirty seconds before the go-ahead, another bike pulled in next to his. It was a little larger, very sleek but commercial—a Firecat, Cody was pretty sure. The person on the back of it was taller than him, their face already hidden by their helmet. “Mind if I join you?"
“You know I set it to advanced, right?”
“I wouldn’t want to run it if it was easy,” the person—the guy—replied. Cody could hear the smile in his voice. “I bet I can finish before you can.”
“Oh, you’re on,” Cody said, pulling his own helmet down. He watched the counter out of the corner of his eye. Five seconds. Four. Three. Two…
The lights flared and they took off, accelerating toward the first corner. The guy had a slight lead on Cody, since he was on the inside, but Cody knew he could make it up.
First obstacle: the rings. They weren’t material, just projected, but if you made it through all of them without touching the edges, you upped your score. Cody swerved tightly, left, right, carefully gauging his elevation as he shot up into the high ones. He was good at these, he knew it, but this guy was better. He pulled another meter ahead.
Next were the hurdles, which could be hard on a bike’s compressors, but Cody’s were top of the line. He bounced over them smoothly, grinning to himself when he noticed the other guy slowing down to avoid knocking a few of them over. Cody gained until they were neck to neck heading into the next obstacle, which was…
Oh, shit, random projectiles. These were immaterial too, but Cody hadn’t been paying close enough attention and one of the bars grazed his shoulder as he reacted with a sideways jerk, lowering his score. He could hear the guy laugh over the sound of their engines. “You have to do better than that!” he called out, retaking the lead.
Yeah, Cody knew that, thank you very much, jackass. His blood surged as he put on speed, trying to make up time. He grinned helplessly with the fun of it, the joy of being back on his bike, the race, the competition. They hit the final straightaway, and Cody nudged even further forward. A few more meters and he could—
Oh, the other guy blocked, and blocked hard. Cody had to swerve to the right to avoid contact with the other guy’s fender when he slowed down suddenly. Blocking was a legal move in a race, a way for a confident leader to hold onto his position when there was just one other person to worry about. His bike was big enough that Cody wouldn’t be able to shove it aside, and fast enough that Cody wouldn’t be able to maneuver around it in time. The finish line was closing fast. He needed a new strategy.
Well, it had worked before. Cody gritted his teeth and activated the downward propulsion units, launching his bike into the air. He pulled it into a loop so he wouldn’t lose his forward momentum, and had the distinct satisfaction of watching his opponent’s helmet turn up to watch as Cody sailed over his head. He righted himself and took the lead, and a few seconds later he zoomed over the finish line.
The other guy pulled in to where Cody eventually stopped, laughing. “That was incredible,” he said. “I’ve never seen a tighter loop.”
“One of my favorite moves,” Cody replied. He pulled his helmet off and shook out his sweaty hair, the curls flopping over his face. “I still took a hit on points, though.”
“You got more than enough to compensate for the hit by coming in first,” the other guy replied. “Seriously, sweet moves. Your bike is something else.”
“Thanks. She’s custom.”
“I can tell,” the guy agreed. “She’s gorgeous.” He held out his hand to Cody, who shook it. “Thanks for the race.” Then he turned and started to head back to the garage.
Maybe it was the adrenaline, maybe it was because Cody’s finally found someone who intrigued him, maybe it was just a spur of the moment thing, but before the guy could get away Cody called out, “Hey! What are you doing tomorrow?”
He twisted around to look back. The guy was very attractive from behind, Cody acknowledged, even with the helmet on. There was just something smooth about the way he moved, liquid and facile. “Why?”
“Because I need to bring a guest to my quad mate’s club and it has to be someone interesting, and you’re…uh…interesting,” Cody said, feeling more and more lame by the second.
“You don’t even know me.”
“I’d like to,” Cody offered, pulling in next to him. “If only so I can figure out how to beat you even harder next time.”
“Next time I will ride you into the ground,” the other guy promised.
“It’s…look, you don’t have to say yes,” Cody went on, ignoring the way the innuendo made his stomach tighten. “I mean, I don’t even know if you’re a student here.”
“I am,” the rider said after a moment. “And sure, why not?” He reached up and took off his helmet. “Thanks for the offer, Cadet Helms.”
As Cody looked at him, dumbfounded, all he could think was, My quad mates are going to kill me.