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A hand went up, from a blonde girl in a clinging dress of glowing fabric that showed patches of bare skin in unexpected places. None of them were actually over restricted body areas, but they were certainly very close to them. She could have stepped straight out of a wild party scene in a vid.
‘I couldn’t find the concealed door to the bathroom in my room, or the concealed window,’ she said. ‘Should I have a special key code?’
There were a few giggles from round the room. I was one of the guilty parties.
Lecturer Playdon broke the bad news to her. ‘That’s probably because there is no concealed door. There’s a bathroom at the end of each corridor. That’s one bathroom between ten of you, so no lingering in the shower. There are no windows in the dome. Anyone else?’
Everyone else kept quiet.
‘Good. I’ve one very important warning for you. Don’t go outside the dome until instructed to do so. I really mean that. Now I’ll let you get on with your meet and greet.’
He went to sit in a corner and ostentatiously started working through some info on his lookup. Apparently we were supposed to run things ourselves now. There was a nervous silence, and then a girl stood up. She looked just like a vid presenter, with glittering rainbow lights flickering randomly through her waist long, straight black hair. Expertly applied makeup emphasized the delicate features of her classically-beautiful dark face, and her clothes must have cost a fortune.
‘We’d better start introducing ourselves,’ she said, gazing round at us with a superlatively confident smile. ‘I’m Dalmora Rostha.’ The slow drawling way she spoke told me her home sector before she said it. ‘I’m from Alpha sector. My father is Ventrak Rostha. He’s made some info vids, and I’m hoping to make history vids myself some day.’
There was a sort of stunned silence. What got to me was the sweetly modest way she said it. ‘Made some info vids’ … Ventrak Rostha was famous. Just about everyone followed his History of Humanity series, each eagerly awaited episode covering another key event of the period since the first colony was set up on an Alpha sector world until the present day.
Ventrak Rostha was a brilliant man. I loved his vids so much that I could even forgive him for being an exo. That didn’t stop me hating his daughter though. She was probably a rich and spoilt nardle brain, who thought the rest of humanity should just lie down and be trampled on by her elegant little Alphan feet. It would happen too. She was guaranteed a glistening career ahead of her making vids. It didn’t matter how second-rate and incompetent they were, everyone would praise them to the skies because she was the daughter of the incomparable Ventrak Rostha.
Yes, I admit it, I was jealous.
Ventrak Rostha’s daughter smiled round at the grazzed class. ‘So who next? Anyone else from Alpha?’
There was dead silence.
‘Anyone from Beta sector then?’ asked our new celebrity leader.
The one in the party dress stood up and gave a theatrical wiggle. Oh yes, of course she was Betan. I’d worked that one out already from her dress.
‘I’m Lolia. I see we have sixteen men and fourteen women, so I know you won’t think I’m greedy when I say I’m looking out for a trio with two of you gorgeous boys.’
There were a few startled giggles. The sixteen gorgeous boys seemed a bit nervous as Lolia gave them each a predatory look of assessment. All except one, who was lounging back in his chair advertising the fact he didn’t care. He spotted me looking at him, and gave me what I could best describe as a leer.
I remembered I was Jarra the Military kid, gave him a long cold look in return, and then turned away. I hoped the general effect was that I’d considered him and was unimpressed. I made a mental bet that he was Betan too. I was right. He was the next one to stand up and introduce himself.
After that, we had a whole mob from Gamma sector, who talked with a slightly lilting quality to their sentences. The number of Gammans made sense since Asgard was in Gamma sector. I grudgingly had to admit they seemed a quiet and inoffensive bunch. The thought occurred to me that my random selection of University could have landed me on a Beta sector course. I shuddered, and mentally thanked Arrack San Domex for being from Asgard.
Miss Celebrity took us through the people from sectors Delta through Kappa after that. There were a few from Delta, a solitary girl from Epsilon, and no one from Kappa. That was hardly surprising. Epsilon sector is still busy building everything on its colony worlds, but Kappa is even newer so it’s still mostly in Planet First or Colony Ten phase.
Dalmora smiled at me. ‘I’m really sorry, but if you aren’t from Kappa then we seem to have missed you out somehow.’ She was a good actress, because she actually sounded like she cared.
I stood up. I noticed Playdon abandon his lookup to watch this, but I refused to let him intimidate me. ‘I’m Jarra,’ I said. ‘My family is Military.’
‘Interest!’ Celebrity Dalmora gazed at me in what appeared to be absolute delight and fascination. ‘A Military doing history! Are you going to go Military later?’
‘Unsure.’ I smiled. ‘I love history, but it’s difficult to combine it with a Military career.’
The boy from Beta chipped in. ‘I’ve never met anyone Military before. What does a Military girl do when a man kisses her?’
I gave him the cold stare. ‘That depends. If he asks politely first, and I say yes, then I kiss him back. If he doesn’t ask politely, or doesn’t take no for an answer, then I throw him across the room as a gentle hint to improve his manners.’
There were a few startled expressions round the room.
‘Do you do that often?’ asked the boy from Beta.
‘The last time was yesterday,’ I said, quite truthfully.
I sat down again. I could see Lecturer Playdon looking at me with a raised eyebrow. I turned my head to give him a wide smile. He knew I was telling a pack of lies, but he couldn’t do anything about it. He wasn’t allowed to tell the others my confidential data.
Celebrity Dalmora started splitting us into little social groups next, like the perfect hostess that she was. She annexed me, two lads from Delta and the quiet girl from Epsilon for her own group. I had a feeling she picked us out as the ones who were most likely to need help socially.
She smiled round at us and decided to honour me with her attention first. ‘Jarra, it’s just totally zan being on a course with someone like you. Military! I chose to come on a Gamman university course because I wanted to meet people from other sectors, but this is even better than I’d hoped for.’
Part of me wondered what the great Dalmora would say if she knew she was wasting her charm on an ape girl, but most of me was busy being Jarra Military kid. I gave a politely modest shrug.
‘I hope you don’t mind me asking something personal,’ she said, with the confidence of someone who could always get away with asking anything she liked. ‘Both your parents are on active service? You went to residential schools rather than living with your family? That must be hard.’
Both the real me and the fake me could answer that one. ‘The residences are separate from the schools, but yes. We spend a lot of time living with other kids. They become almost like a family to us. I wouldn’t say it’s that hard …’
‘Interest!’ cried Dalmora.
Incredible the way she could sound as if she really cared. She turned the spotlight on one of the boys from Delta next. She remembered his name too, and the couple of sentences he’d said to the class. How did she do that? I’d only managed to remember a couple from the avalanche of names that had buried me in the last hour. Everything else was a blur.
‘Fian, you said you wanted to be a pre-history specialist. You’re sure about that already? I find all of history totally fascinate. I know I can’t study everything but it’s so hard to choose.’ Dalmora bestowed her professional smile upon Fian, just like an interviewer in a news vid.
Fian obviously had some strength of character, because he didn’t blush or act overwhelmed by Dalmora gazing at him. ‘Pre-history is where everything starts. People may feel modern history is more relevant, but it’s only a few hundred years out of millions. That’s a very thin skin on the surface of time. The minute you dig deeply into the reasons behind something in modern history, you find yourself back in pre-history. That’s where the blood and the bones are. The real problem is where to specialise within pre-history. You’ve got everything back to the dinosaurs to choose from.’
‘One day, I’d love to have you say exactly that in a vid, Fian,’ said Dalmora. ‘I hope I get the chance to do it. People casually dismiss so much in pre-history as no longer relevant. Getting people to really stop and think is the true achievement in an info vid.’
I wanted to scream. Dalmora was being so insufferably nice even if it was all an act. Fian actually sounded intelligent. I didn’t want these people to be nice or intelligent. I hated them for being norms when I was Handicapped, for being able to travel to other worlds when I was locked in a cage. I wanted them to be awful, horrible people, so I could think I was quite right to loathe exos.
I was in luck. Our group contained the celebrity, and the Betans weren’t going to be left out of it for long. The boy came over first, and gave me ample excuse to detest him. He looked Dalmora over first, blatantly examining her body, his attention lingering on the more private areas as if she was on offer for him to take. I hated Dalmora, but I found myself resenting that gloating assessment on her behalf. Even she, with her polished society manner, seemed rather disturbed by it.
With our hostess clearly disconcerted, there was an awkward silence in the group. The Betan ignored it. He finished enjoying his examination of Dalmora and moved on to the next item on the menu offered to him today. The next item was me. ‘Jarra …’ His eyes started crawling over me. I could almost feel them touching me.
I didn’t like it. JMK didn’t like it either. I tried not to react, since I had a theory he would get more enjoyment out of studying my body if I showed I objected to it. ‘I don’t remember your name,’ I said, trying to sound bored.
‘Lolmack,’ he said.
Now the gaze was off her, Dalmora had pulled herself together. ‘We have a Lolia and Lolmack from Beta. Very similar names.’
‘It’s the clan cluster prefix,’ said Lolmack. ‘Lolia is my half cousin by my father’s first triad marriage.’
‘Ah yes, Betan naming.’ Dalmora still wasn’t sounding her confident self.
Lolia oozed her way over to join us next. She exchanged a glance with Lolmack, and then gave the Deltan boys the same sort of lingering examination that Dalmora and I had just suffered. ‘Nice butts,’ she drooled.
There was a collective gasp from all the non Betans in earshot, including me. Hoo eee! Lolia had said the butt word! I know there were times in pre-history when it was fairly acceptable in polite conversation, and I’ve heard it used in the more daring Betan vids, but I’d never heard anyone say it in public before. Everyone says legs, and you can tell which bit they mean by the way they say it.
Lecturer Playdon seemed to appear from nowhere. I’d labelled him as one of those teachers who put in the bare minimum of work, but now I realized I was wrong. He’d been sitting on the sidelines, letting Dalmora run things, so he could study us. He spoke in the hard voice of authority.
‘I must remind the students from Beta sector that this is a University Asgard course, and monitored under the Gamma sector moral code. You agreed to abide by that code when you accepted a place on this course.’
Lolia looked at him wide eyed, with an expression of exaggerated surprise. ‘I only said “butt”.’
He gave her a thin smile. ‘I have just given you one formal reminder; I now give you an amber warning. That word is not acceptable under the Gamman moral code.’
‘I had no idea,’ said Lolia. ‘It’s really not that bad a word. If I’d said …’
‘You can recite me a list of obscene words if you like,’ said Playdon, ‘but each one will get you a warning. You can get yourself off this course in less than five minutes, with no refund of fees.’
He paused and looked round the class. ‘This seems a good time for me to point out that there are students here from five sectors and twenty different planets. You’ll be aware Beta is the most permissive sector, while Delta and Epsilon are the most conservative, but don’t depend too much on sector stereotypes. Planetary and individual standards vary within sectors, and the Gamman moral code requires you to treat other students with respect and consideration for their personal boundaries.’
Playdon walked away and sat down in his corner again. The Betans looked at each other and laughed.
‘Such a prude,’ whispered Lolia.
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