Out of the Machinery

by Tenshi

Watched by empty silhouettes
Who close their eyes, but still can see
No one taught them etiquette
I will show another me

Today I don't need a replacement
I'll tell them what the smile on my face meant
My heart was going boom boom boom
Hey, I said, you can keep my things, they've come to take me home
--Peter Gabriel, "Solsbury Hill"

"Is this seat taken?"

Sigurd looked up from his datapad into a pair of curiously archaic spectacles and the first smile he had encountered all day. They were both attached to a young man who seemed to be all arm and leg even in his Jugend uniform, his bag straining from the weight of disks and files in it.

The seat next to Sigurd was more than vacant, as was the one on the opposite side of him, a careful, intentional bubble in the crowded auditorium that sent a message loud and clear from all the other students.

Except this one.

"No." Sigurd put his datapad down, and hurried to scoop his bag out of the seat. "Not at all."

"Thanks," he said, falling into the chair and raking back loose dark hair with one long, nervous hand. "This thing weighs a ton."

Sigurd looked at the bag, the synthleather sides groaning faintly under the Jugend emblem. "Classes haven't even started yet," he said. "How come you have all that?"

The boy went a pleased shade of pink under his glasses as he rummaged in the bottom of the bag for his datapad and stylus. "Oh, I know, I know. But I went to the library right after I got my ID card, and I got a little carried away..." He picked up a disk, peered at it in confusion. "A Treatise on Nanomachines as an Aid to Human Reconstruction? I don't even remember picking that one up. Oh well, sounds interesting anyway!" He shoved the file back in the bag, spent another moment searching for his stylus (which was in his hand) and once settled, looked around the auditorium with a delighted expression. "I can't get over all this space, can you? Compared the hives, I mean."

To Sigurd, the room felt closed-in and stifling for want of windows, even with the broad overhead space-- but maybe that had less to do with the architecture than with his reception when he walked in. The cheerful buzz of conversation had become a total hush, followed by a slow hiss of whispers like pressurized air leaking out of a transport shuttle.

Sigurd had taken a seat fairly close to some other students, their first class status evident in the frosty, almost pastel coloring of their hair and eyes and skin. They spent a few minutes shooting icy looks at Sigurd before relocating two rows away. Newcomers arriving for orientation would skim the room for empty seats and squeeze in anywhere except the spaces next to Sigurd. When they did bother to look at him, their expressions carried clear resentment, and the sentiment that the Lamb with the dark amber skin and silver hair was as welcome in their presence as the hive-plague.

All of them, except for the young man in the glasses. Truthfully he didn't look like a first class citizen himself, with his dark hair and slightly warmer skin tones, but he looked like a tube-bred aristocrat next to Sigurd.

"Something on my face?" he asked, and Sigurd blinked, realizing he had been staring.

"No, no, sorry." Sigurd made a point of poking his datapad with his stylus, though his class schedule and ID code were not particularly engrossing. "I didn't get your name?"

"You didn't?" The student looked surprised. "So terribly sorry. Hyuga." He disentangled his hand from the data disks he was sorting, and clasped Sigurd's hand in a surprisingly firm grip. "Hyuga Ricdeau. And you--"

The lights blinked before Hyuga had finished the question and Sigurd was given a chance to answer, and applause scattered throughout the auditorium as the faculty filed in the room.

The head of the Jugend board of directors went through a long speech about responsibility and higher purpose, followed by a rehash of information about where the dorms were and how to use student ID cards at checkpoints-- all things anyone could find out just by accessing the handbook database.

Sigurd thought at first that Hyuga was taking a furious set of notes, except when he glanced over and realized the other first year student was in fact sketching on a complex set of gear specs. His stylus flicked over the screen with the same bored, absorbed fascination most students would use to doodle caricatures of their professors during a particularly dull lecture.

Sigurd was so engrossed in watching that he almost missed when the Director switched to information that was not simply regurgitated regulations.

"As you all know," The director was saying, "Commander Blanche, whose academic career you could all aspire to emulate, has personally chosen to sponsor a student this year. Students sponsored by former valedictorians are the pride of Jugend, chosen for outstanding potential and skill, destined for the highest posts in Gebler, and I expect that you will treat him with the respect due a superior, as he is sure to be the high water mark the rest of you must match."

The hissing was back again, but this time it was eager, excited. Hyuga even put down his stylus to look around the room, curiosity open on his face.

Sigurd was thinking very hard about making himself spontaneously combust, with no success. The director went on, relentless.

"It is my pleasure to introduce the Commander's personal choice for Jugend this year: Sigurd Harcourt." He skimmed the crowd with a polite smile. "Cadet Harcourt, if you would stand...?"

Hyuga was looking past Sigurd at the gaggle of students that had relocated earlier, expecting one of them to answer, so it was probably the horrified looks on their faces that first clued him in that all eyes in the auditorium were on the seat next to him. He turned around just as Sigurd pushed himself up out of his seat, tugged on the hem of his uniform, and stood.

The silence in the room was so absolute, one might have thought some sort of vacuum had come into effect. Two hundred privileged, Solarian-bred first class students stared at Sigurd with expressions that ran the gamut from shock to open jealousy, and none of them were friendly. Sigurd was trying to convince his legs to work backwards and let him sit down again, but the Director was staring in confusion at his notes and had not yet acknowledged him.

It seemed to last forever.

The sudden noise was almost enough to make him start, coming from an unexpected quarter, unusually close.

Hyuga was clapping. Unperturbed by the stares and the silence, the only person in the room genuinely pleased to see Sigurd standing there, he beamed up at his seatmate and applauded furiously, as though to make up for the one hundred and ninety eight other silent students in the first year class.

Reluctant, less enthusiastic applause followed, from the director and board at the front of the auditorium. The students were still mostly unswayed until another student on the far side of the room, blood as blue as Cain's himself from the looks of him, stood up and clapped as well. Not to be outdone in decorum by one of their own, the others followed suit and applauded, though their eyes did not thaw one bit even when the Director had waved them down for the closing of orientation.

"One in a thousand, I'd say," Hyuga was saying, as the students filed out, most of them making a point to ignore the student they were told to treat as a superior.

"Me getting Sponsorship?" Sigurd asked, busying himself with his satchel and catching a few glares that were downright murderous.

"That had nothing to do with chance." Hyuga twiddled with his glasses, and waved his datapad at Sigurd as though it could prove a point if only it had been still enough to be read. "Sponsored students aren't picked by blind luck. I should know, I'm sponsored myself, though it's entirely unofficial and off the books. I wouldn't be here otherwise, just look at me." Sigurd opened his mouth to say that of the two of them, Hyuga looked more the part, but the other student was busy gesturing with his housing printout. "I meant, one in a thousand-- well I suppose they might have wanted to keep us together, segregation and all..."

Sigurd, beginning to realize that getting a word in edgewise with Hyuga required drastic action, said, "Hyuga, what are you talking about?"

Hyuga blinked, holding his housing sheet at last so Sigurd could actually read it. "Didn't you see? I'm your roommate."

"They must have cheated, somehow," The cadet was saying to an agreeing audience of some seven or so other students, as Sigurd and Hyuga stepped up on the train platform outside Jugend's main entrance. "Bad enough a hive-slime like that Ricdeau getting in, but that outright -Lamb-, Harcourt... tskt."

"Ignore them," Hyuga said in an undertone, as Sigurd's shoulders stiffened under his uniform jacket. "They want a rise out of you, it will only prove their point."

Sigurd nodded his head an imperceptible fraction, his deep blue eyes focusing hard on the sign across the train track, as though it was really important to him to memorize the message about electrical current on the tracks.

The cadet pitched his voice louder, making sure he could be heard. "I hear Ricdeau cleared up the plague that hit the lowers a while back and so some brass thought they'd stick him in here. But if you ask me, any bug that wipes out two thirds of the third class is a good thing, they were all inbred and stale anyway. Better off dead so we can get some fresh ones in."

This time it was Hyuga who flinched.

"Hyuga..." Sigurd began.

"Maybe all he did was ask the virus nicely to leave," The cadet was relentless, and now his audience was laughing. "After all, they're probably related."

Somehow the insult to himself seemed easier for Hyuga to take. He relaxed a little, and even smiled a small, wan smile at Sigurd. "Really, he could do better than that," he murmured.

"You don't have to take it, you know," Sigurd said back in a low voice.

"I'm used to it," Hyuga demurred, his face serene as he flicked open the cover on his datapad and twiddled with some notes. "I'm from the hives, after all. Besides, they'll have to come up with some more wit than that before I'm going to worry about it. I'd rather be related to a nice, sophisticated virus any day than to that regurgitated first class tapeworm."

Hyuga and Sigurd's laughter made the cadet's face darken with anger as he realized his barbs had fallen short. His audience looked at him expectantly, and he changed tactics. "Now don't get me wrong," he drawled, spreading his hands. "The -Lamb- is a nice, high-quality sample. He'd make a good housepet, I think. It's a shame to waste clothes on him, when he'd be better off collared to someone's bedpost."

Sigurd's ears were suddenly buzzing. He only dimly heard Hyuga say his name, as the text of the sign in front of him wavered.

The cadet, seeing that this was having a better effect, pressed on. "I'd screw him myself, if I wasn't afraid of catching something."

"Sigurd!" Hyuga hissed, in warning.

Sigurd took a deep breath, uncurled his fists. "I'm okay," he said, and settled for shooting the cadet and his groupies a hot glare.

"Ooo, I think he heard me," the cadet said, as his cronies made various noises of mock-horror. He rose his voice to be heard clearly across the platform, even by the other students milling around the area. "It's only the truth, right, little surface-slut? Everybody knows all they care about down there is fighting and fucking. Good thing, because if they weren't all killing each other, they'd be overpopulated just from the unmonitored breeding." He showed a perfect row of white teeth, dark eyes glinting. "Hey, maybe that's how you got in, right, Harcourt?" He looked Sigurd over in an appraising fashion that was somehow more invasive to Sigurd than all the tests and tubes of the Etrenank labs. "Maybe Commander Blanche has exotic tastes."

The cadet might as well have kicked Sigurd in the face, for the hot wave of rage that welled up in him. He took a step forward, but no more, as a stranger from the observing crowds strode in between them, without sparing even a glance for Sigurd and Hyuga.

"And maybe you're too much of a pussy to admit that a Lamb and a third-class citizen beat you in the entrance exams," the stranger said. He was more obviously a first class Solarian than any of the students there, his hair almost white. He was wearing a uniform, and Sigurd had not yet had time to learn to identify them, but Hyuga made a little strangled noise in his throat. "I realize that all of you are a bunch of blue-blood first-class babies who've never had to think for yourselves a day in your lives," the stranger continued, in a bored sort of voice, "and more inbred than anybody in the hives, so I guess it's not your fault that you suck so much."

The Cadet's ring of supporters seemed to shrink, melting back in the background, leaving him alone against the stranger.

The stranger put one hand on his hip, and tilted his chin at the cadet. "But you're Ezekiel Verlaine's son, aren't you, kid? Which means your grandmother, as I recall, was a third-class citizen, right?"

The cadet-- Verlaine-- flinched, one hand going up to his dark red hair.

"So with a good shot of -Lamb- blood in you like these two," the stranger went on, "what's your excuse for scoring barely high enough on the exams to get in without your dad greasing every palm from here to to the Gazel Ministry?"

Verlaine's eyes flashed. "Just who the hell do you think you are?"

The stranger glanced over his shoulder at Hyuga and Sigurd, and his wink was so fast that Sigurd thought at first he had missed it. "Gebler Lt. Commander Jesiah B. Blanche," he said. "Jugend valedictorian class of '82." His pause was perfect, his slight smile an absolute victory in the hush of students on the platform. "...You wanna see my ID, brat?"

Verlaine had gone white to the lips, and was still visibly trying to assemble his thoughts as Sigurd's sponsor and the former valedictorian of Jugend turned his back on him, utterly disinterested.

"Hey," Jesiah said, by way of introduction to Hyuga and Sigurd, bending down to pick up Hyuga's overloaded bag. "I was just thinking it was a bad idea to let you guys stay in the dorms and get eaten alive, so I came to pick you up. Good to meet you, Sigurd."

Sigurd had expected his sponsor to be some venerable old officer with nothing better to do than to shake things up in the military academy, not a twenty-year-old firebrand with a mouth like a freighter pilot. He shook Jesiah's hand with a blank, stunned look. "...thanks... thank you, Sir."

"Just Jesiah is fine. You must be Hyuga," Jesiah said, and was obviously the first upper-level Solarian ever to take Hyuga's hand as though there was no ancient caste system separating them. "Heard about what you did with the virus, really unbelievable."

Hyuga nodded mutely, and Sigurd thought it was the first time in the other cadet's life that he had ever been struck speechless.

"Right," Jesiah said, tilting his head away from the train and back down the avenue of lush, first class homes. "You guys are staying with me."

"It's not much," Jesiah was saying, as they walked up tree-lined steps to a unit in a block of quiet, first-class residences. "But we've got a spare room we won't be using until my son's older--"

Hyuga stopped gawping at the trees and gawped at Jesiah instead. "You're a father?" He seemed to realize that his shock might not be politic, and added hastily, "I mean, so early in your career, it seems unusual..."

"Don't backtrack, Hyuga," Jesiah said, unruffled. "It makes you sound like a politician. Even Gebler valedictorians can run into trouble during routine power-outages. It's a god damn surprise to me every morning, too." He swiped his keycard through the slot and the door whooshed open just in time to release a soapy, peach-colored blur that whizzed past Sigurd and Hyuga at knee height.

"Daddy! Daddy!!"


Jesiah bent down and caught the squirmy, giggly child up in his arms, getting soap all over his epaulets. "Whoa whoa whoa where're you goin' without a uniform, soldier?"

Jesiah's answer was a sudsy kiss on the cheek.

"I got him, 'Kel!" Jesiah yelled back into the house, and shot an apologetic look at Sigurd and Hyuga. "My wife," he explained. "and this is Billy," Jesiah glanced at his son, adding in an undertone, "Uh, usually he's wearing pants."

"He won't be for long," Jesiah's wife said, stomping through the living room to the door, sleeves pushed up and hair trailing out of her ponytail, "Because I'm going to wear out his behind--" she caught sight of the two shell-shocked cadets on the front stoop, and pulled up short. "Oh!" She said, making a brief vague gesture over her soggy shirt. "I'm so sorry, I wasn't expecting you until later..." she whirled on Billy, who was hiding in his father's collar. "Don't think you've gotten out of trouble, Mister! Jessie, take the buttless wonder upstairs and put him back in the tub-- with plasma binders, if you have to, and I'll get these guys settled."

"Right!" Jesiah said, and slung a delighted Billy over his shoulder and into his armpit as though he was an assault rifle. "Racquel will take care of you, guys. After all, she's my sempai." He freed a hand to swat her on the backside as he left, and from the look Racquel sent after him, Sigurd got the feeling that Billy wasn't the only one due for a chewing out later.

"I swear I think they're both two years old," Racquel said, and picked up Hyuga's bag. "Whoof, did you leave anything in the library? I think I've got some blank disks if there's anything you want to copy for later to the terminal in your room... and leave your boots at the door, please."

Hyuga and Sigurd exchanged glances. "Our own terminal?" Hyuga said, to nobody really but himself, eyes shining behind his glasses. Sigurd just shook his head. The two of them toed off their boots as they were told and, dodging a trail of tiny wet footprints, followed Racquel into their new home.


b i s h o n e n i n k