She threw open her suitcase and grabbed the first complete set of clothes she found. It helped that many of her shirts matched her trousers. There was little variety among the shirts, anyway. She rapidly showered, grabbed her school bag and woolen cap, and ran out of the apartment. She was too late even to beg for a spare muffin from the shop on the way to the halls. She programmed for a travel cloud and sped off on top of it.
She already hated where the day was going.
Rowan found Ren at the first floor hallway, trying his best to disappear into the crowd of program trainees. All were gloved; since there were different kinds of element programs, it was best to prevent their use to all by ensuring everyone wore anti-program gloves in the hallways. Ren wore Soji’s black leather gloves, old and somewhat frayed at the tips. Rowan wore no gloves; she did not have to. Besides, gloves dulled her fists.
Someone got caught in Ren’s crutches and tripped. Rowan caught Ren before he tripped and fell himself.
But Rowan interrupted Ren and addressed the trainee. “YOU watch where you’re going yourself. You’re the one who doesn’t need help with walking.”
The trainee crossed his arms and raised his nose at her. “Stay out of it, Rowan! I’m not talking with you.”
“I’m just saying–”
“I said I’m sorry,” Ren said to the trainee as he regained his footing. He sunk his head. “It won’t happen again.”
“It better not!” The trainee rushed off through the hallway, mingling with the crowd.
Rowan glared at Ren. “You give up too quickly.”
“You don’t have my life,” Ren mumbled. “But thank you.”
“Where are you off to?”
Ren retrieved a piece of paper from his pocket. “Basic program theory.”
Rowan nodded. “Stay close to me. I’ll get you there alive.” It was no big deal if she walked with Ren for a while. She was used to entering late to classes then cramming to catch up for tests.
Some of the trainees made way for Rowan as she passed, either greeting her or avoiding her. She grinned at those she was acquainted with or had helped last year. Every so often she checked if Ren had managed to keep up with her. Several more trainees tripped on his crutches. Ren apologized left and right.
Suddenly and hurriedly, the crowd of trainees parted in the middle, forming a large and anxious gap through the hallway. Rowan and Ren were shoved to the wall by the force of the other trainees’ movement.
“What’s going on?” Ren asked.
“They’re here.” Rowan rolled her eyes. She shielded Ren from the press, keeping him immediately behind her, for he began to tremble as he saw who she meant.
Three girls crossed the hallway, one with curly platinum hair flanked by two others, one with blue hair and the other with black hair. Despite the ruling, all three were ungloved.
The one with blue hair was Juno, who Rowan fought the other day for Ren. Juno cowered to the right, carrying more books than any one trainee had to carry. Her clothes belied her cowardice: a skirt that barely covered her thighs, black stockings, metal-tipped shoes, and a leather programming tunic.
The leftmost of the three was Mara, who looked like a dignified lady in her stiff knee-length skirt and long-sleeved blouse. The attire concealed a menace and viciousness that many in the training hall were already familiar with. Mara glared at the trainees as they passed.
The girl in the middle spotted Rowan, and stopped in front of her. The curled platinum hair was pulled back into two ponytails that fell over her ears. Wrapped around one of her wrists was a metal bracelet with a dangling dagger-like charm. She wore fishnet stockings, sturdy leather boots, and an ensemble that accented her waist and chest. This dangerous beauty was the leader of the Metalworks, the bane of Rowan’s daily existence.
Ren ducked behind Rowan, trembling and panting heavily.
The two girls squared their shoulders and glared at each other.
“Eloise.” Rowan crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re still here.”
“So are you, Rowan. I thought you flunked out,” the girl said sweetly. “No-program programmer.”
Rowan remained calm. “I thought you’d be expelled.”
Eloise smirked. “Well, you thought wrong. And I hope we’ll have a more harmonious relationship this year.”
“Me? Friends with you? Not while you’re like that.”
“I see.” Eloise smiled. “Well, at least I hope you can stay away from our business.”
“Your business is mine, if you hurt anyone.” Rowan clenched a fist.
“Tsk,tsk, tsk. Temper, temper,” Eloise said. “Well, I have to go to class. You have a good day.” She gestured to Mara and Juno and turned her back on Rowan.
The tension broke. The crowd calmed and filled the gap as the Metalworks moved on.
But Ren kept trembling behind Rowan. He was pale. His forehead was dotted with sweat.
“You want to sit down?” Rowan asked.
“She’s here. She’s here. She’s here,” Ren muttered, over and over.
“Juno? Of course she is, and you can’t do much about that,” she said.
Ren shook his head, still trembling too much to say anything more.
He was still quivering when Rowan left him at a classroom door. He looked into the room and relaxed considerably when he found none of the Metalworks in it.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright?” Rowan asked, opening the door.
“I…don’t know. We’ll see.” He blushed, but not in the romantic way. Rowan had seen that too often with boys she had helped. They were embarrassed as much as they were grateful. At least he was grateful.
Rowan shrugged then landed several heavy pats on Ren’s back. “See you at the shop later.”
She hoped she did the right thing, leaving him there. She hoped Ren would stay fine.
But in a training hall dominated by bullies with strong programs, one could never be sure.
Basic orientation was not bad at all, Ren thought. Program theory was very interesting. Those subjects were purely theoretical, thus Ren only had to sit still and listen. He was in a classroom again, after years of studying by himself. He did not miss the noise made by bored classmates, but he did miss being with a group of people in a room, learning something.
It was in the third class when things began to go wrong.
It happened after basic encoding. There were no chairs, as it was a practical subject and trainees were supposed to encode. The sheer effort of staying on his feet tired him, preventing him from programming clouds larger than cotton balls. Yet the teacher did not notice or let him get a chair. He sat on the floor in desperation as the class was dismissed.
He had two more classes, one of them another practical. How was he supposed to last until then? This was just the first day! He sighed. He needed to learn to make usable travel clouds soon, he thought as he waited for the halls to clear out. He then slowly swung his way to the end of the hallway, where Rowan said her last class would be.
His right crutch suddenly slipped. He tripped and fell forward. His satchel spilled its contents onto the floor. He reached out for his satchel but a heavy weight lay over his head. A shoe.
He found two pairs of shoes beside him. One of the shoes kicked the crutches away from him.
“He’s the one, Eloise,” one of them said. It was the blue-haired girl from the other day.
“Oh, we’re sorry,” a crooning female voice spoke over him. “We shouldn’t be hurting Rowan’s friends, right?” The voice was different now, but the razor-edge it had was terrifyingly familiar.
“No, we shouldn’t,” another voice replied, as she pressed the shoe down and flattened Ren’s cheek onto the floor.
“Now, Mara. We don’t want any scruff marks on Rowan’s friends.”
“Oh, fine.” Mara lifted the shoe on Ren’s head, but only a small bit.
Ren’s words stuck at his throat. He looked hopelessly at his crutches beside the other wall. He watched hopelessly as Juno picked them up. He watched in terror as the one called Eloise took up his crutches, and bent them with her knee.
“Now you can’t run to your redheaded friend.” Eloise threw the dented pieces to the farther wall. They fell with tinkles and clangs.
“Please,” he pleaded as Juno emptied his satchel, “I have no money. Leave me alone.”
“No money! But I understand that is not true!” Eloise spoke over him. “You work part-time at a coffee shop, don’t you? You do have money. I need proof.”
“I just started, I haven’t been paid yet,” he said. “Please….”
Mara pushed him onto the floor and ground his face into it. Juno soaked him through with water programs. “Sorry!”
“Please,” he choked. “I can’t give you anything…”
He was turned over, and his heart stopped several beats.
It’s her. It’s HER! No, not HER!
His chin met the tip of a sharp thin blade that ended at her wrist. “Are you sure? Not even some cash? Not even study notes?”
“I don’t have any! By all He controls, that was true!” Why is it her? Why is she here? What is she going to do to me!
The girl with the curly platinum hair sighed. “Oh, dear. It seems you’re telling the truth.” She withdrew the dagger. “Well, you know where to find us in case you DO have lecture notes or extra cash on you, right?”
Ren did not know what to answer. It’s her it’s her it’s her it’s her what am I going to do what am I going to do what am I going to do!
“And now you know that the red-haired champion can’t always come fight for you, right?”
Ren looked up at the giggling girls with their sinister smiles, and did not answer. Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh! Don’t hurt me don’t hurt me don’t hurt me! Don’t kill me don’t kill me don’t kill me!
Eloise tossed her head and turned her back to him. “Come on, girls. I have another class.”
Mara left him with a kick to his torso. The Metalworks walked away, leaving Ren alone sprawled on the hallway.
Ren caught his breath. He crawled across the hall, dragging his legs, until he reached his crutches. He tried his best to straighten them again. Still completely wet, he planted a crutch and lifted himself to standing.
Run away run away run away! Have to run away! Have to run!
He planted and swung as quickly as he could, his heart pounding, his breaths panted out, his arms more tired with every desperate step. He did not finish the day’s classes, did not talk to anyone, ignored all the stares. This was the best he could do about running. He ran as fast as he could. Ren immediately headed back to the coffee shop, stopping for nothing and no one.
He did not stop even when he finally reached the shop, his sweat falling in streams from his forehead. He planted and swung through the shop, without addressing any of the customers, or even Soji. He immediately headed for the stairs, hobbled as fast as possible to the apartment.
He shut and locked the door behind him. He caught his breath with his back to the door.
Does she remember me? Of course she remembers me. She will do it again. This time I can’t run. I will get it all, everything she wants to do to me. She will kill me. She is here. No one can stop her. I have to get away. I have to go far from here. I have to…have to…
He knocked his head on the wooden floor, and sank into a nightmare.