Gameboard of the Gods

Page 31

“Bad trip,” he said.

Cynthia gave him a wary look. “What kind of trip?”

“The one where I battle it out with volatile religious nuts to protect the way you live. Ask Mae. She’ll tell you.” He started to trudge off down the hall and then noticed Tessa in her maroon school uniform. He patted her shoulder. “Good luck today, sweetie. You’ll do great. I can’t wait to hear the recap tonight.”

She gave him a brave smile and nodded.

Although Tessa could understand Justin’s emphasis on getting a formal Gemman education, there was a part of her that thought she could absorb just as much by staying at home with the stream. She spent hours on it every day, amazed at what she learned from both its entertainment and reference options. She had yet to find a topic the stream didn’t cover. Some days it was almost overwhelming—but she loved it.

Still, she had to remember that the whole reason she’d been allowed to come to the RUNA was because of a student visa. Studying at home was a valid option in Panama—the only one, actually, for ladies of her class—but here, the country’s standardized education system was the path available to her.

“No private schools?” she’d asked Justin when they’d toured their suburb’s high school last week. There were fledgling public schools in Panama, but New Money and the upper middle classes often opted for a slightly more elite choice, if they could afford it.

“None that would let you in. But don’t worry—public education’s outstanding. It’s standardized across the whole country, even for castals and plebeians. Builds the national identity.”

That identity was becoming more and more apparent. Even someone like Mae, who’d been raised in a unique cultural environment, still had a strong sense of national pride instilled into her that had existed long before her military service. The RUNA held three things responsible for the Decline: biological manipulation, religion, and cultural separatism. All of the early genetic mixing had gone a long way toward stamping out group solidarity, and the loose Greco-Roman models the country had adopted had provided a new, all-encompassing culture that everyone could be a part of.

Tessa still wasn’t sure she agreed with all those principles, but it was hard to overlook the fact that the RUNA had become the most advanced country in the world.

The school had still been on holiday when they’d toured it last week, and Tessa grew nervous as she imagined those vast halls filled with students. She’d gotten better about dealing with the crowds in the city, but sometimes, claustrophobia still kicked in. The principal had made a special appointment with them, coming into the school on her day off. Tessa quickly realized that was because of Justin’s profession. People weren’t afraid of servitors the way they were prætorians, but there was definitely a lot of respect and awe.

“We’ve never had a provincial in all the time I’ve been here,” Ms. Carmichael had said, studying Tessa as though she were some new species. Another thing Tessa had learned was that all things non-Gemman were called provincial—and it wasn’t a flattering term. They all seemed to use it without thought. “I’m sure it will provide a unique learning experience for the other students…though I worry about your ability to, uh, fit into the classes here, dear.”

Tessa had picked up on the subtext. Like Justin, Ms. Carmichael believed Tessa’s education had involved “insipid reading and remedial math.” After some assessment, both Justin and Ms. Carmichael had been surprised to learn her literary and composition knowledge was up to par. But, to Tessa’s chagrin, her math skills were indeed remedial.

Now Tessa’s first official day had finally arrived. Both Justin and Cynthia had offered to escort her, but Quentin had informed her that would only attract more attention and was most decidedly “uncool.” Despite his young age, he hadn’t yet led her astray, so she followed his advice.

Ms. Carmichael had assigned her a guide for her first day. Melissa was bright and beautiful and seemed to embody every quality of the perfect Gemman girl. Although she was polite enough, it was obvious that she too regarded Tessa as some kind of freak of nature. She also seemed to think Tessa was five years old and deaf.

“This is a locker,” Melissa said, speaking more loudly than necessary, even with the din around them. Her words were also exaggerated and slow. “It holds your stuff. You have to open the door first. Put your hand over the lock, and it’ll read your chip. That’s the thing that’s in your hand.”

Tessa had already learned locker operation on her tour. Although there was nothing comparable in Panama, it wasn’t exactly a difficult thing to figure out. Still, she smiled at Melissa and said, “Thank you.”

“What did you say?” asked Melissa.

“I said, ‘Thank you.’” Melissa kept asking Tessa to repeat herself, claiming the accent was hard to follow.

“You’re welcome,” Melissa practically shouted.

Despite the condescension, Tessa was glad to have Melissa taking her to classes. The halls were as crowded as Tessa had feared, and the uniforms everyone wore made it worse. It all looked the same, making it difficult to pick out points of reference.

“This is your English class,” Melissa said when they reached the first room on Tessa’s schedule. “This is where you read books. Books have words in them and tell stories or facts.”

“Thank you,” said Tessa.


The classroom was sleek and gleaming, filled with the same white light and metal that permeated most Gemman public spaces. Students sat at desks with built-in touch screens and were ready with readers and egos. No one paid much attention to her as she and Melissa entered, and Tessa hoped she might just slip into a desk in the back where she could quietly take in this new world. Unfortunately, their teacher—who’d been briefed on his new student’s background—decided to utilize her arrival as a learning experience.

Mr. Lu made her stand at the front of the room until soft chimes heralded the beginning of class. The students fell silent, and twenty sets of eyes focused on her.

“Everyone, we have a new student joining us. This is Teresa Cruz, who has come all the way from Panama.”

All those eyes widened, and suddenly, she could see them judging everything about her. There was something in their faces that made her think they’d expected her to show up in fur and feathers—which, perhaps, wouldn’t have been that out of line for someone from Europe. Aside from her hair, Tessa felt confident that the rest of her looked no different from anyone else.

“Teresa, what can you tell us about Panama?” Mr. Lu wasn’t quite as bad as Melissa, but he too spoke a bit more slowly to her than he had his other students.

Tessa had no idea what he expected. Some sensational, sordid tale? Or maybe a confession of how much more amazing the RUNA was? Her hesitation only made her that much more conspicuous, so she blurted out the first neutral thing she could think of. “It’s in Central America.”

Mr. Lu gave her a kind smile. “That’s very nice. Why don’t you take that desk over there?”

Tessa slinked away, though she knew she was still the center of attention. Some students were at least discreet about their examination. Others stared openly, making no secret of their fascination.

They were in the middle of reading a book by a famous Gemman novelist that Tessa had acquired and read in advance. Rather than letting her listen in merciful anonymity, however, Mr. Lu kept stopping class to ask her if she knew how to use the reader and desk screen. Tessa kept nodding and thanking him for his concern.

The rest of her classes passed in a similar way, with other “helpful” teachers embarrassing her. By the end of the day, she found that word of her arrival had spread, so that her classmates were waiting for her to show up and do something savage.

She felt a little bit of pride at her ability to keep up with English and history. She especially liked the latter since it filled in some of the gaps she had about Gemman culture. Melissa was in the same class and had again felt the need to explain how it worked.

“This is history. It’s about the past. We’re learning about the RUNA’s formation after the Decline and how the castes happened. Do you know what ‘caste’ means? They’re groups that didn’t have to follow the mandates because they helped fund the early government. We read books in here.”

Tessa simply nodded her thanks for fear of having to repeat herself.

Math proved to be a dismal experience, but her self-esteem was boosted in advanced Spanish. Of course, she wasn’t entirely sure why she’d been placed in it. Spanish was her first language, whereas her classmates were still learning and working on translation. Her teacher kept making her say things but would always remind the others, “She has a provincial accent, so make sure you stick to the standardized one.” She would then helpfully try to correct Tessa’s pronunciation.

By the time she reached her last class of the day, Tessa was exhausted. One more class, she kept telling herself. One more class, and you’re free. This is the worst day. It can only get better now.

After the usual embarrassing introduction from the teacher, she took a seat near the middle of the room. Unlike the other classrooms, biology had no desks. They all sat at long tables with the usual touch screens, as well as another device Tessa didn’t recognize. It was round and metal, set with a piece of glass, also round, on top. Tessa could freely admit this was probably beyond her. She clung to the hope that if she studied enough at home, she’d eventually catch up. Cynthia had gruffly offered to help.

Their instructor immediately launched into a discussion of Cain, apparently following up on a lecture that had begun yesterday. Everyone knew about Cain in Panama, and Tessa started to relax, thinking she was in familiar territory. But as the lecture became increasingly technical, discussing how the disease operated at the genetic level, Tessa knew she was once again out of her league. Things grew worse when they received their assignment and Tessa learned what the round device did.

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