The Outsider

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Chapter 17 : Meeting Her Sponsor

It was pretty late by the time Dusk reached back to her Dorm. Her shriek had startled Piggon who dropped the remaining glass of drink on herself. Then it had to be cleaned. Luke offered to replace the drink, but both of them refused. It was not his fault and they had almost finished it anyway.

Luke paid the bill, of course. He offered to drop her back to the dorm, but Dusk remembered the previous trip and firmly refused. Piggon was upset with her for refusing the lift because she was sure that Luke wanted to spend more time with Dusk, an opportunity she let go. That girl was too naïve or shy, she realised.

They had to wait for a Mass that would take them home. Piggon insisted on waiting till Dusk got a mass before she herself took one. As before, her room mates were not there when she went to sleep.

Dusk had shifted into her routine at the university and did not have much trouble. Well, not any more than a normal student would.

Two weeks after the dinner at Student Square, Luke confronted her at lunch time.

“Why are you avoiding my calls?” He asked.

“I have been busy. I am not avoiding.”

“Liar!”

“No, honestly!” Dusk tried to defend herself as she tried to supress her guilty feelings. She had been avoiding Luke since that night. She had too much to do, a tight schedule and backlogs to catch up with and she was not comfortable being treated by someone repeatedly. She did have dinner with Piggon once, but it was at the Military Building only, in spite of Piggon’s efforts to drag her out of the campus.

“Anyway, Micro-Mega is your sponsor, right?”

“Yes, they are supposed to give me $1,000 every month as stipend to meet living expenses. Why?”

“I checked, they have the scanner and imaging equipment you need for your 3-D stuff”

“Oh really? Wow … But wait, why will they be willing to let me use it? You said, these are used for research and they will not just give it for a meaningless student submission.”

“But they are your sponsor. They probably will be offering you an internship, which you can’t refuse as they are your sponsor. They should be willing to let you use their equipment. They will have spare, probably.”

“You are guessing? Or you know something I don’t?”

“All I am saying, is why not go and ask them?”

“I don’t even know anyone there! You think they will just usher me in like I am some celebrity?”

“Tomorrow is the weekly off. So why don’t we go there and meet them?”

Dusk’s eyes narrowed, “You will come with me?”

Luke gave a sly smile that made Dusk suspicious. She wondered what his plan was. But before she could ask him what he was up to, he got up and left, saying “I am willing to come with you today itself, if you ‘Invite’ me…”

Dusk looked at him as he was walking out. She called out to him, “HEY!”

He turned back, waved and walked into the elevator that had opened. Dusk realised that she had shouted out to him in a pretty quiet lunchroom and everyone around was looking at her curiously. She felt her face heat up in embracement.

Just then she got a call alert. It was Susco. “Where are you Dusk Hale?”

“Oh ho! What did I do now?”

“What have you done?” She could see Susco’s face carrying a frown in the video image.

“I have no idea! As far as I know, I have not done anything wrong!”

“Then why are you behaving like you are guilty of something?”

“Sheesh! Ms. Susco, you started the call in a manner that made me think I did something wrong… So many things I don’t know about the university, I seem to keep making some mistake and getting into trouble with my professors. Specially the military ones.”

“Is anyone bullying you? I told you, call me if you have a problem.” Susco reminded her.

“No, no. I was at fault, but more because I did not know I was expected to do some things.”

“Ok, Listen, you know you are being sponsored by Micro-Mega, the tech company?”

Dusk became cautious. Susco calling her about Micro-Mega just after Luke came up with his hair-brain plan. Something was cooking… Luke was up to something, obviously.

“Yeah, you told me on the first day.”

“You know that you are the first student they have ever sponsored?”

“What? No! No one ever told me.”

“Well, they just instituted the student sponsorship program this year and you are the first student who got it. They promised to sponsor more next year if you are successful. Anyway, they have a party today, and they want you to be there. The top management of Micro-Mega is here in Ci’gazze and their directors are here too. So, they want to give you the first sponsorship payment today and they plan to make a show of it.”

“Huh? Why?”

“Because they will get PR out of it. If it gets picked up by news media, people all over the country know of them and people may buy their products if they think they are nice to sponsor you.”

Dusk frowned. Was she just a pawn? Well, she was getting the money from them, so if they wanted her to come for a party, it was not a bad deal. After all, $1,000 a month was not a small amount for a student like her, though the richer students may find it pittance.

“I have never been to a party …”

“Well, don’t worry. The invite is for you with a companion. So, I am supposed to come with you as an ‘University Student Guide’. It’s after work hours, but I don’t get to go to such parties, so I will be more than happy to come. Unless you have another friend whom you want to take with you. By the way, the Dean and our University President have also been invited.”

Ah! That is what Luke meant, she realised. She wondered what his information sources were as he was already aware of it. But she decided that given a choice between going with Susco and Luke, it was better to go with the Counsellor. She told Susco that they will go together. Susco would pick her up at 6:30.

She immediately sent a message to Squid informing him that she would not be able to come to the gym that day because she had to go out of the university with the Student Counsellor.

In the evening, after her classes got over, she rushed back to the Dorm and picked out the best of her dress, took a shower and was ready. She sat at her desk waiting for Susco, browsing through the university news. She noticed that her “Party Appearance” was originally posted in the news portal of the university and was picked up by quite a few students who made delegating remarks about it.

She suddenly noted that quite a few messages had come to her personal box, mostly from her military team and the gym squad wishing her ‘Fun Night’ and some of them asking her to secretly take pics and send them of the party.

Sixth-Sense informed her that Susco’s vehicle close to the Dorm 6 building, so she quickly came down to the entrance. Meanwhile, Piggon called her.

“Hey! You are going to a fancy party! I wish I could come with you. When I ask you to be social you insist on dinner at that stupid Military Building Eatery and when you have a party, I am not included!”

“Hey, don’t blame me. I didn’t have a choice. I would love to take you along, if I could.”

“Ok, Fine! What time are you leaving?”

“Oh, just now. I am waiting for the Student Counsellor to pick me up”

“Excuse me! You are going dressed like that?” Piggon asked in an incredulous voice.

“What’s wrong with this? It’s one of my best!”

“No! No! No! You can’t go looking like that! It’s a formal event. I heard the university President will be there. And the directors of your Sponsor!”

Just then Susco arrived in a hover-car. She got off and Piggon saw her. She guessed that this was the Student Counsellor. Susco was wearing a fashionable cream off-shoulder one-piece, with matching high-heel shoes.

“Does she look like she is ready for a formal party, ma’am?” She asked on the video call as Susco came into the view.

Susco looked at Dusk and shook her head. “Go and change into something better, please”

“This is the best I have.” Dusk said in frustration. Why was the entire university behaving like students were expected to be prepared for formal parties? Then she realised that most of the students had probably attended for parties regularly.

“Want one of mine? You can come quickly and change here too!”

“Piggon! do you know what is the difference between our body? I will look like I am wearing a potato sack!”

Piggon pretended to be offended and struck her tongue out at Dusk. But of course, there was no way her clothes would fit Dusk.

Susco thought for a moment and then called someone, spoke for a minute and then waved to Dusk to get into the car. Once inside, she turned the vehicle towards the Viva-City Mall. She parked the vehicle and dragged Dusk up the one of the large clothes shops in the Mall.

Dusk had seen a few large stores in Tharq, but she had never been inside an ‘Auzer Store’. The variety of the dresses here were better than those at the malls in Tharq. But what surprised her was the difference in the Customer Service. As soon as they entered, three service staff came running to them.

“Ma’am, are you shopping together or separately?” one of them asked.

“I don’t need anything today. But I have to get a good formal dress for this girl. She needs to be at a party in an hour. So, please show me something good, which will fit her and match her complexion.” Susco replied.

Two of the service staff bowed and went off to do other things, and the senior-most, apparently a manager, stayed with Dusk and Susco. She bowed to them, turned and lead them into the section of the store that was dedicated to formal party wear.

“Wow! The service levels here are awesome. Personal service! Back home mostly we would get AI Bots on call.” Dusk whispered to Susco as they walked.

“Well, this is Ci’gazze, and this is Auzer. And then I am pretty sure their surveillance equipment saw that we came in a Hover-Car!” Susco replied with a laugh.

While Dusk raised an eyebrow in enquiry, the service manager turned and did a bit of apple-polishing, “Yes Ma’am, we were informed by the AI that you came in the Hover-Car and came straight to our shop. We are honoured that you thought of us for your needs. And ma’am, that is an absolutely stunning hover.”

They reached the section and she started showing the various styles, keeping mostly in the lighter colours, which would contrast well with Dusk’s copper skin-tone. Susco applied a critical eye to the designs, rejecting those she did not find in favour.

“I did not know you owned a Hover-Car. Few people here have them… I always thought they were expensive and exclusive. Like something Noble would have.” Dusk commented as they looked through the clothes. Mentally she added and people like Luke Jones.

“Ha Ha! I wish it were mine. What do you think? That I am from one of the noble families? Actually, even they don’t have it. It’s mostly government officials. No, the car belongs to the Dean. He asked me to take it and pick you up. He went with the President. He wanted to make sure you come to Micro-Mega in style.”

“Wow, lucky you!”

“Bah! I am getting to drive it only because of you.” Susco countered.

The service manager was carefully listening to the banter between the two. She understood that the older lady was the chaperone to the young girl who was invited to the party. She was definitely a university student. But if the Dean gives his car to take a student to a formal event, she is obviously important. She became more polite and attentive.

In the end, Susco selected a nice Spaghetti Strapped dress of light blue fabric. The fabric was soft and shimmered from certain angle. The Sales Manager looked at Dusk’s shoes in distaste and suggested that she should change it. Susco agreed her and they got Dusk a new dress-shoe with medium heels and a complicated pattern made of some strange rubberised thread.

When Dusk saw the prices, she was shocked. She had never spent so much on clothes in her life. She doubted that even her mom had ever spent so much. The dress was almost $200, the shoes were $90. Who spends that much on a single pair of shoes? She previous shoes (before the Military gifted her cross-trainers) cost some $15 a pair.

Still, she had some money from the initial lot her parents had given her. With most of her cost already met by the university, she would be able to pay for these. Her dad had agreed to send her an allowance of $300, which was approximately what she spent every month at home.

However, when they were at the billing counter, Susco took out a card and handed it over to the manager. Dusk put her hand in protest, but Susco pushed it down. “Don’t worry, the Dean will pay for it. What the university gets from today’s event is worth far more than this. In any case, I would be willing to gift it to you just to be able to attend the party today!”

Dusk shook her head in amazement. People WERE crazy. Everyone wanted to go for the party except her.

It was almost 8 by the time they reached the Micro-Mega’s office downtown. The office was in a huge complex, which was connected to a hotel. They parked the hover-car and the security guards escorted them to the venue of the party, which was in the hotel.

Dusk entered the party room and realised that it was a massive banquet hall, that was astonishing in its beauty. It was as if they had walked into the sets of a holo-novel. The banquet hall was probably 500 sq. m. in size. There were three huge chandeliers, a massive one in the middle and the smaller ones on either side. The ceilings were decorated in amazing patterns, the walls adorned with statues, murals and massive paintings. There was a live band playing soft music at one end, which Dusk felt did not match what was expected of a formal dinner party.

The banquet hall was designed to have a “Step In”. Therefore, the entrance was a few meters high and there were 10 steps coming into the hall. That gave a feeling of a grand entrance and also it allowed those on the floor to see who is coming in.

Dusk stood at the top of the stairs, feeling very uncertain. She felt as if she had come into an unreal fairy tale. There must have been at least a 500 people at the hall! Next to her, Susco gushed into her ears on how amazing the venue was and how she was so thrilled to be here.

As she stood there, she caught the attention of many of those in the hall. The Dean waved and hurriedly came forward. With him were 5 people she had never seen. He indicated that she should come down.

“Come Ms. Hale, let me introduce you to the Directors of Micro-Mega Technologies LLC.”

She was introduced to each of the 5 directors of the company and the CEO, who had initiated the program to sponsor a student in the Uni-Viva university. Dusk was dumbstruck in front of so many important people. She felt Susco poke her in the back indicating she should speak and say something.

“I am very happy to meet all of you. I am very thankful that I have a chance to study at Uni-Viva and without assistance that I am receiving, it would be difficult for a rural student like me to come and study here.” She said with what she hoped, was a sweet smile.

Daniel Warren, the CEO, was a young man, not more than 35 years. He extended his hand and pulled Dusk into the circle. Some more of the top managers of the company came over to greet Dusk and she was quite busy for the next 15 minutes.

Daniel caught Dusk by the elbow and guided her to the center of the venue, leaving the directors to continue their conversation. Susco hurried after them, as she was supposed to accompany Dusk. But it was becoming difficult. In the meanwhile, seeing Susco alone and un-escorted, a few of the young executives and representatives of other businesses came over to make her acquaintance.

“You have so many people in your company, Mr. Warren?” Dusk asked.

“No, of course, we have many, many more. But they are not invited for this dinner. Only the top CXOs are there. The others here are from other tech companies, business owners and some from the government. And there are people from the News Media Channels.”

“So many people? I saw the display down in the lobby and I was expecting it to be a small dinner hosted as an introduction. But it seems you have made it a big event. With my name on the main board, I do not know how to even thank you!”

Daniel laughed and gave her a wink, “You are the hero of the evening and the center-piece of this event. And you deserve it. I have seen your work. We all have high hopes for you.”

He then stopped one of the Servers who were passing and picked up to long-stemmed glasses, handing one to Dusk. She looked around in panic trying to find Susco, but it seemed the counsellor was engaged elsewhere.

She turned over to Daniel, “I am sorry, but I do not drink alcohol. You see, I am not used to it, and I do not want to make a fool of myself. Please do not take it personally.”

Daniel laughed and pushed the glass back to her hand. Don’t worry, this is a mild form of alcohol. But the best of it too. A glass of it will not make a difference. And you need to get used to it. As the top tech students at the university, you will probably be attending lots of such events in future. Tonight, do not worry, I am here to take care of you.”

Dusk was sure that the CEO was flattering her for some unfathomable reason. She smiled and took a sip of the drink in her hand. It did have a completely different taste to anything she had ever tried in the past.

Daniel took her around the room introducing her to many different but powerful people. There was the Governor of Malliv and his wife, who gushed on about how talented the students were these days… Then she met the CEO of one of the largest logistics companies, the Managing Director of a large national airlines, the owner of a famous perfume brand … She lost count of the number of people who were there.

In the middle of all this, Susco managed to catch up with her. She gave an appreciative look at the half-filled glass in Dusk’s hand. “Oh good! That bubbly is the best money can buy in this city. But you need to keep nibbling on the snacks they are passing around or that drink will get into your head very fast.”

Then she whispered softly “Your host seem to be taking a little too much interest in you, if you feel uncomfortable at any point, just ping me from your wearable.”

Dusk nodded. She was beginning to understand that Daniel probably planned to ‘make a move’ on her during the evening. She was happy she was here with Susco.

Then she looked over towards the entrance of the venue and saw the person she had rejected as her companion for this evening! Luke Jones was standing at the top of the stairs. How did he come? Didn’t he say that she had to invite him? Then she saw a beautiful and elegantly dressed lady, probably of the same age as Luke, run up the stairs, holding the sides of her dress so she does not trip, and embrace Luke in a right hug, kissing him on both cheeks. For some reason that she could not understand, Dusk felt upset on seeing this.

But before she could give it any thought, the Master of Ceremonies took the stage and tapped on the mike to get their attention.

“Welcome everyone! This is the first event that is happening in our newly renovated banquet hall. I hope everyone liked the new décor we have implemented. I am sure our service staff has kept everyone supplied with adequate snacks and drinks. If anyone has any requirements that have not been fulfilled, our Service Head is in the red jacket on to the left side and he will be happy to take care of it… I wish to call on to the podium, our Host, the CEO of Micro-Mega Technologies LLC, the man of the moment, the person who brings us so much of modern technology for our comforts, Mr. Daniel Warren!”

Amid a huge applause, Daniel got on to the platform and waved to everyone. He took a mic from the MC and looked around before speaking.

“Good Evening everyone, I thank all of you for coming here tonight. Every one of us are busy souls who do not get much time to unwind and relax. I know how difficult it is for each of you all to be able to make time from your schedules, but you have all still made it. And the reason we are all here, is to celebrate the fact that our nation has an amazing education system, that, under the guidance of our beloved Emperor, allowed the younger generation from all across the nation to access the best we have to offer, enhance their skills, come up to their potential. The government has come up with its own Scholarship programs to provide opportunities to them to study in the best of our facilities.”

Dusk suddenly noticed that there were Newspersons and Camera Drones from news channels all over the room, some focused on the stage, some on the audience. She did not know when they arrived but the timing and management of the same was really amazing. She quietly checked her Sixth-Sense and was not surprised to see that feed being carried by 3 of her favourite new sites, including ’Young Achievers Channel”. One of them seem to be repeatedly focusing on the Dean and the President of the University and even on her.

“We, at Micro-Mega, feel that we must also do our bit. After all, as the younger generation come up and join our Tech Bandwagons, newer innovations are available, and our nation remains the top in this world in terms of technology. This affects not only the comforts we have grown used to, but also productivity of our factories, farms, services and increases efficiency of different sectors of the economy.” Daniel continued his speech.

“We have taken the first step, by introducing a sponsorship program, in which we are giving a support for one student at Uni-Viva, of $1,000 per month to meet living expense. It’s nothing as compared to what the government is spending, the various universities are spending. My own Board is very unhappy and has decided that we should be doing much more. Therefore, from the next semester, we will be sponsoring 20 students in Tech Studies, and providing a 100% coverage Tech Scholarship corpus to Uni-Viva for another 5 students to help them expand their Scholarship program. This will be the first ‘Corporate Tech Scholarship’ at Uni-Viva.”

The room burst into an applause and the drones immediately shifted around to capture whatever the newsmen wanted.

“I invite the President of Uni-Viva, to come up on the stage with me please … Well sir, this is the draft of our proposal for the sponsorship and the scholarships for the next year. We will be setting up a meeting end of the next week to finalise it. We look forward to feedback from you on how it can be improved, of course.”

The President and Daniel shook hands firmly with a big smile on their faces as the stream was now being broadcast on national priority channels as a big event. The president turned, bowing to the audience and thanking the company for their support.

Daniel continued his speech, holding back the President from stepping down. “Each time our students do something new and useful, we the tech companies benefit the most. Therefore, I request all my colleagues in the tech world to follow our lead and provide resources to the top universities to add more students who could otherwise not come here.”

Susco, who had managed to stand next to Dusk, whispered “See, now you understand why he wouldn’t bother about having to pay for your new dress? The sponsorship of 10 students is a thousand times your dress…”

Dusk looked sideways and struck bit of her tongue out. “You are so wise, Mistress Susco.”

“And … Today we also are here to celebrate the achievement of one such student, who has benefited from the Emperor’s orders to expand remote education support and for radically revamping the system. Taking advantage of the resources we have given all over the country, this young lady, studied with Regis Cybera College and in the process, created a new VR engine that has taken the country by storm! A new VR product that has revolutionised agro-education and saved, by conservative estimated, 16,000 hours of training time a month for the last 6 months while improving the training results by 165%.” The MC took over from Daniel.

Susco squeezed Dusk’s hand. Dusk nodded but didn’t understand why they were going on and on about that. She understood it was her VR project they were talking of.

“So, did we need to remove thousands of Agro-Teachers from their jobs? No, definitely not. What instead happened, is that what would have needed 300 new teachers, a scarce commodity, and many hours of travelling each month, was eliminated. We were able to teach thousands of students and farmers across the country, the latest methods, upgrades, etc which we would not have been able to do, because we did not have the correct VR Tools earlier!” the MC continued as people listened in relative silence absorbing the numbers being thrown around. The statistics surprised Dusk even.

“So! …Today! … We are going to call on to the stage here, before all of you, this young student who has contributed so much to the nation, who while still a student, has achieved what we did not earlier do, who is the first recipient of Micro-Mega’s sponsorship, Ms. Dusk Hale! … Who has moved from Longburn, Arcadia to Ci’gazze to continue her study and who we know will achieve much more in the years to come! Ms. Hale, please come to the stage!” the MC shouted and pointed to her.

The drones turned and pointed to the spot where she was. The newspersons turned and tried to find her, as the drones located her in the crowd from the air. Everyone present was looking at her now. Dusk froze in place. She was shocked to the core. She was being streamed on National Channels as ‘The News’! The Sixth-Sense told her that about ½ million viewers were already online seeing the feeds from the 3 sites she was tracking and apparently more were joining as the users spread the news.

The MC called to her again to come to the stage. But she could not move. She could feel her face heat up as she looked down at her shoes. She tried to tell the MC that it was not necessary, but her lips did not move.

Susco, caught hold of her wrist and pulled. She almost tripped but managed to steady herself. Susco pulled her though the crowd that parted for them as if she was a celebrity, taking her to the stairs next to the podium. The she pushed her on to the steps forcing her to get on to the small platform where the MC, Daniel and the University President were standing.

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