Chapter 3 : Friends & Not Friends
The classes in the University generally started at 10 am. The university had a wide variety of courses and the schedules of students varied, depending on what courses they had chosen. However, the area in front of Gate 3 was generally busy at 9 am.
Right in front of the gate was ‘Student Square’, a massive open-air plaza with the famous ‘Uni-Viva Fountain’, walkways, manicured shrubs and trees, two small parks, and many small shops and restaurants forming 3 concentric semi-circles around the fountain. At the other end of the plaza was the huge Viva City Mall and a massive public parking area for those who were not allowed to drive into the university.
Students who came into the university from the city passed through the plaza at this hour to reach the classes. Some who were early, spend time in the plaza unless it was raining. Those wanting breakfast but not wanting to eat in the Dorm Eateries would come to the numerous stalls and restaurants in the plaza and in the Mall. The jocks from the various sports teams who were called to practice and those who wanted to exercise in the numerous sports arenas around the campus also finished around this time and came to the plaza for a quick snack before rushing to change and get to class.
Uni-Viva was one of the largest universities in Bravadia. It was also the most expensive. It had the best teachers, large resources to leverage on. Children from every Noble Family in the country as well as those from some of the neighbouring countries came to this university. The rich sent their children here and those of the upper middle classes struggled to ensure their children also studied there. The prospect of meeting and networking with the rich and powerful families were often worth the struggle. It would give them access to large business and industrial conglomerates by way of jobs, supply linkages, technologies and other resources for their future. Many of the new corporate success stories started within the campus of this university.
Because of the background of the students, most of them dressed well. Best of the clothes, branded and designer dresses, high-end foot ware, top-of-the-line communicators and computers, good cars were the norm, giving the place the look more like a high-end neighbourhood. There were of course a mix of all types, as was with any university. While the jocks were in their sportswear, both shorts and track pants, other boys and girls in their latest fashions. Another set of students, mostly from Business Studies, were in formal wear, crisp shirts, pants ironed to sharp crease, Suite Jackets with the school logos in their hands or casually slung across their shoulders.
And lastly, in uniform and serious faces were those from Military Education, the most elite students from the police and defence forces, being trained in latest technology, management, supply chain, cyber warfare, even things not associated with the Military normally - Artificial Intelligence, Data Analytics, Virtual Reality. Hidden among this group were the security guards embedded in the university to protect the students of the Nobility and the ultra-rich, without being obvious about it.
And … into this crowd, walked in Dusk ….
In contrast to the students dressed in expensive impeccable clothes, she looked ragged. Her clothes were evidently made of common cheap material, basic style and utilitarian. She was sweaty and haggard from walking close to 7.5 km, smeared in mud at the waist and knees where she had fallen after being tagged by the laser. She was dragging two wheeled travel bags and a handbag.
The students turned and stared at her. She was definitely in the wrong place. Technically the plaza was public place, but people not connected with the university or business located in the plaza and mall rarely came there. Some of those who had seen her poked their friends and made them turn to look at her. Some laughed, others looked irritated to see a beggar in their midst.
One of the students from the track team stopped her.
“Where do you think you are going?”
Dusk was already upset with her day so far. Seeing the attitude of the people around, how they dressed and behaved, she began to wonder how she would ever fit in. It was as if she had landed in the middle of a high-end country club (based on what she had seen in Holovision Drama, never having actually been near a country club). She felt like an outsider and she feared she will always remain one.
“Excuse me. I have to get to the university office. I am a new student here. Can you help me?”
The boy stared at her and shouted, “YOU are joining Uni-Viva?”
All those around turned and stared at her. They had never expected someone looking like that to be able to come to their university. It was absurd. She probably couldn’t even pay for a meal, forget the tuition fees.
Seeing her nod, some of the students around her started laughing. This attracted the attention of other students who also turned to look. Slowly a circle of sorts formed around her. They stared and some were laughing. A group of haughty girls walked into the centre of the circle and looked at her as if she was dirt.
“You are joining the university?” The pack leader started.
“Yes, I was asked to report today,” Dusk replied.
“What are you joining? Janitorial Studies?”
“Is there a new course for servants? Maybe they call it housekeeping management. LOL.”
“Hey, if you are going to intern in Janitorial or House Maid, I will take you on. My roommate isn’t able to find time to get things cleaned.”
“What? You are going to allow someone dressed like that to work as your Maid? Preposterous! Hey, I have lots of clothes I am throwing away, pick up what you like. Ha, Ha, Ha!”
This sent the rest of the students into peals of laughter. Some other students added further taunts.
Dusk felt her eyes stinging. Her family may not have been nobility, but no one had ever insulted her like that before. All the Citizen Dignity Rights which they were taught in school, all things drilled into her about being satisfied with what you have, and the Emperors Speech each year highlighting his commitment to ensuring that anyone capable will have the opportunity even to become the Prime Minister of the country …. All now sounded hollow and meaningless.
Tears started to flow out of her eyes in spite of all her efforts to hold on to her dignity. The mean girls looked at her crying and started saying even more spiteful things. And the laughter just got louder. Dusk did not know what to do, she was desperate to do anything to make this go away.
Just then a loud and authoritative voice sounded. “What is going on here?”
A young man in a crisp business suit shoved the students and came to the fore. He was followed by 4 men in Military Uniform. Most of the students stopped and looked at him, but some continued with their triad.
“SHUT UP All of you!!” The man bellowed and the plaza dropped into silence within a second. “Haven’t you jerks heard of something called the ‘Citizen Dignity Rights’? You better have a very good explanation and reason for saying such things to this girl”
Dusk looked up, equally shocked on hearing that someone was quoting basic rights in support of her. Its seemed alien in this domain of the rich and powerful. She saw a tall, handsome man, probably 24-25 years old, a look of angry irritation visible on his face, but one that carried his own obvious arrogance with the right amount of righteousness. To Dusk, he looked a Hero.
“Mind your own business!” One of the muscled sportsmen stepped forward, pointing a finger at the handsome one. “If you don’t like what we are doing, go somewhere else. And don’t throw these fancy ideologies at us. You are not at Regis Community College.”
“The Doctrine of Equality and Protection to all citizen hold true throughout the Empire. Or have you forgotten this is a part of the Bravadia? Just because you are the son of a powerful father, you think it gives you right to insult or hurt another person like this? And don’t forget, such casual disregard for the law of the land is a punishable offence. So, it’s not me who should move on, but you.” The man replied coldly, very clearly hold his anger in check.
The muscle-brained student made a move to punch his face. Dusk choked back a scream of warning to her Hero. But she didn’t need to, because he was far quicker than she could imagine. She had never seen anyone move so fast or effectively. One of his hands caught the fist in mid-air. The other hand caught the other wrist and his knee hit the other student right between the stomach and the ribs. The victim’s eyes bulged with the pain and all his mouth could come up with was a moan, as pain from the fist added to his previous one.
She saw the man in the business suit bodily picked the other boy up and throw him over Dusk’s head onto the ground at the feet of the other students. Dusk ducked in terror as the body went over her head. When she looked up, she noted that her defender wasn’t even breathing heavily.
“Sargent Staton!” One of the uniformed men next to him yelled, and a Military Officer from the other side stepped forward and saluted.
“What is going on here?”
“Sir, this girl was walking into the plaza from the West Peri Road. She says she is to join the university today. Our Basketball captain stopped her and asked her where she was going. And then Elana Mancer started making fun of her clothes and her abilities” Staton replied respectfully to the man, who was obvious his senior or a superior.
The Officer turned to the student named Elana with a stern look and was about to reprimand her, but the expression on the man in the Suit suddenly changed. He called out “Proto Z3!”
His 4 companions looked at him shocked. Their expression very quickly changed to embarrassment and then to horror. The senior immediately shouted “Proto Z3!! NOW!”
All the Military students in the vicinity immediately swung into action. The other students were roughly shoved away and in 5 seconds the circle around Dusk expanded to more than 15 meters in radius. The circle now consisted only of military students and officers, all at alert.
The Officer turned to the man, “My profound apologies, Sir! I just cannot understand how all of us, cadets as well as officers missed this. But please step outside the circle. We will take care of this. I will discuss this failure with the trainers later.”
“Your students and officers both are lax on account of peaceful university life. But that cannot be allowed. I hope I don’t need to report this to my father or my uncle. But I called the proto, so I can stay here.” He replied arrogantly.
Dusk was completely flabbergasted. She did not know what was happening, she had no idea why everyone was looking at her with hostility. She looked at the one she thought was the Hero, but his face was wooden and devoid of expression.
“Open up your bags” The Officer ordered.
“What?” Dusk looked at him not comprehending. Why should she open her bags in the middle of the road?
She felt cold metal next to her temples. She dared not move her head but looked to her left with her peripheral vision. A soldier was standing with a handgun to her head.
“Open the bag, slowly and carefully”
Tears of terror and humiliation rolled down her cheeks. It appeared that the statements on dignity of a common citizen was just that … claim and high-sounding words. But she knew the risk of refusing the order of the Militia or Military would be death by way of a bullet through her head. She slowly opened her bags one by one, took out the outer layer of clothes and lay it bare.
The soldier took a scanner out from his pocked and aimed it at each of the three bags. The bags glowed red, and then the light faded. He pointed the scanner at Dusk too and found nothing. He looked up at his senior and said “All clear Sir.”
The arrogant young man (to her, he was now a bully and not a hero) stepped forward and told the senior officer, though seemingly polite but with arrogance and haughtiness evident in the tone of his voice, “Ask everyone else to proceed with their work. There is no need for them to be here. We have humiliated this girl enough for a day, or perhaps enough for a lifetime. No need for her to be a spectacle for everyone else.”
As the senior officer barked out the order, the students moved away hurriedly with only few of the Military Students remaining.
“Please show me your university admission message and your Citizen ID token.” He said.
Dusk opened the sixth-sense and retrieved the token and the letter asking her to report to the University Admission Office. She hesitated and then threw it from her computer to him. She was sure he would be having a high-end wearable that she could not even see. Sure enough, the message vanished and popped up in a hologram in front of him. He studied it and looked satisfied.
“Well, you have admission to our university. But you are from Arcadia Province. That is over 6,000 km away. When did you arrive?” He asked as he handed her a pack of wet tissues indicating that she should wipe her eyes.
“I came this morning by the Mag-Lev Train, reached Grand Ci’gazze at about 6 … Then I had to walk from there to here. You see, I am a scholarship student. I cannot buy a car or afford a taxi.” She replied, a little uncertain. She did not know whether this handsome man was a friend or not friend … He seemed to help her at first, but then suddenly treated her like a criminal and now again seem to be interested in helping her.
He looked at her even more surprised than before. She was not sure if his face softened when she said she can’t afford a taxi, or whether he was trying not to laugh.
After a few moments of silence, he asked, “Why didn’t you take the Maglev Pod from the station to the university? Its free for all students and teachers.”
The Officer now stood next to him. “The protocol requires the university to offer free transport from the airport to the university to Students on the first and last day. How can there be no pickup from the station then? Why was it refused?”
Dusk’s face reddened with embarrassment “Pod? I… I … did not know that I could ask for assistance or that there was a Free Mag-Lev Pod to the university …”
“But it must be there in the university brochure! I saw it when I joined. Didn’t you read it? Didn’t you ask the AI or the travel app for help? Oh wait! Let me guess, when you accessed the Universal Travel App, you did not specify your profile as a university student. Did you feed it with your Citizen-ID? It should have auto detected the status.”
Dusk felt even more embarrassed. She blushed in shame. She had only asked for directions to the university. She directly asked for the cost of the taxi. The old man talked of mass-routes. She did not bother to ask the app what other modes were there or whether there was assistance available to her. Wasn’t Assistance Modes meant for old people or those who were sick? She did not even consider that there would be assistance mode for her as a new university student.
Meanwhile, 4 hover-cars descended into the plaza. Dusk had never seen a hover-car and looked fascinated even as armed soldiers hopped out and a middle-aged man in a Military Uniform jumped out of the second car. He quickly walked to the young man and half bowed to him.
“I am very sorry, your Maje …”
The young man turned, red faced and almost shouted “Major!! What is wrong with you?”
The Major stopped in mid-sentence, swallowed and then continued “I am sorry … Mr. Jones. I was shocked to hear about the incident … I have the full details now.”
He then turned to the Military Students and glared at them. “One person has entered the plaza. That person has three bags, contents unknown. The status is unnatural since no one comes to the plaza with travel bags. And what do my students do? Instead of taking security precautions, they join the other kids of the university in making fun of that person, allowing a crowd of students and passer-by to make a crowd around her …”
He looked at the officers among those at the plaza, all standing in attention in presence of the Major. “And what if there were explosives in that bag meant to be triggered when there is a crowd? Have your brains been adulated with soft university social and student life and civilian companions? But for His Hi … but for the attentiveness of Mr. Jones to the matter, you would have continued that way! Sargent Staton! Call your security training professor and tell him to meet me in the office of the Dean in an hour!”
The faces of the officers turned alternately pale and red as they were brought to task by the Major. Indeed, there was a potential security breach that could have resulted in a huge disaster if this girl was a rebel terrorist or enemy operative. And it was a student from Business Management who had pointed it out. Perhaps he had Military Training … they saw officers had tagged along with him and the Major came running and practically bowed to him.
“All those to my right, drop to the ground and give me 100 push ups, right now! All those to my left, take heavy-bars and run at half speed around those doing push-ups, 100 times. After that, the two groups will exchange their positions” the Major shouted.
“Sargent! You will monitor both and after they finish, you will do 250 Push-Ups and then 15 rounds of university Perimeter with Heavy Bars leading this entire troop of all those here in the plaza today. I am surprised that even you also did nothing to stop this nonsense.”
As the students and officers scrambled to obey the Major, Dusk watched stupefied, the reality slowly was dawning on her. That is why ‘Mr. Jones’ had reacted so harshly. It was a security matter. She could very well have been a terrorist wanting to blow up the plaza. He had every right to take precaution, his purpose was not to humiliate her. Dully, she wondered whether all the soldiers would hate her for causing this kind of a problem. They probably did not like being given a public dressing-down like this.
Luke walked towards her with the Major following him. “This young lady has been through a lot. She has travelled from Arcadia to here, then walked to the university with her bags because no one gave there gave the right information on how to come here. After that her fellow students made fun of her and we ripped open her bags at gun point… Please have one of your soldiers help back her bags so I can take her to the Admission Office.”
Dusk’s face lit up as she heard his words and her heart felt warm at the kindness, even as the Major nodded and called out to one of the soldiers who had come with him. She walked towards them intending to express her gratitude and also tell them that she will pack the bags on her own, there was no need to trouble the soldiers.
However, she never made it there. She tripped over one of the open bags, her legs gave way as a wave of fatigue hit her and she fell to the ground, unable to hold herself up. Jones, with his quick reaction, ran forward and caught hold of her. She looked up at him confused, as her eyes closed.