Kat managed to finish the aptitude test in a daze. She’d gotten funny looks as she rushed into the classroom just as the proctor began handing out the tests, smelling of trash and sweat. She took her seat and blazed through the test on autopilot.
Maybe in a different era a highschooler wouldn’t be expected to know organic chemistry and advanced cell biology, but the company was an offshoot of GroCorp, a megacorporation focusing on biotechnology and genetically modified crops. From their first day at school, company students were given an accelerated course of study focused on developing the skill they would eventually need to work as researchers or technicians for the company.
Ostensibly, the program was a meritocracy. Everyone was given a chance to take the hardest course of classes. Those that couldn’t make strict cutoffs were sent to different educational tracks. Rather than advanced math and practical study, they focused on animal husbandry as well as machinery maintenance and operation.
Their aptitude tests were simpler. It might help determine whether they’d be placed as an advanced machine operator rather than a rank and file worker, but the factories and the farms were all largely the same. You rose or fell based upon your ability and work ethic once you were assigned the job.
For Kat, the test was much more delicate. Realistically, even though there were questions about personnel management and human resources on her exam, she knew that they were meaningless. Only the valedictorian and salutatorian could go to the corporate college, and even then only if their families had the money to send them.
Kat’s mother was in debt to the company and her father had died in an industrial accident long ago. Even if her teachers would have been foolish enough to put her in one of the top two positions, she would’ve been forced to turn it down.
Of course, merit only got students so far. Only two students at their school had family in management, and it was a foregone conclusion that they would get those two slots. It’s not like Arnold or Anna were dumb. Both of them did almost as well as Kat before the teachers applied extra credit for ‘out of class projects.’ Even if you were connected, the company didn’t suffer fools lightly. A little nepotism was expected, but once it started impacting the bottom line auditors stepped in, and no one sane wanted any part in that.
Instead, what Kat was feasibly competing for were the handful of lab assistant positions that opened up each year. The work wasn’t terribly glamorous, but if you had a keen mind and a steady hand it wasn’t impossible for you to be promoted to a junior researcher. Many of the scientists working for the company treated the lab assistant pool as a training ground, taking note and keeping track of any particularly bright workers that caught their eye.
She’d still be under the thumb of a project manager half as smart as her, but at least as a scientist Kat would be able to earn bonuses on completed research and pay off her debt to the company. It wasn’t the dream that she’d had as a girl, but like many hereditary employees, her mom had sat her down at sixteen and explained how the system worked to Kat and helped her adjust her dreams accordingly.
Maybe with Kat’s help, her sister would be able to escape the trap of corporate debt slavery, but she doubted it. Even if it would be possible for her to become a researcher and pay down her ledger, it would take at least a decade to realistically do that. Paying off two ledgers was more than a pipe dream.
Things might change if she got a cranial jack. It would speed her research, and with any luck a scientist would recruit her for an ongoing project in her first year. A wistful smile played over Kat’s face as she stretched her back and began walking toward the auditorium where their results would be read.
As much as she might want it, even purchasing the cranial jack was beyond her means right now. She was still three hundred credits short. Depending upon the danger, runs usually netted her between twenty five and fifty credits. The hefty payout on the rush job should have alerted both Xander and her that it was a dangerous gig, but what could Kat say. She needed the money.
An elbow poked into her side, drawing Kat’s attention to a shiteating grin surrounded by curly black hair and a pair of light brown eyes.
“How do you think you did Arnold?” She asked, throwing the boy a tired smile as they wove their way through the crowded hallway.
“Does it even matter?” He snorted back. “My dad is a senior manager. Even if I just drew dicks all over the page they’d at least give me the second slot. I don’t really know why they made Anna and I take the test, everyone knows the result.”
“But how did you do?” Kat asked conspiratorially. “She’s kinda been a jerk all year. Even if her Mom is a regional vice president, if you score high enough they’ll put you above her. It’d be worth a lot after all of those constant jibes to see her pretending to be happy with second place.”
“How about a favor if I managed to pull it off?” Arnold replied with a wink. Kat blushed, uncomfortably aware of his perfect smile and the mischievous glint in his eyes.
“I d-don’t,” she caught herself stammering, unable to even finish a thought as he grinned knowingly at her. She’d literally just killed someone, and all it took was a comment from Arnold and she was a gibbering mess.
With a quick breath, Kat closed her eyes for a half second, clearing her mind. He was cute and he was flirting with her, but that was it. She needed to grab a hold of herself.
“As long as it isn’t anything gross,” She smiled back, batting her eyelashes at him. Two could play that game. She might have all but grown up with him, tutoring Arnold in math and chemistry since their fourth year, but she’d seen how he looked at her. He was interested, but for some reason he wouldn’t make a move.
Maybe if Kat had family in management, if their status were somewhere nearer to equal, she could’ve said something, but that simply wasn’t the case. Dating and marriage did happen across social classes, it just always needed to be initiated by the person with the higher status, and Arnold sure seemed to be taking his sweet time.
“Say,” he gulped slightly, taking a half step away from Kat. “You looked distracted during the test. Did everything go alright on your end?”
“More or less,” Kat winced. “I had a run this morning and things didn’t turn out all that well. I still finished it just fine, but I ended up in a fight with some trash tier street samurai. Luckily, I could outperform anyone but you and Anna on autopilot because I guess it shook me up a bit more than I thought.”
“But you’re doing fine right?” Arnold’s brow furrowed, definite concern in his eyes. “I know you’re a runner, but that’s mostly about sneaking and, you know. Running. My dad’s told me some stories about contractors and I know that I don’t want any part of that. I’m perfectly happy with corporate security keeping them out of the arcology.”
“None of them were players and the cyberware was pretty crude,” Kat shrugged. “Before he let me take my first run, Xander made sure that I could run, climb, sneak, and fight. He has a gym in his warehouse and I make sure to keep up to date on my physical fitness and fighting.”
“I mean,” she smiled wryly. “I wouldn’t be able to do much to anyone with cyber enhanced reflexes or subdermal armor, and no one wants to test their skills with a player, but I’m pretty decent in a tight spot.”
“That’s what she said,” Arnold cut in, a giant grin on his face.
Kat groaned and elbowed him in the ribs. He took a step back, a look of feigned shock on his face as he rubbed his side.
“For shame!” Kat struggled to keep a straight face as he engaged in his usual theatrics. “And I thought you a lady! You wound me fair Katherine with your uncouth and violent behavior.”
“At least that is one mistake I never made,” Kat’s face soured at the sound of the acid mezzo soprano voice. “Katherine may be many things, but a lady is not one of them.
“Arnold Jacques,” Anna sounded pissed, but Kat honestly couldn’t tell if anything was wrong. She always sounded angry. “You promised that we would sit next to each other during the assembly so that we could be called up together to accept our matriculation into the company college.”
“Yet,” the blonde woman flicked her perfectly shoulder length hair to the side while her glacier blue eyes glared at Kat like she was something unmoving and formerly organic that a cat had delivered to her pillow. “I find you slumming with this common slut once again. You have a future in front of you Arnie.”
Arnold winced at the nickname. Kat couldn’t blame him, she was struggling to keep a straight face herself.
“Don’t waste your time on her,” Anna sniffed. “You had your fun and committed your youthful dalliances, it’s time for you to grow up.”
“Oh,” Anna smiled sweetly, her eyes never leaving Kat. “Did you tell your father about the opening on the dairy yield maximization project? My mother is looking for a competent manager and I’d be happy to pass his name on to her if he’s interested. It would be quite a promotion for him.”
“Yeah,” Arnold replied, seeming to deflate. “He’s interested.”
“Good,” she turned back to Arnold and flashed the most dazzling smile that four thousand credits worth of cosmetic surgery could buy. “Now let’s go find our seats. The assembly will be starting shortly.”
Arnold looked defeated, glancing from Anna’s smug, victorious smile to Kat’s carefully neutral expression before he sighed.
“I’ll visit you at work tonight,” he hissed into her ear before turning to follow Anna. “Remember your promise, one favor if I beat her.”
Then they were walking away. Anna in the lead, her back straight as she plowed imperiously through the crowded hallway, the other students wisely making way for her. Behind Anna, Arnold followed like a beaten dog, his head drooped and his feet dragging.
As soon as they were out of sight, Kat let her face slip and fumed. She didn’t know what Anna’s problem was, but the girl had it in for her. As far as she could tell, it wasn’t even a matter of class.
Around the other working class students she wasn’t exactly friendly or forthcoming, earning a reputation as a bit of an ice princess, but beyond that she didn’t go out of her way to make their lives difficult. Kat on the other hand couldn’t ask her for the time without a snide comment of some sort.
She knew better than to actually antagonize Anna. Arnold’s father might be a manager, but Anna’s mother was an executive. Even the casual dislike of someone on that level could get an employee assigned to a dangerous and miserable posting or outright fired.
As galling as it was, her only recourse was to take the girl’s insults and provocations with a smile and hope to never see her again after graduation.
Well, that and hope that Arnold beat her in the aptitude test. She couldn’t act against Anna directly, but she knew that taking second would upset her, and Kat would take even a petty win against the girl at this point.
Kat took an empty seat in the auditorium, blushing slightly as she thought about the favor she’d jokingly agreed to owe Arnold if he won. What if he wanted to go on a date? She’d said ‘nothing gross,’ but a date wouldn’t be gross.
God. She could feel herself turning beet red as the room began to fill up.
The squeal of a microphone ripped Kat away from her introspection. Their principal, a severe woman with her hair in a tight bun, stood at a podium in front of the auditorium, waiting a couple of seconds for the whispers and conversations to quell.
“Congratulations,” her voice had the warmth and enthusiasm of a block of ice. “You have all made it through your compulsory education and soon you will be ready to take on your adult responsibilities as employees for Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp. Whether you are destined for a boardroom or a hydroponic field, we are proud that productive and useful individuals such as yourselves have graduated from our fine institution.”
“As I look out over this assembly,” the woman continued, dryly reciting the prepared speech. “I see the faces of a new generation of innovators that will drive profit margins to record heights. I am proud to have been your educator, and I am even prouder to welcome you into the Ike Holdings, a wholly owned subsidiary of GroCorp, family.”
“Now,” a smartglass screen behind the principal lit up, displaying a massive list of names. “We approach the moment that you’ve all been waiting for.”
Kat scanned the list, quickly finding her name at the absolute top. Katherine Debs, number three of three hundred and ninety two. Relief filled her. She hadn’t dropped a rank.
“It is my pleasure to announce your valedictorian and salutatorian,” for the first time the principal’s face cracked slightly. “Arnold Jacques and Anna Donnst.”
Kat’s gaze whipped from the smartglass to where the two people ascended the stairs to the stage, the crowd of students clapping politely. Anna’s face was everything she could have hoped for. A smile that didn’t reach her eyes as she seethed and waved at her classmates.
Arnold on the other hand was grinning like a maniac, his eyes locked directly on Kat.
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Bio: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the streets at dawn looking for an angry fix of machine translated light novels, burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night