The school day was more than half way through when Nicholas marched into the room like he was the Base Commander. He slouched down into his seat and wiped sweat from his forehead, though it wasn't hot. His anger at Merch still pounded in his veins. Few students looked up from their data sheets to acknowledge his entrance, and those for only a millisecond before they turned back to their work.
A girl sat in the chair ahead of him but never raised her head from crouching over her data sheet. Her brown kinky hair stuck out in odd directions like she'd just gotten out of bed. He ran his fingers through his own long light brown hair and wondered how a girl could be so out in space that she didn't even run a brush through her hair. He could only see her shoulders and above. Her neck was skinny, with each vertebra of her spine poking out like knuckles on a fist. The collar on her jump suit was too wide and looked like she had borrowed it from someone twice her size.
Nicholas unrolled his data sheet and pressed the power point.
A message flashed across the top of the display, "Ten days, six hours, 81 minutes delinquent." A list of past due assignments scrolled below the warning and then the question, "What would you like to work on first?"
Students in their first year of high school were given a reprieve from the strictly regimented course work of the lower grades. They were allowed to choose from a broad range of subjects and studied independently. From these studies they would choose the concentration for the following four to five years of course work. Between the ages of twenty and twenty-two they should be prepared to enter university or matriculate into one of the technical training programs with available personnel slots on the battle base. All military personnel must graduate with a university degree in astrogation or military science. Nicholas was interested in none of that.
He looked around the classroom.
Most students sat or reclined in their cushioned lounge chairs, deeply engaged in their studies.
One girl a few rows over taking a breather from her studies looked up and around the room. Nicholas caught her eye, smiled and winked. She smiled back, blushed and returned to her data sheet.
Nicholas realized there were a lot of pretty girls in the classroom. He went back to his data sheet and pulled up an array program, dividing it into the number of spaces to match the arrangement of students in the class. He blacked out the spots belonging to the boys.
He turned back to scanning the classroom. When a girl took a break and looked up from her work, Nicholas coughed, or sniffed, or something conspicuous enough to get the girl's attention, then smiled and winked at her. On his data sheet he entered a rating of her response and of her appearance into the student's block in his array.
The school day was almost over, which helped Nicholas fill in the last few blocks as students became more restless and ready to leave.
He also caught the teacher's attention.
"Mr. Morris," the teacher said, loud enough to still the entire class. "Welcome back to school. We've missed you."
He smiled and nodded, but said nothing.
"You've been studiously working on … something. And since it looked to me like it involved the entire class, would you please stand and explain?"
Nicholas stood and said, "Ms. Callista, I have been doing a study of the pretty girls in this classroom."
"That's an awfully sexist remark, Mr. Morris." She eyed him with a frown.
"Oh. I'm sorry. I've been studying the ugly ones, too."
A repressed murmur of laughter rumbled around the room.
"Anyway," Ms. Callista said, her frown deepening. "Please explain your theory and results."
"Um. I didn't really have a theory. Well, I guess my thesis question was, 'Would a girl return my smile, and was there a greater chance of her returning my smile if she was pretty."
"And, then?" The teacher asked.
Nicholas tapped about on his data sheet. The holoscreen at the front of the class came to life and displayed a smattering of dots on a two dimensional grid.
"I was able to smile and wink at all but two girls in the room and these are their responses. With, let me say, 'relative' beauty across the bottom, since I am deciding what I consider beautiful, the horizontal represents ugly on the left and gorgeous on the right. The vertical is how strongly I gauged their response. You can see there are girls at both ends of the spectrum who found me offensive, though most gave me a favorable response to some degree."
Nicholas tapped his data sheet again and said, "Here is a layout of the classroom. You can see from the position of the girl in the room relative to my seat over here on the side, the farther away the girl the lower the response."
The image on the holoscreen shimmered and the schematic of seat positions was replaced with an image of the girl sitting in that seat.
"Who did … " Nicholas started to say, but the teacher cut him off.
"Any final conclusions, Mr. Morris?"
"Hmmm. Well. You can see from the horizontal placement, we have a lot of pretty girls in the class." He looked at the screen again with the girls' actual faces present, saved a copy to his data sheet, and said, "Other than that, the data is inconclusive."
Nicholas sat back down.
"Thank you, Mr. Morris. I hope this means that you will find a greater desire to be in class, where you can put that analytical mind of yours to a more productive use. I'll look forward to seeing all of you tomorrow. You are dismissed."
Nicholas waited in his seat until the teacher looked at him once more. He winked and smiled. When she blushed, shaking her head but smiling as well, he made a show of making a note on his data sheet.
The girl with the messy hair sat hunched over her work table as the teacher gathered her things to leave. If he wanted to keep his data accurate, he still needed her reaction. If she never stood and forced him to walk around in front of her, he would look too obvious. So he left the room and stood in the hallway.
As the girl walked out of the room, her eyes were on the floor. Frizzy hair obscured her face. The sleeves and legs of her jumpsuit exposed her wrists and bare shins above her base boots. The uniform hung on her like a sack, with a belt around her waist to keep it from sliding off her shoulders.
He cleared his throat.
She stopped without looking up and smoothed the sleeves of her jump suit, pulling at the cuffs as if trying to increase their length.
"Class is over. Now I can say, 'Hello', as well as wink," Nicholas said, trying to get the girl to look up.
Her lips moved but he heard no sound. She might have said, “Hello”, as well.
"You don't want to look at me?"
She shook her head.
Nicholas laughed and said, "Or is it you don't want me to look at you?"
An almost indiscernible nod.
"Ok. I'll leave you alone. I know. I don't like people bothering me, either. But someday I'm going to catch you off your guard and you're going to smile at me. I'll see you tomorrow."
Nicholas watched her walk away.
He wanted to give her a minute and then follow her. One thing the school's data base wouldn't give him was her cube location, but as he started after her another boy cut him off.
"Hey. Can you share that data with me?" A boy asked. He seemed to have a skin condition, but as he got closer Nicholas wondered if the boy ever bathed. His greasy hair hung in strings and though he was a good five centimeters taller than Nicholas, he had a round, babyish face, and short, stubby fingers.
"No. I don't think so," Nicholas said and started after the girl.
"Come on, crew. I added the pictures to the schematic. Share some cred."
"I'm not your crew and I don't owe you any cred. I didn't ask you to put the pictures up, so give way."
The boy didn't step aside quickly enough and Nicholas pushed past him. He brushed off the shoulder of his jumpsuit hoping the boy hadn't left any sludge on him. The girl wasn't anywhere in sight. He thought about going back to slug the slimy boy in the stomach for interfering, but reconsidered. That would only give Merch more fuel for his afterburner, and Nicholas was hoping to stay off his stepfather's scanners for a while.
"Might as well head home and see if I can get in the cube," Nicholas grumbled, heading out of the school's matrix.