“All I’m saying,” Grigory went on, “is that computer games aren’t lethal.” He shovelled a heaped spoonful of mashed potato into his mouth.

“I said deadly, not lethal,” Simone corrected. She enjoyed the banter with her friends, but found Grigory sometimes to be intentionally belligerent. She could tell by the redness in his plump cheeks and the slightly revolting way he was gorging himself on mash that he was pumped up on this occasion and ready for a good old hoo-hah.

“Ain’t that the same thing?” Kaisa asked beside her, sipping his pineapple Froot-Pouch through a straw.

“Hello! She means metaphorically speaking,” Donna said. She was the last of the quartet sitting at their table, despite it being able to sit ten people. The other students from their curriculum turn sat elsewhere on the other tables, or stood in a queue at the far end of the dining hall waiting to be served dinner. Chatter filled the great hall, punctured briefly as a student in the queue dropped his wooden dinner tray on the floor. The chatter quietened as conversations were interrupted, then picked up again all at once as though nothing had happened.

Their table was in the corner of the dining hall and it was where they always sat. Nobody else ever sat with them.

“Ooh, big word from Donna.” Grigory pulled a face.

“Look.” Simone leant forward on her elbows. “Deadly, as in so addictive that weeks can be lost while you play. Nothing to show for it afterwards but memories.”

Grigory took another mash mountain into his pie-hole. Here we go, she thought.

“I do believe you’re talking out of your butt now, Simone.”

She put her knife down on the table irritably. It was done slightly too loud; the others checked the tables nearest to them in the dining hall to make sure nobody else was now listening to their conversation.

“How am I?” she said.

“How are they?” Grigory said with his mouth full.

“Let’s say you complete a game. The most amazing yet, with all the hidden characters and levels, weapons and items unlocked. You’ve spent a week of your time playing it.” She looked at the three faces sitting at the table with her. “That’s fair for games nowadays, right?”

“Right!” Donna said.

“Right,” Kaisa agreed.

Wrong,” Grigory mumbled, spitting a large blob of mashed potato as he did so. It flew across the dinner table and landed perfectly in Kaisa’s lap opposite.

Simone shook her head. “Gross. My point is: what have you got to show for all that spent time? Money?” They stared at her. At last, silence from Grigory. “Or a reward of any kind? No. You get nothing. All you got to show for it is a week of your life gone, bye-bye. You’re not getting that back.”

Donna was grinning from ear to ear, her white smile positively sparkling. “It’s a good point!”

Laughter suddenly came from a table nearby, and they stopped talking and looked over. It was a laughter they had grown accustomed to hearing, and recognized instantly. Recognized what that laughter meant. Sure enough, the students on that particular table were huddled together and looking over at them with smirks on their faces.

Donna, Grigory and Kaisa looked down and carried on eating quietly. Simone glared at the other table angrily before looking away. They were often picked on. If a week passed without at least one altercation with a gang they had been lucky. And why? Grigory was overweight and always smelt faintly of body odour, Kaisa was very thin, and, despite being quite handsome in the face, he always dressed in clothes too big for him and wore very old- fashioned glasses which gave him a nerdy look. Donna was a greenwoman, very attractive and stylish out of uniform, but she chose to hang around with them.

Simone had to take prescription tablets and wore too much makeup, and she’d once had a seizure in the middle of the dining room during dinner.

And that was all it took. They were different, they refused to conform in order to fit in with the other groups, and as a result they were singled out and picked on.

“It’s not gonna stop you playing computer games though, is it?” Kaisa said quietly.

Donna pulled a sheepish look. “Probably not!” she said truthfully.

“Best to spend your time doing something you enjoy.” Grigory came at it from another angle now. “Who are you to judge, Simone? You’ve got a Bushyida Leisure Dock in your room!”

“It’s under my bed and covered in dust,” she retorted. “And I don’t judge anyone, Grigory, you know that. If I had all the time in the world I’d play computer games non-stop; they’re brilliant, and beautiful. But the simple fact is I don’t have all the time in the world.” She sat back in her chair, confident she was wrapping this argument up. “Nobody does.”

“It’s a scary thought,” Donna mused, “thinking about when we’re old and lying in bed, remembering all the things you could’ve done, if only you had more time, or not played around so much…”

Grigory had spooned in more mashed potato, and he opened his mouth to protest.

“Grigory, you spit any more mash at me,” Kaisa warned, “and I’ll stab your hand with my fork.”

Suddenly the dining hall fell into a hush, and they stopped talking. The headmaster was standing at the front of the hall, near where the dirty plates and cutlery were stacked in a large steel dolly ready to be taken away and washed.

“Attention everyone,” he was saying.

“Ooh, looks like something’s kicking off,” Grigory whispered. “I bet it’s to do with—”

“Ssh!” Donna said.

“Sorry to interrupt your dinner, this won’t take long.” He fiddled nervously with the clipboard he held tightly against his bulging tweed waistcoat. “I’m sure you’re all aware by now of the tragedy that occurred last week involving Lucy Witt. I’m not going to go back into that, out of respect to any of her friends who may be present in the dining hall.

“The school governors and I have convened with the Valley Guard Volunteers and we have decided the best course of action is to temporarily extend the curfew to eight o’clock, effective immediately.”

A murmur of discontent began to rise around the dining hall, and the headmaster held a chubby hand up to quell it.

“Now hold on a second,” he said, “hold on a second! Emphasis on temporary here; this is a precautionary measure only. Certainly nothing to get excited about. The welfare of every student at ZAK College is paramount to us; the last thing anybody would want is a repeat of what happened last week.”

He looked at the notes clipped to his board. His round kindly face seemed redder than usual, and he almost appeared embarrassed to continue.

“I’ve informed the Civil Guardia Unit; anyone caught wandering the halls after curfew will be reprimanded. A memorial plaque for Lucy has been placed in the gardens at the family’s request; anyone wishing to pay their respects are welcome to do so. I should also like to say that reports of gangs bullying students are surfacing again.” He scanned the dining room faces through his small spectacles. “ZAK College will not tolerate bullying in any form. I hope the persons responsible will find it within themselves to stop this behaviour at once. If they are caught, they will be removed from this college. That is all.”

The Headmaster turned and walked off, his shoulders hunched more than usual under the burden of recent events. There was a slight delay, then the chatter started again.

Grigory leaned forward on to the table. “Eight o’clock? That sucks. It’s like we’re twelve all over again!”

“It’s for our own good.” Simone checked her watch. “He said it was only temporary.”

“Just because you like to stay in your room after lessons, Simone, doesn’t mean everyone else does! We’re not prisoners in here.”

Kaisa was nodding. “It is a little harsh,” he said.

“A little?” Grigory’s mouth was full of mashed potato again. “They’re treating us like babies. We can take care of ourselves now, we’re fifteen!”

“Tell that to Lucy,” Simone said.

“I’m not being funny, but everyone knows not to go near the fences after dark,” Grigory whispered. “She decides to do it, on her own, and now we are all suffering for it.”

Simone dropped her fork in disgust. “Grigory!”

What?” he squeaked indignantly. “It’s only what everyone else is thinking!”

Donna wiped her mouth with her serviette. “So was it ghouls that got her?”

Grigory nodded. “That’s what Chay Hoban said.”

She looked away distantly. “That’s awful…”

“Chay Hoban talks garbage,” Kaisa said.

“His dad’s a school governor!” Grigory stated. “He reckoned the caretaker was throwing up when they found her body in the woods. She had no skin left on, and her eyes had been sucked out of her head…”

“Whatever, Grigory,” Kaisa said.

“Chay Hoban knows!”

“Chay Hoban knows!” Kaisa mimicked Grigory’s high-pitched voice. “You and Chay Hoban need to get it on and have done with it.”

“So what happened to her then, Mr Know-it-all?”

Kaisa shrugged. “Teachers said she drowned in the river. That’s good enough for me.”

Grigory shook his head disappointedly. “It was a ghoul, mate,” he said softly. Matter-of-fact. “A ghoul snatched her.”

Simone took a deep breath and stood up, slinging her bag strap over her shoulder. “I’ve heard enough,” she said. “We’ve got ten minutes to get to class.”

“What about our ghoul conversation?” Donna asked.

Simone picked her tray up and turned around, finding herself face to face suddenly with Imogen Livney. She froze. Imogen’s mocking smirk was playing on her beautiful face, her curly brown ringlets framing the expression perfectly. Behind Simone, the others had shrunk back into their chairs.

“Hey, orange-face,” she sneered. “Jacks sez it looks today like you’ve had a bath in caramel.”

Simone kept her face even. “That’s nice of him. Excuse me…”

She pushed past; the others seized the opportunity to do the same while avoiding eye contact.

“Eww, don’t touch me!” Imogen shrieked, avoiding contact theatrically as Grigory passed her. She retched noisily behind him, and Grigory put his head down as he followed the others to the crocks and cutlery dolly.

“Just ignore her,” Simone said to him as she scraped her leftovers from her plate. She led them from the dining hall into the college foyer, where groups of students milled about and teachers and mentors would occasionally whizz through as they kept to their busy timetable. In the centre of the foyer was a bronze statue of three men, well-to-do and standing proudly back to back, their moustaches and beards gleaming in the sunlight which shone down through the glass roof above.

Zowan Avit Kowensor College, or ZAK College, was founded by Arthur Zowan, Shenji Avit and Rai Kowensor during the early educational reforms, and quickly became one of the leading colleges and sixth form houses in Myagna. Funded by a combined trust fund from its founders, whose wealth was considerable, ZAK College had an almost limitless pot from which to purchase state-of-the art facilities for its students since its establishment eighty sets ago.

ZAK was by no means exclusive; that would have been strictly against the founders’ strong beliefs. However, to say a student could just walk into a place would be grossly wide of the mark. ZAK selectors let only three hundred students through their doors every turn, from close to ten times that number of applicants.

Excellent teachers, superb facilities and exemplary results. Unfortunately, ZAK also had a dark underbelly. Like all schools and colleges bullying was ever present, an insidious parasite that could never truly be eradicated, rising and falling in seriousness every new academic turn depending literally on what students walked through the door. The usual divides, age, species and nationality were present, but ZAK also had social standing to contend with. Rich parents sending their children to mix every day with working class but gifted students had always been a potentially explosive cocktail. It had proved over the sets to be the quickest and most troublesome divide of all.


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