A short story set in the Culture universe created by Iain M. Banks

When Bryam opened her eyes again, she found herself standing just inside the door at the back of a chilly high-ceilinged schoolroom. The dusty floorboards supported oversize desks of worn wood with peeling varnish set in serried rows and columns, flanked by tall leaded windows with grimy glass through which just a little mucky grey light managed to seep. Each desk was occupied by a small hunched figure bent over a large workbook, clutching various writing instruments and beavering away industriously.

She looked down. She appeared to now be wearing a different uniform: white blouse with a stiff, starched, uncomfortable collar, held firmly in place by a tie diagonally striped in dismal shades; a heavy blazer with an unintelligible badge on the breast pocket; pleated grey skirt at knee length, long itchy woollen socks and tight heavy shoes.

She looked up. There was a raised dais at the front of the room, with a large heavy wooden desk placed dead-centre and flanked with an array of blackboards displaying complex pictures, equations and dense lines of text. Standing on the podium was a large being - much bigger than her - dressed in a heavy tweed suit and waistcoat, an old school tie and heavy black brogues polished to a high gloss.

The monster on the platform twirled one side on an immense waxed moustache thoughtfully, then beckoned with one finger, just twice.

"Come!" he boomed.

As she moved between the rows of desks, not a head moved, the earnest scratching of pens on paper did not change.

"The new girl, eh?"

"Yes, sir," she replied promptly, bobbing a curtsey, "Bryam Bromon, sir."

"Sit!" he bellowed, indicating a desk near the front of the class.

Bryam Bromon clambered onto the seat indicated and sat. It was an uncomfortably-hard straight-backed chair with chipped edges liable, she very rapidly discovered, to give you a painful splinter if you didn't sit completely still.

"Open your copybook and transcribe this!" the teacher said menacingly, indicating a dense passage chalked on one of the boards with a slap of a long and frightening-looking cane.

"Yes, sir."

She opened the workbook and smoothed down the first page, then studied the piece on the blackboard. It was an excerpt from a history text, it seemed, or perhaps mythology: a report on the creation of the first people at the hands of the Demiurgo. The stye seemed stilted, over-formal, even archaic, full of long words and complex declinations.

"Pick up your pen and get on with it!"

She complied promptly. She had been provided with a splodgy, leaky fountain pen which needed to be wielded with great care in order to avoid dripping ink onto the page - a crime which would, she now knew first-hand, immediately earn you a firm clip about the ear and a tirade about the importance of "working neatly".

Without slowing her hand holding the pen, in fear of another rebuke from the overbearing schoolmaster, Bryam looked more closely at the piece she was transcribing. It was an analysis and criticism, if she had understood it correctly, of the events reported in another text she did not know nor could see displayed hereabouts. Nevertheless, the text she was copying set about impugning the veracity of an account of the Demiurgo creating stars suggesting, in a pretentious and long-winded way, that the description was flawed in a dozen or more different ways.

She glanced at the clock, set very high on one otherwise-unadorned wall. At first, she thought that the chronometer was stopped; then, as she watched, the second hand edged forward a miniscule amount with - she strained her ears - the faintest of ticks. A piece of chalk caught her a stinging blow on the cheek.

"The clock won't run any faster if you stare at it, Bromon!"

"No, sir. Sorry, sir."

She bent over her exercise book, redoubling her efforts to produce an acceptably neat copy with the intractable fountain pen. She was just applied blotting paper diligently to her copybook when, while the overbearing teacher's back was momentarily turned to add to a monstrously complicated diagram on another of the blackboards, the girl in the next desk looked directly into her eyes and mouthed "playtime". Bryam's eyed widened in surprise; she nodded almost imperceptibly then hurriedly turned her attention back to her writing.

She had reached the end of the passage and was just checking her copy was correct when the monster in the tweed suit thumped a heavy book on his desk.

"Pens down, now!" he bellowed, "Let me see your work."

The martinet paced up and down the rows, glancing left and right at the pages opened for inspection. He gave no indication of approval or merit, just grunting as if in disappointment he could find nothing to criticise. Those unfortunates who did present inadequate work soon learned to regret it: a swift clip around the ear with a wooden ruler or, in one case, a deafening roar of disapproval followed by the offending page being torn from the copybook.

The subject being taught seemd to segue from history to physics, or perhaps cosmology. The class were instructed to take up coloured pencils and copy the complicated diagram from the other blackboard into their exercise books. The picture appeared to illustrate some facet of the creation of stars, although it seemed to be trying to represent several different mechanisms all at the same time.

Bryam managed to take a glance at the wall clock without being caught. It had barely advanced at all. She resigned herself for a long period of boredom.

After an interminable length of time, a bell rang; loud, strident, urgent. Nobody moved, or even looked up. The soft noises of pencils on paper continued uninterrupted.

"Complete your work and tidy away neatly," the teacher directed, sounding bored.

The class dutifully put away their pencils and books, then sat attentively. He looked around again, finding nothing to criticise, it seemed. "All right. Class dismissed."

The class filed out quietly and calmly through the double doors which led to the outside. There wasn't really very much to see. A high wall of dark grey stone ran around the school, far too high to see over and too smooth to climb easily. The playground itself was paved with harsh and uneven flags. The sky was a marginally lighter shade of grey with low clouds dispensing the sort of fine drizzle which soaked to the skin almost immediately, despite the itchy blazer.

Bryam found herself surrounded by a group of girls, all dressed in the same uniform. No boys; they seemed to have formed their own huddles on the other side of the playground. The ringleader now in front of her was the girl who had mouthed at her some seemingly endless period of time earlier.

"New girl, huh?" she demanded.

"I guess I am, yes."

The other girl glared at her suspiciously.

"How can you be new in Hell?"

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