Please note that there is an announcement about a brief, but unavoidable update delay next week in the first comment at the end of this chapter.
The corridor in front of us as the door whooshed open was much more like I expected a space station to be. It was long and slightly curved toward the end leading off toward the left. The main part of the walls, floor, and ceiling were pure white and somewhat rounded, with wide windows along both sides that showed an absolutely breathtaking visage of star-filled space beyond.
That was the sight that made me pause, my mouth falling open a bit. This wasn’t just like looking up at the night sky. This was incredible. The stars were huge, and I could see all kinds of colors. Off to the left there was some kind of whirlpool of blues and greens, with a little bit of red in the middle that pulsed occasionally. Straight ahead I could see a trio of moons surrounding a planet with a pair of beautiful crystalline rings that overlapped one another in an x-shape. There was a comet streaking across the starry expanse on the right-hand side before it disappeared beyond the wall behind us. Everywhere I looked, there was another gorgeous celestial event.
It was, without exaggeration, one of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. Even being in the ship back with the others hadn’t been quite like this. There had been some amazing sights there as we traveled through space, of course. But this was like… it was a world beyond even that. And as I stood there, my knees felt weak. It was all I could do not to cry at the sheer beauty.
“This is wrong.” Tabbris’s voice broke through my brief moment of stunned silence, drawing my attention that way. The young Seosten girl was squinting from one incredible sight to another. “This… this isn’t right,” she mumbled under her breath, head shaking back and forth slowly. “It’s wrong.” Before I could ask what she meant, the girl continued, “That bit over there.”
“What bit over where?” I asked, a little confused. She hadn’t actually pointed anywhere.
“Wh–oh.” Tabbris flushed visibly, squirming on her feet. “I forgot to use my own hand,” she mumbled with embarrassment before deliberately pointing toward the cross-ringed planet. “I know that place. Mama showed it to me in her stories. But it shouldn’t be anywhere near that.” Her hand moved then to point toward the whirlpool-like vision of shifting colored energy. “She thought they were pretty and she told me stories about them when I was little. But… but they aren’t near each other. They aren’t anywhere even sorta close!”
Athena was smiling a little, stepping over to the nearby window as she nodded. “Yes. None of these are actual windows. They are viewscreens that are designed to show a vision of various areas of space with visual data that was recorded by any number of other other sources. I’m afraid that having actual windows would be rather… dangerous. And somewhat, ah, blinding.”
“Blinding?” I echoed, blinking over at the woman in confusion. “Why would it be blinding?”
She was clearly watching my reaction closely as she answered simply, “Because this station is located inside of a star.”
Well, that was enough to make me do a violent double-take back toward the woman. Beside me, Tabbris spun around so quickly that she would have fallen over if I didn’t reach down quickly to grab onto and steady her. Both of us yelped in perfect unison, “Inside of a what?!”
Chuckling at our reaction, the brown-haired woman explained, “The station is located inside of a star. It is, quite literally, the safest possible place that we could find. The Seosten leadership hunts our people quite regularly. Here, the ones that they know about can be protected.”
My mouth opened and shut a few times. “B-but, how do they–how can’t–I mean, the Meregan had the ability to go into the stars, but they had to turn themselves into that stone-like stuff.”
“You have encountered the Meregan then?” Athena sounded impressed, as she nodded. “Yes, the Meregan stasis is very impressive. And we have a variation of it set up here as a failsafe in case anything goes wrong. But generally speaking, the station works somewhat differently. You see, there are spells up within the station that create a layer of portals all along the exterior. Those portals capture the energy from the star, all of that heat and everything else. Most of it is transported out into space to harmlessly be released, while a portion is directed into the station’s own batteries, which fuel everything onboard, including those very same portals. Essentially, the star contributes to our safety by constantly refueling the same portals that keep it from incinerating the station and continually drain its power. It is a… cycle, of sorts.”
“That’s… that’s…” I swallowed, staring at the ‘windows’ once more as a shiver ran through me. “That’s amazing. And kind of terrifying, honestly.”
“Believe me, my lady,” the woman responded softly, “I quite understand the feeling. Would you like to take another minute?” she asked then, gesturing. “It is a rather lovely view.”
I glanced that way briefly before shaking my head. “It’s okay, we should meet the others.” I didn’t want to keep Tabbris from seeing others like her any longer than we had to. Besides, I was sure that Athena and the rest of them all had a lot that they wanted to talk with us about. As amazing as the view was, there would apparently be plenty of time to experience it later.
Athena nodded before pivoting to start leading us down the corridor once more. As we followed her, my eyes kept flicking from side to side. Everything I saw through those ‘windows’ was still just as incredible. Yet there was now a sort of underlying fear as a little voice in the back of my head (one that actually wasn’t Tabbris that time) kept reminding me that we were actually in the middle of a freaking star. If anything happened, if anything actually did go wrong… I shuddered.
The Seosten woman seemed to understand, and led us onward without comment. We made our way along the curving corridor, past a couple doors (which happened to be set right in the middle of the viewscreen ‘windows’ making it look like those doors led out into empty space), before Athena eventually stopped at one door in particular. She looked back to us, giving a brief smile. “This is where some of the children are taught. I’ve told them to expect us.”
With that, she put a hand against a pad beside the door. It buzzed after a moment before sliding aside, and we stepped through into… well, into what honestly looked a hell of a lot like the main hall of a freaking middle school. Seriously. Straight ahead there was an office area where a secretary sat with more doors behind her, while there were hallways off to either side that led to classrooms. There were even lockers along the walls. It looked like a school.
There were still differences, of course. The secretary looked kind of like a lime green bipedal squid with pink eyes and a dozen tentacle-like arms all reaching for different drawers, phones, and other things. The lockers were all at various heights and shaped differently for various types of students. I saw a rather enormous one that was the size of three lockers back home, and one that was so tiny it had to be for a pixie or something. That one was kind of adorable, with tiny stars painted on it. Actually, a lot of the locker doors were painted in one way or another. I saw names written on them, images of what looked like animals from various worlds, or even people.
If I hadn’t already been convinced of the potential for non-humans to be just as good and ‘humane’ (for lack of a better word) as humans were before, the sight of one particular locker with what was obviously a stick-figure family (some with too many line-like appendages and one with two separate heads attached) scrawled lovingly on it with a word underneath that I was choosing to translate as ‘family’ would have done the trick all by itself. To say nothing of the rest.
Tabbris was clinging pretty close to me, her small hand tight in mine as we walked into that front hall. I saw the many-armed secretary look up briefly. She saw the three of us and immediately set down three different phone-like objects she had been holding while also moving two of her tentacle-hands away from a wall-mounted console. Extricating herself from behind the large metal desk, she made her way out of the room to us. As she came, I saw that her entire body seemed to be made out of tentacles. There was a ball right in the middle that was a couple feet across. Up from that was a single stalk-like structure that her head was attached to. And other than that, the rest of her body was composed of dozens of various sized tentacles with hands on the end that stuck out in every possible direction. The woman was, essentially, two connected flesh balls with a crapload of tentacles attached to the lower ball. She used some of them to walk, setting six or seven hands against the floor at a time as she picked her way over to where we were.
“Children, children!” she called loudly. Her voice sounded at once melodic and yet slightly garbled, as if it was coming from underwater. It was kind of fascinating to listen to. “Hello!” Her sheer and unadulterated delight, if it hadn’t already been obvious in her voice, manifested quite well in the way her free tentacles shook back and forth, wiggling with excitement that made me giggle a little bit inwardly. “Oh, I’m so delighted that you made it! Positively tickled, I say.”
Smiling a little, Athena gestured. “Miss Handsy, allow me to introduce you to the Ladies Felicity and Tabbris. Girls, this is Miss Handsy. She is entirely indispensable to our educational efforts.”
Reflexively, I raised my free hand, extending it to her. “Miss Handsy? Sounds appropriate.”
The many-tentacled woman’s bright, almost unnaturally pink eyes drifted between us briefly before her wide mouth rose into a warm, beatific smile. She made a sound that was like windchimes that I belatedly realized was her version of a laugh. “Ohhh, of course, of course. Handsy isn’t my real name, but then, it would take an entire school year just to teach the poor children here how to pronounce it, and they’ve got much more important things to worry about. Miss Handsy is good enough.” As she spoke, two of her tentacle hands moved to catch hold of mine. She squeezed firmly, pumping it up and down. “It is my sheer delight to meet you, Miss Felicity Chambers. My sheer delight indeed. And you of course as well, Miss Tabbris.”
For a moment, Tabbris didn’t react at all, even to the extended hand. She just stood there, watching motionlessly and in silence before abruptly announcing. “I like her. She looks fun.”
Blinking at that, I looked to the other two women before giving the girl a little nudge. “Err, Tab?”
She started, looking back to me, then to Miss Handsy. Her eyes shot open wide with abruptly realization, and I heard a horrified and embarrassed noise escape the little girl as she stammered apologies. “Ohh, oh, I’m sorry! I’m sorry, I didn’t think–I’m not used to–I didn’t mean t-to, I mean, I mean I didn’t–” Whimpering in sheer mortification then, she tried to slink around behind me. Her arms wrapped around my waist tightly, and the little girl pretty much hid herself as well as she could without simply possessing me again so that she could disappear entirely.
Laughing lightly, another windchime sound, Miss Handsy lowered herself a bit to be closer to Tabbris’s level, her tentacles spreading out to let her dip down toward the floor. “Miss Tabbris,” she started once they were eye to eye, “it is my joy and privilege to make your acquaintance.”
That time, when Tabbris didn’t respond at first it wasn’t because she had forgotten. It was because she was so embarrassed. She held onto me, swallowing audibly as she hesitated for a few seconds before finally speaking up in a very quiet voice that was barely audible. “H-hello.”
After another brief moment, she finally reached out one hand to shake the other woman’s offered one, though her other arm tightened around me even more, clinging as if she was somehow afraid that Miss Handsy would try to pull her away from me or something.
The woman did nothing of the sort, of course. She just squeezed the offered hand (with only one of hers that time rather than the two that she had used with me), while smiling encouragingly. “I hear that you have been giving old Manakel and the rest of his people quite the headache.”
“I–” Tabbris squirmed with obvious embarrassment at the attention. “I just try to… um, help.”
“They would have possessed me a long time ago if it wasn’t for her,” I announced proudly, moving my hand to rub the top of the girl’s head and through her hair. It was the kind of ‘big sister’ moment that I hadn’t ever actually had before. It felt kind of nice. Kind of really nice.
Chuckling a little, Athena spoke up then. “Well, I thought that we could pay Mr. Reinswield and his class a little visit. Do you know if they are in the middle of anything terribly important?”
Miss Handsy’s head shook at that. “No, their schedule has them working on arithmetic right now.”
Turning her head to us, Athena briefly explained, “Miss Handsy’s people possess incredible multitasking capability, memories that are just as infallible as a Seosten’s, an internal clock, and more that makes her the perfect administrator for our little educational facilities here. She remembers everything about every single student, including all of their special needs and where they happen to be in the course of their instruction. Which, considering how many different species we have here, knowing what each of them need at any given time would be a difficult, demanding position for an entire staff. Miss Handsy here does the work of twelve.”
“Oh, pish.” The woman in question made a bunch of her tentacles give a dismissive gesture in every direction. “I could never do the kind of things that any of you do to keep us safe. I can barely work any magic whatsoever, and I can’t fight at all. Here, I can actually help. Here, I can contribute. And I can do it with all of you children. That’s good enough. I– oh!” Turning back toward the office behind her, she announced, “It’s almost time for Ruelst and–” The next name that she announced was completely indecipherable and impossible for me to even begin to spell. “–to come down for their medicine. I better have it ready for them. You know how they tend to put it off to the last minute.”
Athena bowed her head briefly. “Of course. We’ll just go back there now. Thank you, Miss Handsy.”
Tabbris and I offered our own thanks and the woman made her way back to the office. Once she was busy at one of the cabinets there, Athena turned to us. “Come,” she beckoned before starting to walk once more. “Mr. Reinswield teaches our–I believe the he said it was the equivalent of your first through third form students?”
I blinked once, confused for a moment. “Form? Is that like grades? He–wait, no, that’s a British thing, isn’t it? Hang on, wait, I remember something about this. It was…” I paused, tilting my head. Tab, do you…
I stopped. Opening my eyes, I looked over to the girl in question, who stared back at me. For a moment, we just looked at each other. Then she giggled a little. “You were trying to ask me.”
Coughing, I found myself blushing a little. “Uh, guilty. So, do you–”
“It’s like their version of seventh to ninth grade,” Tabbris confirmed quickly, giving a little shrug. “But I don’t think they use that system anymore.”
Athena nodded. “Mr. Reinswield left Earth some years ago. But he is a very good instructor. Ah, here we are.” She had led us to a door at the end of one of the halls, reaching up to press the button next to it.
For a moment, nothing happened. Then the door slid aside, and I saw what looked like a pretty eclectic (or outright insane) classroom on the other side. The desks were like the lockers, all different shapes and sizes, and were arranged in a rough semicircle around a holographic projector in the middle of the room. On that projector I saw several math problems floating in the air, along with a couple different formulas for solving them, and examples.
There were kids at those desks. Kids of all kinds. I saw pixies, fur-covered kids, some with scales, one that was little more than a blob with eyestalks, a bipedal deer, even one that looked kind of like a teenage magma monster whose desk was made of obsidian. Most of them instantly set off my Heretic Sense, though there also those who didn’t.
And to one side, I saw four different kids, two male and two female, who looked like abnormally pretty humans. They were all together, none of them set off my sense, and they all looked like they were around eleven or twelve years old.
Seosten. They had to be Seosten. Their eyes immediately found Tabbris, and the girl herself instantly moved behind me with an adorable little squeak. I was pretty sure it took everything that the girl had not to jump right inside me again.
As for the teacher himself, the man looked human. He had short blond hair, a somewhat scruffy-looking face, and perfectly round glasses. He wore a dark pinstripe suit with a burgundy tie, and even had a handkerchief in his front pocket. The guy looked like he was in his early forties. He also didn’t set off the Heretic sense either, but I had a feeling he was human rather than Seosten. Probably a Heretic then. Which made sense, from what Athena had said.
While I was examining him, the man looked back to his assortment of students, announcing in a voice that had a very slight, almost imperceptible British accent. “Class, it seems that Lady Athena has come to tell us another story.”
The Seosten woman herself smiled a little, even as several of the students cheered and a few clapped or made gestures that I assumed were supposed to indicate the same general pleasure. “Yes,” she acquiesced after a moment. “I suppose that it has been some time, hasn’t it? A story it is, then.”
“Excellent.” the man, Mr. Reinswield apparently, gestured to Tabbris and me. “Girls, there are some free seats near Kisea, Meley, Richton, and Demeas.” He indicated the spot where the four Seosten students were.
Tabbris tried to hide behind me even more at that. I had a feeling she was even more nervous about meeting kids of her own species who were close to her own age than she had been about almost anything else.
Reaching down, I took her hand, turning a bit to whisper in a soft, barely audible voice. “I’m here.”
She looked up at me with those big, innocent eyes. Her voice shook. “Wh-what if…. Wh-wha… what if….”
What if they don’t like me, what if they’re mean, what if they’re nasty, what if, what if, what if. I knew everything that was going through her head. With a slight smile, I squeezed her hand once more, repeating, “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. I won’t leave you, okay? We’re just gonna listen to Athena’s story.”
She hesitated, obviously still a little nervous. But the reassurance worked, and Tabbris gave a little nod. Together, the two of us walked over to one of the desks there, beside those four. I sat first, and Tabbris went up on my lap.
For a few seconds, the four Seosten kids said nothing. They just stared at us. Finally, the youngest looking one, a pretty little girl with black hair that was worn just past her shoulders and a vaguely Asian-look, spoke up. “Hi,” she announced. “My name is Kisea.” She pronounced it ‘Kih-Say-uh.’
My little partner glanced to me briefly before nervously offering, “T.. Tabbris.”
“Tabbris?” That was the oldest looking boy. He suddenly looked interested. “As in Tabbris of Llylewys? Oh, uh, Richton. That’s my sister, Meley.” He nodded to the brunette girl beside him who looked just a little younger. “And that’s Demeas.” Finally, he gestured to the other boy, a red-head who kind of looked like a miniature viking.
The others murmured greetings, and Richton pressed, “So you were named after that Tabbris?”
“I um.” Tabbris squirmed a little before nodding. “I… guess so. I don’t really know anything about him except what A-Athena said a few minutes ago…”
“Oh, that’s okay. I’ve–”
“–got a book about it,” the other three Seosten chorused together, as if they’d heard the same thing a million times.
Huffing a little, Richton sat up straighter, shooting a look at his three companions before pointedly adding, “You can borrow it anytime you want to.”
“Ahem.” Athena cleared her throat from the front of the class. Everyone’s eyes turned that way, and I felt the girl on my lap relax just a little bit. She stole a glance at the other Seosten kids as Athena began her story, clearly fascinated by them.
It was a smart way of doing things. This way, we were seated near them, but with Athena speaking, there was no real pressure for them to do a lot of talking or interaction. They could just sit and look at each other once in awhile. It broke the ice. It let us gradually integrate a little.
“This,” Athena began in a voice that seemed so perfectly suited to narration that I wondered if she was the one who had given lessons to Morgan Freeman, “is the story of how the Seosten first discovered humans, and how our ever-evolving relationship with them truly began. And, of course, it is the story of the Seosten who would go on to be known as gods on that world.
“This is the true history and origin of the Olympians.”