After all the ridiculousness of that, my next class was Calculus. Which I didn’t mind too much, actually. Sure, math was never going to be my absolute favorite subject, even back in normal, mundane school. But it was important for working out a lot of the more complicated spells. Yeah, some of that stuff required a lot of incredibly involved measurements and calculations about various aspects of the item you were enchanting, where you were, how much it was supposed to affect, and so on and so forth. Math was important for all of that stuff.
But even more than that, it was a chance to settle down and relax after the chaos of Sinbad’s class. I could sit there at my desk, listen to the teacher (a man named Ambrose Keaton, from Eden’s Garden), and just passively take in his lesson. He was a black guy, only a couple inches taller than me and a little on the heavier side, though I was pretty sure a lot of that was muscle. He wore an old-fashioned set of clothes from the 1800s, with the whole trousers, silk shirt waistcoat, very loose-fitting bow tie, long, loose jacket, and boots. Oh, andit a snazzy-looking top hat, of course. It almost seemed as though he had just stepped out of a period-piece movie or something. Aside from the fact that he wore very modern (and quite cool-looking) sunglasses, and had a distinctly non-period cellphone sticking part of the way out of his front jacket pocket.
He was also a pretty damn good math teacher. He took the time to explain things pretty well, and related the stuff he was talking about to situations in the real world, rather than leaving it all as numbers on the board. The man had a very engaging personality, unlike the stereotypical math teacher. He knew everyone’s name and a few things about them that he could talk about and relate to the lesson, despite this group apparently only having had a couple classes before this one.
“So, when you get down to it,” Ambrose was saying as he paced through the aisles between our desks, “calculus is really a building block or a tool that can be used to make almost anything you do that involves numbers much more efficient, or even safe. People designing buildings or bridges use it to determine the precise measurements within the structure, or how much force and weight it can support. You need a firm understanding of calculus to really know how the forces acting on your structure are going to affect it. Or let’s say you’re at a Bystander amusement park and you’ve been put in charge of the concessions. You need to know how many hot dogs, buns, pretzels, cups, napkins, bags of cotton candy, gallons of ice cream, and everything else you need to purchase for a given stretch of time. You buy too little, you’re going to end up with guests who are annoyed and might not come back. That hurts the park’s bottom line. But if you buy too much, that stuff can go bad and you’ve just wasted money. A good understanding of calculus can help you make those choices. It’s not perfect, but it can help.”
Travis Colby, one of my old Bystander-kin classmates from Crossroads, raised his hand. “Uh, don’t take this the wrong way, but why would we be designing buildings or running a theme park? I mean, we all know what we’re doing after these classes. We’re fighting monsters. And uhh,” he quickly amended, “by monsters, I mean anyone who acts like one or… you know, does monstrous things.” The boy fumbled his words a little at the end before lifting his chin toward the young orc teenager sitting beside him. “The bad guys, I mean.”
“Yeah,” the orc agreed with a broad smile before holding out his fist. “We squish bad guys.”
Travis, in turn, gave him a fist bump before looking back to Ambrose. “You know what I mean, dude. It’s not like we’re going to go out in the mundane world and get normal jobs.”
Ambrose was quiet for a moment after that. He seemed to be considering those words before casually replying, “You can if you want to.” After exhaling slowly, the man walked to Travis’s desk, though he was clearly addressing all of us. “Here’s what I want to make very clear today, and through the rest of this class. You are allowed to become whatever you want. If you get through this school and go on to become a heroic slayer of evil and champion of all that is good, that’s great. But if you decide to become an artist, or an author, or a chef, or even run the concessions at an amusement park, that’s fine too. Your life… is your life. You do not owe anybody your life, certainly not me or any of your other teachers here at this school. Become what you choose to. Put your life toward what will be most fulfilling to you. For many of you, that will be continuing to actively fight. For others, you may decide to take a backseat to things and only… go into action when absolutely necessary, to protect others you see who are in immediate danger. And that is fine. That is absolutely a valid choice, which no one should fault you for. And even if they do, ignore them. Because again, your life is your life, no one else’s.”
“That’s not really true for the rest of us, is it?” The new voice came from a corner of the room, where my quiet, anti-social Relukun housemate, Kersel, sat. The wooden boy shifted in his seat as everyone looked at him, his gaze firmly locked on our teacher. “I mean yeah, sure, these guys… your human students, they can do whatever they want. They can go ahead and ignore all of it if they want to. No bark off their back. Some of us have to live in a world where we could be hunted down and killed any day. Oh sure, I’ll go run an amusement park, and pray every day that none of their bloodthirsty, psychotic friends come through, see what I am, and fucking murder me and everyone I care about. That sounds like a great life to have. Sign me up.”
Several people in the class started to respond, but Ambrose held up a hand for them to stop. He nodded to Kersel then. “You’re absolutely right. It is a lot more dangerous out in the regular world for you and others like you. It shouldn’t be, but that is the reality of the situation. We will fight to change that. Others will simply attempt to create a better world by living in it. Remember what I said before about people who could choose to fight only when they had to? That applies here. Say you do take that job at the amusement park. And then someone comes through and tries to kill you for being what you are. But you don’t have to fight them off alone, because one of the ticket-takers, an accountant in the back office, a guy in a mascot costume, and the woman fixing a broken ride all jump in and help protect you. Because they’re all trained people living their own lives, just like you.”
That said, the man gazed around to the rest of us. “I’m not saying you forget everything you know. And I’m definitely not saying that all the problems in the world will go away just because you want to live as normal of a life as possible. What I’m saying is that it is not impossible for you to protect one area. It is not wrong for you to choose to put yourself into a normal job, and then step in only when you need to. Find others like you, who can help create a small area within the world where people who would be hunted can be safe. Find those who don’t set off the Stranger sense and put them at the entrance so they can warn those who do when there’s trouble coming. Create escape routes and plan for problems. Work together to create the sort of world that all people can live in. You fix the world by living in it, by making it better so that those who would drag people down into the filth where they thrive are left behind. You will never truly beat that sort of ideology by hitting it with a sword. You beat it by creating an environment in which it cannot exist.”
With that, he tapped one of the nearby desks a couple times pointedly. “That, my friends, is what this class is about. That is what calculus is. It is using what we know, to calculate what we want. It is not simply passively accepting the reality of the situation, but learning how to use that reality to create incredible things. Math is the world and everything in it. Learn to use that math, make it work for you, and you might not be able to build a better world. But you can certainly build a better piece of it.
“Now, let’s talk about a man named Pythagoras. Maybe you’ll even get to meet him someday.”
After that class, it was time for lunch. Which I had in the cafeteria with Shiori, Avalon, Columbus, Roxa, Doug, and May. Most of us were eagerly devouring the meals in front of us, after hours of classwork, while Doug questioned May about anything she might’ve known about the so-called Whispers, as well as the Pale Ship and the original Tabbris. Yeah, he wasn’t exactly going to let that sort of thing go, especially not when he had a Seosten right there to interrogate.
Unfortunately, May didn’t really know much about any of it. Nothing about the Whispers, of course. And not much as far as the other two things went. She just said that it had never been a subject she was interested in. Nor was April, apparently, though she was busy helping one of their classmates with something back in one of the science labs.
Stabbing a fork into a potato, Doug asked, “Do you know anyone in your group who might know more about that stuff? He hesitated before adding, “I mean, it seems to me like other Seosten tend to ignore you guys a lot. You blend into the background whenever they aren’t putting you to work. Plus, you like… work for one of their big scientists.”
“We will not betray Cahethal,” May immediately put in, sitting up a bit straighter in her chair.
Roxa quickly spoke up. “He’s not talking about betraying anyone, just sharing any information any of you might have about this situation that could maybe lead to answers for everyone. I mean, your boss would probably like it if you found out more about the Pale Ship, or these Whispers, right? She seems like the type to want an explanation for all that.”
Doug nodded. “What she said. I’m not saying you should keep anything a secret from your boss. Go ahead and tell her whatever you want. But it seems like sharing information would be the best way to go for all of us, you know?”
I spoke up. “Yeah, I mean, one side having part of the story, the other side having another part, and nobody sharing anything is basically a recipe for neither side to ever figure out the truth.”
“If this truce is going to go beyond a year, into a real alliance,” Avalon quietly reminded the girl, “we need to get used to sharing things with each other. And trusting each other.”
May looked at her in silence for a moment. From the look on her face, she understood just what it meant for Avalon to say something like that, given everything the Seosten had put her through. Not only her, but her entire bloodline. After all the pain and death they were responsible for, just within Avalon’s own life, her being the one to say we needed to work together meant a lot. May clearly understood that, taking a few seconds to let it actually sink in before speaking carefully. “You have a point.” She paused after admitting that, then gave a short nod. “I believe there may be one member of the Calendar who knows something, but I won’t say anything else until I speak with them and see if they are comfortable with talking about it. Is that acceptable?”
Doug had just started to agree that it was, when Shiloh approached. “Is what acceptable? Hey, May.” She offered the Seosten girl a smile, before shifting a little awkwardly as though realizing she had just interrupted something and suddenly wondering if that was bad.
“Hey, Shy Two,” Shiori immediately spoke up while gesturing. “Come on, sit with us.”
Shiloh immediately snickered with a look of visible relief that crossed her face before she stepped over to take the seat across from her (and next to May). “Thanks, Shy One,” she cheerfully noted, setting her plate down.
“They figured out they both have the same nickname,” Columbus informed me. “It’s been a lot of this ever since.”
Roxa held up a hand while rapidly chewing the enormous mouthful of burger she had just taken. It was so much meat her cheeks bulged out, and took several seconds for the girl to manage to get it down. Finally, she spoke up. “At least Shy makes sense for someone named Shiloh. Shiori is like… She-Or-Eee. How do you get Shy out of that?”
Shiori shrugged as everyone looked to her for an explanation, while gesturing toward Columbus. “Ask my brother over there. He started it. Then it just stuck.”
Columbus, in turn, made a clearly exaggerated harrumphing sound. “Come on, it’s not that weird. People have shortened versions of their names that don’t phonetically line up perfectly all the time.” He waved it off then. “Anyway, someone tell Shy Two what we’re talking about.”
So, I did just that. Over the next couple of minutes, I gave the other girl a quick rundown about the situation, telling her as much as I could in that brief time without getting too confusing or detailed about it. Honestly, it still felt strange to talk so openly about stuff that I would have had to obsessively keep secret the year before. I barely knew Shiloh (though clearly she had spent some more time with the others here while I had been gone), and yet I could just… talk about that stuff with her. I didn’t have to be paranoid that she was going to expose what we knew. That ship had sailed.
It was definitely a different experience, but I wasn’t complaining. God, was I ever not complaining. I could not even begin to describe how much better it felt to be able to just talk openly about this stuff, without using a bunch of privacy spells and being paranoid that any given person might be listening in. We could just tell Shiloh the truth. Sure, she might lack some of the context or be confused about a lot. But we could explain it. That was just… awesome.
Once I was done, and the others had piped up with their own input, Shiloh herself seemed to take a few long seconds processing the whole thing. Finally, she offered, “So the adults–I mean the older adults, they’re looking for that Occillo troll guy and whoever he was working with?”
I nodded. “Yeah, they found out where the guy was living on that station, at least back then. They’re gonna send some people to check it out. I mean, they’re probably not dumb enough to still be there, but maybe there’s some clues about who the other guy is or where they went.”
With a curious, thoughtful frown, the shaggy-haired brunette offered a hesitant, “Why don’t you ask around the station here about him? I mean, a lot of the people here come from out in that space, or at least they’ve spent a lot of time there. Or even just know people who have. This guy, he’s a genius-level troll Indiana Jones explorer. That has to stand out even in a giant universe. Maybe someone around here has heard of him. At least enough to get more information, you know?” She paused slightly before adding, “You don’t have to keep everything secret anymore, you might as well take advantage of that and find out what people know.”
Yeah, she definitely had a point there. Maybe no one would actually know the guy, but on the off-chance that they did, it was worth asking about. “Besides,” I put in, “even if no one’s heard of him, they might know about that station, or even have someone there who could talk to whoever gets sent out to it.”
Shiloh seemed relieved that we weren’t dismissing what she said, offering me a quick, slightly nervous smile. “Yeah, just like that. See, you can just, you know, use what you’ve got around here.” After another brief hesitation, she offered, “I could ask a few people about that if you want.” Quickly, the girl explained, “I’ve sorta been talking to a lot of people around the station for that book of stories I wanna write. You know, the stories about other worlds? So, yeah, if you want, I could see if any of those people I’ve talked to, um, know anything.” She was shifting a bit uncomfortable from the attention of everyone, looking down as she poked at the food on her plate. “Or I can just leave it alone.” She mumbled that last part under her breath.
“Dude, are you kidding?” I immediately insisted. “If you’ve got contacts who could maybe help find out anything about this guy, go for it. No way are we going to turn down actual help.”
The others made sounds of agreement with that, before May noted, “It would be a waste to ignore a potential resource.”
“Yeah?” Shiloh looked up, offering a slightly… well, shy smile at the Seosten girl as her uneven bangs covered part of her eyes. “Do you want to maybe walk around with me and talk to them? It might be nice to have some company, you know. Or umm, in case I forget any of the details. You’re–you have a really good memory and all. I mean, I could write it down, or record it, or–it’s no big deal. Don’t worry about it, you don’t have to come with me.” Her head shook rapidly to dismiss the thought.
May hesitated before offering a flat, “I am Seosten and a… I am affected by Anima Catenata.”
The rest of us, including Shiloh, looked at each other in confusion before Columbus asked, “Anima what now?”
“Chained soul,” I mentally translated after a second. “Oh, wait, is that what you call… you know, SPS?”
The Asian-looking Seosten gave a very slight nod. “That is the formal, technical name for the condition from long ago, before such… prejudice was associated with it. When the condition was being diagnosed. It is rarely used now, simply because there is no need to. We are not Seosten with the condition of Anima Catenata. We are simply Mendacia, to them.”
With that, she looked at Shiloh. “That is what I was saying. Other species here may dislike me for being too Seosten. Seosten themselves may dislike me for not being Seosten enough. Having me walk with you to these discussions may be more of a handicap than an aid.”
My mouth opened to say something, but Shiloh beat me to the punch. “Dude, they’ll get over it. And if they don’t, screw them. This whole school is supposed to be about learning to work together and accept others, right? I mean, that’s what the entire truce is about too.”
“That… is true,” May agreed. “Very well, if you like, I shall accompany you to speak to your contacts.”
“Good,” Avalon announced, “and now that that’s settled, we can talk about what else is going on this afternoon.”
Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “What else is going on this afternoon?”
She, in turn, offered me a slightly feral smile. “You’ve gotten away without training long enough.”
“Oh.” Flushing a little, I insisted. “I promise I did a lot of training the whole time. Live action, very intense training. Lots of it.”
“Good,” she replied, clearly not dissuaded in the slightest. “Then it won’t be a shock to your system to get back to something a little more organized.”
With an audible snicker, Roxa spoke up. “Be afraid, Flick. She’s been planning out how to run you ragged and work through that stamina of yours for awhile. Something about making sure you’re ready the next time anything bad happens.”
“Yup,” Shiori confirmed. “And she had the rest of us help her perfect the system.”
“Oh boy,” I managed in a slightly weak voice. “I guess the welcome home vacation is officially over, huh?” Still, despite my words, I met Valley’s gaze and the two of us smiled at one another. This, I knew, was precisely how Avalon showed that she cared. By working me to the bone. The more she cared about someone, the more she pushed them to work harder. She demonstrated affection through being a demanding taskmaster.
And lucky me, as I found out over the next couple hours, she was apparently feeling very affectionate.