We appeared at the back of what looked like an ordinary auditorium or theater. Rows upon rows of seats stretched out on either side of the narrow aisle we were in, leading down toward a large stage. Our seating area was the fourth from the left wall, with one more section to the right. In those other sections were more people of varying age groups, younger to the left and older to the right. Everyone was being directed to find seats.
“Well, hello again.” The voice came from a man stepping in front of our little group, a familiar figure, with a scruffy, unshaven face, unkempt blond hair, and a pinstripe suit.
“Mr. Reinswield!” Tabbris blurted, quickly jumping that way to embrace the man. “Hiya!”
Sure enough, it was the former Eden’s Garden Heretic-turned-teacher we had met during our last stay here. The man looked surprised, but returned the embrace, murmuring, “You seem a bit more comfortable in your own skin, puella.”
“We found Mama,” Tabbris declared with a bright smile.
The man returned her smile, squeezing her again. “Well, that is very good news. But come, we can catch up later. Let’s find some seats for you before this assembly gets started.”
He guided us to a row of empty chairs, and everyone began filing in to sit down. I stayed back, however, waving for the others to go on. My gaze was centered on the man, as I swallowed hard. “Sir,” I started quietly, “I’m really sorry. I… I asked my friend from Eden’s Garden if she knew anything about a Sonya Eulcid, your… your old student, but she didn’t have a chance to ask around before… before she had to leave.” My head shook guiltily. This was the girl he had gotten himself banished to Seosten space by trying to stop her being being turned into a Heretic and losing her innocence when he was posing as a Bystander teacher. No excuse for still not finding out what happened to her felt good enough. “And things have been so busy all this time that–”
He held up a hand to stop me. “I understand, Flick. Trust me, I do. And now we’ve made it back to Earth. We’re here. If Sonya is alive… I will find her.” His gaze met mine with a wince. “Though it has been so long since I have been here that… some help in that regard might be useful. I’m afraid I don’t know anything about Earth in the decades since my disappearance.”
My head bobbed rapidly. “Of course. Anything. I’ll help you find her. So will Miranda, I know. We talked about it, we just… there wasn’t a way to…” Shaking that off, I waved a hand while pushing on. “We’ll find her. Seller can probably help, he’s my ancestor and knows a lot about–”
“The sellsword?” Mr. Rienswield raised an eyebrow. “He is your… interesting.” For a second, it looked like he was about to say something else. But in the end, the man just raised a hand to gesture to the seats where the others were. “Yes, we’ll talk about it soon. I may even be able to find answers among my new colleagues here. But for now, I know your sister is quite eager to ensure this presentation comes off without a hitch.” He offered me a wink. “Let’s not add to her nerves by throwing hitches onto the stage before anything even starts, hmm?”
It was hard for me to imagine Abigail ever being nervous. At least, not in a situation like this. In a fight maybe, or worried about her daughter or me… yeah. But nervous about talking to a bunch of students? Still, I nodded and squeezed in to find my seat by Avalon. Tabbris took the seat on the other side of me, with Shiori by her. There was enough space in front of us to put our bags down, most likely to accommodate various-sized species. Plus, when I actually sat, the chair itself adjusted to fit me perfectly. Looking around, I saw larger beings, Alters who were bigger than an average human, on seats that had grown to match. Giving a quick look around, I could see just how… eclectic of a population we had in this auditorium. True, it was about three-quarters human or human-passing, a mix of Bosch/Natural Heretics and Alters who didn’t stand out. But it was also one quarter Alters who could not have passed as human without the Bystander Effect. Beings of all different shapes and sizes scattered in groups throughout the room. They bunched up together, some clearly making a point of staying away from Bosch Heretics. And, of course, there were plenty of Heretics who were staying away from Alters. Even though we’d all chosen this side, that didn’t mean everyone was instantly comfortable with each other. Crossroads and Eden’s Garden Heretics were the boogeymen for entire generations worth of Alters. And Alters had been the ‘evil monsters out to destroy humanity’ for Bosch Heretics for hundreds of years too. This was… definitely going to take time. But that was a big part of what the whole school thing was for, to get us interacting in a… closer to casual environment. In between all the violent life and death stuff happening back on Earth.
Reaching down to my bag, I opened up the side pocket, taking out Jaq and Gus before setting them on my shoulders so they could look around. Then I produced Herbie, letting him sit on the armrest. Once he was arranged and comfortable, I looked over to Avalon. She had Porthos out, though he was down on the floor having what appeared to be an intense conversation with Choo, who by that point was as large as a normal warthog. His growth was also supposed to accelerate even more around now, apparently. In another month or so, he’d be as tall as I was. It was hard to imagine the tiny sneezing electric-pig as this big, dangerous figure. And also weird to think that there were several more smaller Choos stacked up inside of him, nesting doll-style.
Just another example of the fact that things had changed. And were still changing.I didn’t know what was going to happen this year. But if it was anything even remotely like last year… yeah, I would have to enjoy the relative calm while I had the chance.
“Everything okay?” Shiori asked in a whisper, leaning over to rub Herbie gently.
I nodded. “Yeah, I just… that’s Mr. Reinswield, the guy I told you about. And I never found out what happened to Sonya Eulcid, that girl he wanted us to look for.”
Overhearing that, Miranda, who was seated on the far side of Avalon, leaned forward and looked down at me. “I can ask around, find out if she’s part of the group that rebelled. I probably should’ve done that already, it’s just–”
“We’ve been busy, yeah.” Grimacing, I nodded. “Can you just check next chance you get? She’d be way too old to be part of this whole school thing, but maybe she’s still out there and has a kid or something here.”
The other girl agreed, just as the lights on the stage came up, while the ones over the audience dimmed a fair bit. Apparently the introduction and orientation speeches were about to start.
Focusing on the stage, I saw some teachers from Crossroads. Not just the ones from the first year, but a few from higher years too. And there was Hisao, standing by a few other Heretics he was quietly talking to. I was guessing they, like him, were the ones from Eden’s Garden.
Of course, there were also Alter teachers, both ones that had been here already and a couple who had been recruited from on-world, thanks to both Wonderland and Prosser’s people.
Basically, we had a lot of different teachers from a lot of different groups, to go with all the different students.
Oh, and Abigail, of course. She stood there on the stage, deep in private conversation with Professor Dare, Miss Handsy (the school administrator lady whose body consisted of a green flesh ball with a bunch of tentacles stretching out in every direction to act as both arms and legs, with a smaller ball for her head connected to the larger one), and one of the Eden’s Garden teachers. With the lights down over the audience, all the attention was on that stage. Abigail glanced our way, said something else to the others, and then stepped up to the front. Her mouth opened, before she stopped herself and reached into her pocket to produce a small light blue rock, which she spoke a word into. The spell on it glowed briefly before fading.
“Good morning,” Abigail started again, her voice magically magnified to fill the room. “Err, wow. Wow, that’s pretty cool, isn’t it? Good morning–orning–ning…” Making her own echo while a few people snickered and others just stared, she shook her head. “Magic. It uhh, it still takes me by surprise sometimes. Mostly because I only found out it existed a… less than a year ago. It’s still very new to me. All of this is. I’m still a beginner in… every sense of the word.”
There were some audible murmurs to that, which Abigail allowed for a few seconds before speaking up again. “Then why am I the one standing here talking as though I have any authority? Why am I talking to you instead of any of these people behind me who all know a lot more than I do about all of this?”
Watching the general agreement with her questions, my big sister added, “For that matter, you all already have so much to grow into here. You’re sitting in this room alongside people you would have run from, hunted, fought, even killed just a few months ago. Many of you have been told your whole lives that the people sitting ten feet away from you right now were monsters. Some of you have lived in fear of being hunted and killed since the day you were born. And now in these past few months, you’ve been told that we, together, are going to try a different way. You Heretics have been told that your entire society, everything you are, has been manipulated; that while you have done a lot of good, others used and manipulated you to make you into the very monsters that you were trying to protect the innocents from. You’ve all been told that everything you know, everything that has been fact for you since before the United States even existed, is changing.
“In just these short few months, you have all been trying to understand this, trying to come to terms with it. And now you’re here, expected to live and learn and even fight alongside people who have been your enemies for generations. That is so much to ask of any of you. But you’re here. You came to try. But now you get here, you’re among these people, many of whom make you uncomfortable, or even afraid. And you look up here, and you see the person talking to you has barely even known anything of your society, of your existence, for less than a year? Why am I here? What could I possibly present to you that wouldn’t be better coming from someone who has understood you for so much longer? After all, I’m barely even a Heretic. I don’t fight. I barely have any power at all. I’m one step removed from a total Bystander.”
From where he was sitting a bit further down the line, Jason whispered, “Is she trying to talk herself out of this job, or something?”
Smiling a little to myself, I quietly replied, “Just wait for it.”
Abigail let whispers like that go on for another few seconds before she spoke again. “But here’s the thing. That’s exactly why I’m here. Because I didn’t grow up in this society, in this world. I am not here in spite of the fact that I am a terrible Heretic, I am here because I’m a terrible Heretic. I don’t know much about fighting. Almost nothing, really. To the chagrin of my colleagues, I assure you. But I know about learning. I know about injustice, about righting it, and about making others understand it. You do not need the person in charge of this school to be a warrior. You don’t. As I said, that’s what all these people behind me are for. Your principal does not need to be a demigod. She needs to be a principal. That’s headmistress for those of you who might be confused right now. But please don’t call me that, because it makes me feel uncomfortably like I’ve stepped into a Harry Potter fan fiction. And let’s be honest, this entire thing is kind of teetering on the edge of that as it is.
“I am Principal Fellows. I’m here to organize your teachers, to be the person who talks without any previous personal history in your society. I’m here to teach you, to learn from you, and to listen to you. I’m here to ensure fairness and justice for everyone, Alter, Bosch, or Natural.”
Visibly considering that for a moment, Abigail shrugged. “Besides, considering everything I just said about this being new to everyone, I guess it just fits the theme to have someone who is new to all of it anyway. You all have history. Learn from it, grow from it, but do not allow it to dictate your future. There’s a lot of dirt in everyone’s pasts here. You can use that dirt to bury this whole thing that we’re trying to do. Or you can use it to grow the seed we’ve got into something truly beautiful. It’s up to each of you.”
Asenath appeared then, stepping across the stage to whisper something in Abigail’s ear. The other woman looked to her, nodded, then turned back to us. “And now that I have… hopefully successfully talked myself out of and then back into this job, we’ll discuss a few particulars.
“First, you are all being initially grouped by general age level. If you are of a species that matures slower or faster than humans, we have attempted through discussions with you and others of your kind to put you into the appropriate group. Those who are more experienced than their age group generally is may test into higher groups. But do not attempt this lightly, because you will be judged by several critical eyes, in subjects including your physical, magical, and mental faculties.”
Tabbris nudged me at that, and I smiled a bit before nodding. We’d already gone through arranging for her to live with me, though she was going to be visiting and learning with the younger groups too, just to have time with people her own age.
Abigail was still explaining. “Our groups begin at age twelve, and each covers two years, up through twenty and twenty-one year olds. Five age groups, which is how you’re sitting right now. If you are in the first two sections here, those who will be twelve and thirteen by December thirty-first, and those who will be fourteen and fifteen, please stand up.” Abigail waited for those first two sections to rise, before explaining, “You are part of our trainee program. For now, please follow Miss Senny here to your dorms, where more will be explained and you can drop off your bags and get settled in. Staff members will be happy to answer more questions throughout the day, and we will all discuss this more at supper this evening.” She indicated Asenath, who descended the stage to lead the first couple groups out.
Once they were gone, Abigail focused on the third section. “Next, our students who will be sixteen and seventeen years old this year. You will also live in dorms, but separate from the younger groups, as your training and education requirements are different. You may also, if you wish, participate in certain low-danger missions for–” At that point, she had to stop talking for a moment because of the whoops and cheers going up from that middle section. A few quiet words from the staff members in the aisles there quieted the students, and Abigail continued. “That is, if you wish and if your staff mentors sign off on you. These will be missions of mercy, helping those who need us.
“Now, please follow Hisao, the nice gentleman standing right there, to your dorms, where you will be given more information. As I said, use the rest of the day to get settled in and direct any questions you might have to your staff advisers. We will meet again for dinner, and classes will begin tomorrow.”
She started to move on, but one of the students from that section raised a hand and blurted in a loud voice that carried really well, “What about those of us that are still human and were supposed to get to visit the Edge this year? Are we just boned?”
A small smile touched Abigail’s face then before she shook her head. “No, you’re not ‘boned’. We have plans to assist all interested human students with potential Natural bonding. Ideally, this will happen when you are younger in order to allow a longer bonding process. But it will work here as well. As I said, there will be details when you reach your dorm. You’ll be able to sign up to match with Alters who have volunteered to help bond with others like you.”
With that, Hisao led that group out, leaving two more. Ours and the twenty and twenty-one-year-olds. Once it was just us, Abigial focused our way. “And finally, our adults. Or those who will be adults within the next couple of months.” She smiled just a little, a goofy gesture that vanished a moment later. “Instead of dorms, you will live in houses in one of this station’s… neighborhoods. You will be assigned your house to live in, but if you and another person would like to change places, you may do so if both of you agree. Generally, each house will have ten people living in it. These will be a mixture of Alters and Heretics. If there are problems that simply cannot be settled, we will assign people to new homes. But do try to remember that our entire goal here is for everyone to learn to live in harmony together.
“As with the group before, you will be allowed to participate in voluntary aid missions, as well as combat missions for those who have passed a certain level of training and psychological certifications, both of which will be tested and renewed once per month and also at the discretion of faculty. But beyond simply passing your training and psychological evaluations, you must also keep up with your schoolwork. Yes, school even for you, though not quite as long. Generally, your school days will last from nine in the morning until lunch, one hour for each of the three classes you will have each day. Then you will have lunch, followed by training and any missions that have been requested or volunteered for. Again, your participation in these missions is not required in any way, shape, or form. They are not mandatory and never will be. And you may opt out of any. But if you do wish to participate, you must keep up your schoolwork, and pass your evaluations.”
Raising both hands to forestall all the hands (and tentacles and claws and hooves and… more) that were going up, Abigail assured everyone, “I know, I know, you all have questions. We’ll get to them, I promise. Let’s try to get everyone to your houses so you can put your stuff away and get settled in, like the younger groups. Professor Dare and Kaev here will lead you out.” For the latter name (which was pronounced Cave), she indicated a green gelatinous figure who looked a lot like a full adult-sized version of the Flubber figure from that old Robin Williams movie.
Dare and that Kaev (I wasn’t sure if they were male or female, or if it mattered) left the stage, walking up the aisles. Well, Dare walked. Kaev sorta… bounced. It was like he or… she or… they were on one of those toys where you sit on the ball and hop with it. Complete with an audible ‘boing’ after each motion.
Looking over to Tabbris and the others, I shrugged. “Well, I guess we should go see our new home, huh?
“Let’s hope we don’t end up going to war against this one too.”