Miss Handsy

Fusion 1-03 (Heretical Edge 2)

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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.”

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Lessons 32-04

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Before starting with that promised training, however, we had to eat. After everything that we had been through, I was seriously starving. I had to think back to the last time I had eaten something, which made me remember just how much had happened. Everything, from getting to the Kenkean planet, tracking down and fighting Isaac, fighting that delaying action against the Seosten army until Radueriel had shown up and then getting myself stranded there, only for Athena to show up and end up bringing me here had all been… just a couple hours, really.

Generally speaking, if describing everything that happened to you in the course of a couple hours turned into what looked a run-on sentence, there was probably entirely too much happening in your life. I needed a break, badly. Actually, what I really needed was Valley and Shiori, my dad, the rest of my team, my new (much older) brother and sister, and while I was throwing dreams in the air, my mom. But I was going to have to settle for lunch. Or dinner.

With the class ended for the time being, Athena stepped back and let all those Alter kids lead Tabbris and me out of the room and down the corridor back past Miss Handsy’s office (she called out greetings to us and everyone else as we passed) to the opposite hallway where there was a door leading into an open cafeteria that could have been in any middle school on Earth, if a bit outdated (and honestly, what schools weren’t?). Clearly, Mr. Reinswield had had a big say in how the school was set up. I wondered what his story was, how long ago he’d ended up out here and why. Actually, I had lots of questions in general. Which was pretty par for the course.

Actually, looking closer, there was a bit of a difference in this cafeteria compared to others. This one had tables and chairs of many different sizes. There were big stone-looking seats that looked too heavy for even me to lift, all the way down to tiny doll-sized seats for the pixies.

The whole time we were walking, Tabbris stayed right next to me, her hand in mine. She looked around a lot, continually peeking at the other Seosten kids. They, in turn, kept looking over at her. But they didn’t push or anything. They did, however, point to a table in the corner as we entered the cafeteria. “Come on!” the oldest boy, Richton, called while hurrying that way. “First to silence, first to order!” It sounded like he was quoting an often-repeated phrase. And sure enough, I could see all the other students, including a bunch more who had come out of other classrooms, all hurrying to their own various tables and getting seated as quickly as they could.

It wasn’t just the four Seosten that came with us. The magma kid with the pretty voice and a girl with sleek, dark red fur with a little bit of white mixed in, bunny ears, and a fox-like face accompanied us as well. The magma Alter reached out as we passed one of those big stone chair, hefting it up to carry with before setting it at the table while everyone else took the regular seats. All around us, I could hear other students shushing one another as they sat down.

With a shrug at Tabbris, I promptly sat at the table just to the left of the red fox girl, with Tabbris to my left and Kisea, the vaguely Asian-looking Seosten kid sitting to her left. Going the rest of the way around the table in that direction were Richton, his little sister Meley, then the magma kid, and finally the miniature viking-looking Seosten kid, Demeas, right next to the fox girl.

Once we were all seated, the rest of the kids put their hands flat on the table, sitting up straight in their seats while staying quiet. I saw several of them casting pleading looks our way, so I took the hint and did the same. Laying my hands on the table, I sat up in the seat while Tabbris followed suit. As soon as we did, a small green light appeared in the center of the otherwise white table. It blinked twice, then turned into the number three. Seeing that, the rest of the kids around the table smiled, but didn’t make any other noise. They stayed as still as possible.

A couple tables away, I heard a kid whisper, “Two.” That was followed by a couple frantic hisses for silence, before there was a quiet buzz. Our three promptly turned into a two, and there were even more smiles around the table. Meanwhile, over at the table where the whispering had happened, I caught a glimpse of their former two becoming a three in return. 

Right, so obviously the numbers were the order in which tables would be served (or rather, allowed to order, as Richton had said). As soon as everyone got to a table and sat silently with their hands on it, it gave that table the next number in line. But if you made noise after that (I was assuming up until everyone in the room was seated or something), your table switched spots with the next table after you. So if your table was originally fourth, making noise would make the fifth table become the fourth and yours would become the fifth. Fair enough, if kind of strict. It did neatly encourage everyone to get to their tables quickly and quietly, at least. Though I wasn’t sure which aspect of it did so more, the idea of getting food sooner, or competing with the other tables to do so. Whoever had come up with this whole thing had managed to find a way to gamify getting kids to be quiet and respectful. That took some serious talent.

Eventually, everyone seemed to be seated and ready. It looked like there were about three or four hundred students in here, all of them between ages nine up to about twelve or thirteen.

Almost the very second that I noticed that the tables were all full, a door at the back of the room opened and a portly man emerged. His body was as round as a beach ball, with dark green skin, four arms, and a long, luxurious mane of black hair. His eyes were bright red, and were almost all pupil with very little visible white to them. He wore black slacks and an almost blindingly pink, frilly shirt. “Yes, yes, children!” The round man called while making his way through the room, slipping between tables with surprising grace considering his size and shape, “very good, very quiet. Let’s not make you wait long, hmm? Just a little patience, my troopers!”

He reached the middle of the room then, clapping two of his hands. “Okay, number one!”

A bright green light appeared right over one of the tables in the distance, and everyone’s attention turned that way, including the round man’s. As soon as his eyes turned to them, each of the kids there began to take turns saying words that I didn’t understand at all. Belatedly and only through context, I realized that they each naming foods, telling the man what they wanted. He just stood there, nodding after each one without writing it down or saying anything else before he would turn his gaze to the next student.

Beside me, the little red fox-bunny girl whispered, “We’re allowed to talk very quietly while other people are ordering, as long it’s not too loud or disruptive.” She looked at me with these adorable amber eyes, snout twitching a little bit as she introduced herself. “My name is Bandy.”

“Hi, Bandy,” I whispered back. “I’m Flick. And-” I started to introduce my partner before pausing. Given how little chance she had out on her own, maybe giving her a chance to speak for herself would be good. So instead of actually speaking, I just nodded to her and smiled.

“Uh-um.” For one brief moment, it seemed like the poor girl had actually forgotten her own name. Which was doubly bad when the Seosten perfect memory was accounted for. She froze up, looking like a deer in headlights for a second before managing, “T-Tabbris. I’m Tabbris.”

“And I’m Reft,” the magma kid put in. There was a bit more visible lava around the lower part of his face, which I belatedly realized was his version of a smile. “How’re you doing?” As he spoke, the boy extended his hand. When I hesitated, he chuckled (a noise that sounded like softly ringing bells) and shook his head. “It’s alright. I can control how much heat I’m giving off. They just have me sit in the rock chair because it’s more comfortable. Doesn’t feel like I’m about to break it with my big fat butt.” Even as he said that, Reft gave another melodic laugh while all the visible lava on his hand was sealed over by the black rocky shell. That was his body, a mixture of semi-solid lava that stayed in place, and a dark, rock-like substance. Both seemed to shift almost randomly most of the time, the lava almost… flowing along the shape of his body.

Deciding to take the boy’s word for it, I accepted his outstretched hand. It was definitely warm, right on the verge of being uncomfortably so, but not quite. As I shook his hand, I pointed out, “I’m surprised you guys have this gesture all the way out here. I thought it was a human thing.”

It was Demeas who answered. “Mr. Reinswield taught us about human gestures and expressions.” The boy’s eyes grew a bit wider then, as he added excitedly, “He told us all about football too. Have you ever seen Liverpool play? They sound amazing.”

“Liver–” I echoed before realizing, “Oh, British football. Sorry, I haven’t really–”

I was interrupted as the round man stepped over to our table. “Second! Aha, tis my favorite little Reusfeil.” As he spoke, the man reached out a hand to rub the top of Bandy’s head, making the fox-bunny girl giggle. “And our newest galtrosi,” he added with a look toward Tabbris and me. “What would you like to be eating today, hmm?”

“Uh.” I hesitated, uncertain. “I’m not really sure what…  um, the choices are? I don’t–”

“Choices?!” The man sounded almost offended, though I was pretty sure a big part of it was an act, meant to amuse. “You think I would cheat by forcing my galtrosi to choose from a list? No, no, this is not so. Not so at all. You must be choosing something you like, not what I like.”

Meley leaned over closer then, whispering, “Chef Gisby will make anything you ask for. He has a perfect memory, even better than Seosten, and he uses it to memorize every recipe in the universe. And if it happens to be something he doesn’t know, he can usually make it pretty close if you can describe it well enough. Oh, and he really likes it when you make things a challenge.”

Bandy was bobbing her head up and down, her ears bouncing. “Uh huh. He has a machine that can replicate almost any type of meat or vegetable. It tastes just like the real thing!”

“Oh. Uh.” I blinked, shifting a little. “Well, in that case, how about umm… Shrimp Scampi with angel hair pasta and alfredo sauce?” I would have been happy with a plateful of sandwiches at that point, but if he wanted something more challenging than that. “Oh, and garlic bread?”

“Yes, yes, that we can do.” Chef Gisby grinned brightly, looking toward Tabbris. “And you?”

“I… I like that too,” the girl answered after a second, her face flushing a little bit at the attention.

The round man took everyone else’s order, moving on to the other tables. Eventually, he had everyone and disappeared into the kitchen. Once he was gone and the ordering was over with, people started talking a little louder, conversations carrying between tables. Apparently being so quiet and still was only a temporary thing. They still weren’t exactly wild the way I’d seen in public school cafeterias on Earth, but they were at least having normal conversations.

In the case of our table, ‘normal’ apparently meant that the four Seosten kids were focusing on Tabbris, asking her all about what she’d been doing with me on Earth.

“Wait, wait,” Richton blurted, “you mean you were secretly possessing her for years and she didn’t know? I mean you didn’t take control or anything?”

Flinching, the girl hesitantly nodded. “I, um… I did a tiny bit, when… when I had to stop the spells that the um… that the other Seosten were trying to use to spy on her, or… or worse.”

That made Kisea straighten up. “Hold on, you mean you were disabling spells from adults? Like, trained adults? They were using magic and you just… countered them?” Her voice sounded awed in a way that made me reflexively smile with pride despite myself.

“Mama, um, t-taught me how to use magic…” she slowly explained, shifting closer to me while clearly finding it hard to look the others in the eyes. “Well, the memory she implanted in me did, anyway.”

That raised even more questions, but after a couple of them, it looked like Reft realized that Tabbris looked uncomfortable being the center of attention. The magma boy quickly said something to Richton about some game they had been playing. Judging from the quick look at the oldest Seosten shot back and forth between us, he knew what was going on. But he also didn’t object, taking Reft’s hint and letting the subject change. The others seemed to understand too. They still asked Tabbris and me questions, but not quite as intently. They kept moving the subject around the table so that Tabbris didn’t have to feel like she was under a microscope.

It clearly helped, as the girl slowly started to ask questions of her own. She wanted to know about their parents, and how they had all ended up out here.

As it turned out, the answer only made me hate the Seosten in general even more. Basically, the Seosten didn’t actually raise their own children, generally speaking. Instead, children were sent to what amounted to private school/orphanages and raised there. At a certain age or whenever the orphanage in question thought they were ready, the child would be added to the list of potential recruits. Every Choir took turns looking at available recruits and choosing the ones they wanted. It was like the draft in professional sports, only if the players ranged in age from five or six all the way up to their late teens in some cases. Or some really fucked up version of adoption.

In any case, these four had been on their way to one of those ‘drafts’ when Athena’s people had ambushed the ship in question. Most of them had gotten away, but these guys and a few of their older peers were brought here to be raised and taken care of. There were others like that, young Seosten that Athena and her people had begun to rescue and raise differently. It was… encouraging. Especially for Tabbris. I really wanted her to have as many good examples of her own people as possible.

Eventually, our food came, floating in on these small hovering trays that went straight to the right spots before landing. The others quickly dug in, so I followed suit. And they were right, it tasted delicious.

“Bleh.” Beside me, Tabbris was staring down at her own plate, which looked almost identical to mine. She tentatively took another bite, before her head shook. “Gross. What is that?”

“Um. Shrimp?” I offered, a little confused as I tasted one off her plate. “Mmm, good.”

“But–but–I like shrimp too. I mean…” The girl frowned, staring down. “I think I do. Don’t I? I did.”

“Oh.” Meley cut in. “You never tasted it on your own, just when you were possessing her.”

My head bobbed quickly in agreement. “She’s right. You only tasted them through my taste buds, not yours. I guess you don’t like shrimp after all.”

Blinking a few times, Tabbris hesitantly asked, “Oh. Um. What do I do?”

Before I could answer, Chef Gisby suddenly spoke up from behind us. “You come with me!” As everyone jumped, the round man smiled. “Apologies. But come.” He offered his hand to the girl. “I will let you taste all of the wonderful things I can make, until you find what you do enjoy.”

“I’ll go with you, if you want,” Meley offered, gesturing to her own plate. “I’m done anyway.”

Tabbris looked to me uncertainly, and I quickly nodded. “It’s okay. Go ahead. I’ll be right here.”

She still looked a little uncomfortable about leaving me, but slowly got up from the table. “O-okay, I’ll be right–” As she was standing, the girl suddenly pitched over backward, her feet somehow having gotten tangled in the legs of the chair. Just before she would have hit the floor, my hands snapped down to catch her, and there was a clatter as her chair landed on its side.

“You okay?” I asked, helping Tabbris back up.

Her face was red, dropping her gaze to the floor as she nodded, mumbling a little about her legs being different from mine. Once she was definitely alright, the girl went with Meley and Chef Gisby to find something that she actually liked to eat.

“I hope she’s okay,” Bandy offered, her ears drooping a little bit as she watched the door that the three went through. “I don’t think Seosten really grow up like that very often, possessing someone else the whole time they’re… um, you know, getting bigger.”

“She’ll be okay,” I assured the bunny-fox girl. “She just needs some practice being out in her own body.”

“Good thing you guys are here, huh?” Kisea put in. “I mean, she doesn’t have to hide or anything. And…” The girl hesitated briefly before adding, “It’s kinda nice to have another Seosten kid around.”

“Yeah,” Richton agreed. “There aren’t very many of us. They’re mostly adults.”

“You are staying here for awhile, right?” Bandy pressed, looking up to me urgently with eyes that made me think that someone had copied them to create Puss in Boots’ adorable pleading eyes in those Shrek movies.

How could I do anything but nod? “Yeah,” I promised. “We’ll be here for awhile. I have to wait for Athena’s people to get hold of my friends, and they’ll use Tabbris’ blood to find Kushiel’s lab.”

As soon as I said the name, the others hissed a little, looking like I’d just said Hitler or something.

“She is a bad woman,” Reft explained. “A very bad woman.”

I nodded slowly, “Yeah, I’ve kind of been getting that impression. She sounds like a real piece of work.”  And the thought that Tabbris’ mother had been in her hands… I swallowed hard, forcing that thought back. “We’re gonna find her. We’re gonna save Tabbris’s mom, and all her other prisoners. She’ll pay for the things she’s done.” For emphasis, I stabbed my fork hard down into the next bite of shrimp.

“She’ll pay for all of it.”

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Lessons 32-02

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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.”

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