208 - Fresh-Menagerie

The line of rings, forming a tunnel, snakes from the interior of Halcyon City to the coast. From there, the rings cross the Atlantic Ocean, running dozens of miles to the itinerant island now called Vyortovia. The rings emit a gold-white light from their interiors, just enough to clearly mark their position in the dark. Some clever kid with a large supply of blue paint has already painted Sonic the Hedgehog on neighboring buildings, running parallel to the system.

Likewise, the Vyortovian vehicles meant to traverse this open-air tunnel, are officially called ferðahylki, but informally known as “pills” for their shape. A few crafty souls have tried to add graffiti to their coldly professional hulls, or decorate the antiseptic interiors, with mixed success. As a result, the first day of college for the current and former members of the Menagerie - along with many of their friends - is to begin while aboard “Jaws”.

The group is full of scientists, and/or products of science. How does the system work, anyway? They’ve already been given a briefing, but are happy to talk about it with each other. Each of the rings serves double duty. First, it evacuates the air within its radius, and out along the axis of travel. Second, it provides a magnetic impulse that drives the pills forward. The rings share power with each other at a mathematically precise ratio, so if a series of rings fail for any reason, a pill will gradually decelerate and come to a stop within a functioning ring. Otherwise, the system is essentially a vacuum-assisted maglev rail, without the attendant engineering difficulties of sealing a tube (and rescuing passengers from it in an emergency).

The Vyortovians tested the system in their usual pragmatic style. They sent a team of engineers through the system in one of the pills, and fired tactical missiles at some of the rings offshore.

“Not my style of safety validation,” Leo admits.

“Agreed,” Jason says.

“But it encourages engineers to be honest in their assessments,” argues Alycia.

“Glad I can just run fast,” Harry offers.

“I’m just relieved they survived,” sighs Summer.

“How do you know they did?” asks Aria.

“Well, they let us on board, so it’s safe, right?” Adam points out.

“They were trying to kill us awhile back,” shrugs Otto, now wearing his human shell.

“Things change, and people change. Let’s all be grateful for that,” Charlotte announces.

The green of North Carolina gave way to the blue of the Atlantic, moving by at a blur. The distant outskirts of Vyortovia emerged over the horizon. First, the network of artificial islands. Second, the mountainous natural geography of the main island, dotted with buildings. The pill slowed down, then stopped between two rings. Docking arms pried it out of the air and into a cradle, gyroscopically keeping it aligned with Earth’s gravity. The hatches opened, and the group stepped onto Vyortovian soil.

Well, not soil as such. The artificial islands that had sprung up were technically carbon plates - product of Leo Snow’s technology, Jason Quill’s funding and manufacturing apparatus, and more. They were a peace offering from the United States, and a compromise. Because they weren’t strictly speaking Vyortovian in origin, AEGIS and US intelligence apparatus had the right to surveil them all day long according to the agreement. They were the home of N.U., the New University, and there was in theory nothing to hide from anyone here.

“‘In theory’ carries way more load than two words should bear,” Leo had remarked to his new handler, when told that his parole was up.

The University itself didn’t conform to anyone’s expectations. It wasn’t the grass-covered campus, covered with stately buildings for learning and experimentation, as idealized by the American public. There weren’t fraternities and sororities and moral majorities. It was almost like a giant laboratory, waiting for an experiment to begin. This is in fact exactly what the N.U. was meant to be

The Menagerie’s members stare at the maze of structures, many still under construction, and briefly glance back as more pills arrive from Halcyon City. Other new students pour out to stare. Several of the Ponies. Members of the other super-teams, in their civilian guises. Friends. Comrades. And - to everyone’s muted shock - a contingent of young people all dressed in identical “ROOK INDUSTRIES” jumpsuits.

“I hope the Vyortovians charged Rosa a pretty penny for student loans,” mutters Jason.

Leo pulls Aria close, and reaches down to take her shivering hand.

Whoever said college life was easy compared to high school was very, very wrong.

Rugga Jónsson is in charge of orientation. He is a tall, stocky man with a haircut like Guile from “Street Fighter”. His nose is about twice as wide as it ought to be. His voice is deep, and commanding. There’s no visible microphone or apparatus, allowing him to walk freely around the stage as he presents. Translators and Jumbotron-type screens are active, turning his crisp English into a half-dozen languages spoken or signed.

“Welcome students.” His voice echoes out of numerous speakers, reaching the hundreds of freshmen in the open air auditorium. “We will speak about expectations now. New University. This will not be a conventional place of learning. Rather, we are here to plant seeds of knowledge together, and water them through experimentation. We will learn as much from you as you learn from us. Ideally it will be productive for all parties.”

A diagram appears on the mega-screen above his head - a tree of science, and knowledge, with many root systems twining together to make a single branch. Leaves, labeled for the dominant sciences and humanities, emerge from a pattern of branches. “First. You must understand the Vyortovian system of governance. Our goal is a combined human and mathematical model of understanding. This encompasses disciplines from the hard sciences to philosophy to daily practicalities such as the mood of laborers. It is a cybernetic decision-making engine whose inputs span the entirety of human activity, and whose outputs are governmental policy.”

Alycia leans over to Jason. “Cybersyn.” Jason nods, and glancing at some of his questioning fellows briefly explains. “Chile. 1972. An experiment in electronic socialism, before the coup of '73. We rescued a proto-AI that had been buried in their control room.”

Alycia rolls her eyes at some part of this explanation, but doesn’t elaborate. Rugga is still speaking.

“It is our intention to add New University to this program. You, the students, will not be passive consumers of information. You will not listen, and inform yourselves, and perform tests which evaluate your receptiveness. Instead, you ah, will be designing our curriculum together with professors and assistants. You will be assigned disciplines fitting your talents and interests. You may shift disciplines at your discretion, of course.”

“The curriculum can be thought of as ah, your life’s labor. It is your understanding of the world. Your passions. Your beliefs. Through experimentation and education, those beliefs will be tested. The successful ones - those with a track record in solving practical problems - they will be promoted to other learners, and incorporated into the tree of knowledge.”

Rugga’s tone grows stern. “It will not be easy. You will not be graded here. In every endeavor, you will simply succeed - or you will fail. Persistence is only a virtue insofar as it leads eventually to success. If yours does not, you will be invited to participate in other ways.”

There’s murmuring from the kids here. What does that mean? But the man doesn’t expand on this point.

“You are in competition with your fellow students. It is of course possible that everything you do here will be a success. It is very unlikely. Understand that preference will be given to those who can show success. That is simply the way of things. It will be that way here too.”

Some joker from the audience pipes up. “How about throwing a successful party?”

The unfortunate’s face is immediately plastered over the mega-screen above Rugga’s place on stage, probably ensuring there’ll be no further outbursts from anyone. Rugga swivels to face his area of the audience. “There are no assigned classes. You will be responsible for the allocation of your time. If it is psychologically more healthy for you to ‘party’, we understand that relief from stress is a vital component in a healthy working environment. As with anything else - even productive labor itself - we also realize that too much indulgence in a single thing is unhealthy. It is upon you, the children who will make the world’s future, to spend your time wisely. You are all encouraged to aid your peers in moderation.”

Harry chuckles. “That’s a pretty long-winded answer for ‘party only as hard as you can handle’.”

“And a panopticon at the push of a button,” mutters Alycia darkly. “They really are merciless.”

Rugga goes on. “Interviewers will be approaching you soon. You will be given a tablet, or interviewed directly. Please answer the questions asked of you. This will establish the initial division of students into smaller pools. Each division will receive a team of proctors, and begin to develop their curriculum from there.”

The man smiles - he can smile after all! - and wraps up. “We, the world, are counting on all of you. And I, I have faith that you will all do your best. Do not fear. I say this to you now, to never forget that there is hope.”

Rugga leaves the stage, leaving an audience of young people looking at each other, and thinking.

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We’ll take a break and come back to find out who’s going to be working on what projects! If anyone has ideas, suggestions, or hopes, let me know.

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The interviewers have come and gone. Harry Gale is texting his mother. How’s dad, how’s everything? Things are okay, how are you dear? Oh I’m okay, just college stuff, you know? Well come home soon dear, we know you’re only 15 minutes away but we miss you already. I will mom.

He looks up to see a woman approaching. She’s older, heavy-set, and as stern as any of the other Vyortovians he’s seen. He’s not quite used to the idea of them being friendly, even now.

“I am Ásta. I am one of the proctors. Come with me.”

Harry follows her through the crowd, and listens to her make an identical introduction to five other people. Two of them look familiar; three are strangers.

Off in one corner of the auditorium, Ásta pushes a button on the tablet she carries. Pieces of the floor detach and fold upward, forming a temporary box to isolate the proctor and the half-dozen students.

“You all expressed interest in the way super-powered individuals organize into groups, or serve larger interests. You all have thoughts about how heroes and villains ought to organize, or not organize. Superhero teams. Villain alliances. This sort of thing. Is this correct?”

The students don’t have to look at each other. They all nod their heads, as one. Harry does as well, only looking around him after the fact to see their reactions.

The proctor goes on. “You will study this matter scientifically. You will bring your expertise to bear on the matter. We are not interested in your emotions or opinions on the subject, except insofar as they serve to suggest lines of inquiry. While we do not expect you to change those opinions, your purpose here at N.U. is to create an objective environment for others to consider the issue. Is this understood?”

Again, the students nod.

“Very well. You will organize this investigation amongst yourselves. I will facilitate your access to research data, meeting rooms, and any other resources you require to pursue this matter. In addition, you will have access to the campus’s cafeteria, recreational facilities, and accommodations if you wish to live here. You will be supplied with an app for your smartphones. Those of you without smartphones will receive a device on loan, with the app installed.”

Harry is fast. He can take in every detail of a room by now without being noticed, just by rapidly glancing around. And he is growing certain that one of those other students, the girl with the hearing aid, is the villain Iconoclast.

What the heck is she doing here?

Charlotte Palmer is greeted by a cheerful man with an elaborate blonde beard. “Hallo!” he booms. “I am Úlfgestur. I am your proctor.”

“I’m pleased to meet you. I’m Charlotte Palmer.”

Charlotte isn’t sure of the protocol here. She’s alone with this man. That in itself isn’t surprising, given her choice of subject. But her experience with schools is still that people tell you things. Is she both student and teacher? Well, living in multiple worlds is familiar at least…

“Very good. Ms. Palmer, your subject was eheheh - unique! That is the word. I expect that you will draw attention from our higher echelons. As your proctor, I can only suggest incorporating those experiences into the curriculum you will develop.”

Charlotte smiles sweetly. “I shall do my best, Úlfgestur.”

“Grand! Grand.” The Vyortovian works his way through the discussion of facilities and resources, including the smartphone app. He’s not surprised that Charlotte doesn’t blink an eye at this technological discussion.

Either he doesn’t know my background, or he knows it all too well?

“Are there any questions?” he asks at last.

“Why yes, I do have one. You mentioned food and drink. Is this just an ordinary cafeteria, or are there more, ah, sociable spaces?”

Úlfgestur presents his tablet for inspection. “Since N.U. is built on a fusion of Vyortovian and Halcyon technology, I’m proud to tell you that we can make such spaces! We’re still building this all out, you understand. Part of what exist will flow from what people ask for. Can you tell me what you have in mind?”

Charlotte pauses for consideration. “Well, I should say a coffee shop or cafe, the sort of place that friends can get drinks, snacks, or sandwiches. A place that social groups can form ad hoc. It’s difficult to describe, but a place that provides a balance between open invitation and privacy. I’m not sure if that’s helpful to you, and if not I’m deeply sorry, sir.”

“Not at all! Recent eheh, events strained relations between our home and yours, of course, but we Vyortovians are as human as you. We too have the need to see friendly faces, share food, and the like. We prefer caffeinated coffee. If I understand it, we use coffee socially the way Americans might use beer or wine. So there are plenty of local cafes which we can use as a reference.”

Charlotte claps her hands. “Wonderful. I look forward to seeing what you come up with.”

Úlfgestur grins back, and strokes his beard with a hand. “For now, I will return to my other duties. Good luck, Ms. Palmer! Welcome to N.U.”

“Thank you, Úlfgestur.”

The privacy panels collapse, and Charlotte is back in the open air of the outdoor auditorium.

College would have been a strange move for her otherwise, she reflects. The Vyortovians changed that, ironically. There’s only one topic for which she’d come to college, but she can only study it here. The truth behind the Hidden Family of the Vyortovian Throne.

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As much as Jason would like to work with Alycia on something here, he knows that what she’s pursuing is personal. He knew what she’d pick even before she told him.

We both had problematic fathers. Only hers wanted to dominate the world. Mine just trampled all over it as he walked.

Besides, do they need to be together all the time? A part of him says “yes, obviously, duhhhh”. That part comes from them being friends, lovers, rivals, companions - he can speak a dozen languages and he still doesn’t have the right word for just what they are. But another part of him, that coldly rational part he kind of hates sometimes, the one that knows phrases like “necessary sacrifice”, realizes that as much as Alycia needs her distance from him sometimes, he needs it from her as well. Uncorking that realization always yields a flood of self-doubt, self-hate, and anxiety. Putting the cork back on that particular bottle is what distractions are for.

And what a distraction this will be! As the proctor approaches, Jason does some last-minute wordsmithing on his earlier pitch, in case there’s questions or clarifications. The three other students walking behind the proctor are the sort of distraction he doesn’t need. The thoughts race - who the hell else came up with my thesis? - and the detail that two of the three students are wearing Rook jumpsuits immediately explains a lot of it.

The proctor himself is a tall, gaunt man with a weathered face and hair that’s had all the color beaten out of it. “Students. You chose to explore private organizations’ responsibility in managing power. Technological, political, social power. The role of corporations in adopting governmental functions, and vice versa. Emphasis on hyper-technology, geo-engineering, and other large scale transformations of society.”

The students nod hesitantly. Was there a question in there?

“Good. Let me know if you need anything.” The man wheels and walks away.

Okay, so that’s how it’s going to be.

Jason’s eyes instantly take in the relationships. One Rook guy is dominant. The other walks just behind him. Dominant guy is eyes forward, while the junior keeps flicking eyes to his superior. The third student isn’t wearing anything Rook-related, and seems to be on her own. Curiouser and curiouser.

Dominant Rook Guy speaks up first. “Yo. Jason Quill. I’m Jackson Frost. Rook Industries. This here’s Philo Pemberton.”

“That’s Philo, not Phil,” asserts the junior guy, not very assertively.

There’s something naggingly familiar about this “Jackson Frost”. Jason can’t put his finger on it, but he’s sure they’ve met before.

The other student, the girl - long chestnut hair, Midwest accent as she speaks - puts out a hand. “Hey. Mr. Quill. Nice to meet you. Annette Worthington.”

Jason, unsure of how to read her just yet, shakes. She goes on to shake hands with the others. Good, not a fangirl, just forward.

He’s still very concerned with the presence of Rook personnel here. The customary approach to dealing with dangerous unknowns - action moves and sniper rifles - isn’t an option here, so he decides to go for social tactics. “Well. I thought I’d be alone in this course. I suppose you all know me so you can understand why I’d be interested in this topic.”

He claps his hands together. “I’d love to hear what brings each of you to the same thing.”

Jackson is way too prepared with his response for Jason’s taste. Obviously he and his junior were planted here by Rosa Rook. “Philo and I are interested in taking our employer’s resources and potentials in a more positive direction. Since the robot incident, Rook management has come to realize that they aren’t the smartest guys in the room. The two of us want to capitalize on that momentum to enact socially beneficial internal change, but we need to understand how best to do it.”

How very fucking corporate.

Annette pauses before speaking, perhaps gauging whether it’s her turn. “You could say I’m representing someone who can’t be here, I guess? But um, I’m coming at this from the perspective of corporations as people - I don’t think they are, but they get treated as though they are in some respects, you know - but just… the idea of this sort of collective entity wielding power, as opposed to governments which are inherently impersonal, uhh, sorry I’m babbling. Listen, it’s really just all about the volatility of intent when managing power is concerned, you know?”

Jason smiles. “I know very well.”

Privately, he’s baffled, and a little fearful. What’s he going to do with these three? What’s their deal?

When in doubt, smile and lead.

“Alright! I guess we should start writing an outline…”

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Every so often, a memory comes back to her. It’s a quip from an American baseball icon. “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”

Alycia Chin. Daughter of Achilles Chin. Terrorist, freedom fighter, fugitive, hero. She can’t even legally drink in her current country of residence. She knows she’s achieved so much living, burned through so much energy, in such a short time.

And I’m incapable of slowing down.

Alycia now knows she’s been lost all her life. She’s still lost. Jason Quill has started in a new direction, but he’s still carrying baggage left to him by his father. Summer, for all that she seems to have it together, really doesn’t know what or who she wants to be. Her few other friends have their own thing going on.

She knows when to call on her friends. This isn’t one of those times. This, for a change, is really something she’s better off doing alone. But how?

How do I course correct when I’m at full speed?

She’s actually startled to see the proctor approaching with two other people. One of them is masked and in costume. Curious. But she recognizes the other.

“Alice Chan.” The Vyortovian woman’s voice is chill, uncomfortably reminiscent of the tone her father used when giving orders or asking hard questions. “There you are.”

The proctor addresses the student trio. “Alice Chan. A student with complex circumstances. Resister. A vigilante superhero operating in Halcyon. Daphne Palin. Priestess of an ancient god.”

The three take each others’ measure. Alycia can sort of understand what Daph is doing here. But who is this guy…?

The proctor goes on. “Your subject is unusual, but we are here to explore such new ideas. Your subject matter is…” She checks the tablet in her hand. “The effect of charismatic personality on politics and society, and how to neutralize it.”

Daph smiles winsomely at Alycia. The masked hero, Resister, shows no emotion.

I absolutely should know about him. Why don’t I? And why is this his topic?

Alycia doesn’t know if this particular mystery is part of the direction her life ought to be going. But it’ll be an interesting one. Maybe college will be worth attending after all.

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Aria and Leo had long discussions about their long-term goals. They agreed that their university research topic shouldn’t be too closely tied to their personal lives. So they formulated a topic that others could get into, but that would still give them something to work with.

“Bootstrapping micro-societies. Is that correct?” The proctor looks from face to face.

The pair nod as one.

If the proctor has an opinion about this, he doesn’t share it. “Very well. The way our program is structured ought to be comfortable for anyone covering such a topic.”

Privately, Leo thinks this is the closest he’s ever heard a Vyortovian come to a joke. “Thank you sir.”

As the privacy screen recedes and the proctor leaves, Aria draws close to Leo, speaking low to be unheard by passers-by. “I’m worried about these Rook people. We know what we’re here to research. What are they here for?”

Leo nods. “Alright, let’s speculate.”

“Okay. They aren’t all in one group. I’ve seen them separate.” Aria bites her lip. “I wasn’t able to overhear them talk about their plans, either.”

Leo nods. “So they’re latching onto existing groups’ plans. Like those group-project people who just want to leech off of others’ work.”

“But that won’t work here, will it? The teacher isn’t assigning a project. We’re assigning one to ourselves, and we’re doing the work.”

“Okay, okay.” Leo furrows his brow. “Then they want to get a piece of that work. They’re willing to contribute enough of what they already know, but they want in on the work of others.”

“Okay, that’s possible.” Aria smiles, but Leo can still see the tension in her eyes. “What else?”

What else does Rook do, but steal and pervert and corrupt? Leo knows he’s being emotional about this, but also knows Aria is holding back her own feelings about it, and he owes her the same. Clear perception may be what keeps Aria safe from these people here, after all. “Let’s get the unthinkable out of the way. They genuinely want to learn and contribute.”

Aria’s face registers disgust and disbelief, but she smiles her way out of it. “Okay, legit. What else?”

Leo knows his biases are interfering with his imagination. He wants to toss this back to Aria, but struggles forward out of stubborn determination. “Okay, uh… They don’t know all the supers or geniuses in the world, and are here to network. Befriend some gullible kid, maybe.”

Aria nods approvingly. “Keep going.”

Leo thinks through what he knows Rook has been involved with. The Sepiaverse. By extension, Byron Quill and Achilles Chin. Rossum. “Supervillains,” he says suddenly.

Aria blinks. “Are there some, y’know, verbs or adverbs or object nouns in there somewhere…?”

The thought is coalescing. “Listen. Listen. Uh…” Leo clasps his hands, trying to focus the idea. “You know how Disney kinda owns a lot of genre entertainment, and Google owns all of search and stuff, right? Monopolies. I think Rook is trying to corner the market on supervillain shit.”

“Ambitious.” Aria smiles. “How do we zero in on these motives?”

Leo is feeling back in his vibe. “Alycia. Probably Jason too, but definitely Alycia. She’ll have kept an eye on where everyone went. Rook’s on her radar. She’ll know where the Rook people went. Who they grouped up with.”

“So we ask her, and from there, we infer their interests. Got it. I’ll ask Summer to ask her.”

Leo grins. “Alright. Well, until we have a way to bootstrap a post-Rook society, we’ll have to keep an eye on them. You and me, partner.”

Aria grins back at him. “You and me.”

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Summer, Colin, and Adam recognize each other, but not the dozen or so other kids who’ve assembled. “Recognizing and respecting sentient beings” seems to be a popular topic.

“I credit Radiance,” Colin says with a grin.

“You know that college kids lean left, politically,” counters Summer, mouth twisted in disbelief. “That includes civil rights. In a world with all kinds of non-human people, it’s just an easy topic.”

“Maybe, but the job here isn’t easy.” Colin is ready for this. “We’re not studying an existing curriculum. We’re creating one. People aren’t going to do that for an easy college credit. This is actual work.”

“Or they’re looking for a convenient soapbox for their personal views.” Summer sounds unconvinced.

Adam hasn’t interfered in this conversation so far. He’s not sure he even belongs here, for starters. But Summer is being kinda cynical, which is pretty out of character for her. And he wants to understand why.

They are both afraid, observes Tau.

Of what? Adam asks before realizing that his powers and partner could actually give him an answer, and he’s not sure if that would violate privacy or not. But thought travels at the speed of, well, thought.

Their fears are directed at themselves, and at each other. Tau spreads a complicated chromaffect diagram across Adam’s consciousness, indicating through the experience of color how the emotions of the situation are distributed. Neuroluminance readings are consistent with those observed in other individuals of this age group. Observe the striated patterns. They ought to be familiar from your other studies.

Adam doesn’t really understand what the emotions mean, not enough to put it into English words. But it does look familiar. Tau is right about that. Maybe it’s nothing to worry about. But still…

Maybe the best thing to do is ask.

“Summer, this is something important to you. But most of these kids don’t have your lived experience. Are you worried someone who doesn’t know what it’s like is gonna try to talk over someone who does?”

Summer turns to Adam, eyes bright and wide, face showing shock. Then she smiles. “Perceptive as always. Yeah, I think that’s what I’m feeling.”

Colin slips into the new direction the conversation is taking. “And whether you knew this was coming, maybe you were afraid it would, but also you couldn’t really pick anything else. This was too important for you.”

The girl nods. “And you too, Colin.”

Colin blushes, and Adam watches the complex interplay of feelings coming off him, courtesy of Tau. He’s seen Jackson Pollock paintings online, and looked at pictures of how particles emerge from collisions within particle accelerators. Human emotions are their own unique thing, but there’s similarity.

“They’d probably listen to you more if you were Radiance, instead of Summer,” Adam says aloud.

There’s a fracturing in the mood the moment Adam says this, and he realizes he’s upset some kind of unacknowledged fulcrum of emotion. He can feel Summer wanting to say a million things, but not able to say any of them. He can feel doubt and concern welling up in Colin. And he wonders if he should regret saying what he did. And yet…

The conversation dies off, and secrets keep themselves for another day.

Only Tau says anything more, and only to Adam. I recognize what happened. Summer and Colin are afraid of the future your words implied, but understand the Truth of them as well. They feel trapped. Perhaps they need a hero to free them.

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The gang find their way together eventually. Otto, wearing his human shell, is still hanging out.

“What’d you pick?” “Well…” The discussions swirl, as everyone mentally compares their predictions with their friends’ picks. Only when it comes to Otto is there some surprise.

“I ain’t here to go to college,” he says cheerfully. “I’m just here to support y’all.”

Summer starts. “You’re welcome to, if you want…”

“Nah, it ain’t about that.” Otto’s smile is as genuine as anything. “I’m just gonna be a full-time superhero, work with Mo and Big Bill and the ASIST kids. I think that’s what I’m supposed ta do.”

“If you ever need…” Leo stops himself from finishing that sentence. “Not all of us are still in the biz. But we’re still friends. Always.”

“You got it. Always.” Otto gives a thumbs up, then turns to look behind him. “Oh yeah, here he comes.”

The young man approaching the group is Otto’s near-twin brother, Mo.


The group smiles, waves, nods, to the newcomer they’ve always known.

Otto gestures away from the auditorium part of the campus. “Mo’s been scouting out good places to eat, hang out, be friends, y’know? Mo, whatcha got?”

“Ehh.” The taciturn android turns and starts walking, Otto behind him, the others trailing.

The gang comes to a stop at McDonald’s.

“Uh. What about the native Vyortovian foods?” Jason asks.

Mo looks over his shoulder at Jason and struggles to form words. “It’s shit,” is his final verdict.

“Really?” Summer asks, half-disbelieving.

“Wait, are you telling us maybe they invaded Halcyon for the food?” Otto asks, not entirely joking.

Mo shrugs.

“I’ve had worse,” Alycia announces.

Colin might not be on quite the same page, but has a point. “Wait, these guys just emerged into the world last year. We were just doing diplomacy with them. Why is there a McDonald’s here?”

A team full of geniuses turn to look at him for a moment, because that is a question none of them considered.

“Fine. Mickey D’s it is,” concludes Otto, and opens the door.

There’s a dramatic difference in attitudes toward food, based on whether you’ve eaten recently or not. A common piece of wisdom is to go grocery shopping after a meal. You’ll buy only what you’ll need in the future, not what you’re hungry for now. With this in mind, the gang resolve to at least check out a local restaurant.

“Alright, so the fish is rotten deliberately,” says Jason.

“I’ve had sheep. I have not had the face of a sheep,” concedes Alycia.

“That was fuckin’ nasty.” Leo is visibly pale.

“I am grateful to have other options,” Charlotte admits.

“Told y’all,” Mo mutters.

But laughter comes soon and easily, and conversation turns to other matters. And on the pill ride back from Vyortovia to Halcyon, dusk giving the Atlantic Ocean a beautiful mystery beyond the aura of light the rings provide, a contented quiet settles in.

This college experience is unlike what they expected. Everyone has ideas about the future, or at least their own future. Will that turn out so unexpected as well? Maybe.

Will it be a good future?

Hopefully. Hopefully.

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So that’s what everyone’s doing for college! We set up some challenges and subplots and hopefully people find those interesting and appropriate.

Icelandic food notes taken from here:

That is delightfully intuitive of Jason – get them to talk, rather than sitting there and guessing. It shows (appropriate) growth in the character.

Again, making it a group effort.

I love this.

Ooooh. For Alycia, that’s a remarkable study topic. How do I undo the power of people like my father. For Daph, more How do I undo the power I’m trapped within?

Ironically, nobody from Rook (ostensibly) is in Alycia’s thesis group. Though it seems a natural for Rook to want research into (corporate power remains a wealth function constant; charisma’s influence is unpredictable and therefore a threat).

Jason has been forced by circumstance and “Just try some, you might be surprised” command from his dad to eat some exotic things on their travels. It has widened his palate, while at the same time meaning that, since he’s flown solo, he’s tended toward more comfort food sorts of things.

Alycia’s exotic diet has been a combination of opportunity and necessity. She enjoys by taste French, Central Mexican (mmmm, mole), and Indian cuisine (the spicier the better). She appreciates foods that are sustainable. But extremities for her were more (a) survival training finding non-poisonous fungus, nutritious grasses, and grubs, or (b) stuck in a science base eating ration tubes. She doesn’t see great virtue in eating sheep face.


The New University system (pick your topic and get grouped with others who picked a similar deal) means Rook’s people can’t just attach themselves to groups arbitrarily. They came with their own study topics and got sorted into groups based on those. The topic that those three picked out was sufficiently specific to not attract anyone else, Rook or otherwise

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