The wall chimed to wake Ajax for his first day of school, but he was already awake, laying in bed watching the bar of light slipping between the lightproof curtains. It hadn’t moved, in all the hours he’d watched, as fixed as an artificial light. But outside the curtains was a vegetable garden under an alien sky, with a shrouded sun that never set.
There was a light in his room, too, an organic moving sculpture on the ceiling. It twined over itself in a cloud of sparkling dust, but the light it shed was steady and clear. When Ajax had uncertainly told the wall he was ready to sleep, the sculpture had faded in brilliance until the room was nearly dark.
“Good morning, Ajax,” said the wall, when he sat up. It had a pleasant masculine voice. “A Seneschal has gathered clothing for you from our stores. It’s outside your door.”
“Uh, thanks,” said Ajax. The door to his room looked very much like ordinary wood, but the wall it was set in was made of the same pale smooth material as the rest of this strange place was. Milky stone, he might have thought, except for the writing just under the surface of the wall. Scribbles in an unfamiliar alphabet slowly moved across the wall, sometimes rising into incomprehensible clarity, sometimes sinking into depths the wall could not contain. Sometimes they jostled each other, like people in a crowd.
“Your new clothes are outside,” repeated the wall, patiently.
Ajax started. The wall was more than a little hypnotic, especially in his current frame of mind. Flushing, he opened the door, snatched at the tall pile of clothing and slammed the door again. He hadn’t seen any other people in the hall when they escorted him to the room but why take the risk?
“Natalie asked me to inform you that she will be along in half an hour to escort you to breakfast and then to school.”
Ajax dumped the clothing at the foot of the bed and sorted through it. Secondhand jeans and t-shirts, mostly, but a new package of socks and underwear, and a travel case full of hygiene accessories. “What, no uniforms?” But the wall didn’t seem to think this was worth answering.
There was a bathroom attached to his room by an open archway. It was a surprise, because almost everything in it was normal. The tub was a nice whirlpool number, the shower was just like those he’d sold at his job, and while the sink and toilet seemed to be made of the same material as the walls, they were unmarked by living graffiti.
By the time Natalie knocked at his door, he’d gotten as cleaned up as he could. The mundane experience of getting ready for school had almost been pleasant, and by the time he was done, he’d felt ready for more newness.
“Come in,” he said, standing at the window. There was a small patio just outside the window, and beyond that a very large garden, with beds of herbs interspersed with meadow-like lawns and tangles of flowers climbing over trellises. It looked homey and comfortable, but the large open space was enclosed within grey walls that rose several floors.
Natalie came in and said, “It’s a sliding door. You can go outside, if you want.”
“Did I actually see a goat out there?”
Natalie laughed. It was a warm, pleasant sound. “Yes. They belong to one of the Seneschals.”
He turned around. Natalie’s school clothes were as informal as his: a clingy green t-shirt and cargo pants over worn sneakers. She looked like she’d fit right in at his old school, if you explained away all the bandages she was wearing. “Is this a castle or a spaceship?” he demanded.
“What do you think?” Natalie held the door opened and beckoned him out.
“I’m thinking spaceship, because of the talking walls and the lights, but— goats and gardens? Really?”
Natalie shrugged. “I was born here. It’s home. You’ll see.”
In the hall outside, Seth leaned against a wall. A younger girl stood just beyond him, as if she was trying to hide. She was dark haired and small, with wide, wary eyes.
“Hey, new guy,” yawned Seth. “I hope Kwan and the others weren’t too hard on you.”
“No big deal. I’ve had worse encounters with VPs and guidance counselors.” Ajax shrugged. But if he was honest with himself, his reception after stepping through the portal had rattled him. The interrogation in the locked room had been grueling. They’d collected all sorts of personal information about him before making him repeat the events of the night over and over again. Twice he’d tried to be done, refusing to answer and raising his voice. Kwan and the other man had just watched him patiently and offered him a drink of water. “Who’s she?”
“Who, Jehane?” said Seth. “She’s our novice. Don’t mind her, she’s shy.” He grinned. “Are you shy, new guy?”
“Why?” asked Ajax warily.
“You’re going to get a lot of attention. You will stand out.”
“Why?” This time it was a demand. “It sounded like you had a whole transfer student procedure.”
Natalie sighed, giving Seth a dirty look.. “We usually don’t recruit anybody over the age of thirteen.”
Ajax stopped walking. “I’m seventeen.”
Seth strolled past him then turned around so he was walking backwards. “I’m almost seventeen myself.” He winked at Ajax, gave him two thumbs up, then grabbed Jehane’s hand and ran down the hall.
Ajax tried to quell the horror. “You, too?” he said to Natalie, as casually as he could. “You come across as older.”
“I am,” admitted Natalie. “Seth is eleven months younger than me.”
That wasn’t actually reassuring. Slowly, Ajax said, “Am I going to be four years older than everybody in my class, or four years behind everybody in my class?”
Breathlessly, Natalie said, “It’s not like that. The classes are mixed, so the older kids can help the younger—uh. So the more advanced kids can help the beginners.”
“I heard you the first time.” His mouth set in a thin line. He’d worked harder than he’d ever admit at making sure his academics stayed right in the middle of unremarkable, despite all the school switching he’d done as he was shuttled between his father’s relatives and home.
Natalie looked at him silently. Then she said, “Oh, just come and see. It’s not as bad as you’re thinking.”
Her tone of voice jolted him into walking forward again, because he certainly wasn’t going to hide in his room. But he looked at her as he walked, until she flushed.
“It won’t be,” she insisted. “And if it is, somehow I’ll fix it.”