It wasn’t being stared at that bothered Ajax. He’d changed schools enough to learn to cope with that. It was easy enough to do, at least in American schools: sit at the back of the class, find a few other kids to hang out with and suddenly you fit right in.
No, it was the eleven year olds that bothered Ajax. Thirteen was the upper end of the recruitment age, but some kids started even younger. When a little girl half his size and scarcely older than the little boy he’d saved from the Awakened ran past him giggling, he buried his head in his hands. It wasn’t high school, it was daycare.
The classroom was a large squared-off wedge, much larger than Ajax was used to. Instead of desks, there were six large tables scattered through the room, with computer workstations lining the walls and a circle of folding chairs at one end of the room. The ‘guidance counselor’ of the night before turned out to also be one of the teachers, and he suggested Ajax follow Natalie for today, so he could learn how the class was structured.
As far as Ajax could tell, the class wasn’t structured. Kids wandered between discussions groups at the tables and the workstations whenever they felt like it. A cluster of girls huddled at the folding chairs, gossiping. It was like homeroom, all morning, except there were vigorous discussions of Shakespeare, political science and some kind of math game going on at the tables.
“Everybody has their own academic plan, which the teachers help them put together,” explained Natalie. She sat next to him at a table, going over some papers for a younger student. A lot of people seemed to want Natalie’s attention, and Seth seemed just as popular.
“Great,” said Ajax. “Here, give me some paper, and I’ll put together my very own ‘academic plan’.” The round tables made him nervous, and totally disrupted his strategy of lurking at the back of the class until he figured things out. But they were better than sitting at one of the workstations with his back to the class.
Dubiously, she got him a notebook and a pencil. He immediately started sketching an abstract design. When she finished her work and went to get up, he waved her away. “You go on, do your work. I’ll just be over here, doing my thing. That’s how this works, right?”
Natalie blew her breath out. “Ajax—”
But just then, Kwan called her. She scowled at Ajax, then left him to his notebook. He kept his head down the rest of the morning. Kwan passed by once, complimenting his sketch, and students kept peering over his shoulder, then wandering off when he ignored them.
By the time lunch rolled around, he’d completed then crumpled four different winding designs. “Why are you throwing them away?” said Natalie.
“I’m done with them. Now what do we do?”
“We get an hour and a half for lunch, then we meet in the gym for the afternoon.”
“Back to the cafeteria?”
Natalie smiled. “Only if we have to. Let’s go see.”
He and Natalie followed the stream of kids heading out of the classroom and down the curving corridor. Eventually they ended up in the large hall Ajax remembered from the night before. It was a huge oval room, with dozens and dozens of 2-meter-wide framed metal sheets lining the walls. There were bookshelves cluttered with gear and knick-knacks scattered between the frames. Some of the frames had post-it notes stuck to them, and others had worn carpets in front of them. It felt simultaneously alien and homey.
As kids approached various mirrors, each one flickered red or blue, then became a rippling image of a cityscape. Chatting to each other, the students stepped into each image and vanished beyond.
“Hey, is that the Eiffel Tower?” asked Ajax. His frayed temper briefly vanished in the wonder of what he was watching.
Seth, behind him, said, “How about steak frites for lunch? Or maybe Chinese? Italian?”
“Absolutely not,” said the wall. “Seth and Natalie, you’re grounded.”
Natalie made a face. “Oh well. Let’s get lunch from the cafeteria and eat in the pumpkin courtyard.”
“You go on,” said Ajax, still watching the portals. “I want to stay here.”
“Enjoy, new guy,” said Seth, and pushed Natalie away.
When they were gone, Ajax said aloud, “Am I grounded?”
The wall said, “Technically, no. But you’re also not rated for a latchkey yet, which means you can’t leave without a qualified escort.”
“A babysitter,” Ajax grumbled. Once again, the wall didn’t answer, and as the Portalry emptied of lunch seekers, Ajax finally dredged up some curiousity about the voice from the wall.
“What do I call you, talking wall?”
“My name is Kentigern.”
“Kentigern. Right. Okay. Are you… a guy in a control room somewhere? A ghost? Or a Star Trek computer?”
“Can’t I be all three?” Ajax wondered if he imagined the hint of amusement in the voice.
“Well, is this… thing, this building, is it actually a spaceship? That sky out my window isn’t on Earth, I know that.”
“No, not a spaceship, just a tower. But you’re not on Earth anymore. Well done.”
Ajax glared at the nearest wall. “Where are we, then?”
“The dominant theory among the Readers— those are our researchers— is that the tower is on a semi-artificial planetoid, constructed by an alien species long before humanity discovered fire, and so far away from Earth’s system as to be meaningless.”
Ajax absorbed this. “Wow. What’s it like outside? Is it all like the garden I saw from my room?”
Four motes of light from around the room converged on the wall closest to Ajax and formed the corners of a rectangle. An image formed, growing in clarity until it seemed like an open window. The landscape beyond had the same strange light quality seen from his window, an unmoving sun filtered by thick purple and yellow clouds. The ground was orange, with sparse yellow grass growing around a packed-down road. The road led toward trees— but strange, bubbling trees with rounded foilage, looming over blade-like ferns. Something moved in the undergrowth, reminding Ajax of the Awakened in the single glimpse he had before it vanished.
Leaning against the wall, he said, “I thought I was joining an army when I came here. Not signing up for… kindergarten.” He looked out the window more, then said hopefully, “Maybe I could go out there?”
“If you really want to fight for your life, there are some rats in the storehouse level.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Ajax snapped, and pushed himself away from the wall. “I can’t go outside, I can’t go back to Earth. I really didn’t expect to be a prisoner, you know?”
“Yes, you seem very angry about it.”
“What’s the worse that happened if you let me outside? I get killed? Who cares! Or maybe you open one of those portals, you let me out in England or something, I’m no longer a problem to anybody but myself.”
“How nice.” Kentigern sounded bored. “A tantrum from the kindergartener. Well, get it all out. Class resumes in 45 minutes. You have a lot to learn if you want to earn any responsibility.”
Ajax knew he was acting like a brat and didn’t care. “No way. If I see anymore grade schoolers declaiming Shakespeare, I may have to bash my skull in.”
“Is that so? Then I think you’ll like the afternoon session very much. Plenty of opportunity to get your skull bashed in and no rats required!”