Elena rose to stand and turned towards the road from where she’d been kneeling to work on the flower plots in front of her house. Someone had arrived via teleport and it was around the time Isaac should be returning. Sure enough, the young man and his Enchantress were there. Isaac looked a little on edge, weary and wary. Jin was fighting with herself to appear neutral, but the stiffness in her arms and neck and the aggressive and heavy steps as she approached the house indicated she was angry. The Grandelf sighed to herself before asking, “How was classes?”
“I got kicked out for asking questions,” Jin nearly shouted irrately as Isaac released Neasa and Oleksandra.
Elena wasn’t surprised, Jin had a way of zeroing in on flaws and inconsistencies as well as a relentless insistence on interrogating them. This was sure to cause a lot of friction between her and certain faculty, particularly the graduate students hired as teaching aids for the entry level courses. Their egos were less tempered and knowledge less complete than the professors they served.
Staffing courses this way allowed for larger class numbers, which meant more tuition for the school which allowed for further expansion of the conservatory which enabled even more students to be admitted in the future. It did produce more mages, in a sense, but anyone with a long memory tended to agree. It made the pool of talent diluted and thin. There was less innovation. Students were being instructed to maintain the current paradigm, not revitalize it and establish a new one. There was almost an assumption that all of the world’s problems had been identified and so problem solving wasn’t prioritized, following procedure was.
Elena wasn’t the only one who had her reservations about this trend, but she was the only one willing to speak up about it. All of the others valued their positions too much to risk confronting the administrators, which was fair enough. They didn’t have the security Elena was afforded thanks to the long dead founder of the school. The school couldn’t punish them all if they stood against this decline together though.
Elena put these thoughts aside for now, the matter was for the nebulous future and would likely persist in perpetuity. She couldn’t do anything regarding the stagnation of the school now but she could help Jin. “That doesn’t seem right. What sort of questions were you asking?”
“I- So it was magical theory and after going over the syllabus for the third time, we had to listen to the same thing three times, then she’s going on about how there’s no wrong way to do magic and that we have to respect all views and they’re all as valid. So I asked, what about Ocelolita? What about FarFuck’d? Or Ar-tits? Did she really expect us to be able to achieve the same results as efficiently with wild magic or performance magic as established arcane theory and she kicked me out! She said I was being insensitive! I’m not insensitive, I’m right!”
Elena suppressed a chuckle at Jin’s expense. “You are correct, Jin, although you can be correct and insensitive. Unfortunately the conservatory faculty lately prioritize sensitivity over embracing the most potent methods.”
Jin was glaring slightly at Elena now, as the Grandelf answered on behalf of those she had umbrage with. “Why?”
“I do not know, not precisely.” Elena finished with a click of her tongue. It was generational, although the generation of students or administrators she couldn’t tweeze apart. Each new generation expected to be coddled more than the one before it, particularly those born to wealthy and affluent alums. This gave them influence over the school through their parents, who would withhold their generous donations if the school wouldn’t make reasonable accommodations for their children, up to pushing for the removal of unreasonable faculty and administration. After all, these noble and cherished alumni had passed without issue so why should any of their children be struggling?
“I think there’s more than that,” Isaac said. “She, the instructor-”
Elena interrupted him by asking, “Who did you get for an instructor, anyway? Were you able to get placed in Miruna’s class?”
Isaac shook his head. “No, she’s taking a sabbatical this year. It’s Dana Sokola, a teaching aid to Praskoviya Mistic.” Isaac noticed a surge of displeasure Elena tried to bury before it could be expressed outwardly. “Something between you two? Because it was when Jin mentioned you that Mizz Sokola suddenly became a lot more hostile.”
Elena sighed. “I don’t know a Dana Sokola but if she’s Praskoviya’s protege then it makes sense she would have some animosity towards you and Jin for your connections to me. Praskoviya belongs to one of the chairs in everything but a legal capacity. That way he pays less in taxes. She’s very tribal in her outlook and I can’t imagine her taking on graduate students much more open minded. Can you transfer to another class?”
“I’ll check, but I think they’re all full. Apparently this is the largest number of incoming students the conservatory’s ever had.”
“How am I supposed to learn if we’re all being held back by the class Slowboob?” Jin almost shouted the question. “Isn’t this supposed to be higher learning? We’re going over the same things you taught me at the ranch, Elena! How am I suppos-” Jin clammed up suddenly.
“How are you supposed to what, Jin?” Elena looked at the Enchantress curiously.
“Supposed to… I don’t know,” she blurted in a rush. “I just don’t like it. I thought I was going to learn something but this isn’t… this isn’t learning. Now I can’t even be in the classroom.”
“You’re banished for the rest of the course?”
“No… but why would I want to go back if she’s so petty,” Jin asked.
Elena shook her head and Isaac asked his Enchantress, “And you’re not being petty as well?” Jin made a noise of protest and stared at Isaac with a wounded expression.
Elena was still amazed how unphased Jin could be from any and all criticism except for that which came from Isaac. The gentlest rebuke would collapse her ego like a house of cards. “Well Jin, the library is always open to you. I can help you come up with a list of books to explore if you’re determined to avoid Miss Sokola’s class.” That could be the best solution for now. Elena had hoped Isaac’s voyage through the halls of knowledge would be better than she expected but…
She had many years to base her expectations upon and a long memory. It would be foolish to expect a smooth and productive journey these days.
The rhythmic sound of jets of milk rapping off of the bottom of the pail Chandrakanta held in front of her chest started once again as Isaac squeezed and pumped. The Megami was sitting on a footstool in front of the human she was quite a bit taller than, leaning back to rest her head against his clavicle as he wrapped his arms around her to perform the milking. Judging by the number of times the milk bucket had been filled and the weight of her breasts in his hands, they were nearing completion for the day.
Isaac sighed, a long and drawn out expression of the melancholy gripping him. He would finally ask the question he’d been keeping buried through the entire session. He really wished he could talk about something else during his time with Candi, something fun or positive, something she’d enjoy listening about rather than always needing to comfort him. But Isaac’s mind got stuck on problems and would refuse to move on unless there was some sort of resolution. With more complicated problems, issues he couldn’t effectively do anything about, he became very stuck indeed.
The matter Isaac was stuck on for the past few weeks was, “Why does everything seem to go wrong?”
Chandrakanta’s silky black hair brushed across his neck. It piled up on top of her scalp as she looked up towards his face with a melodious, “Hmm?”
Isaac sighed again. “The conservatory. Jin’s clashed with just about every instructor so far because she gets frustrated with the pace of learning. Then yesterday, during the general elective on Pokegirl Relations, Neasa nearly went berserk because she thought the lectures were the same sort of brainwashing as Samodiva put her through.”
“Why would a lecture on Pokegirl Relations sound the same as the ravings of an Unseelie Elfqueen?” Chandrakanta’s eyelashes flicked as she asked the question.
“I don’t know. I only ever heard Samodiva speaking once, on the day of the duel.”
Chandrakanta made a noise to indicate she understood.
Isaac continued. “The lectures though… They are kinda upsetting. The course sounds like it’s about learning to improve your relationships with pokegirls, understand them better, but everything’s been so focused on the suffering of pokegirls under humans. But…”
“It doesn’t give the full picture, doesn’t examine the full historical context. The instructor has a portrait of Mao Shin Mao hanging up on the wall. Said a couple of times that the Limbec Pirates are forced into their way of life by human supremacy. Which… maybe they are but…” Isaac drifted off.
“This instructor, is she one of the pokegirl faculty?”
“No, he’s a human.”
“Yeah, he.” Isaac felt warm milk dribble over his fingers as there was not enough volume left within the glands to squirt, so he released Chandrakanta.
The buxom Megami gracefully rose from the stool she’d been sitting on and wiped herself dry before a plain, undyed blouse of central Asian design sprang into existence over her torso. The captivating celestial pulled a sari wrap from the ether and quickly wrapped it around herself as she smiled down at Isaac. “Have I mentioned you have very good hands?”
Isaac smiled back but otherwise didn’t respond to the comment that was now cemented as part of the ritual. Chandrakanta knelt down to put her eye level closer to Isaac’s. She peered deeply for an uncomfortably long length of time and a shadow seemed to flit over her eyes, one that robbed her scintillating irises of their inner aurora. “We will be okay,” she said softly after studying something only she could see. “We will,” she seemed to be saying to herself.
“Candi, what is it,” Isaac asked her.
“Nothing you need to worry about,” she responded with a smile that was nearly a perfect replica of her natural expression.
“But it’s something you are worrying about,” Isaac countered.
“I worry about many things, it is a part of my duties as a Megami.” Chandrakanta’s smile was now fully genuine. “Anyway, what is something good that is happening at the conservatory? Are you learning? Have you made new friends?” Isaac sat and thought about his answer to that. He wasn’t the best person at paying attention to things that were going well.
He settled on the most obvious positive, which was the flipped side of the negative experience they’d been discussing earlier. “I don’t know, I guess I can still help Jin and Neasa learn magic. That still doesn’t feel like it’s enough. Letting them glean off of my education. I feel, I know that I should be doing more I just don’t know what it is. If… If there wasn’t pokegirls, it was just unmodified humans… men would need to provide. Provide something to make up for the fact that the woman bears the kid. So…”
“That’s not how things are anymore. You’re putting too much pressure on yourself, we’re not in a position where you need to do anything more to support us.”
Isaac felt frustration bubbling as he couldn’t guide the conversation where he wanted it to go. He was gripped by a mixture of conviction and paranoia, he was right about whatever it was he was trying to articulate. It would be better if he acted on it. It meant that not acting on the idea would be detrimental to him and everyone depending on him. Chandrakanta was being too supportive, too understanding, too unwilling to indicate the obvious flaw Isaac struggled to perceive like he’d struggle to view the side of his own head. “Yes, maybe I am but…”
Isaac paused to collect his thoughts one last time, as if he was tapping the edge of a deck of cards against the table to get them to settle into a compressed and orderly stack. “But when you imagined what sort of man you wanted to be with before I-”
Isaac’s words hung with creeping dread and churning guilt. Chandrakanta’s eyes fell on his in that perfect way where the full mesmerizing spectacle dazzled him for the span of a single neuron firing. “Before we wound up together,” the Megami stated with the most assertive tone she’d assumed throughout the entire conversation. Isaac stared at her, now feeling even more unhappy with how excessively forgiving she was being. Her telepathic voice entered his mind. It was laced with acceptance and contentment. ‘I jumped in, remember?’
“Fine,” Isaac admitted defeat. “When you imagined what sort of man you wanted to be with before we wound up together, was he a deadbeat?”
Chandrakanta couldn’t hold her judgement free expression fixed but she quickly smoothed out the shallow lines of disgust that had etched themselves on her face. “Isaac, you are not a deadbeat.”
“I’m not that far from being one, though, am I?”
Chandrakanta was silent and her attention flicked from studying Isaac’s face to uncomfortably looking past him. She gave one of her greatly dramatic sighs, “I suppose I can understand how you feel that way.”
Isaac didn’t nod or smile even though he’d received the agreement he’d apparently been seeking. “So then it comes back to, ‘What can I do to be more like an ideal man?’”
Chandrakanta was suddenly smiling in a devious way. Isaac felt the click in her psyche that indicated she had found the specific kernel of truth she’d been looking for. “Since you have stripped me to bare honesty, I will admit. I always fantasized about a man holding me the same way you sometimes hold Neasa and Jin. Wrapping your arms around them from behind, pulling them against your body and resting your head on top of theirs. Enveloping them as fully as you can in your embrace.”
Isaac’s mind bounced between the rough conversions. “I’d have to be over two and a half meters tall…”
Chandrakanta perched on the edge of the chair Isaac was occupying. He slid over to yield more to her and the hand-crafted piece of furniture groaned as she settled her weight in a way that wouldn’t overly stress the chair’s legs nor Isaac’s. She wrapped him up in her arms and nuzzled the top of his head, very much like the affection she described wanting to receive but angled from the side. “Imagine how much you would have to stoop to fit in then.” Discomfort that had receded into Isaac’s subconscious sublimated away as minor waves of healing energy flowed through a spot on his head that Isaac kept smacking against particularly poorly arranged shelves in one of the school’s oldest labs. “I believe you are a good man, Isaac Markiyan. I believe the girls you are caring for are good as well. Be true to each other and try to bring out the best in them. They will bring out the best in you.”
The pair of them sat quietly for a while as Isaac turned over Chandrakanta’s last few words in his mind. It couldn’t be as simple as she made it sound, but did she really make it sound simple? It was more that it was highly compressed, the basic structure of the idea was sound but many smaller ideas were needed to fill in the gaps. They didn’t say anything more until Chandrakanta disentangled herself and stood up.
She was suddenly wearing tough cotton work clothes of a vaguely Modern European design which had replaced the vibrant Indian garb somewhere in the motion of her standing. “Well Isaac, I would love to continue doing nothing but sitting with you, but we are rebuilding more in Slov’Yanka today.”
Isaac felt surprised. “You’ve been helping with the rebuilding efforts in town?”
Chandrakanta squared up her stance and smiled broadly at him. “I have been. I help where I see the need and the village carpenter is a very busy man. Would you like to help me? I am sure we could find use for more hands.”
“You know, you’re one of the girls I’m taking care of, in a way. Would this be you trying to bring out the best in me like you said they’d do?”
Chandrakanta touched her collarbone and put on an expression of haughty indignation. “Me, a mere girl?” She locked eyes with Isaac and then guided his gaze to her hand. She slowly pushed towards her heart, spreading the fingers wide. “I am a Megami with centuries of experience in living and loving who can offer far more than you and any girl could together imagine.” The act broke with one of her mysterious but beneficent smiles. “However, yes. I am trying to persuade you to join me in doing some good today.”
Isaac collected his wits so he could respond. “Yeah, I’ll go let the others know.”
Chandrakanta’s smile was renewed in its strength. “Feel free to see if any of them would like to join us.”
Watching Chandrakanta work at carpentry was, like watching her perform many other tasks, a bit mesmerizing. A good deal of it was the tools she used. If one didn’t pay attention it appeared as if she was working normally, reaching into a tool box to replace an implement that wasn’t needed and draw out one that was. Except there was no toolbox. It was nothing but a smokescreen for the constant conjuring and dismissal of tools into her hand. Straight edges, pencils, saws, chisels, and mallets all cycled through material existence.
Also captivating was the steady, practiced hands with which Chandrakanta worked. She had the appearance of someone unfamiliar with manual labor, particularly in her normal fashion. Yet she was preparing the joint fittings for the timber frames just as quickly as the town carpenter with the same level of precision. Isaac finally was curious enough to comment. “I really wouldn’t have guessed you were a carpenter, Candi.”
She put her hands up, “Oh no, I’m not. Not really. I picked some things up here and there. Hmm,” the Megami thought to herself. “I do not know when I learned carpentry exactly. I remember always encountering people who needed to rebuild for one reason or another and I always wished to help. I suppose I absorbed some of the skills while watching but unable to contribute. Then, one day, I came across a family who had their home destroyed and a voice in my head told me, ‘You can do this.’ I believed what it said and it was true, I was able to do what needed to be done. It is a little strange, is it not?”
Isaac didn’t feel that divinely granted tradeskills were that curious of a thing. Work was being led by Tanya, the sheriff’s Rapitaur. She was moving about in her centaur form for the benefit of increased height. Concrete was being mixed by a Beaver pokegirl using her Water Gun technique. Members of a community working together to rebuild after recent misfortune felt so ordinary even with their supernatural capabilities. Oleksandra had come along to help on the condition that they stop by the library before returning to Elena’s home.
Isaac and the BATTLE Battle Angel were working together to put up the beams Chandrakanta was cutting the ends into joining pieces. Simple and efficient joints that could be locked together with a single wood screw, or even a primitive wooden peg. Human and pokegirl lifted the beam together and set it in place. Isaac waited for Oleksandra to drive the screw in but the rabbit eared steel type simply looked around with a confused cant to her ears. “Someone has relocated the screwdriver,” she intoned.
“Where did you leave it,” Isaac asked.
Oleksandra pointed to an upturned bucket right beside her. “I have been placing the screwdriver assigned to me there for the entire duration of this work project. I recall placing it there before we retrieved this plank of lumber from Chandrakanta.”
Well, she was probably right. Unattended tools had a way of winding up in someone else’s hands at a worksite. Isaac was about to offer to go look for one when he recognized a look on his pokegirl’s face. One of introspection, concentration, and inquiry. She had something she wanted to try, likely concerning her armor systems. Metal plates surrounded her right hand and forearm and out popped a small hand tool for turning in screws. Oleksandra looked pleased with herself and pressed her new screwdriver against the head of the screw she wanted to drive. Then she struggled to turn the handle when the mechanical arm that all of her weapons were mounted on got in the way. The Battle Angel altered her angle of grip and tried again.
There was a groan of wood followed by a thunk and several snapping sounds ending with a slight metallic snap. It caused many memories of screws getting stuck and an electric driver stripping the head to emerge from Isaac’s subconscious. Oleksandra’s ears slapped back in fear and she took a small jump away from the joint she was working on. He didn’t think she’d respond so fearfully to just that. “Leksya, what happened?”
The BATTLE Battle Angel was staring at her hand, the screwdriver suspended by the mounting arms. She then looked into Isaac’s eyes while holding the limb up in the line of sight between them. “I attempted to turn the screw when…” She didn’t continue speaking to explain. Instead her hand lurched in an unnatural motion, performing slightly more than a complete rotation at the wrist along an axle that seemed to run through her middle finger. It was spinning like a drill. Her ears were pulled back in fear but bounced back up again. She completed a long series of fast rotations with a look of determination. She focused on his face. “You are laughing.”
“I’m not laughing,” Isaac said through the effort necessary to make the statement true. “It doesn’t look like it hurts.”
“No, I do not suffer any damage from performing this motion although the wood screw has been destroyed. It is unsettling to witness.”
Isaac crossed the floor to get a close look. The handle of the screwdriver wasn’t really a handle. It was a miniature cylinder like the ones that housed her rotary guns. Come to think of it, all of her weapons seemed to have the same sort of form included in all of their designs. “Can you make just the head spin?”
“The head?” Oleksandra lifted the tool up so she could study it intently.
Isaac pointed. “The end that fits into the grooves on the head of the screw. Or this part, the shaft. Neck? Arm?” The part that Isaac was trying to identify was actually called the shank.
Oleksandra concentrated. The screwdriver was pulled back into the panels of her armor by the connecting arm and then was brought out again. There was a notable difference though and a very quiet whirring hum demonstrated that, indeed, Oleksandra could produce a powered screwdriver. Isaac was a bit lost in thought. “You might be handier than Candi depending on how much you can alter that.” A deviant thought occurred to him. “Can you vibrate?”
Oleksandra displayed uncertainty. “Why would I wish to produce vibrations?”
Isaac should have expected an earnest question. This is what he deserved for trying to joke about sex with Oleksandra. He looked around at the other workers who were beginning to clean up their work areas. “Let’s get this finished up and I’ll explain on the way to the library.”
“Leksya, will you be making any printouts today?”
Oleksandra's ears swiveled to focus on the source of the question, the librarian on duty. The Battle Angel swept her eyes over the tightly compressed text on the screen once quickly before answering. “Access to the printer will not be necessary today.”
Isaac's attention was pulled away from deciphering the dense blocks of text to a memory of him determining his little group needed to work on their etiquette. "Say 'thank you.'"
“Access to the printer will not be necessary today, thank you.” Oleksandra repeated the phrase with nearly the exact same intonation except for the tacked on pleasantry. She quickly typed a few command prompts to back out of the drive she was accessing and then powered the external peripheral down. It was a blocky piece of electronics dominated by a large slot, one that could fit an entire college text book inside. That slot was currently occupied by the data cartridge Oleksandra had been accessing, some sort of chip storage device that was much heavier than the material of the outer shell implied. It all rode on a hand-pushed cart that was normally stashed in a closet behind the front desk. Oleksandra wrapped the cords around the base of the machine and then wheeled it towards its home.
"You left your cartridge in the reader," Isaac told her as she started to walk away.
The librarian, an Ingenue pokewoman somewhere between middle aged and elderly, smiled without quite laughing. She'd pointed out the same thing the first few times Oleksandra had accessed this device that the library staff didn't even know existed. Oleksandra provided the same answer to her tamer that she had given the librarian. "Leaving the cartridge in the device is part of the procedure. It will be picked up and returned to its distributor at the time a technician performs the next round of maintenance."
The Ingenue behind the counter shrugged her arms. "I didn't believe her but she's right. The young man and his Video-girl who check on the computers once every two weeks also drop off and pick up those cartridges if there's a ticket open. Leksya here is the first person I've ever seen use the thing, though. Some program from the PLC distributed hundreds to each league forty years ago as part of some international information sharing scheme.”
After crossing the threshold of the library doors Oleksandra filled in the many details the librarian had left out, likely because she was unaware. “The international information sharing scheme Liudmyla mentioned was criticized for relying on a chipset that had been out of market for twenty-two years. The Jahana Series 68 Data Slab was patented on the 20th of September, 2299. Financial records were traced to show that several members of the Planetary League Advisory Board for Communication benefited personally from the contracts which were awarded. The sudden availability of the external readers along with the attention generated by the scandal caused a resurgence of interest among technology enthusiasts. Today it remains in use among mostly data-adept pokegirls to exchange compressed text-based information over international boundaries.”
That was a lot of unsolicited information without a clear jumping off point for Isaac. His thoughts returned to an old concern. “You’re sure this is all safe and legal to use?”
“I revealed the existence of the exchange to Honorata when she inquired why I was requesting directions to the nearest library in Svyatylyshche. Honorata indicated she was aware of the data exchange and I can assure you that the manner in which I have accessed the exchange in the past has no risk of legal repercussions within the Sapphire League.”
Well that was specifically worded reassurance. Honorata did seem to know her ins and outs regarding legality within the Sapphire League though and Oleksandra hadn’t demonstrated much of a proclivity for lying. Isaac and Oleksandra turned around the corner as the stone-topped road that ran through town ended at an intersection with a compacted dirt road that would guide them most of the way back to Elena’s. “That’s good. So how does the information you want get on the one cartridge coming here? Do you have to pay for it?”
Oleksandra nodded, “Most of the data I access is distributed freely. Urban based news aggregators prepare article packets for more remote locations every two weeks. It’s this use that has seen the program survive to today. Requests for other information can be uploaded to the slab drive, typically for copies of files not normally sent to that region. I have been unpacking files at this location as an exchange of favors with this location’s technician. He places the order for files I would like to receive.”
‘Sheesh,’ Isaac thought to himself. ‘All still sounds dodgy and convoluted.’ He spoke the next question out loud. “This is all part of that program through the PLC?”
“Negative,” Oleksandra stated as she shook her head gently but a lot of motion transferred to her ears. “The official PLC program is almost entirely defunct. The network arose from technology enthusiasts and members of particular sectors of society cooperating to keep the exchange operational. News media, small scale security, and civil services predominantly.”
“And somehow Mars knows about this.” Isaac found himself fixating on a point in the sky where he’d seen a large, bright, and reddish stellar body hovering the previous night. Things felt so ordinary, it was easy to forget about Martian offices of science and security. Or portals. Or authors. Sanctuary… So much Isaac knew was out there but wasn’t really thinking about. Even the distortions on the fabric of reality weren’t really at the forefront of his mind anymore.
Not for the time being, anyway.
(-[|]-) End 15.1 (-[|]-)