Year End 2788
An EARTH GIRL Short Story featuring Lecturer Dannel Playdon.
The Earth Girl stories are set in the Portal Future, where humanity portals between twelve hundred colony worlds scattered across six sectors of space.
This story takes place on Earth at the start of the Year End holiday 2788, and gives a glimpse of Lecturer Dannel Playdon shortly before Jarra arrives in his class.
As I neared the end of my farewell speech, I looked round the hall at my class of thirty students. I’d spent the whole of 2788 sharing a series of cramped accommodation domes with them as we helped excavate some of the long-abandoned, ruined cities of Earth. During that time, they’d annoyed me, frustrated me, delighted me, bewildered me, scared me to death, and made me incredibly proud. I’d watched them adapt to the dangerous work, gain in knowledge, and mature as people. Now it was time to say goodbye.
This Pre-history Foundation course was over, and my students were heading off world to spend the Year End holiday with their families. After Year Day 2789, those who’d caught the love of excavation work would return to Earth to start full degree courses in pre-history. Others would stay on worlds in distant star systems to study various branches of theoretical history, while Taylor had, in his typically random approach to life, got a job on Asgard as a zoo keeper.
After spending a year trying Taylor in every conceivable role in excavation work, and cringing at his mistakes in all of them, I thought he was wise to try a change of career. With luck, he wouldn’t accidently let any particularly lethal creatures out of their enclosures. Once the zoo administrators discovered his absent minded tendencies, they’d probably limit him to caring for goldfish.
I said the final words of my speech. “Asgard 6 class of 2788, it has been an honour teaching you. I wish you every possible happiness and success in the future. Happy Year End.”
“Happy Year End.” My students echoed my words.
The identical twins came towards me. One of them – even after a year I couldn’t be sure which – was brandishing a brush and a tiny glass of dark ink. I was used to this routine by now, so I held out my right arm and watched her draw a symbol on my wrist with her brush.
“What does this one mean?” I asked.
“This wishes you good fortune, Lecturer Playdon,” she said, and moved on to paint the same symbol on the wrists of her fellow students.
The other twin handed me an oblong of solid glass on a golden base. Within it, many strands of silk came together to be woven into a strip of fabric before separating again. I knew without counting them that there’d be thirty-one strands. Each of them looked a different colour and texture. The base had a distinctive circle that showed it contained an imbedded holo recording. I’d play it later, discover which strand of silk represented each of us, and watch the recorded messages from the students.
The twins came from Fianna, one of the most culturally distinctive worlds of Gamma sector. They delighted in researching how the ancient customs of different regions of Earth had been carried by colonists to worlds of Alpha sector during the great twenty-fourth century exodus from Earth, how those customs had then changed over the years, and been echoed on by future waves of colonization to influence their own world. The twins were planning to specialize in studying evolution of cultures, and I looked forward to reading some fascinating papers from them.
“The class give their thanks to you for everything you’ve done for us in this last year,” said the second twin.
“My thanks to the class too,” I said. “To every single one of you. Remember that I’d be delighted to hear news of how you get on in future. Not just your successes, but the times things go wrong or you find yourself following an unexpected path.”
There was a burst of conversation after that, followed by an outbreak of students giving each other final hugs, and then I led the procession of people and luggage down the dome corridor to the portal room. That was barely big enough to hold a couple of people and their luggage at a time, so I dialled America Off-world, locked the portal open for multiple travellers, and then stood in the corner to say a last couple of words to each person.
I watched each of the class vanish into the portal in turn, and wondered if they were gathering in the vast hall of America Off-world for yet another round of good wishes, or heading straight on to the interstellar portals to continue their journeys home.
Finally, they’d all gone but one. Dacian Ciar Drummond, the only Betan in the class, paused by the portal to smile at me. I remembered the first time I’d seen him. He’d been an eye-catching sight; unusually tall, hair dyed bright blue, and wearing a formal Betan toga trimmed with glittering, silver braid.
Dacian’s dyed hair and dazzling toga turned out to be the latest fashion on his home world of Romulus. Both his hair and his clothes were radically different now but even more spectacular. A few months ago, Dacian had started researching his family tree, and been entranced to discover he had some ancestors from the part of Earth Europe that was once called Scotland. The class was in Europe at the time, doing excavation work on the ruins of Paris Coeur, and I’d been fool enough to take them all to Scotland to watch a historical re-enactment of an early fourteenth century battle.
Given Dacian’s enthusiastic nature and romantic ideas about history, I should have realized the dangers of taking him to a re-enactment. He’d instantly made friends with the re-enactors, and they’d told him all about the special fabrics known as tartans.
Once Dacian discovered there was a Drummond tartan, and where he could get reproduction clothes, the rest was inevitable. Within days, he was proudly wearing a mostly red kilt and had changed his hair colour to match. Fortunately, his chosen version of highland dress covered the body areas defined as legally private on Earth, so Dacian had been getting plenty of startled glances when I took the class through public areas but no one had tried to arrest him yet.
“Are you planning to keep wearing a kilt when you’re back on Romulus?” I asked.
“Of course,” said Dacian. “I wore highland dress on my last visit home. Family history is very important to Betans, so everyone in my clan was thrilled to hear we can trace our history all the way back to clans of ancient Scotland. Some of the others plan to join me in wearing highland dress at our Year End celebrations.”
I was hit by a vivid mental image of an entire Betan clan wearing kilts. If Dacian’s clan were half as enthusiastic as he was, then that could happen. Perhaps they’d invent the tartan toga, the rest of Romulus would join in with the new fashion, and the twins could use it as the basis of one of their papers on evolution of cultures.
“It’s time for us to say goodbye,” continued Dacian. “Unless you’d like me to stay on for a few hours so we could have a quick tumble?”
I groaned. Despite being a hopeless romantic who cheerfully told everyone he was searching for his destined, true love, Dacian also had the standard, light-hearted Betan approach to casual sex while he was still single.
“Dacian, we’ve managed to get through this whole year without problems because you made offers to every person in the class but always accepted no for an answer. I’ve never known you go back and bother someone again after a refusal. Why did you have to spoil your record now?”
He laughed and pointedly used my first name. “You didn’t say no to me, Dannel Playdon. You said that it would be inappropriate for you to have an intimate relationship with one of your students. I’m not your student any longer.”
I had to laugh too. “I suppose that’s true, Dacian. Thank you for the offer, I’m flattered, but the answer is definitely no.”
He shrugged. “I accept your decision, Dannel Playdon, but may I give you a purely platonic hug of farewell?”
Normally, I’d have said no to that too. I’d been raised on a world with a culture that frowned on casual physical contact, and avoided the touch of all but my closest friends and family. I wasn’t sure what was different this time. Perhaps Dacian’s outgoing nature was infectious, or perhaps I was already feeling Year End depression creeping over me. “You may.”
I was enfolded in warmth for a minute, then I felt the touch of his lips on my forehead and he released me and stepped back.
“That was a platonic hug?” I asked.
“That was totally platonic, Dannel Playdon. I’ll be back on the dig sites of Earth next year. If you ever want a wilder hug then give me a call. If I haven’t found my true love by then, I’ll be happy to demonstrate the difference between that and platonic.”
Dacian gave me a last smile, turned away, and stepped through the portal. His hover bags chased after him, jostling together for a moment before they were gone too.
I shut down the portal, then set off to make my final inspection tour of our dome. That was an oddly melancholy process, walking along the silent corridors to check each empty room for lost belongings and missing or damaged furniture.
There was only a solitary, battered shoe to show that thirty students had lived here for the last month. No one would want me to send that after them to a distant world, so I threw the shoe away and went back to my own room. As I added my glass souvenir to one of the gaggle of hover bags I’d packed earlier, despair hit me like an avalanche of rocks.
I’d been expecting this, because the same thing had happened at each of the last three Year Ends. I’d learned that I could shelter from the darkness all year, taking refuge in the constant demands of my class, but Year End was the danger time. It was a season filled with memories, culminating in the crucial anniversary that opened up all my old wounds.
I told myself that I’d got through the previous Year End holidays, and I’d get through this one too. Three years ago, I’d made the mistake of huddling alone with my grief through the empty days. Since then, I’d realised I needed every distraction I could find at Year End, and accepted invitations to spend the holiday with friends. If I behaved strangely sometimes, or abruptly left an event because I needed privacy, then it didn’t matter. My friends understood why I found Year End a difficult time.
Once the Year End holiday was over, I’d be safe again, fully occupied with my new class. Students on the University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course were divided into several groups. A couple of weeks ago, I’d been sent information on the thirty assigned to my Asgard 6 class. I’d highlighted a few who might need special support, and noted down three as potential problem cases.
Two of those problem cases were Betan students with qualifications that didn’t entitle them to places on any reputable history course, let alone one run by the high-ranked history department of University Asgard. I’d asked my department head what they were doing on my class list, and Professor Audet had made a pointed comment about a Betan clan donating a very generous research grant. I didn’t like that answer. If those Betan students thought their clan money would buy them special privileges in my class then they’d soon learn their mistake.
The third problem case was a nameless, mystery student, appearing on my class list only as “To be confirmed.” I knew that wasn’t because we’d been unable to fill all the places on the course – the University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course was very popular – but Professor Audet had said she couldn’t give me more information until some issues had been clarified. Presumably there was some question mark over this student’s qualifications.
My lookup chimed with an incoming call. I reached for it and answered, expecting the caller to be Taylor. On his last trip home, he’d got lost in Asia Off-world, walked through the wrong interstellar portal, and called me to ask advice on how to get home from the planet Freya.
I was startled to find I was part of a group call with two of the other University Asgard Pre-history Foundation course lecturers. I projected the holo images of their heads and shoulders in mid air in front of me.
“Dannel, have you sent your Asgard 6 class safely on their way?” asked Lecturer Akhtar.
“Yes,” I said.
“So would you have time to discuss something with us?” asked Lecturer Bolton.
There was a moment of hesitation, as if they both wanted the other to do the talking. Finally Lecturer Akhtar spoke. “You know that some students experience parental opposition to their choice of degree subject.”
“It’s quite common,” I said.
Lecturer Akhtar was twisting the golden strands of the bracelet on her wrist, a sure sign she was worried about something. “There are three boys on the course who attended the same school on Hercules in Delta sector. Apparently, they studied history together without their parents’ knowledge. When they were offered places on our course, all three sets of parents contacted University Asgard to object. Admissions gave them the standard response that the choice of course and subject is entirely the student’s decision.”
She waved her hands. “Two of the families gave up at this point, but a Professor Eklund was especially persistent. He’s the head of the physics department at University Hercules, which he seems to think makes him the most important person in humanity. He made a personal call to Professor Audet to order her to remove his son from the course. She refused, and put all three of the boys on my Asgard 7 class list.”
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
“A week ago, Professor Eklund made a personal call to me,” said Lecturer Akhtar.
I raised my eyebrows. “The students haven’t been been told their classes yet, and the class lists themselves should only be accessible by staff at University Asgard. How did Professor Eklund find out his son was on your class list, and why was he calling you?”
“He was calling me to say he knew I hoped to be promoted next year.” Lecturer Akhtar’s voice held a grim note. “He told me I had to find an excuse to throw his son off the course, or he’d block my promotion.”
I frowned. “How could he possibly do that? He’s at a different University on a different planet. Hercules and Asgard aren’t even in the same sector of space.”
“I didn’t take his threat seriously either,” said Lecturer Akhtar. “Not until I got a message from the head of our physics department saying he hoped he wouldn’t be forced to raise objections to my promotion.”
“Chaos,” I said. “Well that explains how Professor Eklund managed to get hold of University Asgard’s class lists. Have you told Professor Audet about this threat?”
“Yes,” she said. “We agreed that raising this with University Senate could start a damaging scandal. Professor Audet dodged the problem by moving the boy to the Asgard 8 class list.”
“I don’t have to worry about my promotion being blocked,” said Lecturer Bolton. “I haven’t the academic qualifications to teach anything other than a Pre-history Foundation course. We thought that moving the boy to my class would solve everything, but this morning Professor Eklund contacted me.”
He paused for a moment looking embarrassed, and then rushed on. “The man had somehow found out about some incidents in my student days. I did a few things back then which …”
I was a few days short of 29 years old. Lecturer Bolton must be about twelve years older than that. I respected the work he did now, and didn’t want to know what mistakes he’d made as a student twenty years ago, so I interrupted at this point. “You mean Professor Eklund is attempting to blackmail you?”
“Yes,” said Lecturer Bolton, “and I daren’t go to Professor Audet about it. Lecturer Akhtar and I wondered if you could take the boy in your class. You turned down promotion last year for personal reasons, and you’ve got a faultless reputation.”
“Given what’s already happened, I’m sure Professor Audet would approve a student exchange request without asking any questions,” said Lecturer Akhtar. “However, we appreciate there may be something in your past life we don’t know about, or you may not wish to be dragged into this.”
I didn’t want Lecturer Bolton to be embarrassed, or a student to be robbed of his hard-earned place on our course. “I’ll take the boy in Asgard 6. What’s his name?”
“Fian Andrej Eklund,” said Lecturer Bolton. “I’ll send you his details right away.”
I nodded. “And I’ll send you the details of one of my Deltan students who can move to your class.”
There was a pause while we mailed each other the students’ details, and Lecturer Bolton sent the exchange request to Professor Audet. Her approval came within seconds, closely followed by a set of revised class lists.
“We appreciate your help with this, Dannel,” said Lecturer Akhtar. “I’m afraid your Year End holiday is likely to be interrupted by calls from Professor Eklund.”
“That doesn’t worry me,” I said. “I prefer to keep busy at Year End.”
They ended the call. I was alone again and my depression loomed, but it was weaker now. My class of 2788 had gone, but the problems of my class of 2789 had already started.
I clicked the key fob to make my hover bags rise into the air and start chasing me, picked up the heavy coat that was slung over a chair, and headed to the portal room. Once there, I stopped to send a message to Chicago Dig Site Command to tell them our accommodation dome was vacant. I was about to dial the portal code for America Transit 1 when my lookup chimed. Professor Eklund was calling me!
I’d expected the man to call me within a couple of days of the revised class lists going out, not within minutes. I stared at Professor Eklund’s image on my lookup screen for a few seconds, thinking through the implications of him contacting me so quickly.
He’d obviously been told about his son moving to my class, but he wouldn’t be calling me just to say he knew that. After Professor Eklund had seen his son moved from the Asgard 7 class list to Asgard 8, he must have anticipated there could be a further move. He hadn’t stopped after researching Lecturer Bolton’s background but carried on to research mine as well. I wondered how much Professor Eklund had learned about me.
I answered the call, projecting the image of Professor Eklund’s head and shoulders on the grey wall of the portal room. The flexiplas had been scratched and dented over the years by passing students and their luggage, so the background added a host of imperfections as well as a grey tinge to the man’s fair skin and close trimmed hair. He looked at me with a blank, expressionless face, before speaking in a cold voice.
“You’ve been informed of the situation with my son?”
“I have,” I said. “You’ve already used threats and blackmail. What’s your plan for dealing with me? Bribery?”
“I think I’ll stick with blackmail, Lecturer Playdon. Just over four years ago, you vanished for three months. At the time, you belonged to a research team run jointly by University Asgard and University Cassandra. From early October 2784 to the beginning of January 2785, University Asgard’s records show that you were carrying out research at University Cassandra. At the same time, University Cassandra’s records show you were running a training course at University Asgard.”
Chaos, Professor Eklund must have checked my life incredibly thoroughly to spot that anomaly in my career. I thought rapidly, trying to work out the best way to respond to his attack. It was clear that he hadn’t yet discovered where I really was for those crucial months. I didn’t want to give him any clues so I kept my response to two words.
“I was sure you would be,” said Professor Eklund. “Now I’ll tell you what is going to happen. You won’t waste my time by moving my son between classes yet again. You will keep him in your class for the first week of the course, and then find an excuse to send him home.”
“I’m curious why you’d want him to be on our course for exactly one week before being sent away.”
“Because after my son has spent one week on your course, it will be too late for him to find a place on another Pre-history Foundation course this year,” said Professor Eklund. “That will leave him with no option but to accept the place I’m saving for him on a Physics Foundation course at University Hercules.”
I’d met parents before who were determined to rule their children’s lives, but none as cold and calculating as this man. “Why force the boy to study physics when his heart is set on studying history?”
Professor Eklund gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “My son has too much potential to be allowed to waste his time on history. He shouldn’t be learning about past trivia, but researching the science of the future.”
I fought to hide my anger and keep my face as unreadable as his.
“Asgard is in Gamma sector, so your courses are run under the Gamma sector moral code,” continued Professor Eklund. “It should be easy for you to invent a breach of that moral code.”
“That would certainly be possible,” I said in a carefully neutral tone of voice.
“Then we understand each other.”
Professor Eklund’s image abruptly vanished as he ended the call. I stood still for a moment or two longer before shaking my head, putting my coat on, and dialling the portal. I felt uncomfortably hot as I stepped into the portal, and walked through the bustling crowds in America Transit 1 to use a longer distance, inter-continental portal to reach Europe Transit 3.
One more step through a local portal, and the temperature plummeted. I was standing outside now, with the cold air of a midwinter evening freezing my face. It was well past sunset here. My surroundings should have been totally dark, but ahead of me were the leaping flames of a bonfire, and what looked like gaily coloured lanterns were hanging from the branches of nearby trees.
Rono’s voice called my name. “Dannel! I was getting worried that you’d changed your mind about coming. What took you so long?”
“I was delayed by a problem,” I said.
“Don’t your students ever leave you in peace?” Rono appeared out of the gloom, his dark face and heavily muscled figure shrouded in a golden cloak. His right hand was occupied carrying a glowing red lantern, but he draped his left arm casually round my shoulder.
I first met Rono when some unknown administrator put us in the same Pre-history Foundation class eleven years ago. I spent the first three months shuddering in horror at Rono’s flamboyant personality, but we’d gradually learnt to understand each other better and he’d become one of my closest friends.
“The problem isn’t with a student but with a parent,” I said. “A boy’s father is blackmailing me.”
Rono took his arm from my shoulder and stared at me, his face showing the wide-eyed, shocked expression that my students would describe as totally grazzed. “Blackmailing you? To force you to give his son a place in your class?”
“To force me to throw his son out of my class,” I said. “He wants the boy to study physics instead of history.”
Rono’s shocked expression changed to angry disapproval. “I pity the boy, but how the chaos is his father managing to blackmail you? Don’t tell me that you have a secret double life as a master criminal!”
Rono had been my research team leader four years ago. He was the only person here who knew the truth about where I’d gone at the end of 2784, so the one person I could share this joke with. I glanced round to make sure no one else was in earshot, and lowered my voice.
“The father may be thinking that. He’s found out about me vanishing four years ago.”
Rono gave a startled laugh. “When you were helping the Military deal with that huge cache of ancient stasis boxes in Earth America? By the way, you forgot to tell me what you found in them.”
I tapped Rono on the nose. “You know perfectly well that I didn’t forget to tell you. I can’t tell you. As part of getting my Stasis Qualification licence, I had to take the Security Oath, and the contents of those boxes were classified secret.”
“Which even a first year history student could guess was because the boxes held weapons,” said Rono. “Were they nuclear warheads?”
He waited hopefully for a reply, but I just gave him a frosty look.
Rono sighed. “If your student’s father asks too many questions about you vanishing back then, Military Security will turn up to ask a few of their own. Did you warn the man he was wasting his time?”
“No,” I said. “I preferred to let him think I’ve surrendered. That way he won’t try to stop his son from coming to join the course. When I don’t send the boy home as ordered, the father is bound to contact me again. I can enjoy myself telling him the truth then.”
“What about the boy himself?” asked Rono. “Will you tell him how his father’s been trying to sabotage his history career?”
“I’m still thinking about that,” I said. “It’s probably best if I don’t interfere. The boy must know his father’s opposed to him studying history. I imagine their relationship is difficult enough already without me adding more poison to it.”
I saw someone walking towards us, carrying two lanterns. I couldn’t see his face from this distance, but I could guess who he was because his cloak matched the one Rono was wearing. “We can’t talk about this any longer, because Keren’s coming to join us.”
A moment later, Keren was smiling at me. “Welcome, Dannel,” he said. “If Rono can stop gossiping for a moment, then we’ll show you your room so you can unpack.”
“Keren means that we’ll show you your tent,” said Rono.
I groaned. “We’re staying in tents? I was hoping for a luxurious hotel room as a break from the basic dig site accommodation.”
“You can blame my husband for both the weather and the tents,” said Rono bitterly.
Rono was using the ominous words “my husband”, instead of calling Keren by name. I groaned again. “Please don’t tell me you two are having another one of your fights.”
“Not a fight exactly,” said Rono. “It’s just that I wanted us to go to Australia and have a warm, sunny Year End.”
“You dragged us all to Australia last Year End, Rono.” said Keren. “It was my turn to choose this year, and I wanted snow for a change. There’s no need to throw a toddler’s sulking fit about it.”
“I wouldn’t mind coming here if we had some snow, but we don’t.” Rono frowned at Keren. “All we have is freezing winds, miserably short dark days, and tents!”
He pronounced the last word in tones of deepest disgust.
“Of course we’ve got tents,” said Keren. “We’re at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the recreation of the meeting between King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France back in 1520. They had tents, so we have tents.”
“They had tents in summer,” said Rono. “We have tents in winter.”
Keren shook his head at me. “Ignore him, Dannel. The Field of the Cloth of Gold is a tourist attraction, not a slavish historical recreation. The tents are just as fake as these lanterns, and have all the modern comforts.”
He handed one of his lanterns to me, and I saw that what looked like a flame behind the reddish glass was actually an artistically shaped glow unit. “I’ll show you the way,” he said, “and you can judge for yourself.”
By now my eyes had adjusted to the darkness. The portal and the bonfire were near the centre of an area of grass. Around the edges were a few scattered, leafless trees and the dim shapes of what must be the tents. Keren led us on towards one of them. In the lantern light, it looked like it was made of fabric draped over a wooden framework, but then he shattered the illusion by opening a very solid door.
As I followed Keren inside, bright lights came on. I found myself in what could have been any hotel room, except for the novelty fake fireplace, and the reproduction tapestries hanging on the walls.
“The bathroom door is behind the middle tapestry,” said Keren. “We’ll leave you to settle in, and you can come and join us at the bonfire when you’re ready.”
I led my hover bags across to the storage area, and clicked the key fob control to make them sink down on to the floor.
Keren was heading for the door but Rono hadn’t moved yet. “Jerez is here,” he said in a meaningful voice. “I arranged for her to have the next tent to you.”
I frowned at him. Rono dragged me out of my shell and made me do things that I’d never consider by myself. I recognized that our friendship was good for me, but there were times when he tried to push me into being someone I didn’t want to be.
“Rono, I’ve already told you twice that I think Jerez is a very attractive woman, and I admire her excavation work, but I’m not ready to start a new relationship yet.”
Keren glanced back at us. “Leave Dannel alone, Rono. He’s the total opposite of you, and can’t replace his partner in life as casually as he replaces his shoes.”
I gave him a startled look, but Keren was already going out of the door. Once he’d closed it behind him, I turned to glare at Rono. “Your argument was over more than the weather, wasn’t it? What have you done this time?”
Rono gave me a wounded look. “I didn’t do anything. Why do you always blame me?”
“Because I know both you and Keren very well. What did you do, Rono?”
“I told you I didn’t do anything. After New Tokyo Main Dig Site closed for the Year End holiday yesterday, there was a party. I chatted to one or two people there and Keren felt neglected.”
“You mean that you got caught up in a conversation with someone and ignored Keren all evening.”
Rono had a habit of rubbing his elegant dark nose when he was feeling guilty about something. He did it now. “I was talking to Todd and lost track of time for a bit, but there was no need for Keren to get all jealous about it. We’ve been together for nearly seven years. Keren should know by now that I’m not interested in Todd or anyone else.”
“The point you’re missing here is that you may not be interested in Todd, but he’s extremely interested in you.”
“Really?” Rono gave an anxious look at the door. “I didn’t know that. Are you sure?”
“I’m certain. Todd’s research team was supposed to move to Chicago a month ago, but he kept them working in New Tokyo because you were there. All the teams on Chicago Main Dig Site were gossiping about it.”
“Oh nuke.” Rono rubbed his nose again. “Before we went to the party, Keren asked me to stay away from Todd, but I thought he was just making a fuss because Todd has fair hair.”
“Why would Todd’s hair colour matter?” I gave Rono a bewildered look.
“Keren still hasn’t got over the fact his previous partner dumped him for a spectacular blond,” said Rono. “I only have to look at someone male and fair-haired for Keren to start panicking.”
I buried my face in my hands, counted to ten, then looked up again and forced myself to speak patiently. “I knew that Keren had insecure moments. I didn’t understand what triggered them, but if you do then why make things worse by teasing him?”
“I admit I find it annoying when Keren doesn’t trust me,” said Rono, “but I wasn’t teasing him yesterday.”
“It sounds suspiciously like teasing to me. Keren asked you to stay away from Todd, but you deliberately ignored him and spent the evening with the man.”
“It wasn’t like that,” said Rono. “Todd walked by us and accidentally knocked over my glass. He insisted on taking me off to get a replacement drink, and then he asked my advice about a research paper he was writing, so I couldn’t just walk away.”
He paused for a second. “Todd didn’t knock over my drink by accident, did he?”
I gave him a pitying look. “I’m sure that knocking over the drink was every bit as accidental as Todd changing his team’s work schedule so he could be at that party.”
“Oh nuke,” said Rono. “What do I … ?”
A chiming sound interrupted our conversation. I took out my lookup, glanced at the caller, and was confused. “I thought most of your research team, including Stephan and Katt, were here with us, Rono.”
“They are,” said Rono. “Stephan and Katt were standing next to the bonfire five minutes ago.”
“So why is Katt calling my lookup instead of coming to talk to me?”
Rono’s forehead creased. “I’ve no idea.”
I shrugged and answered the call. Katt was wearing modern clothes like me instead of historical costume. She had a hat pulled down over her ears, and her face was flushed from the glow of the bonfire next to her.
“Dannel,” she said urgently, “we’ve got a crisis out here. Todd just arrived. I don’t know what the chaos Rono thought he was doing inviting Todd to join us for the Year End holiday, but you have to talk some sense into the fool. Keren’s not going to stay here to watch Todd drooling over Rono, and if Keren leaves then the rest of us are going with him.”
I didn’t have the chance to reply before Katt’s image vanished. Rono gave me a single despairing look before turning, flinging the door open, and running off into the night. I abandoned any idea of unpacking and followed him.
Since I wasn’t going to risk sprinting through the darkness on unknown paths, I was soon left behind, but I could tell when Rono reached the bonfire because he started shouting. I could hear every word he said. Given the volume of his voice, people could probably hear him in neighbouring star systems.
“What the nuke are you doing here, Todd? I didn’t invite you. I’d rather spend the Year End holiday with a Cassandrian skunk suffering from mange. I’d rather spend it down a drain with a horde of Zeus sewer rats. I’d rather walk the desert crossing on Adonis barefoot and naked. In my opinion, the Military should change the Planet First selection criteria for colony worlds to exclude any planet you’ve trodden on as uninhabitable due to pollution.”
Rono could keep this sort of tirade up for hours. The way he suddenly stopped told me that Todd had left. When I joined the group standing round the bonfire, I saw plenty of familiar faces, but there was no sign of either Rono or Keren. I went across to join Stephan and Katt.
“I assume Todd portalled out, and Rono is busy grovelling to Keren,” I said.
“That’s right,” said Katt. “I sometimes think we should forget all about archaeology and make our own ent vid series instead. The dramatic life of Professor Rono Kipkibor and the Cassandra 2 research team would be an instant cross-sector hit.”
I smiled. “Rono used to be even worse when he was a student.”
“That doesn’t seem possible,” said Katt.
“It’s true though,” said Stephan. “These days he’s burdened by his responsibilities as a research team leader, and showing signs of becoming a sensible human being.”
“Very faint signs,” said Katt.
Jerez came over and handed me a metal goblet that was radiating heat. “Mulled wine. You prefer the non alcoholic version, don’t you?”
I sipped the spicy brew and nodded. “Yes, thank you. Your clothes are even more impressive than usual, Jerez. Your own work?”
Jerez glanced down at her full-length, red and gold dress with its matching cloak. “Yes. I based the dress on one in a sixteenth century painting. Sadly, I couldn’t get truly authentic fabrics.”
Jerez’s obsession for authenticity had made her take up spinning wool and weaving. I was tempted to ask if she’d considered keeping silk worms as well, but Jerez was bound to take the joke seriously, and give me a lecture on the problems of caring for silk worms when living in dig site accommodation.
“Dannel, I should give you a warning,” added Jerez. “Rono has matchmaking plans for the two of us.”
“I’ve already discovered that,” I said. “He told me he’d given us neighbouring tents.”
Katt groaned. “Rono’s idea of subtlety is to hit someone over the head with a transport sled.”
“I told Rono that I’m not ready for a new relationship,” I said. “I hope he’ll accept that and leave me in peace.”
“If he doesn’t,” said Stephan, “you could always deal with the situation in period fashion by challenging him to a duel.”
I shuddered. “Not after what happened last time. I’ll never forget the look on the face of the doctor in that Earth Europe casualty unit.”
“What?” Katt looked startled. “You fought a duel with Rono and one of you was wounded?”
“It wasn’t a duel,” I said. “It happened back when we were students. We were preparing a sword fighting display for the class. Rono got historical costumes for both of us, which included flamboyant, trailing cloaks. He managed to trip on his cloak in rehearsal, landed on his sword, and stabbed himself. I had to half carry him to the portal.”
I pulled a face. “Picture the scene. Both of us portalling into a Hospital Earth Europe casualty unit in full historical costume, and then Rono collapsing on the floor in a pool of blood. I had to get our lecturer to come and help me explain to the doctor, or I’d have been arrested!”
Katt shook her head. “Typical of Rono. He grabs every chance to wear a dramatic costume. He wants us all to dress up for the big historical event tomorrow, and Jerez is really annoyed about it.”
I was puzzled. “Why would that annoy you, Jerez? You have your beautiful dress, and Rono promised he’d find costumes for the rest of us too.”
“He’s found a costume for all of us,” said Jerez resentfully. “I’ve put a huge amount of work into my clothes, but Rono wants us to appear as a dragon. Rono will be the dragon’s head of course, while we get to be the long dragon’s tail. All except Stephan, because he’s got to dress as a knight in armour to fight the dragon.”
I frowned. “I hope Rono doesn’t want us to wear a dragon’s costume all day. It doesn’t sound very practical for things like eating.”
“It’s not just impractical,” said Jerez. “It’s a total anachronism, and I refuse to be involved.”
“Why is it an anachronism?” I asked. “Surely there was dragon mythology in sixteenth century Europe.”
“Yes, but Rono’s got hold of a twentieth century Chinese dragon costume,” said Jerez.
I could see that tomorrow was likely to turn into a battle between Rono’s passionate love of a dramatic costume, and Jerez’s passionate love of historical accuracy. It seemed wise to wait until I’d seen the actual dragon costume before I committed myself to one side or the other. I settled for making a sympathetic noise.
“I’d rather be part of an anachronistic dragon than a knight in armour,” said Stephan. “When Rono made me dress up as a knight in armour last year, it was a hideously heavy and uncomfortable costume. I vote that Playdon takes over fighting the dragon.”
I laughed. “You’ll have to find someone else to replace you, Stephan. I’m already fighting a dragon disguised as a physics professor.”
There was a chime from my lookup. I glanced at the display, expecting it would be Professor Eklund calling me again. Instead, I saw I had a message from University Asgard.
“Do you mind if I take a moment to read this?” I asked. “I’ve had a mystery student on my class list for weeks, and I’ve finally been sent their details.”
“Go ahead,” said Stephan.
I tapped my lookup and skipped straight to the student’s qualifications. I was looking for something dubious, but no one could fault this girl’s grades. The relevant experience section was impossibly stunning too.
I’d never seen a Pre-history Foundation course applicant with a record as good as this. I shook my head in disbelief, but then I read on further and reached a plethora of attached notes that explained everything. This girl wasn’t from one of the many hundreds of humanity’s colony worlds, but from Earth itself!
I skimmed through the administrational notes, the lawyer’s notes, and notes from my department head. Whether they phrased their comments as advice or orders, whether they used polite terms or insults to describe the girl, everyone seemed eager to give me their opinion of an Earth girl daring to apply to a course run by University Asgard and instruct me on how I should deal with having her in my class.
I was still recovering from my initial shock, and trying to decide my own position on the situation, when I saw the one note that had been part of the original application. The note that warned me I could face charges of professional misconduct if I gave information about this girl to the other students in my class.
An hour ago, I’d been threatened by a student’s father. Now I was being threatened by a student. I frowned down at my lookup. I’d wished for things to distract me from my depression this Year End, and my wish had been granted in abundance. A white flake drifted down from the sky to land on the screen of my lookup. It looked as if Keren’s wish for snow was going to be granted too.
“Is there some sort of problem, Dannel?” asked Katt.
I tapped my lookup to turn it off. “Nothing I can’t deal with, but it looks as if 2789 is going to be a very interesting year.”
If you haven’t read the Earth Girl books and are wondering what is so shocking about an Earth girl applying to Lecturer Playdon’s course, then you will find your answers in the Earth 2788 short story.
© 2015 Janet Edwards. All rights reserved.
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