Asterion: School & Games

Another sizable extract from the novel I am writing, which is the first proper sequel to my first novel and expands a lot on the characters and their world (there are some novellas, but they’re mainly fluff written for fun).  Jen and Kay discuss whether Tenley should go to school, while Tenley overhears:

School & Games

The lighthouse was dim.  It had actually only ever been lit twice since being built.  Once when it was first constructed, but then the town’s residents complained about a shaft of light smacking them in the faces, and once when Sayuri Oshiro had flipped the power switch to save herself from being skewered.  It was unusual set of circumstances.  Most people now, however, weren’t aware of the lighthouses existence.  It was built a long time ago on top of hill miles from the sea as a symbol of Irongate changing from a town whose economy was based around mining and steel to a place of enlightenment and learning.  The built a library and a university and attracted several science and tech organisations to set up around the town.  But the lighthouse was quickly forgotten.  Except by Jennifer Airhart, as she lived there.  She no longer lived there alone, allowing Tenley and Kaya, who had both recently become homeless, to stay with her.

And so as the van trundled through the gate, across the courtyard and parked itself in the garage, Jennifer and Kaya sat inside.  Both were tired and in no hurry to jump out of the comfortable seats.

“What are we going to do with her?” Kaya yawned.  “Tenley, I mean.”

“I thought we already decided that,” Jen reminded her.

“But I mean, schooling and stuff.”

“I suppose she’ll just have to be schooled here,” Jen thought, “I-I’m sure I can find a suitable curriculum.  You could help too, teach her art and music.  A-and we could read books and plays together and learn Spanish and go on trips.” She listed, her eyes sparkling as she became quite enamoured with the idea of running her own school even if it was just for one student.  “And science projects…”

As far as Kaya could tell you, Jen’s life pretty much was one long science project.  But although she smiled, she was in truth less enamoured.  “Is that really healthy though?” She asked.  “Maybe she needs to get used to be around people her own size and age.”

“I don’t know,” Jen sighed and frowned a little.  “I mean, I know most children probably benefit from that, but…” she turned and looked pointedly at Kaya.  “I do also know how cruel children can be.”

Now Kaya frowned.  She had been arrested several times, stolen, gotten into quite a few fights that honestly she could have avoided, but the one life choice she regretted was that.  After Jennifer’s family disappeared she became increasingly withdrawn, and Kaya sought the company of new friends who turned out may not have been a great influence and encouraged Kaya’s more aggressive side, particularly toward Jen.  “I said I was sorry about all that.”

“I know.  And I believe you.  Why else would I let you stay here?”

“It’s not like Ten could be bullied though.”

“Not more than once anyway,” Jen sighed.  “Imagine thirteen-year-old you or Candace tormenting Tenley to the point she breaks.”

Kaya did.  She imagined her face turned inside out and every bone in her body snapping like a twig.  “Ouch,” she winced.

“Exactly.”

Kaya couldn’t find fault in that logic.  It did seem to her as though Tenley was capable of controlling her anger so as not to actually murder anyone she didn’t think deserved it.  But then, school life could be particularly stressful, mess and complicated.  It wasn’t really kind to Ten, but she was smart, really.  She would likely understand.

*****

Up on the railing around the lighthouse lamp, Tenley sat and watched the two of them make their way from the van to the cottage.  Even had they known she was up there, they seemed to often forget that she could literally a pin drop from a mile away.  It would drive a Changeling mad, if she hadn’t very quickly learnt how to filter out the massive amounts of noise and focus only on the ones that mattered to her.

Not that she really cared about not going to school.  Who really liked school anyway?  And all the children she’d ever come across were stupid.  They didn’t know anything about anything and they cried all the time and laughed at dumb stuff.  Idiots.  She didn’t know if she’d ever really been a child, but now she knew she never would be one again.  That did sadden her more than she would ever care to admit although she knew not why.  She just was what she was, wasn’t she?  Whatever that was.

And it was no-one’s fault really.  Titania had given her the strength she had, but Tenley hadn’t been forced to accept it… although they probably would have killed her if she hadn’t, as none saw the hidden people and lived.  Still, Tenley considered that if all this was anyone’s fault, it was her mothers.  She was the one who was drunk all the time and couldn’t take care of herself half the time.  She was the one who beat her every day and told her she had to become stronger.  And she was the one who had gotten herself killed in an utterly pointless brawl with some of Stag’s men.  Her mother never saw that Tenley had become stronger than she could have ever possibly imagined.  And, despite everything, that saddened her too.

There was a magpie that live somewhere in the branches hanging over the garage.  It had taken to flying up to greet Tenley as she usually had food for the bird.  Tonight was no exception, as she had taken to just carrying around a small bag of crumbs to feed it with.  She held out her arm and it perched there, allowing her to stroke its smooth feathers.  She sometimes allowed to imagine that it knew when she was feeling down and came to cheer her up, but she knew that was nonsense – it only cared about the crumbs.  The bird’s life was simple; so long as it had food, a nest and eggs, it was content.  Some of that contentedness must have rubbed off her though, as when it flew away she decided she was tired of being sad.

She flipped herself over the rail and descended into the lighthouse.  As soon as she stepped inside to the top of the long winding staircase leading down, sensors that Jen placed everywhere (even quite far out into the woods surrounding their home) detected her presence.  Lights flickered and heavy fans whirred to life.  When she reached ground level, she was in a round room with many screens, some mounted high up on the walls and on the work tops that filled most the room’s circumference.  The lighthouse once had circular windows like those on a ship.  There had been filled in and around where they’d been green lights chased each other in a loop, and from speakers a male face boomed, “Good evening, Tenley Tych.”

The girl found it very hard to look Hull in the eye, as his eyes were all over.  So she just choose one camera and stared at that.  The machine’s guts filled most of the central pillar in the lighthouse, and she was certain some of humming came from below the ground.  She would explore more thoroughly someday, but now she just had a question: “What are you, Hull?”

“I am a computer.  I was programmed to serve Miss Airhart, anticipate her needs, and monitor the security of this zone.”

That didn’t really answer much.  Tenley still did not know where ‘Miss Airhart’ – Jennifer – had gotten the giant computer.  Perhaps she had built it herself with the help of the various robot servants around, usually inactive until their specific tools were called for.  But where had she gotten those?  It was all a mystery, especially since as she could tell Jennifer did, and never has had, a real job.  She had mentioned an Uncle who gave her the lighthouse to stay in, but otherwise it seemed Jen never talked to any of her relatives anymore.  Still, none of these were really what Tenley was asking now.

“I mean,” she tried to clarify, “when she and everyone else are out, what do you do?  Do you just sit there and think?”

“Jennifer has rarely left the lighthouse for long periods until recently,” Hull explained.  “But if you asking if I am a true artificial consciousness, the answer is no.  While my programming is sophisticated, I lack the ability to amend it myself.  To learn and acquire new skills as humans do.  I do not ‘think’ or ‘feel’ anything.  I also have no bottom to sit on.”

“So,” Tenley mulled a moment, unpacking all of that in her head.  “I could insult you, and you wouldn’t care?  I could say things like, ‘you’re a worthless trash pile who couldn’t compute the proper time if it was half-past two all day long’, and that wouldn’t bother you?”

“I believe that is impossible, ma’am.”

“But basically, you’re just like Siri, but huge?”

“I…” Hull suddenly fell silent for a few seconds.  When he came back he just stated bluntly, “yes.”

Tenley seemed pleased with herself as she stretched, then remembered why she come in here.  She was tired of being sad, so what was it kids did when they needed to cheer up?  She fell into a spinny chair and said, “I’d like to play a game, Hull.”

“What manner of game would you like to play?”

“I don’t know.  Just pick something at random.”

Hull had a vast library of games, since he could easily emulate anything.  Tenley tried several; if she didn’t like it or hadn’t the patience for a sixty-hour RPG right now, she flipped to something else.  Eventually she ended up on a fighting game controlling a kunoichi doing some stupidly telegraphed kicks that the other guys should have easily been able to counter.  It was dumb.  Somehow she was winning even though she should have died a million deaths already.  Tenley’s mother would have not put up with this nonsense.  She’d have left this kunoichi flat on her back and bleeding then insisted that she move all the rocks from one of the garden to the other as punishment for trying to show off, just like the time Tenley tried to show off her drawing… she dropped the controller and slowly pushed her chair away from the screen she’d been using.

“Is everything okay, Miss Tych?” The computer asked.

It wasn’t.  She had few happy memories of her mother so why did thinking about her still make her sad?  Did that question even make any sense?  It didn’t.  It was all stupid.  She was stupid.  She wasn’t normal and there was no one she could explain it too.  “I’m just bored of this dumb game,” was what she said.

“Would you like another?”

“No.”  Tenley sat in silence for a long time, not wanting to think about the past but not sure there was anything she could do to stop it either.  She didn’t want to see them anymore… her mother, the murderers, and all their cold dead bodies.  She had done it all for her, but… Tenley wasn’t sure mother would have thanked her even if she had come back from the dead.  She wasn’t sure she deserved to be.  All her short life she’d just been taught to fight and take care of herself, but now there was no-one to fight.  Maybe she had to learn new things.  “… as humans do,” she muttered.

“Ma’am?” The computer asked.

“’Learn and acquire new skills, as humans do,’” Tenley repeated.  “That’s what you said.  So maybe that’s what I should be doing.  Human stuff.”

The green lights chased each other round for a few seconds, before Hull asked, “are you not human, ma’am?”

“I-I…” she didn’t know.  She knew she had been, once, but now she flexed her fingers and knew her tiny hands had the power to literally crush bones.  “I’m tired,” she said.  “I’m just gonna go to bed.”

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