Notes: I think Grennson should have a say, don’t you? Totally. Because he has a unique perspective and may help crack the nut that is Darrel. And he may be all that keeps Cody from going crazy, by providing Ten with distractions.
Also, Merry Christmas Eve! I hope that you, unlike me, aren’t working todayJ I got a request for a vignette from my readerwife, to whom I bow, so I will probably—not definitely, but probably—post a special Christmas vignette from an older story tomorrow. Not a blog story, this one was published by Dreamspinner a while back. I always wanted to write a follow-up to it, but the time was never quite right. I still might, because they’re a lovely couple, but at the very least I’ll have a slice-of-life story for you guys.
Title: The Academy
Part Three: Deeper Meaning
Grennson’s fathers had given him a great deal of advice before he arrived at the Academy, and so had his adopted grandmother Giselle. Most of their counsel was about how to deal with people who were interested in him, because there were sure to be a lot. “Don’t let anyone pressure you into anything you don’t want,” Jason had said, simple and straightforward.
“Don’t accept their desire at first glance,” Ferran had told him. “Desire has many hues, and not all of them are beautiful once you get close to them.”
“Don’t let them walk all over you. Stick up for yourself, show them that you’re capable and don’t need looking after,” Giselle added.
All of this was good, but after a week at the Academy Grennson thought that perhaps the most useful advice he’d been given had come from his House Matriarch, Grenn. She had taken him aside the day before he left, sat him down across from her, poured them both cups of hot, sweet lhossa tea and said, “Our house is greatly daring, letting so many of our youth educate themselves all across the universe. I’m sure your performance will do your family proud.”
“I will strive to do so, Mother,” Grennson said.
“Of course,” she purred. “Usually at this time I tell my departing children to guard themselves, to enjoy themselves, to take the pleasure that comes to them while they study, because soon enough they will be back here, sharing their information with the rest of our people. But because you are the first of our race to be accepted into a human military institute, I feel I must give you a few additional words of caution.” She nestled down into her backless chair and sipped her tea, clearly pensive.
“Our families, our clans, our society…we lack warriors. This is a conscious decision, of course, after the last war almost destroyed us entirely. We restrict our battles to fights between each house’s duelists, except for the insane who live in exile. We have bred ourselves to value empathy more than ferocity, and because of that we are all aware of our emotions and how we project them at others. This is the best way to be, of course, but most humans don’t have that sort of ability, or the necessary control of themselves.
“It’s different when you settle on a planet, you know, as opposed to a year of sight-seeing like our males do. My children who have gone to learn in universities, they say the constant press of emotions can be dizzying in its intensity. So many humans, almost none of them bothering to suppress their thoughts and feelings…I wondered at first if it wasn’t better than you were going to a military institution, where so much of your time will be regimented and accounted for. People will be held to a different standard of behavior and more obedience shall be required, after all. I thought, how could this harm you?
“Then I remembered when Jason came to live with us.” Grenn stared straight at Grennson, her eyes communicating as much as her empathy in that moment, and it was all warning. “He was good at suppressing, so good I could barely feel him at first. But when he let loose…you were so young, I don’t know if you remember it. But when Jason was in danger, his heart called out to Ferran’s so fiercely it made us quiver, even me, and I was far away at that time. He had held back for so long that when he broke down at last, it was an event.
“Jason was in terrible danger for much of his military career, and he learned to put his feelings away in order to survive. And now we are sending you to a place full of young, emotional humans who will be expected to put their own feelings away so that they, too, may learn how to survive. It will be a perilous place for you, my son. Guard yourself well.”
Grennson swallowed. “I will, Mother.” He’d guard himself as best he could, at least.
Truly, there was plenty to make him uncomfortable despite the fact that he hadn’t experienced any maelstroms of emotional upheaval yet. It turned out everybody wanted to get to know Grennson. Everybody. They came up to him between classes, whispered at him during classes, even followed him back to his quad at night and tried to cajole their way inside. Grennson’s sponsor was little help; she was nice enough, but she was also specializing in linguistics and had fought hard to get him as her plebe so she could practice her Perel with a native.
The strange thing was, everyone had heard that he was an empath but clearly most of them didn’t understand what that meant, because they broadcasted their intents with ludicrous clarity. Over half of the cadets who approached Grennson did it because they wanted to befriend him in order to get an invitation to Perelan, which was the most coveted anthropological and sociological research site in the entire Federation universe currently.
Perelan wasn’t constrained by Federation laws, and guarded its autonomy jealously. The only humans who got onto the planet’s surface were either directly recommended by Ambassador Howards or Jason and Ferran, who traveled extensively. Grennson had about as much say as who got to visit his home as a tree had a say in its place in the forest. Not that any of these people cared.
Many of them also wanted to have sex with him. Grennson knew to anticipate that; it was what his kind were popularly known for, thanks to the matriarchs sending their young, unmarried and infertile sons abroad for a year in order to better resign them to lives of service once they returned. Cadets four years his senior, even those doing their graduate studies, propositioned him. Some were forthright, some tried to be sly but Grennson always knew what they were getting at, and as appealing as the idea had been when he was on Perelan, now that he was here, practically bathed in their want, it just…wasn’t so compelling.
There were plenty of humans that were in awe of him and a few who hated him, but the most disturbing of all were those that seemed to simmer like a cauldron, always ready to boil over and yet keeping it within somehow. It was strange to see and feel such a dichotomy, and Grennson did his best to avoid those people. Really, he was very lucky in the humans who had been chosen for his quad.
It wasn’t that they were uninterested in him. They were just differently interested. Tiennan—Grennson had quickly adopted the nickname “Ten” for hir—had been the only person to not only acknowledge Grennson’s empathic ability, but to ask questions like “What’s the range of your empathy? What emotions are the easiest to feel? What do you mean, you don’t know?” Ze’d shaken hir bright blue head. “We’ll have to experiment to figure it out.”
With that non-request, Grennson and Ten started to do a few simple experiments on his empathy, with Ten volunteering hirself as the subject. “Can you tell what I’m feeling now?” ze asked, sitting on the couch next to Grennson in the common area.
“Yes, primarily.” Ze stood up and moved across the room. “Okay, what about now?”
“Yes.” Ten backed into hir bedroom and shut the door. “Now?”
“Still the same.”
“What?” Ten called out.
“Irritation!” Cody called out from the kitchen table, where he was using the big table screen for physics homework. He glanced over at Grennson and grinned. “Ten always gets irritated when ze has to repeat hirself.”
“I heard that!” Ten snapped through the door.
Cody was probably the easiest person for Grennson to get along with. They were alike in a lot of ways—they had loving families they both spoke to every day, while Ten never called anyone and Darrel seemed to make it a point to miss most of his family’s calls. They both had peacekeeping personalities, while their quad mates were more confrontational, especially with each other. Cody’s emotional state was pleasantly even-keeled, not the roiling storm of Ten or the brittle worry and anger of Darrel.
There was something about him though, something deep inside that Grennson couldn’t quite identify. It carried a flavor of anxiety mixed with resignation and acceptance, and it was one of the oldest and most intrinsic parts of Cody’s emotional makeup. Grennson didn’t know what it could be, but it made him want to give Cody a hug. Cody, at least, would accept one from him, which was more than Grennson could say for the other two.
Darrel was the hardest for Grennson to figure out, which was unfortunate because he was Grennson’s roommate, and the one he most wanted to get along with. Their first week in each other’s company had been marked mostly by silence, the only words offered by Darrel simple ones like, “Excuse me,” on his way to the bathroom. He had refused all invitations to eat with them, even Grennson’s offer to cook a traditional Perel meal, which Grennson knew had interested him. Darrel and Ten still maintained a mutual antipathy after setting the quad on fire got them both demerits, and he was polite but distant to Cody.
“Every person is a riddle to be understood,” Jason had told Grennson numerous times. “You can’t solve them, and they’re not yours to fix, but you can do your best to understand where they’re coming from and what you can do to make a connection with them. You’ve got an advantage, so don’t be afraid to use it.”
The only time Grennson felt a truly positive emotion from Darrel was when Grennson spoke with his family in Perel. If Darrel was in the room his curiosity would rise, and he would listen intently even as he pretended to focus on something else. If he happened to walk into their room while Grennson was talking, he would find a reason to stay. He was obviously interested in the language, which wasn’t surprising. Most human languages could be input into a person’s neural implant, and after a brief period of acclimatization they could speak everything from Chinese to Hindi to Esperanto, all old, rural languages since Common had come into existence, but culturally significant. Perel, though, hadn’t been mapped out or added to the human digital lexicon yet, and the matriarchs had no intention for it to be. There were rough translation devices allowed to the foreign service officials who worked on Perelan, but that was it.
One evening a week into their acquaintance with each other, as Grennson prepared to call his parents and Darrel fiddled with his tablet’s holographic interface, Grennson said, “You know, you have a Perel name.”
Darrel looked up in surprise. “What?”
“Your name, it is what some cubs are called on Perel. Of course, we say it with a more guttural ‘R’ sound, but still, it isn’t uncommon. I like it. Living with you is a pleasant reminder of my home.”
Darrel put his tablet down. “How do you say it? My name, in Perel?”
Grennson demonstrated, purring and rolling the r’s. “Now you try.”
Darrel did, and it was surprisingly intelligible. “Very good,” Grennson said encouragingly. “When my adopted father first began learning our language, he couldn’t make the proper sounds for many months. Our language mistress had to be very harsh with him.”
“You’re talking about Captain Jason Kim, right?”
“Yes.” Grennson could feel Darrel’s curiosity and eagerness, a very strange combination for him. “Do you know him?”
“Not me personally. But he served for a while with my father, a long time ago.” The darkness began creeping into Darrel’s mind again, and Grennson moved to head it off.
“He is an exceptional man, and of course now he speaks our language very well, even without the assistance of a translation device. But you already sound better than he used to.”
Darrel shifted on his bed so he could cross his legs. It made him look younger. “Does it mean anything?”
“Yes. It’s just, human names usually have ancient meanings, even though most people have forgotten them.”
Grennson considered it. “Not precisely. Our kind has many words that have been designated as names for so long, they have lost any other significance, just like yours. But,” he continued when Darrel’s face fell, “the sounds of your name, first the darrrr and then the brief el, they have meaning. Darrrr is a word for sudden light, very rare, like a lightning strike. Such a thing was fearful for my ancestors, who lived mostly beneath the ground. El is a gentle sound, soft, like a father would say to his cub, or a lover would whisper to his beloved. So your name would mean something like ‘tender lightning.’”
Darrel grinned, obviously pleased at the translation, and Grennson felt a bit of relief. He was trying to form a connection, after all, and he didn’t want to make Darrel upset. “Would you like to learn how to say hello?” he asked. “Then when I call my parents, you can demonstrate how clever you are.”
The joy faded away. “I don’t want to interfere…” Grennson could tell there was plenty his roommate was worried about, but there was still that eagerness underneath his distant veneer.
“It would not be an interference,” Grennson declared. “I think they would be pleased to know I have finally found someone I care to speak my own language with. Many here are interested, but they are very greedy for it.”
“You aren’t teaching anyone else?” Was that a feeling of pleasure, at being so distinguished?
“Only my sponsor, and only because I have to. Your participation would be very gratifying to me.”
“I…thank you. Yes. That would be great.”
“Good!” Grennson waved him over with his pale, long fingers. “Come sit over here. It will be easier for me to assist you if I can feel your diaphragm.”
“Should I be worried?” Darrel asked, but it was mostly a joke, and he did come over and sit down next to Grennson.
“No, not worried,” Grennson said. “Just be prepared to try very, very hard. Now.” He smiled. “Here is how you say hello.”