Issue #61 – Higher Education

This entry is part 1 of 16 in the series The Descendants Vol 6: Returns and Departures
Part 4
A timid knock on the office door preceded Juniper Taylor leaning in through the open door to Professor Karl Demetrius’s office. She was dressed in a green silk blouse with red and gold flowers blooming along the left side of her rib cage and off white capris; an outfit she thought was professional looking, but wasn’t quite sure of, to read her posture. “Excuse me? Professor? I got you message and…”
Karl Demetrius was a man in his sixties, just starting to lose his hair. He was dressed for work rather than making an impression; just a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the same trousers he’d been wearing all week. On the screen in front of him were open files detailing the projected travel expenses from the various digs and restoration projects that Dayspring’s history department was planning over the next semester. Patronage for the museum on campus had been down of late, and he was gambling on a big find out of Korea, China or the UAE to draw attention and money back to it.
He looked up and smiled the smile of the tired and aged, though there was nostalgic delight in his eyes. “Yes, Miss Keyes sent me a message on your behalf. Please, sit.” He indicated the seat across from him, which currently housed a box of files that somehow missed getting digitized decades earlier. It was Professor Demetrius’s job to pass the headache of plugging them in where hey needed to go on to someone capable.
Juniper carefully put the box on the floor beside her and sat, waiting nervously. She knew what the message said, and since she was called to the professor’s office instead of just getting a rejection by text, her chances were good. She wasn’t going to assume anything though.
The professor sat back in his seat and tried to put on a professional air. “Now, Miss Taylor, Miss Keyes tells me that you wish to apply again to staff the front desk of the museum.”
“Yes sir.” She said simply.
“Now, if you’ll recall, the summer before last when you worked here, I did indicate that most of the time, that position is taken by history students for course credit. I took the liberty of calling your academic adviser and it seems that you’re undeclared this semester?”
Juniper sank in her seat. “Yes, sir. I got the class list and there’s so much that seems interesting, and I never really got a chance to find out what I was really good at in high school…”
“That is understandable.” He nodded.
“But I am taking The Ancient World with Professor Kerrigan this semester.” Juniper offered quickly. “And I would work really, really hard.”
Professor Demetrius nodded, “I won’t argue that you would. Last year, you did an exceptional job, and the truth is, with the new tour guide program, most of our older students are applying for that for their course credit. However, you must understand, part of the reason we offer course credit for the work is because budget constraints would do away with the positions if we paid more than the bare minimum wage.”
Juniper nodded, neatly hiding her disappointment. “I understand. It’s just that, well, like last year when I wanted to pay for my own car. I have a scholarship, but I’d really like to pay some of my own way.”
“Hmm.” the professor looked thoughtful. “And why is that?”
Not knowing the right answer, she rubbed the back of her neck. When in doubt, her mother would say, the truth was best. Of course, her mother was a super-heroine who lied about her day job and identity on the daily, so there was a flexible definition of ‘truth’ in play.
Still, there wasn’t anything damaging about this truth.
“I’ve spent a long time with a lot of people helping me get where I am. Don’t get me wrong, I love them all, but sometimes it’s nice to know that you can do things for yourself, sir. What I’d really like is to not have to live on allowance and care packages.”
A small smile came to the professor’s face. “Miss Taylor, about eight years ago, I had an office much like this at Tulane University. And one day, just before classes began, a young woman came and sat across me just like you are today. Like you, she was undeclared, and in her case, she was not even taking any history classes.”
“She said to me ‘I have a very large family and friends who would give their left arms to help me, but sometimes, I wonder if anything I have is really something I earned honestly, or if it came from the good fortune I have to have these people in my life.’”
Professor Demetrius scratched the side of his face as he continued to reminisce. “She ended up being my teacher’s assistant for three years, like a daughter to me, really. And I’ve heard that she’s passed on that chance I gave her to her own students as well, both at the Academy and at the institute.”
“Miss Keyes.” Juniper said, wholly unnecessarily.
The professor nodded. “Indeed. She is one of those students who made me proud. And if she believes in you enough to refer you to me, I am inclined to, at the bare minimum, give you a chance.” Before Juniper could celebrate,h e held up a hand. “I must warn you: the pay will be poor, there are no benefits, and is it not nearly as… exciting… as it was last summer with Madrigal’s accident and the situation at the library. Dayspring is normally a very quite place.”
Juniper smiled brilliantly. “Oh, I understand completely, Professor. And I promise, you won’t regret this!”
“I am sure I won’t.” He returned her smile. If only his grad students were so enthusiastic. “Oh. And before I forget, a colleague of mine, Niklas Kluge, is unveiling his latest innovation in Norfolk in a few weeks. He has given me special passes to invite people I feel maybe be interested and I would very much like Miss Keyes and her young gentleman to attend.”
He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out two wide slips of stiff paper. “Would you be so kind as to give these to them?”
“Of course.” Juniper said brightly, accepting the passes. In passing, she read, ‘Dr. Kluge’ and ‘Storm Cage’ before showing them in her purse.
Allie Carlyle was on the way from the kitchen to her office to work on touching up the recent round of shots she’d taken for an ad campaign when she came across an unusual sight: her youngest alone in the living room, reading.
It hadn’t been that long ago that seeing Christina as she was at the moment, cross-legged in front of the couch with her tablet and a look of concentration on her face, was commonplace, but it had been months since she’d seen her like that.
“Is something wrong?” Allie asked, gliding into the room with her steaming cup of green tea in hand. She was as tall as her daughter, but built with more muscle, despite hardly exercising. It would shock her if she ever learned that her baby girl could now bench press her.
“Hmm?” Tink glanced up from her reading. “Why would something be wrong?”
Allie shrugged. “It’s a nice day, still summer. I just would have thought you’d be out with your friends.”
The truth was that Tink had made excuses to avoid helping anyone move that day. It wasn’t because of laziness, but because she was terribly worried that the process would lead to the revelation of her super strength. Selfish, but the way she saw it, necessary.
Necessary to let her stay in denial.
As much as she loved science, there was something unsettling on a primal level about her situation: There were tiny robots inside of her that were originally the brainchild of revenge fixated psychopath. And they were changing her. Optimizing what was already there, Laurel had said, but it was change nonetheless, and to top it all off, the villain that created those robots was on the loose at that very instant.
The increased strength, improved reflexes, and higher stamina were nice in all kinds of situations, but she could have done without the technological body horror.
“No, everything’s fine, Allie. I just got this message from my adviser saying that there’s a lot of course credit I can earn just by proving proficiency.” In truth, she’d gotten that message a week before, but since she was self-exiled to the house, she was putting some thought into just how much proficiency she could prove.
“That’s great!” Allie came to sit on the couch, effectively putting her daughter at her knee. “Did you tell them about your car?”
Tink nodded. “I sent him the specs, that’s why he sent this. Basically, he wants to put me in an independent study program that I can use to pass those proficiency requirements.” A dreamy look came into her eyes. “And he added the five best words you can add to something like that: ‘state-of-the-art facilities’. Allie, I’ll have access to the same laboratories that invented the first freelev systems, the exponential neural network, and the TI2 reactive polymer!”
Allie had no idea what any of those things were, and so nodded politely. “I’m really happy for you, sweetie. And proud.”
“Thanks, Allie. It really is a dream come true.”
“I just wish it wasn’t so far away.” Allie set her tea on the end table and leaned over to press a kiss to the top of her little girl’s head. “It’s not going to be the same here, you know?”
“You’re not the only one that feels that way.” Tink curled her arm up into a hug, made awkward for their positioning. “I wish I could at least stay within a train ride of home, but I’ve known since middle school that I wanted to go to Cambridge.”
“Don’t I know it.” Allie chuckled. “And I wouldn’t want you to miss it. I’s just extra hard, you being the youngest and moving out. Suddenly, it’s just me and your father in the house and that hasn’t happened in almost thirty years.”
Tink looked up and smiled a bit. “Well don’t go writing me off as gone just yet. I’m going to be sending you messages and calling all the time. You’ll probably get sick of it even, given the time difference.”
“Somehow,” said Allie, retrieving her tea, “I don’t think we’ll mind at all.”
Ted Slate was everything his son tried to be and fell short of; muscular, lantern jawed and stoic. He’d spent the bulk of move-in doing the heavy lifting, effortlessly constructing prefab furniture, and looking hardcore in his shades.
“Whelp, that about does it.” He stood back and admired the loft he just finished pushing into position all by himself. With his sunglasses, stubble and black hair pulled back into a short tail, he made it look like he was surveying a war monument he’d just punched into existence out of a slab of granite.
The loft, along with a bookcase and desk, had been hauled, constructed and arranged, all with his bare hands at the direction of Marie Slate, a slight woman of average height who shared the messy brown hair of her son as well as the general demeanor of her son. This meant that the direction she provided was ‘wherever’.
She was leaning on the two stacked bunk beds that were Warrick’s place to sleep. With a sheet hanging from the top bunk, it had become a canopy bed with little work. “Yep. Good job, Teddy.”
Ted looked satisfied with that and, probably without even intending to, flexed. “That alright with you, Johnny?”
If anything was worse than being called ‘Jonathan’ to JC, it was being called Johnny. But his father wanted a son who was the kind of guy he would call Johnny and long ago decided that if he did it enough, it might rub off. “Uh… yeah. Looks good, dad.”
“Yeah it does.” said Ted. “All that’s solid oak. Had you uncle get one of the carpenters on his crew to put it together special for my boy.”
He dropped a beefy hand on JC’s shoulder that almost tipped the boy over and took a deep breath as if savoring the scent of the room, which is a mix of mild disinfectant and the pizza the guys next door had ordered to celebrate their first day. “Ah, college. Son, these are the days you’ll remember. Except when there’s beer involved, then you won’t—and those will be the days you’ll remember best of all.”
“Huh?” Asked JC, but he was clearly no longer on the same planet.
“Just… let him have this one.” Marie sighed.
“Johnny, this is gonna be a time of opportunity and I don’t want you to pass up a single one. Unless it’s drugs. Drugs aren’t an opportunity, mister, no sir. Down that path lie only wasted hours daring your friends to drink whole gallons of milk or shotgun ten packs of fast food hot sauce. And as funny as it sounds, it’s not an opportunity.”
“Dad, I’m not going to do drugs. Not after the stories mom tells when her friends are over.”
“Some of them are fun.” Marie said bitterly.
Ted raised an eyebrow. “Like the time you wound up in Wisconsin when you were just trying to get across town?”
“Okay, so not all of them were fun and you’re making it sound way worse than it was: we were in Chicago. That’s Illinois, just one state over.”
“Anyway.” Ted said, grabbing JC by the shoulders and turning him forcefully around in an overly emotional gesture. “What I’m getting at Johnny, is that this is the place where a man figures out who he’s gonna be. What he’s made of.” His voice hitched, something JC wasn’t sure had ever happened before. “And I just know you’re gonna make me proud, boy.”
And then he lifted JC up into a crushing hug. “I just want you to know I’m proud of you, son.”
Stiff with horror, JC didn’t move when he was placed back on his feet, only stared bug-eyed. Off to his right, he heard a small snort.
Of course that whole scene had just happened right in front of the entire Kaine family, who were all busy pretending they were waiting for Warrick’s furniture to arrive. Tammy was barely holding in laughter while Warrick had a look on his face that normally only Cyn got when she was collecting blackmail material. Of course Cyn, who had also tagged along with the Kaines, had that exact same expression.
“O-only child.” He muttered in an attempt to explain the only public hug his father had given anyone since his own wedding reception.
“I’m just so damn proud.” said Ted, another hitch in his voice.
Marie pushed off the bunk bed and came over to pat Ted on the back. “Separation anxiety’s more like it. See? I’m not the one you had to worry about.”
“… I can see that.”JC’s entire face was red.
“But did your father get a half hour list of dos and don’ts for the day? Of course not. Like I’m really to tell everyone that your middle name is Claudius.” She stopped a second and winced sympathetically. “Sorry. I’ll make it up to you in your first care package.”
“Lisa says he used to tell girls it was Christmas because he was god’s gift to women.” Warrick interjected.
“Dude!” JC groaned. “That was one time and it was a quote!”
“Of what?”
JC sputtered. “I don’t remember!”
“And on that note, I think we should get going. Ted and I are going paintballing to make him feel better.” Marie said, taking her husband by the arm.
“I’m not upset.” Ted defended, “Just really, really proud.”
“Of course you are Teddy. Now come on. You want to put some young punks in their place? I know I do.” On the way out, Marie kissed JC on the forehead. “Have a great time, honey. And don’t forget to call us tonight as soon as you get situated.”
“I will, mom. Have fun. Bye dad.”
“Remember to seize your opportunities, Johnny!”
“Um… yeah.” JC closed the door behind them and pressed his back to it. He found the Kaines and Cyn looking at him.
“So, new most surreal moment of my life. Funny, I expected ‘fighting a nut with a sword using a roman candle’ to last at least the year.”
Tommy scratched his chin. “That wasn’t so embarrassing. A lot of dads get emotional when their son leaves home for the first time.”
“I notice you’re not on the verge of tears though, Mr. Kaine.”
“Oh, I am on the inside, JC, I am on the inside.” His expression brightened. “Would it make you feel better if I cried? I can do that, you know? It’s on my resume: cries on command.”
“Not useful for ‘my dad can beat up your dad’ arguments.” Warrick pointed out. He walked over to one of his storage boxes and held a hand over it. The whole thing melted into a metallic puddle, which slithered across the floor and began to sent up shoots like grass in spring.
Tommy shrugged. “Still the offer’s on the table. Tears will cost extra though.”
“Can I pay you not to?” Tammy asked.
“If you do it when she moves back into the Institute, I’ll match whatever she’s paying you.” Warrick said. The metal puddle quickly grew into a desk with slender legs, open shelving and tiers for a monitor and speakers. Once it was done, he went to another and started on making a nightstand.
Sandra shook her head. “No one is paying your father to embarrass anyone. Because we all know it’ll just end up embarrassing me.”
Cyn smirked at that, then added loudly. “Wow, it’s really great how we all got off the subject of how embarrassed JC was just now, huh?”
JC cupped his face in his forehead and groaned. “Why would you do that to a guy?”
Cyn waltzed over and patted his head. “Isn’t it obvious? The drama!”
“I will get back at you for this. You know that, right?” JC grinned evilly.
“Bring it on, Claudius.” Cyn replied sweetly.
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About Vaal

Landon Porter is the author of The Descendants and Rune Breaker. Follow him on Twitter @ParadoxOmni or sign up for his newsletter. You can also purchase his books from all major platforms from the bookstore
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