Back to Square One
an illustrated narrative
Paul lowered his pointer. He disliked interruptions during the lecture portion of the class, as it was relatively useless to have discussion without the complete story, particularly when said questions were answered in a later part of the story. "Yes, Omar?"
A silver-haired boy at the front of the class lowered his hand. "If the foinech is ten thousand years old, how does anyone know how long it lives?"
"It is purely speculation," he explained as patiently as he could manage. "Ancient cultures had no accurate means of measuring time even within a single day, so they often pulled numbers out of thin air... whatever sounded the most impressive in their stories. No one has actually recorded the age of the foinech directly, especially due to the length of time and number of people that would be involved, not to mention the potential for abuse in terms of accurate record-keeping. The idea is simply that it is an extremely old creature, perhaps the oldest in the universe, so if anything knows the Truth of the creation of the universe, it would."
Omar still seemed confused by his response, but Paul's attention was immediately drawn to a green-haired girl who raised her hand, frowning.
"Isn't the mathematically-perfect regularity of our planet's spin proof of God's existence?"
He sighed, not exactly eager to answer, as Duina had been struggling to convert the class the entire term, with vague, if any, success. "The point behind studying other cultures is not to blindly impose your view upon everyone else, but to study the history of other peoples with an unbiased eye and learn about the way they live. In their terms, it doesn't matter whether God exists--if they are a Godless people, then that doesn't change their Godless history.
"Regardless, if you had paid attention in your World History lessons, you would recall the Technological Revolution: in the year 0, the world's greatest engineers put into effect the work of hundreds and thousands of years of study, a grand network of machinery designed purely to regulate the planet's spin at a thirty-four hour cycle and 289-day year, rather than allow it to continue to spin down until the point when there would no longer be such a thing as 'day and night.' It is their work that regulates the mathematical perfection of the world, not God."
She squeaked angrily. "I believe that story's a hoax!"
"It doesn't matter, Duina. It will still be on the final."
Another girl raised her hand. "Where is this machinery that regulates the world located?"
"Hannah, this is World Cultures, not Geography," Paul scolded. "If you have further questions on the Trail of Illumination, I advise you to ask Miss Fields, since that is her area of expertise."
For an advanced class at the privately-run school, he hadn't been impressed with the level of education his students demonstrated. Half the time, they were as intractable as the public school students he had managed in his time as a substitute, and there was scarcely any indication that the average student at the school was particularly better off than those at the surrounding schools. If anything, the one benefit was the size of the school--it was too small to form worthwhile gangs and cliques, though he noticed they still gave it their best effort--and the exceptionally rare academically-minded children truly did apply themselves to their work, with better result, due to the improved availability of the teachers.
As it was, the class continued drudgingly, with even the discussion having minimal activity, despite the initial interruption during the lecture. Having a highly intellectual class as World Cultures early in the morning was obscene, but Paul wasn't in a position to optimize the schedule to his liking. Certainly there were more important things on his mind anyway, but--as a perfectionist--he chose to do as good a job as he could where it could be helped. As it was, trimester midterms were coming up, and if the class didn't show improvements soon, it would reflect accordingly in the audit. Few, if any, of the students seemed to care, however.
One in particular caught his attention: a young blue-haired boy staring gloomily out the window at the dreary overcast campus ground, swishing his tail in evident frustration. The vole seemed contemptuous of the class and didn't bother to hide it, something with which he was well familiar. Anyone else looking at him would simply see a bored youth--probably pampered by his parents, from the neatness of his dress, and possibly smarter than the others due to being younger than the rest in his grade--but he knew differently. Paul watched him the most closely of any of his charge, a subtle sneer on his face.
The sound of shuffling papers signaled the end of class approaching, students checking their watches eagerly. "Remember that your essays are due tomorrow," he called, "and I'll be handing out study guides at the beginning of next week. I strongly recommend you read ahead in the book and form study groups if you can. Darian, see me after class."
The blue-haired boy glanced up at him briefly, snorting in disgust, before returning his attention to the view outside. It was impossible to discern what had his rapt attention from the front of the classroom, or even whether he should be concerned about it. At length, the other students scuffled out the door, leaving Darian alone, at which point, he gathered his belongings and trudged to the front of the room.
"Yes, 'teach'?" the boy muttered sarcastically.
"I think you know what's on my mind," he said tersely. "This is just a reminder that you're in no position to make any more mistakes."
Darian merely frowned at him.
Paul continued, unintimidated. "If you can't maintain a good focus on what you're doing, you're going to have more than grades to worry about. I advise you to get your act together soon."
Not listening, Darian merely grumbled.
"What was that?" he snapped.
"I said, I will."
"Good. You'll do well to keep that in mind."
Slinging his backpack over one shoulder, Darian marched out the door. "I thought this arrangement was illegal," he muttered.
"I HEARD THAT," Paul shouted after him.
A purple-haired boy jumped at him from out of nowhere, much like any other cougar might, and gave Darian a vigorous noogie. His clothes were as loud as his voice, and his eyes were full of excitement as he nearly knocked the vole into another student. "Hey, I've been looking all over for you, Deeg. The gang is going to Bishop's Realm next holiday, and we need a fourth. Are you in?"
Darian sighed, cringing. In stark contrast to the newcomer, he wore prep school attire: a smartly-pressed dress shirt and vest with similarly formal slacks and dark, polished shoes. True to his easily irritable disposition, he righted himself as he pushed the boy away and immediately started brushing back his once neatly-combed hair. "Hi, Kotaro..." It wasn't that he hated the guy, just... right now was not a good time.
"Why so glum?" Kotaro asked, instantly serious in an over-the-top fashion. He glanced about in a dramatically suspicious fashion before leaning closer to Darian, whispering. "Is that douchebag getting to you again?"
"No," he lied through gritted teeth, starting to walk away. "I'm just worried about my grades... World Cultures is such a drag, and--"
"That's all the better reason for you to join us!" Kotaro yelled, grinning largely as he threw his hands in the air, oblivious to the stares he was getting. "Kick back and relax for a while and leave your troubles behind you! C'mon, you could use some cheering up!"
"No, really, I'd like to, but--"
"I'm tired of buts, D. You're coming with us, or... or..." He crossed his arms stubbornly. "Or... I won't be your friend anymore!"
Darian paused in mid-step, staring him questioningly in the eye. "Do you really want me to answer that?"
"Geez, D," he grimaced in a clearly exaggerated manner, nevertheless undeterred. "I've told you a thousand times, come live with us! My family already thinks of you as their second son anyway, and it'd be a great improvement over--"
"I'm glad you think so, 'taro, but I really can't accept your offer. You know that." The truth was he'd only been to the Rockfords' place once before. Why Kotaro regularly persisted in trying to get him to return was a mystery. "I've got enough things on my plate without blowing more time bumming it with you."
Darian continued to his locker, unlocking it, opening it, and exchanged his morning class books with an almost rehearsed precision. He briefly glanced inside as he did so, checking the contents with an unusual level of paranoia, before taking his midday books and closing it, spinning the dial on the combination lock to an excessive degree in the process.
Kotaro wiggled his tail with piqued curiosity. "Isn't there anything I can do to change your mind?"
"You? No. Sorry."
He frowned at Darian, but he nevertheless didn't exactly look upset. "I'm going to change you one of these days, D."
Tired, Darian stared at him seriously. "You know nothing's going to change that. All the power in the universe couldn't change the way things are."
"We'll see," Kotaro retorted defiantly, arms akimbo. "Meanwhile, you wanna grab a snack after seventh?"
"Guh," he sighed in exasperation. "...we'll see."
As Kotaro walked away, he turned and waved, his index, middle, and pinky fingers extended. This was his own victory sign and, as far as either of them knew, uniquely their own signal. At the sight, Darian laughed tersely in spite of himself, then continued to the boys' restroom, shaking his head.
Still straightening his hair with one hand, he dropped his backpack by the sink then turned on the faucet. He retrieved a comb from his vest pocket and dampened it under the stream of cold water, running it briskly through his hair to undo Kotaro's damage. As he expected, however, the bell rang before he could finish--just as he tapped the comb dry on the edge of the sink.
"I bet it's detention for me again," he muttered, returning the comb to its pocket and slinging his backpack over his shoulder, clenching his teeth as he headed to class.
As it was a test day, Frau Katze typically allowed a few minutes to review, but as precious few of his classmates ever used the time wisely, the whispers began even before he walked into the room. "I saw him snubbing Kotaro again," muttered Belle. "I mean, I don't get why he tries to befriend him--the guy's obviously stuck-up, thinking he's so much better than everyone else!"
"Yeah," chimed Arminda. "Ko's such a great guy, and he's not! Why is he wasting his time on Darian?"
"I wish he'd waste his time on me!"
They hushed as Darian approached. Just to satisfy their impression of him, he retained his rigid frown, not saying a word to either of them as he took his seat, slouching grumpily. From the frantic scribbling he heard shortly, however, he could tell their gossip continued, though via secret message.
"Guten Tag, jeder!"
"Guten Tag, Frau Katze!" the class responded lazily. Glancing over the room, Frau Katze took one look at Darian's wet hair and shook her head, making a tick in her roll book.
"As you know," she began, "today is our midterm, so if you would please put away your books now and take out a pen or pencil..."
Face propped against his arm, Darian nearly fell asleep, as tired as he was. His language classes were the easiest by far, and even when he dozed off, he still seemed to remember everything that was discussed. The only thing holding his attention was that mysterious noise he had kept hearing, which seemed to be getting gradually more persistent as the day went on, though he was no closer to figuring out its source.
On that line of thought, the noise resonated even more noticeably now. It was imperceptable where it was coming from, and he longed to seek it out, but he had little opportunity to do so. Granted, nothing was really keeping him in school, but it was his sanctuary, as the law was on his side for him to be there, instead of... He clenched his fists unconsciously at the thought.
He snapped to full attention, startled. "Ja, Frau Katze?"
"Gut, you are awake," Frau Katze spoke scoldingly as she tapped her foot. Darian glanced around with some surprise to see the rest of the class working on their tests, particularly surprised because he hadn't received one--moreso, that Miss Dowlatshahi had entered the room and was taking Frau Katze's desk. Nervously, he glanced at the students in front of him to see whether they had forgotten to pass a test back to him.
"I asked you to come to the front, Darian."
He felt all eyes in the class fall on him as the others paused in their work. It was unsettling, far beyond the usual level of public scrutiny he felt upon himself. Standing, he felt himself turn a shade of red.
"Bring your bag as well," she snapped. "The rest of you, return to your exams."
Gradually, Darian felt less the center of attention, though no less awkward. He took his backpack and strode nervously to the front of the room.
"I have a favour to ask," she whispered, leading him outside. He unconsciously went rigid, fully alert at the comment. "We have a new student from Triangle Seven who is starting this week, and I was hoping you would tutor--"
"Me?" Darian made a visibly upset face. "Why me?"
Frau Katze smirked at him. "Your grades are no indication of your abilities, Darian. Your tests are evidence enough that I should not need to fail you, but I have requirements to do it if you do not participate better inside and outside of class. This is simply a way of giving you credit without having to do too much extra homework."
"But..." His voice faltered, looking for an excuse. "...what if I have other things to do? I can't--"
"What do you do outside of class that is taking so much of your time?"
He was clearly grasping at straws, and she clearly knew it.
Frau Katze's voice was stern. "If you can provide appropriate documentation from your parents that you cannot do it, please bring that in to me or to Principal Peter... otherwise, I must insist that you take a tutoring credit or fail the class."
Darian immediately thought about how badly failing the class would affect him, but before he could say anything, Frau Katze dragged him by the arm down the hall. "Please at least meet who you will be tutoring before you try to skip out of it!" she snapped. He grimaced at the sting of pain that jolted through his arm as a result but tried not to let on how much it hurt.
They arrived at the library, virtually empty at this time of day. Standing inside was a squirrel slightly taller than he was, wearing dark aviator's goggles. She seemed startled by their approach, shyly bowing her head.
"Darian, this is Alexandrea O--"
Frau Katze nodded. "Ja, Alex. Alex, this is Darian."
Alex briefly reached out to shake his hand, but he interrupted her by asking, "What's with the goggles?"
"Darian, be polite!"
She looked away. "They are my father's. I like wearing them."
"It is dismal outside!" Frau Katze prompted. "You should take them off so you can see."
Instead, she shook her head stubbornly. "I can't--"
"Well, that is your choice... Darian will tutor you each week for the remainder of the trimester d--"
"What if I can't?"
Frau Katze glared at him with a startlingly angry glare. "--during his usual class period." This contradicted what she had suggested earlier, perhaps because he had pushed her too hard to skip out of it. He frowned pathetically that he was now anchored into the task, looking away miserably.
The library was eerily quiet, so much so that the noise became much clearer and reverberant now, though he still couldn't make out what it was exactly.
"If that's settled," Frau Katze declared, "then I will leave the two of you here. You may come here directly each week and check in with Miss Cunningham instead of coming to class. If either of you can't make it, please come talk to me. Sehr gut?"
They nodded hesitantly.
"Gut. Auf Wiedersehen."
As Frau Katze left, they glanced at each other nervously. "Um," Darian began, "I guess we can sit down somewhere..."
Alex's expression was unreadable. "Okay."
They took a seat at a table towards the back, but neither broke the silence for several tense moments.
"So," Darian said finally, "you're from Tri-Seven? That's all the way at the other end of the grid. What brings you out to Cross Two?"
"My father used to live here," she said simply.
"What's it like in Tri-Seven now?"
"Not good," she sighed sadly. "There are too many bad things happening there. Every day, I wondered if I would still be alive tomorrow..."
"That sounds awful," he agreed, shuffling through his backpack. "Uh... so how much do you know already, like... the calendar?"
"Oh... um, I know the first twelve months okay, but the last five give me trouble somehow."
He paused, thinking. "Do you know ein through ein hundert?"
"Only through zwanzig. I've only really studied common in-depth as a foreign language."
Common as a foreign language?
Darian was antsy. He didn't want to sit through a whole tutoring session, much less do it every week, and the way she refused to take off her goggles was unnerving, though he still couldn't muster the nerve to ask more about them. "Well, despite what Frau Katze must have told you, I'm not a very good teacher, but how's this? I'll lend you my notes, and you can copy them in your free time. You'll probably learn better that way. Is that okay?"
A look of surprise crossed her face. "A-are you certain?" she stammered.
"Truth is," he explained, handing her the notes, "I really only take them out of habit. I don't actually ever read them myself, but they're useful if someone else needs them."
"Oh," Alex sighed, almost disappointed. "Well, if you're sure you won't need them--"
"Nah, you can have them for as long as you like."
She still seemed uncertain.
Darian latched his backpack and threw it over one shoulder as he stood to leave. "If that's all--"
"How old are you?"
The question caught him off-guard. "I'm... fifteen. Why?"
"Fifteen?" she echoed, surprised. "But I'm fourteen! You look--"
"Like I'm eleven? Twelve?" he said, rolling his eyes. "Yeah, I get that all the time..."
"I'm sorry," she giggled unexpectedly. "Here I was thinking you were some kind of prodigy because you're my tutor even though you're littler than me!"
He stared at her coldly. "I'm not stupid, if that's what you're suggesting."
The words startled Alex into sobriety. "I didn't mean--"
"Bye," Darian said, not looking at her again as he left. Her expression was that of just having had a door slammed in her face.
"Another day in paradise," he grumbled, walking upstairs to his room. He had spent the better part of an hour sneaking around campus, trying to avoid Kotaro's sneak attacks, even if he would have gladly given in... had it only been an option.
The house was a split-level, seemingly innocuous, but Darian actually only had access to a secret fifth of it. Should any authorities decide to look for him at the address, they would fail to find a single trace of his residency, outside of a lone, inconspicuous window. His room wasn't really even a room as much as it was a closet, sparsely populated by clothes in various states of wash, an iron and ironing board, assorted technological gadgets, and a couch that served quite poorly as his bed.
No sooner had he tossed his backpack on the couch than Darian found a ski mask thrown in his face. "Gear up, we have a new target," said someone in full camouflage.
He didn't look to see who it was, but he knew anyway. "I don't suppose there's any chance of renegotiating my membership," he scowled coldly, crumpling the mask in one fist as it fell into his hand.
"Not on your life. You're in this for good, lest you forget the Mark situation."
His teeth ground so tightly that they might have splintered apart. "That wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been a part of this in the first place."
"Well, you are, and now you're stuck here. Gear up."
"I ought to kill myself out of spite for you."
A pause... followed by vicious laughter. "Heh, I'm kind of surprised you haven't already. Still, that would be the only way out for you."
Darian stared angrily at the mask, his hands trembling from built-up frustration. It was easier to distance himself from reality lately, but it still wasn't enough, and he had to close his eyes to keep from losing his cool. Without looking, he grabbed his goggles and put them on, then slipped on the mask.
"What's the target?" he asked, starting to don his coveralls.
"Another dump, maybe a couple others if they look promising. Frankly, though, I'm starting to wonder about our orders, but ol' Boss R.M.'s been pulling something out of all of it, apparently. I expect we'll hit rock bottom soon, though, unless a lot of fresh blood starts coming in."
Residence, Darian thought. Probably no security in the place, but it was best to be prepared, just in case. He snapped on his tool belt as well, then followed the other suit down to the van waiting in the garage.
There were three others in the pack--he didn't know who they were, and the arrangement was very probably designed with that in mind. No matter how far he dug, even from the inside, he wasn't likely to uncover everyone involved. Entry-levels like Darian were picked up and only one per pack. The others were all second-tier or higher and were, ironically, more trustworthy about knowing where the others lived.
Only the driver was certain where they were going, since they were in a windowless van, but Darian had gotten enough practice retracing his tracks to get a general idea of where they were from the distance they traveled and the feel of the road. They finally arrived at a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the city, somewhat well-to-do from the look of things, and the sort of place that would be high-profile for break-ins.
That was where they came in.
It was still early evening when they arrived, meaning it was less likely that anyone was home. They moved quickly, Darian pushed to the lead. While he was certain the others were more experienced, in the end they were training their replacements, so he was forced into doing their dirty work more often than not. It wasn't something he was bad at doing, but he didn't like it all the same.
Darian did a quick scan through several of the lower windows. Sure enough, there was no visible security armed. In fact, the general disarray of the house made it seem as though the occupants had just moved in, or were planning to move out. He carefully picked the lock on the front door, nervous about setting off an unseen alarm, but there was no trace even of a silent alarm on his scanner. Wordlessly, they piled inside.
Two to a floor, the pack swept through, taking anything on their list. Most of what they took seemed valuable or at least resellable, but other things were perfectly ordinary. It baffled Darian as to why they would bother stealing such things, but that was hardly the first thing he would question about the raid.
He brushed over the living room and swept down a hallway, finding close to nothing worth taking. Then he came to a bedroom and found a bureau with a jewelry box and some delicate frescoes on top of it. Despite his instructions, he ignored the bureau--entirely out of interest in maintaining the owner's dignity--and grabbed one of the plates.
To his surprise, his grip wasn't strong enough, and the fresco clattered to the floor noisily. Moments later, a triple-beep sounded in his headset--an angry warning that one of the others had heard it. Annoyed, he snatched the plate off the floor, getting a more solid grip on it, and was surprised to see not the slightest scratch on it. Shrugging, he placed it carefully in his sack, layering a loose cloth over it to keep it from further damage, then piled the rest in equally carefully.
The jewelry box was a plain one, not worth taking. Inside, however, there was a number of ornate rings and bracelets--probably costume jewelry, but he didn't have the experience to appraise it on the spot. One in particular caught his eye, however--a plain green band that looked like jade--which he immediately knew to be special somehow... even worth the risk of being caught taking.
He stuffed the ring into one of his socks--it was one of the last places they would look if they frisked him for anything, so he felt confident it would be safe there. The rest of the jewelry he emptied into a smaller bag and added it to his sack.
Two beeps, a pause, then two more beeps--that was the signal to get out of there. They didn't want to risk too much time during daylight hours, especially for the seemingly worthless stuff they invariably stole. Darian hightailed it outside and piled into the van with the others.
They had four more hits before nightfall, with decreasing success. Not once did they get caught, but it had hardly been worth their efforts. "A damn lot of good that run was," commented one, once the coast was clear. "I'd get more working a real job than pulling more heists like that."
"Yeah," agreed the others.
"Wonder what R.M.'s doing with all this junk?"
"I heard that the next drop point was being staged as a yard sale."
"So we're stealing crap? Stupid. Why does R.M. waste our time like this?"
No one seemed to have an answer for that.
They dropped Darian off with no particular fanfare. "You know the drill," said one. "Remember that the schedule rotates again, so watch for the signal."
"Again?" muttered one. "This shit's getting hard to keep straight."
"Well, it's a good thing you're only a second, then, isn't it? I'd hate to have to rely on you to remember to breathe."
Darian said nothing as they drove off, pulling off his mask and goggles as he stepped inside. As usual, he was too tired for homework--he went upstairs and flopped straight onto the couch, falling asleep with his face buried in his backpack.