Undercity, Ch. 5 (Part 1)

So, this is actually a little more than half of Chapter 5. I had a nice buffer built up for a while, but I got complacent and fell behind somewhat. The second half will post tomorrow, and Chapter 6 will post on Tuesday night as normal. Enjoy!


The walk to the academy is the same as it ever is. I meet up with Jaclyn, we trade barbs, and we make it to class just in time to get a dirty look from the Magister without actually getting into any trouble. Today we have History, Science, and Self-Expression. Students are supposed to be able to use Self-Expression explore their hobbies and interests and passion. Some students learn music or art or writing. Some practice athletics. The important thing, the philosophy behind it all, is that the student be free to choose for themselves what they do with the time. Students are discouraged from, say, just falling asleep in the librarium, but if they really want to, no one stops them.

All except for umbras. Umbras have to learn how to be a better umbra.

History class isn’t very exciting, but then, I don’t ever find History class very exciting. Everything before Year Zero just seems so far away and impossible to know for certain since so much changed after the Singularity. That’s probably not quite fair, since even today there are people who would have been alive to see everything change, but they’re few and far between. Once they’re gone, all anyone will know about what life was like back then is what the State-approved textbooks tell us.

It’s strange. Sometimes it feels like I know more about ancient civilizations, the Romans and the Greeks and the Ottomans and the Chinese dynasties and everything than I know about my own great-great -grandparents.

At least Science class is fun. Our series of lessons in chemistry wrapped up in our last class, and now we’re starting on physics. Classic Newtonian mechanics, where the world around you makes sense and everything behaves the way it’s supposed to. Science is taught by Professor Drake, and she’s even older than Professor Cook. Not old enough to have lived before Year Zero, but old enough to have been raised by people who’d spent the vast majority of their lives on the other side of that particular dividing line. Sometimes she’ll tell stories about men and women who used computers to study quantum mechanics, who relied on machines to divine the very big and the very small secrets of the universe.

Professor Drake is strange. When she tells us these stories, there’s no bitterness in her voice, as there is with Professor Cook. There’s no cold certainty, as there is when the Magisters speak of the past. There’s only a sort of quiet sadness, like Professor Drake is imagining a world where scientists strive to answer the questions most people wouldn’t even know how to ask, and it breaks her heart a little bit to know she doesn’t live in it. But then she just smiles and continues on with the lesson. We talk about momentum and inertia, and then it’s time for Self-Expression.

Like dutiful little Citizens, we shuffle off to the basement of the Administration Building. The others are joking and laughing and groaning in anticipation of whatever the Magister’s going to have us do today, but I’m silent, running through Buss’s “Notes from the Singularity” in my head. Concise and correct, that’s my plan for today. I don’t want to give the Magister a single reason to talk to me or even think about me for longer than it takes me to answer whatever he might ask.

The Magister’s waiting for us in a different room this time. Instead of the Network Room with its terminals, we’re in one of the larger archives. It’s been repurposed as a meeting room or a classroom of sorts, with the boxes of files pushed to the walls and stacked almost to the ceiling so that a set of rectangular tables could be pushed together for us to sit around.

The air smells like damp paper in here. Someone sneezes. I bet this place is full of dust and mold and mice and who knows what else. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’d rather be plugged into one of the terminals than sitting in here. I don’t see why we couldn’t just have this discussion in the Network Room, or in the Magister’s node itself, for that matter.

Once we’ve all filed in and settled around the table, the group of us more or less silent, the Magister runs his hand through his hair and begins speaking. “Doubtless some of you are wondering why we’re in this classroom today.”

Someone snickers at that line, doubtless amused by the idea that any of the archives could really be considered a classroom. The Magister frowns and the snickering stops. He clears his throat and continues.

“As many of you no doubt realized, the test yesterday was intended to be difficult. It was meant to be so. In truth, it was meant to be impossible. This is something you will all have to accept as an Interfaced,” he says. “Sometimes you can’t solve a problem. Sometimes the best thing you can do is to step back and stop things from getting worse, whatever that might mean. It can be a difficult lesson to learn.” He looks around the room at us. Most of us are watching him, since we’re not sure where he’s going with this. All of us are silent.

Satisfied, he nods to himself and goes on. “I’ve taught Interfaced of your age and younger for over a decade now, ever since I left tertiary and completed my training at the Magisterium. I’ve seen many things as a teacher, and from time to time, I’ve seen my students get very upset and angry as they struggle to come to terms with the realities of the society we live in.” He pauses and looks up at the ceiling, as if letting the taste of his words linger in his mouth to see if they’re to his liking. He shakes his head. “Of the world we live in, I mean.”

I look around the room. No one else really seems to be reacting to his words beyond boredom or confusion. I guess that means the Magister’s only really talking about me, then.

“It’s difficult. I know it can be difficult. I know what it’s like. Believe it or not, I was once like you.” The Magister’s looking at each of us in turn, as if he expects some kind of a response from us. His eyes linger on ours, and the expression on his face is on the verge of slipping away from neutrality. Almost, but not quite. “But the truth of the matter is, I’ve put those days behind me. I had a higher calling, and I followed it, and if I am being totally honest, it’s left me somewhat… Somewhat…”

The Magister trails off. He’s looking down at the surface of the desks, and I have no idea what he’s going to do. I imagine him screaming, laughing, shouting at us, bursting into tears. Whatever idea it is that he’s trying to express to us is getting lost in the journey from his brain to his mouth.

He clears his throat. “In any case, I’ve sought the help of a specialist. Someone a bit better equipped to help you with anything you might be feeling than I am. He’ll be joining us to introduce himself before we begin our discussion today. You may talk amongst yourselves until he arrives.”

This is all strange, but no one’s going to look too closely at whatever freedom the Magister affords us in his class. In less than a minute, we’re all talking and laughing as if we were on our lunch breaks. It’s so loud and we’re all so comfortable that I don’t realize the Magister is behind me until he puts his hand on my shoulder. I jump in my seat and turn to look at him.

“Miss Demetrio. A word, if I may.”

My breath catches in my throat. It feels like everyone’s watching me, but only because they are. “Certainly, Magister,” I say, my voice half-choked. We step out into the hallway. He shuts the door behind us, and we are alone.

“About your outburst yesterday…”

“I’m sorry, Magister. It won’t happen again.”

“I’m sure that it won’t but I have deeper concerns than the rude words you had for me, Miss Demetrio.”

I don’t say anything. I don’t like where this is going.

“I’ve asked the specialist to come specifically to see and speak with you. It’s profoundly troubling to me that you’re writing programs at your age, Miss Demetrio. Frankly, you should know better. At your age, it’s no secret what kind of dangers unchecked programs can cause. You’ve been for almost your entire life to control them, not to turn them loose or try to bend them to your will.”

I don’t have anything to say to any of this. It doesn’t matter, though. The Magister is more than happy to keep speaking, it seems.

“In any event, you’ll be seeing him one or one for however long it takes for him to determine what’s wrong with you that you behave so recklessly.”

My eyebrows furrow in anger, but I’m making every effort to control myself. “There’s nothing wrong with me, Magister.” I take a deep breath, exhale.

“Well, why don’t we let a professional be the judge of that?”

We go back inside. No one says anything to me. They can probably see how angry I am, but underneath the anger, I’m scared. What will happen if this man decides that there is something wrong with me, that I’m reckless or impulsive or resentful of authority or something like that? What will the Magisters do with me then?

I don’t have very long to consider the possiblities. Just a few seconds later, the door opens, and elderly man in his sixties is standing there, silver hair and a silver beard. He carries himself with confidence, and though we met just last night, he doesn’t seem at all surprised to see me.

“Good afternoon, class,” he says with a smile. “My name is Bryant Pearson. I’ll be your school psychologist.”


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