Chapter 176: Betrayed ExpectationsAlexandraErin on August 21, 2013 in Volume 2 Book 5: Nasty Disturbing Uncomfortable Things, Volume 2: Sophomore Effort
In Which Amaranth Has Just One Thing On Her Mind
There was still plenty of time left in class, but Coach Callahan told me I should just leave for the day. I had a feeling from the awkward silence that stretched on after her last admission that she was a little uncomfortable with it… she’d been uncharacteristically revealing on several points, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that. Maybe she wasn’t, either.
With nothing else to do before dinner, I headed back to the dorm. Amaranth would already be done with her classes, I knew, but I didn’t expect her to be there. She had very few reasons to head back to an empty dorm. She was a social creature almost by definition, and it wasn’t like she ever needed to pop back to shower or change.
Well, not to change, anyway… she showered more than was strictly necessary for a creature who was clean by definition. She’d probably showered more than I did even when I was one hundred percent sure I was dirty by definition.
Either way, the room was empty when I got there, which was… good, maybe. I’d kind of wanted a chance to be alone, to process what had happened.
It was just that I also at the exact same time wanted someone there for support as I processed what happened.
I couldn’t have both, obviously, but that didn’t stop me from wanting them.
If I looked at it objectively, then really the worst thing that had happened to me during the day was Coach Callahan slamming me against a wall. But somehow, that felt… incidental. I didn’t really blame her. I mean, it had been entirely her choice and no one else’s fault. But occasional violent outbursts from her were almost like a trace accent, and I felt more sympathy for her than anything else. We’d both been taken.
As I said, that was probably objectively the worst thing, but somehow it didn’t feel that way. I was starting to feel like I’d had a string of disappointments and they were all running together in my head in a way that didn’t make a lot of sense, but still felt like a pattern.
The owl-turtle thing had altered our deal. Emily hadn’t exactly betrayed me in any really concrete way, but she also hadn’t behaved the way I’d expected her to. That was my fault, both for having the expectation and for not making sure she was clued in, but still… it felt like a betrayal, the way it does when a completely inanimate object doesn’t live up to your basic expectations. I knew that was unfair, because she was very much animate even if she wasn’t particularly animated, but the whole situation was unfair.
And while I could accept that incomprehensible dream avatars and accidental place spirits might not always behave in exactly the way we’d want or expect them to…
Well, maybe I was just as wrong to have had any expectations of Acantha. I felt used, but she really hadn’t actually used me in any fashion. I’d been more of an impediment than a tool, and I hadn’t even been much of an obstacle to her.
But of course that was because ultimately I hadn’t felt like we were on different sides, which was why it felt so much like a betrayal.
That was it… that was what was bothering me.
When we’d faced the boxes together, I’d thought we were in it together… and then I’d asked her advice afterwards. It wasn’t anything more than a teacher/student thing, but it had been a friendly one, or I’d thought it had been, but apparently she’d been trying to get rid of me? And I hadn’t had any clue…
…but then, maybe I should have had my guard up. Coach Callahan had put me there to counter her. Acantha had admitted up front to having her own agenda. And it wasn’t like I’d even blithely accepted her word as to what it was… that information had come from the coach. Maybe she would have seen through the ruse if she’d been dealing with Acantha face-to-face, but I hadn’t had any reason to think her judgment was off.
I jumped at the sound of a key in the door. I guess I must have still looked startled when Amaranth opened it, because she immediately apologized.
“Sorry, I didn’t expect… oh, baby, what’s wrong?” she asked. “Don’t you have class?”
“Coach sent me home early today,” I said. “There was a little… setback in her mockbox project.”
“She isn’t angry with you, is she?”
“Possibly intermittently so,” I said. “Definitely at first, but less so by the time I left… more actually concerned than anything… I’m sure right now she’s mostly mad at Acantha, but she might swing back around to me if she gets frustrated enough.”
“Acantha? Is that the professor you like so much?”
“She’s not a professor,” I said. “But, yeah. Remember how she was supposed to be evaluating the boxes from a safety and liability type angle, for the university?”
“Yes, and there was some kind of hitch there… but I’m sure she wouldn’t give them a failing mark without a reason,” Amaranth said.
“Good guess, but no,” I said. “That was Coach Callahan’s first concern, but… she actually had other plans.”
“What did she do?”
I thought about that, and it occurred to me how little I actually knew beyond the fact that she’d done a bunch of potentially really deep scans. Well, that and tried to hide all evidence that she’d done them. That was the big thing… the big, damning thing.
But even still, the fact that she was clearly on the lookout for innovative product ideas didn’t mean that she would just up and steal one if the opportunity presented itself. If the phantasmal keg thing proved anything, it was that she could do pretty well just taking inspiration from others.
Also, I’d kept plenty of secrets for what had been fairly decent reasons… and hadn’t I just gone through a whole thing with another elf who had been seemingly unnecessarily furtive about plans that only needed to be secret because of a cultural context? It was possible that Acantha’s purpose in arranging to conduct her tests in private were as benign as Glory’s attempts to break free of Treehome.
I couldn’t think of what they were, beyond a vague idea that she might not trust the university or Coach Callahan to not interfere in the tests. Would I trust Jillian Callahan to be unbiased?
…probably not. The most I could ever trust was for her biases to be predictable and in some cases, somewhat fair. From a certain perspective, she’d already interfered… she had hand-picked me specifically to try to counter Acantha’s perspective. Why was it so suspicious that Acantha would have tried to get rid of me, given that Callahan’s cover for dismissing me was that she thought I was too friendly with Acantha? The logic worked both ways.
“Baby?” Amaranth prompted, and I realized I’d spent too long trying to organize my thoughts and figure out where I stood.
“Maybe I shouldn’t talk about it,” I said.
“If you’re involved in something that you feel like you have to keep a secret from me… especially if it involves Coach Callahan… then I think that probably you should,” she said. “But you can do it in your own time.”
“It’s nothing like that,” I said. “Nothing bad or dangerous… or more bad or dangerous than anything involving Coach Callahan. It’s just… it might be nothing, but if it’s not nothing, it might be corporate espionage.”
“Eep!” she said. “That’s… are you sure?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m sure it might be.”
“If you know something… or think you know… I think you probably should say something,” she said. “Let somebody else make the decision, they’ll probably have more information. That’s more than any sophomore should have to worry about, especially when you have so much to deal with already”
“You are preaching to the converted… I’m going to start scheduling crises on a first-come, first-served basis. This one’s already out of my hands, though,” I said. “I should probably just tell you what actually happened, I guess, instead of making you base your responses on the blanks you can fill in.”
“Please do,” she said.
I did, though there wasn’t much to tell and it sounded like even less when I tried to explain it.
“…how sure can you be of any of this?” she asked.
“I almost entirely positive about her using a mockery to do whatever it was she was doing,” I said. “As sure as I can be without trying to do something similar myself and seeing what it looks like in the record… which I guess would be my next step if I was trying to figure this out. But I’m not one hundred percent certain it would come out the same way. Anything that gives you as big a headache trying to figure out how it would even work as phantasmal records left in a real device by phantasmal readings from a phantasmal person mixed in with real records triggered by the phantasmal person… well, I think it probably had a decent chance of just blowing up in her face. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to pin down how it worked, because I’m not sure it was supposed to.”
“Sounds like she took a big risk… oh, except she didn’t,” Amaranth said. “Because it wasn’t her?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “In the classroom, she’s very by-the-book about sticking to safe and established procedure… but I guess it’s hard to be innovative when you’re doing that?”
“Well, think of it this way,” Amaranth said. “The people who work in the riskiest jobs usually have the most appreciation for basic safety protocols… like miners, or volatile substance alchemists, or trapeze artists… or airship crews. You wouldn’t believe the amount of care it takes to keep a ship in the air. The people who do it have to have an incredible amount of attention to detail, but they’re also the ones on the frontline if something goes wrong, so they have to attract this mindset where you’re not exactly risk-averse but you’re also not reckless. An experimental enchanter might be the same way.”
“Maybe… where exactly did all this airship stuff come from?” I asked.
“I don’t know, something I read,” she said. “’Heroes of the Empire’ type thing… the old one, I mean, not the Imperium. One of the stories was a famous airship crash, over the Mother Isles… well, I say crash, but since it happened over the isles, it was more of an explosion. Though I suppose most of it did eventually come down… I haven’t actually finished the chapter.”
“You were coming back here to get that book, weren’t you?” I guessed.
“I’m sorry, I don’t like stopping in the middle of something when I’m getting into it!” she said. “I was thinking about it the whole time I was in class. And now that I’m thinking about it again, it’s all I can think about.”
“Airship history was one of the few non-religious topics that my grandmother had books on,” I said. “I don’t remember an explosion over the isles… since most airship travel is over water, most airship disasters are technically lost at sea. A crash over land would have made a big impact. I mean, figuratively. Well, probably not just figuratively.”
“I can’t imagine your grandmother’s library being very up to date,” she said. “This was in the past few years.”
“Oh… I almost kind of vaguely think I remember hearing about that,” I said. “It was all over the news at the time, though I kind of had a lot of stuff going on, and not a lot of access to it. There was one survivor? No, that’s not right. It was like one survivor who was credited with a lot of other people surviving… I think.”
There was something else that was nagging at the back of my mind about the scenario, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I also wasn’t sure why it would be important, so it probably wasn’t.
“That’s the part I’m not done with yet!” she said. “I hope he survives… I mean, survived… but the book plays coy about that, I think to play up the danger. I’m sure it’s probably all less romantic than it sounds in a book that’s about people who risked… or lost… their lives saving others in the name of the Old Empire, I mean I don’t want to say it’s a puff piece because people died, but it’s not exactly journalism, either.”
“Well, let me know how it turns out,” I said. “I’ve… I think I want to be alone for a bit.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have company?”
“No,” I said. “But I’ve got to pick one or the other. You want to get back to your book, and I’ll enjoy your rambling about it better when I’m in a better mood.”
“I know you never actually listen when I ramble about books at you,” she said.
“No, but I like hearing it,” I said, and I kissed her. Something popped into my head. “Anyway… I’ve got something I need to do, and I’ll feel silly doing it in front of anyone else.”
“Especially you,” I said.
“You’ve got to get up close and personal with the building, don’t you?” she said.
“Yep,” I said. “If I want to have any chance of interfacing with Emily tomorrow, I need to know what I’m doing first.”
“Good luck,” she said. “And… don’t take any unnecessary risks.”
“I won’t,” I said. “This is really basically pretty well-worn territory. I mean, it’s the simplest, basic enchantment techniques. Just… applied to something a million times bigger and more complicated than I’ve ever dealt with. I’ll be extremely careful.”
“See that you do, baby.”