Through with the meeting, Van left Blen's office. Checking her bracelet, she confirmed that what Yical had told her was correct. Replacement instructors had already been assigned to her classes, and her texts and notes had been shared with them. She was now officially off the teaching roster for the next six months. She should have resented the pre-emptory manner of her reassignment, but couldn't. A thread of excitement rose in her belly. Restore an alien-reared Rahfoni to society? Yical had been right. Nobody in the history of the planet had ever done that.
She stepped out through the institute's main doors and took a deep breath, scanning the precinct. She was curious about how it looked when she was normally busy in class. She heard children playing and focused on the park in front of her. During the day, it was used as a playground and set of outdoor classrooms. Small figures in vibrantly coloured clothing danced around two taller figures. To their right, a group of older children were taking samples from the lush green vegetation that fringed the narrow creeks that emptied into an oval lake. Beyond them, a cluster was sitting cross-legged in a circle. At this distance, it was difficult to see who was the teacher and who were the pupils, but this was the biggest concentration of youngsters Van had seen in years. It looked like the precinct's entire population of younglings was present.
By the time dusk fell, the area would be altered and configured for adults—the short railings around the lake and waterways would disappear, entertainment domes would rise from beneath the grassy surface, and acoustic shields would be put in place to keep venues private from each other.
To her right, partially eclipsed by the institute's campus buildings, were the supporting industries of the precinct—food markets, shops, some accommodation and general maintenance facilities. She normally sent Rek to do the grocery shopping but, occasionally, liked to saunter to the market herself, especially if she knew out-precinct merchants were visiting. Perhaps she could introduce the Abless boy to the markets. She found it cheerful and invigorating, full of the scents of Rahfon life. It would be a good introduction to what it meant to be a Rahfoni.
This morning, knowing she had an impossible deadline to meet, she turned left, walking briskly down the wide promenade towards the residential area. There was enough traffic around to be comforting but not claustrophobic, and she nodded to people she recognised. They smiled and nodded back.
She liked the Emaak precinct because it was smaller than the Rahfoni average. Before Yical Blen poached her, offering her a package she couldn't refuse, she'd been teaching at Disen, a region easily twice as large and three times as busy. People came and left the major spaceport city on a regular basis, quickly moving on to other opportunities, and Van had found it difficult to form more than a handful of cursory relationships. Favil had loved it, of course. He loved everything that was dynamic and exciting. When Van had left for Emaak, Favil hadn't followed.
The residential buildings hove into view as she approached, rising up out of the surrounding landscaped shrubbery like neatly separated plates of white. The panes of yellow, blue, green and pink crystal glass that separated the levels of each building glinted in the sunlight, giving the area a bright, hyper-realistic glow.
She really should be grateful to Yical for rescuing her from Disen's overwhelming anonymity. Emaak may be smaller, but it was also more intimate, more soothing. Her creative and academic output had more than doubled in the first ten years after her move. Whereas, in Disen, she had been a competent philosopher, in the quiet of Emaak, she was able to pull her ideas and experiences of social chaos together in such a way that she was now one of Emaak's stars—a Rahfonist and philosopher who had her pick of conferences. She was truly content, something that a person could only aspire to when reaching the major life-event of Retirement.
Van reached her building and, with only the slightest of pauses so her identity could be confirmed, the foyer doors slid open. She climbed the wide stairs of the residential block up to the second level, palming the door's access panel in an offhand gesture born of habit.
There was a moment of silence when she entered, then a bright voice greeted her. “Am I mistaken, or did you leave for work less than two hours ago?”
Van smiled. “Noticed, did you?”
She looked at the AI unit now approaching her. Rek trotted forward and sat down, his tail swishing gently from side to side. From his relaxed facial expression, Van could see he was in a teasing mood.
“Hard not to when the door interrupted my mid-morning nap,” he said.
“Yical Blen gave me a new assignment.” She sobered and dropped her voice. “Ultra-high privacy, Rek. Nothing I say or watch is to go beyond these walls.”
“So I can't tell the fresh pawgury trader about it.”
She smiled. “As much as I love steamed pawgury...no.”
“I shall set up the appropriate protocols. All communications will be on a delay, with acknowledgement-required handshakes for all incoming calls. That should give you enough time to suspend whatever you're working on should someone contact or visit you.”
“Would you like a kevey? I can make one for you just the way you like your men—dark and sweet.”
“That would be lovely.” She walked over to the largest console in the living room, fishing her slate out of her bag. Glancing down at it, she noticed that Blen had uploaded one hundred and sixteen files. This was going to be a long week. She acknowledged the device interlock on both devices, set the transfer for encryption and walked back to the sofa.
“How are we doing for food?” she asked, raising her voice.
Rek's muffled tones carried from the kitchen. “Thinking of staying in?”
“No 'thinking' about it. I have an entire week of enforced solitude. Lots of information to absorb.”
“I see. In that case, no, we don't have enough food.”
He entered the room. He had changed to bipedal mode and was carrying a steaming mug in one hand. “Would you like me to go to the market today, instead of tomorrow?”
Van took the mug, tasting the dark, aromatic liquid with pleasure. “Good idea. Use the opportunity to purchase extra groceries. I'm not sure when I'll be free. Nice kevey, by the way.”
“Thank you. I presume your current assignment will be lasting for more than a week?”
“That's right. All in all, I'm going to be away from my regular duties for the next six months. This first week is just preparation time. How did you know?”
“You are preoccupied. Your voice is exhibiting stress. I would have guessed that whatever is troubling you will not be resolved in a short time.”
She looked up at him and shook her head. “You can read me like a neo-hoth novel.”
“That's how I was programmed.” He folded down to a quadraped so Van didn't have to strain her neck. “So you are off regular duties for six months?”
“I am scanning your schedule. If you're going to be otherwise occupied for such a length of time, you need to make some decisions about upcoming commitments.”
Van hesitated for a moment, then groaned and hit her forehead with the palm of her hand. “You're talking about the East Rahfon Conference on Order and Chaos, aren't you? How could I have forgotten?”
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