Chapter 1a: What is This Place, and Why Won’t This Line Move?
Callum Greentree’s first thought, upon stepping off the boat, was “Why didn’t I take that scholarship to Cambridge?” Then he felt something crack underfoot and his shoe went through the dock. His next thought was unprintable.
Once he’d pulled his foot out of the warm surf, he glanced back to the boat almost longingly. Students jostled him on their way down the gangplank and off the dock. He sighed. It hadn’t been a bad trip, all told, though he still questioned the University’s insistence on using such an antiquated mode of transportation.
The weather in San Francisco had been pleasant when he’d Jaunted in from Scotland two days ago. He hadn’t had any trouble finding the ship he was supposed to sail to Ani Dai Island on. He’d even had a pleasant enough bunkmate last night. But (he’d discovered far too late), he was prone to seasickness. Hearty, lasting nausea haunted him for the better part of the past 48 hours. Just watching the ocean swells gently move the boat threatened to forcibly remind him of the dry crackers he’d managed to force down a few hours ago. He didn’t think it was particularly fair; he’d grown up in Kirkcaldy, after all! He couldn’t even count how many long, lazy days he’d spent inside looking out at the sea, trying to guess where it was through the mists or rain.
He turned his attention back to the Island, and tried to take in a few useful details. This place would hopefully be his home for the next four years or so. His eye was naturally drawn up toward the Clocktower, the most prominent architectural feature on Campus. It was featured heavily on all the brochures and literature about Ani Daigaku. The Wall surrounding Campus proper seemed to have been painted or wallpapered (it was hard to tell from this distance); there were few spots of visible brickwork. He could see a few taller buildings and the roofs of some that appeared to be single-story. There didn’t seem to be a unifying theme between them; some were modern designs, and some looked ancient. And…was that…? He blinked, trying to clear his eyes. There was apparently a replica of the Coliseum somewhere toward the middle. Why? Did they expect people to want to visit Rome, but be unable to find the time?
Closer to him, there was a town. He hadn’t read anything about it in any of the literature, so he couldn’t even begin to guess it’s name. It hugged the Wall nearest him (the South Wall, if he remembered right) pretty closely and expanded some out to the left (West?) side. It, at least, looked pretty modern. Maybe he could find some cheap anti-nausea treatments there.
Just ahead of him, he saw that all the other new Students had gathered in one spot, and were having varying degrees of success being quiet. He walked up to the back of the crowd, stood next to a small girl with bright pink pigtails, and could see someone standing next to a welcome sign. A teacher, maybe? She was saying, er, something. Something about dormitories? And the Admissions Office? Callum realized he must have been standing in the surf gawking longer than he had thought. The older woman making the speech wrapped it up almost as soon as he got there, and the gathering of students disbanded.
There was a small group of people standing near the sign once the crowd cleared up some. Callum walked up behind them to try to get a look. “I can’t read that one, either!” said a young man wearing what appeared to be black pajamas, “I don’t know what language that one is, or that one, or that one!”
“I believe they all say the same thing” said another young man sporting an eye-catching three-quarter-meter-tall shock of yellow hair with black streaks. His voice was a deep and (if Callum could admit it) rather soothing rumble.
The slinkily-dressed Nekojin next to him gave a petulant sigh and said “Wow, thank you Captain Obvious,” in a nasally voice clearly designed to annoy as many passers-by as physically possible.
Callum stepped forward between Dandelion Boy and a rather short Altairan girl, who turned to leave and almost stepped on his foot. Another student with far too many arms began to burble urgently at the Nekojin. He ignored the brewing fight and attempted to read the sign. In cramped script, it gave greetings in several languages. He couldn’t read most of the alphabets used. Some of them couldn’t even properly be called an alphabet – like the Altairan Scrit, which used stylized depictions of plants to convey emotions rather than words. He recognized that one, at least, but what was the one that was just circles and squares filled with what appeared to be hundreds of tiny multi-colored dots? At any rate, there was little useful there. He turned toward Campus and started walking.
He followed the majority of the students from the boat up the road. At one point, he caught a glimpse of his ex-bunkmate, but quickly lost sight of him behind a larger student. He really didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help noticing the pink-haired girl from earlier. She was nattering away energetically and skipping slightly to keep up with the rest of the crowd. Callum thought she sounded nice, but realized that she was mostly filling the silence; it seemed to make no difference to her whether the person she was talking to responded in any way.
As he got closer to the Gate, he found a signpost. Upon closer inspection, it gave helpful directions such as “Town ←” and “AniDai Campus ↑.” Town? That’s really what they named it? It was next to an intersection. He looked at the road at his feet, read the sign again, and looked at the Gateway into Campus. It was about ten paces away. He shook his head and followed the larger group of Students through the Gate and into Ani Daigaku itself.
As he crossed through the Wall, Callum’s first impression of AniDai Campus was that it was full of life. Students and faculty members strolled or ran or floated by on private errands, or called to one another in happy, vibrant voices. Most were human, of course, as AniDai was the only one of the five so-called “Great Colleges” that was actually located on Earth, but there were a fair number of aliens scattered about. They intermingled with each other and the humans, regardless of species. That gave Callum a little glow inside; while any sapient species was accepted and treated well throughout most parts of Earth and, indeed, the entire Alliance, most simply stuck to their own kind when business took them to one of the Homeworlds. He himself had only met one or two Altairans and perhaps a handful of Nekojin in his entire life.
He had been correct, too: most of the buildings on Campus were relatively modern in design and construction. Here there was a five-story tall dormitory, there was a long, low cafeteria. Building names and numbers were on signs near entrances, each in several languages. The grounds were well kept, with manicured lawns, and trees, bushes, and shrubs offered scattered shade. The overall effect of one lawn was one of invitation and relaxation, while another offered meditative peace behind short walls, and yet another had flowers and trimmed hedges for those looking for a spot of artisanal beauty. The only oddity that Callum could see was that no-one seemed to walk on the grass at all, except directly in front of buildings. He filed that information away under “things to ask about later” and carefully stuck to the concrete walkways.
Not far into the school grounds, though, he started seeing evidence that something drastic had recently happened. There were scorch marks on some buildings, and broken glass and food wrappers lying at the base of one dorm. He could see streamers and empty cans and suspicious puddles scattered about as well. There were a few students, even at ten in the morning, stumbling around drunkenly. He began to suspect that there had been a major celebration the previous night. But for what? And why all the property damage?
He caught up with one of the students from the group he’d been following, a short blonde girl, anorexically thin. She’d apparently slowed to gawk at her surroundings as well. She wasn’t looking his direction and jumped when he spoke to her.
“All right, miss?”
“Excuse me?” she said, with a puzzled expression.
“I said ‘all right, miss.’” When she didn’t respond, he tried again. “Blimey, but it looks like some blokes totally lost the plot last night, innit?”
Her eyebrows met in consternation. “Oh, I’m so bad with accents. Are you British?”
Callum blinked and said, a little slower, “Yeah, I’m from Scotland. Name’s Callum. Callum Greentree. What’s yours?”
She seemed slightly relieved and stuck out a hand tentatively. “I’m Amelia. Amelia Longmire.” She said her name with an odd look on her face, like she was trying out the tone or wording for the first time. “This is my first time on Earth. Isn’t it amazing here? Also, what were you saying about …uh… ‘plotting’?” Not from Earth! That explained the accent she had. He hadn’t been able to place it before.
“Oh, er… I meant that it looks like everyone went a bit nutty last night? I just… with the…” he trailed off lamely and pointed at some of the rubbish.
“Oh. Right.” Amelia stood there awkwardly for a moment, rubbing the back of her head. Then, with forced cheerfulness, she said “This place is amazing, though. It looks just like it does in World in Peril VII! Um. Do you know where we’re supposed to go first? Professor Ina said something about an admissions hall, but I didn’t catch where.”
“Yeah, I thought it was something like that. I dunno, though. I’d rather been hoping you could tell me. What’s World in Peril vee-eye-eye?”
“Um. Oh. It’s a, um, a video game.”
“Right, okay, well, I’m going to keep walking this way. We’re bound to find someone that can tell us what we’re supposed to do. I hope.” Callum stepped out again, hesitated, and glanced back at Amelia. “You’re welcome to stick with me. At least you’d have someone to be lost with.”
Amelia looked even more relieved, and trotted a little to catch up. They passed a few more dorm buildings, and Callum began to realize that they were all part of the same dormitory complex. It was loosely arranged in some sort of a pattern, and there were paths leading straight from one side door to another.
The dorms soon gave way to more class buildings, and he could see the Coliseum replica ahead. It took him another five minutes of silent walking before he gave in and walked up to a likely-looking Student, lounging on a bench in a small quad. He ignored the three other Students chatting nearby. The boy was tall, muscular, and bald except for a ridiculously long moustache of brilliant green. Callum briefly wondered if that was its real colour, and then decided that it didn’t much matter.
“Wotcher, mate. You look like a fellow what really knows his onions, yeah? Me and the bird here are new about Uni. Where do we flit off to first?”
For some reason Callum couldn’t fathom, this got him nothing but blank and slightly suspicious stares. Moss Man looked at Amelia for clarification, but she just turned beet red and shook her head.
“Sorry mate,” said Callum, “I’m a bit flustered, yeah? I talk too fast when I get that way. I’m just asking where we’re supposed to go. We’re new, yeah?”
Greenpeace stared at him a moment longer and then raised a finger to point, leaving his arm on his lap. Callum turned to follow and found himself staring up at the Clocktower. Of course. The most prominent building on Campus, and featured in all the documentaries and brochures he’d ever seen of the place. Why, exactly, had he not thought of it before?
Just as he turned to go, though, he heard a hoarse whisper coming from behind him. “Miss, you might want to know – Psych is in the Medical complex, that way.” He heard Amelia squeak something incomprehensible in reply, and then she caught back up to him.
They set off in a completely different direction. Callum was silent for a few minutes, and then finally said “Do I really sound bonkers?”
“No. It’s just that… it’s just that you have a really thick accent, and I’m not sure that half of your words are real words. I’msosorrypleasedon’thateme.”
Callum blinked and parsed that last sentence. “Well I asked the question, didn’t I? I’ve never really had much interaction with people outside of my little corner of the world. I guess I’ll have to talk a little slower or something.”
Callum couldn’t see it, but Amelia nodded in agreement. They spent the rest of the trip in a more comfortable silence.
The Clocktower loomed over an older brick building that looked an awful lot like an old-style financial bank. He’d seen pictures of them during his history classes, and had even visited one as part of a tour of Old Boston several years ago, on his only previous visit to the USA. This one had the classic look – brick archways, tall windows, columns. There was a line of students filtering in through the only doorway that did not appear to have rusted shut decades ago. The windows, to the extent he could see, were filthy. Hopefully this was just a façade, and the interior would be much more modern. Most operational buildings these days were like that.
Callum stepped into the line and prepared to wait.