I’m sorry to be writing you like this. I know leaning on our former relationship is a bit presumptuous of me, but I cannot write anything official in my capacity as professor and Oriana’s academic adviser. In a letter to an old friend, however, I am free to gossip since what I have to tell you can be taken in the context of the little girl I would watch while her mother was being brilliant in the lab next door.
Oriana will be coming home when the academic year is over. There’s no job for her and no tendrils elsewhere in doctorate programs. I don’t know if she’s told you yet; she doesn’t communicate well with me and I make an active effort to keep in contact to make sure she will be graduating. She is a genius, Agatha, the likes of which I haven’t seen in all my years at the university. It was probably a poor idea to request her as an advisee, but I think I’m the only thing standing in the way of her expulsion.
Although I know expulsion sounds somewhat dire, it’s not so bad as that. She has been working like one possessed since she arrived several years ago, and the accelerated degree program has almost been too slow for her. It’s just that in her obsession, she has neglected to develop any social skills that would allow her teachers to relate to her on even a professional level. She doesn’t sleep, she barely eats, and she would probably forgo breathing if it used brainpower she wanted for something else. She has scant few friends, and the ones she does are infinitely patient or as equally eccentric.
However, my coworkers are actively put off by her attitude and ineptitude in dealing with others. She has burned so many bridges in this fashion it is an absolute miracle that there are any professors and researchers in our field that she can hold a conversation with, let alone be taught by.
It’s not that she’s not making progress, Agatha, understand this. It’s that she has discovered new pathways through old woods and alienated many dusty game-trail defenders. If she had more grace with it, she would still be an intellectual outcast but invited to academic and industry dinners and meetings with the military. With her father’s temper, pardon the recolection Agatha, she’s all but a pariah.
As your friend, I wanted you to know the situtation as it stands. When she returns to you in the spring it won’t be because she’s a failure, far from it, but she will have no where else to go. You know me. She’s even managed to anger me and I have screamed her from my office more than once. Maddeningly focused, she shows an unhealthy prediliction towards discarding contrary opinions without due consideration. In short, she’s obstinate and so certain of her own superiority that it is actively dangerous to her future.
She’s deteriorating in a hostile environment of her own creating and has absolutely no idea how to fix it. She won’t listen; she’s too stubborn. In that—and this is not a dig—she takes more after your side of the family. The environment here is toxic to her simply by being who she is. Another environment would be far better, preferably away from academia where she can put her prodigious talents to practical use.
When she returns after the spring, care for her. I’ve been her adviser—and babysitter—long enough to know she needs it despite the armor of arrogance she has constructed.
Give my love to Ricky, if the mangy fellow is still alive.
The pith helmet landed on the bed covers and woke Evan, sending him into a fit of surprised coughing.
“Leo?” Evan’s huffing gasps filled the room, as did the smells of illness and age. Sought and found with kitten-weak fingers, Evan pulled the helmet up the length of his body and settled it on his head. It covered his hair, solid gray and cropped short, and the comfort of it eased his breathing. Part of his adventure regalia, it left a fine red grit on his fingers. “You’re not expecting me to die, are you? Last great adventure?”
“Of course not, you’ve survived worse.” Leo backed into the room, hunched so as not to hit the door frame, and placed a tray of food on the nightstand before he sat on the bed. He reached over and tapped the helmet with a large, thin hand. “But it has kept you kicking this long as a luck charm if nothing else. I figured you could do with the familiar.”
Coughing again, Evan held one hand on his chest and the other on the dirty white crown of the helmet. Though the violence of the fit did not come close to dislodging it, holding it down gave him something to cling to. “The boy?”
“Presiding over debate club. He won’t be home for a few hours.” Lifting a spoon, Leo gestured toward Evan with the utensil, the soup inside not quite sloshing out. “I wouldn’t put it past his father to have woven some of home into that hat.”
Evan’s hands slid onto the bed-covers and he stared as if willing them to move again. The red dust left smudges down his chest.
After several long moments, he accepted Leo’s offer to feed him with a slight, dignified nod. Swallowing and gasping afterward, the lines of his face deepening as he struggled to cough and not cough, he took his time breathing before trying another spoonful.
Eventually finished and exhausted, he offered Leo a wan smile, “This hat always did make everything feel that much more bearable.”
Ori spread the photos and notes across the table and raised her eyebrows at Ben. So many different scenes. One of him eating an ice-cream cone. One of him laughing with his friends. One waving goodbye to someone out of the shot. One of him at the mall with his uncles.The notes were dated and comprehensive, a field notebook detailing a research project.
Ben, to his credit, did not freak out. “You were stalking me?”
Without even the grace to blush, Ori shook her head. “Studying. I could not have invaded your privacy without raising serious ethical questions.”
Touching a picture of himself on a school field trip, feeding lorikeets, Ben shook his head. “Not for lack of trying, ethical questions or not. This is creepy as hell, you know that?”
Finally catching on that he wasn’t as pleased or comfortable with her study as she was, Ori gave him an uncertain smile. “Yes…” She trailed off, a blush rising to her cheeks.
“Ori-” Ben sighed, his fingers pausing on the one picture that drew his attention more than any of the others. He held it up for her inspection. “I realize you can obsesses, but… you are the only person I know who has put the pieces together. You can’t - you can’t expect me to let you leave me presence without giving me an oath.”
“Fealty?” Ori said, sharp and angry, her red flush growing redder. Ben flinched at the word and all that it suggested.
“Friendship. Promise me that this information goes no further.”
Ori took the photo in her hand and stared it for several long minutes. It captured the multicolored flash of Ben’s magic from when he’d comforted a friend with a pat on the shoulder. There was only one place she could go with information like this, and she didn’t want to be the cause of a friend’s death.
Looking up, Oriana was characteristically solemn. “I swear.”
At 6:00pm on Thursday, Lorian Labs in Kreblin, Utah burned to its foundations. The first officer to arrive allegedly sighted three individuals fleeing the scene, however official police reports have been filed citing a spark from a faulty machine as the culprit. The fire started in the primary workroom and spread throughout the compound. Once the flames reached the chemical repository, the resulting explosion caused the remaining walls to collapse in a display of light and sound that caused more than one Kreblin citizen to go outside to investigate. Damage is estimated at several million dollars in equipment. Dr. Agatha Lorian, renowned geneticist and the owner of Lorian Labs, has declined to comment.