Students enjoy the first day after arriving to their new institution.
|The sound of whirling rotors sounded through the quiet static of the headset. Outside of the helicopter the rift valleys opened and closed below them, folded Earth dropping into steep valleys before rising sharply to blossom into wide plateaus. Great hillsides rippled and cascaded, green and choppy like a turf sea rolling across the wide expanse. In the wake of the hot summer the scenery took on the sun scorched look of a land where livery stretched searching arms into each other to fight for moisture, and the leaves withered upward praying for a spattering of rain. Directly below their flight a stretch of healthy greenery followed a meandering river which wound its way down from the high folds, marking their path further upward into the Kenyan landscape.
The destination appeared suddenly in the distance, the plateau sprouting brilliantly out of the rifts like a plate of gold unearthed in sifted sand.
Clementine brought his binoculars up, not wasting a second to survey his destination. Through the sight of the optics a single thought came back to him with a fury, ‘The University of Suswa, Kenya, should not exist.’
Yet there it rose, spread out across the table top plateau and looking over the glittering river passing below. Since the second he had heard of the unlikely institution out in the middle of nowhere his life had become like a fugue. An entire institution, well devoted and well funded leading research in the extraplanetary sciences, of all things, out in the middle of a country with a GDP less than some individuals net worth. Seeing it with his own eyes finally shattered the last inclination in his mind that he had managed to learn anything about how the world works in his last 23 years.
He shook his head slowly and smiled to himself. With a slight nudge of his shoulder he rustled the body leaning against him. Long lashes blinked opened dreamily, and Clementine watched Azra’s eyes adjust to the sunlight as it shone through the grey smoke of her eyes.
“Are we here?” Her voice came over the static, breaking the hour of silence. She leaned over to look out the window. Across from them the professor stirred.
The old man mumbled something incomprehensible in quick Xizang and leaned towards the window as well.
Azra made a sound to echo the elderly professor, and turned to focus her eyes on Clementine, silvery orbs shining with excitement. She planted a wet kiss on his cheek and turned back towards the window.
“Do you believe now, Clem?”
He could only laugh. Across the green plateau buildings of grey hokie stone sprawled and lay connected in neat patterns by lined paths, all centered around a smooth turf of gentle grass and trees. Small ponds dotted the interior park, some extending out in front of the buildings lining the square. As they grew closer more detail could be made out, all of it very much real.
Along the near edge of the plateau levels cut their way down to the river like a massive, loose staircase. Studding these sloping cliffs and hills spread a line of condos looking over the river and valley beyond. A basin of what looked to have been an old quarry nestled itself between the river and plateau and fed itself from the passing river, creating a small lake with a sand lined beach at its edge.
The helicopter swooped in towards a waiting pad. The only vehicles on the plateau, a trio of large box trucks, waited nearby in a small lot. No roads could be seen leading to or from the remote school. The only other markings nearby were the rows of crops spread across the landscape here and there, some accompanied by greenhouses.
The professor stroked the bristles of his chin. Clementine felt like doing the same, but the energy of the woman wriggling next to him proved too contagious for his doubts to set in. As certain as he felt the strange rift jewel would glimmer away like a mirage, it just kept growing at their low approach.
The skis had hardly touched down onto the pad before the doors were rolled open and Azra stepped out, bags in hand. Outside a small procession waited a respectful distance away, letting the rotors wind down and stop the gusts of wind and dust churning up around the pad. Clementine made for the professors bags, but was effectively shoed off by the small man. He smiled at the expected response and followed behind in the woman’s wake.
Outside the group approached the aircraft, led by a tall, lithe African woman. Azra and her had already made contact and were having an animated conversation by the time the other two made their way down, the professor moving slowly shouldering a bag near as large as himself.
The woman turned to regard them and extended a hand. “Hello Dr. Tau, welcome Mr. Gladstone. I am Helena Guatayana and this is Dr. Stephen Lay.” She indicated a tall man in a sweater who had every look of an Oxford gentleman. “We have the pleasure of being accompanied by our Chancellor,” she indicated the other companion next to her, a slightly swarthy man standing in business casual with a cordial smile.
Clementine looked to the new faces and then to Azra for confirmation, and saw from the way she looked to the Chancellor that he was in fact a strikingly handsome individual. His eyes were green and piercing, sharp with youth though he could have been well into 40’s. Helena kept on talking as the formalities were exchanged.
“If you all want to put your bags on this cart we can get them to your rooms. Dr. Lay will be glad to show you around the departments a bit, though I’m sure you’re all tired from the flight.”
The three arrivals followed the woman’s beckon while the two physicists began to chat, one in the efficient accent of a native chinese speaker, and the other in the more posh tones of the King’s English.
The woman waved to a man who came to the cart. “These are our new arrivals, Dr. Tau, Mr. Gladstone, and Ms. Haci. If you can take care of their luggage for them.” She spoke slow and emphasized the words carefully.
The young man, a native student Clementine figured, nodded and climbed onto the cart. He smiled wide to the group and drove off with a wave.
“As you can see we employ our students in a lot of different roles here. This institution runs more on the cooperation of our faculty than any kind of tuition.” Helena was quick to say as the student drove off.
The Chancellor smiled after the cart. “Yes, our students here do much more beyond what a more conventional school may ask.” The Chancellor spoke slowly, in the smooth, crisp vowels of a native spanish tongue. “We work hard, but with a lot of reward.”
Helena nodded and gestured towards the building up ahead. “But we can leave that business for later. We still have to outline your duties for you. Up ahead here is Orrorin Hall, named after the Homininae found not too far from here in Tugen. It is also where I will leave you in Dr. Lay’s care for your department tour.”
The Chancellor nodded. “Yes, it is a pleasure to meet with you. I hope you all will allow me to host your for dinner tonight. If you can handle some Kenyan curry, of course.”
“And if not, you had better develop a taste for it!” Dr. Lay said chuckling to himself.
“Yes our cooks tend get very creative with our spices,” Helena said. “If you have any questions while looking around we can talk about it tonight. Until then, please enjoy yourselves.”
Dr. Lay continued past Orrorin Hall as Helena and the Chancellor departed.
“Finally, only physicists with us now,” the englishman grinned and regarded Clementine, “and a computerman, I suppose. But that is good too.” He continued down the pathway. “Anyhow there isn’t a whole lot to show. We’re tight knit here and efficient, that being said don’t be shy to talk to anyone if you need anything. The board is very accommodating.”
Dr. Tau nodded. “I have already made my list and gotten word back.”
“Ah, yes the spectrometer and the nodes for the cluster. I had been wondering when we’d outfit the telescope with something more powerful. I had told them as much myself, ‘why have this state of the art telescope and leave it with the hobbyists’ I said.” He patted the shorter man on his shoulder, “but now we have some worthy researchers to get some exoplanet hunting off the ground, huh?”
“How many more are being added to the faculty?” Azra asked.
The englishman let out a small whistle. “Oh well lets see. Aside from you three we have an American woman coming into work on optical electronics design, a few astrophysics graduates for Dr. Tau’s program, and another few for computing. I myself am taking on some more graduates to teach engineering.”
They turned down the side path that ran down the side of the central parkway.
“Most of this over here is for the agros and biology.” He waved at the roped off fields and greenhouses along the edges of the plateau. “This building here is Saha Hall. As the name suggests this is where bulk of our astrophysics is done. You can see the Drake telescope rising above it.”
“How are the stars out here at night?” Clementine asked.
“Extraordinary. I’m from the UK, if you haven’t figured already, and haven’t lived anywhere else quite like it.” He paused for a moment and blanked out. “That’s just a visible light scope. The radioscope that we’ll be putting that spectrometer is down the way a bit further, the Schwarzts.” He trailed off again for a moment and rubbed at his temples. “Anyway, I’m sure you are all a bit tired and we’ll have plenty of time for this later. You mind if we cut this short, eh?”
Dr. Tau looked eager to see the facility but nodded. Clementine and Azra joined in.
“I’ll find someone to show you to your quarters, you two,” he nodded at the students. “You’re married right? Or just dating rather, I knew that. No shared quarters across sexes here but you two are across the hall from each other. And Dr. Tau you can just join me back to the suites.” He looked around for a moment and spotted a woman walking a dog on the parkway. “Hey, mam! Madam!”
The woman jogged over, her dog following without a leash.
“Sorry to bother you, but can you show these two to the condos? They’re in the riverways. Yes, thank you.”
With that the professors nodded goodbye and continued down the path.
“Hello, you new here?” The woman talked with the bouncy pitches of an African tongue.
“Yes, we come we’re from Cape Town. Just got here today. I’m Azra.”
“My names Clementine.”
The woman scrunched her face up for a moment. “Like the fruit? Clem-entines a fruit?” Clementine nodded and grinned. “Is it common to name after fruit in English?”
“Not particularly, no.” Clementine said and reached down to pass a hand down the ridge of the Rhodesian dog sniffing at his ankles.
“Ah.” The woman turned towards the other side of the far side of the plateau, where they had not been to yet. “We can cross through the park. Very beautiful and the sun should be going down soon. I am Elayne.”
They walked from the path onto the grass and crossed under a line of trees. The ground rolled softly on the parkway, dotted with massive trees and small ponds. The dog jogged ahead and sniffed around the edges of the ponds in front of them.
“What are you studying here?” Azra asked.
“I am agri-culture.” She split the word into two and said it proudly. “I’m learning soil types and bacteria for back home.”
“Yes, I read a lot in the packet about the agriculture here. Seems very exciting.”
“Oh yes, I am very excited to learn the agri-culture and return home.”
Clementine listened to the two talk as they crossed the park. He looked around at the other students lounging around, fishing, and playing soccer on the gentle fields. In the distance the sun dipped low on the cliffs beyond the plateau. When they came to the path running down the other side he spotted the edges of the condos running down the stair step cliffs towards the rivers cradle.
“Here are the condos. Riverway is down further. Very nice meeting you two.”
“Thank you. I think we can find our way from here.” Clementine said.
“Yes, you’re very welcome Clementine and Azra. I hope you two will enjoy it here.”
“So far I don’t see how we couldn’t,” Azra looked down the cliffs to the river view. The blue-green waters sparkled under the falling sun before the rolling cliffs.
The two walked down the cliff way to the condo’s and found their building. Multiple complexes arranged themselves around an open court that faced towards the river. Smoke drifted upwards and the voices of animated conversation greeted them from the yard.
They waved towards the group and took to the stairs.
“You’re in 111, right?” Clementine led.
Azra started to answer before a voice cut her off.
“Hey, hey!” A tall, dark man rose from the fire. “Clem-entine! Hey!” The man set a bottle down and jogged over. “Hello, Clem-entine, hello, Azra.” The strength of the man’s accent made him almost indecipherable to their unaccustomed ears. A wide grin spread across his face, friendly and welcoming. “I am Mentho. I share the room with you.” He grabbed Clementine’s hand and shook it.
“Mentho? Nice to meet you.”
“Yes, nice to meet you as well.” He slurred slightly and grinned even wider. “I show you the room.” Clementine couldn’t tell if he were asking or telling so just nodded.
“You too, miss. You are right across the hall.” He wrapped the two up and pulled them in. “Very convenient, right?” He let them go and took the stairs two at a time. “Azra, you have no room mate. You’re alone. Clem-entine we have own rooms but share kitchen and common room.” He opened the door. “Welcome home, friend.”
Clementine stepped in and looked around. To the left the room hooked back towards the staircase and opened into a wide loft ringed with windows with a view of the river and ridges beyond. A long counter separated this area from the kitchen, which Clementine found very much to his satisfaction. He turned back to the door and looked at Azra walking across the covered atrium of the stair landing to her door.
Mentho blew past him and took the room over. “Come, come. I show you my room, and your room.” Both doors lay next to each other on the far side of the condo. Mentho opened the right door and stepped in. Clementine went to follow and stopped flatly.
The room before him lay spread with the cracked husks of various electronics. Random components and half completed projects scattered the floor, which Mentho navigated around easily. A huge flag draped across the wall above the full bed that Clementine did not recognize, along with framed print outs of digital photos. Clementine crossed to look at these, glancing down to take note of the half assembled projects.
“Yes, see. I have pictures of my village. Here is my mother and father and sisters.” Clementine scanned the pictures of his siblings, more interested in the others beside it. One showed the tall African man standing with his back to the camera facing a huge fire, racked with pots and skewered meat. In another he stood bending a bow as tall as himself to unstring it, smiling over the fallen carcass of a kill.
“You shoot a lot?” Clementine asked, indicating the photo.
“Oh yes, we all hunt and learn the bow young. You shoot bow and arrow?” His eyes fixed on him eagerly.
“Yeah, actually I shot for sport back home in Washington.”
“For sport? Washington?”
“We had archery teams in high school. I kept with it, I actually brought mine with me here.”
“Oh, we must got out. There is much good terrain around here.” He pointed out the window to the rifts.
“Of course. I’d love that.” Clementine scanned more of the photographs for a moment before stepping back. “Mentho, I’m going to go help Azra unpack but I’ll be back in a little.”
“Clem-entine, you call me Mint. That is what friends call me.” He followed him to the main room and looked out to the yard. “You come drink with us later. I have rum and we can talk about Washington.”
Clementine nodded. “After dinner, for sure.” He checked his room and found his luggage sitting neatly on the bed there before crossing over to Azra’s. She had already begun unpacking and spreading her things out. Clementine walked up behind her and pulled her in.
“Do you see this, Clem? This place is unbelievable.” She untangled his arms and stepped back to look at the undecorated wall. “Help me hang this tapestry up.” He grabbed an end and held it up to the wall while she found some tacks tucked away.
“As in, I still can’t believe it, yes. It really is,” he paused and looked out the window to the valley. “It really is the place, isn’t it?”
“Yes, I’m so glad to hear you say that.” She pecked him on the cheek and put a tack in the wall.
He helped her finish unpacking and sat down on the bed.
“What time did they say dinner would be?” He asked.
Azra kept moving about. “They didn’t. I figure someone will come.”
He stood as she passed and wrapped her up again. “What do you think?” He asked, seeing a clear day through the smoke of her eyes.
“I think I want to get settled in, Clem.” She laughed and pushed him back down onto the bed. “Shouldn’t you do the same?”
“I had thought you would help me there. I’m not very good at getting settled.”
“Yes, I find the minimalism very sexy.” She grabbed his arm and he felt his heart quicken.
“Oh I thought it annoyed you? You know sexy is what I go for.” He pulled her on the bed.
A knock sounded out towards the door.
“Saved by the bell.” Azra stood up and bounded out of the room. Clementine followed a bit slower.
Mentho stood with another African woman, carrying a huge, puffy chefs hat.
“Ms. Helena said to come for dinner. I cook tonight.” He smiled his wide smile. “Just wait until you try our food. Come, come.” He led them down the stairs.
Outside the sun had about disappeared below the horizon. Stratus clouds wisped high across the sky, purple and red in the fading sunset. The walk to Orrorin was pleasant and Mentho went on about going shooting the next day, wanting to show the two newcomers the surrounding area. Inside the huge stone hall he and the woman bid them goodbye and went for the kitchens, leaving them to find the dining hall nearby.
Inside the hall tables were lined with students early for the dinner. Helena gathered the two and took them to a table where men and women in casual business attire sat and chatted. The Chancellor rose.
“Here are some of our newest graduate students here. Meet Azra Haci and Clementine Gladstone.” The board members raised cups to them and greeted them in turn.
Clementine sat and took the group in, letting Azra do the bulk of the speaking.
“I hope you like your roommate. We figured Mentho would make you feel very at home.” Helena said with a laugh, drawing smiles from several of the others.
“Yes, he is a welcoming one.” As if on cue the man himself came out with several other cook's, towing trays of pots. His chef hat bobbed about his head as he circled the table, placing the pots with a flourish. He patted Clementines shoulder and went on to the next tables where more students had filtered in.
“As I said earlier, I hope you three like curry.” The Chancellor said in his slow spanish accent.
The professor, sitting down with Dr. Lay nodded.
“I’m sure you’ll find it no more difficult than what the Turkish prepare, is that right Ms. Haci?”
Azra looked to him. “Yes that is right. I developed a taste for curry fairly early.”
Clementine looked to her, surprised at the Chancellors knowledge. The faculty certainly did their research on all the newcomers. He wondered what they knew of him.
The dinner commenced and Clementine found the fare very much to his liking, as did Azra as he judged by the amount the normally constrained woman ate. At the conclusion a bottle of wine went around and the board slowly adjourned themselves, lastly with the Chancellor and Helena, who went to the kitchens to help clean up.
Mentho found the two and walked with them back to the rooms, offering the two a bottle of rum to join the revived fire out in the yard.
The two joined in with the group, but found themselves slightly out of the loop as most of the students spoke in different African tongues, mainly the Swahili of Kenya.
Mentho took with his friend from earlier and left the two as the night grew on. Azra and Clementine, weary from the day followed soon behind, though many showed no signs of leaving.
At the landing Clementine stood with Azra, lingering and obvious with the rum.
“You have anything else you need help hanging up tonight?” He ventured.
Azra laughed and hugged him. “I don’t think so, Clem. It’s been a long day. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She kissed him and went inside, taking a last look as she shut the door behind her.
He considered pushing harder but decided against it, feeling the effects of the buzz and the length of the day. With that he went to his own room and fell onto the bed, not bothering to move the stack of luggage. Sleep came quickly.
The morning came even quicker, or so he thought as he opened his eyes, suddenly coming from a deep dream. He looked to the window and saw starlight outside.
Something seemed very off at that moment, and he sat up straight and blinked in the darkness. A streak of light crossed his vision and came back to the center. It hovered for a moment in the darkness before opening into a prism of hues. He rubbed at his eyes, feeling the skin beneath his fingers and the pressure of his hands to his face.
Outside the window the moon vibrated in the sky, leaving streaks of white light. He could see the pores of its full face, and for a moment felt as if he were being pulled into one.
Am I...tripping? He thought, as his brain began registering the feeling. His heartbeat started to resonate in his body like a steady drum, mingling with the sounds of other processes he could not identify. He rose from the bed and rolled out. He felt tall in the dark space of the room, like his body was stretching up to fill the ceiling. He flipped on a light and more colors filled his vision.
His hand looked strange extended before him, like a foreign object he could not understand.
My body is so strange.
From his mind the sound of a lonely howl filled him. A snarling. Then he felt heat as if he were under a savannah sun. The feeling filled him with the smell of scorched grass, and for a moment, blood. Another noise caught him. This one the sound of men chanting in an African language. For a moment he went with the tribe towards the kill.
He shook the feeling away and went to the bathroom. His arm, now only a strange appendage extended before him, turned the knob of the faucet and water began to spill out.
A river in the Alaskan outback. Salmon leaped in the stream.
He splashed the water to his face and took a long drink. Every molecule made itself known on his tongue, feeling weightless as it slid down his throat. He kept gulping, feeling like the water was disappearing somewhere inside him. When he finally lifted his head the sight of himself in the mirror stopped him cold. An impression of orange struck him, then dark blue.
I am blue.
His pupils were impossibly wide.
What the hell?
The strangeness felt normal somehow, though he knew something had to be off.
I am an odd looking specimen. He thought of Azra.
I have to see her. He went for the door, reaching down a hall that seemed to be moving outward endlessly to infinity. The walk kept extending outward and coming back in. One minute the door seemed impossibly far away, the next so close he wanted to reach for it though he knew it to not be within his grasp.
No. I can’t be tripping. I don’t do drugs, he thought. Not in a long time.
He opened the door and looked across to where Azra already stood. An aura of gold hung over her, though storm clouds seemed on the horizon.
“Baby.” His voice came out sounding like someone else’s. “Are you alright?”
Her eyes met him, two wide pits of black ringed by a tiny sliver of grey. She looked innocent, like a child.
“Clem, I don’t know what is happening.” Her voice filled the landing, coming to his ears from an impossible amount of directions. A symphony of instruments of every kind surrounded him and played the tones perfectly to form that beautiful voice.
He crossed the landing to her. In the dim light the image of her reflected back to him like a glass mosaic “Me either.” But he no longer cared. He took her into his arms. Her body seemed to melt into his own. He held onto the moment.
“Are you seeing this?” She whispered to him. How could he not be?
“Yes. It’s okay. We’re alright. He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. For a moment he almost lost his balance as he fell into those endless wells. He had never been more attracted to anyone in his life. It warmed him more deeply than that scorching savannah sun.
“Is it something we ate? Do you think we were drugged?”
“I don’t know. Are you alright?”
A smile played on her face but quickly became obscured by the storm clouds. “I think so.”
“I won’t be able to sleep.” The light of the lobby cast a red hue on her face, but switched to the silver of moonlight.
“Me either. Not without you.” The words were a powerful magic. He felt content in life.
“That can happen.” Her room called to him but she had already melted into him. He did not feel it in himself to move. She did it for him, pulling him towards the door.
Her room already smelled of her. He smiled as she pulled him towards the bed. He waited for her to move. In the darkness he could feel her hands pulling at him, feeling him. Nothing had ever felt so good. Each impression permeating across his skin like she were touching through him. Somehow their lips found each other in the darkness. Hers melted in his own as her body did beneath him. He felt warm blood pulsing into every part of his body, disappearing down ever shrinking tributaries and rising again to his heart driving the cycle. It had been so long. He wanted to hold the moment forever, but she kept pulling at him. For a long moment he stopped existing.
He had no way of telling how long it lasted. Time merged into one moment though things were moving in quick succession. When it ended he felt her slip across his chest. Trails of red and violet followed her movement even though he could not see in the darkness.
He held on until he was certain she was asleep before letting himself slip away, grateful to let go of the night. A wholeness came over him as he fell off to oblivion.