The Dead of the Plains

AN: Another former one-shot that now lies waiting for more. I’m bad at keeping things short. 

Content Warning: contains material suggesting sexual harassment and violence 

The Dead of the Plains

 

I

           He could see her, haloed, robed, with the blue-green sunlight pouring in through the stained glass window; she had that nervous, questing look of the coastal cities, of a person who’d never once been confronted with so much space, open and rolling, tinted, translucent, behind the Pioneer Maiden. And because he felt charitable he approached her, his shoes squeaking on the high-polished marble floor.

“You look lost,” he said to her and she started at his voice.

“Oh. Dr. Marion. I didn’t know anyone else was here.”

Of course she knew who he was. Everyone did. He’d made this school relevant.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just couldn’t help noticing you admiring the window.” The Maiden was one of the Seven Saints of the university– they’d broken ground here over three hundred years ago, made sure to bless this place with the courage they carried in their blood and bone and as the dead, they protected the school and its inhabitants.

She stared for a moment. Her face was cut hard, like most coastals–as if the sea had worn them down, leached the softness from them until they were just angle and bone covered by a thin breath of skin. Then she allowed a small smile. “It is beautiful. But I was mostly trying to figure the weather though. It changes so frequently out here and without much–”

He chuckled, cutting her off. “Oh yes, it’s something you have to get used to.” He looked over her head, out through the window. “Takes a while to get right. It looks like it may hail later today. Do you live on campus?” He supposed she was pretty if he looked at her right, but appearance wasn’t the point. They didn’t get many coastals out this way–usually only the scholars who couldn’t work molecular energy or any of that other atomic nonsense they got into back there. The earth-science oriented always made their way to the plains, doubly distinct–unlike their brethren back on the coast and certainly unlike those who’d grown up here. Outsiders. They were interesting. And not much piqued his interest anymore.

“Yes,” she said. “In the Barrett Building.”

He looked back at her. “You’re one of Dr. Elliott’s students?”

She nodded brightly. “Oh yes. She’s the reason I came out here, her work is absolutely groundbreaking! Even the best coastal programs don’t have her sort of experience on staff. I was really lucky she accepted me for the two-year program.”

A small stab of annoyance. He kept his face smooth though. Kept himself from frowning. Groundbreaking he thought with a bitter little internal laugh. Groundbreaking indeed. Now his interest was piqued even further.

“Only two years, huh? Then what?”

She gave him a curious look. It was almost…guarded, but then again a lot of the coastals looked that way. Careful and reticent. He figured it was the sea that’d turned them soft. “Well then I’ll go back home and finish up at–”

“Well maybe we can change your mind in the meantime,” he said, winking. “Ever done any work in hydrocarbons?”

“Not really,” she said. “Just in history you know?”

Another stab of annoyance. Did she know who he was. Did she really know?

“I suppose you need some experts out your way then,” he said. “What’s your name? You obviously know mine.” He gave her conspiratorial grin. “I know it’s gotta be hard, coming here. Unfamiliar. It’s always nice to make friends, right?”

That same guarded expression. More noticeable now. Like shutters slamming closed behind her gray eyes. Nothing at all like the locals, who were always so open and willing, who’d grown up knowing him as an expert, a savior with the advancements he’d made. A real pioneer, like the ones in the window. He’d grown bored of the fawning, he told himself. The coastals were more of a challenge and he loved a challenge.

“Sure,” she said after a long moment of quiet. “I’m Anna Markham.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said, holding out his hand. She took it briefly and then stepped back, glancing out the window again, her forehead creased in concentration.

“Well it might get rough out there…do you want me to give you a lift back to the dorm? I’m nearly done here.”

She tilted her head. Considered. “Oh no, that’s all right. I have to go to the library anyway. But thanks for the offer. I appreciate it. I was very nice to meet you.”

And with that she turned and hurried off, her heels clicking on the floor.

He watched her go.

*

            The coastals didn’t like automobiles much. Dr. Marion supposed it had to do with their crowded cities, their ridiculous reliance on trains and subways. Out here, if you didn’t drive you weren’t worth your weight in grain; the space was such that it needed to be tamed. And whenever Dr. Marion felt off, he drove.

It did indeed begin hailing, just a bit after sunset. Dr. Marion left his office locked behind him and hurried out to the lot, relishing the harsh cold air and the sharp icy sting as he crossed the uncovered concrete expanse. He got in the car and keyed it on, the hydrocarbon combustion gutting and humming beneath him, a good rush of power. He thought for a moment about what he wanted–and then considered the next best thing.

A few moments later he pulled up in front of one of the apartment buildings where the junior faculty lived. He parked along the curb, leaving the car running so the heat wouldn’t sputter out, and he cut through the weather veil, heading for the sheltering overhang. At the front desk he asked if Dr. Littleton was available and waited in the dimly-lit lobby as the desk clerk (a student on work-study of course–the university had to best use its resources after all) patched a call through. In a moment the student turned back and said that Dr. Marion could go right on up.

Dr. Mitch Littleton was a former coastal. He still had the accent too, noticeable as he welcomed Dr. Marion into the apartment: flat and non-rhotic, reserved and cautious. They didn’t like emotion much, the coastals. Dr. Littleton worked in the Astronomy department, which was one of the reasons Dr. Marion had made the effort to cultivate him; Dr. Marion did enjoy his outsiders, after all.

And Dr. Elliott headed the Astronomy department so, perhaps, a bit of foresight had gone into Dr. Marion’s calculations.

“I hope I’m not bothering you,” Dr. Marion said as Mitch handed him a wheat-beer.

“Oh no, not at all. No plans.” He sat down on an old, beat-up leather chair and leaned forward, his light blue eyes nearly colorless in the overhead light. “Is it still storming?”

“Yes. In fact, that’s why I’m here,” Dr. Marion said, grinning. “D’you wanna go for a ride? I did promise I’d take you, the next time the weather turned.”

He could see a flicker of nerves spark through Mitch’s pale eyes and Dr. Marion took a sip of beer, waiting.

“Well, uh. Sure, yeah. Why not.” Mitch stood up suddenly, as if he needed to force himself into motion. “Thanks for offering.”

“No problem,” Dr. Marion said, putting down his glass. “It’s my pleasure.

*

            His father had told him once about the dead–the ones that’d gone first, to mow the plains down into submission and wrest from nature what humans deserved. They still walked, Robert Marion had told his son, those pioneering corpses. They’d sown the land with their blood, they’d made the wheat grow and they’d written storms in the sky. When asked where they’d come from, Robert Marion hadn’t known. It was so long ago, after all. But everything–a wide sweep of his arm–the universities, the roads, all of that–was because of their courage. And the dead especially loved the roads because their descendants could take them at impossible speeds, burning fuel behind them as they raced the weather.

“Remember that.” Dr. Marion did remember, he’d always remember. “Drive like the dead do, boy. Go fast as you can. This is ours, after all.” Another wide sweep. “This is ours.

*

            Once clear of the university, Dr. Marion pushed down hard on the accelerator and the engine responded. Beside him, in the passenger seat, Mitch Littleton’s strained face grew paler and paler as the road screeched beneath them. Dr. Marion laughed out loud, the sound mingling with the hail as it pounded hard on the glass and steel. He looked over at Mitch, enjoying the man’s obvious fear. There was nothing like this in those cloistered cities, clinging to the sea and messing around with careful science–they didn’t burn anything out there and they sent their refuse to the plains universities where men who knew what the world owed to them like Dr. Marion could break them down. Reshape them into something worthwhile, a pioneer, someone unafraid of the road and the rain.

“Watch it!” Mitch’s voice came high and clear through Dr. Marion’s triumph.

“Oh it’s all right, don’t be scared.”

No,” Mitch said in an oddly forceful voice as Dr. Marion pushed the car faster. “No, there’s going to be something, the air–”

“Stop it, there’s nothing out here but the dead, nothing else would dare–”

STOP THE CAR.” Mitch’s words bellowed against the hail, the rubber singing, the combustive roar and out of surprise more than anything, Dr. Marion hit the break, the car hydroplaning across the slick road and nearly sliding into the flooded road-side ditches. In a flare of anger Dr. Marion turned on Mitch, snarling at the younger man and his foolishness.

“What the hell was that about?” he demanded.

“Look,” Mitch said, calmer now.

Snapping his head back to the dash window, Dr. Marion squinted. Out of the hail stepped the largest stag he’d ever seen–a twelve-footer at least, antlers spanning the entire width of the road. It stood still in the wash of the headlights and with a muttering hiss of fear, Dr. Marion realized if he’d hit it, he’d be dead. The stags were built like stone–and some of the farmers said the big ones–the really big ones–weren’t stags at all, but ghosts of creatures killed a long time ago. And then above the beast the sky flared blue-white, like a blown transformer but they had those underground out here. Dr. Marion turned again to Mitch, who was tracing an arc with a shaking finger.

“What the hell–” Dr. Marion started again.

“Dr. Elliott was right,” Mitch muttered, more to himself. “They do respond to electromagnetic disturbances. Atmospheric even, the solar wind–”

“Stop it, that’s just a bunch of coastal nonsense,” Dr. Marion snapped.

Mitch turned to look at him and shrugged. The space between them had shifted somehow, the weight balanced in a new configuration. Dr. Marion didn’t like it. With much more vitriol than he wanted to show, he forced the car into a sharp turn and started back to the university, the stag glowing in the rearview much longer than it should have done.

*

            Dr. Marion dreamed about his father impaled on the massive antlers of a stag while the sky exploded in white light and a hundred thousand shambling corpses collapsed to white dust as a shockwave thick as concrete swept across the plains.

*

            It was the girl. Anna Markham. Her guarded grey eyes. Her dismissal. The fucking coasters. She’d refused him once. Well. It wouldn’t happen again.

*

            In the Energy department lounge Dr. Marion found a few of his hydrocarbon colleagues huddled over a newspaper. Coming in to see what the fuss was about, he realized it was the leading publication from one of the larger coastal cities. Dr. Elliott’s photo glinted in silver on the front page and the headline read EXPERT PRESENTS FIRST RELIABLE MEASURE OF SOLAR WIND FORCE.

“What’s that nonsense?” he asked.

Dr. Avery glanced over her shoulder. “Pet project of the Dean bearing fruit, I guess,” she said. “They’re happy about it over in Astronomy. A real party from what I heard.”

“She’s a fraud,” Dr. Marion said, sneering.

“Maybe. But they like her back east,” Dr. Carron said.

“Well that’s no surprise. They love their ‘experimental science’ out there. Solar wind is just a hypothesis, after all. There can’t be a reliable measure.”

“She keeps getting press like this, the Dean will want to expand the department.” Dr. Avery put the newspaper down on a nearby table and turned to look at Dr. Marion. She frowned. “Are you all right? You look pale.”

Dr. Marion pushed past her and didn’t reply.

*

            Halfway through his graduate seminar, Dr. Marion was feeling himself again. The students followed him with undivided attention and obvious admiration as he corrected a few equations. They were all plains locals–broad-faced and wide-eyed and friendly, with their honey-drawl accents and their well-practiced, well-supported mathematics. They’d grown up with oilman heroes, with the pioneering dead, with fast cars sudden storms and empty roads and land rolling out into forever. Dr. Marion chided himself internally for letting some little nobodies ruin his day; Mitch Littleton, Anna Markham, Dr. Elliott–they were from an inconsequential place; they were a scared people putting blind faith in bad science.

Eleanora Watts–one of the most promising graduates and a pretty girl with long blonde hair–sat up front. Dr. Marion watched her particularly–he’d been playing with her on and off but she wasn’t much of a challenge. She welcomed his overtures with her big-hearted laughter and gentle eyes. He’d grown bored of bedding willing students but perhaps it’d be just the thing to remind him of all he’d accomplished. Of all he was worth. So when the class ended he asked Eleanora to stay back for a moment so he could discuss her semester project.

“I was meaning to come see you about that anyway,” Eleanora said, grinning. “I was talking with some of the girls at the card club and they had some interesting things to say. So I thought it’d be worth looking into.”

“You and Violet?” Dr. Marion asked. The card club was one of the small student social houses on campus, usually reserved for the young women so they wouldn’t be too much temptation for the men.

“Well, yes, Violet was there too, and Rosalyn and Marietta but there were a few newcomers! Four or five girls actually, they come from the east and they’re fascinating. There’s so much I didn’t realize about the sea and from what they told me, in terms of energy resources it might be an interesting expansion–”

“No,” Dr. Marion said. Much louder than he meant it. Loud enough that even friendly Eleanora took an uncertain step backwards, forehead creased. Dr. Marion cleared his throat. “Sorry. I mean, I don’t want you to waste your time on dead-ends, Eleanora. They’ve got their priorities mixed up, the coastals. All that salt, I suppose. We need to keep our feet on the ground.” He gave her a winning grin.

“I suppose,” Eleanora said, still frowning. “You know…they said a few other things too.” Her voice was strange then. Unfamiliar. “It must be very different there. The way…the way they spoke about women and men and…” Eleanora trailed off and shrugged. “I suppose I’ll have to visit someday. Is there anything else, Professor?”

“No,” Dr. Marion said, his jaw clenched. “No, that’s it.”

And with a quick wave she turned and left the room.

*

           That night Dr. Marion went to visit his father’s gravesite. As a former Fellow, Robert Marion had secured his final resting place on university ground–the same cemetery that held the Seven Saints’ remains. Robert Marion had stayed buried though–Dr. Marion had looked, had waited, but his father seemed to be taking his sweet time in returning. The dead go fast, Dr. Marion thought, the first thundering strobes of a headache flaring behind his right eye. The dead must go fast, to claim and keep. Where are you, Father?

“Ah. I thought you’d be here.”

The voice came sudden and unwelcome. Dr. Marion turned to see Dr. Liesl Elliott standing at the cemetery gate, her arms crossed against her chest. She was a tall woman, her close-cropped grey hair neat against her high forehead. Quite unattractive.

“Can I help you?” Dr. Marion demanded.

“You know, we do mostly sea burials back home,” Dr. Elliott said. “So much land devoted to the dead…a very different sort of custom.”

“The dead gave themselves to tame this land,” Dr. Marion said, with as much venom as he could muster. “We keep them in it because they come back.”

“How do you tame a land, Dr. Marion?”

“You make it give to you what it owes,” he said. This woman was certainly dense. “You make it surrender its treasures. Its coal and oil and what it can grow for us, the space for roads and spread-out cities. Its industry. You make it give you that and then it’s yours. And if you do it right, you come back. Because even in death the land is ours.” The words weren’t all his–some came from snatched memories of Services his father had taken him too, invocations to the dead, the pioneers, the Saints.

Dr. Elliott’s face remained impassive. A silence stretched between them as the wind picked up and clouds grew toward the west, a massive dark bank of thunderheads.

“The weather is very odd here,” Dr. Elliott said. “I suppose it has to do with all the fuels you burn.”

Dr. Marion glared at her. “I thought your specialty was space, Liesl.”

She gave him a quick, sharp grin. “Well you have to see the sky to study space, Matthew.”

Anger rose in him with such a fierce and sudden heat he wanted to hit her. She didn’t seem to notice. In fact, she was still grinning.

“I would ask you to stop frightening my students, Dr. Marion.”

He couldn’t make words come he was so enraged and with a quick nod, Dr. Elliott turned on her heel and left him alone with the dead.

*

            Dr. Marion waited outside the card club closest to Barrett House. Sure enough, a little past midnight, a group of girls emerged, chatting and laughing happily. He noted some of the plains girls were wearing their hair up like the coastals did and the anger that’d set root in him since his conversation with Dr. Elliott bloomed like bile in the back of his throat. He watched the girls–most of them went left toward the Hydrocarbon dorms but three of them kept on, straight ahead, to Barrett House. He saw Anna Markham among them, a bit shorter than the other two, their harsh coastal accents undercutting the nearing thunder. A wind had picked up, hissing around the buildings and blowing detritus down the slick-wet campus roads.

He followed the girls toward Barrett House.

“The weather here is ridiculous,” one said. “They don’t even bother to chart it!”

“Well how could they, since it’s all their poison making it this way.”

“Don’t say that where they can hear you,” Anna Markham’s voice floated toward Dr. Marion. “It’s a religion to them here. The oil and the earth and their precious bones. I cannot wait until we get to go home.”

“Soon enough. Dr. Elliott is almost finished with the cycle. Then we can get out of this hellhole.”

“Oh did you hear about Dr. Littleton?” Anna, again. “He saw one of their stags! One of the remnants, from back when they bombed this place to flatten it. He said it was terrifying, but it definitely responded to the meteorite’s presence so that’s another path worth following.”

“How’d he catch one near here?”

“He didn’t. That hydrocarbon professor took him out on a drive. He said that was more terrifying than the stag.”

“I’ve heard such awful things.” The girl’s voice shuddered, dipped under the wind a bit and whatever she said next was lost.

“Yes well. Soon enough,” Anna said. “Finally we’re here.”

They’d reached the Barrett Hall entranced. Hurrying away from the pool of light that  bathed the dorm’s entrance, Dr. Marion hid back in the shadows as the rain finally broke and the wind moaned through across the deserted campus.

*

            Dr. Marion waited for Mitch Littleton and when he saw him exit the Planner Building he fell in step beside him.

“Oh, hello,” Mitch said. He smiled. “Thanks again for the ride. It was really interesting.”

“No problem,” Dr. Marion said, surprised at how normal his voice sounded. He’d been consumed with the thoughts of the dead–they were eating at him, those shambling bones. His father absent still, but the rest, the saints, the pioneers (the bombers the bombers the bombers) had dragged their bare-bones fingers across the wetwork of his brain and stayed lodged. He needed to do something about it because of course–that was how the plains worked, you did things you didn’t let the sky or the earth or the sea tell you what it needed. You told it, you tamed it, trained it, burnt it, hollowed it–and now these arrogant coastals were daring to invade, daring to spread their weak nonsense. Well. Dr. Marion wouldn’t allow it. “I actually have been meaning to talk to you. Did you leave a fountain pen in my car? I found one and I know it’s not mine.”

Mitch Littleton frowned. “I may have. I lose them all the time.”

“Well I’m parked just over here if you’d like.”

“Oh wonderful. I hope it’s the one I think it is, I brought it from home and I’d hate to have to send for another.”

Dr. Marion motioned to the lot. It was late and half-empty, most of the undergraduates gone for the day and only a few graduates clustered outside the academic buildings. Dr. Marion had parked as far from any hall as he could and he kept up a stream of inane chatter with Mitch, barely aware of what he was saying. When they got there, the sun had disappeared behind a thick black tide of clouds, low and muttering. Green flashes arced between them.

“Let me unlock it,” Dr. Marion said, reaching into his pocket and then as quick as he could, before Mitch could think or react Dr. Marion hit him as hard as he could in the face. Mitch stumbled back, pale eyes wide in shock and Dr. Marion hit him again, knocking him fully down this time, the crunch of nasal bone against his fist a sweet, soothing sound. He hit him a third time, a fourth, a fifth–and then he grabbed Mitch and dragged him into the car, propping him up in the front seat. Dr. Marion started the engine, a flood of force and life and power flooding through him, the wild strength of the dead and the land they’d tamed. Throwing his head back in a wild laugh, Dr. Marion peeled out of the parking lot and headed toward the open road–west, into the clouds, the green flare of lightning.

II

            It took a while before Dr. Mitch Littleton came around but when his head cleared enough for the pain to set in he realized that Matthew Marion had forced him into the car and was now careening down the empty road at a nearly impossible speed. It was like Dr. Littleton could feel the atoms of the car vibrate, could feel the contrasting forces pushing them together and pulling them apart.

            Oh thank God they never figured out how to use Uranium out here Dr. Littleton thought hazily as he tried to figure out what to do next.

All around the car the storm shrieked and roared, lightning–green?–arcing and tumbling between the clouds and spiking down from the clouds to the burnt earth below. All of this godforsaken wasteland was ash–they could grow their wasteful crops on a blanket of poor soil barely cloaking the destroyed land but it was all just an exercise in arrogance. The food they produced was tainted by what their precious dead had done and most of what they ate was brought in from the coast anyway. Dr. Littleton hated this place but it was worth his two years here–the new dean was intent on starting a Solar and Wind Department to access the few resources they had left here and Dr. Littleton and Dr. Elliott and the students wanted to do what they could to help. There weren’t many people who wanted things to change but there were enough to start. All that stood in their way were the fanatical holdouts like Marion.

            Marion. Dr. Littleton chanced glancing to the side. The man was driving with a wide grin, the muscles in his jaw pulled tense and working, his thinning hair damp with sweat and his right hand–the one he’d used to hit Dr. Littleton–was swollen and bruised. The green light flickered again. Solar, Dr. Littleton realized as he fought back against the pain. It’s not lightning it’s a solar. That means–

He felt the pull in him, the way the atoms pushed and rearranged beneath the sweeping magnetic flares. What had survived the destruction here had become new and frightening. Massive stags and fierce wildcats and herds of hybrid cattle waiting at the fringes for the first sign of weakness from the humans. And now the solar flare, the green rush of space-light singing through the storm, calling for an evolutionary response. The latitude here is perfect Dr. Elliott’s voice cutting through the haze of pain a perfect observation point. It’s ironic isn’t it, that this might be the beginning. Here, in this awful place.

“You’re awake.” Marion’s voice was uneven, jubilant, cruel. “You’re gonna pay, you goddamn weakling, you invader. You and all of your kind, coming here thinking you know this land, you know what’s best. I’ve had it. This university is mine and I won’t let you pathetic creatures try and transform it into some backwards seaside outpost!” He practically screamed the last word, pulling hard on the wheel to force the car sideways. Dr. Littleton slammed against the door, keeping quiet, waiting. Waiting.

“Don’t have anything to say for yourself, do you?” Marion laughed again, a desperate terrifying sound. “You and that girl and your fucking precious Liesl Elliott.”

“What girl?” Dr. Littleton found himself startled into speech.

“Anna Markham.” The words were shrouded in a thick veil of rage and hatred.

             Anna? “What’s she got to do with you?”

“She refused me. She started this, talking to my students, treating me like some sort of…of…fool. How dare she. You all need to be taught your fucking place.”

Dr. Littleton’s fear bloomed now into a messy panic. Oh God if he can get to her–

Anything Marion might do to Dr. Littleton was nothing compared to what he wanted to do to Anna.

              The worst of the men here treat women like they’re second class. Like they’re just another resource to be used and squandered. Dr. Elliott had warned them all about that horrid practice. The worst of the men will think nothing of trying to take as many girls as they can, do what they want. You must always be careful. You must take care of each other, and if you can, take care of the local girls too. This isn’t their fault.

And if Marion was allowed to return, he’d go after Anna.

Dr. Littleton closed his eyes, trying to shut out Marion’s rage, trying to focus as hard as he could on the movement of solar magnetism and the receptors, tried to do what Dr. Elliott had said could only be attempted if they met with real danger–tried to call the ravening revenants of this blasted place, tried to tell them as sure as he could through the shared universality of structure, of molecular movement and the symbiotic relationship between the earth and the sea, the sky, and every living thing breathing on or above or beneath–Dr. Littleton called, a ringing thundering clamor in his ears and then–

What the fuck!?”

Mitch opened his eyes.

The stag again. Maybe even the same one, standing in the middle of the road and it had something–Dr. Littleton could barely process it before Marion slammed hard on the brakes, the tires screeching in protest as he lost control of the steering and they careened sideways, the car sliding off the road and coming to an unsteady stop half-over a deep, rain-filled ditch. The water, Dr. Littleton noticed in one of those strange moments of clarity that come right in the middle of panic, was slicked with rainbow trails of spilled oil.

Marion turned, his face contorted with rage but Dr. Littleton avoided another blow and managed to land one of his own, slamming Marion up against the door. Marion collapsed beneath Dr. Littleton’s pressure and he pressed his advantage, hitting again and managing to get the door opened so he could push Marion out of the car entirely.

The stag still stood in the middle of the empty road, its expression steady.

Almost…interested.

Marion struggled to his feet.

“You have no idea what you’ve just done,” he said, spraying blood and spit as he screamed. “You have no idea!”

But of course, Dr. Littleton had every idea of what he’d done. He looked over at the stag again, at what he’d seen before.

Hanging in tatters from the immense antlers.

Dr. Littleton felt the whirl of magnetic light flare and flash overhead, pulling at the hairs on his skin, singing in tune with his own molecular hymn. The stag must have felt it too, must have known what Marion was. And slowly it started towards him, the ruins of a shriveled human arm in weather-stained cotton falling from its antlers like so much dust and air.

*

                The Electromagnetism seminar was fuller than usual this semester. Of course, it was the last one before Dr. Elliott and Dr. Littleton went back to the coast so the students wanted to be sure of getting a chance to learn from them. The Dean had promised more scholars would come soon, more solar experts and even some wind-farmers he’d convinced to come up from the barrier island research stations that stood between the coastal cities and the wider sea. Anna Markham was spending her last semester as a teaching assistant for the two professors and Dr. Littleton had to hand it to her–she’d gotten quite a few girls to sign up for the course, pulling away a good chunk of the Hydrocarbon consortium. One of the girls–a smiling, good-natured student named Eleanora was staying a whole extra year at school so she could change her concentration.

Afterwards, as always, Anna met with Dr. Elliott and Dr. Littleton in the office.

“Well I think this will go nicely,” Dr. Elliott said, her sharp face breaking into a sunshine-bright grin. “Your mother is especially pleased, Anna. And can we offer our congratulations for you to pass on to her? First Consul is quite an honor.”

Anna nodded. “Of course, she’ll be happy to hear it. I don’t think she ever forgave you for getting your doctorate before she did.”

“And did she mention the diplomatic mission?” Dr. Littleton asked. “I understand if it’s classified.”

Anna laughed. “She knows better than to tell me state secrets. She got confirmation a few days back.”

“Even better news,” Dr. Elliott said. “Now would you two mind finishing up in here? I have to meet with the Dean.”

Dr. Littleton and Anna waved her off and she shut the door behind her.

“You didn’t say anything to her,” Anna said after a moment of quiet.

“No,” Dr. Littleton said, glancing out the window. The sky was low again and heavy with clouds. “I don’t think it’s worth it. Do you?”

“No,” Anna said. “No, it’s…it’s better left a mystery I think.”

“Some of the diehard oilmen are saying they saw him…along with the other dead.”

“Maybe they did. Who knows. I don’t think…it matters, really.”

“No, not anymore.”

They stared at each other again and Anna grinned, looking down at her hands, a flush of color rising along the sharp ridge of her cheekbones. “Thank you, by the way.”

“What for?” Dr. Littleton asked.

She looked up again, met his gaze, her eyes the gray-green of home and shrugged. “You know.”

Dr. Littleton nodded once, then matched her smile.

“Let’s get started on this paperwork or we’ll be stuck here all night.”

 

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