By Jessica Kruppa
Crem Onel: dour and absent minded artist by day, jumpy and obsessive compulsive student by night. The former was a painstakingly fabricated façade that he struggled to maintain despite the universe’s best efforts. His roommate, at least, seemed to be taking a break from finding new and interesting ways to mortify him. That left the shrewd matriarch of the family he’d virtually been sold to as part of his elder sister’s dowry. As the youngest child, he was a political pawn to be spent as his family saw fit. He’d been sent to study, tuition free, with the planet’s greatest artists, which was great. But he was expected to find an marry a woman from the Ayir clan in return. Lately he got the impression that the matriarch was dissatisfied with his progress. He found himself in the woman’s presence on an uncomfortably regular basis these days—checking up on her investment, no doubt.
Meeting with that woman always demolished any pretense of professional artistic melancholy he could conjure up. She pinned him to the wall with those eyes and hammered him with question after question about his classes, current projects, and, as always, his progress on choosing a girl to settle down with. His answers were never satisfactory and he was damn tired of hearing about how he wasn’t going to amount to anything if he wasn’t willing to do whatever it took to stay in the game. Well, it wasn’t in those words, but that’s what it boiled down to. Get to the top. Succeed. Don’t hesitate. He was getting tired of it.
It’s not like he wasn’t trying. He’d found the niche that attracted the most public attention and slid into it, no matter how ridiculous. Every hour he wasn’t rubbing elbows with the so-called “in crowd” he spent ensuring his educational success. Crem didn’t believe the trope that it wasn’t what you know, but who you know. As far as he was concerned, it was both. But apparently his late nights, tight pants, and lack of life weren’t enough for the Ayir family.
He was slumped on his bed, nursing his still bruised ego from the most recent meeting, when he got the call.
“You’re late,” the voice at the other end of the line barked once Crem answered.
Every student had that one teacher who, for one unfathomable reason or another, seemed determined to crush them. Some people got off easy with a snide comment here or a subtle but ultimately meaningless markdown there. Crem had one professor who viewed his unblemished grade point average as a personal affront.
Fortunately for Crem, his professor was an honest, and generally predictable, man that moved within the confines of school policy, while taking advantage of any possible loophole, in order to maintain his reputation. And while he openly admitted his disdain for the young man, he also appreciated Crem’s perseverance. Unfortunately this meant that the professor would simply try harder next time. This was one of those times.
Crem glanced at the clock on the wall. “I have twenty eight hours and sixteen minutes.”
“Not anymore,” the professor said smugly.
Crem sprang to his computer and pulled up the assignment details. The due date change was in bold red letters at the top of his screen. He growled a curse under his breath. He hadn’t expected the professor to play that card this early in the semester. “I still have an hour.”
Crem glared from his computer to the canvas resting on its pedestal at the foot of his narrow bed. The composition was off, the lines were not quite right, the red was bleeding into the— He stopped himself. No piece was ever perfect in the artist’s eyes. It would have to do. He wrapped the canvas, carefully rearranged his hair into that “just woken up” look that was popular with his chosen crowd, and swept out the door.
Two steps out the door, a vaguely familiar young lady, hurrying much too fast down the corridor to the turbo-lift, nearly bowled him over. Her portfolio scattered a bunch of illustrations across the hall. Another student, he realized. That made sense. In order to trap Crem, the professor would have to affect the whole class.
The girl stammered out an apology as she bent to gather up the pages, but Crem didn’t stick around long enough to hear it. Time was wasting. He bounded into the lift and pressed the button for the lobby. The girl had gathered up her things and was very nearly, but not quite, to the lift when the doors closed. He didn’t bother holding the door. The Matriarch would be proud.
The moment the lift doors opened, Crem bolted towards the lobby exit. The doors swept open and let in a gust of rain soaked wind. He stopped in his tracks and stared down at rain-dappled pavement outside. Crap.
He clutched his canvas closer. Maybe it was just a misting. The canvas cover was supposedly water proof, but he didn’t want to test it out in a full-blown summer storm. Of course, he’d only be out there long enough to flag down a taxi, and then to get from the taxi to the university.
Outside, the streets, usually bustling with activity, were almost entirely vacant. He spotted a few cabs parked further down the street, their drivers huddled around one of the cabs listening to something intently. Crem trotted up to them.
“Peace and profit to you, friends,” he started to say, but one of the drivers waved him off. Crem hesitated. They were listening to orders coming over a fleet radio. The rain was coming in sparse but fat drops now and Crem was beginning to wish he’d brought his umbrella. He tried again. “Excuse me.”
“Not in-service, kid. Get inside.”
“All of you?” he eyed the group skeptically. “I need to get to the university. When do you come off break?”
“Not in-service, kid,” the driver repeated.
“Then maybe you can call someone who is.”
The driver’s cheek twitched in irritation as he finally turned to face Crem. “We’re not in-service kid. Understand? There’s a storm coming in and HQ has shut the whole fleet down. You’re little university trip is just going to have to wait.”
“It’s just a little rain,” Crem said, glancing up at the sky.
The driver cocked a sarcastic eyebrow. “You’re new here, aren’t you?”
“I’ll double your fare.”
Without a word, the driver turned his back on Crem and returned to listening to the fleet radio. The conversation was over.
Crem turned around and nearly bowled into the girl from the elevator. Again. This time it was his turn to drop his artwork. They bent to retrieve the canvas at the same time, their hands brushing briefly. Crem pulled the canvas away and shot her what was supposed to be a sharp glare but it faltered in the face of her benign smile.
“It’s no use talking to them,” she said without a hint of irritation. “Once an all-call goes out not even a High Chief could move them.” She smiled again, and then opened an umbrella. She tilted it toward him in an offer to share its shelter. “If we hurry, we can reach the university on foot. We might even make the high ground before the storm arrives.”
Crem gave the drivers another look, then shot a glance at the swiftly darkening sky. There was no helping it. He shouldered the strap on his canvas case and accepted the shelter of her umbrella.
“So…You’re in Tekal’s class?” Crem asked as they walked.
A brief look of surprise followed by disappointment flashed across her face. He couldn’t fathom what that was about. She considered the question a moment before answering, “Until I submit this project, yes, provided I get it in on time.”
“Sorry about that,” he said.
“Don’t be. While we may not have your level of artistic skill, we are not blind, and we are wise to Tekal’s…pet projects.” She smiled at the look of confusion on his face. “Most of us submitted our projects days ago… do you not read the message boards? Ah. That is unfortunate.” The edges of her smile turned faintly brittle.
“If you knew he was going to change the due date, why didn’t you turn yours in?”
“I had my reasons. Though now I am beginning to regret the delay.” She sighed. “Unfortunately, none of us anticipated the weight change.”
“What do you mean?”
“No late submissions; no grace period. No project, no pass.” The smile twisted bitterly. “Alright. Maybe you can be a little sorry.”
Crem felt his blood run cold. Now this was too far. He hadn’t expected the old codger to fail him outright. Crem couldn’t fail. He had never had anything less than top scores and he certainly wouldn’t fail a class. He would hear no end of it from the old Ayir bat.
He grabbed the young lady’s wrist and pulled her along the road. “Come on. Maybe we can catch one of the gondolas.” That would certainly get them closer before they had to take to the streets again, at least.
She balked, pulling her arm free. The motion left Crem standing in the rain without the protection of her umbrella. “Don’t be ridiculous. If the taxi’s aren’t running in this weather, the gondola’s certainly won’t. You know that.”
He hadn’t known that. Nevertheless, he stopped trying to pull her towards the river as it made sense. “Flooding. Right.” Her ran his hand through the thick, and wet, mop of hair on his head as he looked up and down the street for inspiration. “What about a hover-bus? Would they be running?”
“Maybe,” she said, hesitantly. “If we are fast.”
This time it was her turn to drag him, running, down the streets: their feet kicking up the puddles and soaking their legs. Lightning flashed, and then thunder followed several breaths later. Though the brunt of the storm hadn’t reached them, the rain suddenly washed down over them as the sky had torn. They huddled under the flimsy umbrella, both of them clinging to the handle lest the wind rip it from their hands.
“I can’t see,” he said, squinting through the wall of water. “What street is this?”
“Orel, I think. Maybe Ters?”
He pulled her sharply around the corner where the store fronts provided just enough overhang to create a small, marginally dry tunnel of protection from the storm. They followed it toward the faint glow of the bus stop, and the lights of a bus just pulling away from the stop. Forgetting the rain, they ran headlong towards the stop in a vain attempt to reach the bus before it had rounded the corner and vanished from sight.
They staggered to a stop, doubled over and gasping for air. Crem reached out after the vanished bus as if to call it back with the power of his will alone. When that didn’t work, he straightened up and seethed with anger. The torrents of rain plastered his hair to his body. It dragged at the flimsy gauze of his dark clothes. The rumbling thunder, closer now, mimicked the foul mood he spent so much time perfecting, and which he honestly embraced in this moment. He wallowed in it. He reveled in the pure, unadulterated… frustration of it all. He stomped one foot and spun around to vent his frustration in the storm’s general direction when he suddenly caught sight of his reflection in the shiny surface of a bus stop advertisement.
The frustration blew out of him in a single, pathetic, breath. There was no way that such righteous anger could come out of the scrawny, pitiful creature staring back at him.
He caught sight of the girl. She, in the manner of super models, managed to make being soaked to the skin look good. How had he not noticed her in his classes before? She seemed to be entirely engrossed in a puddle on the bus stop’s floor and paid her bedraggled companion no mind.
“Well,” he said lamely. “That’s that, then, I suppose.”
She said nothing.
With another sigh, he leaned against the wall and glared at the route map across from him. He blinked and moved closer, tracing the route with one finger. “Hey,” he said, hope welling back up in him. “We can make it.”
“Really?” She looked up at him, her amber eyes hopeful.
“We can head it off. Come on.” This time she didn’t resist when he grabbed her hand.
They didn’t bother with the umbrella. It would only slow them down. They raced through the streets, clutching their art, heedless of the driving rain pelting against their skin.
“There!” the girl shouted as they emerged from a narrow alley. She pointed to a distant glow down the darkened street; the bus heading in their direction.
Hope welled up in Crem like a bubbling fountain and emerged as a desperate laugh. They sprinted the last yards to meet the bus, waving their arms and begging for the driver to not only see them, but to stop.
When the girl suddenly vanished from Crem’s peripheral vision, he glanced behind to see her scrabbling across the street to capture her fallen portfolio and scattered drawings.
The hover-bus slowed to a halt and the narrow door hissed open.
Crem hesitated, torn between the bus and the girl still struggling to free her project from the rain. He thrust his canvas through the open door, propping it against someone’s briefcase.
“Hold on. My friend is right behind me.” Crem glanced behind him to check on the girl.
The driver shook his head. “I’ve got room for one more straphanger. Take it or leave it.”
“We’ll share a strap. It’s an emergency,” he pleaded with the driver.
“One, or you’ll have to wait for the next one.”
“You have got to be kidding. There isn’t going to be a next one!” Crem clenched the railing to keep his fists from doing something stupid.
The driver shrugged, finger hovering over the door button. “In or out, kid.”
Crem closed his eyes, took a long, deep breath, and let it out again. The matriarch was right. He wasn’t going to amount to anything. “Give me a minute.” He pulled himself away from the bus and ran over to help the girl gather the last of her pages. Each piece was carefully wrapped in a protective cover.
“Smart,” he said as she snapped the portfolio closed.
“Not smart enough to get a folio that stays closed,” she said. She flashed him a smile when she saw the bus still waiting several feet away. “You held it? Wow.”
He blushed, ashamed at her surprise. “Yes, I held it. Go on.” He didn’t follow her to the door, but by the way she hesitated on the first step, he knew she’d realized the situation faster than he had. She turned around, bemusement etched on her face.
The matriarch would have words for him for squandering an opportunity like this for a stranger. His parents would be equally baffled. Every action in their society was part of a single, political struggle for social standing. It was a game for most of them, one in which only the canniest survived. But, young as he was, Crem was really tired of games.
He shrugged. “I’ll get the next one.”
She dropped back to the ground and hurried to him, her umbrella outstretched. “I want this back,” she said, thrusting it into his hands. Then she added, “You can still make it, maybe.”
“Sure.” It didn’t sound convincing, even from him.
She hesitated, the silence growing quickly awkward until the driver laid into the horn. The girl flinched. “Thank you,” she said, and then bounded back up the steps to vanish inside the bus.
Crem watched the bus’s lights in the darkness for a few moments after it pulled away. Lightning flashed. The bus was illuminated for a heartbeat as it turned a corner and then was swallowed by the darkness.
She was right, though. If he ran, he could probably still make it, presuming he didn’t die of a heart attack on the way or get struck by lightning. He bent down to grab his canvas and his hand met with empty air. It was still sitting on that bus, propped against a briefcase. Frustration bubbled up, and then faded away just as quickly, leaving him cold and empty. Feh. Whatever.
He popped the umbrella open and headed back the way he’d come. Even if he ran, he couldn’t reach the university before the bus had come and gone. And he didn’t have a map to help him cut it off along the route. So there was no point in standing around in the rain. So he’d fail the class. Big deal.
Ok, it was a big deal. And it surely wouldn’t go unnoticed. He could hear the matriarch now with her prying questions. “Why didn’t you turn the piece in early, Mister Onel? What did you expect to gain, Mister Onel?” Blah-de-blah-de-blah.
So he hadn’t knocked someone else over in order to come out on top. Big freaking deal. Art was about making people think, feel, and revealing the imperceptible. It wasn’t about slitting the other guy’s, or girl’s, professional throat.
“Ah, stuff her,” he muttered and it actually made him feel a little bit better. By the time he made it home and taken a long, hot shower he was feeling downright happy. He was still drying his hair when he realized there was a message waiting for him from the professor.
“Well played, Mister Onel.” The professor actually sounded impressed. “Next time try and turn it in yourself.”
The girl, Crem realized. She must have seen his canvas on the bus and turned it in with hers. His cheeks flushed.
He hadn’t even asked her name.
Originally written as a supplement to a roleplaying game using a very minor character and with recognizable references to said universe removed for copyright reasons.