“I’ll have to get back,” whispered Pausert. “I have math to do. I need to have it done before Ma gets home.”

“Give it another minute or two,” whispered Goth

“You got your coat. Great!”

“Yes, it would be nicer if I wasn’t itching like mad,” said Goth, scratching.

“I just knew the name of the tree,” he said, defensively. “Didn’t know what it did. Or at least I didn’t remember.”

“Well, at least I’ll have a coat to protect me, climbing up.” Goth concentrated on thinking about the air just a bit further down the corridor. Making the image of something in the air, not just a refraction, was going to be tricky. But making the air opaque…

“That looks like smoke,” said the guard.

“It does. Better go and look.”

The alarms went off again. Goth realized they’d forgotten to radio in, in their haste and surprise.

“They’ve got enough problems,” said Goth. “Let’s go.”

“Vala, you’re amazing,” said Pausert quietly. “How did you do that.”

“Do what?” asked Goth innocently. “Now climb.”

So they did. Goth had to leave the rope visible — but from below Pausert looked like a piece of roof. An itchy piece of roof. She followed. Even if the security men had not been busy explaining what they’d seen and done, they could not have seen her. Once they were on the roof they hauled the rope up, and then closed the skylight. Except for the rash on her hands and Pausert’s legs, they’d come away without a scratch, and with her coat. They dropped back down the drainpipe and into the bushes and headed out of the park.

“We will stop at the drugstore and get something for the itch,” said Goth, firmly. And Pausert didn’t even argue with her.


The pink goo helped for the itch. It wasn’t beautiful. A sort of payback for the purple they’d covered Rapport and friends with, Goth decided. She’d talked Pausert into letting her join him in this math homework at his spartan house — so that she could see what level of work she would be expected to do. The answer was a combination of very frustrating and quite simple. She was used to harder problems — but not at all used to having show how she derived her answers.

“What’s the point?” she demanded crossly. “If it’s right, it’s right.”

“But if it’s not right, they can’t give you any marks for the part you had got right.”

“If it’s not right, your ship is a crater.”

“There are other uses for math besides astrogation,” said Pausert, defending for the sake of it.

“Oh. Like what?”

“Like biology for starters,” said another voice. It was Pausert’s mother. “But getting it wrong there can actually be just as bad.”

Pausert leapt guiltily to his feet. “I didn’t hear you come in, mother. Vala’s joining my math class and…”

“Glad to see you have brought her home. I think she’s right, though. My uncle was apparently forever in trouble for not showing his work. He always said he could tell which answers were right. Nearly drove his teachers mad. He never learned the method as prescribed.”

It had never occurred to Goth that other people might not know when their math calculations were right. “He sounds like a good man,” she said, gruffly.

Pausert’s mother laughed. “Depends on who you ask. Growing up, I thought he was pretty wonderful.”

It was all Goth could do not to agree with her. She stuck to nodding.

“So: A girl doing advanced math — and who believes the only purpose of it is astrogation. I wonder if the Nikkeldepain Academy for the Sons and Daughters of Gentlemen and Officers has any idea of what is going to hit it. They’ll give you a rough time, my dear.”

“Huh. I’ll give it right back.”

“You could. But it is probably not how you’ll win the fight, Vala.”

“I’ll be there too,” said Pausert, staunch and solid as ever.

“I am sure you will, son,” said Pausert’s mother, proudly. “But seeing as I did it, long ago, without any supporters, maybe you should go and get us some fresh bread, and leave me to chat to Vala about it.”

When Pausert had gone, Pausert’s mother smiled. “First let me get you something better than that Darmin lotion for the makemake stings. So it was you two, was it?”

Goth blushed to the roots of her hair. “We didn’t do any harm. I was just fetching something of mine I had left behind last time.” She took a deep breath. “You ought to do something about those boys. They’re making his life a misery.”

Pausert’s mother smiled sadly. “I know. But it’s actually quite difficult not to do something that would make it worse. He is a good boy. But not very popular. Nikkeldepain’s not a bad little place. But they don’t like incomers here. I wanted to give you some advice on how to deal with it best. Being a tom-boy and trying to punch your way through all of it is just too difficult. Ask me. I found out the hard way. Of course I was a little younger than you, and it took me a while to learn to be a social chameleon. I didn’t like the idea at all. And I was delighted that that Rapport boy got what was coming to him by the way. But I can’t tell Pausert that.”