Evan Shapiro
Justice Wing, Serial, Superhero

⎇001JW Justice Wing: Forebears #11 (Book 2: Evan #1)

This entry is part 11 of 13 in the series Forebears

He turned and begin writing on the board. “The Seelie Court, Elphyne, Tír na nóg, Avalon, Mag Mell, Emain Ablach, Álfheimr, Ryūgū-jō – all different names for different realms, each of which having some claim on being the true Fairyland, barring nomenclature or cultural differences… and all realms Sprite has literally visited. They are contradictory realms and yet they coexist.” Evan turned back around. “Reality, it seems, can withstand a few contradictions.”


For years and years heroes and villains have fought on the streets and in the skies of the Earth of alternate universe ⎇001JW (Justice Wing.) Ever since the first day the man called Paragon rose up into the heavens and saved the entire planet, humanity – be it empowered parahumanity or non-enhanced prosahumanity – have thrilled along to the heroics of these modern mythological figures. Call it inspirational or spectacle – the heroes of Justice Wing have had tremendous love and support from the people they protect.
But then, the bubble burst. For a year or more, every simmering resentment and hidden evil burst out of the shadows and into the world. Chaos, death and destruction by everyone from the madman called the Jack O’Knaves to alien invaders to the Goddess Freya and ultimately to the mad god Urizen had caused untold horror planet-wide, leaving so much in ruins, and so many dead among those ruins. And when Urizen activated the Apocalypse Engine, every human being on Earth were pulled into the moment and became part of his attempt to pierce the multiversal walls of Ninespace out to the unimaginable chaos in Tenthspace and beyond in an effort to destroy all of the multiverse and all of its history, with only a few heroes in a position to stop him.
In the aftermath, a traumatized humanity desperately tries to regain some sense of control and normalcy, and the heroes they had formally idolized are the most visible targets for their wrath. But now, the bubbles are bursting. Faith has been lost. And grief and fear have begun to give way to anger and resentment.
This is the end of Justice Wing: the Apocalypse Agenda.

Forebears

Book Two: Evan

Part One

Riverside University, Bay City, New Jersey
Carter Hall, Room 140
Evan Shapiro’s field of vision
Tuesday

The man at the front of the class wasn’t known for his sterling good looks. He wasn’t lauded for his commanding presence or his razor-sharp mind. He lacked any reputation for kindness or compassion for his students, but that didn’t mean he had a reputation for being difficult or unfair in his classes, either. Or much reputation beyond that, despite his being a full professor.

Quite honestly, if you asked seven Riverside students what they thought about Professor Evan Shapiro, the first four wouldn’t have any idea who you were talking about and the fifth and six would roll their eyes. “He’s not my favorite professor,” those last two might say, “but that’s okay. He’s his own favorite professor.” And just as honestly, the point would be valid.

Of course, that was only six out of the seven students. The seventh student would either love or hate Evan’s classes, but either way they’d take every last one of them and probably deride all the rest of their classes as a waste of time. It was a cyclical pattern. Predictable, if you were paying attention, and by definition Evan Shapiro was.

On this particular day, at least three quarters of the class wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention while Evan wrote on the board. He wore a rumpled brown tweed jacket and darker brown pants – nowhere near complimentary shades, not that Evan cared – with a light blue button down shirt, no tie, and a shock of brown hair that looked less ‘combed’ and more ‘surrounded and forced to surrender.’ Same as it ever was, really.

When Evan finished writing, “Contradiction” was on the whiteboard in lurid red dry-erase marker. “So, who can tell me about contradiction?” he asked, turning around to face the class.

The students didn’t exactly rush to raise their hands. But then, they never did. Not even that one student in seven.

Today, the most obvious one-in-seven student was a junior named Skyler Pope. She’d originally signed up for Foundations of Philosophy because her father had suggested it. Now near the end of the semester Evan knew full well she’d be in all three of his classes in the fall. Though Skyler’s skin was a much warmer, almost russet brown compared to her father’s near-umber, Evan could clearly see Skyler’s resemblance to his old acquaintance Andy Pope, right down to the same ready smile. Skyler was sitting next to Ashton Hawkins – another kid from Empire with a parent who worked at Excelsior Court, which was about where the similarity between Skyler and Ashton ended.

“Anyone?” Evan asked, mildly. He glanced around the room. A few times a semester he changed things up and solicited discussion. It usually caught his students by surprise. Normally, Evan was just as happy hearing himself talk. But then, Evan was his own favorite conversationalist.

Kitty Floyd, a few seats back from Skyler and Ashton, raised her hand slowly. Evan nodded to her. “It’s… like… when something’s the opposite?” she asked.

Evan snorted. “You’ve just defined ‘antonym’ instead of contradiction, but I give you credit for being in the ballpark. Anyone else? Mister Hawkins?”

Ashton jumped slightly. He’d been paying more attention to Skyler than Evan, even though Skyler herself was paying attention to class. “What?” Ashton asked.

“What can you tell me about contradiction? As a word, as a concept, as an example, or whatever.” Evan noticed the door at the back of the class open, and watched as three new people slipped in – two men and a woman, all of whom he recognized. The men had children in this class. The woman did not.

Ashton hadn’t seen the newcomers, even though one of the two men was his father Carson and the other was Skyler’s dad Andy Pope. Instead, he blinked a couple of times while considering Evan’s question – a standard enough delaying tactic when a student was caught daydreaming instead of listening. After all, if the teacher realized they weren’t listening they might be offended. Well, theoretically. Evan honestly couldn’t care less.

Ashton spoke up, finally. “If… like if there are two things, and they’re both supposed to be true but there’s no way they can be, they contradict each other.”

Evan nodded slightly. “Roundabout but not wrong. Between you and Ms. Floyd we’re getting somewhere. A contradiction comes when you have two or more assumptions that cannot both be true at the same time. In science, contradictory hypotheses usually form the basis of experimentation – the scientist devises a test to determine which of the assumptions if any are accurate. In politics, contradictory positions usually form the basis of six to twelve years of elections before the public loses interest, but the idea is the differing positions create compromise when common ground is found. In business, contradictory interests can either form conflict or opportunity, depending on how short sighted people are feeling that day.” Evan looked around the room. “But this particular class is in philosophy, not science, political science, or business. So. What is contradiction, philosophically speaking?

Evan paused a moment, then looked at Skyler. She took the bait. “It’d be two philosophical positions that can’t be reconciled with each other,” she said.

“Essentially correct, Ms. Pope. Well, two or more philosophical positions, but that’s quibbling. Still, if I don’t manage anything else, I hope to eliminate binary thinking in this room.” Evan folded his arms. “So what does that form, Ms. Pope?”

“Excuse me?”

“Contrary hypotheses form experimentation. Contrary politics form compromise. Contrary interests form conflict or opportunity. What do contrary philosophies form?”

Skyler blinked again. “From what I’ve seen in the reading? Arguments.”

That got a laugh. Even Evan smiled a touch, and in the back of the room Andy Pope’s face practically split with pride. “That’s as good a start as any,” Evan said, turning and walking back to the board. “Now, if we go back to our first week – what are the foundations of ‘Foundations of Philosophy?’”

Kitty Floyd jumped back in. She was competitive. She hadn’t cared about the lecture until Skyler answered a question she couldn’t. Now Kitty was invested. “The study and discourse surrounding the fundamental questions of the human condition,” she said. “In this class specifically covering ethics, logic and inference, metaphysics, and epistemology.”

“Bang on,” Evan said, writing ‘Ethics,’ ‘Logic,’ ‘Metaphysics,’ and ‘Epistemology’ on the board under ‘Contradiction.’ He turned back to the class. “In considering philosophical contradiction, it’s natural to immediately turn to ethics and logic. Contradictory ethical positions form most of the spiritual and theological debate in our current civilization, and logic exists in part to test and eliminate contradiction, right?”

Evan waited during another round of silence. In the back of the room the woman smiled a bit more. She at least was having fun.

“See, I want to say yes,” Skyler said. “But that feels like a trap.”

Evan snorted. “Prudence is considered a virtue, I suppose. Regardless, I bring up ethics and logic first so we can dismiss them – and by dismissing them I mean ‘we’ll talk about them next week so make certain you all read chapter fourteen.’” That got a groan, though it was at most pro forma – the syllabus had listed reading expectations on a week by week basis. “Regardless, let’s talk about contradictions in terms of epistemology and metaphysics.”

Evan stepped back to the board. “Epistemology always comes back to the nature of knowledge itself. Rationality, perception, and as always belief. Metaphysics, as always, comes back to the nature of reality. The balance between the potential and the actual.” He looked around again. “In both cases, contradictory positions aren’t just common, they’re inevitable.”

Evan folded his arms. “But those are still very broad categories. So. Let’s narrow our discussion down to something simple. Let’s discuss the fundamental nature of reality.”

That got another laugh. Evan stepped forward, picking up as the chuckles ebbed. “If you ask most lay people about philosophy, they’ll almost always assume you mean just that – the nature of reality. The origins of the universe. The creation of sentience. The existence of a demiurge, or the lack of any demiurge. Metaphysical questions come to the forefront – ‘why do we exist?’ being one of the more basic – and epistemological methods are then used to justify our answers to metaphysical questions. And if I were the sort of man who wagered, I’d wager that every person in this room has contradictory beliefs about the fundamental nature of reality. Every last one of us.” He looked around. “So. Does that matter?”

“Excuse me?” Dane Baker asked from the third row. “Does it matter?

“Yes. Does it matter if we all have contradictory beliefs about the nature of reality?”

“…if I say no, can we get out of the rest of this class?” Ashton muttered. Skyler swatted him playfully even as the people around him chuckled. In the back, Carson Hawkins frowned slightly.

“You can get out of the rest of this class any time you like,” Evan said to Ashton. “We’re well past add-drop, so we’ve already cashed your check. Your efforts and the impact they have on your grade for this course are your affair, not mine. But, that’s still not relevant to my question.”

“Of course it matters,” Skyler said. “That’s what creates discourse, right? Trying to reconcile our contrary positions?”

“Reconcile’s a very nice word,” Evan said. “But do people actually try to reconcile contradictory philosophical positions? Or do we defend our own position while trying to impose it on others?”

Kitty snickered. “Oh, we impose. We impose.

“Yes, we do. But if we successfully impose our beliefs onto someone else, does the fundamental nature of reality change?

Evan waited a moment, then turned back to the board, where he began writing key points. “Sometimes we convince other people. We convert them through rhetoric or evidence. Consider one of the intrinsic philosophical questions common to any understanding of reality – the origin of everything. The creation of the universe, or the multiverse, or the omniverse.

There was a sudden hush and tension rose. People didn’t like thinking about the multiverse right now – not a scant three months after every surviving human being had experienced the multiverse’s near destruction.

Evan dealt with the sensitivity around that subject by ignoring it. “As we learn more about the triple-nature of reality – the physical, the temporal, and the conceptual – we’re forced to confront what we don’t know. Whether we just look at our own universe as a nine-dimensional construct, or Actuality itself as a nine-dimensional construct, or the omniverse beyond our understanding with its at-least thirteen-dimensional nature, we can ask the same two initial questions: where did this construct come from and did an intelligent force set it in motion?”

Evan looked around. “Every one of you has your own understanding, whether we call that assumption or belief, of those questions. Perhaps you believe that an omnipotent God created everything seven thousand years ago, with everything already in motion. Perhaps you believe an intelligent force set the omniverse going, but then let it play out by its own rules. Perhaps you believe that the omniverse formed naturally over time, for some value of time when we’re dealing with all these dimensions. Here’s one of my favorites. Does anyone know what solipsism is?”

There was yet another long pause, before an answer finally came. This time, however, the answer came from the back of the room and the speaker didn’t raise her hand first. “Solipsism is most commonly an epistemological position,” the woman sitting with Andy Pope and Carson Hawkins said with a certain amount of amusement. “The one truth we can state unambiguously is that our own mind exists. I know my mind exists because I live in it. The same is true of you, or any of your students, from their own points of view. But what we don’t know is if any of the other people in this room exist. We don’t know that the room exists. It might be a delusion created by our own thoughts. And if it does exist, it may exist exclusively because the one mind we can verify exists is there to either imagine or perceive it.”

Skyler, along with several other students, turned to face the newcomer, only to get sidetracked almost immediately. “Dad?” Skyler half-shouted, which got Andy grinning.

“Whoa—” Ashton said, half-standing when he saw his own father.

“Sit,” Evan said, mildly but firmly. “We won’t be much longer. And everyone? Say hello to Doctor Lillian Tartikoff. We were colleagues at one point.”

There was a bit of a murmur at the mention of the half-Desi psychologist and former spy’s name. Lillian Tartikoff was ‘controversial.’ She was one of the team negotiating the terms of a potential regulation of parahumans with the Coalition of Nations. She was also publicly known to be one of the founders of DETAILS and the former head of the now-defunct Justice Wing Institute for Parahuman Research – Justice Wing’s grand experiment in creating a new model for parahuman and prosahuman education, training, and productive co-existence. Evan hadn’t been surprised when it failed, though Lillian had taken it badly. Of course, these days she was at least as infamous for her starring role in a rather lurid scandal…

“Your sentimentality is always touching,” Lillian said. “I mentioned solipsism was largely epistemological, but it’s also a metaphysical concept. A metaphysical solipsist posits not only that our own mind is the only thing we can verify as being real, it is in fact the only real thing. As a result, anything my mind doesn’t directly perceive doesn’t exist – there’s nothing external to my own thoughts.” She paused. “If I were a solipsist.”

“True enough,” Evan said. “Breaking a few of these down: there’s the belief that an intelligence created the universe and then walked away. There’s the belief that the universe occurred naturally. There’s the belief that an intelligence created and still actively monitors and influences the universe. And, as Lily just said—”

“Don’t call me Lily.”

“—there’s the belief that you created the universe and that you’re the only thing in it. And by ‘you’ I mean any person listening to me, since from your individual points of view, you would need to be the solipsist perceiving the illusion of the universe.” Evan wrote those bullet points down. “There are roughly eight quadrillion, seventy-four trillion, nine hundred and one billion, one hundred and thirty four million, two hundred and sixty seven thousand, one hundred and four other metaphysical and epistemological positions on the creation of the universe, of course, but these four basic positions are a good start.” Evan looked at the students. “…the number I just rattled off was a joke. Please don’t write it down.”

“Now you know it’ll be on the test,” Andy Pope murmured.

“These four positions are obviously all contradictory,” Evan continued. “If an omnipotent being did create the universe, they couldn’t both walk away to let it run unimpeded and monitor and influence it at the same time, any more than they could have created it both seven thousand years ago and thirteen point eight billion years ago. Further, if the universe formed naturally, then obviously omnipotent beings didn’t make it, did they? And if any given ‘you’ who can hear my voice actually dreamed up the universe as one big delusion then all bets are off, right?” Evan stepped forward, away from the board. “And these are all ‘big picture.’ If we go down any of those paths, new questions practically ask themselves. For example, of an intelligence created the universe, is it knowable? Ineffable? Benevolent? Malevolent? Both? Was it a bearded man on a cloud? If so, does he influence football games based on which Quarterback prayed more effectively? Or maybe instead we could imagine Uranus and Gaia boinking the universe out of chaos and into being? Or did the universe appear after a gigantic cow licked a salty ice patch until the ice melted and revealed Scandinavia? And so on. And so on. And so on. These are contradictions within positions that themselves contradict the other basic positions. And in case you think this is solvable, let me be clear: there is no possible way for any of this to be determined decisively – especially after we met actual gods who continue to argue in favor of their own creation myths.”

There was another tense moment – Freya’s betrayal, actions, redemption, and sacrifice were all even fresher and rawer than the near-destruction of the multiverse – but Evan kept going. “So how do we even begin to debate the truth? I mean, that’s pretty much the first thing in a philosopher’s job description, right? Debating the nature of truth? Anyone? And by ‘anyone’ I mean ‘anyone who’s actually enrolled in this class,’ Doctor Tartikoff.”

No immediate takers, though both Lillian and Andy laughed. Carson didn’t, but he was watching his son with a frown.

Kitty started to raise her hand, but then thought better of it. Evan wondered if Skyler would be the one to take up the challenge. After all, traditionally that one-out-of-seven student would–

Skyler raised her hand. Score one for tradition.

Evan nodded to Skyler, who sat up. “We ‘begin’ debating the truth by laying out our contrary positions and explaining how we came to those conclusions,” she said. “From there, we find points of agreement and try to build consensus. The fact that we all have a different belief isn’t a problem, it’s the necessary start to discourse, right?”

“Oh, I’m writing that down,” Carson Hawkins murmured in the back of the class.

“Girl’s going far,” Andy Pope murmured back.

“Hush,” Evan absently said to the two fathers. “You’re absolutely right, Ms. Pope. And honestly, you’re describing the processes that ultimately became Philosophy and Philosophical Discourse as we know them.” He paused. “But let’s go a step further and take a page from the late Freya’s book.”

There was some more muttering, but Evan ignored it. “Freya, whenever she talked about universal truths,  the history of the Gods, mythology – anything like that really – always had a stock response. ‘All the myths are correct,’ she would say. ‘Even when they’re wrong.’ She used herself as an example, generally – talking about the myths where she taught Odin magic and Odin and Asgard cowered from her wrath, or talking about the myths where Odin demanded she abase herself for being flagrantly sexual right at the cusp of Christianity’s spread through Scandinavia. She used to use the Persephone/Hades myth as another example – Persephone as kidnap victim. Persephone as willing participant or initiator. Demeter as grieving mother. Demeter as offended Mother Goddess. Persephone and Demeter as the same goddess in different forms. Throw Hecate in there for good measure. All these variations, and yet Freya insisted they were all true.”

“But that’s impossible,” Ashton said. “It’s crazy. Either something happened or it didn’t happen. You can’t have both!

“That’s certainly one hypothesis on the nature of reality,” Evan said. “But it’s hardly the only one, and if you went across the quad to the Physics department they’d tell you it’s not even the most likely hypothesis.” Evan turned and drew a circle, then began putting lines through it like it was a pizza, ending up with nine slices instead of the usual eight. “Our understanding of the physics of reality continues to evolve, but one thing that divinities, magi, the advanced alien civilizations we’ve met, and Mason Temple all agree on is that our universe is a nine dimensional construct.” He wrote ‘height,’ ‘length,’ and ‘width’ in three of the wedges, ‘linear,’ ‘counterpartal,’ and ‘divergent’ in three more, and ‘inspiration,’ ‘intuition,’ and ‘imagination’ in the last three. “From what they’ve said and what our experiments seem to confirm, those nine dimensions break down into three categories – the physical dimensions, the temporal dimensions, and the conceptual dimensions. And, depending on which direction you go along any of those dimensions you can find all sorts of truths… even when those truths contradict each other.”

Evan turned back to face the class. “As I said, three of those dimensions are temporal. One of those dimensions measures divergence – the eternal grey area. The haze of probability over certainty. The tangled web of roads not taken. If you can’t stand the word ‘myth,’ then take heart – that’s a nicely ‘scientific’ justification for discontinuity and the death of causality. Admittedly, it’s not as much fun, but then science exists in part to overturn fun explanations in lieu of accurate ones.”

“But all the myths are true?” Kitty asked.

“So Freya claimed. As do Hecate, Tyche, the MacLir, and several other deities who spend time down here in the mud.” He turned back and wrote ‘dimensional brane’ under the wheel of dimensions. “You’ve likely heard of Sonata DuLay, the former Excelsior called Sprite. Yes?”

“Y’think?” Andy murmured to Lil, who snickered.

Evan ignored them. “Sonata often travels from our dimension into one of several different faerie lands – in effect ‘rotating’ into different dimensional planes – brane is the more appropriate term but has homonym issues – and finding entirely different realms existing parallel to our own, all following the same linear timeline.” He turned back. “Bear in mind, these aren’t alternate universes,like the one Paragon came from. These are multiple, distinct planes of reality together making up this universe, even if we can’t normally see large chunks of it.”

He turned and begin writing on the board. “The Seelie Court, Elphyne, Tír na nóg, Avalon, Mag Mell, Emain Ablach, Álfheimr, Ryūgū-jō – all different names for different realms, each of which having some claim on being the true Fairyland, barring nomenclature or cultural differences… and all realms Sprite has literally visited. They are contradictory realms and yet they coexist.” Evan turned back around. “Reality, it seems, can withstand a few contradictions.”

“Yeah but – all that means is at most one of those is the real place,” Ashton said. “The others are wrong, or fakes, or illusion, or it’s all just ridiculous. Right?”

“Maybe,” Evan said. “Maybe not. We don’t know.”

“Oh, come—”

“But let’s consider other multiple contradictory ‘true’ fantasy or mythic realms,” Evan said. “For example, we know that several of the divine lands spoken of in myth exist in some of these associated dimensional planes. Asgard obviously. Mount Olympus. The Summerland. The Thirteen Heavens. Some dimensional travelers even report finding Sheol, Hell, Purgatory, Limbo, and the Abrahamic Heaven itself. Contradictory origin myths from contradictory religions with contradictory kingdoms and contradictory afterlife options, and yet travelling through Ninespace it looks like we can find all of them.”

“Which means they aren’t real,” Ashton insisted.

“Maybe.” Evan looked at Skyler. “Ms. Pope, let’s do a thought experiment. We’ve laid out a number of contradictory origins for the universe, ranging from creationism through solipsism and all points in between. Now, if solipsism is correct, and we’re doing this from your point of view, that means your point of view is the only real one – all the rest of this, including all of us and everything we’re discussing exists purely for your own benefit, education, and entertainment and nothing else. Contrarily, if natural cosmological evolution is correct then nothing ‘created’ the universe – it just started and we’re all just cosmic accidents trying to muddle through. And then there’s all these wonderful potential creation myths in between. Are you with me?”

“Yeah?” Skyler asked.

Evan nodded. “So. What if… they were all correct?”

Skyler blinked. “What?”

“Just like we can have multiple contradictory ‘true’ fae realms or multiple contradictory ‘true’ myths of Freya’s adventures… what if all the contradictory universal origins were correct at the same time? What if the cosmos evolved naturally… but was also created by God in seven days, and was also started by God and allowed to evolve over billions of years. What if the universe was created from nothing – ex nihilo – but also created from the roiling chaos and night? What if the frost of the ogres melted to release the cow Audumla who then licked the salty ice, releasing the God Buri, who begat Bor, who begat Odin, Vili, and Vé who went on to build Midgard – or Earth – as a stronghold for their battles, and yet Gaia also emerged from chaos and lay down with Uranus, letting their children become the mountains and seas of the world? What if it’s all real, Ms. Pope?”

Skyler looked a bit stunned. “It seems impossible.”

“Rationally it is impossible, but then lots of impossible things and even more irrational ones end up happening, don’t they?”

“I guess?”

“And so do the rest of us. But. Let’s go back to solipsism. From your point of view, if solipsism is correct, it’s because you created the universe – real or not – from within the one true thing in all the cosmos. Namely, your own mind. So logically if all these other creations are also true, it’s because you created all of them. And this time, Ashton might not even object, because that would suggest they were all illusionary to begin with.”

Ashton made a face, but Skyler just shrugged. “Okay.”

“Spoken like the best kind of omnipotent deity. But let’s get more ambitious. I suggested before that all origins were correct, at least in this thought experiment, and that includes solipsism. But… what if the solipsistic mind in question doesn’t simply imagine the cosmos. What if that mind – your mind – literally created everything in the multiverse? What if I exist, Mister Hawkins exists, my wife and daughters exist, Paragon exists and so on to infinity because you created them subconsciously?”

“I think I’d come up with a better universe than this one,” Skyler said.

“Would you? But what if there’s a point? What if everything in every universe of the multiverse exists specifically for your behalf? What if all our history, from the Big Bang until now, happened entirely so that I could tell you these things in this class on this day?” Evan paused. “How important would my words be to you then?”

Skyler frowned. “…I… it’s crazy to think about. It seems…”

“Arrogant? Perhaps. But then, if all that were true, then you’d literally be the most important sentient being in all the cosmos. If ever arrogance was justified…”

“But why would I do that?” Skyler asked. “Why would I create this universe with all its crap?” She didn’t quite look haunted, but her voice broke just a little. That was a common reaction these days.

“Well. That’s the question, isn’t it? But here’s another question. If everyone exists because that one solipsist created everything… what if the solipsist isn’t you? What if it’s me?”

Skyler blinked. “Huh?”

“A moment ago, we postulated that the entire course of human evolution and history – and what’s more, all interstellar evolution and history – existed purely to bring you here so you could hear my lecture. But what if the entire course of cosmological evolution and history came from me, and your entire universal purpose was to be in this class, today, so I’d have a reason to give this lecture? What would that point be? And what would your purpose be after this class ends? Would you even still have one?”

Evan glanced at the clock. “If not, then I’m afraid you’re purposeless, because that’s our time. Remember, chapter fourteen for next week and we’re coming up quickly on your term paper deadline so at least consider going to the library or creating an empty text file on your computer or something. Remember, I’m going to be away this Thursday and next Tuesday, so Professor Bell will be here to conduct reviews and dispute half of what I’ve told you. Listen to her – she’s quite on the ball. Thanks, all.”

Evan took a seat behind the instructor’s desk. He always waited until the room fully cleared in case a student had a question, though they almost never did. He watched Skyler and Ashton make a beeline for the back of the room, then picked up and flicked on his Temple Primer. The primer was the current market-leading e-ink based reader – it had been refreshed not that long ago. With Mason Temple in a coma, there was no telling when or if the Primer would be updated next.

But so long as Evan could turn it on and read books on it, he really didn’t care about future updates. He flipped it on. Margenau’s The Nature of Physical Reality appeared on the display and Evan started reading.

Despite himself, he overheard Skyler and Ashton talking to their fathers. “—believe it!” Skyler was saying to her Dad. “What are you even doing here?”

“Lil needed a ride,” Andy said, hugging Skyler tightly. “And hey – I’ll take any excuse to stick my head in when Evan’s teaching.”

“You must love watching trainwrecks,” Ashton said, hugging his dad as well. “This whole course is garbage. I thought it’d be a good hedge on my grade point but—”

“…Ash,” Carson said. “Um… don’t… let’s not discuss—”

“What do you mean?” Andy asked, a bit more quietly. Much too quietly for Evan to overhear, really. He did, of course, but as he said to Skyler earlier, impossible things happened all the time.

“What? Come on. What did any of that have to do with anything real or useful? It’s just intellectual narcissism and elitist trash. Guys like that? They go into philosophy because they don’t want to put in the effort to take something useful. Engineering, business – something that requires math instead of—”

Ashton,” Carson hissed. “Shut up.

“What—”

“Ashton,” Andy said, coolly, “I’m pretty sure Carson’s freaking out because I’m his boss and I think Evan Shapiro’s one of the smartest people alive. You probably should have picked that up from the conversation. And… the idea that he went into philosophy out of laziness? I know you want to work for Church Aerospace someday. Let me give you some advice – always research your subject as thoroughly as you can. In this case, before you take a philosophy class, maybe look up the professor?”

“…uh… okay. Why—”

“Shapiro’s old school,” Carson said. “Like, Middle Ages old school. Back then, science, math, all that? They were considered inferior to philosophy. That’s why the Doctorate of Philosophy’s the terminal academic degree. Shapiro took that to heart – he’s got degrees in physics, chemistry, like three kinds of engineering, history, literature… and he did all that so he felt qualified to get a Ph.D. in philosophy. And hard work? Math? That man helped quantify that nine-dimensional model of Actuality.”

“He did?” Ashton sounded skeptical. But then, Ashton Hawkins never let facts interfere with his opinions, as near as Evan could tell. Honestly, it was something of a pity for his sake that he disliked the class. There was always room for contrarians in Philosophy.

“I’m actually pretty sure he coined the term ‘Ninespace,’” Andy said idly.

“…he… then why’s he teaching at Riverside?

“Let’s talk about it over lunch,” Andy said. “Skyler? You got time?”

“You old faker.”

This voice was much closer. Evan glanced up.

Lillian Tartikoff, of course. “Evan.”

“Lil.” Evan closed his Temple Primer and slipped it in his briefcase. In the corner of his eye Evan saw Andy, Carson, Skyler, and Ashton leaving. “It looks like you healed relatively well.”

Lillian touched her face absently. “Thanks. It took some doing.”

Evan stood, lifting his briefcase. “Coffee?”

“Please.”

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