“Don’t be mad,” says the voice on the other end of the call.
I stare at what looks to be the camera pointed at the ceiling, assuming everyone’s ceiling was weird and futuristic, and take a minute to remember who the fuck I just accepted a call from. The camera adjusts, and oh, yeah, Paragon.
“You know,” I say, intensely conversationally, “that’s a horrible sentence to start a dialogue off with, and now I might be mad at you just for the hell of it.”
He grins. “Roundabout way of asking me what I did.”
I shake my head and try not to laugh. “You’re several states away, kid, what could you do?”
“Homework,” he says, seriously.
I stare for a minute. “And how is your homework supposed to negatively impact my life?”
Paragon sighs and rubs his head. “No, just. Can you help me with my homework?”
I narrow my eyes at him. “Is this a meme?”
He laughs. “No. I just have to take some insufferable English class, and I wanted to know how familiar you are with Dickens.”
“You,” I say, jabbing a finger at the screen, “actually want help with your homework. Actual help. With your actual homework.”
“Yeah,” he says.
“Help with Dickens,” I say.
He sighs. “I dunno, apparently I signed up for a Dickens course this semester, I think it was the only one that would fit in my schedule, it’s terrible. Help.”
“Oh, well, a masked hero can never ignore a citizen’s cry for help,” I tell him. “What are you studying? Or do you need help even being able to get through the books.”
He drops his face into his hands. “Honestly, it’s not even that bad, I mean, it’s slow as fuck but he’s not even that bad a writer, I just. They’re so long.”
“That’s true,” I say.
“I wish I hadn’t done this,” he tells me.
“Yeah,” I agree, “I don’t have great expectations for this course.”
“I hate you,” Paragon says.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “what did you actually need help with?”
He waves a hand, twirling it for long enough I actually wonder if he’s forgotten that it’s his turn to speak, and then he says, “do you think I should switch classes?”
I shrug. “You can if you want. If it’s really that bad, better to get out now and find something that will get you an English credit you can actually stomach.”
“Are there any good ones?” he asks, making a face.
“Yeah, but they’re probably full by now,” I tell him.
He leans against one hand, making morose faces. It takes me a minute to register that he’s not wearing his domino, which barely alters his appearance, when he carefully specified he looks radically different without the mask – I wonder if it’s on top of a prosthetic, or some kind of smart clay, or alien tech, or what. Hell, maybe Paragon is an alien. That would explain the spaceship.
“Do you live in a spaceship?” I ask.
“What? No. This is just SAL’s – what, office?” he says, looking up.
“Office is a reasonable descriptor,” a vaguely feminine voice says, “although it is technically a spaceship, albeit repurposed and heavily restructured to integrate into the tower. Hello, Agent Kuiper.”
“Uh,” I say, “hello, SAL.”
“What kind of English classes did you take?” Paragon asks, bouncing – is that a rubber band ball?
“Uh,” I say, only kind of expecting the robot to interrupt me, “I mostly took genre literature classes, the vampire and golden age science fiction and stuff.”
“Wait, what?” he says, sitting up, “is it normal to have those?”
“At a bigger school, yes,” I tell him, “but you probably have to make friends with the teachers so they let you sign up early, or at least, that’s what I did.”
He laughs. “You bribed your way in?”
“No,” I tell him, “I could tell you some good stories about bribery, but it might be considered, oh, corrupting the youth or something.”
He shakes his head. “This. This is what I get for trying to get advice on fucking Oliver Twist from someone who’s supposed to be a respectable adult I can look up to. I get treated like a kid.”
“You’re literally asking for homework help,” I remind him.
“Have you read it or not?” he asks.
I shake my head. “Yeah, I’ve read it.”
“Do you,” he waves a hand vaguely, “have a study guide, or…?”
“I could provide you with any number of study guides,” SAL says, peevishly, how does a robot sound peevish, even? Is that real? Is that a programmed feature, or an emergent trait of managing to program a sentient computer?
“That sounds good,” I say, “listen to SAL. Or just use Sparknotes.”
“Like, I don’t – what am I supposed to even think about Oliver Twist?” he says. He sounds baffled, and I wish I could help.
I try to think back to high school. “I really don’t think this will in any way be good for your grade, but all I remember is the sanitized sexual abuse.”
“Wait, what?” he says.
I make a face. “There’s a bunch of scenes where it seems like it’s trying to imply, you know, people trying to molest Oliver.”
“I thought there was just,” he tosses the rubber band ball from hand to hand, “some gay stuff with him and Dodger?”
“Sure,” I say, “only Dodger’s, like, 35, and isn’t Oliver twelve or something?”
“What, no,” Paragon says, “Dodger’s sixteen.”
I roll my eyes. “You’ve seriously never heard that theory?”
“What, that Dodger’s secretly an adult?” he squeaks, “what the hell for?”
“Because,” I say, waving my hands, “the whole thing where he, like, picks up kids off the streets to convince them to – no, you know what, I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“What the hell did you even study in school?” Paragon shrieks at me.
I shake my head. “Mostly about the history of characterization of women, actually, you can see here a bunch of characters who become hateful and spiteful because they can’t be mothers.”
“Ugh, never mind,” he says, “this book is awful.”
“It’s,” I say, “pretty good about class inequalities?”
His face goes oddly blank when I say that, just a slight downturn of his mouth on one side, and he sighs, flicking through a paperback copy of the book.
“I tell you what,” I say, “look for some kind of graphic novel class. They might be under the art department, but if you kick up enough fuss, you can get English credit for one, probably.”
He tosses the book behind him with a cheer. It sails pretty far – I almost wonder if the used-to-be-a-spaceship has low gravity, before his superstrength registers.
“Hey!” SAL says, very clearly snapping, wow, that is sophisticated, “do you know how long it took to print that up?”