Chapter 10: Zenith
The first day of school was a dreaded endeavor.
When Zenith moved ahead a year in school, she expected to at least recognize a few people she graduated with, but not a single face looked familiar. Making friends with people she already knew was hard enough. Only Logen was calm enough to put up with her on a regular basis. Now she was forced to find a new Logen. On a positive note, having no friends might help her do well in classes. She could stay in her dormitory all day and study whatever lesson she downloaded on her e-tab.
The professor was the last person to come into the classroom. All forty of the students sat quietly, although some of them acknowledged each other when they first walked in. This was a class Zenith was not supposed to take until the following year, so some of these students had already been at Southern Fenicia University for at least a year now. Worse, they were older. Zenith was the only one who had not completed her assignment therapy, as if she wasn’t enough of an outsider.
“Good afternoon everyone,” the professor began, receiving a cacophony of responses. He was a bespectacled man, short and stocky. Either his head was shaved or he was just bald. Zenith couldn’t tell either way. “My name is Emilio Ludic. I’m the biology professor here. All of your biology classes will be with me. This is a lecture class, and you are not required to take e-tab notes if you do not want to. However, I recommend you do. There will be a lot of information that may be overwhelming if you try to commit it to memory. We can start the lecture at our next meeting. Today, I’d simply like everyone to introduce themselves and give a reason why they are here. Let’s start with you on the end.”
Zenith hated introductions like these. How was she supposed to remember everyone who introduced themselves? Nobody could remember all those names, let alone care enough to talk to any of them outside of class. Had Zenith known this was how the day would be spent, she would not have come to class at all.
The youth to Zenith’s right stood up with trepidation. He spoke quietly and didn’t make direct eye contact with anyone. “Uhmm, I’m Ski. It’s spelled like ski but pronounced like sky. I’m here because both of my parents are physicians, and I couldn’t think of anything better I wanted to study.”
Quiet laughter filled the room. Ski was not alone in his reasoning. So much emphasis was put on people becoming doctors or scientists most other professions were just taboo. Even though they had recovered from the pandemic, staying ahead of another crisis was still necessary. Many people chose science or medicine out of a sheer need to choose a path of study.
His name also interested Zenith. During the SHF Era, a few factions would replace “y” with “i” when writing. The practice became so widespread a few provinces continued it after the war, and used it when naming their children. From this, Zenith deduced Ski was from either Kinter, Pandora, or Solace.
Professor Ludic gestured toward Zenith, as she was next in line for introductions. She stood and turned to face the class. “Hi. I’m Zenith; most people call me Zen. I’m here because I noticed a lot of doctors aren’t really qualified for their positions, and I want to take their place.”
“That’s a bold statement,” Ludic said. “Do you feel you are qualified to take their place?”
Zenith shrugged. “I hope to be. That’s the plan.”
Ludic nodded, then continued to the next participant.
Sitting, Zenith didn’t listen to the next person’s introduction. She felt moisture on her hands. This was a strange phenomenon. Zenith didn’t consider herself a nervous speaker, and had handled herself much better than Ski. Yet her hands and forhead held more moisture than usual.
The moisture in her hands didn’t diminish as she remained seated, and Zenith wondered why. The answer came to her in the form of pain.
Immense pain. It started between her legs and shot up into her lower abdomen. But it was gone as quickly as it came. It made Zenith jump in her seat, but only drew the attention of a few of her classmates. Since the pain was gone, she didn’t think much of it. Until it returned seven-fold. Zenith flinched so abruptly her chair shifted. It grabbed everyone’s attention.
“Are you alright, Zen?” the professor asked.
“I don’t know,” Zenith said honestly, grabbing her stomach.
When professor Ludic saw where she was grabbing, an expression of recognition filled his face. “Are you still in phase one of assignment?” Zenith nodded, in too much pain to speak. “Do you have pain medication?”
Zenith reached down to feel through her bag. She knew she had some prescribed pain meds, but couldn’t remember putting them in her bag. The doctor told her the pain wouldn’t come for three months. It had only been two and a half. The pain meds didn’t seem necessary yet. Forcefully pushing her hand through all of her belongings, Zenith failed to find the bottle of pills she was searching for.
“Do you think you could go outside into the hallway?” professor Ludic asked. There was empathy in his tone, but not his words. “We’d hate for it to be a disruption for the class.”
Zenith was under too much duress to tell the professor to go to hell. She hobbled out of the room, keeled over as she walked. She barely made it half the distance to the bathroom before she had to sit on a bench in the hallway.
Zenith felt like someone lit a knife on fire and stabbed her between the legs. She gripped the bench so hard she thought her fingers might break. The pain was so strong it made her extend her body back and slide to the floor. Crying out in pain, Zenith could hardly stifle the sounds she was making. Two more teachers closed their classroom doors, as if Zenith’s immense pain was an inconvenience to them.
“Drink this,” she heard a voice say to her left. She hadn’t noticed anyone stride up next to her. Looking up, all she could see was a black thermos within her reach. “It’ll help with the pain.”
Without thinking twice, Zenith reached up and grabbed the mysterious thermos. No idea what was inside, she took two gulps and returned it to the provider’s hand. The taste was herbal and strong…and also gross.
“Now whistle,” the voice demanded.
“What the fuck?” Zenith said, still doubled over in pain.
“It’ll help with your breathing. Just do it. Try and whistle.”
Zenith did as she was commanded, although without success. Her breath was not controlled enough to whistle, and the still shooting pains kept her from focusing long enough to correct it. But after ten seconds, her breathing slowed. Most importantly, her pain level dropped from excruciating to terrible. The improvement was dramatic, and she could finally sit up straight.
Reaching behind her, Zenith felt for the bench and pulled herself up to sit. Her vision cleared, and she could finally think straight. The thermos of an unknown concoction returned to her view. She grabbed it but this time her curiosity got the best of her. “What is this?”
“It’s a family recipe,” the young, almond-skinned man said. “Don’t worry, there isn’t any illegal drug in there. It’s all natural.”
“Thanks,” Zenith said as she tried to hand the thermos back.
“Keep it for now.”
The young man sat down next to Zenith, and she finally got a good look at him. His eyes were dark brown, but in this light, there were flakes of copper in his irises. His long hair appeared unkempt but not dirty.
“Look,” he said, “professor Ludic can be a dick sometimes, but he’s a pretty easy teacher to have. I don’t think most people understand how much pain you are in. I forgot to take my meds once when I was going through assignment, and it hurt like hell. I can hardly imagine what it feels like when you’re on the fast track of the therapy. That’s what you’re on, right?”
“Yeah,” Zenith responded.
“Then…” he began, glancing down at her stomach like he was trying to envision the monster within, “I don’t blame you for reacting the way you did. Zenith, right?”
“Yeah, Zen is fine.”
“Zen, I’m Mel. I’m gonna head back to class. Just keep the mug and sip on it until you can get to your meds. I’ll get it back from you whenever.”
Mel left, and Zenith followed after a few minutes to finish the class.
“Mel,” Zenith called out after class the next day. She caught up to him walking through the hallway. “Here’s your cup back. Thanks again for lending it to me. It worked like a charm. You said it was a family recipe or something?”
“Yeah,” Mel said as they continued walking together. “My family comes from a long line of herbalists. I don’t know of anywhere else you can find this particular plant. We were the only ones to maintain it throughout the SHF Era. The stuff I gave you yesterday is simple to make if you have the ingredients. That’s why I keep it on hand and drink it every day.”
“Is it dangerous?” Zenith asked.
“It depends how you define dangerous. It is a diuretic, you could dehydrate yourself if you drink too much. But none of my friends have died from it yet.”
“You just give it to your friends?”
“Yeah,” Mel said. “Some of my friends are into the hard stuff. Haptica and what not. So, I try to create products to help them be safe. Either they can take something I give them, or they can take it in addition to something like haptica.”
“Hmm…” Zen said. “So, you’re a hap addict.”
“Me?” Mel said. “No. I’ve never touched the stuff. I have friends who love it, so I want to make sure they don’t kill themselves when they do. That’s what most of my day goes toward. I spend a lot of time mixing and matching to find something to battle the adverse effects of haptica. I’m getting pretty solid at it, but I want to be better. I’m interested in pharmacology, which is why I’m here. But a lot of pharmacologists want to make a stronger drug. I want to make a safer drug. I figure if I can combine what I know about herbs with what I learn about meds, I can make something to benefit everyone. It’s a long shot, but it’s a shot I wanna take.”
“That does sound like a long shot,” Zenith said, never the optimist. “Would you ever take haptica?”
Mel was quiet for some time, letting the question sink in before he picked an answer. “It’s not totally out of the question. I just haven’t felt the need to. And I think my friends are so comfortable with what I do they don’t try and pressure me into it. Right now, I’m okay with not having tried it. But it’s always a possibility. I’ve seen how much fun it can be when you’re on it. Makes it very tempting.”
“I’ve never seen someone take it before. It was never a thing with my group of friends.” Zenith was using the word group loosely. Logen was one of the few people she spent more than two days a week with.
“Well,” Mel said, “if you’re interested, you can come to my buddy Shahav’s house the next time he throws a party. The next one won’t be for another month, but you can get the full experience. Although I wouldn’t recommend taking haptica until you’ve seen what it can do to people.”
“Got it,” Zenith said. “So, how do you make it?”
“No, the stuff you make.”
“Oh,” Mel said as if he hadn’t been asked before. “Most people don’t care how it’s made. They usually want to know how they can get it from me. It’s kind of a long explanation.”
“Do you want to grab dinner tonight? Then you can tell me about it?” Zenith asked, proud of her extraversion.
“Can’t,” Mel said. “Plus, it’s not only a family recipe, it’s a secret recipe. Can’t have other people making what I make. I’d be out of business.”
Well there goes my first and final attempt to make friends, Zenith thought. It took enough strength to go out of her way to ask Mel to hang out she gave up on trying again.
“But,” Mel said, “if you want to do dinner another time, we can meet up some time next week. I can at least describe what I make and all of the effects.”
“Great,” Zenith said. “You don’t think I’ll steal your recipes?”
“Like I said. People don’t show much interest in my recipes. It’ll be nice to talk about it.”
“Yeah,” Zenith said.
“Well, I’m heading this way. I’ll see you around Zen.”
“See you.”As Mel left in another direction, Zenith caught herself staring. Hormones, was all she could think of. Maybe the therapy was affecting her interest and motive. She already started to wonder if she truly was interested in Mel’s recipes, or if she was interested in Mel.