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John's World
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John had a gleeful grin on his face. The mech swayed from side to side as he moved it down the road at a quick sixty kilometer-per-hour jog. The ground shook, trees swayed, and power poles trembled as he passed-- he reveled in it.

A small pick-up truck had skidded to a halt, stopping halfway across the median line. The driver had opened his door and was standing behind it, loosely holding the top, with a look of awestruck terror on his face. Grinning mischievously, John slowed the huge machine to a halt, turned, and focused his two arm-mounted energy cannons on the man, just to see him panic. The man obliged by trying to run in all directions at once with a look of abject fear on his face that said he had probably just wetted himself. John cackled gleefully in the cockpit and turned the mech to continue down the road to his destination. On his way he made sure to pull over some of the power lines-- just to make a mess-- and a feeling of excitement surged through him; he loved the power he felt piloting the enormous war machine.

He came to himself with a start. A quick glance at the clock told him the English class was nearly over. The teacher was just finishing explaining their homework assignment for the evening-- John didn't pay much attention. He already knew how to do the assignment, and thought all the discourse unnecessary. Instead he looked surreptitiously around the room, studying his classmates' faces to see if any had seen his daydreaming, worried that he'd had a strange expression on his face. Sometimes while he daydreamed he looked very vacant or smirked at one of the imagined events--it could be very embarrassing. Fortunately it didn't look like any of them had noticed; most of them were turned toward the teacher, trying to get down every last detail of the assignment. He spent the rest of the time thinking about what he was going to be doing after school that day. Hopefully some of his friends would be free.

The bell rang and everyone grabbed their bags and notebooks to leave. John quickly got up from his chair, picked his backpack off the floor, and made his way through the mass of chattering students to the hall. None of his classmates talked to him; it didn't even seem like most of them noticed his presence. This fact didn't bother him-- he'd gotten used to going unnoticed by the rest of the world-- it actually had begun to appeal to him. Just as well, he thought, when nobody paid attention to him he could quietly do as he pleased without ridicule and without their critical looks.

The hallway was crowded and noisy; students gathered in small groups to chat or made their ways to their next classes. Those who were headed to class had formed a slow moving procession down the stairs to the main floor. John crossed the hall with a series of sudden stops and starts, narrowly missing a girl with a huge backpack, and joined himself to the mass. Moving in the hall was a complicated process; one had to dodge the oncoming students while getting into an opening going the other direction. It was rather like driving, he thought in amusement. Unfortunately not everyone obeyed the rules, and he had to dodge a younger kid who decided it was a good time to make a left turn right in front of him. He glared after the retreating backpack in annoyance but continued on his way without other reaction. After two more near misses he made it to his next class.

Math was one of his least favorite subjects. He never seemed to understand it like the other students did, and as a result, he ended up frustrated and angry. Since he had such difficulty, he tended to let his mind wander to more pleasant things, like hanging out with his friends after school, or the level he had to beat on the computer game he was currently playing.

A quick glance around the room as he entered showed nothing unusual. His desk was carefully chosen in the middle of the room, toward the rear. If one sat too close to either front or back it seemed to attract the teacher's attention: something he wanted to avoid. The room had various papers, posters, and pictures stapled to the walls. Some showed school announcements while others displayed a few bad math puns. The walls were covered with a grayish, unattractive carpet-like material and there was a whiteboard mounted on the front wall, like almost all the classrooms in the school.

The rest of the students finished filtering in and the teacher took the front to begin the class. As John sat looking idly around the room, he suppressed the desire to twist his mouth in disgust, producing a strange grimace-like expression. She had to be the most boring teacher in the school; and together with the subject, they combined to make it almost impossible to pay attention. He continued to look in the teacher's general direction for several minutes without really seeing what she was writing on the board. His mind began to drift away from the math room, and it occurred to him that he'd been grimacing for some time without hearing a word that was said. He quickly changed his expression back to his default straight, uninterested face-- hopefully nobody had noticed his look and realized he'd been spacing out. The teacher was explaining something called the derivative. It looked like a pain, John thought. He started drifting off again.

He strode confidently up to the camp, halting and raising his hands in a non-threatening gesture as the guards jumped to their feet and drew their swords. He was dressed in a lightly colored, long, thick overcoat which extended to his knees; underneath a dark tunic could be seen and long pants which tucked into his tall boots.


A half smile spread across his face as they cautiously neared him; they were worried why someone would approach such a large military encampment so boldly. It was doubtful they would immediately recognize his clothing, he thought; they didn't look very well educated. All the better-- it would make things easier. The fact that his hands were raised openly didn't mean much either; he could have burned them to ash in a moment. But they didn't know that-- they hadn't recognized him for the mage he was.

"I want to see your general," he said coolly.

"What for?" one of the guards asked suspiciously, eyeing him and shifting the grip on his spear.

"I'm here to tell him to withdraw."

The other guard smirked and curled his lip.

"Yeah, sure, we'll take you to see him."

They relaxed and raised their spears back to their standing positions. One of the guards stepped aside and motioned for John to follow the other. He calmly followed the first guard as the second fell into step behind him. As they entered the camp, he caught some quick hand signals out of the corner of his eye to another soldier that dashed off as soon as they had passed. John's senses heightened, watching for any signs of an ambush: he doubted they were planning to take him straight to the general.

As they rounded a blacksmith's tent, two groups of several soldiers charged in to block the available exits-- they didn't want to give any chances for escape. All in all, he counted about ten of them. He raised an eyebrow as one raised a pair of manacles and approached, preparing to bind his arms. The soldier roughly grabbed his right arm and jerked it behind his back to lock him up; but he had no intention of wearing the iron bonds. The man didn't even realize what was happening as John used the momentum to spin his body around and sweep his captor's legs from under him, felling him to the ground with a surprised grunt and a thud.

The other soldiers reacted quickly, jumping to the offensive, but John had already begun to draw the symbol as his original captor fell. The air glowed a dull red like hot embers in the lines that his quickly moving fingers traced out as the intricate symbol was woven before him. The symbol was too quickly formed to be very specific, but that didn't matter; he spoke the command word as the first soldier raised his sword to strike. The symbol flared brightly and disappeared. Magic surged through him setting his nerves on fire and a sudden shock wave spread outward from his hands, sending his enemies flying into the air and leveling the surrounding tents. None of them came out of the wreckage to attack him again.

He straightened, adjusting his right sleeve where the soldier had grabbed him, and continued on his way to speak to the general. They would withdraw, as he asked, or face his wrath.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. John had begun work on his math homework only to be frustrated by it-- it didn't make much sense and he couldn't find the explanation for why it wasn't working the way he thought it should. He tossed the book onto the floor in exasperation and flopped back onto the carpet, staring at the ceiling of his room, his pencil and notebook still on his lap. He couldn't understand the reason he was having such difficulty with the class: all his classmates seemed to understand it just fine, and even be doing well. What was bothering him even more was that he should be smarter than this; he should be able to get it quickly and easily. The only thing he could think of was that somehow he was incapable of doing better.

He let out a low breath. Everyone seemed to be finding it so much easier than he was-- he was finding himself wishing he could read their minds to find out how they were thinking about it to make it so easy. Then while he was at it, he could find out what they thought of him. It would be nice to know what went on inside everyone's heads, then he could stop being suspicious and just know for a fact.

His problems faded as he began to imagine a conversation with one of his classmates in which he could read every one of their deepest thoughts.



The math class the next day was just as dull and frustrating as ever-- they were going over the homework from the previous night. The teacher had been working through some of the problems on the board, and as soon as she did, it seemed so agonizingly easy; he spent most of the class period kicking himself for not having gotten it earlier.

He'd woken up the night before at two in the morning with a chill, finding himself laid out on the carpet staring up at the light fixture. With the suddenly bright light stabbing at his still half-closed eyes, he'd noticed his homework was still on the floor next to him, unfinished. He remembered sitting up groggily, wondering how he'd fallen asleep on the floor, quickly getting ready for bed, and crawling under the covers. It wasn't the first time it had happened, but it still didn't make him happy to find himself passed out on the floor with work left to do.

He silently cursed himself as he gathered his things up at the end of the class. He'd had to spend most of his morning before classes frantically trying to finish the assignment instead of talking to his friends. As it was, he was probably going to get another bad grade on this assignment.

At least now it was time for lunch, he thought darkly, it would be a welcome break from the string of disappointments he'd faced that day. During the walk down the stairs and to the school commons he tried to think of a good solution to his math dilemma. More study was the first thing that occurred to him, but he didn't like that idea; he already disliked the subject. Unfortunately, it looked to be the only feasible option. The others that had occurred to him were even less palatable: he could try to get a tutor, but his ego wouldn't allow that; he could go to his friends for help: some of them were in similar math classes, but he thought they'd mock him even though they would probably end up helping afterward. By the time he got to the commons he hadn't reached a conclusion yet.

“Hey John, what's up?” Lance asked. He was already at the table with his food. From the looks of it he'd gotten there early.

“Not much,” John replied setting his backpack down on the seat next to him, “you?”

“Got out of chemistry early, German was easy today; so far the day's going well.”

John pulled his lunch out of his pack and sat down as Matt walked up and sat down heavily on one of the stools at the table.

“You don't look too happy,” John said, looking at him sideways and taking a bite out of his sandwich.

“Just got out of algebra,” Matt replied, “I hate polynomials.”

“They're not that hard, all you have to do is change them around a bit,” Lance said.

Matt didn't look very convinced. John remembered studying algebra one his freshman year and hadn't thought it was very difficult.

“What are you having trouble with?” he asked.

Matt looked up sullenly.

“The whole thing. You have to do a whole bunch of junk to separate it to something so you can see if you even know how to solve it, then you have to plug it into the quadratic formula to get the answer. It's a huge pain.”

“Well, yeah, but it sounds like you know how to do it.”

“No,” Matt smirked, “That just means that I know how to do the cookie-cutter ones. If you give me something different I don't have any idea what to do with it. I don't understand it at all.”

John raised his eyebrows and fell silent. Maybe he wasn't as dumb as he thought-- after all, he thought algebra had been easy.

“You tried talking to the teacher yet?” asked Lance.

“Yeah, I'm going to be meeting with her tomorrow after class to see if I can get some help.”

“That's a good idea. It's probably just something little you're missing, and when she points it out it'll make a lot more sense.”

“I know,” Matt said with a sigh, “It's just frustrating to be so lost.”

“We all get lost sometimes,” John offered consolingly, “It'll all make sense to you sooner or later.”

Matt seemed to brighten up a little.

“True, I guess I'll just have to keep working on it. I'm going to get in line before all the food's gone.”

They spent the rest of the lunch period talking about what they were going to do on the weekend. When the bell rang they all said goodbye and headed to their classes. John went down the hall to his physics class dodging his fellow students in the hall and imagining being a powerful mage sent to help win a battle.

The next day he had decided he was going to do everything he could to pay attention in math. After an hour of studying and reading he had managed to figure out the assignment from the day before and get it finished. With any luck he would be able to get a decent grade on it.

English had come and gone as usual. They were reading a novel in the class and John actually enjoyed parts of it, but they read so slowly as a group that he couldn't stand it. He'd skipped ahead and read halfway through the next chapter before it got to his turn; consequently he'd had to ask what page they were on and show that he hadn't been paying attention. Their eyes were all on him and he could almost see some of them smirking in derision as he hurriedly tried to find the page they were on. While reading his part he tried to force himself to appear nonchalant and hide his embarrassment; but he wasn't at all sure it had worked. After reading the paragraph he was too flustered to continue following along and drifted off into another daydream: this time he was piloting the mech again and destroying a city-- it helped to relieve some of the tension.

Math went better. He managed to follow the teacher during almost the entire class period; he'd started to drift off a couple of times but caught himself before he lost track of the lecture. When the bell rang to go to lunch he felt a lot better and thought that he might be able to do the homework without having to spend a lot of time reading the book.

He spent the lunch period talking with his friends and discussing their favorite computer games. The conversation ended with a mild argument about which game was better and why the other games were worse. John left the discussion thinking that he wanted to get a new game to keep himself occupied; he had almost beaten the one he was playing and had gotten bored of the others he already had.

When he got to physics the teacher announced that they would be learning about potential energy that day. John groaned, he hated potential energy and always had a difficult time solving the problems that involved it. Rather, he thought sardonically, it wasn't that he had a hard time solving them: it was that he had a hard time getting the right answer after solving them. The teacher started his explanation as John watched with a slightly pained expression on his face. He wondered what it would be like to be a space fighter pilot. Before long he was zooming through the vacuum above Earth, dodging debris and dogfighting alien space ships as his fleet fought to defend the planet. Before he knew it the bell rang, signaling the end of the class period. He blinked and glanced around, noticing that the teacher was finishing his answer to the last question and erasing the board. It dawned on him that he didn't have any idea what had been on the board or even what the lecture had been. He put his things back in his pack, slung it over his shoulder, and headed out the door to his last class.

The next day started out like normal, except for a strange nagging feeling that he was forgetting something. It had begun the previous day several hours after he had arrived home, but he had been unable to think of what it could be. As he sat in the commons waiting for his friends it occurred to him: there was a test in his English class that morning. A slight chill washed over him as he thought about the possible consequences, but he quickly brushed it aside. After all, none of the things they had been studying were all that difficult, and he’d read most of the book. He allowed himself to relax again and he went back to contemplating his own book that he had finished the night before. Not long after, Matt arrived, followed shortly by Lance and they started talking about their plans for the weekend-- all thoughts and worries about the English test quickly dissipated.

The test was not as easy as he had thought it was going to be. There were some questions on the class novel that he didn't have any idea about. He silently cursed himself for not having read the whole thing nor paid much attention to it.

When the test ended, John was devastated: he was sure he had failed it. As he went to math his feelings began to shift from depressed to angry. He was angry with himself, with life, and everything else. Why, he wondered, did he have to be so dense? It always seemed like he was having a harder time than everyone else. They always did so well so easily-- just like that kid that sat to his left, he thought bitterly, a natural genius that didn't even have to try.

He spent the whole math class fuming about his performance on the test. Trying to salvage the time, he half-heartedly started to take some notes during the lecture, but found himself staring angrily at the floor a few minutes later. When the class ended he sullenly put his notebook back in his backpack and walked out of the room to lunch.

Why did he have to be the unlucky one that had been born defective? He was nearly overcome with loathing: he hated himself, he hated life, he hated the smart people in his classes. It would be so much better if it all just ended, he thought.

He dumped his pack on the floor and sat down heavily, staring at the table. Both Matt and Lance looked up from across the table.

"What's up?" Lance asked, noticing the dark scowl on John's face.

"Just failed a test in English," John replied looking up from the table.

"That stinks," Matt sympathized, "how'd everyone else do?"

"Probably all did well, but we haven't gotten the scores back yet."

"Then how do you know you failed it?"

"Because I didn't know the answers to a lot of the questions," he went back to scowling at the table, "and everyone else in the class is a natural genius."

John didn't see the sideways look pass between his two friends, he was too wrapped up in his own feelings.

"What was it on?" Lance asked.

"The book we're reading right now and some grammar stuff."

"That's not fun," Matt stated, "Take you a while to finish the book?"

"Well, no... I didn't finish it-- I stopped about a third of the way in," John replied, still wallowing in self-hatred.

"Can I hit him?" Lance asked, a tone of annoyance in his voice and with a look at Matt who raised his eyebrows and shrugged as if to say "don't ask me."

John looked up with an annoyed expression on his face as Lance turned to face him. He opened his mouth to retort, but shut it again.

"You have to try to get bad grades in English," Lance said vehemently.

"Maybe some of those geniuses do, but I didn't do well on the test," John snapped.

"No, I don't think you understood me. I didn't say 'you' as in whoever. I said you," Lance jabbed a finger at him, "have to try to get bad grades."

John simply stared at him, his expression still angry, not understanding what he was saying.

"As a matter of fact," Lance continued, "it makes me a little angry to sit here and listen to you complain. You say you hate all those people that have it so easy, all those geniuses. Well guess what! You're one of them! The only reason you don't think you did well on that test is because you didn't study-- at all! Do you have any idea how much time some of those 'geniuses' spend studying so they can get the same grade you get almost without trying? Get it together! If you want good grades then you have to work for them!"

John was shocked. He looked up to Lance as one of the smartest people he knew, and here he was telling him that he was smart. He didn't know what to say, didn't know how to respond. Finally he mumbled something to the effect of "sorry" and went back to staring at the table, this time in a wide-eyed stupor trying to understand everything Lance had just said.

A few moments later the initial shock wore off and John stood up, wanting to get out of the awkward situation.

"I'm going to get some food," he said and headed toward the line.

"See you in a bit," Matt replied. Lance didn't say anything.

As he walked off, his mind was churning. Not only did his friends think he was intelligent, but it was the way he'd been told. It hadn't been a reassuring, cheery, feel-good session; Lance had been really angry at him-- and somehow that made it more convincing. He knew Lance hadn't said that just to make him feel better. But, if everyone thought he was so smart, why did they all seem to do so much better than he did? Lance had said something about studying-- what had he been doing in the class recently? As he thought about it, he couldn't even remember what they had been studying recently. He'd been spending too much time daydreaming, he thought gloomily. At the same time he had been trying to improve in his math class, he had let his English class slip, simply because he hadn't cared. He shook his head in disappointment.


After several more minutes of gloomy reflection, it was time to get his food. His tray clanged against the slides as he set it down, disinterestedly looking over the choices. Finally he told the worker behind the counter that he wanted a cheeseburger and fries. Nothing too extravagant today, he thought-- he wasn't in the mood.

Once he had paid for his food he headed back to the table; Lance had finished his lunch already and left. John glanced at his watch-- he'd been in the line for almost ten minutes-- the lunch period was almost over. They spent the last few minutes talking about the girl Matt was dating-- or rather trying to date-- the relationship was having problems, and Matt wanted to call it off. John had a difficult time paying much attention to the conversation; he was still too preoccupied with what had happened earlier. The bell rang, they said goodbye, and went their ways to class.

John spent the rest of the day mulling over his feelings and asking himself some important questions. His studying had been lacking because he didn't enjoy it: in fact, he hated it. It made him think, made him use his mind for things he wasn't interested in. In turn, this initial lack of study caused him to do poorly in class and required even more effort to get to where he should be, which made it an even greater deterrent to start. Thinking about all the studying he was going to have to do to catch up made him groan. It would be so nice to be a mage or a mech pilot, he thought wishfully-- then he wouldn't have to worry about all of this studying. He paused for a moment to consider that. The daydreams let him get away from his problems, which, he was just starting to realize, actually made things worse. He needed to do something about that.

When he got to school the next day he ran into Lance.

"Look, John," Lance started, with a sheepish look at the ground, "I'm sorry about what I said yesterday."

"Don't worry about it," he started turning to leave, then paused, "I think it was something I needed to hear." Showing a half smile so Lance would believe him, he turned and walked to his first class.

A week went by and John worked harder, applying himself more and trying to pay attention to his teachers. He still enjoyed imagining the scenes and situations he thought of, but it got in the way of school. He'd decided not to let himself daydream during class anymore, but he started drawing in his free time trying to put the scenes he imagined down on paper. Unfortunately, he wasn't very good at it, he mused ruefully; the dragon he was trying to add to the scene somehow came out looking more like a horse. Lance stifled a laugh when he saw it.

"Shut up! At least it's better than your stick figures," John retorted, to which Lance replied with a snort.

His English test had come back the day before with an eighty-three percent marked in red pen at the top. The score had surprised him-- maybe he really was as smart as his friends had claimed. But even though he wanted to believe it, he ended up dismissing the idea. He wasn't a genius, but he could figure things out when he needed to, and with some work, he could match up with the best of them. That was all that mattered to him.
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